Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Individual Mandate: Finally Controversial?

The one thing about the health care debate that has surprised me the most is the lack of interest in "the individual mandate," the provision that forces millions of people to buy insurance from private companies on pain of stiff penalties. Penalties will eventually rise to $750 per adult ($375 per child), maximum $2,250 per family, or 2% of family income, whichever is higher. Presumably, if you persist in refusing to pay these penalties, you go to prison.

In the last couple of weeks, there has at last been some criticism of this provision from the left. At 10:15 in the above video you see Keith Olbermann calling for civil disobedience against this provision if the health insurance bill is passed in its present form. I don't see how a really conscientious leftist could do otherwise than disobey it. As Jim Dean of Democracy for America has said:
So, the bill doesn’t actually 'cover' 30 million more Americans — instead it makes them criminals if they don’t buy insurance from the same companies that got us into this mess. A public option would have provided the competition needed to drive down costs and improve coverage. ... That's why, without a public option, this bill is almost a trillion dollar taxpayer giveaway to insurance companies.
Yes, exactly. The individual mandate is a gigantic tax levy, paid not to the government but directly to corporate America. The only thing I would add would be to point out that a public option or medicare buy-in would merely have diverted some of this money to the government. It still would have been a gigantic gift to the insurance industry at the expense of the consumer.

Monday, December 28, 2009

"The reaction to the Christmas Day attack should be exactly what it would have been if Abdulmutallab's device had not malfunctioned."

The above statement is the title of a blog post by one of the many terrorism-alarmists who have been overreacting for several days now to the Nigerian passenger who attempted to detonate a device on a plane over Michigan. (As everyone knows by now, either because his detonator didn't work properly or because passengers subdued him, his attempt failed.)

I think this is a very silly statement, but it is silly in an interesting way. As our government rushes to make travel on an American plane even more unpleasant and degrading than it already is, we really should think about how rational people react to risk and danger.

The idea expressed in this statement is that Obama should have cut his Hawaiian vacation short and come home to "reassure" the nation, just as if this bumbling fanatic actually had blown up a plane and taken three hundred innocent people with him. Probably there are a lot of folks who would also apply the same idea to TSA policy: we should change the system in just the way we would if the attempt had been a deadly success.

I think as a general rule we should act as if what happened is what actually did happen, and not what might have happened. Avoid alarmism, that cowardly tendency to treat a might be as an is.

The attempted crime should of course be taken into consideration. But we should also take into consideration the fact that alert and courageous passengers and crew foiled the attempt. In addition, we should take into consideration that the device seems to have been poorly designed. While we are at it, we should also take into consideration the fact that the government, the same government that would be glad to take more freedom away from us if we get into a tizzy about this, failed to prevent the attempt, despite having been warned about Abdulmutallab.

Maybe the urge to treat a might be as an is comes from the vague notion (expressed in the above-linked blog post) that "it's just luck" that this loon didn't blow the plane up. We shouldn't bank on luck. Therefore, disasters that are averted by pure luck should be treated as if they had actually happened.

Well, as Nietzsche says, victors don't believe in luck. I don't think things happen because of "luck" at all. They happen because of things like the alertness of responsible individuals, or the ineptitude of a would-be murderer. They happen because of things that are real and actually occur.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

"It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year"

The line from that old Andy Williams song is the real miracle of Christmas. My house is buried in snow, and the TV news just announced that a "life threatening" blizzard is on its way. The shortest, darkest day of the year was two days ago. This is the season when I have to pay hundreds of dollars just to keep my house warm enough that I do not freeze to death. This is when it really seems that Nature is actually trying to kill me. Why on Earth would anyone call the season of darkness and death "the most wonderful"?

The answer is obvious: humans invented this great holiday that spreads cheer and brightness and they put it in the darkest time in the annual cycle, the time that needs it the most. This is testimony to the fact that we are more the product of culture than of nature. By creating culture we triumph over nature, which, for all its awesome beauty, is also brutally indifferent to us. We can win.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

No Duty to Buy Health Insurance: The Car Insurance Analogy

As the senate health bill lumbers toward passage, leaving tracks of slime behind it, it is obvious that it will contain the "individual mandate," requiring individuals to purchase health insurance, on pain of heavy fines.

I thought I would take this opportunity to repost an entry I put up in September, which got virtually no attention at the time. Maybe it will be of more interest now:

It's okay for the government to force you to buy auto insurance. So why can't they also force you to buy health insurance? What's the difference between the two cases?

You often hear this argument as a response to another one, which says that the proposed "individual mandate," represents the government moving into a completely new area of coercive interference: forcing everyone to buy a specific commercial product.

The shortest answer to this argument is that they don't force you to buy car insurance. What they do is prohibit you from driving without insurance. You are perfectly free to avoid the premiums by avoiding driving.

That is exactly what I did when a car insurance law was passed in my state while I was a student. I couldn't afford insurance, so I shifted my transportation activities from driving to walking, biking, and hitchhiking.

Further, there is a principled reason for linking insurance -- keeping in mind that it is liability insurance that we are talking about here -- to driving in this way, and the principle involved does not apply to the case of health insurance.

Requiring liability insurance is the only way to prevent massive, widespread injustice: people being hurt or maimed by automobiles without being compensated for it.

To drive a car is to knowingly subject others to risk that you will, perhaps in a moment of negligence, injure or kill them. What could render this just? Putting yourself in a position to fully compensate your (surviving) victims would certainly help.

The liability insurance mandate can be justified by the principle that it is wrong to subject others to heightened risk that you will injure them unless you can compensate them if you do.

No such principle is applicable to the health insurance mandate, and that is a huge ethical difference between them.

[Note than I am not justifying the liability insurance mandate, I am only arguing that is is morally different, and in a way favorable to it, from the health insurance mandate.]

Sunday, December 20, 2009


I saw James Cameron’s new movie last night. (And it really is Cameron's movie: he gets sole screen credit, not only for direction but for writing, and shared credit for producing and editing.) As with Aliens and Titanic, among the villainous characters is a business corporation and a character who obviously represents the (evil) corporate point of view. What makes the business corporation in this movie so evil? Well, it engages in the following practices: using military force to invade and conquer foreign lands, slaughtering wholesale numbers of the inhabitants and burning their dwellings, all in order to steal their property.

As I was sitting through its 162 minutes, my mind began to wander from the vulgarly eye-popping sights on the screen: Gee, I thought, I can’t think of a single business corporation that engages in those particular practices. Office Depot doesn't, and I'm pretty sure Mircrosoft and Dell Inc don't either. Still, such behavior has been far from uncommon throughout history. I can think of any number of corporate bodies that have, to one extent or another, engaged in these very practices.

When I got home, I consulted my research assistant, Ms. Google, for some examples. What we came up with includes, to give a woefully truncated list: the Kingdom of England, the Mongols, the Russians, the Spanish, Umayyads, the French, the Abbasids, the the Almoravids, Portuguese, the Achaemenids, the Sassanids, the Japanese, the Romans, the Uyghurs, the Macedonians, the Ottomans, the Italians, the Dutch, the Germans, the Shaybanids, the Byzantines, the Khazars, the Bactrians, the Belgians, the Assyrians, the Malians, the the Carolingians, the Merovingian, the Thai, the Swedes, the Khmer, the Avars, the Kanems, the Bulgars, the Akkadians, the Ghanians, the Bagans, the Hyksos, the Visigoths, the the Lydians, the the Ostrogoths, the Hittites, the Armenians, the Carthaginians, the Babylonians, the Aztecs, and the Incas. This is not to mention whole series of Chinese states, Indian states, Persian states, and Egyptian states too numerous to mention (they are also confusing because sometimes overlap). Last, but hardly least, there is of course the United States of America.

These corporate bodies are, of course, all states, or proto-states, or markedly state-like entities. These practices are the sorts of things that states do, and have done for thousands of years, going back almost to the beginning of the neolithic (about 12,000 years ago). They are not the sorts of things that private, voluntary associations such as business corporations do.

This is a phenomenon I've noticed many times. In trying to express in a satisfying way their hatred of business corporations, in conveying their extreme moral indignation against them, storytellers like Cameron often end up making them sound like governments. Why would that be, I wonder?

Update: I just noticed that someone at has written that Avatar is libertarian on the grounds that the corporation in it is "really a mine-state." I would say that there is no evidence that Cameron noticed this fact, nor that it garbles his lumpen-leftist message.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Capitalism vs. Tiger Woods

Columnist Ron Hart has an interesting observation on the lessons to be learned from the Tiger Woods scandal (hat-tip to Nick Gillespie):
One great lesson learned is the value of capitalism and its ability to enforce good behavior. Accenture and Gillette are cutting Tiger's pay over this. The supposedly "immoral" free markets are speaking louder and with more reprisal than anyone
He's got a point there. Woods' commercial endorsement contracts are melting away like dew upon a sunny morn as news of his compulsive philanderies grows and spreads. But is it really true that markets punish bad behavior?

Here is a parallel case: The Hollywood blacklist of the late 'forties and early 'fifties. It is usually presented as a case of government oppression, and to some extent it was. A notorious congressional committee played a role in encouraging it. But it was also a market phenomenon. Why did the moguls who ran the studios dispense with the services of proven earners like Howard Koch and the Hollywood Ten? There were a few hard anti-Communists among the studio tycoons, like Jack Warner, men who would be willing to lose income in order to impose their own political opinions -- but surely most were too interested in making as much money as possible to want to do such a thing. No, they were worried about ticket sales. They knew that the millions of Americans who hated and feared Stalin would also hate and fear people who were trying to bring Stalin's system to America. They did not want that kind of animosity associated with their commercial products. Communism, Schmommunism. What they really wanted to avoid was anything controversial or unpopular. That is what they had always wanted.

I have never seen anyone on the front of a box of Wheaties who suffered from unsightly deformities, be they physical or moral. To be exact: what the market punishes (in the sense that it fails to reward it) is behavior that arouses popular anger and disgust. It punishes unpopular behavior.

Sometimes this is a good thing, because among the things that are unpopular are a lot of behaviors that are really bad. But it does have a down side as well. Ironically, markets do not encourage extremely individualistic behavior. Corporate board rooms are not the place to look for audacious Randian heroes and brooding Walden Pond hermits.

Markets impose a cost on extreme vice, and on extreme virtue as well. The very simple reason is that markets, as Ludwig von Mises pointed out many times, are true economic democracy: rule by the people. Rule by the people is rule by l'homme moyen sensuel, the middling man, the man in the middle.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Paul Samuelson, RIP

Economist Paul Samuelson died on the thirteenth. His text, Economics, was for decades the most widely used econ text, probably in the world. I once heard it described as the biggest selling textbook on any subject. His influence was literally incalculable.

Samuelson famously said: "I don't care who writes a nation's laws–or crafts its advanced treaties–if I can write its economics textbooks."

This week, a less well known quotation has been reported in the blogs. Allegedly, in the 1989 edition of his text, he said this: ""The Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive."

As every schoolboy knows, that date, 1989, indicates that Samuelson wrote this just before the Soviet Union collapsed from internal rot.

Other Samuelson quotes reported this week include these:

'It is a vulgar mistake to think that most people in Eastern Europe are miserable." [1981]

"What counts is results, and there can be no doubt that the Soviet planning system has been a powerful engine for economic growth...The Soviet model has surely demonstrated that a command economy is capable of mobilizing resources for rapid growth." [1985]

Surely, he is a tragic instance of the fact that academic prestige and technical proficiency can go together with disastrous ignorance and error in things that really matter. Indeed, the one can conceal and propagate the other.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Snow Day!

Okay, enough about Sen. Reid. I want to talk about another icy white thing: the ton of snow that covers my house (see illustration).

Today I shoveled more snow than ever, since moving in to this house twenty years ago.

17.5 inches we got. The University of Wisconsin got a snow day -- first time, I think, in the quarter century I've been employed here.

This winter is shaping up to be big!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

"We Have a Voluntary Tax System"

This is amazing. I see this all the time, but here we have an extreme example of it. Here is an interviewer struggling to explain to Sen. Harry Reid, as if he were a five year old child, that taxation by definition is money collected by force, and the Senate Majority Leader understands less than the five year old would understand.

Reid's argument, if you can call it that, is far too stupid to deserve a refutation. What is worth thinking about is: Why do so many people not get this very simple fact, the fact that we see him gagging on here?

What I suspect is that that they are evading a further very simple fact. What fact? Here it is:

A law requiring a to do x can only be just if it would also be just to hold a at gunpoint and force a to do x.

I just don't see how anyone can deny this, anyone that is who is not a complete idiot (again, see the above video_).

This would apply to any given quantum of tax money. Hence a corollary would be a principle at least as strong as that stated by Calvin Coolidge long ago:
"The collection of taxes which are not absolutely required, which do not beyond reasonable doubt contribute to the public welfare, is only
a species of legalized larceny."

Friday, December 04, 2009

Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura

Wednesday I watched the first episode of this show, which attracted a phenomenal 1.6 million viewers.

I was very disappointed. The thesis of the episode was that the American military has a mysterious* scientific program in remote Alaska, called HAARP, that might involve research into ways to cause disastrous storms, or possibly earth quakes, or might be a way to "knock planes out of the sky," or (who knows?) may involve the production of mind-control rays. Ventura only presents "evidence" in favor of these ideas, and never interviews a single skeptic.

This is not modern journalism as we know it in the civilized world. It was more like a lawyer's brief for one side of a case (and a rather silly case at that). In a court of law, there is nothing wrong with that, as there is another skilled presenter in the room whose job it is to give an equally one-sided argument for the opposite side of the case. In the clash of arguments, we can hope, the truth will come out. Here there is no clash, only goofball paranoia.

Not so long ago, I had some hope that Ventura might be some sort of useful contrarian voice speaking in opposition to government power. It now looks like he is simply becoming another nut job.

Anti-government conspiracy theories are where the anti-authoritarian mind goes to die.
* Actually, the site is not even classified. They hold an open house once a year.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Don't Talk, Tiger!

I am amazed by how many talking heads on TV have insisted that Tiger Woods "has to" talk to the police about his bizarre early morning mishap over the weekend -- shockingly, I have noticed that these include (so far) two lawyers. Haven't these people heard of the Fifth Amendment?

As explained in this excellent video, it is generally a very poor idea to talk to the police at all (and it is a terrible idea if you do not have either immunity or a lawyer present). The main point is one that people find it very hard to understand: the police do not have your best interests in mind, as an individual. They are, at best, interested in protecting the public in general, and this means building a case. The case may turn out to be against you.

Who is Sarah Palin?

Like half a million other people, I purchased this book before it was published. There was a glitch in the delivery, though, and I didn't get my copy until it had be reviewed by everybody else.

At this moment, I am only on p. 188, but I thought I might jot down some things I've learned from the book, limiting myself to things that I haven't seen anyone else mention.

(Disclaimer: The first three numbered propositions below should be prefaced with "As she presents herself in this book..." How this image is related to reality is something I can't comment on.)

1. She is strongly pro-free-market. She actually characterizes her position as laissez-faire at one point.

2. She is not, however, pro-giant-corporation. She seems to understand that big business likes big government, and that the feeling is mutual. Early in the first chapter, she presents the big-picture context of her career as governor of her state:
Like most Alaskans, I could see that the votes of many lawmakers lined up conveniently with what was best for Big Oil, sometimes to the detriment of their own constituents.

When oil began flowing from Prudhoe Bay in 1977, billions of dollars flowed into state coffers with it. The state raked in more revenue than anyone could have imagined—billions of dollars almost overnight! And the politicians spent it. Government grew rapidly. One quarter of our workforce was employed by state and local governments, and even more was tied to the state budget through contracts and subsidies. Everyone knew there was a certain amount of back-scratching going on. But an economic crash in the 1980s collapsed the oil boom. Businesses closed and unemployment soared.

During the oil boom, anyone who questioned the government's giving more power to the oil companies was condemned: What are you trying to do, slay the golden goose? But when the boom went bust, the golden goose still ruled the roost. By then, state government was essentially surrendering its ability to act in the best interests of the people. So I ran for governor.
As she sees it, politicians should act "on the side of the people," which means to some extent acting against the interest of the corporate/bureaucratic complex that tends to control things. She might be the only prominent politician, other than Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, who sees it this way. This could explain why some of her bitterest enemies in Alaska are Republicans. Could it also help to explain why some of the nasty comments on her book are by conservatives?

3. Like John Locke, she believes that undeveloped natural resources are the collective property of the people. This, I take it, is why she saw fit to impose a new tax on North Slope oil profits and give a cash rebate to every man, woman, and child in the state. The idea seems to be that extracted materials like raw petroleum are a special case as far as property rights are concerned: the "true owners" (her words) are the people. Obviously, such an argument cannot be made for refined gasoline, which is a human artifact.

4. The final point is an impression I get from the book that Palin obviously does not intend to convey: Being governor of Alaska is not a very good preparation for being president of the US. Alaska is a vast area with an extremely sparse population, including a large number of natives. Towns with no paved roads are very common. Its economy is inordinately dependent on a single industry, which consists of resource extraction and not producing finished materials or goods (such as food). In all these respects it is much like the Mother Lode and Comstock Lode areas of the West in the 1850s and 60s. If Ms. Palin is interested in the highest political office in the world, she needs to first find a national-level daytime job, such as serving in Congress.

For a rather different view, there's this: