Monday, August 31, 2009

Teddy's Atonement

According to Don Cooper, some news commentator said, the morning of Ted Kennedy's funeral, that "he spent the rest of his life trying to atone for his transgressions by serving the public." I've seen the same sentiment expressed in blog comments.

I find it very hard to understand what these people are thinking. How can his later life be seen as a sort of atonement? Maybe the idea is that "public [ie., government] service" makes you automatically virtuous, superior to the comparatively selfish private citizens who toil to pay your salary. Or maybe it is that people who do this sort of work are virtuous already, different from the ordinary run of human beings. Or maybe it is that pushing the "progressive" agenda automatically makes you superior.

Do these ideas even deserve to be refuted?*

As many people have said, the US Senate is the most exclusive club on Earth. You get a large (to me at least) salary at the expense of taxpayers, and in return you get to make up rules that they have to follow on pain of a term in prison. You also get to pass laws that take money from some people and give it to others (typically, ones who helped you to gain or keep your job). This sounds less like penance and more like privilege to me -- a privilege so immense as to be very difficult to justify from the point of view of absolute justice and morality.

If this had any connection with past transgressions (which it doesn't) I would have to think that it is not restitution to a world wronged, but a reward.

I have seen an idea similar to the public-service-as-atonement one attributed to Adlai Stevenson, but in a context in which it makes a lot more sense to me. Here is the Wikipedia version:
At the age of twelve Stevenson accidentally killed Ruth Merwin, a 16-year-old friend, while demonstrating drill technique with a rifle, inadvertently left loaded, during a party at the Stevenson home. Stevenson was devastated by the accident and rarely referred to it as an adult. However, as the Governor of Illinois he was told about a teenager who had survived an automobile accident while his friend was killed. Stevenson told the teen's father that he should tell his son that "he now has to live for two", which Stevenson's friends took to be a reference to the shooting incident
I find this story moving and more or less understandable. I see a couple of relevant differences from Teddy's case:

First, Adlai atoned by serving as governor of a state. I can actually see that as penance of a sort. Compared to being in the Senate, it is real gruntwork. And helming a state that contains a political cesspool like Chicago must have been repugnant to someone with Stevenson's refined sensibilities.

Second, the idea in this case doesn't sound like moral atonement -- in the sense of this will erase my guilt -- as much as something more primitive and profound. It seems to be something like: Because of me, there is one less person on earth. Unless I achieve enough good for two, my stay here will be a net deficit in the scheme of things.

Perhaps, as Spock would say, this is "not logical," but it does make a sort of emotional sense. If it isn't logical, it is psycho-logical.
* Even further beneath contempt is the sentiment allegedly expressed by Melissa Lafsky at Huffington Post, who wondered what Maryjo "would have thought about arguably being a catalyst for the most successful Senate career in history … Who knows – maybe she'd feel it was worth it." Here we see utilitarianism exposing its cloven hoof. (Hat-tip to Mark Steyn.)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Edward Kennedy, 1932-2009

Even on Fox News, the coverage has ranged from respectful to reverent.

What the Hell? I just drove 500 miles in the past two days, and only saw one flag that was not at half staff.* Isn't that unusual for a mere Senator? What did they do when Bob ("Mr. Republican") Taft died, I wonder?

When did this man become a saint? I don't think I got that email.

The last time I paid any attention to him, he was still a hard-drinking, philandering jerk. But that admittedly was almost twenty years ago, when he was in his fifties and his ideas about fun leisure-time activities were the same as those of certain undergraduates on spring break in CancĂșn. My information, I realize, is badly out of date.

Somebody on Fox said that he sponsored over 2,000 pieces of legislation, as if that were a good thing. As if what we really need now is more rules and regulations, and anybody who slaps a lot more of them on us is doing us a great service.

I would like to know how many laws he repealed.

By the way, Maryjo Kopechne would have turned 69 on July 26th.
* I also never saw a single Obama sticker on a bumper. McCain yes, and even Kerry, yes. Also anti-Obama stickers. But here in a state that gave him 10 electoral college votes all the Obama-Biden stickers have disappeared. Sup wit dat? Have those cars all gone into that vast, potlatch-like destruction of wealth, the "cash for clunkers" program? Or have the the stickers been peeled off out of shame? (On that one I am kidding of course. Voters almost never feel morally responsible for the consequences of their votes. One of the most distinctive features of democracy is the almost complete obliteration of responsibility on the part of the sovereign, which in democracy is the voter.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

On the Road

Once again, I'm traveling (visiting my friend Imtiaz Moosa up in River Falls). I'll be back to blogging this weekend.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Another Reason for Government Rationing of Medical Care (According to Singer)

In the article I blogged about the other day, Peter Singer gives an interesting argument to the conclusion that (to put it one way) Sarah Palin's grandmother and son ought to be discriminated against in a nationalized medical system.

Here is how it goes. First, he asks you to imagine having to make a certain sort of choice about your own life. Speaking of ways we might compare the value of different allocations of medical resources, he says:
How can we compare saving a person’s life with, say, making it possible for someone who was confined to bed to return to an active life? We can elicit people’s values on that too. One common method is to describe medical conditions to people — let’s say being a quadriplegic — and tell them that they can choose between 10 years in that condition or some smaller number of years without it. If most would prefer, say, 10 years as a quadriplegic to 4 years of nondisabled life, but would choose 6 years of nondisabled life over 10 with quadriplegia, but have difficulty deciding between 5 years of nondisabled life or 10 years with quadriplegia, then they are, in effect, assessing life with quadriplegia as half as good as nondisabled life.
From this this thought-experiment about choices you would make for yourself he draws a conclusion about how we ought to treat other people. He puts it in terms of the specific issue he was just talking about like this:
If that judgment represents a rough average across the population, we might conclude that restoring to nondisabled life two people who would otherwise be quadriplegics is equivalent in value to saving the life of one person, provided the life expectancies of all involved are similar.
More generally, the idea seems to be that our social calculations should be based on the idea that one more year of life for a quadriplegic has half the value of one more year for a non-quadriplegic (other things being equal). We should assume that for purposes of distributing medical care, it takes two quadriplegics to equal one healthy non-quadriplegic. Such a system discriminates against the disabled and, for similar reasons, against the old. What is wrong with his reasoning, if anything?

Something about it really bothers me -- not the conclusion, but the reasoning itself -- but I don’t think I have completely figured out what.

One point that is relevant is made by philosopher Tom Regan in another context. Singer's way of thinking reasons from the fact that I can enjoy twice the value that you can enjoy, to the conclusion that in our social calculations my life has twice the value that you have. It views humans as receptacles of value, but does not view them as having value in any other sense. We should respect the value people consume, but not the value that they are. That is how Singer is thinking. On the other hand, if you think that humans have value in and of themselves (if you believe in what Kant called “human dignity”) that gets in the way of sacrificing one person for the sake of another, which is what Singer (as I interpret him) advocates. So you can admit his premise but deny his conclusion.

Another thing that can block the inference that Singer makes is the particular way one might understand the first of these two sorts of value: the value that we consume. If I decide whether I would prefer ten years as a quadriplegic to four years of non-disabled life, I am judging what has the greatest value for me, or to me. Well, what if we all, quadriplegics included, preferred experiencing non-quadriplegic to quadriplegic life at Singer’s fanciful rate of two to one? Couldn’t quadriplegics still consistently deny that other people’s interests should be preferred over theirs at that same rate?

I think it is obvious that they can, though it is not so easy to say exactly why. It seems to have to do, though, with the fact that the two judgements are about profoundly different things. Thoreau would say the first is about expediency, and the second is about right and wrong.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Yet Another Dubious Use of a Taser

I don't know which is more disturbing: the police tasering a non-violent lunatic sitting on his front porch, or the mindless giggling of the moron who took this video and posted it on Youtube.

Here are the facts of this case, according to this legal blogger:
The officers were called to the scene by a neighbor. The man who was tased apparently spent the entire morning on his front lawn screaming racially charged remarks at the top of his lungs. Among the things he yelled were: “White Power!” and “Heil Hitler!” The officer was not sure what ethnicity the man was, but he informed me that his name appeared to be of hispanic origin. He was not a black man, contrary to some reports.

The first officers arrived on the scene. These were a mixture of different races (black, white, and hispanic). The man on the porch screamed racial slurs at them. Furthermore, he screamed “Shoot me motherfuckers!”, “I bet if I had a gun you would shoot me, maybe I should go get my gun!”, and other variations on this theme.

The officers identified this as a mental health issue but also realized that he seemed imbalanced enough that he might be dangerous. They called a negotiator to the scene to try to subdue him. The negotiator tried to talk him into calming down for 15 minutes to no avail. The commanding officer on the scene then decided that it was in the interest of the public’s welfare and the man’s own welfare to take him into custody and get him medical attention.

The man on the porch was advised ahead of time that he would be tased. Finally, we got what we saw on the video. Immediately after the tasing, the man was transferred to the hospital where he was treated for minor injuries. The police then transferred him to a mental institution. The entire incident lasted 17 minutes.
I read a lot of stories like this. Its a sort of hobby of mine. They often contain a detail like the above, that the cops warned their victim that they would taser him if he didn't quiet down or obey some other order. The idea often (though not in this case, I think) is be that this justifies the subsequent act of violence on the part of the cops. I suppose if they had "warned" him that they would blow his brains out if he didn't quiet down, that would justify summarily killing him.

I say it is only okay to threaten to do X if you have an independent right to do X. A threat cannot give you a right to carry it out.

It is time to stop the police from using tasers as instruments of torture and summary punishment, or as labor-saving devices.

Tasers should only be used as substitutes for more violent measures (such as clubbing or shooting the suspect), and only in situations where these more violent measures would be justified, or when less violent alternatives would be excessively hazardous for the police officer involved. Isn't that obvious?
If you can take it, there are more stories and links here.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Keep Worrying about Death Panels

The following was written before the administration hinted it would stop insisting on a "public option" in the health care bill. I am now in South Dakota. Given that the idea of greatly expanded government provision of medical care is obviously not going away, I think the following still has interest, even if the hints are correct.

Last week Sarah Palin caused all kinds of upset when she said on Facebook:

"And who will suffer the most when they ration care?" She asked. "The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil."

This is hot-button rhetoric, but it did more to spark useful discussion than any one thing anyone else has said in this whole shallow, manipulated, spin-doctored debate. I think that the discussion soon became side-tracked, however.

It ended up with whoever is in charge of the mysterious "Senate bill" supposedly saying that payments for "end of life counseling" are out of the bill. End of discussion of that issue.

No, not end of discussion. Palin's comment was not about end of life counseling, it was about the broader issue of rationing. Now, to avoid sounding dense: Yes, I do see the connection between this counseling and rationing. If health insurance encourages these sessions (and why is "insurance" paying money for something that does not reduce risk to the insured?) more oldsters will think of alternatives to imposing heavy costs on loved ones (and taxpayers) with an endless series of surgeries with little promise of great benefits. Maybe you should just take a pain pill, or buy a nicer wheel chair. The saved money will then be spent on those who can get more out of it. The result would be a redistribution of death, to the old and ugly from the young and cool. That is one of the things that rationing does.

But it is not the only thing, nor is this the only reason to worry that this system would involve, or soon evolve into, rationing. Another reason is the well established mindset of those who push government health care.

You non-academics may not know this, but there is a sort of academic cottage industry called "medical ethics." The people in it often give seminars in which the sole question discussed is something like "which form of socialized medicine is the right one?" Yes, they are overwhelmingly for it, and they work without ceasing to impose their paper utopias on the rest of us. They are intensely dedicated, and absolutely convinced that their views are enlightened and sophisticated, and that those of us who disagree are a bunch of moral troglodytes.

A commonplace idea among them is that, once we have government health care, we should not indiscriminately give medical care to anyone who "needs" it. What is the point of government control, if we fail to organize the system more rationally than that? A term of art that is often used here is that of the QALY, or quality adjusted life year. This means that if we are thinking of investing money on a medical procedure for you, you lose points the older you are and the fewer years of life you will get out of the procedure, and you also lose points if the quality of the additional years is impaired somehow -- because you will be in pain, or are already missing a couple of limbs, or are retarded.

If the "experts" who have been pushing government health care for sixty years have their way, Sarah will basically be right. Both grandma and Trig will be in trouble.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Confusing Signals from the White House

As I write this on Sunday, the Administration has suggested that it will no longer insist on a "public option" in the health care reform bill.

If that is true, this would be the second time the people have effectively voiced their dissatisfaction with what government is doing since their voice was brazenly ignored in October over the TARP bill. (The first time they did so, of course, was when they spanked the Republicans in November for seven years of neocon insanity.) This would be by far the greater victory for democracy, in that it isn't just a matter of counting votes -- the pols actually had to listen, for once.

As I write, the American left has just begun to respond. The sound is making dogs howl and scratch their ears all over America. They are already saying that this would merely be a victory, not for the people (who have always hankered to be ruled by the left), but for the powerful insurance companies. They are ignoring the enormous corporate presence that was lined up in support of the bill. This would be a defeat for them.*

Meanwhile, the White House sent out some more signals keeping the left's hopes alive.

I'm about to leave for South Dakota, and recently wrote a couple more posts about medical care, to be published while I am gone. I think they still have interest, if they don't necessarily apply any longer to this particular bill.
* Here is a response to the corporate ads in favor of the bill that have assaulted my eyes daily for a while:

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Peter Singer's Defense of Death Panels

Okay, he doesn't call it that, but, unlike Obama, he is honest enough to call it "rationing."

His argument, as often with Singer, is simple and not very original, but I find his recent article in the NYT is eminently worth reading. It is helping me to identify the real issues involved in the medical care debate.

"Health care is a scarce resource," he says, "and all scarce resources are rationed in one way or another." Free markets determine that some people get the good and some do not. The British National Health Service does the same thing. One difference is that it is obvious that the NHS is doing this:
Last year Britain’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence gave a preliminary recommendation that the National Health Service should not offer Sutent for advanced kidney cancer. The institute, generally known as NICE [I love that acronym!], is a government-financed but independently run organization set up to provide national guidance on promoting good health and treating illness. ... NICE had set a general limit of £30,000, or about $49,000, on the cost of extending life for a year. Sutent, when used for advanced kidney cancer, cost more than that, and research suggested it offered only about six months extra life.
The recommendation was later rescinded, after a public uproar. Not an attractive picture. That judgment would have been a death sentence of sorts for people with advanced kidney cancer.

But markets, he says, do the same thing. It is just much harder to figure out who the victims might be. He quotes a study of Wisconsin emergency room patients who had been in auto accidents. The study "estimated that those who had no health insurance received 20 percent less care and had a death rate 37 percent higher than those with health insurance."

[Rather confusingly, he also quotes with apparent approval a study that concludes "there is little evidence to suggest that extending health insurance to all Americans would have a large effect on the number of deaths in the United States." This seems to conflict with the Wisconsin study. Anyway, I am concerned with the moral principles that underlie his argument, and not with the alleged empirical facts.]

Both systems withhold care from some people, who die (or die earlier) as a result. The difference (this is not how he puts it, but this is what he means) is that when bureaucrats decide who must die, it represents a conscious decision, so that the people who die might actually be the ones who ought to die.

When the market makes the determination, more often than not, the wrong person dies. The Wisconsin ER patients had an average of 3o more years of life to live, if they had received the care that would have saved them. Compare the people sentenced by NICE: they had an average of only six months, and not a good six months at that.

Socialized medicine is superior because, in it, (at least if the right people are in power) it is more likely that the people who die are the ones who ought to die. What we need (again, this is my wording, not his) is a redistribution of death.

(I urge you to read his article to see if my characterization of it is unfair.)

My initial reaction to this:

To call both what the market does and what the English death panel does "rationing" is close to verbal trickery. It smuggles in the idea that these two processes are on an equal moral footing, without having to argue for it. I call what the market does "allocation" and only call what the government does "rationing." The reason I use different words for them is that I see a big moral difference between them.

Part of it is a matter responsibility. The death of the untreated English cancer victim is somebody's doing. This person dies because someone decided this person should die. The death of the American auto-accident victim is -- an accident.

There is another difference that underlies this one. Singer thinks it is good, and not evil, for NICE to take responsibility for deciding who shall die because he thinks there is such a thing as the one who ought to die.

This is what I deny. I deny that the cancer victim ought to die, but it is not because I think that the accident victim ought to die. I think it is monstrous to judge that any innocent person ought to die.

Further, it is monstrous arrogance the think you have the right to decide who ought to die. And to act on that decision is tyranny itself.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Les Paul, 1915-2009

Les Paul, one of the real geniuses of popular music, died yesterday.

The first hit song I can remember hearing on the radio was Les and Mary singing "Mockin' Bird Hill" (1951).

Here are the opening words of the song:

When the sun in the morning peeps over the hill,
And kisses the roses 'round my window sill,
Then my heart fills with gladness when I hear the trill
Of the birds in the treetops on Mockin' Bird Hill.

Tra la la, tweedle dee dee dee
It gives me a thrill,
To wake up in the morning
To the mockin' bird's trill.
Tra la la tweedle dee dee dee
There's peace and good will;
You're welcome as the flowers
On Mockin' Bird Hill

It expresses a sense of the promise of beauty and happiness in the world, a feeling most of us had as children, though many lose it by the time they become adults. Thereafter, we typically only get it in little bursts and glimpses. Words of art help us to maintain it more continuously.

Adios maestro, and thanks for the happiness you brought us. Requiescat in pace.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Town Hall Revolts Heat Up

As the town hall meetings get even hotter, I can't resist pointing out the obvious: calling these people "lynch mobs" and comparing them to Nazis and the KKK didn't make them less angry. Insulting people who are already angry, it seems, makes them even angrier.

For as long as I can remember, the Democrats have been assuring me that they are the smart ones, and the other major party is just a bunch of stupid idiots.

Their response to the protests has shown that there are a lot of Democrats who are at least as dumb as the rest of us, if not more so. I would think that one of the basic principles of politics in a democracy, so obvious it is never stated explicitly, is Thou shalt not criticize the electorate, or any large segment thereof.* It's like the business principle, "The customer is always right."

By the way, I used to be in sales, and that last principle, I can tell you, is true. Unless starvation appeals to you, never tell the customer they are simply wrong to want what they want. Rather, show them something that is even better than what they were originally looking for.

Politicians, like business people, should not attack their clients. On the other hand, if you are not running for office, you can attack the public as much as you like. Like this wonderful man. May he rest in peace:

* Attacking individual protesters is probably a smarter idea.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Obama's UPS and Fedex Argument

This is an attempt to answer the "you can't compete against the government" type of argument that I gave the other day.

Not only does it not answer the version of the argument I was giving, it actually supports my case.

My argument was that, because government bureaus have the power to tax, they will have a larger share of the market than they deserve in efficiency terms, and that this is bad because it results in the service being inefficiently provided overall.

First, these three companies must be comparable in terms of quality of service and cost to consumer, or one of them would be out of business. But the PO needs periodic subsidies from the government (the "trouble" Obama says the PO is always having) in order to compete at all. So it is an inefficient provider, compared to the other two.

Does it have the tiny market share that that an inefficient provider deserves? Of course not. In my village, the PO has its own building, and customers are always there. Fedex and UPS share a part of the local box 'n' ship store, and when I go in no one is ever there.Obviously, there is colossal waste going on here. Quid erat demonstrandum.

Further, if ObamaCorp had a market share similar to that of the PO, it would be truly gigantic. Its creation would represent a change in America of staggering proportions. The town hall demonstrators are right to be yelling.

Obama keeps saying we need ObamaCorp to "keep them [ie., the over 3,000 private medical insurance companies] honest." But in his example it obviously is the two private companies that keep the government delivery service honest, not the other way around!
Here is Lew Rockwell's take on "Obama's slip/gaffe/admission."

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Public Option is a Trojan Horse: Reason #2

Yesterday, I explained a reason why the health insurance "public option" in American Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009 is a Trojan horse that is likely to result in most Americans, like it or not, being dumped into the hands of the government. It had to do with the fact that the some or all of the costs of this service would be transferred, by means of taxation, onto people other than the individual consumer, making the cost to them relatively low. Thus the government insurance company would tend to crowd out the private ones.

According to this study there is another reason it would tend to shove private health insurance out of the picture. It has to do with the way in which the plan would combine government medicine with a certain feature of the present system, a feature that the study describes like this:
In today's system, hospitals and physicians provide a substantial amount of free care to uninsured people called "uncompensated care." Also, payments for Medicare and Medicaid are usually less than the cost of the services provided resulting in payment shortfalls. Hospitals and physicians cover the cost of uncompensated care and payment shortfalls under public programs by increasing charges for private health plans in a process known as cost-shifting.
Since we can expect the "public option" -- a vast expansion of Medicaid -- to continue the same pricing policies, this will shift further costs to the shrinking number of people who still have private health insurance. This of course would increase the price gap between public and private insurance, driving even more people into the government medical system.

I expect the result would be a system in which the majority have crummy medical care but at low cost to them (until tax time) and a wealthy minority have much better care -- maybe something very much like the sort of care that most Americans have now.

This is why the town hall protesters keep mentioning the fact that members of congress will not be taking the public option for their own medical insurance. They all have private insurance now, and they are too wealthy to be driven into our part of the system.

Isn't it ironic? If you believe in equality and "fairness," the ideas the drive government health systems, you ought to be against this one!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Yes, the "Public Option" is a Trojan Horse

One of the many pieces of disinformation floating around about the the American Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009 -- the House health care bill that everyone is screaming about -- is that critics of the bill claim that the bill, or Obama himself, would "ban" private health insurance. As far as I know, no one is saying this. The actual objection is more complicated that this, and as far as I can see it is true. It is that the economics of the plan itself will tend to systematically crowd private plans out of the marketplace.

These are the relevant provisions of the bill:

1. It would require all Americans to have health insurance.

2. It would expand the Medicaid program to cover all adults with incomes below 133 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) ($29,300 for a family of four), and provide premium subsidies for people living between 133 percent and 400 percent of the FPL (i.e., $88,000 for a family of four).

3, It also requires most employers to contribute to the cost of coverage for their workers.

4. The bill also establishes an “exchange” that presents a selection of health coverage alternatives
including a newly created public plan that would compete with private insurers for enrollment.

One reason this plan will tend to crowd out private health insurance is obvious to anyone who is used to thinking in terms of business and economic principles. My father was a small business man, and the first business principle I can remember him telling me, when I was about ten years old, was "you can't compete with the government." The main reason this grundsatz is true is not, of course, that the government is more efficient -- producing more benefit per unit of cost -- than you. It is that it has a way to hide its costs from the consumer: you can only charge people for services, but it can tax them.

As you can see from #2 above, the new system will give its product to a lot of people for free. It will also be able to -- and of course, will -- sell its product to a lot of other people at a below-the-market price. This will result in an avalanche of customers out of the private insurance market and into the public option, since they will be able to get roughly the same services at lower cost (to them).

The avalanche will be multiplied by the fact that about two thirds of Americans with health insurance get it through their employers. Your employer decides what your insurance options are. Under the plan, employers will have powerful incentives to take employees who now have private coverage and simply dump them into the cheaper (to them) public option. This study by the Lewin Group estimates that the new system would very quickly result in almost half of covered Americans losing their private health insurance. (They also estimated that if the feds imposed medicare-style price controls and opened the public option to everyone, the number of Americans who depend directly on the government for their medical care would rise from about one quarter to two thirds.)

This would mean that Obama's oft-repeated claim, "if you like the insurance you have, you can keep it," is a gross falsehood.*

"But all you are saying, really, is that the public option would tend to out-compete the private one. What's wrong with that? Aren't you in favor of competition?"

The answer is that competition is only a good thing, ordinarily, because the consumer has to pay the producer's costs. Since the consumer is looking for the best deal, the result is efficiency: most benefit per unit of cost. If the producer can shove costs onto others, the result is inefficiency. The result is a rising dollar cost that is only felt at tax time -- and reduced services, reduced quality, under-capitalization, and a lot more time spent waiting in line.

This sort of "competition" lures rational agents who are looking for the best deal into a situation that on the whole is far from the best.

* According to an AP story dated June 15, 2009, the White House stated that these words, repeated endlessly, "should not betaken literally." See footnote 18 of this report.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Angry Shout-Downs: A Defense (Sort of)

So what about those angry citizens shouting down those congresspersons? Some liberal commentators are very concerned that these lawmakers did not get a chance to express their views as citizens. Treating them that way is downright un-American.

I am deeply conflicted about it, myself. On the one hand I know I would have joined in the enraged shouting when Arlen Spector said "We have to make judgments very fast" (scroll to 1:40, above).

On the other hand, I have a long-time commitment to freedom of speech and really don't like crowds drowning speakers out. There is an idea in the free speech literature, "the heckler's veto" which can be interpreted as placing the act of shouting pe0ple down in the same category as silencing them through violence and threats of violence.

Actually, I think these two sorts of behavior are not morally equivalent at all. Physical battery is a violation the rights of the speaker. They have a right against being physically attacked. But since they don't own the air that transmits your voice, your shouting at a speaker does not violate their rights in the same immediate sort of way.

The principle of the heckler's veto rests on a weaker basis than the absolute rights of the speaker: it rests on the value of the discussion itself and a soft duty all participants have to restrain themselves in ways that makes the discussion possible. Excessive heckling puts an end to the discussion. That is why it is bad. Ordinarily.

However, like all the rules that make civilized interaction possible, this principle is only obligatory if the other guy is following it. This is even true of the proscription on violence. You must not hit people. But what if the other guy is hitting you, or is preparing to hit you?

Now notice that these lawmakers have not done their part to maintain the discussion. Since passing TARP over strong voter objections in October, these people have repeatedly refused to listen to us. The Democrats' original plan to shove health care "reform" through before the August recess was intended to shut the public out of any meaningful discussion. It had absolutely no other point, purpose, or function.

These speakers are only coming to these town hall meetings with their patronizing talking points because their attempts to end the conversation failed. This is the context that the liberal commentators are missing. After all, they are not the ones who have been shut out of the process.

For the moment, these voters do not owe their masters in Washington a duty of self-restraint. And they should let them know they are angry about being ignored. It looks like booing and heckling have been pretty effective ways to do that.

On the other hand, now that they have made their point, maybe it's time to be civil and wait for their turn to speak.

Added later: The argument that I am answering here, based on the value of civility and self-restraint, is actually not typical of the commentary that I have heard from Democrats and liberals. Most of it has been much sillier: eg., dismissing the anger of this people as "manufactured," "astroturf [as opposed to grass roots]," or "scripted" -- or even, bizarrely, describing the shouters as "too well dressed" and as "carrying swastikas." I'm afraid I can't take that sort of commentary seriously.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Obama Summons His Movement

I've seen a lot of reaction to this email from BHO (see below), calling on his former campaign workers to go out and fight for Obamacare, presumably by beefing up pro-government presence at those loud and angry town hall meetings. [Added later: About twelve hours after writing this, I'm very sorry to see that, because two labor unions have started sending people to these meetings to represent the administration point of view, they have started to become violent. Here is another account of the same Tampa FL meeting.*)

Oddly enough, the one thing that jumps out at me about his message doesn't seem to bother anyone else. It's the first line of it:

"This is the moment our movement was built for."

Isn't this an odd thing for a president to be doing? To identify himself as the leader of a movement, a subset of the population consisting of a hard core of ideologically driven supporters?

Most presidents can't talk like that, because they are non-ideological moderates like Clinton and the Bushes. But go back to our last ideological president: Ronald Reagan. Try to imagine him summoning the rank and file of, say, organized right-to-lifers, urging them to go on the march, speaking of them as "our movement."

Can you imagine that? I can't.

There are countries that have had a head of state who on occasion summoned a cadre of the faithful to go out and hold "spontaneous" demonstrations as well as do other things that are in the interests of those in power. At various times, this list has included has included Russia, Germany, China, Libya, Iran, Italy....

But it hasn't happened here, until now. To us, it is something genuinely new. I'm surprised that people don't seem to have noticed it.

I realize with a cringe that such comparisons make me sound paranoid but, really, all I am only comparing the US to places like fascist Italy in this one respect. Whether this one similarity means anything in terms of other similarities, either now or in the future, is an open question. To me, it is a very, very interesting one.

Here is the Leader's message:

from President Barack Obama
date Wed, Aug 5, 2009 at 10:21 AM
subject This is the moment

This is the moment our movement was built for.

For one month, the fight for health insurance reform leaves the backrooms of Washington, D.C., and returns to communities across America. Throughout August, members of Congress are back home, where the hands they shake and the voices they hear will not belong to lobbyists, but to people like you.

Home is where we’re strongest. We didn’t win last year’s election together at a committee hearing in D.C. We won it on the doorsteps and the phone lines, at the softball games and the town meetings, and in every part of this great country where people gather to talk about what matters most. And if you’re willing to step up once again, that’s exactly where we’re going to win this historic campaign for the guaranteed, affordable health insurance that every American deserves.

There are those who profit from the status quo, or see this debate as a political game, and they will stop at nothing to block reform. They are filling the airwaves and the internet with outrageous falsehoods to scare people into opposing change. And some people, not surprisingly, are getting pretty nervous. So we’ve got to get out there, fight lies with truth, and set the record straight.

That’s why Organizing for America is putting together thousands of events this month where you can reach out to neighbors, show your support, and make certain your members of Congress know that you’re counting on them to act.

But these canvasses, town halls, and gatherings only make a difference if you turn up to knock on doors, share your views, and show your support. So here’s what I need from you:

Can you commit to join at least one event in your community this month?

In politics, there’s a rule that says when you ask people to get involved, always tell them it’ll be easy. Well, let’s be honest here: Passing comprehensive health insurance reform will not be easy. Every President since Harry Truman has talked about it, and the most powerful and experienced lobbyists in Washington stand in the way.

But every day we don’t act, Americans watch their premiums rise three times faster than wages, small businesses and families are pushed towards bankruptcy, and 14,000 people lose their coverage entirely. The cost of inaction is simply too much for the people of this nation to bear.

So yes, fixing this crisis will not be easy. Our opponents will attack us every day for daring to try. It will require time, and hard work, and there will be days when we don’t know if we have anything more to give. But there comes a moment when we all have to choose between doing what’s easy, and doing what’s right.

This is one of those times. And moments like this are what this movement was built for. So, are you ready?

Please commit now to taking at least one action in your community this month to build support for health insurance reform:

Let’s seize this moment and win this historic victory for our economy, our health and our families.

Thank you,

President Barack Obama

* Here is a more disturbing video, about representatives of SEIU beating a black man at a St. Louis MO townhall. SEIU, a government employee union, was a big source of money for the Obama campaign. Now it looks like they are starting to provide muscle as well. For me, the scariest thing about this incident is that it has been more or less ignored by the media. CNN reported on the Tampa meeting (see links above) but the more brutal union behavior at St. Louis was ignored by everyone but Fox.

Of Broken Windows and Crushed Clunkers

The "popular" Cash for Clunkers program (as popular as throwing money in the street and watching people scramble for it would be) is the most clear, sparkling, perfect example of Bastiat's broken window fallacy since the dark days of the Great Depression. I was wondering whether I should do the heavy lifting involved in making that point when I saw this column by Jonah Goldberg, which makes it very well. Now I don't have to. Thanks Jonah! Here's his column:

Ce qu'on voit et ce qu'on ne voit pas.

That may exhaust my French phrase quota for the year, but it's worth it. The saying is the title of an essay by the 19th century French economist Frederic Bastiat and means "that which is seen, and that which is not seen."

Bastiat's essay is most famous for the "parable of the broken window," in which a young boy shatters a shopkeeper's window and, after some initial outrage, the villagers conclude that the rascal helped the local economy. Why?

Because if no one broke windows, then the window makers would be out of business, and if the window makers were out of business, they wouldn't buy any more bread or shoes, hurting the bakers and the cobblers. So the six francs the shopkeeper must shell out for a new window is really a boon to the community.

The problem with this argument can be gleaned from the title of Bastiat's essay. By counting the money the shopkeeper spends to replace a perfectly good window (that which is seen), we ignore the money he might have spent on something else (that which is unseen). The shopkeeper might have instead dropped six francs on new shoes or a book or on a bonus for his assistant. Those who celebrate the broken window as a generator of growth take "no account of that which is not seen."

Sorry for what may seem like a long digression, but the parable of the broken window is worth keeping in mind, perhaps even updating, to the parable of the crushed clunker.

This parable is more convoluted, but the upshot is that Uncle Sam pays people to destroy their own cars as long as they use the money to buy a new, more expensive car.

As you've no doubt heard, the "cash for clunkers" program gives buyers up to $4,500 of taxpayer dollars toward the purchase of a new car, if they trade in their old cars for vehicles with better gas mileage. The old cars, still roadworthy, are then destroyed just like the shopkeeper's window.

The thinking behind the program is that the car companies need a boost, Michigan needs a boost, the environment needs a boost (through lower emissions) and Americans need help too.

Unsaid, but just as relevant, is that the authors of the government's mammoth stimulus plan need some proof that something is being stimulated.

So this scheme is win-win-win-win. Within days, the $1 billion that was supposed fund the program through at least October was used up as consumers, most of whom had been waiting to trade in their old cars anyway, took advantage of the free-money program. Indeed, Washington is agog with its own success, stunned to discover that Americans like getting free money.

That this news shocked so many on both the right and left shows how thick the Beltway bubble really is.

Like the drunk who only looks for his car keys where the light is good, Washington can only see the economic activity it has created, not the activity it has destroyed.

For starters, who says the smartest thing for people with working cars is to buy new ones? Indeed, because personal debt is supposed to be a problem, why not look at this as bribing consumers into taking out car loans they don't need? Even with the $4,500 subsidy, not all of these customers are going to be paying cash upfront for their new cars. So they'll be swapping serviceable-but-paid-for cars for nicer cars that are owned by the banks.

Besides, maybe some people would be smarter to buy a savings bond or max-out their kid's college fund or -- here's a crazy thought -- buy health insurance. But instead they've been seduced into spending the equivalent of their six francs on a car they don't really need.

But, you might say, some buyers surely do need a new car. True enough. But if they need a new car, they'd get one anyway, eventually. Indeed, they might already have gotten it, but rationally opted to wait for the program to kick in.

Or they might have needed to wait until next year or to buy a more affordable carbecause the normal trade-in for their clunker might not be as generous as Uncle Sam's $4,500. They might even have opted for a cheap used car, which will now become more difficult for poor people to find because we are taking all these cheap cars off the market.

But at least, under these scenarios, they'd be spending their own money.

Under the government's program, my tax dollars are being diverted to people with cheap cars so they can buy expensive ones. That's just really inefficient wealth distribution, not wealth creation. But government can see it, and that's all that counts.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

After Bush and Obama, Clinton Looking Pretty Good

Okay, I'm not saying we should carve him on Mt. Rushmore, but eight years of peace and prosperity are pretty hard to argue with.

After the disastrous two who followed him, those years are looking like a golden age. And he, equally with the Republican-dominated congress with which he was forced to share rule, deserves some of the credit.

When he lied, it was mainly about sex, and not about whether we know that Saddam has WMDs, or whether he is engineering a government takeover of the medical industry.

Now, I see that he is starting to make himself useful again. It's so much like Bill to go half-way round the world to bring back two attractive women. We miss ya Bill! [Blows him a kiss:] Mmmwah!