Sunday, January 31, 2010

Lord Action’s other dictum

Every thing secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity. - Lord Acton

CBS has scheduled an ad from Focus on the Family to air during the Super Bowl on February 7, 2010. The ad features 2007 Heisman Trophy winner, Tim Tebow (hereinafter “Tim”) and his mother, Pam Tebow (hereinafter “Mrs. Tebow”) who will:

share a personal story centered on the theme of "Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life."

Although no one outside FotF and CBS has seen the ad, it is expected that the ad will feature Mrs. Tebow talking about her decision to carry Tim to term despite advice from doctors that the pregnancy would almost certainly result in a stillbirth and would endanger her health.

Various women’s groups have objected to the ad including NOW, NARAL, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the Women’s Media Center. These organizations make a number of arguments for not showing the ad, some tiresome, some interesting.

My guess - and it’s just a guess - is that this is going to prove to be a tempest in a teapot. According to Advertising Age:

[FotF’s] Super Bowl commercial is not polarizing and does not take an "anti" stance against any issue, according to a person familiar with the situation.

According to Gary Schneeberger, a Focus on the Family spokesman:

the message is likely to act ... as an offer of help, with the hope the commercial will generate awareness for the organization and its family services

Given these characterizations, I anticipate the Tebow ad is going to consist of several shots of Tim Tebow from childhood to athletic stardom, his mother saying something to the effect that she’s so glad she decided to go ahead and have him despite the worries about his health, Tim saying “Thanks, Mom”, and a voiceover reading something like, “Contact Focus on the Family for help in difficult times.”

Nonetheless, one of the arguments against running the ad caught my eye. It turned up in the letter to CBS from CPR (available as a pdf within this Salon post) and in a letter to CBS from Gloria Allred of the Women’s Equal Rights Legal Defense and Education Fund (available as a pdf within this RadarOnline post). The CPR’s letter is a sort of “concern troll” approach, worrying that CBS may be putting itself in a bad position if the ad is not accurate:

In recognition of its responsibility to operate the network in the public interest, CBS has long followed a policy requiring that all claims in advertisements be carefully and closely reviewed for accuracy.

CPR goes on to argue that the fact that abortion has been illegal in the Philippines since 1870:

raises questions about whether physicians in the Philippines would have urged a married pregnant woman to illegally terminate her pregnancy in 1987.

In other words, if Mrs. Tebow claims that her doctors in the Philippines urged her to have an abortion, she is lying.

Allred’s letter repeats this charge without any of the “concern troll” nonsense and ups the stakes considerably. You really should read the whole thing - “Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition” - but here’s the gist of it:

Will you still insist on running this anti-choice commercial if it turns out to be misleading advertising? [snip]

Was her choice to give birth an alternative chosen because it was more practical and less risky, (given the illegality of the abortion procedure) or was her choice simply a matter of faith? [snip]

I hope I never see this ad on CBS but if I do, I hope that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will be watching it and evaluating it for misleading advertising as well.

If this ad airs, and fails t disclose that abortions were illegal at the time that Ms. Tebow made her “choice”, then I intend to file a formal complaint of misleading advertising with those federal commissions.

Now Mrs. Tebow is not merely lying about being advised to get an abortion, she is lying about the reason she chose not to have one: she carried the pregnancy to term because having an illegal abortion in the Philippines would have been too dangerous.

I almost don’t know what to say about this type of attack on Mrs. Tebow. The people writing these letters have no evidence that she is lying; they merely have a set of circumstances they believe suggest the conclusion they prefer to draw. I can play that game myself and find circumstances I believe suggest the conclusion they would prefer not to draw: that Mrs. Tebow is telling the truth. CPR itself says:

Every year, more than 500,000 women in the country try to terminate their pregnancies. In 2008 alone, criminal abortions resulted in the deaths of at least 1000 women and 90,000 more suffered complications.

Someone must be performing those abortions and even if all 91,000 that went badly were performed by the women themselves, someone competent must have performed at least some of the remaining 409,000. I’m reasonably sure there are doctors in the Philippines performing abortions just as there were always doctors in the United States performing abortions even when the procedure was illegal.

Furthermore, Mrs. Tebow was an American. It’s entirely possible she consulted doctors in the United States via telephone. It would have been a trivial matter for her to get on a plane and fly to the nearest country in which abortion was legal. And even if no Philippine physician was willing to directly advise abortion, it’s fairly easy to imagine one telling Mrs. Tebow that her serious illness had probably irreparably damaged her child and presented a risk to her own health and she might want to consult with doctors back in the United States about what course was the best to pursue. After all, abortion in such a case is clearly the medically correct thing to do so any doctor worth his salt would surely have attempted to make sure his patient understood that. Right?

The simple fact is that no one except the people involved 23 years ago know exactly what happened. Yet in order to stop an ad they don’t like from airing, some women’s groups have no compunction about accusing Mrs. Tebow of lying about what she was told, lying about why she made the choice she did, and - who knows - perhaps lying about ever being sick at all. When did women become fair game for this type of slander - from other women?

I simply don’t understand what is so threatening about this ad. As Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List said:

Shouldn't the ‘pro-choice’ position respect Pam Tebow's decision to choose Life? What is the worst case scenario in allowing the ad to air? Women are exposed to an example of sacrifice for the sake of an unborn child. NOW needs to explain where the harm and threat to women and children is here.

I have to agree with Dannenfelser that those criticizing the ad seem “[desperate] to keep full information from women.” If a pro-choice position is the correct position then allowing information about the other choice cannot possibly damage support for allowing women to choose abortions.

It seems to me that if pro-choice groups are so upset about the Tebow ad, the appropriate response is not censorship but rather presenting their own view of the matter. The Media Decoder blog at the New York Times points out that:

For many years, CBS had a policy against selling time to organizations expressing opinions on controversial topics in spots on any programming. [snip]

CBS, however, has changed its policy and has accepted issue ads in prime time on subjects like health care reform. The network has also run issue commercials from Al Gore and T. Boone Pickens.

A CBS spokesman has stated that:

The network follows a policy, he said, that “insures that all ads on all sides of an issue are appropriate for air.”

On Tuesday, he added that CBS “will continue to consider responsibly produced ads” from advocates on any issues for whatever commercial time was left during Super Bowl XLIV.

As the Media Decoder piece makes clear, this appears to open the door for those organizations who object to the Tebow ad to produce their own ads to air during the Super Bowl or, for that matter, during any of CBS’ primetime slots. The groups that oppose the Tebows’ message could produce an ad that features a woman who was advised as Mrs. Tebow was, followed her doctor’s advice, and is grateful to be alive to care for her other children. Or they could produce an ad featuring a man whose wife was advised as Mrs. Tebow was, did not take the advice, and died from complications of the pregnancy. The grieving husband could talk about the devastating effect his wife’s death had on their surviving children.

Or those who oppose the Tebows’ message could have gotten their message across for free by simply following the New York Times’ editorial advice:

The would-be censors are on the wrong track. Instead of trying to silence an opponent, advocates for allowing women to make their own decisions about whether to have a child should be using the Super Bowl spotlight to convey what their movement is all about: protecting the right of women like Pam Tebow to make their private reproductive choices.

Instead, those opposing the ad have put themselves in the position of looking like they’re terrified to have us hear anything that might make any woman think twice about having an abortion. The American people really aren’t stupid: it’s not going to take long for it to dawn on them that if people on the other side of the issue are so dangerous they must be censored, then maybe they’re saying something worth listening to.

Still, while I think the pro-choice groups’ arguments against the Tebow ad are dismaying and dangerous, I do admit to a great deal of sympathy for people like Gregg Doyel, a columnist:

''If you're a sports fan, and I am, that's the holiest day of the year,'' he wrote. ''It's not a day to discuss abortion. For it, against it, I don't care what you are. On Super Sunday, I don't care what I am. Feb. 7 is simply not the day to have that discussion.''

Motes and beams

I’ve seen Arianna Huffington on ABC’s This Week a number of times and I’ve come to admire her, despite my general distaste for Huffington Post. I don’t agree with most of her political stances but she appears to have a clear set of beliefs and to stick to them rather than fudging them to accommodate herself to politicians on “her side”. Today, however, she lost a fair amount of ground with me. During the roundtable on This Week, she asked Roger Ailes, the President of Fox News, about Glenn Beck:

And aren't you concerned about the language that Glenn Beck is using, which is, after all, inciting the American people? There is a lot of suffering out there, as you know, and when he talks about people being slaughtered, about who is going to be the next in the killing spree... [snip]

It's about the fact that there is a tradition as the historian Richard [Hofstadter] said, in American politics, of the paranoid style. And the paranoid style is dangerous when there is real pain out there.

I hadn’t read Hofstadter’s ideas on the paranoid style before although I’ve encountered musings on them in various places. I’ve now skimmed his 1964 Harper’s Magazine version and I think it’s well worth a quick read, so Huffington gets points for bringing it up. However, I do have to wonder if she was reading her own Website during 2008. If she had been, she would have encountered nonsense like this - in the articles, not the comments:

Please understand what you are looking at when you look at Sarah "Evita" Palin. You are looking at the designated muse of the coming American police state. [snip]

I believe the Rove-Cheney cabal is using Sarah Palin as a stalking horse, an Evita figure, to put a popular, populist face on the coming police state and be the talk show hostess for the end of elections as we know them. [snip]

Almost everyone I work with on projects related to this campaign for liberty has been experiencing computer harassment: emails are stripped, messages disappear. That's not all: people's bank accounts are being tampered with: wire transfers to banks vanish in midair. I personally keep opening bank accounts that are quickly corrupted by fraud. Money vanishes. Coworkers of mine have to keep opening new email accounts as old ones become infected. And most disturbingly to me personally is the mail tampering I have both heard of and experienced firsthand. My tax returns vanished from my mailbox. All my larger envelopes arrive ripped straight open apparently by hand. When I show the postman, he says "That's impossible." Horrifyingly to me is the impact on my family. My childrens' report cards are returned again and again though perfectly addressed; their invitations are turned back; and my daughters many letters from camp? Vanished. All of them. Not one arrived.

This type of thinking fits beautifully Hofstadter’s view of the (then) contemporary right wing paranoid style:

America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. [snip]

The villains of the modern right are much more vivid than those of their paranoid predecessors, much better known to the public ... for the shadowy international bankers of the monetary conspiracies, we may now substitute eminent public figures...

I have no idea what Glenn Beck is saying and don’t much care. Rabble-rousers are a long-standing American tradition and I believe most of us are smart enough to distinguish between truth and fantasy. If Arianna Huffington thinks differently and fears the paranoid style in American politics, then I suggest she look to her own media powerhouse before urging others to clean up theirs.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Fixing calls, freezing trains, and The Explanation

Right now the Yahoo “What’s New” page is featuring this article about the State of the Union address. Currently*, the first paragraph of the article reads:

AP - President Barack Obama will devote most of his first State of the Union address on Wednesday to fixing an economy that has sapped the nation's spirits and eroded his standing, with calls for tax cuts for small businesses and more restraint from a government that keeps piling up debt.

I know I’m being overly picky but I feel a need to point out that a speech is not going to fix anything - and neither are calls. This is not a criticism of Obama so much as it is a criticism of the more general idea that talking about doing something is just as good as actually doing it.

Here on the other hand, there is room for criticizing Obama himself:

The president will seek a freeze on most domestic spending for three years, yet propose a 6.2 percent increase in spending on education, an investment in a popular arena that he sees as vital to an economic recovery. He will offer a highly anticipated way forward on how to salvage health care reform, take responsibility for mistakes in his first year and follow up his speech with a dash to Florida to announce $8 billion in awards for high-speed rail.

Is it just me or is there something not quite right about dashing off to Florida to blow $8 billion on trains immediately after announcing a spending freeze? I mean, setting aside for the moment my conviction that the Federal government does not belong in education, I can understand why education might not be an area we want to freeze. But trains? Really?

I’m not sure I’ve ever watched a State of the Union address live - I much prefer the written word to the spoken - but I may have to make an exception for this one:

"The president is going to explain why he thinks the American people are angry," Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said Wednesday morning.

Thank goodness. I was hoping someone would come along and explain to us all what we’re so upset about. At last I'll be able to sleep at night.


* Maybe it’s just my imagination but it seems to me that the articles Yahoo links to mutate over time and what is there now may not be there later.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Villainous women

Cassandra at Villainous Company has a symposium going on the idea of womanliness, or womanly virtues. She kicked it off here and followed up with some survey data. A Conservative Lesbian kicked in her, um, broad definition of womanliness. And I made it to the party just a little late with this contribution.

Please join us.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Social Security Solutions, Part 2: The 10% solution

In my (much) earlier post, I talked about the need to fix Social Security without unfairly penalizing people who had worked hard and saved their money. I said I was going to discuss three possible solutions: the three-month solution; the 10% solution; and the Lifetime Endowment. I’ve already discussed the first of these here. This post is about the second solution.

This is pretty much my variant of George W. Bush’ plan. It’s been tumbling around in my head so long I no longer remember how much it differs from Bush’ plan nor everything I’ve read that has informed it. So if the same plan exists elsewhere, let me know and I’ll credit it.

We replace Social Security with Retirement Savings Accounts (RSAs). (Note to self: Come up with snappier name and/or better acronym.) Right now the Federal government takes the following percentages (download “Tax rate table” pdf from Q16 at this site) from your paycheck (or half from your paycheck, half from your employer):

10.6% for OASI - Old-Age and Survivors Insurance; this is the retirement benefit portion of Social Security plus the payments that the Feds will make to survivors after a breadwinner dies

1,8% for DI - Disability Insurance; if a worker is disabled he may qualify for disability benefits from the Feds; I’m not concerned with that here.

2.9% for HI - Hospital Insurance; this is Medicare; I’m not concerned with that here.

Under RSAs, the Feds will stop taking 10.6% of your salary for OASI. Instead they’ll take 10% of your salary and place it in your own RSA account. If the country so desires, they can continue to take some additional portion of your salary (not to exceed 0.6%) for Survivors’s benefits. Each RSA earns interest: inflation plus 3%. Your RSA account is yours; it’s not part of a pool of money that the government may or may not decide to pay out when you retire. Rather, you own it.

When you elect to start drawing benefits, your RSA stops earning interest. The government determines what your expected lifespan is then adds one year. Your RSA pays out to you at a rate that will get you back all your money if you live that long. If your life is shorter, your leftover money reverts to the government. If your life is longer, the government keeps paying at the same rate even after your account is depleted. RSA payments are not subject to an RSA tax (duh). If you die before you begin to draw down your RSA, it becomes part of your estate just like a savings account. You can will it to whomever you want.

Let’s look at some numbers. I’m using the income tables I’ve used before: the Congressional Budget Office Data on the Distribution of Federal Taxes and Household Income (hereinafter “CBO”). The Website is here; I’m using the pdf you can download via the “All of the Above Information” link under “Historical Effective Federal Tax Rates and Income, by Income Category (1979-2006)”. On page 7, the CBO tells us that average household pre-tax income looks like this:

Lowest quintile: $17,200
Second quintile: $39,400
Middle quintile: $60,700
Fourth quintile: $89,500
Highest quintile: $248,400

Let’s make some simplifying assumptions. You work for 45 years. The average household income is the average income you make throughout your working life; you make less when you start working and more just before you retire. There is no inflation so we can just use 3% as our interest rate. Interest compounds annually which almost certainly understates the resulting amounts.

So for someone in the Lowest Quintile, we assume the first year he worked he made $760 and his salary went up by $760 each year after that. Midway through his 45-year working life - year 23 - he was making $17,480. His average annual salary was $17,480. This is a little lower than the actual Lowest Quintile amount but it serves as an illustration.

If I’ve done my math right (please feel free to check me), after 45 years of working our Lowest Quintile worker will have saved $78,660 and earned $53,115 in interest, giving him a total of $131,775 in his RSA. If we assume he’s retiring at age 65 - having worked since he was 20 - he can expect to live for another 16.8 years (download “Source: Deaths: Final Data for 2006, table 7 from this site). Add one to get a 17.8 year distribution period. This means he will receive $7,403 per year from his RSA or $616 per month. This is 42% of his average salary over the course of his working life but it is only about 22% of the $34,200 per year I postulate he will be making by the time he retires.

The greatest advantage to this plan is that the money belongs to the person from whom it was taken; it is not an entitlement that is paying for someone else’s retirement and can be taken away or altered without warning if funds run short.

The greatest disadvantage is that it may be less generous than our current Social Security especially for those at the lower end of the income scale.

The greatest problem is how to get from what we have now to this scheme. We need to find the funds to pay people already on Social Security what they expect to get; we need to find the funds to pay those close to Social Security - say over age 55 - what they expect to get; we need to fill up the RSA accounts for those under 55; and we have to stop using Social Security contributions from current workers to do all this.

The only solution I’ve been able to come up with is a lottery. Anyone who wanted to could play except those already receiving Social Security and those old enough to receive Social Security when they retire (over 55). Once there’s enough money to fund everything we need to fund, the lottery shuts down.

And that, of course, is the rub. Once let the Federal government decide it can fund its spending by levying a tax on the mathematically challenged and it will never end. Plus the simple truth is that I agree with George Washington:

It [gaming] is the child of avarice, the brother of iniquity, and the father of mischief.

I like the 10% solution. I like the fact that the money the government takes is in an account with my name on it. I like the fact that it can be inherited if it’s never drawn against. But unless someone can come up with a way to make the transition from what we have now to Retirement Savings Accounts without selling our soul to the Devil, I simply don’t see any way to make it a reality.

Social Security Solutions, Part 2: The three-month solution

In my (much) earlier post, I talked about the need to fix Social Security without unfairly penalizing people who had worked hard and saved their money. I said I was going to discuss three possible solutions: the three-month solution; the 10% solution; and the Lifetime Endowment. This post is about the first of those.

I first ran across the idea at TigerHawk although I later found that Greg Mankiw had mentioned it a couple of years earlier. TigerHawk’s proposal is more fully specified so that’s what I’m relying on. It is breathtaking in its simplicity:

We should immediately raise the age for first eligibility for Social Security and Medicare according to a sliding scale. For each year a person is under age 62, the ages of first eligibility and full eligibility should be extended by three months. So, for example, if you are 50 today you would not become eligible for any benefits until age 65, and for full benefits until age 69. If you are only 38, your ages of eligibility would be 68 and 72, respectively. I would push the scale back to people who are as young as 32; for those that age and younger, the ages of Social Security eligibility would be 70 and 74.

This would, says TH, have three advantages:

First, it would drastically reduce the government's liability for future Social Security and Medicare payments (somebody out there ought to do the math to come up with the actual amount, but it is bound to be huge). ... Second, it avoids the philosophical fight between the statists who want to preserve Social Security as a government program and the conservatives, if there are any left, who want to substitute private savings. Third, it aligns Social Security with the reality of easier jobs and longer lifespans.

Frankly this is so simple and puts the greatest burden so many years down the road that I do not know why it hasn’t already been done. I have quibbles about pushing back eligibility for Medicare but I can’t think of too many reasons not to do so for Social Security. The only ones that come to mind are:

1) The insurance costs for older workers are higher which may make them less able to find employment and/or raise costs for the companies that hire them.

2) With unemployment very high, there is a downside to encouraging older workers to stay in the work force.

I think that when stacked up against the opportunity to reduce Social Security (and perhaps Medicare) obligations going forward, we can live with those problems.

The other issue, of course, is that - as TH himself says - we don’t have a hard number on how much this will save. We have already missed two years of the Baby Boomers, who started becoming eligible for Social Security benefits when they turned 62 in January of 2008. However, based on Wikipedia’s graph, the largest groups of Boomers are still between 45 and 55 so legislation like this would delay their retirement for between 21 and 51 months - just under 2 years to just over 4 years.

It couldn’t hurt, will help at least some, and is pretty painless compared to solutions like means-testing Social Security for people who have already retired. I think this is worth doing.

The undead

That was fast. In a post this morning I said:

Yes, I know the current versions of health care reform are dead but they’ll rise from the grave at some point...

and now here’s a post up at Movin’ Meat that quotes various people on the Left as saying health care reform will happen - and not that milquetoast version conjured up by Obama’s call for Democrats and Republicans to “coalesce” around elements both sides can agree on. Nope, these guys are talking about passing the approved Senate bill through the House (probably with a cross-your-heart-and-hope-to-die promise to change the provisions the House doesn’t like with later legislation); breaking up the Senate and House bills and passing pieces through both houses, via reconciliation if necessary; or doing a Senate and House conference to come up with a combined bill and getting it through the Senate by leaning on Olympia Snowe.

So we can argue about whether we think any of that is possible but the more interesting question is: If something that looks substantially like the Senate bill passes, what are the Democrats going to be running on in 2010? Via Megan McArdle, we can look at a handy timeline (load the pdf, don’t bother with the “highlights” on the Web page) of what happens when in the Senate bill and see what effects voters will feel before November 2, 2010.

What happens before the 2010 elections?

1) Prohibition on pre-existing condition exclusion for private insurance on the individual market.

If the bill stops insurance companies from excluding pre-existing conditions but doesn’t stop them from charging more for people with those conditions, this will help only a limited number of people. Most people with pre-existing conditions will now find they can get insurance but it will cost them a fortune they most likely don’t have being as how they’re sick and all. On the other hand, people who currently have health insurance but worry about losing it and not being able to buy new insurance due to a pre-existing condition will feel better - they won’t realize how expensive that new insurance would be.

If the bill stops insurance companies from excluding pre-existing conditions and from charging more for them, everyone who buys health insurance on the individual market will find their premiums increasing. On the other hand, people who are locked into a yearly contract won’t see those premium increases until a year after the bill passes; that is, until after the 2010 elections. On the third hand, my insurance company makes its next year rates available no later than November 1 - just in time for me to see them before I vote.

It’s important to note that the individual mandate does not kick in until 2014. This means that flood of healthy young people who are forced to buy health insurance and will offset the cost of covering those with pre-existing conditions is not going to exist for almost four years. Never mind what this is going to do to insurance premiums; imagine what it’s going to do to insurance companies. Unless there’s something left out of the timeline (always possible) I can’t quite figure out why anyone - individuals or employers - will buy any health insurance between the time this bill passes and 2014. If I believed all that conspiracy nonsense I’d figure this is a darn good way to put insurance companies out of business right quick like.

2) Prohibition on revoking insurance for patients who falsify applications to fraudulently obtain private insurance coverage (however, penalties for fraud against federal health programs are increased).

This is going to drive everyone’s insurance premiums up: the insurance companies will simply have to build in some fudge factor for getting stuck with higher than anticipated costs for people who lie. On the other hand, there will be less incentive to lie since pre-existing conditions won’t be excluded (at least on the individual market). On the third hand, if policies cost more for people with pre-existing conditions, the incentives to lie will be the same as they always were.

3) “Annual Fee” tax on prescription drugs of $2.3 billion, allocated according to market share.

Companies don’t pay fees or taxes; they just pass them along to their customers. Prescription drug prices will go up.

4) New 10% tax on indoor tanning services effective July 1, 2010.

I don’t think this will have either an upside or a downside for the Democrats unless I am underestimating the number of voters who frequent tanning salons. On the other hand, this seems like the kind of thing it would be easy for an opponent to make effective fun of.

5) New restrictions on not-for-profit hospitals.

I don’t know what this is and Google search didn’t turn up anything helpful. It would be nice if the timeline references bill sections because I’m not digging through that furball to find this.

6) Special tax benefit for BCBS organizations that maintain medical loss ratios of at least 85%.

If a Democrat is running in an area that has a large BCBS employer, this is an advantage; in an area that has a large non-BCBS insurance company employer, this is a disadvantage. Otherwise, I don’t see this as either a selling point or a black mark.

7) Medicare: Physician payments decrease 21% effective March 1, 2010.

Doctors are going to hate this. People on Medicare are going to hate this when they can’t find a doctor who’ll see them. In order for Democrats to sell this they’ll have to argue that doctors are gouging the government or that it’s tough but our fiscal situation requires it. The latter is going to be a hard sell for anyone who is a doctor, is on Medicare, or has a relative who is on Medicare. They’re going to want to know why the government can’t balance the budget on the backs of someone other than the elderly.

Those seven policies go into effect immediately. There’s one other policy that goes into effect in 2010, six months after the bill passes:

8) Group and Individual policies issued after this date may not contain lifetime coverage limits, must provide first-dollar coverage for preventive care as defined by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, and must cover “children” of primary policyholders up to age 26.

This will raise everyone’s premiums and those additional costs will show up in our 2011 premiums which we almost certainly see prior to the November 2010 elections.

Maybe I’m missing something but I just don’t see much here that is going to make voters who are unhappy about the health reform bill change their minds before the 2010 elections. The one possibility is that the psychological benefit of believing we can always buy health insurance because pre-existing conditions cannot be excluded will be enough to make the bill look like a winner. If premium costs skyrocket, however, I’m not sure voters are stupid enough to find it comforting to know the government has guaranteed they can always buy health insurance - while doing nothing to help them afford it.

One more quick thought on that Massachusetts poll

One more - I hope final - quick thought on that poll of Massachusetts voters. It’s interesting that in a State which has an operational version of Obamacare (for lack of a better term), those who voted for Obama in 2008 and either voted for Brown in 2010 or just stayed home really, really want a public option and really don’t like the individual mandate. I wonder if this is largely an effect of the rising health care costs in Massachusetts: these voters resent being forced to pay those high costs and hope government competition would reduce them.

Subsidizing the Public Option

In her comment to my post on what the results of the Massachusetts Senate race really tell us, Blue Lyon quoted part of my post and responded to it thusly:

To address another part of your post, you wrote: when it came time to run the numbers no one could figure out how to have a public option that could match private insurance company premiums without a subsidy from the taxpayers

This is what really got me...The private insurers will get taxpayer subsidies (no loss to profits), but the public option was supposed to exist on premiums alone (with no taxpayer subsidies). How would that be creating an even (and competitive) playing field?

I think we’re talking about two different kinds of subsidies here. I’ve written about this in an earlier post but I want to walk through it again to get it clear in my own mind. (Yes, I know the current versions of health care reform are dead but they’ll rise from the grave at some point - and the idea of a Public Option is popular.)

The Feds set up an Exchange. Every insurance company can participate and anyone who wants to can buy insurance from a company on the Exchange. Every company in the Exchange has to (I’m pretty sure) offer at least three different policies - Bronze, Silver, Gold - and can offer a fourth - Platinum. The Feds define what must be covered under each policy level with Bronze being the most basic and Platinum being super-duper. The insurance companies then post their premiums for each policy level. So assuming we’re looking at annual premiums for each of the four levels we might see something like:

Aetna: 10,000 / 12,000 / 15,000 / 20,000
BCBS: 9,000 / 11,000 / 14,000 / 19,000
UHC: 11,000 / 12,500 / 15,000 / 22,000

The Feds look at these numbers and find the cheapest policy: in this case, the BCBS Bronze policy for $9,000. They then look at your income - let’s say $50,000 a year - and decide you shouldn’t ever have to pay more than $5,000 per year for health insurance. Therefore they will subsidize your purchase of health insurance by $4,000 per year - the difference between what the cheapest policy will cost you and the maximum health insurance “should” cost you. If you choose to take that $4,000 and put it with more than $5,000 of your money to buy Aetna’s Bronze policy at $10,000 or UHC’s Gold policy at $15,000 that’s up to you.

Now let’s say the Public Option starts up; we’ll call it Public Option Health Care or POHC. It competes in the Exchange just like all the other insurance companies which means it has to set rates just like all the other insurance companies. Under the terms of the House bill I looked at in my previous post, POHC must live off its premiums just like all the other insurance companies do. That means it must set its premium rates high enough to cover it’s administrative costs and its payouts to claimants just like all the other insurance companies do. It will get a “loan” from the Feds for start-up costs but it must repay that loan which will add costs that are not dissimilar to those of a for-profit private insurance company which must keep its shareholders happy. So now if we look at the Exchange we would see:

Aetna: 10,000 / 12,000 / 15,000 / 20,000
BCBS: 9,000 / 11,000 / 14,000 / 19,000
UHC: 11,000 / 12,500 / 15,000 / 22,000
POHC: 10,500 / 11,500 / 14,500 / 20,000

There is no reason to believe that POHC’s premiums will be any lower than those of the private for-profit companies and - given that loan to repay - they may well be higher than the premiums charged by private non-profits. You can still take your $4,000 subsidy from the government and use it to buy a policy from POHC if you wanted so in that sense the Public Option is eligible for exactly the same subsidy as all the other insurance companies. This is the subsidy I think Blue Lyon is talking about and, if so, I disagree with her: the Public Option is eligible for this type of subsidy. However, this is not the type of subsidy I was talking about in my post.

The subsidy I was talking about is funding POHC on an ongoing basis using tax revenues. If that happened, POHC would be getting two revenue streams: premiums and taxpayer funding. POHC would no longer have to live on its premiums alone and would be able to charge premiums below those needed to cover administrative costs and payouts to claimants. This is the subsidy that the Public Option would need to be less expensive than private companies - at least private non-profits - and this is the subsidy that would blow the budget on health care. And this, I suspect, is why the Public Option is not on the table: no one could make the numbers work out. Either we created a Public Option that was more expensive than some private insurers or we used taxpayer money to keep premiums down and that took care of deficit neutrality.



All Greg Mankiw:

What's the point of a public option?

CBO and I agree

Thaler on the Public Option

The Arbiter of Ignorance - Which I’m including because I enjoy the utter yet civil viciousness but others may find more interesting as a way to access Paul Krugman’s thoughts on the matter

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Let's drill down

Via Blue Lyon, there are poll numbers available from Massachusetts that try to answer the question: Does the result of the Massachusetts Senate race on January 19 mean voters want the Democrats to be more forthrightly Left (aka, progressive) or does it mean voters want the Democrats to be more centrist (aka, move Right)? The poll - commissioned by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, and - interviewed 500 people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but voted for Scott Brown on Tuesday; they also interviewed 500 voters who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but did not vote on Tuesday.

One caveat: I do not entirely understand how these voters were selected. The poll information says:

2774 Obama voters from 2008 who voted Tuesday were reached -- of which 2274 (82%) voted for Democrat Martha Coakley and 500 (18%) voted against her.quote

Assuming the pollsters simply started cold-calling people this seems like a reasonable selection process. However, I do not see similar information on how the 500 homebodies (2008 Obama voters who did not vote on Tuesday) were selected.

The presentation of the poll is a little confusing: the description says Obama voters who voted for Brown were asked a different set of questions than Obama voters who just stayed home but that’s not quite right. Both groups of voters were asked the same questions. The poll results for the two groups are presented in a slightly different order and I assume that reflects the order in which the two groups were asked the questions. Here are my takeaways:

1) Massachusetts has a lot of voters who are not registered as either Democrat or Republican yet it has voted heavily Democratic for a long time leading some to assume that the Independent (or “Unenrolled”) label doesn’t mean much. Nonetheless there does appear to be at least one clear difference between voters registered Democratic and those who are not registered: of the 500 Obama voters who voted for Brown, 423 were Independent; of the 500 Obama voters who just stayed home, 447 were Democrats. Independents could bring themselves to vote for a non-Democrat (whatever their reasons); Democrats could only bring themselves to stay home. The numbers are overwhelming enough that we can speak fairly confidently of the Brown voters as Independents and the homebodies as Democrats. Further, this means the poll breakdowns by party affiliation use woefully small numbers for the Republican and Democrat percentages among Brown voters and for the Republican and Independent percentages among homebodies.

2) Both Obama voters who voted for Brown and Obama voters who stayed home overwhelmingly favor a public option: 82% of Brown voters and 86% of homebodies. I don’t think this is news - I believe previous polls have always shown that a significant majority of people in the country as a whole favor a public option - so it’s interesting to consider why no public option is on the table. My guess - and it is just a guess - it that when it came time to run the numbers no one could figure out how to have a public option that could match private insurance company premiums without a subsidy from the taxpayers. And a subsidy from the taxpayers would blow the idee fixe of budget neutrality out of the water.

3) The poll asked two questions about the Senate version of health care reform: Do you favor or oppose and, if you oppose, do you think it goes too far or not far enough? If you aggregate the numbers for those two questions, here’s what you get:

Favor: 32% Brown voters, 34% homebodies
Oppose, doesn’t go far enough: 17% Brown voters, 23% homebodies
Oppose, goes too far: 11% Brown voters, 3% homebodies
Oppose, not sure if it goes too far or not far enough: 20% Brown voters, 17% homebodies
Not sure if favor or oppose: 20% Brown voters, 23% homebodies

I have no idea what that tells me except that 40% of both groups either aren’t sure whether they oppose it or oppose it but aren’t sure why.

4) The individual mandate is unpopular: 59% of Brown voters and 55% of homebodies oppose it.

5) It’s not clear how important it is to these voters that the Democrats change Republican policies. In answer to the question:

Generally speaking, do you think Democrats in Washington, DC are fighting hard enough to challenge the Republican policies of the Bush years, aren't fighting hard enough to change those policies, or are fighting about right?

the answers (which don’t really match the question) were:

Not enough: 37% Brown voters, 39% homebodies
Too hard: 15% Brown voters, 12% homebodies
About right: 21% Brown voters, 25% homebodies
Not sure: 27% Brown voters, 24% homebodies

That means 37% of both groups think the Democrats are fighting about the right amount or too hard, i.e., don’t need to be doing more to challenge the Republican policies. This is not significantly different from the number who think the Democrats should be fighting harder to change these policies.

6) A surprisingly large number of respondents in both groups answered “Not sure” to a surprisingly large number of questions. This means that some results are hard to interpret. For example, in answer to this question:

What would do more to improve our nation's economic conditions: Decreasing government spending OR tightening government regulation of Wall Street and corporate executives?

a plurality of both groups think tightening regulations for Wall Street and corporate executives (43%, 46%) would do more to help the economy than decreasing government spending (25%, 21%) but so many people answered “Not sure” (32%, 33%) that I don’t know how much that means. On the other hand, people were pretty clear in their answer to this question:

If the Democratic Congress passed a bill that laid down stronger rules of the road for Wall Street and cut bonuses for the executives of companies that received government bailouts, would that make you more likely or less likely to vote Democratic in the 2010 general election?

Now 53% of Brown voters and 56% of homebodies said more likely, while 14% of Brown voters and 5% of homebodies said less likely. (The “No effect” numbers are very close to the “Not sure” numbers in the previous question: 33% of Brown voters, 39% of homebodies.) Does this mean even people who think decreasing government spending would be better for the economy still want the government to tighten up on Wall Street? Or are the answers to the second question being triggered by the “cut bonuses” proposal that wasn’t really in the first question? I suspect the latter but who knows?

Similarly the “Not sure” answer played a big role in questions about how important national health care reform is in deciding how to vote; whether Democrats are more on my side or the side of lobbyists; and - for homebodies - whether Democrats changed Washington and whether Democrats are more on the side of Wall Street or Main Street. Interestingly, a majority of Brown voters said Democrats did not change Washington (52%) and were more on the side of Wall Street (51%) but only a plurality of homebodies said the same (41%, 38%).

All this makes me suspect that there is a mix of progressive (far Left) and populist (tea party) concerns going on here. I wish the poll had included an open-ended question like:

Why did you vote for Obama in 2008 but vote for Brown/not vote in this election?

So what did the Massachusetts election tell us? People are unhappy with the way things are going in Washington. They overwhelmingly favor the public option; they overwhelmingly think neither Brown nor Coakley did a good job representing their economic interests; a solid majority of both groups wants tighter regulation of Wall Street and/or bonus cuts for executives; and a solid majority of both groups opposes the individual mandate. Beyond that, the exact nature of their unhappiness and even more the question of what they would like to see instead is open to debate.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lame brains

The more references I saw on blogs to Game Change, the book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the more it sounded to me like the book was just supermarket tabloid fare in an expensive wrapper. I was sort of gearing myself up to track down more information and go into a long, dreary, patient, and nonjudgmental explanation of why this sort of “reporting” really isn’t worth spending any time even talking about, much less thinking about.

Thank the goddess! Reclusive Leftist has already done the job - and in only a dozen words:

Press bus gossip in book form = true! history!

God, people are stupid.

(Yes, I know - I gave away her punch line. However her subsequent parenthetical explanation is still worth the click.)

Thursday, January 7, 2010


[Updated August 19, 2011: I reversed the 2008 numbers when discussing Perry's conclusions. Fixed and the fix is shown via strike-throughs.]

The fourth of my five health care issues was:

As currently structured, all insurance - private or government, cheap or expensive, HMO or traditional, catastrophic or first-dollar - masks the true costs of treatment from those who purchase that treatment. This is bad for patients and bad for health care providers and bad for any hope of reining in health care spending through individual decision making.

Enter Investor’s Business Daily (via Greg Mankiw). Looking at Department of Health and Human Services’ data, their editorial features a chart that graphically (heh, heh) demonstrates the extent to which Americans do not pay for their own health care with what they can easily identify as their own money. In 1960, Americans paid for almost 50% of their health care out of their own pockets, in 2008 they paid for only about 12% of that spending out of their own pockets.

Enter also Dan Mitchell of Big Government (via The Gormogons) who used the same data to produce the same chart.

Enter finally Mark Perry of The Enterprise Blog (via The Corner) who took the same data and created two charts. Clearly an over-achiever.

Perry attributes the decreasing share coming from consumer out of pocket spending solely to increased government spending on health care; in fact, he entitles his piece “Government Funding Increases Health Care Costs”. Mitchell is somewhat agnostic on the question of who is picking up the spending consumers are no longer doing out of pocket. The third-party payers he mentions are government entities but he doesn’t specifically attribute the entire change in who is paying to the government’s role. IBD assigns a role to both the government and insurance companies:

Patients have little direct connection in paying for their care. Their role has fallen significantly. Meanwhile, the government's involvement has grown, as has that of the insurance industry.

IBD is correct. One of the charts Perry produces shows us that health care spending breaks down this way:

In 1960:
- consumers’ out of pocket payments accounted for 46.9% of health care spending
- public funds accounted for 24.5%

In 2008:
- consumers’ out of pocket payments accounted for 47.32% 11.88% of health care spending
- public funds accounted for 11.88% 47.32%

According to Perry:

But the chart above (data here) shows what might be the two most important reasons for rising healthcare costs over the last 50 years: a) declining out-of-pocket payments for medical expenses, which have fallen from 47 percent of total health spending in 1960 to a record low of only 11.9 percent in 2008, and b) expanding public funding of healthcare, which reached a record high of 47.3 percent in 2008. There’s now been a complete reversal—whereas consumers paid 47 percent of total medical costs in 1960, it’s now the government paying 47 percent of health spending, while consumers pay less than 12 percent out of pocket for healthcare. That reversal is a guaranteed prescription for rising healthcare expenditures.

Although Perry mentions consumers’ increased reliance on employer-provided health care in the next paragraph, he never shows us the numbers. We can, however, back into them by figuring out what his figures leave unaccounted for:

In 1960, third party payments from other than public funds accounted for 28.6% of health care spending.
In 2008, third party payments from other than public funds accounted for 40.80% of health care spending.

So, yes, public third-party funding of health care has increased from 24.5% to 47.32% of total spending. But private third-party funding of health has also increased, from 28.6% to 40.80% of the total. It’s not just government spending on health care that keeps us from realizing how much it actually costs us:

As currently structured, all insurance - private or government, cheap or expensive, HMO or traditional, catastrophic or first-dollar - masks the true costs of treatment from those who purchase that treatment. This is bad for patients and bad for health care providers and bad for any hope of reining in health care spending through individual decision making.



Fact Check: Health insurer profits not so fat - . I increasingly tend to believe that insurance companies do not have a role to play in health care going forward. However, that doesn’t mean they’re the spawn of Satan making windfall profits off the death and suffering of their hapless victims. They are simply an industry that may have outlived its usefulness due to changing technology, economic issues, and government regulation.

Markets, Not Mandates (via The Corner) - Presents an interesting look at a possible free market health care landscape that includes insurance companies. I’m unimpressed - as long as health insurance companies exist they will be interfering with market pricing mechanisms - but the author is correct in his description of how the market can reduce costs. And it’s worth reading just for the quote from Uwe Reinhardt:

when you’re down on your luck, you’re unemployed, you lose your insurance.…Only the devil could ever have invented such a system.

I’m doing my part to hold down health care costs - From Reclusive Leftist, the other side of the story. What happens to people who don’t have money if we implement systems that make people pay more of their own money for health care?

Catastrophic comparison, Part 2.2

In this series of posts I’m taking a look at three proposals for government-paid or government-provided catastrophic health care. I explained the proposals and compared them in the first post in this series. In my most recent post, I looked at whether the proposal by Martin Feldstein was paid for and concluded it was not. In this post, I’ll look at whether the proposal by Brad DeLong is paid for. You can read about his plan in detail in my first post but here’s a brief summary to go on with:

Brad DeLong proposes government take 20% of everyone’s income. Five percent goes to pay for government-provided catastrophic health insurance/care. The other 15% goes into a Health Savings Account. If you spend everything in your HSA in one calendar year, the catastrophic insurance kicks in. If you don’t spend everything in your HSA in one calendar year, you can roll what’s left into an IRA or just get the money back to spend as you please. He does not explicitly propose any type of government assistance for those with low incomes. Very, very simple.

So is DeLong’s plan paid for? Again, this is a different question from whether we can afford it, either nationally or as individual taxpayers. Here I’m just examining whether the income stream DeLong’s plan depends on is sufficient to cover the costs of the health care it must pay for. Let’s do a little math.

I’m looking at two sources for my calculations. First, Historical National Health Expenditure Data (hereinafter “NHE”). The Website is here; I’m using the pdf you can download via the “NHE Web tables (PDF, 1.1 MB)” link. The other source is the Congressional Budget Office Data on the Distribution of Federal Taxes and Household Income (hereinafter “CBO”). The Website is here; I’m using the pdf you can download via the “All of the Above Information” link under “Historical Effective Federal Tax Rates and Income, by Income Category (1979-2006)”. I’m looking at 2006 numbers since I believe that is the most recent CBO data available. Here we go.

According to NHE, in 2006 the United States spent $2.1127 Trillion on health care; our population was 265.4 Million. A little quick division and we discover we spent $7,960.44 per person for health care; I’ll use $8,000 to make life easier. What’s $39.56 among friends? Okay.

According to CBO (page 7), in 2006 there were 116,100,000 households in the United States. A little more quick division and we discover that each household contains 2.29 people. So each household is going to need $18,320 worth of health care in a year - on average, or course.

The CBO has graciously reported its average income numbers in quintiles with each quintile having approximately the same number of households. We can, therefore, pretend there are only five households in the country when we do our math. So.

The CBO (still page 7) tells us that average household pre-tax income looks like this:

Lowest quintile: $17,200; 20% of that is $3,440
Second quintile: $39,400; 20% of that is $7,880
Middle quintile: $60,700; 20% of that is $12,140
Fourth quintile: $89,500; 20% of that is $17,900
Highest quintile: $248,400; 20% of that is $49,680

So if we take 20% of the pre-tax income from each of our five households, we’ll have a total of $91,040. If we distribute that equally across our five households, that’s $18,208 per household. We need $18,320 to pay for their health care so we’re very, very close - short $112 per household. Or at least we were in 2006. We can easily make up the difference by having the richest household pay 20.25% rather than just 20%. I know we don’t want to soak the rich but an extra 0.25% is not really soaking them. So I say DeLong’s plan is paid for.

Now that’s using pre-tax income. DeLong doesn’t specify pre-tax or after-tax when he talks about 20% so let’s take a look at the numbers if we assess the DeLong fee on after-tax income.

The CBO (now page 8) tells us that average household after-tax income looks like this:

Lowest quintile: $16,500; 20% of that is $3,300
Second quintile: $35,400; 20% of that is $7,080
Middle quintile: $52,100; 20% of that is $10,420
Fourth quintile: $73,800; 20% of that is $14,760
Highest quintile: $184,400; 20% of that is $36,880

When we take 20% of the after-tax income from each of our five households, we have a total of $72,440. If we distribute that equally across our five households, that’s $14,488 per household. We need $18,320 to pay for their health care so we’re short $3,832 per household. If we want to make up the difference only from the wealthiest quintile, now they’re going to have to toss in 30.4% of their income rather than 20%. That doesn’t sound too workable especially given that whole “no tax raises for anyone making under $250,000 per year” thing.

When I thought about it, though, I realized that my numbers weren’t quite right. If we implement the DeLong plan, our after-tax income will go up: the amount that now gets taken out of each paycheck for Medicare should disappear. Not even the greediest Federal government could justify continuing to remove that amount once Medicare ceases to exist. So that boosts our after-tax income a little right there.

Beyond that, though, are other taxes that should disappear under the DeLong plan although I’m sure we’ll have to fight our governments tooth and nail to make them do so:

- Some part of our Federal income tax goes to fund Medicaid.
- Some part of our State taxes go to fund Medicaid.
- Some part of our Federal, State and possibly local taxes go to fund health care for those who have no form of insurance and are too poor to pay for care.

If we implement the DeLong plan we should insist out tax burden drop by whatever amount now goes to these health-care related expenses.

And there’s the other side of this, too: under the DeLong plan we hand over a chunk of our income but at the same time some of the expenses we incur now drop. Most obviously, we will no longer be paying health insurance premiums ourselves. Less obviously, we currently forego some wages because our employers contribute to our health insurance in the form of premiums and administrative overhead. Theoretically, we could write the DeLong legislation to require employers to “’cash out’ the money they currently pay for health benefits and distribute it as wages”; alternatively, we could just let the market do its work. It will take time - particularly so long as unemployment is up - but eventually companies will start using their extra breathing room to raise wages. Last, but not necessarily least, if some corporate income tax revenue goes to pay for health-care related expenses, we should insist that the corporate tax burden by cut by that amount. Since individuals end up paying these taxes in the form of higher prices, eliminating them will raise our disposable income.

At this point I began to wonder if the reduced taxes and increased disposable income I was thinking about might actually add up to the amount the DeLong plan would take from all of us. That was when I had one of those head-slapping, V-8 moments: of course it did. I wasn’t working with some theoretical cost of health care; I was working with the actual amount we spend on health care. This meant that - one way or another - we all do actually pay 20% of our before-tax income for health care. Maybe you don’t individually - although I think each of us might be surprised if we did the math - but on average we all do. We have to: that’s how much we spend.

Although there is, of course, one way around this: if we as a nation are borrowing to fund our health care. In which case, yes, we can argue we aren’t actually spending 20% of our before-tax income on health care and, yes, we can claim we can’t afford to pay that much for our health care. I’m just not sure the future generations that will have to pick up the tab are going to be much impressed by that argument and that claim.

The DeLong plan brings us face to face with the intractable truth at the heart of health care reform: if we’re horrified at how much the DeLong plan will cost us and argue we can’t afford it then we’re forced to admit we can’t afford what we as a nation are spending on health care now and we have to cut back. If we argue we can afford what we’re spending now then either we can afford the DeLong plan or we have to admit that we’re fine with getting health care we’re not paying for and leaving the bill to our children and grandchildren.

You pick ‘em.



William McGurn in the Wall Street Journal - What Singapore Can Teach the White House

Making someone else pay : This Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Journal Sentinel article is from October of 2009 which means it’s practically antediluvian in health care bill terms but it’s a nice, brief look at the idea that everyone wants Congress to ask - and thinks Congress is asking - someone else to pay for health care. It makes me think of that ditty attributed to Russell Long:

Don’t tax him. Don’t tax me. Tax that man behind the tree.

It’s also worth noting that - at least according to this article - under the Baucus plan (remember that?) the average family in Waukesha Country would be looking at premiums of 12% of income. That’s not far off DeLong’s 20% and under the Baucus plan taxpayers would still be footing the bill for Medicare, Medicaid, and whatever the government throws into paying for health care for the uninsured.

Brooks bedazzled

I’ve run into a number of posts about David Brooks’ piece in the New York Times. JustOneMinute and Grim are writing about it. Someone (I think The Corner’s Web Briefing) sent me to NoLeftTurns which in turn sent me to Armed and Dangerous where I think the discussion of complexity run amok is quite persuasive.* Armed and Dangerous sent me to Will Collier whose post is excellent - and not just because he made me nod by quoting Megan McArdle and made me smile by designating Sarah Palin as the “Tea Party matriarch”.

So. Yes, Brooks’ piece is annoying - really annoying. Anytime you find yourself talking about “the educated class” you really should stop writing immediately. It’s hard to think of a more loaded phrase especially when Brooks insists upon imputing to that “class” any number of beliefs that aren’t necessarily shared by everyone who has, well, has what? An Ivy league education? A law degree? An advanced degree? A degree in something soft - like, say, history - rather than in something hard - like engineering? As deep an understanding of political philosophy as Brooks himself? Or is Brooks’ “educated class” not in common possession of anything except the set of beliefs he says “the educated class” shares. That would be a bit circular but perhaps historians don’t worry about that sort of thing.

Still I’m inclined to be both more tolerant and less tolerant of Brooks’ column than many of those whose opinions I link above. More tolerant because I heard him talk about the tea party movement on one of the Sunday morning shows and I thought he was quite fair-minded about it. His thesis is repeated in his recent NYT piece although it’s buried under all the “educated class” nonsense: outsiders with passion are the ones who define the political landscape of an era and the tea partiers are the outsiders with passion right now:

... the tea party movement has passion. Think back on the recent decades of American history — the way the hippies defined the 1960s; the feminists, the 1970s; the Christian conservatives, the 1980s. American history is often driven by passionate outsiders who force themselves into the center of American life.

In the near term, the tea party tendency will dominate the Republican Party. It could be the ruin of the party, pulling it in an angry direction that suburban voters will not tolerate. But don’t underestimate the deep reservoirs of public disgust. If there is a double-dip recession, a long period of stagnation, a fiscal crisis, a terrorist attack or some other major scandal or event, the country could demand total change, creating a vacuum that only the tea party movement and its inheritors would be in a position to fill.

It speaks well of Brooks that he can apparently loathe a movement, all its people, and everything it stands for and yet see clearly that it could be a transformative power in politics. That’s far better than so many pundits who assume that everyone and everything they don’t like is doomed to failure at best, failure and ridicule more likely. It also speaks well of him that he can credit the tea partiers with honest passion rather than dismissing them as living, breathing astroturf.

And the less tolerant part? That’s because I’ve never fully recovered from learning about Brooks’ bedazzlement at Barack Obama’s ability to spend 20 minutes giving Brooks:

a perfect description of Reinhold Niebuhr's thought, which is a very subtle thought process based on the idea that you have to use power while it corrupts you.

For Brooks that was reason enough to overlook his own description of Obama as “a very mediocre senator” and to fail to apply to Obama the same test he considered Palin to have failed:

The more I follow politicians, the more I think experience matters, the ability to have a template of things in your mind that you can refer to on the spot, because believe me, once in office there's no time to think or make decisions.

As a result of reading the above, I flinch any time Brooks begins using words like “intellectual”, “educated”, or “class”. I’m not saying Reinhold Niebuhr is not useful reading for someone in the political world. I’m just appalled that Brooks believes being able to discuss Niebuhr for 20 minutes makes up for mediocrity and inexperience in a President. And - to bring things full, um, circle - perhaps this is what Brooks really means by “the educated class”: those who can discuss Niebuhr for 20 minutes. If so, then it’s easy to understand why Brooks’ “educated class” has - in Collier’s words - “proven so many times that [they’re] no damn good at” ruling the rest of us


* I also think Armed and Dangerous is, in fact, a dangerous website. The post on Brooks presents a feast of enticing hyperlinks, some of which lead to other Armed and Dangerous posts which present yet more feasts of enticing hyperlinks. I suspect this site could eat up a day or a week quite easily.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The lists

There’s quite a bit of linking to Shelby Steele’s Wall Street Journal piece on Barack Obama. Steele’s article is well worth reading. He writes again of the “bargain” between Obama and whites which is an interesting look at a piece of our national struggle with race. He also writes of Ronald Reagan’s individuation, forged through years of political involvement and conflict, and that rang quite true for me. However, I don’t really buy Steele’s view of what’s inside Obama’s head.

Steele refers to Obama’s “lack of economic understanding” and his "lack of a larger framework of meaning" not just in economics but in foreign policy and attributes this unreadiness for the Presidency to our “post-modern” race problem. That problem, he says, contributed to an unprepared man being elected President in two ways. First:

white America conditioned Barack Obama to emptiness—valued him all along for his "articulate and clean" blackness, so flattering to American innocence.

Second, Obama responded to this conditioning by taking on the attributes he believed he needed in order to succeed:

I think that Mr. Obama is not just inexperienced; he is also hampered by a distinct inner emptiness—not an emptiness that comes from stupidity or a lack of ability but an emptiness that has been actually nurtured and developed as an adaptation to the political world.

I do think Steele is right that our tangled web of race is part of what made it possible for a man who was inexperienced and barely known to be elected to the highest office in the land. And I certainly accept that Obama was well aware of that web and used it to his advantage. I don’t, however, think that race shaped Obama’s interior political landscape and I certainly don’t think that interior political landscape is empty.

Rather I think Obama’s political landscape was shaped by his environments - both those he was born into and those he chose and is chock-a-block with liberal tenets. He has a list of things that are every liberal knows are good: environmentalism, universal health care, labor unions. He has a list of things that every liberal knows are bad: corporations, oil, guns. He has has a list of stuff that liberals can safely say to sound bipartisan and post-racial: abortion is a difficult issue, white people sometimes resent affirmative action, no higher taxes on the middle class. There’s a virtually infinite supply of liberal talking points, liberal notions, liberal convictions, liberal views of the world along with a smattering of lip service to the other side.

Does this mean I agree with Neo-neocon who admires Steele’s article but disagrees with Steele’s conclusion?

I think this is very finely put, but I would add the following: I do not believe that Obama’s political emptiness is real. Rather, I think he is quite full—of leftist ideology, that is.

No. Obama cannot be politically ideological because he lacks an integrated world view. His beliefs are simply items on lists, plucked out of the air around him and jotted down hastily. Obama has not thought about how these ideas tie together, how they might conflict with each other, what they say about how the world as a whole works or can work. He has no overarching ideology; he simply has lists.

With all due respect to Steele and Neo-neocon, the best analysis of Obama came from Peggy Noonan. She was describing Sarah Palin at the time but if you make appropriate substitutions of “he” for “she” and swap “liberal” and “conservative”, you’ve got Obama cold:

But she was not thoughtful. She was a gifted retail politician who displayed the disadvantages of being born into a point of view (in her case a form of conservatism; elsewhere and in other circumstances, it could have been a form of liberalism) and swallowing it whole: She never learned how the other sides think, or why.

Give a dog a bad name

There's been some uncertainty about what clever nickname to give Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. I've heard some doozies but many of the clever ones are simply too long and unwieldy. The shorter names in contention were:

Undi-Bomber: This is visually a decent play on UnaBomber but doesn't really work sound-wise.

BVD Bomber: Some nice alliteration and all those similar sounds are good but this is kind of a tongue twister.

Then I saw a great one.

KnickerBomber (sometimes Knicker-Bomber): Kind of a whole retro thing with it’s derivation from “knickerbocker” plus the use of “knicker” is nicely derogatory with its silly underwear implication. And talk about somebody getting his knickers in a twist.

I thought that was going to be hard to beat but when I told my husband about it, he came up with a real beaut.

Fruit of the Boom: This is it for me. Now it’s important to realize that the usage of Fruit of the Boom will be different from the usage of the other possibilities. So while you would say:

You’d think someone would have paid attention when the KnickerBomber checked in with no luggage and paid cash for his ticket.

when you use “Fruit of the Boom” you drop “the” and simply say:

You’d think someone would have paid attention when Fruit of the Boom checked in with no luggage and paid cash for his ticket.

You can also abbreviate this as “FotB” - which I understand is nice for all that Twittering stuff - although a friend raises a good question: would you pronounce the abbreviation as separate letters - F-O-T-B - or as two syllables - Fot-B? I prefer the latter but I’m prepared to allow for some individual variation here. Kind of like the whole “twenty-ten” versus “two-thousand ten” thing.