Monday, July 18, 2011

Punitive versus compensatory

Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic is writing about an HBO documentary called Hot Coffee. The documentary looks at four lawsuits; in his review, Cohen discusses two of these: the case of Stella Liebeck (the McDonald’s coffee suit) and the case of Colin Gourley, who “has ‘severe brain damage’ as a result of medical malpractice at his birth.” About the McDonald’s case, Cohen says:

... a jury of her peers ultimately awarded Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages (for medical bills and the like) and $2.7 million more assessed as punitive damages against McDonald's.

About the Gourley case, Cohen says:

When Gourley's parents sued, Nebraska law capped their damages at a total of $1.25 million, an arbitrary figure far short of the $6 million the family established it needed to take care of their son for the rest of his life. A jury, which was not told of the state cap, had awarded the family $5.6 million to help pay for Colin's care.

Cohen believes the award in the McDonald’s case was appropriate and that Gourley’s parents should have received the $5.6 million the jury awarded them to care for their son. But these cases are substantially different: punitive damages are not the same as compensatory damages.

In the McDonald’s case, the jury believed McDonald’s was acting irresponsibly and wanted to encourage them to behave better in the future. I might argue that such encouragement would better come in the form of legislation but even if we grant that juries should be assessing punitive damages, why do they go to the plaintiff? Compensatory damages, yes: the McDonald’s customer may well have deserved repayment for the costs she incurred from coffee McDonald’s knew was hot enough to cause severe burns. And I have no objection to her attorney getting some cut of the punitive damages; we want people like her to be able to find lawyers. But why should the plaintiff get any of the money being assessed to encourage McDonald’s?

It seems to me that when the public opposes “frivolous” lawsuits what they’re really opposing is plaintiffs being able to actually make money by suing. If we do away with the profit aspect, then lawsuits are simply about plaintiffs being repaid for money they are out due to bad behavior on the part of the defendant. (I can't actually figure out where the punitive damages should go instead. Every idea I come up with has bad incentives for someone.)

The Gourley case is utterly different. No legislature should be capping compensatory damages. That’s insane. If someone’s bad behavior results in a financial loss or burden then the bad actor should pay up. The plaintiff can present his financial evidence, the defendant can counter with his own, and then the jury can - as Cohen argues they should - decide on a number.

What about pain, suffering, loss of reputation? Well, loss of reputation can sometimes be quantified and, if so, it should be; it can then be treated as a matter of compensatory damages. Beyond that, I’d say cap compensatory damages for pain, suffering, and loss of reputation at some fixed number like $1 million. Is it heartless to put a dollar limit on, say, the loss of a beloved spouse or child? Perhaps, but if so the heartlessness arises from an attempt to assign a monetary value to such a loss in the first place.



Break In by Dick Francis - A cautionary tale about (in part) a system in which a plaintiff whose suit does not succeed must pay the defendant’s legal fees.

Everybody likes Ike

Yesterday the panel at Fox News Sunday included Liz Cheney and John Podesta. In one of their exchanges, Podesta said something that just didn’t sound right. Here’s the exchange; I’ve bolded the part I couldn’t believe:

CHENEY: [snip]

Finally, the president at the end of the press conference, says he wants to increase taxes and get through this initial crisis so that he can spend more on infrastructure. This is an insatiable appetite for spending.


CHENEY: It is driving the country off of a cliff. It is completely irresponsible.

PODESTA: I think that is so fundamentally wrong on the facts. President Obama has proposed taking the domestic government down to the size that it was in the Eisenhower administration. That is in his budget. We have taxes now lower than they have ever been since 1950, and have --

My immediate reaction was that Obamacare alone probably represented more domestic government - in terms of employees and raw spending - than we had during the Eisenhower era. I don’t know if that’s the case but it does appear that Podesta’s characterization of Obama’s proposal was inaccurate or at least sloppy in four ways:

1) I am not aware that Obama has a budget on the table. My understanding is that he withdrew his February proposal and has not presented a formal, specific budget proposal since.

2) Obama is not proposing cutting the size of domestic government as measured by Federal employees on the domestic side back to what it was in Eisenhower’s day.

3) Obama is not proposing cutting the size of domestic government as measured by raw spending on the domestic side back to what it was in Eisenhower’s day.

4) Obama is not proposing cutting the size of domestic government by any measure - employees, raw spending, share of GDP, whatever - back to what it was during the Eisenhower Administration. Rather, Obama said (emphasis mine):

That’s why I’ve called for a freeze on annual domestic spending over the next five years – a freeze that would cut the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade, bringing this kind of spending to its lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was President.

Those four points speak to Podesta’s understanding, accuracy, or carefulness. There is one other point that speaks to Obama’s understanding and accuracy:

5) The “annual domestic spending” Obama wants to freeze does not include “the military, the entitlement programs Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and interest on that debt.” As JustOneMinute puts it:

But focusing on "domestic spending" sidesteps the philosophy espoused by Willie Sutton - since it excludes interest, entitlements and defense, it is not where the money is.

The current United States debt is over $14 trillion. Obama’s freeze on domestic spending would, by his own estimate, reduce the debt by $400 billion over the next ten years. By my calculation, Obama’s $400 billion is less than 3% of the debt. That’s less than 3% of the current debt, not of whatever the debt will be in ten years. Every little bit helps; journey of a thousand miles; and all that. But a plan to cut less than 3% of the current debt over the next ten years isn’t what I would offer if I wanted to prove Obama is fiscally responsibility.

Raising and lowering

A couple of links discussing courses of action I’ve written about previously:

Via The Corner, Spengler advising that the McConnell plan is the best route for Tea Party Republicans. Specifically, Spengler wants - as do I - to take a debt ceiling crisis off the table until after the 2012 elections. He believes that if Republicans can avoid a default and “put the onus [for raising the debt ceiling] on Obama”:

The Republicans would then have a year and a half to run against Obama's irresponsibility - his incompetent economic management, his demands for tax increases, his failure to address the deficit.

What he says makes sense but reading his essay - especially his version of the message Republicans would have to sell - makes me realize that his approach and mine require the Republicans to make a short, punchy explanation of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and to stay on message with that until November 6, 2012. I’m not sure that’s possible. I pay a fair amount of attention to this stuff and I have no sense that the Republicans have presented a single, coherent message on this so far. There’s no reason to think they’ll suddenly be able to do so. Members of Congress want to be re-elected so they’ll shade the message to appeal to their constituents. Having had to vote for the McConnell plan or any other approach that raises the debt ceiling could possibly impose sufficient discipline to keep current Congressional Republicans on message: they’ll have to have a coherent way to explain their vote. However, add in Presidential politics, in which you’ve got national candidates who desperately want to win and who will not have had to cast that vote, and disciplined messaging goes by the board.

Instapundit and TigerHawk suggesting a “5% across-the-board cut in spending” right now, then rinse and repeat next year and, presumably, some number of years after that. Like TigerHawk, I don’t think more targeted cuts are possible for reasons I outline in a previous post. However, I prefer cutting 10% per year and - in contrast to TigerHawk who is suggesting reducing the Bush tax cuts by 5% - I also want to cut taxes right along with spending, at 9% per year.

If, however, we could actually get a 5% across the board cut - and I mean really across the board - I’d take that. I’d also give the reduction of the Bush tax cuts to get it, if that reduction was also across the board; that is, no getting back 5% of the revenue by raising taxes only on the rich. Instead everyone at every income level loses 5% of the tax reduction they would have gotten under the Bush tax cuts.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Steyn and 'Puter

A few posts on the debt ceiling, cutting spending, and “revenue increases” (which I believe used to be called “tax increases”) that caught my eye.

Mark Steyn: No bargaining with Barack Obluffer (via TigerHawk):

In the real world, negotiations on an increase in one's debt limit are conducted between the borrower and the lender. Only in Washington is a debt increase negotiated between two groups of borrowers.

’Puter: First Principles and The Debt Ceiling:

Republicans have done a singularly shitty job of identifying the first principle in play here. That principle is: live within your means.

’Puter: Enough (I do love a good rant):

Elites of the liberal and conservative varieties, along with just about everyone living inside the Beltway, just do not get it. Let 'Puter put it simply.

This is not about sticking it to the poor. This is about standing up for the unsung makers in the country.

What do I think about raising the debt ceiling, cutting spending, raising taxes? I think we should all in one bill raise the debt ceiling enough to get us to January 31, 2013; freeze spending wherever it is right now; and not raise taxes. Then both parties should make the 2012 elections about whether we want to keep raising the debt ceiling, spending, and taxes, or whether we want to lower all three.

I doubt that approach will result in anything useful since it looks like most people want to keep the debt ceiling where it is; not raise taxes (except on the rich, a category which is ill-defined to say the least and is, by any definition, not large enough to fund our current level of spending); and cut only the spending from which they themselves do not benefit or about which no sufficiently touching sob-story can be found or created. But living in a democracy means letting voters make stupid decisions. Reality always cleans up the mess eventually.


By the way, The Gormogons in general have been even more readable than usual lately. For example, here’s the Czar explaining how we can tell that Obama Does Not use Chicago-Style Politics:

If President Obama used Chicago-style politics, he would have a much more accomplished track record than he clearly has. Chicago would have won the Olympics. Nearly all of the stimulus package would have wound up here. His wife would be Secretary of something or other. Her brother, Craig Robinson, would be the head of a multi-million-dollar civic improvement commission and also own a concrete company he knew nothing about an hour ago. Windmills in China would mysteriously disappear and wind up in Oregon. Usâma bin-Lâdin would have been found face-down in a river, with a GOP campaign strategy plan stuffed in his pocket. The entire US Army would be spotted in a Florida resort, despite having paychecks that say they are currently in Afghanistan. And for the last four years, all of Iraq would be covered in orange cones and construction horses.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Run that by me again

Via Megan McArdle, there’s an opinion piece up at MSNBC arguing that the Harvard researchers who want some obese children removed from their parents are wrong. I haven’t thought through the Harvard idea enough to have an opinion on it but I was struck by two statements in the MSNBC piece. First (emphasis mine):

The only basis for compelling medical treatment against a parent’s wishes are if a child is at imminent risk of death — meaning days or hours — and a proven cure exists for what threatens to kill them. Obesity does not pass these requirements.

The risk of death from obesity is real, but it is way down the road for kids. There is no proven cure for obesity.

But then:

But if we don't yank heavy kids from their obesity-encouraging homes, what should we do? [snip]

... might we try to change our food culture? This means doing what we have done for smoking. Demonize the companies that sell and market food that is not nutritious. That means you, candy, soda, fried food and snack food outfits. Tax them too. And get Hollywood and television to make overeating and not exercising uncool just like they did with smoking. Put exercise back on the menu for all school kids.

So which is it? There’s no proven cure for obesity or changing our food culture will cure obesity?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Dan Savage, a gay sex-advice columnist, had never really registered with me until he and Megan McArdle got into it - and I have to say I found him awfully unpleasant in that exchange. I’ve now read a New York Times Magazine piece on him (via Althouse) and his It Gets Better project sounds like a wonderful thing. My adolescence was stormy for reasons that had nothing to do with sexual orientation; I only survived because of my conviction that adulthood did not have to be miserable. That conviction grew out of the people I saw around me and the stories I read in books, both examples of people like me who had happy lives. I cannot imagine how miserable it must be to be without the kinds of role models who demonstrate what life after high school can be. The It Gets Better project provides those examples for gay high school students who may have nowhere else to look for people like them and Savage deserves high praise for starting it.

That said, I still find Savage pretty unpleasant. I had to laugh at this:

“The mistake that straight people made,” Savage told me, “was imposing the monogamous expectation on men. Men were never expected to be monogamous. Men had concubines, mistresses and access to prostitutes, until everybody decided marriage had to be egalitarian and fairsey ” In the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women “the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,” we extended to men the confines women had always endured. “And it’s been a disaster for marriage.”

My view would be more along the lines of:

Men were never expected to be monogamous because women had no recourse if they weren’t. Women pretty much had to get married - it was difficult for a woman to support herself, unacceptable for her to have children without being married, and very difficult for her to support any children she did have - and divorce was not an option. If a husband cheated, the wife had to suck it up and put up with it.

Thanks to the feminist revolution, women now have a choice about marriage and some of them - apparently the vast majority of them - expect marriage to mean monogamy. Men are free to not marry women who want monogamy but it’s pretty nervy of them to complain because they no longer have the hammer and are therefore required to consider the preferences of the women they claim to love.

More generally, the Savage attitude seems to me another argument for separating marriage into two distinct forms: civil and religious/traditional/vow-making. Let the government handle civil marriage as strictly a business relationship, a partnership formed for the purposes of property and children. I’d suggest we not call it marriage but rather fall back on a term like “civil union” or perhaps “marital partnership”.

Those for whom the state-imposed aspects of union are enough would do nothing beyond filling out the appropriate forms at the local courthouse. Those who prefer a union that includes making behavioral vows to supplement the legal obligations laid down by the state can have a religious ceremony or can exchange vows in front of whomever they please.

We would then end up with such entities as “Catholic marriage”, “Baptist marriage”, “non-religious traditional vow marriage”, “hand-fasted”, and so on. It would be messy but really no messier than what we have now (anybody but me remember “POSSLQ”) and it seems to me it would be far less messy than continuing to use the word “marriage” when we’ve gotten to the point where we don’t even agree on what it means with regard to something once upon a time as basic as monogamy.

I was also struck in the NYT Magazine article by this:

In their own marriage, Savage and Miller practice being what he calls “monogamish,” allowing occasional infidelities, which they are honest about. Miller was initially opposed to the idea. “You assume as a younger person that all relationships are monogamous and between two people, that love means nothing can come between you,” said Miller, who met Savage at a club in 1995, when he was 23 and Savage was 30. “Dan has taught me to be more realistic about that kind of stuff."

If Savage was male and Miller female, I would assume this is an example of a man pressuring a woman into the type of sex life the man prefers - regardless of what the woman is comfortable with - as the price of maintaining the relationship. As Kay S. Hymowitz put it, in a must-read essay on the sexual revolution and the movement for women’s rights:

But for most female mortals, the rules of the new regime were elusive at best. You kind of liked a guy you had just met, so what next? What did you do when he pressed, “Are you hung up or something?” The old order was built on guilt, shame, and inhibition; you sure didn’t want to go there.

I suppose it’s indicative of something that I make somewhat the same assumption about Savage and Miller, an assumption helped along by the fact that the article discusses how many extramarital affairs Savage has had but not Miller. The Savage approach appears to mean that the spouse with the most, um, unusual sexual preferences has the right to have an affair and, therefore, that the, shall we say, unadventurous spouse’s preference for a monogamous relationship must give way before the desires of his or her mate. The NYT Magazine article later discusses this in terms of men and women but I suspect the same dynamics may well be at work in at least some same-sex marriages (emphasis mine):

“Sometimes he [Savage] can shame women for not being into things that their male partners are into, if they have male partners,” Sady Doyle, a feminist blogger, told me. “The whole good-giving-and-game thing is something I actually agree with. I don’t think you should flip out on your partner if they share something sexual with you. But I think sometimes it’s much harder for women to say, ‘I’m not into that,’ or ‘Please, I don’t want to do that, let’s do something else,’ than it is to say, ‘Sure.’ Putting all the onus on the person who doesn’t have that fetish or desire, particularly if the person who doesn’t have that desire is the woman, really reproduces a lot of old structures and means of oppression for women.”

This, in turn, brings up another issue that intrigues me. I haven’t made an exhaustive study of the topic, but my general impression is that much of the discussion about whether gays’ views of monogamy in marriage differs from straights’ views of monogamy in marriage talks about gay marriage between two men. It will be interesting to see if there are significant differences in the types of marriages gay men create and the types of marriages gay women create.



* Just for the record, I think McArdle’s point in this dispute was valid but insufficient: the problem with Anthony Weiner’s behavior wasn’t that he was married; it was that he was creepy. Flasher in a raincoat on the street corner, guy in a raincoat sitting in the back of a porno movie house on Times Square creepy. Even if Weiner had been unmarried and uninvolved, he would have been creepy.

McArdle says:

To me, society can enforce norms about what constitutes acceptable sexual behavior--or it can enforce the norm that you and your partner(s) have to agree in advance upon what constitutes acceptable sexual behavior.

Looked at in those terms, at least in the Anthony Weiner case, I have norms about what constitutes acceptable sexual behavior that have nothing to do with what he and his partner have agreed on. Or as the wife of the author of the NYT magazine put it when he asked her:

which would upset her more: to learn that I was sending racy self-portraits to random women, Weiner-style, or to discover I was having an actual affair. She paused, scrunched up her mouth as if she had just bitten a particularly sour lemon and said: “An affair is at least a normal human thing. But tweeting a picture of your crotch is just weird.”




Sex and the Empire State - An interview at National Review. The interview is interesting but two things about is are especially noteworthy. First, the link on page 5 to a downloadable version of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy article, “What Is Marriage?” I do not think the authors of the article have successfully made a compelling case that marriage must - regardless of religious considerations - be between a man and a woman but the essay is a good summary of issues and relates to my post in laying out the hope expressed by some who support gay marriage that it will be the just the first step in redefining marriage completely (see, for example, page 32 of the pdf).

Second, on page 3 the interviewee, a passionate and dedicated opponent of gay marriage, speaks of those on the other side in New York:

They are sincerely dedicated to their cause and filled with moral passion to advance what they deeply (albeit, in my view, mistakenly) believe is a civil-rights agenda. If I could choose opponents, I would choose different ones. Moreover, among them are people for whom I personally have great respect and even affection. They are good, patriotic people with whom I am proud to be allied in other very important struggles, and sad to be in political conflict with in this battle. I know how deeply they believe in their cause, and how determined they are to prevail. For some it is an intensely personal matter.

Would that everyone on both sides approached the fight with such civility.

Closing the book on open marriage - W. Bradford Wilcox at The Washington Post. Some sociological push-back outlining the problems of making non-monogamy the norm.

Future of Gay Marriage - Ross Douthat’s column:

There’s a lesson here. Institutions tend to be strongest when they make significant moral demands, and weaker when they pre-emptively accommodate themselves to human nature.

Dan Savage Versus Monogamy - Ross Douthat’s blog:

By stripping away any common definition of the proper relationship between sex and marriage, and asking every couple to essentially rebuild the institution from the ground up, he [Savage] would end up piling far more weight on the marital unit than any individual relationship can be reasonably expected to bear.

Douthat quotes at length from a brief but excellent Eve Tushnet piece:

But of course the whole weird premise of Savage's claim is that eros is so powerful and irrational, sexual fulfillment such an obvious non-negotiable, that... we should talk things out like rational adults before we get married and then stick to our rational rules and goals.

Tushnet in turn refers readers to “Rules of Misbehavior”, an essay in Washington Monthly that is a must-read on this subject:

If there is something to treasure in the old, traumatized ideal of lifelong monogamy, it’s not that it demeans sexual fulfillment. Rather, it’s that monogamy integrates sexual fulfillment with the other good things in life—having someone to pay bills and raise children with, having a refuge both emotional and physical from the rest of the world. It is an ideal that is powerful even when it is not fully realized (as it rarely, if ever, is), not a contract voided by nonperformance.

"[Q]uestions of identity and self-fulfillment"

Reihan Salam writes about a recent study on the incomes of two-parent families. Interesting post. Here’s a sample:

Imagine that the world in 1975 was quite a bit different from the world in 2009. In this alternate reality 1975, large numbers of educated men were primarily engaged in household production, due to a combination of the strenuousness of completing essential household work, powerful social conventions, and intense discrimination in the market. Many men devoted as much time to finding a wife who could serve as a “breadwinner” as they did to building their own skills and credentials, due to blocked opportunities caused by discrimination and the fact that many women were eager to play this role.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Depends on what you want to develop

Robert Herbold (formerly of Microsoft) has written an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal, entitled “China vs. America: Which Is the Developing Country?” One thing Mr. Herbold particularly likes about China is that country’s five-year plans:

In every meeting we attended, with four different customers of our company as well as representatives from four different arms of the Chinese government, our hosts began their presentation with a brief discussion of China's new five-year-plan. This is the 12th five-year plan and it was announced in March 2011. ... Can you imagine the U.S. Congress and president emerging with a unified five-year plan that they actually achieve (like China typically does)?

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the Second Five-Year Plan, also known as The Great Leap Forward:

However, the Great Leap Forward, which diverted millions of agricultural workers into industry, and the great sparrow campaign, which led to an infestation of locusts, caused a huge decrease in food production. Simultaneously, rural officials, under huge pressure to meet their quotas, vastly overstated how much grain was available. As a result, most of it was allocated to urban areas or even exported, while twenty million peasants starved to death.

Via Ace of Spades.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

I don't know this place any longer

On Wednesday night, a Rutgers professor, Susan Feinberg, and her husband had dinner at a restaurant. At a nearby table sat Representative Paul Ryan and two companions. The Ryan table ordered wine. Feinberg consulted the restaurant’s wine list and found that the wine for the Ryan table cost $350 per bottle. Feinberg then took some pictures of the Ryan table. A second bottle of the same wine was delivered to the Ryan table later.

After Feinberg and her husband finished their meal and paid their check, Feinberg walked to Ryan’s table and asked him "how he could live with himself". Ryan’s two companions exchanged words with Feinberg. One of Ryan’s companions explained that “he had ordered the wine, was drinking it and paying for it”. Ryan’s only statement during this incident was, “Is that how much it was?" when someone mentioned the price of the wine.

Feinberg then asked Ryan’s companions whether they were lobbyists. One of them said, “F**k you.” Feinberg’s husband appears (this is unclear) to have come to her defense in some way, the waiter and the manager came to the table, and Feinberg left. She went home and emailed Talking Points Memo about what she had seen, heard, and done in the restaurant.

You can read the various interpretations of this exchange - I provide some links and commentary below. Those on the Left think this does or should totally discredit Ryan. Those on the Right think this is much ado about nothing. What appalls me is the sheer rudeness of Feinberg.* She snapped photos of a table of strangers and posted them on the Internet. She approached a total stranger who was having a private meal and conversation in order to berate him. She then proceeded to ask two other total strangers what they did for a living. And she eavesdropped - or at least claims to have done so - on their conversation and then gossiped about it. In what universe is this behavior even marginally socially acceptable, much less something to applaud?



* Yes, the man who said, “F**k you” to Feinberg was rude also. However, his rudeness arose from temper; it is normal rudeness, to which we all occasionally succumb and for which apologies were created. Feinberg’s rudeness was calculated rudeness, a deliberate decision to act in an unmannerly and inconsiderate way.



Paul Ryan’s $350 Bottle of Wine - Joshua Green at The Atlantic. This is where I first read this story. This is quite simply one of the sleaziest posts I’ve read in a very long time. First, Green deserves the Sullivan/Rubin Award for, shall we say, selective quoting from the Talking Points Memo story. He also deserves a Missing The Blindingly Obvious award for characterizing the restaurant in question as “the swanky Capitol Hill restaurant favored by lobbyists and other expense-account barons” but exhibiting no curiosity about what Feinberg was doing eating there when New Jersey taxpayers are staggering under the tax burden necessary to pay her salary. Nor did he wonder how much her meal or wine cost and who was paying for what she consumed.

He reports that Ryan “is in the habit of drinking $350-a-bottle wine” but provides no evidence that this is a habit; in fact, the stuff Green didn’t quote from TPM contradicts Green’s statement. He further characterizes Ryan’s attitude toward the results of implementing his financial plan as “nonchalance”, a claim for which there is no evidence I know of.

Green wraps his sleaze in an invocation of John Edwards’ $400 haircut, concluding that Ryan should get at least as much grief for the wine as Edwards got for the haircut. Cue the entry of:

Paul Ryan’s $350 Wine v. John Edwards’ $400 Haircut - James Joyner at Outside The Beltway. This post gives three reasons why the incidents are different. First, Ryan paid for the wine from his own pocket; Edwards paid for his haircut using campaign funds. Second, the haircut reinforced an existing image of Edwards as vain; the author sees no parallel image being reinforced here. Third, the haircut undercut Edwards’ everyman image; the wine gives rise to “that’s easy for you to say” but isn’t hypocritical unless the taxpayers are buying the wine.

In the third reason, Joyner comes closest to what I think is the primary difference but doesn’t quite get it. Edwards was running for President. That is, he was asking us to elect him to an office where he would use his judgment to make decisions that affect all of us. His words said that he was “one of us” and would make decisions accordingly; his haircut said otherwise.

Ryan, on the other hand, has proposed an idea, a plan, an approach. He is not asking us to trust his future judgments; he is asking us to approve of something he has already done. There is a huge difference.

This goes back to what I’ve written about before: ideas are not responsible for the people who hold them. If Ryan’s idea is good, then it’s good even if he is slugging down a three thousand dollar bottle of wine every night while chortling about throwing widows and orphans into the snow. If Ryan’s idea is bad, it is bad even if Ryan himself is more praiseworthy than Mother Teresa. If Feinberg and TPM and Green object to Ryan’s ideas, they are free to say so. One hopes they would also explain why and offer alternate suggestions. Feinberg, for example, is a business professor and “an economist by training”. Surely both TPM and The Atlantic would give as much house room to her professional analysis of Ryan’s proposals as they have to her attempts at character assassination.

The next time you find yourself wondering what on earth has happened to political discourse in this country, think about this incident. Once we substitute tabloid-style gossip for intelligent discussions of economics and policy, we’re sunk. No, the Left isn’t the only side that engages in this. But they have sunk to a new low.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

On reading Mamet(3): In defense of the Baby Boomers

As I said in an earlier post, I’m reading David Mamet’s The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture and I found his denigration of the Baby Boomers to be the usual incurious indictment that drives me mad (emphasis in original):

As my generation did not live through the Depression, World War II, and the agony of the immigrants who are our grandparents or great-grandparents; as we were raised in the greatest plenty the world has ever known and in the most just of societies, we have grown lazy and entitled (not unlike Marx, who lived as a parasite upon Engels, and never worked a day in this life). The baby boomer generation, my own, is content, if of the Left, to live out our remaining years upon the work and upon the entitlement created by our parents, and to entail the costs upon our children - to tax industry out of the country, to tax wealth away from its historical role and use as the funder of innovation. (page 43)

I had planned to write at some length about this but while Googling for something TigerHawk had said about Baby Boomers, I ran across a thread there (not the one I was looking for) where the comments lay out pretty well much of what I wanted to say. So I’ll keep this brief.

First, the Baby Boomers get blamed for a lot but who raised us? The Greatest Generation. I’m not “blaming my parents” for my shortcomings but I believe the Baby Boomers are the way they are - both the good and the bad - because of the way we were raised. The comments at TigerHawk go into some of this but I’ve always thought of it this way:

Every generation that comes along decides around the age of 16 that its parents are doing everything wrong; in fact, every generation that comes along is pretty sure all previous generations have done everything wrong. The Baby Boomers were nothing special in that regard. What was different was that we were the first generation where a fair number of our elders said, “You’re right. Tell us what we should be doing instead.”

To me, this request - insane though it was - simply looks like a continuation of the extent to which Baby Boomers were catered to by their parents. It’s understandable: our parents went through the Great Depression and World War II. I’m sure they appreciated their good fortune in surviving and prospering and wanted to lavish their children with the joy and plenty they had created. I also suspect that they looked back on what they had done at 18 and 20 - won the biggest war the world had ever seen - and let that convince them 18-year-olds knew enough about the world to run it.

Second, one of the outrages for which the Baby Boomers are most reviled is the huge amount of money we’re going to suck out of the system via Social Security and Medicare. We are, the claim goes, insufferably selfish for making it impossible for the government to cut these entitlement programs. Well, we are going to suck a lot of money out the system via Social Security and Medicare but it’s because there are so darn many of us not because we are somehow singularly selfish in insisting that government leave our entitlements alone. After all, the first reference to Social Security as the “third rail” of American politics occurred in 1982 - when the oldest Baby Boomer was 36 years old. The senior citizens who would vote out of office any politician who touched their government checks weren’t Baby Boomers back then.

That said, I personally have no problem with restructuring Social Security and Medicare so it is less generous to me and less of a burden to the generations that come after me. Gradually raising the age of eligibility, as Tiger Hawk suggests in his linked post, is one approach. Or we could cut, say, 10% from all Social Security checks - I could live with that. I can live with restructuring Medicare, also, although not via a straight decrease in the payments made to providers. I’m fine with having to ante up more for my own medical care but not fine with being unable to find a provider who will see me. Perhaps we could freeze government Medicare payments at their current rates but have everyone on Medicare pay 10%.*

The bottom line is that Baby Boomers are not more selfish about their “right” to Social Security and Medicare than previous generations. It’s just that this country desperately needs them to be less selfish. I hope we can meet that need. It would be a way of proving that the Baby Boomers at 65 can be just as self-sacrificing in service to a larger goal as their Greatest Generation parents were at 20.



* Honesty compels me to admit that I’d like to see a 10% cut in much of the rest of government spending to go along with this. If nothing else, I’d like to see the salaries, benefits, and staff of all current and former elected members of the Federal government cut 10%. This is partly just orneriness but it would also be smart politics. A wider 10% cut would make cuts in Social Security and Medicare easier to sell to the elderly, not because old people or Baby Boomers are selfish but because they are scared. The problem with being old is that one has few options: if the government cuts Social Security and Medicare, the elderly don’t find it easy to replace that income by getting a job. The idea of shared sacrifice might help allay fears that the government would be happy to balance the whole budget on the elderly and that if this causes widespread suffering among the old, well, too bad but, hey - it’s not like they’re productive members of society any longer.



Twenty-Somethings - An NRO post arguing that the “aimlessness” of twenty-somethings is behavior learned from their parents - the Baby Boomers. Where did the Boomers learn it?

America’s 401(k)s Are Disasters, but Are Pensions Any Better? - Megan McArdle on the delusions behind the abysmal retirement savings rate:

There's an almost delusional quality to our expectations of retirement. Somehow, we think we're supposed to set aside 5% of our after-tax income, and have enough to live comfortably for twenty to thirty years without working.

Of course, thanks to the baby boom, that delusion was true, for a while. The giant population bulge supported all the generations behind them by buying their houses and stocks, and paying the taxes, dividends, and interest payments that supported their elders in a comfortable retirement. The problem is that we now think that this is something like a natural law, rather than a very temporary aberration.