08 November 2013

Living with Consequences: Principles v People

What I have never been able to understand about the reasoning of the American Republican party, is how it manages to separate principle from consequence with no apparent self-awareness whatsoever. It's tempting to label this as simple, blatant and willful hypocrisy or bad intentions, but that is too easy: we can't just dismiss a significant portion of the population as evil and leave it at that. For one thing, I personally know several Republicans who suffer this disconnect in their thinking, and I can tell you that they are not evil people. Quite the contrary: some are among the kindest people I know. Some are also quite bright, as are many Republicans (despite what left-wing talking heads would like you to believe), so we can't set their beliefs aside as the inevitable outcome of unintelligent people making policy.

So whence the disconnect? I think it stems from two things: 1) an inability to empathize with anyone outside your own sphere of direct experience and 2) an inability to connect principles on the one hand with the logical consequences of acting on those principles on the other. I won't touch that first point as I am neither psychologist nor father confessor. Lack of empathy is a personal problem people need to address through self-examination. But let's look at some examples of that second point.

1) Principle: A combination of small government/low taxes increases freedom and thus happiness. Practical consequence: poor services and infrastructure reduce the quality of life for all. This wouldn't be so bad if Republicans admitted the relationship between these two and asserted that the consequence was worth the principle. But they defiantly refuse to admit that there is a direct, indisputable link between starving a government of funds and that government being unable to provide services and infrastructure that everyone, Republicans included, takes for granted. You hear examples of this all the time, every time you hear a Republican friend complain about potholes or bad schools or poor funding for the police in one breath, while in the next breath bemoaning their high tax burden. There is no such thing as a free lunch: you either pay the price for civilization (i.e., taxes) or you live without the trappings of a civilized society, leading to generally low levels of life satisfaction. Ah, Republicans counter, but wait! It's not that we are saying that all taxes are bad, just that we could have all these nice things with current taxation if only the government didn't waste so much/wasn't so bloated. There's just one small problem with this argument: it has little basis in reality. I am not suggesting the government doesn't waste money. No government since the dawn of civilization could make such a boast. But if you actually take the time to look at the US federal budget and cut away every single thing you could conceivably consider as wasteful, then add in all the things we all want (but that some of us refuse to pay for), you come up with a total that is greater than the sum of taxation that Republicans are willing to pay. Don't take my word for it. Look at the federal budget. Cut away whatever you hate (foreign aid, assistance to the poor, whatever); leave the stuff you like (military spending, servicing the debt in order not to default, Social Security and Medicare, national parks, law enforcement, etc.) and add in what it would take to meet the needs not currently being met (the ones you complain about all the time, e.g. poor roads and bridges, unevenly and poorly funded schools, understaffed agencies that make you wait longer than you'd like, etc., etc.). I guarantee you that unless you are the most hard-core libertarian around, you still have a budget whose needs are not met by the size and revenues of our current government. Do the math. You will be amazed.

2) Principle: government debt is bad and must be stopped at all costs. Practical consequence: starving the economy, harming our creditworthiness and creating an unstable economic environment. First a major correction to the conventional wisdom that right-wing governments are more responsible with spending that left-wing governments: this simply isn't true, either here in the US or in Europe, as I showed in a 2012 post. The indisputable, easily verifiable fact is that most of the current US federal debt was run up under Republican administrations. But let's put aside blame and focus on consequences. The fact is that national debt is not (despite the folksy wisdom of some populists) anything like extravagant household credit card debt; it can be and often is an investment in growth, and, depending on interest rates and needs, can be a very smart thing to have. For example, if you have a bridge that is falling apart today and you can borrow $100,000 at 3% to fix it now versus waiting til it collapses in five years and spending $10,000,000 to rebuild it, is debt bad here? If unemployment is high now and that is draining resources from unemployment funds while also reducing the tax base, is it better to allow that to continue with no debt or invest in fixing both the drain on resources and the damaged tax base? Government debt is an investment tool. When used wisely, it is not inherently evil. Granted, we have often used it very unwisely, but for those cases, you might want to look more at Reagan in the 1980s and Bush II in the 2000s, when all we got were irresponsible,  deficit-ballooning tax cuts and huge spending programs that did nothing to boost the long-term health of the economy.

3) Principles: government shouldn't tell the private sector how much to pay workers and government aid to the poor in unsustainable. Practical consequence: a poor minimum wage that has failed to keep up with inflation means that there is ever MORE pressure for the government to help the poor. You want to reduce Medicaid and welfare and food stamps? Much of this money goes not to the so-called 'idle poor' but to the working poor, including the lower ranks of our disgracefully-paid military servicemen and -women. So you can't have your cake and eat it, too: we either have to insist on a decent minimum wage and benefits to allow the working poor to support themselves, or you have to accept higher expenditures on aid to the poor. You can't have both a low minimum wage and a self-reliant lower economic class. It simply isn't realistic. Again, no free lunch.

4) Principle: sex education is immoral and it corrupts children. Practical consequence: higher teen pregnancy rates and more abortions, two things Republicans also decry. There are few areas where disregard for the practical consequence of principles does more harm than here. The bottom line is that abstinence-only 'education' simply doesn't work. Giving children the real facts about sex, birth control and sexually transmitted diseases, is far more effective at reducing teen pregnancy, the demand for abortions and STDs. This is not an opinion: there are mountains of data to prove this. Don't believe me? Try looking at a map of the distribution of teen pregnancies and STDs and comparing them to the red state v blue state electoral map and tell me you don't see a pattern.

I could go on, but the picture is clear: Republican principles are completely divorced from their practical outcomes. But what causes this disconnect? I think part of it is the nature of what drives the Republican mentality: unquestioning conformity to principles that are often seen as either divinely mandated or as part of an obligatory legacy of the Founding Fathers. I can't understand the logic of either of these. Even if I believed in a god, it would be one who cared about the actual outcomes for its children. And as for the Founding Fathers, the one thing people forget is that their real legacy is a framework in which we are free to create (and re-create) our own country for our own times. With all due respect to them, they were creatures of their age, and I don't know about you, but I don't want to live in the 18th century. They were a wise group, but they were, by our modern standards, also pretty misogynistic and racist. I do not judge them for that: we are all products of the age in which we live; but neither do I set such people as infallible demi-gods to whose values and ideas and structures I must cling. And they never expected us to: that's why the Constitution is a living, changeable document and one subject to the tradition of juris prudence, a tradition that allows us to adapt this document to changing values and circumstances. Such malleability is key if we are to maintain our Constitution in an ever-changing world. The Fathers couldn't have foreseen ICBMs and Uzis, the end of slavery and the liberation of women and minorities.

So how do we work with people who believe that they cannot be wrong because their principles come from on high? Well.....we don't. Sorry. Not that I don't want to, not that I don't wish we could, but by definition of who they are, it simply isn't possible to treat with the more radical wing, especially the Tea Party extremists, because their mentality leads them to classify reason and compromise as treason. You can't negotiate with someone who believes he is divinely instructed to do what, and only what, he thinks is necessary, facts and the practical consequences be damned. So all we can do is build as large a coalition as possible of liberals, centrists and the ever-fewer reasonable right-wingers and try to work around, over and under this group and wait for what always happens to reactionaries: their burial by the crushing judgement of history and the unstoppable (if slow) wave of change. The worse they can do is slow us down for a while. 

01 March 2013

The Capitalist Case for Government

Libertarians are an interesting lot. They espouse the idea that almost any government is bad government, that the role of the state should be limited to national defense and a select few other tasks. To the extent they are talking about civil liberties, I tend to agree with them: I see no reason for any Leviathan to tell me whom to marry, what drugs I am permitted to ingest, what I can or can’t say, what a woman chooses to do with her body, etc.

But when it comes to what the government should do, what role it should play in the economy and infrastructure, I become confused. As you delve deeper into libertarian beliefs (and on this subject they are joined by right-wing Republican beliefs), you soon learn that they are rooted in a deep faith in capitalism and the wisdom of the markets, in the benevolent guidance of the ‘invisible hand’. But the idea that the state has no role to play in the economy is in fact quite anti-capitalist because it ignores a fundamental underpinning of capitalism, something so basic that it is really part of the definition of capitalism: comparative advantage.

The concept of comparative advantage was first described by the father of economics himself, Adam Smith. I’ll let Mr. Smith sum it up in his own words: "If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage." Of course, it doesn’t have to be a foreign country: it can be any entity that has an advantage over you in how efficiently or cheaply it produces a good or service. This isn’t just a principle or an abstract idea: it’s a mathematically provable fact. If you take two goods (or services) and I produce one well and you produce another well, protectionism or any other means of excluding you from production or market participation makes no sense as we are both materially better off if we trade. In fact, it goes even further: even if I am better at both of these things than you are, we are still both materially better off if I perform the task where my skill most exceeds yours and you perform the other.

So what does all this have to do with why libertarians, and right-wing Republicans who claim to be capitalists, shouldn’t object to the many things modern governments do? It’s because with quite a lot of the tasks required to survive and thrive in modern life, governments enjoy a distinct comparative advantage over individuals and even corporations and other organizations. Let’s take safety inspections as an example. A strict libertarian says that safety of the food supply should be left to producers, because it is in their best interest not to poison their customers, who, if so poisoned, would punish them by not buying their products.* A single, centralized governmental food safety organization enjoys a distinct comparative advantage over private industry here, and certainly over individuals. The collective cost of all Americans being responsible for their own food safety testing is ridiculously higher than what a single agency would cost to perform this task for us all. Even when compared to industry doing the testing (assuming we were foolish enough to trust them to do so), government still enjoys the cost advantage through economies of scale and centralization that help avoid redundant costs and resources. So why not be good capitalists and pay them to do it through our taxes?

The same principle applies to a vast array of goods and services. Health insurance is another, much as American Republicans and libertarians deny it. The verifiable fact is that programs like Medicare and Medicaid have far less costly overhead and operating expenses than do private insurance companies, who must pay for things like marketing and who of course must make a profit. At the other end of the spectrum is something like manufacturing, a task government is quite ill-suited to perform because, due to elasticity of demand, competition is key to (and effective at) driving efficiency and innovation, and a government take-over of such a task would by definition eliminate such competition. And therein lies one of the keys to deciding what government should and shouldn’t do: price elasticity of demand. That’s just a fancy way of saying that people will demand something like healthcare service at roughly the same level regardless of price (so it is quite inelastic). You don’t say, ‘no thanks, I’ll just leave that arm broken or let that cancer grow because the price is too high’ the way you would decide to walk or take the bus if car prices went up too much. That’s why it does make sense for healthcare insurance to be a government task while car manufacturing is best left to the private sector: prices for cars are quite elastic since people have many options, thus ensuring that there will be fierce competition among makers to innovate and keep costs low through efficiency as otherwise they lose business either to competitors or to alternative means of transportation. The list of examples could go on and on: roads, emergency services, schools on the one side; manufactured goods and value-added professional services on the other side.

So if our libertarian and conservative friends want to be good little capitalists, let them prove their understanding of capitalism by applying a reasoned, rational test - versus an emotional, irrational and ideological one - when deciding what the government should and shouldn't do. If government enjoys a comparative advantage, and especially if the good or service in question suffers from highly inelastic demand, then let them do it and pay them a fair price (through reasonable taxation) to do so; else, leave it to the private sector.


*Let’s put aside for the moment the absurdity of allowing people to die in order to allow the market to adjust itself. Let’s also put aside the fact that poisoning with chemicals and impurities can take years if not decades, thus leaving companies with a profit motive to continue poisoning in the short to medium term with no fear of retribution from the marketplace during the lifetime of current management.

14 February 2013

Rights without Responsibilities

It seems that every day we hear more and more about ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ from the right wing in this country. We’re subjected to a constant litany of complaints about the supposed infringement on these precious commodities. We hear about 2nd Amendment rights, rights to low taxes, freedom from regulation, freedom from obligations to take responsibility for…wait a moment. What were those two words? Back up. ‘Obligations’? ‘Responsibility’? These two words seem to be outside the vocabulary of these complainers. How can one go on and on about one’s patriotism and love of country and rights and freedoms without every mentioning these two words? How can you love a country to which you feel you owe absolutely nothing but from which you enjoy all the fruits of its liberties?

You can’t just chant ‘USA! USA!’ and ‘Support the troops’ in one breath, and in the next breath begrudge the funds (aka taxes) needed to actually, literally support the troops. You certainly can’t use that old chestnut ‘Freedom isn’t free’ when you want your freedom to be literally free of charge.

You can’t bemoan attempts to place sane boundaries around your 2nd Amendment rights when that right begins to cut into the more fundamental right of six-year-old children to live, to not have their bodies riddled with bullets from high-capacity, semi-automatic assault rifles. What about your obligations to them?  

You can’t talk about ‘freedom of choice’ in the context of our healthcare system when real choice and the highest-quality care are restricted to the wealthiest people. Yes, we have the most advanced healthcare available in the world, but the vast majority of us aren’t ‘free’ to choose that level of care. If having the most advanced care available were synonymous with having the best healthcare system, then our outcomes would be higher and we wouldn’t be ranked behind most other developed countries in life expectancy. Without the obligation to extend healthcare to all Americans, having the freedom for some select people to choose the best healthcare is meaningless.

Folks on the right wing in this country claim to be the patriots, the lovers of freedoms. But if you want freedom without responsibility, you’re not a patriot. You’re a freeloading leech sucking away resources without wanting to give anything back. That’s not my definition of patriotism.