Friday, September 30, 2011

Dionne vs. Logic; Buffett vs. Clinton

Maybe only a really, really rich guy can credibly make the case for why the wealthy should be asked to pay more in taxes. You can’t accuse a big capitalist of “class warfare.” That’s why the right wing despises Warren Buffett and is trying so hard to shut him up.

Seems like a weird way to set up policy. Does it follow, then, that only poor people can credibly make the case for educational choice? Maybe that’s why the left wing despises the poor and ignores them to focus on more-favored interest groups.

Buffett has outraged conservatives by saying that he pays taxes at a lower rate than his secretary...Thus did The Wall Street Journal editorial page call on Buffett to “let everyone else in on his secrets of tax avoidance by releasing his tax returns.”

Because it's probably not true. Or if it's true, it's because he takes advantage of crazy loopholes or his secretary is very well-paid and/or single. If the former, the answer is to get rid of the loopholes, not to increase tax rates. Why is this complicated to understand? Or he's comparing income from capital gains (why tax it a second time? what does Dionne have against Bill Clinton who lowered the rates?) to income earned from labor-- as Dionne continues on...
Buffett’s sin is that he spoke a truth that conservatives want to keep covered up: Taxing capital gains at 15 percent means that people who make their money from investments pay taxes at a much lower marginal rate than those who earn more than $34,500 a year from their labor. That’s when the income tax rate goes up to 25 percent...

Dionne is confused or conflating here, talking about marginal vs. average tax rates, and perhaps talking about taxable income instead of income &/or referring to singles.

No wonder partisans of low taxes on wealthy investors hate Warren Buffett. He has forced a national conversation on 1) the bias of the tax system against labor; 2) the fact that in comparison with middle- or upper-middle class people, the really wealthy pay a remarkably low percentage of their income in taxes; and 3) the deeply regressive nature of the payroll tax.

LOL! It's 1.) a bias against doubling taxation on the same earned income; 2.) "remarkably low"? by what objective or even subjective standard?; 3.) proportionate to the cap and regressive beyond that. 

Of course, the hilarious part of his last point is that most "liberals" and virtually no Democratic politicians want to talk about the egregious payroll tax. It'd be nice to see Dionne banging harder on his friends on this! Hey, I know the GOP'ers don't care much about the working poor, but you'd think Dionne would say something to those who should lead the charge. Apparently, he's just a partisan hack.

Then Dionne repeats the Edwards gambit (apparently, lefties think this is a useful if not logical line of argument): 

We are all lucky to have been born in — or, for immigrants, been admitted to — a country where the rule of law is strong, where property is safe, where a vast infrastructure has been built over generations, where our colleges and universities are the envy of the world, and where government protects our liberties. Wealthy people, by definition, have done better out of this system than other people have. They ought to be willing to join Buffett and Edwards in arguing that for this reason alone, it is common sense, not class jealousy, to ask the most fortunate to pay taxes at higher tax rates than other people do.

Bro, they do-- and if they don't, then we should get rid of the loopholes. All in favor?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"a warm but not boisterous reception" for Obama and his latest "stimulus"....err, "jobs pitch"

President Barack Obama brought his jobs pitch to Colorado Tuesday, getting a warm but not boisterous reception in the city where he signed into law the sweeping stimulus plan more than two years ago.

At least the reception wasn't boisterous, but I'm surprised it was even warm. Maybe they just feel sorry for him and don't want to hold bad policy against him. And I love that adjective "sweeping" here.

Obama won cheers when he argued the money in the new measure would save teachers' jobs and put others back to work.
Why do Obama and those cheering focus only on the benefits of government activism? Is it cynicism or ignorance from Obama? Is it ignorance or idolatry for those in the crowd?

The president went on, "They need action. They need it now."

President, the economy would be a lot better off with less of this sort of action-- and continuing to bang the economy's head on the same wall over and over again.

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper attended the speech and said beforehand that the president has work to do here because of the lagging economy. "He didn't cause (the recession), but he's getting blamed for it," Hickenlooper said.

Governor, the President and his Congress have indeed caused the length of this recession. Own it, bro! And I'll bet Hickenlooper will be an interloper when it comes time to try to take credit for an eventual recovery.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"uncharitable" things to say about Rick Perry's charitable contributions?

In Jacob Sullum's article in Reason about the 10th Amendment and presidential politics, he opens with this: 

Evidently Rick Perry is a Christian. But does he have to make such a big deal out of it?"

Sullum says he's not that bothered by his faith, but is more concerned with what he sees as his flip-flopping on the 10th Amendment. But Christians should be concerned, especially if they're in danger of being played by another politician. 

After living in Austin for two decades I know many Perry political allies, critics, and former staffers. They've helped me to develop a preliminary Perry SWOT analysis—strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats...

In the eyes of conservatives, Perry's strengths are many...deep convictions and is willing to take heat for them...politically shrewd...strongly committed to free enterprise and free trade...solidly conservative judicial appointments...for border protection but is also attuned to Hispanics...backed a school voucher bill...[and a variety of restrictions on abortion]...

Perry, 61, has been married for 29 years to his childhood sweetheart, Anita...Perry for years attended the mainline Tarrytown United Methodist Church but now goes to Lake Hills, an evangelical megachurch. A half-dozen years ago he became more publicly evangelical. Only God knows whether the change is primarily theological or political...

Along the same lines as Olasky's questions about his faith-- and far more disconcerting, here's Emily Belz in World on Perry's contributions to church and charity-- one more area where he is uncomfortably close to Al Gore and many other "compassionate" Democratic politicians. 

...despite his public commitment to his faith, Perry has given a pittance of his income to Christian organizations. Since 2000, Perry and his wife Anita have donated to churches $12,668—or 0.47 percent of their income—according to their personal tax returns. They have not donated personal income to any other Christian nonprofits...In 2007, when he reported income of over $1 million, he gave $90 to his church. 

In total, his charitable giving is a bit better: He and his wife have given 3.3 percent of their income over the last decade...the most money to the Texas Governor's Mansion Restoration Fund, and the second most to the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, an organization where his wife is a consultant.

The only candidate other than Perry to publish his personal tax returns is President Barack Obama. Obama has slowly edged up his giving, from under 1 percent of his income in 2000, to 1.4 percent in 2003, then up to 6 percent in 2006, and peaking at 13.6 percent last year...

One could say uncharitable things about Perry's charitable contributions. At minimum, it seems clear that, at least in this one area of his life, he is not a disciple of Jesus who is comfortable in the goodness of God's kingdom. 

five myths about Mormonism?

The given catalyst for the essay is the presidential candidacies of Romney and Huntsman-- along with the Broadway musical, "The Book of Mormon"-- and a desire to correct / moderate caricatures of the faith. Her format is to address five "myths". (Church members usually prefer Church of Latter-Day Saints, but she uses Mormon and it's easier, so I'll follow her lead.)  

1. Mormons practice polygamy.

Mainstream Mormons do not practice polygamy today, but it remains part of our history and theology...In 1890...yielded to political pressure and phased out the practice...Polygamy remains a source of tension for mainstream Mormons. Mormon public figures routinely play down our polygamous history...But the LDS Church, which teaches that marriages — or “sealings” — performed in its temples are eternal, has never disavowed elements of Mormon theology...

This is handled with considerable finesse by knowledgeable Mormons. But it is always challenging to argue for changing dispensations on theological matters of primary importance.

2. Mormons aren’t Christians.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around the world prayed in the name of Jesus Christ, received a bread-and-water sacrament memorializing the body and blood of Christ, and discussed Christ’s teachings in Sunday school. We Mormons view ourselves as Christians. Many Christian pastors and scholars, however, point to theological technicalities that disqualify us from the mainline tradition. Some evangelicals do not see us as Christians for reasons rooted in antiquated anti-Mormon prejudice. And Mormons distance ourselves from other Christians by claiming that our faith offers a “restoration” of doctrines lost to mainstream Christendom...

Let's handle these one at a time: 
-It's interesting that the sacrament is water and bread, instead of wine (or grape juice) and bread. To the extent that Mormonism has a tendency toward works-righteousness, the picture of a "watered-down" sacrament is apropos.
-Discussing the teachings of Jesus is nice-- especially if you cover all of them-- but not a clear indication of a saving faith. 
-Whether or not Mormons are routinely saved by faith in God's grace as manifested by the atoning death of Jesus, it is odd (and dishonest?) to describe the doctrinal differences as mere technicalities.
-I agree that some Evangelicals oppose Mormonism out of prejudice and ignorance. Even so, there are good reasons to ask some tough/difficult questions about Mormon doctrine, history, Scriptural revelation, etc.

-The last point is huge: If you claim to be "the only ones" or claim to have a special and important revelation, then you can't complain when you're seen as unorthodox or cult-like! (See also: Catholics and Church of Christ.)

I don't see anything particularly large and controversial about the last three:

3. Most Mormons are white, English-speaking conservatives.

4. Mormon women are second-class citizens.

5. A Mormon president would blur the line between church and state.
Mormons have held local, state and federal offices in America for more than a century. Fifteen Mormons now serve in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — and few seemed to worry that the LDS Church was influencing his debt-ceiling proposals.

just another drug warrior

Sullum opens with Obama's (hopeful) public/political/personal history on the topic...

It is not hard to see how critics of the war on drugs got the impression that Barack Obama was sympathetic to their cause. Throughout his public life as an author, law professor, and politician, Obama has said and done things that suggested he was not a run-of-the-mill drug warrior. In his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father, the future president talked candidly about his own youthful drug use, in sharp contrast with the Democrat who then occupied the White House and the Republican who succeeded him. As an Illinois state senator in 2001, he criticized excessively harsh drug sentences and sponsored a bill that allowed nonviolent, low-level offenders to enter court-supervised treatment instead of going to jail, saying “we can’t continue to incarcerate ourselves out of the drug crisis.”

As a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama called the war on drugs “an utter failure” and advocated marijuana decriminalization. As a U.S. senator, he cosponsored legislation aimed at reducing the federal government’s draconian crack cocaine sentences. Unlike Bill Clinton, who notoriously admitted smoking pot while claiming he “didn’t inhale,” Sen. Obama forthrightly told a 2006 meeting of magazine editors, “When I was a kid, I inhaled, frequently. That was the point.”

Obama stood apart from hard-line prohibitionists even when he began running for president. In 2007 and 2008, he bemoaned America’s high incarceration rate, warned that the racially disproportionate impact of drug prohibition undermines legal equality, advocated a “public health” approach to drugs emphasizing treatment and training instead of prison, repeatedly indicated that he would take a more tolerant position regarding medical marijuana than George W. Bush, and criticized the Bush administration for twisting science to support policy—a tendency that is nowhere more blatant than in the government’s arbitrary distinctions among psychoactive substances....


It would be going too far to say that Obama has been faking it all these years, that he does not really care about the injustices perpetrated in the name of protecting Americans from the drugs they want. But he clearly does not care enough to change the course of the life-wrecking, havoc-wreaking war on drugs...just as he has disappointed those who expected him to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That's the thesis. From there, Sullum lays out support for his claim-- for example...

[Obama] staunchly defended the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Grant Program, which has fueled the incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders and funded the regional task forces behind racially tinged law enforcement scandals in places such as Tulia, Texas. As New York Times columnist Charles Blow noted last year, this grant program, created at the end of the Reagan administration, “has become the pet project of Democrats” because it’s “an easy and relatively cheap way for them to buy a tough-on-crime badge while simultaneously pleasing police unions.”...

Even on an issue that seemed to genuinely trouble him—the sentencing rules for crack cocaine, which treated the smoked form of the drug as if it were 100 times worse than the snorted form—Obama seemed less than fully committed...the Obama administration, to its credit, did support crack sentencing reform, although it’s debatable how much political capital it spent in the process...

[Obama] has not used his unilateral, absolute, and constitutionally unambiguous clemency power to shorten a single sentence, even though he has not otherwise been reticent about pushing his executive authority to the limit (and beyond). Obama went almost two years, longer than every president except George Washington and George W. Bush, before approving any clemency petitions. So far all 17 of his clemency actions have been pardons for long-ago crimes, most which did not even result in prison sentences...

Obama’s advocacy of a “public health” approach to drugs based on science uncorrupted by politics has amounted to even less in practice...

Campaigning in New Hampshire during the summer of 2007, he said raiding patients who use marijuana as a medicine “makes no sense”...Yet the DEA’s raids continued. If anything, the pace picked up...

At the end of the day, on this issue and many others, most people (and all partisans) on the Left are as emasculated as those on the Right. It's sad and funny to watch them work through the denial stage and withdrawal symptoms of their political addictions.

Monday, September 26, 2011

the limited wisdom of Elizabeth Warren

On Saturday, the C-J pointed to this quote from Elizabeth Warren, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senator in Massachusetts, who "gives all Americans a civics lesson about taxes and democracy in this segment of a recent talk":

"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory...Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

True enough--as far as it goes. 

One should note that the targets of her comments paid for these things as well-- and probably a significant share. Why should we begrudge them for using the resources for which they have paid, along with others.

The bigger point: This tells us NOTHING about the extent to which the successful should pay taxes. And it takes us nowhere in terms of making the case for increasing marginal tax rates as income rises. That she thinks it does-- and that others have applauded her-- reveals the paucity of their thought processes, the cynicism of their political calculus, or the envy in their hearts.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

bringing a spoon to a gun fight

Sorry to use a metaphor of force/violence, but it's so popular that I hope you'll take it figuratively.

a.) It's kinda funny when someone brings a spoon to a knife fight.
b.) It's funnier when someone brings the same knife to a gun fight, thinking they're in good shape. 
c.) It's cool when someone learns that they only have a spoon or a knife and grows from the experience. 
d.) It's toward the peak of pathos when someone thinks that their spoon or knife is sufficient for the task and can't learn from the experience. 

Sometimes I have a spoon; others times, a knife or gun. 
Lord, please keep from overestimating what I know and help me to properly use what I have.

the efficiency of Medicare vs. private insurance

Some back-and-forth recently on the Health Affairs blog about the efficiency of Medicare vs. private insurance:
followed by 
Archer yesterday

Archer talks past Goodman and finds more studies which ignore the points he's making. And of course, she fails to note that private insurance is made far less efficient by all sorts of government intrusion in the market-- most notably, the vast subsidies to purchase health insurance, but also mandates on insurers/insurees and restrictions in competition between insurers.So, we're comparing a private insurance market, bound and beaten by the govt, to whatever the govt does. Not exactly a fair fight, if one is trying to compare "markets" to govt provision.

I'm not sure whether Goodman will find it worthwhile to respond to this. Stay tuned...

Highlights from Goodman and Saving:

...most seniors would like to keep Medicare just like it is. A similar view is held by a small, but vocal group on the left that favors single-payer national health insurance. The Physicians for a National Health Program, for example, claims that Medicare has lower administrative costs than private insurance and is able to use its monopsony (single-buyer) power to suppress provider fees...

Paul Krugman, writing in The New York Times, also argues this way. He points to a chart (see Figure I) which seems to show that Medicare per capita spending is growing at a slower rate than private insurance. Krugman, along with others,  touts the slower rate growth in the Canadian health care system...

Let’s begin with a fundamental point that almost everyone tends to ignore. Medicare is not actually managed by the federal government. In most places it is managed by private contractors, including such entities as Cigna and Blue Cross...

What about the claim that Medicare’s administrative costs are only 2%, compared to 10-15% for private insurers? The problem with this comparison is that it includes the cost of marketing and selling insurance as well as the costs of collecting premiums on the private side, but ignores the cost of collecting taxes on the public side. It also ignores the substantial administrative cost that Medicare shifts to the providers of care.

Studies by Milliman and others show that when all costs are included, Medicare costs more, not less, to administer. Further, raw numbers show that, using Medicare’s own accounting, its administrative expenses per enrollee are higher than private insurance. They are lower only when expressed as a percentage – but that may be because the average medical expense for a senior is so much higher than the expense for non-seniors...

Ironically, many observers think Medicare spends too little on administration, which is one reason for an estimated Medicare fraud loss of one out of every ten dollars of Medicare benefits paid. Private insurers devote more resources to fraud prevention and find it profitable to do so.

The Argument Based On Government Single-Buyer Market Power: Five Problems
Health care markets are local. First, we don’t buy health care in a national market. We buy locally. And in local markets, private entities are often as big, or bigger, than Medicare (the auto companies in Detroit, for example, or the mine workers and their employers in West Virginia). There is nothing the US government can do that a lot of private companies and unions cannot also do...nothing is stopping the auto companies and the UAW from creating a global budget and rationing care for auto workers just the way the Canadians do it. That they choose not to do so is telling. 

Side effects of suppressing provider fees. Second, there are negative consequences from unduly suppressing provider fees. Doctors can leave...The effects of price controls in health care will be similar to their effects in other markets.

Cost-shifting. Third, the suppression of provider payments shifts costs from patients and taxpayers to providers. Shifting costs, however, is not the same thing as controlling costs...

Political pressures and lobbying. Fourth, the argument overlooks the fact that public insurance in a democracy is ultimately subject to pressures at the ballot box....

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Modest Proposal for Changing Higher Education

In this Great Recession, it is sad to travel through this great country and see the ranks of the unemployed crowded with so many youth. I think we can all agree that this is deplorable—and that we should endeavor to find an equitable and efficient method for improving the lives of our young people.

So, I have a proposal: Tuition and books at a public university should be free to all students. Students would attend the public university closest to their home. This would be financed by some combination of local, state and federal taxpayer dollars. And it would be regulated by a similar combination of local, state, and federal oversight-- university boards, parent-professor associations, state legislators, and a new federal program, "No College-Student Left Behind" (NCLB).

Those who want to attend a private university would still have that option. They would pay taxes to support the public universities and then pay private school expenses on top of that. A wide variety of private schools—some religious, but mostly secular—would be available to satisfy the demand for various niches in the market for higher education services.

All government loans and grants would be eliminated, since there would no longer be a financial barrier to obtaining a college education. Students could still borrow money from family, friends, or banks to pay for education at a private university—or more affordable online degree courses.

Think about the benefits: First, in the short-term, it would reduce unemployment among the young people (and others) by engaging them in another productive endeavor.

Second, education—a wonderful thing—would be freely accessible to all. In the long-term, at the micro level, we would expect an increase in worker skills, leading to higher pay. At the macro level, we would expect an increase in human capital and technological advance, leading to more economic growth.

Third, jobs would be created throughout higher education—from administrators to professors to staff. Construction at universities would boom, creating an untold number of jobs in the building trades. Publishers would sell more books; office furniture makers would sell more desks; computer makers would sell more laptops; and so on.

Of course, one can imagine some of the complaints that would arise. 
Private schools would vociferously oppose what they would describe as "unfair" competition, having to operate alongside highly-subsidized public schools. But the market they serve is fundamentally different and one might argue that their preferences should not be allowed to supersede the greater, public good.

Some taxpayers might complain about higher taxes. But how many would notice the difference? With the costs spread over multiple levels of government and across many taxpayers, the per-tax, per-person costs would be modest. In any case, what’s the big deal about those in the middle and upper classes paying additional taxes?

Bureaucrats connected to government grants and loans might lose their jobs. But more bureaucrats would be needed to regulate the growing public sector efforts in higher education. And those displaced from loans and grants could probably be shuffled to other areas of the education bureaucracy without much impact.

The biggest ruckus would probably be raised by economists. As George Stigler once pointed out, economists are “the premier ‘pourers of cold water’ on proposals for social improvement”, particularly through government activism. Although political supporters and utopian dreamers focus on the benefits of such proposals, an economist would inevitably ask about its (opportunity) costs as well.

The costs? Resources taken from taxpayers would be diverted from efficient uses to the subsidized area. Some people would have money taken from them through taxation—to support an activity that other people would not value enough to devote their own resources.

Proponents of free higher education would point to its positive ripple effects. But the diverted resources would also have negative ripple effects. On net, we would be merely moving resources from one sector of the economy to another. In a grand shell game, jobs would be gained, but more jobs would be lost.

Economists would also wonder about the impact of reduced property rights and ownership. If one doesn’t pay for something, they are less likely to take it seriously. This is already a concern since higher education is subsidized significantly by the federal and especially state governments. With even less skin in the game, students would be more likely to treat the education casually, reducing its value for all students.

Of course, if you don’t like my proposal, then you should also be opposed to our current provision of K-12 education. Elementary and secondary public schools are free and students must attend the government-run school in their neighborhood—unless their parents are wealthy enough to attend private schools or resourceful enough to homeschool. 

If my proposal is not all that swift for young adults, how can it be the policy of choice for children?

McGovern critiques Obama

McGovern counsels/schools Obama in the most recent issue of Harpers:

His recommendations:
-Bring home troops from Afghanistan.
-Close all military bases in the Arab world.
-Re-evaluate troop presence in (and probably withdraw from) Europe, Korea, etc.
-Cut excess from Pentagon budget.

--> All of those sound great. If only Obama would embrace "change"...
--> Ok, the last two aren't so sharp: 

-Eliminate Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. (As I noted earlier, it'd be a lot better just to get rid of the income tax deductions that strongly disproportionately benefit the wealthy.)

-"Launch valuable public investments". (Apparently, George has not been paying close attention to current events. With recent efforts, his phrase is an obvious oxymoron.) He also points to a revival of the G.I. Bill, but only for college students. I wish George would get on board with a G.I. Bill for kids.

Obama vs. the economy in general and the wealthy in particular

In a blunt rejoinder to congressional Republicans, President Barack Obama called for $1.5 trillion in new taxes Monday, part of a total 10-year deficit reduction package totaling more than $3 trillion.

“We can’t just cut our way out of this hole,” the president said.

Sadly correct. Obama and his fans-- and even most of his opponents-- lack the necessary combination of intelligence, worldview of government, and political will to get that done.

Obama wants to cut Medicare and Medicaid by $580 billion. He wants to save $1 trillion over 10 years from the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. He also "targets subsidies to farmers and benefits programs for federal employees".

Along with these, he wants to spend (and largely waste) another $447 billion in temporary tax cuts and new public works spending "as a short-term measure to stimulate the economy and create jobs". (Could he really be this much of a moron? Or is he just so cynical that he'll continue to waste money, hoping for the economy to recover despite his efforts and for people to embrace a false-cause fallacy and give him credit?)

Obama would let Bush-era tax cuts for upper income earners expire, limit deductions for wealthier filers and close loopholes, and end some corporate tax breaks.

In the WSJ, from Carol Lee and Janet Hook, we learn more detail-- that:

The largest chunk of Mr. Obama's tax package comes from limiting itemized deductions for families with more than $250,000 in yearly taxable income and individuals with more than $200,000, including those for home-mortgage interest, state and local property taxes and charitable donations. The White House says that measure would raise roughly $400 billion over 10 years. 

Far better, we'd get rid of all deductions-- except perhaps charitable contributions-- saving far more money, reducing redistribution to the wealthy, lessening tax avoidance, getting the wealthy to pay more taxes, and so on. Getting rid of the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction would save $132 billion per year. So, by itself, over a decade, that would work out to well over $1 trillion by itself!

I wish Obama would have proposed something revolutionary like that (you know, "change")-- and it's difficult to imagine that proposal being any less likely to pass than his class-warfare-oriented tax proposal.  

The funny thing: If he'd just get rid of the home mortgage interest deduction, he wouldn't have to raise tax rates at all! Or if he got rid of all income tax loopholes, he could lower tax rates and be a hero. 

I'm surprised by all of this. For all of the talk about "change", this shows a remarkable lack of creativity and vision. Why not do something extraordinary, instead of continuing to cement his legacy as the sad sequel to Jimmy Carter? He'd rather continue to jerry-rig a messed-up tax code, posture on class warfare, and do more damage to the economy-- than embrace "change" and be in the history books for something remarkable. 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

"Let 'em fail"?

At the most recent GOP presidential debate, there was a famous exchange between CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Rep. Ron Paul, and the partisan crowd. Blitzer asked Paul about a hypothetical 30-year-old man who refused to purchase health insurance, got sick, and needed extensive medical treatment. Blitzer asked “Who pays?”

Paul replied, “That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risks…”

Blitzer interrupted him by asking “Are you saying the society should just let him die?”

A few people in the crowd shouted “Yeah”. But Paul said no—and then explained that society should and would take care of him.

Paul continued: “We’ve given up on this whole concept that we might take care of ourselves, assume responsibility for ourselves. Our neighbors, our friends, our churches would do it. This whole idea—that’s the reason the cost is so high!...We dump it on the government; it becomes a bureaucracy; it becomes special interests; it kowtows to the insurance companies and the drug companies…”

Paul made a number of interesting and important points. But aside from his astute analysis, it’s clear that his reply runs counter to conventional ethics. In contrast, many (most?) people believe that we should not rely on freedom and markets. Instead, they want the government to take a lot of money from a lot of people—to support others who make bad decisions and/or face circumstances beyond their control.

When I heard the debate over “let ‘em die”, I immediately thought of students in a classroom. If a student decides not to study appropriately, should I “let ‘em fail”? I’ve always thought so, but maybe I should reconsider. Should I lower the grades of the successful and increase the grades of those who don’t study or just aren’t very smart. (I could transfer grade points explicitly—for example, from “wealthy” A-students. Or I could arbitrarily increase the grades of D&F students, devaluing the grades of A-C students.)

It turns out that the analogy is limited in two important ways. First, health care can be much more important than grades. Of course, grades are important too. If you don’t graduate from high school or college—or you graduate with a weaker major or a lower GPA—then this will have a dramatic impact on your standard of living. And much health care is not vitally important. So, the analogy only falls short when referring to catastrophic or highly-significant health considerations.

Second, I don’t do anything to get in the way of my students earning a good grade. In fact, I do a lot to help them learn and succeed. In contrast, the government is quite busy making it much more expensive to obtain health insurance and more difficult to obtain care. The federal government subsidizes the purchase of health insurance through businesses, causing it to move away from the normal role of insurance in covering rare, catastrophic events. Vastly broadening the scope of health “insurance” causes a dramatic increase in the cost of health care and especially, health insurance. (Imagine the cost and accessibility of auto “insurance” if it covered door dings, oil changes, etc.) This makes Wolf Blitzer’s scenario far more likely. As the government vastly inflates the cost of health insurance, it tempts people to take their chances.

In addition, state and federal governments have all sorts of mandates and regulations on health insurance—that increase costs and decrease competition in the market for insurance. In fact, government has all sorts of other regulations—on everything from prescription drugs to labor markets—that cause all sorts of trouble, but this would require a far longer essay! (If you’re interested, check out my paper in the Winter 2011 edition of Cato Journal.)

Rep. Paul’s answer was to rely on markets and freedom to take care of people. The flip side of that coin is to reduce government intervention—not only taking money from A to care for B, but also government policies that dramatically and artificially increase the cost of health insurance. Blitzer’s question will always be with us. But why do we ignore the many government policies that make his question so much more relevant?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Social Security, fraud, and Ponzi schemes

Recent, useful essays from Jacob Sullum and John Stossel on Social Security...

The claim that "Social Security = Ponzi scheme" is:
a.) too rough on SS, since "scheme" implies intent

b.) too light on SS, since it's mandatory and causes so much pain for the working poor and middle class

c.) too rough on SS, since the former is legal

d.) too light on SS, since both are immoral and the former has the sanction of the governing authority

e.) too rough on SS, since the latter is built on fraud

f.) too light on SS, since the former is supported by fraud and takes advantage of trusting citizens

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Norquist's "Leave Us Alone"

Norquist is well into his third decade as a big wheel in GOP and conservative circles. I got to hear him speak in Indy about a month ago, where he distributed copies of his latest book.

The subtitle of the book is "Getting the Govt's hands off our money, our guns, our lives"-- which sounds quite libertarian, if not Libertarian. In fact, Norquist argues that Americans tend to be libertarian at least with respect to their own lives and often, on many issues. The trick then, from a Libertarian perspective, is to encourage people to think more coherently about the role of government-- a.) putting aside their special interests in some cases; and b.) sacking their little-considered beliefs about the supposed efficacy of govt (in areas where those beliefs are ultimately shaky or even unfounded).

The book is a combination of demographic predictions, historical descriptions, and policy wonkish discussions. He's trying to figure out where there are trends and explain/forecast from there. He identifies the two sides as the "Leave us alone" and "Takings" coalitions. He notes that Dems tend to be in the latter and GOP'ers tend to be in the former, but some people are hybrids and the GOP, in particular, faces a temptation to cross over to the Takings side.

Norquist uses humor effectively, making it more interesting to read. For example, in the preface, he opens by saying his book is not entitled "The other team sucks", before noting that "Others have done fine work here". He also notes that his book is not utopian: "I discovered that the world was not organized around what I wanted done. I was very disappointed. But unlike some, I was ten years old when this truth became painfully clear."

Norquist is generally optimistic about the GOP's political chances/opportunities. He notes that no Democrat had received 51% of the popular vote since Johnson in 1964. (Since the book was published, Obama got 53% in probably the best of circumstances for a Dem.) 

Although I think he's generally correct, he understates the importance of abortion to one important subgroup in the GOP (p. 31-32). (In fact, I and others have written about why the pro-life position was-- and could be again-- a Democratic issue.) And he overstates the extent to which police and fire will vote GOP, given the union angle. (Police and fire are the most potent special interest groups at the local level.)

His chapters on trends are interesting-- the extent to which a growing investor class, shrinking labor unions, age demographics (including the exit of FDR Democrats), fewer hunters, more people on welfare, homeschooling, voter fraud, ethnic groups demographics and media competition/access. Whether he's correct or not on the particulars-- and it seemed like strong analysis to me-- he has correctly identified potential trends, whether positive or negative for conservative political outcomes. 

Some small nuggets:

-Goldwater and many GOP'ers opposed the supply-side tax cuts of JFK, apparently believing the then-dominant Keynesian view that such cuts would be inflationary. Wow!

-Norquist notes that many states have flat taxes and the SS tax is a flat tax as well. Why would someone be aggressively opposed to the same for the "income" tax?

-Federal spending under Clinton fell from 22.8% to 19% of GDP. Under Bush into 2006, it rose to 20.3%. Since then, under Bush and Obama, it's been 23-25%.

Sherman-Minton down...long-run consequences?

According to WLKY, the S-M bridge was handling 35% of bridge traffic (81 of 235K). Turning the coin over, that means the other two bridges will handle 55% more traffic now.

Just think what would happen if we lost the Kennedy too, even temporarily...

Even with the S-M, our bridges were insufficient-- and a threat to business. With this problem, the likelihood of Ford, GE, and especially UPS leaving or diminishing their footprint is even greater.

Thanks again, to the geniuses, political hacks, and self-serving rich people who have stood in the way of the obvious infrastructure improvements .

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Eugene Peterson on the Lord's Prayer

Over the past year, I've really enjoyed Eugene Peterson's books-- most recently, Tell It Slant

Peterson introduced me to a framework on the (synoptic) Gospels that I had not heard previously: Matthew is about teaching; Mark is about preaching; and Luke is about talking with Samaritans. Matthew and Mark spend two chapters on Jesus' trip to Samaria, but Luke spends ten chapters. And notably, this huge chunk includes the vast bulk of Jesus' parables. 

Peterson notes that Jesus goes from Galilee (an analogy to Sunday) to Jerusalem (another Sunday)-- with Samaria (Monday - Saturday) in between. In other words, the Christian life is largely lived in Samaria. How shall we communicate with them? Peterson borrows from an Emily Dickinson poem that uses the phrase "tell it slant" to indicate that we can't handle the truth many times-- and that truth is best communicated, often, when delivered at an angle.  Thus, Jesus' use of parables in talking with the Samaritans-- and a lesson for us, as we deal with the Samaritans in our lives.

In addition to the framework, Peterson delivers a ton of nuggets on the parables-- before turning to Jesus on prayer (another key theme in Luke, more than any other gospel). Again, Peterson delivers a lot, including what turned out to be my recent Sunday School lesson the Lord's prayer (with some help from Dallas Willard in his excellent book, The Divine Conspiracy). What follows is my lesson outline. (If you get bored with the [cryptic] details, skip to the bottom for the punchline on rote vs. spontaneous prayers.)

Intro/Prelude (Mt 6:5-8, Lk 11:1)
-the only time (recorded) that the disciples ask to be taught (Lk 11:1)
-in response, Peterson (48): “The model prayer that Jesus gives them is surprisingly, maybe even insultingly, brief…He has barely started before he is finished…38 words. Prayed meditatively, it takes a mere 22 seconds. And then it’s over. Class dismissed.”
-a matter of the heart: at almost the center of the Sermon; prayer at core/heart
-preceded in Mt 6:5-8 by two warnings: 5-6’s “seen”—trying to impress others (as 6:1-4’s giving) and 7-8’s “many words” (alludes to simple, heart, style, purpose)
-internal; Peterson (168a): “Prayer is the heart of this kingdom life. But…nobody ever sees a heart when it is working…”
-but manifests as action; Peterson (171a): “Six, brief, single-sentence, petitions compose this prayer. Each verb is an imperative, a call for action. Prayer is not passive…As we pray with Him, we volunteer ourselves into the action.”
--> learn and do His will, wisdom and courage, knowledge and power

Intro/Address: “Our Father who art in Heaven…”
--> Willard (255): “The ‘address’ part of prayer is of vital significance…[it] distinguishes prayer from worrying out loud or silently, which many, unfortunately, have confused with prayer…”
 -our: you and me; we’re in this together
-Peterson (168b): “With the ‘our’, Jesus puts himself in our company. With the ‘our’, we place ourselves in the company of Jesus and of all who pray.”
-Father (15x in Sermon): prayer as personal (relationship) vs. device or technique
-“Heaven”: sovereignty, worthy of praise
--> the combo in tension/balance; Willard (257b): “calls attention to our standing in relation to the one addressed…unfortunately…[this phrase] has come to mean ‘our father who is far away and much later’…”

I. “…hallowed be Thy name.”
-hallowed: holy (defined)
-vs. intimacy of “Father”; tension/balance revisited
-Peterson on contrast with 1st sin in Eden (bring God down to our level) and Babel (bringing us up to His level)
-name: person vs. principle; not a “to whom it may concern”
-the combo: it is (!) and that we would treat it well

II. Thy Kingdom come.
-in tone, centered on God and others; encourages an eternal perspective
-kingdom(s)—and His kingdom come, interpreted as…
-heaven vs. earth, now vs. end of time
-vs. come into existence
-come into recognition vs. ignorance of God’s sovereign kingdom
-or conflicting kingdoms—of Satan (Eph 2:2) and those in the world; brought more fully by Jesus and to be increased by us in partnership with God
-Willard (259b): “naturally wants his rule, his Kingdom, to come into realization in any place where it is not fully present.”
-working to subvert others—but not through coercion
-Peterson: Jn 18:36’s not of this world, but everything to do with this world; not standard idea of sovereignty; not into tools of force (Rom 14:17; Zech 4:6); “Christ is king, but from a cross”

III. Thy will be done…
-will: implies volition and purpose (vs. meandering); energy (vs. listless)
-Peterson (179): “There is an enormous amount of dishonesty and just plain silliness written and spoken about the cause of Christ. Much of it concerns matters lumped under the heading ‘the will of God’…[this is] odd, because the Bible could hardly be more clear on the matter.”
-specific vs. general (Ps 40:8, Mt 6:33, Eph 5:17-21, Col 1:9, 4:12, I Thess 5:16-18, 5:23-24, I Tim 2:4, I Pet 3:17, 4:2, 4:19, II Pet 3:9, I Jn 5:14-15, Rev 2:26)

Interlude: on earth, as it is in Heaven.
--> Peterson (235): “the first three incisive, God-orienting, reality-defining imperatives in the Lord’s prayer that lay a strong foundation for a life of believing obedience…Each successive imperative gathers energy and increases in intensity, the way a spring is coiled tighter and tighter, until it is released by a trigger. The triggering words are ‘on earth as it is in Heaven’.”
-Peterson (180b): “Heaven is where it all begins. Heaven is where it all ends. Heaven is our metaphor for what is beyond us, beyond our understanding…Earth is where we play our part…The polarities of reality, heaven and earth, fuse: ‘on earth as it is in Heaven’.”
--> now, transition from “your” to “us/me”—a big change in pronouns (1st 3 vs. 2nd 3)
-Peterson (181, 182a): “Prayer involves us deeply and responsibly in all the operations of God. Prayer also involves God deeply and transformatively in all the details of our lives…Prayer gets us in on what God is doing…[And] prayer gets God in on what we need to live to his glory.”
-see: us in Christ; Christ in us (Gal 2:20, Col 1:27; Rom 8:1, Eph 1:3)
--> and from general/social to specific/individual…

IV. Give us this day our daily bread.
-give us: grace/gift
-daily: continual
-start with body; the first but not the last thing we need is bread (Jn 6)
-Peterson: acknowledge need/limits and thankful embrace of a good creation; “Every limit is access to gift”
-prominent role in subsequent parable in Luke, who tightens and removes the 3rd petition (in most manuscripts), leaving bread at the center of his version of the prayer: bread as 3rd petition in Luke’s version and 3 loaves of bread in the parable (Lk 11:5-12)
-Peterson (55): “We are all beggars. Father, give us bread. Friend, lend us three loaves.” (God and others!)

V. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. (Mt 6:14-15’s postlude)
-Peterson (185a): “Giving (#4) and receiving is God’s creation norm…But it is not normative in the human community…And so we need forgiveness.”
-need to acknowledge sin, but Peterson (185b-186a): “But exposing and naming sin is not at the center of life lived to the glory of God…Forgiving sin is gospel work.”
-even in the midst of difficulty—as Jesus on the cross
-personal: Peterson (186b-187): “God is personal, emphatically personal…So if something is going to be done about sin, it is not going to be along the lines of laws and rules…We don’t sin against a commandment; we sin against a person [and God]. Since is not an offense against justice; sin is an offense against a living soul. Sin is not sexual impropriety; sin is the debasement of a man, a woman, a child. Sin is not a violation of the law of the land or the rules of a house; sin is a violation of a personal relationship.”

VI. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
-double imperative: “lead us not…deliver us”
-seems odd; God wouldn’t do this—so what does it mean?
-Peterson (189b, 190a, 190b): “He has prayed with us into a life of grace (#4)…He has prayed with us into a life of forgiveness (#5)…So, what’s left? The fact is that we don’t know…The [first] five petitions are prayed out of present activity…The sixth petition prepares us for this ‘more’…unanticipated temptations and deceptive evil [Gen 4:7, Heb 4:15]…As glorious as the world is, it is also perilous. Dangers that don’t have the appearance of dangers…Evil that masquerades as an angel of light…We need help. And we need help even when we don’t know we need help. Especially when we don’t know we need help.”
-discernment with what we do/can sense; protection from that and what we do not sense
-Willard (265, 266-267a): “This request is not just for evasion of pain and of things we don’t like, though it frankly is that. It expresses the understanding that we can’t stand up under very much pressure, and that it is not a good thing for us to suffer. It is a vote of ‘no confidence’ in our own abilities. As the series of requests begins with the glorification of God, it ends with acknowledgement of the feebleness of human beings.”
-Peterson on Eve and Jesus (191-193): “Eve in the Garden…was tempted to receive as a gift something that she is convinced is altogether good…Jesus in the Desert…tempted to do three things that…are all about doing good…The stories of Eve in the Garden and Jesus in the Desert are strategically placed to supply a powerful antidote to our naivete…A person in a completely spoiled, attractive, and beautifully idyllic place…can be deceived into making good into evil…[And] A perfectly prepared person…is still seriously at risk.”
-subtle; Peterson (194): “Fifth-petition sins, for which we ask forgiveness, are far easier to notice and take responsibility for than sixth-petition temptations—the temptation that seduced Eve, the temptations that Jesus rejected…And so, because of the heightened peril involved in these temptations, Jesus gives us this petition of prevention.”
à at Gethsemane, the third of each set of three; in Gethsemane, the temptation to do evil by avoiding a call to obedience, suffering, and sacrifice

Conclusion (traditional—and from some manuscripts in Matthew): For thine is the Kingdom, and the power and the glory for ever. Amen.
-Peterson (195-196): “That’s it. Prayer succinct and bold…We step back and trust God to do with our prayers whatever, however, and whenever he chooses…[It] puts us outside the prayer itself in a kind of holy detachment…All now is in our Father’s hands.”

--> what to do with the prayer? I Thess 5:17 and use of rote and spontaneous prayers
-Peterson: “There is a prevailing bias among many American Christians against rote prayers, repeated prayers, ‘book’ prayers—even when they are lifted directly from the ‘Jesus book’. This is a mistake. Spontaneity offers one kind of pleasure and taste of sanctity, repetitions another, equally pleasurable and holy. We don’t have to choose between them. We must not choose between them. They are the polarities of prayer.”
-Lord’s prayer as organized but conversational, basic but universal, broad but detailed (helps with 5:7-8)
-see also: Eph 3:14-21, Neh 1, Psalms, etc.