Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lindesy Graham's Racist Comment?

Ta-Nehisi Coates considers Lindsey Graham's comments on Medicaid, and decides that they are offensive to white people.

Coates writes:

The charitable interpretation rests on the invisibility of white suffering. It rests on the erasure of Clay County. It rests on the notion that the white poor are not merely the white poor, but white trash. It's a formula [that] makes an anchor of black America, straps it to a larger population of poor white Americans and then drops them in the Mississippi. It's a con that asks large swaths of white folks to suffer poverty in shame and silence.

No black person can end this alone, nor should we have to. The NAACP shouldn't say a word to Lindsey Graham. We can not purify people. We can't stop those who are set on blinding themselves. Ignorance is the burden of the ignorant.

I agree, but doesn't the NAACP do exactly the same thing?

Pick any issue -- the mortgage crisis, student loans, credit debt, Social Security reform. The primary function of the NAACP over the past decade has been to portray black Americans as economically disadvantaged. Typically, this means arguing that black citizens will be disproportionately harmed by various policy initiatives because of the disproportionately high poverty rates in the black community.

Maybe Graham should've qualified his statement -- or maybe we should all avoid conflating race and poverty -- but it seems like Coates is applying a double standard when it comes to the NAACP.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Avatar Misses the Mark

I would like to second every bit of this critique.

Ross is absolutely right: Avatar may be a visual masterpiece, but the hackneyed premise was pretty disappointing. It was not a particularly good movie, but it was certainly amazing to watch.

One of the few times I've walked away from a movie feeling both awe and indignation.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Political Incentives and the Problem of Special Interests

George Mason University professor Russ Roberts has a brilliant piece on political incentives:

Bruce Yandle uses bootleggers and Baptists to explain what happens when a good cause collides with special interests.

When the city council bans liquor sales on Sundays, the Baptists rejoice—it's wrong to drink on the Lord's day. The bootleggers, rejoice, too. It increases the demand for their services.

The Baptists give the politicians cover for doing what the bootleggers want. No politicians says we should ban liquor sales on Sunday in order to enrich the bootleggers who support his campaign. The politician holds up one hand to heaven and talk about his devotion to morality. With the other hand, he collects campaign contributions (or bribes) from the bootleggers.

Yandle points out that virtually every well-intentioned regulation has a bunch of bootleggers along for the ride—special interests who profit from the idealism of the activists and altruists.

If that's all there was to Yandle's theory, you'd say that politics makes for strange bedfellows. But it's actually much more depressing than that. What often happens is that the public asks for regulation but inevitably doesn't pay much attention to how that regulation gets structured. Why would we? We have lives to lead. We're simply too busy. Not so with the bootleggers. They have an enormous stake in the way the legislation is structured. The devil is in the details. And a lot of the time, politicians give bootleggers the details that serve the bootleggers rather than the public

Please, please read the whole thing.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Is Ezra Missing the Point?

Ezra Klein is continuing to hurl ad hominem attacks at Joe Lieberman, some of which are reasonable and fair and some of which are absurd and speculative. Regardless of how you feel about Lieberman, I think it's clear that there is something missing from this critique:

[T]ake the public option. Lieberman has cycled through a variety of explanations, none of which made the slightest lick of sense. First, he said the public option would increase the deficit. That's flatly untrue. Not only did CBO say the exact opposite, projecting savings of $25 to more than $100 billion, depending on the construction, but the idea didn't even make conceptual sense -- the cost of health-care reform comes from the subsidies, which apply to private and public insurance equally.

Well, sort of.

Regardless of its construction, the public plan would have probably attracted more people who received federally subsidized care. So, while the subsidies would technically "apply to private and public insurance equally," it's unlikely that they would be allocated equally. The public plan would get an unequal share of the subsidies, but this probably wouldn't be enough to make up for the adverse selection problem.

As Ezra himself explained:

[B]ecause the public option is, well, public, it won't want to do the unpopular things that insurers do to save money, like manage care or aggressively review treatments. It also, presumably, won't try to drive out the sick or the unhealthy. That means the public option will spend more, and could, over time, develop a reputation as a good home for bad health risks, which would mean its average premium will increase because its average member will cost more.

The nightmare scenario, then, is that private insurers cotton onto this and accelerate the process, implicitly or explicitly guiding bad risks to the public option. In theory, the exchanges are risk-adjusted, and the public option will be given more money if it ends up with bad risks, but it's hard to say how that will function in practice.

If this is true, can the "level-playing field" public plan really survive in a competitive exchange without a government backstop? If it can't, will the government attempt bail it out? This would undoubtedly increase the federal deficit.

Moreover, despite what the CBO says, some of the cost-saving provisions in the Senate health care bill are unlikely to actually reduce the deficit because they're not going to be implemented.

Here is what David Brooks wrote in today's NYT:

The bill is not really deficit-neutral. It’s politically inconceivable that Congress will really make all the spending cuts that are there on paper. But the bill won’t explode the deficit, and that’s an accomplishment.

Back in September, CBO director Doug Elmendorf acknowledged this point:

These projections assume that the proposals are enacted and remain unchanged throughout the next two decades, which is often not the case for major legislation. For example, the sustainable growth rate (SGR) mechanism governing Medicare’s payments to physicians has frequently been modified (either through legislation or administrative action) to avoid reductions in those payments. The projected savings for the Chairman’s proposal reflect the cumulative impact of a number of specifications that would constrain payment rates for providers of Medicare services. The long-term budgetary impact could be quite different if those provisions were ultimately changed or not fully implemented.

There is fundamental disconnect between the CBO projections and political reality.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Are Corporations Conservative?

Ross Douthat responds to this (characteristically overdone) tirade from Keith Olbermann:

Ross makes the obvious point that large corporations are not "conservative" by nature. Rather, they have a rent-seeking agenda that is politically ambiguous:

Such rent-seeking doesn’t always translate into support for the administration’s policies. The business/government nexus is more potent on some issues than on others, and the “business community” is hardly a monolith. (Different industries have different interests, and rival companies often want different things from Washington.) Corporate America has been divided on cap and trade, for instance, and the health insurance industry has played a double game on health care reform (now trying to shape the bill to their liking, now trying to stir up public anxiety about it) that’s so complicated I’m not sure even they understand it.

. . .

But still: The hand-in-glove relationship between a Democratic administration and certain precincts of corporate America is one of the major stories of the Obama era. And if you want to know why the Department of Energy has become a venture capital firm, or what happened to Barack Obama’s pledge to allow American consumers to buy their drugs from overseas, or why the health care bill looks, well, the way it looks, [Tim] Carney’s book is a good place to start.

Carney is more stringently libertarian than I am — more anti-TARP, for instance, and more thoroughgoingly critical of the welfare state in general. But his kind of libertarian populism is a important counterweight to what’s been happening in Washington across the last twelve months. His analysis represents the cogent version of the inchoate angst that’s gripped the conservative base of late. And both conservatism and the country would be better off if it enjoyed [as] wide an audience as say, Glenn Beck’s nightly forays into performance art.

Monday, December 14, 2009

McCaskill on Costs

Megan McArdle wonders about this statement by Claire McCaskill:

"The whole reason we're doing this bill is to bring down cost, first for the American people in health care, and secondly for the deficit," said Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. "So until we get the numbers back from the Congressional Budget Office, we're all on hold."

Asked if she would vote against the bill if it raised health care costs
overall, she said, "Absolutely."

As I've said before, I'm a big fan of Claire McCaskill. I think she's sensible and fair-minded -- much like the president. I also think she's absolutely right in this case. What's the point of health care reform if we're not bringing down costs? Certainly, increasing access is a key priority, but expanding health care coverage without addressing health care inflation is a no-win situation:

CBO projects that if current laws do not change, federal spending on Medicare and Medicaid combined will grow from roughly 5 percent of GDP today to almost 10 percent by 2035. By 2080, the government would be spending almost as much, as a share of the economy, on just its two major health care programs as it has spent on all of its programs and services in recent years.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


A friend directed me to this post criticizing advice columnist Amy Dickinson for apparently 'chastising' a woman who who wrote in describing an alleged rape.

The post is entitled "Idiot Advice Columnist Calls Raped Girl 'Victim of Her Own Judgment'":

We guess they'll let anybody write advice columns these days. Take, for instance, Amy Dickinson, who recently chastised a rape victim in her syndicated Tribune Media column "Ask Amy," calling the young woman a "victim of her own judgment."

. . .

While Dickinson goes on to admit that a crime was committed, her first impulse is to blame the victim. Which we find, frankly, despicable.

. . .

Also reprehensible? Characterizing all frat guys as potential rapists. Fraternities are social organizations with group housing, and their members are just as morally diverse as any pool of human beings.

This is what Dickinson actually said:

Were you a victim? Yes.

First, you were a victim of your own awful judgment. Getting drunk at a frat house is a hazardous choice for anyone to make because of the risk (some might say a likelihood) that you will engage in unwise or unwanted sexual contact.

You don't say whether the guy was also drunk. If so, his judgment was also impaired.

No matter what -- no means no. If you say no beforehand, then the sex shouldn't happen. If you say no while its happening, then the sex should stop.

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network Web site ("Alcohol and drugs are not an excuse -- or an alibi. The key question is still: Did you consent or not? Regardless of whether you were drunk or sober, if the sex is nonconsensual, it is rape. However, because each state has different definitions of "nonconsensual," please contact your local center or local police if you have questions about this. (If you were so drunk or drugged that you passed out and were unable to consent, it was rape. Both people must be conscious and willing participants.)"

Go to your college's health department to be tested for STDs and pregnancy. See a counselor to determine how you want to approach this. You must involve the guy in question in order to determine what happened and because he absolutely must take responsibility and face the consequences for his actions, just as you are prepared to do. He may have done this before.

In her letter, the alleged victim initially states that she "made some mistakes." And, based on her story, she's right. Despite what Dickinson's critics say, it is risky for a girl to get drunk at a fraternity party and go off with a fellow she doesn't know very well. This decision reflects poor judgment.

Simply acknowledging this obvious point is not equivalent to "blaming" the victim for being raped. The girl in this account is partly a victim of her own bad judgment -- and she is also a victim of events totally beyond her control, for which she bears no responsibility. Both of these things are true, and neither of them implies that the she deserved to be raped.

One of major problems that I have with what Katie Roiphe deemed "rape crisis feminism" is that even the most sensible advice -- like cautioning young girls against becoming intoxicated and returning home with strange men -- is often misconstrued as victim-blaming. The unavoidable impression is that good judgment simply doesn't matter, and risky decisions can be wholly divorced from their negative outcomes.

Rape is never the victim's fault, but that doesn't mean that the victim's prior decisions are always value-neutral.

Update: Amy Dickinson qualifies her statement:

Unfortunately, I started my answer by expressing frustration at her judgment to get drunk at a frat house, calling it "awful." This is the part of my answer that has enraged readers, who have accused me of "blaming the victim."As a mother (and stepmother) to five daughters -- four in college -- I have counseled (and worry about) all of my many daughters because of how vulnerable they are if they choose to drink.

Drinking to intoxication poses very serious security issues for our daughters and sons, because being drunk impairs judgment and the ability to discern risk.

Because "Victim" wondered where the line was, I tried to draw it for her. My intent was to urge her (as I often urge readers) to take responsibility for the only thing she could control -- her own choices and actions -- but I regret how harshly I expressed this.

I certainly didn't intend to offend or blame her for what happened, and I hope she will do everything possible to stay safe in the future. I'm grateful that she chose to share her question with all of us, because talking about it will help others.

Is Keynesian Stimulus the Best Approach?

Greg Mankiw tackles Keynes, and the Obama administration's fiscal policy:

When devising its fiscal package, the Obama administration relied on conventional economic models based in part on ideas of John Maynard Keynes. Keynesian theory says that government spending is more potent than tax policy for jump-starting a stalled economy.

The report in January put numbers to this conclusion. It says that an extra dollar of government spending raises G.D.P. by $1.57, while a dollar of tax cuts raises G.D.P. by only 99 cents. The implication is that if we are going to increase the budget deficit to promote growth and jobs, it is better to spend more than tax less.

But various recent studies suggest that conventional wisdom is backward.

. . .

Like [a] doctor facing a mysterious illness, economists should remain humble and
open-minded when considering how best to fix an ailing economy. A growing body of evidence suggests that traditional Keynesian nostrums might not
be the best medicine.

I await Paul Krugman's response.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Can We Say Goodbye to the Public Option Now?

It seems like the public option is going to be left out of the final version of the Senate health care bill in favor of some sort of nationally regulated not-for-profit private insurance option. Frankly, I think all insurance should be regulated at the federal level.

Anyway, I've previously been a bit too rash in saying goodbye to the public option, so maybe we should just wait and see how this turns out.

There could always be some last-minute changes . . . .

Bill O'Reilly's Presidential Report Card

Bill O'Reilly offers his Presidential Report Card:

Actually, I don't think he's too far off, although I'd probably give President Obama a bit more credit on health care reform.

Quote for the Day

Look, no one’s history, no one’s character that you look at like Barack Obama’s – agree with his policies or disagree with them – he is a thoroughly decent human being. To call that thoroughly decent human being –who’s trying to bring people together, as I believe he is – a 'racist' is just disgusting.

- Andrew Sullivan, on The Joy Behar Show.

Monday, December 7, 2009

We're All Entitled to Our Own Facts (About Global Warming)

David Frum has a thoughtful piece on political polarization and the global warming debate.

He writes:

Everything important about global warming remains disputed:

How fast is it happening? How much of it is attributable to human activity? How dangerous is it? How much should we pay to avert or mitigate it? Who should do the paying?

How are to begin to reach conclusions if we cannot even agree on the rules of discussion? The most famous public document on global warming calls itself "An Inconvenient Truth" -- and yet that document itself is filled with untruths, on every subject from sea levels to polar bears. (The bears are doing fine, populations at record levels in the Canadian Arctic.)

. . .

The global warming controversy has been pervaded from the start by the human instinct to divide the world into "us" and "them" -- and then believe only the news we hear from "us."

Global warming advocates can see this weakness in their opponents. It was the same weakness in themselves that led the advocates . . . to cheat and twist and betray scientific standards and public trust.

It's easy for progressives to be frustrated with Rush Limbaugh and other hard-line conservatives. There's a serious lack of intellectual honesty on the right, and genuine contempt for science. But it's far more difficult for progressives to seriously consider the moral failings of the those with whom they agree.

To me, one of the most distressing things about the global warming debate is the notion that science can be used to circumvent value judgments. I continually hear climate change advocates insisting that scientific research inevitably points to specific political choices.

From a policy perspective, however, the goal of science is simply to meet the intelligence needs of decision-makers. Science is supposed to be value-neutral. It cannot answer Frum's final questions: How much should we pay to avert or mitigate global warming, and who should do the paying?

If we want to agree on some rules for the discussion, I'd say that people on the right should stop pretending that science is a liberal conspiracy, and people on the left should stop using science as a blunt instrument, and acknowledge both the complexity of scientific investigation and the role of values in decision-making.

Update: By the way, I don't know anything about polar bear populations -- and Frum doesn't offer any evidence to support his claim.

But, for anyone who's interested, here is the American Enterprise Institute's take, and here is an old article from Science Daily, which seems to bolster Frum's point. I suspect there is an awful lot of counter-evidence to support Gore's claim, too.

Update II: Here is a really good piece from Reason's Ronald Bailey on "The Scientific Tragedy of Climategate."

Misunderstanding the Public Option

As I've said before, it's a bit disingenuous for so many liberal bloggers -- including Ezra Klein -- to assert that the public option is the most popular aspect of health care reform.

While that it may be true that polling data shows Americans respond positively to the term "public option," that doesn't really tell us much about the kinds of reforms that have genuine public support. Calling a government-run insurance plan a "public option" is simply a way of framing the debate. People tend to like "options."

The important question is: Do most people really understand the public option?

Finally, we have a pretty clear answer to that question.

Update: One of Ezra Klein's readers opines (via Andrew Sullivan):

I have a slight problem with the graph in this post. You have biased this graph to over exaggerate the relative size of 'No' response by starting the graph at 20. Thus it appears as if the No's outweigh Yes's by almost a factor of 8. When in reality it's only about 2.5. (66 vs 26)

Sadly the number of Americans incapable of explaining the public option is so large that there was hardly a need to graphically exaggerate it to make your point.

I agree. I hate when people truncate the Y-axis . . . but, in this case, it's still a pretty huge disparity.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Amanda Knox Found Guilty

Amanda Knox and her ex-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were found guilty of murder.

I don't know whether Knox is innocent, but I do know that she did not receive a fair trial. It's absolutely appalling that she was convicted on such scant evidence.

Timothy Egan had an excellent post on the pure absurdity of this case:

In closing arguments, Knox was described as a “Luciferina” and “a dirty-minded she-devil.” Preposterous, made-up sexual motives were ascribed to her. One prosecutor speculated before the jury what Knox may have said to Meredith Kercher before, he claimed, forcing an orgy that resulted in her death:

“You are always behaving like a little saint. Now we will show you. Now we will make you have sex.”

Nobody alleges that Knox said this to Kercher. But prosecutors asked the jury to imagine her saying such a thing.

What century is this? Didn’t Joan of Arc, the Inquisition and our own American Salem witch trials teach civilized nations a thing or two about contrived sexual hysteria with a devil twist?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Public Issues, Poor Decisions

Tyler Cowen offers some words of wisdom:

Breaking a three-day stalemate, the Senate approved an amendment to its health care legislation that would require insurance companies to offer free mammograms and other preventive services to women.

The vote was 61 to 39, with three Republicans joining 56 Democrats and the two independents in favor.
This happened directly after the release of evidence showing that many mammograms do not pass a comparative effectiveness test. Once the test became a public issue at all . . . well, now you see what happens. CBO, take note.

In fact, as I've noted before, the Congressional Budget Office has already weighed in on the issue of preventative services:

Although different types of preventive care have different effects on spending, the evidence suggests that for most preventive services, expanded utilization leads to higher, not lower, medical spending overall.

I'm sure that President Obama sincerely believes in comparative effectiveness research as a vehicle for cost-control. But the president doesn't rule by fiat.

Unfortunately, Members of Congress are beholden to ill-informed, self-interested constituents, who demand ineffective services . . . especially when they don't have to pay for those services directly.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What Does Climategate Have to Do With O.J. Simpson?

Clive Crook offers an incisive post on on the Climategate controversy.

Crook writes:

I admire expertise, and scientific expertise especially; like any intelligent citizen I am willing to defer to it. But that puts a great obligation on science. The people whose instinct is to respect and admire science should be the ones most disturbed by these revelations. The scientists have let them down, and made the anti-science crowd look wise. That is outrageous.

. . .

Can I read these emails and feel that the scientists involved deserve to be trusted? No, I cannot. These people are willing to subvert the very methods--notably, peer review--that underwrite the integrity of their discipline. Is this really business as usual in science these days?

I can't seem to escape a bizarre mental association here: Crook's point strikes me as remarkably similar to O.J. Simpson's court defense in the mid-1990s.

Let me explain . . .

From the outset, there was an enormous amount of DNA evidence piled up against O.J. Simpson. The prosecution assumed that no reasonable juror would be able to dispute the hard science. After all, Simpson's blood was found at the scene of the crime.

As the Simpson case unfolded, however, it became clear that Mark Fuhrman -- the detective who had compiled most of the inculpatory evidence -- was not an objective authority. Furhman was, in fact, deeply racist and highly unprofessional. He also later copped to perjury. The defense argued that if Fuhramn could not be trusted -- if his apparent racial bias had undermined his credibility -- then all the evidence that he'd produced should be rejected.

This seems like a sensible argument to me. So, if climate scientists at the IPCC aren't credible -- if they've become so wedded to the cause that they've abandoned objectivity -- why should we continue to believe the evidence that they present?

As Simpson's lawyers rightly pointed out, you cannot divorce the evidence from the evidence-gatherers . . . .