Monday, October 11, 2010

Beating Ourselves

Remember this: The house doesn't beat the player. It just gives him an opportunity to beat himself.

-- Nick the Greek, charter member of the Poker Hall of Fame

In this week's Sift:

  • Fire and Health and Government. Libertarianism boils down this image: Firefighters watching a Tennessee house burn down because the owners hadn't paid a $75 fee. This story has gotten a lot of coverage, but few people are making the connection to the health insurance mandate. Whether the threat is sickness or fire, we shouldn't offer our fellow citizens a gamble that we're not willing to watch them lose.
  • Sharia in America? Sharron Angle has added the weight of a viable Senate candidate to the bizarre claim that Sharia is taking over the United States. What is she talking about?
  • The Anti-Stimulus Begins. All the federal stimulus ever did was balance spending cuts on the state and local level. Now that balance is ending.
  • Department of Corrections. A miscalculation caused me to understate last week's point about government spending.
  • Short Notes. The FBI can track your car without a warrant -- and demand its tracker back if you find it. Christine O'Donnell, I'm glad to hear, is really me; I've always wanted to be a senator. More about anonymous campaign spending. And everybody is just guessing about how many young adults will vote.


Fire and Health and Government

To libertarians, it's unjust if I have to pay taxes to provide you with services. Don't make me pay for your child's education or to treat your infectious disease. That's socialism. The ideal libertarian government project is a toll road, because only the people who use it have to pay for it.

A week ago Thursday (September 29), we got an example of where that kind of thinking leads: In Obion County, Tennessee, you pay a special $75 fee each year for the fire department. Gene and Paulette Cranick hadn't paid the fee this year -- Gene claims he just forgot -- so when two barrels caught fire in their yard and the flames slowly spread in the direction of the house, the fire trucks wouldn't come -- at least not until the fire started to spread to the property of a fee-paying neighbor. Even after they got there, firefighters defended only the neighbor's property while watching the Cranick's house burn to the ground.

National Review's Kevin Williamson comments approvingly:

The world is full of jerks, freeloaders, and ingrates — and the problems they create for themselves are their own. These free-riders have no more right to South Fulton’s firefighting services than people in Muleshoe, Texas, have to those of NYPD detectives.

The problems you create are your own: You had kids, I didn't, so don't make me pay for the schools. You live on the Gulf coast, I don't, so don't make me pay to send helicopters when the hurricanes come. Your daughter was born with a congenital disease, mine is nice and healthy, so don't send me any medical bills. You care about nature, I don't, so don't charge me for the national parks. And on and on and on.

Several conservative bloggers have patiently explained the pay-to-spray system to us effete urban liberals. Rural fire departments have shoestring budgets, and they'd go under if people thought they didn't have to pay their fees. Angry White Guy writes:

Where I live in Kentucky about 20 miles from where this story went down in Tennessee – they put the fire department fee on your property tax bill so you must to pay it if you own property – but it wasn’t always that way where I live. At one time the fee, like the fire department, was voluntary and you could either pay the fee or get hit with a huge bill if you didn’t [and called the fire department to put out a fire].  … I knew plenty of people that rolled the dice and didn’t pay hoping they didn’t have a fire and I’m guess Cranick did just that, he rolled the dice and crapped out.

Here's an idea: Let's fund the Homeland Security Department with a voluntary fee. If you don't pay it, al Qaeda can blow you up.

AWG slides right by what should be the main point: "Where I live … they put the fire department fee on your property tax bill." That's how it should work: We all pay taxes and we all get services. Don't offer your fellow citizens a gamble unless you're willing to sit back and watch them lose.

OK, the Cranick's story got a lot of coverage and you had probably heard about it already. But how many times have you heard anybody make the connection to the health insurance mandate?

The mandate is the least popular part of President Obama's health reform bill, the part that conservatives are suing (unsuccessfully, so far) to have declared unconstitutional. Starting in 2014, if you don't have health insurance that meets certain minimal standards, you'll owe a tax. (The bill does not, as opponents charge, force anybody to buy health insurance. Just pay the tax and you can go on without coverage if you want. According to the Boston Globe: "Fines will vary by income and family size. For example, a single person making $45,000 would pay an extra $1,125 in taxes when the penalty is fully phased in, in 2016.")

But the logic is exactly the same as the firefighting fee: We don't want you to gamble on medical care, because we don't want to be the kind of country that will sit back and watch you lose that gamble. If you get into a car wreck, we want the ambulances to come and the EMTs to stop the bleeding. We want the emergency room doctors do what they can to save your life. We don't want medical professionals to stand around while somebody checks whether your fees are paid up, or to watch you die if they aren't.

Right now those emergency costs fall mostly on hospitals, who overcharge the rest of us to cover it. (That's why a hospital aspirin can cost $18.) Slower medical emergencies like cancer play out in a variety of ways, some of which include people dying of treatable diseases. (The technical term is "amenable mortality". Our rate is among the worst in the developed world, and is improving more slowly than most comparable countries. Dr. Don McCanne of Physicians for a National Health Program comments: "Those who still claim that the United States has the best health care system in the world need a reality check.")

In a libertarian world, though, nobody would pay for those services if you gambled that you wouldn't need them. (Maybe you decided to buy food for your family instead.) You got into a car wreck, I didn't, so why should I pay?


We hear a lot about rugged individualism being the American way. This week, while researching something else, I discovered a funny thing about that.

In volume II of the classic Democracy in America, French observer Alexis de Tocqueville feels it necessary to explain the difference between individualism and egotism:

Egotism is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with his own person, and to prefer himself to everything in the world. Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellow-creatures; and to draw apart with his family and his friends; so that, after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself.

In spite of that "mature and calm" stuff, de Tocqueville goes on to trash individualism as one of the bad effects of democracy. But here's the kicker: That passage is followed by the original translator's note saying that he has adopted de Tocqueville's coinage of individualism "because I know of no English word exactly equivalent to the expression".

So, not only did the Founders not consciously think of themselves as individualists, English didn't acquire the word individualism until 1840 -- when we borrowed it from the French.


District Court Judge George Steeh's rejection of the suit against the health care mandate makes a good point. The plaintiff's argument is that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution has never before been used to regulate inactivity -- in this case, a person's decision not to buy health insurance. Judge Steeh observes:

The plaintiffs have not opted out of the health care services market because, as living, breathing beings, who do not oppose medical services on religious grounds, they cannot opt out of this market. As inseparable and integral members of the health care services market, plaintiffs have made a choice regarding the method of payment for the services they expect to receive.

In other words, the relevant market is the market for health care, not health insurance, which is just a mechanism for paying for care. People can choose not to buy health insurance, but they can't choose not to get sick.


A new report published in Health Affairs expands on Dr. McCanne's "reality check". In 1950, the US was fifth in female life expectancy at birth. Now we're 46th, despite spending significantly more per capita on health care than any other country.

Defenders of the status quo offer a variety of explanations other than our-non-socialized-medicine-sucks: lifestyle choices, the way our statistics are reported, murder and suicide, and so on. The authors of this report did a variety of tricks to eliminate these effects. Conclusion:

We found that none of the prevailing excuses for the poor performance of the US health care system are likely to be valid. … We speculate that the nature of our health care system—specifically, its reliance on unregulated fee-for-service and specialty care—may explain both the increased spending and the relative deterioration in survival that we observed. If so, meaningful reform may not only save money over the long term, it may also save lives.


Sharia in America?

One of the more bizarre and baseless claims you'll find if you wander around the conservative blogosphere is that foreign law is taking over America. Originally, we were being taken over by European law. The National Review's Ed Whelan put it like this:

What judicial transnationalism is really all about is depriving American citizens of their powers of representative government by selectively imposing on them the favored policies of Europe’s leftist elites.

The American Spectator characterized a death penalty decision:

Rather than base their ruling on the original meaning of the Eighth Amendment, the five justices of the majority instead imposed foreign standards on American citizens in the name of our Constitution. In doing so, the Court audaciously elevated international mores above the considered democratic judgment of the states and called it "law."

This longstanding kerfuffle on the Right is based on more-or-less nothing. (A good article on "bad history" and "bad law" behind the controversy is here.)

Well, lately it's Muslim Sharia law that is supposedly taking over. Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle seems to be saying that sharia law is taking hold in Dearborn, Michigan and Frankford, Texas. (I say "seems" because -- as is typical in such cases -- she is alluding to something she never says in so many words. Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations described her statement as "incoherent bigotry".)

It would be strange enough if Angle was making this stuff up -- a Tea Party candidate making stuff up, who could imagine? -- but she's not. She's just raising this strange conspiracy theory from the shadows of the internet to the national stage.

The basis of the "Sharia law in Dearborn" claim is this ten-minute video, which (to my eye) shows security guards at Arab Festival 2009 in Dearborn behaving the way festival security guards do everywhere: In a dispute between the exhibitors and trouble-making attendees, they take the side of the exhibitors. But the exhibitors are Muslims and the contentious attendees are Christians, so the security guards must be enforcing Sharia, which must have a whole section on street festivals or something.

The Texas claim seems to come from two incidents. One is a Texas court ruling that if people by mutual consent want to specify in their contracts that disputes will be adjudicated in a Sharia court or in accordance with the principles of Sharia, they can. (That's no different than any other mediation clause. Any other finding would be discrimination against Islam.) The second is a story of an "honor killing" of two sisters by their father -- but Texas law did not sanction his actions. I have found no example in Texas (or any other state) of government officials forcing Sharia on somebody who didn't contractually opt for it.

Of stuff like this, myths are made. And now those myths are being repeated by someone with a serious chance to sit in the Senate.

But here's the head-shaking thing: There really is a significant movement in America that wants a scripture-based law to replace the Constitution. But it's not Islam, it's Christian Reconstructionism.



The Anti-Stimulus Begins

Ask anybody and they'll tell you: We've had a wild increase in government spending since Obama took office, with the $800 billion stimulus bill being the biggest piece of it.

Ask anybody who isn't an economist, and they'll tell you that it hasn't worked. With all this stimulus spending -- $300 billion of which was really tax cuts -- we haven't created any jobs.

But that's not exactly what happened. It's not even close. While the federal government was spending more to stimulate the economy, state and local governments (most of whom were obligated to balance their budgets in the face of declining revenue) were cutting back, making the net effect negative. Paul Krugman writes:

Consider, in particular, one fact that might surprise you: The total number of government workers in America has been falling, not rising, under Mr. Obama. A small increase in federal employment was swamped by sharp declines at the state and local level — most notably, by layoffs of schoolteachers. Total government payrolls have fallen by more than 350,000 since January 2009.

Looking at the public sector as a whole, then, there never was a stimulus. So we have no idea what a government stimulus would have done.

But the ask-anybody consensus is that stimulus happened and failed, so Congress didn't even come close to passing a son-of-stimulus bill. So the federal money is running out now, but the state cutbacks are not.

Thursday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie canceled a multi-billion-dollar project to build a new rail tunnel to Manhattan. The project makes both short-term and long-term sense: It provides jobs now and will be a valuable addition to the regional infrastructure when it's finished. But so what? There's no money. Bob Herbert commentss:

Where once we were the innovators, the pathfinders, the model for the rest of the world, now we just can’t seem to get it done. We can’t put the population to work, or get the kids through college, or raise the living standards of the middle class and the poor. We can’t rebuild the infrastructure or curb our destructive overreliance on fossil fuels.

Similar but smaller cancelations and lay-offs are happening all over the country. Without a federal attempt to balance the scales, government employment is going to drop further. And all the while, the mainstream narrative is going to be that a government stimulus was tried but failed.


Citizen K makes a related point I've made here before: We're acting like a poor country, when actually we're a rich country dominated by rich people who don't want to pay taxes. That's the reason we can't have first-rate infrastructure like the Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans are building.



Department of Corrections

I once heard a comedian say, "I'm never wrong. I thought I was wrong once, but I was mistaken."

Well, last week's article on federal spending was right in the first draft. And then I checked the numbers just before posting, decided they were wrong, and "fixed" them. But I was mistaken. The blog entry has been updated, but the people who get the Sift by email got the wrong numbers.

Here's what happened: I mentioned interest on the national debt first, then forgot to add it in afterward. When you do add it in, all the revenue is spent -- exactly -- after you fund interest, defense, homeland security, Social Security, Medicare, disaster relief, veterans benefits, unemployment compensation, and SCHIP. So all the 2010 revenue could have been spent without using a dime for poverty programs (Medicaid, food stamps, etc.), non-military foreign aid, or any of the other stuff that many people seem to think the government spends all its money on.



Short Notes

So the FBI puts a tracking device on a 20-year-old's car. When his mechanic finds it and his friend posts a what's-this photo on the web, agents show up demanding their property back. No fair -- there ought to be a finders-keepers rule here.

Nobody seems to know whether the FBI had a warrant, but it turns out they don't need one. An appeals court has ruled that the government can put a tracker on your car without a warrant, even if it's parked in your own driveway when they do it.


I'm relieved to hear that Christine O'Donnell is really me and will go to Washington and do what I would do. I was afraid she was really Christine O'Donnell and would go to Washington and do all the crazy stuff O'Donnell has been saying she wants to do.

O'Donnell's ad cries out for parody, and its cries have been answered. This is my favorite so far. Or maybe this one.

You know who really ought to be upset about Christine O'Donnell's comments about witchcraft? Witches.


The anonymous funding of political campaigns that I talked about last week is getting increasing attention. A Public Citizen report says that in the last mid-term election cycle, 30 out of 31 electioneering groups disclosed their donors. As of September 2 of this year, only 7 of 22 groups had.

A NYT reporter says spending by such groups is already double 2006's total. He recounts his attempts to figure out who was behind a particularly striking set of ads: the talking babies against Obamacare. They're sponsored by the Coalition to Protect Seniors, which is … who exactly? He can't figure it out, but the phone numbers he finds on official documents ring through to people somehow involved in the health insurance industry.


The main reason national polls are all over the map is that each organization has its own "likely voter" model. In other words, if X % of 20-somethings tell you they're going to vote Republican, you want to weigh that not by the number of 20-somethings in the population, but by the number that you think are going to vote.

But that's something nobody knows. Young adult turnout was exceptionally high in 2008. Is that a blip or a trend? DailyKos' Meteor Blades talks this issue through in Millennials: Will they, or won't they?

I'm guessing that this year's youth turn-out will be bigger than most people expect. Reason: social networking makes it easier for the one activist in a group of friends to nag the rest into voting. "OK already. I voted. Leave me alone."

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2 comments:

Christine Robinson said...

There is another important reason to for fire departments to fight all fires, not just fires on the property that has paid the fine: there is nothing as likely to set my house on fire as a raging fire next door.

To the extent that society is worried about communicable disease, there is a similarity there, too.

Lance said...

The Christians arrested in Dearborn at the festival were acquitted last month on almost all charges. http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2010/09/christian_missionaries_acquitt.php

Using this incident as an argument that Sharia law is coming to America is just nuts.