Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Can't figure out if betrayal of national security is wrong

Another day, another phone call with my Congressman's office.

"Yesterday morning I called about the president’s decision to take highly sensitive info derived from a foreign partner and share it with a hostile power. At the time, Mr. Faso didn’t have an opinion as to whether this was a good thing. Does he have one now?"

Pause, pause. "No."

"He's got no opinion on it?"

"I'm just an intern. I'm not aware of any statement of his on that. I would urge you to follow his web page. He released a statement on Director Comey's firing."

"Yes, I saw that. That's a week old. This is new. He really doesn't have an opinion on the betrayal of national security?"

"Not at this time."

Trump as a sociological construct

A commenter on Washington Monthly had an observation that struck home with me:
In short, it is my opinion that trying to understand the psychology of the Trump decision process is very incomplete. His decisions are made more by the sociology of his minions than by his own abilities, and they operate in order to cater to Trump's efforts to defend his weak ego.
For a while, I've been playing with the idea of society as a superorganism, where individual humans are the cells and social structures are what hold the whole thing together and coordinate the parts.

This commenter brings in a related idea, where the individual almost doesn't exist but is instead some sort of locus of the interactions of the people in the environment.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Does he know now?

I just sent this to Congressman Faso's office.

I called this morning to see if the Congressman thought it was a bad thing that the president shared with the Russians some intelligence derived from a foreign source that asked it not be shared.

The office said it was early in the morning and the congressman as yet had no opinion.

Now it looks as though it was specifically the Israeli intelligence service that provided the information in question.

And it turns out that in January the Israelis were warned by US intelligence not to share info with the White House or the NSC "until it is made clear that Trump is not inappropriately connected to Russia and is not being extorted – Israel should avoid revealing sensitive sources to administration officials for fear the information would reach the Iranians."

Has Mr. Faso had a chance yet to figure out whether Mr. Trump's action was OK?

I wouldn't think it was such a hard question.

If you're in NY-19 and feel moved to call, his DC number is (202) 225-5614. Or you can email through his website, faso.house.gov.

Faso not sure if blabbing secrets is OK

I just got off the phone with Faso's DC office.

The Congressman does not yet have a position on whether it's OK that Trump shared with the Russians some intelligence derived from an unnamed ally.

I asked if there was any line, anything Trump would do that would not be OK. Or could he actually, as he said in the campaign, shoot someone on 5th Avenue and that would be OK?

"The Congressman doesn't support everything the president does."

"Such as?"

"He didn't support the Muslim ban."

"Well, that's good." (And note, that she called it a Muslim ban, as it is, contradicting the administration's late-in-the-day contention that it's a "travel ban," not actually aimed at Muslims.)

She mentioned some other resolution with which I was unfamiliar.

I returned to the specific issue about the sharing of intelligence with a hostile country, and whether Faso was OK with that.

"It's early in the morning."

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Down the Delaware

Delaware County, NY, immediately to my south, is Trump country. Clinton got 34% of the county's votes, to 61% for Trump. And Republican John Faso, who is also my House Member up here in Otsego County, won the open seat in NY-19 with 63% to 37% for Zephyr Teachout, the Democratic candidate.

The county is a bit on the poor side with lower per-capita income, median household income, and median family income than the U.S.
The poverty rate is slightly higher than the national average, at 15.3% to the national 14.7%.

The county is pretty white, at 92.6% of the population (same source as above).

It's also very rural, with 20% more land than Rhode Island but only 1/20th the people.

An important fact of life in Delaware is that most of the county is in the watershed of the upper Delaware River, which means it's part of the watershed for New York City's drinking water.

In the 1990's, the city faced a choice: meet new EPA standards for drinking water quality, or install a filtration system. The filtration would have been hugely expensive, and the city thought it could meet the EPA's standard more economically by reaching a deal with the counties upstate in the watershed.

The result was the 1997 Memorandum of Understanding. The basic idea is that the counties in the watershed would restrict land-disturbing economic activities, and the city would spend money promoting economic development that didn't impair the watershed's ability to provide clean water.

I won't get into whether the money the city spends is enough to make up for the economic restrictions, but as you can well imagine, there is a widespread perception in the watershed that they are little more than a resource colony of the pushy city that always gets its way.

All of which is to say, if you were looking for a place where somewhat poor rural whites are likely to feel taken advantage of by coastal elites, the statistical description of Delaware County suggests it would be a good place to look, and Trump's vote share there is consistent with one of the narratives about the Trump voter.

And that's why it's worth noting the resolution passed last night by the elected government of Delaware Country. The highlighting is mine. I just wanted to call your attention to the kind of statements being approved by the County Supervisors in an area that went strongly for Trump and for a Member of Congress who voted for Trumpcare.

The board is made up of 5 Democrats, 1 Independent, and 13 Republicans. And apparently they unanimously voted for this:

Monday, May 8, 2017

Trying to get his side of the story

On Saturday Joy Reid reached out to the offices of all 217 members of Congress who voted "yes" on the AHCA to see if they wanted to come on her show and discuss their vote. Not one agreed.

I thought I'd check it out with my representative, John Faso, in NY-19, who was a "yes" vote, so "NI called his office this morning.

"Good morning. Joy Reid from MSNBC says her producers reached out to each of the 217 Representatives who voted in favor of the AHCA. Quote: I offered each of them the lead spot on this show this morning, to the one-on-one with me, to explain why they voted for the bill. And not a single one agreed. End quote.

That sounds like Mr. Faso's office was contacted and decided not to accept the invitation."

I'm not sure. I don't handle media.

"Who should I contact about that?"

Are you with a media outlet?

"No, I'm a constituent who wants to understand what the Congressman's position is."

He then gave me the contact info for the office's media person, but added that "all explanations for the Congressman's votes are on the website."

"Yes, but when I spoke to the office on Friday I had the impression that they felt their position was misunderstood. I would have thought we would have taken this opportunity to reach a broader audience."

We signed off with standard pleasantries and I wrote the media director:

Friday, May 5, 2017

Consequences

My Congressman, John Faso, voted in favor of Trumpcare.

He issued a statement on Facebook that changes to the bill had addressed his concerns.

It's useful to know that his concerns don't include:
  • Millions of people losing the effective health insurance they've been getting from Medicaid.
  • Women being charged more for the privilege of being able to get pregnant and give birth.
  • Crippling the ability of schools to provide adequately for students in special education.
  • Weakening the financial viability of rural hospitals (like the one where my family gets our health care), because many of the patients they treat will no longer have a way of paying for their care.
Obviously the list could be considerably extended. Different things may come to mind first for you, but you get the point.

It makes you wonder what Faso was concerned about.

(I'm kidding. It's pretty obvious he was concerned about providing a hefty tax cut for upper-income households.)

Ben Wikler of MoveOn is suggesting people keep pressuring their GOP members of Congress even though the vote is past.

I'll be calling later this morning.

Previous episodes of the "Contact your Congressman" show:
Show your work
Asking the impossible
A simpler question
Faso by phone
Open letter on health insurance, round 3
Recess grading period
Open letter to Representative Faso on health insurance

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Show your work

Dear Congressman Faso,

I heard on the radio on Monday that you are OK with voting on some version of Trumpcare before it gets a score from the Congressional Budget Office, because you don’t believe the conclusions that office reached on the original version of the American Health Care Act.

Earlier that day I’d called your office to ask whether you would vote on the matter without a CBO score, and your staffer wasn’t aware of your position, so it was good to get that question answered eventually.

On the same phone call, I asked about your position on the current version of the bill, and the staffer said you hadn’t decided yet, because you were evaluating the bill in its entirety.

That’s commendable, but it makes an odd pairing with your stance on the CBO process.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Asking the impossible

Dear Conressman Faso,

On Sunday the president tweeted,
You can't compare anything to ObamaCare because ObamaCare is dead. Dems want billions to go to Insurance Companies to bail out donors....New healthcare plan is on its way. Will have much lower premiums & deductibles while at the same time taking care of pre-existing conditions!
Do you understand the purpose of those Cost-Sharing Reductions? They're not a bailout of insurance companies; they're payments to compensate them for taking on riskier-than-average clients without charging them more. In other words, they're a key component of how Obamacare achieves coverage of pre-existing conditions.

Do you understand that the Affordable Care Act is not dead so long as those CSR's are continued, as insurers have expressed their willingness to continue offering plans, contingent on being confident that the CSR's will remain in place? This is an entirely reasonable position - to expect insurers to act otherwise is to wish that they weren't profit-seeking companies.

(Of course, the other way for the ACA to die is for Congress to pass a law repealing it, but so far your caucus can't agree on a way to do that.)

Monday, May 1, 2017

A simpler question

Dear Mr. Faso,

I've been contacting your office pretty regularly about health insurance - one might say "pestering." Most recently, I called on Thursday and spoke to a pleasant staffer who said you didn't yet have a position on the AHCA as modified by the MacArthur amendment, and that you needed to study the bill in its entirety.

I thought I'd try again with a simpler question.

The president yesterday said that the GOP health-insurance bill: ""Pre-existing conditions are in the bill. And I mandate it. I said, 'Has to be,'" (see here).

If we look at what was in the AHCA + MacArthur amendment, we see that states can actually get an all-but-guaranteed waiver from the pre-existing conditions requirement, as long as they have a high-risk pool (their own, or via participation in a federal one).

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Faso by phone

I just got off the phone with Faso's office.

He still doesn't have a position (or at least, not a position he's willing to inform his constituents about).

"There's talk of a vote tomorrow. Will he have a position by then?"

"Talk's talk. If you have information from the House leadership, please share it."

"Well, no, I'm not talking to Paul Ryan. But tell me this: will he vote on the bill if it comes up before the CBO has had a chance to score it?"

"We don't have an answer for that. He's examining the bill in its entirety."

"But this is a different question. It seem like it would be a bad idea to vote on something like this without having an outside analysis of it."

Still no answer as to whether he would vote on a bill that the CBO hadn't had a chance to score.

In the end, we parted less amicably than on other calls.

Sarcastically asking private citizens if they've got secret info from House leadership is not wonderful constituent relations.

(This is not my first go-round with Faso's office: see here, here, and here.)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Open letter on health insurance, round 3

April 21, 2017

Dear Congressman Faso,

“The plan gets better and better and better, and it’s gotten really, really good, and a lot of people are liking it a lot.”

Those are the words of Donald Trump, and I'm wondering if you can help me interpret them.

Is he talking about the MacArthur Amendment to the AHCA?
Insurance Market Provisions 
The MacArthur Amendment would:
• Reinstate Essential Health Benefits as the federal standard
• Maintain the following provisions of the AHCA:
o Prohibition on denying coverage due to preexisting medical conditions
o Prohibition on discrimination based on gender
o Guaranteed issue of coverage to all applicants
o Guaranteed renewability of coverage
o Coverage of dependents on parents’ plan up to age 26
o Community Rating Rules, except for limited waivers
 It says, "Maintain the following provisions of the AHCA, but the things that follow are all part of the Affordable Care Act, aka, Obamacare. Is this a typo on Politico's part, or is Rep. MacArthur trying to imply that the original AHCA actually had all these things that, it turned out, people really liked about the ACA?

Monday, April 17, 2017

Easter caption contest

So this happened at the White House today:


And my first thought was,

Mr. Bunny! Blink twice if you need us to send the SWAT team!
 
What's your caption?

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The long history of denial

I'm rereading Barbara Tuchman's The guns of August, one of the books that drew me into near-compulsive reading of history as a teenager. And a passage leapt out at me as all too relevant to the psychology of how we respond to the issue of climate change.

The book is an account of the first month of World War I, with Germany racing through Belgium and across northern France faster than the French could have imagined, yet not fast enough to accomplish the knockout blow the Germans needed if  they were going to be able to move a large part of their army east to face the Russians.

By early September the German advance had been halted, but the French were too weakened to push them back out of the country, and so they settled down to the years of stalemated  trench warfare.

Tuchman sets the stage by describing the military planning of the major combatants during the early years of the 20th century, including most famously the Schlieffen Plan of the German general staff.

Germany was correct in expecting the French to attack due east into the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, that they had lost after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Under the Schlieffen Plan, Germany would put just enough troops at that part of the front to slow down the French advance and keep it from advancing far into Germany, but the great bulk of the army would be further north and would come pouring through (neutral) Belgium into northern France, then turning south to seize Paris from the north and west. Having taken the capital, the German forces could continue eastward (in the direction of Germany), trapping the bulk of the French army between the defensive troops on the German frontier and the massive invasion force.

The vision - as in other countries - was of a quick war: conquer France in six weeks, deal with the Russians in some short period after that, and be done. But there was an inkling that things wouldn't be that tidy.

Friday, April 14, 2017

"Tsar Nicky" Syndrome

Somewhere way back in my days of reading Russian history, I came across a memorable characterization of Russian Tsar Nicholas II. (I guess it's redundant to say it was memorable, because it must have been close to 30 years ago, and here I am, remembering it. Anyway ...)

He was, by this account, an admirable family man: a doting husband, a loving father.

Not necessarily bright - well, almost certainly not very bright - and poorly trained up for the task of ruling a massive empire where the governing ideology was that all authority and legitimacy was to flow down from him.

But a nice man.

True, he was in charge of an empire that supported the frivolity of a few on the backs of tens of millions, a government that sent people to Siberia for choosing the wrong words in their expression of concern for those tens of millions. And to save that government in the face of the 1905 revolution, he granted a constitution and a legislature then spent the next two years undercutting the efficacy of that legislature in order to continue ruling as the autocrat that he felt it was his responsibility to be. He thus closed off a promising avenue of peaceful evolution, contributing to the cataclysm that 12 years later would destroy him and his lovely family - and his country.

Still, in person he was apparently a nice man.

But the part of the characterization that really stuck was about his beliefs.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Snark of the week award

A Canadian commenter on Daily Kos opines:
America showed up late for two world wars and seem to have decided no one gets to start one without you ever again.
 Golf clap.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Recess grading period

Dear Congressman Faso,

Thank you for your reply to my rather long letter of March 29th.

I note, however, that it is almost identical to the letter I was responding to, the one your office sent to another constituent of yours.

In other words, it’s your standard letter on health insurance, completely unresponsive to the points I made.

You acted according to the practices of your profession, which means that a letter only gets an individualized response if the letter writer is in a position to make a donation of five figures or more.

I understand that your office must receive a large volume of mail, making it impossible to answer each letter individually. Nonetheless, as a constituent I find this frustrating, and so I am responding to your response according to the practices of my profession. I have graded your letter and am sending you the mark-up as an enclosure [see below].

In light of the fact that your letter is an essentially unrevised resubmission, I have not gone into as much detail on this version as on the original.

Perhaps in the future when a constituent writes with concerns about health insurance, the “standard letter” that your office sends back will reflect the realities of how markets and health insurance interact.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Karl Seeley
Associate Professor and Department Chair
Department of Economics
Hartwick College

(next health insurance letter here)
Click to enlarge

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Dystopian sci-fi as bad conscience

Some time when I was home on break from college, my parents and I watched a documentary about Stalin. What I recall most about it, more vividly than the few stray facts that have clung on for those roughly 30 years, was my shock at being shocked.

I was a history major in college, with a focus on eastern Europe. I knew the outlines of Stalinism and many of the salient horrible facts, like the relocations of entire ethnic groups, or the famine in Ukraine created by policy. So I went in already knowing that Stalinism was really bad.

And yet the documentary was able to shock me with the explanation that Stalin was really bad. It's as if my mind can't really hold onto horror, and so something about a horrific situation makes a fresh impression every time I encounter it, even if the facts are familiar. I don't know whether that's a general human trait or if it has something to do with my fortunate reality of never having been directly exposed to that awful side of humanity. Whichever, for decades now I've been aware of this tendency in myself.

And I have the same relationship to slavery.

It's not like the situation of Richard Cohen, who by his own description seems to have learned early in life that slavery was "a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks."

While it's tricky to be too sure of what one learned while still in single digits, I'm pretty sure my first impression of slavery was as a deeply unfair wrong in which pretty bad things happened to black people, for the benefit of white people. And as I got older, more graphic details got filled in.

And yet I still have the capacity to be shocked when I revisit the issue in detail, as I'm doing now, reading  The half has never been told, by Edward E. Baptist. I'm perfectly capable of going into the book knowing that slavery was violent, cruel, inhumane, and marked by sadism, and nonetheless find myself reeling from the evidence that slavery was violent, cruel, inhumane, and marked by sadism.

Baptist's thesis has two core parts.

First, he contests the notions that slavery was a static, backwards relic of feudal times, and that it was inherently less economically efficient than free labor and was therefore fated to wither away.

Baptist documents how slavery changed in the early 1800s as it expanded from the Old South to what was then the Southwest of the United States, in the lower watershed of the Mississippi. It started as a cruel, unjust, and inhumane institution, but in developing the cotton fields of the Southwest it shed what traces of humanity it had left and became worse.

And it turns out it was economically efficient (more on that below).

Saturday, April 1, 2017

More palatable delusions

At Real Clear Health, James C. Capretta has an article suggesting that the GOP should regroup and work with the Democrats on health-care reform.

He's pretty good in his analysis of why the proposed American Health Care Act failed ("repeal and delay" was a non-starter, and then they had to do too many contortions to fit a "repeal and sort-of replace" into the confines of a bill that could fit the requirements of "reconciliation").

And he starts off making sense on the way forward:
To produce such a plan [that might actually pass and can work], Republicans need to adjust their thinking. To begin with, the party should accept as a premise that everyone in the United States should be enrolled in health insurance that pays for major medical expenses. A plan that results in an increase of 15, 20, or 25 million uninsured Americans is not acceptable and would result in a political backlash.
But then the first sign of trouble:

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Open letter to Representative Faso on health insurance

March 30, 2017

Dear Representative Faso,

A fellow constituent shared with me your letter to him on the subject of health insurance. It points to some serious misunderstandings on your part. I’ll get to the specifics of your letter, but I wanted to start with the general concept of “actuarial fairness.”

On the one hand, I don’t want to explain a concept you already know, and as someone who has dealt with public policy you may well be familiar with this one.

On the other hand, your earlier work as a lobbyist and a member of the state assembly may not have required you to learn about this particular term. And your support of the AHCA suggests you haven’t really thought through the implications of applying actuarial fairness in health insurance, so I’ll proceed with and explanation of that and then get to the particulars of your letter.

Actuarial fairness is the idea that people should be charged insurance premiums that are proportional to the costs they will probably impose on the system. If you’re selling 20-year life insurance, you have to charge more for an unhealthy 45-year-old than for a healthy 30-year-old. And you should charge slightly more for a healthy 45-year-old man than for an equally healthy 45-year-old woman. If you’re selling car insurance, you have to charge a higher premium for a 20-year-old man (some young men are excellent drivers, but the average person in that group is more reckless than others). And you have to charge more for people who have moving violations (their documented behavior shows them as individuals to be more reckless than the average driver).

In both of these forms of insurance, actuarial fairness isn’t a problem. We don’t require people to have life insurance, and it’s hard to see that there’s a social problem with people not having it, so we leave that to the market. We do require people to have car insurance if they’re going to drive, and driving is close to a necessity for many people. But it’s easy to separate out the part of someone’s high premium that’s due to who they are (charging more for a 20-year-old male) vs. the part that’s due to how they behave as an individual (a person with multiple moving violations). And that piece about “how you behave as an individual” is a large piece of the premium and useful to have in there as a deterrent to bad behavior, so we’re fine with actuarial fairness in car insurance as well.

In health insurance, however, it has very bad effects.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Which property matters

I finally picked up The half has never been told, by Edward E. Baptist, which I'd been meaning to read since it came out in 2014. The subtitle is, "Slavery and the making of American capitalism," and it's a strongly argued case that slavery was integral to the growth of the country's territory and economy.

That position is probably not a surprise to everyone, but as Baptist points out, there are ways in which we're still stuck in "the half that has ever been told" (p. xx, emphasis added), about how "American slavery was fundamentally different from the rest of the modern economy and separate from it. Stories about industrialization emphasize white immigrants and clever inventors, but they leave out cotton fields and slave labor." (p. xx)

I'm only barely into chapter 2, but the book is repeatedly thought provoking, including the economic and legal history around "the Yazoo."

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Educating the future

Our college president asked my economics colleagues and me to weigh in on a LinkedIn article about big-picture economic trends and higher education.

Artificial intelligence is getting better and better at replacing humans in areas that we had viewed as out of the reach of computers. Wages since 2000 have been uncoupled from corporate profits, shrinking as a share of GDP while profits rose. And education will move from a cottage industry that's light on technology to a relatively small number of "education companies" utilizing technology to the max.

We're having a snow day (which might turn into two) so I had time to turn my hand to a response.

The article can be looked at as two parts. The first is a prognosis of what the economy will be like, and therefore what the job market will be like. The second is a discussion of the future of higher education within that context.

I think the "prognosis" part has pretty wide agreement among economists. The stagnation and decline in routine manual and routine cognitive employment are merely the next step in the Industrial Revolution. Mechanization mostly eliminated the importance of human (and animal) muscle power, moving humans over to "control" functions, whether manual (operating a machine that was powered by something other than your strength) or cognitive (including "routine" things like many office tasks 60 years ago). Now AI is reducing the importance of the human ability to control an object or to make a decision, as long as that control or decision-making can be routinized.

In the case of mechanization, there were shifts in the distribution of wealth, but there was also a huge increase in average wealth, and most people were able to move into work that required the control and decision-making abilities of the human mind, even if those applications were "routine."

With this next step of automating anything that can be routinized, it remains an open question how far the displaced workforce will be taken up into non-routine tasks, whether those are cognitive or manual.

Along the dystopian path, many of us turn out to be economically unnecessary and nothing is done about that, and so we end up with a hypertrophying of the 35-year process we've already experienced of economic stagnation for 90% of the population and rapidly increasing wealth for a small minority.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The enemy of my enemy etc.

A friend posted on Facebook a query about why some American leftists are defending Russia these days.

When I did a Russian-language semester in Moscow in 1988, there were some interesting reactions to observe among some of my classmates (I was in a group of 25 US students, from colleges around the country, hosted at a Soviet university).

I was raised by parents who objected deeply to some of the actions of our own government (e.g., they were war-tax resisters for a couple of years during Vietnam).

At the same time, they were not fans of the Soviet system, they watched the Soviets crush the East German workers in 1953, the Hungarian revolution of 1956, and the Prague Spring of 1968, and they watched the Polish government crush its own people's democratic movement in order to prevent a much bloodier invasion by the Soviets. They knew people who had fled the Soviet bloc.

I went off to college and learned more about what our government and the Soviet government had done and were doing, and continued to be critical of our government while seeing it as preferable to the Soviet one.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Defending your narrative

I had a sense before the inauguration - before the election, really - that Donald Trump was fairly incompetent.

His businesses had gone through bankruptcy - what was it? Four times? Six? - after he somehow managed to lose money running a casino. So much for the saying that, "The house always wins."

And he had that long record of stiffing contractors who'd worked for him, claiming they'd done inadequate work for him.

There was the use of language. Someone can use non-standard English and be hella smart. Trump's language is something different. It seems to betray a simple inability to think clearly.

So when he moved into the White House, I was expecting incompetence, along with fearing anti-democratic actions.

Still, I couldn't have imagined it would look like this.

In my defense, he does represent an unprecedented level of incompetence, so there's no benchmark for what it would look like if this incredibly complex role were being filled by an individual with pretty limited mental capacities, aided by charlatans and mountebanks.

It is tempting to turn to his supporters - the ones who thought he'd be great because he was a successful businessman and we need someone who can bring the fairy dust of the private sector to the government - and say, "Do you still think he's such a good executive?"

But I suspect it would be pointless, in most cases.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Open letter to John Faso

February 1, 2017

Dear Representative Faso,

Congratulations on your victory in last November’s election. You have the privilege of serving our country at an unprecedented time. And that means that you have a chance to play a much more meaningful role than the typical freshman member of Congress.

You won your election by a sizeable margin, so there can be no question that, among the people in our district who bothered to vote, a majority preferred that you represent us in Washington, rather than Zephyr Teachout.

And similarly, of those in our district who bothered to vote, a majority clearly preferred that Donald Trump be president rather than Hillary Clinton. It’s true that, nationally, Mr. Trump lost the popular vote by a historic margin for a person who won, but it’s also true that we don’t have a national popular vote and that Mr. Trump got the votes where they mattered and was duly elected under our system, and that he was the more popular choice in our district.

The question is, what did the people of our district mean to vote for when they filled in the bubble for Donald Trump, and for you.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Scale of action

My friend Andree Zalesk linked on FB to a post by Yonatan Zunger, Trial balloon for a coup. It's not uplifting reading, but I think it is very well argued, and I recommend it.

In comments on Andree's page, someone wrote, "Bannon must go. Period." And Andree responded:
Do you have a strategy in mind? I have NO IDEA how we organize against something this complex and interior. Even some of the best activists I know are refusing to take this in.
I weighed in with some thoughts about government as the organ for collective action combined with the legitimate wielding of compulsion, and the possibility - but more the difficulty - of building alternative means of collective action.

Andree observed, "I don't see here where you're suggesting a strategy for resistance." And she was right. As I wrote to her.
In retrospect, I was answering in a limited way, "What can we do?" But I don't know what we do to resist beyond what we're doing: demonstrating, calling members of Congress, connecting with other people. In the end, if the judiciary declines to declare the executive to be in violation of the law, or the executive decides to ignore the judiciary (as it is apparently already doing), and the arms of the executive (like Customs and Border Patrol) obey the boss rather than the courts, and Congress declines to assert itself (or it asserts itself but the executive ignores Congress and the arms of the executive obey), then I don't know what you do.
Last night I remembered the term "people power" from when the Filipinos turned out in such massive numbers that Marcos fled. What scale of nonviolent action would it take to render Bannon's plans ineffective?
Andree gave me a pat on the back: "There you go: That last sentence is the real question."

OK, but if it is the real question, it's actually just the first real question. Because the one after that is, "How do you achieve that scale of action?"

It's an organizational question, and also one of messaging.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The all-purpose alibi

Trump's madness with the entry ban has been pretty widely panned, with John McCain saying it's misguided (my newly elected Representative, John Faso (R), did as well - ignore the typo in that article that has him listed as "D - NY", in an article about Republican reactions to the order).

A lawyer who describes himself as having been in favor of pretty much every previous anti-terrorism measure describes this one as "malevolence tempered by incompetence."

Similar reaction has greeted Trump's restructuring of the National Security Council. It's hardly reached the volume of the response to the entry ban, but it's a couple days newer, and there's only so much people can push back on at once. And even so, it's gotten some heavy, coherent pushback, including from such an experienced voice in national-security affairs as Michael Hayden, a former director of the NSA and the CIA, and a man who has served under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

But to a convinced Trump supporter, how can it possibly make a difference?

They already know that "Washington" is "broken." Trump is acting decisively, getting things done, not like those worthless politicians who never get anything done.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

No way to run a republic

So the first overt violation of rights has happened, the first act that touches people directly, stops ordinary residents from going about their accustomed business and puts them in a dangerous legal limbo.

Customs and Border Patrol says it only affects a small number of the millions of travelers entering the U.S., which is an asinine way to defend an unjustified action. "Yes, I did take those two kids' lunch money, but they're only a  small percentage of all the students at the school."

For now there has been partially effective pushback: demonstrations at airports, a judicial stay, detainees released.

The new administration tried to do something patently wrong, there was resistance, and the extent of the wrong has been reduced. I am grateful to patriots who took the initiative to go demonstrate at the airports, and to the ACLU for doing the complementary legal work. Thinking about what "victory" might look like in the age of Trump, this is about the best I would have hoped for.

But it is only a partial win, and look what it took. Thousands of people had to drop whatever else they were doing to go put out a fire.

We can be energized by responding meaningfully to danger, but it's like a stress reaction: the phenomenon is necessary in the short run, but harmful if continued over long periods of time.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

"You'll pay for this!"

So Trump found a way to make Mexico pay for The Wall: slap a 20% tariff on imports from Mexico.
"I think the president is using every tool available to him to make sure that, as we put this wall up, he honors his commitment he made to the American people that it's going to be paid for and that Mexico will pay for it," Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), a close Trump ally and member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, told The Hill at the GOP retreat in Philadelphia.
OK, about that, ...

This is something covered in probably every introductory microeconomics class: Who pays the tax?

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Waiting and seeing

Back in November I wrote about a conversation my parents and I had with one of the nurses who was taking care of Dad.

In her view, the media was biased against Trump and took things out of context to make him look bad. She didn't like the appointment of Steve Bannon, but she wanted to keep an open mind and see what Trump was actually going to do.

The conversation devolved into whether Trump was going to take us on a path like Hitler did with Germany. She was insistent that "It's not going to come to that." And of course, she may turn out to be right.

Our question was, "What will you do if it does come to that?"

And her answer was essentially, "But it won't."

Which isn't a great answer, but on reflection, we weren't asking the best question, either.

Because presumably, there's something short of full-on Hitler that's still very, very bad, and somewhere that the U.S. shouldn't be going.

I still see this idea on Facebook threads: You need to keep an open mind. He hasn't done anything yet. Give him a chance.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Good narratives and bad

This is part 2 of my response to the interview with Whole Foods CEO John Mackey in the collection The morality of capitalism; part 1 is here.
 
Earlier I discussed the introductory essay by the book's editor, Tom G. Palmer. Like Palmer, Mackey calls simplified history to his aid, and simply can't get the story he wants to tell to line up sufficiently with reality.
I saw what happened when Ronald Reagan got elected. America was in decline in the 1970s—there’s no doubt about it; look at where our inflation was, where interest rates were, where GDP was heading, the frequency of recessions, we were suffering from “stagflation” that revealed the deep flaws of Keynesian philosophy, and then we had a leader who came in and cut taxes and freed up a lot of industries through deregulation and America experienced a renaissance, a rebirth, and that pretty much carried us for the past twenty-five years or more. We had basically an upward spiral of growth and progress. Unfortunately, more recently we’ve gone backwards again, at least a couple of steps backwards. First, under . . . well, I could blame every one of these presidents and politicians, and Reagan wasn’t perfect by any means either, but most recently Bush really accelerated that retreat and now Obama’s taking it to extraordinary lengths far beyond what any other president has ever done before. (p. 24)
There's a lot here to unpack. Mackey's story is that when Reagan took office in 1981, things were bad, and the policies Reagan implemented made things better, and the whole story shows that Keynesianism is deeply flawed.

Let's look at the numbers.

First, Mackey is right about the frequency of recessions: starting in late 1982, we had a long expansion under Reagan, a very long expansion under Clinton, and a reasonably long expansion under Bush II. Also, the recessions in between those expansions were short and "shallow": they didn't last very long, and GDP didn't fall by very much.


Year-over-year percent change in real GDP.
Shaded bars show recessions.
Click for larger image.
And he's right that inflation came down in the early 1980s.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The hard line

In preparing their 1969 taxes, my parents voiced their objections to the expenditure of money on what they considered an immoral war in Indochina, and on their 1970 taxes they simply didn't pay a small "surtax" that was levied that year, arguing that it was a war tax.

In 1971 and 1972 they seem to have paid in full and without comment, but in tax year 1973 they went in big, claiming a $13,000 deduction for "Illegal gov't action," which had the effect of reducing their tax bill by about 50%.

In the summer of 1974 the IRS got back to them and said, in effect, "No, that's not actually a thing. We've recalculated your taxes with a deduction of $0 instead of $13,000, and here's what you owe." My parents wrote back to the IRS asking for a conference with a conferee, and to Noam Chomsky asking for advice.

The next item in the file is dated Jan 24 1975, a response from the IRS. Where the one from July had been "Form RSC-525 (Rev. 1-73)", this one was "Form L-87 (Rev. 11-69)", but like the other one, it began, "Dear Taxpayer:".

It's very similar to the first one, except that the original one says, "If you do not agree with the adjustments, you may do one of the following," whereas the later letter says, "If you do not accept our findings, you may do one of the following." In other words, the first letter operates under some sort of useful fiction that the taxpayer has simply made an error, and the IRS has fixed it for you. The second letter comes after some question has been considered, and findings have been arrived at.

The other difference is in the options for a response. Both letters offer:
  1. Send us more info
  2. Request a meeting with a tax auditor
  3. Request a conference with a conferee.
But in the second letter options 2 and 3 have been crossed out by hand, but with a straight edge. They also crossed out the line, "The enclosed instructions concerning unagreed cases explain your appeal rights."

And both letters then explain, "If we don't hear from you within 30 days, we will have no alternative but to process your case on the basis of the adjustments shown" etc. etc., but in the second letter the "30" has been crossed out and "15" written above it.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Strength in numbers

When info about the Women's March was first circulating, I was glad it was happening, and I was glad Kate was taking part and helping organize the bus transportation from our neck of the woods.

Yet I was skeptical about what good it could do. It's valuable to show and experience solidarity, and working toward going to the march seemed empowering for Kate, rather than sitting too long with a sense of helplessness. And I got some of that good energy vicariously. But as many people have observed, the march needs to be just the first step - it's the follow-up from all of us that really matters.

Then the images started coming in yesterday, and I changed my mind.

I still agree that the follow-up is where the big payoff will be, but I find myself appreciating the importance of the march itself in a way I hadn't expected. Because the sheer magnitude of the marches - around the country and around the world - was just the visible manifestation of an important reality: the incoming government is not popular.

The new president starts off with historically low approval numbers.

It's widely known that he got about 2.8 million fewer votes than Clinton, but it's deeper than that.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

What concerns a "conscious capitalist"

I'm reading The morality of capitalism as part of supervising an internship a couple of students are doing. It's a provocative read. My reaction to the introductory chapter is here.

The second chapter is an interview with John Mackey, the founder and CEO of the grocery chain Whole Foods.

Mackey's an interesting guy, an advocate of food causes associated with liberals and progressives (organic farming, healthy eating) and an opponent of economic positions associated with progressives (government involvement with health insurance to make it available to more people).

His calling card is something he calls "conscious capitalism," the idea that companies should make profits, but that they should also be about something more than making profits. In the interview, Mackey lists seven core values; creating wealth through profits and growth is number three. Other items on the list include being a good citizen in the communities where they do business, and trying to do their business with environmental integrity.

The interviewer asks, Why not pursue those other things without pursuing profit? Mackey makes the interesting and reasonable reply that that would limit the reach and efficacy of the organization:
[I]f you’re only making enough money to cover your costs, then your impact’s going to be very limited. Whole Foods has a much greater impact today than we had thirty, or twenty, or fifteen, or ten years ago. Because we’ve been highly profitable, because we’ve been able to grow and to realize our purposes more and more, we’ve been able to reach and help millions of people instead of just a few thousand people. So I think profit is essential in order to better fulfill your purpose. (p. 20)
He wraps up this line of thought with a slight overstatement that nonetheless makes an important point:
Also, creating profits provides the capital that our world needs to innovate and progress—no profits, then no progress. They are completely interdependent.
The overstatement lies in the fact that there are ways besides profits for assembling the financial capital to fund innovation and investment.

Strictly speaking, what's needed is "social surplus" - production above and beyond what we need/want to get through our day-to-day lives. If it takes everybody's labor just to grow enough food for us to eat, then we have zero social surplus and no ability build more and better tools. If we can feed ourselves using only half of our time, then we can use the other half in various ways. One option is leisure, but we could also choose innovation and investment.

As long as the social surplus exists, it can marshaled toward investment and innovation in various ways. The Soviet Union had lots of investment and some material progress - a very unimpressive ratio of progress to investment, because their planned economy was bad at choosing useful investments and bad at fostering and adopting innovation, but both things did happen.

And even in a market system, profits are not the only source of [financial] capital. If you pay decent wages, people will save some of their earnings, and then banks and other financial institutions can gather those up into large pools of capital that can fund investments, large and small.

But even if you pay workers enough that they can save and in that way fund investments, there's still an important role for profits, because profits are what provide the return on investment that gives people the incentive to save, and relative profits give information about which investments to choose.

There's an important conversation - one which Mackey perhaps doesn't want to have - about whether profits at some level exceed any useful role in the economy, but profits in principle definitely are an important element of functioning capitalism, whether that be the laissez-faire type that Mackey prefers or a social-democratic model.

Another reasonable concern of Mackey's is what he calls "crony capitalism," where you get ahead not by your hard work and the social usefulness of your ideas, but by your coziness with the government and your resulting ability to get special deals from it.

Friday, January 20, 2017

What to call him?

Only once in the last eight years have I actually been directly in conversation with someone who made a point of not calling Barack Obama "the president." A fellow American in a foreign country, referred to "the occupant of the White House-" and I'd interjected, "You mean, the President?" He responded, "Oh, that's how it is."

I thought it was juvenile. Obviously you don't like him, but he is in fact legitimately the president.

I'm now stumped.

At some level, is it any different if I come up with some clever moniker for The Orange One?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The IRS strikes back

In the early 1970's, my parents were war-tax resisters.

As I heard the story about 30 years ago, they along with others who objected to the war in Southeast Asia, reduced their federal income tax payments by an amount to roughly account for the portion of federal spending going to the war. After a couple of years, the IRS essentially said, Pay up, or you're going to jail. Others actually did go to jail, but my parents decided, with four kids at home, that wasn't the responsible path for them. They settled up their unpaid balance (with interest) and moved on.

Last week I was at my Mom's, going through things and papers in the wake of Dad's death last November. I found their tax filings from 1958 (the year they married) through 2013, and the folders starting with 1969 contain the documentation of their actions, as narrated here and here.

The 1973 folder contains a subfolder labeled "Case," and you can follow Mom and Dad's efforts to satisfy their consciences and the IRS at the same time.

It leads off with a form letter stamped with the date Jul 29 1974 (their big underpayment action would have been in April, 1974, for the 1973 tax year). The IRS sent them a report explaining the adjustments to their tax. "If you do not agree with the adjustments, you may do one of the following within 15 days from the date of this letter:"

The three options were:
  1. send in additional evidence or info;
  2. request a meeting with a tax auditor; or
  3. request a conference with a conferee.

The attached report says,

Items changed: WAR OR OTHER PROTESTS
Amount Shown on Return or As Previously Adjusted: 13000.000
Corrected Amount of Income And Deduction: 0.000
Adjustments Increase or (Decrease): 13000.00

There's then an explanatory note:

19-A DEDUCTION, CREDIT, OMISSION OF INCOME, OR OTHER ADJUSTMENT ON A FEDERAL TAX RETURN AS AN EXPRESSION OF WAR OR OTHER PROTEST IS NOT PROVIDED FOR IN THE LAW. WE HAVE CORRECTED YOUR TAX FOR THE ADJUSTMENT YOU MADE. (SECTION 61 OF THE INTERNAL REVENUE CODE).

The following numbers show their corrected tax owed as 10,445.10, while the tax shown on the return they'd filed in April was entered as 5,407.52. The result was a "statutory deficiency" of 5,0937.58.

Their prepayments, through employer tax withholding and estimated tax payments, were 5,686.90, so they owed 4,758.20.

The IRS also included Publication 5 (Rev. 10-73), "Appeal Rights and Preparation of Protests for Unagreed Cases".

Chronologically, the next item in the file is a letter from my parents, to Noam Chomsky, dated July 30, 1974. The letter seems to be a response to the report from the IRS, though the dating is confusing. The IRS report is dated July 29, 1974, a Monday. If it was sent by mail, how would they have had it before, say, Wednesday. Was it hand delivered? Was it sent by overnight mail?

Anyway, their letter from the 30th reads,

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Nature's Trump card

I'm in the process of going over page proofs for my book,  Macroeconomics in ecological context, which is finally just about done, due out next month with Springer, after far too long.

In my proofing I came across the passage below and thought it was a timely reminder as the Senate considers Scott Pruitt's nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Another kind of renewable resource is the biosphere’s capacity to absorb the waste we dump into it. This may not feel like an input, the way wood is an input to a house or petroleum is an input to flying. In fact, it’s related to an output, rather than an input, though that output is unintentional. Even so, the similarity to an input is there.

You can’t make a house without using some sort of material, like wood or stone or adobe. You can’t fly a plane without using petroleum. And you can’t burn coal without using up some of the biosphere’s ability to absorb the soot and CO2. So we can think of that absorptive capacity as an input. The biggest difference is in how its limits make themselves known to us.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Resistance coming to fruition

In an earlier post I presented a letter from 1970 from my parents to the IRS, explaining their reluctance to pay their taxes given the war in Vietnam they were helping to fund, and a memo from 1971, explaining that they weren't paying the surtax levied for tax year 1970, as it seemed to be a war  tax.

Then no sign of anything out of the ordinary for tax years 1971 and 1972.

The 1973 tax folder was the jackpot year. There's a "Schedule A: Itemized Deductions," most of which is routine stuff, written in pencil (it's their working copy, the one they kept for their own files, back in the days before electronic filing, and even before easy access to Xerox machines).

But under line 33, "Other (Itemize)" is written in pen, "Illegal gov't action ded, (see letter attached)" with 13,000 entered in the space for the amount.

The attached letter is a type-written document, undated (but presumably it's from about April 14, 1974, sent with their 1973 tax filing), that reads:

* Illegal Government Action deduction

Monday, January 16, 2017

Setting the stage

Two students of mine are doing an internship at Atlas Network, where they've been encouraged to read The morality of capitalism: what your professors won't tell you, [link fixed, 1/23/17] a collection of essays by various authors. In order to be able to discuss the book with them, I've been making my way through it, and found myself jotting notes at such a rate that it seemed there was a short essay lurking in the margins of each chapter.

The title has some ambiguity: Will the argument be that capitalism is moral and your professors are unfairly blackening its name? Or that the morality of capitalism is bad, and your professors have been painting too rosy a picture?

Let me not keep you in suspense: the book's contributions are dedicated to showing that capitalism is good, despite what college may have tried to teach you to the contrary.

The introductory chapter by the editor, Tom G. Palmer, sets the stage by laying out pieces of the argument for how capitalism is moral. But based on the five essays I've read so far, it also prepares us for what's to come in other ways. The essay makes some valid points touching on facts that may be overlooked by critics of how markets work, things that are worth keeping in mind in your view of reality. But then it weakens itself with a black-and-white view of "capitalism" vs. anything that deviates from it, overly broad generalizations drawn from excessively simplified historical narratives, logical leaps, and use of words with strong emotive power while avoiding any specification of what is meant by them.

As an example of a point that may be ignored by critics of capitalism, consider the potential openness to people, regardless of their background:

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Brace yourself

Back in July I got to see Hamilton. Kate wanted to treat herself (and us) to something special for her 50th, and I thought she'd found an excellent way to do that.

Throughout the show I had a growing sense of the tension between the stage and the world outside.

Onstage, a team of audacious artists had reconceived part of the story of the Founding Fathers, and presented those iconic white men as people of color, rapping.

Out in the wider world, we were at the start of a general election in which the Confederate flag was making a more prominent appearance than I remember in my 40 years of paying attention to politics. Citizens were organizing to protest against the insanely high odds of being shot for the color of their skin, and some portion of the populace looked at the phone videos and managed to find a way to say there was nothing wrong.

Signs of progress, next to unsettling reminders of how far we had still to go. The sickness in the population was evident, but I was confident the election would come out OK.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Resonances

A couple weeks ago, looking for something to read, I picked up from my shelf The Germans by Gordon A. Craig, an eminent historian of Germany.

I keep coming upon passages that, in the current context, seem to ring a bell.

The chapter on "Romanticism" is an insightful overview of the flight from rational thought. I was struck by the relationship to a sense of helplessness:
Sociologically, Romanticism was always - as the sociologist of literature Leo Lowenthal has suggested it was in its first phase - an essentially bourgeois movement, and politically it was an escape from the bourgeois dilemma of powerlessness. Thus, it was significant that the years 1830-1848, when bourgeois self-confidence was at its height, and when the German middle class had every expectation of seizing political power, as the middle class had succeeded in doing in France in 1830 and in England in 1832. But the failure of the revolution of 1848 destroyed these hopes and did serious and permanent damage to middle-class amour propre and self-confidence, and in the subsequent period escapism and regressive behavior became the order of the day. (p. 197)
Craig traces the glorification of the peasantry and the denigration of city people, presenting a passage from the social geographer W.H. Riehl:

Friday, January 13, 2017

Nowhere to go but in

Arwa Mahdawi in the Guardian has an interesting piece on the "self-care" culture, and people's retreat into it from the harsh realities of the current political scene.

Near the end, she cites Jamie Kalven's comparison of self-care to the "internal migration" that characterized the behavior of money people in the Soviet bloc who were dissatisfied with the regimes under which they lived.

To the extent that there are similarities, it’s important to note a deep difference between communist-era internal migration and Western political disengagement.

The classic portrait of internal migration is someone who would like to live in an open society, where they can say what they want, criticize the government, read what they want, listen to what they want, go to movies that haven’t had to squeak past the government censor, etc.

Those things weren’t possible in the Soviet bloc. Calling for them was risky. Earlier in the communist period, the consequence could easily be jail, possibly execution. By the 1970s and 80s, a death sentence for illegal political or cultural activity was pretty much unheard-of, and jail might well be an off-and-on thing, but you could still lose the ability to work in your chosen profession while exposing your friends to risks as well.

A few people chose to speak out anyway. We called them “dissidents” and lionized them. Most people decided that the risks of engagement were too high, so they migrated inward. And while we can appreciate the courage and sacrifice of those who spoke out, if we haven’t ourselves been citizens of a repressive society, where we can endanger our well-being by voicing critical opinions, we should be slow to castigate those who chose internal migration. None of us knows what choice we would have made if we had been in their shoes.

I’d like to say that there are no dire consequences of speaking out in the U.S., but I’m not sure I can make that categorical a statement. We have the no-fly list, where you can land in response to relatively mild remarks that some government entity deems a threat, or through having a similar name to someone whom the government deems a threat. Still, I think it’s fair to say that you can pretty much say, write, blog, read, listen to what you like, without fear of negative consequences from the government. I’m quite confident that that holds up as a relative statement, compared to the experience in the communist bloc.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Random pages from a life

Among the many things in the long closet on the 3rd floor, a box of Grandpa Bass's journals, an incomplete set from 1967 through his last year, 1976.

There's also a binder labeled "Abstract of diaries, Emery Bass, Apr 1963 to  ", listing events culled from his diaries, starting:

1963
Apr 17 Last days at Hires Root Beer
Apr 19 Left for Boston
May 14 Left for Chicago

etc. etc. etc.

1964 includes:

Sep 3 Birth of --------> Lauren

(her name is off to the right, in the column for "Events", rather than "Medical" or "Trips", which were the other options.

1967
Jan 26 Snow started at 6am. By nitefall of Jan 27 - 24" Everything at a standstill
.
.
.
July 21 Call from Boston - Karl born

(and an "x" over in the "E" column for "Events")

In the 1976 journal the entry for Wednesday, September 15th reads:

4 hrs work in morning

Drove to Kenosha in P.M. for my own relaxation + at same time deliver a special order to a religious organization at the request of John. No time - no mileage charge. Enjoyed trip.

Evening spent relaxing and reading periodicals.

1st + last time for Starsky + Hutch.

News + bed.

Fairly restful nite.

November 7th has notes about seeing Noel Coward's "Design for living" and other entertainment:
Brilliant satirical comedy, highly sophisticated but a bright mirror on the manners + foibles of artists, rich, the press.
Sylvia viewed "Gone with the wind" - I packed some more. [Grandma and Grandpa were getting ready to move from their house to an apartment]
Early bed
Over that entry he taped a newspaper clipping, in such a manner that you could flip the clipping up and read his own notes. The clipping is a short piece titled, "Not to have purpose generates despair".

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The limits to not being smug

Kate's network of college friends has left her with a social environment that is politically more diverse than mine. People she was simpatico with in college and treasures to this day were more conservative than she at the time, and some have followed that path to being Trump supporters today.

For whatever reason, that isn't my situation.

One of Kate's college friends posted on her Facebook page a story from last summer, written by Emmett Rensin, a liberal, about the smug style in American liberalism, blaming this attitude for a large part of why conservatives won't give credence to liberal arguments.

The article has some good insights.

It should be obvious that telling people they're stupid is probably not a very effective way to get them to vote for the person you think should win.

It should be obvious, and yet it happens. I've seen others do it. I've done it in my own head, and) I've done it out-loud in private among like-minded people. I can't vouch that I've never done it publicly (though I'm very careful not to do it in class).

But I have two big problems with the article.

First, there's a symmetry in the disregard with which our country's two political camps view each other.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Rock and a hard place

For seven years the Republicans have been obsessed with repealing Obamacare. Now they control the House, the Senate, and, as of next Friday, the presidency, so now they're going to get rid of it, right?

Well, it's not so simple. Now five senators are asking for a delay, of a little more than a month. As Josh Marshall writes at that link:
Republicans, through numerous public statements, have already made a huge strategic concession: that no one should lose their coverage or be worse off once Obamacare is repealed. In other words, they now agree - or to put it more crisply, are unwilling to publicly disagree - with the proposition that the more than 20 million people who've gained health care coverage under Obamacare should continue to have affordable access to coverage.
The problem is, none of the proposals Republicans are considering come close to accomplishing that.
And the reason for that is that there's no way to do it.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A taste of resistance

I'm at my parents' for a few days. I guess strictly speaking it's now my mom's, but essentially it's still my parents', even with Dad gone.

I'm here to spend time with Mom and to help her with going through stuff. When you've lived in the same house for 52 years, there's quite a lot of stuff.

Today I cleaned out a file cabinet that mostly had completely unnecessary stuff: check books and bank statements and insurance payments, for decades.

And manila envelopes and hanging file folders with tax filings. Every year since 1958. Pretty expendable at this point.

But when you flip open the file for 1969, there's a type-written letter:

April 14, 1970

Randolph W. Thrower
Commissioner of Internal Revenue

Dear Mr. Thrower:

I pay my tax this year with the greatest reluctance and misgiving. I do not object to the amount; I would be willing to pay twice as much if it were well spent.

But I cannot voluntarily support the war in Vietnam (and elsewhere); it seems to me that both sides in Vietnam are essentially gangsters fighting for turf. If there were any effective way to withdraw my support of this, I would do it.

Sincerely,

Robert T. Seeley
Charlotte B. Seeley

Sunday, January 8, 2017

What we stand to lose: the ACA approach to the "uninsurables"

Health is poorly understood, but pretty damn important, so I'm taking a whack at breaking it down into comprehensible terms.

In my first post on the subject, I introduced the key concepts of insurance but looking at other things we insure. (If you don't want to bother with that post, you can skip to the bottom of this one to see those items summarized.)

In the next one, I looked at what happens when you apply those concepts to health insurance. The main takeaway is that if we're thrown into the health-insurance market as individuals, rather than as members of largish groups, many of us will turn out to be effectively uninsurable - nobody will sell us a policy at a price that is remotely affordable for us.

The solution we've relied upon - employer-based health insurance - is better than all of us being out there as individuals, but it still leaves a lot of people uncovered. Hence, the Affordable Care Act.

The core of the act is three interrelated pieces:
  1. A ban on discriminating against pre-existing conditions (that is, you have to sell insurance to people with pre-existing conditions, and you have to charge them the same as you charge other people);
  2. A mandate for individuals to have insurance, whether through their employer, their spouse's employer, or bought on their own;
  3. Subsidies to less-wealthy households who are buying insurance on their own (plus an expansion of Medicaid eligibility to take care of another group of lower-income households).
This is the natural order to walk through these pieces, because the first one addresses the problem directly, and the next two each address a problem created by the one before.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

What we stand to lose: health insurance is different

Health insurance is a potentially confusing subject - Congress certainly seems to be unsure what to do about it. But at its core, it's not that complicated.

It is, however, surprising. Some of the things we think we know from other types of insurance, or even other economic situations, end up pushing in surprising directions when we apply them to the question of health care.

The previous post in this series looked at coverage for homes, cars, and lives, in order to introduce the key concepts for thinking about insurance. They're summarized here:
  • Risk pooling: the average outcome for a group of people is far more predictable than the specific outcome for any individual. So when we pool a bunch of people, there's a lot less uncertainty about the average cost associated with that group than about the specific cost associated with any individual in the group. Risk isn't merely transferred by pooling; it's actually reduced.
  • The lucky pay for the unlucky: if you never "get" to file a claim on your insurance, it's because nothing bad ever happened to you.
  • Mandatory insurance: under certain circumstances, the government or some private entity might require you to buy insurance as a condition of something else.
  • Moral hazard: when you are spared from the bad possible outcomes of risky behavior, while benefiting from the good outcomes, you'll take more risks than you should.
  • Actuarial fairness: when the premium you pay is proportional to the cost you are likely to represent.
  • Adverse selection: when an insurer is unable to make use of information about characteristics of its customers, that affect how costly they're likely to be. The insurer charges higher premiums to protect itself, the less costly people drop away even more, and the pool falls apart.
The weirdness with health insurance starts when we take the concept of actuarial fairness, and ask what happens when we apply it to individuals. That is, what if we figure out the health-insurance premium for each individual that is scaled to the health costs he or she is likely to incur?

It pretty quickly becomes clear that we will have a group of people who are essentially uninsurable.

Friday, January 6, 2017

What we stand to lose: Basics of health insurance

On Wednesday I was a guest in the Rural Health class taught by the nursing program at Hartwick College. For many residents of rural areas, social and economic factors are an important aspect of their health situation, along with access to health care. In that context, the professors for the course invited me in to speak about health insurance.

My goal was to make health insurance more comprehensible by setting it in the context of other types of insurance, draw general principles from those, then see what happens when you apply those principles to health coverage.

I expect this to be two posts: one on the insurance background, the other on issues specific to health insurance. We'll see how it goes.

Start with the basic idea of insurance.

You as an individual are risky. Let's say we're talking about whether you'll get hit by a car. And to keep the exercise simple, let's say that getting hit by a car brings with it $20,000 in medical expenses (along with a lot of pain). And let's say there's a 3-in-100,000 chance of you being hit this year.

So there are two possible outcomes. You almost certainly won't be hit, in which case the cost is $0. But there's a 0.003% chance that you will be hit, in which case there's a cost of $20,000.

So, almost certainly $0, but just maybe $20,000. Nothing in between.

Now take a group of 100,000 people, all with that same 0.003% chance of a $20,000 accident. You can't expect there to be exactly 3 accidents. In fact, the chance of that is only 22.4%. But there's a 99.6% chance that the number of accidents will be between 0 and 8. Which means the average cost for the group will almost certainly be between $0 and $1.6.

That's a much easier situation to plan for than your individual situation where the only possible outcomes are $0 and $20,000.

This is the magic of what's known as risk pooling.

When you pay an insurance company, you might think of it as you paying them to bear the financial risk on your behalf: if you get hurt, you won't have to pay - they will. But in some sense, when they put together a pool of people to insure, in some sense they're not bearing risk for you. They're making it go away. That's the magic part.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

A missed opportunity

This is my fourth and final post in response to David Dayen's Chain of title. If you have any interest in the foreclosure crisis of the previous decade, I recommend it highly.

My first post provided a primer on the process of mortgage securitization, setting up the aspects of the process which led to the "need" for banks to fabricate documentation in order to foreclose on homes that they didn't necessarily own.

The next post provided a representative catalog of varieties of fraud perpetrated by the financial sector in the course of the foreclosure crisis.

The third installment provided a framework for thinking about the rights and wrongs of the situation.

This post is about the political failure in the face of the crisis. The failure was bipartisan, with some evidence that Republicans were more willing (eager?) to let the banks get away with theft. But I want to highlight the aspect of this being a missed opportunity for Democrats. Both parties failed the public. The Democrats failed themselves, and thereby contributed to the election of Trump.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

When you're stealing houses, what's right?

This is my third post in response to David Dayen's Chain of title. If you have any interest in the foreclosure crisis of the previous decade, I recommend it highly.

My first post provided a primer on the process of mortgage securitization, setting up the aspects of the process which led to the "need" for banks to fabricate documentation in order to foreclose on homes that they didn't necessarily own.

The next post provided a representative catalog of varieties of fraud perpetrated by the financial sector in the course of the foreclosure crisis.

This post is about one way of thinking about the rights and wrongs of the situation.

According to the Wall Street Journal, "More than 9.3 million homeowners went through a foreclosure, surrendered their home to a lender or sold their home via a distress sale between 2006 and 2014."

To be clear at the outset, I'm not claiming that all those foreclosures were wrong.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Learning from animals

 On the TED Radio Hour about a year ago, Deborah Gordon talked about the self-organization of ants (and other biological phenomena) and what we can learn from that.

She contrasted the elegant, decentralized solutions found in biology to the clumsy, top-down structures that humans seem to design.

One of her interesting observations was a connection between ants determining how to forage and packets of information deciding how to send themselves out along the internet.

Ants in the desert have to balance the need to find food against the loss of water that comes from being out in the desert, away from their nest. According to Gordon, these ants only leave the nest if they encounter enough foragers returning with food, thus focusing their foraging their efforts on times when the likelihood of finding food makes it worth the loss of water.

On the internet, if you're a data packet, the thing you need isn't food, but bandwidth. And rather than have a central control telling you when to go, the decision is similarly decentralized: a data packet can't go out until it gets an acknowledgment from the router that the previous data packet had the bandwidth to go through.

As Gordon observes, "We invented for the internet a very similar algorithm to one that has evolved in desert ants many, many millions of years, and we just invented the internet yesterday."

"For situations where we don't have the right algorithm yet, we could look to see, how has nature solved that problem, and maybe we could use that solution."

That's an excellent idea, but she takes it too far. Not only are there ideas in nature we can learn from, she seems to cast hierarchies in general as undesirable.

Monday, January 2, 2017

How to steal a house: the pitch

This is the second part of my reflection on David Dayen's Chain of title. The first part is here.

In an earlier post I gave a condensed version of how mortgage securitization worked (or in most cases, didn't fully work), and how it led banks to a situation where they either needed to relinquish claims on millions of houses, or fabricate evidence to show ownership that they had previously neglected to properly document.

Guess which path they chose?

No, don't bother. This post is about the ways that banks fabricated the evidence they needed in order to foreclose on homes that they didn't properly have a right to. It's also about how they maneuvered borrowers into a place where the banks could make a case - sometimes blatantly unjustified - that the borrowers had been delinquent.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Late bloomers

At my dad’s service last month I was talking with an old family friend who in mid-life got a doctorate and has recently started teaching at a university.

“After the election, I noticed that my students were more comfortable with lying. If you catch them, they just say, ‘Oh yeah, right.’ There’s no shame, no compunction about lying. If lying serves their purposes, then it’s a fine thing to do.”

I suggested this was maybe the logical conclusion of our worship of markets.

Pretty early in my Hartwick career I ran into students expressing the idea that, “If the government is doing it, it’s bad.” It struck me that to some extent our culture’s mental horizons are limited by a set of ideological blinders oddly symmetrical with the ones the Soviet government fit for its people.

In the USSR, it was common knowledge that markets are inherently bad, inherently exploitative. And you didn’t find this attitude only in government propaganda that ordinary people shrugged off. The propaganda had worked, so that ordinary people believed it.

In the fall of 1988, while I was studying in Moscow, I had dinner with a family that hated it so much in the Soviet Union that they wanted to emigrate. Yet I had a conversation with the father of the family in which I explained the basic workings of a market, and his response was, “But isn’t that exploitation?”

I think a lot of Soviet citizens internalized at least part of the state ideology, the part that said that the only way to have a fair society was to squeeze markets out of as many situations as possible, so that the state, acting wisely and on behalf of the working class, could make sure that things were done properly.

Outside the USSR, plenty of people were not surprised when this turned out to be a disaster.