Thursday, December 30, 2010

Partisan Snowstorms

This post by Charlotte Hays is really one of the dumbest things I've seen on National Review in ages.

The blizzard is definitely a force for conservatism, and not only because it has had the global-warming crowd scrambling for explanations. The blizzard reveals something basic: Liberals in government want to tell us what to eat, counsel us about how and when to die, and in general attempt to engineer our lives. But when reality knocks, they can’t do the basic stuff such as clearing the streets so that newborns don’t die in bloody apartment-building lobbies.

Using the inefficiencies of the New York City snow-clearing system to discredit liberalism is...a stretch, to say the least. And note that she's really asking for better service, not the elimination of service.

But I also love the little flash of global-warming ignorance. Every Winter brings the spectacle of some right-wing dim bulb noticing snow falling and declaring that global warming is a myth. Those people can't tell the difference between weather and climate or between local phenomena and global phenomena. But nonetheless they get writing gigs for the most prestigious conservative publication.

Via Conor

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tyler Cowen on Inequality

Tyler Cowen has received a lot of attention for this post on inequality in which he attempts to discern the inequality that matters from inequality that doesn't (or inequality that is unacceptable vs. inequality that is). I'm still chewing on it, but I wanted to address his first point, which is that that "the income of personal well-being" has markedly improved over the past century.
First, the inequality of personal well-being is sharply down over the past hundred years and perhaps over the past twenty years as well. Bill Gates is much, much richer than I am, yet it is not obvious that he is much happier if, indeed, he is happier at all. I have access to penicillin, air travel, good cheap food, the Internet and virtually all of the technical innovations that Gates does...
Compare these circumstances to those of 1911, a century ago. Even in the wealthier countries, the average person had little formal education, worked six days a week or more, often at hard physical labor, never took vacations, and could not access most of the world’s culture. The living standards of Carnegie and Rockefeller towered above those of typical Americans, not just in terms of money but also in terms of comfort.
I think that's basically true. But there are a couple of major caveats. First of all, I think he over-reaches here:
Like the vast majority of Americans, I have access to some important new pharmaceuticals, such as statins to protect against heart disease. To be sure, Gates receives the very best care from the world’s top doctors, but our health outcomes are in the same ballpark.
Health care is, in fact, one of the very things that separates a person like Bill Gates from the average American, which is why health care reform has been so important. An average middle class American may enjoy many of life's finer things just like Gates does, but being hit by a major illness can mean bankruptcy and ruin. Gates obviously isn't faced with that problem.

The second caveat is that much of the decrease in the inequality of personal well-being is artificial; millions of Americans can only experience those finer things by hugely over-extending themselves and going into debt.

Having said all that, I'm happier being an average Joe today than an average Joe in 1901.

Car Seats and Libertarianism

We're shopping for child car seats right now, and so I was reading this article with interest. I was stunned by this figure:

The push for car-seat changes is also prompted by data showing the use of child restraints cuts car-collision deaths dramatically. Between 1993 and 2006, the number of child passengers who died in motor-vehicle accidents dropped by 50 per cent, according to Transport Canada, which attributes the decline to improved design and greater use of child restraints.

Deaths dropped by 50 percent in that time period due simply to improved designs. And what spurred the improved designs? Incredibly restrictive government regulations. Basically, if you live in the US or Canada, it's impossible to buy a crappy child car seat in a store. They differ in features and some are more basic than others, but they all have to pass the same rigorous tests. This is a great example of the positive role government can play in our lives.

That might seem like an obvious thing to say, but it poses a big problem for libertarianism. Extreme libertarians submit that the only justifiable role for government is to provide security and enforce contracts. Anything else begins to impinge on individual freedom. What might their response to this car seat story be? It would go something like this: the government has no right to prevent me from buying a crappy, unsafe car seat if I wish to. That's a decision for each individual to make according to their conscience. Let the market take care of it. If there is demand for cheap, unsafe car seats, then we should let manufacturers supply them. The government shouldn't be intervening in markets and in people's free choices.

I think pure libertarianism is not more popular because of scenarios like this, where most people recognize that there is a serious moral problem in respecting the free choice of a few individuals at the cost of thousands of lives. Quite a few people call themselves libertarians, but I think there are very few people who don't have at least a few pet causes that they think merit government intervention or regulation. In my experience, most people who call themselves libertarians are in fact conservatives who resent the government's role in a few areas but promote it in many others.

A libertarian might now respond to the car seat discussion by clarifying that an individual should be free to act as they wish only as long as they are not harming others, and that in this case harm (or potential harm) is clearly being done and so government intervention is justified. So what about cases where there is no obvious victim or harm being done? Helmet laws are a useful case. Why should cyclists be forced to wear helmets? If a car hits them, they are probably the only ones who are going to be hurt. Shouldn't they be free to make that choice if they aren't concerned with their safety? One rebuttal is that riding without a helmet isn't really a victimless crime; any injuries sustained tend to drive up medical and insurance costs for everyone. But let's pretend that that's not true and that the cyclist really is the only victim of their refusal to wear a helmet. Are the regulations wrong in that case? These discussions tend to boil down to a matter of self-ownership. Do we own ourselves? The obvious immediate answer seems to be yes, but consideration of the types of scenarios offered by Michael Sandel might make us reconsider:

Should a person be free to donate an organ even if it means they will certainly die? Should someone be free to offer their life and body to a cannibalistic killer? (Believe it or not, these aren't hypotheticals but real-life scenarios) In a future post I'll try to summarize Sandel's discussion in more depth. But suffice it to say that there are many scenarios which strongly question our intuitive belief that we completely own ourselves. It remains to be seen whether that will shake anybody's beliefs about helmet laws, but it is something that needs to be addressed by pure libertarians.

Finally, a core weakness of libertarianism is that it has a very narrow conception of liberty (essentially just negative liberty). There's a lot more to liberty than being left alone.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Is the Mandate Constitutional?

A few days ago, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the individual mandate in the health reforms of the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional. This got a lot of hyperbolic press proclaiming the imminent end of "Obamacare." In truth, it's not nearly as critical a ruling as all that. For one thing, the ruling itself separated the individual mandate from the rest of the Affordable Care Act, meaning that even if the mandate were struck down the rest would still survive. Furthermore, the judge refused to grant an injunction preventing the implementation of the health reforms.

We also have to look at the context of the ruling. This is actually the third ruling on the individual mandate, and the first two both found the mandate to be constitutional. It's maybe a sad commentary on the US judicial system that these rulings have been completely partisan. The two judges who ruled in favor of the mandate were appointed by Clinton and the judge who ruled against was appointed by George W. Bush - so much for apolitical judges calling balls and strikes. Anyway, all of these rulings are just stepping stones on the way to the Supreme Court.

So what will happen at the Supreme Court? Who knows. It's famously stacked with several activist Republicans including Scalia, Alito, and Roberts, but I think even they would be very hesitant to hand down a ruling that would dramatically reinterpret and narrow the ability of the federal government to regulate economic activity.

But what if they do declare the mandate unconstitutional? The rest of the health reforms would still be in place. And here's the key problem: the health reforms do not work without the mandate. If you prohibit insurance companies from discriminating based on pre-existing conditions, and you don't require people to have insurance, then people will simply wait until they get sick and then get insurance. That obviously is not a sustainable system. And, as this article points out, it "is not an insurance system at all. It’s free-riding." So the mandate would be replaced with something very similar to the mandate. Ideas are already circulating should that come to pass.

So the takeaway point is that, even in the worst case scenario, this does not signal the end of the Affordable Care Act.

Revolving Doors

There's a lot of justified anger and cynicism regarding Peter Orzag's move from the White House to Citigroup. A move like this tends to reinforce what people see as a cosy relationship between government and the banking sector, and it seems like we would be well-served by limits on how quickly a person could move from one to the other. But this analysis by Will Wilkinson struck me as wrong-headed:
Progressives laudably seek to oppose injustice by deploying government power as a countervailing force against the imagined opressive and exploitative tendencies of market institutions. Yet it seems that time and again market institutions find ways to use the government's regulatory and insurer-of-last-resort functions as countervailing forces against their competitors and, in the end, against the very public these functions were meant to protect.

We are constantly exploited by the tools meant to foil our exploitation. For a progressive to acknowledge as much is tantamount to abandoning progressivism. So it's no surprise that progressives would rather worry over trivialities such as campaign finance reform than dwell on the paradoxes of political power.
I think the first paragraph is basically correct, and it's the second that I take issue with. Acknowledging that market institutions exploit public institutions and their regulatory functions is not "tantamount to abandoning progressivism" any more than acknowledging that pure unchecked market capitalism can be destabilizing and destructive requires a free market advocate to completely abandon the idea. It's like saying that because the system can be gamed, then the entire system should be scrapped. Chait offers several rebuttals, including this one:
As Wilkinson semi-concedes later on in his item, it's not really true that "Well-connected wonks can get rich on Wall Street only because Washington power is now so unconstrained." It's impossible to create a government weak enough that having deep knowledge of government will not be a marketable commodity. Given that fact, the only answer is to create social norms and regulatory barriers to minimize excessive special interest as best as possible.

Wilkinson's post is interesting and much more than a bash on progressivism; he even walks back that original statement. He's asking the right questions:
Maybe it's true that markets hum along smoothly only with relatively active government intervention and it's also true that relatively active government intervention is eventually inevitably co-opted, exacerbating rather than mitigating capitalism's injustices. Perhaps the best we can hope ever to achieve is a fleeting state of grace when fundamentally unstable forces are temporarily held in balance by an evanescent combination of complementary cultural currents. This is increasingly my fear: that there is no principled alternative to muddling through; that every ideologue's op-ed is wrong, except the ones serendipitously right. But muddle we must.

So what is to be done about the structural injustice spotlighted by Peter Orszag's passage through the revolving golden door? How exactly do we tweak the unjust structure? If the system is rigged, how exactly do we unrig it? In which direction can we muddle without making matters worse?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Free Will

John Searle visits Google and discusses free will and determinism: