February 10, 2012
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Those who know me best probably assume that my vote is already locked in for President Obama in November, but that’s not exactly true.  Although I tend to vote Democrat, I am definitely not a party faithful.  I am not registered as a Democrat, I have voted for Republicans in more local elections in the recent past, and Jon Huntsman would have gotten my vote this time around if he hadn’t run – and failed miserably – in the most conservative Republican Primary since Goldwater’s campaign.  I am socially progressive and economically a little right of center; and so a moderate Republican actually would suit me quite well.  But lately, I have needed to somewhat settle for Democrats because Republicans have generally been way out in Right field.

But I’ve found over the past few years that I get very upset and sometimes angry when I hear Republican talking points.  I typically pride myself on being open to ideas and willing to listen to both sides, but when it comes to the extremes, I just sort of shut down.  I’ve been trying lately to figure out why that is.  What is it about someone that never waivers from their convictions that just drives me up a wall?  I think part of it is that a person like that invariably becomes deaf to new information.  Of course, they can only do this for so long.  Eventually there will come a point when they cannot ignore that information any longer, but the absolute destruction this claims on their faith and convictions tends to make them bitter and depressed.  How could it not?  Their whole world that they thought they knew just came crashing down on them. 

I have made a conscious effort to guard against that by never rejecting any information as “obviously” not true until it is proven to me without a doubt that it is actually not true.  Evidence is the key to this.  I try extremely hard to form my opinions based on evidence and not on my own emotional reaction.  For example, my deep-down prejudice and my in-grained religious code tells me that homosexuality is wrong and is a choice.  But my experience and brain research studies that I have read tell me otherwise.  Which one is correct?  I’m open to more evidence, but I am no longer open to someone telling me that I need to think one way or the other or else I am not a good Christian or not a good academic or progressive. 

Another example is my changing viewpoint on economics.  When I first began to think about economics in grad school, I was very much what conservatives would derisively call a Big Government Liberal.  I had a very difficult time squaring my progressive social views with almost any private profit.  For a while there, I would have probably been considered by most as a socialist.  But as I gained new information through experience and research, I have become much more moderate.  The socialist in me was almost dealt a fatal blow by the bank and auto bailouts a few years ago.  This was entirely an emotional reaction.  It just wasn’t fair!  Why should I be on the hook to bail them out of poor decisions that they made?  Later, I saw it in a slightly different way: we stunt economic development and growth when we prop up industries that fail because we wipe out the natural advantage that newer industries are developing.  In other words, the automobile industry would have advanced tremendously as a result of a massive failure, but instead we told them, emphatically, to stay exactly the way they were.  I can’t help but think that our economy will suffer for years to come from the consequences of not forcing our automobiles and financial industry to change and innovate.

Now, I have an even more nuanced take on economics.  I went from socialist to free-market capitalist very quickly, but I’m still changing, still moderating toward reality.  Is all government intervention bad? Absolutely not.  In fact, economies work best when governments constantly force private industry to innovate, either by instituting much-needed regulation (i.e. fuel economy standards) or by letting them fail and investing in infrastructure that will assist the transition to rising alternatives.  The reason why the clean energy companies are failing – and the reason why it has become such a controversy to use taxes to fund these failing companies – is that we tried to have it both ways.  We tried to not only save the failing industry but also invest in new industries.  Same thing is happening with High Speed Rail and other transit projects.  You can’t save the old and expect the new to compete.  We either needed to: 1) let the old industries fail and invest in the new, or 2) save the old and let the new innovations continue to struggle and die.  We tried to do both, and the results of such a strategy always end up being similar to the second option (the new industries will struggle), but it just costs us so much more money to do so.

Anyway, my point is that I had assumed that the reason that I get so edgy with ultra-conservative (and, for that matter, ultra-liberal) talking points is because there is no room for change or even gradual evolution.  I still think that this is a major part of it, because I see such collective willful ignorance of any adverse information as a real threat to not only our politics but our culture and economy.  But I have recently realized why the stakes are even higher than a simple case of people being inflexible.  Leave it to the most powerful Republican in the country to put it into words:

Utopia.  When I first saw the video, the vision Speaker Boehner was laying out didn’t seem particularly new or harmful.  It was a basic political, campaign-like speech.  But the final sentence hit me like a ton of bricks.  It all makes sense now.  Moderates talk about practical ways to solve problems.  Ideologues talk about Utopias, whether they say the word or not.  And if you know anything about Utopias, you would know that whether they are based on right-wing or life-wing ideas, they not only don’t work for very practical reasons (i.e. innovation in any form is squashed because it inevitably would lead to rebellion), they inevitably destroy a society from within.  The Soviet Union was a Utopian society, as was the American South.  Both are still struggling mightily to be anything other than failed cultures and economies.

So, this is what bothers me most about the present Republican party.  While I have issues with a faction of the Democratic party (the most liberal among them), I can’t seem to find many in the Republican ranks that are not hardcore ideologues.  They are Utopians, not problem-solvers, and the idea that they could have enough power to begin implementing their Utopia honestly scares the crap out of me.   At least President Obama is practical and is constantly moderating his own views to work with the opposition.  I don’t see any of that with most Republicans.

And the scariest part for me is that I live in the most Republican state in the nation, where the Republican primaries (in which they have deemed that I am not worthy to vote) pick the eventual winners of our statewide and national candidates.  By the time the general elections come around, my vote doesn’t count, yet my tax dollars are being spent on the election anyway.  It’s getting so bad that even my city’s more moderate-to-liberal elected councilmembers are being overruled on policy decisions by state legislators who don’t live anywhere near Salt Lake City.  I already live in a Utopia.  I hope the rest of you don’t have to as well.

Bringing Manufacturing Back: Boon or Disaster?

January 31, 2012
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There has been a lot of talk and excitement recently about manufacturing jobs returning to the U.S. from China and other developing nations that hold a natural cheap-labor advantage.  Both parties talk about it as the solution to our economic woes.  Most recently, President Obama made it clear during his State of the Union speech that he supports major tax breaks for manufacturers who come back to or remain in the states.  The implication of this is that regaining these jobs would spur economic growth, and tax advantages should be used to encourage it. 

Last night, NBC’s Rock Center did a story about a furniture manufacturer that just recently re-opened for business here after several years of operations overseas.  The owner explained that he felt guilty for originally shutting its doors in the states, laying off all of the people, and letting cheaper labor do the work.  The owner felt he had to do his part to help the economy grow by putting people back to work again.  As much as I admire the man’s empathy and commitment to his community, I have a bit of an issue with the reasoning behind this whole movement because it ignores how economies actually grow.

There is a very good reason why a good portion of American manufacturing has gone elsewhere: it is how economies naturally develop.  As Americans became richer and housing and other living costs increased, it no longer made sense for manufacturers to remain here.  Instead, they found cheaper labor in countries where cost of living and wages were lower.  I’m sure the high corporate taxes also had something to do with it, but in the end, labor costs are far more important to a company’s bottomline than tax burden.  It just so happened that the manufacturers in foreign lands were not only getting cheaper labor but also lower taxes.

This, in and of itself, is not really something that Americans should be mourning the loss of.  If an economy is healthy, new export activities will spring up to replace the old exports that are no longer able to compete.  It is not often, though, that those older export activities die altogether; they simply go somewhere else where the conditions are more favorable.  But in a healthy economy, there are no tears shed at the loss of the old, because the new is always much more lucrative.  This is a sign of an economy that is positively developing and growing.  People get richer in these types of economies.  In fact, this is exactly what is happening today in places like India and China, where our economic rejects are their big breaks.

The risk of becoming a rich economy – and especially the richest economy in the world – is that there are no opportunities for hand-me-downs.  We cannot benefit from the rejects of someone else’s economy.  Instead, we must either be constantly developing our own new technologies and in-demand products (exports) or spend our capital on getting it from elsewhere (imports).  We have been doing plenty of the importing in the past 30 years and not much exporting, and this is a bigger issue than that we are simply running a trade deficit.  What it really means is that we are in a prolonged period of stagnation that finally caught up to us a few years ago.

So, in order to bring the import/export ratio into a better balance, and therefore start developing positively again, we have decided that we need to go back to exporting what we previously exported.  This sounds like a good idea, and it might seem to work for a time, but you can only force a profound disadvantage to hide itself for so long, and eventually we’ll see what we should be noticing right now: developing backward to a manufacturing economy is not the same as economic growth.  In fact, if we succeed to any extent, it will because we will have actually become poorer, not richer.  An economy cannot go backward and hope to be going forward at the same time.

The part that should concern us most is what this back-to-manufacturing movement says about our economy.  Some might proclaim that we need jobs so desperately that any jobs will do.  Others might say that it is the patriotic duty of an American company to make its products in America.  But what it really says is that we have neglected our natural capital so much in past decades that we have nowhere to go but down.  We have let our once tops-in-the-world education system decay to the point that a large chunk of our kids don’t even graduate, and those who do aren’t prepared to know what innovations need to be made nor how to accomplish them. To be clear, I’m not just talking about today’s kids: it has been going on since the 1970s.  We could also rely on immigrants to carry some of the innovation burden, as we have for so much of our history, but our immigration laws, by and large, no longer allow it.

So, what do we do about it?  Fortunately, we can do quite a bit to remedy the situation.  The not-so-silver lining, however, is that we’re not going to see results as quickly as we want to.  If we want to become an even richer country and get back to positive development, we need to make education funding and results a national priority.  This doesn’t mean testing students to make sure they know how to take a multiple-choice test.  It means figuring out what Sweden, Japan, and other education juggernauts are doing that is working, adapting those strategies to our culture, improving on them the best we can, and funding it adequately.  Any attempt to dismiss studying another country’s successes as unpatriotic or unAmerican is simply xenophobic foolishness.

We also need to create public and private panels that are solely focused on identifying and funding possible advancements in technologies and their applications.  I have written before about how economies boom when former imports are replaced by local companies figuring out how to produce those products locally, which has ripple effects throughout the economy as other businesses spring up to serve the original business.  If these panels were involved in trying to find local producers who could efficiently make quality alternatives to current imports, it could go a long way toward helping the economy to positively develop and grow.  Of course, some imports, such as basic manufacturing, cannot be efficiently replaced by most American local economies.  We have advanced too far past this activity; the problem is, we just haven’t developed other sectors enough to fully replace it with other economic activities.

No matter how much we want results now, positive development cannot happen overnight.  We did not become a super-power overnight, and stagnation does not happen overnight either.  Economic progress and decline occur over long periods of time in which economies are either diversifying and casting off old industries or they are specializing and neglecting investment.  We specialized and neglected to the point that when we starting letting industries go elsewhere, we did not have enough other jobs that our citizens qualified for.  The long-term solution isn’t to try to bring those jobs back – which will simply assure that the economy will continue to stagnate and likely decline – but to invest in ourselves so that we are able to innovate and ready to compete when new innovations and opportunities come.

Chocolate and Politics

January 24, 2012
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If Forrest Gump were a political junky, he would have compared primary elections to a box of unlabeled chocolates: you really just don’t quite know what you are going to get.  And he would have been right any other year, but not this time.  These primaries are more like chocolates that come labeled as cream-filled, but you discover upon bighting into them that they are, instead, full of nuts.  This second analogy is more apt for this Republican primary season.  We all thought we knew what was going on a week ago, and then we realized that what we thought we knew was an illusion.

Mitt Romney came into South Carolinaas the only non-incumbent candidate to win both ultra-conservative Iowa and moderate New Hampshire.  Everyone expected New Hampshire to be a blow-out, which it was, but Romney’s Iowa win was a complete surprise.  It seemed that Romney’s questionability among conservatives had finally given way to inevitability.  Then two things happened that changed everything.

Because the Iowa results were so close, election officials did an official recount to make sure the numbers were correct.  Romney’s first blow came when the count revealed that Rick Santorum had won Iowa instead.  Mitt’s historic accomplishment was no more, but at least he was still ahead by a fairly wide margin in South Carolina’s and Florida’s polls.  Something more drastic would have to occur for such momentum to disappear.  And disappear it did at the hands of the Christian Right.

Leaders of the extremely conservative religious establishment gathered in Texas to come to a consensus as to whom they would support as the nominee, which would send the clear message to their followers that the candidate they picked was, essentially, the one that God wants.  This had less to do with their support of any one candidate and more to do with their skepticism of Romney; Mitt wasn’t even an option as far as they were concerned, and many of their followers individually felt the same way.  A consensus among the Christian leaders would serve to make sure that the more conservative candidates would not end up splitting the vote, thereby giving Romney the de facto victory.  In the end, their strategy largely worked, though not in the way they intended.

Their anointed conservative candidate was Rick Santorum, the newly minted winner of Iowa.  He is Catholic, which is usually a non-starter for the Christian Right, but the choices are pretty slim for religious Republicans these days.  If you can’t stand the thought of a Mormon in the White House, your other options are a protestant Rick Perry with no chance of winning (who has subsequently dropped out of the race), a very radical Ron Paul, a Catholic Newt Gingrich with a sketchy moral and political past, and yet another Catholic Santorum.  Santorum stands out from the group with the best combination of moral record and popularity.  This Catholic would be the Protestant Right’s candidate.

Anyone who has paid any attention to politics since the late 1970s should be keenly aware of the Christian Right’s hold on Republican politics.  Traditionally (if tradition means the past 30 years), if you wanted to be a successful national Republican candidate, you needed to not only be Protestant, but hardcore Protestant.  It seems, however, that the rules are changing.  Not only will the only professing mainstream Protestant in the race for the White House be the Democrat that the Christian Right loves to hate (can Christians hate?), but it turns out that the anointing of a candidate by the Christian leaders holds almost no sway on their followers anymore whatsoever.  Santorum won the Tony Perkins and James Dobson vote, but Gingrich ran away with the South Carolina votes of those who mattered.

Politics changes over time as a result of population trends and consequences from previous electoral choices.  The Christian Right’s hold on conservatism came about in reaction to a chaotic 1970s, and both the Obama revolution and, consequently, the Tea Party, arose from reactions against what was called the Christian Right’s “Moral Majority.” Now things are changing again, even quicker and more dynamically than ever before.  Everything we thought we knew about American politics is crumbling before our very eyes.

We thought we would know who the nominee would be by now.  We don’t, and not by a long shot.  We were sure that the Christian Right’s meeting in Texas would change the race in favor of the candidate they would choose.  It didn’t.  We thought the Tea Party candidate, whoever that may be at whatever moment we are talking about, would greatly benefit from a sustainable base of angry support.  Instead, one after another has fallen hard after temporarily enjoying 15 minutes of fame because the Tea Party isn’t nearly as powerful or sustainable as we all thought.  In the end, it has come down to: the establishment’s chosen candidate (Romney) who has the best chance to beat the incumbent but who no one in the traditional party base of voters likes; and the candidate with the sketchiest political and personal past, low general election polling, and low establishment and influential Christian support (Gingrich). 

It seems as though this should have been an easy win for Romney, and it would likely have been if we were still living in the Republican past.  But things are no longer what they seem to be.  Everything we thought we knew is now bunk.  All that used to be solid ground is now the quicksand that Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Perry – normally perfectly acceptable candidates for the Republican nomination – have unwittingly fallen into.  All, that is, except for two solid facts: Ron Paul is Ron Paul is Ron Paul; and President Obama’s reelection effort has just become a whole lot easier.

A Review of the Other Half of Atlas Shrugged

January 10, 2012
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Who is John Galt?

December 9, 2011
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Who is John Galt? 

I have a pretty good idea at this point, but I am only about halfway through Ayn Rand’s 1000-page classic, Atlas Shrugged.  It is a spectacularly written doomsday story of what would happen if the most intelligent and profit-driven individuals decided to walk away from a society which holds them in contempt but greatly depends on their production. 

Galt, the hero of the story’s several heroes, was the first to abandon society and is directing the mass exodus behind-the-scenes, but he shows up at critical times to convince the holdouts, behind closed doors, that their efforts to fight the corrupt system are actually feeding the corruption.  He is the most interesting of the story’s heroes because of the mystery attached to his presence: he is referred to constantly, yet he has not appeared once in the first 500 pages.

Rand’s remaining heroes begin dropping like flies, walking away from the industries that keep the country moving.  The holdouts at this point are only two: the revolutionary metal creator, and the railroad tycoon.  With all of the new regulations telling them how much they should and should not produce and how fast and long the trains can be, the two remaining heroes need each other to remain not only profitable but operational.  As these two slowly move toward their own dates with Galt, the country is quickly collapsing under the weight of the balance of power and production swinging toward the “looters” and “moochers,” who are decidedly in the majority.

It is a riveting story that makes me want to keep reading to fully answer the question I posed at the top, but I have to constantly remind myself that the purpose of the book was not to tell a good story as much as it was to display, in ideal and practical form, the philosophy of Ayn Rand.  The phenomenal writing is a hallmark of Rand’s competence, a characteristic that she glorifies.  The philosophy as shown through her fiction writing, however, leaves me to – as her enlightened heroes encourage the unenlightened ones to do – question her premises.

Rand made certain assumptions that the course of her story depended upon.  Perhaps her most egregious assumption was that there are very few people who are intelligent, self-sufficient, and productive; and those who are subsidize the rest of the unintelligent, dependent moochers and looters.  Without a doubt, it takes a very arrogant writer to base a philosophy on this premise, because it would make no sense unless she thought of herself as one of the few producers.  Her mistake here was both psychological and practical.  Humans often think of themselves as more important or intelligent than they really are.  If we have to say it or assume it, it probably isn’t true.  Additionally, it is possible that very few independent doers and thinkers exist in comparison to followers and moochers, but an economy does not become as rich as ours has become without a wide diversity of economic movers. Rand may have had some reason for concern in the 1950s when the book was published, but those concerns were not realized.

The second poor assumption Rand makes is that people cannot change who they are or how they view the world.  This ignores thousands of years of human and economic advancement.  If no one ever adapts to new environments, changes their minds in the face of new information, or sees the contradictions in accepted knowledge and changes it; human culture and economies would never have advanced.  Entrepreneurship and innovation are impossible without the human ability to change. Rand intuitively knew this, but she made an assumption that only a few of us – the producers – have the capacity to do this.  Again, if this were true, economies could only advance as far as the production limits of the productive few.  We know this is not true.  While Rand’s view of herself was supreme, her view of most others was of the utmost contempt.

Rand’s third assumption is the one most popularly held: that government regulation of any form is the enemy of business.  I have already addressed this fallacy in a previous post, but it is worth clarifying.  Government certainly can become the enemy of commerce if regulations begin telling the market how to operate or what specifically to produce, as it does in Rand’s story.  However, business can also become the enemy of the people when it takes control of government through its spending power.  The point here is that neither business nor government is more inherently virtuous than the other.  They both have appropriate roles, and they are meant to balance and complement each other.  To repeat an example I have given before, appropriate government regulations actually serve to push commerce into much-needed innovations that can counteract stagnation.  The government in Rand’s story did not act appropriately in any sense of the word, but judging from her views about force and mooching, one gets the distinct impression that she regarded the very idea of government as inappropriate.

Rand makes many other questionable assumptions, but the one that I understand the least is her glorification of selfishness as the only moral imperative.  In Rand’s view, one must earn or fairly trade for every physical and spiritual possession, including wealth and love.  For Rand’s heroes, loving or helping or giving charity to others is not moral at all because it inevitably “punishes” the person giving the unearned gift.  Instead, the moral alternative would be to love others for what they can give in return and despise those who can’t give anything.  Unearned help and pity are worthless to this kind of moral code.  Thinking of how one’s actions impact others is evil in Rand’s world.  Why should one cheat on his wife with a more attractive and independent woman?  Because the woman’s attractiveness, independence, and desire for him makes him feel good about himself.  Because it could not be wrong if it feels so right.  Because self-centeredness is the epitome of morality.

Rand made a good case for commerce as a moral activity in the face of critics who see its inherent individuality and profit-making motivation as the root of our many collective problems.  On the other hand, she failed to make a strong case that individualism and profitability are the only moral ways of life.  Her philosophy did not take into consideration that there are some things worth having in life that become corrupted when there is a profit-motivated, self-centered transaction involved.  What could your child possibly give you in return for the love and support you must show him to survive and thrive?  When your child misbehaves, would it be moral to stop loving her because she no longer gives you pleasure? Rand’s moral code, if taken seriously, would affirm that as moral.

Who is John Galt? 

I think John Galt is who Ayn Rand wishes she could have been, but she ran into the same trap which her fictional enemies set for her heroes: her moral code was designed to be inevitably broken.  She existed in a society that subsidizes streets, gasoline, automobiles, utilities, and the paper on which her eloquent but hypocritical words were printed.  Many of us are producers, and many of us are not; but to live and eat and breathe and, indeed, trade in this American society from the 20th Century onward is to take advantage of what a shared and redistributed prosperity can buy.  Whether she liked it or not, she could not help but be a moocher like the rest of us.

What to do with the Uninsured?

September 14, 2011
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During Monday night’s CNN/Tea Party debate, Ron Paul was asked a question about the implications of people not being required to purchase health insurance.  The so-called individual mandate is a major new potential (several federal judges have struck it down as unconstitutional, yet it has not made its way to the Supreme Court yet) regulation that will take effect in 2014 if the new health care law still exists by then.  The mandate requires all United States citizens (with some exceptions for financial hardship) to purchase health insurance if they do not already have it through an employer or government program (Medicare, Medicaid, military, SCHIP).  It is an unprecedented power on the federal level, and it is understandable that many have reacted against it, but it is intended to solve a practical problem. 

Everyone, at some point in his or her life, will likely need to use medical services because of an illness or physical injury.  This is not a choice that people have; rather, it is an inevitability that can be planned on.  This goes for people who have insurance and those who do not.  For people with insurance, they pay a premium, deductible, and co-pay (some plans have different structures, but this is generally the case), and the insurance company will cover the rest, though limits may apply.  If medical care was given only to people who have insurance, the costs of care would stay relatively stable, which would also produce a stabilizing impact on insurance premiums (although this situation would likely lead to other problems, as will be discussed later).

This is not the case.  Right now, somewhere around 15% of the American public does not have health insurance.  However, the Hippocratic Oath that medical professions swear to does not allow them, on principle, to deny needed care to anyone, regardless of whether the patient can pay for it (personally or through insurance coverage) or not.  Those 15% of Americans will get care if they need it.  But who covers their costs?  This is a case of economic domino effect.  The medical groups and hospitals absorb the costs of these patients.  But whether they are for-profit or not-for-profit, these entities must remain either profitable or budget-balanced, so the costs they absorb are spread throughout the entirety of their services.  In other words, hospitals cover their additional costs by increasing their prices for services.

This presents a dilemma for insurers: do they cut coverage from medical providers that are increasing prices, or do they raise rates to cover the increases?  Sometimes they do one, and sometimes they do the other.  Dropping coverage leads to less choice for consumers.  Raising rates leaves consumers with the risk of trying to drop their coverage in favor of another plan (which may not accept them, especially if they have a pre-existing condition), or it leaves them no choice but to pay the higher premiums.  So, who pays for the uninsured?  In the end, the insured do.  That is an insanely inefficient market.  The individual mandate was a 1990s (intelligent) Republican solution to a market problem.  It requires people to take responsibility for themselves, and it keeps premiums in check.

So, with that background, let’s get back to Ron Paul.  The moderator explained the purpose of the mandate and then asked Paul, who joins all of the Republican candidates in opposing the mandate, what should happen to people without insurance who get sick.  An idiot in the audience loudly exclaimed, “Let them die!”  The person was obviously not a medical professional or compassionate human being.  Paul went on to explain that churches and other nonprofits would take care of them, and in a later interview, said that a truly free market system would take care of everyone.  I have no doubt that Paul, a medical professional, is a compassionate person.

I do have doubts about the ability of the free market to efficiently provide for the health care needs of everyone in an affordable and fair manner.  So, I mentioned above that if care was only provided to people with insurance, prices would stay pretty stable.  However, there’s another force at work here.  Insurance companies profit from managing risk.  This means that they either charge more to cover more risk, or they eliminate the risk altogether.  Many of the uninsured tried to get insurance but were deemed too risky.  Many others had insurance but were dropped because they became too risky.  Others were deemed safe enough, but their premiums went so high that they could not afford to keep the insurance.  Either way, there is ample evidence that the definition of risk is relative and inflates as a market becomes more exclusive.  In practical terms, this means that a person who was not deemed risky when 90% of people were covered suddenly becomes more risky as the pool of insured shrinks.

Insurance works best for consumers when the maximum amount of people buy into the same insurance pool.  This spreads risk and keeps premiums low.  However, insurance works best for insurance companies when risk can be purged.  This results in increased profits.  So, on the one hand, what is best for consumers in a free market system is for everyone to be insured.  Every state has realized this concept in requiring automobile insurance for every driver, which has kept rates in check and allowed the Federal government not to have to get involved with the issue.  On the other hand, what is best for insurers in the same free market system is to limit the number of the insured to the healthiest people.  This is a slippery slope that leads to the unhealthiest of the healthiest people to eventually be pushed out, and then the unhealthiest of those left to be pushed out, and so on. 

This, however, does not change the fact that the uninsured will receive care anyway and the costs will be pushed onto the insured.  So, even the healthiest of the insured will be paying exorbitant rates, pushing many out of the system until either only the healthiest and wealthiest of consumers are insured, or the whole insurance and medical system collapses. 

As much as Ron Paul is completely genuine (the most genuine of the candidates), and as much as I tend to think his ideas are very good in regards to economic development and metropolitan growth regulations, I think he is wrong in regards to health care. In reality, free markets do not always work, especially when dealing with such a universally-consumed good; there is little incentive to do it better or cheaper because there is no primary constituency or voluntary demand to focus on.  Everyone needs health care, and everyone gets it.  A company that exploits this relationship while trying to continuously maximize profit will, inherently, be economically inefficient and ruinous to a large portion of the population.

Recalls and Political Pandemonium

July 15, 2011
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I think I’ve recognized a pattern in recent politics.  One side gets elected on what they feel is a mandate from voters to do the extreme opposite of whatever the other side had done when they were in power.  Then, as the new party in power fulfills that mandate by going too far too quickly, the other party gets voted into power in a couple of years.  Of course, then that party feels a mandate to swing to the other extreme.  It’s pretty ridiculous, and I am having a difficult time seeing how this cycle will end.  But now things are being taken to another level altogether.

BothArizonaandWisconsin, two natural swing states whose governing bodies have swung way to the right, are seeing successful recall elections.  Some of the leaders being challenged have not even been in office for a year yet. Arizona’s recalls are in response to the controversial immigration law passed last year. Wisconsin’s recall efforts stem from the union showdowns that ended with Governor Scott Walker signing a bill that decimates the bargaining rights of state employees.

Recalls are interesting enough in and of themselves, because they show that the politicians involved may have gotten their mandate wrong.  But things even more interesting in Wisconsinbecause of a little political game state Republicans are playing.  Six primaries were recently held for Democrats who are challenging Republican incumbents in special elections next week.  Guess who they ran against in those primaries?  Republicans posing as Democrats.  What?  Do Republicans not understand the political consequences of losing elections right now?  And here they are running in a Democratic primary.  Maybe they really have gone off the deep-end.

I don’t think Republicans have any political clue right now.  I think they are living in a 2010 dream world in which they took their success to mean that Americans were voting for the extreme Tea Party ideas rather than voting against the overreach of Democrats.  As a result, they actually think that holding the line on the debt ceiling and no tax revenue increases is good politics for them.  I would assume that those Republicans would say that the fiscal fight isn’t about politics, but I would have to disagree.  First of all, if I had a piece of cheesecake for every Republican I have heard establish the primary goal of making Barack Obama a one-term president, I would be deliriously fat and happy.  Everything is about 2012 right now, for both parties.  Second, you can’t get a deal done in Congress on any issue, let alone spending issues, without playing the political game.  Hell, private businesses can’t get deals done without politics.  It’s about give and take, and Republicans are failing to give so far, and they’ll pay for it next year.

In the meantime, as much as I think recalls are valuable in normal times, these are not normal times, and I think it will create an even more extreme cycle of not allowing elected officials to feel secure enough in their positions to focus on solving serious issues.  I am guessing that Democrats will win some of these elections in Wisconsin and Arizona, and they’ll be voted out in 2012 for being too extreme in favor of Republicans who will be recalled again in 2013 for being too extreme.  As much as it is interesting to write about, we just can’t keep going on like this.

Office of Smart Growth on the Chopping Block

July 14, 2011
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Yesterday, in a legislative session, the House Appropriations Committee voted in favor of eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Smart Growth.  This is not at all surprising to me, and I’m kind of left wondering why it took them so long to take this political step.  Make no mistake: it is a purely political vote.  If the goal of Republicans is to get the economy moving, chucking a government agency that seeks to help cities do that most efficiently is the wrong way to do it.  But since it’s the EPA, apparently anything is worth cutting.

Some of my readers may be wondering what Smart Growth is.  Smart Growth refers to a group of practical and time-tested policies and best practices that are based on a philosophy of sustainable urban growth, economic development, and effective governance.  Smart Growth promotes urban and suburban densities and mixes of land-uses that make it possible for residents to walk, bike, or take public transportation to accomplish at least some of their daily activities, such as grocery shopping or banking.  In other words, Smart Growth promotes greater transportation choices. Smart Growth advocates for better efficiency in tax-payer financed government services – such as transportation planning, water treatment facilities, and public health assets – by reducing parochialism and addressing these regional issues on a regional level.  Smart Growth asserts that local economies can be more vibrant if locally-owned and operated businesses are given priority over chain and big box stores, because a much greater portion of the profits produced by local commerce gets invested right back into the community.  Smart Growth contends that “growth,” often maligned by hardcore environmentalists, is actually good, as long as it is done intelligently and efficiently.

Now, before my conservative friends crucify me for blindly supporting a government program, let me assure you that I’m not a purist on this.  Smart Growth advocates tend to be a little overly optimistic about the practicality of some of their plans.  Some would say they are nostalgic for the past when communities worked.  I think they are right to do so in that their goals involve getting us back to a point where communities were healthy and vibrant, but some of them have not quite stepped into the realities of the 21st century.  For instance, Smart Growth contends that historic preservation is pivotal to the success and revitalization of older cities.  I agree, but this can be taken too far.  I recently attended a meeting ofSalt Lake City’s Historic Landmark Commission, where the committee voted against allowing a low-income home owner to install more up-to-date and energy-efficient windows on non-visible side of her home.  Why?  Because it would compromise the historic integrity of the structure?  Sorry, but that’s a bunch of crap!  As summers get hotter and winters colder, as seems to be the trend (whether human-caused or not), we’ll see if anyone can afford to pay the utility bills of those outdated, historic homes.

Additionally, I am not wild about the Office of Smart Growth being housed at the EPA.  Sure, there is a big connection there between efficient growth, effective governance, and environmental responsibility; but the main point is about development, and that’s where the focus should be in a struggling economy.  I would support the defunding of EPA’s Office of Smart Growth as long as it is restored to relocate it to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  That is where the office, in my mind, is most appropriate and can be most effective.

But, for some reason, I have my doubts that this is the plan that the House has in mind.  The ideological bias against any environmental regulations is insanely high right now on the Republican side of the isle.  The idea is that if we could only stop worrying about human health and environmental quality, then we could get our economy going for sure!  It’s pretty shortsighted.  I somehow doubt that we can sustain an economy without a healthy labor force and quality natural resources, but that’s just me.

It’s pretty much the same with Smart Growth.  It is not as widely known as the EPA, so it is not as widely maligned; but it is easily seen as just another example of the overreach of local, state, and national government.  I have a hard time buying this as an argument, though.  We are constantly bombarded with government plans to build more and wider roads and freeways, not to mention allowing wealth-sucking big box stores to blow away the local competition.  We don’t complain about these government plans.  We don’t see these attempts at social and economic engineering as government overreach.  Why not? 

Because the uncomfortable truth is that we like government interference in some cases (freeway expansion, keeping certain developments out of our neighborhoods, preventing gay marriage, helping us save for and get medical care in retirement, etc.) and react against it in others.  Unfortunately, Smart Growth is just different enough from our realm of accepted government-supported life that conservatives see it as a European socialistic threat.  Am I way off-base here?

If you are concerned about this, please contact your Congressional representative and tell them to vote to keep the Office of Smart Growth.  It is pretty clear the House will vote to eliminate it, but who knows what the Senate will do.  Unless I don’t know who Barack Obama is anymore (entirely possible these days), I think both chambers will need a 2/3rds vote to override his veto if it gets that far.  But in these insane political times, you never know what’s going to happen.

McCotter and the Politics of Fear

July 1, 2011
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I have to respect people who put their names into a hat that they have no chance of being pulled out of.  Congressman Thad McCotter, Republican of Michigan, has announced his candidacy for the President of theUnited States.  Wahoo!  Republicans want more choices, so the market reacts.

McCotter has a very compelling homepage.  The first thing you will notice is a very revolutionary-like exhortation: “Seize Freedom!”  If there is one thing that Republicans know how to do better than Democrats, it is using loaded words in a dramatic fashion.  Other examples of this include the mentioning of “socialism” in any context imaginable as well as statements such as “passing the buck to our children and grandchildren” (but only when referring to Democratic spending).  Republicans are experts at appealing to emotions, while Democrats tend to appeal much more on an intellectual level – which isn’t exactly a good strategy considering they themselves believe a good portion of American citizens have forehead-sloping deficiencies.

My question is: Who does he imagine he would be doing the “seizing” for?  Judging by the budget proposals coming out of the Republican camp, I can only conclude that his statement is meant for the rich and corporations.  Maybe he really believes that continuing to reduce individual and corporate taxes and keeping corporate subsidies while gutting safety net and education programs will help middle-America, but I still don’t see how that reasoning holds much water. 

There is a case to be made for cutting business taxes to spur job creation (though actual corporate taxes can’t go much lower than 0%), but how does more tax breaks for the wealthy help the economy?  If I make $300,000 per year and I get an extra $10,000 back in taxes, how much of that money will be put back into the economy?  If it were me, I would want as much of it in one of my retirement accounts as possible.  On the flip side, if I make $30,000 per year and I get an extra $1,000 back in taxes as well as help with my health care costs, how much of that goes into the economy?  Well, again, if it were me, I would most likely need to spend all of it.  The lesson here is that the economy is hardly effected by putting more money in the pockets of rich individuals, but it is highly stimulated by keeping taxes low and maintaining safety nets for the poor.

Okay, back to McCotter.  Along with taking back our liberty, his website tells me that my “American Dream is Endangered.”  Again, I wonder who he is referring to, but it is certainly not me.  I don’t even really know what the American Dream is.  I’ve heard definitions along the lines of “1/2 acre with a white picket fence,” and “going from rags to riches.”  Basically, the general idea behind the American Dream is supposed to be about an individual pulling himself up by his “bootstraps.”  Do boots really have straps anymore?  The language is so antiquated that I can’t help but wonder if the concept is, too. 

Personally, I don’t believe in the concept of an “American Dream;” however, I have no problem with having aspirations and desires.  I happen to want a loving family and group of friends that I am not too busy making money to spend time with; a reasonable shelter over our heads in a close-knit neighborhood; some options for getting around to the places I need to go without getting in a car; being made visually aware, and quite often, that there are people in the world who don’t have it as good as I do; and a job in which I feel I am making a difference (not just to my pocketbook), but that I don’t love so much that I can’t enjoy the more important things in life.  As far as I can discern, what I want completely flies in the face of everything I have ever learned about the coveted “American Dream.”  Does that make me un-American?

McCotter’s five core principles are also very illuminating.  “Our liberty is from God not the government.”  Of course it is!  Even if you don’t believe in God, the main point here is that human rights and liberty are concepts that extend beyond government power, perhaps even human invention.  There is a second part to this principle, though, that McCotter conveniently leaves out.  Without government that affirms and maintains those rights and liberties, people are either not free or simply vagabonds.  This is not a good conservative talking point.

“Our sovereignty is in our souls not the soil.”  It is not completely clear what he means by this.  Is he referring to immigration?  Or fighting terrorism?  It almost sounds as if he is saying thatAmericacould be taken over by a foreign power, but we would still, in our heart of hearts, be Americans.  Or maybe he is saying that we are not a nation based on something that connects us, such as the soil we hold in common, but instead a nation of individual souls, driven by the invisible hand of God/the market (can be used interchangeably).  Either way, I have to ask one question: Huh?

“Our security is from strength not surrender.”  Okay, so at what point does leaving a country become warranted and practical, and at what point does it become surrender?  I personally think that we should have instituted a “shock and awe” war campaign and a war/ration economy for the wars inAfghanistanandIraq.  Not that I agreed with going to Iraq in the first place, but if we are going to enter wars, we should do it as quickly and comprehensively as possible, and only with complete buy-in from the American people.  If Congress is not willing to force rations on their constituents to fight a war, then maybe the war isn’t worth fighting.  Anyway, my larger point is that we eventually did show strength (and smart diplomacy), and now that generals are proposing the withdrawal of some troops, why should we consider that surrender?  By the way, I personally consider a half-assed war campaign as much more shameful than surrender.

“Our prosperity is from the private sector not the public sector.”  Good point, McCotter.  So, it makes sense that we should simply lay off half of the government workforce and hope that the private sector picks them up within a few months.  Look, I agree with the guy, but only to a point.  I have significant doubts and have even seen a good deal of hard evidence that the private sector is no more efficient and innovative than the public sector.  The biggest increases in costs in both health care and defense spending in the past 10 years has been where the government contracted out to private firms (do some reading on Medicare Advantage and Haliburton’s cost-plus defense contracts).  However, small and medium-sized businesses are the engines of local and regional economies.  The public sector should do what is necessary to see to the success of these enterprises. 

But don’t forget that our way of life and current standard of living would not have been possible (at least to the extent that we have it now) without significant public investment and innovation.  You are reading this post right now largely because the federal government invested in communications advancements.  Most of you out there in suburbia would, in fact, not be in suburbia – because there wouldn’t be a suburbia to be in – without massive public investments.  Many of you on the verge of retirement would not have a good chunk of income and decent health care to look forward to without public investment and innovation.  I am not saying that all public spending is good, but be careful not to bite the hand that feeds you (so to speak).

“Our truths are self-evident not relative.”  They were relative when those words were first written.  They were truths reserved for white American men in their intention to govern themselves away fromBritain’s influence.  Only later did they apply to people of color and women.  Do gay people have the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness?  How about illegal immigrants?  And those convicted of heinous crimes?  Do they have a right to life?  Maybe there just wasn’t enough space for the drafters to declare all the contingencies of the truths; or maybe they were, and remain, somewhat relative.

I probably gave McCotter more press than he’s worth as a candidate, but I think he (and other candidates) represent a viewpoint that is largely full of half-truths and keywords that are meant to provoke very visceral reactions from a fearful population.  Not that Democrats, by and large are much better.  The liberal marketing of ideas such as Climate Change and abortion support is largely based on drumming up fear.  This is politics; it comes with the territory.  But just because it does doesn’t mean that it should.  So, just for fun, what would the 5 core values of a moderate political platform look like in your opinion?

Meet with Mayor Becker

June 21, 2011
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Got something on your mind about Salt Lake City?  Do you see issues that need to be raised but aren’t currently being talked?  Have ideas to make the city better?  The City and Mayor Becker have an on-going One-on-One Meetings with the Mayor most months throughout the year where residents of the City can sit down and have a 10-minute conversation with the Mayor.  This is democracy and citizen empowerment at its finest!  I wouldn’t expect anything less from a former urban planner-turned-legislator-turned Mayor.  This is undoubtedly why the man has an 80% approval rating and not a challenger in sight for next year’s election.  Or maybe it’s because he is the tempermental opposite of Rocky Anderson. 

Either way, he likes to know your thoughts and concerns, and here’s your chance.  The meetings will occur tomorrow, June 22, from 4pm t0 6pm in Room 306 at the City/County Building.  You need to call ahead to schedule a time slot and give the City a bit of a heads-up about what you intend to speak with Becker about.  This doesn’t give you much time for this month, but the next one is tentatively scheduled for September 28th, so check back here or on the City’s homepage a couple of weeks before then for details.  Remember, you can’t complain about your city and expect to be taken seriously unless you take your civic duties seriously by getting involved.  In some cities, that means calling or writing an email to a city employee or showing up at a council meeting.  Here in the SLC, it can mean going straight to the top.

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