Monday, February 19, 2007

A New Home

Dear blog,

By now you may have discovered that things seem rather empty around here. My closet is empty, the good dishes are all packed, and the bookshelves are bare. There's no easy way to say this, so I'll just come right out with it: I've found someone else.

After months of friendly flirting and occasional heavy petting, I've decided to move in with Catallarchy. Don't get me wrong here. The problem is not you; it's me. I've grown in a new direction, and I need some room to explore. Catallarchy is perfect for me. It's just that it's got such a that fulfills me in ways that you just can't. I just don't feel like I can really develop here. You understand, don't you?

I'm sure that you'll find someone else soon. You're a great blog, and we've really had some wonderful times together. Maybe we can still be friends. Who knows: maybe I'll even write to you from time to time.

In the meantime, farewell, my blog. I could never have gotten to this point without you. I'll always treasure our time together.

Your friend,

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Another One Bites the Dust

So now Melissa McEwan has followed Amanda Marcotte into the ranks of Former Employees of John Edwards. If you've been living in a bubble (or perhaps more accurately, if you've been living outside of the bubble that is the blogosphere), you may not have heard that McEwan and Marcotte have been known to say some, well, some unkind things about Catholics. Actually, that's not really quite accurate. Marcotte has said some really hugely nasty things about Catholics that, while sometimes funny, were pretty much certain to offend the type of Christian who thinks that religion is Really Serious Business and Not An Institution For Fun Or Jokes. You know, your ordinary Christian. (Lighten up people. It's a joke. Some of my best friends are Christians. Really.) Amanda, as Jonathan Wilde points out, really does have no one to blame but herself.

McEwan, on the other hand, hasn't really said anything that's all that bad. Yes, she's taken some cheap shots at Christians. She talked about Bush's "wingnut Christofascist base," for example. Now I don't want to get all Dennis Miller on you here, but frankly this whole whatever-fascist thing really just bugs the crap out of me. "Fascist" has an actual meaning, people. Okay, so there's lots of dispute about what the term actually means. But there are a finite number of possibilities. It doesn't just mean whatever you happen to want it to mean, Humpty Dumpty. And you know what? Even with all those possible meanings of "fascist," wingnut Christians just ain't gonna count. It bugs the crap out of me when people on the left just stick "fascist" onto everyone to the political right of John Kerry. It's nearly as annoying as when rightwingers decide that Hillary Clinton is best described as a commie. Hillary Clinton, fercryinoutloud. The Queen of Triangulation. A commie. Sheesh. Look, when you turn "fascist" into a freakin' epithet, you people rob it of any real usefulness. So let's just stop calling people fascists now, okay? It doesn't advance the conversation at all. It's like writing "Christobastard." Or inserting "Nazi" into a comment thread. It ends any chance at rational debate. And it pisses people off. So stop it.

Wait, so where was I? Oh, yeah, aside from calling the fringy Christian right fascists (did I mention that I find that habit annoying?), McEwan really hasn't been all that terribly offensive. Almost every blogger has said something at least that bad at some point. Marcotte is a loose cannon. McEwan is a blogger. Blogging is all about saying things off the cuff in a spur-of-the-moment kind of way. It's what sets this medium apart from traditional journalism. If McEwan is out, then pretty much any (interesting) blogger will be out, too.

I think that, in fact, McEwan mostly just got caught up in the Marcotte thing. I mean, from the perspective of Donohue, who really is something of a misogynist jerk, Marcotte and McEwan are the same critter anyway. They both blog. They both are liberal. They both went to work for John Edwards, who IMHO, poses the most serious challenge to any Republican candidate in '08. They're both atheists. And, even more damningly, they both lack a penis. On Donohue', somewhat extreme...interpretation of Catholicism, it's that last one that's really their most serious flaw.

My two cents is that Marcotte should probably remain a blogger. She's way good at it. But I read some of her posts at Edwards' blog. They're good, but not really great. Amanda Marcotte without the venom is, well, frankly it's a little boring. McEwan, OTOH, probably shouldn't have been hounded from her job. But she's a good blogger, too, so I'm at least glad that I can hang out at Shakespeare's Sister again.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Thoughts on Iraq, Cont.

It's post Valentine's Day blogging! Now that the bottle of white Burgundy (that's just so much fun to write) has worn off, the coffee has kicked in and the morning run has cleared out the cobwebs, maybe I can say something semi-coherent. Or as semi-coherent as anything that I write here ever really gets.

Anyway, in my last post, I mentioned John Edwards' new proposal for Iraq. I said a few things about the proposal, mostly just making stuff up as I went. Oddly, however, a couple of people took it seriously enough to write about, so I guess that I should say something in response. Matt, writes in favor of setting a timetable for withdrawal arguing that
1. Do what the Iraqis want us to do. Not only is this our responsibility as an occupying force, but it's the only thing we should care about if we're doing this to "help" the Iraqis. 70% of all Iraqis think we should set a solid timetable for withdrawal regardless of the security situation. Um... so what exactly do we have to argue about?
Scott then points out that it would make a paternalist of anyone not on board with Matt's suggestion. As Matt is objecting to my post, I guess that's Scott's roundabout way of calling me a paternalist.

I find the criticism odd, as paternalism is hardly what I intended. Indeed, I meant to be pretty much endorsing the same point that Matt makes. I'm in favor of phased withdrawals from Iraq. So when I wrote
If the options really are
  • A: Low-level civil war for 12-18 months followed by bloody civil war.
  • B: Low-level civil war for more than 18 months followed by bloody civil war.
Then I'd say that (A) is better.
what I meant was that a plan for withdrawal seems better than what we have right now. Maybe it would actually clarify things a bit if I included more detail. And more options.
  1. The George Bush Plan: Continue with the status quo. Maybe add a few more troops. Wait for liberal democracy to break out. Or at least for a new election.
  2. The Hillary Clinton/John McCain Plan: Continue with the status quo. Maybe add a few more troops. Add a stronger, more competent President. Wait for liberal democracy to break out.
  3. The Still Waiting for a Prominent Sponsor Plan: Set a timeline for withdrawal. Show the Iraqis you're serious by reducing troop levels immediately. Tie reductions to specific benchmarks.
  4. The John Edwards Plan: Set a timeline for withdrawal. Show the Iraqis you're serious by reducing troop levels immediately. Set an absolute leave-by date up front.
  5. The Dennis Kucinich Plan. Get out now. Withdraw the troops as quickly as is consistent with maintaining their safety.
I think that pretty much everyone is in agreement that (1) is a pretty lousy option. Unless GWB has a hidden supply of fairy dust somewhere, the gap between "continue what we're doing" and "wait for liberal democracy to break out" seems unsurmountable. And we all know how GWB feels about fairies, so that's really not too likely. I'm thinking that (2) doesn't really seem all that much better. Certainly I'd prefer McCain or Clinton to Bush in the Oval Office, but I don't think that their mere presence there will really make all that much of a difference.

At this point, I'm not sure how much difference there is, really, between (4) and (5), at least not in the specific incarnations I mention above. Massive redeployments (military speak for "Retreat!") do require some time if they are to be done safely. Lining everyone up to wait for helicopters courts trouble. Besides which, given the recent track record of our helicopters in Iraq, it's not clear that helicopter evacuation is all that much safer than dodging IEDs in a Humvee.

So really the only question is whether we ought to say, "All troops absolutely to be home by X" or "All troops home once Iraq has met condition Y."

Now Matt and Scott may well be correct that the latter is paternalistic, particularly if (as happens to be the case right now) polls show that huge numbers of Iraqis are saying, "Thanks so much for coming by. Let's do this again sometime, really. Maybe at your place next time." Okay, actually, they aren't saying that last part. Gotta be careful or the Office of Special Plans will decide that my blog post constitutes evidence for another invasion. Still, the point is that Iraqis want us to leave. And not just some of them. A lot of them. Shouldn't that, as Matt says, be an argument for leaving pretty much right now?

Honestly, I don't think that I know enough about the specifics of Iraq at the moment to say for certain about that particular case. But I can answer the more general form of the question, namely, if most of the people in a country want a foreign military to leave, does that not imply that the foreign military ought to leave? And the answer is a resounding...usually. But not always.

The sorts of cases that I have in mind are those generally known as armed humanitarian intervention. Yes, I know that's something of an oxymoron. "Hey, we're here for humanitarian reasons, and we brought an ass-load of tanks with us." Still, in some cases it's appropriate. Such as those cases in which a sizable minority of the population is being slaughtered by the majority. Darfur, say. Or Rwanda. Oh, hell, a large percentage of Africa. If a nation is intervening to stop genocide, then it's justified in staying until the threat of genocide has passed. And, I think, it's justified in staying even if most of the residents of the country would prefer the soldiers to leave. Because in this sort of instance, the majority wants the soldiers to leave so that it can get back to the business of genocide. That's democracy in action. But it's not a morally legitimate use of democracy. So, in that sort of case, it's not paternalism at all to refuse to do the will of the majority.

I'm not at all claiming that our presence in Iraq is all that prevents genocide. My point is only that the will of the people is not an automatic trump card. Nor is rejecting the will of the people automatically paternalistic. One must first show that the thing that people are demanding is something that they are morally entitled to demand. And that's why I think that Matt's analysis is too simple. If our leaving Iraq really would lead to the systematic slaughter of a whole people, then we should stick around regardless of what Iraqis want. I don't know the truth of that conditional, though. Until I feel pretty certain that Iraq won't end up in a genocidal horror, then I'm not all that concerned about what ordinary Iraqis want.

If that seems paternalistic, then so be it. I don't think that it really is; after all, paternalism is forcing people to do something for their own good. I think that staying might be justified if it's about forcing people not to harm others. I'm pretty sure that liberalism allows that.

(NB: I don't favor an open-ended commitment; I lean more toward the benchmarks option. But it seems to me that 18 months might well be a reasonable time-frame for relevant benchmarks.)

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John Edwards Writes to Me!

Yes, it's true. Alas, though, he's not writing to praise my sparkling wit in making fun of Health MarketsTM. No, it's just the old bulk mailing thing for me. It's much like the sort of thing that I used to get from John Kerry, only now with added charisma.

To tell you the truth, though, the message is actually sort of exciting. It seems that Edwards has decided to abandon the I'm-running-for-Vice-President nice guy act of 2004. He's decided to take off the gloves, get bold, and make some actual honest-to-god policy proposals. It's hard to say if, politically, that's a good thing or a bad thing. At the very least, it sets him apart from the other two members of the Big Three contenders.

But it's not horse-racing that makes the e-mail interesting. It's the actual content. It seems that Edwards has decided that it's time to move beyond empty rhetoric about the war in Iraq and move into the realm of Doing-Something-About-It. Or doing as much about it as one can without holding an elective office. I'll let him speak for himself here:
So today, I announced a comprehensive proposal to enact my plan to end the war and I'd like to share the key points with you. I believe Congress must:
  • Stop the escalation and force an immediate withdrawal by using funding caps to restrict the total number of troops in Iraq to 100,000, which would require an immediate drawdown of 40,000-50,000 combat troops without stranding or underfunding a single soldier still in Iraq. Any troops beyond the 100,000 level should be redeployed immediately.
  • Block the deployment of troops that do not meet readiness standards and that have not been properly trained and equipped. American Tax dollars must be used to prepare and supply our troops, not escalate the war. It is simply wrong to send our troops into harm's way without all the training and equipment they need.
  • Make it clear that President Bush is conducting this war without authorization. The 2002 authorization did not give Bush the power to use U.S. troops to police a civil war. President Bush exceeded his authority long ago. He now needs to end the war and ask Congress for new authority to manage the withdrawal of the U.S. military presence and to help Iraq achieve stability.
  • Require a complete withdrawal of combat troops in Iraq within the next 12-18 months without leaving behind any permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq.
I don't have all that much to say about the substance of the proposal, at least not at this point. To be honest with you, I don't think that I know enough about the strategic situation in Iraq to know whether leaving within the next 12-18 months would be a good thing or a bad thing. I have a feeling that it would mean a serious humanitarian crisis in Iraq starting in, oh, about 12-18 months. Or rather, it would mean a seriouser humanitarian crisis in Iraq. OTOH, I suspect that said crisis will occur whenever American troops leave. If the options really are
  • A: Low-level civil war for 12-18 months followed by bloody civil war.
  • B: Low-level civil war for more than 18 months followed by bloody civil war.
Then I'd say that (A) is better.

My biggest worry is the whole cap funding thing. Not because I think it's a bad idea in and of itself. But rather because I worry about whether it will work. What happens, after all, if Congress cuts funding but the President refuses to redeploy any troops? Would Congress blink? I suspect that they probably would. Not that I'd ever suspect that our President might sacrifice the lives of American soldiers simply to score a few political points. There. Is. Absolutely. No. Way.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Economics 101, in Which I Prove that Car Markets Do Not Exist

I begin to see now why the Catallarchs sometimes got so frustrated with some of my initial comments way back when I first started posting there. See, I've been having this discussion with some of John Edwards' supporters about health care and the free market. I initially just tried to offer a suggestion that, I think, was fully in line with the spirit of Edwards' proposal, but that worked rather more in conjunction with the market. Mostly my proposal is that the idea to create Health MarketsTM is silly since we already have a health market. Some however, have chosen to dispute that fact. Here's an example:

In a Health Market, the premiums are collected by the health market, not by the individual insurance company.
* Is that the case in every state today?

In a Health Market, nobody can be turned away for a pre-existing condition, being too old, or having something in their health history that indicates they are a higher risk to insure.
* Is that the case in every state today?

In a Health Market, insurance companies must meet a benchmark standard in coverage to participate.
* Is that the case in every state today?

In a Health Market, private insurers must compete against a public plan set up on the same lines as Medicare.
* Is that the case in every state today?

In a Health Market, the Health Market consolidates billing to reduce the costs imposed on health service providers by a blizzard of claims forms
* Is that the case in every state today?

In a Health Market, the information about the relationship between treatments and quality of care is public information available to support research into providing more effective health care, and not private information available to better determine who should be denied coverage.
* Is that the case in every state today?

In order for the claim to be accurate that "Health Markets Already Exist", each and every one of those features must be present in each and every state in the union.

However, I rather think that no state in the Union has a full-flegged Health Market, and most people in the country have nothing at all like it available.

Interesting. No, it's more than interesting. It's fantastic. Watch what we can do now!
  • In a Car Market, the premiums are collected by the car market, not by the individual car dealership.

* Is that the case in every state today?

  • In a Car Market, nobody can be turned away even if they are a serious risk to take the car without actually paying enough to cover the cost of that car.

* Is that the case in every state today?

  • In a Car Market, car dealerships must meet a benchmark standard in order to participate.

* Is that the case in every state today?

  • In a Car Market, private car dealerships must compete against a public car dealership, one that's just like Carmax, only run by the DMV.

* Is that the case in every state today?

  • In a Car Market, the Car Market consolidates billing to reduce the costs imposed on car providers by a blizzard of different ordering forms.

* Is that the case in every state today?

  • In a Car Market, the information about the relationship between cars and quality of driving is public information available to support research into providing better cars, and not private information available to better determine to whom a car dealership should actually sell a car.

* Is that the case in every state today?

In order for the claim to be accurate that "Car Markets Already Exist," each and every one of those features must be present in each and every state in the union.

However, I rather think that no state in the Union has a full-flegged Car Market, and most people in the country have nothing at all like it available.

And you know, that's really just too bad, 'cause I was thinking of getting a car. Whatever will I do with no car markets available? Maybe I'll just head up to Canada. I hear that they have universal car coverage up there. They're all 1993 Chevy Cavaliers, require a 6 month wait, and require a 46% deduction from every paycheck. But, hey, they're free!

UPDATE: Corrected the embarrassingly bad grammar mistake in the last paragraph.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Krugman, Edwards and Health Markets, pt. II

In my previous post I looked at Senator Edwards' health care plan and argued that it could be simplified by getting rid of the regional Health Markets (which, I argued, already exist) and instead simply allowing anyone who wants to sign up for Medicare (on some sort of sliding fee scale).

A number of people objected to that proposal, claiming that ultimately it would serve to undermine Medicare. I think that assessment is deeply mistaken.

Look, let's say that there are X uninsured people out there and that those uninsured people will use, on average, $Y in health care. That means that, when health insurance is mandated, the health insurance market, taken as a whole, now has to pick up $XY in additional costs.

Now that money has to come from somewhere. Clearly the sick people themselves aren't going to be paying it; if they could do that, they wouldn't have needed insurance in the first place. So the funds have to come from somewhere. I see four possibilities.

1. Insurance companies raise premiums on everyone. In this scenario, the extra money comes out of the pockets of healthy people, regardless of their income levels.

2. Insurance companies pass the increased costs along to the employers who are required to provide insurance coverage. Of course, Ford and GM and Wal-Mart aren't going to just eat the costs of those increased premiums. They're going to pass those costs along to the consumers in the form of higher prices for various goods. Increased prices for ordinary goods will hit the poorest the hardest.

3. The government picks up the tab in the form of tax breaks for insurance companies and/or employers. Corporate welfare at its finest here. Plus this will mean increasing taxes. To the extent that our tax system is progressive, that at least means that those who can most afford it subsidize health care, an advantage over (1) and (2).

4. We enroll all the additional sick people in Medicare. Again, this means increasing taxes, so the ultimate effect of (4) is identical to (3). Except that, by adding all the sick people to Medicare, we make Medicare really huge. And that's a good thing, in the end, since huge companies have lots more leverage to negotiate better prices.

In short, it's not clear how, economically, a plan that makes private companies pick up (and ultimately pass along to consumers) the additional cost of insuring the sick is an improvement over a plan that simply enrolls them all in Medicare. They won't magically cost less to insure in private plans, and the costs of such a plan are passed along in non-progressive ways.

(crossposted at John Edwards' blog)

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Oh, but He was a Tightfisted Hand at the Grindstone...

From a comment at John Edwards' blog to my post on the Senator's health care plan:
A "market" where the "sellers" work hard to turn customers away and equally hard at taking customers money but not handing over the goods purchased ... that is a broken market.
My reply:

I guess that maybe I should have been clearer. Health Markets are unnecessary given (2) above. Once we open up Medicare to everyone who wants to get on board, then we no longer have to worry about creating a new Health Market.

Now if it turns out that Medicare is really, really good at providing services at a competitive rate, then it will attract more customers. Eventually, if it's really good, we'll end up with what amounts to single-payer health care. If, on the other hand, Medicare does a really crummy job, well, then it's probably a good thing that it's not single-payer.

Of course, there's always that other sort of option for Health Markets. That would be the sort of market where people (let's call them doctors) offer services to clients who need those services (let's call them sick people). Sick people then pay for the services that they use. Non-sick people don't pay for any services at all. And those too poor to pay for the services themselves can get block sums of money to pay for their medical services.

"Ah," you say, "but the cost of health care is too high for anyone to afford without insurance."

"Ah," say I, "then you don't understand how markets work."

Providers of services charge what the market will bear. Get rid of insurance and the market will bear far, far less. Medical costs will race to the bottom as doctors cut rates to attract patients. The thing preventing the existence of a functioning health market is not insurance companies. They're not in the health market, anyway; they're in the insurance market. Their job is to turn a profit selling insurance. Doctors have the job of selling health care.

No, the reason we don't have actual health markets is that we've made a distinction between the people who use health care and the people who pay for health care. Get rid of that link and you've got yourself a functioning health market.

My god, I sound more like a libertarian everyday. Either that or I'm just angling for Jonathan to make my guest writer stints at Catallarchy permanent.

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Watada Update

Big news Thursday out of Fort Lewis -- or at any rate, big news for those of us who have been following the court-martial of LT Ehren Watada. For those not following at home, LT Watada was court-martialed for his refusal to deploy to Iraq. Watada does not deny deliberately refusing the order, and argues in his defense that the order to deploy was actually an illegal order. Unfortunately, Watada was unable to air that argument in court. The presiding officer in Watada's case, a LTC John Head, more-or-less completely undermined Watada's defense, ruling in a pre-trial motion that questions of the war's legality are nonjusticiable and hence disallowed in Watada's court-martial.

The surprise not-really-an-ending is that the case ended in a mistrial. The ruling ultimately had little to do with the issue at hand directly; the judge ruled that a pre-trial agreement between Watada and the prosecution inadvertently stipulated to Watada's guilt. As such a stipulation was not the intention of either side, LTC Head ruled that the document was invalid. The prosecution then requested a mistrial, which Head granted.

I don't actually have all that much to say about the legal wrangling involved in the mistrial decision. I'm more interested in the backstory. In my academic writing, I've argued for a position much like the one that Watada actually endorsed (if you're interested, you can find it here. A subscription is required, though.) I took up some of those themes earlier here, here and here.

As I was preparing to give a lecture on this topic last week, I finally realized, though, what troubled me so much about LTC Head's ruling. Head drew upon an earlier precedent in banning mention of the war's legality, namely, US v New, which established that the order to deploy is nonjusticiable. The court's reasoning in that case goes something like the following:
  1. Orders are presumed to be lawful.
  2. Only obviously unlawful orders are to be refused.
  3. An order is obviously unlawful if and only if a person of ordinary moral sense and understanding would take it to be unlawful.
  4. A person of ordinary moral sense and understanding would not take an order to deploy to be unlawful.
  5. Thus, the order to deploy is not obviously unlawful.
  6. Therefore, the order to deploy ought not be refused.
I think that there is a pretty serious problem with (3). I don't at all dispute that an order is obviously unlawful if a person of ordinary moral sense and understanding would take it to be unlawful. What I do dispute is that an order is obviously unlawful only if a person of ordinary moral sense and understanding would take it to be unlawful. Suppose, just to pick a totally random example, that a national guardsman was ordered to fire his weapon at a group of anti-war protesters on a college campus in, say, I don't know, Northeast Ohio. Now it seems to me that such an order is pretty obviously unlawful. And I think that, these days, no Guardsman would ever actually obey such an order. Yet a judge dismissed charges against 8 soldiers who did just that.

In short, it's pretty hard for me to see why it is that the lawfulness of my actions should turn on whether or not most people see that the act is illegal. If I happen to be a person of extraordinary moral sense and understanding and as a result, I understand that an action is immoral, why shouldn't I be obligated to refrain from doing that act?

The US v New standard that LTC Head applied to LT Watada thus seems deeply problematic. It seems even more problematic given that there is a reasonable chance that the order to deploy to Iraq really is illegal.

(Note: Cross-posted at BlueNC)

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Double Dipping

A post made over at John Edwards' blog. It's the first time I've ever actually put something up on a community blog site. We'll see if I can manage to make it past the guardians at the gate. Anyway, here's the post, just in case it never sees the light of day elsewhere.

I just finished reading Paul Krugman's very nice review of Edwards' health care plan. I figured that I'd go ahead and read the plan, too, while I was at it. I like to be thorough, you see.

Now don't get me wrong. I like the plan. I think that it's the best thing currently on offer. And I like the notion of letting government plans compete with private insurers. I've libertarian leanings, so this sort of thing warms my marketist little heart. I must say, though, that parts of it leave me somewhat puzzled.

It seems to me that the plan is needlessly complicated. It sets up whole new levels of bureaucracy that, I would think, are not actually necessary. So, bearing in mind that I'm hardly an expert on health care, economics or public policy, here's my simplified version.

1. Ditch the Health Markets. After all, health markets already exist. Even as we speak, I can go to Blue Cross or Aetna or a whole host of other insurance companies. I can choose from among different sorts of coverages and different sorts of prices. There's already a market here. We don't need to create one.

2. Open Medicare to everyone. Part of the reason that I can afford to be so glib about the market for health care is that I'm relatively young and in quite good health. Plenty of people are happy to give me insurance. Or would be, anyway, if I were willing to pay them for it. Lots of people aren't so lucky. So, rather than creating Health Markets, which will require whole new levels of managers and the like, raising administrative costs for everyone, simply allow anyone who wants to opt into Medicare. Set a yearly premium and then open it to everyone.

3. Break the employer/health care link entirely. The Edwards' plan recognizes that relying solely on employers to provide health care for Americans isn't working. But the plan moves in the wrong direction. Rather than requiring employers to provide health insurance, the plan should require that employers either pay for health insurance or offer equivalent cash payments to employees. Then require individuals to carry insurance.

Obviously this is all oversimplified at this point. Still, simply allowing anyone at all to opt into Medicare eliminates the cumbersome extra step of creating Health Markets while retaining all of the benefits.

Plus it's much simpler to explain. "Allow all Americans to buy into Medicare" makes for a nice bullet point on a direct mail piece. Explaining what a Health Market is and why it's a good thing -- that's going to take up way more copy.

You can see it here. Maybe.

UPDATE: Looks like my post is going to get dinged. I had two votes to put it up last night. Now I'm sitting proud with a -1. My opinion of Edwards remains unchanged. My opinion of Edwards' supporters is taking a bit of a hit.

UPDATE 2: I seem to have made the cut. You can see me (for now) on the front page of John Edwards' blog. My faith is restored.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Edwards in '08

I suppose that I sort of gave the game away back in the previous post, but I thought that I'd go ahead and sort of say it formally here. For what it's worth, John Edwards is my guy for '08.

Yes, I know that my libertarian friends are taking great delight in making fun of Edwards for the phrase "Health Markets." (Note to Mr. Edwards: hire me and I could catch those sorts of things for you.) But really, you know, Edwards' plan isn't actually that terrible from a libertarian perspective. No, it's not 1st party payer, which libertarians would presumably prefer, but, it does begin the (I think) necessary task of disentangling health insurance from employers. And let's face it; if Wal-Mart has joined with a labor union (of all things) to start pushing for universal health care, then we're probably going to end up with some form of it. The advantage of Edwards' plan, as opposed to those we might get from many on the left, is that it's not automatically a single-payer plan. People can opt in to the government plan as one of a number of options. They could also, one presumes, opt out into something else if that's a better deal. Edwards' plan at least lets the market decide; if the market moves everyone toward single-payer, well, then, the market will have spoken. Right?

On defense, I think that Edwards is saying some good things. He's pretty solidly opposed to expanding war into Iran, which, at the very least, shows that he can do basic math. We're more or less out of boots to put on the ground in the two Middle Eastern nations we're already occupying. Finding troops for their way bigger neighbor seems rather hard to do short of a draft. And let's not even go there.

Is Edwards a bit more of a populist than I might like? Yes, somewhat. But it's not clear who in the mix of current candidates is going to be any better on that score. Obama? Who really knows. Most of his proposals are way too vague to be able to tell. Clinton? I actually like her in general, but I think that (a) she's a bit too hawkish right now and hawkishness doesn't really seem to be what's called for at the moment, and (b) she's totally and completely unelectable now and forever, Amen. And Republicans? You're kidding me, right? They're all way, way too busy trying to figure out who will best instantiate God's Own Theocracy.

That paragraph is unfair, though, now that I look back on it. It's not like I've decided that Edwards is merely the least bad option. I supported him in '04. I thought then that the ticket should have been Edwards/Kerry rather than the reverse. And I like him still. I like much of his platform. And most importantly, I think that he can win a general election. Kerry did surprisingly well in NC last go 'round, and that was with Edwards on the bottom of the ticket. Edwards won a statewide race in NC already, and while I doubt that he could win SC, I think that he'd be competitive enough that he'd force Republicans to spend money there.

Anyway, that's my two cents. I guess now that my hat is publicly in the ring, I'm committed. Until I change my mind, which I always reserve the right to do. Really, though, it's not like any campaign is likely to start ringing me up offering me a job. This despite the fact that I'd be damn good on someone's staff. I can write a mean campaign ad. I managed to squeeze three fallacies into a single line. And there wasn't even a verb. So if someone out there is looking for a writer with a 14-person blog following who still considers himself a Clintonite neo-liberal with libertarian leanings who is very much interested in taking the theoretical case for a libertarian/Democrat alliance out there to the public, well then here I am. Anyone. Say someone who is already headquartered in the Carolinas.

Is that too much? Yeah, I thought so too. Oh well.

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Ah, Moderation

What should one say, really, about the mild uproar over John Edwards' hiring of Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan? For those out there who don't know (all three of you), Marcotte blogs at Pandagon while McEwan blogs at Shakespeare's Sister. It seems that these two very well-known, funny, insightful and extremely intelligent women bloggers have been known to (gasp!) say some over-the-top things about Christian conservatives. And it seems, too, that a few right-wing bloggers then decided to throw a hissy fit that the Edwards campaign would dare to hire such dangerous, out-of-control threats to all of society.

I could point out that the folks making the complaint happen to be Michelle Malkin (she of, c'mon-internment-camps-weren't-so-bad fame) and Bill Donohue (of "Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular" fame). But everyone else has made this point already.

Or I might point out that rightwingers say all sorts of hateful, crazy, false things and still remain perfectly acceptable within the Republican mainstream (see Limbaugh, Rush; Hannity, Sean; and my personal fav, Coulter, Ann). But again, that's all been said, too.

So maybe I'll do something different. I, a good liberal, and Edwards supporter, hereby declare that John Edwards should fire Marcotte and McEwan. We can't have people saying nasty things about religious conservatives now, can we? So fire them now. Yes, I know that you already came out in support of them, but change your mind and fire them.

Then you can hire me to take their place. Everybody wins. Except of course Marcotte and McEwan. But they blog on sites with lots of readers, so I don't really feel all that bad for them.

Unless of course they keep their jobs. In which case, ignore all this. And please put my blog on your blogroll. Please.

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Questions of Normativity

Over at Catallarchy, I made what I thought was pretty much just a passing observation on a throwaway comment to a post on diminishing marginal utility. Oddly enough, that comments sparked a spirited (if IMHO hugely misinformed) defense from Constant, a regular Catallarchy commenter. The issue has to do with normativity. Constant mentioned that he finds less value in normative uses of economics, citing "X is efficient" or "X is Pareto optimal" as his examples.

I responded that

Technically, “efficient” and “pareto optimal” are descriptive and not normative terms. It’s often the case that people make statements like “X is efficient” with the suppressed premise “Efficient is good” or “I ought to act efficiently” but the normative force lies in the suppressed premises. Efficiency and Pareto optimality (is that a word?) are purely descriptive terms with set definitions.

I’m pretty sure that it’s actually impossible to use economics to make moral claims, just as it’s impossible to use physics to make moral claims. One can make moral claims by using normative statements in conjunction with scientific ones, but, as Scott argues so frequently, you can’t get an is from an ought. At least not from those is-es (and I know that one’s not a word).

There follows a long exchange that really isn't all that worth reading as it mostly consists of my making the same point again and again and Constant responding by missing that point again and again. Plus some snark. Finally, though, I received this response:
Joe, a statement can be used to do something other than what it literally states. For example, I can say, “you have gained weight", and use that statement make someone feel bad.
Let me start by saying that, yes, undoubtedly this is true. Let me also say that it leaves out a whole host of other issues. Like the fact that when I say this sort of thing in casual conversation, I'm actually offering a whole host of other nonverbal clues as to my intentions. Technically, what I am doing in that sort of case is making an argument, one in which I suppress a whole host of other premises, premises that are clear, nonetheless, from the context. If that were all that Constant meant to be saying, I'd completely agree with him. Of course, I'd completely agree with him largely because that was exactly the point that I was making in the first place, namely, that descriptive statements can be used in making normative arguments, but the descriptive claim is not itself a normative claim.

Given, however, that Constant seems to want to deny that point, the alternative interpretation would be something like the following:
  1. X is Pareto optimal is a descriptive claim about X.
  2. A claim that is literally a descriptive claim can be used to do things other than describe things.
  3. One of the other things that I can use a descriptive claim to do is to make a normative statement.
  4. Those normative uses do not require an additional, supporting normative claim.
  5. Thus, even though "X is Pareto optimal" is a descriptive claim, it can be used normatively.
If this really is the argument, though, then I'm not at all sure how it's supposed to get around the is/ought problem. Indeed, this just is the is/ought problem. Hume's whole point is that descriptive claims cannot be used normatively, at least not without a normative claim to go along with them.

Now I'm sympathetic to the argument that the naturalistic fallacy isn't really a fallacy, but I'm pretty unlikely to go along with the idea that Pareto optimality is the sort of brute descriptive claim that has normative value. "X is pleasurable" has, I think, some normative pull to it. There's something strange about asking, "But why should I value pleasure?" To ask that question, it seems to me, is just to misunderstand what we mean by the word "pleasure." OTOH, I can ask of the term "Pareto efficiency," "But why should I value Pareto efficiency?" Even if I fully understand the term, the question makes sense in a way that the pleasure question doesn't.

What Constant seems to misunderstand is that a descriptive statement might require evaluative elements and still be a descriptive statement. To take a similar example, I might very well claim that "Y is utility maximizing." That is just a factual claim about Y; it can be true or false, and we could (given time and the proper conditions) determine the truth value of that claim. That doesn't entail that there are no normative elements involved in the term "utility maximizing." When we unpack the term itself, we find that it has lots of normative elements: we have to decide what we mean by "utility," whose utility gets measured, in what units we measure utility, etc. Lots of these are normative questions with normative answers.

None of that changes the fact, though, that "Y is utility maximizing" is purely descriptive. The statement says absolutely nothing about what it is that we ought to do, about what states of affairs should obtain, about what things we ought to value. It is descriptive. You and I can be in perfect agreement that Y is utility maximizing and still disagree about whether that gives us any reason for acting. By definition, then, "Y is utility maximizing" is a descriptive claim. Even though determining that Y is in fact utility maximizing required us to make other normative claims.

Let's put the point in simpler terms. Determining what "Pareto optimal" really means requires making normative judgments. Given that "Pareto optimal" actually has an accepted definition, determining that "X is Pareto optimal" is a descriptive claim.

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