Thursday, July 30, 2009
The health care debate has been in sort of a holding pattern for a couple of weeks now: the Democrats don't know exactly what problem they're trying to solve. Some days they want cost reduction, on others they want to guarantee access to low-income Americans (frankly, I don't think they can make progress on either count but I'm just a skeptic). In any case, they know that they want to pass a health care bill of some kind to claim a political victory.
In the last couple of days, there have been a couple of developments. The Blue Dog (ie, centrist) Democrats in the House supposedly cut a deal with Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman to make the "public option" health care plan contingent on this or that and set the doctor reimbursement rates at this instead of that. In response, the liberals on the committee revolted. They are threatening to walk if they don't get the public option they want.
From the pov of preventing the further collectivization of medicine, this is a bad tactical development. Once we get to the point of being accountable for accomplishing something useful, the liberals don't have a plausible story to sell to the American people. More than anyone, they have to be able to book a political win for its own sake. They have to give the centrists whatever they want to get a bill through Congress, and they will. As I see it, this maneuver is a preemptive attempt to save face now in order vote for half a loaf later. Thus, I'd say we're in more danger of getting the camel's nose under the tent now than earlier in the week.
When the supposed right to health care is widely recognized, as in the United Kingdom, it tends to reduce moral imagination. Whenever I deny the existence of a right to health care to a Briton who asserts it, he replies, “So you think it is all right for people to be left to die in the street?” - Theodore Dalrymple (HT: The Corner)This phenomenon is sadly familiar to anyone who has watched Prime Minister's Questions on C-Span for the last decade or so. No matter what the question, Tony and Gordon's answer is always, "Which nurses (or schools or police) are you going to cut?" In the end, the joke is on the taxpayer because the Tories (like the GOP over here) don't really intend to cut very much.
More than that, the moral imagination is tied to the practical imagination, and the UK is lacking in both.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
"Information wants to be free." This is something of a cliche among hackers and futurists.
Because information can be copied and propagated much faster than real things, intellectual property is never exactly the same thing as real property. And because the development of private property was such an important building block in the history of economic development, we tried to put extend the concept we developed for land, horses, and bushels of grain to software and naming rights. But this is an abstraction, and abstractions leak.
One result of this is a quasi-Marxist exploitation of capital in an anti-matter universe. Instead of the capitalist denying to the laborer the fruit of his work, the consumer gets the benefit of millions of dollars in various kinds of technological development without having to compensate the capital that funded it. The moral of this story isn't to feel sorry for the capitalists. Among other things, for the most part developers of intellectual property couldn't have developed it without access to other intellectual property which may not have been compsenated either.
It's just that the inability to monetize intellectual achievements tends to retard their growth. As society gets wealthier it gets tech-ier, and this problem gets bigger. It would have been nice to confront it in better economic circumstances. The current economic crisis has suffered from really bad timing, on many different levels.
Monday, July 27, 2009
If we stipulate that, historically speaking, loyalties to political parties in America have largely been a matter of tribal allegiance (and I think we should), then what now? Certainly generations of votes from residents of Vermont and Illinois haven't stopped the current residents of those states from voting for the other team.
There's two explanations for this: the first is that party loyalties are still tribal, it's just that the members of the tribes are different. The other one is that whereas party loyalties have been tribal for most of America's history, they are ideological now. It may be some of both. This is an odd situation in American politics, but as Robinson points out that there is at least one clear antecedent for it: the founding era of the Republican party. Was the GOP the political expression of the abolition movement, or the successor the Whigs and Federalists in the North and Midwest? Well, both.
Ultimately the regional differences of that era weren't settled until the Civil War (and to some extent not even then). That might be a bad omen for us today. But you also could say that the unification of America into the truly United States was hard enough to come by, therefore not to be given up easily.
"Technology Entrepreneurs Will Save Us." That's the title of this blog post by Rich Karlgaard. If I were the sort to rail against the messianic pretensions of free-market fundamentalists, this would worth a good laugh. But I'm not, so let's just say I'm not convinced of Rich's thesis from a simple pragmatic angle.
What is tech? Leaving all the gooey futuristic stuff aside, for thirty years or so it's largely consisted of advances in chips, software, and biotech. These are still decent fields for development, but the consumer has largely adjusted to them and is not looking to buy the latest of their wares.
If I had to guess, the next frontier with the potential of reenergizing the economy will be Spiritual technology. The thing is, if it's spiritual, is it really tech? And if it is, will people pay for it? I have something of a contrary streak, so I tend to answer no to entrepreneurial people but yes to religious people.
This, by Peter Lawler, has been the occasion of some back and forth between Daniel Larison and the PoMoCons. For me, I think Lawler is correct to argue that the coalition of the unwilling is really at bottom an attempt to repudiate man as an Aristotlean political animal.
The European elites are postpolitical fantasists. Ie, they want to move past citizenship and nationhood, on the assumption that if technocrats can maintain enough social control over the populace then disputes over honor and treasure can be cooled down before they escalate to war. "Midwestern isolationists", ie, the paleocons are prepolitical fantasists. If we all stay at home hoeing vegetables in the backyard, we'll never have any contoversy with foreigners worth going to war over.
Larison is right to note that anti-capitalism really doesn't enter into it, at least here.
I'm with Megan McArdle on this one. From a free-market perspective we'd like to be able to rely on reputational concerns as a corrective against exploitation in the private health care insurance market (like we do for other kinds of insurance). But I don't think we can, at least not nearly as much. The insurance companies are the only ones who can accurately monitor the financial impact of a course of treatment, and the tempatation to leverage that is and will remain too great. This is a substantial part of the reason why health care economics will continue to be difficult for a while.
I have a hunch that cost reduction in health care won't happen until patients have lots of nasty conversations about money with doctors. Neither party really wants that, so here we are.
Sunday, July 26, 2009
The French economist Jean-Baptiste Say formulated Say's Law, usually summarized as "supply creates its own demand", roughly the same time that Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations. That is, in a wide enough context, overproduction is impossible. The process of production creates demand among the producers, in fact exactly enough to buy the product according to an accounting identity.
According to John Kenneth Galbraith, Say's Law is an article of faith among economists, meaning that it is taken for granted by professional economists without much in the way of empirical evidence. This might actually be the case in a different way at the moment. Before we knew pretty well that other people wanted houses, cars, and computers and so on. Now, we have to create that don't exist and take it on faith that somebody will buy them.
Saturday, July 25, 2009
In the fickle world of politics, I'm not willing to stop with understanding 'at the gut level'. - Boethius
First of all, there is no reason why we have to stop at the gut level to explain the loyalties of mainstream American conservatives. They can be made quite explicit. As I mentioned a few posts ago, they have loyalties to the Republican party on one end and Greater Red State America on the other. It's just that for most people who spend less time analyzing this sort of thing than I do, these loyalties are intuited rather than stated.
As far as the larger issue of why we are or should be loyal to the United States as opposed to Des Moines, for all of its defects it is America where we have our citizenship. Ironically enough the best explanation I've seen for this recently comes from the Tarnac9, a small group of French antiglobalization activists (or terrorists, whichever you prefer):
The moment has come to put the category of “citizenship”, the heredity of an urban modernity that doesn’t exist in anywhere, into discussion. In the metropolis, being a citizen means simply reentering in the biopolitical job of governmentability, seconding the “legality” of a State, of a Nation and of a Republic that doesn’t exist if not only as ganglion of the Empire’s organized repression. The singularity exceeds citizenship. Vindicating one’s own singularity against citizenship is the slogan that, for example, migrants write daily with their blood on the Mediterranean coasts, in the CPT in revolt, on the wall of steel that divides Tijuana from San Diego or on the membrane of flesh and cement that separates the Rom bidonvilles from the shamefully sparkling City Center. Citizenship has become the award for faithful allegiance to the imperial order. The singularity, as soon as it can, happily does without it. Only the singularity can destroy the walls, borders, membranes and limits constructed as the infrastructure of dominion by biopower. - Tarnac9 (HT: also ironically, FirstThings)
Ie, it is at the level of our citizenship that our nihilist adversaries seek to attack us. That makes sense when you think about it because the state is legitimately accountable to its citizens and its those who wish to divert American power to their own ends must defeat that bond of accountability.
Of course America is an odd beast in this respect because we are citizens of the United States but the states are still theoretically at least sovereign. In the interest of localism we can wish that the states had more real power at the expense of the federal government and in fact the GOP has made that part of its program. Sometimes the Republicans go the mattresses for this and other times they just pay lip service to it. But in either case the United States (both as a nation and a government) is the level where the American polity interacts with the rest of the world. And for the sake of its integrity we should be loyal to it.
The flip side to this, is where the government acts in ways that are not plausibly intended to represent the American polity as a whole, then there is no duty of loyalty. The various Farm Bills, housing assistance programs and so on may be good ideas in some sense but first and foremost they are redistribution schemes that grant or withhold favors to some subset of Americans, and for that reason no one owes any loyalty to them. It was the Iraq war that upset this particular apple cart for a lot of people. Because we had all gotten used to the modern Leviathan state as the battleground of the spoils system, we had lost the ability to appreciate circumstances where the debt of loyalty really does apply.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
William Kristol and James Pethokoukis have items out suggesting that the Obama Administration is ready to take a combative turn as it pushes to get cap-and-trade and some kind of health care reform through Congress. Republicans and the right-wing blogosphere will be complaining soon about being bulldozed if they're not already. I don't care about it that much in the abstract: I think it's making an unnecessary fetish out of the sausage-making parts of lawmaking. Ultimately, the other team has the majorities. It's naive to think they won't make use of them.
But concretely speaking, it's another story. Whenever the President has tried to short-circuit the deliberative process on a big-ticket bill, it's never for a good cause. Recent examples of this are the Bush Administration's attempt at comprehensive immigration reform, Medicare Part D, and the Obama stimulus. War opponents tend to include the Iraq War vote as well, but think that one is a bad rap.
What makes the Obama bills uniquely bad is that their proponents can't explain in complete sentences what these bills are intended to accomplish and how they're supposed to do it. If this state of affairs continues, and the liberal base continues to insist that these bills get pushed through (as Kristol and Pethokoukis imply), we are looking at the seeds of 1994 all over again: no bills and no majorities.
Monday, July 20, 2009
I agree that many of the Al Qaeda folks would like to impose Islamic culture, with the religion that comes with it. But part of their rhetoric involves pointing out the compromised nature of Islam in places like Saudi Arabia, where U.S. interests have corrupted the ruling elites (in [Osama] Bin Laden's eyes). But again, I doubt that it is fully 'U.S. interests' being served there, rather than the interests of the financial elite whose bases of operation are, unsurprisingly, New York and Washington. -- BoethiusThere's a lot to respond to in Boethius' latest, but I wanted to note this train of thought tends to legitimize the likes of Osama as the legitimate leadership of that area of the world. Not that we should reject it out of hand necessarily but it is problematic. It's especially topical in Bin Laden's case because he is a non-state actor who lacks control over the machinery of a state, in contrast to Saddam, eg.
And not that it makes much difference, but Bid Laden's gripes against the US-Saudi relationship are pretty weak anyway. He doesn't like the fact that Saudi Arabia has relied on US petroleum engineers to help drill its oil and that the US stationed soldiers on the Arabian peninsula. But the US pays fair market value to everybody it trades with, and there wouldn't have been any US soldiers in Saudi Arabia if Saddam Hussein didn't invade Kuwait, with the threat to invade Saudi Arabia shortly thereafter.
Just like in relations between neighbors, in relations between nations we want to mind our own business and avoid giving offense unnecessarily. That doesn't mean it's plausible to do it.
Friday, July 17, 2009
This is a subject near and dear to me, though sadly neglected on this blog. It is at least tangentially related to the subject of some email correspondence between Boethius and me some years back, something we christened Spiritualism, to be contrasted with philosophical materialism. It was a bit difficult to summarize the train of thought of the Spiritualists (abbreviated "Spits"), except to say that the epistemological and ontological foundation of an act of a person, combined with intent and experiencing the consequences, is at least as strong as the objective, "real" world.
In any case, I believe that we are at or near the end of the "Cartesian template" for human progress. This is a historical phenomenon that started, oh, 10 to 40 years ago, but in an indirect way it is very important to the current economic crisis. The process of development in technology continues, but the willingness of people to pay for its accomplishments has gone way down. Our economy will continue to struggle for at least as long as it appears that there are no good options for smart, energetic people to devote their time to.
This book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, has been the latest big thing on the alternative Right for a while. I haven't read it but I suspect that I would be sympathetic with its thesis. But I don't want to overstate the case that the ideas in it will serve as the foundation for economic revival. It may be that bourgeois America will escape its cubicles. If it does it will be for the sake of the workers' well-being. But that's only half the equation. There will also be a revolution on the consumer side as well, something that creates a sense of urgency. But the consumer is feeling poor, and will be wary of buying the latest brand of snake oil. The consumer has to go through a phase of social or spiritual development as well. Only then will he know what's worth spending money on.
Wednesday, July 08, 2009
There's a grab bag of things worth mentioning regarding Boethius' latest.
The first thing is that I am very little conflicted about loyalty to America, and in particular that it constitutes one polity. There are a lot of ways to think about this, but I look at it from in a very practical way. No matter what the difference in weather, food, or accents, when I fly from Chicago to Los Angeles it's still the same country. It's not only about the formalities of passport control, but for me at least it really does feel that way too. But in flying from Los Angeles to Guadalajara, you land in a different country. It's as simple as that.
Elaborating on the particular loyalties of dissident conservatives, it's worth contrasting them to the mainstream Right. For the mainstream Right, there is a nexus of political loyalties that's fairly well understood at the gut level. The mainstream Right is connected on one end with the Republican political establishment, and on the other to Greater Red State America. This is in addition to the general patriotic loyalty to America in general. This is important because it creates the possibility of understood premises in a conversation with a mainstream conservative. For the dissident conservatives, leaving aside any questions of loyalty to America in general, their secondary political positive loyalties are quite murky. Even if one of them claimed to be loyal to paleoconservatism or Crunchy Conservatism, the objects of such loyalty are too fragmented to count. Therefore there tends to be a hint of sophistry in their arguments: it's always a little too vague just who's interest they're arguing for.
The libertarians are an interesting case: to the extent they exist as part of the Right at all, they function as dissident conservatives some of the time and mainstream conservatives the rest. Politically speaking I think their biggest issues have to do with organization, which come to think of it is sort of related to loyalty in their case.
About Bin Laden et al, I don't believe they fear being the victim of persecution by the state for the sake of religion. Instead they intend to be the religious persecutors themselves, through the state or whatever means of power they can use. We can hope, that the physical and cultural barriers between us and them mean that we can protect ourselves from them easier than some would have us believe. IMO that's an interesting, highly contingent judgment call. By contrast, the question of loyalty is this circumstance ought to be trivial.
Tuesday, July 07, 2009
Monday, July 06, 2009
"[F]or men in America, the only plausible ideal of conduct is the idea of the Gentleman. What else is there? The Rock Star? The Cowboy? Norman Mailer's White Negro? The Underground Man? Huck Finn?" -- James Burnham to Jeffrey Hart
Well, let's take the winding road today. This has been overtaken by events a little bit. But sometime last week, when Sarah Palin was governor of Alaska and it appeared that she would remain so for a while, Stacy McCain kicked the hornet's nest again. I won't dwell too much on homosexuality here, except to note that this is actually tangentially related to my complaints against the dissident conservatives, relating in particular to the modern male sex role.
It took a while for me to figure this out, but one thing that turns me off from the dissident conservatives is their lack of manly loyalty. We've been made to understand ad nauseum that their aspirations are higher than George W Bush's approval rating or Mark Levin's book sales figures. Great, then what exactly are they supposed to be loyal to, if not that? Whatever it is, they haven't told us.
Men without loyalties outside themselves are perceived to be weak, and men who are perceived to be weak are not respected by other men, in particular me. This is particularly topical right now because the current economic travails are subtly affecting our perceptions of sex roles in ways that might actually help the much-beleagured bourgeois American male.
For at least as long as I've been alive, there's been a certain empty boorishness inside the typical American male. Not that all of us are mindless jerks, but most of us wouldn't know how to be a genuine article gentleman even if we tried (this applies men of just about every race and ecnomic class, btw). In fact the very concept of gentleman has shifted to reflect this very fact. Instead of referring to a man who serves as a visible marker of civilization by virtue of his standards in dress, bearing, and manners, we now speak of a gentleman as a good-hearted mensch in his personal relations. I'm sure it's possible to make a bigger deal out of this than it really is, but it's there nonetheless.
With the current economic crisis however, the bourgeois American male is challenged to do things that he actually has a chance of being able to do, and that are worthy of accomplishment. Until very recently, it was possible for anyone for anyone with an ounce of energy or at least as much intelligence as average houseplant to earn his own keep. Given that was the most demonstrable accomplishment of the American male, no one was very impressed. Well, that's a bigger deal now than it used to be. And given the fundamental sector shift the economy is going through, it will likely be an ever bigger deal in the future.
Reihan recently wrote an interesting article about this, where he largely sees it the other way, going so far as to call the current economic crisis a "he-cession." I would be more sympathetic to his thesis if the future of economic growth was a simple battle of brains vs. brawn. But I don't think it is. In fact I think we crossed that particular bridge a long time ago. Instead, we need energetic perseverant visionary leadership toward creating things (and careers) that don't exist yet, the foundation of a new economy we don't understand all that well. And as much as I love the girls, that's not who I'll be putting my money on to do it. And from what I've seen of the dissident conservatives so far, I'm not betting on them either.
Finally, let's give best wishes to our friend Boethius on the occasion of the anniversary of American Independence, a foremost accomplishment of visionary perseverant males. It's one of his favorite days of the year, being the patriotic Roman-American that he is.
Saturday, July 04, 2009
The political world is buzzing over the resignation of Sarah Palin as governor of Alaska. I personally am not. Various pundits are suggesting that her national political career is over. That's probably so, but so what? Unlike most of the political establishment, she had a real life before she entered politics, and will have a real life to return to when her political aspirations are over. It's hard for me to see offhand what she gets in compensation that's worth enduring the cheapshots from David Letterman or Andrew Sullivan. To some extent we were lucky to have her for as long as we did.
Let's recall, the essential point of Palin's candidacy was bandwidth. That is, the Republican party is not defined by George W Bush, Congressional sex scandals, George Ryan, No Child Left Behind, or whatever else is left at its feet, fairly or otherwise. As Obama blunders and time passes this will less of an issue, and less justification to support Sarah Palin relative to Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, or whoever.