Notes From Babel

Archive for August 2009

Ezra Klein’s Confusion Over “Rationing”

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Ronald Baily at Reason does a good job debunking the common misunderstanding, as expressed by Ezra Klein, that the market “rations” our choices by making things too expensive.  (Klein: “We ration. We ration without discussion, remorse or concern. We ration health care the way we ration other goods: We make it too expensive for everyone to afford.”)

Klein evidently thinks that market outcomes that he dislikes mean that government should step in and impose outcomes that he does like. . . .

. . . .

. . . “In truth, rationing is an inescapable part of economic life. It is the process of allocating scarce resources.” The crucial question that Leonhardt [and Klein] misses is that “rationing” depends on who is allocating the scarce resources. It’s not rationing if an individual decides to spend his money on a 16-ounce steak—but it is rationing if he can only purchase a USDA prime rib eye when he has a coupon issued from a government agency. In other words, true rationing occurs when individuals are forbidden from spending their money on products or services they want to buy.

Or, if you prefer, a commenter posted this shorter version of an equally appropriate response: “Ezra Klein is a self-refuting argument.”

The article also references Charles Krauthammer’s explanation of why the health insurance industry is absolutely giddy with anticipation of Obamacare:

What’s not to like? If you have insurance, you’ll never lose it. Nor will your children ever be denied coverage for preexisting conditions.

The regulated insurance companies will get two things in return. Government will impose an individual mandate that will force the purchase of health insurance on the millions of healthy young people who today forgo it. And government will subsidize all the others who are too poor to buy health insurance. The result? Two enormous new revenue streams created by government for the insurance companies.

And here’s what makes it so politically seductive: The end result is the liberal dream of universal and guaranteed coverage — but without overt nationalization. It is all done through private insurance companies. Ostensibly private. They will, in reality, have been turned into government utilities. No longer able to control whom they can enroll, whom they can drop and how much they can limit their own liability, they will live off government largess — subsidized premiums from the poor; forced premiums from the young and healthy.

Written by Tim Kowal

August 29, 2009 at 10:28 am

Posted in Health Care

I Draw the Line at Minotaurs

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I think this is a dig at torture-skeptics like me, but it’s still funny.

Written by Tim Kowal

August 27, 2009 at 10:09 pm

Socialism and Equality

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The notion that socialism may be becoming fashionable has me troubled, so I thumbed through some of the flagged pages of The Road to Serfdom for some comfort.

Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it.  Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number.  Democracy and socialim have nothing in common but one word: equality.  But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.

—Alexis de Tocqueville

The welfare and the happiness of millions cannot be measured on a single scale of less and more.  The welfare of a people, like the happiness of a man, depends on a great many things that can be provided in an infinite variety of combinations.  It cannot be adequately expressed as a single end, but only as a hierarchy of ends, a comprehensive scale of values in which every need of every person is given its place.  To direct all our activities according to a single plan presupposes that every one of our needs is given its rank in an order of values which must be complete enough to make it possible to decide among all the different courses which the planner has to choose.  It presupposes, in short, the existence of a complete ethical code in which all the different human values are allotted their due place.

. . . .

Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends.  And whoever has sole control of the means must also determine which ends are to be served, which values are to be rated higher and which lower—in short, what men should believe and strive for.

. . . .

In a society used to freedom it is unlikely that many people would be ready deliberately to purchase security at this price.  But the polities which are now followed everywhere, which hand out the privilege of security, now to this group and now to that, are nevertheless rapidly creating conditions in which the striving for security tends to become stronger than the love of freedom.

—F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

—Benjamin Franklin

Written by Tim Kowal

August 26, 2009 at 10:21 pm

I Can Deal With Some Psychic Pain

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Jason Kuznicki has this post over at Positive Liberty, on the subject of sleep deprivation as torture.  I posted the below in the comments:

On a similar note, I wonder what others, particularly those who are convinced that waterboarding absolutely is torture, would think about keeping a claustrophobic person in close quarters, or an agoraphobic person in open spaces, or other sorts of “Room 101” scenarios.  The idea is, if we try hard enough, we can find reason to sympathize with any recipient of an interrogation method.  One would hope that a suspect would “crack” under moral compunction, or the threat of life-long prison, or even death.  But the suspicion is that these are the sort of people who have been systematically stripped of all the usual pressure points common of the rest of humanity, and physical pain is the only  currency in which we can deal.  Of course, this is a thoroughly unsavory position to be in, but it is the particular job of our military and executive policy makers to deal with it.  Whatever physical pain is the least objectively reprehensible, the better.  But no course is going to make anyone comfortable.

I always  thought waterboarding was pretty tough to get up in arms about–quite a few steps advanced of the rack and all.  But if so many are convinced that it is torture, and that torture is torture is torture without any degrees of equivocation, then what about putting an obsessive compulsive in a cell with an odd number of bars?  Is the idea of imposing any level of psychic or physical pain tolerable for their ilk?

Written by Tim Kowal

August 25, 2009 at 11:09 pm

‘Fessing Up to Socialism?

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It seems lately that liberals are digging in their heels and no longer shrinking from claims of “socialism,” and instead hinting that socialism’s really not so bad, it’s just got a bad rap.  Bill Maher said as much on Real Time last week (episode 165, as far as I can tell, though excerpts are not yet posted online).   When I tried to find Maher’s exact quote I stumbled across this post asking “how did socialism get to be a bad word?”  I confess, I don’t have a ready soundbite-style answer.  Well, other than knuckle-dragging  quips like, “it’s anathema to the system of rights underlying the American constitutional framework,” and, “it tramples the careful structure between state and federal government,” and, “this is America, stupid.”

Written by Tim Kowal

August 24, 2009 at 8:11 pm

Why the Necessity of Regulation Should Not Be a Foregone Conclusion

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While in law school, I peppered Tim Sandefur with lots of questions about takings, government regulation, substantive due process, etc.  Apparently, he’s still providing students with very enlightening responses to incisive questions.  Here’s an except of a question from an Administrative Law student that gives some insight into Lochner (the (in)famous case that struck down maximum wage laws on bakers, now viewed as one of the worst cases in Supreme Court history) that I didn’t know:

Finally, “it was apparent” [that some additional level of governance was required in the wake of the “unregulated 19th Century”] to whom? The Progressive version of history implies that all good people believed that government control over the economy was essential, and the only people who could oppose it were evil greedy capitalists. This is childish, good-guy/bad-guy mythology, not history. The debates over things like maximum hours laws, child labor laws, minimum wages, &c., were and remain complicated, with both good and bad guys on both sides and good and bad arguments on both sides. Yes, many who supported maximum hours laws like in Lochner were good people with pure motives. But those laws were also supported by bakery companies that were automated and could therefore operate 24 hours a day without human labor. Maximum hours laws eliminated their competition. Unions liked these laws too, because double-shift bakeries could thereby eliminate competition from small independent bakeries that were non unionized. Henry Weismann, the most vocal proponent of the maximum hours law in Lochner later bought a bakery and found how hard it was to keep the thing going under the maximum hours law. Then he went to law school and became the attorney who argued against that same law’s constitutionality in the Supreme Court! Why? Because he was evil? That’s a childish way of viewing history. It “became apparent” only to some that government control over the economy was a good idea. To others it was not apparent. It is not apparent to me.

It does seem that just a wee bit of clamoring is all we deem necessary to encourage the government to paw all over some industry that we fancy could use some tinkering.

Written by Tim Kowal

August 23, 2009 at 10:25 pm

Book Review: When Gay People Get Married by M.V. Lee Badgett

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Before the blogging world got consumed with health care and the economy and stopped talking about gay marriage a few months ago, I heard M.V. Lee Badgett talk about her then-forthcoming book, When Gay People Get Married: What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage (N.Y. Univ. Press, Aug. 1, 2009).  It seemed this was just the opportunity I needed to shut up and get some actual facts about the topic I was spending so much of my limited free time thinking and writing about.

Sadly, Badgett’s book is short on analysis.  Although she does provide some interesting poll and other social data, the analysis and conclusions seem to be drawn as much from anecdotes as from the actual cited data. Even more frustrating is that, other than a handful of anecdotes, the book didn’t spent much time painting a picture of the marriage culture in the Netherlands (Badgett’s focus group).  Badgett provides some cute stories about some of the couples she spoke with, but seems to be the wrong approach right out of the gate.  A truer picture of cultural attitudes would be gleaned through its expression in other aspects of life—art, literature, film and television, etc.  When Gay People Get Married doesn’t discuss its subject matter in relation to these other aspects of culture. For my part, that was the whole point of reading the book.

Aside from these general disappointments, Badgett seems to be unable to spot the inconsistencies in her own arguments.  For example, she discusses how, for many lesbian couples, same-sex marriage is an important way for feminists to reinvigorate and politicize their attack on the misogynistic and outmoded institution:

Same-sex couples could help make marriage more equal for women.  She argued, “Well, the way to change [marriage] is to marry us to a woman as homosexuals. . . . I don’t think I would have ever married when I was with a guy. . . . It would be too traditional—but now you are breaking a tradition as well.”

Couples used a similar kind of reframing to get around their view that “marriage is burgerlijk,” as quite a few people noted in the interviews.  They translated “burgerlijk” for me as square, old-fashioned, traditional, tacky, or bourgeois.

(At p. 36.)  However, the universality and tradition of marriage is central to Badgett’s theme, as she recognizes elsewhere:

And not only does marriage send a unique signal, but that signal is understood by those who receive it.  “One of the amazing things about marriage is people understand it, you know,” Martha pointed out.  “Two-year-olds understand it.  It’s a social context, and everyone knows what it means.”  Other couples pointed out that other countries accept the meaning of marriage, unlike registered partnerships, and in some cases recognize the marriages of Dutch same-sex couples but not registered partnerships.

(At p. 58.)  And again:

Our ability to infer similarity or to impose uniformity is limited when it comes to other kinds of couples.  Legal marriage is mapped onto a social and cultural institution. The legal and cultural aspects mutually create an institution called marriage that is reinforced by both aspects and enforced by a larger society when the law is silent.  Other kinds of relationships cannot draw on the same power.

(At p. 164.)  But then Badgett confusingly concludes her book by stating “[o]pening up marriage to same-sex couples is just the latest step toward renewing marriage’s continuing relevance in the twenty-first century.”  (At p. 213.)  On the other hand, Badgett does not seem concerned with the desire to “feel equal and supported” felt by polyamorous families.  (At p. 143.)  Thus, it is difficult to know how far marriage ought to be reinvented.  It would seem that the impetus towards reinvention would diminish as the reinvention reduces the extent to which “marriage” will continue to be something universally understood.  That is, so long as monogamy is necessary to maintaining a universally understood and recognized meaning behind marriage, same-sex marriage advocates will seek to keep polyamorous families out of the tent and out of the debate.

Badgett also attempts to tackle the ephemeral causality issues implied by the title of her book—what happens to a community when gay marriage is legalized?  However, although she cites data throughout the book that suggest that legalized same-sex marriage is more an effect than a cause of social conditions, she bewilderingly plods ahead and asks precisely the wrong question:

The big question here is what happened to marriage after same-sex couples received rights.

(At p. 68.)  Later on, Badgett undermines the relevance of that very question by pointing to the “necessary conditions” that must exist before gay marriage will be accepted by a community:

In fact, high levels of tolerance and cohabitation appear to be necessary conditions for country-level change, with low levels of religiousness and a national level commitment to social spending (on housing, old age, survivors, health, families, employment, unemployment, and income support) adding greatly to the movement toward change.

(At p. 193.)  This is an interesting premise, of course, but not what we are led to expect by Badgett’s question presented earlier in the book, and in the title of the work itself.

Badgett recognizes that marriage is not purely a personal matter, but is a shared public institution that affects our community:

When my Dutch friends Stephanie and Ingrid married without inviting Stephanie’s father, he reacted with anger and a deep sadness.  Even though Stephanie and Ingrid claimed to have married purely as a practical matter on the advice of their accountant, they could not control how other people interpreted their act.  “Their” marriage was no longer their own private matter.

(At p. 115.)  Of course, affecting the community is what marriage is all about, as the feminists mentioned earlier in the book realized all along, but as less politically active same-sex couples might not have.  Instead, Badgett suggests that what most same-sex couples really need is their community’s imprimatur of acceptance:

This recognition of same-sex couples as fitting the idea of “marriage” . . . creates a social and psychological climate of acceptance for same-sex couples that makes gay and lesbian people feel equal and supported.

(At p. 123.)  It becomes clear that extracting this psychological support from society is what Badgett is really after.  In fact, Badgett rejects the argument that the state get out of the marriage business and leave it to churches and other private institutions, because

this method of achieving legal equality would not necessarily generate social fairness . . . .  Disentangling the legal status from a religious ritual would still not be fair to same-sex couples, since they are not likely to be allowed to marry by most religious communities, at least at this time. Since legal “civil unions” would still likely map onto the cultural idea of “marriage” for different-sex couples, same-sex couples would remain locked outside the gates of the cultural institution of marriage, looking on at the privileged group.

(At pp. 158-59.)  This is really the revolutionary moment in Badgett’s book: it is not sufficient that society merely tolerate same-sex families—it must aggressively evolve its cultural institutions in order to make them feel acceptedAnd where those institutions do not evolve quickly enough, the state must be employed as something of a cultural cattle prod.

And indeed, for Badgett, they are not evolving quickly enough in the U.S.  In analyzing the “slow” pace of gay-marriage acceptance in the U.S., she notes:

The slower pace of change and the rapidly mobilized resistance to the idea of marriage for same-sex couples in the United States suggests to some observers that it is just not ready yet.  The political advice to go slow also comes from many directions, including some allies who support the principle of gay equaity.  As Rabbi Michael Lerner points out, “The fact is, there are millions of Americans who believe in equal rights for gays and lesbians . . . but who draw the line at marriage.”

(At p. 175.)  Yet on the next page, Badgett seems confused at how the California Supreme Court decision requiring the recognition of gay marriage could be called “judicial activism”:

The 2008 marriage decision by the California Supreme Court was still called judicial activism by opponents, even though that decision came after eight years of legislatively enacted registered domestic partnerships and the passage of marriage equality legislation not once but twice.

(At p. 176.)

The real question that Badgett leaves with her readers, perhaps unwittingly, is not what happens “when gay people get married,” but what happens when cultures rapidly secularize their cultural institutions and kinship models and rapidly shift more and more control to the state.  Apparently, one thing that happens is same-sex marriage becomes legal.  But if Badgett is correct, whatever changes have been made to marriage in such countries were done before legalization, not after.  The perhaps unintended message of Badgett’s book is that Americans ought, like Europe, to put the whip in the hands of the state to transform our culture.