Notes From Babel

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Contradictions on Both the Left and the Right

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There are lots of potential conversation starters here, but I’ll just offer these up as is for now:

  • Conservatives purport to distrust government, while liberals tend to favor government programs and regulation.  When it comes to law enforcement, however, conservatives demonstrate a strong bias in favor, and liberals a strong bias against.  (Perhaps the respective attitudes toward government are consistent when narrowed to legislative power—and even more specifically, legislative power concerning economic matters—versus executive power.)
  • Conservatives tend to take the long view toward policy, while liberals put a premium on remediating perceived present injustices.  When it comes to long term policies concerning the environment, however, conservatives exhibit a strong bias against, and liberals a strong bias in favor.
  • Conservatives tend to view moral values as objective and absolute, while liberals tend to view them as subjective and relative.  However, conservatives tend to view economic values as values as subjective and relative (i.e., depending on supply, demand, and other fluctuating market forces), while liberals tend to view the value of work as tethered to some objective and absolute standard (i.e., correlating to some predetermined standard of living).  (This relates to the distinction between procedural and substantive justice I touched on in a previous post; when it comes to economic values, conservatives embrace a procedural approach that allows the market to establish values based on self-executing, decentralized weighing of various factors, and is thus relativistic in terms of outcomes.  Liberals, on the other hand, tend to eschew market approaches in favor of fixing the value of work in the first event.)
  • Conservatives tend to eschew the vagaries of bureaucracy, while liberals defend bureaucracy as a positive good.  However, conservatives are apologists for the vagaries of high finance, while liberals are highly critical.
  • Conservatives tend to eschew centralized, top-down approaches to policy-making in favor of federalism and localism, while liberals tend to favor centralized planning.  When it comes to school reform, however, many liberals are critical of top-down approaches.
  • Liberals tend to favor industrial/urban to agrarian/rural lifestyles, yet they tend to be critical of the vast accumulations of wealth made possible in the former.

If you can think of others, I’d love to hear them.


Written by Tim Kowal

March 21, 2011 at 10:56 pm

Same-Sex Marriage and Political Symbolism

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A whole bunch of blogs have been touting this Washington Post/ABC News poll—claiming that “support for gay marriage has grown to 53 percent today”—as a sign that Americans have now embraced “marriage equality.”  Putting aside for purposes of this post the question of same-sex marriage itself, that commentators are claiming a victory for “marriage equality” generally should give pause.  Indeed, this has become the accepted term for rhetorical engagement on the issue, simply for the reason that “equality” has such great purchase on the American political soul.  Most Americans are reflexively in favor of the concept of equality because the word is so commonly coupled in political and historical discourse with “racial,” or “religious,” or “political.”  Those campaigns for equality concern egregious historical abuses concerning the most fundamental of rights, which abuses were extinguished only at great cost.  It is good and right that we exalt concept, such as equality, as overarching symbols of the American political order; such symbols serve as a means of expressing our hard-fought fundamental values as a people, and of forefending threats that might still be lodged against them.

Beyond a few relatively narrow areas, however, “equality” as a political symbol bears little application to “equality” as a legal standard.  No one seriously believes, for example, that doctors and janitors are entitled to equal pay, that Best Buy and Circuit City are entitled to equal market share, or that the Yankees and the Red Sox are entitled to an equal number of World Series championships.  On these questions, we expect and demand protection of unequal results corresponding to the input of unequal talents and efforts.

We also demand inequality on other types of questions—e.g., who is qualified for employment as a police officer or a fire fighter; who is allowed to drink alcohol; whether gardeners and nuclear power plant operators should be equally regulated.  When it comes to such questions concerning the public health and welfare, the equality principle is significantly circumscribed.

Equality, then, is a strange concept, as it at once guarantees and threatens liberty depending on the subject matter.  There is no doubt that liberty cannot endure when, for example, racial minorities are arbitrarily deprived of protection of fundamental rights.  But neither can there be any serious doubt that liberty cannot endure when everyone is deprived of protection of fundamental rights so that an equal menu of positive rights can be offered up in exchange.  Thus, the way in which some individuals are deprived of personal, political, economic, and property rights in order to promote social and economic equality poses a substantial threat to classical liberty generally.  Similarly, it cannot be seriously doubted that the state cannot serve its necessary function to protect the public health and safety if it must yield in all cases to a mandate of absolute equality.  Equality, then, is a lancet, not a sledgehammer.

Advocacy of a general notion of “marriage equality” poses its own kind of threat:  It incites us to demand urgent remediation of a perceived injustice, yet provides no guidance for evaluating the nature of the purported injustice, or why similar instances of social inequality should not also be subsumed in the demand.  The Religion News Blog, for instance, recently reported that a Canadian civil rights group “has filed a final argument in B.C. Supreme Court against [Canada’s] polygamy law, saying it is a Victorian-era statute that should be ‘relegated to the scrap heap of history.’”  Similarly, Andrew Sullivan recently passed along this story reporting that Switzerland is considering abolishing its “obsolete” laws criminalizing incest.  Matthew Franck likewise has argued that the U.S. is already surprisingly close to announcing “a constitutional right to incest.”  Most advocates of “marriage equality,” of course, have no intention of supporting these reforms.  But why shouldn’t the same symbol of equality, conscripted into advocacy of same-sex marriage, also compel equality for these other types of social arrangements?  Is there not something irresponsible and perhaps deceptive about demanding “marriage equality for all” if what is really meant is something other than “equality” and something less than “all”?

I’ve argued previously that were same-sex marriage judicially imposed, there would be no logical stopping point before judicially obliterating all morals legislation, such as suicide, euthanasia, animal cruelty, bestiality, prostitution, polygamy, adult incest, public nudity, profanity, stem cell research, human cloning, and so on.  On that basis, I’ve concluded that this question must be decided by the normal democratic process, who are not limited by strict logical application of legal principle.  The “marriage equality” rhetoric, however, compromises that process by putting voters to a false choice by insisting on strict adherence to the equality principle.  In other words, it is a distinct possibility that many Americans have changed their attitude about same-sex marriage based on an implicit threat that, if they don’t, they will be branded as enemies of equality and share space in the pages of history with racial bigots and merciless dictators.  Same-sex marriage advocates’ ubiquitous citation to the inapposite racial discrimination case of Loving v. Virginia, for example, makes this threat unmistakable.

Members of a democratic society must live with the duly expressed choice of the majority on social questions like those concerning the social institution of marriage.  It is disconcerting that consensus is quite conceivably being achieved by confusion, misconstruction, or misrepresentation concerning the fundamental symbol of equality and thus putting voters to a false choice between their political and social values.  Same-sex marriage advocates neglect to correct this misunderstanding since it works in their favor.  The resulting false pretense in the political discourse concerning same-sex marriage is quite possibly responsible, in some measure, for the increased likelihood that Americans will tell pollsters same-sex marriage should be legal.

The Place of Values in Politics

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FLG shared this interesting piece today by Stanley Fish at the NY Times, lamenting the widespread practice of parrying political criticism with tu quoque defenses:

I want to say that this is a bad move (and a cheap trick) because it deflects attention from the substantive claims being made and puts the spotlight instead on propositional consistency. The better move (by either party) would have been to insist that Obama or Bush was in fact those things and to back up the assertion with the marshaling of evidence. The better move, in short, would have been to take a stand on truth rather than shifting the focus to a calculation of reciprocal fairness. What gives someone the high moral ground is that he or she is right, not that he or she is fair.

I think I agree, though I hesitate to downplay the value of consistency.  That’s a noble moral quality, too, is it not?  But Fish is right that we oughtn’t engage in “cheap tricks” and technicalities to skirt real, substantive objections against our guy, even if they did it when we lodged real, substantive objections against their guy.

Fish goes on with some deeper insights about the modern political soul:

The solution? Remove beliefs from the political agenda — we’re not going to vote on them or distribute goods on their basis — and come up with a formula for keeping them at bay while respecting the rights of citizens to have them. . . . And how do you do that? By making it a requirement that laws neither reflect the ideological view point of one party nor marginalize and/or stigmatize the ideological viewpoint of some other party. Only pass laws to which persons of any viewpoint could assent: “No one can put anyone else under a legal obligation without submitting simultaneously to a law which requires that he can himself be put under the same kind of obligation by the other person.” This seems admirable, but what it means is that moral judgment is forever deferred and made subordinate to the supposedly greater good of allowing all viewpoints to flourish. (Why that is the greater good I have never been able to understand.)

What was perhaps merely a political expedient—i.e., emptying the moral content of certain topics to make them less politically unwieldy—has disrupted the integrity of our underlying political makeup.  We are, first and foremost, a virtuous people that recognizes certain universal moral precepts; that recognizes this is a world of values, and that laws are designed to assist that people navigate that world of values as that people embarks on its political enterprise together.  At one point in American political history, we led bifurcated lives in which, concerning matters of law, we were obligated to pretend at moral agnosticism; in other matters, conversely, we were obligated to ascertain good and evil, and to praise the former and denounce the latter.  But the triumph of secularism has been to take that narrow realm of legalistic agnosticism and turn it into the rule that governs all aspects of modern life.  The expression of moral values is resigned solely to the narrow domain of home life—and even there it’s not safe.

Written by Tim Kowal

March 15, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Governing beyond the speed of public opinion

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I find this argument offensive:

Politicians don’t understand that the voters don’t care about the deficit because the voters themselves don’t understand that they don’t care about the deficit. . . .

But they don’t. Public understanding of fiscal policy is hazy, inaccurate, and dominated by fallacious analogies between a national government and a household. What’s more, voters believe that deficits are primarily driven by wasteful government spending. So when a recession strikes the deficit spikes, and people complain. The smart thing for a politician to do under the circumstances is ignore the voters, do what you can to fix the economy, and recognize that in the end the economy drives public opinion.

Is there any wonder why voters don’t understand macroeconomic policy?  Left-leaning macroeconomists have, for the better part of century, sought to render this topic inscrutable and beyond the American public’s understanding.  They have done this precisely for the purpose of de-politicizing some of the most important political questions, making politicians unaccountable for running up massive deficits, and generating greater need for ever greater taxes.  And all this has resulted in a massive shift of political power to Congress.  (According to Wikipedia, “[e]very US state other than Vermont has some form of balanced budget amendment; thus, this macroeconomic mojo is less effective at the state level.)

This is a phenomenon I noted in my review of Bruce Bartlett’s The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward.   Bartlett notes that Keynes had enormous confidence in his ability to manipulate public opinion, and that this was a driving motivation of his work.  As a result, Keynes was not concerned with consistency in his approach to economics:  if the approach he advocated to meet one political challenge was inapposite to another, he showed little reluctance in making the necessary adjustments without regard to consistency among the approaches.  As Bartlett puts it:

Through the years, many economists have puzzled over the contradictions in Keynes’s work. But there is one thing that ties it all together: his intense desire to influence public policy. As Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky put it, “He invented theory to justify what he wanted to do.” If one goes through the 30 volumes of his collected works, the vast bulk of the material is not technical economics, but articles for newspapers and popular magazines, as well as memoranda and policy papers for government officials. “He was an opportunist who reacted to events immediately and directly, and his reaction was to produce an answer, to write a memorandum, and to publish at once, economist Elizabeth Johnson explains.

Bartlett goes on:

It is clear that Keynes would often put forward proposals because he thought they would be helpful at a particular moment in time, knowing full well that it would be highly undesirable for them to be maintained for the long term. . . .

Thus, for Yglesias to suggest that voters “are not that savvy about New Keynesian macroeconomic models” strikes me as disingenuous:  The Keynesian model was never meant for consumption by voters.  It was meant to confuse and disorient them so political leaders could govern without having to make their macroeconomic policies economically defensible.

Written by Tim Kowal

March 13, 2011 at 7:09 pm

Health Care, Markets, and Guaranteeing Outcomes

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Here’s John Goodman on the complaint that we can’t leave health care to the market (h/t Avik Roy):

Nothing follows from the fact that there is “market failure.” To make the case for transferring decision making power to government one would have to show that the likely “government failure” would be less harmful.  In health care, that’s hard to do — particularly given the track record of government in health in the twentieth century.

Overall, the market and the government have comparative advantages in certain areas and the sphere where government has a comparative advantage would appear to be very small.

We could extend the analysis of process vs. outcomes that I discussed recently to health care.  It’s too late at night to attempt a serious treatment, but recall that the premise generally is that process-oriented fairness looks to ensure merely that we have a sufficiently fair process in place to engage in certain activities and, once we have that, outcomes are basically irrelevant.  Outcome- or substance-oriented fairness works in reverse, imposing a firm notion of what sorts of minimum outcomes are necessary in a just world, and working backwards to guarantee they are achieved.

Markets are the extreme example of a just system as determined by process:  no single person defines values or outcomes, and instead, everything is automatically determined by the imperceptible force of countless discrete choices.  I’ve also posited that mainstream Americans generally perceive justice in terms of process, noting that except in unusual circumstances, Americans are not overly bothered by the idea that someone, somewhere, might be very rich, so long as they are convinced they did not accede to those riches by unfair procedures (e.g., fraud, kickbacks, illegality, etc.).  Because mainstream Americans generally have at least a slight bias in favor of process-oriented justice, they are generally willing to tolerate a certain amount of “market failure.”

Even if I am right that mainstream Americans tend toward process-oriented fairness, however, I suspect they tend less in favor of process when it comes to health care.  They might perhaps be split, in fact, or even tend more in favor of outcome-oriented fairness.  I will mention, purely anecdotally, that several people I know who are generally conservative/libertarian have significantly more sympathy for Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare than their underlying pro-market ideologies might suggest.  Too many people are just not content to let the chips fall where they may when it comes to health care as they are with, say, wealth distribution.  (I think this is deeply problematic, because once we are willing to let ourselves be carried away from our fealty to process-oriented fairness with respect to one industry, there’s little to stop us from letting that thinking overcome our approach to another industry, and then another, and so on until there is no meaningful emphasis on process at all.)

I’ll take one more liberty with the process/outcome distinction and note that our nation’s biggest expenditures—health care insurance and retirement insurance—all trend more toward achieving some notion of acceptable outcomes rather than fixed processes. Military, too, is an area in which conservatives tend to break from their aversion to government and entrust the executive with lots of power.

Three Strikes, the Unions, and the Liberal Crisis of Conscience

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David Onek at the liberal blog Calitics implores Californians to reform its Three Strikes law, claiming it is unduly harsh:

This disproportionate punishment is unjust, and it is bankrupting our state. We are wasting precious resources to unnecessarily incarcerate minor offenders who pose little threat to society for huge periods of time – and draining resources away from the law enforcement agencies, community organizations and schools that can truly prevent crime and keep us safe.

Despite Onek’s clear emphasis on the alleged “disproportionate impact,” there’s a nice bipartisan argument here to the extent he points out that “in the wake of Three Strikes the cost of corrections has soared. Our state prison budget is now so high that California spends as much on prisons as we do on higher education.”  He’s right!  This is a deeply disturbing problem.

But I wonder if Onek appreciates the political cross-fire he’s in.  On the one hand, he perceives a social injustice caused by Three Strikes—a clarion call to any self-respecting liberal.  On the other hand, Three Strikes is a cornerstone of the public union machine, which is in turn a cornerstone of Democratic politics.  What’s a good liberal to do?  Frustratingly for most of the public, Democrats have been unwilling to seriously engage public unions on their systemic abuses.  So it’s somewhat satisfying to know that even if liberals don’t care enough about democracy or taxpayers to stand up to public sector unions, there’s at least something—even if it’s the plight of repeat felons—that might agitate liberals into action.

Regardless of how you come down on the merits of Three Strikes, it was a critical component of the California prison guards union’s ascent to power, and the penal system’s decline into ruin.  According to Laura Sullivan at NPR, the Correctional Peace Officers Association contributed millions of dollars to the effort to pass California’s Three Strikes law in 1994.  The union’s investment paid off handsomely:

[T]he result for the union has been dramatic. Since the laws went into effect and the inmate population boomed, the union grew from 2,600 officers to 45,000 officers. Salaries jumped: In 1980, the average officer earned $15,000 a year; today, one in every 10 officers makes more than $100,000 a year.

Lance Corcoran, spokesman for the union, says it does what is best for its members.

“We have advocated successfully for our members,” he said.

Paying the price was California’s once efficient, rehabilitative penal system.  Once prison guards were permitted to unionize, the costs of the state’s correctional system began to rise sharply.  Today, California’s crumbling and overcrowded prison system costs $10 billion a year—as Onek points out, as much as California spends on its higher education system.

As a result of the prison population boom resulting from the union-backed Three Strikes law, and as a further result of the drastic jump in union members’ compensation, just 5% of California’s corrections budget is left to allocate to education and vocational programs, widely regarded as the key to beating recidivism.  As if this weren’t bad enough, Governor Jerry Brown recently called for an investigation into the prison guards union after more than 10,000 cellphone that were smuggled into California prisons last year—each fetching approximately $1,000—including one found in Charles Manson’s possession in 2009:

[A]ccording to a recent state inspector general’s report, which detailed how a corrections officer made $150,000 in a single year smuggling phones to inmates. He was fired but was not prosecuted because it is not against the law to take cellphones into prison, although it is a violation of prison rules to possess them behind bars.

Responding to the issue, a union representative dryly remarked that if the state decides to search guards for cellphones, taxpayers will have to pay for union members’ time spent standing in lines at metal detectors.

I appreciate that Onek recognizes the serious economic realities of public union initiatives like Three Strikes.  I’m curious, however, whether the type of reform Onek might propose would make concessions to unions, who will almost certainly lobby vigorously against it otherwise.  Which of the two mutually exclusive liberal objectives here will prevail?

Written by Tim Kowal

February 23, 2011 at 11:29 pm

Are Public Employees Underpaid?

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In my previous post, I argued that it was indefensible to suggest, as the left recently has, that Republicans’ attempts to reform public employee unions is purely politically motivated.  Specifically, I argued that to make this claim, the left ignores a vast record replete with documented abuses caused by public sector unions.  The left’s argument, then, lacks merit:  There must be an account made of these abuses before the left can plausibly suggest there could be no other reason for the right’s effort to reform public sector unions.

One of the criticisms of public sector unions is that they have resulted in compensation levels in excess of the private sector.  The left objects that this criticism fails to account for disparate education levels in the public and private sectors.  While this is essentially a question to be settled by an economic analysis—which I do not purport to provide here—a little digging indicates that many factors and much subjectivity and speculation goes into answering this question one way or another.  Thus, the left’s focus on education levels is not a silver bullet that can fully explain or justify public employee compensation levels.

Yet, this is just what is happening in the debate in Wisconsin.  With respect to Wisconsin compensation levels, Menzie Chinn provides this graph in support of the conclusion that the public sector provides less compensation than the private sector.  The blue bars indicate private sector compensation; the red public sector compensation:

First, remember that what taxpayers are concerned about is that public employees are receiving more and better compensation for similar work, and that this disparity is the result of public sector unions.  Neither Chinn’s post nor Jeffrey Keefe’s study on which it’s based attempt to correlate work and compensation.  Similarly, they fail to discuss the effect public sector unions have had in moving up the level of compensation.  Thus, taxpayers still have no way of knowing whether government workers are paid fairly with respect to the quality or quantity of work they do, or what role public unions play.

Chinn’s graph also indicates a potentially shocking data point with respect to professional degrees.  However, such employees are unlikely to be unionized; the Keefe study does not indicate one way or another.  Moreover, according to Table 1 in the study, 29% of public employees have post-graduate degrees, whereas only 7% of private employees do. This raises the obvious question of whether such highly skilled employees are necessary.  Also, the fact that workers with advanced degrees—who thus could earn significantly more in the private sector—would still opt for public employment strongly suggests that the work, hours, prestige, lifestyle, benefits, and other factors offered by government work make it worth their while.  It should also not be overlooked that educated workers have implicitly greater bargaining power, given their unique skillsets, and thus traditionally have not needed the bargaining influence of unions.  Thus, the emphasis on the education factor with respect to post-graduate education seems to be potentially misleading.

As to the education’s role in public employment more generally, several other relevant factors and questions go unaccounted for and unanswered in Chinn’s graph and Keefe’s white paper, including:

  • The true value of the workers’ product. Chinn and Keefe appear to treat education as the determinative factor of an employee’s value.
  • Whether additional education is necessary.  Indeed, the paper focuses solely on education level, and provides no information about what jobs the individuals at those various education levels typically have.
  • Serious discrepancies in the values concerning compensation.  According to numbers provided by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the average public school teacher receives compensation just under $75,000 per year.  Administrative compensation is more than $107,000.  This lines up better with reports of public sector union abuse across the nation (Joe Klein at Time recalls that school janitors in New York 30 years ago were paid $60,000 a year, and still negotiated their way out of mopping the cafeteria floor more than once a week). Keefe does not indicate where he derived the values used in his study.
  • Job security.  The public sector layoff and discharge rate is only about one-third of the private-sector rate.
  • The prestige factor.  Lawyers in particular actively seek out law jobs in government, as they provide a unique experience and excellent mobility into academia, the private sector, or other government work.  Not to mention more humane hours.
  • Work hours and lifestyle.  Cato reports that private-sector employees nationally worked an average of 2,050 hours in 2008, 12 percent more than the 1,825 hours worked by the average public-sector employee. (While in law school and looking for jobs, I very seriously considered working for the county, which offers fixed hours and Fridays off twice a month.)
  • The fact that many teachers work just 9-10 months out of the year.
  • The rising number of public employees.
  • Low turn over.  California’s exceptionally generous prison guards union boasts an annual turnover rate of just 3.6%, while other states’ turnover rates among correctional officers hover around 20%.
  • The attractiveness and value of defined benefit rather than defined contribution pensions.

Also, here in California, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) boasts it has made public employment in the corrections system “the greatest entry level job in California,” and that "[a]long with the great salary, our peace officers earn a retirement package you just can’t find in private industry."

Chinn’s graph also seems drastically out of step with national averages.  Daniel DiSalvo explains:

Generally speaking, the public sector pays more than the private sector for jobs at the low end of the labor market, while the private sector pays more for jobs at the high end. For janitors and secretaries, for instance, the public sector offers an appreciably better deal than the private economy: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for the roughly 330,000 office clerks who work in government was almost $27,000 in 2005, while the 2.7 million in the private sector received an average pay of just under $23,000. Nationwide, among the 108,000 janitors who work in government, the average salary was $23,700; the average salary of the 2 million janitors working in the private sector, meanwhile, was $19,800.

For workers with advanced degrees, however, the public-sector pay scale is likely to be slightly below the private-sector benchmark. Private-sector economists, for instance, earn an average of $99,000 a year, compared to the $69,000 earned by their government colleagues. And accountants in the corporate world earn average annual salaries of $52,000, compared to $48,000 for their public-sector counterparts.

See also this chart from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ December 8, 2010 News Release:



Or this chart from the USA Today last August.

In sum, the education level of public employees is indeed a relevant factor in determining the appropriate level of compensation.  Criticisms of public sector unions should take this into account before claiming that public employees are overcompensated.  But in like measure, defenders of the public sector unions should not presume that citing to higher average levels of education is a silver bullet in explaining the average levels of public sector compensation.  In this way, Chinn’s graph is confusing at best and misleading at worst.  Many other factors are critically relevant in determining the proper measure of compensation.  Instead of making blanket claims that all public sector employees are under- or over-compensated, we should resolve to do the hard work of making case-by-case analyses.

[Update: Ezra Klein asks the same question today, and gets the wrong answer.]

Written by Tim Kowal

February 21, 2011 at 12:28 pm