Sunday, December 29, 2013

One Final Comment

And one last comment on Haidt that I have made before.  Haidt is one of many psychologists these days who argue that facts are irrelevant to persuasion, and that only people's intuition matters.  But that poses the same problem for Haidt as to any other psychologist.  Facts have no obligation to conform to anyone's moral intuition, and the mere fact that they offend people's intuition does not make facts go away.

Global warming is an obvious example.  I have commented, somewhat jokingly, that our whole debate on global warming sounds a bit like a Monty Python skit that goes somewhat like this:

Denier:   I don't believe in global warming.  It's against my principles.
Scientist: But there's no principle involved.  It's undisputed scientific fact.
Denier:   Your undisputed scientific facts are against my principles.

Well, guess what.  If global warming is real, then being principled against it will not stop it.  Nor will being principled against receding coast lines stop them from receding.  And if it is against your principles to believe that there will be flooding on land you mean to develop, your principles will prove to be very ineffective at flood prevention.

The same applies to economics.  What is needed to fight recession tends to be deeply counter intuitive. But the public demands that the economy be fixed.  Maybe some future Tea Party politician will respond to a financial crisis by letting banks fail, shredding the safety net, cutting spending to balance the budget, and maintaining tight money.  Maybe that politician will tour the resulting economic devastation and boast that it is a proud achievement in making people suffer the consequences of their bad decisions.  Maybe Haidt will defend that politician's actions as the logical outcome of karma-based morality.  But somehow I wouldn't bet much on that politician's future.

The Toxic Combination of Group Loyalty and Purity

To continue with Haidt, I see another problem with his insistence that the Tea Party (or whoever) does not lack morality but simply follows a different morality.  I have already discussed what I see as the danger of the justice-as-karma view -- it tends to encourage people to automatically see other people's misfortunes as deserved and thereby promote schadenfreude.

My other problem rests somewhere between the group loyalty foundation and the purity/sanctity foundation. Although I cannot find the link, somewhere Haidt explains that conservative opposition to closing the Guantanamo prison stems from a loyalty-based morality -- the need to protect America from outside dangers, while the liberal desire to close it is based on the narrow-minded liberal focus on compassion as the sole good.  I see several problems here.  One which I have discussed before is that too often focusing on group loyalty can mean excluding some people from a circle of compassion.  Furthermore, while wanting people in GTMO to be treated humanely is a matter of compassion, wanting their innocence or guilt to be fairly determined and the innocent to be freed is a matter of justice, either by liberal or conservative sights. That many conservatives are opposed even to that might be taken as a sign of putting group loyalty ahead of universal justice.  Or it might be taken as driven by simple fear.  But I have long considered Haidt mistaken in assuming that the four moral foundations can be neatly separated anyhow.  And I think a lot of what is going on here implicates another foundation -- purity/sanctity.

Haidt gives as an example of the purity foundation at work people's aversion to getting a medically safe, disease-free blood transfusion from a child molester.  Speaking as a liberal, this seems silly to me.  The child molester's crimes are not somehow dissolved in his blood, and receiving a transfusion from him will not convey any sort of moral taint with it.  But at least a child molester is a moral offender.  My initial reaction to the purity/sanctity foundation was that I was willing accept it and admit it into public discourse so long as it did not actually harm anyone.  But looking back, that is a naive reaction.  Any system of morality must necessarily include penalties against transgressors, in other words, it must hurt people who violate morality, or it has no teeth.  So I will change it to saying I can accept purity/sanctity so long as it penalizes people only for what they do and not for who they are.  Because I do think a dark side of purity/sanctity that Haidt ignores is its ability to combine with group loyalty to stigmatize certain people as inherently impure, regardless of their actions.

To understand what I mean, let us start with a relatively harmless example: Pamela Geller's crusade against halal meat.  Geller wants halal meat labeled so people won't accidentally eat it.  Geller tries to express her hostility to halal meat in harm/care terms -- she calls halal slaughter cruel because it requires cutting the animal's throat and bleeding it out.  Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, she says find it offensive to eat such meat.  Jews are spared because they eat only kosher.  Of course, there is one little problem here.  Kosher slaughter and halal slaughter are the same.  Yet Geller endorses kosher meat.  So much for the harm/care explanation.  More realistically, some Christians fear eating halal food because it has been sacrificed to an idol, which clearly implicates the whole matter of purity/sanctity.  Well, for what it is worth, St. Paul thought such scruples were unnecessary, but that Christians should respect even needless scruples in others.  As an outsider, I will simply sit on the sidelines and say that if other people have such scruples, we should respect and not mock them, even if we do not understand them.  But I suspect what is going on here is something deeper.  I suspect that what Geller and her followers really believe is the Muslims are impure people and that their acceptance of  certain meat by definition defiles it.  I have a problem with that.  And no, it is no good to say that many Muslims regard non-Muslims as impure and see contact with non-Muslims as inherently defiling, so why not return tit for tat.  This is part of the whole outlook that assumes we should make other people's worst behavior our guide.  If you regard halal meat as tainted because it is sacrificed to an idol, fine. I may not understand it, but I will respect it.  If you regard halal meat as tainted because tainted people eat it, then it becomes a problem.

Of course, there are a lot of more harmful examples.  Haidt may have come to accept the legitimacy of the values of group loyalty, authority, and purity in India, but India has one of the most complex systems of the whole toxicity of seeing some people as impure -- the caste system and untouchability.  Our old system of segregation in the South was part of the same toxic mix of group loyalty and purity, with a touch of appeal to tradition.  And anyone reading of the persecution of Ryan White, a hemophilic boy who contracted HIV from tainted blood products in the 1980's comes away with the impression that there was not just fear of disease at stake, but that people seemed to believe that the HIV virus carried a contagious moral taint that exposure might cause moral as well as physical contamination.

And I cannot escape the conclusion that fear of closing the GTMO prison, of transferring prisoners even to super-max prisons in the US, or trying them in the regular US justice system is driven by something more than fear of escape or terrorist acts.  It is fear that the purity of the US soil or the US justice system will be tainted with the presence of foreign terror suspects, and that mere individual innocence does not keep suspects from being polluting.  Something similar, I suspect, is at work at conservative outrage at the thought of extending any rights of US citizens to foreigners.  They see those rights as sacred badges of citizenship that are degraded when extended beyond our borders.

Haidt may assure us that this is not immorality, but merely a different morality, and I will take his word for it.  But contrary to what some people believe, liberals are not complete moral relativists.  And I have no difficulty in saying that this is an inferior morality.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Haidt, Gilligan, Karma and Schadenfreude

To continue with my criticisms of Jonathan Haidt, he argues that conservatives who would let the uninsured die are not lacking in morality, but basing their morality on karma rather than harm avoidance.  The uninsured have behaved irresponsibly in not getting health insurance and should suffer the consequences.  For government to come to their rescue is evil because it subverts the laws of karma.  Elsewhere, Haidt has expressed some misgivings about karma-based morality, not because it lacks compassion but because -- well, I am not clear why, but I suspect because he considers it factually inaccurate.  It simply is not true that everyone gets what they deserve and deserves what they get, and a morality based on factual inaccuracy tends to lead in bad directions.

To explain my problem with a karma-based morality, I am going to start on a rather remote and unrelated subject -- Carol Gilligan's book, In a Different Voice (which I admit to not having read).  Gilligan was challenging the common psychological view of the day that women were trapped in an immature, care-based system of values that men outgrew in adopting a more mature and superior justice-based system.  Her goal was to argue for the superiority, or at least the equality, of a feminine care-based system.  Her methodology, on the other hand, was dubious.  It consisted (as I understand it) of reading interviews with a 9-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl about their morality and values and analyzing them to see how the boy was expressing an ethic of justice and the girl and ethic of care that was just as good, if not better.  There are some obvious flaws here.  One boy and one girl are hardly a large enough to offer any sort of statistical validity.  Does anyone seriously believe that all males will give the same answers (at least in substance, if not word-for-word) as Jason and all females the same answers as Amy?  And their answers are often fairly subtle and nuanced, requiring a good deal of parsing to come up with the simple dichotomy in ethics that Gilligan claims to find.  A better interpretation might be that an ethic of justice and an ethic of care are not simple dichotomies, but alternative approaches that people might apply in different situations, or even blend.  (And, of course, Haidt would say that offering only these two ethics shows liberal bias by leaving out the "binding foundations" of loyalty, authority, and purity).

When challenged on this, Gilligan said that her goal was not to offer actual evidence that this dichotomy existed, but to vindicate the ethic of care as just as good as the ethic of justice.  The best example I know that offers actual, statistically valid evidence of such a dichotomy, I recommend this study.  In the study, 16 men and 16 women, with their brains wired to an MRI saw a fair player receive a painful electric shock and a cheater receive such a shock.  In both men and women, the compassion and empathy sections responded to seeing a fair player in pain.  When a cheat received pain, the compassion sections of women's brains still responded, but in men, the pleasure centers lit up.  Now that is real evidence of the difference between an ethic of care and an ethic of justice.  It is typically reported from a somewhat female viewpoint -- men show schadenfreude; women don't.  But a more male alternative is certainly possible -- women are just to soft to inflict punishment when it is needed.

In any event, I am not really prepared to favor one ethic over the other here.  Society must punish offenders to enforce proper behavior, but we should not lose compassion, even for bad people.  But the main reason I am reluctant to criticize the men here is that they witnessed the cheating and knew that the offender was getting what he deserved.  And that is where I see them as different from a Tea Party, karma-based morality -- a morality based on karma automatically assumes that anyone who suffers deserved to suffer. Schadenfreude is not special response to people whose suffering is known to be deserved, but an automatic response to anyone suffering unless their innocence can be proven.  This may be a morality, but I certainly would not consider it a good one.

Or let us put it differently.  Republicans regularly denounce Obamacare and do their best to prevent people from getting coverage under it.  They offer a variety of reasons for opposing it, but one thing they never argue is that they see having a large number of uninsured as a positive good.  Nor do I expect the governor of Tennessee to call a press conference any time soon to boast that, while Kentucky saw its number of uninsured fall by half (or a third or whatever), Tennessee was able to hold the line and sharply limit the number of people getting insurance so that their number only fell slightly.  Nor do I expect Governor Rick Perry of Texas to call a press conference any time soon boasting how proud he is that Texas has the highest rate of uninsured in the country, and that while he couldn't keep people from getting insurance under Obamacare altogether, by refusing the Medicaid expansion at least he was able to keep those lazy slobs below the poverty line from benefiting.

I think it is fair to ask why not, since this would seem the logic of karmic morality.  I suppose some conservatives might say that the politically correct liberal media censure them and prevent them from speaking their minds.  But I think this is just another way of saying that they are ashamed to utter such opinions because they are not acceptable in our society.  And I am inclined to believe that such shame is an implied recognition that such views really are not moral.

Finally, let me cite some more personal incidents to illustrate my point.  My my grandmother wrote memoirs of my grandfather, she recounted an apocryphal tale about his two grandmothers in southern Germany.  According to this story, when the town of Toul was captured in the Franco-Prussian War, church bells rang to announce the event and both women ran out into the streets to see what had happened.  Hearing that Toul had fallen, one of them said that she hoped she wasn't hurt.  The other, upon hearing that Toul had surrendered, which in the local dialect also meant vomited, said that it served her right for eating too much.  I am skeptical of this story because it reminds me of an equally apocryphal American story about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  According that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, one listener supposedly said that the way she dresses, she was probably asking for it.  It is the difference between one whose automatic assumption on hearing of someone's misfortune is to react with sympathy, and one whose automatic reaction without knowing any details is to rejoice that someone suffered the consequences of a bad decision.  You might consider it the difference between innocent until proven guilty and guilty until proven innocent.  Or between a care-based morality and a karma-based morality.  I will accept Haidt's word that really it is not the difference between morality and immorality, but between two different moralities.  But I am not willing to accept that the two moralities are equally good.

The Fed Tapers; Markets Cheer

Last time Ben Bernanke suggested that it might be time to start tapering QE3, markets freaked out and tight money types took it as evidence that he needed to start tapering right away.  Clearly, they said, markets had become hooked on easy money and it was time to take their drug of choice away, no matter how much it hurt.  Besides, they said, how could anyone possible know when it we could taper safely.  Better to taper now and get it over with.

Well, now Bernanke has started his taper and markets are cheering, presumably because they take it as his endorsement that the economy is getting stronger.  All of this should be taken as a sign of when it will be safe to taper.

When market engage in bizarre perverse, through-the-looking glass behavior, it is a sign that all is not well. When they cheer bad news as a sign that the Fed will engage in more monetary expansion and become alarmed at good new because they fear the expansion will stop, it is a sign that the economy is too weak for monetary expansion to stop.  When they start behaving normally -- cheering good news and becoming distressed over bad news, it is a sign that things are returning to normal and taper may be safe.  When you discuss possible taper and markets panic over having their support withdrawn, it is a sign that taper is premature.  When you discuss taper and markets cheer it as a sign that the economy is getting stronger, it is a sign that taper is safe.

When you discuss taper, or reject taper and hard money types freak out, it is a sign that hard money types are being typical hard money types and should be ignored.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

In Which I Disagree with Haidt (Again)

It has been almost two months since this article on Jonathan Haidt and this brief review came out, but I have felt the need to follow up on it ever since.  Haidt argues that what seems like immorality to us is simply a different kind of morality.  When Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul if a health 30-year-old man did not buy health insurance and then was diagnosed with cancer, should be let him die.  The crowd cheered.  Liberals considered this immoral.  Haidt explains that it really wasn't immoral, it meant the crowd saw morality in terms of karma, and that any attempt to soften the harsh effects of karma is  evil.  Likewise [can't find link] a liberal with a care-based morality might favor closing Guantanamo prison, but a conservative with a group-loyalty based morality would be more concerned about protecting Americans from outsiders and want to keep it running.  And yes, I suppose it is worth understanding how someone else's morality is different, but in cases like that, I am simply not willing to say one morality is just as good as another.

Keep in mind, I have argued something like what Haidt is saying in other posts.  Psychologist Robert Altemeyer seriously annoyed me when he claimed that "authoritarians" have "compartmentalized thinking" and "double standards."  To support this view, Altemeyer offers several examples.  "Authoritarians" are more willing than liberals to censor ideas they consider harmful, including right-wing ideas.  When a fight breaks out between pro- and anti-gay demonstrators, they sentence the instigator more or less seriously depending on which side he is on.  The support Christian prayers in school in a predominantly Christian country on the basis of majority rule, but oppose Muslim prayers in a majority Muslim country on the basis of minority rights.  They claim to favor parental authority, but would try to convert a teenage runaway from an atheist home, even as they would insist atheists refrain from trying to convert a runaway from a Christian home.  But none of these show inconsistency or hypocrisy at all.  Willingness to censor just means that you favor promoting truth over a morally neutral free speech.  Differing sentences depending on who incited a riot shows that you consider violence more or less reprehensible depending on whether it is done in a just or unjust cause.  And clearly Altemeyer's authoritarians are being entirely consistent on the matter of promoting Christianity trumping all other values.  The fact that Altemeyer does not consider promoting Christianity to be a legitimate value does not mean that conservative Christians have to agree with him.

But simply acknowledging that other people are following their values is not the same as acknowledging that those values are good ones.  Nothing is stopping Altemeyer from arguing, say, that a value-free concept of freedom of expression is the best way to promote the truth, or that violence must be equally prosecuted no matter who commits it, or that promoting Christianity should not trump all other values.  But he does not argue these things; he simply assumes them.  So in my next two posts, I want to make the case that even if punishing the uninsured and keeping Guantanamo open reflect genuine values, they reflect bad ones that we should oppose.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Shutdown is Dead. Long Live Default!

First the good news.  The House passed the budget with a strong bipartisan majority.  That means there will be no further government shutdowns until after the 2014 election.  It also relaxes the sequester somewhat and should have modest benefit to the economy.  In further good news, the economy is looking up, although we have all heard this story before and should know better than to get too excited over it.

The bad news is that the debt ceiling was not included in the deal, so we are still set up for a showdown over that sometime early next year.  During the last showdown, while the Tea Party wing of the Republicans demanded a government shutdown, the "moderate" faction urged them to hold out for now and have their showdown over the debt ceiling, even though a debt ceiling breach was much more harmful that a shutdown. The reason for that appeared to be twofold.  One was nakedly (and short-sightedly) political -- government shutdown polled badly.  Tying a debt ceiling increase to deficit reduction polled well.  That refusal to raise the debt ceiling could have disastrous results was presumably not well-understood by most Americans, although moderate Republicans in Congress almost certainly did understand it.*  The other reason appears to have been that some Republicans were unwilling to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances whatever, so presenting it as an opportunity to extract a major ransom was an attempt to get Republicans to agree to raise the debt ceiling at all.

For that reason, I favored a shutdown.  My calculation was simple.  Shutdown and default were just over two weeks apart, with shutdown happening first.  Their proximity would inevitably link both events in voters' minds, so that resolving one could easily be associated with resolving the other.  That would give Republicans cover to raise the debt ceiling because most people would confuse it with ending the shutdown. One of the most important concessions Democrats gained in the last standoff was extending spending until January 15 and extending the debt ceiling until February 7.  That ensured that if no deal was struck, shutdown would again precede breach, so the two would be linked in most voters' minds and could be resolved together.

Now a debt ceiling showdown is again looming, with no shutdown in sight.  The two will not be linked in voters' minds because there will be now shutdown.  So we get to play politics with the nation's credit rating once again.  Wheeee!!!

In averting the soonest crisis, Congress might just have made the next one worse.

*The desire to have a really valuable hostage may also have been a motive there, but I am inclined to give Republicans at least a little benefit of the doubt here.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Iran Deal: Is it Skill, or Is it Luck?

So let’s get this straight.  Iran and the Great Powers come up with a deal whereby Iran agrees to halt all enrichment above 5% and dismantle the technical connections to enrich above 5%, dilute its 20% enriched uranium to 5% or less, install no further centrifuges, halt growth of its low enrichment stockpile, halt further reactors, and allow inspectors to monitor its actions and ensure that it is keeping these stupendous promises?!  And all it gets in exchange is limited, temporary, and reversible relief on sanctions that leaves the bulk of sanctions in place?!  And plenty of hawks’ knee jerk reaction is to denounce it as appeasement?!  

Yes, I know, what they really want is regime change, a subject unlikely to be brought about by a deal.  Well, that ain’t gonna happen.  There is no significant faction in Iran that favors the overthrow of their government.  Next!  If Iran hawks absolutely can’t escape a deal, they will settle for one that ends all uranium enrichment by Iran.  That is slightly more likely, but not a lot.  Iran is a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  The treaty provides for inspectors of members’ nuclear programs to ensure that they are not being diverted to build weapons.  It does not forbid members from enrichingin uranium at all.  Demanding that Iran refrain from what it has every right to do under the treaty is just an excuse for scuttling any sort of deal so we can get back to demanding regime change.  And, I will add, I do not think the criticism is purely partisan.  A lot of people making it have been chomping at the bit for war since well before Obama was elected, and they include a fair number of Democrats, so I think we can rule out pure partisanship.*

So, looking at the actual deal, it is about as good as anyone could reasonably hope for.  No, scratch that.  It is a whole lot better than anyone could reasonably hope for.   I, for one, when they were closing in on the deal, was sort of stunned.  In my experience, deals of this kind just don’t materialize that quickly; they take motnths if not years to achieve.  What happened?  And then there was the Syria deal.  John Kerry makes an offhand remark about the only way for Syria to avoid bombing is to give up all chemical weapons, and within days it is doing just that.  (And, of course, the usual suspects denounced the deal as appeasement).   What is going on here?

To me, but obvious question is, is it skill, or is it luck?   My first response was to think, no one could possibly be that good.  It must be luck.  My second is to think, no one could possibly be that lucky.  It must be skill.  Well, it turns out, a lot of secret, back door negotiations preceded the Iran deal, so it was nowhere near as fast as it appeared.  And right now Kerry is hinting that a lot of back door negotiations preceded the Syria deal, so it was not as pure luck as it appeared.  I don’t know.  The back door negotiations strongly suggest that at least some degree of skill must have been involved.   But at the same time, it certainly made a difference that a less belligerent government was elected in Iran, which was pure luck.  And as for the Syria deal, there seems little doubt that Obama really, truly did intend to go to war and was given a more or less miraculous face-saving out.  Definitely luck.

Of course, there is a certain skill involved in seizing luck when it comes our way.  And its seems like an extraordinary coincidence that we started getting lucky so soon after John Kerry became Secretary of State.  So my provisional verdict is that it was a mixture of skill and luck, with a strong emphasis on the skill of seizing luck when it comes one’s way.  The real answer will come when we see how well Kerry’s luck holds.  If we just get these two lucky breaks, I will say it was just that – luck.  If John Kerry keeps getting lucky, I am prepared to call him our best Secretary of State since – well, I don’t even know who.  But no one could be that good or that lucky.  Or even both.


*Of course, if Obama ever did bomb Iran, many of the people who are outraged that he hasn’t done so yet would be outraged at him for doing so.

What Will Republicans Do if Obamacare Subsidies are Blocked?

Kevin Drum had a strange post Tuesday on the Republican suit, now in the DC Circuit, to block large numbers of people from getting subsidies under Obamacare.  The case is simple.  The statute provides for subsidies for people getting insurance through state exchanges, but not for anyone getting insurance through federal exchanges.  Most states then refused to set up exchanges, thus disqualifying their citizens from subsidies, but the IRS (which handles the subsidies) set up a regulation allowing subsidies for people purchasing on the federal exchange as well.  The regulation is constitutionally and statutorily dubious, so Republicans have filed suit to block its implementation.

Drum games out various scenarios as to how this might be handled, whether the Supreme Court will dare strike it down, whether the prospect of people losing their subsidies will inspire states to set up their own exchanges, and so forth, but omits the obvious.  The whole issue is simply a statutory oversight that Congress could easily correct and render the whole issue moot.

Come on, you may say, don’t be silly.  Congressional Republicans would never fix a mistake in the Obamacare statute.  They have their hearts set on making it work as badly as possible and would never actually do anything to make it work.  At least so far, that is certainly true, but Drum should at least mention this possibility if only to discount it.  And I am not certain it can be discounted so easily as not to be worth even discussing.  After all, there will be winners as well as losers in Obamacare.  At present, Republicans are pointing up the losers and trying to minimize the number of winners in order to create pressure for a repeal.  And it is certainly true that the people who lose their insurance under a new statute (or the ones who see its price go up or quality go down, or who resent paying a fine for not having it) tend to be a lot more vocal than the people who gain under it.  It is easier to block a benefit than to take one back.  But that is precisely the problem.  Assume that either the DC Circuit in 2014 or the Supreme Court in 2015 block the subsidies to people buying insurance on federal exchanges.  Suddenly a non-trivial number of people who had affordable insurance will see its price needlessly skyrocket.  Republicans will cheer and celebrate.  People losing their insurance (or seeing it priced out of their range) will not be amused.  Obama will propose a simple solution.  Just change a few lines of statute and the subsidies will be restored.  Republicans who refuse will start getting a lot of angry phone calls.  Now, presumably the majority will look over their right shoulders at a potential Tea Party challenge and vote no.  The most moderate Republicans will be from states with their own exchanges, so their constituents will not be harmed.  But can we be sure there won’t be enough defectors joining the Democrats to make passage impossible?  I am not so sure.  Championing the losers under the reform and trying to limit the number of winners is one thing.  Actually setting out to harm the winners, with no discernable benefit to anyone else is quite another.

The Republican argument for seeking to block the subsidies is apparently that the employer mandate penalizes employers who do not provide their employees with health insurance, but only if their employees are eligible for subsidies, so we have to strip those employees of subsidies.  Their argument is unconvincing.  The more obvious approach is simply to repeal the employer mandate.  But the Democrats would never agree, Republicans may protest.  Well, given that Obama has already unilaterally delayed the mandate by a year, I am inclined to think they would.  Besides, even if Democrats resist, you could always package repeal of the employer mandate with correction of that statutory error.   Democrats are guaranteed to bite then.  But, of course, that would be utterly unacceptable to Republicans because it might make the Act work, and their whole goal is to keep it from working, no matter who they hurt.  The question is how long such a position will be politically viable.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Treasury Department Has the Second Rate Sequel Syndrome

And now, on the lighter side:


TO:         The US Treasury Department

FROM:  The American People

RE:          Limited edition coins

MESSAGE:  Enough already!  No more!  Have you ever heard of Hollywood and the Second Rate Sequel Syndrome?  You know, when Hollywood comes out with a great movie that is a big hit?  So they think they have found a winning formula, so they keep doing it over and over, as nearly the same as possible, thinking they can recreate the magic of the first time?  Well, they never can, because part of what made the movie such a hit in the first place was its uniqueness – the sense that this was a one-time event that will never happen again.  Making more of the same never measure up and they cheapen the original.

Well, you have a bad case of the same thing.  You came out with state quarters, and they were a huge hit, so you keep trying to do the same thing, and it isn’t working.  Washington DC and Territorial quarters, Lewis and Clark nickels, Presidential dollars, and now America the Beautiful quarters.  Spare us! 

Nonetheless, if you really want to reduplicate the success of state quarters, we should take a look at what made them such a hit.  I think you have some of it right, but only some.  You have recognized that part of what made them so cool was that they were a limited edition, and that people would want a collection with all of them in it.  So you have sought to duplicate that with various other limited editions.  You mostly seemed to realize that part of their secret was that they were different enough to have an exciting sense of novelty, but familiar enough not to offend people’s sense of tradition.   You matched that in the quarters and nickels, but not so much with the Presidential dollars.  The American people just don’t seem willing to accept dollar coins no matter what you do.  But there are some other features that made state quarters uniquely cool might be easiest to duplicate with Presidential coins, or are simply not susceptible of duplication at all.

What made state quarters so cool?

The hype and publicity.  There was a big announcement of state quarters that I saw to a much lesser extent with Presidential dollars and not at all with the nickels or national park quarters.  You can’t very well expect people to get excited about what you are doing if you don’t tell them you are doing it, can you?  But hype and publicity is the easiest of these things to duplicate; the others are more difficulty.

The appeal to our sense of ourselves as Americans.  After all, as every coin says, E Pluribus unum.  From many [states], one [nation].  Having many states, each with its own unique history and character is part of what we, as a country, are.  Celebrating each state’s uniqueness while reminding us that we are still one country is very American and appeals to most people’s sense of ourselves as a nation.  Washington DC is also part of the US, of course, and various Territories belong to us, but I don’t think most Americans have the same sense of kinship to them, or sense them as part of our identity as we do with states.   The Lewis and Clark Expedition was certainly an important event, but not quite central to our identity in the way that being made up of 50 states is.  And as for national parks and monuments – well, they are nice, I guess, and some make pretty pictures (others are not so well done), but no one keeps track of national parks the way they keep track of states.   And they certainly are not central to our identity in the way that states are.   National parks and landmarks are something we have.  States are something we are.   The one that might work here are Presidential coins.  It is, after all, a central part of our national identity that we have Presidents, chosen by the people.  We divide our history into Presidential administrations, just as people in monarchies divide their history into the reigns of kings.  I think a limited edition of coins with all Presidents , if done right, could be made to work.

Anticipated, logical sequence.  It was made clear what order state quarters would be issued in – the order in which states were admitted to the Union.  It made sense.  It was also educational – people learned in what order states were admitted.  Since the sequence was given, we always knew which state was coming next.  Is there any logic at all to the sequence of America the Beautiful quarters?  If so, I certainly don’t know what it is.  Also, we know what the 50 states are.  Does anyone know what all our national parks are?  Certainly this is not common knowledge.   As for the Lewis and Clark nickels, they are nice, but there is no logical sequence to them.  The only other coins with a logical sequence are (once again), the Presidential coins.

Education.  The state quarters were educational.  If nothing else, they let us know in what order the states were admitted, something most people presumably did not know before.  And they showed unique traits about some states that inspired people to want to learn about them.  Who outside of Delaware ever heard of Caesar Rodney?  Who outside of Connecticut heard of the Charter Oak, or outside of New Hampshire heard of the Old Man on the Mountain?   National Parks may teach people about national parks we may not have heard of, but they just aren’t as exciting.  And the Lewis and Clark nickels are just pretty pictures.  Presidential coins, now, could also be educational.  They could teach us the sequence of Presidents, again, something most people do not know.

The suspense.  A whole lot of the fun of state quarters was waiting to see what would be the emblem to represent the next state.   It had some of the excitement of a new movie release.  The Virginia quarter is out!  It shows the three ships that started Jamestown!  This would be easiest to duplicate with Presidential coins. Your current Presidential dollars just show the head of the Presidents on one side, and the Statute of Liberty on the other.  Where is the excitement in that?  Show the head of each successive President on one side and something he is famous for on the other.  Granted, there would be some problems here.  What is, say, Millard Fillmore famous for?  Or Chester Arthur?  Another problem is that some of our Presidents have been controversial.  But so what?  Many of our states have their share of controversy, too.  I thought the Treasury did an excellent job of highlighting each state's unique character while steering clear of controversy.*  Any President famous enough to be controversial must have done something famous but non-controversial as well.  I think showing each President with some claim to fame (well, sort of fame) could duplicate some of the excitement that went with state quarters.**

Power to the people.  State quarters were designed by the Treasury Department, but the people of the states were given a voice in deciding what they wanted to represent them.  That's exciting!  How often do you get to participate in designing a coin?  I think this democratic nature of state quarters was also part of their appeal.  And it is a part that I don't see being duplicated with Presidential coins, or any other limited edition either.

So, there is my advice.  If you want to recapture the magic of state quarters, do it with Presidential coins of some sort.  Hype the coins, announce that you will issue coins for each (dead) President, in chronological order, with his claim to fame on the back.  Then let the suspense build as people wonder what made Rutherford B. Hays famous.  And don't do dollar coins.  They violate people's sense of tradition.

Alternately, you could just drop limited edition coins and go back to the standard.

*If anything, I would criticize them for being too bland in some cases.  Louisiana, Texas, and New Mexico are some of our most colorful states.  And the best they could do was the Louisiana Purchase, the Lone Star, and the Zia Sun?!?  There must be something with more character!  Also, I did not approve of putting Lincoln on the Illinois quarter.  The man is already on the penny and the five dollar bill.  That should be enough!  Give us a scene from Chicago, or something indicating prairies and farming.
**We would have to stick to tradition and allow dead Presidents only.  Living Presidents are just too controversial.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Obamacare and the Future

Current conventional wisdom has it that Obama is toast, that the unpopularity of Obamacare proves that the Democrats can never be trusted with power again, and that the Republicans will sweep the 2014 and 2016 elections, and that the program is already in a terminal death spiral.  Of course, conventional wisdom a month ago was that the Republicans were toast, that the Democrats would sweep the 2014 and 2016 elections, and that the shutdown proved the Republicans could never be trusted with power again. Welcome to the fickle world of news cycles.

So far as I can tell, the websites problems did not dent Obama's popularity and actually enhanced the popularity of the program, probably because most people thought a website for the uninsured to buy insurance was a good idea, and that malfunctions could be fixed.  Cancelled policies have seriously hurt both the program and Obama.  Even if only a relative few have lost coverage, they make compelling stories, and besides, once policies start cancelling, no one feels safe.  Besides, Obama promised that no policies would be cancelled, so his credibility has taken a hit.

But notice another thing.  Republicans are no longer pushing for outright repeal.  After all, now outright repeal would mean shutting down the exchanges where non-trivial numbers of people have shopped or want to shop for insurance, stripping at least some people of insurance, and killing a system which is working in at least some states.  Instead, they are trying in various ways to discourage young and healthy people from shopping on the exchanges -- by permanently legalizing bare bones policies, and by seeking a delay of the individual mandate. They are hoping that these things will induce a death spiral and cause the system to crash and all the older and sicker people who bought insurance on the exchanges to lose their coverage.  (Hurray!  Wait a minute, why did we want that?)

Looking at the future of the act, I see one main danger that could truly kill it.

It is not the malfunctioning website.  That will be fixed.  It will probably not be fixed by November 30, and Obama should start admitting as much, lest his credibility take yet another hit.  But I expect it to be reasonably functional well before the end of March.

It is not the cancelled policies.  They are more problematic, but they can be replaced once the connections to insurance companies start functioning.  Besides, cancelled polices (replaced, though sometimes at higher rates) are a start up cost that will not be repeated.  They may be a big issue in the 2014 election (or they may not), but they are unlikely to be anyone's top worry by 2016.

It is not even that some cancelled policies will not be replaced by December 15 and will lead to a few weeks' lapse.  For healthy people (and buying individual policies  is difficult if you are not healthy), it will be just another start-up cost -- something people may still be angry about by the 2014 elections, but not by 2016.  Something does need to be done for people with serious medical problems for whom even a few weeks' lapse could be disastrous.  We need more publicity for this matter in order to force Congress and the President to do something.  But even that is a starting up cost that will be a one-time event.

It is not, as some people have suggested, the second rate shock that will hit when people learn about the deductibles and copays on the policies.  I could be wrong here, but I do not expect that to be such a big issue for the simple reason that the American people are used to deductibles and copays.  Besides, the Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze plans make clear that they are ranked by deductible.

It is not the prospect of a death spiral, at least not yet.  This is a real danger over the long run, but there are built-in safeguards to keep it from happening as a result of anything in the first year, or even two or three. Government is backstopping the insurance companies for the first three years so that if they do not get enough healthy enrollees at first, they will not have to raise their rates right away.  A death spiral is a long-term danger if the system ends up not working, but it is not at hand any time soon.

It is not even the prospect of a second government shutdown and threatened debt ceiling breach, although I do see some danger there.  Republicans backed down last time because public opinion was clearly against them.  Depending on how well the system is working by next January 15 (and whether news coverage has moved on to something else), public opinion will probably be less clear-cut next time around.  Granted, public opinion is unlikely to support a shutdown for the sake of shutting down the exchanges and stripping people of insurance they bought through them.  But it might support the Republicans on various modifications that will undermine the system over the long run, such as indefinitely allowing bare bones plans, or delaying the individual mandate.

And that is where I see the real danger -- rate shock when the individual mandate hits.  The individual mandate has always been the least popular part of the law.  (Really, the only unpopular part when surveyed by itself).  Indeed, Obamacare is less popular with the uninsured than the public at large* precisely because they fear being penalized for being uninsured.  The whole idea of forcing people to buy a product they don't want strikes many people as outrageously un-American.  So far, the concept has been mostly an abstraction, but starting next year it will become real.  And, what is worse, contrary to what many people believe, the fine is not $95.  It is $95 or 1% of adjusted gross income, whichever is more.  That means that a lot of people will be dismissively expecting to pay a $95 fine, not too concerned and will get quite a shock when it turns out to be hundreds of dollars.**  A President already facing credibility problems over promising people they can keep their insurance, and that the site will be fixed by the end of November, will take another hit, a big one.  And unlike the website malfunctions and the cancelled policies, this one is not going away.  Indeed, the fine for not buying health insurance will go up the next two years, and people will be angry.  And if the Republicans propose legislation, and perhaps threaten to shut down the government and default on the debt in order to force a delay or repeal of the fines, public opinion is apt to back them and be very hard to resist. If they run on a repeal of the individual mandate in 2014, or 2016, they will have a popular issue, one that will not go away.  And one that could very well induce the death spiral Republicans so desperately crave to kill the program.
*Can't find link
**I assume the number of people with six figure incomes and no health insurance is very small.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

So, What Are the Prospects of Fixing Obamacare?

So, granted that Obamacare's prospects for survival depend on it being repaired, what are the prospects of it being repaired?  Conventional wisdom clearly has it that the problems will not be repaired by the end of November, and it will be a serious blow to Obama's already damaged credibility.  But what does it mean to say that it won't be fixed by then?  I still don't have a clear answer.

A few things can be cleared up at least.  The exchange has two parts, the Hub and the Marketplace.  The Hub is where customers create an account and apply for financial assistance.  The Marketplace is where they browse for insurance and sign up.  After being an initial mess, the Hub appears to be working reasonably well.  People can reliable start accounts and at least semi-reliably apply for financial assistance.  I had wondered if the applications were getting processed, and apparently they are.  People determined to be eligible for Medicaid/S-CHIP can then sign up without trouble.

The Marketplace appears to be working okay so far as browsing goes.  However, in terms of signing up, it is a disaster. The information is coming through "garbled, misclassified, or missing."  Until the connections are repaired, submitting an application is worse than useless; it is actively harmful because it often required the applicant to start a whole new account with a new e-mail address.  In short, don't do it until the connection is repaired.  It is this problem that has led to a mere 27,000 people actually signing up for insurance on the federal exchange.  My own estimate is that if this feature had been working properly, the number would be closer to 147,000.

So, when people repairing the site report that it can only handle 20,000 to 30,000 users at a time, about half the intended capacity, do they mean the Hub can only handle that many, or that the Marketplace can only handle that many?  The distinction is crucial because it is the difference between the Marketplace being creaky and problematic, versus the Marketplace not working at all.  It is an important distinction!  One means that it is best to avoid submitting an insurance application during peak hours, or that one may have to submit more than once to get through.  The other says not to submit at all on penalty of having to start a whole new account.*

In the meantime, the recommendation is to create an account, apply for financial assistance, browse, and apply directly with the insurance company.  Here again, federal statistics are revealing.  About 27% of all applicants are eligible for Medicaid or S-CHIP and can sign up without trouble**  About 51% are not eligible for any financial assistance and can sign up with insurance companies directly without trouble.  The real problem is for the 22% buying private insurance, but with a subsidy.  Insurance companies are not able to access federal information, so people buying private insurance with federal subsidies are unable to sign up. And here is where the difference lies.  If 20,000 capacity limit is in the Marketplace, we can ask people who do not qualify for subsidies please to sign up directly with the insurance companies in order to make room on the exchanges, or to wait until they are truly fixed.  Then, if they comply, people who do qualify for subsidies will be able to apply.  But if the limit is still in the Hub, then people who do not qualify for subsidies will have no choice but to sign up directly because no other alternative will work.  People with subsidies will have no alternative at all, except to wait and hope that some day the system gets fixed.

*The statement "The software defects that ware making the Web site unstable with too much volume mean that some people face frozen computer screens when they try to enter information — and then get timeout errors" seems to suggest that the problem is still with the Hub, and that they have not even gotten to the Marketplace problems.  If the federal exchanges have taken 519,561 applications over the first month, that averages about 16,760 per day, well within those limits.  But presumably the number has been rising.

**Indeed, if the 106,000 figure for people signing up does not include people who signed up directly instead of through the exchange, it could well be an underestimate.

How Disastrous is Obamacare, Part II

All right, amid all the claims that Obamacare is toast, let us look at figures released for the first month by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to see just what is going on.  For starters, it is actually somewhat more than a month.  The dates are not October 1 through 31, but October 1 through November 2.  But then again, the system was essentially non-functional the first few days, so maybe adding those extra two may be treated as compensation.  It is also important to remember the goal.  The goal most frequently cited is to enroll 7 million people by the end of March.  But the actual goal is to enroll 7 million people in private insurance by the end of March, with 9 million in Medicaid.  So the total goal is to enroll 16 million people.  Likewise, the figure getting the most attention is that only 106,185 people have actually signed up for private insurance, far short of the goal of 500,000 for the first month.  The again, the total enrolled is about that many counting the number enrolled in Medicaid. But I have not seen the enrollment goals for Medicaid, and how the actual number matches up.

So, to repeat, there are three stages to enrollment.  The first is to create an account.  The government report does not include a statistic on the number of accounts created, and probably just as well.  Many people created accounts out of curiosity, or browse for prices, and others had to create new accounts when the old ones failed.  Creating an account does not, by itself, show an actual commitment to buy insurance.

The next stage is to submit an application for financial assistance.  The total number of applications submitted was 846,184.  Since many of these were for families with more than one member, the number of individuals represented is 1,508,883.  The report boasts that this is 22% of the goal of 7 million people enrolled, but this needs to be severely qualified.  If one counts the goal of enrolling 9 million in Medicaid, it is closer to 9.4%. Even if we round up to 10%, clearly we need to step this up if anything close to the goal is to be achieved. Furthermore, the report does not address how many of the applications are duplicates.  Many failed applications have had to start a new account with a new e-mail.  HHS has apparently sent out 275,000 e-mails asking customers to re-apply.  So the total of actual applications might be closer to 571,000, representing an undetermined number of people.  Nonetheless, lacking anything better to go by, I will assume that all these applications and the people they represent are the correct number.

I wondered whether the government was successfully processing all these applications, and the answer appears to be yes.  Approximately 98%, or 1,477,853 people have been processed.  (We are not told how long the typical processing time is).  Of these 1,081,592 (73%) have been steered to private plans and 396,261 (27%) to Medicaid or S-CHIP. The assumption appears to be that anyone found eligible for those two programs has actually been enrolled. Of the 1,081,592 people eligible for private insurance, only a distinct minority, or 326,130 have been found to be eligible for financial assistance.  That is about 30% of the people sent to private enrollment, and 22% of total applicants.

And now for the figure we have been hearing most about.  Out of the people referred to private insurance, only 106,185, or less than 10% have actually signed up for insurance.  Of these, 79,391 signed up on state exchanges and only 26,794 on the federal exchanges.  As HHS comments, this is about 1.5% of the goal of 7 million.  Meanwhile, although HHS has not said so, the signups for Medicaid and S-CHIP are about 4.4% of the goal.  HHS defends these numbers as not so different that the percentages at similar stages in Romneycare, S-CHIP, and Medicare D.  Romneycare and Medicare D, at least, also had plenty of technical problems at the beginning.  What I am not clear on is to what extent those problems were responsible for slow initial sign-ups in those programs.

There are two reasons why sign-up might be faster for Medicaid/S-CHIP than private insurance.  One is that there are no choices to be made for Medicaid/S-CHIP; one simply signs up and that is all.  The other is the technical problems in connecting to insurance companies to sign up.  The best way to guess to what extent each factor is responsible is to compare the federal exchanges, which are having major technical problems linking to private insurance, with state exchanges, which are working much better.  I do not have any numbers for relative population of people in states running their own exchanges versus states using the federal exchange.  Of 846,184 applications, 61% were from federal exchanges and 39% from state exchanges.  People represented skew a little more toward the federal exchanges, at 66% versus 34%. People actually processed  break down similarly to applications submitted, at 60% federal versus 40% state.  But things change considerably when we get to people signed up.  Out of 396,261 people determined to be eligible for Medicaid/S-CHIP, 212,865, or about 54% of the total were from state with their own exchanges, versus 46% from federal exchanges.  Another way of looking at these applications is that about 36% of all applicants processed were determined to be eligible for Medicaid/S-CHIP on state exchanges, versus 18.5% in federal exchanges.  This may be because many of the states using federal exchanges declined the Medicaid expansion.  But the most spectacular difference is in people eligible for private insurance signed up in federal versus state exchanges.  The 79,381 people signed up for private insurance on state exchanges are 20.9% of those eligible.  The 26,794 eligible in federal exchanges represent a mere 3.8% of those eligible. This difference is presumably the result of defective connections with private insurance companies.*  If the connection worked properly, the federal number would presumably be closer to 146,847 (20.9% of 702,619 people eligible).  In that case, the total number of people signed up for private insurance would be 226,228.  That would be somewhat less than half the goal for this month, and about 3.2% of the goal of 7 million -- behind Medicaid/S-CHIP, but not that far behind.

My ultimate conclusion -- not great, but not as disastrous as conventional wisdom has it. It should be salvageable -- but only if the federal exchange is fixed.

*If there has been double-counting of some applications on the federal exchanges, this could account for some of the discrepancy as well.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Republican Dilemma on Obamacare

Actually, there are several.  To take the simplest, what are Republicans to make of all these stories about how badly it is going.  After all, it is a Republican article of faith the the media have a hopeless liberal bias and would never speak an ill word about Obama.  And now they are doing it.  This one is a relatively easy dilemma to overcome.  You simply conclude that the exchanges are so disastrous that eventheliberalmedia can't ignore them, and that if eventheliberalmedia are reporting problems with Obamacare, think how much worse reality must be.  Actually, this shows media bias, all right, but of a different sort.  In particular, it shows a bias toward bad news.  People signing up and everything going well just isn't much of a story.

Next problem:  What to do about it.  Yes, it is tempting to gloat over the failed exchanges, but to actually get indignant that the exchanges are not working well is to suggest that you want them to work well.  Cancelled policies and increased rates fit well with the narrative of Obamacare being a disaster.  Exchanges working badly makes it sound like a basically good idea, badly executed.  And if you get too indignant over exchanges not working it leaves another, obvious problem -- what if they do start working.  Then what will  you do?

And then there are the opponents trying to convince healthy young people not to sign up so as to induce a death spiral.  Yes, there are some who warn that the death spiral is inevitable, but plenty of others don't see it as quite so inevitable that they are doing their best to bring it about.  In effect, they are urging young people not to buy health insurance so we can bring the whole system crashing down, and all those older and sicker people will lose their health insurance.  Hurray!  Wait a minute, why did we want all those older and sicker people to lose their health insurance?  My guess is that most people wanting to crash the system haven't thought that far ahead and just want to get at Obama.  Nonetheless, there are three sort of coherent answers:
  1. The simply oppose all state-mandated systems of redistribution, in this case, from the healthy to the sick.  They want to keep the healthy from being "enslaved" by the sick (i.e., subsidizing them).  That it will induce a death spiral is an entirely unintended side effect.  Except that enough people have made perfectly clear that they are, indeed, deliberately trying to create a death spiral that this argument is just not convincing.
  2. They want to avoid all state-mandated redistribution and keep the healthy from being "enslaved" by the sick.  That the sick will lose their coverage as a result is simply not a legitimate public policy concern.  Only ensuring that there is no state-mandated redistribution is a legitimate public policy concern.  The need of any potential recipients is not.  But once again, deliberately seeking to engineer a death spiral certainly makes it seem like you want beneficiaries to lose their health insurance.
  3. People who didn't get health insurance when they were young and healthy have behaved irresponsibly and should suffer the consequences of their bad decisions.  Well, this at least explains why you want people to lose their health insurance, but it has other problems.  In particular, it means encouraging people who are not young and healthy to engage in irresponsible behavior for which they, too, will eventually have to suffer consequences.  Encouraging other people to be irresponsible doesn't seem very responsible to me.  I suppose the suffer-the-consequences people would answer that they are all for young people buying health insurance, so long as it is not on the exchanges, but done in some other way that assures it does not subsidize anyone else.
For the most part, though, I think this is driven by blind partisanship more than anything else.

How Disastrous is Obamacare?

The normal description for Obamacare's launch to date is "disastrous."  This refers to two things -- badly malfunctioning software, and individual purchasers seeing their policies canceled and replaced by more expensive ones.  Yes public opinion on Obamacare either remains unchanged or has shifted slightly in favor of it.

I would say these things are related.  In some ways, the start up problems may even have been a public relations advantage.  After hearing vague, horrifying rumors about Obamacare, the latest stories are changing it from a mysterious menace to something more concrete -- a website for the uninsured to buy insurance that isn't working very well.  Most people's reaction to a website for the uninsured to buy insurance will presumably be that it is good if it works and bad if it doesn't work.  As for people seeing their policies cancelled, many if not most will be able to do comparably well on the website, if only it works.  People who are able to replace their policies with a perfectly good alternative on the exchange will presumably forgive the inconvenience of having their policies cancelled.  But if the site does not start working, they will not forgive.

Anecdotes are flying madly about.  I will give my own.  When I signed on as early as October 12, the site was sluggish.  Each question I answered was followed a most annoying delay.  The delays were long enough that I got tired of watching the revolving circle and played a round of solitaire.  When I got back from the solitaire, it had always completed its work.  Other than its sluggishness, it was not too different from completing any other long internet application.  But I did not reach the point of applying for subsidies, mostly because my financial future was too uncertain.  I do not know what would have happened if I had applied. It has gone faster on more recent visits, but I still have not known enough about my future to see if I qualify for a subsidy (probably not).

But an anecdote is just that -- one person's experience.  The government hopes to sign up 7.5 million people. What matters out of so large a number are the statistics.  What do they tell us?  So far as I can tell, nothing very encouraging.

There are several stages of applying.  One is to create an account.  (That was as far as I got).  The next is to determine one's eligibility for a subsidy and apply for one.  Next, one chooses an insurance plan and submits an application to the insurance company.  Finally, one makes an initial payment and is formally enrolled.  Not everyone who takes one step necessarily decides to take the next.  Some people may open accounts but not apply for subsidies.  Some may apply for subsidies but decide not to enroll.  This was especially a problem earlier on when people could not anonymously browse for rates, but had to create an account just to look at them.  The system has since been modified to allow window shopping without an account.*

The latest statistical account I have seen was for October 25. It reported a 90% success rate in creating accounts, but only a 30% success rate in "completing an application."  "Completing an application" means determining eligibility for subsidies.  I am not clear whether this means getting the subsidies approved, or merely calculated.  Clearly a 90% success rate is nowhere close to acceptable (it means failure 10% of the time, which is much to high), but it can be reasonably described as functional.  A 30% success rate means at least three attempts before it works, which can't really be described as functional, but is in the category of seriously dysfunctional, rather than completely non-functional.  The number of "applications completed" in the sense of applications for subsidies on October 25 was 700,000, about half of them through federal exchanges.  Assuming another 50,000 in the last six days of October (not an unrealistic number given the general rate they were coming in) and the applications completed would be about 10% of the goal in the first month out of six, or about 60% of the way there.  That is less than one might hope for but not disastrous.

What is disastrous is the "back end," i.e., connection between the exchange and insurance companies.  So far as I can tell, that portion is truly non-functional.  The information coming in is so bad that companies are resorting to hand processing, which, of course, cannot handle anything close to the volume hoped for.  The number of people actually signed up is negligible.  This is what the government hopes to have fixed by the end of November.  I do not know enough about tech to know either (1) whether that is in any way realistic, or (2) what sort of error rate the system can tolerate and be considered functional.  Stay tuned.

I will note one slightly encouraging thing I learned.  My impression was that the December 15 deadline was the deadline to get insurance in 2014, and that any insurance purchased after that date would merely avoid the fine and would not actually take effect until 2015. I did not see the point.  People who sign up don't just want to avoid a fine; they want actual insurance.  But apparently I was wrong.  Applications must be submitted by December 15 to get insurance on January 1, 2014.  Sign-ups after that date will provide insurance in 2014; there will merely be a two to six week delay.  But this could be truly disastrous for the sickest people of all -- ones in "high risk pools" set to be cancelled at the start of next year when the new insurance is supposed to take effect.  These are people who can't afford even a few weeks lapse in coverage.  Which makes me wonder.  Even assuming the best, and that everything is perfect by November 30, just how much volume can the system handle in those 15 days?  Can it truly sign up everyone in a high risk pool in that amount of time?  Really, we should be working frantically to extent the high risk pools, just to be sure.

Finally, a bit of supposedly good news from Kentucky, the state with the best functioning exchange, actually strikes me as discouraging.  The governor boasts that they are signing up 1000 people a day, and the first month statistic bear that out.  Signing up 1000 people a day for the next six months would be a total of 180,000.  Kentucky has 640,000 uninsured.  Signing up 1000 people a day amounts to about 28% of the total -- a significant dent in the number, but well short of a majority.  Even more discouraging are the composition of people signed up.  Of the slightly over 30,000 people signed up in the first month in Kentucky, 27,854 signed up for Medicaid.  Only 4,631 signed up for private insurance.  That does not bode well for the success of the program.

*Although when I tried to browse for New Mexico, it referred me to the New Mexico site, that did not let me browse.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Afterword and Foreword

This post is both an afterword to my last post and a foreword to a series I want to post in a very slow and meandering fashion.  I been obsessed for some time with how democratically elected governments fail. I only know much detail about two examples -- Germany and the United States.  (And let's face it.  When democratic politics fail to resolve the foremost issue of the day, resulting in a civil war with 600,000 dead, that has to be considered a failure of democracy).

At the same time, it is inspired in large party by a comment to a prior post in which I measured the traits professional historians associate with fascism against the Tea Party to see how they match up.  My conclusion:  The Tea Party has several of fascism's mobilizing passions but lacks a charismatic leader.  If it adopts charismatic leader like Ted Cruz, it would meet most of the mobilizing passions.  It has two out of three fascist negations, i.e., it is anti-radical and anti-liberal, but not anti-conservative.*  But it is not fascistic in its methods (although its methods are alarming in other ways) and it shares none of fascism's ideology and goals.  My commenter believed that the Tea Party, although not classically fascist, was still alarming, and that American fascism might not take the same form as classical European fascism.

This brought to my mind my earlier analysis of the Ku Klux Klan and its resemblance to fascism.  My conclusion:  The Klan shared most of fascism's mobilizing passions except for lacking a charismatic leader; it was also anti-radical and anti-liberal, but not anti-conservative; it was fascistic in its methods except that it lacked a charismatic leader; but it had none of the classical fascist ideology and goals.

Going by my very cursory knowledge about the failure of democracy in countries other than the US and Germany, I have several preliminary hypotheses:

  1. Democracies fail as a result of extreme, out-of-control polarization and strife;
  2. Simultaneous a cause and a symptom of such polarization are parties that abandon all respect for the rules of the game and democratic fair play and pursue victor at all costs;
  3. Political violence is a very bad sign;
  4. Although violent revolution from the Left is a real danger under authoritarian governments, the danger to democracy is usually from the Right.
Qualifying this last statement, I would add that a radical anti-democratic Left can certainly exist and add to the polarization, but it is usually the Right that emerges dominant.  I would further add that one sign that a right-wing party is dangerous is that it loses its ability to distinguish between the radical Left and the moderate Left that respects democratic fair play.  I will further add that sometimes the radical Left does bring down democracy, but most examples I know of fall under two main categories.  One is Eastern Europe following WWII, when democratically elective governments fell to the Communists.  But whether that would have happened in the absence of the Red Army is an open question.  The other is that governments that are formally democratically elective, but have informally degenerated into cozy little oligarchies are vulnerable to left wing, populist dictators, like Julius Caesar, Huey Long, or Hugo Chavez.

Looking at the two examples I know most about, I would say that both the secessionists and the Nazis are properly characterized as right wing.  But they are right wing in very different ways.  The secessionist of the 1850's (or the Tea Party today) are right wing in the sense of being reactionaries, standing athwart history, yelling stop!  The Fascists and Nazis were something different altogether -- right wing, but emphatically not conservative.  They won the alliance of conservatives with a promise to crush the Left, but they also aspired to major changes and transformations of society that were not conservative (the fascist ideology and goals).  

So I want to look at various democracies that have failed and see both what went wrong and how well the various fascist traits apply to democracy's enemies.  It may turn out that the mobilizing passions, negations, and methods of fascism are common among enemies of democracy, but the fascist ideology and goals are an anomaly.  Or it may turn out that fascism is more widespread than we realize.  I don't know.  But I hope to learn a lot.

*I imagine some conservatives would disagree with me and say that making opposition and conflict ends in themselves, shutting down government, and threatening a debt default with untold consequences are not conservative at all.  Point taken.

Tea Party Today: Democrats in the 1850's?

Let me start by stating the obvious.  I do not believe that the Tea Party wants to secede, or that there is any danger of secession by red states, or any threat of civil war.  So in that sense, the Tea Party is nothing like the Democrats of the 1850's.  But in an attempt to find some sort of parallel in our history, I have been looking at books about that fateful decade that was the countdown to the Civil War, and I see a dynamic in Southern Democrats that bears a certain resemblance to the Tea Party today.

To understand the 1850's, one must go back at least to the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
The northern state dominated the House of Representatives because of their larger population, but Congress made a habit of admitting slave and free states in equal numbers to maintain the balance in the Senate.  In 1820, Missouri applied for admission as a slave state, threatening to tip the balance.  Some northern Congressmen sought to require Missouri to phase out slavery as a condition of admission.  In the end, the sides compromised.  They admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state, but barred slavery in the Louisiana Purchase south of Missouri's southern border (the 36th parallel).*  A look at the map above shows why this could not possibly have been the basis for a stable compromise.  The territory closed to slavery was much larger than the territory open to it. Indeed, the only slave state subsequently admitted from the Louisiana Purchase was Arkansas.  But the Southern states on the whole expanded territorially faster than the northern states and were always eager to add more territory to the US.  The addition of Florida and Texas (and the possibility of breaking Texas into as many as five different slave states) maintained the balance in the Senate for a surprising thirty years.

The Union threatened to fray again in 1850 when California applied for admission as a free state, including the portions the were south of the Missouri Compromise Line.  This set off a crisis because it would tilt the balance of the Senate permanently in favor of the North.  After much wrangling, Congress reached a compromise.  California would be admitted as a free state, including the portions south of the 36th parallel.  In return, Utah Territory, though north of the line, would be allowed to adopt slavery if it chose.  There was not too much resistance to this proposal in the North for at least three reasons: (1) The Missouri Compromise technically only applied to the Louisiana Purchase, so it was not technically violated by allowing slavery north of the line in other territory.  (2) No one expected slavery to be established in Utah.  (3) Even if by some miracle, slavery were to be established in Utah, Utah was much poorer and less populous than California so the North got decidedly the better end of the bargain.  In fact, the Utah for California bargain was so lopsided that the Compromise of 1850 added a tougher fugitive slave act as a sweetener to bring the South along.

The next crisis occurred in 1854, when Kansas and Nebraska were opened up for settlement and territorial status.  Since both territories lay in the Louisiana Purchase north of the Missouri Compromise line, both would normally be closed to slavery, but the South was in no mood to tolerate the admission of any more free states.  Stephen Douglas in the Senate therefore cut a deal with the South to repeal the Missouri Compromise line and open these territories to popular sovereignty, i.e., to let the inhabitants decide whether or not to allow slavery.  Opening Kansas and Nebraska to slavery set off a much greater uproar in the north than opening Utah to slavery.  The Missouri Compromise was widely seen in the north as a sacred compact and its repeal as something monstrous.  It was in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act that the Republican Party was formed, dedicated to preventing any further expansion of slavery.  No one expected slavery to have any success in Nebraska, Kansas was right across the border from the slave state of Missouri, and parts of eastern Kansas might have been adaptable to raising tobacco.  Many Southerners saw an implied bargain -- Nebraska as a free state for Kansas as a slave state.  There was a huge rush of Northern settlers into Kansas -- a minority, mostly from New England, moving there specifically to keep slavery out, and a majority, mostly from the Midwest, seeking a better future, indifferent to slavery as a moral issue, but not wanting slaves as competition.  "Border ruffians" crossed over from Missouri to vote in Kansas elections and intimidate settlers, but few who became permanent settlers.

This raises an interesting question.  Why did California seek admission as a wholly free state?  And why couldn't pro-slavery settlers keep up with the anti-slavery settlers in Kansas?  It is commonly said that by 1850, slavery had reached its natural limit because all new land acquired by the US was simply too dry to be good for plantation agriculture.  But California today is the US capital of plantation agriculture (in the sense of large-scale, labor-intensive cultivation of cash crops), and at least parts of Kansas were hospitable to tobacco.  The answer appears to be that decades of rapid expansion had spread the South thin.  It had an abundance of uncultivated land and a shortage of (slave) labor. It simply did not have enough people to keep expanding.  The North, by contrast, had a more rapidly growing population because the bulk of immigrants were going there.  Parts of its growing population were building cities and industrial development, but other parts were heading west -- and did not want to compete with slaves.  In short, slavery had reached its limits, not just because of geography, but because of demography.  Much of the South's actions throughout the 1850's might be seen as an attempt to legislate away basic geographic and demographic facts.  Needless to say, the attempt was not successful.

At the same time, the South held surprising domination of the federal government by a sort of 19th Century version of the Hastert Rule -- government by the majority of the majority.  The South was a minority region, but it held the majority of the Democratic Party, which, in turn, was the majority party.  Nonetheless, Northern Democrats were increasingly beginning to chafe under Southern domination.  They might not care about slavery as a moral issue, but the Kansas-Nebraska Act had hurt them, and they were becoming restive.  This was clearly born out in the Democratic Convention of 1856.  Initially, Southerners' favorite candidate was the incumbent President, Franklin Pierce.  But Pierce proved unacceptable in the North because of his support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  Southerners then swung their support to Douglas, who was also widely unacceptable in the North for the same reason.  All sides ultimately agreed on James Buchanan, who had played no part in the controversy, and who went on to win the election.

The next crisis occurred almost immediately after Buchanan's inauguration, when the Supreme Court came out with the Dred Scott decision, holding (among other things) that Congress could not exclude slavery from the territories, making the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional.  The effect of the ruling was to hold the Republican Party unconstitutional and call for it to disband itself, although of course the decision did not say so in so many words.  Needless to say, Republicans were outraged at this overreach and showed no disposition whatever to disband, or to abandon their goals.  Dred Scott also posed a potential threat to popular sovereignty because it hinted that a territorial legislature, as a mere creation of the federal government, could not exclude slavery either.  This threatened to raise a major rift between northern and southern Democrats, but at the time they were able to paper over the distinction.  Douglas -- and many Southern Democrats as well -- argued that, although a territorial legislature could not ban slavery outright, it had no obligation to give any support to slavery and could therefore effectively exclude it.

The potential rift came to head in 1858, when the Missouri-controlled Kansas legislature applied for admission of Kansas as a slave state against the clear wishes of the population.  That was a bridge too far for Douglas.  He was willing to ignore slavery as a moral issue and treat it as simply another thing to be decided by majority vote, but imposing slavery on the people of Kansas against their will was going too far.  Besides, he was up for election later that year, and to admit Kansas as a slave state against the wishes of the population would have been political suicide.  Douglas led the fight in Congress to block the admission of Kansas as a slave state (ultimately successful) and thereby made himself as hated in the South as any Republican -- indeed, more, because he was seen as a traitor.

Congress' refusal to admit Kansas as a slave state was followed shortly by the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates.  Lincoln pressed Douglas during the debates on how a territory could exclude slavery if Dred Scott forbade such an action.  Douglas gave the answer he had been giving for some time -- that a territorial legislature could not ban slavery outright, but it could exclude it by "unfriendly legislation."  At about the same time, Jefferson Davis (then a Senator from Mississippi) was giving a speech to New England's dwindling band of Democrats, and assured them that Dred Scott did not mean forcing slavery on a territory against the wishes of the inhabitants since they could always exclude it by failing to pass a slave code.  When Douglas learned of this speech, he quickly seized upon it to prove that his opinion was no different from the opinion of the most prominent Southern militant.  Wanting to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the hated Douglas, Southern Democrats then began demanding that Congress pass a slave code for the territories -- a thing that was utterly unacceptable to northerners, Democratic or Republican, anti-slavery or indifferent, and which therefore stood no chance whatever of getting through Congress.**

During the 1860 Democratic Convention, the American public was treated to the sight of a major political party committing suicide by self-disembowlment.  Southern Democrats made clear that they would not accept Douglas as the nominee under any circumstances, and demanded that the party endorse a slave code for the territories.  This demand was utterly unacceptable to Northern Democrats, who rallied behind Douglas.  Vicious in-fighting followed, and the Southerners ended up walking out of the convention to nominate their own candidate.  The Northern remnant nominated Douglas.  The split sealed the Democrats' fate and guaranteed that Lincoln would win as the Republican candidate.  Southerners, unwilling to endure a Republican in the White House, seceded.

So what does this depressing story have to do with the Tea Party?  Quite simply, it shares the Tea Party's dynamic in several ways.  To take the most obvious similarity, the Democrats in the 1850's and the Republicans today were both examples of a party splitting.  In both cases, hard liners increasingly came to value combativeness for its own sake above an beyond achieving any sort of outcome.  And both came to value ideological purity above electoral success.  Of course, there are major differences as well.  Most obviously, secession and civil war are not in the cards this time.  Nor is the difference this time anything as simple as a sectional split.

But perhaps the most disturbing similarity, I believe, is that the underlying motive is one of fear and despair. Southerners in the 1850's were enjoying a period of unprecedented prosperity and political dominance, but they could read the handwriting on the wall.  Geography and demography were stacked against them.  They spent a futile decade trying to legislate these facts away.  Likewise, much attention has been paid to this survey and its emphasis on fear and despair as the Tea Party's great motives.  They, too, fear that their party is doomed and demographic is in hopeless decline.  I see despairing comments on blogs that there will never be another Republican President.  My response is to say that such fears are foolish of course there will be another Republican President.  He (or she) will just have to adapt to changing times.  But they Tea Party are people who do not want to adapt to changing times; they want times not to change and do not know how to achieve it.

And that is how the Tea Party is most like the secessionists -- they are both standing athwart history, shouting stop!

*Actually, 36 degrees, 30 minutes.
**Many accounts today, wanting to maximize Lincoln's role, claim that it was Douglas' answer during the debates that made him unacceptable to the South.  I highly recommend Don Fehrenbacher's The Dred Scott Case and Stephen Oates' The Approaching Fury (and no doubt many other detailed histories of the period).  By giving a detailed chronology of events, they make clear the it was Douglas opposition to the admission of Kansas as a slave state that made him unacceptable in the South, and that anything he said in the Lincoln-Douglas debates was simply an excuse to hate him more.