Archive for January 2011

Belaboring the Obvious (Or, why oh why does the GOP hate America so?)

January 19, 2011

Cross posted at Balloon Juice

Here’s the shorter of everything that is going to follow from here:  if you are looking for death panels, to a pretty damn good approximation you can find one in the Republican caucus of the US House of Representatives.

What follows is a retelling of what we all already know:  health care reform repeal is a ticket back to a system that was long ago recognized as a disaster, a ride powered by zombie lies and a damn good media machine.

That said, in all of this, I detect just a glimmer of hope — if not for the persons of the uninsured still at risk, then perhaps for the body politic.

For example, today, as the House GOP seems about to succeed succeed in passing their repeal of last year’s health care reform act, that psalter of Village worship, The Washington Post notes that despite having run on “Repeal and Replace,” (italics added, obviously), there will be no replacement.  Rather, as the headline writer demurely announces, “The GOP lacks clear health care plan.

If you’ve lost the Post

No worries, mate,  says the GOP.  We don’t need no stinking plan.*

After all, the chorus dins, the consequences of continued survival of the health care reform would be catastrophic enought to merit repeal even without anything to put in its place.  Look! — we are told, The Worst Bill Ever will cost us 650,000 jobs.

That is, or would be a half percent bump to the unemployment rate, except, of course, it isn’t.  The AP just came out with a fact check, tracking back to the CBO research on which the GOP spinmeisters based their claim.  That bit of actual journalism revealed that the reason most of those who would not be working because of health care reform are doing so because they would no longer need to work — or as the AP reported:

What CBO actually said is that the impact of the health care law on supply and demand for labor would be small. Most of it would come from people who no longer have to work, or can downshift to less demanding employment, because insurance will be available outside the job.

“The legislation, on net, will reduce the amount of labor used in the economy by a small amount — roughly half a percent — primarily by reducing the amount of labor that workers choose to supply,” budget office number crunchers said in a report from last year.

Which is to say, that half a percent change in the labor supply is not a half percent shift in unemployment: you are only unemployed if you are seeking work and cannot find it.

Instead of acquiescing in a matter of labor-statistical fact well known to everyone in the business, the GOP chose to do what they do so well:  make some stuff up, and then support what is technically known as bullsh*t by a bit of mathiness.  That 650,000 jobs “killed” number?  Some staffer took the total current employment number of roughly 130 million Americans and divided it by 200.  Hey presto! — an Obamafashist Jobapocalypse.  (See also this McClatchy debunking.)

But of course, everyone here knows about this kind of tactic, employed here in a mere skirmish in the long, long GOP War on Logic.  All I want to do in this early morning rant is to remind everyone of what the Republicans in the House of Representatives are actually trying to do with this attempt at repeal.

They propose to destroy a law that will reduce the deficit by a small but welcome amount; extend  health care coverage to approximately 70% of the currently uninsured; establish a number of pilot programs intended to explore both health care improvements and potential cost containment; and ensure that Americans in the time of greatest need cannot be denied coverage, despite suffering from “preexisting conditions.”

And in its place, the Republicans offer?….Nothing.

So the one message I want to keep hammering is that we need to remember exactly what the GOP says they want:

A system which costs much more and delivers less than those of our major economic contributors.

A system in which the GOP is, apparently, happy for the rest of us to continue to bear the burden of covering the unreimbursed costs of care for the uninsured — which is, in essence, a hidden $30 billion tax on you and me. (That figure comes from a paper by MIT health care economist Jonathan Gruber.)  They don’t seem to care about the larger economic context in which lack of portable, reliable health care is a drag on labor mobility and entrepeneurial ambition.

Worst of all, they are willing to accept that all 47 million uninsured remain so — many of whom are employed and who thus form examples of what Gruber terms the modal uninsured individual, the “working-class poor.”  That translates into exactly what John earlier today reminded us was what Alan Grayson was drummed out of respectable conversation for saying:

The GOP plan for health coverage for the uninsured is: die.

Back to Gruber’s paper, in a passage worth quoting at length:

A recent (October 2005) Institute of  Medicine (IOM)*** study reviewed hundreds studies documenting the health problems associated with uninsurance.  The IOM estimated that uninsured individuals use only half as much medical care as the insured, and have a mortality risk that is 25% higher, with over 18,000 people dying each year because of lack of insurance.9  The studies reviewed by the IOM, however, were mostly observational analyses documenting a correlation between a lack of health insurance and poor health, perhaps controlling for other correlates of insurance and health.  Few, if any, of these studies dealt with the endogeneity of health insurance coverage with respect to health status.

Several other studies have used careful empirical methods to more carefully document a causal impact of health insurance on health.  Hanratty (1996) studied the impact of the staggered introduction of national health insurance in Canada across the nation’s provinces, and found that it was associated with a 4% decline in the infant mortality rate and an 8.9% decrease in the incidence of low birth weight among single mothers.  Lurie et al. (1984) studied the removal of eligibility for public insurance for a large group of individuals in California (due to a fiscal crisis in that state in the early 1980s that forced the state to cut back its insurance coverage), and found that health deteriorated significantly after losing public insurance.  For example, blood pressure rose among hypertensive patients, leading to 40% increased risk of dying: overall, 5 of the 186 patients who had lost insurance had subsequently died, compared to zero of the 109 patients in a comparable group of individuals who did not lose insurance coverage.  Currie and Gruber (1996a, b) studied the expansion of public insurance across and within the U.S. states in the 1980s and 1990s.  They found that this expansion led to an 8.5% reduction in infant mortality and a 5% reduction in child mortality.

The shorter of all that: being uninsured is hazardous — and worse — to your health.

Like John, I’m infuriated by the fact that so far, the GOP has paid no political price for the barge loads of night soil they’ve dumped on this debate, and on us.

Unlike John, I’m just slightly hopeful that this will change.  The AP piece even more than the McClatchy one seems to me like a straw in the wind.  (When you’ve lost the Associated Press….)

I’m probably just playing Charlie Brown to the Lucy of the MSM, but maybe, just maybe, Boehner and his merry band of locksteppers will find it a little harder sledding than they thought.  It’s slow work, but it seems to me that the one thing we can do here in the media weeds is to keep offering the counter narrative — or rather, shout the real story loud and often enough to water the tender shoots we see in media coverage of the nonsense that is GOP governance.

Crappy metaphor.  But hell – I haven’t even made it half way through my first cup of coffee.

*Yeah I know that’s not the actual quote.  Pedants.

**That link takes you to an NBER working paper by Gruber. The figure referenced comes in Part 6 of the (unpaginated) paper.

***The IOM is the branch of the National Academies that deals with medicine.

Images:  Jan Steen, The Doctor’s Visit, before 1679.

Egon Schiele, Death and the Woman, 1915.

I Hope Erick Erickson Lives A Long and Miserable Life Afflicted By At Least Six of the Ten Plaugues*

January 11, 2011

Cross posted at Balloon Juice

I’m working on a longer post on the question of causation, madness and murder, but I have to stop that for a moment of sheer rage.

Y’all know that I’m a bit squeamish in my language here — the way I write f**k and all that — but let me drop that reticence for just this once and say that I hope that notorious goatbuggering cretin, Erick Erickson, suffers every possible anguish reserved for those who see the suffering of others as evidence of their god’s love for them.  Fuck him.  Fuck him with a rusty hatchet.

Why say I so?

Because he had the wretched cruelty to write:

Through it all though, well meaning people on both sides of the ideological and partisan divide are not talking about the one thing that should be talked about — a saving faith in Jesus Christ.

(h/t Media Matters)

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Just marvel first at the gutshredding stupidity of this — I mean, I know that Erickson is an imbecile, but surely even a man of his grotesquely limited capacities could recognize the problem of evil when, as in his own words, it steps up and whomps him upside the head?

Yup, sure, that’s my first thought:  kill a nine year old girl; shoot some nice lady through the left hemisphere, murder a judge, and the proper response is to reflect on just how much that Jewish love child Jesus has done for me lately.

__

In Jewish ritual, Shiva, the seven days after a funeral, is woven through with ritual and practices that center on leading those who have just lost someone through the most wrenching experiences of sorrow.  Among the traditions: those who would offer comfort a loss are enjoined to let the bereaved speak first — or not — and only when the mourner does should they respond, following the lead those who have suffered the lost give them.  There’s a reason for that: it’s so that gutless, self-absorbed, miserable excuses for humanity like Erickson don’t drop their trousers and beshit a house of bereavement.

__

In that light, what kind of shitheel tells those who have just lost all-in-all in this world that they should make (or should have made)  nice with jeezus and all would have been/will be well. Especially when the best known  victim, Gabrielle Giffords, is in fact Jewish.

SATSQ:  Shitheels like Erick Erickson.

Worse yet — he doubled down.

I mean, I  don’t think it takes a huge dollop of cultural sensitivity to realize that Jews — even or especially those, like me, drifting into committedly Jewish atheism, would find it both risible and hateful to be told to bow down to Jesus or go to hell.

Seriously.  He goes there:

…here is the reality: beyond us is a world we cannot see with our eyes. It impacts us on a daily basis. It is a world of very real angels and very real demons. It is a world of a very real God and a very real Satan, a very real Heaven and a very real Hell.

…And, frankly, at times like this I am more and more mindful of the great chasm in this world between the saved and damned.

To which I say that were there an Inferno, it would reserve a special place for one who says to those who have suffered and those who have lost all in all in this world that if they don’t make nice to his plastic jeezus they must suffer eternal torment.

As those struck by the Arizona tragedy already know, there is indeed a hell.  It exists in this world, and we sorrow for those cast into it through no ill-deed of their own.  Those who have true kindness in them — the saving grace of human mercy — will do what they can to ease the misery of those who have suffered so.  That worthless waste of sperm that is Erick Erickson would rather rub salt in the wounds.

Civilized people would shun the Ericksons of the world.  CNN has a choice.  For now, I make mine.  Til he goes, I withhold my eyes — from the channel, the website, the whole shooting match.

*Details here. I personally favor numbers 1, 2, 6, 7, 8 and 9, but YMMV.  Note the key point though:  I do not wish that Erick Erickson should die.  I do not seek to wreak violence upon his person.  Divine judgment, baby.  That’s all.

Images:  Peter Paul Rubens, The Massacre of the Innocents, c. 1612

Hans Memling, The Last Judgment, triptych, right wing (inner): Casting the Damned into Hell, 1467-1471

Weimar Politics in AZ

January 9, 2011

Cross posted at Balloon Juice

What do we know about assassination as a political tool?

It works.  Not always, but enough.

It can be effective even if the assassin is truly a lone gunman, truly crazy, utterly denuded of membership cards or explicit links to more formal political groups.

It achieved the desired goal for the Confederate Party when Booth shot Lincoln.  White supremacists were able to play the politics of the next decade or so to resume, through the ballot box and violent terror, a political dominance that would only begin to wane almost a century later, and is not all gone yet.

It was devastating in Israel, where the settler-Likud alliance managed to transform the course of Arab/Palestinian – Israeli-Jewish peace negotiations after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin.

 

And so on.  It works — when it does — because even though in the immediate aftermath of a political murder all parties may decry violence, the combination of the loss of leadership and the chilling effect of murderous force itself take their toll on the targeted side.

 

So, while I agree with those who say that this particular assassin may not himself be a poster child for the presumptive murderousness of the American right, I think, as John put it and Kay echoed:

The point we have been trying to make for the last couple of years is that Republicans need to stop whipping up crazy people with violent political rhetoric. This is really not a hard concept to follow. There are crazy people out there. Stop egging them on.

Except I’d take this a step further, and say  — whatever the particular path this killer took to these murders — we need to follow that logic a little further, to look at what that rhetoric of hate is supposed to achieve. Sarah Palin et al., aren’t trying to debate. They are trying to gain power.  In that context, those on the right who chose to employ violent rhetoric do so to help gain ends that haven’t been won (or are too much trouble to acquire) by treading democratic paths.

 

 

This isn’t new, of course.  Let me offer one example of this kind of tactic taken to an extreme.  I spent most of a decade working on a book (Einstein in Berlin) — and in it, I spent some time engaging the tragic history of the Weimar Republic.  I’m not going to apologize for Godwinizing here, because, as you’ll see, Hitler and the Nazis don’t make an appearance in the episode below.

Rather, in the early years of Weimar, you find murder turned almost into  a precision tool of politics, long before the Nazi party appeared on the scene. Between 1919 and 1922, the violent right reasserted its presence in Weimar governance while destroying the core of skill and leadership available to the left through a sustained and devastating campaign.  As I wrote some years ago:

Emil Gumbel’s dismal report, “Four Years of Political Murder” demonstrated the depth of the danger faced by the Republic, and by the left.  “The right is inclined to hope that it could annihilate the left opposition…by defeating its leaders.  And the right has done it” Gumbel wrote.  “All of the leaders of the left who openly opposed the war and whom the workers trusted…are dead.”  … Gumbel concluded, “the effectiveness of this technique is for the moment indisputable.”

The climactic and most famous assassination of the more than 340 political murders committed in this early period of Weimar came in 1922, when Einstein’s friend, Walther Rathenau, then Germany’s foreign minister, was killed.  Here’s what happened:

At about 10:40 a.m. on June 24, 1922, Walther Rathenau left his house in the countryfied suburbs of Berlin.  He settled into the back seat of his jaunty open car.  His chauffeur got behind the wheel.  There was no need for conversation between the two.  Rathenau, appointed Germany’s Foreign Minister less than three months before, drove to work each day along the same route at much the same time.  The driver put the car in gear and set out as usual up the Königsallee.  Germans are often parodied as creatures of order, and there was never a man who more aspired to be the perfect German than Rathenau.   By mid-1922 in Berlin, however, such precision had become not so much a routine as an invitation.

Rathenau’s driver drove on sedately, hugging the middle of the road.  About three blocks from the house he slowed to cross a set of streetcar tracks.  As he did so, a six-seater open touring car drew level with Rathenau’s automobile.  There were a driver and a young man in the front, and two more young men in the back, all wearing leather coats and driving caps.  A witness said that Rathenau looked over, as if worried the cars might crash.  At that moment, Erwin Kern, twenty-five years old, a former navy officer, leaned from the window of the overtaking car.  He rested the butt of his automatic pistol on his other arm and aimed at Rathenau.  The range was no more than a few feet.   Rathenau was looking at his killer as the man fired.  Kern shot  rapidly, five times — the witness said it sounded like a machine gun – and Rathenau slumped over.  As he fell, one of Kern’s accomplices stood up and pitched a hand grenade into Rathenau’s car.

Rathenau’s driver pulled over, then sped on to the nearest police station.  As he drove, the grenade went off, jolting the car forward.  The driver kept the car moving, though, and a young woman walking by, a nurse named Helene Kaiser, leapt into the passenger compartment.  “Rathenau who was bleeding hard, was still alive,” she said.  “He looked up at me, but seemed to be already unconscious.” The chauffeur turned the car round and raced back to Rathenau’s house.  His bleeding body was carried back inside, and set down in the study.  By the time the doctor arrived, Walther Rathenau was dead.

Who were the murderers?  No one, really.   They were just pissed off, underemployed, violent young men,* ex-military, (a couple of them), meeting and talking in the context of a sustained and successful campaign to paint everything about the Weimar democracy as a betrayal of the “true” Germany.

Kern and his band of four other disaffected students and veterans found each other, and began to plan to assassinate some Jew prominent enough to matter.  They settled quickly on Rathenau — he was the most obvious target, as made clear by the doggerel rhyme that had become popular among nationalist and anti-Semitic circles:  “Knalt ab den Walther Rathenau/die gottverdammte Judensau.” (“Shoot down Walther Rathenau/the goddamned Jewish sow.”)  The conspirators began to study their intended victim, learning his habits and his routes.

… A test run on June 20 convinced Kern that a revolver would not do; he would need an automatic to be sure of hitting his target.  He picked one up that evening, no great feat in the gun-ridden Berlin of 1922.  On the morning of June 24, car trouble almost sidelined the murderers, inviting unhappy comparison with the Serb gang that had by blind luck managed to kill the Archduke Ferdinand in that distant Sarajevo of June, 1914.  But the car revived just in time.  They pulled out of an alley behind the minster’s car.  Within minutes, Walther Rathenau lay bleeding to death.

Rathenau’s death marked more or less the end of the murder campaign.  But that was not because the outpouring of sorrow and anger at his killing finally compelled the German right to cease their viciousness. Rather, it was because the battle was won.  The left had been substantially weakened, and the stage was set for a resurgent center right — and ultimately, the far right as well.

History does not repeat itself.  The United States in 2011, after more than two centuries practice at constitutional democracy (and all our experience of its ups and downs), is not Weimar Germany, emerging from catastrophic defeat and attempting to master the arts of governance in the midst of international sanctions and constant internal strife.  Sarah Palin is no Erich Ludendorff, that’s for sure — for all her seeming willingness to ascend to power on her reputed skills with firearms.

But even if repetition is a myth, our past still echoes across time — and listening carefully, we may find clues to the meaning of what is happening right now.

Rathenau was murdered by sane conspirators motivated by those who created a climate of hate in which a disgraced militaristic right could return to the political arena.  Rep. Giffords was shot and others murdered by someone who may well be crazy — but that man acted within a context in which her colleagues and allies deemed it OK for an allegedly sane “leader” who lost the last election to post crosshairs over the names of her political opponents.  So here’s the lesson I draw from all of this:

The least we can do Gabrielle Giffords, Judge John Roll, Christina Green and all the other victims of this murderous attack is honor them through acts of memory, so that whenever next someone advances or excuses the rhetoric of violence we say “no, not this time, not mindful of those we’ve already lost to this kind of evil.”  Naming and Shaming is not just good clean fun at this point; it’s a duty.  We have to do whatever we can to make it political kryptonite to play in that (quick)sandbox.**

As a late addition to that thought — if John Kyl, Senator and Congressional colleague to the terribly injured Gabrielle Giffords, thinks it “inappropriate” for the Pima County Sheriff to condemn the vitriolic rhetoric of talk radio and its consequences in Arizona, then he is, as Mistermix suggests below this, exactly wrong.  I’d go further.  In trying to muzzle the sheriff, Kyl is not just an assh*le. He’s part of the problem, an enabler of those who incite violence for political ends, and he should be contemned as such from every corner.

*An odd and sad footnote to that murder, the driver of the death car ultimately repented and recanted, joined the French Foreign Legion on his release, and was instrumental in saving Jews in Marseilles from the Holocaust.

**Not to self-link, and to make sure I relegate to a footnote my contempt for a mostly negligible person in our civic conversation, let me here echo DougJarvus’s snark about McArdle et al.’s defense of open carry protests at presidential events.   Here’s my post on that subject, with a full frontal assault on McArdle’s capacity for reasoning, moral or otherwise.  It was fun to write at the time.  Rereading it now just makes me sad.

Images:  Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Death of Caesar, 1867.

Francisco de Goya, The Third of May, 1814.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, The Actor, before 1861.

Something to take our minds off woe while we wait…

January 8, 2011

I know that the thoughts of the community here, and mine certainly, are with Rep. Giffords, the wounded in that horrible incident, their families, and the loved ones who have been lost.

I know what my first reaction is to the shooting, beyond grief for the individuals directly afflicted and longing for a society where this does not happen, but I think John’s right, and not just because the facts aren’t all in.  I’m trying to leave space in my head and my heart just for those who have been so horribly touched by this before picking up my cudgel again in what surely should be purely political battles.

So, just to provide a moment’s distraction, let me point out an article in The  New York Times that reminds us that even in hard times, the kids can be all right, thank you very much.

In it, reporter Sam Dillon tells the story of William Fitzhugh’s work on The Concord Review, which publishes exemplary research papers (what I remember as term papers) by high school students.

Fitzhugh comes off as a complicated character, which is one way of saying that he sounds like he could be a total pain in ass.  And the fact that his journal now publishes almost exclusively work from private school students — while public school work used to have a much higher representation — reminds us of the fact that the barriers to membership in the elite are there and real, and growing higher.

But three quick quotes/thoughts.  First, Fitzhugh reminds us of the joy of encountering really good work.

Mr. Fitzhugh said he has so far been unable to find the right person to succeed him, and the review’s future as an online journal remains uncertain.

But when he feels discouraged, he said, a new essay will often arrive, like, say, the 11,000-word paper that came in the other day from a student in Hong Kong examining the history of scientific inquiry in China.

Suddenly he is thrilled anew that the review has called forth impressive work from a young scholar on the other side of the earth.

“It’s a great essay, and I can’t wait to publish it,” he said.

Second, on a truth I know to be real from my own work as a teacher of writing and documentary film-making:

Mr. Fitzhugh…taught history for a decade at Concord-Carlisle [Public] High School in Massachusetts. When he started teaching in 1977, he was advised by colleagues to assign only short papers, five to seven pages — if at all.

But well into his teaching career, he received a high school sophomore’s thoroughly researched, 28-page paper on America’s strategic nuclear balance with the Soviet Union.

“That taught me I hadn’t been asking kids to work as hard as they could,” Mr. Fitzhugh recalled.

Amen and amen.  Students can do much more than they or you are sometimes prepared to believe.  If you don’t tell them that they can’t, they may delight you.  Moral, to self, as I prepare what I know to be a very demanding course: frame the assignments so that the students have a venue in which to do something satisfactory — while never eliminating the possibility of going for something extraordinary.

Last:  the piece provided a nice nod to oft-reviled teachers’ union chief Albert Shanker, who gave Fitzhugh early and eager support:

One of its earliest cheerleaders was Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who before his death in 1997 wrote at least two newspaper columns and personal letters to the National Endowment for the Humanities, the MacArthur Foundation, and Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, extolling the review and urging them to provide it with financial support.

“We know that most of the youngsters in our schools don’t write very much or very well,” Mr. Shanker wrote to the endowment’s president, Lynne Cheney, in 1991. “There are probably teachers who don’t believe their students are capable of putting together a decent paragraph. The Concord Review shows them how much our students are capable of.”

Exactly. Our kids are capable of great things.  It is good always, and especially at times like these, to be reminder of this.

And now, back to thinking about those in peril and in sorrow.

Image: Rembrandt van Rijn, Titus at his desk, (Rembrandt’s son) 1655.

On the Nature of Truth: A Quick Bit of McArdle Gigging.

January 7, 2011

Belatedly cross-posted from Balloon Juice.

I shouldn’t get sucked in — I mean, I’ve got a ton of work to get done before the next semester brings its apocalypse with it.  Dealing with Megan McArdle is just a poor investment of scarce time and attention…and yet….Oh the temptation!

Perhaps there is a middle way.

I’ll try. I just won’t let myself go all John Foster Dulles on McArdle’s recent attempt to show that she knows more about journalism than an actual journalist, and more about constitutional law than a constitutional law professor.   Suffice it to say that hilarity ensues.*

Here I’m just going to look at a single little paragraph that contains one of McArdle’s standard party tricks.  She asks:

…surely we can agree that it’s an open moral and political question as to whether it’s acceptable to respond to moral hazard problems with coercive comprehensive regimes?  Maybe before you answer that, you’ll want to contemplate the gnarly moral hazard problems attached to many social insurance schemes

Look at the skeleton of her “reasoning” (sic — ed.):

(a)  There are moral hazards associated with social insurance

(b)  Some of those moral hazards are “gnarly” — i.e. too complex to confront. (I think that’s what she means.)

(c)  Coercive comprehensive regimes are the tool used to respond to such moral hazards.

(d) That’s a bad thing.

There are a couple of problems here.

First, yes, there are indeed moral hazard issues associated with social insurance schemes.**  (Moral hazard, by the way, as defined by  one of McArdle’s favorite people, Paul Krugman, is “…any situation in which one person makes the decision about how much risk to take, while someone else bears the cost if things go badly.”)

Unfortunately, the paper to whose abstract she links is not primarily concerned with what most people think of as the core moral hazard associated with providing pensions to old folk.  It does address an important phenomenon. Published in 2005 by three University of Minnesota economists, Michelle Boldrin, Mariacristina De Nardi and Larry E. Jones, it argues that a bit more than half of the drop in fertility observed in Europe and America from the 1920s forward can be attributed to the emergence of old-age pension systems.

A couple of things here:  first of all, this change in fertility is not exactly an unintended outcome.  Because large families are associated with poverty (especially in recent studies of developing nations), fertility reduction can be seen not as a tangled trap for pension systems but as a sought-after policy result.

Still, there are consequences to reductions in family size.   Dependency ratios change — how many active workers are available to support each retiree.  So pension schemes could be said to suffer a burden of moral hazard, if in fact you treat fertility decisions as an unanticipated externality that unfairly shifts the costs of aging onto society, (as opposed to understanding them as a goal, or at least a useful secondary outcome of the policy). But in the real world, the fact that competing social (and economic) goods come into play is not exactly a shock.  We do or as a society can choose to care about poverty, population, and old – age security all at once. That responses to such various concerns interact is not particularly surprising, and if there are externalities involved it is hardly “gnarly,” as in intractable.  There is, after all, a difference between complicated  and impossible.

But the real point is that this sonorous utterance of a scary sounding term — ooooh, “moral hazard” —  and this very authoritative seeming invocation of the economics literature have little or nothing to do with what McArdle’s is talking about here, the “coercive” individual mandate in health care reform.  Here’s how an economist friend of mine explains the matter:

There are two sorts of asymmetric information problems that undermine social insurance – moral hazard (if you can’t tell whether being poor is the result of bad luck or of lack of effort then insuring against it will reduce the effort people put into avoiding it) and adverse selection (if you can’t distinguish those who have higher and lower risk of falling into poverty then the greater attraction of voluntary insurance to those at highest risk drives costs up and undermines efficient design of insurance schemes).  I bring this up because compulsion is usually thought of as a response necessitated by the latter problem not the former.

In the context of health care reform, this translates into having to find a way to keep people from gaming the system — waiting until they are sick, or at least until they’ve hit a high-risk stage of their lives, before forking over their ducats.  The response, and it’s not gnarly, nor complicated, nor a mystery to most folks who lack the extra sophistication of the Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic, is to make people pay for insurance before they “need” it.

So again, why thunder on about moral hazard or invoke a paper on fertility and pensions as a prop to a complaint about a government mandate?   Most likely, IMHO, is that McArdle is just trying to overawe her audience into ignoring the flaws in her argument.  I believe the technical term for this is “baffle them with bullshit.”  (Heaven forfend!  Could such a thing be?–ed.)  (Yes — TL)

The moral of this story:  McArdle employs her grand platform to one end, and one only:  to comfort the comfortable.  In her long running campaign to return to the status quo ante for health care in the US, she’s willing to sacrifice economic advantage, fiscal prudence, and any other inconvenient facts that get in her way.  Her success is predicated on presenting the appearance of authority while spamming out so much economics-sounding stuff that it is weary work to catch up to all the errors more subtle than her inability to catch order-of-magnitude mistakes in her arithmetic.  That’s how she rolls…and it’s why, tedious as it is, she needs to be called out on such stuff as often as possible.

*I have to say I feel for James Fallows, whose post sparked McArdle into verbiage.  You know how Click and Clack have this running gag about how Scott Simon (or whoever) spits their soup when they hear the Tappet Brothers say “this is NPR.”  That’s how I’d feel in Fallow’s shoes were I to hear McArdle refer to me as “my colleague.”

**For example, old age pensions — social security — shifts some of the risk of old age from the individual to society as a whole.  In that case, some people may choose to work and save less than they otherwise would have, because they would know that they no longer need to pay for  their entire retirement.

If/when people make that choice, the total output of an economy/society would go down—and that would increase the relative cost of the social insurance scheme, a cost which would be born by others than those who alter their behavior in this way.   (Of course, enabling folks not to work till they drop is not necessarily an undesirable example of moral hazard at work.  It could, just maybe, form a desired goal, a policy-outcome explicitly sought with benefits both moral/social and economic that devolve not just on individuals, but on any society that gets to see its older members as anything other than failing members of the labor force.)

Either way, of course, this is not all that “gnarly” a concept, pace McArdle.

There are well-known policy responses to this particular concern. For example, you address the incentives to slack-off created by social welfare programs by making sure that the benefits they provide are floors, not ceilings:  keep the benefits low enough so that they serve as insurance, and not a total income replacement — which is exactly what Social Security does.  As of the November 2010 monthly report, the average benefit for retired workers was $1,079.  I don’t care where you live in this greatest country evah of ours, $13K a year is not going to lard your table with T-bones and caviar.

Contrast that  with what we’ve come to know and love through our experience of recent events — for example — in which the banksters  shifted the risk of highly leveraged bets on real estate from themselves to the taxpayer.  Crucially, risks that ultimately fell to the taxpayers under a “too big to fail” notion were concealed in various ways, so that we (unknowing) ended up bearing the weight of the collapse of 2008 et seq.  Now that’s how you do moral hazard.

Images:  John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, with a shout out to my hometown Museum of Fine Arts, in which I look at this several times a year.

Vincent van Gogh, Ward in the Hospital in Arles, 1889.

Ford’s Theater — or how not to photograph little girls.

January 6, 2011

This is a repost of something I put up at Balloon Juice last night–and that I then added to after reading the comment thread there this morning. Check that thread out here if you want to see the context for the second half of the piece.

Update:  I’ve attached a belated follow-up to the very thoughtful comment thread below the jump. Thanks to all who contributed to that thread, and apologies for taking this long before returning to the discussion.

Via my friend, science writer (The Carbon Age) and twitterer Eric Roston (@eroston) I just learned of the Tom Ford-edited issue of French Vogue featuring fashion-porn pictures of female child models.*

The girls are real children — one is said to be six years old — presented in the clothes, makeup and poses that suggest the sexual agency and availability of much older women.

Beyond a kind of weary sorrow/rage at the thought that someone’s going there yet again, the pictures crystallized for me the feeling that’s been taking shape all week as I’ve thought about Ross Douthat’s now well-covered foolishness in his recent column on adoption and abortion.

Lots of people (see my last post on this for a very partial selection of links) have pointed out the obvious about that piece. Recall that Douthat’s “argument” was that evil of abortion could be seen in the way it constrains the supply of  livestock babies sought by wealthy child-poor couples.  That’s a view that instrumentalizes both (poor) women and the children they are supposed to produce to satisfy that family-acquisition impulse.  The mothers and their infants become means to others’ ends.

Ford and Vogue make similar use of their subjects.  The girls, dressed and made-up in haute hooker chic, are toys — dolls, really — onto which a viewer is supposed to project … whatever.

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Those photographs suggest erotic presence, but they depict kids, after all, and in these images, like the babies and women Douthat would bend to the service of other women, those children cease to be actual individuals.**  Instead, they become blank canvases on which others paint their own aims and desires, with the requisite ugly twist on the word, “desire.”

The bottom line?  To put it in the syntax of Jeopardy,  I’d ask:  “What is the fact that both Douthat and Ford/Vogue think it’s OK to diminish the people that are women and or children into anonymous, interchangeable objects”  And with that I’d win the category that answers:

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Things that are not right.

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I’ll close with a bit of science fiction geekery.  A long time ago I read what still seems to me one of the best of dystopic visions of our commodified and manipulated future, John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider. It holds up remarkably well, and in my own idiosyncratic sequencing of such things, it seems to me that it should be thought of as one of the founding texts of cyberpunk.

Brunner’s story can be read as a kind of pilgrim’s progress, in which more than one character is coaxed to the realization that (in my bad, from-memory paraphrase of the book’s ending) the operational definition of the concept of evil was the use of another human being as a thing.

That notion is the source of my disgust with Douthat, and my loathing for whatever it was that passed for thought in Ford/Vogue‘s decision to peddle some kiddie porn.

And as for what I’d do about it?

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This, of course.  I’m a free speech fundamentalist, or pretty close to it, and I believe that the best response to grotesque speech is to point out its wens and warts, which I have here tried to do.

And on that cheerful note…goodnight, y’all.  Better dreams.

*The link is to BoingBoing, through which you can dive as deep as the ‘net lets you now into this particular wading pool.

**In case it’s not obvious, can I say here that the issue is not with the idea of fashion photography and/or erotic tensions and meanings in images.  It’s the six year old problem: the fact that little kids do not possess the agency to figure out whether the process of being turned into any particular image is OK by and for them.  Clear?  (Obviously, there is a lot more to think and say here, but it’s late, and this is a blog post, not a monograph…and this is why we have comment threads.)

Image: Dirck van Baburen, The Procuress, 1622.

First — thanks to all.  I spat this out in haste last night, and it describes a reaction more felt than thought, and the comment thread offers the corrective I hoped it would to what I think is my incoherence.

Most important, I realize I didn’t think all the way through the argument.  I agree with those who’ve pointed out that Ford =/ Douthat, and for that matter, pictures of little girls in age-inappropriate costumes and poses =/ baby brokering.  If there is a link — and I think there is, still, it is that both Douthat’s writing and Ford’s images reduce women and girls to attributes.  But still, I think that what I was trying to say could have been better said with a focus on the Vogue spread itself.

There, as a number of commenters pointed out sexualized images of child models have a history (see e.g. Mike Kay at comment 15) — and as J. Michael Neal points out at number 5 and Debbie does at comment 55, Ford may very well be attempting critical comment on that history and on the habits of fashion photography.

But that still doesn’t resolve my sense of dread as I look at this pictures, and I think that reaction derives from two interwoven thoughts.  The first is that objects like these photos shape social relations.  I look at these photos and see this:  to be female, of any age, is to be an object, a vessel for other’s desires and intentions.  I recognize that there are other ways to interpret what’s going on here– but it is the kiddiness of the images that tip the balance for me.

The second is that context matters.  The spread’s presence in Vogue cuts both ways.  Given who reads that pre-eminent women’s book, the notion that this is criticism carries weight, as I’m not sure how much an audience of couture-fascinated women are going to see six year olds playing dress-up as objects of desire.  On the other hand – these kids are selling stuff, clothes and style, and it is the leap from stuff to selves that makes me very queasy.

I don’t know how many of you have read Andrew Vachss.  His novels – I’ve only read ones in the Burke series – center on horrific stories of child abuse and worse.  He emphasizes over and over again what should be obvious:  children don’t have agency when adults sexualize them.

That’s what makes me very, very wary of  even well made, ironic, fashion-tradition hedged images like the one’s here.

So, in response to all the well-thought criticism of what may be an unfair juxtaposition of Ford and Douthat, I think the commenters who point to the real differences between the two are onto something, and if I were to write this piece again, I’d focus just on what bothers me with these pictures, rather than trying to tease out this comparison.

I’m older than I once was, as Paul Simon says.  Fifty two and counting.  I have a young kid of my own.  I can imagine (though not really remember) myself as a twenty-something journalist in New York thinking that Ford’s images (Calvin Klein’s back then, actually) were pure transgressive art, full stop.  (I never bought into Douthat’s intellectual pathology, thank FSM.)  But I’m not that mostly notional young pup any more, and for all that I can see the artfulness in those photographs, I can’t get over my sense that these pictures help us make strangers of each other — and of the most vulnerable among us.

I Haz One Happy. I Haz One Sad.

January 5, 2011

Two links I’ve been saving for everyone’s delectation.

The happy?

This extraordinary video mashup of something like 270 films released in 2010, coming in at six minutes running time.

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Just great stuff.

And the sad?

This collection of genuinely beautiful photographs of the ruin that was Detroit.  The artfulness of these images is just marvelous.

The subject…it breaks my heart.

Image.  J. W. M. Turner, The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, 1838

(The link between image and post is a little allusive, I’ll admit, but it’s there (in my own mind, if nowhere else), and I do truly love this painting.  I’ve made pilgrimages to see it.)