Wednesday, December 23, 2009
My initial reaction to stores doing things like this (saving bags, turning off half their lights, etc.) is that it's a wonderful way for them to get business from the "green" crowd while simultaneously saving on overhead. Of course, in this particular instance the giving of a quarter to save a plastic bag seems to null the idea that they would be saving on overhead. Nevertheless it may be a good way to bring in environmentally conscientious customers.
In any case, he argued that conservation would not occur because instead of using the plastic bag, he would simply use that 25 cents to consume another good. In this case, he offers the idea of buying a dinner mint, and instead of consuming a plastic bag he would be consuming a foil wrapper. He then tried to apply this same concept to conservation of various kinds. Although people seemed largely sympathetic with his over-all view, there were several criticisms regarding the specifics. One person offered that the concept was invalid because it only worked when someone rewarded you, financially, for conserving. Another person actually made the argument that the cashier was increasing the money supply by giving him the quarter (how it wasn't considered in the money supply at that point to begin with is beyond me) and that it would effectively actually make all consumables slightly more expensive. I have to admit that explanation was really interesting; don't you hate it when a false premise ruins a perfectly enticing story?
Anyways, these two refutations did spark a point of interest with me. Even in a case where no money was given to this guy for not consuming a bag I think there is actually a strong economic point to be made that market feedback would prevent at least some types of conservation from being effective. Let's look at an example and see how this would play out:
Let's say there is a concerted effort to conserve gas (obviously there is one already but let's say a more effective one). They somehow convince one out of every twenty people in the U.S. to reduce their gas use by two gallons per week. Personal consumption of gasoline drops by thirty-million gallons a week suddenly. What would we expect to happen in a market environment? Well, this would essentially extend the common supply to the rest of market players by precisely thirty-million gallons. With a reduced demand, and an increased supply, we would expect gas prices to drop in order to clear market. And with that drop in price, we would expect aggregate demand to effectively increase (assuming production wasn't initially curtailed) and bid off the excess supply. And so, it seems very plausible that conservation, in some cases, may not result in the conservation of a good or resource but rather a shift in the consumer base.
I actually find that line of reasoning to be fascinating, and it's the direct result of "marginal" economics. The understanding that people buy goods at the margin is something that produces a lot of unexpected consequences, and I think the public's lack of understanding regarding subjective value and ordinal preference is a part of what produces so much mass confusion regarding basic economics. The idea is actually much more simple than it seems. You buy on the margin based on ordinal preferences. When you go to buy something, you buy it in the quantity that you do based on the price and your subjective evaluation of your desire for that item. For instance, if you're buying rolls of paper towels and they are two dollars a piece you may only have a preference for two at that price given your subjective evaluation of that trade-off. However, if the price was 5 cents per roll, you may have a preference for as many as you could carry out of the store.
This is marginal economics in a nutshell. It's always about the additional item you don't buy, the indifference curve, the opportunity cost. The argument I brought up above is actually somewhat similar to the arguments that were made a couple of years ago explaining that although tax cuts on things are generally desired, that a tax "holiday" on gas would not result in an actual price decrease. A drop of twenty cents (the per-gallon federal tax rate) on the price of gas would essentially increase the consumption of gas (because people who weren't willing to buy an extra five gallons a week for $4.00 might buy it for $3.80). The increased demand with an unchanging supply would then cause the price of gas to come back up in order to clear market without shortages. In fact, you might have a temporal increase in both prices and consumption.
Now this whole idea is subject to many other factors too. While it's true, generally, that other actors will increase the consumption of any given good when the price drops for whatever reason, it would have it's limits. High-order goods like gasoline would be especially susceptible to to higher consumption as being able to transport more goods would allow producers to increase output (and profits). But obviously that would only hold true to the degree that such consumption was in line with their productive capacity. You're not going to see a small vendor with three trucks consume thousands more gallons of gasoline in a week all of a sudden, even if they could afford it, because use for that quantity would simply exceed their capacity to provide such services given their limited size. Likewise there is the general argument about the elasticity of any given good (how well market-demand responds to prices). For instance, with gasoline, to a certain extent, high prices are not going to significantly diminish at least a portion of the demand for it. There is a floor-level of consumption to some degree because it's essentially needed for transportation, which is at the root of our productive capacity as a society, even from the view of labor itself.
But given these other factors to consider, the essential economic point regarding supply and demand fluctuations still stand. If some people consume less plastic bags, it could ostensibly decrease the price of plastic bags and simply make it more affordable for others to use it less sparingly. It would seem to me, on an odd level, that there is something almost similar to an externality occurring here in the market; albeit a limited one. It seems that the desired result (conservation of plastic bags in this case) really only occurs when very few of the players have a vested interest in consuming plastic bags, or at least that the non-marginal preference for bags by the remaining consumers has already been largely met. It would appear that as long as demand is somewhat elastic for such a good then it's possible for decreased consumption to result in...increased consumption.
I may be a nerd, but being able to tell someone that their environmental push against the usage of plastic bags may be helping to destroy the planet is about priceless.
Friday, December 4, 2009
Later on I started thinking about why people had a tendency to think that people like myself are really that closed-minded. It seemed to me pretty obvious that anyone who generally educates himself on political philosophy enough to find his way out of the dogmatic two-party setup that most people find themselves a part of would have to be someone open-minded by definition. You may be able to level the accusation that they are wrong or even crazy, but closed minded? To me that is about as silly as a Christian finding a Zoroastrian in middle-America and telling him he's closed-minded religiously. How can you level the accusation that someone is closed-minded when they've been intellectually curious enough to actually consider and then adopt viewpoints alternative to those that are standard? Again, we can say they are wrong...but it would seem like any labeling of that person regarding their stubbornness may be better fitting for the accuser rather than the accused in these instances.
And then it occurred to me; it's just populism. People have a general tendency to think that moderate politics is "good" politics. If you are too far left-wing or too far right-wing, if you are too authoritarian or too libertarian, people are going to be naturally defensive against your "radical" views not based on the merit of the ideas themselves, but based on your lack of "political moderation." In fact, it would seem that our faith in democracy itself lies heavily in the socio-political theory that we have a lot of nuts on all sides voting along with moderates, and that the nuts seem to cancel each other out and that the "average" moderate selections tend to win the day. And so maybe we have a tendency to believe moderation is correct because moderation tends to be the result of democracy...and we all know how sacred that is. And if you don't believe me, try seeing what happens if you tell someone that some people shouldn't vote. Regardless of their political bent, Republican or Democrat, you will be immediately chastised for your lack of faith in democracy.
And so I think in a weird way, because we rally around the primacy of majority rule, we tend to believe that the result of majority rule (what we perceive to be moderation) is all that is good...and also open-minded apparently. And so anyone in a political minority, whom whether right or wrong may actually have more consistent political views, are seen to be closed-minded or stubborn because they don't espouse the virtues of moderation (even though they are often willing to compromise in practice). And since the libertarian view is certainly a minority today, we get to enjoy that criticism from people who consider themselves more moderate.
One of the biggest problems libertarians run into, and probably the first thing you pick up on as a libertarian, is that you're going to largely disagree with one party or the other at least half the time. So as someone "socially liberal" and "economically conservative" (it should actually be "economically liberal" too but you can thank turn-of-the-century progressives for stealing that term) you're certainly not going to be "making nice" politically with many people. But what is even more frustrating, and something I've noticed with increasing frequency lately, is that both major movements are often unknowingly in agreement partially and also wrong on the same subject.
For instance, take the theatrics over the new breast-examination guidelines that came out a few weeks ago. Many liberals took the predictable course of claiming this release (from an independent, government-sponsored health association no less) was part of some conspiracy concocted by insurance companies to save money. OK...not original but consistent. And if you question their consistency, try asking a liberal over the age of 40 about Ford Pintos and see if they have a radically different answer for that. They probably won't. Republicans then retorted, and rightfully so in my opinion, that this illustrates the general danger of having a board or an entity make universal decisions on coverage, as would have to take place under universal health care coverage. But instead of just clearly making the concise point about our freedom to choose, they continued to waylay into the board recommendation, along with their liberal counter-parts, on the grounds that it was despicable to do any cost-benefit analysis when if comes to health care. And eventually I started hearing that dreaded worthless phrase, "If it just saves one life...it's worth it."
Is it really worth it if it just saves one life? If that's the case, why start the exams at thirty? Why not at twenty? Many women get breast cancer in their twenties and go on to die. Why not fifteen? What about checking for heart issues? Sure, after a certain age it's recommended we get various tests. But why don't we have EKGs every year, or every month for that matter? Why don't we start when we're twenty in fact? Lots of people in their twenties die from heart-attacks every single day. Isn't it worth it?
The obvious answer is actually, and maybe (from your perspective) cruelly, no. Whether you realize it or not, you approach NOTHING in life from that perspective. When you get in a car, there is an explicit risk that you're going to die in a car accident. There are any number of things we could do to reduce fatalities that we simply don't because they don't outweight the costs. We could lower speed limits by 10 MPH and drastically reduce the number of deaths. Why don't we? We could bring about a universal speed limit of 5 MPH and it would virtually eliminate fatal accidents. But we don't. As consumers, we could pay tens of thousands of dollars more for our cars to have them reinforced with tons of steel...essentially turning them into tanks. But we don't.
Is it because evil car companies want to save money? Are they paying for the product or are we? Is it possible that the reason we don't drive tanks is not because car companies are in some conspiracy to "keep money" but rather that people don't value that additional utility in parity with additional cost at the margin? As far as I know, there's no law against you making a car with incredible amounts of safety mechanisms built into it. If people desire it so much, and car companies are just out to screw people, why doesn't someone else come along and provide these "safe" cars in the market? It's simple. Because people aren't willing to pay for the additional benefits. They are engaging in cost-benefit analysis.
In the same way, are insurers really just simply greedy if they would subscribe to the idea that maybe a certain exam should start routinely later in life rather than sooner? Where do you think the money comes from to pay for those exams? Do you think it comes directly out of the pockets of the employees or the management? Or is it the premiums paid by customers that finance your medical exams? Whose interest would they be acting in if they were trying to re-evaluate the costs and benefits of such exams? And if customers were willing to pay much higher premiums to have more frequent exams at a younger age, why all the fuss? You could offer such a service and if you are correct in that the market desires this kind of setup, then your market share will increase and firms which propose cutting back such as formerly suggested will lose business. Isn't that what capitalism is all about?
I think what drove me crazy wasn't as much the specific claims that were being made back and forth concerning this specific example. If some people want to have more exams earlier then they can freely purchase insurance plans that offer such at an increased premium whereas others who don't think it's worth it should be free to purchase plans with less coverage for less money. Insurance standards are not universal (insofar as state mandates are not concerned). I don't sit around and worry because I wear a size 13 shoe and the median shoe size for males is size 10. There is still a market for people who wear size 13 and someone will gladly take my money to provide me with that service. The same applies to health coverage. But what really got me going was this silly idea that BOTH SIDES seem to be supporting that felt that life was so precious that we should never engage in cost-benefit analysis when it comes to medical expenditures. Well I have news for those people; resources are limited. Human labor is limited. Even if we were ALL doctors and nurses and medical assistants we wouldn't have the resources or the labor available to do all tests on all people continuously to ensure their well-being. And even worse, we'd be incredibly poor in every other respect, assuming we didn't starve and freeze to death.
Examples like this are why I'm so interested in economics. I don't think these are points that many people really understand. They just tend to hold beliefs, in a similar fashion to religion in many respects, in which their core tenets are awash in tradition, culture, and emotion. And what's funny is that for all the partisan bickering there may be on certain subjects, regardless of who is correct, there are actually several policies which both major political parties endorse which are simply NOT correct (in that by measure of freedom AND macro-utility they don't make sense). Take for instance the steel tariff or farm subsidies. These are things that enjoy great support across major party lines. Something like 80% of people (from various data sets) support these things, even though economists (who are predominantly moderate-democrat by the way) know these are terrible economic policies that actually hurt far more Americans than they help. Yet by political norms, support for these things is the result of moderate open-minded consensus, and is therefore correct...even though it actually is clearly incorrect.
Noticing this American fetish for the primacy of democracy, moderation, and often jointly-held bad policy prescriptions, I ended up ordering Bryan Caplan's "The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies." I've read a bit about the book and had already listened to a couple of Caplan's lectures and interviews before. His book walks through and discusses how democracies are often prone to make decisions that are actually mutually un-beneficial; a phenomenon he calls "rational irrationality."
Caplan is an interesting case to me because it seems his political views are informed by his economic knowledge and not the other way around. He's undoubtedly libertarian and holds very libertarian views. But it seems he's arrived at many of those views because he feels their economic views hold up quite well. In fact, he often makes reference to Althaus' work on public opinion which concluded that when looking through the demographics, as one's education level increases they become more socially liberal and economically conservative (that sounds familiar). This was somewhat unexpected since, as far as I know, no one would call Althaus a libertarian by any means.
In any case, Bryan's work aims to point out that people have specific biases that often cause them to endorse bad policies in large numbers. After reading it, maybe I won't feel so maligned regarding the allegations that I'm really "closed-minded." I would still contest that viewpoint as I believe I'm actually very open-minded. But am I going to come off as an elitist being a libertarian? Of course I am. How can you look at the vast majority of people and tell them that they are simply ignorant on a number of subjects and NOT sound like you're being an elitist. And if you're actually right about what you believe, and the people who are wrong are causing harm to themselves and others, then what's wrong with that? The simple fact is that someone with such minority views who is unable to accept the contrary nature of their views in relation to those of the public isn't long for this world. But in the end I'm just fine with it. After all, my detractors are wrong anyways. Why should I care about their protestation? As Caplan says:
"In a modern democracy, not only can a libertarian be elitist; a libertarian has to be elitist. To be a libertarian in a modern democracy is to say that nearly 300 million Americans are wrong, and a handful of nay-sayers are right."
- Bryan Caplan
Monday, November 23, 2009
I had been flipping around to different stations but happened to come back to him in the middle of his diatribe. He was making the obvious, yet irrelevant (in my opinion), point that car insurance is there to hedge against injuring others whereas health insurance was a hedge against our own injuries. I'm not going to make this post a tedious discussion about the efficacy of the car insurance versus health insurance argument, but his next point concerning the young man blew me away. He started haranguing about how the federal government had no authority to tell us to buy anything (I'm with him on that point). But he prefaced that argument by claiming that the Constitution was all about telling the government not what it can do, but what it can't do, and that it's a shame that civics isn't taught anymore.
I almost ripped out my XM-radio and threw it out the Goddamn window...
Granted, given the nature of the young soldier's objection, I doubt he was having any serious internal conversation regarding the Constitutional implications of such a proposal. But berating him by claiming that the Constitution is about telling the government what it can't do...that's just baffling. I'm twenty-five years young. Rush Limbaugh is damn near sixty. And I understand the Constitution better than him. And he's a political commentator no less! A part of me wants to not be so surprised but how can anyone with any reasonable amount of intellect even negotiate around the notion that the Constitution is about telling the government what it can't do. He supported it by mockingly pleading that the young man look at the Bill of Rights to discover what the Constitution is all about!
Here's a little history lesson for you, Rush. The Constitution is NOT about what the government CAN'T do. Articles 1-3 of the Constitution clearly outline not only the organization of the three branches of the federal government but their specific responsibilities and powers. This is precisely what the Constitution is and does; defining what constitutes the federal government. Hence the spiffy name; it's not just a bunch of nice looking syllables thrown together. The Bill of Rights, which are the first ten amendments to the Constitution, weren't even added until four years after the Constitution was ratified (1787:1791).
Now, of course, his view of the Constitution as a document that tells government what it can't do is predicated on the idea that these amendments...which were added years later...are somehow the core of the Constitution itself. I can't even begin to explain how frustrating it is to know how many people share that sentiment. Along with it usually comes the implication that our rights are defined by the Bill of Rights as well (I'm surprised I didn't hear this from him today as well). But in fact the Bill of Rights, in the context of the Constitution itself, is largely redundant. This was argued by the Federalists at the time of its adoption and I have to say it may have been one of the few things I would have agreed with them on.
I don't want to belabor any of these points because if you're reading my blog, you're probably already well aware of these realities. But in case you've never really been exposed to it, or maybe you're just feeling a bit rusty on colonial American history, I suggest that everyone pick up a copy of the Constitution (or find it on the internet) and thumb through the entire thing. It shouldn't take you any longer than 10-15 minutes. It's an amazingly short and concise document (especially in light of the tens of thousands of pages of federal regulation on the books today). And even better, most of it is very easy to understand. It lays out exactly what the government can do, and IMPLIES what it can't do conversely. And that obvious implication is the exact reason why the Federalists thought the Bill of Rights was unnecessary. And interestingly enough, it's also the sole reason for the 9th and 10th amendment in the Bill of Rights as well. And for those who are rusty on their understanding regarding the nature of the Bill of Rights as it relates to the Constitution itself, do a little reading on the Massachusetts Compromise. It might be kind of boring to some of you, but at least when you rest your head tonight you can take some solace in the fact that you now know more about the Constitution than the most successful political commentator in the United States. What a dolt!
Friday, November 20, 2009
My views are generally Austro-libertarian. But to that extent, I would also consider myself what people refer to as an "anarcho-capitalist" or "free-market anarchist." Both terms, of course, seem to imply a very real advocacy of capitalism. And I similarly wouldn't deny my very real advocacy of capitalism in that regard. But I believe the nature of my advocacy is a bit more subtle than that of many of my fellow travelers. By that I mean I don't believe that my "support" of the free market even has the same implication as the support that others seem to offer. When I say that I support free markets economically, I'm generally not engaging in a point about greater social utility or even general pragmatism. What I mean is that I think classical free-market economics accurately explains how people behave and how value and price is affected by the free actions of individuals. This is why I feel a strong affinity for the Austrian view of economics: a view not adopted by self-proclaimed portents of economic trends, but rather those who wish to understand human interaction and its consequences.
In that way, my economic position is not a reflection of what I think should be but what I feel actually happens. But what's more interesting is that I don't feel that belief is really the corner-stone of the anarcho-capitalist movement although it's certainly at the fore-front in conversation. I believe anarcho-capitalism is actually about ethics and a more complete socio-political view of justice. The whole core of that particular belief system is the insistence that freedom is the only appropriate condition for individuals. All other beliefs, even the prominent economic ones, are largely tangential when it comes down to it. At the end of the day, most anarcho-capitalists, even the most dire defenders, will tell you that their support of capitalism has nothing to do with how well capitalism works or to what purpose it serves but rather that their support of that system is a pure reflection of their belief in freedom. We support free markets because it represents the economic dimension of freedom to many of us. Ah, but what makes this point interesting is that it only holds true in the context of the state and imposed economic systems.
For instance, if you asked one of us what we felt about a group of people starting up a commune and living in their own self-proclaimed communistic society, we would gladly tell you how happy we would be to oblige them. Even though we so often get caught up in touting the virtues of capitalism, our belief, and the free-market system itself, allows for any kind of dissent and the presence of any kind of system, so long as said individuals do not keep others from being able to make similar decisions for themselves. And I think that points to something I find really interesting about free-market ideologies. The system of "capitalism", in that sense, really isn't a system at all. The "system" we are really talking about is freedom, and capitalism is simply the economic realization of what typically happens when people are left to be free: they develop specialized trades, barter, borrow, and invest. And in that sense, my support for capitalism is really simply my support for freedom, coupled with an understanding of how humans interact. And I think in that way, "capitalism" stands alone in that it's the only economic system that is talked about as if it is just that; an economic system...even though clearly it really isn't.
Any real socio-political system, economic or otherwise, implies an imposed structure. Take any system a government may endorse, from socialism to communism to fascism. In order for any of these systems to exist, government must subtract from your personal freedoms. You are told either what you can make, what you can sell, what you can sell it for, whom you can sell it to, or in what way you can conduct such business at all. And that only begins to touch the scope of any given system's implications to personal liberty. But in all of those systems, what is constant is that you are robbed of choice. If that government, whether through a dictator or a democratic majority, decides to adopt a system, it applies to all. You can't opt out of such systems; they are forced coercively upon you. But what's interesting is that "capitalism", or rather true free markets, aren't forced upon anyone.
Now, some people who are more left-leaning will dispute the idea that capitalism is not forced. They will claim that you really have no "choice" when you have to eat and have no education; if you have to flip burgers you will. But even that is a choice and an exertion of your free will. It's only a lack of choice in so much as you have no "real choice" as to whether you would pick up a hundred dollar bill off the ground as opposed to leaving it. You're not talking about the abolition of actual choice in that case, you're talking about the compelling quality of certain options. You are certainly free, in the most pure sense, to not pick up that hundred dollars, but it will make your life harder. In the same way, you are certainly free to not flip burgers, but you might starve if that's the extent of your productive capacity and you choose not to engage in it.
Does that negate the idea of choice though? Absolutely not. Your circumstantial needs do not circumvent free will. And if you were obliged to conclude that it did, then you can take that complaint to God himself. You were born a creature of this earth, with the biological need for food, water, and shelter. You may arrive at the conclusion that you have few ways to obtain such needs and you may also conclude that others obtain those needs much easier than you seem to be able to, but that has little to do with the presence of force and coercion on the part of other human beings. It's a shame that we carry biological processes that are beyond our control, but its not realistic to go around talking about slavery and coercion in the context of how short our legs or arms might be. The attempt to carry the discussion of freedom outside of the context of free will has become on embarrassing trend taken up by some of my political counterparts. Then again, shame and humility has never been their brightest star.
In any case, I feel that capitalism stands out in that no government structure is really required for it. In fact, capitalism is simply what happens when there is NO SYSTEM IN PLACE. I took Michael Moore to task on this as well when his movie, Capitalism: A Love Story, came out and he had been making the rounds of TV talk shows. He claimed that capitalism was invented in the 16th century. Well, no, actually capitalism wasn't invented. If so, who invented it? What did government force people to do? The answers, oddly enough, are "no one" and "nothing." Capitalism happened when feudal governments started falling apart in Europe and people began to live without a governing structure. No one has to force people to specialize in a field or to trade or barter. People do it of their own volition. They actually decide, freely, that the best way to improve their lot in life is to make something that other people want and trade it away for what they want in return. Isn't that amazing? Not that people can figure that out but that it is simply what tends to happen in the absence of force and coercion?
All of these thoughts came to mind when I was listening to the callers on this particular talk show. And it just made me think of an odd analogy concerning a general misunderstanding about colors (oddly enough). If you've ever heard people ask what different peoples' favorite colors are, you'll often hear an interesting response when someone offers black as their favorite. People will sometimes retort, "Black isn't a color." Some people understand it but a lot of people are confused by it. Disregarding pigmentation, which is kind of a different conversation altogether, black, in terms of the light spectrum, really isn't a color. All true colors derive from white, the color of pure light, as anyone who has played around with a prism can attest to. Every single color in every imaginable variation is simply some part of that spectrum of light...all except black. Black, by definition, is actually the absence of light. People often have the same misconception about "cold" which is really just an absence of heat, but that is for another conversation perhaps.
My point is that in the same way that black is really just an absence of light, free markets are really just an absence of an imposed economic system. All colors on a pinwheel share the fact that they are derived from light, with the exception of black. In that same way, all imposed economic systems are derived from some form of authoritarianism, with the exception of free markets which are simply an absence of any authoritarianism at all. Maybe that analogy really isn't as clever I thought it was when it occurred to me. But I wish that, in the same way that people so often make the "witty" retort that black isn't a color, maybe free-marketers should get in the habit of retorting that "capitalism" really isn't an economic system in the context of state imposition either. I don't think it's a point that many people have pondered.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Let me be clear here. I very strongly support the act of, or more specifically the contracting of, gay marriage. Both during times in my life when I'd considered myself liberal and conservative, I'd never had an issue with anyone's sexual preferences regardless. So it's probably not surprising to anyone that I still don't take issue with it today either. However, I find myself in the odd position of not being able to endorse the conservative approach nor the liberal approach to handling this issue. As such, I've found myself in many verbal exchanges with both gay progressives and straight conservatives about the issue. If there's anything I've learned about adopting the libertarian mantle, it's that you're going to find yourself at odds with damn near everyone. It's part of the reason why people will constantly use the handle of their opposition to describe your views, no matter how inaccurate it may be. I can't even begin to count how many times conservatives have tried to malign me by calling me liberal or how many times liberals have tried to malign me by calling me conservative. I think that's just part of the reflexive mantra you can expect from people who haven't thought about politics enough to be able to couch anyone's views outside their own as being something other than that of the opposing major party.
That being said, i disagree with both parties very strongly on their stances regarding gay marriage. Not on the act itself, but rather the ridiculous ways in which they believe it's appropriate to handle it. I had stated previously, in my comments regarding an article I posted, that it often seems like the two major political parties just seem to be fighting over who has control of the guns anymore. I proffered that maybe, just maybe, there should be a discussion regarding the scope and role of government...that maybe we should return to some of our roots as Americans and begin to question the purpose of our government in all its monopolistic glory. And what took place in Maine last night is the perfect example of why we need to stop engaging in this push-pull leveraging of our fellow man.
Of all the people who woke up ashamed of their neighbors in Maine, how many of them, at any point in their political evolution, had ever thought to consider that the best way of approaching the marriage issue wasn't through democratic legislation, but rather through the dissolution of state control regarding marriage? And I don't mean a relinquishing of marriage law to the federal government. I mean the abolition of the marriage-interface in the government apparatus. I'm going to make a crazy assumption (based on my life-long experience) and say that very few of them thought to consider this as an appropriate approach. Let's not be coy here. The conservatives, who have come to pride themselves (somehow) as being the arbiters of freedom and liberty, should be ashamed and disgusted at their own propensity to try to tell others that they can or cannot conjoin. The fact that they support the state suppressing such voluntary contracts (marriages) should be reprehensible to any proponent of individual liberty. There is no excuse for people of that ilk in my honest opinion. But for all that I may agree on, ethically, with my liberal brethren on this particular issue, I have to take them to task as well here.
The problem that I have with the approach of progressives is the same problem our founding fathers had when they wrestled with the same idea in their time; people put an innocuously (from their perspective) dangerous confidence in democracy. It seems like from the time we are born in this country we are led to the stream of democracy. And drinking from that stream is about as American as apple pie or baseball. "Democracy and freedom" have become a cliche, although they honestly have little to do with each other. There is nothing mutually exclusive about totalitarianism and democracy. Both can exist simultaneously. Think of it this way, we rightfully decry monarchies, historically, because of the structure of overwhelming power exerted against the individual. A monarchical power structure would look, typographically, like a pyramid; with the absolute ruler on top, his appointed subjects underneath him, and the masses at the bottom. So when we decry monarchy, is it the fact that we dislike the shape of such a structure, or is it the quashing of individual liberty that such a structure implies that bothers us? In a pure democracy, such a pyramid would be inverted; with everyone as a collective appearing at the top, and the lowly individual at the bottom. From an individual's perspective, in terms of true freedom, these two structures aren't entirely different. In both cases, my liberty is subject to others. This is why our founding fathers fought to actually stifle pure democracy and obfuscate its capacity...which is a point that has been dearly lost on most of us.
This brings me to my liberal friends, who often mock the concept of democracy (particularly in the last eight years). But they don't typically mock it because they believe it to be problematic, but rather because they feel that it's asinine for certain parties and/or administrations to use it as bantor when we don't even have a true democracy here. In other words, they mock it to the extent that they actually want a democracy but that they believe one doesn't exist in our country right now. On the contrary, they very much believe that democracy is not only applicable but necessary to bring about various social reforms. And yet, even on mornings like this, when they inevitably fall upon their own proverbial sword, they move not to strip such power from the purview of government but rather to expand the scope of their fight. Fraught with the early morning headlines, leader of various progressive movements have already realigned their focus towards national legislation to control marriage; to subsequently allow it in all states in the Union. But setting aside the many constitutional issues that would bring up, what would make a democratic referendum at the national level any better to you than one at the state level? Even if you achieve such legislation, and you are temporarily elated by the prospect of such a victory, how will you feel with the reigns are in the hands of your opposition, and they use the very legislation you crafted as a framework to BAN GAY MARRIAGE in every state in the Union? They've already tried it at least once. Do you really think this would be out of their reach?
As a casual observer, it seems to me that the rational approach to such an issue wouldn't be to keep trying to place your individual liberties within the perpetual tug of war within politics. The real solution to such a problem is to get government out of licensing marriage altogether! I wouldn't want to leave my right to make voluntary marriage contracts up to the whim of my fellow citizens any more than I'd want them to decide what church I went to on Sunday. It's simply NO ONE ELSE'S FUCKING BUSINESS. It's not their place to make such decisions for you and it never should be. And as has been painfully witnessed today, as long as such decisions are within the scope of your government, and you continue to frame it that way in your quest for social change, you can't be surprised when your opposition gets a hand up on you every once in a while. And when you start to realize exactly how silly the tug of war is over your individual liberties is, you may start to also realize how trying to enact federal legislation regarding marriage licensing may just put you in the hot-seat for even more regressive setbacks.
I don't intend to be too hard on some of these people. I realize the road they are walking is long and frustrating. And perhaps harder to handle than various laws and legislation is the social prejudice they have endured and must overcome on their journey. I certainly do not envy such burdens and I'm in no place to question the kind of overwhelming pressure that is exerted on them from day to day. In fact, in many ways this, often single, small sliver of sentiment that we share for the abolition of control over the individual would make us fellow travelers on some level. But that compassion is hard to reconcile when I stride for absolute liberty from afar, and often see their proposals for more government control to hold up their one-dimensional view of liberty. If it's liberty you want my friends, then I will gladly share your burden and take up arms beside you. But if you continue to only proffer the strength of the state and an extension of its role in our personal lives, even if you erroneously believe that is the path to social acceptance, then I can only stand back and shake my head in disappointment.
"Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed, and are right."
- H.L. MENCKEN
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
As most people know, I really have no quarrel with Christians. In fact, I hold a great deal of sympathy for them and feel, if anything, that they are overly-persecuted in popular culture today. I've known, worked with, and loved many wonderful Christians in my lifetime. So I don't want anyone to be offended by or misunderstand my criticisms here. That being said, I believe there's a wide discrepancy in what they believe and the teachings/philosophy they claim to believe in. I see this discrepancy all the time but it hit me with some real vigor in particular when I was recently browsing some commentary in the IMDB forum of all places. I had been perusing some of the threads discussing the (possibly) upcoming film adaptation of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Now, I'm a huge fan of Ayn Rand; not so much for her metaphysical or epistemological beliefs, but for her broader philosophical and socio-political understanding of how things are and should be. That is to say, I may not believe the things she believes for the same reasons, but I am very sympathetic to the implications of her conclusions. For all that we differ, she's certainly a fellow-traveler and has been a huge part of my political inspiration.
What seemed to be taking place on the IMDB forums is that some threads were made to ask and answer pertinent questions regarding the film while others (more than half) seemed to be exclusively argumentative threads hosted by Objectivists (Ayn Rand's philosophy) and their nay-sayers. I was reading through some threads of the latter type, and it kind of surprised me how openly Rand and her philosophy was maligned by self-proclaimed progressive Christians. From what I gathered, they were trying to show the hypocrisy of right-wing/conservative Christians who like Rand. They pointed out the most obvious fact that Rand was an avowed Atheist (of course). But more to the point, they also pointed not only to her disillusion regarding modern-day altruism, but even further to what they perceived to be an obvious product of that stance, her belief that the state should not provide any form of welfare for people in need.
I found some of this commentary to be very interesting but also befuddling. While I'm not a religious person, I would say that I derive my political and philosophical beliefs from my ethics. And, for the purpose of this conversation, I would say that my ethical views are not only largely compatible with but were, in part, actually adopted from Christian morality to a large degree. I was raised in the Catholic Church and went to parochial schools for the better half of my informative early years. So I don't consider myself to be some wayward rogue in the realm of knowledge concerning Christian doctrine. But I would say what really concerned me regarding the direction of these virtual accusations was actually two-fold.
My immediate thought regarding the issue of liberal criticism of conservatives in relation to Christian ethics was that there were certainly better things you could pummel them with, ideologically. In fact, liberal Christians hold some of these criticisms at the forefront of their beliefs. Many progressive Christians oppose various wars and foreign occupations because they cannot ethically conceive giving consent to the loss of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent lives being lost in the conflict. Most of them will openly say that unless we are being directly threatened or are acting in self-defense, then the loss of any human life is unwarranted. And that belief is most certainly in line with the Christian perspective. But then what of the belief that government should provide welfare for the needy? Isn't this perfectly in line with the Christian perspective as well?
The simple answer, and I know many progressive Christians do not want to hear it, is, "No." Let us be clear here. In the initial back and forth taking place on the IMDB thread(s), there were actually two criticisms being made regarding this; one was the direct criticism of the Objectivist belief regarding altruism, but the other was the implication of the product of those beliefs; a lack of support for government welfare and intervention. I don't believe those proffering these criticisms actually thought of these as separate criticisms, as one directly follows the other. But rest assure, although subtle, there is a large difference between the two.
What may be even more subtle, in terms of understanding, however, is the Objectivist belief in the evil of altruism. This, on its face, is probably going to repel any Christian, regardless of political persuasion, and is also probably the most damning argument left-leaning Christians could/should have of Christian Ayn Rand fans. I'm not an expert on Objectivism, but if progressive Christians really understood the intricacies of the Objectivist view regarding altruism, it may not be as damning as it appears at face value...which is considerable. Rand brings to light a misconception regarding altruism, the belief that it simply implies doing good for others. But in reality, this is only true if the act is selfless. Rand refutes this repression of the ego and asserts not only that selfishness is good, but that many acts of so-called altruism are in fact selfish in nature, and as such, are not altruistic at all. For instance, many people do good deeds to be rewarded socially, to feel good about themselves, or to win favor with their deity of choice (to get into heaven, etc.)...even if they don't consciously realize it.
Ironically, Rand is NOT NECESSARILY even against such acts of kindness as they aren't truly altruistic. If it gives someone a sense of personal satisfaction and value to do something for someone, then this is not truly selfless in the Objectivist sense. So in this way, what she was really railing against was the blind obedience to comply with wishes that directly oppose your own interests, values, and beliefs. Her belief seemed to be not only aimed to dissuade religious people from blindly obeying the precept of obedience from their perceived God (which Rand didn't believe in anyways) but to also point out that they weren't even really being selfless in the first place. You can see how this can get philosophically confusing very quickly. But nevertheless, regardless of what you actually believe, you could see how someone would believe that the condemnation of altruism is not compatible with Christian values. In fact, there was even discussion of the tenets of Satanism being largely based on Objectivism. And for anyone who is interested, this is actually true. Of course, the comparison was made to impune Objectivism and essentially scare Christians away from it. But this is beholden more to the fact that Christians are led to believe that Satanism and its belief-system is simply the inverse of Christian values, which isn't true at all. But that's a subject for another post maybe.
But disregarding their first criticism of Objectivism, is the subsequent criticism of the belief that government should not provide welfare valid? I think liberal Christians, although they aren't aware of it, are going to have a much harder time selling this criticism philosophically. Firstly, when talking about any rational action, we are necessarily discussing a means-end framework. And as such we always find ourselves asking the proverbial question; "Do the ends justify the means?" What are our ends here? Christians adhere to the words of Jesus, asking us to sacrifice of ourselves to help others in need. And so, they believe that we should help those in need, be it through various services and/or compensation. Sounds simple enough. Outside of the whole discussion of altruism, I think a good deal of us can agree on that. In fact, I'm on board so far. So what are our "means" to meet this end?
Well, there's the obvious ways in which many of us can voluntarily help by donating our time or money to various organizations to help meet this end. But in the political realm, this doesn't quite hit on the real issue. Up until this point, most of us are in agreement, whether you're conservative, liberal, libertarian, whatever. The real fork in the road is what liberal Christians see as additionally acceptable means to meet these ends; namely, using government to steal or to force people to give their wealth or labor to other groups of people that are perceived to be in need (or possibly well-connected, politically). And I think this is where the disconnect really is for most people.
Liberals don't seem to want to consider the means by which they wish to achieve their goals in this case. And even more to the point, they infer that anyone who opposes the means by which they want to meet their ends, actually opposes the ends themselves. In this case, they see a group of people that does not believe in coercion or stealing to help those in need, infer that such opposition means that they don't wish to help people in need at all, and assert that their unwillingness to help those in need is simply Un-Christian. But is this view fair or even consistent? If they were being honest with themselves, I think they'd be inclined to decline on both accounts.
It's very perplexing and ironic at best. Liberal Christians believe that the ends of ridding the world of terrorists does not morally justify unprovoked wars or the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, even if that were a practical way of achieving those ends. And they understandably gawk when they are accused of not being patriotic or not wanting to stop terrorists. So why then is it so hard for them to grasp that being opposed to theft and coercion does not put one in direct opposition to charity? Are both beliefs not based on the same ethical system that derides the initiation of force upon the innocent? I think we can safely say that Jesus would have both wanted us to help the poor and stop people who terrorize and kill the innocent. But in the context of HIS OWN TEACHING, is it really so hard to understand that he would NOT HAVE APPROVED meeting those ends by killing and/or stealing from innocent people? Is it just me, or do right-wing Christians and left-wing Christians, in their own spheres, only seem to be consistent with their own ethical and philosophical views about half the time?
And that is my main point of contention with both groups in all honesty. Sure, you claim to believe whole-heartedly in the words espoused by a great man over 2000 years ago, but do you really live those words in your worldview? Can your political views fit into that moral compass? And if not, are your political views REALLY more in line with that moral standard than the Objectivist view? At its heart, the libertarianism that Rand and her beliefs inspired is ultimately about a form of pacifism; that we should be weary of initiating harm upon others...even if it seems practical. Have we become so detached from the Golden Rule that they are now just the words of some forgotten philosopher, even to those who consider him their God and Savior? What is the atheistic Objectivist to think of modern-day Christian counter-parts; a group of people who cannot even live the word of their own God as well as their detractors? The Objectivist may be confused or baffled by them, but there is certainly one thing he can gather from his experience with them. Christians are certainly not pacifists.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
When we consider the origin of religious morality, most people are simply inclined to believe that THEIR beliefs were divinely inspired or derived. That is to say, that members of most religions would point to God, the supernatural, or the esoteric as the source of their moral beliefs. And so you'll have, "It is wrong to murder because Jesus gave us the Golden Rule" or "It is wrong to murder because Adonai gave us the sixth commandment" and so forth. But when you begin to step outside of the sphere of your religious convictions, this explanation begins to make less sense. Sure, it's true that, if your religion pans out to be objectively true, then you can rest your dispositions against that reality. But even if that is the case, then the objective truth of your religion by definition excludes many, if not all, other religious beliefs from the realm of reality. So let us say that you belong to some particular Christian sect who turns out to have nailed everything, religiously speaking. If you were somehow to objectively conclude that Jesus, the Son of God, walked the earth and died for the sins of all mankind and He alone, in union with Father and Spirit, was THE divine source, then you could conclude that the words your ancestors brought to bear were objectively true, and that their beliefs as well as yours, in context, were truly divinely inspired. You could then rest assure that the moral tenets of your religion were simply predicated upon the wishes of your divine creator.
But what of all the other religions in the world? Even if one religion is exactly correct in their understanding, then that means there are thousands of sects that are "off" or just completely wrong. If their supernatural beliefs about the nature of the universe turn out not to be divine, then what is the source of the fabrication regarding their explanation of our nature and, more importantly, the source of its accompanying ethos? And prodding even further, why does it seem as though, even with very different views regarding the nature of the universe, so many of these religious sects have arrived at very similar ethical beliefs? For instance, you will have to look fairly hard to find any religions that endorse unwarranted murder, theft, or fraud. Sure, the one sect who MAY have their religion nailed correctly can simply point to the divine to explain their beliefs, but who do the rest of us point to ultimately? We could, enraged, claim that we've all been had by our ancestors. But this only pushes the question further back. If these other religious stories are indeed false, then why isn't there as much variation in their views on ethics as there is in their fabrications regarding the divine?
These questions are why I'm inclined to believe that there is an objective reality underlying morality. It's a point that I have a hard time explaining, as I'm certainly not as eloquent or learned as a philosopher or a psychologist. But it's hard to ignore the fact that while there is certainly a wide variance in the framework of different religions and cultures, we all seem to be inclined to believe that it's not OK to steal from, or break your word with, another person. These moral tendencies are recognized by some political persuasions as "Natural Law." It's what we use to codify what we perceive to be objective morality; man is to be set free from force and coercion. Given this, it is still understood that there can be great variance in ethical beliefs between various religions. They all seem to make exceptions to their own rules in unique ways, and those exceptions may evolve over time. But, nevertheless, it's not outlandish to recognize the uniquely similar ethical tendencies of these various faith-based frameworks.
Knowing this, is it ridiculous to believe that, even in the realm of ethics, that religion may simply be the prism through which we accept universal realities that we don't truly understand yet? The Judeo-Christian belief very openly tries to explain the nature of our universe. The book of Genesis tells us how God created all we know in six days; that he spoke light and the earth into being...that he made man from clay and woman from man. It's true that the understanding of these passages has grown more passive over time. Many Christians and Jews now perceive this written word as metaphor. But was this always the case? Or do we view our religious beliefs in the context of our own scientific understanding?
In other words, to the extent that any given religion is fabricated, does it not exist, in part, to give dimension to the nature of phenomena that is simply not understood yet? Until the classical astronomers came about, what reason did Judeo-Christians have for NOT believing the earth was the center of the universe? Until modern-day geology and astro-physics, what reason did they have to NOT believe that the earth was created in a day? Until Darwin, what reason did they have to NOT believe that man was simply molded from clay? I would contend that they had no reason not to believe such things because they had no alternative understandings regarding them. We are living breathing conscious beings on a small planet next to a star in a vast universe. Trying to comprehend that without some apriori knowledge of basic physics and biology is like trying to build a skyscraper in the fashion of a mud-hut; good luck with that.
And so most religions ascribe some supernatural force or intent, often personified, to the origins of what we recognize as reality, I believe, to give a context of order and sense to things we can't yet explain. Why would our ethical nature be any different? It seems very ethereal and subjective to us at this point in time. Psychologists, philosophers, biologists, and sociologists all have their own ideas but we seem to have no unified understanding of ethics. Ah, but this is where religion's treads sink deepest. A Christan 1,000 years ago would have told you that that the earth was created in a day. Is it unbelievable to think, given our current lack of understanding regarding the biological and psychological nature of ethical development, that simply pointing to Jesus' Golden Rule may be looked upon in the same way at some future point?
Some people may find such a conjecture damning, but I believe it exonerates religion in some ways. Man recognizes and celebrates the earth, and concludes that benevolent forces vastly more powerful than himself created it. Man recognizes and celebrates himself, and concludes that benevolent forces vastly more powerful than himself created him. Man recognizes and celebrates the virtue of the absence of coercion, and concludes that benevolent forces vastly more powerful than himself ordered man to respect one another. We all tend to focus on the conclusion that man has drawn, which may be in err, but in defense of many religious beliefs, they must have had to have taken the step of acknowledging objective reality first. So could it be that morality really does have some objective basis which various religions have long recognized but for which science has not yet been able to cut off at the pass yet?
I'd like to believe this may be the case. As someone who is Agnostic, I feel like I have no real dog in the fight. Instead, I sit back as the quiet observer, watching Theists and Atheists in their existential tug of war. The Theists are dragged slowly through the proverbial mud over time, seemingly having to give concession after concession to the scientific community as their conclusions fail to play out. Meanwhile, Atheists in their attempt to drag the Theists kicking and screaming seem to adhere to science to the point of rigidity. They make nothing little of laying their opponents' conclusions to waste and yet they often stubbornly refuse to recognize the reality of things they can't yet explain. They would be the first to discredit the paradoxical nature of a God without origin but would often be the last to question the paradoxical nature of a universe without origin. In fact, they play so loose and fast with fact and theory that they believe that simply discrediting their opponents' views supposes the answers to the questions their opponents raised in the first place. For instance, Atheists will expound on the intellectual heresy that is "Creationism." Yet when they counter-factually proffer evolution, they cannot explain exactly how a living being becomes conscious. In the same way, they cannot explain how something non-living becomes living. Or even more to the point, in their ultimate refutation of "Creationism" they push the origins of the universe back to the "big bang", and yet fail to explain where such a singularity of matter and energy was derived from.
In this way, Atheists can most certainly, with the help of science, offer a better vision of "how" certain things happen as they do, completely destroying the conclusions of their counterparts. But very rarely, if ever, do we understand "why" something happens. It's because such a question proposes intention. It supposes purpose. Science will always come along explaining how something plays out in the manner it does...but I don't suppose it will ever be able to explain why. And that is the reason, in my belief, that religion naturally arises in human society. It gives us a way to personify reality, to make it more palatable to us. And that's something we do all the time. Psychologists have found that we tend to try to see human faces and features in inanimate objects. For instance, we have a tendency to, when viewing a car from the front, see the headlights as eyes and the grill as a mouth. It may be subconscious, but from the legend of Narcissus to our fascination with Cydonia (the face on Mars), we have a predisposition to see ourselves whenever possible. Likewise, we seem to want to explain reality within the context of our own humanity.
And so, maybe religion is not so much about the conclusions that we draw regarding how the universe unravels, but rather about acknowledging the objective and sometimes paradoxical nature of reality and putting it in a context that we're comfortable with. If this is the case, then maybe our ethical nature is just another phenomenon which religion has a temporary monopoly over. Eventually scientists may come busting down the doors of religious institutions, once again, revealing that the nature of of such behavioral preferences and inclinations are not divine or mystic at all, but instead simply a natural facet of our evolution as conscious beings. But will that acknowledgement make the implications of morality any more real, or even more to the point, will it make the nature of its existence, or our existence for that matter, really any less wonderful or mysterious? No, I don't think it will. I can look around me and revel in the fact that humans all around the world have somehow become predisposed to believe that aggression is not acceptable behavior. And no fabrication in the strata of religious conclusions, or the subsequent refutation of it could ever take the incredible nature of its existence away from me.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
There's a part of this bill, discounting the possibility of it being removed, that would essentially force people to buy medical insurance. They would do so by leveling a somewhat large tax against anyone who refuses to buy medical insurance. Now, this is obviously a pretty horrible idea on the grounds that the federal government is essentially forcing citizens to purchase something. Most of us would have some curiousity regarding the ethical nature of a law that imposed a heavy tax on us for not buying a computer, yet somehow we think it's just fine to do that with medical insurance. However, this isn't even what surprised me. What really got me going is when he tried to spin out some tautology claiming that one of the reasons insurance is so expensive, and why this plan would cut down on its expense, is that there aren't enough people purchasing insurance and that if we forced them to do so then premiums would come down.
Now, I'm not sure if I was more caught of guard by his absurd and misleading assertion or the fact that none of the idiots on Fox and Friends had the brain power to be critical of that statement. And while I think he could ALMOST get away with saying something that stupid within the context of the bill itself and the subsequent government corruption of the health care market, I just think it's absolutely crazy that he got away with saying something that stupid as if it was matter of fact.
As is often the case in economics, breaking things down into a simple analogy often helps people understand a more complicated issue; Let's say we're observing a company that sells apples. They currently have the capacity to keep about 1,000 apples in stock for the roughly 1,000 customers they get on average daily. All things being equal, what would be the expected effect, on the price of any given apple, if we were to suddenly flood that market with an additional 200 customers a day? Would the apples become cheaper?
The obvious answer, in the short run, is most certainly "No." If you greatly increase the demand for apples by 200 in a market structure that currently supports 1000 apple purchases, the immediate effect, you would think, would be an INCREASE in prices. Now, in the long run, given that such a business would be allowed to earn a profit, if it's OK with Michael Moore, and reinvest in his or her capital structure in such a way that would allow them to have the capacity to provide 200 more apples a day, you would expect that prices may eventually return to their previous nominal value. But you certainly wouldn't automatically expect that greatly increasing the demand for something would simply yield lower prices. So why does the Congressman proffer such a notion?
Well, I can't presume to speak for him, but I think he's able to get away with his ludicrous claim because he's not giving you all the facts. Let's take a look at another apple company in which a third party is allowed to arbitrarily place restrictions on them. The company is told that they cannot deny apples to starving people who do not have the money to pay full price for them. The apple company warns this third party that if they are forced to do this, then many of their customers would simply neglect to buy apples until they are starving, at which point they would be forced to give them apples at almost no cost. And they would also warn that this would mean they would have to raise the price of apples for customers who actually purchase them in order to cover their loss. Acknowledging this economic reality, the third party holds a town meeting and tells all in attendance that if they pass a law forcing EVERYONE in the town to at least purchase one apple a day from the store, then prices would not continue to rise as much. Is the third party correct?
In the context of the situation, for which the third party is responsible in the first place, yes. It is true that if everyone in town was forced to purchase an apple, then the apple company could spread the losses from the apples they are forced to give away across a larger amount of apples, easing the price increase on a per apple basis. But is this a normal market phenomenon? Absolutely not. The key here is that this is only the case because the third party is forcing the company to give apples away. The third party appears to the town people as an institution that is simply concerned about the rising price of apples, but the uninformed citizens may be completely ignorant of the fact that such a problem only exists if they first place onerous regulations on that particular business.
This is precisely analogous to the Congressman's explanation. He blindly asserts, incredibly, that increases in demand will lower the price of a good or service. And yet what he's not telling you is that this is entirely predicated on the fact that the government is going to start forcing the health insurance industry to accept customers with pre-existing conditions without setting a realistic premium. If you have AIDS or cancer and demand that an insurance company sell you a $200 a month insurance plan that covers those ailments, then it's clear you're not asking for "insurance" but rather you're just asking them to eat the cost of your health care. If the government forces insurance companies to do this, then there is a high probability that many people will simply wait until they have a condition that demands coverage to purchase it...leaving a smaller actual customer base to cover the losses. So now the government gets to assert that forcing everyone to purchase insurance plans will help stifle (yet, not completely stop) the increased premiums they have brought about with their new mandates on the insurance industry.
It's really amazing to me that politicians get away with saying some of the things they do. Every once in a while we hold their feet to the fire, albeit often over something trivial, in my view. But why does it seem like no one directly challenges them when they make some of these absolutely backwards and asinine statements? Is it because the American people feel that they aren't as smart as the politicians perhaps? Is it that people just don't pay attention to these things? I'm really not sure. But when you do catch them saying something incredibly outlandish, you start to ask yourself, "Is this person a cunning liar or just another idiot?" I'm inclined to agree with Walter Block as I contend, "Why can't they be both?" Of that I can't be sure. But what I am certain of is that they are often simply wrong.
Monday, October 12, 2009
The aforementioned story is that of Nataline Sarkisyan. Nataline contracted Leukemia at the young age of 14. Over months and years, she had endured several medical procedures which seemed to push her ailment into remission. But around age 17, things started to again look bleak for the young woman. It was decided that her condition was terminal, and that her only real chance for survival was a liver transplant. As the story goes, a battle ensued between the Sarkisyan family and their insurance company, CIGNA, regarding coverage. Eventually, CIGNA came to the table and agreed to cover the procedure. But it was too late; young Nataline had tragically passed away shortly before Christmas in 2007. Her death triggered a lawsuit, brought forth by the family, against CIGNA for murder.
The lawsuit was initially struck down by California courts but the family has pressed forward. They have united with various medical labor unions in California in lobbying for health care reform and have organized various protests against insurance companies, like CIGNA, who they claim "deny" medical coverage and therefore kill people. And there is no end to the amount of similar sentiment that has been shared by news outlets, especially online. A quick Google search for "Sarkisyan death panel" will lead you to an almost inexhaustible trail of sympathetic coverage. More recent outrage has been generated by a protest in front of CIGNA corporate offices in which exchanges between the protesters and employees of CIGNA devolved into fanatical jeering at one another. At one point, an employee was purported to have even flipped off the protesters after an escalation between the two groups. And of course, news outlets, as they so often do, have turned this story into additional publicity for the cause by insinuating (in headlines) that the gesture was made specifically at the mother of the young deceased woman.
Let me preface my statements on the matter by saying that I, by no means, actively support any of the quasi-municipal insurance companies found around the country today. I believe they are in bed with government. I believe they use government regulation and mandates to essentially monopolize the health insurance markets and as such, I believe that they, along with government, are primarily responsible for the egregious inflation in health care costs today. That being said, the predisposition of the public to damn and condemn CIGNA as murderers is absolutely outrageous to me. Do insurance companies ever fraud their customers? Given the enormous volume of customers that any given company may serve, I'm sure that happens now and then, whether intentional or not. I may pick up a loaf of bread at my grocery store that is moldy and not notice it. Now, it may be unclear as to whether the store knowingly sold me moldy bread or if it was an oversight, but fraud has occurred nonetheless, and I should certainly get another loaf or at least get my money back in this case. Very few of us would disagree with this. But is every unsatisfied customer the victim of fraud? Can customers be wrong? According to public sentiment, no. Only businesses can be in err.
What amazed me when I was trying to get to the bottom of this story is that every single liberal-leaning publication provided almost NO INFORMATION about the original case brought against CIGNA. Instead, it felt like they were giving just enough surface detail to lead the public to believe that a heartless insurance company had killed a customer by denying coverage. I had to dig a lot deeper to find anything of substance. The first questions that occurred to me were those regarding the details of the family's medical coverage. It seemed to me that every single story just claimed "insurance denial" and never went into what kind of plan and coverage they had in the first place. If, hypothetically, her family's plan did not cover transplants of any kind at all, would these detractors still see CIGNA as being at fault for denying such coverage?
My short answer is "Yes." If all of these people who have been up in arms were even remotely concerned about the truth, they would dig deeper to ask these questions. But instead we're left with an angry mob that just parrots the rage directed at large insurance companies by so-called victims...and they never seem to want to know why a service had been denied or if IT WAS EVEN PAID FOR! If I went to the store and only bought bread, and later I died from dehydration, would my family be allowed to sue that store for murder because it "denied" me water? Or does the fact that I never paid for water even enter into the equation for these people? I honestly don't even think that it does. I think, ultimately, people who react in this way simply feel that the circumstance of human need justifies some egalitarian notion of slavery...that I "owe" my labor or the product of my labor to another human simply because they have human needs. This point may be somewhat tangential but I just wanted to highlight the fact that I don't believe the point of contention for these people even hinges on the existence of fraud.
But if you actually obtain some of the hard facts surrounding this case, it starts to become even more ridiculous. It turns out that the family's coverage comes through an employer group plan that contracted an ASO account with CIGNA. And for those who don't work in the medical reimbursement field, I'll help clear this up; Many employer based insurance plans are actually constructed by the employer or intermediary groups...this includes everything from the payments to the terms of coverage. However, often the employer or group does not want to administer the coverage themselves for various reasons. So they will set up an account (kind of like a savings account actually) with a large insurer like CIGNA, AETNA, or Anthem (OH-KY-IN BCBS) to actually administer the coverage and billing aspect (ASO- Administrative Services Only).
Now, granted, if a coverage issue should arise, on-staff doctors and various physicians at these companies are responsible for determining if reimbursement for services falls within the means of the contract for the employer or group, BUT it is the employer or group that determines the outline of the plan...not the insurance company. In the case of young Nataline, physicians at CIGNA had determined that the risk of the operation pushed it outside of the bounds of the coverage outlined by Mr. Sarkisyan's employer. CIGNA's critics, and the public at large, have, in a knee-jerk reaction, lashed out at CIGNA for the denial, claiming they deny such coverage because they only care about profits. All this even though, ironically, the issuance of such a claim would have come at NO COST to them at all as they simply disperse reimbursement from the ASO savings account of the employer. They were in no position to lose or save ANY of their own money. And even worse, although their attempt to make an exception and cover the procedure was ultimately made too late, this actually would have been money coming out of their own pockets (profits) to provide an expensive service to someone whom they had no such agreements with...and they STILL come out of it all as villains in the public eye.
The family and their lawyer, Mark Geragos (who is best known for defending upstanding citizens such as Scott Peterson and Michael Jackson), have continued to press on with legal proceedings against CIGNA. Let me be clear that my main contention isn't with the family itself...I don't pretend to know the kind of grief they must be going through and I most certainly couldn't tell you that I'm privy to every single detail, or that if I felt their overwhelming loss that I couldn't ever be found taking a similar path. My contention is with the masses, whose predisposition to vilify private industry and whose genuine dearth of curiosity has led them to use this family's plight as a whipping post for their perceived enemies. I can tolerate people who are dead-set in their beliefs, but I cannot tolerate people who are this way simply because they refuse to be critical and ask important questions.
Constantly we hear the incessant mantra that insurance companies are just out to make profits. CIGNA brings home an average, after taxes, of 4.1% profits annually. That means even if you took every single penny of return away from those "fat-cat" CEOs, your $1,000 procedure would still cost you $959. So great...maybe your ego would be satiated but your wallet still takes a kick in the pants. The problem with our system is the cost of the care itself...not insurance company profits. Meanwhile, companies like Dell pull in over 10% profits annually. Are the prices of computers skyrocketing or dropping? Is the quality of the modern PC getting worse or better? Does Dell deliver a good with better quality and lower prices every year out of the goodness of their heart? Or does competition and profit drive them to provide customers with a better product for a better price? To anyone who is in the know in the slightest regarding economics, profits are certainly not the problem. Yet, not only because these reactionaries do not understand the fundamentals of the free market, but because they don't even understand the fundamentals of this particular story, they are led to believe that corporate greed killed this young woman.
And it's not only their misconception of the role of profits or even the fact that they are seemingly ignorant of how the family's plan was set up that really disturbs me. What disturbs me is that their INITIAL tendency was to make a shoot right at the insurance company. Why? If they would dig a little deeper into the story, it seems as if they should really be lobbing their claims towards Mr. Sarkisyan's employer, who created the plan in which such services were ultimately denied. We bash CIGNA for sticking to his employer's outlines but we don't seem to focus on the employer at all. Did they approach the employer and ask for an exception? Why is that somehow on the back of CIGNA? And probably even more disturbing to me; where were the doctors at UCLA on all of this? You're telling me that these doctors would not provide LIFE-SAVING treatment to a 17 year old girl until CIGNA agreed to compensate them for it? How are these people LESS culpable than ANYONE else in this matter? It seems to me that if you're willing to attack CIGNA for not providing coverage that wasn't paid for in the first place then I couldn't understand why you wouldn't attack the providers or the hospital for not fronting the same bill or at least carrying forth with the operation in lieu of an agreement being met in the interim.
And yet comment after comment, I see people slamming private insurance companies and holding this story up not only as political fodder for a "public option" but for single-payer care! I wonder how many of these people are aware of the tens of thousands of people that get denied care by the government every year through our own Medicare and Medicaid systems. No altruistic intentions or softly spoken rhetoric can deny economic realities. All resources are scarce...this translates directly to the medical profression as with any and every other profession. There is nothing the government can do, short of enslaving its people and drastically decreasing our standard of living, to fundamentally alter the price structure that results from the reality of scarcity. In fact, their attempts to do so have served ultimately not to decrease costs or or provide more coverage, but rather to raise costs and provide less coverage. At best, they can only mask the realities of scarcity with the facade of "free health care" and progressive taxation. But government cannot play god. It cannot provide services of unlimited number and quality to the masses. It too, as it always has and will do, rations the care it provides...it has no options. It's bad enough that supporters of such moves are hyper-critical towards private industry without asking any questions, but it's even worse that they could be hyper-supportive of government industry without asking some questions as well.
Regardless of one's opinions on public policy, the points outlined above should be on the minds of anyone interested in the Sarkisyan case. To me, these are all very important questions that I don't see being asked by anyone publicly. Surely we can all agree that there are specifics about this case that none of us are privy to. But for that reason alone, shouldn't we not be so quick, as a society, to slam CIGNA? Outside of the specifics, even some of the important general questions I brought to light in this post have not been answered yet. Have we gotten to the point, as a culture, that guilt simply isn't predicated on the facts anymore, but instead on the emotional disposition of the masses? I've often pointed out in my writings that this is exactly what is wrong with democracy. For all its praise and glorification, if democracy has simply become a vehicle of force to be controlled by the whims of an irrational and thoughtless public in order to burn witches at the stake, then I want nothing to do with it.
Friday, October 9, 2009
Let's look at the U.S. presidents who have been bestowed with this honor:
- Woodrow Wilson
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Jimmy Carter
- Barack Obama
Now, without pointing out the obvious commonality in the political bent of these nominees, I think it's safe to say that these people did not win by improving their peoples' standard of living with great economic policies. But if the Nobel Peace Prize is about fostering peace, exactly how did these bozos get on the ticket? I do have to give some slack to Jimmy Carter here. Although he did, almost single-handedly, prove Keynesian spending to be anachronistic at best, he actually was, and remains, a huge proponent of peace...not to mention that he's probably the most intelligent president, academically speaking, we've ever had. But these other guys are no friends of peace given their record.
Even Obama has yet to prove this. Awarding the prize to him seems to me to have been a reflexive response to the abhorred foreign policy of the Bush years. Yet, Obama in his tenure thus far has followed through with, if not escalated, those policies. Granted he TALKS a lot more about peace. And yet, he's still on the same timeline Bush left for Iraq, he's ramped up operations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and (amazingly) his administration seems to be preparing for possible military action to impede Iran's nuclear development. Rhetoric is fine, but one would hope that some type of actionable achievements to those ends would have been brought to bear for such an adornment.
Of course, it doesn't take a brain surgeon to see that the committee has put their political views and current sentiment before the quality of their nominees a few other times in its history. It's a little hard to ignore the fact that they've failed to nominate Mahatma Gandhi or John Paul II but have nominated, among others, Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler. That's one hell of a track record. And if that doesn't convince you that politics is prime here, consider that nominations start in September (before Obama was even elected) and ended in February (less than two weeks after Obama became president). Now maybe in that short time span, Obama had achieved some kind of miraculous move towards world peace that I wasn't privy to, but I'm more inclined to believe that the Nobel Peace Prize is just what it appears to be; less about the actual realization of world peace and more about a throw-away to contemporary neo-liberal sentiment.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
I watched an interview with Michael Moore conducted by Wolf Blitzer last night and I honestly wasn't sure whether to be upset or laugh. Most of Moore's past works were pretty laughable as serious documentaries, but his upcoming film on "capitalism" is going to be something special. And for those who wonder, I place "capitalism" in quotes because it's not evident from the trailers that he is actually criticizing capitalism as opposed to mercantilism. It seems like he wants to beat capitalism over the head with the weight of the bailouts that were provided at the tax-payers' expense...which is clearly NOT a feature of capitalism at all...but we'll have to wait and see the film to critique his stance in its full glory.
The first thing Blitzer brought up seemed to be a point of personal contention. As such, let me say, as I always have for ad-hominem commentary, it does nothing to deface the views of Moore but rather Moore himself. That being said, Blitzer questioned how Moore can be against capitalism (which he described as "legalized greed"...I chuckled) when he has clearly become rich embracing the capitalist paradigm by selling his movies. And in a moment that was almost too embarrassing to watch, Moore tried to deflect the question by responding with something like, "Yes...I know it's rare that someone who actually has money is fighting for the poor, but I was taught that we are our brothers' keepers." Excuse me? Did Moore just try to turn Blitzer's accusations into a badge of nobility? Wolf re-adjusted the question just to make sure Moore did not misunderstand it. But he gave a similar retort the second time...I think it's pretty clear he understood the question.
This is a point of personal contention that I have with many neo-liberals (they aren't really worthy of the title of "liberal" anymore). Let me preface my comments by saying that this does not apply to all neo-libs but it does apply to the vast majority of them. There ARE some who actually live their beliefs to the hilt. And even though I may disagree with their ideology (and even despise it to some degree) I can certainly respect them for their integrity. My problem, however, is that most (neo)liberals draw their lines of altruism in front of themselves. That is to say, they insist that people in general must sacrifice for the good of others, but they never seem to be willing to sacrifice primarily of themselves before they look to others to do so. It's hard for me to sit there and listen to someone proselytize about how it's not only morally acceptable but actually preferable to steal from others to provide for the needy when the person preaching to me reclines in their air-conditioned house on Saturdays, fiddling with their new iPhone, and watching the game on their plasma wide screen. You're richer than Herod could have ever imagined and suddenly you think you're excluded from the responsibility of your own views? Why? Has an incredibly high standard of living and a woefully inept appreciation for history led you to believe you're actually one of those "poor" people? You're not. If you're going to demand that others be forced to sacrifice at gunpoint, you better be damn sure to walk the talk first. Did you sell your TV, computer, cell phone, or extra furniture to help the needy? Do you volunteer your extra time to charity? Did you pick up that extra job to help someone in need? How can you expect me to take your views seriously when you can't even claim the moral high ground within your own altruistic paradigm? Instead it seems you just expect the rest of us to pay, literally, for your personal lack of moral integrity and consistency. What a novel approach to ethics.
Later in the interview, Blitzer asked, "If you dislike capitalism, what system would you favor? Socialism?" Moore first exclaimed, simply, "Democracy!" He then prefaced his forthcoming explanation by saying something like, "You know, capitalism was invented in the 16th century. Socialism was invented in the 19th century. This is the 21st century...we need something new!" Without taking up additional time by dismantling his innocuously childlike Whig view of history, let me first respond by clearing up a couple of historical errors here. Capitalism was certainly not "invented" in the 16th century. Here, Moore is confusing the historical return to private property in the wake of feudalism to an "invented" system of some type. Unlike other socio-economic systems (communism, socialism, fascism, etc.) capitalism arises naturally out of a system in which property rights are present. What Moore is actually describing is the rebirth of private property and voluntary exchange in the 16th century. It wasn't until the 17th and 18th centuries that we even began to understand market phenomena. Up until the time of classical economists like Smith and Ricardo, markets were like a lonely tree in the forest, waiting for botanists and biologists to study it and explain why it naturally does what it does. In fact, there was no term called "capitalism" until the 19th century. "Capitalism" was a term invented by Karl Marx in an attempt to actually smear what occurs in a system of free exchange and private property. Despite his disparaging views of free markets and his propensity to embrace a few big mistakes that classical economists before him had made (the labor theory of value comes to mind), Marx was, ironically, correct regarding the emphasis that is naturally placed on investments in a system of free exchange. In the end, purveyors of voluntary exchange and property rights actually came to embrace the label.
Moore went on deflecting the charge of socialism by explaining that Americans have traditionally loved democracy, so why wouldn't we embrace economic democracy? Now this is pretty interesting. He previously rejects the idea of socialism and claims that it's outdated. But in this explanation, it seems as if he's not only embracing socialism but specifically Marxism! I want to first argue that socialism, in some form or another, has actually been around for quite a while. In fact, I would consider feudalism itself to be a direct predecessor to modern socialism. But the term socialism, as well as the fundamental theory behind it, was developed by...you guessed it...Karl Marx. Marx used the word "socialism" to provide contrast between his economic system and the free-market system, which he dubbed "capitalism"; Capitalism favors a narrow band of capitalists whereas his system, socialism, was social and favored everyone. This is, of course, an over-simplification, but it is actually where these two terms came from. The irony is that although Moore is trying to deflect the "socialist" mantle, he's not only (wittingly or unwittingly) supporting it, but making the EXACT same arguments Marx made. Marx argued that socialized democracy was the next natural evolution in economics. Democracy is a great system that politically empowers the masses, so why wouldn't we adopt such measures in the economic realm? Moore, while emphatically denying it, not only asks the same question but proposes the same solution.
One of two things is happening here. Either Mr. Moore is extremely ignorant regarding economic history, which I'm inclined to doubt, or he's simply trying to mask his own socialist beliefs for public relations purposes. Now, if you really believe in socialism, capitalism, pink bunnies, or any idea under the sun, you shouldn't have to hide those beliefs and be deceitful about it. If you really believe in what you're saying, you shouldn't be afraid of it. That being said, I think the claim that democracy is good in many, if not all, contexts is ridiculous.
Although it does seem like that from an early age we are led to believe that democracy is as American as apple pie, history tells us otherwise. To the extent that our founding fathers found application for federal government, it was implemented primarily as a republic. And while many of them extolled the virtue of the democratic process in state and local governments, they were certainly weary of it in terms of centralized power. I can't think of a better illustration of this (outside of the text of the constitution itself) than the fact that we (still) do not hold direct national elections. That distrust is not only reflected in the national fragmentation of power but in the actual scope of government power. We don't accept "democracy" in every facet of our lives because our nation was primarily founded on the Lockean concepts of Natural Law and personal sovereignty. Imperfect as it may have been at it's inception, the basis for our entire system were these classically liberal ideas of natural rights and private property. The reason we don't let democracy dictate our economy is the same reason why we don't let democracy dictate what church you go to or what shoes you put on this morning. The economy, left in a free state, is a reflection of voluntary exchanges of ideas, goods, and labor. And by extension, any violation of our rights to do as we wish with ourselves and our belongings is primarily a refutation of private property and self-ownership itself. People tend to forget that the free market is not some separate entity unto itself. Rather it is merely the manifestation of personal liberty in the realm of trade...nothing more and nothing less. We understand that it wouldn't seem right to let the government quash our freedom of speech simply because a majority of the people may support it. Yet we seem to be eager to part ways with arguably our greatest freedoms in the name of democracy. Of which name does tyranny and the abolition of personal sovereignty become an acceptable practice to you? Is the act of ten people assailing you somehow more righteous than a single person doing so?
Liberty, Mr. Moore...this is capitalism.