The blog isn’t quite dead yet, though it’s been more and more dormant. It’s been going, more or less, for fourteen years now. So, happy birthday to the blog!
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I, “the War to End All Wars.” Once upon a time, we commemorated this as “Armistice Day.” That changed in 1956 to “Veteran’s Day.” In my mind, this shift was unfortunate — not because there is anything wrong with honoring veterans but because we lost something when we stopped honoring the Armistice. We shifted our focus from the end of the fight to those who fought. Warriors are very often noble. War very often is not. When we celebrate the nobility of the warrior we run the risk of forgetting the ignobility of war.
Wars are often petty, pointless, and avoidable. How many of us can say just exactly what the point of World War I was? If you have a reasonable historical background, you can probably describe the causes. But what the hell were they fighting for? Pride, fear, and greed seem like the main motivators. And, of course, there was a huge “sunk cost” component — once the combatants were engaged and once a significant number of soldiers had died in the fight, it was impossible to give up without having anything to show for the sacrifice.
And the sacrifice was immense. The impersonal savagery of war was laid bare, stripped of its romance. Personal valor counted for little in the face of the industrial machinery of death. (At Verdun, the French and Germans fired 1.4 million tons of steel at each other.) Wave after wave of husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers were sent into what amounted to a meat grinder only to claim a few yards of ground; ground that was soon be lost again as the other side reciprocated. After the assault failed, and the attackers retreated to their trenches, they left behind the bodies of wounded men, pinned down under fire, beyond rescue, dying – the craters in which they lay filling with water, temperatures dropping, their moans and screams filling the air. In the trenches, soldiers had to dig ever lower to bury their dead, had to throw their body waste out into No Man’s Land. The horrors go on and on, and I can’t ever do them justice. I wasn’t there, and they are countless. My prose here is perhaps overwrought, but I don’t think I can do justice to what these soldiers went through. They suffered so much for so little.
The end of fighting, the Armistice, was itself a thing that deserves respect. We should continue respecting it by holding war in disdain. War can be necessary. On the American side, World War II and the Civil War seem like “good” wars. The need for World War I, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq is much less clear. The soldiers who fight them can be heroic and noble and deserve our gratitude. But we should scorn those who rattle sabers, indulge their pride, and regard war as a primary instrument of policy without concern for the inevitable human suffering.
by Ewart Alan Mackintosh (killed in action 21 November 1917 aged 24)
(Private D Sutherland killed in action in the German trenches, 16 May 1916, and the others who died.)
So you were David’s father,
And he was your only son,
And the new-cut peats are rotting
And the work is left undone,
Because of an old man weeping,
Just an old man in pain,
For David, his son David,
That will not come again.
Oh, the letters he wrote you,
And I can see them still,
Not a word of the fighting,
But just the sheep on the hill
And how you should get the crops in
Ere the year get stormier,
And the Bosches have got his body,
And I was his officer.
You were only David’s father,
But I had fifty sons
When we went up in the evening
Under the arch of the guns,
And we came back at twilight –
O God! I heard them call
To me for help and pity
That could not help at all.
Oh, never will I forget you,
My men that trusted me,
More my sons than your fathers’,
For they could only see
The little helpless babies
And the young men in their pride.
They could not see you dying,
And hold you while you died.
Happy and young and gallant,
They saw their first-born go,
But not the strong limbs broken
And the beautiful men brought low,
The piteous writhing bodies,
They screamed ‘Don’t leave me, sir’,
For they were only your fathers
But I was your officer.
Today the news is reporting that a lot of people Trump has named as political enemies have been the subject of attempted bombings. In particular, George Soros, the Clintons, and the Obamas received explosive devices that were apparently similar. CNN’s offices were evacuated after what was suspected to be a pipe bomb. An explosive device addressed to Eric Holder was labeled with a return address for Debbie Wasserman Schultz whose return address also appeared on the bomb sent to Soros. A suspicious package addressed to Maxine Waters was intercepted by Capitol Police and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his Manhattan office received a suspicious package.
As the saying goes, the past doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. This rash of murder attempts using bombs is reminiscent of the Anarchist Bombings of 1919. Those bombs were carried out by Italian anarchist followers of Luigi Galleani.
In late April 1919, at least 36 booby trap dynamite-filled bombs were mailed to a cross-section of prominent politicians and appointees, including the Attorney General of the United States, as well as justice officials, newspaper editors and businessmen, including John D. Rockefeller. Among all the bombs addressed to high-level officials, one bomb was notably addressed to the home of a Federal Bureau of Investigation (BOI) field agent once tasked with investigating the Galleanists, Rayme Weston Finch, who in 1918 had arrested two prominent Galleanists while leading a police raid on the offices of their publication Cronaca Sovversiva.
. . .
These bombings fed into the Palmer Raids, the Red Scare of 1919-1920, persecution of immigrants, and contributed mightily to the rise of J. Edgar Hoover and all of the civil rights abuses he stood for.
Some of the bombs at that time were accompanied by a flyer that said:
War, Class war, and you were the first to wage it under the cover of the powerful institutions you call order, in the darkness of your laws. There will have to be bloodshed; we will not dodge; there will have to be murder: we will kill, because it is necessary; there will have to be destruction; we will destroy to rid the world of your tyrannical institutions.
The Palmer Raids were a series of raids to capture and arrest suspected radical leftists, mostly Italian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants (especially those accused of being anarchists and communists), and deport them from the United States. Palmer had told a House Committee sometime earlier that radicals would “on a certain day…rise up and destroy the government at one fell swoop.” A trial run by Palmer was thrown out on First Amendment grounds and he learned to take advantage of “powerful immigration statutes that authorized the deportation of alien anarchists, violent or not.” A young J. Edgar Hoover led the effort, and the raids led to thousands of arrests, many of them legally dubious.
I can’t say what the fall out from today’s bomb attempts will be, but likely nothing good. Opponents of Trump will claim, with justification, that his rhetoric concerning his political opponents is dangerous and condones violence. His supporters who don’t think the violence is justified will likely dismiss the bombs as unrelated to his rhetoric or as a false flag operation. The government can use the attempts as justification for diluting civil liberties and cracking down on disfavored and politically weak groups, be they immigrants or some other undesirable group. Threats of violence will further exacerbate tribal divisions among U.S. citizens, as citizens with differing political opinions increasingly seeing each other as enemies rather than adversaries.
The Lancet has published a study by Gregg Gonsalves and Forrest Crawford finding that earlier implementation of a public health response could have reduced the scale of the HIV outbreak in Scott County. According to the study, the upper bound of undiagnosed HIV infections in Scott County peaked at 126 on January 10, 2015, about two months before Governor Pence declared a public health emergency. The total number of HIV infections was estimated to be 183-184 by August 11, 2015.
Initiation of a response on Jan 1, 2013, could have suppressed the number of infections to 56 or fewer, averting at least 127 infections; whereas an intervention on April 1, 2011, could have reduced the number of infections to ten or fewer, averting at least 173 infections.
Dr. Crawford in a news release summarizing the study said:
Our findings suggest that with earlier action the actual number of infections recorded in Scott County — 215 — might have been brought down to fewer than 56, if the state had acted in 2013, or to fewer than 10 infections, if they had responded to the HCV outbreak in 2010-2011. Instead they cut funding for the last HIV testing provider in the county.
According to a New England Journal of Medicine study, “free HIV testing had not been available in this community since a Planned Parenthood clinic closed in 2013.” Detection could have taken place earlier if there was a better health system in place. Even after the problem was detected, there was resistance to intervention because of moral concerns. Doctors Josiah Rich and Eli Adashi do a good job of explaining the competing policy views:
The tug-of-war in and around NSEPs and syringe access laws is an ideological one. To some, NSEPs condone and encourage drug use, dissuade injection drug users from seeking help, signal governmental acceptance of illegal behavior, perpetuate the cycle of drug crime, contradict law enforcement efforts, and threaten public health and safety. According to Robert Martinez, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy from March 1991 through January 1993, NSEPs “undercut the credibility of society’s message that drug use is illegal and morally wrong.”4 Framed in this fashion, injection drug use represents a voluntary lifestyle choice by individuals free of behavioral disease. Viewed in this light, NSEPs undermine the “war on drugs” and its attendant drug-control policies. To others, NSEPs constitute patient-centered constructs designed to assist those whom the International Classification of Diseases defines as having “mental and behavioral disorders due to psychoactive substance use.” These patients have a chronic relapsing disease that is amenable to intervention were they not stigmatized, incarcerated, deprived of employment, or kept at arm’s length from medical care. They have been ostracized and marginalized for want of effective outreach.
Ultimately, I think the evidence is on the side of needle exchange programs. Despite what one’s gut reaction might be to the programs, they do more to prevent harm than they do to increase harm. And, ultimately, that’s the moral calculus that policymakers should look at.
I watched the Fred Rogers documentary last night. (I’m not crying. *You’re* crying!) Mr. Rogers was a pretty strong example of the immense good that religious faith can bring into the world. I’m not a religious man myself, but it’s clear that Mr. Rogers’ faith drove him and informed his work in the world. There are a lot of loud mouths who do a lot of bad in the name of God. It’s important to remember that there are also a lot of people quietly doing good because of their faith as well. (And people doing good and bad without religious guidance as well.)
But, I digress before I even got started. One scene that really got to me was a series of opinion columns and television shows where people were arguing that Mr. Rogers had corrupted a generation or two of kids by telling them that they had inherent worth. This is the crowd that is desperately worried about participation trophies. These folks argue, perversely, that we’re damaging kids by telling them that they have worth.
I’m ultimately skeptical that the people who are critical of participation trophies are motivated by a deep concern for the children involved. At some level, I think these people don’t feel good about themselves or their own accomplishments unless someone else is losing. And/or they have some vague notion that the world these days is bad compared to the past and, what the hell, let’s blame it on people mollycoddling kids these days. (Lack of historical knowledge and nostalgia goggles let them overlook that the past, by and large, was a comparatively crappy place to live.) I don’t know, maybe their own parents beat them and told them they were losers. It’s too painful to think mom & dad were jerks or incompetent parents, so they turn that pain into a virtue. “It was for my own good.”
In a similar way, I think the idea of hell has its roots in the “can’t win unless others are losing” mentality. There is a sizable group of people who seem to relish the idea of others suffering in hell every bit as much as they look forward to their own divine reward. If I had to guess, I’d say that the group who finds a lot of value in the idea of hell probably has strong, negative opinions about participation trophies.
Competition is good. It hones skills and adds excitement to an activity. But the idea that a person doesn’t have worth outside of winning and losing is pernicious. It adds unnecessary pain to the world. Somehow the idea that the world can be made better by being nice to each other and helping one another has become subject to scorn and ridicule. It’s unicorns and rainbows. Cooperative and respectful isn’t the same thing as “weak.” I don’t think Fred Rogers was anyone’s doormat. If you look at what he accomplished and how he accomplished it, I think you’ll find a strength of will that most of us have not developed.
Anyway, be nice to each other. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. We can and should aspire to make the world better. Not winning isn’t the same as being a loser.
I was pretty set against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination from the start. He was part of the right-wing hit brigade in the days of the Clinton impeachment – chasing Vince Foster murder conspiracy theories, leaking Ken Starr investigative matters to the press, and fixated on maximizing the focus on the most salacious details of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair. Wrote Kavanaugh about Clinton, “It may not be our job to impose sanctions on him, but it is our job to make his pattern of revolting behavior clear — piece by painful piece.” He then went on to suggest that Starr ask questions about, among other things, where Bill Clinton may have ejaculated when Clinton and Lewinsky were having sex. This didn’t have anything to do with the legal issues in question, Kavanaugh just wanted it to be painful for Clinton. I’ve said before that I think Gingrich and his group of partisans have been damaging to this country. Kavanaugh is from that group. If conservative judges are your thing, I think there are plenty of them without this level of baggage.
But, I think after today’s hearings with Professor Christine Blasey Ford, the opposition has deepened into something altogether stronger. This is true for me to some extent. Her testimony was credible while his demeanor was altogether unsuitable for a judge — particularly one with a lifetime appointment to the most powerful court in the world. He indulged his anger and mused about a Clinton-revenge conspiracy. This was, at the end of the day, a job interview.
But my thinking is a little abstract when I compare it to the women I know. Their reaction to these hearings has been visceral. (And, no, I’m not implying women are more emotional — Ford had much better control over her emotions than Kavanaugh. It’s just that today’s events hit more women where they live.) Ford’s testimony squares completely with a level of abuse that is pervasive and mostly invisible to a lot of men, including myself. Their reaction to Professor Ford was raw. I can’t speak for them, but I got the sense that, as she testified, they re-lived the gropes, the catcalls, the rapes, the attempted rapes, the coerced sex, the men laughing at their discomfort, the times they were told to smile, the times they were judged for what they were wearing, and on and on and on.
Then, in contrast to the very credible testimony from Professor Ford, a person who seemed like she was kind, honest, and trying to do the right thing; there were angry denials and claims of conspiracy. There was a resolute refusal to probe further. The absence of Mark Judge — a man who was allegedly in the room when Ford says that Kavanaugh forced himself on her and covered her mouth as she attempted to scream — spoke loudly about the Committee’s interest in fact-finding. The Senate Judiciary Committee has subpoena power. The committee could easily have compelled Judge’s testimony. They are evidently afraid of the clarity Judge’s testimony could bring.
Judging from what I’ve seen among many women I know, the familiarity of the sexual assault described by Professor Ford, Kavanaugh’s attempt to avoid consequences by deploying anger, and the Committee’s determination to look the other way in the face of Ford’s allegation will, I think, turn mere political disagreement into implacable opposition on the part of those women.
I have in my drafts, a post I never finished entitled “Donnelly’s dilemma.” At the time of the nomination, I thought he’d have a difficult decision to make. As a Democratic Senator in a conservative state, what to do with a Republican Supreme Court nominee can be a difficult balancing act. I think it’s easy now. Given how the Ford hearings played out, Sen. Donnelly might lose if he votes against Kavanaugh. However, I think he certainly will lose if he votes for Kavanaugh. Most Democrats will forgive a lot to keep a Senate seat, but not that.
How’s that title for a dog’s breakfast? It’s Labor Day Weekend, and there are some (marginally) related items I’d like to try to synthesize:
- The State has taken over Muncie Schools and is depriving Muncie teachers of bargaining rights.
- Indiana has come to resemble Southern states with respect to the well-being of its citizens.
- Defenses of the economic status quo are often Panglossian.
- Property is a policy choice. The free market begins with a fence (and government employees with guns defending that fence).
tl;dr: There is nothing natural or inevitable about the scope of the property rights we’ve chosen or the priority we give those rights as compared to other rights — such as the rights of laborers. The choices we are making are not serving as well as they could. This, is evident if you look at other times and places when and where people, on average, prospered more and, more importantly have been happier with their lives. We see those choices being made and the negative consequences of those choices in the report on Hoosier working families since 2004 and the stripping of rights from Muncie teachers in 2018.
Muncie Schools got into financial trouble because of school funding restrictions imposed by the State of Indiana over the last decade or so. Changes in the school funding formula, Indiana’s property tax caps, the growth of charter schools, vouchers, and inter-school transfers — all state-level policies — combined to hurt Muncie Schools. To deal with that financial trouble, last session (well, special session — when it failed to pass originally, the General Assembly got a do-over in the form of a special session) the State took control of the school system away from Muncie residents and their school board. Seth Slabaugh, writing for the Muncie Star Press, reported on August 30:
During a question-and-answer session with the media at the end of this week’s Muncie Community School Board meeting, board President Jim Williams was asked whether the district would start collective bargaining with teachers in September.
“No,” he answered.
“The Legislature has given, specifically in House Enrolled Act 1315, that we would have to specifically opt in, and frankly, everything is on the table, and right now this board is not in a position to opt in,” Williams said.
So, it’s hard to escape the notion that the State intends to shift the costs of the funding formula, property tax caps, vouchers, and charters onto teachers. Not to put too fine a point on it, that’s a stupid way to try to build an educated citizenry.
But, perhaps creating educated citizens isn’t the priority.
Indiana is becoming more like a Southern State
I’m not sure if it’s original to Morton Marcus, but I recall his quip that “Indiana is the middle finger of the South thrust up into the North.” A recent report by the Indiana Institute for Working Families makes it clear that this is one of those “funny because it’s true” kind of things. According to the report:
[A]fter 2004, wages began to decline alongside policy choices that cut job quality standards and worker voice, weakened the safety net, and limited economic opportunities for middle- and low-income families. Indiana now resembles a Southern state as much as or more than our Midwestern neighbors when it comes to child poverty, low income families, rates of adults with a postsecondary degree, and more.
. . .
In 2009, median Hoosier household wages fell below the average of the South’s, where they’ve remained virtually tied at best. In recent years, Indiana has gained the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of poverty wage jobs and low-income working families in the Midwest. Even accounting for cost of living, the state’s per capita personal income is now second-lowest in the region.
The report says that basic costs for working families have gone up 32% since 2009 but wages have gone up only 6.3%. Since 1979, the productivity of Hoosier workers has gone up 66.6% while wages have gone up only 9.5% in the same period. On the other hand, Indiana leads the Midwest in terms of profits as a share of GDP. In other words, owners are pocketing a lion’s share of the money being generated by this economic productivity. Or, as the IIWF puts it, “Profitability is not the problem in Indiana, but instead policy has not translated the productive and profitable efforts of Hoosiers into higher compensation and better lifetime outcomes for working families.” It’s a new Gilded Age where the top 1% makes 7-30x as much as the bottom 99%. (The report uses the term “earns,” but that’s a loaded term. “Acquires” is probably a more neutral term.) This lopsided level of acquisition is not inevitable. From 1945-1973, the report says that the top 1% captured 5.7% of Hoosier’s income growth compared to the 72.4% they’ve captured from 1973-2015.
There are obviously some national and international trends that are responsible for the lopsided distribution of wealth, but Indiana’s policies have exacerbated some of those trends. The State has made regressive tax choices that has shifted burdens from the wealthiest onto the working class: reduction of personal & corporate taxes; tax caps on real estate; elimination of the inheritance tax; increased fuel taxes; increased sales taxes; and reduction in the Earned Income Tax Credit. The reduction in taxes was much more beneficial to upper incomes than lower incomes. Meanwhile, the consequences of reduced tax revenues has been less money available for expenditures on the general welfare — schools, roads, and any number of other programs and services that benefit the public. The report suggests some policy choices that could help Indiana look more like its Midwestern peers and less like the Southern states: increased minimum wage and greater access to a stronger social safety net (e.g. TANF, SNAP, work sharing to mitigate layoffs; consumer and renter protections; and better employment training & financial literacy programs).
So, what is it about the South and a crummy labor market, and what is it that makes Indiana more like a Southern state. I think the latter is primarily a consequence of migration patterns. Indiana was initially settled more from Southerners coming from the Ohio River northward. The other Midwestern states were settled from Easterners moving west and/or coming south off of the Great Lakes. The South’s poor living standards have roots in the enslavement of laborers for the benefit of wealthy property owners. The policy choices in the South were an extreme preference for property rights over labor rights. We fought a war to end the outright enslavement of laborers, but the policy preferences are still lopsided, and you can see the results in the reduced standards of living in the South compared to places where policymakers have struck a different balance. What’s more, this preference for property over labor metastasized into a durable racism that has made it harder to adjust the balance.
Panglossian Defenses of the Status Quo
Candide was a good-natured but simple character (Spongebob comes to mind) created by Voltaire in his 18th century fictional work. Candide was the naive and trusting student of Dr. Pangloss. Pangloss was an advocate of Leibnizian optimism. I’m sure I’m oversimplifying, but generally speaking, Leibniz was wrestling with how evil could exist in a world created by a benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God. His conclusion was, in the words of Dr. Pangloss, “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” If a better world was possible, then surely God would have chosen that world. So, if things seem bad, it’s only because we humans — lacking God’s level of understanding — simply don’t understand that any alternative would be worse. Candide is indoctrinated into this worldview by Dr. Pangloss while living in a pleasant and sheltered environment. When he is forced out into the wider world, he is exposed to grim events (e.g. war, disease, natural disaster, torture in the name of religion, slavery, rape, murder). In the end, Candide concludes that the complacency of Panglossian optimism isn’t a sufficient answer. Instead, “we must cultivate our garden.” Our responsibility is local and we must care for those around us.
The defenses I hear of our current status quo seem to have more than a whiff of Pangloss to them. In some online bickering about the “true meaning” of the word “socialism,” I quipped that, regardless of the label, I wanted some of whatever Denmark had. One of the responses was that, even though Danes said they were happy, they weren’t really happy. Calls to raise the minimum wage are met with predictions that this won’t make anything better. Calls to adopt the health care system are met with predictions that any attempt at reform will make things worse, notwithstanding the experience of other countries. Really, any attempt to tamper with the current market structure is met with predictions that this will inevitably lead to Stalinism or the experience in Venezuela. There’s always an excuse. We had a stronger middle class in the 50s and 60s? Well that’s because the rest of the world was recovering from WWII. Those countries have a stronger middle class now? Well that’s because they’re homogenous. (I’ve never really seen someone connect the dots on this homogeneity argument — I assume it’s thinly veiled racism, but I guess there could be a non-racist explanation for why homogenous populations can pony up for social services but diverse ones cannot.)
Whatever the excuses, by a number of metrics, America is not doing terribly well compared to other countries. The World Happiness Report measures six key variables, “income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust (including perception of corruption in government & business) and generosity.” The report ranks the U.S. as 18th, between Luxemborg and the UK but behind Costa Rica and Ireland. Topping the list are Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland. One of the author notes that our income-per-capita has doubled since 1972 while our subjective happiness has declined over the same period. Potential explanations include wealth disparity, erosion of social capital and “three inter-related epidemic diseases . . . obesity, substance abuse (notably opioids), and depression.” With respect to income disparity, the research suggests that absolute income and relative income both matter, but as absolute incomes rise, relative income disparity becomes more important to a society’s overall sense of well-being. Our health adjusted life expectancy score (overall life expectancy adjusted downward for time spent in poor health) is around 69.1 which puts us in the same range as Poland and Estonia and well behind places like Japan and Switzerland at 74.9 and 73.1, respectively. Our obesity rates are far above that of other OECD countries probably related to our change in diet in recent decades – notably increased consumption of processed foods and high fructose corn syrup. The wealth disparity is only going to continue to get worse as automation advances. If the robot owners are the only people getting paid, we’re going to have a problem.
In terms of health care, we spend much more and get the same or less than other countries. In terms of education, we’re lagging. According to a 2015 OECD report, the U.S. ranks 28th. Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan are the top 5. Finland is the top European country, coming in 6th with Estonia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Canada rounding up the top 10. Unlike the State of Indiana and Muncie, those countries aren’t relying on an educational strategy centered on short-changing their teachers. According to an NCSL study on how to build a world-class education system, one element the best systems have in common is that they recruit high quality educators; implement a rigorous system of preparation and licensure; pay the teachers well; develop a mentor system; gives teachers a professional environment to work in; select high quality administrators; and develop standards benchmarked to other countries. Instead of copying places that work, our education policy strikes its own path with vouchers and charter schools. I’ve said elsewhere that this is likely because educational excellence is a lower priority. The primary goals are: 1) weakening the teacher’s unions; 2) subsidizing religious education; and 3) diverting public funds to friends and well-wishers of policymakers.
But, I digress. The point is that other places are getting better results than the U.S. If we ever did, we no longer live in the best of all possible worlds. To improve our situation, we should copy what others are doing successfully. This might require higher taxes and reducing the focus on the interest of property rights in order to strengthen other rights.
The free market begins with a fence
Part of the resistance to making different choices about the free market and the various priorities given to property rights is a denial that choices have been made in the first place. “Property isn’t a choice. It’s a ‘natural’ right.” With all due respect to John Locke and the Founding Fathers, property does not exist in a state of nature. Without human-made laws and a government to back them up, you don’t have property. You have an opinion. Where there is a difference of opinion, in the state of nature with no government, the person who can bring the most force to bear is going to win the argument. (And, I might mention, that it really grinds people’s gears when I point out that there is no property without government. They think they hate government, and they love the idea of property rights. The idea that property rights are dependent on government seems to create a cognitive dissonance that must be really uncomfortable.)
In a state of nature, land belongs to everyone and no one. That changes when you can separate your land with a fence provided that you can also have government employees with guns convince the rest of the world to respect your fence as something more than a flimsy barrier. Having established ownership to the land, you can claim rights to the crops grown there and the minerals underneath the land. You can demand compensation for these things. You can withhold them from others altogether. Where once people could theoretically live off the land without your say-so, now they are forced to go elsewhere, pay you, or do work for you in order to use that land. And then we’re off to the races – a system of property laws, contract laws, courts, and police enforcing those laws form a structure without which markets would not work.
And none of this is inherently bad. Let me repeat for the benefit of those who might think my intent is to savage property rights: I like property rights. Property rights and the markets that they allow have done a great deal of good. Why bother working, creating, or taking risks if you cannot lay claim to the fruits of those endeavors? But, striking the appropriate balance can be tricky. When people work collaboratively to create value, how do you allocate the profits from that effort? The Panglossian view is that “the market” will magically allocate profits to people according to their worth. We can rest assured that, if the market is allowed to work without government interference, money acquired is money earned. But the existence of markets is a product of government interference. No government means no property and, therefore, no market. So, as the joke goes, we’ve already established what you are, now we’re haggling over the price. The market doesn’t reward value, it rewards leverage. Bringing more value to the common endeavor is a form of leverage. But so are property rights. Being able to keep your labor or machines or product on the sidelines until prices rise — without worrying about how you’re going to feed your family — is another form of leverage.
We can adopt policies that alter the leverage various people have in a transaction and alter the allocation of profits from economic activity. Some options could definitely lead us to a worse place – the Soviet Union and Venezuela are flamboyant examples (although, I guess I’ve seen some stats that suggest the lot of your average Russian peasant actually improved under Soviet policies, so your starting point matters). What do I have in mind? An increased minimum wage, stronger rights for unions, single-payer health care, better public transportation, more walkable neighborhoods, and increased spending on schools and particularly paying teachers more and giving them more control over teaching, incentives or laws for fewer hours worked and improved benefits, better unemployment benefits and family leave benefits, maybe even a Universal Basic Income. How are we going to pay for this? Taxes obviously.
And, I guess there are three basic reasons why I’m o.k. with this: first, there are some instances where we get more bang for our buck spending through the government than we do going through the private market; second, I’m o.k. having less money if I end up happier; and third, there’s wealth disparity that could stand to be redistributed. (See above, wealth acquired isn’t necessarily wealth earned).
Contrary to conservative dogma, sometimes the government is more efficient than the private market. The big example I have in mind is healthcare. Other countries with significant government regulation of healthcare markets get the same or better healthcare results for their people than the U.S. does. There isn’t an example in the world of a less regulated healthcare system that delivers better results for less. My tiny example is in-house printing at the Legislative Services Agency. LSA used to hire out printing of the General Assembly’s bills. When they attempted to bring it in-house, they met stiff resistance from a conservative Senator who took it as a matter of faith that having government employees do the work would raise the price. It saved millions with a two-thirds reduction in printing appropriations. I’m not, by any means, suggesting that the government is always more efficient than private spending; but sometimes it is. So, we should dismiss it out of hand. If I’m paying money out in taxes rather than paying it out in insurance premiums, I don’t mind the higher taxes. It’s all the same to me if I’m getting health care. I’m delighted if I’m getting more and better health care services.
Second, I also don’t mind higher taxes if I end up poorer but happier. I might be an outlier here, but if I have less spending money, but my community is healthier, happier, better educated, and generally more functional, I think I’m going to be happier. Not because of any excessive altruism on my part, but because living in such a place ultimately brings me more joy than I’d get from having those extra tax dollars in my pocket.
Third, the wealthy are just hoarding a lot of the wealth. I don’t think having that extra money to flow to them has a lot of social utility. If everyone gets paid the same regardless of effort or output, then the economy is going to flounder. Why bother working, investing, or creating? But there has to be a point of diminishing returns. Is a guy really going to work harder for a billion than he does for a hundred million? If not, then you’ve wasted $900 million which could probably be put to better use elsewhere. There’s some fat we can trim here.
I could be wrong, of course. But there is a fair amount of evidence, both historically and internationally, that what we have now is not inevitable and is not the best of all possible worlds. We need to look at what’s working elsewhere and cultivate our garden.
Life can be good. We have evidence of this. We’re just not sure how to make it happen. In part, this is because we’re not really sure who “we” are. Will Hutton, writing for the Guardian, talks about Britain, Brexit, and ‘Shit-Life Syndrome.'” He notes that this shit-life syndrome in Britain parallels a lot of the suffering in the U.S. (wherein lower class white folks are starting, more often, to be afflicted with the same problems non-whites have suffered from). Hutton says that the decline in life-expectancy in Britain is starting to look like the worse problems we have in the U.S. A recent study indicates that, in the U.S., “all cause mortality increased… among non-Hispanic whites.” Drug overdoses were the leading cause but mortality also increased for “alcohol-related conditions, suicides and organ diseases involving multiple body systems” (notably liver, heart diseases and cancers).
US doctors coined a phrase for this condition: “shit-life syndrome”. Poor working-age Americans of all races are locked in a cycle of poverty and neglect, amid wider affluence. They are ill educated and ill trained. The jobs available are drudge work paying the minimum wage, with minimal or no job security. They are trapped in poor neighbourhoods where the prospect of owning a home is a distant dream. There is little social housing, scant income support and contingent access to healthcare. Finding meaning in life is close to impossible; the struggle to survive commands all intellectual and emotional resources. Yet turn on the TV or visit a middle-class shopping mall and a very different and unattainable world presents itself. Knowing that you are valueless, you resort to drugs, antidepressants and booze. You eat junk food and watch your ill-treated body balloon. It is not just poverty, but growing relative poverty in an era of rising inequality, with all its psychological side-effects, that is the killer.
Hutton says that white people afflicted with shit-life syndrome are Trump’s base and the core of Brexit supporters. They respond to accusations that their woes are caused by dark foreigners. Meanwhile, suggestions that the Nordic countries have managed to create a system where their citizens are happier and more prosperous are met with dismissive responses about how the countries are communist.
Hutton doesn’t really get into it, but that’s not the only rejoinder about why we can’t have the good life enjoyed in the Nordic countries. There was another column in the New York Magazine by Eric Levitz entitled “Conservatives can’t decide if Nordic Socialism is a totalitarian nightmare or actually capitalist.” Levitz observes that the traditional conservative notion is that the Nordic countries are totalitarian nightmares. As a representative sample, Levitz references a recent piece by Noah Rothman wherein Rothman argues that single-payer healthcare and tuition free access to a university education are pillars of the Soviet Constitution. However, they are also features of Scandinavian government and Rothman apparently feels no need to explain why those ideas lead to the gulag rather than to, say, Denmark.
Democrats may think they “can control the monster they’re bringing back to life,” Rothman writes, but if socialists are given an opportunity to prevail at the polls, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer “will find themselves prisoners to their party’s collectivists soon enough. After all, taking captives is what socialism does best.”
Levitz can’t resist twisting the knife a little bit by mentioning that the American system is way better at incarcerating its citizens than these socialist countries. At the same time as conservatives are making these gulag-socialism arguments, other conservatives are making incompatible arguments about how Nordic socialism is actually capitalism. According to this version of the argument, ” the real secret of the Nordic country’s success lies in its ‘strong protection of property rights and the integrity of the legal system,’ along with its commitment to free trade, light touch with regulations, and the fact that its ‘labor market is very flexible: there is no legislated minimum wage, and there are few restrictions on hiring and firing.'” Levitz rejoinder to this is that, even if we accept that Denmark’s welfare state isn’t responsible for its strong economic growth, “there’s little question that the country’s aberrantly high levels of social spending are responsible for its exceptionally low levels of relative poverty and income inequality.” Levitz concludes that the implication of this argument is that:
The economic success of the Nordic countries is actually a testament to the vitality of free-market capitalism — because free-market capitalism is (apparently) totally compatible with giant welfare states, nearly universal private-sector unionization, and state-owned oil, telecoms, and financial services companies.
Snark aside, the relative success of the Nordic countries suggests that it’s possible to have substantial wealth transfers from rich to poor without crippling the economy. (Other places, of course, show that wealth transfers can be done in a way that cripples the economy.)
A couple of themes I’ve seen raised in similar contexts that don’t necessarily come up in Hutton or Levitz columns but seem relevant: a) People suffering from shit-life syndrome are lazy and make poor life decisions; and b) the success of Nordic countries has to do with “homogeneous” populations. Here’s the word dropped into a 2015 column by Jeff Jacoby. (Incidentaly, Jacoby goes with the option #2 ‘actually capitalist’ dismissal of Scandinavian socialism.)
The real key to Scandinavia’s unique successes isn’t socialism, it’s culture. Social trust and cohesion, a broad egalitarian ethic, a strong emphasis on work and responsibility, commitment to the rule of law — these are healthy attributes of a Nordic culture that was ingrained over centuries. In the region’s small and homogeneous countries (overwhelmingly white, Protestant, and native-born), those norms took deep root.
The connection between homogeneity and a successful social welfare state is usually left unstated as somehow self-evident, so I have to guess a bit at the rationale. The less charitable interpretation is just straight up racism. “Sure, you can have a successful system where the population is made up of hard-working white people. But, too great a population of the lazy mongrel races will suck us dry.” The not-great but probably more realistic connection between homogeneity and the success of a welfare state is that we’re more likely to feel comfortable spending money on people like us and more likely to resent spending money on people who are not “us.” Racism is probably the biggest stumbling block here. But it’s not the only one — there are other significant cultural divisions that also present challenges. If we think of our fellow citizens as “they” because those citizens look different, it’s going to be tougher to develop consensus about spending money on a strong social safety net. “Helping industrious people like us who are down on their luck is a great idea. Supporting lazy people like them will ruin us.”
So, the homogeneity argument is related to the one where people who suffer from shit life syndrome do so because of laziness and poor life decisions. Why would we spend money to help those who refuse to help themselves? Don’t do drugs! Don’t have kids when you don’t have a job! Don’t have sex out of wedlock! Exercise every day! Don’t buy junk food! Do your homework! Don’t spend your money on luxuries! Don’t smoke! Save more money for retirement! Pay your credit cards off every month! The litany of admonitions is endless. It’s easy to make suffering the result of personal failings. But, as I’ve said many times — and it’s hardly original to me — the economy isn’t a morality play. There are plenty of hard working, sensible poor people; and there are plenty of wealthy people whose wealth is not at all proportional to their personal merit. The fact is that almost none of us are self-made. (Cue the howls of indignation from the people who foamed at President Obama’s unremarkable observation that if you were successful, you had someone help you along the way.)
I’ve never been too comfortable with any one ideology, but I suppose utilitarianism has been more or less my guide when judging whether a public system is good. If your system is mostly making people happy, it’s probably a good one. If your system is mostly making people unhappy, it’s probably a bad one. (But, yes, uncomfortable questions arise if you push this to the extremes. It has to be bounded by individual rights and protection for minority groups.) The success of these Nordic systems seems to be based on giving individuals more opportunity to succeed. It’s probably tougher for an individual to hit the economic jackpot and become a billionaire in the way that the American system makes possible. But, the flip side is that one doesn’t have to beat the odds in order to live a middle class lifestyle which also seems to be increasingly the case under the American system.
Kaitor Kay, writing for WANE, reports that the Fort Wayne News Sentinel is down to one employee, conservative columnist Kevin Leininger. Retention of Leininger apparently (or at least arguably) fulfills the News Sentinel’s obligations under a joint operating agreement with the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette originally signed in 1950. Under that agreement (per Wikipedia anyway), “each newspaper is separately managed and has separate editorial staffs, but Fort Wayne Newspapers provides advertising sales, circulation, and printing services used by both newspapers.” The agreement seems to have been updated about a year ago when the News-Sentinel stopped distributing a print edition and moved to digital only except that some print content was included with distribution of the Journal Gazette. In a statement released at the time, Mike Christman, the publisher, said, “the News-Sentinel will now have the ability to reach a wider range of audiences in Fort Wayne, while focusing exclusively on creating great, engaging content.” Maintaining its commitment to the unique character and voice of The News-Sentinel was a priority, Christman said. The updated agreement runs through 2075.
Less than a year later, however, the News-Sentinel abruptly laid off everyone but Leininger. The employees were called into a meeting and told that they were being let go. Per the WANE story:
Tom Davis, a current reporter and former sports editor for the newspaper, was one of the employees let go. He said they were called into a meeting for the announcement, adding that they “had no idea this was coming.”
. . .
The general manager at Fort Wayne Newspapers, Pete Van Baalen, would only confirm personnel changes, but did say the News-Sentinel would maintain their online presence, and its page inside the Journal Gazette.
I can’t pretend any deep familiarity with the Fort Wayne news market, but it came on my radar when I started blogging 13+ years ago. It was a decent size metro area with two substantial newspapers, and neither of them were part of the Gannett hive organism. That seemed like a throwback. I had a notion that the competition between the two papers made each of them better. And, again, I’m speculating, but the blog activity in the area was different and better than what I saw elsewhere. Pound-for-pound, the Fort Wayne blogosphere punched way above its weight. In my mind, that was related to the newspaper activity. I don’t know that one caused the other, but I had a general notion that whatever was in the water that made Fort Wayne a two newspaper town in an era when that had long stopped being the norm was also producing more blogs.
The blogs came and went, seemingly long ago. The News-Sentinel is going to live a shadow existence. (I’m envisioning Leininger as the Ancient Mariner aboard some kind of ghost ship). Hopefully, the Journal Gazette will be able to continue its good work and the News-Sentinel employees who lost their jobs will bounce back quickly. I continue to believe that, for newspapers to remain strong, they have to put local reporters on local beats. Certainly that’s more expensive than opinion columns, wire services, and classified ads, but if you don’t have boots on the ground as a local presence, you’re dispensable. All that other stuff, I can get from almost anyplace else in the world, but the local reporting is valuable to the community and difficult to replace. Which does not, of course, mean that non-local owners will give a damn. Local ownership probably wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
A post from Diane Ravitch’s blog on a study from Joseph Waddington and Mark Berends. The Study is called, “Impact of the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program: Achievement Effects for Students in Upper Elementary and Middle School.”
Overall, voucher students experienced an average achievement loss of 0.15 SDs in mathematics during their first year of attending a private school compared with matched students who remained in a public school. This loss persisted regardless of the length of time spent in a private school. In English/Language Arts, we did not observe statistically meaningful effects. Although school vouchers aim to provide greater educational opportunities for students, the goal of improving the academic performance of low?income students who use a voucher to move to a private school has not yet been realized in Indiana.
I do take issue with one of the study’s assumptions, however. The abstract says that improving the academic performance of low-income students is a goal. My contention has long been that this stated goal for Indiana’s voucher system is a pretext. My working theory is that the real goals are primarily: a) reduce the influence of teacher’s unions; b) redirect education money to friends and well-wishers of pro-voucher policymakers; and c) subsidize private, religious education.
A brief aside – I know that sounds cynical. And I’m not a fan of knee-jerk cynicism when it comes to politics. It’s too easy, corrosive to public discourse, and so often doesn’t capture what’s happening. Too many lawmakers and other policymakers — even those with whom I disagree — are subjected to being unfairly painted as these cartoonish supervillains by members of the public who can’t be bothered to deal with nuance. In my experience most public servants honestly have their hearts in the right place. So, I would be delighted to learn that my cynicism is misplaced. Maybe lawmakers will review these studies and reconsider the state voucher program. Maybe they’ll restructure their voucher initiatives in a way that’s contrary to the big three “real” reasons for vouchers I’ve listed above. If that happens, I’ll certainly reconsider my cynical take on the matter.
Ravitch also mentions a study by Robert Planta and Arya Ansari showing that apparent advantages of going to a private school disappear when one controls for socio-economic advantages of the kids going to those schools. In other words, the private school wasn’t particularly responsible for the high performance of the kids; the advantages the kids had outside the school were responsible.
[I]n unadjusted models, children with a history of enrollment in private schools performed better on nearly all outcomes assessed in adolescence. However, by simply controlling for the socio-demographic characteristics that selected children and families into these schools, all of the advantages of private school education were eliminated. There was also no evidence to suggest that low-income children, or children enrolled in urban schools, benefited more from private school enrollment.
So, we’re diverting funds from traditional public schools and adding administrative burdens for a voucher system that doesn’t help kids’ educational performance and might even hurt it. There are higher performing public school systems all over the world that we could be copying — but, doing so might not hurt teacher’s unions, might not redirect education funds to friends and well-wishers of voucher advocates, and might not provide a subsidy to private, religious education. The link in the previous system is to a blog post I did from 2016 on an National Conference of State Legislatures study that looked at Finland, Singapore, Ontario, Alberta, Estonia, Hong Kong, Japan, Poland, Shanghai, and Taiwan. My take aways from the report:
1. The U.S. is falling behind when compared to the rest of the world. This can’t be explained away by hand waving about apples-and-oranges.
2. The good news, of sorts, is that there are now lots of countries doing better than we are, so we don’t have to re-invent the wheel. We can see what works and copy it.
3. There needs to be a support structure in place so that kids come to school ready to learn. In other places, that can take the form of government support to families with young children or extended family structures or the community generally. The upshot is that the kids are healthy and the kids are being educated before they get to school. Extra resources are devoted to struggling kids once they get to school.
4. Access to elite teachers. The system recruits high quality educators; implements a rigorous system of preparation and licensure; pays them well; develops a mentor system; gives them a professional environment to work in; selects high quality administrators; and develop standards benchmarked to other countries.
5. Develop a Career and Technical Education path for those students preferring more of an applied education rather than a more academic approach. This shouldn’t be an educational backwater like so many vocational programs. It should be geared to boosting the national economy and providing a higher standard of living for a broader base of the population.
6. These reforms should be part of a comprehensive plan. It will probably be the case that not all problems can be tackled at once, but the plan implementation should not be erratic or arbitrary.
This may be simplistic, but my current thinking is that our biggest obstacle to achieving a world-class education system (and a world-class health system for that matter) is the legacy of centuries of slavery in the U.S. It has left the civic equivalent of psychological scars that results in social dysfunction and seemingly insurmountable division. “We” are perfectly happy to spend huge amounts of Our money to help Us. But, We get really parsimonious when They might get some of Our money. Places where the public mostly regards everyone in the country as Us have any easier time providing for the welfare of the general public (as the preamble to the Constitution puts it) than places where the public has a significant division between Us and Them.