Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Summer Break

In case it wasn't already clear, I'm taking a little hiatus from this so-called blog. I will be back, tanned and I hope refreshed, sometime in the second half of August. Probably closer to the end of August.

My vacation reading list:
Nancy Folbre's "The Invisible Heart"
Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel"
Katha Pollitt's "Virginity or Death!: And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time"

No, I don't read fiction very often. I'm too literal. Direct. Tactless. Earnest.

I still haven't managed to write on "Stumbling On Happiness" by Daniel Gilbert, or "Get to Work," a delightful polemic by Linda Hirschman which caused all sorts of unpleasantness in our household last week as a result of consciousness re-raising. (Sample comment: "I'll take away your economist's license if you try to tell me that you making all the money doesn't change the bargaining power in this marriage!")

But I'll get to them. And Nancy Folbre's book promises a more satisfying analysis of Hirschman's advice. So much to say. So little time.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Immigration and Political Biases in Economics

This week’s New York Times Magazine attempts to introduce real economic analysis into the immigration debate (available free until Sunday, email me after that). The article is a lovely introduction to the basic theory, however the main focus is the split between George Borjas of the Kennedy School and David Card of Berkeley, which is threatening to turn ugly.* It’s a reminder that personal political biases are pervasive.

The author, Roger Lowenstein, notes, “You can find economists to substantiate the position of either chamber, but the consensus of most is that, on balance, immigration is good for the country.” The interesting thing about the debate within labor economics is the lack of distance between the camps. Everybody agrees on the theory, and the signs on the different economic analyses are all the same. As Lowenstein says, “The debate among economists is whether low-income workers are hurt a lot or just a little.” How economists come down on that question depends on their political and economic biases. Lowenstein seems to impugn Borjas the most for his anti-immigration bias, but I think Lowenstein’s own bias is towards free-market economics, as is David Card’s. Most economists are biased towards free markets (which I think is a pretty good bias to start from), but this leads them to downplay the social significance of immigration’s impact on low-income workers.

As a Native American, my own bias is strong. You might even say that I get rather pissy when I hear anti-immigration rhetoric. What, you mean the borders are closed now?** I have no love for an American culture that doesn’t welcome the striving and the downtrodden alike.

In the end the debate over immigration is a distraction from the real issue: how are we treating low-income workers in our country? Are we ensuring that they have a real opportunity to better their situation? Are we ensuring that their children have the ability move up in the world? If we address inequality of opportunity in this country—I might suggest through universal health care and better funding for education—then immigration becomes a much less important issue. The American economy has an astonishing ability to absorb immigrants, and, in my ever humble opinion, a moral imperative to do so.

*Is it only me that loves to see two labor economists have at it?
**See also the
Op-Ed Contributor from July 9, on the Hispanic history of America and the “poetic justice that now the Hispanic world should return.”

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Thinking Positively

The three of us--JSM, me, and the littlest one--took a road trip this last weekend. As Bob Marley was singing on the ipod, “Get up, stand up; stand up for your rights,” I took a phone call. As I finished, JSM said, “Play it again, he’s singing.” So I played it again, and from the back we heard, “Get up, stand up. Stand up for your wife.”

Apparently he doesn’t know his rights. (He just turned 3, and I’d never heard him use the word ‘wife’ before, either.) Neither did I, and since Angelina Jolie recently exhorted me to know my rights, I looked them up.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Do check them out. I am pleased with the advancement of humanity, at least in theory. I can’t wait until my country catches up with the rest of the western world.

Leveraging Philanthropy

The cover of this week’s Economist features Bill Gates holding what appears to be a very healthy third-world child, with the headline, “Billanthropy.” The two articles inside discuss Warren Buffett’s decision to donate over $30 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, which roughly doubles the Gates Foundation endowment.

Mr. Buffett followed his own investment advice in choosing to donate to the Gates Foundation, allocating his money to the foundation that gives the biggest bang for the buck. It doesn’t surprise me. If I had $30 billion to donate to charity, I’d give it to the Gates Foundation, too, and I didn’t need Mr. Buffett to tell me what was the most effective charitable foundation around. I knew it from the first 1998 announcement that the Gates Foundation was donating $100 million to fund vaccine distribution in developing countries.

I wasn’t always a Bill Gates fan. I went to college in a town where WordPerfect and Novell were big employers, and Microsoft was the enemy, the big bad monopolizer throwing its weight around and killing the competition. For me, Bill Gates personified scheming greed, more than Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street." All that was wiped away the day I read in the paper about that first donation.

It was one of those moments that you remember, for the rest of your life, exactly where you were when you heard—or in this case read—the news. The timing was weird, as the newspapers took pains to point out. The New York Times stated, “The donation…comes as he is battling Government antitrust charges in Federal District Court in Washington,” implying that this might be just a big public relations effort. But I needed no persuading. I walked around in a daze, with the newspaper tucked under my arm and tears of wonder dotting my eyes. *

I have never seen in print the precise reasons that so overwhelmed me, so I share them with you now. They were fresh I my mind, as I had just taken a course by Gary Becker in “Human Capital and Development.” Human capital has been described as “personal productive capacity,” or “human competence.” It is the education, training, or even physical health which individuals use to produce or earn a living. It cannot be transferred or used by anyone else, because it resides in one’s own person. Gary Becker wrote the book on it, as well as “A Treatise on the Family,” an economic analysis of the family, and some papers describing the implications of both for developing countries.

By investing in vaccinations for children, and in research on eradicating major causes of death in developing countries (as Gates has since done), one raises life expectancy in these countries. It saves lives, which is always mentioned in the papers, but they don’t mention the ways the increase in life expectancy multiplies throughout the economy. When children are more likely to survive to adulthood, parents choose to have fewer children, and invest more in each one. As a result children receive better nutrition and more education. This effect continues into adulthood: the longer you expect to live, the bigger the payoff for investing in your own human capital. Education becomes much more important to everyone. Furthermore, the increase in life expectancy raises the importance (the returns) of all sorts of investments in developing countries; from local wells to national elections, the local population has a higher incentive to care about and reinforce the investments being made in their country.

All of these effects compound each other, moving a country from a stagnating third-world nation to a new dynamic state of a robust, growing economy. That’s the theory. The weak link here, of course, is the ability to develop stable government institutions in places wracked with violence. Yet increased life expectancy still has the right effect. It makes war and violence much more costly all around, by raising the value of the alternative.

These are the things I reflected on when I heard about that first vaccination donation. I had never thought about how to give away money, but it was clear that Bill and Melinda Gates had. They had spent at least six years studying, giving away relatively tiny amounts to local causes before going global health, and have been scaling it up every year since. It’s just what you would expect from the world’s richest capitalist. He wasn’t just going to give away more money than any industrial titan in history. He was going to leverage it, and by so doing improve the world more than anyone else in history.

*Yeah, so I'm sensitive. What of it? It's not very often these days that I feel like the world is getting to be a better place.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Pseudorandom Quote

"Go-kart sittin' in the shade: you don't need a ticket to ride, it's summertime, summertime, slip down a water slide. Little kid dancin' in the grass, legs like a rubber band. It's summertime, summertime. There's a line at the candy stand."

Paul Simon, Beautiful

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Two Small Points of Light

I met a free-lance writer last weekend, the wife of one of our friends from graduate school. I started talking about public policy issues, as I do obsessively these days, and she asked my political leanings. I replied that it’s a two-party system, so I’m a Democrat by default these days, as the Republicans have all the power and are completely unchecked in abusing it.

Then I came home and looked at my blog and laughed. Look at how extreme I am! One can’t be a centrist anymore. After all somebody—not Dante—said, “The hottest fires in hell are reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral crisis.” (“I don’t know; I’m just saying it’s not Dante.” Why yes, I did see 'The Lieutenant of Inishmore' last weekend.)

It used to be that JSM was far left of me on the political spectrum, so it stopped me short last night to hear him call the American Antitrust Institute the most reliable of the left-of-center antitrust advocacy organizations, with only the occasional left-wingnut. JSM hasn’t moved position. I’m the one who has swung around him.

JSM once told me about a frequent dream he used to have as a child, where he flew around his neighborhood. It seemed so real, he decided to test it to see if he was really flying around his neighborhood. The next time he had the dream, he looked carefully at the wall in the neighbor’s garage, memorizing the tools so he could check them when he awoke. But when he woke up, he realized that it was all wrong: his house was reversed, rooms were missing, and distances were off.

I feel like I’m living in a dream world, and only occasionally looking at specifics that remind me that the entire perception is slightly off. It’s not a bad representation of reality. It could fool you when you’re not thinking critically. But people are by nature biased, and view the world through the lens of those biases. They are also oppositional by nature, moving further afield in response to “the other” group. Unfortunately, the biased dream world doesn’t yield an accurate map for public policies. This is why centrist policy tends to be the best policy. It forces the biased sides to integrate their views and find the common ground—which is much more likely to be the actual ground.

The American Antitrust Institute mission is posted on their website:

“Our mission is to increase the role of competition, assure that competition works in the interests of consumers, and challenge abuses of concentrated economic power in the American and world economy. We are, broadly, post-Chicago centrists dedicated to the vigorous use of antitrust as a vital component of national and international competition policy.”

Yesterday the American Antitrust Institute held their annual conference, and gave their Antitrust Achievement Award to two senators, Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH) and Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI). The senators have a long history of working together on the Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights subcommittee to enforce appropriate antitrust policy. I don’t agree with many of their votes in other areas, but if the AAI wants to recognize them for cross-party efforts to implement vigorous antitrust policy, I will lift my glass and say, “Here’s to the future.”

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Class Warfare and Country Music

I know I said I don’t listen to country music anymore, not since I heard the Gretchen Wilson song, “Politically Uncorrect.” Check out the lyrics to the song, which I hope is the high-water mark of right-wing musical propaganda. The song reinforces the Republican self-image as the hard-working underdog and by extension the view of the Democrats as freeloading welfare hags and overeducated politically-correct atheist liberal flag-burners. This is nauseatingly absurd, because dated Republican economic ideology and policy are combining with the forces of globalization to create a more economically divided country, the haves and the have-nots, with decreasing economic mobility. Their policies are actually reinforcing the divide between the educated elite and the working-class poor, and the working-class poor are cheering.

Welfare welfare welfare government handouts handouts handouts. That’s the record that has been playing for thirty years. Economists have moved on. It’s time to move party ideology on.

But I digress. I didn’t actually replace the local country station on my car radio presets. I flip between channels when commercials come on, so sometimes I end up listening to the country station before my disgust cues me to change the channel. Which is how I happened to be listening to the country station morning show the week after Stephen Colbert bombed at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Two nights previously, as a tribute, The Daily Show had featured a “Classic Colbert” bit in which Stephen Colbert attended the Connecticut School of Broadcasting. Back at the country morning show, I was only half-listening to the banter, which ended in some joke about the Columbia School of Broadcasting, when the lesser DJ added, “No, the Connecticut School of Broadcasting.” That got my attention. It was a secret handshake, a code word which only Daily Show viewers understood. A small cry for solidarity in this crazy, mixed-up world.

So you see, I couldn’t get rid of my preset at that point. They needed me, those poor DJs who couldn’t get a job at a pop station. Which is completely understandable. I like the morning DJs at the pop station better, too.

All of which explains how I happened to be listening to the country station this afternoon when they played [drum roll, please] a Dixie Chicks song. An old one, “Ready to Run,” off their second album. All casual like, no fanfare, just an ordinary song credit, as if the world had never tilted into bizarro-land. They just slipped it in there, so as not to ruffle any feathers on people who aren’t paying attention.

I like my local country radio station. I may be just over the border in Jesusland, but they straddle the demilitarized zone. I can’t tell if they are circumspectly avoiding land mines on either side, or carefully packaging the true Voice of America as part of the resistance.

Just for the record, I have no idea how they treated The Incident. I was living in France at the time, occasionally listening to a country radio station from Texas over the Internet. Now that was truly bizarro.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

"Starve the Beast" is a Bankrupt Idea

Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institute has an interesting comment on the use of tax cuts to “starve the beast,” in the June 2006 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. He visits William Niskanen, chairman of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, for some numbers. Niskanen does a statistical regression of spending on taxes from 1981 to 2005, controlling for unemployment, and shows that tax cuts actually “stoke the beast.”

“A tax cut of 1% of GDP increases the rate of spending growth by about 0.15 percent of GDP a year. A comparable tax hike reduces spending growth by the same amount.”

Niskanen found that the level of taxes that neither reduce nor grow spending is about 19% of GDP.

Niskanen has an interesting little story explaining this. If the government spends 25% more than it receives in taxes, this feels like a 20% discount to voters on the price of government. And as the law of demand says, when the price of something goes down, people purchase more of it.

That story leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Okay, maybe that story went over well with you, the lay reader. But that little story has so many things wrong with it that no economist worth their salt can walk by without doing a double take. Since Niskanen went to the same school as I did, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he didn’t want to overwhelm Rauch with a more accurate model. But really, he should be more careful, because a more accurate model better describes reality, and most of us here prefer to live in reality.

Here’s what’s wrong with the story: voters don’t choose government spending. Politicians choose government spending. Politicians choose tax cuts. Ordinary citizens can comment on that every two, four and six years. But they don’t choose government spending.

To make the story work, you must replace voters in the story with politicians. That’s right; the politicians who order the tax cuts are the ones who spend like it’s the last day of the 20%-off sale at Macy’s. And to make the story work, you must further assume that politicians are either so stupid that they don’t realize we are going to have to pay the money back, or so selfish that they don’t care. While I don’t dismiss the possibility of the former, I would lay my money on the latter. The objective of most politicians is to get re-elected, to keep playing this game, and that means cutting taxes as well as spending money on constituents back home even when it is contrary to their stated ideological goal of reducing the size of the government.

“Starve the Beast” is a bankrupt idea because it expects the same pandering politicians who cut taxes to also cut spending. It turns out you don’t even need to model the politicians’ objective functions, because it all comes down to common sense. Responsible governments pay for what they buy. Irresponsible governments put it on the grandkids’ credit card and toss a little extra in the cart for their friends.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

What's up with Those Three Red States?

The New York Times finally took notice of the three states in which Bush still has an approval rating at or above 50%: Utah (62% Mormon), Idaho (25% Mormon), and Wyoming (10% Mormon). [See Radical Russ’s Net Approval Map. Open it up in a new window, because we are going to look at it in more detail.]

The Times author, Timothy Egan, goes to Provo, Utah, (85% Mormon) to ask the locals why they are standing by their man. He gets some superficial answers, but doesn’t ask the right question. Egan gets closest in this paragraph:

“All of the administration's perceived failures, including the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina and the budget deficit, go through a different filter in these Bush strongholds. Sounding a familiar theme, Mr. Craft said he was distrustful of news media portrayals of Mr. Bush because ‘they concentrate too much on the negative and certain small things.’”

The real question is why do the Mormons have a different filter? As a recovering Mormon and former Republican, I can tell you, but first we have to take a detour through some interesting psychology: cognitive biases.

It is an unfortunate failure of higher education that every college graduate does not know that all human beings have systematic biases in processing information. We know the other guy is definitely biased, but we think of ourselves as the paragon of fact-based objectivity. Yet psychologists have demonstrated a number of systematic cognitive biases that everybody shares, the relevant ones here being the confirmation and disconfirmation biases. As human beings, we appear hard-wired to search for and accept uncritically information that confirms our prior beliefs, and to discount and harshly criticize information that contradicts our prior beliefs. At the extreme we simply won’t listen to information that contradicts what we believe (and flip the channel over to Fox News).

For someone to change an opinion requires either a steady stream of contradictory information that eventually becomes too overwhelming to ignore, or a single big event that is so shocking it insists that one consider a new world view.

You can see this occur in the nation as a whole. From the day Bush took office, there has been a steady stream of negative information regarding the Bush administration’s job performance, but prior to the 2004 election nobody but registered Democrats was listening. After the 2004 election, this pile of information became a mountain, and more people started changing their mind. Then along came Katrina. Hurricane Katrina was the big event that shocked nearly everyone out of their belief that Bush was a great leader. But the changes in job approval didn’t occur overnight. Katrina opened everyone’s mind to the possibility that he was a lousy leader, and allowed them to give more credence to the continuing stream of bad news about the Bush administration. Look at the Net Approval map again, and click on the June 2005 through November 2005 maps. You’ll see that Katrina did not have a big impact in September on Bush’s net approval rating, but built up throughout October and November.

Did you notice something else? What’s up with those three red states? The numbers bounce around a bit, but stay pretty much as red by November 2005 as they were in June 2005. Approval ratings changed most in Wyoming, where there are the fewest Mormons. Katrina did not touch the Mormons’ opinions!

So what is different about Mormons’ world view that Hurricane Katrina did not create any cognitive dissonance regarding Bush’s leadership skills?

Mormons do not believe the federal government was negligent in its response to Hurricane Katrina. They believe the Constitution was inspired in order to allow the true church of Christ to be restored to the earth in the United States, but they have a strong historical lore full of stories of government persecution, so they want nothing more than to keep the government out of their lives. (Except regarding abortion and gay marriage.) Like western settlers in general, they are self-reliant; like religious conservatives they believe the church should be a mutual aid society – on steroids. The Mormons have a church welfare system unrivaled by any other church, and church doctrine insists that members should rely on the church before the government. They take care of themselves, and they do a damn good job.

That Louisiana was not prepared to take care of itself was tragic, but from the Mormon point of view, that doesn’t mean the federal government was lax in any duties. Bush did not fail in his responsibility, because he had no responsibility, which meant there was no cognitive dissonance for the Mormons.

If you follow the Net Approval Map animation, you’ll see that net approval ratings in the three states have continued to drop through time. That is to be expected, with increasing media criticism and the mountain of evidence piling up against the Bush administration. It’s also due to another cognitive bias: the bandwagon effect, or the tendency to believe things because many other people believe them. But as the quoted Mr. Craft indicates, most Mormons still stick with Bush because nothing has ever happened to break through their disconfirmation bias.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Progressive Economics, Not Wal-Mart Bashing

I’ve heard a lot of Wal-Mart bashing from the left, and it generally comes couched in so much knee-jerk French-style* anti-globalization talk that I had taken to dismissing Wal-Mart bashers as, well, not quite getting the big picture. They know something’s wrong, but can’t quite put their finger on it.

Meet my new hero: Wal-Mart antagonist Andy Stern, the motivating force behind Maryland’s new law requiring employers with more than 10,000 workers, i.e. Wal-Mart, to spend at least 8% of its payroll on health care. This man gets the big picture, and oh, is he devious. In "The New War Over Wal-Mart" in the June 2006 issue of The Atlantic, Joshua Green quotes Stern, “My goal is to get Wal-Mart’s leadership out there in traffic and holler, ‘We can no longer compete in the global economy when health care is factored into the cost of our products.’ If Wal-Mart’s CEO, Lee Scott, were to come out and say, “We need a national health-care system that works for everyone,’ then it’s a whole new ball game.” In other words, he’s squeezing Wal-mart, in order to get Wal-Mart to use its size and influence to force national health care reform.

Pay attention, lefties; Stern has put his finger on the problem with employer-provided health-care coverage. Let me put it in Econ 101 language, so the next time one of your Republican friends throws at you, “What, do you want socialized medicine?” as if it’s an epithet, you can come right back at the only level they understand—freshman economics.

It is really quite perverse that Americans expect employers to provide group health insurance. (It is also an interesting bit of economic history. See this Economic History Net article for a discussion of the twists and turns in the development of health insurance in the United States.) We all learned in Econ 101 that firms are profit maximizers. So why would we expect them to provide group health insurance? They do so now mainly because of the favorable tax treatment: health care benefits aren’t taxed, so health insurance works as a payment to employees that is more valuable to the employees than it costs the employers. Unfortunately, tax incentives don’t help when the value of the labor isn’t high enough to cover the cost of the health insurance, thanks in part to spiraling costs resulting from a lot of factors we aren’t covering here today.

Sometimes it is profitable to be good to employees, to pay them well and ensure their good health so that they end up being more productive. But often it’s not. In the retail industry, where turnover is high and unskilled workers are plentiful, it’s cheaper to count on turnover and let employees deal with their health problems on their own dime. Having a social conscience when it is not profitable is only possible in an industry that is not very competitive, which in practice usually means a growing industry in which firms have not yet been subjected to the long-run competitive forces of the market. Americans like competition in markets, for pretty good reasons. Even the leaders of red-stated Americans claim to adore competition, despite undermining it wherever possible. (Possibly because they think the invisible hand will solve all problems, including the ones they create.)

There’s the rub: competitive forces means employers in competitive, low-wage industries can’t provide group health insurance and still remain profitable. So who is left to provide insurance? Not individuals, that’s for sure.

Employer-provided group health insurance is meant to solve an information problem: Namely, purchasers of health insurance know more about their potential health problems than the insurance company. As a result, at any price offered, the people who buy insurance will include more of those who are likely to submit high claims, because it is always a better deal for those who are more likely to fall ill. Insurance companies must be able to pay the claims, so they may have to charge a higher price to cover the claims – but then only a smaller group of people with a very high likelihood of high claims would buy the insurance. This problem, known as adverse selection in the economic jargon, results in such high insurance prices that people with ordinary risks rationally choose not to purchase insurance, even though they would like to be insured. Group insurance solves this problem, because the firm contracts to purchase insurance for all employees, a relatively random group with varying risks of falling ill, which means the insurers can provide insurance at the lower average price. And individuals cannot purchase insurance at this lower average price because of the adverse selection problem. [See Slate for a more detailed explanation of adverse selection. We’ll have to leave for another day the discussion of the many other problems in the health care market that lead to escalating costs.]

Employers in competitive markets have trouble providing health insurance. Individuals can't solve the adverse selection problem on their own. So again, who is left to solve the problem? The government. That’s what it’s good for, solving market failures. Careful government policy is required to solve the problem, whether or not the solution is “market-based.”

*French-style: When referring to meat, it means drowned in sauce. When referring to policy discussions, it means willing to debate without any understanding of basic economic principles. When referring to leisure time, it means languorous summer evenings on the terrace with a bottle of dry rosé, lively conversation, and no mosquitoes.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Third Party or Political Realignment?

Earlier this month, in response to myopic pandering to the public on gas prices by both political parties, Thomas Friedman wrote an editorial column wishfully hoping for a third party and an idealized candidate who would tell the truth about energy policy. As if the public wanted to hear it. (Al Gore, anyone?)

But seriously, is a third party candidate possible? Is a viable third party possible? And is it something we should work for?

As an economist and game theorist, my default position is “No.” If a third party candidate comes up the middle, the two other candidates will simply slide towards the center, retaining their base and dividing up most of the center. But historically, I know that is not always true. Political realignments happen along issues that are orthogonal to the existing political spectrum. Sometimes this creates an opening for a third party, sometimes it just mixes up the existing parties. To decide if a third party is viable, we must first determine what issues are not being addressed by the existing political spectrum.

[Here I am going to borrow from Nobel-prize-winning economic historian Robert Fogel, and his book, “The Fourth Great Awakening,” which borrows liberally from historian William G. McLoughlin’s book, “Revivals, Awakenings, and Reforms.” I haven’t read the latter, and I don’t agree with a fair part of the former, so I will present the part that rings true and leave it to others to divide the credit between the two of them.]

Fogel’s thesis is that scientific and technological advances ripple through American society, causing changes in institutions, markets, and individual prospects, which inevitably raises important new moral and ethical questions. In his view, religious revivals are responses to these changes and the moral questions they raise, and historically these revivals have been the political impetus for social reforms. Both McLoughlin and Fogel interpret religious revivals liberally, counting as part of the third awakening (which started near the end of the nineteenth century) a humanism that accommodates both evolution and psychology. And they disagree on the fourth awakening, with McLoughlin (1978) believing a left-wing liberal morality is leading and Fogel (2000) thinking it’s the conservative right-wing.

I think the “religious revival” label is a red herring, because it suggests that established religions express a more fervent moral understanding than, for example, secular humanism. The social upheaval that results from the societal ramifications of scientific advancements might better be viewed as simply “a great awakening to new moral and ethical questions.”

These new moral questions are precisely what is not being addressed by the existing political spectrum, and so could result in a political realignment.

Let me try to enumerate the advances in scientific knowledge and technology that raise new, important moral and ethical questions with big political implications:

1) Advancements in biological/medical science
a. New and expensive medical technology has resulted in a real difference in life-span and quality-of-life between the haves and the have-nots. To what extent should society attempt to make things more egalitarian? Do only those who can pay for it deserve to live better and longer? Who should we subsidize? What treatments should be covered?
b. New technology and new information about the start-of-life has started a culture war, starting with IVF and its accompanying embryonic issues: genetic selection, selective reduction of embryos during pregnancy, left-over frozen blastocysts, and finally, stem-cell research. The advent of ultrasound images and the backward creeping age of viability for premature infants started reigning in second-trimester abortions, and the fervor is so intense it reaches to include early abortions, chemical abortion (RU-486), and even emergency contraception (Plan B) and hormonal birth control itself.
c. Recognition of the genetic basis for homosexuality doesn’t just put in question the long-standing moral reprehension of gay and lesbian relationships; it puts the social purpose of marriage on the table for discussion.
d. End-of-life issues multiply: Once there was dead. Then came brain-dead. Now there is a persistent vegetative state. Also, if we can ease the suffering of those who are near death and in great pain, to the point that it is unclear whether the disease or the morphine actually did them in, what about those who are not as near death, but are in great pain? And do we spend inordinate amounts of money to extend life by a few years or months for the old, while ignoring basic care for the young?
e. Advances in psychotropic drugs impact quality of life. Moving beyond anti-psychotics to drugs like Prozac and Ritalin emphasizes the continuum of mental health and raises the question: what is normal? What business is it of others if individuals use medication to ease difficulties that once may have been considered within the range of normal, but may impede their life?

2) Economic advancements, such as increasing economic knowledge about the value of free trade and technological advancements creating the information economy, result in globalization. The interdependence of our economies becomes more pronounced and more evident.
a. Our economic policy has immediate effects on individuals around the world. How do we forward the development of our own economy without harming the poor in developing nations? How do we promote the welfare of specific citizens who lose jobs to globalization, without harming the vitality of our own economy?
b. Economic and political inequality creates cognitive dissonance within some religions, resulting in religious fundamentalist terrorism. Terrorism is aided by globalization and the information economy, so a few individuals can create a huge impact.

3) Environmental issues are better understood
a. There is now overwhelming scientific evidence of global warming. How we behave has enormous impact on the entire world. This is a global coordination problem over negative technological externalities, with individual countries having an incentive to free-ride on the efforts of others.
b. We have the tools, both in economics and in physical science, to address other environmental issues, and we need careful government policy that pays attention to science as well as all costs and benefits of land use and pollution.

Let me know if you think I have missed some.

I think there is a good argument that the New Democrats have claimed the center, and are credibly trying to address these new problems. The Clintons recognized the state of the health care market as a problem 15 years ago, while the current administration has Dick Cheney saying, “We have the greatest health care system in the world.” Well, sure, if you can pay for it, which is precisely the problem with it. The Republicans’ main response was a prescription drug benefit entitlement program, which, when I look around and ask where we should invest money for the future of our country, Medicare Part D is right near the bottom of the list as a terrible investment.

Clinton recognized the importance of free trade, pragmatically (I think he trademarked that word) implementing NAFTA despite real environmental concerns. Sometimes you have to sign the free trade agreement you have, not the one you wish you could have. Yet he also forwarded the Kyoto Accord, which President Bush later refused to sign.

He promoted job flexibility through higher education and insurance flexibility, which is key to helping individuals who are harmed by globalization, while avoiding the drag on our economy that comes from protectionism of declining industries.

He worked to reduce farm subsidies, which have the perverse result of taxing Americans to grow corn, for example, only to lower the income of subsistence farmers in African nations. The Republicans came back into power in 2002 and immediately raised farm subsidies, as a payback to a few large campaign contributors, never mind that they are kicking down developing countries who are trying to lift themselves out of poverty.

Al Gore is a huge supporter of alternative fuels. We do need a Manhattan project for our time, a government funded basic research project for alternative, renewable fuels and energy technologies that will allow us to stop contributing to global warming.

As for the “culture of life” and homosexuality issues, well, I believe the Democrats are in the right. But nobody who requires written statements from a religious authority in order to make moral decisions is going to agree with me.

The real problem for the Democrats is that this is truly a political realignment in process. The New Democrats have claimed the center, but they still share the party with the old Democrats and the old institutions. It’s a party divided, resulting in a very ineffective Democratic party. Fortunately, the Republicans are doing everything they can to bolster the Democrats' claim to the center.

The old Democratic institutions are out-of-date and irrelevant. The welfare state was bad for individual incentives. The unions and protectionism are a drag to market competitiveness. The Democrats’ saving grace is that their ideals hold, the ideal of egalitarianism. Everybody gets to vote. Everybody gets an education. Everybody gets a job. Everybody has time off to relax. Everybody gets a little bit of a safety net (health insurance, unemployment insurance, job training), in exchange for the personal risks faced in a vibrant market economy.

I argue in my forthcoming essay, on the cold war origins of the Republican economic ideology, that the Republicans are ill-equipped to deal with these problems listed above. The Republicans hew to the other great American value, the self-made man. Opportunity and hard work are all you need. Unfortunately, most of the problems listed above are problems of interdependency between individuals and between nations. You cannot solve these problems if you are a cowboy. You can’t even comprehend these problems if you are a cowboy.

It reminds me of a quote from Bill Clinton’s book, “My Life.” Referring to Ken Brody, a Goldman Sachs executive who wanted to get involved in Democratic politics, Clinton said, “Ken told me he had been a Republican because he thought the Democrats had a heart but their head was in the wrong place. Then, he said, he had gotten close enough to the national Republicans to see that they had a head but no heart, and decided to join the Democrats because he thought it was easier to change minds than hearts.”

The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution is a very good start. The press and concerned citizens need to stop saying the Democrats don’t stand for anything and start paying attention to what is coming out of credible left-leaning think-tanks. The New Democrats are the future: same values, better economics, better facts, and better governance.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Movies and Music

JSM and I watched "Proof" Friday night. We agreed that it was the most accurate movie we have ever seen in getting the dialogue right between academics, with only the occasional gratuitous math explanation. We enjoyed the multiple, interweaving themes of proof, although it didn't provoke nearly as much discussion as "Adaptation," where the structure of the movie mirrors the efforts of the protagonist. It also reminds me of "Dogville," which I absolutely adored but must see again, because I can barely recall that there were layers of self-referencing moral analysis.

I'm looking for music that has that same tight, interwoven presentation of multiple levels and variations on a theme, either musically or lyrically. Netflix does good job of movie recommendations, but I'm not getting good recommendations from itunes or amazon. Any suggestions, popular, classical, whatever?

I'm also interested in music that is more meditative, as in it helps relax and induce a meditative state. Think Joanne Shenandoah's Matriarch.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Dixie Chicks, Part Two

You must get this album [Taking the Long Way] if you are still singing to babies. It’s no accident that both of their last albums have contained a lullaby – the Chicks have seven young children between them. And while the Time Magazine article said a childless person might mistake “Lullaby” for a love song, this mama is here to tell you, it’s a lullaby. And it belongs in the pantheon of lullabies, for every mother to sing and pass on to her children. It’s simple, repetitive, with a narrow range anyone can sing, and it’s beautiful. More than that, the Dixie Chicks have perfectly captured the oxytocin-addled tender bliss that accompanies nursing, once you make it a little way up the learning curve. It makes me want to crawl into bed with my baby and fall asleep. Except that he turned three today, and as he told me tonight, "You forgot, I'm not a baby, I'm a big boy."

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Dixie Chicks

Am I the only feminist who has ever listened to country music? Why am I not reading more about the Dixie Chicks in the feminist blogosphere? Call me crazy, call me stupid, call me a femi-nazi who sees discrimination everywhere she looks, but I think this has a gender angle to it. At the very least the Dixie Chicks are a part of a cultural feminist phenomenon. I’d like to address the latter.

My love for the Dixie Chicks is not political. That’s just icing. My love for the Dixie Chicks is all tangled up with my feminism and my personal identity. They made it big while I was in graduate school, a time of my life when I never, ever wore pink. I didn’t wear it for a decade, from about nineteen to twenty-nine. I wouldn’t have dreamt of it. At the start of graduate school I was singing along at the top of my lungs to Four-Non-Blondes, “What’s going on?” Then, while I was working, a generational shift happened, and by the end of graduate school, somehow, 4NB lead singer Linda Perry was writing songs with a singer of the next generation, who went by the name of… P!nk! Grrrl power had arrived. The generation of women who fought society for equal access to resources and opportunities, while always conflicted about the role of sexual appearance, gave way to a generation of women raised post-Title IX, who believed the world was their oyster and were quite happy owning the power of their sexuality.

I am an odd duck, a woman who falls between generations not because of my age but because of my upbringing. Born six months before Title IX was enacted, my dad told me I could do anything, be anything I wanted. And I believed him. I still do. But raised in a red-state religion, I knew perfectly well that society was not egalitarian, that very few marriages were egalitarian, and that backward and dated ideas of women’s roles had not exactly been overturned. I figured we still had miles to go before we slept. I was a feminist warrior in stasis, unsure about how to fight the enemy. I did not realize at the time that I was watching the germination of the feminist backlash. Nor did I realize that I was also a foot soldier in the feminist backlash. I had a foot in each world, and the anxiety to go along with it.

One of my favorite books, which the feminist movement has overlooked, is, “Breaking Point: Why Women Fall Apart and How They Can Re-create their Lives,” by Martha Beck. Don’t let the title scare you off. This is the popular version of her sociology dissertation, and it’s written around the central thesis that since the 1970s, social roles and expectations for women are logically inconsistent, and the effort to meet paradoxical expectations causes incredible anxiety within women, especially to the extent that they have internalized these expectations. Beck details how five generations of women were each affected by changing societal expectations. She shows that the way out is to realize the bind you are in, and transcend it by adopting only those roles that help you live well. To hell with the rest.

Let me give you a small personal example of the conflicting roles Beck is talking about. I like to be attractive, I like to wear makeup. But in school, I wanted to be careful to not wear so much makeup that I didn’t look like a serious student. So I bounced back and forth between minimal makeup and slightly more makeup, never quite happy with the image I was projecting. A small example, but not trivial, in terms of the internal stress I felt about who I was. Throw in mothering (two children), marriage (to a good man who was a lousy match for me), religion (patriarchal and constricting to women), academic and career ambitions (not having the courage to pursue my own interests rather than the hip topics), and every woman’s desire to be beautiful (it plagues us all, evolution sees to that), and it is little wonder that I was a candidate for a breaking point. I could not do or be everything that people I valued expected of me. I had to shut up the voices in my head and listen to my own voice.

The fact is I have always had trouble making my own voice heard. In a high school psychology class, I took part in a class activity where maybe 10 students stood in a tight circle, then put their hands in the center and randomly took the hands of two other students. This created a human knot, and the goal was to untangle the knot without letting go of the hands. I don’t remember the point of the lesson as presented to the class. I do remember a female classmate leaning over to me after the unsuccessful demonstration, telling me in a low voice what she had overheard the teacher telling the student teacher, “Watch this, it happens every time: there will be a smart female trying to disentangle the group systematically, and she will be drowned out by a big dumb jock who couldn’t find his way out of a paper bag.” And then the teacher had pointed me out as the female, who gave up when I couldn’t talk louder than the jock.

In graduate school, one of my field sequences had six students taking the field exam, and we had divided up, somewhat organically, into pairs to study. Mine was a happy and productive companionship interrupted for a few weeks during the second quarter, when a mutual friend taking the course for a breadth requirement asked to join us. We went from partners to a group with two men and one woman…and I was jarred to find myself once again being talked over. It was deflating. He was a friend, smart, not a jock, and I still couldn’t get my voice heard. Fortunately he drifted away after a few weeks and left us to study in peace.

I do have a quiet voice. A little theatre training has helped, when I think to use it, mostly in front of a classroom of students. But the main problem is that in everyday life, I have a way of mumbling, talking low, so as to not disturb the people who don’t really want to listen to me, so as to not offend. And the feminist in me hates that about me.

The Dixie Chicks came along during the period before and after my breaking point. They were the first country representation of the Grrrl Power phenomenon. They spoke loudly, they sang forcefully, they were comfortable in their own skin, and they dressed sexy and looked beautiful. They were a girl band, making it big, with songs about strong women. They were the soundtrack to my life when I was melting it down to basic elements and reconstructing it bit by bit.

“Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about
Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out
To find a dream and a life of their own
A place in the clouds a foundation of stone ”


“Come on baby say it do you think I’m gonna cry?
I ain’t about to fall
And I ain’t gonna die
So if you’re gonna say goodbye
Don’t take all damn night
Let 'er rip
Let it fly”

The lyrics and the women were stronger on the next album: “Ready to Run,” “If I Fall You’re Going Down with Me,” “Some days you gotta dance/live it up when you get the chance,” “I need a boy like you like a hole in my head,” “I’m takin’ my turn on the sin wagon,” and of course, “Goodbye, Earl,” the song version of “Fried Green Tomatoes.” Meanwhile, I divorced, apostatized, quit school, and moved to Europe. The Chicks went hand-in-hand with Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. They were my role model of talking loud, of not being afraid to let your voice be heard—and this is was with only two albums out, long before the Incident.

I had re-created my life by the time they produced “Home.”

They had to go to court to get out of their slave-labor starter contract, but when it was done, they were ready to control their destiny. And let me tell you, “Home” was courageous. Bluegrass wasn’t in. Dolly Parton had put out a bluegrass album and it had gone nowhere. Allison Krauss was beloved but still fringe. The Dixie Chicks put the bluegrass back in country and dragged them both into the twenty-first century. They had dared to do their own thing, with no assurance that the country music audience would come with them, and produced an album that was bigger than big, a gorgeous, authentic, expansive album with no filler songs.

I cranked the stereo and played that CD continuously for weeks. Months, really. We did, I should say, because even my new husband, pop-music-phobe and country-music-abhorrer that he was, had come around to my point, that every genre has both great music and pap, and it was obvious at first listen that this was great music.

And that was it. That sealed the deal. I love the Dixie Chicks, because they are strong women who represent having the courage to follow your own vision, to believe in your work, to not choose the safe path. They’ve always been unafraid to be loud, even if it might offend somebody.

And now, post-Incident, they’re not losing sleep at night just because they’ve discovered that most of their old friends don’t actually like them for who they are. But for me, that’s just icing. They were the whole cake long before that.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Emergency Contraception vs. Breastfeeding

Feministe has a funny deconstruction of a bizarre editorial ranting against the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists campaign to encourage gynecologists to offer prescriptions for Plan B (emergency contraception) to women during checkups, to hold on to or to fill and keep in their medicine cabinets, just in case it might be needed.

Here's what gets me about this non-reality-based redefining of pregnancy as starting at conception rather than implantation. This is from the Princeton University emergency contraception website; see the the well-documented original paper for academic sources.

"To make an informed choice, women must know that ECPs [emergency contraception pills] -- like all regular hormonal contraceptives such as the birth control pill, the implant Norplant, the vaginal ring NuvaRing, the Evra patch, and the injectables Lunelle and Depo-Provera, and even breastfeeding -- may prevent pregnancy by delaying or inhibiting ovulation, inhibiting fertilization, or inhibiting implantation of a fertilized egg."

You heard that right: breastfeeding, which some might say is God's only recommended form of birth control within marriage, uses the same means of preventing pregnancy as all the hormonal forms of birth control, including, if all else fails, making it difficult for a fertilized egg to implant.

So if it's a sin to prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg (blastocyst), does that mean it's a sin to breastfeed? And if it's not a sin to prevent implantation of a blastocyst by breastfeeding -- after all, it is for the benefit of that beautiful baby -- then would it be a sin to prevent implantation of a blastocyst by similar hormonal means when having another child would compromise your ability to care for the children you already have?

Careful there, it's a slippery slope!

Fundamentalism. (my definition) The response of people who are unable to deal with the cognitive dissonance that results when two fundamental human values or beliefs clash and cannot both be logically maintained. Rather than reason through a solution they toss up their hands and demand to be told the right answer.

Monday, May 15, 2006

A Libertarian's Dream

Atlas Hugged has written a post about President Bartlett of The West Wing, which I have never watched...but I was intrigued by the name of the blog so I read it. I am working on my article this morning, arguing that libertarianism, as the utopian ideological opposite of communism, has caused a lot of bad economic policy by people who don't understand economics. But Atlas and I did see eye to eye on Clinton:

"President Bartlett was really the opposite of what I would love to see in a President. He was a socially conservative free spending liberal democrat. But, he isn’t real. Clinton (D- Arkansas, New York) was a social liberal who, with the benefit of history and with the help of Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia), ran the most fiscally responsible executive branch since the revolution. A libertarian’s dream."

A friend of mine, a French libertarian economist who works for a right-wing thinktank, really does not mesh with her conservative colleagues -- and has lately said to me that she would be happy at this point with a party that would commit not to increase the size of the federal government above 20% of GDP.

As a former libertarian, who much prefers good governance over shrinking the government, I must say that I like their thinking.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Speaking Truth to Power...

So the Washington Press Corps invited Stephen Colbert, a satirist (as opposed to comedian), to speak at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, to President Bush, the White House administration and the press. Now the press says he wasn't funny. America disagrees. Yes, the first time watching makes your jaw drop. The second time through is hysterical.

A sampling of comments from thank you letters to Stephen Colbert, and in response to an article about whether it was funny:

"Thank you for using your position as comedian to gain access to the King’s Table, where you could be the modern-day jester who is the only one in the room who dares to speak the Truth to the King."

"John Cleese once said that when people laugh, you knew they got the point. The people in that room didn't laugh. "

"You did the unthinkable, and played to the audience far grander than the capitol hill crowd, knowing they might not laugh, but the we would."

"He wasn't funny like Swift isn't funny, or Voltaire, or Rabelais. No, he wasn't ha-ha funny; he was brilliant and devastating. A chill breath of fresh air, and all the more chilling when it becomes apparent that the MSM cretins apparently don't realize, recognize, or remember that satire is supposed to have a bite, and that the more rotten the body politic, the closer to the bone that bite penetrates."

"When was the last time we had a president whose greatest desire is to be kept separate from the people he “serves,” and deaf to their voices? You forced this man to hear our voices, loud and clear. What a great moment for all true Americans. "

“To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”–Theodore Roosevelt

"It reminded me of that Shakespeare bit: “I came not to bury Ceasar, but to praise him.” "

"Thank you, Stephen Colbert, for showing us that freedom of speech is not a luxury to enjoy, but a powerful weapon for those who have the courage to really use it. "

And billmon notes in his blog:

"Colbert used satire the way it's used in more openly authoritarian societies: as a political weapon, a device for raising issues that can't be addressed directly. He dragged out all the unmentionables -- the Iraq lies, the secret prisons, the illegal spying, the neutered stupidity of the lapdog press -- and made it pretty clear that he wasn't really laughing at them, much less with them. It may have been comedy, but it also sounded like a bill of indictment, and everybody understood the charges."

You can watch him and thank him at

although I think it's easier to view on the Salon website (it was youtube), although you have to watch an ad if you're not a subscriber


Also a link to a Salon article that really gets it:

Monday, May 01, 2006

My plug for Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives, by Anna Fels.

I realize I project a lot from my own experiences, but even recognizing this tendency, I still think Necessary Dreams deserves a place in the pantheon of important feminist literature. This book is essential for understanding the persistent wage gap between men and women, the “Mommy Wars,” and the supposed "opt-out revolution." The author, Anna Fels, is a psychiatrist who details what social creatures human beings are, and how the feedback we receive from other people affects us. Ambition in all areas of our lives correspondingly waxes and wanes in response to feedback from others. If, as women, we don’t as easily develop a relationship with a mentor in a male-dominated field, or we don’t seek recognition—thanks to our socialization as women, or we receive more profligate attention in areas not related to our careers; then we find our career or academic ambitions waning…and we make “rational choices” that turn out to be endogenous to the environment which we happened upon.

This post is in honor of Bonnie, who stopped by to visit me recently, along with her mom and brother. Bonnie is brilliant and curious, with her father’s logical, orderly mind and her mother’s generosity of spirit. She is frequently on my mind, probably because I don’t have any daughters of my own, and because she has not yet reached the age where the paradoxical expectations she has of life, and life will have of her, have caused her pain.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Paul Krugman has a column today in the New York Times about FEMA and the suggested new National Preparedness and Response Agency. It’s subscriber only, so I'll summarize so I can make my comment. Krugman points out that the new N.P.R.A. would have the same responsibilities as FEMA, except according to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, “senior N.P.R.A. officials would be selected from the ranks of professionals with experience in crisis management.” Krugman suggests they must be renaming the organization because, “it’s impossible to select qualified people to run FEMA; if you try, the Crony Fairy will spirit them away and replace them with Michael Brown. But she might not know her way to N.P.R.A.” After various descriptions of the history of FEMA and cronyism under Bush, he closes with, “The United States will regain effective government if and when it gets a president who cares more about serving the nation than about rewarding his friends and scoring political points. That's at least a thousand days away. Meanwhile, don't count on FEMA, or on any other government agency, to do its job.”

Okay, so I quote better than I summarize. My point is that cronyism is not just Bush’s personal idiosyncrasy. Admittedly, he was a lousy student with an inferiority complex and a desire to show the world that intelligence and recognizable qualifications don't matter, so he appoints people that he likes, without qualifications, just to thumb his nose at the world in doing it. But when Grover Norquist says he wants to get government down to the size that he can drown it in the bathtub, that indicates a fundamental lack of respect for the role government plays in society. If you believe government agencies are unnecessary, and you are simply waiting for the deficit to force politically unpopular cuts in programs, then it doesn’t matter who heads the agency. You may as well reward the people who helped you while you wait for the agency to starve. That is a problem with Republican ideology, which won't go away in 1000 days with Bush.

In the political world, where simplified ideology reigns, it is profoundly difficult to get the party to follow two goals: downsize government, and implement good governance. It’s like asking them to perform surgery with a hatchet. Good governance requires recognizing that the right regulations are essential, and you can't do that if your belief in (as opposed to knowledge of) economics is limited to the cold war ideological battle between the extremes of libertarianism and communism.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Speaking of bumper stickers, I sent this envelope out with our annual letter a few weeks ago. (Click on it for a better view.) This was my own small cry for solidarity in a bizarre, through-the-looking-glass world.
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I credited everyone on the back, although I didn't know the attribution for the bumper sticker quote.
Last week I saw a car with a bumper sticker that said, "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one." It was like a secret handshake. Maybe not so secret, what with the multitude of other liberal bumper stickers surrounding it. But a definite wave, to me, saying, "Chin up, there are better days ahead."

Monday, April 24, 2006

So here it begins.

I've been reading Garrison Keillor's "Homegrown Democrat," a book about the values underlying his participation in the Democratic Party, in lieu of writing my article about the way the Republicans' misunderstanding of economics distorts their values. It's a delightful book (Keillor's), although, like all political writing these days, only of interest to the already converted. But when he starts singing the praises of unions my knee-jerk reaction is to turn off my brain, singing, "La la la I can't hear you I hate unions."

I saw a bumper sticker last week that is a great antidote to that knee-jerk reaction: "The Labor Movement: The folks who brought you the weekend." It's a good reminder that collective problems require collective solutions. And that economic efficiency does not mean the same thing as social justice. Or did no one else study the second theorem of welfare economics in college?