February 28, 2007
You Can't Keep A Bad Bush Down
As Genevieve argues, the Bush administration's post-election neutering has led them to redouble their efforts to cause havoc by way of executive orders. What that mainly means is screwing with the country's regulatory structure, tilting it towards business and away from consumer protections. So now, an administration political appointee* rather than career civil servant has to approve all regulations before they go into effect, a fairly chilling prospect. Additionally, market failures now need to be identified, a problem as not all regulations are aimed at correcting market failures -- some are directed at privacy protections, or quality of life increases.
*This isn't bad simply because it opens the process up to political distortion, but because political appointees often lack expertise. I recently sat next to a Department of Energy political appointee whose experience for working on nuclear power was being a member of the Bush/Cheney reelection team. It's easier to reject regulations when you're both ideologically opposed to them in principle and don't actually understand the failures they're remedying.
Okay, Conservapedia does sound pretty hilarious.
The Right To Dental Care
Generally, when I speak about universal health care, I'm implicitly including universal dental care, as the idea that the health of your teeth is somehow separate from the health of your joints seems self-evidently ridiculous. Maybe I need to be more clear:
Twelve-year-old Deamonte Driver died of a toothache Sunday.
A routine, $80 tooth extraction might have saved him.
If his mother had been insured.
If his family had not lost its Medicaid.
If Medicaid dentists weren't so hard to find.
If his mother hadn't been focused on getting a dentist for his brother, who had six rotted teeth.[...]
Deamonte's death and the ultimate cost of his care, which could total more than $250,000, underscore an often-overlooked concern in the debate over universal health coverage: dental care.
Dental care also has another function. Neglected teeth rot. Rotted teeth fall out. And toothlessness is a signifier, in our culture, of poverty and backwardness. It harms an individual's ability to get jobs where they'll be a public face of an organization -- and I'm not talking spokesperson, I'm talking Costco door greeter -- and triggers an instant devaluation of the individual's skills in the eyes of employers. And that's not to even get into the insecurity and self-esteem costs it inflicts on the individual, and how those costs harm their personal and professional comportment. It's morally unconscionable that we permit these economic and medical inequities in our society. Just ask Deamonte Driver's grieving mother.
The Wayback Machine
Anyone remember when George Allen was the unstoppable force for the Republican nomination for president?
You Don't Know The Shape I'm In
I'm unconvinced by the mortality data in here, at least as it relates to the present day, but there's no doubt that a primary role of programs like Medicare is to simply insulate individuals from financial ruin. Indeed, I've never thought the health benefits are the most important reason to extend coverage to the uninsured -- though there will be health benefits, and they are important. In any large population, particularly one that trends young, as the uninsured do, only a small number in any given year will see real health improvement from easier access to care. But the economic security and freedom offered by medical coverage will aid every member of the community, freeing them to search for better jobs and see doctors without anxiety and treat nagging-but-not-mortal conditions that harmed their quality of life.
That said, for the small number who do need the care and currently forego it, insurance is crucial, and its absence is catastrophic. Indeed, I don't even know what to say about this...
The Myth of Nonpartisan Research
I want to direct you to EPI's Jared Bernstein in the comments of the think tank discussion. I noticed a lot of folks casually claiming that EPI is a "tool" of the unions or deriding it as some sort of biased -- and thus untrustworthy -- organization. There's no doubt that EPI has a slant. But they are meticulous, serious, empirical, and careful. Jared is right when he says:
The commenters above who disparage our work are wrong. In the last 15 years, I've co-written eight versions of State of Working American, each one about 500 pages of tables, figures and analysis. My colleagues and I have written tons of other books and papers, all a mouseclick away. It's a friggin' huge paper trail.
DRR et al, show me one table, one figure in all that output, that's 'loopy' or wrong or cooked in such a way to carry water for some group. One table or figure, out of literally 1000s!!! If you can't find one that fits that description, find one wherein you even disagree with the methods, one where you think we crunched the numbers in a less than rigorous way, or tilted the data in a biased manner to make our case.
And this goes beyond EPI. It's true for folks at Cato, at CEPR, at New America, and even at AEI. The media has spent so long delegitimizing anyone with an opinion and stickering every nonpartisan or bipartisan endeavor with big labels reading "TRUTH" that we've begun to believe them. That's how you get odd spectacles like in the comments section, where various outlets are simply dismissed, their research understood, a priori, to be unmeritorious and tainted by ideology.
Good research is good research, and the impulse for caution and establishment acceptance and broad political appeal is as pernicious and distorting as any opinion -- all the more so because it's layered atop whatever beliefs already exist. At least with EPI and others, the assumptions and premises underlying all economic analysis are rendered transparent. Too often, they remain opaque, even as they color the conclusions. If you've a serious methodological case against an institution, that's worth exploring and taking seriously. But simply buying into the bullshit glorification of nonpartisanship is indefensible.
February 27, 2007
EITC vs. The Minimum Wage
You often hear conservatives argue that we shouldn't increase the minimum wage, we should raise the Earned Income Tax Credit. Setting aside the claim's disingenuousness -- not much in the way of EITC increases after six years of Republican governance, I fear -- it's not true that the two policies are interchangeable. The minimum wage has uses and benefits that tax credits don't, and vice-versa. Over at EPI, Max Sawicky has a paper laying those variations out in full.
He concludes that while simplifying and expanding tax credits may be a worthwhile policy objective, "boosting incomes with a higher minimum wage avoids the dangers of reduced work incentives and larger marriage penalties in the income tax, escapes the burden of offsetting the cost of an expanded credit under the pay-as-you-go rules, foregoes the complexity of redesigning the tax system, and provides a benefit in plain view of the worker." That PayGo bit is particularly important, as the Republicans left the budget in such a mess there's really not much room for new spending (which Republicans will also fight).
Boosting the EITC may be a good thing -- I certainly am sold on it -- but it's not an either/or choice, and a serious expansion/reform of the EITC and tax code are, in the short term, considerably less achievable than a boost in the minimum wage. Indeed, if Republicans were really serious about blocking the wage increase but helping poor people, they could have ratcheted down the pressure by increasing tax credits during their years of unified governmental control. That they showed no interest in doing so is further evidence that the sudden affection for the EITC is a diversionary tactic.
Also at Tapped.
Nobody Summons Megatron!
But a team named "Nobody Summons Megatron!" dominated Wonderland's pub trivia last night. Libertarians like Dave Weigel, Megan McCardle, and Julian Sanchez may never agree with Brian Beutler and me about the minimum wage, but we can all agree on kicking Alex Pareene's ass.
Trade Is Hard
I've some trepidation about jumping into a brawl between Brad DeLong and Jeff Faux, but given my basic sympathies for Faux's analysis of the the class pressures affecting economic policy-makers, I'm saddened to see Faux dodge the charge that he wants to "keep China a society of poor subsistence rice farmers as long as possible." For those worried about the impacts of free trade, how you move towards a fairer trade system that nevertheless allows for global economic development is an urgent moral question. Frankly, the Chinese need the jobs more than we do, and the question has to be how to make this something less than a zero-sum game.
What Faux actually asks is "Why is it that it is the responsibility of $40,000 year American working families to sacrifice their future in order to raise up the living standards of poor Chinese, when commissars turned capitalists ride around Shanghai in a different Rolls every day?" That's not actually a meaningful reply. How many commissars-turned-capitalists with interchangeable Rolls-Royces are there? If you apportioned out their holdings among all Chinese, would you meaningfully raise standards? And are the business choices and decisions of these groups actually harming the average Chinese?
I don't know. I'd actually like Jeff to help me find out. The top 20% of China's population now controls more than 50% of the country's income. On the other hand, as of 2005, the top 20% of Americans controlled 48% of the country's income. And I've seen no data suggesting we could tax China's rich enough to significantly aid their poor. What's frustrating about Faux's reply is that he offers neither numbers nor evidence, preferring instead to wrap rich people in nasty adjectives. I'm all for that plan, but only in service of an approach to trade that takes seriously its role in alleviating global poverty. Don't make me choose between America's underprivileged and China's poor.
But in his reply to DeLong, Faux just doesn't seem interested in the issue. Now, I'm willing to believe that Faux's prescriptions would be better for the median Chinese, but he's actually got to make that case. The closest he comes to doing so in this post -- saying that the Chinese should invest their reserves in China rather than in American currency -- would drastically cut American demand for Chinese goods. That may be better for us, but I don't see how it would also be better for them, which is the claim Faux implicitly makes.
Update: David Sirota posts more along the lines I was looking for.
The Plight of Liberal Think Tanks
I actually want to focus in on this think tank issue a little bit. Here's the mission statement for The Heritage Foundation:
Founded in 1973, The Heritage Foundation is a research and educational institute - a think tank - whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.
So they're unabashedly conservative. And here's The American Enterprise Institute:
The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research is a private, nonpartisan, not-for-profit institution dedicated to research and education on issues of government, politics, economics, and social welfare. Founded in 1943, AEI is home to some of America's most accomplished public policy experts...AEI's purposes are to defend the principles and improve the institutions of American freedom and democratic capitalism--limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability, and open debate.
AEI, for their part, makes a play for nonpartisanship, but nevertheless puts forward the conservative principles animating their work, "limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility," and so on. Now look at Brookings:
Quality. Independence. Impact
The Brookings Institution is a private nonprofit organization devoted to independent research and innovative policy solutions...Research at the Brookings Institution is conducted to inform the public debate, not advance a political agenda. Our scholars are drawn from the United States and abroad—with experience in government and academia—and hold diverse points of view.
Bolding theirs. They not only claim independence in the first line, but explicitly disavow any intent to advance a political agenda. And now onto Urban. Their banner, on the main page, proclaims them "A nonpartisan economic and social policy research organization," and their mission statement reads:
To promote sound social policy and public debate on national priorities, the Urban Institute gathers and analyzes data, conducts policy research, evaluates programs and services, and educates Americans on critical issues and trends.
They are, in other words, empiricists. And that's fine. Brookings and Urban both put out reams of high quality research. But they are not liberal, progressive, or movement-oriented institutions. That's simply not their role. Yet they are allowed to substitute for such institutions when foundations write grants, or television bookers search for experts. Conversely, the major conservative think tanks are explicitly committed to the advancement of their ideology, and so when the grants and booking calls come, movement types are funded. And this presents a real problem for progressives. Money and air time that could go towards aiding progressive idea generation instead supports cautious, centrist institutions, even while the donors and the listeners think they're getting the left. And since there's only a limited amount of funding and media time available to left-oriented institutions, this has the explicit effect of denying cash and publicity to actual progressive groups who could use more of both.