Archive for October, 2013

Short, Sweet and True

Watching the news over the past two weeks, I’ve been reminded of a conversation I had 31 years ago (so long that it makes me wish I could claim that I was 12 at the time).

I was managing a(n ultimately successful) campaign for a seat in Congress.  One day, I rang up a friend and political consultant whose services I couldn’t afford, but who had kindly invited me to call him when (not if) the crisis occurred.  It turned out to be a crisis of conscience.

Consistent with my pledge that I never make this stuff up because life is much funnier than I am, the conversation went like this:

Political Consultant:  “What’s going on?”

Me:  “I, um, um, I, I don’t know, I, um. . .”

PC: “I know.  You’ve become concerned that your candidate may not be intelligent enough to be a member of The United States House of Representatives.”

Me:  “Yes <sigh> . That’s exactly what’s going on.”

PC:  “Well, let me put your mind at ease. I know many members of The United States House of Representatives, and he is.”

The more things change. . .?  I’m not sure they change at all.  They certainly seem to stay the same.

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Suppose We Gave a Tea Party and Nobody Came

I’ve been away for a while.  I hoped that when I returned I would have something funny and non-political to rant about.  Alas.  And this has the makings of a long one.

I’ve had very little direct interaction with the Tea Party.  I have one friend who’s a member.  He’s a great guy, very smart and very reasonable.  He tells me that when he goes to Tea Party events, he’s in the company of people who are deeply bothered by how much of their wealth the government confiscates, how much more it borrows, and the seeming endlessness of those appetites.

I get that.  I’m in the category of people who believe that being $17 trillion (yes, trillion) in debt, borrowing $2 billion more every day, and being one of the handful of countries whose public debt is larger than its economy (which puts us in the noble company of Greece, Grenada and Lesotho) is a bad idea.

I have grudging respect for a perspective that says, “You’re so deeply in debt that if you want me to let you borrow more, you have to at least show me how you plan to stop, even if I have to shut you down to make you tell me.”  That may be inelegant, but there’s a nice, logical harmony to using the debt ceiling to force a conversation on the debt.  And I thought it was good that the Tea Partiers were willing and able to bring this issue to the top of the national agenda.

What’s going on now, though, is completely beyond me.  I have my issues with Obamacare.  I like the exchanges because they at least start to move us away from our anachronistic reliance on employers as the providers of health insurance.  I’ve said in previous posts that the only actual role employers play is to provide insurance companies with randomized pools of people to insure, that the burden they bear for playing this role is enormous and distracts them from their real work of building competitive enterprises, and that there are much easier ways to create such pools.  The exchanges at least begin to address that issue.

Beyond that, I continue to believe that for any healthcare system to work, it needs to address two underlying realities.  One is that healthcare intrinsically lacks the essential characteristics of a market, which are the ability of multiple buyers and sellers to make informed decisions about whether to do business with one another and the ability to place a dollar value on the benefit of the product or service.  The other is that most of what we call health insurance is really the confiscation and transfer of wealth from young, healthy people to older, less healthy people.  Thus the need for the individual mandate.  Healthcare has much more the character of a pension system than it does, say, car insurance.

Since Obamacare doesn’t deal with either of those issues, I think it is likely to fail.  I would love to be proven wrong.

Those are my beliefs.  I hold them strongly.  But not strongly enough to go nuclear.

I don’t pretend to know what’s in the minds of the Tea Party contingent in Congress.  From where I sit, it sure looks like we have a group that is small but just large enough to be obstructive, and that thinks shutting the government down is either fun or a good idea, or maybe just another political tactic.  It sounds like “Hey Gang!  Time to shut the government down again!  What excuse will we use this time?”

More broadly, I don’t understand why believing that it’s a bad idea to be one of the world’s great debtor nations should bring with it a larger agenda that’s essentially anti-knowledge.

On that note, my other direct interaction with the Tea Party happened a couple of years ago, when my neighbors and I were embroiled in a zoning dispute with a Muslim group that bought a property behind ours and set out to turn it into their worship center.  The dispute was about parking spaces, and the neighbors who objected worked very hard to make sure it stayed about only that, despite the best efforts of many, including the press and the Muslim group itself, to make it about everything else.

Late in the game, the president of the local Tea Party chapter showed up at a Zoning Board hearing, got sworn in, and launched into a rant about national security.  Uninvited, unwelcome, uninformed and unhelpful.  When the County Board sided with the neighbors and the Muslims went to Federal court (where – spoiler alert – they won on summary judgment), she was Exhibit A.

This particular Muslim group is composed of people who fled Iran for the U.S. right after the Shah did the same thing.  Failing to understand what that says about their politics is simple ignorance.

I’d like both my conservative and liberal friends to remember that I am, or at least try to be, an equally opportunity ranter.  The last time we went through this, I commented that having gotten a significant tax concession from the Republicans, Obama owed them a dose of entitlement reform in return.  Didn’t happen.

This is just a plea on my part for a little touch of thoughtfulness, rationality and good will.  Wanting that, I suspect, puts me in the company of the vast majority of Americans.  On the other hand, we’re the ones who keep electing these knucleheads.


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