Saturday, October 31, 2009

Finally, Something Happens Politically

We've blogged once it two weeks because, near as we can tell, the world has barely turned in that time. All that's happened is that Democrats have introduced more healthcare bills that promise everything, cost a king's ransom and will accomplish little; the economy has moved sideways; diplomacy has gone nowhere despite the high esteem in which the present POTUS is universally held; and Obama has dithered still further over what to do in Afghanistan.

But today something happened. Leftish Republican Dede Scozzafava, nominated by NY GOP Brahmans to run in a district historically Republican but going for BHO in 2008, was fading in a three-way race against an undistinguished Dem and a conservative challenger. Having started with a decent lead, she had recently fallen to about 20% support in the polls, with Hoffman, the conservative, even with the Dem at about 35%.

So today, Scozzafava bowed out, releasing her supporters. Odds are now overwhelming for Hoffman, effectively the de facto Republican nominee, to win.

This could be big for lots of reasons. It should spell the end of Republicans looking center-left to restore the party to parity. It should spell the end of mainstream pundits insisting that conservatism is dead. It should be scored a victory for Sarah Palin, who stumped for the conservative Hoffman and was derided by some insiders for breaking with party discipline.

With Rs likely to ascend to the governor's mansion in Virginia and possibly in New Jersey, this looks like a good week for getting the Reagan Revolution back in gear. Seems that the exile may have lasted as little as twelve months.

And Frank Rich looks hopelessly, utterly stupid, having just predicted that the three-way would decimate the Rs through 2010 and beyond. Ever the thoughtful, considerate guy, Rich referred to Hoffman's supporters as "GOP Stalinists." Funny, Frankie!

SWNIDish Voter Guide for November 2009

All politics is local, especially in an odd-numbered year. As a service to our readers desperate for Seldom-Wrong guidance for Tuesday's election, we hereby instruct on how to vote SWNIDishly.

As always, we offer instruction on how to vote if one's ballot is identical to SWNID's. Those who face different choices will have to infer guidance. We regret that we can't know quite everything.

For purposes of suspense, we will begin with the lowly but important Cincinnati Public School Board, move to Cincinnati City Council, then address the Cincinnati mayoral race before concluding with this year's portentous ballot initiatives.

Cincinnati Public School Board
The seven-member school board this year elects four of its members. As usual, the choice is between denizens of the education establishment and advocates of data-driven change. School board elections tend to be name-recognition exercises, so it's vital that voters who aim for more than the status quo avoid returning incumbents whose records belie claims to innovation.

This year's election includes three incumbents: Melanie Bates, Catherine Ingram and Eileen Cooper Reed. We endorse none of these.

Bates has lurked around Cincinnati politics and Cincinnati schools for years, managing a couple of wins in local elections. Her record has always suggested someone who hears the sizzle but can't locate the steak. The ability to see past buzzwords is vital in education. Bates doesn't. Don't vote Bates.

Catherine Ingram is a long-time board member distinguished by a severe inability to act purposefully. Recent revelations that she owes back taxes are not surprising, given the chaotic persona she presents to the public. Ingram has displayed no consistent educational philosophy, no special contribution to CPS policy-making, and no progress in mastering the details of her job. Don't vote Ingram.

Eileen Cooper Reed demonstrates considerably more savvy and moxie than her incumbent counterparts, having ascended to board president in short order. What she also demonstrates is a commitment to old-school thinking about schools. As former local director of the Children's Defense Fund, she has acted just as one would expect with such a background. Though a more competent member than the other incumbents, we have little confidence in her educational philosophy. So it's a no to Reed as well.

We urge instead a strong vote for three newcomers who are committed to thoughtful innovation and fiscal responsibility. All are committed to the notion that schools are institutions consisting not just of teachers and students but also of parents. They are:

  • Mary Welsh Schlueter: a mom, businessperson, and thoughtful student of public school education. With a strong background educationally and experientially, she'll raise the standard of discussion on the board.
  • Christopher Ray "Chris" McDowell: a veteran, lawyer, dad and school volunteer. McDowell's experience and commitments portend strong potential as a team member to spur continued innovation.
  • John Banner: lawyer and fiscal-responsibility hawk. Banner also brings an A+ resume to the board.
So why only three endorsements? We don't see a fourth who stands out. Given the lack of muscle behind McDowell's and Banner's candidacies (Banner has o web site that we can locate; McDowell is endorsed by the Republicans, which doesn't portend positively in a CPS board election), and given the likelihood that incumbents will be returned to the board, the better electoral strategy is not to empower a mediocre candidate with the fourth vote. There's a very marginally better chance that one of these candidates will be elected if SWNIDish voters do not dilute their votes by doing eenie-meenie-minie-moe for the fourth, who just might get past the post ahead of a better choice.

Cincinnati City Council
Council had seemed a happier place for a few months after the previous election. But for the last year, Mayor Mallory's reliance on a five-member majority has ended the brief period of rationality amidst a fifteen-year cycle of rancor. We therefore recommend strongly against votes for any members of Mallory's current majority, with one exception.

Incumbents who have the dreaded SWNIDish un-endorsement are Greg Harris, Laketa Cole and Roxanne Qualls. All stand on the wrong side of nearly every issue. Harris represents the cynical politics of City Hall: appointed to fill out the unfinished term of term-limited John Cranley, he was anointed by local Ds to fill the seat to gain name recognition as an "incumbent" who has never before been elected. Qualls' perennial popularity remains one of the great mysteries of local politics. A poor public speaker and advocate of nothing in particular except business as usual, she seems to coast along with a persona as the nice white lady on council. Cole, by contrast, has been a move and shaker, consistently moving and shaking in directions that don't improve the city. All are part of the mayor's majority; all get the Curse of SWNID.

Newcomers getting the un-endorsement are Laurie Quinlivan, Wendell Young, Bernadette Watson, and Anita Brockman. Quinlivan promises to be Mallory's lap dog. Young is a perennial Democrat also-ran also pledged to do the mayor's bidding uncritically. Watson is a longtime behind-the-scenes politician who doubtless owes a bundle of favors to the Democrat establishment. Brockman is one of those fanciful candidates who illustrate the limits of democracy: when anyone can run, anyone sometimes will.

Repeat-offender Charlie Winburn, inexplicably beloved by the Hamilton County Republican establishment, also gets our un-endorsement. The peripatetic, chattery, self-promoting Winburn has discredited both political conservatism with his showboating politics and the Christian gospel with his personality-driven church. If Cincinnati is to be a civilized place, Winburn needs to be as far from power as possible.

So whom do we endorse? The nod goes to the following eclectic mix:
  • Chris Monzel, a principled Republican incumbent who understands deeply that to be attractive, Cincinnati needs safety and low taxes.
  • Leslie Ghiz, for whom we hold our nose as a not-overtly-religious version of Winburn but who manages to speak up for a few things that make sense.
  • Cecil Thomas, a loyal member of the mayor's majority who continues to strike us as a decent, thoughtful guy.
  • Kevin Flynn, whose personal story (paralyzed in an accident, rehabilitated at Drake Hospital, now chairman of Drake's board) and open-minded nonpartisanship urge that he be given a try.
  • Amy Murray, an opponent of bad stuff like streetcars.
  • LaMarque Ward, a guy who grew up in poverty, grew out of despair with mentoring by some fine gentlemen, and now stands poised to speak truth and hope to the portion of the city that needs it most, notably promoting virtue as the solution to social problems.
  • Chris Bortz, a well-connected incumbent who hasn't marched in step with the mayor's majority but speaks a language understood by people who energize economic development.
  • Jeff Berding, who earned an un-endorsement from the Hamilton County Democrats for opposing the mayor, a badge of honor if ever there was one.
That's eight. We again recommend reserving the ninth vote for no one, not just anyone. If just five of these folks are elected, the world will be a better place.

Cincinnati Mayor
To the dismay of many but the surprise of none, we endorse incumbent mayor Mark Mallory, and not just because he's a good neighbor.

First, we insist that we disapprove of Mallory's unseemly reliance on a five-member council majority with the deliberate exclusion of the other four members. That's nasty politics that is unlikely to temper bad decision-making.

We also decry his enthusiasm for the streetcar. Maybe in the seven fat years one can spend a fifth of a billion dollars to move people a couple of miles, but not in times like these. Save the experiment for later, Mr. Mayor.

We note, however, that Cincinnati is a palpably better place than when Mallory took office. Crime statistics show obvious improvement, though a city like Cincinnati may never be a haven of peace and goodwill. Economically the city seems to be no worse than many Midwestern metropolises and is no longer the pariah it became after the riots earlier in the decade. Mallory has shown significant ability to restore confidence that the city can be governed by doing it with reasonable effectiveness.

We also note that Mallory can move with the majority if the majority moves. His main experience is as a legislator who builds coalitions. He can work just about any agenda set by the political realities of the moment.

Most importantly, however, the alternative is simply awful. Brad Westrup is a veteran, a physician, and by all reports a good citizen. But he's as bad a politician as we've seen, just about ever. An inarticulate, fidgety public speaker bathed in more flop sweat than Al Gore, he projects no discernible leadership from the podium. Still more awful are his positions. A Republican, he is nevertheless enthusiastic about casino gambling in Cincinnati. Allegedly a fiscal conservative, he says he'd use unreliable casino revenue to support operating expenses, not to provide for capital improvements, thereby perpetuating the city's budget problems. Worst of all, he's pledged not to cut police officers to balance the budget unless he gets the FOP's approval. Ceding fiscal control to a public employees' union, even if it is the one beloved by Republicans seeking local office, is as irresponsible a move as we can imagine.

We want Mallory's political skills at work with a new council majority, not Westrup's haplessness at the mercy of nine un-led egos.

Ballot Initiatives
Briefly, here's how to vote on the burgeoning list of referenda.

  • Issue 1--Bonds to Fund Veteran Compensation: No. We dearly appreciate the work of our Armed Forces, but this is a political gimmick. The common defense is a federal matter, and the state budget doesn't need an additional burden of providing additional benefits.
  • Issue 2--State Livestock Board: Yes. The alternative seems to be standards set by vegan activists. Protect the economic viability of agriculture in Ohio.
  • Issue 3--Casinos. A thousand times No! Gambling is a tax on the inability to do math. It encourages the notion that wealth is had by luck, not productive work and thrift. It brings no economic benefit, as reflected by its exclusion in GDP calculations. Sadly, this will pass, but all will come to rue the day.
  • Issues 4 through 7: Local Levies for Public Health, MRDD, Union Terminal and the Public Library. Yes for all. These are pillars of the local community supported by fair and relatively cheap taxes.
  • Issue 8: Require a Referendum for a Water District. No. Rightly done a water district can improve prospects for local development. And it's dumb to clutter the charter with all these required referenda. See next Issue.
  • Issue 9: Require a Referendum for Rail. No. We oppose the streetcar initiative for economic reasons. But this is a stupid way to deal with it. Vote for a sensible city council instead, and if this council votes wrong, vote in another in two years that will stop the mess.
  • Issue 52: Cincinnati Public Schools levy. Yes. This is not an increase, y'all, but a renewal. CPS has enormous flaws but compares favorably to other urban districts. Don't vote no out of anger for the lack of vouchers or other nonpublic alternatives. Vote yes to allow the thing to function at least as well as it does at present until a better alternative is politically viable.
For more local election fun, check out the League of Women Voters and the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Kook Exchange Update

The AP reports that the Amazing Grace Baptist Church of western North Carolina, pastored by one Marc Grizzard, will hold a book burning on Halloween night.

That's ordinary weirdness for a few churches on the radical fringe of fundamentalism. But this exercise is special: the books will include non-KJV translations of the Bible plus contemporary Christian music and books by such authors as Billy Graham and Rick Warren.

The AP describes the church as "small." That detail could probably have been assumed.

We note this story on the way to a moral exhortation. Such Christians are ridiculous, of course. They make Christianity easy to vilify, at least for those anti-Christians unable to concede that every group has its nut cases.

They also make easy objects of scorn for saner Christians who resent the kooks' absurd perversion of the faith. On this particular case we open the scorn by wondering aloud whether the book burning will include editions of the Greek New Testament or Hebrew Bible, or whether translations of the Bible into languages other than Jacobean English will be burned as well.

We call such folks easy objects of scorn for Christians because we've known more than a few bright, thoughtful, engaged Christians who become enormously preoccupied with scorning Christian kooks. Some want to find the effective "defeater" arguments for such characters, especially KJV-only types, as if one can argue effectively with folk who have staked their position in the absurdly irrational. Others are devoted to chronicling in detail the escapades of notorious figures like Jack Chick, Fred Phelps, and others of their ilk.

We find neither exercise helpful. The best way in our view (and in our view our view is always the best way) for Christians to respond to the embarrassingly insane members of the ecclesial family (and they aren't all on the so-called "right") is simply to ignore them. They glory in their shame, or to state it without the allusion, they enjoy the attention and ridicule they receive, regardless of the source. Being persecuted for obnoxiousness' sake is what they're all about. They're like kids who only get attention if they misbehave, so they misbehave a lot.

We know of no effective response to kooky narcissism except to starve it of attention. That's why this blog doesn't deal in constant updates on the escapades of extreme fundies or other fringes of Christianity. We hesitate to comment when their shenanigans garner even our momentary attention for reasons of exceptional oddness or notoriety. We recommend the same to others.

Update on Reich

Robert Reich has responded on his blog (don't be deceived by its cosmetic similarity to the SWNIDish blog, gentle readers!) to the circulation of an audacious audio clip, noted previously on this blog. We will take the unusual step of quoting in full to note that, despite his attempt to excoriate "the Right" for its use of his statement, what Reich still affirms is that he is stating the truth about so-called healthcare reform. Emphasis is inserted.

Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity, Rush, and the right-wing blogosphere seem interested in a talk I gave in September, 2007 to students in a political science class here at Berkeley, in which I played the role of a presidential candidate so politically incorrect and tone-deaf as to pummel every sacred cow in sight -- including the notion that our society could afford and would continue forever to pay whatever amount of money was required to keep everyone alive forever. The whole point of the mock exercise was to show that presidential candidates can't state what everyone knows to be the truth because they'll be taken apart by the Right or the Left. I slew many other sacred cows in that mock exercise, some of which are held dearly by the Left. Nonetheless, two years later the Right has exhumed the lecture and taken my words completely out of context purportedly to show that Obama and the Democrats plan death panels.

If their desperation weren't so pathetic it would be funny. After all, they have proven the whole point of my lecture. UC Berkeley maintains an archive of webcasts and my speech is available there verbatim, should you wish to listen to it in its entirety.
Well, Mr. Reich, the point that you say was "included" is certainly the point that we understood from the clip, that it amounts to sacrificing a sacred cow of the Left, and that you were telling truths that politicians don't want to talk about. How circulating this clip constitutes taking your "words completely out of context" is beyond my ability, as someone who studies the interpretation of words and belongs to a religious tradition that alternately takes words out of context and decries the same, to comprehend.

If your desperation weren't so pathetic, it would be funny. We borrow that hackneyed insult from you, by the way, simply because we've heard it so often in your radio commentaries.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Santa Comes Early for Social Security

The headline says it all: "Obama Calls for $250 Payments to Seniors."

Since the CPI measures no inflation this year, Social Security checks will not increase. The awfulness of that prompts our President to give grandma and grandpa an extra $250 to use at their discretion.

Naturally, since the federal budget is flush with cash, $13 billion is inconsequential, a mere bag of shells" in the immortal words of TV's Ralph Kramden. And with full employment and significant wage growth in the last year, seniors deserve the raise that the rest of America has already received.

That means that grandchildren can expect to receive not a $5 bill but a $10 bill in their birthday cards, casinos can expect higher revenues on slots, and restaurants can expect early-bird patrons to order dessert.

Up next: the President appoints a czar to regulate allowances for America's teenagers.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Obama Loses Friends, Likely Also Healthcare Bill

A major accounting firm, hired by a consortium of health insurance providers, does the projected math on the Baucus healthcare bill (still not actually released for anyone to read). They conclude the obvious: bringing additional people into the system, not allowing exclusion of pre-existing conditions, mandating coverage of all kinds of services with little or no out-of-pocket cost, mandating no preferential premiums for healthy individuals--all that will raise the cost of health insurance considerably.

Democrats cry that the study is flawed. They say it didn't take into account things like subsidies. The authors of the study acknowledge that they didn't take subsidies into account. Their point is that the unsubsidized cost of insurance will rise considerably, as everyone who thinks through the math has realized already. And since subsidies amount to taxing the money from some people to give it to others, the subsidy doesn't change the cost, just who pays it.

Recall that the Democrats have periodically demonized health insurance providers to make their case. This was a clever, if cynical, political move. No one likes their insurance company. Premiums are always too high, payouts are always too low, and you have to fight like the dickens to get them to give you what you ought to have.

Well, that's natural. Insurance companies have to stay solvent, and they can't do that by charging premiums that don't cover their risks or by paying out benefits that exceed covered losses. It's not profits that make insurance companies that way: mutual companies operate without paying dividends to shareholders, and they're no more loved than for-profit companies. It's simple arithmetic that makes them mean.

And that's just as true when the government runs the show. Eventually--as the present budget mess reminds us--even government must live by the math.

So, back to the beginning: it's acutely obvious that giving more stuff to more people will cost more. There is no magic bank of "waste and abuse" that can be instantly tapped to make up the difference. And there's only so much of other people's money to pay for all this.

While we're rambling, we'll note again what makes this matter especially difficult. Health insurance is different from property insurance. There's a clear limit to the value of my car or house. But as far as I'm concerned, my health and life are priceless. My insurance company is justified in paying out only what my car is worth if it's totaled. But if they put a price on my life, well, I'm going to be pretty angry. And I won't care whether it's Blue Cross or Humana or Health and Human Services that does that.

This, by the way, is not to say that nothing will be right until we can spend everything we want to spend on healthcare. It is a grim reminder that what's wrong with the system is that you can't always get what you want, especially if you expect a third party to pay for it.

Back to the study. We think this is another death knell for ObamaCare. To quote the Gray Lady:

The vehemence of the reaction from the White House and Congressional Democrats also reflects a concern about public opinion. If millions of people with insurance conclude that their premiums will go up, that could undermine chances for passage of comprehensive legislation.

Yep. The majority of folk like what they've got and will fight like demons to make sure it doesn't cost them more. This is another indication that the end of the line is near.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

BBC, World's Biggest Climate-Change Promoter, Issues a "Never Mind"

Guess what the warmest year on record was? 2008? Try subtracting 10.

That's a problem to the Infallible Doctrine of Global Warming, and is being acknowledged by the "climate correspondent" of the BBC.

For those who lack the background, the BBC was among the first big media outlets to begin promoting the notion that CO2 will bake us. SWNID recalls, for example, a dramatic documentary aired on the tax-subsidized network in the late 1980s.

As the Telegraph's Damien Thompson notes, this is a turnaround of enormous proportion. One will still hear dire warnings that this is a temporary lull before the final, awful collapse of global climate. Indeed, such are included in the BBC piece.

But the facts are certainly growing more difficult daily to square with the hypothesis.

This, of course, raises the question whether the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize can be revoked.

So it would appear that this man might be feeling the chill.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Reich Says What an "Honest Politician" Would Say

Does everyone remember Robert Reich, Clintonista who allegedly has Obama's ear on healthcare? This snippet of audio was recorded in September 2007 at UC Berkeley, where Reich holds forth in the classroom.

An Interesting Take on the Nobel

With trepidation we link Rush Limbaugh, the formerly amusing and now ranting voice of conservatism, for his distinct interpretation of the Obamnobel:

Of course, this approach didn't work with Arafat, so we'll have to see. With a max of 60k troops needed additionally to anti-insurgentify Afghanistan, the cost will be high enough as it is. Pursuing the legacy of the Nobel may be just what tips the scales of presidential decision-making.

Meanwhile, even Mickey Kaus says that Obama should politely decline. This is not a good day for the President, who now must deal with the obvious disparity between his most ardent supporters' ardor and the reality of the present.

By the way, anybody remember when Ken Griffey, Jr. was selected for baseball's All-Century Team, ahead of Reggie Jackson and with more votes than Stan Musial? Prematurely awarded prizes are not feel-good occasions for the recipient, who has to live the rest of his life in light of the prize.

Obama's Acceptance Speech for the Nobel Peace Prize

Using the SWNIDish Time Machine, we have gone Back to the Future to record President Obama's acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize:

Members of the Nobel Prize Committee and distinguished guests.

I humbly and gratefully receive this distinguished prize for promoting peace among the world's peoples. The Nobel Peace Prize carries prestige unmatched by any other award. I know that my friend Al Gore treasures his even more than the Oscar he was awarded the same year. If Yasser Arafat were here, I'm sure he would say that he treasured his even more than the lives of the innocents whose deaths he directed in countless terrorist strikes, but I suppose that goes without saying.

When I say that I receive the prize humbly, I must acknowledge what was preemptively highlighted by the Saturday Night Live skit that aired a scant six days before this prize was announced. The truth is, my administration presently has no accomplishments that promote world peace. At the time the prize was announced, my major accomplishment was inducing Congress to pass a massive spending bill aimed at economic stimulus. With a total of nine million jobs now lost in the American economy, that bill can be seen as indirectly contributing to world peace, as the American Armed Forces, doubtless the greatest force for peace in the world over the last century, now find it easier to recruit, though we may be unable to afford to equip them.

Still, my nomination was made a scant two weeks after my inauguration. And so I ask with the world, why was I nominated, let alone selected, for this most prestigious of prizes? Arizona State University, a distinguished institution of higher education but hardly the most elite in my country, declined to award me an honorary degree when I spoke at their commencement ceremony last spring, saying that such awards ought to be based on accomplishments. What exactly have I accomplished?

In awarding this prize, the committee cited my support for a multilateral approach to diplomacy, including institutions like the UN. While I acknowledge that such is the case, I aver that such has been the case for American presidents since the dawn of the previous century. The United States has championed such efforts, even when they worked against American interests, as even the most cursory examination of US involvement in the United Nations will demonstrate. While roundly criticized for his unilateralism, my predecessor, George W. Bush, deliberately sought and received UN approval for action against the brutal dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein, whose threats to humanity, now proved largely empty except as concerned his own nation, were nevertheless understood by the global intelligence community to be very real at the time. Mr. Bush was also distinguished for his multilateralism in response to North Korea's nuclear arms program, albeit a fruitless multilateralism; his outreach to India, a nation striving to live at peace with grave internal difficulties and graver threats from its neighbor; his exceptional response to the AIDS crisis in Africa; and his building of trust with allies in Latin America.

Certainly if the Nobel Prize were awarded by the Australians, the Czechs, the Poles or other small nations continually active with the United States in a forward-looking global alliance to promote liberty, the award would be given differently.

Nevertheless, I am sure that I can identify the thing which you cite as my restoration of hope for peace through international institutions. The truth is, I am not George W. Bush. Indeed, the clearest platform of my campaign was to be the anti-Bush. I owed my electoral victory in large part to convincing independent voters that John McCain represented a mere continuation of Bush's policies which had uniformly failed. Winning the election, I became the fulfillment of the Nobel committee's dream, shared by other elites in the West, to unseat the "cowboy." Never comfortable with the clear articulation of ideals and their vigorous pursuit globally, the Nobel committee, representing the perspective of elite classes in a small, homogeneous nation with little global influence, supports the mere participation of national leaders, no matter their aims and no matter the outcomes, in diplomatic dialogue.

And so, Yasser Arafat received the prize after concluding accords negotiated in Oslo, the very city where today we are gathered. Yet at the moment he received the prize, groups ostensibly under Arafat's command were waging an ongoing campaign of terror aimed at targets utterly without military significance--buses, pizzerias and discotheques. But he talked and signed. He did what the prize rewards in its worst years.

Of course, I had not even talked and signed when nominated, and I had done little more than offer speeches by the time my award was announced. Must we look elsewhere for the reason my award was given?

A distinguished Nobel laureate--and yes, many have been distinguished--is Elie Wiesel, whose tireless campaigning for the rights of the oppressed justify an award for achievement in the pursuit of peace. Interviewed after my award was announced, Mr. Wiesel affirmed that I was deserving of the award for a reason different than the one cited by the Nobel committee. He said that my election was a singular achievement for peace because it represented the reversal of centuries of oppression of black people in the United States.

To this analysis, I can heartily agree. It is true that my election is utterly remarkable in that respect. The United States has not eliminated racism. Little suggests than tribal hatreds will ever be eliminated, though they must always be opposed. But by electing a black man as President, the United States has said to the world that a new birth of freedom has indeed arrived.

Who, then, should be credited with this accomplishment? While I am at its center, I am responsible for it only insofar as I used my gifts and skills to lead what proved to be an effective political campaign.

What made my election possible were the efforts of countless Americans of all colors who came before me. Even before it became a nation, America struggled to resolve its democratic ideals and its racist heritage. For generations, the ideals lost out. It took decades of persuasion, a bloody civil war, the casualties from which dwarfed those of America's other armed conflicts, and generations more of struggle to realize this moment that demonstrates the self-evident truth that all people are created equal. I stand where I am at this moment in that line of history not because of my own efforts but because of those who have worked for hundreds of years to bring that ideal to reality.

Who, then, deserves this award? Nobel Prizes cannot be awarded posthumously. If they could, we could name many who engaged in this struggle: William Penn, John Adams, William Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, Branch Rickey, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, Lyndon Johnson, Everett Dirksen. Indeed, these can be rightly said to have shared the award given to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose accomplishments dwarf my own and those of most who have received the Peace Prize.

But I stand here not simply because of those great leaders. I stand here because the American people have in large measure set aside the terrible, dehumanizing legacy of racism to act on their ideals of equal dignity, rights and opportunity for all people. How many voted for me for that reason alone? Perhaps no more than the residual racists who voted against me because of my color. But clearly enough, the American people have transformed themselves according to the finest part of their heritage.

So I say to the Nobel committee and to all gathered here today: this prize honors not one American but America. It honors a nation that, though possessing the wealth and might to oppress the world for a century, has instead sought to liberate it. It honors a nation that, though once economically and socially dependent on the oppression of a caste of its people, continues to reform itself to attain genuine equality without caste. It honors a nation founded not on kinship but ideals, that has in its finest moments opened itself to the world's people as a place of opportunity and has promoted by every means at its disposal liberty among other nations. It honors a nation that is the finest product of the Western tradition, whose ideals are now embraced by peoples of every global tradition.

Finally, I urge the Nobel committee to wake up and smell the fair-trade coffee. By nominating me, you have acted in a way that confirms the stereotypes of European elites, American media talking-heads and limousine liberals--in sum, of the global left wing. Critics on the right accuse the left of caring entirely about style and nothing about substance. It has been said that those who dislike stereotypes must not reinforce them. This award has done that very thing, thereby further polarizing global politics, something that will not promote the effective pursuit of genuine peace.

Of course, you are not alone. A distinguished television network "fact checked" the SNL skit that parodied the very point that I have acknowledged, that my accomplishments are still few. Retailers are refusing to sell the whimsical Chia Pet in my likeness, part of a series honoring America and its leaders. If a public figure is so reverenced that he stands even above harmless parody, what will be the outcome of his influence? Can people live as equals if the powerful are not subject to ridicule? Peace without parody? May it never be!

Postscript: "It's as if the Nobel Committee gave Obama the award for behaving like a normal American president, instead of like a clueless corrupt cowboy." (from The Nation [!]).

Saturday, October 03, 2009

ObamaCare: Do the Required Reading

As a professorial person, we often receive questions from students and former students that prompt us to ask, Did you read and do you remember what was in the book or article that we assigned to you? Because the question inevitably evokes abject shame on the part of the questioner, we generally refrain from acting on the impulse to ask. Instead, we offer a summary response to the question and then suggest that for more information, the questioner ought to (re)consult the required reading.

Today, having for weeks blogged incessantly on the economic foolishness of the healthcare reform bills being actively debated in Congress, we point readers to the required reading.

The esteemed Wall Street Journal, which gives pause to those who say that the old media are finished, has provided an extensive index of its editorials and opinion pieces about ObamaCare. Those who read this blog know that we have linked several such articles. We assume that they have read them with the same alacrity as that of students tackling material listed in their college syllabi. We now recommend, even insist, that all who care about these issues, but especially those who think that it's simply a matter of a rich country doing what is self-evidently morally correct, actually read the indexed articles before opening their mouths again.

For those who still lack the fortitude to understand the issue, we summarize the essence of the matter as briefly as we can.

First, this matter is governed by the same economic principles that describe human behavior in other spheres. Hence, money is in general spent carefully by those to whom the money actually belongs, while money that belongs to someone else is in general spent profligately. Thus, if someone else--a patron, an insurance company, or a government--pays for something for me, I won't care about the cost relative to the benefit. If I pay, I care deeply. Readers who have insurance, not just for healthcare, will recognize this. We don't ask, What will it cost? We ask, what will it cost me after the insurance pays?

Thus, it is no surprise that insofar as Americans have left direct healthcare spending to insurance companies and the government, they have become indifferent to cost. They demand more service regardless of cost, and so as demand rises, so do prices. Because people most especially want to stay alive and healthy as long as possible, those prices rise steeply. The demand to spend other people's money to make oneself well can never abate.

Second, this awful situation has come about largely by accident. Americans started receiving health insurance from employers thanks to responses to WWII wage and price controls followed by lobbying for tax breaks from organized labor and others with a vested interest in 1950s. Hence, we have sheltered growing parts of our income from taxation by expecting health insurance to pay for more and more with "pre-tax dollars." Hence, we have a system where employers are expected to provide healthcare insurance that covers virtually every expense associated with health, and those who don't receive such insurance find themselves at a steep economic disadvantage thanks to the preference such plans receive in our tax system.

The result of this accident is the situation we have at present: costs that rise steeply, without sufficient connection to benefits received, coupled with a sense of helplessness on the part of a public unwilling to understand the causes of the situation or to imagine how a different approach would alleviate the inflation that threatens to bankrupt them. We just want to pay the rising costs with someone else's money.

Third, advocates of the present "change" insist, as politicians often do, that theirs is the only alternative to the awful status quo. In fact, it is not. If Americans are allowed to finance healthcare as they do other necessities--with savings for ordinary expenses, insurance for extraordinary expenses, and public subsidies for the genuinely needy--and to pay for them directly as they do for everything else (except education, which is an eerily similar phenomenon), one could expect a better match between demand and supply that would flatten the curve of healthcare inflation, the threat that everyone identifies as real.

Now, read the articles. Or if you understand and agree, recommend them to your benightedly ignorant friends whose Facebook statuses say things like, "No one should go ever go without healthcare, and no one should ever have to pay more than the cost of a tall latte for any health procedure. If you believe this, hold your breath until you turn blue."

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Abortion Howlers from the Times

SWNID doesn't blog much on abortion. The issues are clear enough, we think, in most public discourse on the subject, and the body politic is predictably and perhaps permanently divided on the issue's fundamentals as a consequence of what we take as permanent divisions in ideology.

But today we make an exception, not so much to address the abortion question ethically or even politically as to address the insufferable nonsense that comes from too many opinion pages in too many failing organs of the old media. Specifically, we refer to the Gray Lady, New York's famous broadsheet that continues to pose as our Paper of Record.

The Times's opinionists today offer reasons why abortion coverage ought to be included in any federal healthcare reform. This assertion begs many questions that we'd like to address, but we'll confine ourselves to quoting some choice sentences from the Times and offering acerbic responses.

The Times: "Critics of pending health care reforms claim they want to ensure that the government does not thrust itself between patients and doctors to dictate what medical procedures can be performed. Yet many are trying to do just that when it comes to one legal and medically valid service: abortion."

SWNID: There's so much to criticize in "pending health care reforms," and there are so many people doing the criticizing that characterizing "critics" monolithically is as silly as characterizing a particular gender, racial or ethnic group monolithically, just less offensive. Calling abortion "medically valid" is simply to ignore the fact that the Republic has been riven by dissent on this issue for over a generation. Whatever "medically valid" means (it's not a phrase one expects to hear in a consult with one's personal physician, for example), it doesn't include, "having the moral approval of a substantial majority of voters."

The Times: "In a rational system of medical care, there would be virtually no restrictions on financing abortions. But abortion is not a rational issue."

SWNID: Since you didn't define "medically valid," you also didn't have to define "rational." Brush aside well considered ethical arguments, O Great Editorial Writers, because no one in your circle of friends, who define "rationality" for the rest of humanity, objects morally to abortion on demand. If by "not rational" you mean "religious," we'll let the bigoted canard pass while merely noting that not all who object to abortion morally do so for religious reasons and many religious people make purely nonreligious arguments for its immorality.

But let's take this further. Is it not "rational" in a democratic republic to restrict public expenditures on things that a substantial portion of the public believes to be immoral? Is it not rational to expect that only those who believe that abortion is morally acceptable ought to pay for abortions? By contrast, is it indeed "rational" for a democratically elected representative government to force citizens to subsidize something that they believe to be immoral?

The Times: "These [existing] restrictions [on federal funding for abortions], which constitute an improper government intrusion into Americans’ private lives, apply to the joint federal-state Medicaid program, the health insurance exchange that covers federal government employees, and health programs for military personnel, American Indians and women in prison, among others. This approach disproportionately harms poor women. . . ."

SWNID: How is it an intrusion on my private life if the federal government doesn't pay for something that I want or even need? By contrast, how is it not an intrusion on my liberty if the government taxes the public to pay for something that much of the public believes is not just unwise but immoral? And have y'all not paid attention to the fact that the "disproportionately harms poor women" trope has become a cliche once laughable and now tired to the point of morbidity? Maybe that newsflash hasn't made its way to the folks with whom you share cocktails.

But to take a step further, what is to prevent you and your buddies from simply raising money for Planned Parenthood to fill the gap in coverage? The pro-life side isn't asking for Uncle Sugar to fund their pregnancy care centers that encourage women to carry their babies to term and provide for their nurture. Have yourselves a telethon or something! Ask the "super rich" for help!

The Times: "[It is a reasonable compromise to offer that h]ealth plans could provide abortion coverage provided they used only the premium money and co-payments contributed by beneficiaries and kept that money segregated from the subsidy. In every state, there would have to be at least one plan that covers abortions and one that does not."

SWNID: Money is fungible. You can't put two dollars in a box, mark one "do not spend on abortion," use the other for abortion, and say to the person who gave you the marked dollar, "We didn't spend your dollar for abortion." What you did was spend half of each dollar for abortion, because if you hadn't spent any money on abortion, you'd have two dollars to spend on something else. Once you've taken my money and added it to someone else's money, you can only make sure that my money doesn't get mixed up with others' by giving me my money back. Suggestion: if this concept is not clear to you, research the concept of fungibility in any respectable work on finance or accounting.

Further, the issue is less a matter of who receives coverage as who provides it. Certainly some folk who object to abortion would prefer not to have a plan that covers it, but if they had such coverage, financed from the federal coffers, they would hardly be forced to use it. The issue is whether someone who objects morally to abortion ought to be forced to pay for someone else's abortion. Offering a choice of plans simply panders; it doesn't address the problem.

The Times: "This compromise is still far more restrictive than the rules for other tax-subsidy programs. The subsidy for employees’ contributions to their health coverage at work, for example, can be used to buy insurance that covers abortion. Roughly half of the employer-provided policies cover the procedure. Nor are there any restrictions on paying for abortions with the tax-favored health savings accounts so beloved by conservatives."

SWNID: Now we get down to what really bugs us about you guys (gender inclusive usage). You think that letting people keep their money is the same as giving them someone else's money. That's true only if everything belongs to the government and so what we're allowed to keep is a privilege granted that gives others the right to decide what I do with what I keep. If I have a health savings account (which I don't have, thanks to irrational restrictions on such things), the fact that the money in that account is not subject to income taxes doesn't make it the government's money. The money is mine, and with my vote I'm supposed to have a say-so in how it's spent even after you tax it away. But until you tax it, it's mine to use as I please. Same goes for others. It's their business how they spend. Furthermore, in the Constitution there are supposed to be restrictions on what you can and can't spend money on with or without a vote, though such distinctions have been frittered away over time.

But get the point: my money hasn't been spent when my neighbor uses her HSA for an abortion. I'd prefer that she didn't, and I don't especially like the fact that she gets a tax break on that expenditure, but it's a very different matter than taxing me to pay for her abortion.

The Times: "Some want to require women to buy an extra insurance 'rider' if they want abortion coverage, an unworkable approach given that almost no one expects to need an abortion, few women would buy the rider and, therefore, few insurance companies would even offer it."

SWNID: OK, this bugs us even more: "almost no one expects to need an abortion." This is more than the failure of the government to fund sex education classes, right? Here's the deal: if you are a woman and have intercourse, even with contraceptive measures, you may get pregnant. Anyone who has sex and is willing to get an abortion should expect to need one, to the same degree that anyone who has a house should expect to need fire insurance. Pregnancy is much less random than fire, of course.

And if no insurance company will provide such coverage, what's to keep you and your buddies once again from forming mutual (i.e., not-for-profit) companies that will provide it with subsidies from donors to keep rates low?

Of course, you didn't say "no insurance company." You said "few." So? It only takes one, and if you're worried about competition, raise money to fund two mutual companies to do the dirty deed.

We hate to rant, but you're treating your readers as if they're stupid. To be charitable, we conclude that you live in the echo chamber that is the elite class of Manhattan Island. You don't know your own kind of stupid any more. But take a close look again at what you've written, Times opinionists, and please realize how awfully narrow and bigoted you appear to be to those of us outside your aristocratic clique.