Tuesday, November 25, 2014

True Believers

I grew up in a small town that had something like twenty churches.

And for the proselytizers in all those churches I was fresh meat. I lived in one of the town’s few houses that was not associated with any church. For various reasons, my parents had not opted to join a church and have us attend weekly services.

So, spiritually speaking, my soul was like some kind of prize that was up for grabs. I became used to friends inviting me to come to their Sunday school or to go to church with them. As I got older, I became accustomed to one friend or another becoming serious and wanting to talk to me about how a relationship with Jesus had changed his or her life.

And you know what? The continual attempts to save my soul never bothered me. I always looked at them from my friends’ point of view. If they thought that accepting Jesus as one’s saviour was the only way to heaven and if they truly cared about me, of course they would want me to be saved. I was actually more worried about the religious friends who did not try to convert me. Did they want me to go to hell? Besides, being someone with an open mind, I wanted to hear all the arguments. After all, the person proselytizing me might be absolutely correct and, if so, I should try to find out.

So the bottom line is that, from any early age, I became attuned to the look and sound of the true believer. I was quick to recognize that look in someone’s eyes signaling that they had discovered The Truth and were anxious to share it. My ears could pick up very quickly when a conversation was going in the direction of trying to make me understand and accept The Truth.

After I left my home town, I attended a few universities and I lived abroad and eventually I settled into a couple of decades of living in and around Seattle. During that period of my life I learned that true believers are not found exclusively in Christian and other religious communities.

In my twenties I got involved in organizing a bargaining unit at the newspaper where I worked. I had no previous experience with unions, but the organizing effort was well under way by the time I was hired and my fellow employees seemed to think that I could be a non-controversial bridge between labor and management. So I agreed to be the employees’ spokesperson. I have never been so naive since. A stressful couple of years followed in which our bargaining unit was certified and a contract was negotiated.

A side effect of that experience was that I inadvertently became something of a working class hero to friends and acquaintances on the political left. That led to a volunteer gig on a non-profit community radio station that further immersed me in Seattle’s rich tapestry of various political movements. It was a time when I became so familiar with fringe politics that I could actually sort of grasp the nuances between, say, the Socialist Workers Party and the Freedom Socialist Party.

But as new and interesting as all of this was, something was still the same. I remember one day at the radio station when a bearded friend gave me a judgmental look and said disapprovingly, “I didn’t see you at the protest rally on Sunday.” He could just as easily been an older Baptist or Mennonite from my home town talking about Sunday church services. At the end of the day, it was still about people trying to get me to buy into the same belief system they had bought into—unconditionally.

And now it wasn’t just about saving the soul of a single person (me) but about rescuing the entire world from injustice. It was about an economic system (capitalism) that would inevitably collapse under its own weight—at the very latest, so I was frequently told—by the end of the 20th century. It was about helping the masses who were too dim to appreciate just how terrible their life was under the current system. It was a situation too dire to leave to the whims of ignorant voters and meaningless elections, which were rigged by a fundamentally corrupt system.

I knew these ideas were nuts, but somehow I managed to remain cordial and friendly with my leftist friends, just as I was always been able to get on with my Christian friends and conservative friends. And interestingly, the the leftist friends I kept in contact with over the years went on to live fairly conventional middle class lives and, in some cases, even work for big evil corporations. At some point, I guess, you start to feel like a sucker waiting around for the big economic and political collapse while your friends keep racking up higher balances for their retirement in their 401k investments.

These days, as I read news and blogs from the U.S. (not to mention Facebook and Twitter), I can see that the true believer is alive and well. People will always take comfort in a belief system that makes them feel good and which cannot be proved or disproved. Some of the current dominant ones, at least as evidenced by the major media outlets in North America and Europe, seem to the the church of Keynesian economics and the sect of environmental end days.

This is not to say that people who based their personal and political lives around these belief systems are wrong. I just find it interesting that people can become so evangelical about things that will amost certainly never be proved in our lifetimes.

The persistent testament of John Maynard Keynes is particularly intriguing to me. In the U.S. his ideas have gotten only two fairly good tests—during the 1930s and from 2008 to present—and both periods have coincided with very problematic economic conditions. The question is, which was the cause and which was the effect?

As for environmentalism, skeptics have long compared it to a conventional religion. After all, it offers a narrative of man versus nature, fall from grace, and prophesied doom. Climate change activists invoke “settled science” (an oxymoron if there ever was one) in the same way that religious fundamentalists justify their opinions with “because the Bible says so.” The comparison with religion only gets firmer when we see how individuals and governments promise to get right with the earth in treaties and conferences and then immediately go back to sinning at home the very next day.

Does that mean the Keynesians and the environmentalists are wrong? Not any more than any other true believer is necessarily wrong. Just because you believe in something faithfully and uncritically doesn’t mean that what you believe isn’t true.

In a way, I envy all the true believers. It must be comforting to believe in something so strongly that there is never any doubt—and not to be condemned to live out one’s days as a perpetual skeptic.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Faltering Vital Signs

“John Kerry said no, no we’re not going to tax your heath insurance, we’re going to tax those evil insurance companies. We’re going to impose a tax that if they sell health insurance that’s too expensive, we’re going to tax them. And conveniently the tax rate will happen to be the marginal tax rate on the income tax code. So basically it’s the same thing: we just tax insurance companies, they pass on higher prices that offsets the tax break we get into being the same thing. It’s a very clever basic exploitation of the lack of economic understanding of the American voter.”
—Jonathan Gruber, MIT economics professor and White House consultant for the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, in a speech on November 5, 2012

“Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical for the thing to pass.”
—Gruber, on October 17, 2013

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.”
—Memorandum signed by President Obama, on whitehouse.gov

The above comments from Professor Gruber, preserved forever in internet videos, have embarrassed Obamacare supporters. For Obamacare critics, they are the most improbable of welcome gifts. From the critics’ point of view, it’s a bit like that classic scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, where Allen gets fed up listening to some blowhard in a cinema queue bloviating about the ideas of Marshall McLuhan and then, from somewhere outside of the frame, pulls in McLuhan himself to tell the obnoxious know-it-all that he doesn’t have a clue. That’s what Professor Gruber has inadvertently done to Obamacare defenders.

But neither of the quotes cited above is likely to turn out to be the most damaging one to come out of the professor’s mouth. That distinction will almost certainly belong to another comment, also caught on video and made during a January 2012 presentation on the Affordable Care Act: “I think what’s important to remember politically about this, is if you’re a state and you don’t set up an Exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits.”

In other words, Gruber effectively negates the Obama administration argument before the Supreme Court that the clause in the healthcare law, which provides federal subsidies only for state exchanges (and not for the federal one), was merely some clerical oversight. In other words, when the IRS decided arbitrarily to extend subsidies to consumers on the federal exchange, it ignored both the letter and the spirit of the law.

Of course, if the Supreme Court so rules next year, in a case called King v. Burwell, it will cause a huge mess. Subsidies have already been paid. Insurance companies have extended coverage to lots of people based on subsidies through the federal exchange. And the numbers involved are not trivial, since most states did not set up exchanges.

How does this get resolved? Can the court simply ignore the clearly stated content of the law? On the other hand, though, can the court put all those healthcare consumers in the position of suddenly owing a bunch of back payments to their insurance companies?

Before tackling that question, let’s take a moment to be properly angry at the way this law was drafted and passed. Unlike all previous major entitlement legislation, it was written and passed entirely by a single political party. A technical trick was used to avoid the usual 60-vote threshhold to get it through the Senate. It was pushed through even though it was immediately preceded by Massachusetts (yes, Massachusetts) filling Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat with a Republican who had campaigned against Obamacare.

The usual refrain in answer to these facts is that, well, the Republicans were crazy and unreasonable and they only wanted to keep Obama from getting a victory. You just couldn’t deal with them. Democrats had no choice but to go it alone. But the lie is given to that argument by the fact that Democrats would not even negotiate with the most collegial and bi-partisan of Republican members of the Senate at the time, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. Consequently, one of the two major political parties has absolutely no buy-in or interest in allowing to law to work or survive.

And the law, as drafted, is a shoddy piece of work. Exhibit A is the clause that is now the subject of yet another Supreme Court case.

The irony is that, despite Professor Gruber’s delight in how clever the Obama administration was in obfuscating the political argument, it didn’t really work. The law has never had the support of the majority of the American public. Depending on how the poll questions are asked, the law has consistently registered no more than 50 percent approval—and usually less. And public support is dropping. In a Gallup poll released on Monday, as reported by Politico, the law now had just 37 percent approval versus 56 percent disapproval. Combine that with the results of the recent midterm elections—not to mention the 2010 midterms, held soon after the law passed—and it seems pretty clear how the law has gone over.

What is not clear is whether the dropping approval of Obamacare is due to people’s actual experience with it or simply because of the news coverage. After all, most people have yet to feel its effects. Employer-provided coverage has yet to be affected, since that part of the law keeps getting deferred. Defenders of the law enthusiastically point out how many more people now have coverage who did not before. What they conveniently leave out, though, is that so far this has mostly been accomplished by expanding Medicare—something that the government could have done without bothering to enact Obamacare. Something else that does not get mentioned is the fact that more and more practitioners are refusing to take on Medicare patients for economic reasons.

So what will the Supreme Court do? In the last major challenge to the law, Chief Justice Roberts did a very interesting thing. He found that the law was not strictly constitutional because it required people to buy a private product, i.e. health insurance. But instead of sending it back to Congress to be fixed (which would have killed the bill since, by that point, the voters had put Republicans firmly in control of the House of Representatives), he said, very creatively, that the penalty for not buying insurance was essentially the same as a tax—even though Obama had personally sworn up and down that the penalty was not a tax—so everything was okay because Congress does have the power to impose taxes.

It will take even more creativity to somehow find a way to say that “an Exchange established by the State” actually means “an Exchange established by the State or by the federal government or, like, whatever.” But after going through such contortions not to overturn the law the last time, will the court really want to put a stake through its heart next year when the consequences will be even more far-reaching?

In any event, one thing we can certainly look forward to up until then is an unprecedented campaign of intimidation of the Supreme Court by the White House and Democrats warning it not to overturn the law. Expect the tide of history to be invoked frequently and passionately.

The mystery is why Democrats continue to fight so hard for this misbegotten law—with a sense of mission that was certainly missing in the law’s drafting. After all, in the beginning the bill’s most ardent supporters never claimed to want what Obamacare turned out to be—the imposition of a new layer of federal bureaucracy on top of the existing private health insurance system.

What those people said they actually wanted was a single-payer system. Some apparently thought that Obamacare would be a stepping stone to single-payer. But the irony is that, by giving so much strong and unconditional support to Obamacare, single-payer has now become something that is not very likely to be seen in our lifetime.

Thursday, November 6, 2014


“So, to everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you. To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too.”
—President Obama, at his press conference on Wednesday

What did the president mean exactly when he told the “two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate” that he heard them?

Did he mean that he understands why they didn’t vote and he is taking those reasons on board? Or did he mean that he is certain about how they would have voted if they had actually voted and that he was going to act as if they had voted (for Democrats)—even though they didn’t? I honestly don’t know.

One of the ways Democrats are finding a bit of solace in Tuesday’s election results is by citing the low turnout that is typical of midterm cycles, essentially painting the results as somehow less legitimate than presidential year elections. You could hear the president subtly invoke that view when he said this: “And as president, they rightly hold me accountable to do more to make it work properly. I’m the guy who’s elected by everybody, not just from a particular state or a particular district.”

And that raises an interesting question. As a politician, should the president be seen as more representative of what the people want since he and the vice-president are the only ones elected by the entire country? Could you not argue just as easily that this fact means that his mandate is more muddled because it comes from such a large population—sort of a least common denominator of political representatives? You can—and people do—argue that the members of the House of Representatives are the ones closest to the voters because they come for the localities they represent, are better known by more people who vote for them and must face the voters every other year.

I was raised to believe that it was every citizen’s duty to vote. But with the passage of time I have come to have respect for the act of not voting. Does abstaining not send just as valid a message as choosing a candidate to vote for? If people are discouraged from voting, do they not have the right to express that attitude by sitting out the voting process? And if they are simply not interested or do not feel informed enough, should they not be given credit for not wanting to make an uninformed choice? I’m not talking of voter suppression here—and make no mistake, all that negative advertising by both sides is meant to discourage the other side’s voters and it clearly works. I am talking simply about an eligible voter’s conscious decision not to participate. As we have seen in this week’s balloting, just because you choose not to vote does not mean you do not have an effect on the outcome.

In answering questions about the election results, the president and others have brought out the time-worn formulation of citing problems with “messaging” or “communication.” Others have resorted to another response that is also typical in these situations, although it seems to be more of Democrat thing than a Republican thing when they lose. They console themselves by calling the American people idiots.

A cartoon that has made the social media rounds shows a couple of victorious Republicans (you can tell by the dollar signs on their arm bands) facing a crowd of blank faces chanting things like “We want dirtier air and water so CEOs can make more money!” and “Send our jobs overseas!” and “Stop giving us benefits from our tax money!” This kind of condescension has been going on since at least 1956 when a woman was reported to have called out to a presidential candidate “Senator, you have the vote of every thinking person!” and Adlai Stevenson called back “That’s not enough, madam, we need a majority!”

If I was cleverer and more gifted at drawing, I might draw my own cartoon, which would have the blank faces calling out things like “I support gender equality so I vote Democratic even if it means voting against a woman!” and “I support racial equality so I vote Democratic even it means voting against an African-American!” That seems to the Democratic strategy these days anyway. And, while in some years that strategy works, in some years (like this one) it clearly doesn’t.

Speaking of things I saw on social media in the wake of the election, it was good to see people from both parties hailing the first election of an African-American from the post-Reconstruction South to the U.S. Senate. Tim Scott had already been filling the seat vacated by Jim DeMint as an appointee, but now he has been elected directly by the voters of South Carolina in his own right. Though it may not please some of my Democratic friends to hear it, there is something fitting about the fact that he was elected under the banner of the party of Abraham Lincoln.

And given that diversity in Congress is a good thing as is more equal numbers between men and women, the election of the delightfully named Mia Love to the House of Representatives from Utah is very welcome—if for no other reason than that her very existence seems calculated to confound the purveyors of identity politics. She is female, African-American and conservative.

She is one of several younger, fresh faces that have been spotlighted among Republicans—one of the benefits of being on the winning side of a wave election. Barack Obama was such a fresh face ten years ago when he was elected to the U.S. Senate and he went to captivate his party and the country. Now Democrats have to be wondering if they would not have been better off to go with experience and competence four years later and elect the first woman president instead of the first African-American president. No doubt the country certainly would have been.

Hillary Clinton might still get her chance. She certainly has all the advantages at this early stage for 2016. But when compared to the many new faces on the right and people like Elizabeth Warren on the left, she is frankly starting to look very last-century.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Ballot Battles

However this week’s election in the U.S. turns out, we are likely to hear commentators discussing how the electorate for midterm elections is different from the electorate in presidential election years.

The general differences between the two are well known. Fewer people turn out for the midterms. And those that do turn out tend to be from the older, whiter and more conservative segments of the larger electorate.

Does it matter that the same exact people do not turn out for every election? It certainly matters to the political parties. More Democratic voters turn out in presidential years, giving Republican candidates more of a chance in other years.

But does it matter in terms of the legitimacy of successful candidates? Does a successful candidate in a low-turnout election have less legitimacy or less of a mandate than one who is elected when there is a higher turnout? Constitutionally, it doesn’t matter. If you are elected, you are elected—regardless of how many voters did or did not participate in the balloting.

Does it matter politically? That is less clear. Obviously, a larger margin for or against a party carries more impact than a smaller one. And a higher turnout carries a bit more weight in the politicians’ minds than a meagre one. But in the end, politicians on both sides will—at least as far as their rhetoric goes—see in the will of the voters what they want to see. The president’s spokespeople will emphasize the mandate he received at the ballot box two years, regardless of how badly it goes for his party this time around. Republicans, on the other hand, can be expected to see every win as a vindication of their views and a repudiation of Democratic policies.

Four years ago President Obama acknowledged that his party had taken a shellacking and then proceeded to go on essentially as if nothing at all had happened. Since then he has consistently criticized dysfunction and gridlock in the “Republican Congress,” thereby ignoring the scores of bills passed by the House of Representatives and which were blocked from being taken up in the Senate by Majority Leader Harry Reid. If there has been gridlock in government, it has been pretty much entirely in the Democratic-controlled upper house of Congress.

The fact is that even in presidential election years there is more than one electorate. For example, two years ago there was the one that re-elected the president fairly handily while at the same time ostensibly the same electorate maintained a substantial majority for the Republicans in the House of Representatives. How does that happen? It all comes down to how you count the votes. The geographical distribution of individual district elections favors rural areas. Nationwide elections favor urban centers. And, in the case of 2012, a brilliant technical strategy by the Obama campaign was able to target the exact areas—in some cases the exact houses—to reach the necessary number of votes in the Electoral College.

So with all these different electorates in every election, how on earth are we supposed to discern what politicians like to call “the will of the American people”? As long as the country is so evenly divided, it is not going to be easy. In a closely divided country, the way the votes get counted and who happens to turn out to vote become crucial. That’s why the voting process itself has become so politicized. Voter fraud becomes a huge issue because even a relatively small number of fraudulent votes—or, conversely, suppressed votes—can make all the difference.

That is why something like voting by mail can have a crucial impact. At one time party machines had to actually have armies of people to drive voters to the polls on Election Day. Now, in some states, those volunteers have several weeks to show up on the doorstop with an already-filled-out mail-in ballot that only needs to be signed so the volunteer can then post it or deposit it.

Make no mistake, I am in debt to the mail-in ballot process. As an expat, I have necessarily been voting by mail for more than a decade now. But I have to wonder. Many people who would not have voted in past elections are now voting because volunteers take the initiative to get them to vote. In that case, who is really voting? The person who signs the ballot or the volunteer?

There was something quaint yet reassuring about the traditional way of voting. On the same day everywhere across the country everyone went individually into the voting booth and—alone with his or her own heart or conscience—cast their own vote. Now, as more people vote at home, I have to wonder how much sanctity there is in voting.

Are we becoming a country, like too many others, where the political spoils belong simply to the machine that can exert the most pressure and promise the most favors to deliver enough votes to push its candidate over the finish line?