Apr 12, 2016

Social Insurance and Leveling Incomes Is Pretty Easy

There's a new study out about income and life expectancy, and unsurprisingly it finds that rich people live much longer than poor ones — 15 years for men, 10 years for women. There's a smooth relationship between more money and more life, particularly at the very bottom of the income ladder, where there's a collapse of several years:

However, there are also apparently some geographic wrinkles here. Poor people do very badly in Nevada, West Texas, and Indiana, but much better on the west coast and Glenwood Springs. At the New York Times, Neil Irwin and Quoctrung Bui seize on locally-based policy as an interim step that would be much easier than fixing income inequality:
But the fact that some places have increased the life span of their poorest residents suggests that improving public health doesn’t require first fixing the broader, multidecade problem of income inequality. Small-scale, local policies to help the poor adopt and maintain healthier habits may succeed in extending their lives, regardless of what happens with trends in income inequality.
The sense of relief here is palpable. Thank Christ we don't have to change the distribution of income, because that is nigh-impossible.

But at least when it comes to policy design and implementation, the reverse is very obviously true. National-level programs to hand out checks to the poor — and thus level the distribution of income — are about the easiest policy it is possible to imagine. There is already a big check-writing bureaucracy, with detailed information about basically every person in the country. Adjust taxes a bit and send out more checks, the end.

Universal health insurance, or universal paid leave, or a child allowance would be somewhat more logistically challenging, but still easily within the remit of even the fairly incompetent American state.

By contrast, convincing thousands of local communities to drastically alter their local infrastructure and government programs would be a gargantuan political challenge. It means attention must be dispersed to thousands of simultaneous fights, tough in the best of circumstances — which this clearly is not, as most of the worst places are rural and conservative. Worst of all, local communities are generally far more resource-constrained than the national government. Poor people in Detroit do very poorly, for example. I'd say it's a safe bet this is because Detroit had most of its economic base torn out with a mellon baller a generation ago. Rest assured, Detroit knows all about this, and hasn't been able to do shit about it.

The only other obvious solution is that favored by conservatives: post-WWII-style population transfers from struggling to thriving communities. That would be hellishly expensive, probably not very popular, and has every chance of just creating a new struggling underclass in the previously-thriving location. San Francisco could not simply absorb all of Appalachia.

Anyway, that is not to say that improving local communities shouldn't be a high priority. It is, and should be. It's just vastly more difficult than using the tax system to shift money around, or creating universal social insurance.

I suspect Irwin is actually referring to wages when he says "income inequality," in keeping with the casual neoliberalism that dominates economics coverage in this country. This school of thought implicitly believes that wage labor is the only legitimate way of obtaining income (aside from capital rents, of course). Therefore whenever it might come up, welfare is either actively shunned, or more commonly excluded from the policy menu.

But the product of crummy social insurance and huge inequality is the exactly poor health and despair that is under discussion. So the "wonks" root around for any sort of wrinkle in the data that might suggest a course of action other than taxing the hell out of the rich and kicking the money down the income ladder. I dunno, tax credits for local wellness programs??

Don't be fooled. Simple transfers and universal social insurance are by far the most promising avenue for improving the lot of the American poor.

Mar 14, 2016

When outsiders get a chance at governance

Bernie's free college idea has convinced Matt Yglesias on the merits, but as he argues later, it's not that practical. Universities are run by states, and so Bernie's plan relies on matching funds at a 2-1 level. Total tuition at all public colleges and universities is only $70 billion, so the feds would pick up 2/3rds if states would pick up the other third.

Probably a lot of blue states would jump at this idea (the University of California alone contains 238,000 students), but as Yglesias notes red states assuredly would not. There's only so much leverage the feds have over states, and it's pretty tough to convince states that are dead convinced on pummeling their own citizenry.

And that's fair enough, policy design does matter. However, as with the single-payer scuffle and the ensuing extremely irritating debate about whether Bernie was being sufficiently deferential to the WONKS, I think much of unpolished policy can be chalked up to him being a political outsider for basically his entire national career before this year.

When you're a left-wing critic railing against centrist compromises like Obamacare, it's really not necessary or practical to have completely worked-out policy proposals for every single idea. For single-payer, for example, you just look at places like Canada or Taiwan, conclude that the basic idea is workable, add the obvious fact that Obamacare isn't going to cover everyone, and then put forward rough outlines or utopian bills.

But now that Bernie is a national contender making Hillary Clinton fight hard for the nomination, suddenly he's got to have "serious" proposals to impress the high-status DC gatekeepers. Unsurprisingly, they're often bit rushed, and sometimes don't have all the t's crossed and i's dotted policy-wise.

I see no reason to be unduly concerned about this. So long as his ideas are not completely impossible (and he has gone too far in some areas, to be fair), then it's the basic workability that matters. If he were to win, the details can be filled in later, when he will have command of the Democratic Party intellectual apparatus. I think a lot of "wonk" criticism of Bernie is more about affect and cultural deference than it is about policy (recall how Ezra Klein, a prominent Bernie critic, was briefly snookered by Paul Ryan).

And speaking of free college, what about Freddie's idea for five big new federal universities? Simple, utilitarian, cheap, administrator-lean, and free for any American citizen. Put the enrollment target at 100,000 per school and go from there.

Jul 13, 2015

Introducing "Polit-euro"

Henceforth the political power elite of the eurozone (mostly the top German politicos) are now called the "Polit-euro". This phrase got cut from my last piece (justifiably so I suppose, for such a bad pun), but I still think it's pretty good. Billmon gave me the idea, but so far as I know nobody else has used it yet. Go forth and troll some German MPs.

May 24, 2015

George Orwell and the Essayist Style

I recently reread The Road to Wigan Pier, which I first read in the Peace Corps probably about five years ago. I remembered quite liking the first half of the book, particularly the vivid sections on what it's like to work as a coal miner, while disliking the second half, though I couldn't remember why. It was something about socialism and the middle class, and it seemed vaguely muddled.

This impression was confirmed on second reading. The description of coal mining indeed remains brilliant, especially in structure. Orwell maintains a great sense of pacing, carefully building up each new agony that the miners endure, so that by the end a real appreciation of the awesome difficulty of coal mining is developed, as opposed to simply reaching for analogies or hyperbole.

The second half, however, is pretty bad. On occasion, as when Orwell is describing the peculiar anxieties of having grown up middle class, and why middle-class people like himself struggle with embracing socialism, he makes some good points. But elsewhere, as in his description of machines, he's just blowing smoke. As part of a general tirade against machines civilization, here he tries for a reductio ad absurdum against the idea that people might cultivate deliberately archaic methods of production as a way of occupying themselves:
But it may be said, why not retain the machine and retain ‘creative work’? Why not cultivate anachronisms as a spare-time hobby? Many people have played with this idea; it seems to solve with such beautiful ease the problems set by the machine. The citizen of Utopia, we are told, coming home from his daily two hours of turning a handle in the tomato-canning factory, will deliberately revert to a more primitive way of life and solace his creative instincts with a bit of fretwork, pottery-glazing, or handloom-weaving. And why is this picture an absurdity—as it is, of course? Because of a principle that is not always recognized, though always acted upon: that so long as the machine is there, one is under an obligation to use it. No one draws water from the well when he can turn on the tap. One sees a good illustration of this in the matter of travel. Everyone who has travelled by primitive methods in an undeveloped country knows that the difference between that kind of travel and modern travel in trains, cars, etc., is the difference between life and death. The nomad who walks or rides, with his baggage stowed on a camel or an ox-cart, may suffer every kind of discomfort, but at least he is living while he is travelling; whereas for the passenger in an express train or a luxury liner his journey is an interregnum, a kind of temporary death. And yet so long as the railways exist, one has got to travel by train—or by car or aeroplane. Here am I, forty miles from London. When I want to go up to London why do I not pack my luggage on to a mule and set out on foot, making a two days of it? Because, with the Green Line buses whizzing past me every ten minutes, such a journey would be intolerably irksome. In order that one may enjoy primitive methods of travel, it is necessary that no other method should be available. No human being ever wants to do anything in a more cumbrous way than is necessary. Hence the absurdity of that picture of Utopians saving their souls with fretwork. In a world where everything could be done by machinery, everything would be done by machinery.
I think we can conclude he was wrong here. In fact, the hugely advanced machine age (Wigan Pier was written in 1937) has not obliterated all desire for hand work. People are not very systematic about it usually, enjoying extreme conveniences like the airplane and the Internet without much thought, and even power planers, tablesaws, angle grinders, and so forth. But a reasonable number of people, like my friend Brad, do carry out basically manual manufacturing, by picking methods which usually use a lot of mechanical conveniences but also preserve a reasonable space for skill and hand work. Some even make quite a good living at it:

The Birth Of A Tool. Part III. Damascus steel knife making (by John Neeman Tools) from John Neeman Tools on Vimeo.

Of course, that is quite apart from the idea that one could provide for large-scale production and employment through adoption of deliberately inefficient and archaic methods. But in his contention that people would not possibly do this, Orwell was just wrong, as previously in the same section when he scoffed at the idea that white-collar people would stay in shape through working out with dumbbells.

That's the danger of the classic essayist method, which relies so much on the perspicacity of insight and quality of writing. When the subject is coal mining, and Orwell is down in the mine and speaking with the workers, his aim is true. But when it comes to the general politics of socialism, or future projections about the direction of civilization, a more systematic approach is a big help, I think, either with theory or some kind of systematic evidence. Simply relying on impressions for such large-scale phenomena risks allowing prejudice to creep in (Orwell clearly despised machines) and thus undercutting the authority of the writer's voice when he puts a foot wrong.

Max Max

Is great. See it. Once you're done, read Freddie, Marie, and Leah.

Mar 31, 2015

I Did Some Journalism

It's about jails, and why 3/5ths of people inside them have not been convicted of a crime. Here's the hook:
Paxil, or paroxetine, is a powerful psychoactive drug with a short half-life in the body. Zurn had not had a dose since the day before her arrest. So when she got to the jail, she began experiencing serious withdrawal symptoms. Delirious, dizzy, paranoid, and sobbing uncontrollably, she says she was placed in solitary confinement, as is common for mentally ill people. Alone for 23 and a half hours a day, and still without toilet paper, Zurn refused to eat. After two days, she was released. It was her birthday. "It was the worst two days of my life," she told The Week.

Jan 24, 2015

Ryan Cooper on John Oliver's show

Not that Ryan Cooper, the other one. You'll have to wait till the end, though:

Jan 13, 2015

Steve Randy Waldman on Fraternal Organizations

The history alone in here blew my mind, but the rest of it is also worth a listen:

Dec 27, 2014

Torture Follow-up

Here I argued that torture does not work for intelligence gathering, basically just recapitulating a large section from Darius Rejali's excellent book Torture and Democracy. I think it gets the point across fairly well, but reading it again I think I could have done a better job framing the argument.

The argument isn't that torture never results in a prisoner divulging true information — that clearly does happen on occasion. Rather, the argument is that torture is worse than traditional interrogation and investigation techniques. (As Josiah Neeley noted on Twitter, even a Magic 8-Ball will give you "correct" information through mere chance on occasion.) Torture apologists make grandiose claims about its effectiveness, arguing that it is far more reliable than traditional techniques. Torture is a great and terrible evil, so if it can be shown that it is even simply equal to non-coercive techniques, that obviously implies its use is absolutely inexcusable under any circumstances whatsoever. 

In fact that bar is cleared by a considerable margin. Not only is torture much, much worse than traditional interrogation techniques, it also has devastating side effects both for the agencies that practice it and the nation as a whole. The CIA just got off scot-free for spying on its congressional overseers in an attempt to intimidate them into burying the Senate torture report. As Rejali shows, careering lawlessness that strikes at the heart of a nation's constitutional order is common among organizations that torture.

Torture is rat poison for a liberal democracy.

Dec 11, 2014

Mark Udall on CIA Torture

Hell of a speech:

Just devastating he lost his election. Devastating.