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Rudy can fail

[ 0 ] January 8, 2010 |

One of the curious aspects of 9/11 is that, in an almost literal way, it somehow didn’t happen under the Bush administration’s watch. The self-evidence of this “fact” is illustrated beautifully by this.

(Of course there were many domestic terror attacks under Bush besides 9/11, starting with the anthrax business that so mysteriously went down the collective memory hole).

The reason why 9/11 didn’t happen during the Bush presidency is demonstrated by an elegant and impeccable syllogism:

(1) Terrorism only ever because our leaders are ‘weak,” on national security, i.e., they don’t throw enough crappy little countries against a wall, fail to torture enough people, etc.

(2) Republicans are never weak on national security.

(3) Ergo, 9/11 could not have happened while Bush was president.

The Politics of Glory

[ 0 ] January 7, 2010 |

Scott’s thoughts on the latest HOF ballot got me thinking about the whole “the first ballot ought to be sacred” line of thinking, this year ably represented by Jay Mariotti’s nonsensical preening.

Although I think the apparently increasingly common practice of having a different voting standard for players on the ballot for the first time is silly, it does highlight a problem with institutions like the HOF, which this year can be called the Andre Dawson Dilemma. Was Dawson an outstanding player for a long time, and a truly great player for a short one? Absolutely. Can he be compared to, say, Willie Mays without laughing? Absolutely not. Now there are some people who think the HOF should be reserved for players who can be more less reasonably compared to Willie Mays, which would mean that, ballparking it, there would be maybe 50 in there, tops.

I’m not saying, of course, that there have been 50 players as good as Mays — I’m saying that the difference between Mays and, say, Stan Musial is one of degree. The difference between Mays and Dawson is more one of kind.

But it seems a shame to have a Hall of Fame that is so restrictive that you end up shutting out lots of legitimately great players, including guys like (to just stick with Dawson’s fellow right fielders) Clemente and Kaline and Gwynn, all of whom in my opinion flunk the Willie Mays Test. On the other hand you don’t want to start putting Paul O’Neill and Jesse Barfield in there either, at least if you’re trying to maintain some standard of greatness as opposed to nostalgia-drenched pretty goodness. Dawson, who is south of Kaline but well north of Barfield, is very much in my particular gray zone.

One solution to this dilemma has been suggested by Bill James, who recommended having a Hall of Fame with different circles. Mays and Musial would get monuments. Kaline and Gwynn would get plaques. And there could be a place for the Jesse Barfields as well.

For now, the only division the voters have is this unwieldy informal business of not voting for guys on the first ballot, which seems arbitrary and ultimately pointless. (There’s the Veterans Committee of course but that’s another post).

Terrorball

[ 0 ] January 4, 2010 |

I’m quite sure I could beat LeBron James in a game of one on one basketball. The game merely needs to feature two special rules: It lasts until I score, and as soon as I score I win. Such a game might last several hours, or even a week or two, and James would probably score hundreds and possibly thousands of points before my ultimate victory, but eventually I’m going to find a way to put the ball in the basket.

Our national government and almost all of the establishment media have decided to play a similar game, which could be called Terrorball. The first two rules of Terrorball are:

(1) The game lasts until there are no longer any terrorists, and;
(2) If terrorists manage to ever kill or injure or seriously frighten any Americans, they win.

How else can one explain the extreme and ongoing over-reaction to last week’s botched attempt to blow up Northwest flight 253? Commentators from Glenn Greenwald to David Brooks have pointed out that demands that the government keep us completely safe from the risk of terror attacks are both absurdly infantile, and very helpful to terrorists, since such demands place the bar for what counts as successful terrorism practically on the ground.

Meanwhile, in the week that began with a terrorist incident in which no one other than the pathetically incompetent aspiring terrorist was hurt, approximately 47,000 Americans died. Around 13,000 of these people never reached old age, including nearly one thousand children.

Indeed over the past seven days approximately 350 Americans were murdered. About twenty of these murder victims were women killed by their husbands and boyfriends, while something like 35 were children who died as a result of abuse. Several hundred Americans committed suicide between Christmas and New Year’s Day and several hundred others died as a direct consequence of not having any medical insurance.

All of this is considered completely natural and normal and therefore not in the slightest bit newsworthy. At the same time, President Obama is being criticized for not rushing back to Washington from his holiday vacation because a wannabe terrorist managed to set his own underwear on fire.

On one level, Terrorball can be understood as a product of straightforward cynicism: Both politicians and media moguls know that fear can be exploited for power and profit. But the rules of the game have another source as well.

In the more than eight years since the 9/11 terror attacks, I’ve often been struck by inability or unwillingness of Al Qaeda to carry out occasional small-scale terror attacks within the United States. Given the climate of hysterical nationalism and rampant paranoia that continues to grip much of America in the wake of 9/11, setting off a car bomb once or twice a year on some big city street would probably whip up enough panic to satisfy the ambitions of any terrorist organization.

So why do Islamic terrorists continue to try to blow up commercial jetliners, rather than focusing their efforts on more vulnerable targets? Besides the most obvious reason – that there are very few such terrorists, and their destructive abilities are in fact extremely limited – it appears these terrorists understand the psychology of our political and media elites quite well.

That psychology dictates a third rule of Terrorball: destroying a commercial jet is the most terrifying form of terrorism, and if (when) terrorists once again manage this feat, in the face of all the elaborate steps taken to stop them, then they will have truly “won.”

Now why should this be? Part of the reason is that the normal conditions of airline travel, which create feelings of claustrophobia, helplessness, and a general loss of control, are ripe for exploitation by those who want to use fear as a political weapon, i.e., terrorists and those eager to enhance and manipulate the fear of terrorism.

Another reason has to do the imaginative capacities of our elites. The typical Congressional subcommittee chairman or cable news anchor or syndicated columnist can’t really imagine not being able to afford to take his child to a doctor, or being wrongly convicted of a crime, but he is quite capable of imagining being on a Paris to New York flight that’s blown out of the sky. And while it’s true the risk he faces of suffering this fate are very close to zero, they are not, as they are for a poor person, literally zero.

Terrorball, then, is an elaborate political game that seems irrational on its face – after all, it’s certain that more than 2.4 million Americans will die this year, and fairly likely that not even one of those deaths will be caused by terrorism — but which features its own peculiar logic. That logic reflects the anxieties of those who have created its rules, and serves the interests of both terrorists and those who profit from exploiting the fear of terrorism.

One market under God

[ 0 ] December 21, 2009 |

Jon Chait has an interesting piece in TNR on the sclerotic condition of contemporary conservative free market dogma, as it tries to parry the Obama administration’s response to the financial crisis, global warming, and health care reform. As Chait emphasizes, all of these issues are textbook cases of market failure, which means that as an ideological matter contemporary American conservatives have difficulty acknowledging they even exist:

Partisan self-interest–an accurate belief that Obama’s legislative failure offers Republicans the most likely road back to power–surely accounts for some of the party’s obstinacy. But at least as powerful is the deepening hold on the GOP of anti-government ideology.

Several years ago, I wrote in these pages that the fundamental difference between economic conservatism and economic liberalism is that the former is driven by abstract philosophical beliefs in a way that the latter is not. Conservatives believe that small-government policies maximize human welfare. But they also believe that they increase human freedom. Liberals, by contrast, believe in government intervention only to the extent that it increases human welfare.

If liberals could be persuaded that tax cuts would actually increase living standards for all Americans, they would embrace them. (This is why nearly all liberals believe that some level of tax rate, be it 50 or 70 or 90 percent, becomes counterproductive.) If conservatives came to believe that tax cuts failed to increase economic growth, most would still support them anyway, because they enhance freedom. As Milton Friedman once put it, “[E]conomic freedom is an end in itself.”

For this reason, liberals tend to do a better job at devising policies that maximize human welfare. They do not do a perfect job, nor is there always a singular definition of “human welfare”–some of the thorniest dilemmas of public policy involve trade-offs over whose welfare to maximize. Still, you’re going to fare better at maximizing human welfare if that is your sole goal, rather than one of two oft-competing goals.

Conservatism can succeed at maximizing human welfare when faced with government failure or some other circumstance that naturally lends itself to ideologically congenial tools, like inflation in the 1970s. But conservatism is plagued by blindness in the face of even textbook cases of market failure.

The piece also contains an amusing review of the too-seldom referenced GOP flip-flop on Medicare, which in the space of a few years has been transformed from the ultimate instrument of socialist tyranny to a sacred human right.

Saturday Night Science Debate

[ 0 ] December 20, 2009 |

Do anthropogenic factors play a role in climate change? Some say no:

(CNN)– In a late night posting on her Twitter feed, Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin continued to blast climate change believers Friday, calling the talks in Copenhagen, Denmark a representation of man’s “arrogance,” for believing people have an impact on nature.

“Arrogant&Naive2say man overpwers nature,” Palin tweeted.

“Earth saw clmate chnge4 ions;will cont 2 c chnges.R duty2responsbly devlop resorces4humankind/not pollute&destroy;but cant alter naturl chng,” the former Republican vice presidential nominee wrote.

More reputable experts argue that history shows again and again how nature points out the folly of men:

Throw grandma down the well

[ 0 ] December 17, 2009 |

So your taxes can be free.

The current estate tax mess is a story of almost mind-numbing greed and legislative incompetence. A quick summary: In 2001 Congress greatly decreased the (already tiny) number of estates subject to taxation, by gradually raising the exemption to its current level of $3.5 million per individual ($7 million per married couple), while lowering the tax rate on the non-exempt portion of estates from 55% to 45%. This by far the most progressive tax in American law, as it currently affects less than 1% of taxpayers while raising, even at the current radically reduced rates, tens of billions per year.

Because of various procedural manuevers, the law was scheduled to sunset in 2010, and then spring back to legal life in 2011, at the 2001 rates (individual exemption of $1 million/$2 million for married couples; 55% rate). This meant that if nothing was done there would be no estate tax in 2010. For the No Billionaire Left Behind wing of the GOP, this created a long lusted-after opportunity to eliminate the tax altogether (at a modest estimated cost of $1.3 trillion over the first decade after elimination, i.e. the price of one extra medium-sized Middle East war, which explains why the Neocon wing has been quietly opposing repeal. Or, if you prefer, the cost of one health care reform bill).

Still, nobody outside one of Grover Norquist’s more elaborate onanistic fantasies really believed the tax would be allowed to lapse altogether. A couple of weeks ago the House voted to make the 2009 rates permanent, with every single Republican present voting no (along with 26 Democrats).

Well today the Senate refused to go along, meaning that as of now there will be no estate tax next year. (One ironic consequence of this is that instead of subjecting a tiny handful of families to estate taxes, the disappearance of the tax will impose capital gains taxes on more than 60,000 heirs who would otherwise avoid them, thus proving that our leaders remain willing to tax the sort of rich if the only alternative is taxing the ultra-rich).

Blanche Lincoln and Jon Kyl are working on a compromise proposal that will raise the estate tax exemptions to $5 million individual/$10 million married couple with a 35% rate beyond that, but it now looks like any such measure will have to be applied retroactively to 2010 estates — a move which seems likely to trigger quite a few lawsuits. So at least trusts and estates lawyers (not to mention their richest clients) will be happy.

A random walk down Wall Street

[ 1 ] December 16, 2009 |

Whoops.

If you had bought $1000 worth of stock in each of the ten recommended companies on the day this article was published, and then held them until today, you would have watched your $10,000 investment transformed into $5,160 (or about $4,475 in 2000 dollars). By contrast if you had simply bought a passive mutual fund that tracked the S&P 500 you would have about $7,470.

Fun quote:

The same reinvention skills are apparent in the management at Houston-based Enron. That company has successfully transformed itself from a traditional natural-gas outfit (complete with a 32,000-mile pipeline) into a middleman for the new economy. Last November, Enron launched an e-commerce site that lets companies trade electricity, coal, gas, and other energy commodities over the Internet. Total amount of deals brokered so far? Try $100 billion, which is more online commerce than anyone else–Amazon.com included. In conjunction, Enron is about to complete a 15,000-mile fiber-optic network that will help it broker the sale of that most precious resource right now, broadband capacity. Need extra pipes to run your telecom network during a busy season? Enron can actually buy bandwidth from one customer with excess capacity and sell it to another. That’s a lucrative strategy, given how explosively broadband demand is growing. Gannon at SunAmerica estimates Enron’s core gas business can easily grow profits 15% a year–a big jump over its competitors. Tack on the broadband service, which should turn profitable in a few years, and annual earnings growth can top 25%, he says. “Enron is going to become one of the leaders in broadband communications.” Not bad for a gas utility.

See also.

I don’t want to be that guy

[ 0 ] December 16, 2009 |

I.E., the guy who takes pride in not watching television, since

(a) I watch quite a bit of television; and

(b) I think getting academic credit for writing/talking about TV shows would be AWESOME. Indeed I would love to be the Stuart Scott of some Cultural Studies department — booyah!

But . . . all these end of the decade lists make me wonder: do people actually watch all these shows they’re arguing so passionately about? And go to all these movies? And listen to all these albums? (Or are they not called albums any more? I can never get that straight.)

Caveat: I love The Wire. And The Sopranos. Sort of loved Deadwood. But I would have thought the overlap of people who were regular watchers of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Wire and also have strong opinions about OK Computer and That One Film From Denmark About Coffee Shops was relatively modest. Apparently this particular Venn diagram includes 87% of the blogging population.

Now get off of my lawn.

Is the present HCR bill better than nothing?

[ 0 ] December 15, 2009 |

On the one hand:

(1) No single payer

(2) No public option

(3) No expansion of Medicare

(4) People will be forced to buy insurance they don’t want (btw about 17% of drivers on any given day have no car insurance although it’s legally mandated).

On the other:

(1) In theory, insurers will be barred rescinding coverage when people need to actually use their insurance, and denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions. I say in theory because a crucial aspect of the final bill (and exactly the kind of thing that gets decided in the most disingenuous and confusing way at the last moment during conference committee negotiations) will be exactly what sort of legal mechanisms will be created to enforce these “rights.” Absent a vigorous administrative process, federal legal mandates on giant insurers aren’t likely to mean much.

(2) There will be, for now, subsidies for purchasing insurance.

In sum, while it would be an exaggeration to say this bill is *no* improvement on the status quo, the improvement appears quite minimal, the political costs of enacting it are likely to be considerable (requiring people to buy health insurance sounds almost like a parody of what Rush and Co. claim the Democrat Party is all about), and the good stuff in the bill will be the easiest to strip out (the subsidies) or simply ignore (the new legal requirements on insurers) the second the Republicans are back in power.

On yet a third hand something is generally better than nothing. For me, the ultimate question is whether a weak bill will destroy the momementum for further reform, or will (like the 1957 Civil Rights bill) serve as a starting point — or at least a cautionary tale — for future efforts.

Update: Howard Dean says no sale.

The Killing Fields

[ 0 ] December 14, 2009 |

Ezra Klein argues that Joe Lieberman is willing to “cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people” for no better reason than to settle some old political scores.

This has put Washington Post editor Charles Lane in quite a tizzy. According to Lane, Klein is “essentially accusing Lieberman of mass murder,” and Klein’s “venemous post” is “beyond the pale.”

The underlying issue is Lieberman’s sudden discovery that expanding Medicare to allow people over 50 or 55 to buy into the program would require such a sacrifice in the way of Freedom(tm) that including such a proposal in any health care reform bill before the Senate would cause him to filibuster it.

Klein points out that a recent Institute of Medicine study suggests that lack of health insurance is causing about 20,000 excess deaths per year in the United States. This in turn suggests that successfully blocking health care reform would cause a lot of people to die who otherwise wouldn’t. Another way of putting this point is to say that blocking reform will kill people. Yet another way of putting it is to say that someone who has the power to block reform and chooses to exercise that power is killing people. (Or, in Lane’s intentionally hysterical formulation, “murdering” them).

As Yglesias points out, Lane’s sudden squeamishness about these sorts of rhetorical tactics might seem odd, given that he seems to have no problem with, for example, Charles Krauthammer and George Will publishing highly misleading columns on crucial public policy issues.

Nevertheless as Socrates or Miss Manners or possibly both pointed out, two wrongs don’t make a right, so the fact that Krauthammer likes to claim that Iranian agents are even at this moment contaminating our precious bodily fluids doesn’t mean it’s OK to publish misleading claims to advance one’s policy goals, no matter how noble. And the study Klein cites is a pretty weak one. It uses a very crude methodology — in essence it assumes that the difference in relative risk for mortality between insured and uninsured adults is accounted for completely by this single factor. That’s surely not the case, any more than, for example, the difference in relative mortality risk between high school dropouts and college graduates is wholly a product of different levels of education.

Update: As a commentator points out this is actually incorrect. I relied on the Urban Institute paper’s summary of the IOM’s study’s methodology instead of looking at the study itself, which was obviously a mistake. The study actually relies on a 1993 study that used a 1.25 hazard ratio associated with uninsurance after adjusting for multiple confounders. This earlier study, however, finds a relative risk running from 1.00 to 1.50 when employing a 95% confidence interval, which means that, using that confidence interval, the number of annual excess deaths associated with uninsurance ran from about 40,000 on the high end to zero on the low end.

To be fair, the study’s authors admit their estimate is a rough one, and that even if their method overstates the effects of lack of insurance on mortality by 50% that’s still a lot of dead people. (They could have made an even stronger argument by at least mentioning that the effects of under-insurance, given its prevalence, might be even more significant than those of uninsurance).

Furthermore their own data indicates that nearly half the excess deaths associated with uninsurance are taking place in one ten-year cohort: people aged 55-64. This, of course, is precisely the group that would benefit from the modest reform Lieberman now suddenly opposes.

Update: A further point that ought to be considered is that the effects of uninsurance on mortality don’t nececssarily show up when a person is uninsured. It’s quite plausible, for example, that lots of people covered by Medicare at the time of death died earlier than they otherwise would have because of the effects of decades of previous uninsurance.

The more general issue implicated by all this is to what extent it’s OK to accuse your political opponents of killing people when they advocate policies that produce excess deaths in comparison to the policies you prefer. As a pragmatic matter, the answer of course is “it’s OK to the extent it advances your goals.” As a matter of principle, the answer, I think, ought to turn to a significant extent on the degree to which the policies you’re opposing are actually intended to kill people as a first-order effect. Thus I see no possible objection even in principle to pointing out that Joe Lieberman (and other supporters of the Iraq war) wanted to kill a lot of Iraqis because he (and they) thought killing lots of Iraqis by invading the country would on balance generate good results. To be in favor of a war of choice, after all, is to be in favor of killing people who would otherwise not die so soon, because you believe killing them is necessary to achieve some worthy goal. That’s what it means to advocate invading another country, although you would never guess that from listening to high-flown speeches on the matter.

Things get more complicated when the deaths caused by your policy preferences are second-order effects of those policies. Saying that you’re in favor of invading Iraq even though this means you will be killing a lot of people in the process isn’t the same thing as saying you’re in favor of, for example, not criminalizing cigarettte smoking, even though not criminalizing cigarette smoking probably results in a large number of otherwise preventable deaths.

Lieberman’s position on health care is more like the latter than the former — which isn’t to say that I have any objection to using the kind of language Klein uses to condemn him. As Yglesias says, stark moralizing language works. And in politics what works must, to a point, be given preference over more complete and accurate descriptions of reality. What that point might be is needless to say often a difficult question. In this case it isn’t.

What part of this diagram . . .

[ 0 ] December 14, 2009 |

. . . does Harry Reid not understand?

Matt Yglesias fails to understand that the founding fathers put the filibuster in the Constitution for a reason

[ 0 ] December 11, 2009 |

They understood that the best way to protect minority rights via legislation was to employ a three-step process.

Step One: Create a system of legislative rules so inherently dysfunctional that nothing could be done about serious national problems until blood was on the verge of running in the streets.

Step Two: And then a miracle would happen.

Step Three: Ponies!

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