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The EPA, The Fate of the Planet, and the Neoconfederate Judiciary

[ 17 ] May 28, 2014 |

A very useful primer from Jon Cohn on the forthcoming war over crucial new EPA regulations of carbon emissions. A particularly key point, addressing the specious claim that Obama is defying Congress:

Actually, the opposite is true. The Clean Air Act of 1970, first signed into law by Richard Nixon and then amended twice, requires the EPA to regulate pollution that threatens public health and welfare. As the Supreme Court affirmed in a landmark 2007 ruling, it’s basically up to the EPA to decide what kinds of pollution meet that standard.

In 2008, Stephen Johnson, who was then the EPA Administrator, formally told President Bush that the federal government is “compelled to act” on climate change. Bush ignored the recommendation. One year later, Lisa Jackson, Johnson’s successor, issued an official “endangerment finding” that greenhouse gases were trapping heat inside the earth’s atmosphere and causing temperatures to rise. Among the dangerous consequences of this warming, the EPA warned, were higher rates of disease, stronger and more frequent extreme hurricanes, increasing wildfires and droughts, as well as rising sea levels that could literally wash low-lying coastal cities like Miami off the map. These are precisely the sort of harms that, by law, require EPA action.

To put it another way, the Obama Administration is carrying out the intent of Congress, as expressed in previously enacted legislation. This Congress is entitled to feel differently than its predecessors did. But to take away EPA’s mandate to act, it would have to pass new legislation that supersedes the old. In other words, it would have to amend or repeal the Clean Air Act itself. That’s not likely to happen.

Not A Newspaper, A Social Menace

[ 31 ] May 27, 2014 |

The New York Post is a disgrace, in case you forgot.

Today In Our American Meritocracy

[ 62 ] May 27, 2014 |

If you have the right connections and the right kind of worldview, like Robert Kagan, being disastrously wrong about everything is never a bar to getting a cover story to share your thoughts about how the country can make yet more disastrous mistakes.  Presumably this goes for your relatives and friends too.

You may remember Kagan making his reputation (such as it is) with the anti-wisdom of his puerile book, America is From Mars, Europe is From Venus, Now Let’s Blow Up A Lot of People For Reasons To Be Determined Later. Stephen Holmes’s review is not merely useful for its decimation of a largely forgotten book, but its analysis of a deeply pernicious worldview that is very much with us:

The book’s basic argument keeps crumbling under inspection because it rests on a sleight of hand. Its elementary fallacy lies in a selective application of its theoretical premise. A country’s foreign policy can become unrealistic if specially favored instruments prevent policy-makers from facing up to threats that must be addressed by other means. From this true premise, however, we cannot infer, as Kagan does, that Europe’s meager military capacities make European assessment of threats unrealistic while the United States’ formidable military capacities make American assessment of threats realistic. The illusions of the jungle are no less pernicious than the illusions of the garden. Kagan touches on this point when he allows, “The stronger may, in fact, rely on force more than they should.” But he does not integrate this insight into his basic argument. Indeed, he devotes no attention at all to the role of irrationality in the making of American foreign policy, even though he knows full well that a missionary impulse pervades Washington’s understanding of the United States’ global role, spoiling his clean contrast between realistic Americans and utopian Europeans.

A militarily weak society will typically underestimate problems that cannot be solved by civilian means alone. Just so, a militarily powerful society will typically underestimate problems that cannot be solved by military means alone. Both mistakes are possible and both can be fatal, but Kagan pays attention only to the former. This is why, despite the occasional justice of his remarks about European self-delusion, he comes across more as a Bush-administration apologist than as a foreign-policy analyst. Are Paris and Berlin really more “in denial” than Washington? Do Europeans have a more distorted view of the contemporary security environment than Americans? Kagan thinks so, but he is wrong.

The United States’ unrivaled military power is not just a “tool.” It is also a warped lens distorting the way the Bush administration defines the direst threats facing the country. Acute problems that cannot be addressed by a unilateral deployment of American military power (such as North Korea’s horrifying slide toward becoming a serial proliferator of nuclear weapons) get much less sustained attention than problems (such as Iraqi noncompliance with UN resolutions) that can be addressed unilaterally and militarily. Oil dependency, underinvestment in foreign-language skills and global warming are three disparate examples of neglected national-security threats that are not made any less acute simply because they cannot be managed by unilateral military force.

And yet, it’s the Kagans rather than the Holmeses who will get the cover space from The New Republic.

…I like this, from njorl in comments:

How many Kagans does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Three, one to say how well it is going, one to say how nice the room will look when it is well-lit and one to tell the workmen that with enough force the bulb can be screwed directly into the ceiling plaster.

A Memorial Day Reminder

[ 53 ] May 27, 2014 |

Thank you John Roberts and Republican statehouses:

The failure of some states to expand Medicaid is leaving a quarter-million veterans without health insurance.

Many assume that all of the nation’s veterans are entitled to health care through the Veteran’s Administration, but that’s not the case; a veteran must have served for two continuous years or the full period for which they were called to active duty in order to be eligible. There are some exceptions — like for individuals who were discharged for a disability sustained in the line of duty — but about 1.3 million veterans remain uninsured nationwide.

The Author For People Who Think That Commencement Speeches Are a Major Contribution to American Intellectual Discourse

[ 158 ] May 25, 2014 |

Noted Deep Thinker Jonathan Safran Foer is “curating” some reading material for Chipotle packaging. He has some thoughts on the matter he wishes to share (annotated by Maria Bustillos):

I mean, I wouldn’t have done it if it was for another company like a McDonald’s [well, why not, exactly?] but what interested me is 800,000 Americans of extremely diverse backgrounds [wat] having access [!] to good [!] writing [!]. A lot of those people [‘those people’] don’t have access to libraries [?!] [(why not, if so)], or bookstores [?!]. Something felt very democratic [?!] and good [?!] about this.

Bustillos continues:

(a) Jonathan Safran Foer: how much are you getting paid for this exercise in democracy?

(b) Is there anyone in America who has “access” to a Chipotle, but not to a library or bookstore? If so, who? Who are “those people.”

(c) exactly how is a two-minute story on a fast-food cup, even one written by Toni Morrison or George Saunders, making up for the lack of “those people”’s access to a library?

The reviews of the work Foer solicited are equally outstanding. Whether Foer or Malcolm Gladwell has made the very worst contribution to this landmark of American letters seems hard to evaluate.

Should Journalists Do Journalism? A Debate

[ 178 ] May 24, 2014 |

Michael Kinsley, having long since lost his fastball, has become above all become committed to complacency. His pose is not exactly that he’s the only one to tell the truth: that everything is just fine. It’s more that we might reluctantly admit that injustices exist, but we shouldn’t do anything about them, particularly if this might mean conflict with our rightful overlords.

So when it comes to Kinsley v. Greenwald, I guess it’s not surprising that I’m strongly inclined to agree with Isquith. But more when I have a chance to finish Greenwald’s book.

This Week In the Machinery of Death

[ 33 ] May 23, 2014 |

Missouri’s strenuous attempts to torture someone to death are a particularly grim illustration of the moral bankruptcy of the death penalty.

Hopefully This Plan Originated in its Proper Form on a Cocktail Napkin

[ 113 ] May 23, 2014 |

Noah Smith notes that Levitt and Dubner have, in addition to a bunch of abject nonsense that caused even David Cameron to see he had better uses for his time, a plan to reform health care by Thinking Like a Freak (TM Freakonomics Book-Like Production Industries LLC.) It is as follows:

On January 1 of each year, the British government would mail a check for 1,000 pounds to every British resident. They can do whatever they want with that money, but if they are being prudent, they might want to set it aside to cover out-of-pocket health care costs. In my system, individuals are now required to pay out-of-pocket for 100 percent of their health care costs up to 2,000 pounds, and 50 percent of the costs between 2,000 pounds and 8,000 pounds. The government pays for all expenses over 8,000 pounds in a year.

From a citizen’s perspective, the best-case scenario is that they use no health care, so they end up 1,000 pounds to the positive. Well over half of U.K. residents will end up spending less than 1,000 pounds on health care in a given year. The worst case for an individual is that he/she ends up consuming more than 8,000 pounds of health care, so that he/she ends up 4,000 pounds in the red (he/she spends 5,000 pounds on health care, but this is offset by the 1,000 gift at the beginning of the year).

As Smith says, this plan refutes their earlier argument (“Isn’t that like having the government pay for your car, but only if you buy a Maserati?”). But, oddly, Smith says “if you asked me, off the top of my head, to come up with the optimal health care system, I would come up with something a bit like this.” Is this a good reform model?

Not at all. It is, first of all, addressing a problem that doesn’t really exist; by international standards the British system is very efficient. And like most conservertarian economic speculation, it’s worse than indifferent to questions of equity. (Incidentally, one of my favorite examples of this is the beloved conservertarian assumption that prices effectively sell goods to the people who most want them. Yes, clearly the owners of season tickets to the leather seats behind home plate at Yankee Stadium are the people in the New York area who love baseball the most.) The L/D plan would, in its majestic equality, allow the affluent person with a well-stuffed savings account and the low wager-earner drowning in debt alike to set aside $1,000 for health care expenses and to take the risk of incurring 4 grand of debt through events they have little or no control over. Indeed, their always-smarmy tone (“if they are being prudent”) suggests that the point of the plan is not so much health care provision as setting up a cheap moral lesson in thrift, a lesson that not coincidentally will be much easier for people similarly situated to Levitt than for the ordinary working person in 2014 to pass.

But let’s assume arguendo that we should ignore questions of equity, and also assume that the only relevant question is trying to determine how to collectively spend health care dollars in the most efficient manner. Even on its own terms, the plan doesn’t make sense. The L/D wouldn’t disincentivize health care spending per se; it would massively disincentivize seeking cheap preventive care. If you get regular check-ups, it costs you money; if you save money by skipping checkups and get an illness that could have prevented, the costs are largely paid collectively. In other words, the L/D plan discourages the most cont-effective forms of care while doing little to discourage the least cost-effective. Even on its on terms, I don’t see how this plan makes any sense.

Which isn’t surprising, since L/D have no actual expertise in health care policy. I’ll leave the final word to our commenter Royko: “I don’t know why, but there seems to be this strain of economic thinking that says: ‘If good, detailed, sophisticated economics can give us some limited insights into specific scenarios, then bad, lazy, off-the-cuff economics should be able tell us everything we need to know about any human activity.’”

Deep Thoughts, By Condi Rice

[ 67 ] May 22, 2014 |

At least in my window of social media, there remain a lot of people who seem to be very confused about the protests of commencement speeches. In the pundit class, Matt Bai is the latest to fail to understand the basic issues:

That followed the public floggings of several commencement speakers whose invitations had to be rescinded, including such evildoers as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde and Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.

First of all, this is just factually inaccurate. None of these people had their invitations “rescinded”; they chose to bow out rather than speak to their insufficiently deferential captive audience. (The facts, alas, don’t fit in quite as well with the narrative that we’re dealing with free speech martyrs.) Calling disagreement “flogging” is hard to square with a commitment to free speech. It’s also worth noting the students who protested have a much more sophisticated grasp on the issues than the pundits condescending towards them:

Michael Rushmore, who helped lead the student protests at Haverford College and was singled out for condemnation by Bowen, said he was frustrated by misconceptions about opposition to a scheduled speech by former University of California (Berkeley) Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.

For starters, Rushmore argues, commencement speeches are not like other campus speeches. There’s no dialogue, no policy debate, no question-and-answer session. Speakers come—nominally, at least—to honor the students, who have little choice but to attend. Often, as in Brigeneau’s case, speakers are offered an honorary degree.

Many critics have compared Rushmore and his fellow commencement dissenters’ actions to the time New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was shouted down by protesters at Brown University, but Rushmore condemns Kelly’s treatment.

“Our plans were never to shout him down while speaking,” he explained. “The plan was to wear a bunch of buttons that said, ‘Ask me about Robert Birgeneau.’ Hopefully they would become a topic of conversation.”

Precisely correct. To reiterate, commencement speeches are not about debate or the free exchange of ideas. They’re not like bringing a speaker onto campus; if the Model UN or College Republicans want to bring Rice in to deliver a talk that’s an entirely different issue. Commencement speeches are about honoring the speaker, often with the tuition money of students. The idea that students and faculty should shut their yaps and not give their opinion about who is worthy of such honors stands the idea of free speech on its head. We’re not talking about who has the right to speak; we’re talking about who should be honored by the university. These are very different questions.

I also wonder if the people who think that commencement speeches are about presenting controversial ideas in the context of open debate have ever attended a commencement ceremony. The typical commencement speech not only doesn’t have challenging ideas; for all intents and purposes it has no ideas at all. I happen to have a Condi Rice commencement speech right here. Here are some of the challenging, unsettling Profound Insights Rutgers students were cruelly deprived of:

I do not, however, remember a single word that the Commencement speaker said. And you won’t, either. [In fairness, this is unusual candor.]

You see, education is transformative. It literally changes lives. That is why people work so hard to become educated.

This university’s mission resonates with me on a very personal level, for I’ve learned in my own life the transforming power of education.

The first responsibility is actually one you have to yourself, and that is the responsibility to find and follow your passion.

There is nothing wrong with holding an opinion and holding it passionately. But at those times when you’re absolutely sure that you’re right, talk with someone who disagrees. And if you constantly find yourself in the company of those who say “Amen” to everything that you say, find other company.

A commitment to reason leads to your third responsibility as an educated person, which is the rejection of false pride.

The last two are especially precious in context. People, avoid echo chambers, be committed to public reason, and don’t surround yourself with lickspittles. Now let’s get going an launch a bloody, debt-financed invasion of Iraq right now because otherwise Saddam’s BALSA WOOD DRONES OF TERROR will come to destroy you and everyone you care about.

this, from Chris Taylor, is brilliant:

I’ve been insisting on the term spectacle because, as everyone knows, the operative fiction of Carter’s letter and Bowen’s sermon is bullshit. Not even your liberalist liberal, your deliberativest deliberative democrat, could in good faith claim that commencement speeches are scenes of open debate. They are, rather, capstone moments where the university takes on a body, incorporates itself, and seeks to establish the conditions of its corporate reproducibility. A lovely experience validating 240k in cash or debt, a spectacle for parents and future donors—but hardly a scene of debate or discussion! Just a droning message, some platitudes, and the implicit promise that the fundraising office will soon track you down.

Thus, Carter’s sarcastic reminder that students are “graduating into a world of enormous complexity and conflict,” his sarcastic injunction that childish student protestors not “sweep away complexity and nuance’”—all of this is the height of cynical bullshit. I can’t imagine that there’s a student protestor who would not have jumped at the chance to address the middlebrow dads of the world in the august pages of BloombergView, to be recognized as mature enough to participate in the dads’ super-smart high-intensity debates, nuanced and complex as they are. (I can’t imagine, moreover, that there’s a single student protesting the IMF’s Lagarde who is not aware of the US’s historical involvement in it, I can’t imagine that there’s a single protestor who would not be happy to disinvite the US—as Carter suggests students would not be—should the Statue of Liberty or something try to give a commencement speech. But Professor Carter insists on his students’ stupidity, their lack of sophisticated thinking. Ad te fabula…)

Goodridge and the Backlash Myth

[ 25 ] May 22, 2014 |

On the tenth anniversary of the landmark case, I note the number of people who suggested that the decision would be a disaster for LBGT rights, why they were wrong, and what that tells us about the courts and social change going forward.

The Majoritarian Difficulty

[ 90 ] May 21, 2014 |

A Republican governor up for re-election chooses not to appeal a ruling requiring the state to recognize same-sex marriages. What does that tell you?* Excellent news in any case.

Adam Serwer has an excellent piece about how judges, aware of the historic impact of the rulings, seem conscious about inserting memorable phrases. One might call this “Anthony Kennedying,” although most of these judges seem to do it better.

*Not understanding the message is Patterico:

Before you have a chance to blink, this will be the whole country. We’ll have none of this acceptance by society nonsense. Just cram it down the people’s throats through phony trumped-up legal doctrine. That’s the ticket.

Um, sorry, but acceptance by society is in fact here. I’m also afraid I’m going to require more explanation about why an application of basic equal protection law is a “phony trumped-up legal doctine,” particularly from people who suddenly discovered after the passage of the Affordable Care Act that McCulloch v. Maryland didn’t mean what everyone has assumed it’s meant for nearly 200 years.

(Bad) Economics 101 Colonialism

[ 174 ] May 21, 2014 |

Krugman is exactly right on the eighth-baked Levitt/Dubner plan to fix health care (which, indeed, would fix you real good):

I think there are actually several things going on here. One is a Levitt-specific, or maybe Freakonomics-specific, effect: the belief that a smart guy can waltz into any subject and that his shoot-from-the-hip assertions are as good as the experts’. Remember, Levitt did this on climate in his last book, delivering such brilliant judgements as the assertion that because solar panels are black (which they actually aren’t), they’ll absorb heat and make global warming worse. So it’s true to form that he would consider it unnecessary to pay attention to the work of lots of health economists, or for that matter the insights of Ken Arrow, and assert that hey, I don’t see any reason not to trust markets here.


But one thing you surely shouldn’t do — one thing that even Friedman would or at least should have said you shouldn’t do — is cling to the idealized free-market model when it makes lousy predictions.

In the case of health care, we know that all the assumptions behind free market optimality are grossly violated. Maybe, maybe, you could still justify treating health as a normal market if free markets in health care seemed, in practice, to work well. But they don’t!

Levitt is arguing that the NHS, which comprehensively covers the population for far less money than non-comprehensive coverage costs in the United States, should be made more like the American system. This is what happens when you wade into a subject in which you not only obviously have no specific expertise but haven’t even thought through the issues carefully.

Reading Levitt on health care or climate change, I immediately think of what Katha Pollit said about Christopher Hitchens on abortion:

I never got the impression from anything he wrote about women that he had bothered to do the most basic kinds of reading and thinking, let alone interviewing or reporting—the sort of workup he would do before writing about, say, G.K. Chesterton, or Scientology or Kurdistan. It all came off the top of his head, or the depths of his id. Women aren’t funny. Women shouldn’t need to/want to/get to have a job. The Dixie Chicks were “fucking fat slags” (not “sluts,” as he misremembered later). And then of course there was his 1989 column in which he attacked legal abortion and his cartoon version of feminism as “possessive individualism.” I don’t suppose I ever really forgave Christopher for that.

It wasn’t just the position itself, it was his lordly condescending assumption that he could sort this whole thing out for the ladies in 1,000 words that probably took him twenty minutes to write.

Relatedly, see Krugman on Brooks’s absurd “A Simpson/Bowles for every pot” argument yesterday. Among the countless reasons that government-by-insulate-elite-consensus doesn’t work is that beliefs like “the market for health care is just like the market for automobiles” and “during a period of mass unemployment, the top priority should be cuts to entitlement spending” are likely to be disproportionately represented.