Lanhee Chen and Conservative Apologetics

Lanhee ChenLanhee Chen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institute. And he had some advice for his fellow Republicans this morning, On Republican Priorities, Obama May Have a Point. That title makes Chen sound far more reasonable than he is. He starts by claiming that Obama has “lost almost all credibility” defending Obamacare. But he says that Obama may have a point when he says that the Republicans have not offered up what they are planning to replace it with. (Note to Mr. Chen: nothing.) He says that Republicans should debunk this claim, adding, “Now it’s time to coherently articulate a vision for what should replace the fundamentally flawed health-care law.”

Let’s stop right there. This is a conservative line that drives me nuts. It’s true: Obamacare is fundamentally flawed. And why is it fundamentally flawed? Because conservative fucktards like Lanhee Chen claimed that they were all for this “free market” approach to healthcare reform. But of course, the moment that the Democrats compromised and gave them their totally fucked up insurance company giveaway, the Republicans jumped back as though a cobra had just been dropped at their feet. Their great answer to healthcare reform was now, “Socialism!” Give me a fucking break!

But Chen is just getting started. He tells us, “Republicans aren’t lacking for ideas about what to replace Obamacare with.” According to him, conservative think tanks are overflowing with great proposals. Before getting to them, let’s just be clear. If the Democrats repealed Obamacare and tried to pass any of these “plans,” the Republicans would again turn on a dime and complain that the new plans were straight from the anus of Satan.

First he says there are real divides among the Republicans about how to provide healthcare to the tens of millions who don’t currently have it. But really there aren’t. He says that some conservatives “reject the very notion that expanding access to health insurance is a priority.” This is all tactical because none of them want to do anything. There are those who come right out and say that they don’t want to do anything. Then there are those who say they really do want to do something, but somehow whatever proposal is offered just isn’t quite right. Bottom line: they are against reforming the healthcare system because the people they care about are already served and they don’t care about the others.

He also notes that a big sticking point is cost. Oh yes, cost is always a big issue for Republicans. At least it is when they aren’t in the White House. And it is when the money might go to poor people. But when it will go to corporations or farmers or just rich individuals, the spigot is always on.

When he gets to all the great ideas that conservatives have regarding healthcare reform, he mentions only two important ones. The first one is an oldie that would make the current system worse: allow people to buy insurance across state lines! What this would do is allow young, healthy people in (say) California, which has laws requiring a certain level of coverage from insurance companies, to buy insurance from Mississippi, which has no such laws. This would make the insurance risk pool much more expensive in California. So this would lower health insurance costs on exactly the people who don’t need help while it increased costs on the people who do. It’s the perfect conservative policy. Brilliant!

The second one is also an oldie: tort reform! Prevent people who have been harmed from suing. Republicans love this because they always want to screw the poor and benefit the rich. Estimates are that lawsuits increase the cost of healthcare by—Wait for it!—upwards of 1%. That’s right! The second big policy idea of the Republicans would at most decrease costs by 1%. But what it would do is make the rich even richer. Again: the perfect conservative policy!

You may have noticed that the Republicans always find a way to propose the same ideas that they like for other reasons for every problem that comes around. Healthcare unaffordable? Tort reform! City smog getting you down? Tort reform! Can’t afford college. Reform the fucking tort system!

Chen also mentions “changing the existing tax treatment of health care.” That should be done but it is not going to make a big difference. He also thinks there should be more transparency in medical billing. Again: okay, but hardly an earth shattering idea. The thing to note about all of this is that even under the best of circumstances, all of these ideas combined would not even begin to accomplish what Obamacare already has. So Obama’s original criticism that Chen claims could be easily counted has gone unanswered by him or any other conservative I’ve ever heard from. (Note: all of Chen’s “great ideas” are the same garbage we always hear from conservatives.)

Lanhee Chen is involved in the great conservative cause: providing reasonable sounding excuses for why the Republican Party is totally useless. As with the Republican establishment, Republican intellectuals are primarily interested in providing political cover. I can see why someone like Josh Barro is so hated in the Republican Party. He actually has policy ideas. People like Lanhee Chen offer nothing but apologia for the cause. The modern conservative movement is rotten to its very core.

Waltz for Bill Evans

Bill EvansOn this day back in 1557, the Italian Baroque painter Agostino Carracci was born. He was also a printmaker. I’m not that fond of his work, but he is rather good. One of the earliest astronomers to make observations of “deep sky objects” (e.g. galaxies) Pierre Mechain was born in 1744. The Russian opera composer Yevstigney Fomin was born in 1761. Here is the Finale from The Coachmen at the Relay Station:

Psychology pioneer, Wilhelm Wundt was born in 1832. Russian illustrator Ivan Bilibin was born in 1876. Economist E. F. Schumacher was born in 1911.

Writer Charles Bukowski was born in 1920. I am torn on him. On the one hand, he really isn’t a bad writer. I get tired of some of his obsessions and his beat hipster attitude, but he was an interesting guy who worked his craft. On the other hand, every idiot who can’t appreciate any decent literature loves Bukowski. And among men, there is more than a hint of misogyny in their “appreciation” of his work. Regardless, I will be very happy to never read another line of his for the rest of my life.

And the hand behind Scooter, Beaker, and Statler, Richard Hunt was born in 1951. Here he is as Beaker singing “Feelings”:

Australian director who has made a number of good American films (e.g. Crimes of the Heart), Bruce Beresford is 73 today. Actor Lesley Ann Warren is 67. Jackass, but extremely talented director James Cameron is 59. My generation’s Marlene Dietrich, Madonna is 55. Actor Angela Bassett is too. Timothy Hutton is 53. And Steve Carell is 51.

The day, however, belongs to the great composer and pianist Bill Evans who was born on this day in 1929. I don’t have much to say about his life. Whenever people do talk about his life they focus far too much on the drugs. I think it was all and always about the music. And the music speaks for itself. Here he is with Eddie Gomez and Marty Morell (who both provide amazing solos) doing the Miles Davis tune “Nardis”:

Happy birthday Bill Evans!

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Limits of Ideological Economics

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman is continuing his discussion of the legacy of Milton Friedman with a discussion of why conservative economists—many of them great at the science itself—are resistant or even impervious to contrary information. This round started with yet another terse and impenetrable Brad DeLong article that Krugman helpfully translated into English.[1] The observation has two parts. First, in the 1960s, Friedman predicted the stagflation of the 1970s. As a result of this, “liberal”[2] (mostly Keynesian) economists took note of this and changed how they looked at the economy. Second, in the 1990s, Krugman predicted the liquidity trap of the late naughts. As a result of this, conservative economists have largely refused to rethink how they look at the economy. Instead they just come up with excuses as to why the data don’t show what the the data very clearly do show.

Krugman proposes two reasons why there is this asymmetry. First, as I have argued, it is that the conservative economists are in love with their computer models. I know about this. When I was in the academy, I wrote very big computer models of the environment. It is very easy to think that the model is more real than the system that it models. I have even heard scientists complain that some phenomenon cannot be happening purely because their model does not allow it. It is sad, but very understandable. And given that the efficient market models are very complex, they can easily become and end in themselves. Krugman suggests that the economists who use this kind of theory find it comfortable and hard to give up.

His second reason is more to the point however: politics. He notes that while there is nothing particularly liberal about Keynesianism, monetarism is most definitely conservative. Krugman is being much more blunt than people normally are in polite company. But I want to take it further (no one would ever mistake me for polite company). The conservative economists are not really doing what I consider science. Science starts with data and leads to theory. I don’t see that from Friedman and other conservative economists. To me they are looking only for theories that will further their ideological prejudices.

Look at what happened in the 1970s which led to, as Krugman puts it, “Friedman’s promotion to demigod status.” After that, the conservative “fresh water” community did not celebrate that Keynes’ theory had been expanded. Not at all! They celebrated that Keynes had been destroyed. Can you imagine if Einstein had gone around scoffing at Galileo? Of course you can’t because Einstein was a scientist who was building on the work of Galileo. I can’t say for sure that Friedman did or did not look that way at Keynes. But it certainly seems that Robert Lucas did. And so did most of the louder voices in the movement.

Over the past few years, I’ve heard lots of garbage from these kinds of thinkers. One of the most annoying is the idea that government stimulus spending can’t help the economy because of Ricardian Equivalence. This is a very old theory that if the government borrows money to stimulate the economy, the tax payers will just cut their spending, because they know that they’ll have to be taxed to pay for the government spending. There are a couple of problems with it. First, even if it is true, who says that the money spent this year will need to be paid back right away? Couldn’t that money be paid off over ten years and thus the stimulus would work? Second, really?! Do people really behave this way? I just don’t see it.

The point is that there really should be no question that stimulus works. The data are overwhelming. But conservative economists reach very far to come up with theories to justify what they want to believe. I’m not claiming that they aren’t smart, because clearly they are. But ideology blinds them to the point where they can only find certain kinds of results. In the case of Friedman, this probably helped him to look at the economy in a different way. But right now, it is blinding them. It reminds me of Obamacare. It came from the Heritage Foundation. Clearly the people who came up with it were smart. They had to be! They ruled out at the start the most obvious healthcare solutions that were all working well throughout the developed world.

So conservative economics can be useful but in the long run all of its proponents will turn out to be minor figures. History will see them for the ideological apologists that they were (and are). The question for us today is how long we are going to allow our politicians (conservative and liberal alike) to use their apologetics to avoid doing the right thing.


[1] The problem is not that DeLong uses jargon, although sometimes he does. It is just that he assumes that everyone knows what he knows and he doesn’t work at clarifying what he’s getting at. Some have leveled the same criticism at me.

[2] The reason I put “liberal” in quotes is that what is today considered “liberal economics” is really not ideological; it is just science.

The GOP Disintegration in Real Time

RNCTo me, “Reince Priebus” sounds like a vegetable that I don’t like. But in fact, he is just the head of the RNC. And although I don’t like him, he is entertaining. But I only say that because I’m not a Republican. If I were, I would feel the same way toward him as I did when Joe Lieberman said, “The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”

After weeks of whining about a couple of Hillary Clinton biopics, Priebus and his RNC voted unanimously to not allow NBC or CNN to host any Presidential primary debates in 2016. This is just silly. It is likely that Clinton herself is none too unhappy about these biopics that, regardless of how positive they are toward her, will bring up all kinds of negative history. So I would think that the RNC would wait to see what kind of portrait the networks produce before it goes nuts.

Just this morning, I wrote about how the Republican establishment is concerned about what is happening to the party. But if the RNC isn’t part of the establishment, I don’t know what is. And this behavior is over the top. Priebus sounds like a petulant school boy. NBC News reported this morning:

“We’re done putting up with this nonsense,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said ahead of the vote. “There are plenty of other outlets. We’ll still reach voters, maybe more voters. But CNN and NBC anchors will just have to watch on their competitors’ networks.”

In other words, “We’re grabbing our toys and taking them home!”

Steven Benen’s analysis is exactly correct, “In case this isn’t already obvious, excluding major news organizations and replacing journalists with right-wing media personalities at debates is a great idea if Republicans intend to have a nice conversation with themselves.” The concern of the RNC is not entirely (or even primarily) about the sin of news agencies doing things they don’t countenance. There is a real concern that having the mainstream press involved in the primaries causes the candidates to pander to much to the middle and not enough to the conservative base of the party.

Look, I understand this idea. People in a political party should have the chance to vote for candidates who really represent their views and not just people who are considered viable in a general election. And this has been a problem for the Democratic Party for decades. But it isn’t a problem for the Republican Party. During the 2012 primaries, the debates became a bidding war to see who could be the most “severe” conservative.

What this whole circus illustrates is that the Republican Party has come full circle. After it lost the 2008 election, the most extreme elements in the party started pushing the idea that the party had lost because it was not conservative enough. This led to ridiculous statements like, “I think conservatism is a great idea; we ought to try it!” But after the pounding in 2012, even Reince Priebus was talking about change. In the RNC’s Growth and Opportunity Project report that he commissioned, it said, “The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself.” That was last December. So that idea lasted for 8 months and now he thinks it is best that the party go back to just talking to itself.

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! Get your tickets for a once in two century event. Not since the start of the 1800s has anyone gotten to see the disintegration of a major American political party. Even the Civil War couldn’t do it! But now is the time. Watch as the Republican Party purges its apostates! Experience the Republicans turning inward and becoming the pure old white people’s party! Thrill to the GOP’s plummeting vote totals! But don’t wait. This rare event will be over before you know it and you won’t want to miss it. You’ll tell your grandchildren, “I was there when the Republican Party disintegrated!” And you’ll be right, if you step right up, ladies and gentlemen! Get your tickets…

Data Implies Its Misuse

NSASo what are you wearing? Nothing?! You dirty girl! Wait! Is this online? Well, I guess it doesn’t matter given that everything I say or write is taken down—just in case it is ever necessary to use to convict me of a parking violation. I don’t want to get too conspiratorial, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the government had special computers to figure out what I’m thinking. And given this, the NSA can stop listening now because it, unlike my readers, already knows what I’m going to say.

Recently, I’ve been confronted with a lot of people telling me that they don’t care about government surveillance programs because, “I don’t have anything to hide.” This seems like a strange response to me. First, you all may not have anything to hide, but I do. I am working on of a high tech project that we are concerned will become known before we go public. And it is especially the kind of computer hackers who the NSA employs that we don’t want finding out about our work. Second, even if you don’t think you have anything to hide, you are wrong. You don’t want your social security number known. You don’t want your medical records know. You don’t want recordings of you on the toilet released on the internet. And finally, even if you personally have nothing to hide, there are lots of people who make your life better who do have things to hide. The most obvious example is the way that government agencies have gone after peace activists. Robust debate and dissent are critical to having a democracy.

Yesterday, Bart Gellman broke a big story over at the Washington Post, NSA Broke Privacy Rules Thousands of Times Per Year, Audit Finds. When I read that headline, I laughed out loud. Of course! And this is just what the NSA finds using their own screwed up idea of privacy.

Consider that in the first quarter of 2012, the NSA violated FISA 195 times. This is big news because the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act provides us with very few protections. To give you some idea of this, the FISA court is more or less a rubber stamp for law enforcement: anything they want, they get. You doubt me? As I wrote in February:

Funny thing about the FISA courts. The government has made 38,093 requests from 1979 through 2011. In that time, the FISA courts have denied—Wait for it!—just 11 requests. In fact, before 2003, they never denied a request.

Almost the first thing that Edward Snowden said publicly was that from his terminal at work, he could spy on anyone. Many people in the media and politics claimed that this was untrue, but it, like everything else he’s said, has turned out to be true. This most recent revelation ought to concern all those people who think that the government would never misuse the data they collect. Information is power. And currently, the NSA is collecting all the information they can just because they can. Such information does not sit idle for long. And there is an entropy problem: it tends to get mixed and ends up in places you would never predict.

Think about Edward Snowden. The people who claim that he is a villain and that we have nothing to worry about regarding the NSA are being inconsistent. It is not remotely possible that he was the only person who had access to that data that has or will use it in a way that we don’t approve of. And Obama’s idea of limiting the number of people who have access to the data will not fix the problem.

But this kind of misbehavior by people at the NSA, CIA, FBI, and the dozens of other “law enforcement” organizations isn’t even at issue in this most recent revelation. This one is just about the fact that the NSA having data about us means that they will misuse it. There is no need to even discuss the many nefarious aspects of the agency. The existence of the data implies its misuse. If we are going to address this problem, we must do it on the front side—on the collection side. After the data are collected, the battle is lost.

Now what was that you were wearing, you dirty girl?

Establishment Republicans Still Don’t Get It

Jim VandeHei and Mike AllenI’m no fan of Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei. They are are ultimate “inside the beltway” and “conventional wisdom” guys and I usually want to throttle them. But the fact that they are so plugged into Washington means that they can be believed when they report about what “people” are saying in Washington. So I was interested to see that last night they published an article about the concerns of mainstream Republicans, Eve of Destruction. It starts with a bold proclamation, “It is almost impossible to find an establishment Republican in town who’s not downright morose about the 2013 that has been and is about to be.” I’ll bet that’s true.

Right now, I’m very concerned about what the crazy faction in the Republican Party is going to do. The amount of damage they could do to the country is enormous. But they would also be doing great damage to their own party. Even five years ago, I would have thought that a bad thing. But increasingly, I think the only way forward is for the Republican Party to go away and the Democratic Party to split in half. So a government default would be very bad but it would have a silver lining. That’s not true for establishment Republicans; it is all downside for them.

But let me put it a little differently. In terms of policy, the establishment Republicans are just as vile as the Crazy Caucus. They are different in that they understand how politics works and that losing elections means losing power. A big part of the House Republican caucus is made up of inexperienced politicians. Over 100 Republicans in the House were first elected in 2010 or 2012. And a great many of them came to Washington thinking that our constitutional republic was about to be extinguished by the Kenyan socialist interloper in the White House. They are not people who take the long view because they think the crisis is right now.

For the record, I think there is something to what the crazy caucus is doing, even if they are unaware of it. Even though Republicans have lost plenty of elections from 1976 on, government policy has gotten more and more conservative. So in as much as the Republicans can lose elections and still get the Democrats to follow them, the Republicans win. The difference here is that the Republicans look awfully close to losing a voice in the debate. If they start winning only 30% of the seats in the House, they just won’t matter. (Or the party will finally make major changes for the better.)

So what are these morose Republican establishment types talking about? “Several influential Republicans told us the party is actually in a worse place than it was Nov. 7, the day after the disastrous election.” They make three points: (1) the party is hurting itself even more with groups that have been a problem for them; (2) those Republicans who tried to do something (e.g. Rubio on immigration) were beaten down; and (3) the Crazy Caucus wants to shut the government down this fall. Yep, that about sums it up.

But the fears of the Republican establishment are kind of silly from my perspective. The article says, “These Republicans came into the year exceptionally hopeful the party would finally wise up and put immigration and irresponsible rhetoric and governing behind them.” It is clear what the problem is here. Consider Rubio on immigration: he wasn’t willing to give much on the issue even at his best. That and an end to “irresponsible rhetoric” is what was going to save the party? The linchpins of the Republican Party are lower taxes on the wealthy and abortion restrictions on the poor. There are related issue here (e.g. cutting spending on the poor), but those two are what the party really cares about. I understand that they can’t moderate on the abortion issue: most of their popular support is on that issue. But they could come up with a more (I’m going to say it!) populist policy on taxes. I’m not saying they should start calling for huge tax increasing, but being against taxes under all circumstances is just stupid and irresponsible. But these establishment Republicans won’t even do that.

The problem with the Republican Party is that the extremists and the establishment don’t disagree about anything except tactics. The establishment members of the party are right to be worried. But if they really want to be pointing a finger at who is destroying their party, they will need to use a mirror.