The 1980 Libertarian Platform Today

Bernie SandersBernie Sanders (or more likely one of his staff members) decided to take a look at the platform of the Libertarian Party back in 1980. Why? Because David Koch ran that year as the vice-presidential candidate. And the platform is typically loony: we’ll only except everything! They want to get rid of Social Security and Medicare—those old people have it too good! They want to get rid of the EPA—we need more rivers on fire! They want to get rid of the Department of Transportation—we don’t need no stinking interstate highway system!

But some of the platform is kind of surprising. They are against compulsory health insurance, but apparently not auto insurance. And they make a point of saying that health insurance that covers abortion is double plus bad. They say that they are for the eventual repeal of all taxes, but right now they want an end to all income and corporate taxes. Get it? Taxes that hurt the rich must go now, but taxes that hurt the poor can wait. I’ve been long saying this, Libertarians Just Don’t Like the Poor. And that is only too clear if you look at the whole platform.

Nothing Can Be DoneMost surprising was this line, “We propose the abolition of the governmental Postal Service. The present system, in addition to being inefficient, encourages governmental surveillance of private correspondence.” I share their concern for government surveillance, but the Postal Service ain’t what we got to fear! However, notice what a radical suggestion this is. Libertarians normally talk about the Constitution as though it were a holy document. But here they don’t seem to understand that the postal service is in the Constitution and would require an amendment.

It continues, “Pending abolition, we call for an end to the monopoly system and for allowing free competition in all aspects of postal service.” This is delicious. Conservatives always look at the post office and see it’s one special privilege: its monopoly. But they never mention its responsibility: it is required to provide mail service to everyone. UPS and Federal Express want to take away the profitable parts of the USPS but not its unprofitable parts. What’s more, these conservatives never mention all the limitations put on the post office. If allowed, the USPS could put all those bottom-feeding payday lenders out of business.

What’s most distressing with the libertarian platform is the basis for my initial disenchantment with the movement. None of the good things that would actually increase personal liberty have moved ahead. But all the pro-corporate and pro-rich policies have made remarkable progress. As I always say: vote for libertarian rhetoric, get conservative policy. But the best example of a 1980 libertarian wet dream has made remarkable progress, “We urge the repeal of federal campaign finance laws, and the immediate abolition of the despotic Federal Election Commission.”

What’s interesting in this regard, is that the decimation of campaign finance reform has not been done with legislation. That might have upset the people. It was done by the courts. And if the conservative movement has been good at anything (and they have been good at many things), they have been good at getting people to accept “law and order” judges who were actually put in place because they were anti-individual and pro-corporate. Welcome to your new libertarian dystopia, America!

William Hazlitt Had Many Ideas

William HazlittHaving now done the birthday posts for over a year, I have the advantage of being able to go back and look at what I wrote last year. And the amazing thing is how much they evolved over time. By this point last year, they had just become something of a hodgepodge with my flitting from one person to another without rhyme or reason. That is rather typical of me in general, but not very interesting. And it is shocking just how little time I spend with the “winner” of the day. Of course, now I don’t necessarily have a lot to say, but it isn’t so scattered.

On this day in 1778, the writer William Hazlitt was born. He was one of the greatest essayists ever. Yet he isn’t well know, at least not compared to his friends like Coleridge and Wordsworth. But he is greatly loved by real intellectuals and also people like me who would like to be real intellectuals. I think there are a few reasons for this. One is that he is sharp witted. And not at all adverse to being mean, as you can see in the opening sentence of his essay, “On People With One Idea”:

There are people who have but one idea: at least, if they have more, they keep it a secret, for they never talk but of one subject.

But the essay itself isn’t cruel. He has rather nice things to say about such people. I think his interest is very much my own: I’m fascinated by people who have a singular focus. Now some of them are focused on things I too am interested in. And others are not. But I’m interested in these people as one is interested in a white raven or anything else idiosyncratic. (And yes, I am aware that many people look at me the same way. I just wish they would write an essay about it!)

Another thing about Hazlitt’s writing that impresses people (or at least me) is that it is remarkably dense but clear. Kant’s work is dense, but not at all clear. Orwell is clear—wonderfully so. But he would never write a thousand word paragraph. Here is the second paragraph of “On People With One Idea,” and it is the rule more than the exception in his work:

There is Major Cartwright: he has but one idea or subject of discourse, Parliamentary Reform. Now Parliamentary Reform is (as far as I know) a very good subject to talk about; but why should it be the only one? To hear the worthy and gallant Major resume his favorite topic, is like law-business, or a person who has a suit in Chancery going on. Nothing can be attended to, nothing can be talked of but that. Now it is getting on, now again it is standing still; at one time the Master has promised to pass judgment by a certain day, at another he has put it off again and called for more papers, and both are equally reasons for speaking of it. Like the piece of packthread in the barrister’s hands, he turns and twists it all ways, and cannot proceed a step without it. Some schoolboys cannot read but in their own book; and the man of one idea cannot converse out of his own subject. Conversation it is not; but a sort of recital of the preamble of a bill, or a collection of grave arguments for a man’s being of opinion with himself. It would be well if there was anything of character, of eccentricity in all this; but that is not the case. It is a political homily personified, a walking common-place we have to encounter and listen to. It is just as if a man was to insist on your hearing him go through the fifth chapter of the Book of Judges every time you meet, or like the story of the Cosmogony in the Vicar of Wakefield. It is a tine played on a barrel-organ. It is a common vehicle of discourse into which they get and are set down when they please, without any pain or trouble to themselves. Neither is it professional pedantry or trading quackery: it has no excuse. The man has no more to do with the question which he saddles on all his hearers than you have. This is what makes the matter hopeless. If a farmer talks to you about his pigs or his poultry, or a physician about his patients, or a lawyer about his briefs, or a merchant about stock, or an author about himself, you know how to account for this, it is a common infirmity, you have a laugh at his expense and there is no more to be said. But here is a man who goes out of his way to be absurd, and is troublesome by a romantic effort of generosity. You cannot say to him, “All this may be interesting to you, but I have no concern in it”: you cannot put him off in that way. He retorts the Latin adage upon you-Nihil humani a me alienum puto [“Nothing human is alien to me. -FM]. He has got possession of a subject which is of universal and paramount interest (not “a fee-grief, due to some single breast”), and on that plea may hold you by the button as long as he chooses. His delight is to harangue on what nowise regards himself: how then can you refuse to listen to what as little amuses you? Time and tide wait for no man. The business of the state admits of no delay. The question of Universal Suffrage and Annual Parliaments stands first on the order of the day—takes precedence in its own right of every other question. Any other topic, grave or gay, is looked upon in the light of impertinence, and sent to Coventry. Business is an interruption; pleasure a digression from it. It is the question before every company where the Major comes, which immediately resolves itself into a committee of the whole upon it, is carried on by means of a perpetual virtual adjournment, and it is presumed that no other is entertained while this is pending—a determination which gives its persevering advocate a fair prospect of expatiating on it to his dying day. As Cicero says of study, it follows him into the country, it stays with him at home: it sits with him at breakfast, and goes out with him to dinner. It is like a part of his dress, of the costume of his person, without which he would be at a loss what to do. If he meets you in the street, he accosts you with it as a form of salutation: if you see him at his own house, it is supposed you come upon that. If you happen to remark, “It is a fine day,” or “The town is full,” it is considered as a temporary compromise of the question; you are suspected of not going the whole length of the principle. As Sancho, when reprimanded for mentioning his homely favorite in the Duke’s kitchen, defended himself by saying, “There I thought of Dapple, and there I spoke of him,” so the true stickler for Reform neglects no opportunity of introducing the subject wherever he is. Place its veteran champion under the frozen north, and he will celebrate sweet smiling Reform; place him under the mid-day Afric suns, and he will talk of nothing but Reform—Reform so sweetly smiling and so sweetly promising for the last forty years—

That’s 870 words! And it includes a reference to Don Quixote![1] And it’s funny! I love the line, “Now it is getting on, now again it is standing still; at one time the Master has promised to pass judgment by a certain day, at another he has put it off again and called for more papers, and both are equally reasons for speaking of it.” I think that Hazlitt suspected, as I do, that Major Cartwright is happier than the rest of us with our many ideas. But whatever pain those many ideas caused him, Hazlitt wrote about them wonderfully for all of our edification.

Happy birthday William Hazlitt!


[1] This is from Chapter 31 of the second book. It took me a while to find the exact translation he used. It is from Tobias Smollett’s 1755 translation. John Ormsby later translated it, “I thought of Dapple here, and I spoke of him here.” Samuel Putnam translated it, “I happened to think of my gray, and so I spoke of him.” Edith Grossman translated it, “Here I remembered about my donkey, and here I talked about him.” The actual Spanish is, “Aqui se me acordo del rucio, y aqui hable del.” Take your pick, although I think Grossman is a bit too literal. Putnam strikes me as a more modern translation, even though his is 50 years older than Grossman’s.

Healthcare Cost Control and GOP Hysteria

RationingPaul Waldman at The American Prospect wrote a short article one of the reasons we have, The Most Expensive Health Care in the World. In it, he discusses charges to Medicare. He contrasts two drugs that are almost identical in the treatment of macular degeneration. One is Lucentis and the other is Avastin. But while Lucentis costs $2,000 per dose, Avastin only costs $50. So doctors prescribe the more expensive drug.

And why do they do this? Because it is to their advantage. Medicare pays doctors 6% of the cost of the drug for prescribing it. So they get $3 for prescribing Avastin and $120 for prescribing Lucentis. That’s not a hard decision for the doctor even though it is terrible for public policy. Waldman noted that the obvious fix to this situation is to give doctors a flat fee for writing prescriptions. If they got $10 whether they prescribed Lucentis or Avastin, there would be far less Lucentis prescribed.

But there is a problem. Waldman put it correctly, “Of course, the pharmaceutical lobby would pull out all the stops trying to keep that six percent fee in place.” This is a big part of the problem with allowing such an unequal society. I don’t think anyone really thinks that Congress is going to allow any policy changes that might hurt the pharmaceutical industry. Avik RoyAs it is, Medicare Part D wasn’t about providing drugs to the elderly. It was about providing profits to the pharmaceutical industry.

The whole thing comes down to price control. I’m reminded of a remarkable conversation that Ezra Klein had with Avik Roy last year. Roy goes on and on about the Switzerland system and the Singapore system. This is strange since he hates Obamacare, which is quite similar to them. But Klein hit back on this and got to the core of what matters in healthcare reform:

But in these systems, right, because when you talk about the one-seventh, Singapore is very cheap. Great Britain is very cheap compared to us. Canada is cheap. Sweden’s cheap. France is cheap. Everybody’s cheap. And what all of them do, the thing that they all do, is not health savings accounts, right? That is not the common denominator. The thing every single one of those systems do is the government is a primary negotiator. The government says how much can a drug company charge. The government says how much will a doctor’s visit cost. The government says how much a hip replacement will cost. And the per-unit price of health care in those countries is way, way, way down.

Roy agrees with this, but he shouts “Rationing!” whenever the issue comes up. So even though Roy is willing to admit in theory that we must do something to contain costs, he is never willing to support such measures in practice. And this is true of the conservative movement itself—most especially the GOP. Ideologically, they are committed to the idea that the free market is perfect and if only we ignore it all will be well. Of course, the actual evidence shows anything but.

The problem with the conservative approach is that it leads to the usual libertarian “utopia” where everyone is completely free to do anything they want if they can afford it. But in this world, the group that can afford it includes almost no one. Of course, even for the extremely rich, this situation is bad. A robust middle class is the engine of innovation. And if the rich want to have the next decade’s great innovations, they would want more equality. But I guess the idea of relative wealth is just too compelling for the rich and their apologists.

The healthcare situation all comes down to us finding a way to contain costs. We already ration healthcare in this country, we just do it by wealth. We are looking for a way to do it more fairly. No one is suggesting that the rich shouldn’t be able to buy the best care available. But we are saying that a base level of care should be available to all. The current system doesn’t work for the rich or the poor. It is just a system designed to unfairly enrich a certain part of the economy: doctors and pharmaceutical companies. And they would be doing fine regardless.

Marginal Worker Value

Capital in the Twenty-First CenturyIn Paul Krugman’s rave review of Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, he brings up one issue where the the book is weak. Inequality in America is still more about wages than capital. Now, this is changing and within a couple of generations, we will be as ossified an oligarchy as anywhere—probably more. But right now, conservatives can plausibly argue that income inequality in America is all about really brilliant people getting rich because they add so much to our economy.

This is the so-called superstar theory of income inequality. Both Piketty and Krugman dismiss it, noting that entertainers and such are a very small part of the super rich. But I don’t think that flies because conservatives would just claim that CEOs and hedge fund managers are also superstars. And in their cases (as Krugman noted), it is much harder to say what their true value is. So let’s take a look at movie stars and assume whatever we say about them is at least as true of corporate CEOs.

Johnny Depp is one of the biggest stars in the world. If he is in a movie, it will open. It might still suck and make no money, but Depp’s star power means that it will at least get a viewing—a chance at the box office, even if the studio is trying to kill it for other reasons. That is worth a great deal to producers. But the question I keep coming back to is this: what is its marginal value?

Johnny DeppIf Johnny Depp had never been born, or had gone into plumbing instead, would the movie business be fundamentally different? Would fewer films get made? Would profits be lower? I think the answer to all of these questions is, “No.” I think that Depp is a very talented and charismatic actor. But there are lots of talented and charismatic actors who are barely getting by—who might be doing a whole let better if they were as well connected as he is. So the question is not, “How valuable is Johnny Depp?” It is, “How much more valuable is Johnny Depp than the actor who would replace him?”

Unfortunately, it is impossible to have a direct comparison. We can’t run the universe over again without Johnny Depp and see how things turn out. But we do know that what makes a star is ineffable. We only need to look at Danny DeVito or Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger. So why would we think that Johnny Depp is worth a thousand times more than his character actor co-stars? I don’t think that we can. The same thing is easily as true of CEOs.

We have another problem: we allow our economy to be driven by technology. Johnny Depp is as rich as he is because of the invention of motion pictures and television. Had he lived two hundred years ago, he would have had to work harder for less because he would have been on the stage. Film technology is no longer patented. Its existence is in the public domain. But we forget that and allow its existence to distort the market. Conservatives are always on about how perfect the market is, but how can that be when the value of a product (for example, a performance) can be so different based upon the medium?

If we are going to allow such winner-take-all markets, we need to do something to level the playing field. It has long been the case that we have far too many people going into theater and music. But winner-take-all markets are increasingly the norm in all fields. And that just isn’t the way forward. It would bring about a stagnant economy with little innovation. What would be the point of innovation? Most people would be struggling just to get by and the rest wouldn’t have to do anything to get by.

Eventually, this all leads to the oligarchy that Piketty predicts. And at the moment, I don’t see any way out of it. The free market doctrine is too easy to understand and compelling in its simplicity. Talking about the marginal value of a worker is complex. What’s more, humans are very hopeful creatures. Everyone seems to think that good times are just over the horizon. We are all just one deal away, one job away, one interview away. We have all drunk the Horatio Alger Kool-Aid and we have a positive attitude about the world and the future. And it will be our downfall.

Afterword

I have nothing against Johnny Depp. I picked him to talk about precisely because I like him.

If anyone knows anything about the economics I’ve touched on here, please let me know because I’m flailing, trying to understand it.

101 Year Old Message in a Bottle

101 Year Old Message in a BottleRecently, a German fisherman,Konrad Fischer, discovered a message in a bottle off the coast of Kiel in the Baltic Sea. He took it to the Internationales Maritimes Museum in Hamburg and scientists there set about tracking down its owner. And shockingly, they succeeded.

The message was on a post card that had been badly decayed because of the ravages of time and moisture. The Museum intends to do more work to decipher the entire message. But they did determine the address and that it was a request that once found the bottle be returned to the sender. With some research, they found that it had to have been sent by the then 20-year-old Richard Platz.

Apparently, Platz was on a nature hike with a group in 1913 when he threw the bottle into the sea. And the bottle seems to have bobbed around for a century without anyone noticing it. The world really is a big place. It likely never made it out of the Baltic Sea. So you can imagine the number of bottles floating around the oceans proper.

Platz is long dead, of course; he would be 121 today. In fact, he didn’t live that long—dying at 54, shortly after the end of World War II. But the museum folk found his granddaughter, Angela Erdmann, who visited the museum and provided a little background about Platz.

We know three things about him, all good. First, he was the kind of nerd who put messages in bottles and threw them into the sea. Second, he liked to read. And third, he was a Social Democrat.

In this depressing world, the story of the consummation of a century old creative act is cheering.