Individual Vs Collective Interests

Paul KrugmanTomorrow’s Paul Krugman column is a little unusual, Why We Fight Wars. It is based on some economics: namely that for advanced economies, wars are always a loser. It reminds me of my days in graduate school. We were looking carbon dioxide emissions throughout the 20th century. And we were all surprised that they went way down during World War II. But soon enough, we realized: even though there was a lot of war going on, the amount of commerce actually went way down. Bottom line: wars are bad for the economy.

Krugman’s interest is mainly in why we continue to fight wars when it isn’t in our national interests. Think about Hitler for a moment. He had a very strong economy and he could have kept the Rhineland and consolidated his power. It’s not like Poland was that great a prize. But as Krugman noted, wars are usually good for the leaders of countries:

And the fact is that nations almost always rally around their leaders in times of war, no matter how foolish the war or how awful the leaders. Argentina’s junta briefly became extremely popular during the Falklands war. For a time, the “war on terror” took President George W. Bush’s approval to dizzying heights, and Iraq probably won him the 2004 election. True to form, Mr. Putin’s approval ratings have soared since the Ukraine crisis began.

But I think the issue is more general, and it isn’t limited to war. It is often in the best economic interests of some part of the population to harm the economy. For example, war is very good for weapons manufacturers. In his film Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore presented a nice sequence about all the money to made in the aftermath of 9/11 as well as before, during, and after the Iraq War. So even though the Iraq War cost our country at least a trillion dollars, it worked out really well for some people.

Last week, Krugman’s column was on a related issue, Inequality Is a Drag. It was about the Standard & Poor’s report, How Increasing Income Inequality Is Dampening US Economic Growth, and Possible Ways To Change the Tide. But neither the article nor the report made the obvious point about the reason we have ever rising inequality: it is great for a small group of very powerful people: the oligarchs and those who do their bidding.

The issue that we will eventually need to deal with is the power of these oligarchs. They don’t have the interests of the country in mind. And it simply isn’t true that by distorting the political system to benefit themselves they make everyone richer. It’s even possible that their own long term interests are harmed by this behavior. This kind of short term thinking without regard to its effects has led to historically low taxes on the rich, extremely high inequality, and a crumbling middle class. But at the same time, the rich seem to think that they are excessively put upon. As I wrote the other day in StarPower: the Game That Shows We’re All Doomed, over the last three decades “we have gotten a class of [rich people] who have convinced themselves, not that the game is fair, but that it is unfair—to them.”

Denying Birth Control Denies Opportunity

Michael HiltzikI remember a woman friend of mine telling me that she had a difficult time getting men to use condoms for the sake of disease prevention. But when she added the fact that they could also get her pregnant without a condom, they changed their tune. So: potentially fatal disease, no problem; potentially life-changing child commitment, no way! These men understood that dying wasn’t as bad as having their entire lives derailed with an unwanted pregnancy. I think this story explains a lot about how men think. But even more important, it highlights the fact that birth control is an issue for men almost as much as for women.

Of course, it is broader than this. Birth control is a public health concern. A woman having a baby is a very expensive and potentially deadly thing. So it was with some consternation that I read a recent article by Michael Hiltzik, New Data: How the Attack on Contraceptive Services Targets the Poor. It is based on new data from the Guttmacher Institute that found that the percentage of women who need help affording contraceptive services keeps going up: from 16.4% of all women in 2000 to 20.0% in 2012. So the need has risen by 22% over that period, “But the number of those receiving assistance from publicly funded clinics fell by 9%.”

This is what liberals mean when they talk about the conservative war on women. This is all about efforts to cut funding to Planned Parenthood. Now I understand that conservatives claim this is all about their religious beliefs, but this flies in the face of facts. The 1973 Roe v Wade decision hardly caused a ripple in the evangelical community. But soon abortion because a big deal to them for reasons that entirely political. And now that their fight against abortion is going so well, suddenly the evangelical community find that they have a major problem with hormonal birth control and the IUD. Rubbish.

It highlights the fact that the conservative concern for women’s reproductive capacity has always been about something other than the fetus or even the pre-fetus. And that is where we get to the war on women. What exactly does depriving women of the most convenient forms of birth control do other than limit their choices? The rich don’t matter, because the rich always have choices. They have the choice to move to another country. But the choices of the poor can be limited. And by limiting reproductive choice, conservatives manage to limit all the other choices of young people—not just women.

Hiltzik provided a horrifying chart for unintended pregnancy rates from 1981 through 2006. What you see is that overall unintended pregnancy is flat. But this is because non-poor (>200% of poverty) women have seen their unintended pregnancy rates go way down; in 2006, it was half its rate in 1981. The rate of the poor and very poor have been going way up.

Unintended Pregnancy Rates 1981-2006 - Alan Guttmacher Institute

Now undoubtedly, this works both ways: poor women don’t have access to birth control and women saddled with unintended pregnancies tend to see their family’s earning potential reduced. But it doesn’t matter. Both are very good reasons to allow women more access to birth control. In fact, they are reasons to greatly increase our outreach to poor women to give them more information and resources. Hiltzik explained the situation in its most simple terms:

There is no more witless public-health position than one that targets women’s reproductive health. Preventing unwanted pregnancies pays off in multiples by reducing the burden on healthcare institutions and improving women’s work and career prospects and the health of their families.

But I’m afraid the whole point of the witless conservative public-health position is to damage not just women’s but men’s work and career prospects. Conservatives have a history of doing everything they can to limit what small opportunities the poor have through the use of social policy. And that’s all that’s going on with the current conservative attacks on Planned Parenthood and access to birth control.

Mark Felt Under Deep Cover

Mark FeltOn this day in 1913, the Associate Director of the FBI Mark Felt was born. Normally, that wouldn’t mean that much. But Felt is very important because he was “Deep Throat” — the whistleblower who was the source of much information to Woodward and Bernstein in the Watergate investigation.

I talked about this to some extent last year, but it bears repeating: Felt wasn’t lily white in the matter. He most definitely had an ax to grind against the Nixon White House. There’s nothing wrong with that. That is usually the way it is with whistleblowers. But at the time, whistleblowers are always treated as though any motives they might have make their revelations invalid.

We are seeing that today with Edward Snowden. And it is shameful. If it had been revealed in the early 1970s that Felt was a major source of information, all the establishment types would have said, “He’s just pissed off that he didn’t get the FBI directorship.” Well, today it is true that Snowden is an anarchist who would love to see the national security state dismantled. What I don’t understand is how that makes his revelations any less true or important.

I was interested to see that John Kiriakou (as lily white a whistleblower as you will find) gave Snowden the advice “DO NOT, under any circumstances, cooperate with the FBI.” Regardless, whistleblowers are critically important to the functioning of a democracy. But don’t expect the establishment to ever see that in real time. Like Bob Schieffer, the establishment will always be around to look back forty years and say, “Thank you whistleblower!”

Happy birthday Mark Felt!