Posts tagged ‘kevin drum’

Government Accounting: The Report That Says Green Loan Program is Profitable is A Total Joke

The government claims to be making huge profits on its greentech loan program, despite losses at companies like Solyndra.

The U.S. government expects to earn $5 billion to $6 billion from the renewable-energy loan program that funded flops including Solyndra LLC, supporting President Barack Obama’s decision to back low-carbon technologies.

The Department of Energy has disbursed about half of $32.4 billion allocated to spur innovation, and the expected return will be detailed in a report due to be released as soon as tomorrow, according to an official who helped put together the data.

The results contradict the widely held view that the U.S. has wasted taxpayer money funding failures including Solyndra, which closed its doors in 2011 after receiving $528 million in government backing. That adds to Obama’s credibility as he seeks to make climate change a bigger priority after announcing a historic emissions deal with China.

Even Kevin Drum calls partial BS on this:

And yet....I'd still remain a bit cautious about the overall success of the program. Out of its $32 billion in approved loans, half represent loan guarantees to nuclear power plant developers and Ford Motor. These are not exactly risky, innovative startups. They're huge companies that could very easily have raised money without government help, and which represented virtually zero danger of default. If DOE is including returns from those loans in its forecast, color me unimpressed.

The genuinely risky half of the loan program is called Section 1705, and it includes everything that most of us think of as real renewable energy projects (wind, solar, biofuel, etc.). DOE hasn't broken that out separately.

I call further BS.  It turns out this program is actually losing money, not making money.

  1. This "study" is a classic case of assuming your conclusion. The reason the risky parts of the portfolio would lose money is if they don't pay off over the next 20 years or so they have to run. But all the study says is "The $5 billion to $6 billion figure was calculated based on the average rates and expected returns of funds dispersed so far, paid back over 20 to 25 years." In other words, if the loans turn out not to be risky, they won't be risky. LOL.
  2. I bet they are not accounting for things like Ivanpah, there the holders of the government loan are looking to pay off the government loan with .. a government subsidy. So if you squint, the loan to Ivanpah looks profitable, but no rational person would come to that conclusion about the program as a whole.
  3. Ivanpah is just a subset of a larger problem. Companies like Tesla get government subsidies (and their customers get subsidies as well) from dozens of sources. Is it really a win for taxpayers if they pay back their government loan with government money?
  4. They count the 37 basis points above treasury rates that they charge as "profit". This is crazy. I run a fairly large business. No business is getting Tbills +37 BP loans. Heck, since Tbills are at about 0%, this means they are loaning money to private concerns at less than 1%. This is a crazy large subsidy.  I could make money in over a 2-5 year period in just about anything if I could borrow at effectively 0%.
  5. Worst of all, they are not using present value.  Let's say their average spread from the Bloomberg article is 100 BP over treasuries.  That means that ignoring loan losses on a $32 billion portfolio they are making a spread of $320 million a year.  Over 20-25 years that is $6-7 billion.  Less some large loan losses that is $5-6 billion.  But notice I never discounted.  This is just adding up nominal interest spreads over 25 years.  This is insane.  Absolutely no private investor on the planet would think like this.  If you discounted the interest spread payments at any reasonable risk-adjusted rate**, then the net present value may already be less than losses in Solyndra and others and thus already in the hole, even without considering future losses.  This report is an embarrassing political exercise, not a serious economic analysis.

All of this leaves out the inherent cronyism of the whole exercise.

 

** I would argue that in many of these loans, and despite interest rates charged in the 0-2% range, the government was taking an equity risk.  Worse than equity risks -- these are essentially venture capital investments risks with T-bill returns (note the one private comment on the returns in the Bloomberg article is from a venture capital investor in greentech).   The taxpayers are bearing all the risk but getting none of the returns.  Any discount rate for these risks under 15-20% is far too low.

Regulatory Deception

Kevin Drum quotes Politico about a coming series of Administration environmental diktats:

...The administration was committed to its upcoming deadlines many months ago, in some cases under court order, after postponing a number of the actions until after the 2012 or 2014 elections. Now that Obama is almost out of time, they’re coming all at once.

The whole "under court order" and "our of time" thing is an scam.  The Administration colludes with environmental groups to sue them demanding some regulation the Administration wants but knows it can't get through the regular legislative or regulator process.  The Administration immediately rolls over in the suit and settles, agreeing to implement the regulation it wanted in the first place.  Then it can claim the settlement of the court suit "requires" them to proceed with these regulations.  I can't tell if I should be embarrassed for the reporter writing this that they are so ignorant of how these suits work or angry that the reporting is essentially colluding in this deceptive practice.

I often wonder if Democrats really believe they will hold the White House forever.  I suppose they must, because they seem utterly unconcerned, even gleeful in fact, about new authoritarian Presidential powers they would freak out over if a Republican exercised.

Coyote's first rule of government authority:  Never support any government power you would not want your ideological enemy wielding.

Trend That Is Not A Trend: Rape Culture

From Mark Perry:

click to enlarge

I suppose one could argue that there is some change in reporting rates, since rape is well-know to be an under-reported crime.  However, I would struggle to argue that under-reporting rates are going up (which is what it would take to be the prime driver of the trend above).  If anything, my guess is that reporting rates are rising such that the chart above actually understates the improvement.

PS-  Folks commenting on this post saying that by reporting a declining trend I demonstrate that I don't care about rape or don't treat it seriously are idiots.  I have lived through dozens of data-free media scares and witch hunts  -- global cooling, global warming, the great pre-school sexual abuse witch hunt, about 20 different narcotics related scares (vodka tampons, anyone?).    Data is useful.    In this case, knowing there is improvement means we can look for what is driving the improvement and do more of it (though Kevin Drum would likely attribute it to unleaded gasoline).

"Trend that is not a trend" is an occasional feature on this blog.  I could probably write three stories a day on this topic if I wished.  The media is filled with stories of supposed trends based on single data points or anecdotes rather than, you know, actual trend data.  More stories of this type are here.  It is not unusual to find that the trend data often support a trend in the opposite direction as claimed by media articles.  I have a related category I have started of trends extrapolated from single data points.

For A Brief Moment I Almost Agreed With Kevin Drum, Then I Got Over It

Kevin Drum seems here to be making the case for Federalism

Via Vox, here's a colorful map from Broadview Networks that helps illustrate one reason that policymaking in Congress often seems so disconnected from the real world. It's because policymakers tend to be pretty well-off folks living in a pretty well-off region that shelters them from the problems many of the rest of us encounter. If you live in Missouri, you might be annoyed [about a local problem].  But if you live in Washington DC or northern Virginia, guess what? [Your local situation is much better]! Virginia is ranked #1 in the nation, and DC is right behind it. So is it any wonder that this really doesn't seem like a pressing problem in Congress?

Wow, this seems like a great argument for Federalism, as well as a number of libertarian critiques of government in general.   Good going, Kevin!

But then I realized he doesn't really believe this.  Drum is as much a supporter as anyone on the Left of Federal mandates over local action (e.g. Common Core).

Further, I realized that he was essentially nuts.  Because the issue he is lamenting is Internet speeds.  Some people have faster Internet than others, and he is just so frustrated that Congress does not realize this.  He actually seems to be hoping Congress will somehow intervene to equalize Internet speeds.  I would love to know, in these people's minds, if there are any issues to trivial for Congress to wade into.

By the way, if Congress had stepped into Internet regulation, we would still probably be surfing at 1200 baud.  After all, all that high speed Internet stuff might kill jobs at Hayes and US Robotics (makers of old telephone modems for those too young to remember).  Look at how long it took to get a political/corporate consensus on HD TV standards.  Ugh, we would probably all have that goofy French TV-computer solution the Left wanted to force on the United States 15 years or so ago.

Postscript:  The UN ITU spent a lot of time driving phone manufacturers to using micro-USB in a bid at government-led standardization.  The only problem is that micro-USB sucks.  It is ubiquitous, which is nice, but from a form and function standpoint is far harder to use and plug in than Apple's lightning connector, which is much easier to insert, less prone to damage, and can be inserted in either direction.  Perhaps young people with better eyes do not notice but I spend a lot of time jamming micro usb cables in the wrong way.  I hate having to put on my glasses just to plug in my phone, which is why I like my Nexus 5 with wireless charging.

Obamacare Newly Insured Numbers Miss by at least 50% vs. Projections

With our new prosthetic memory, called the Internet, it should be easy to go back and look at past predictions and see how well those predictions played out.  Heck, sports talk radio hosts do it all the time, comparing their beginning of season predictions with what actually happened.  But no one ever seems to hold the government or politicians similarly accountable.

Here is one I found by accident.  In July of 2011, Kevin Drum quotes this prediction from the CMS (Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a government agency).

In 2014, the Affordable Care Act will greatly expand access to insurance coverage, mainly through Medicaid and new state health insurance exchanges which will facilitate the purchase of insurance. The result will be an estimated 22.9 million newly insured people.

In March of 2014 Kevin Drum quotes this from the LA Times

As the law's initial enrollment period closes, at least 9.5 million previously uninsured people have gained coverage. Some have done so through marketplaces created by the law, some through other private insurance and others through Medicaid, which has expanded under the law in about half the states.

The tally draws from a review of state and federal enrollment reports, surveys and interviews with insurance executives and government officials nationwide.

....Republican critics of the law have suggested that the cancellations last fall have led to a net reduction in coverage. That is not supported by survey data or insurance companies, many of which report they have retained the vast majority of their 2013 customers by renewing old policies, which is permitted in about half the states, or by moving customers to new plans.

This is presented as a great victory, but in fact it is nearly 60% below expectations of less than two years earlier.  We don't know the final number.  Drum, who should be expected to be on the optimistic end of projections, has upped his estimate to 11-13 million, but this is still barely half what was expected.   The disastrous Obamacare exchange rollout did one thing at least -- it hammered expectations so low that even a 50% miss is considered a great victory.

 

Skeptics -- Don't Be That Guy Who Gets Us All Tarred as Anti-Science

Alarmists have adopted the seemingly farcical but oddly effective technique of finding the most absurd skeptic argument they can, then beating the carp out of this straw man, and then claiming that this proves that all skeptics are anti-science.

Don't believe me?  Kevin Drum did it yesterday, bravely taking on a claim -- that atmospheric CO2 concentrations have not increased in the last century -- that I have never seen a skeptic make and I am pretty active in the community.  Having beaten up on this odd, outlier position, he then claims this tars everyone who does not agree with him

Nonetheless, there you have it. In the tea party precincts of the conservative movement, even the simplest version of reality doesn't matter. If cheese denial is how you demonstrate you're part of the tribe, then anyone who denies cheese is a hero. The fact that you happen to be happily munching away on a slice of pizza at the time doesn't faze you at all.

Awesome.  So by this logic, everything Kevin Drum says about the environment is wrong because some moron environmental activists signed a petition against dihydrogen monoxide in a Penn and Teller Bullshit! episode

So, as a public service, I wanted to link to Roy Spencer's list of 10 skeptic arguments that don't hold water.  There are quality scientific arguments against catastrophic man-made warming theory.  You don't need to rely on ones that are wrong.

I agree with all of these.  I will say that I used to believe a version of #5, but I have been convinced as to why it is wrong.  However, it is still true that CO2 has a diminishing return effect on warming such that each additional molecule has less effect on warming than the last.  That is why climate sensitivity is most often shown as degrees of warming per doubling of concentration of CO2, meaning 400-800 ppm has the same effect as 800-1600ppm.

Postscript:  Drum choose to lampoon a position that is such an outlier it did not even make Spencer's list.  Spencer assumes even the craziest skeptics accept that CO2 is increasing, such that the bad science he is refuting in #7 relates to the causes of that increase.

Reminder: Until Very Recently, The Left Was Touting the VA as a Great Model for Government Run Health Care for All

This is from Kevin Drum in 2007:

As regular readers may know, Phil Longman thinks the VA model of healthcare is the best around. In the October issue of the Monthly, he takes his admiration to another level, suggesting that the best way to provide healthcare to the 45 million uninsured in America is via — what? I guess you'd call it a franchised version of the VA. Basically, the federal government would offer struggling municipal hospitals a trade: if you adopt the VA's management guidelines, the government will pay you to care for all those uninsured folks currently jamming up your emergency rooms and driving you bankrupt. Deal?

The supposed reason is that great panacea, electronic medical records, cited by the Left as the solution to all woes as often as the Right mentions the Laffer Curve.

"Since its technology-driven transformation in the 1990s...the VA has emerged as the world leader in electronic medical records — and thus in the development of the evidence-based medicine these records make possible." Hospitals that joined Longman's "Vista network" (his name for the VA-like franchise he proposes) would have to install the VA's electronic medical record software and would "also have to shed acute care beds and specialists and invest in more outpatient clinics." By doing this they'd provide better care than any current private network and do it at a lower cost.

Since that time, the Left has mostly stopped talking about the VA as a miracle solution, because it is becoming clear that the VA cuts costs the same way every state health care agency cuts costs -- by restricting capacity, leading to huge waiting times, and rationing care.  The scandal here in the AZ VA is just the latest

The chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs said Wednesday that dozens of VA hospital patients in Phoenix may have died while awaiting medical care.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said staff investigators also have evidence that the Phoenix VA Health Care System keeps two sets of records to conceal prolonged waits that patients must endure for ­doctor appointments and treatment.

"It appears as though there could be as many as 40 veterans whose deaths could be ­related to delays in care," ­Miller announced to a stunned audience during a committee hearing Wednesday.

Supporters of government health care like t o waive their arms about magic bullets, but the only strategy that has ever reduced costs in government health care systems is rationing and queuing (which is also a form of rationing).  Resources are always scarce, but the question is whether we want our health care rationed by government beauracrats or by ourselves.  The latter can only happen if we get away from first dollar and single payer medicine and find a way to get real, transparent price signals (which is the way every other service in this country is managed).

Update, Via Greg Mankiw:

"In Britain, even though they're already paying for the National Health Service, six million Brits—two-thirds of citizens earning more than $78,700—now buy private health insurance. Meanwhile, more than 50,000 travel out of the U.K. annually, spending more than $250 million, to receive treatment more readily than they can at home."

Which is the exact same way we run our education system -- everyone has to pay for a basic crappy level of the government monopoly product, and then if you can afford it you pay again to get a better private product.

If You Love Net Neutrality, Then You Can't Complain About Lack of ISP Competition and Investment

Kevin Drum laments that net neutrality seems to be dead, as he puts it:

So Google and Microsoft and Netflix and other large, well-capitalized incumbents will pay for speedy service. Smaller companies that can't—or that ISPs just aren't interested in dealing with—will get whatever plodding service is left for everyone else. ISPs won't be allowed to deliberately slow down traffic from specific sites, but that's about all that's left of net neutrality. Once you've approved the notion of two-tier service, it hardly matters whether you're speeding up some of the sites or slowing down others.

At some level, this statement is silly.   Really, does Netflix and Gmail really need the same connection speed?  And by the way, it makes a lot of difference whether investment is to give more speed to certain websites beyond what the consumer gets now vs. slowing down all the non-payers.  What honest consumer could ever see these options as similar?  Trust a progressive to consider cutting down all the tall trees to be equivalent to raising the short trees.

But here is another thought - Drum is among those who frequently complain about his lack of ISP choices and the slowness of developing speedier service.  But if I am an ISP, do I really want to invest billions in extra bandwidth when the benefits of this investment will accrue 100% to companies like Netflix rather than myself? And don't be confused, studies have shown Netflix using a third of all Internet capacity during peak times.  (updated data here, showing Google and Netflix together using more than half the capacity).  This strikes me as a free rider problem that normally the Left would jump right on.

It's hard to guess how things will play out, but there is a case to be made that Netflix and others paying for the bandwidth they consume will be a huge boon to home ISP access.  A second stream of income to ISP's based on bandwidth and speeds may be just what is needed to revitalize that business.  Of course, monopoly providers could just drop the money to the bottom line without doing anything to their infrastructure, but I trust that Netflix and Google will have every incentive to pound the hell out of ISP's who don't actually invest.  They are not particularly happy about this extra expense, so if they pay it, they are gong to make damn sure they get the speed and bandwidth they promised.  We individual customers have in the past had little power to influence ISP's bandwidth and speed investments, but now we have powerful allies.

Everything Looks Like a Nail When You Have A Hammer

Kevin Drum quotes Hugo Dixon on the Greek recovery:

Greece is undergoing an astonishing financial rebound. Two years ago, the country looked like it was set for a messy default and exit from the euro. Now it is on the verge of returning to the bond market with the issue of 2 billion euros of five-year paper.

There are still political risks, and the real economy is only now starting to turn. But the financial recovery is impressive. The 10-year bond yield, which hit 30 percent after the debt restructuring of two years ago, is now 6.2 percent....The changed mood in the markets is mainly down to external factors: the European Central Bank’s promise to “do whatever it takes” to save the euro two years ago; and the more recent end of investors’ love affair with emerging markets, meaning the liquidity sloshing around the global economy has been hunting for bargains in other places such as Greece.

That said, the centre-right government of Antonis Samaras has surprised observers at home and abroad by its ability to continue with the fiscal and structural reforms started by his predecessors. The most important successes have been reform of the labour market, which has restored Greece’s competiveness, and the achievement last year of a “primary” budgetary surplus before interest payments.

Color me suspicious.  Both the media and investors fall for this kind of thing all the time -- the dead cat bounce masquerading as a structural improvement.  I hope like hell Greece has gotten its act together, but I would not bet my own money on it.

Anyway, that is a bit beside the point.  I found Drum's conclusion from all this odd:

If this keeps up—and that's still a big if—it also might be a lesson in the virtue of kicking the can down the road. Back in 2012, lots of commenters, including me, believed that the eurozone had deep structural problems that couldn't be solved by running fire drills every six months or so and then hoping against hope that things would get better. But maybe they will! This probably still wasn't the best way of forging a recovery of the eurozone, but so far, it seems to have worked at least a little better than the pessimists imagined. Maybe sometimes kicking the can is a good idea after all.

For those that are not frequent readers of his, I need to tell you that one of the themes he has been pounding on of late is that the US should not be worried about either its debt levels or inflation -- attempting to rebut the most obvious critiques of his strong support for more deficit spending and monetary stimulus.

I would have thought the obvious moral of this story was that austerity and dismantling all sorts of progressive labor market claptrap led to a recovery far faster than expected**.  But since Drum opposes all those steps, his  conclusion seems to be simply a return to his frequent theme that debt is A-OK and we shouldn't be worried about addressing it any time soon.

** I don't believe for a moment that Greece has really changed the worst of its structural labor market, regulatory,  and taxation issues.  This story gets written all the time about countries like, say, Argentina.  Sustained incompetence is not really newsworthy, which is likely one reason we get so few African stories.  They would all be like "Nigeria still a mess."  A false recovery story gives the media two story cycles, one for the false recovery and one for the inevitable sinking back into the pit.

Tracking Changes in Those With Health Insurance

RAND has a study out on changes in people's sources for health insurance.  Once you get the hang of reading it, this is a great table:

click to enlarge

 

This is how to read it -- of the 40.7 million uninsured in September of 2013, 26.2 million remained uninsured, 7.2 million got new employer health insurance (ESI) , 3.6 million joined medicaid, etc.  But then some new uninsured were added back so the new total uninsured is 31.4 million.

One of the first things to notice is the marketplace number of 3.9 million is well below the Administration's claim of 7.1 million.  The Administration's number is not even within the error bar here, so one needs to be skeptical, if he was not already, of Administration sign-up figures.

We also can notice that the individual marketplace seemed to have shrunk from 9.4 million to 7.8 million.  No huge surprise, with all the cancellations that made the news last year.

The really interesting question, of course, is what happened to the uninsured.  We can use this table to look at net changes (millions of people).

2013 Uninsured 40.7
     To Employer -5.1
     To Medicaid -2.6
     To Individual +0.2
     To Exchange -1.4
     To Other -0.3
2014 Uninsured 31.4

To make sure everyone understands the math, 7.2 million left the ranks of the uninsured to get an employer policy, but 2.1 million previously insured by employers became uninsured.  The net is -5.1 million as shown.  All the other numbers are calculated the same way.

I have always had serious questions about the value of the Medicaid signups during this period.   Medicaid is not a limited enrollment product.  You can sign up bleeding on a gurney being rolled into the operating room, and in fact many do -- Hospitals are very good at enrolling people into Medicare as they walk in.  So it was really a misnomer in the first place that someone eligible for Medicaid is "uninsured" -- they are in fact insured, they just have not done the paperwork.  The Medicaid expansion in the PPACA probably helped, but many states that did not expand Medicaid had a lot of signups as well.

The exchange seems to have done little to affect the uninsured.  Net of the reductions in individual insurance presumably driven also by the PPACA, the exchanges reduced the uninsured by 1.2 million.

The really interesting number everyone is  looking at is the huge number of the insured that gained employer coverage.  Three quarters of the non-Medicare related reduction in uninsured (since I don't consider a lot of the Medicare signups a real reduction) were from people going onto employer plans.

Kevin Drum quotes Andrea Mcintyre as saying

If it’s correct, it was probably motivated multiple factors—I hate the word “synergy” on principle, but it comes to mind. The economy has been improving, so some of the previously unemployed have secured jobs with benefits. But CBO built in expectations about economic recovery, so I don’t think it’s quite right to try pinning all (or even most?) of the 8.2 million on that. The individual mandate, while weak in its first year, might be a stronger stick than we expected, nudging people to take their health benefits where they’d previously been opting out. Employers could be helping this move this trend along; the University of Michigan, for example, eliminated “opt out dollars” in 2014 (cash compensation for employees who declined coverage).

Drum add triumphantly

If this finding is confirmed, it's a genuine shocker. Although CBO projected that ESI would stay steady, there's been a lot of chatter about the likelihood of employers dropping coverage thanks to Obamacare. But that sure doesn't seem to have happened. So in addition to the usual sources of coverage—Medicaid, exchanges, sub-26ers—it looks like Obamacare has yet another big success story to tell, one that was almost completely unexpected.

Uh, maybe.  The employer insurance changes could also be an artifact of normal churn and of the odd study period.   The study period is only about half a year.  If there were annual patterns, ie with people losing employer health care early in the year and then gaining it at the end of the year, then only the gains would show up in the study and not the losses.  In fact, there is some reason to believe this is the case, as most corporations have open enrollment periods at the end of the calendar year.

But there is a more interesting issue here.  Folks arguing for Obamacare in the first place sold it by implying that most all the uninsured were uninsured because they could not afford coverage or did not have access.  Now it turns out a large block of the uninsured actually did have access and could afford it, they just chose not to buy it, for whatever reason.  Was this really what it was all about from the very beginning, forcing people to buy a product that they could afford but did not want?

Can One Be A Principled Moderate? And What the Hell Is A Moderate, Anyway?

Sorry, this is one of those posts where I am still struggling to figure an issue out, so bear with me if we wander around a bit and the ideas are a bit unfinished.

Kevin Drum and other progressives have been bending over backwards to argue that the now three year delay in implementing PPACA standards for private insurance policies is no big deal.

Really?  The PPACA is likely, for Progressives, to be the most important piece of legislation passed during this Administration.  Hell, based on the discussion when it was passed, for many it is likely the most important piece of legislation passed in the last three or four decades.  And when Republicans suggested delaying these same rules and mandates, e.g. during the government shutdown, they freaked, arguing that people should not have to go another day with their old crappy health care policies.

But now they just roll over and say, yeah, ho hum, this thing that everyone supposedly wanted is a political liability so its fine to delay it, no big deal.

If this were a signature piece of libertarian legislation (yeah, I know its hard to imagine such a thing) that was not being implemented by somebody I voted for and supported, I would be pissed.  I would be raking the President over the coals.

This difference in outlook may be why the Republican leadership hates the Tea Party.  The Tea Party gets pissed when folks they elect punt on the ideological goals they got elected to pursue.  They have no tribal loyalty, only loyalty to a set of policy goals.  The key marker in fact of many groups now disparagingly called "extremists" is that they do not blindly support "their guy" in office when "their guy" sells out on the things they want.

I have friends I like and respect -- smart and worldly people -- who are involved in a series of activities to promote political moderation.  What I have written in this post is the core of my fear about moderation -- that in real life calls for moderation are actually calls for loyalty to maintaining our current two major parties (and keeping current incumbents in office) over ideas and principles.

Which leads me to an honest question that many of you may take as insulting -- can one be a principled moderate?  I am honestly undecided on this.  But note that by moderate I do not mean "someone who is neither Republican or Democrat," because I fit that description and most would call me pretty extreme.  So "fiscally conservative and socially liberal" is not in my mind inherently "moderate".  That is a non-moderate ideological position that is sometimes called "moderate" because it is a mix of Republican and Democrat positions.  But I would argue that anyone striving to intellectual consistency cannot be a Republican or Democrat because neither have an internally consistent ideology, and in fact their ideology tends to flip back and forth on certain issues (look at how Republican and Democrat ideology on Presidential power, for example, or drone strikes changes depending on whose guy is in the Oval Office).

Moderates in my mind are folks willing to, or even believe it is superior to, take average positions, eg. "the PPACA just went too far and we should have had a less-far-reaching compromise" or "free trade agreements go too far we need a mix of free trade and protectionism".  They value compromise and legislative action (ie passing lots of laws in a fluid and timely manner) over holding firm on particular ideological goals.  I guess the most fair way to put it by this definition is they value consensus and projecting a sense of agreement and teamwork over any individual policy goal.

Postscript:  One other potential definition of "moderate":  One could argue that in actual use by politicians and pundits, "moderate" effectively means "one who agrees with me" and "extremist" means "people who disagree with me."  The real solution here may be to accept that "moderate" is an inherently broken word and stop using it.

Update:  There are areas where I suppose I am a moderate.  For example, I think that making definitive statements about what "science" has been "settled" in the realm of complex systems is insane.  This is particularly true in economics.  Many findings in economics, if one were honest, are equivocal or boil down to "it depends."  The Left is insanely disingenuous to claim that the science is settled that minimum wage increases don't affect employment.  But it is equally wrong to say that minimum wage increases always have a large effect on unemployment.  For one thing, almost no one (percentage wise) actually makes the minimum wage so we are talking about changes in the first place that affect only a couple of percent of the workforce, and may be mitigated (or exacerbated) by other simultaneous trends in the economy.  So of course their impact may not be large (in the same way that regulations on left-handed Eskimo Fortran programmers might not have much of an impact on the larger economy).

We have gotten into this bizarre situation that the science is suddenly always settled about everything, where it would be safer to argue that given the complexity of the systems involved the science can't be settled.  I liked this bit I read the other day in the Federalist

One of the more amusing threads that runs through the conversation among the online left is the viewpoint that the science is settled in every arena, and settled in their favor. The data backs the leftward view, and if it doesn’t, there must be a flaw in the data, or in the scientist, or secret Koch-backed dollars behind the research. This bit of hubris leads to saying obviously untrue things – like “every economist from the left and right” says the stimulus has created or saved at least two million jobs. Or that there’s “no solid evidence” that boosting the minimum wage harms jobs. Of course the media knows that these aren’t true, but they largely give these politicians a pass, because dealing in data and with academic research is their turf.

Folks on the Left who want to blame the Tea Party for the destruction of civil discourse need to look at themselves as well, declaring the science settled on everything and then painting their opponents as anti-science for disagreeing.  As I have pointed out before, this sort of epistemology is not science but religion, the appeal to authority backed by charges of heresy for those who disagree.

If I were going to make a political plea, it would not be for moderation but for better more respectful practices in the public discourse.

Counter-Proposal for Kevin Drum on Voting Rights

Kevin Drum argues that rules preventing voting in many states by felons are unfair.  After all, we don't deny them their first amendment rights for having been in prison, right?

Well, unlike Drum, I put voting further down the list of essentials for a free society, well behind property rights and the rule of law (see here and here).  If I wanted to get worked up about post-incarceration loss of rights, I would address the increasingly draconian post-incarceration restrictions on those convicted of even trivial "sex" crimes (treating 17 years olds that sent a nude selfie the same as a rapist).

However, let's talk voting.  Yes we do not deny ex-cons their first amendment rights.  But we do deny them their second amendment rights.  So I offer this compromise:

I propose this bipartisan compromise: Voting and gun ownership rights for convicted felons should be identical. Set them wherever you think is fair, but make them consistent. I am not sure this is really a very fair comparison -- after all, a politician can do a heck of a lot more damage than a gun -- but as I said, I am willing to compromise.

Explaining the Flaw in Kevin Drum's (and Apparently Science Magazine's) Climate Chart

I won't repeat the analysis, you need to see it here.  Here is the chart in question:

la-sci-climate-warming

My argument is that the smoothing and relatively low sampling intervals in the early data very likely mask variations similar to what we are seeing in the last 100 years -- ie they greatly exaggerate the smoothness of history and create a false impression that recent temperature changes are unprecedented (also the grey range bands are self-evidently garbage, but that is another story).

Drum's response was that "it was published in Science."  Apparently, this sort of appeal to authority is what passes for data analysis in the climate world.

Well, maybe I did not explain the issue well.  So I found a political analysis that may help Kevin Drum see the problem.  This is from an actual blog post by Dave Manuel (this seems to be such a common data analysis fallacy that I found an example on the first page of my first Google search).  It is an analysis of average GDP growth by President.  I don't know this Dave Manuel guy and can't comment on the data quality, but let's assume the data is correct for a moment.  Quoting from his post:

Here are the individual performances of each president since 1948:

1948-1952 (Harry S. Truman, Democrat), +4.82%

1953-1960 (Dwight D. Eisenhower, Republican), +3%

1961-1964 (John F. Kennedy / Lyndon B. Johnson, Democrat), +4.65%

1965-1968 (Lyndon B. Johnson, Democrat), +5.05%

1969-1972 (Richard Nixon, Republican), +3%

1973-1976 (Richard Nixon / Gerald Ford, Republican), +2.6%

1977-1980 (Jimmy Carter, Democrat), +3.25%

1981-1988 (Ronald Reagan, Republican), 3.4%

1989-1992 (George H. W. Bush, Republican), 2.17%

1993-2000 (Bill Clinton, Democrat), 3.88%

2001-2008 (George W. Bush, Republican), +2.09%

2009 (Barack Obama, Democrat), -2.6%

Let's put this data in a chart:

click to enlarge

 

Look, a hockey stick , right?   Obama is the worst, right?

In fact there is a big problem with this analysis, even if the data is correct.  And I bet Kevin Drum can get it right away, even though it is the exact same problem as on his climate chart.

The problem is that a single year of Obama's is compared to four or eight years for other presidents.  These earlier presidents may well have had individual down economic years - in fact, Reagan's first year was almost certainly a down year for GDP.  But that kind of volatility is masked because the data points for the other presidents represent much more time, effectively smoothing variability.

Now, this chart has a difference in sampling frequency of 4-8x between the previous presidents and Obama.  This made a huge difference here, but it is a trivial difference compared to the 1 million times greater sampling frequency of modern temperature data vs. historical data obtained by looking at proxies (such as ice cores and tree rings).  And, unlike this chart, the method of sampling is very different across time with temperature - thermometers today are far more reliable and linear measurement devices than trees or ice.  In our GDP example, this problem roughly equates to trying to compare the GDP under Obama (with all the economic data we collate today) to, say, the economic growth rate under Henry the VIII.  Or perhaps under Ramses II.   If I showed that GDP growth in a single month under Obama was less than the average over 66 years under Ramses II, and tried to draw some conclusion from that, I think someone might challenge my analysis.  Unless of course it appears in Science, then it must be beyond question.

If You Don't Like People Saying That Climate Science is Absurd, Stop Publishing Absurd Un-Scientific Charts

Kevin Drum can't believe the folks at the National Review are still calling global warming science a "myth".  As is usual for global warming supporters, he wraps himself in the mantle of science while implying that those who don't toe the line on the declared consensus are somehow anti-science.

Readers will know that as a lukewarmer, I have as little patience with outright CO2 warming deniers as I do with those declaring a catastrophe  (for my views read this and this).  But if you are going to simply be thunderstruck that some people don't trust climate scientists, then don't post a chart that is a great example of why people think that a lot of global warming science is garbage.  Here is Drum's chart:

la-sci-climate-warming

 

The problem is that his chart is a splice of multiple data series with very different time resolutions.  The series up to about 1850 has data points taken at best every 50 years and likely at 100-200 year or more intervals.  It is smoothed so that temperature shifts less than 200 years or so in length won't show up and are smoothed out.

In contrast, the data series after 1850 has data sampled every day or even hour.  It has a sampling interval 6 orders of magnitude (over a million times) more frequent.  It by definition is smoothed on a time scale substantially shorter than the rest of the data.

In addition, these two data sets use entirely different measurement techniques.  The modern data comes from thermometers and satellites, measurement approaches that we understand fairly well.  The earlier data comes from some sort of proxy analysis (ice cores, tree rings, sediments, etc.)  While we know these proxies generally change with temperature, there are still a lot of questions as to their accuracy and, perhaps more importantly for us here, whether they vary linearly or have any sort of attenuation of the peaks.  For example, recent warming has not shown up as strongly in tree ring proxies, raising the question of whether they may also be missing rapid temperature changes or peaks in earlier data for which we don't have thermometers to back-check them (this is an oft-discussed problem called proxy divergence).

The problem is not the accuracy of the data for the last 100 years, though we could quibble this it is perhaps exaggerated by a few tenths of a degree.  The problem is with the historic data and using it as a valid comparison to recent data.  Even a 100 year increase of about a degree would, in the data series before 1850, be at most a single data point.  If the sampling is on 200 year intervals, there is a 50-50 chance a 100 year spike would be missed entirely in the historic data.  And even if it were in the data as a single data point, it would be smoothed out at this data scale.

Do you really think that there was never a 100-year period in those last 10,000 years where the temperatures varied by more than 0.1F, as implied by this chart?  This chart has a data set that is smoothed to signals no finer than about 200 years and compares it to recent data with no such filter.  It is like comparing the annualized GDP increase for the last quarter to the average annual GDP increase for the entire 19th century.   It is easy to demonstrate how silly this is.  If you cut the chart off at say 1950, before much anthropogenic effect will have occurred, it would still look like this, with an anomalous spike at the right (just a bit shorter).  If you believe this analysis, you have to believe that there is an unprecedented spike at the end even without anthropogenic effects.

There are several other issues with this chart that makes it laughably bad for someone to use in the context of arguing that he is the true defender of scientific integrity

  • The grey range band is if anything an even bigger scientific absurdity than the main data line.  Are they really trying to argue that there were no years, or decades, or even whole centuries that never deviated from a 0.7F baseline anomaly by more than 0.3F for the entire 4000 year period from 7500 years ago to 3500 years ago?  I will bet just about anything that the error bars on this analysis should be more than 0.3F, much less the range of variability around the mean.  Any natural scientist worth his or her salt would laugh this out of the room.  It is absurd.  But here it is presented as climate science in the exact same article that the author expresses dismay that anyone would distrust climate science.
  • A more minor point, but one that disguises the sampling frequency problem a bit, is that the last dark brown shaded area on the right that is labelled "the last 100 years" is actually at least 300 years wide.  Based on the scale, a hundred years should be about one dot on the x axis.  This means that 100 years is less than the width of the red line, and the last 60 years or the real anthropogenic period is less than half the width of the red line.  We are talking about a temperature change whose duration is half the width of the red line, which hopefully gives you some idea why I say the data sampling and smoothing processes would disguise any past periods similar to the most recent one.

Update:  Kevin Drum posted a defense of this chart on Twitter.  Here it is:  "It was published in Science."   Well folks, there is climate debate in a nutshell.   An 1000-word dissection of what appears to be wrong with a particular analysis retorted by a five-word appeal to authority.

Update #2:  I have explained the issue with a parallel flawed analysis from politics where Drum is more likely to see the flaws.

Do We Care About Income Inequality, or Absolute Well-Being?

I have a new column up at Forbes.com, and it addresses an issue that has bothered me for a while, specifically:

Do we really care about income inequality, or do we care about absolute well-being of our citizens?  Because as I will show today, these are not necessarily the same thing.

What has always frustrated me about income inequality arguments is that no one ever seems to compare the actual income numbers of the poor between countries.  Sure, the US is more unequal, and I suppose from this we are supposed to infer that the poor in the US are worse off than in “more equal” countries, but is this so?  Why do we almost never see a comparison across countries of absolute well-being?

I have never been able to find a good data source to do this analysis, though I must admit I probably did not look that hard.  But then Kevin Drum (in a post titled “America is the stingiest rich country in the world”) and John Cassidy in the New Yorker pointed me to something called the LIS database, which has cross-country income and demographic data.  I can't vouch for the data quality, but it has the income distribution data and it struck me as appropriate to respond to Drum and Cassidy with their own data.

In short, Cassidy made the point that the Gini coefficient (a statistical measure of income inequality) was higher in the US than for most other wealthy western countries.  Drum made the further point that the US is "stingy" because we do the least to coercively alter this pattern through forced redistribution.

But all we ever see are Gini's are ratios.  We never, ever see a direct comparison of income levels between countries.  So I did that with the data.  I won't reiterate the whole article here, but here is a sample of the analysis, in this case for Sweden which has one of the lowest Gini ratios of western nations and which Drum ranks as among the least "stingy".  This is the model to which the Left wants us to aspire:

click to enlarge

 

I argue that the purchasing power parity(ppp) numbers are the right way to look at this since we are comparing well-being, and on this basis Sweden may be more equal, but more than 90% of the people in the US are better off.  Sweden does not have a lower Gini because their poor are better off (in fact, if you consider the bottom quartile, the poor are better off in the US).

We are going to see months of obsession by the Left and Obama over income inequality -- but which country would you rather live in, even if you were poor?

Read the whole thing, there are lots of other interesting charts.

Other Countries Have Higher Minimum Wages. They Also Have Higher Something Else...

Kevin Drum argues our minimum wage in the US is really low

blog_minimum_wage_median

 

A few quick thoughts:

  • I have a constant frustration that we never see these comparisons just on a straight purchasing power parity absolute dollar number.  Numbers related to income distribution are always indexed to a number that is really high in the US, thus making our ratio low.  I seriously doubt Turkey has a higher minimum wage in the US, it just has a much lower median wage.  Does that really make things better there?  I have this problem all the time with poverty numbers.  The one thing I would like to see is, on a PPP basis, a comparison of post-government-transfer income of the US bottom decile or quintile vs. other countries.  Sure, we are more unequal.  But are our poor better or worse off?  The fact that no one on the Left ever shows this number makes me suspect that the US doesn't look bad on it.    This chart, from a Leftish group, implies our income distribution is due to the rich being richer, not the poor being poorer.

  • Drum or whoever is his source for the chart conveniently leaves off countries like Germany, where the minimum wage is zero.  Sort of seems like data cherry-picking to me (though to be fair Germany deals with the issue through a sort of forced unionization law that kind of achieves the same end, but never-the-less their minimum wage is zero).
  • All these European countries may have a higher minimum wage, but they also have something else that is higher:  teen unemployment (and I would guess low-skill unemployment).

click to enlarge

Admittedly this only has a subset of countries, but I borrowed it as-is from Zero Hedge.  By the way, by some bizarre coincidence, the one country -- Germany -- we previously mentioned has no minimum wage is the by far the lowest line on this chart.

The Public Rail Spending Game

Kevin Drum has a very good, succinct description of how the rail (light rail, high speed rail, commuter rail) spending game works, in the context of California High Speed Rail (HSR)

As near as I can tell, the HSR authority's plan all along has been to simply ignore the law and spend the bond money on a few initial miles of track. Once that was done, no one would ever have the guts to halt the project because it would already have $9 billion sunk into it. So one way or another, the legislature would keep it on a funding drip.

It's a time-tested strategy, and it might have worked if not for a meddling judge.

Here is a great example of this from Chicago, where all they could afford at first was a single station.

I applaud Drum for opposing this boondoggle, but if he really understands this so well, I wonder why he seldom demonstrates any skepticism about other rail and mass transit projects.

Rail projects, particularly light rail projects that are being constructed or proposed in nearly every major city, are a classic example of a nominally Progressive policy that ends up hurting all the people Progressives want to help.

Bus-based mass transit is an intelligent way to help lower income people have more urban mobility.  Buses are relatively cheap and they are supremely flexible (ie they can switch routes easily).  Such urban bus systems, which like any government run function often have their problems and scandals, never-the-less can be reasonably held up as a Progressive victory.

But middle and upper class people, for whatever reason, don't like buses.  But they do like trains.  And so cities, under middle class pressure, have shifted their mass transit investment to trains.  The problem is that trains are horrendously expensive.    The first 20-mile leg of Phoenix light rail cost over $1.4 billion, which amounts to about $70,000 per daily round-trip rider.  Trains are also inflexible.  You can't shift routes and you can't sell them-- they have to follow fixed routes, which tend to match middle class commuting routes.

Because the trains are so expensive to operate, cities that adopt them quickly start cutting back on bus service to feed money to the rail beast.  As a result, even transit poster-boy cities like Portland have seen the ridership share of mass transit fall, for the simple reason that rail greatly increases the cost per rider and there is not an infinite amount of money available to transit.

 

Of Course The Health Insurers are Behind Obamacare. Its The Greatest Bit of Cronyism Ever.

Kevin Drum thinks it is an insight to his readers that the insurance companies are a source of support for President Obama in keeping Obamacare alive.  And perhaps it is a surprise.  After all, most of the anti-insurance company rhetoric was for the progressives, who are always fired up for any endeavor they think will punish a private corporation.

The rest of us understand that of course the health insurance industry is all for Obamacare. For them, this is the greatest bit of crony legislation in history. For all the Administration rhetoric, essentially the US government has required that every citizen buy their product, and subsidizes many of these purchases with taxpayer money. Corporatism is rampant nowadays, a bipartisan affliction, but ethanol is that only other industry I can think of that has been granted this ultimate crony grail of subsidies combined with a requirement to purchase  (though maybe ethanol wins because, at least for cellulosic ethanol, there is actually a mandate to purchase a product that does not even exist).

When Did the Senate Hit Peak Dysfunctionalality?

Kevin Drum argues that the Senate currently could not get any more dysfunctional, so unprecedented changes in the cloture rules by simply majority vote were justified.

But to my mind the peak of recent Senate dysfunctionality was when it passed the PPACA.  It passed a rushed piece of legislation 2000 pages long full of holes and errors that no one had even read.   When bribes (e.g. in Louisiana, Nebraska) were openly being offered to holdout Democratic Senators to gain their vote.

To this day, even Democratic supporters are expressing surprise at what they voted for.  Most of its key provisions (employer mandates, restrictions on individual policies) have turned out to be unenforceable.  While the Obama Administration has done plenty to screw up the exchanges, the problems began in the legislation itself that did not actually fund or specify a home for the web site development.  And because of implementation delays, we have not even gotten to the point where we can see the real problems with the law that many of us expected.

The Dems said that the filibuster made the Senate dysfunctional.  If the PPACA is what results from a "functional" Senate, I will take dysfunctional.

It Turns Out That Democrats Were Responsible for the Watergate Coverup

The Washington Post has a very good article on failures of Obamacare exchange implementation.  The Left is finding the article to be convincing evidence that the failures were all ... wait for it .. the Republican's fault.

Every single failure, save one, in the article (we'll come back to that one in a minute) was due to the Administration's fear of Republican criticism.  So results were hidden, bad decisions were made, and key steps were delayed until after the last election.  All because the Obama Administration appears to incredibly thin-skinned about criticism.

But blaming these decisions on Republicans and other Obamacare opponents is absurd.  One could easily say that the bad decisions made by the Nixon administration to cover up Watergate and other campaign shenanigans were driven by a fear of political reprisals by Democrats, but no one would be crazy enough to blame the Democrats for them.  It reminds me of the folks who wanted to blame failures in the Vietnam war on the anti-war movement.  But that is exactly what is going on here, and the amazing thing is just how many people seem willing to enable and support this incredible evasion.

The one other example that Republicans are supposedly to blame is latched onto by Kevin Drum, among others, quite eagerly.  Apparently, the PPACA legislation, which was written entirely by Democrats and passed without a single Republican vote, failed to actually provide financing for an enormous new organization to build and run the exchanges.  And, amazingly enough, Republicans refused to fix the Democrat's problem with the Democrat-written legislation in a law they hated and wanted repealed.  So the Obama Administration had to build the exchanges within the existing CMS organization, which botched the implementation.  And for THAT, apparently Republicans are to blame for it all.

Of course, beyond the just bizarre "buck stops anywhere but here" mentality, there are other problems with this logic.  First, it is hard to believe that a brand new greenfield organization run entirely by Obama's policy folks and completely without any systems experience would have done better than an organization that at least has some health care systems experience.  Further, would the schedule really have been aided by having to start an entirely new organization from scratch?  Finally, it is clear from the article that a large part of the reason for moving the work to CMS was not just money but a desire to avoid transparency, to bury and hide the work.  Even had the financing mistake** not been made, one gets the sense that Obama might have buried the effort inside CMS anyway.

In fact, this is the overriding theme from the entire article.  Every decision made for the Obamacare implementation seemed to be driven by political expediency first, avoiding transparency and accountability second, and actual results last.  It is well worth reading yourself to see what conclusions you draw.

 

** I am not entirely convinced it was a mistake.  Remember, the Democrats were scrambling to make the PPACA seem budget neutral.  They might easily have left out key bits of financing they know they needed, thinking they could hide the appropriation later.   A plan that died when Scott Brown was unexpectedly elected.

 

Progressives Lamenting the Effects of Progressive Policies

Kevin Drum writes

Via Harrison Jacobs, here's a recent study showing the trend in income segregation in American neighborhoods. Forty years ago, 65 percent of us lived in middle-income neighborhoods. Today, that number is only 42 percent. The rest of us live either in rich neighborhoods or in poor neighborhoods.

This is yet another sign of the collapse of the American middle class, and it's a bad omen for the American political system. We increasingly lack a shared culture or shared experiences, and that makes democracy a tough act to pull off. The well-off have less and less interaction with the poor outside of the market economy, and less and less empathy for how they live their lives. For too many of us, the "general welfare" these days is just an academic abstraction, not a lived experience.

He does not give a reason, and apparently following the links, neither does the study author.  But my guess is that they might well attribute it to 1. effects of racism, 2.  growth of the suburbs, 3. laissez faire capitalism.

I don't think racism can be the driver of this change, given that racism and fear of other cultures is demonstrably better in the last 30 years than at most times in history  (read bout 19th century New York if you are not sure).  The suburbs have been a phenomenon for 100 years or more, and capitalism has been less laissez faire over the last 30 years than at any time in our history.

I actually believe a lot of this income sorting is a direct result of two progressive policies.  I have no data, of course, so I will label these as hypotheses, but I would offer two drivers

  • Strict enforcement of the public school monopoly.  People want good schools for their kids.  Some are wealthy enough to escape to private schools.  But the only way for those who stay in the public school system to get to the best schools is to physically move into their districts.  Over time, home prices in the best districts rise, which gives those schools more money to be even better (since most are property tax funded), and makes them even more attractive.  But as home prices rise, only the most wealthy can afford them.  This is dead easy to model.  Even in a starting state where there are only tiny inhomegeneities between the quality of individual schools, one ends up with a neighborhood sorting by income over time.  Ex post facto attempts to fix this by changing the public school funding model and sending state money to the poorest schools can't reverse it, because at least half of school quality is driven not by money by by the expectations and skills of the parents and children in it.  Thus East St. Louis can have some of the highest per pupil spending in the state but have terrible schools.  A school choice system would not likely end sorting by school, but it would eliminate a huge incentive to sort by neighborhood.
  • Strict zoning.  There has always been a desire among certain people to exclude selected groups from their neighborhoods.  This desire has not changed, or if anything I would argue it has declined somewhat.  What has changed is the increased power that exists to exclude.  Zoning laws give the rich and well-connected the political vehicle to exclude the rabble from their neighborhoods in a way that never would have been possible in a free market.  I live just next to the town of Paradise Valley, which has very strict zoning that is absolutely clearly aimed at keeping everyone but the well-off out.  They will not approve construction of new rental units.  The minimum lot sizes are huge, way beyond the reach of many.

And the Insurance-Loss Spin Will Be....

I try to read a couple of team-politics blogs from both the red and blue side, to stay in touch with what they are saying and stay out of an echo chamber.  Also, of course, libertarians make common cause with both parties on various issues.  But the mindless team politics angle can really be a bore.

One of the reasons I like to read Kevin Drum on the left is that his initial reactions to things often seems pretty honest.  When his side really screws up, like the IRS scandal or failing Obamacare exchanges, his initial reaction will generally be to honestly critique a bad situation.  And then about 3-5 days into the scandal or crisis or discussion of an issue, he will catch on to and adopt the party line on an issue and then become incredibly tedious (for example, on the IRS scandal, he was honestly critical for a while and then adopted the silly "leftish groups were equally targeted meme" and has stuck to it by rote since).  But at least there are those few days of honesty, which separates him from a lot of the left and right team politics blogs.

So the timing is just about right for the Left to pick a meme to explain away the millions of people who are getting their policies cancelled despite being told that they could keep their health insurance.  Mainstream outlets like CBS and NBC are pushing the story, not just right-wing and libertarian blogs, so the Ezra Klein's of the world must be working diligently to pick a meme and then enforce it.  It will be interesting to see what they choose.

Update:  Well, here is an early entrant from Valerie Jarrett:

FACT: Nothing in forces people out of their health plans. No change is required unless insurance companies change existing plans.

This is hilarious.  Technically true, since my cancellation came from Blue Cross and not the government, but obviously the Blue Cross decision to cancel me was forced by the terms of the law.  This is obviously absurd, but is it too absurd for the media?  I don't know, and of course it gets extra lefty bonus points for blaming government-caused problems on private businesses.  Next up, Exxon to blame for gasoline taxes!

Yep, the Current Economic Stagnation Must Have Been Due to the Sequester and "Austerity"

jobs-report-annotated

Monthly job additions, taken from Kevin Drum's site, who blames this on.... austerity and the sequester.  Yes, I can't prove that the PPACA helped drive the stagnation, but the Left can't prove the austerity link either, and at least I have correlation on my side.

 

Another Trouble With Polls

The #1 trouble with polls is that the questions can be easily manipulated to shift the results quite a bit by small changes in wording.

But another problem in interpretation is that "opposition" to certain public policy goals is not well parsed.  Kevin Drum gives an example where "opposition" to Obamacare includes a lot of people who don't like it because they wanted it to be even more radical, believing the government should have gone even further or stopped short of the full policy prescription required.  But these numbers are typically just lumped in as "opposed" and the conclusion is frequently that all opposed thought the law went too far or should not have been passed.

My gut feel is that this is a non-partisan issue.  Just as easily folks could be opposed to, say, tax cuts or the government shutdown because they did not think it went far enough.

As far as Obamacare goes, it will be interesting to see what those numbers look like in 2 months.

Is Cronyism Private Enterprise's Fault or the Government's?

Oddly enough, this is perhaps the most frequent argument I have with people on the Left in cocktail party conversations.

It begins this way -- some abuse of "private enterprise" is cited.  Almost every time, I have to point out that the abuse in question could not occur if private companies were not availing themselves of government's coercive power to [fill in the blank: step on competitors, limit choice, keep prices high, rake in subsidies, etc.] Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story is very much in this mold, blaming bad outcomes that result in government interventions on free market capitalism.

Kevin Drum has a great example of this.  Asthma inhalers are expensive because certain companies used the government to ban less expensive competitive products.

Nick Baumann picks up the story from there:

The pharma consortium transformed from primarily an R&D outfit searching for substitutes for CFC-based inhalers into a lobbying group intent on eliminating the old inhalers. It set up shop in the K Street offices of Drinker Biddle, a major DC law firm. Between 2005 and 2010, it spent $520,000 on lobbying. (It probably spent even more; as a trade group, it's not required to disclose all of its advocacy spending.) Meanwhile, IPAC lobbied for other countries to enact similar bans, arguing that CFC-based inhalers should be eliminated for environmental reasons and replaced with the new, HFC-based inhalers.

The lobbying paid off. In 2005, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an outright ban on many CFC-based inhalers starting in 2009. This June, the agency's ban on Aerobid, an inhaler used for acute asthma, took effect. Combivent, another popular treatment, will be phased out by the end of 2013.

In other words, pharmaceutical companies didn't just take advantage of this situation, they actively worked to create this situation. Given the minuscule impact of CFC-based inhalers on the ozone layer, it's likely that an exception could have been agreed to if pharmaceutical companies hadn't lobbied so hard to get rid of them. The result is lower-quality inhalers and fantastically higher profits for Big Pharma.

Rosenthal has a lot more detail in her piece about how the vagaries of patent law make this all even worse, and it's worth reading. But she misses the biggest story of all: none of this would matter if drug companies hadn't worked hard to make sure the old, cheap inhalers were banned. How's your blood doing now, Dr. Saunders?

No one has more disdain than I for companies that attempt to use the coercive power of the government as a competitive weapon in their favor.  Heck, I have barely gone 2 hours since the last time I bashed an industry for doing so.

But the implication that this is all the fault of corporations is just wrong, as is the the inevitable Progressive conclusion that somehow more government regulation and powers are necessary to combat this.

The Left has been the prime cheerleader over the past decades in creating the Federal behemoth that not only allows this to happen, but actively facilitates it.   We have created a government whose primary purpose is to redistribute spoils from one group to another.

Just look at the example he uses.  These drug manufacturers could have protected their markets and products the free market way, by investing tens of millions in more research, manufacturing cost reduction, and customer marketing.   But instead, we have a system where - entirely legally - a company can spend a fraction of this (the chump change amount of half a million dollars) to market to a few dozen people in DC and get the same benefits as investing tens of millions in satisfying customers.    The wonder is not that losers like these drug companies go this route, but that anybody at all still has enough sense of honor to actually invest in the customer rather than in DC bureaucrats.

I put it this way - "invest in customers rather than DC bureaucrats" - because every new regulation, every new government power over commerce is essentially a dis-empowerment of consumers in the marketplace.  Nowhere is this more true than in pharmaceuticals, where the government tells consumers what they can and cannot buy.

In a free market, accountability is enforced by consumers defending their own best interests and new competitors seeking fortunes by striving to serve consumers better than market incumbents.  Every government intervention is essentially saying to consumers that the government is going to make yet another decision for them.  So, having taken over so many decisions of consumers in those huge office buildings in DC, is it any wonder that companies go to DC to market to bureaucrats rather than bother marketing to consumers?

The problem, then, is not that some corporations avail themselves of legal shortcuts to profits.  The problem is that these legal shortcuts exist at all.  The problem is the coercive power of government to intervene in markets, chill competition through incensing, subsidize one competitor over another, etc.  These kinds of stories are going to proliferate endlessly until  that power is scaled back.

The Progressives I argue with come back with one of two answers.

This is a crock, and is the worst bit of enablement for a bad system ever invented.   The folks in government are not bad people -- they are normal people with bad information and bad incentives, and that is never going to change.  After all, something that Drum glosses over here, the agency in hid example went along and did the industry's bidding.  I know why the industry was doing what it did, but why did the agency roll over?  The whole theory is that these are public spirited people without commercial incentives.  Yet they rolled over none-the-less.  And it's not like these government employees are Rothbardian libertarians.  I work with the government all the time.  Their employees are there because they believe in public solutions over private ones.  In outlook and biases and beliefs they look a lot more like Kevin Drum than myself.  So why do they get a pass?  Of the two people here -- the drug company guy and the regulator guy -- which one is not doing his job right for his constituents?  So why does the drug company get the blame?

Response 2:  We just need to ban lobbying and contact with the regulated industry.  The whole theory of regulation is that the regulators are totally knowledgeable about the industry, but they have different incentives so they can work in the public interest.  But how are they going to be totally knowledgeable about the industry without frequent contact?  Or even experience in the industry?  And as to lobbying, lobbying is just speech.  It would be Constitutionally impossible to ban lobbying, and wrong anyway.  Think of it this way-- let's say you ran a restaurant but had to get a government agency's permission for each change in your menu (just as drug companies have to get permission for each change in their product offering).  Would you be happy with a situation in which the government made decisions on your menu without consulting you?  You would want to explain your desired changes and the logic behind them, right?   That's called lobbying, and you would not be happy to see it banned.