Team Red=Team Blue, the Syria Episode

The anti-war movement has been a noted absence in America for the last several years. To me this has been a cacophonous silence, something much more evident and noteworthy precisely because of its disappearance.

My explanatory thesis of this phenomenon is very brief “Team Red=Team Blue” argument. Democrats and Republicans actually disagree on very few things. Outside of a few fractious issues like gun control and abortion rights, there are few real differences between the two parties. And indeed, these issues are used as banners to corral followers precisely because of their very intractability. The call for stricter gun control regulation is dead in the water. Abortion rights were settled in Roe v. Wade, and despite all of the War on Women talk, they aren’t going anywhere on the national level.

Rather, there is an abundance of perceived differences between the parties. The result is a battle of two brands to control the most powerful nation in the history of the planet, a struggle between Coke and Pepsi for literal world domination. The only difference is that I for one can clearly taste the difference between the Team Red and Team Blue of the cola world, whereas the Democrats and Republicans are both selling the same re-labeled talking points.

In the salient example of the Syria debacle, although both Democrats and Republicans are perfectly willing to support unnecessary military campaigns, the former party used to have a reputation as being staunchly opposed to foreign entanglements.

When W. Bush was in power, the anti-war movement was mobilized and powerful, with hundreds of rallies occurring in the US and globally between 2002 and 2008. On February 15, 2003, the world witnessed what some have called the largest protest in human history. The BBC estimates that 250,000 gathered in San Francisco, with another 100,000 in New York protesting the imminent invasion of Iraq. These numbers are dwarfed by the figures from Europe. Barcelona alone held demonstrations numbering 1.3 million strong. London was host to up to one million anti-war activists. Another million raised their placards in Rome.

The anti-war effort hit a profound snag, however, when many Democrats abruptly stopped participating in these rallies. According to this chart from Michael T. Heaney and Fabio Fojas, respectively from the University of Michigan and Indiana University, Democratic support of these protests nosedived between September 2008 and January of 2009.

I wonder what transformative event between those dates could have possibly changed their minds?

The authors explain their reasoning:

However, after Obama’s election as president, Democratic participation in antiwar activities plunged, falling from 37 percent in January 2009 to a low of 19 percent in November 2009, and registering 22 percent in December 2009….Since Democrats are more numerous in the population at large than are members of third parties, the withdrawal of Democrats from the movement in 2009 appears to be a significant explanation for the falling size of antiwar protests. Thus, we have identified the kernel of the linkage between Democratic partisanship and the demobilization of the antiwar movement.

Obama campaigned in 2008 on being the anti-war candidate. When he was still an Illinois State Senator in 2002, Obama expressed his views on the impending conflict in Iraq: “I don’t oppose all wars…What I am opposed to is a dumb war.”

The implications are very clear. Democrats were rightfully enraged about the war in Iraq and America’s other extra-curricular adventures in countries like Pakistan, Yemen and Oman. However, now that their party occupies the White House, they are not only less rabid in their opposition to war, but they actively campaign for military action.

It is clear that Team Blue only criticized the Iraq War because it was an easy way to attack the Team Red President. Now that Team Blue sits on the throne, it’s easy to see that the criticism was convenient but certainly not principled. Obama has instructed Congress to debate a possible intervention in Syria further in order to gauge Congressional support as well as the general public’s. This gesture is utterly meaningless, though, as the President has made it perfectly clear that he can take unilateral action against Syria with or without the legislature’s approval.

Speaking on August 31, Obama stated:

I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets…I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.

Secretary of State John Kerry has also explicitly revealed the White House’s desire to intervene. Speaking in London, Kerry laid out the reasoning for US action:

I don’t believe that we should shy from this moment: the risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting.

In the end, sending the debate to the legislative branch was nothing but political theater. If Congress favors military action, Obama can claim that he went through the proper legislative channels. He can also later blame any collateral damage on their approval, distancing his legacy from an unpopular intervention. If Congress fails to give him their support, he can blame any further loss of life in Syria on Republican obstructionism and use it as political fodder in the 2014 midterms.

Heads he wins, tails we lose. New boss, meet the old boss.

To be fair, regardless of Congressional deliberations and whether or not the White House even chooses to acquiesce to their judgement, I can’t imagine that any Republican president would have acted any differently than Obama has. Plenty of Republicans are also gung-ho for US action, including former Presidential hopeful John McCain.

But that’s the entire point, isn’t it? After all, Team Red=Team Blue.

 

Sources:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/2765215.stm

http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mheaney/Partisan_Dynamics_of_Contention.pdf

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88988093

http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/08/31/statement-president-syria

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-24016844

Smoking: A Pre-existing Condition Under Obamacare

I have written about the perils and predictable pitfalls of Obamacare before, and yet another example of the law’s asinine and unworkable structure has been revealed. One of the act’s most hyped lauded features is that it forbids insurance providers from charging more for people with pre-existing medical conditions. Stretching language to absurd, Joycean lengths, the medical exchange boards of Washington DC, California and Connecticut have decided that being a smoker is such a condition, and that smokers cannot by law be discriminated against. To cover the losses, non-smokers will be forced to make up the difference.

Mohammad N. Akhter, chair of the DC Health Benefit Exchange, stated that tobacco use is a “pre-existing medical condition” and that charging smokers more for their insurance would be “in direct conflict with our efforts to help people quit smoking.”

So there you have it. A risky and voluntary behavior—directly associated with the death of nearly a half million Americans a year—is now a medical condition. Americans should be prepared for more of this topsy-turvy nonsense as the Patient Protection Act is an absolute bureaucratic nightmare. As Nancy Pelosi famously said, Congress has “to pass the bill so [people] can find out what’s in it.” That prediction has has largely come true, though not in the way the former Speaker of the House intended. People don’t seem to be thrilled with Obamacare now that they see what a mess it will be. Three years after passing the controversial legislation, only 37% of Americans support the bill and 67% of the uninsured, the very people it was supposed to help, are unaware of how it will affect them.

This financial consideration from the government should come as a complete shock to smokers everywhere, as cigarette taxes have skyrocketed in recent years. The average state and federal tobacco excise taxes increased by 290% between 1995-2009, from $0.57 to $2.21 a pack. Obama is currently cheerleading for a further 94-cent increase.

So charging smokers more for medical insurance isn’t conducive to helping people quit, but charging them more than $3 a pack in taxes alone somehow is. Huh.

Bureaucratic weaseling like this is fraught with eminently foreseeable consequences. Kevin D. Williamson has a pretty stellar takedown at National Review:

Obamacare is designed to destroy the insurance market. Markets do not function without prices, and Obamacare ensures that prices will not be allowed to emerge. There is a medical price associated with smoking, but the District of Columbia has decided to suppress that price by law. Pretending that smoking has no relationship with health-care costs does not make it so — it is only a way to push costs around in a way that is agreeable to the likes of Barack Obama, converting a system that prices risk into a system of entitlements.

That leaves us with a system that is private in name only — which is the point.

It is meaningless to say that we have a private system in which private consumers buy insurance from private insurers when the insurers have been forbidden to price their products, and have instead been converted into something somewhere between a public utility company and a government contractor. Sure, you are free to buy any insurance you want — but if what you want is a lower rate for being a non-smoker, the point is moot, because it would be a crime for anybody to sell it to you.

Another unpleasant reality in this whole debate is how meaningless it actually is. The common conception is that smoking drives up the cost of medical care and that minimizing tobacco use would save millions or billions of dollars every year. The government is clearly torn between enacting sin taxes to punish smokers and giving them victimhood status by declaring their habit a pre-existing condition. However, it turns out that non-smokers actually cost health systems more than both smokers and the obese. Turns out that living longer and healthier is actually much more costly than dying younger.

One of the biggest problems with Obamacare is that it creates incredibly perverse incentives to interfere with the lives of adults. When people are forced to pay for others, they feel entitled to control behavior that may affect their tab. The rationale goes like this: Smoking is dangerous and seemingly costs money; therefore it’s an activity that needs to be controlled. The same reasoning justifies paternalistic efforts to curb obesity, leading to bans on sodas over 16 ounces and trans fats in Michael Bloomberg’s New York. Everyone should be terrified of following this rabbit hole towards its logical conclusion, where politicians can arbitrarily create laws to control seemingly any activity.

As dysfunctional as our current health care system is, Obamacare is the wrong prescription for change. It doubles down on bureaucracy and further diminishes individual choice. Barring repeal and a true injection of market forces, Americans should brace themselves for more schizophrenic and intrusive measures like this, where the government wants to both subsidize and tax the same activity, and the healthy are forced to pay for the lifestyles of the reckless.

 

 

Sources:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/mike-debonis/wp/2013/04/09/smokers-will-pay-same-rates-as-nonsmokers-in-d-c-insurance-exchange/

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/post/pelosi-defends-her-infamous-health-care-remark/2012/06/20/gJQAqch6qV_blog.html

http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/tobacco_related_mortality/

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-250_162-57575720/obamacares-3rd-anniversary-by-the-numbers/

http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5819a2.htm

http://money.cnn.com/2013/04/10/news/economy/cigarette-tax/

http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/345153/smoking-preexisting-condition-kevin-d-williamson?pg=1

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/05/health/05iht-obese.1.9748884.html?_r=2&

http://www.nbcnews.com/id/16051436/ns/health-diet_and_nutrition/t/new-york-city-passes-trans-fat-ban/

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2013/03/11/the-new-york-city-soda-ban-explained/

Open Access Journals Suddenly Open to the Public

Last week, my personal frustration with finding sources lead to an anger-filled article on open access journals and the apparent lack of them. The President, who most likely reads every article on Wondergressive, has been forced to tell somebody else to act.  In response to a whitehouse.gov petition regarding increasing public access to research, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), John P. Holdren, has issued a memorandum to any federal agency making more than $100 million dollars.

The logic behind enhanced public access is plain. We know that scientific research supported by the Federal Government spurs scientific breakthroughs and economic advances when research results are made available to innovators. Policies that mobilize these intellectual assets for re-use through broader access can accelerate scientific breakthroughs, increase innovation, and promote economic growth. That’s why the Obama Administration is committed to ensuring that the results of federally-funded scientific research are made available to and useful for the public, industry, and the scientific community.

Federal agencies have been given one year to organize all of their data and provide an easy way for public researchers to access. From the memo:

To the extent feasible and consistent with law; agency mission; resource constraints; U.S.
national, homeland, and economic security; and the objectives listed below, the results of
unclassified research that are published in peer-reviewed publications directly arising from
Federal funding should be stored for long-term preservation and publicly accessible to search,
retrieve, and analyze in ways that maximize the impact and accountability of the Federal
research investment.

 

So providing that Homeland Security or the Department of Defense does not stamp “Plebeians Should Not Read” in dark red and all of the information is in scientific journal format, we should expect to see a lot more results from our dear Aunt Samantha. The memo requires agencies to make archives readily available as well. Supposing that our government steers clear of the 1984’s Department of Truth, this new policy might actually be a good thing.

But wait, $100 million dollars is a heck of a lot of money? What about the agencies that don’t meet this mark? This Federal R&D Budget Request outlines how much money is allocated to different agencies. The chart, picture below, tells us plainly that almost all of the federal funding goes to agencies receiving more than the Doctor Evil-inspired mark. You’ll probably also notice that the DoD research request accounts for just under half of the total budget with a whopping $71 Billion.

Besides not being able to properly understand the vast amount of money, It’s hard to understand why we spend so much of it on defense. I mean, why are we being so defensive? We don’t need to yell. It doesn’t take somebody who sees octarine to realize that there might be a problem with that. As this article is about Open Access Journals, I will stay this point until a later date.

It should come as no surprise then that the Department of Health and Human Services has been actively sharing their findings for a couple of years now. They are so healthy and fresh over there and all they want to do is take care of us. Well good for them. Even bureaucrats can have a heart, or at least know where to find one in a pinch.

 

 Sources:

www.whitehouse.gov: Increasing Public Awareness

Memorandum to Departments and Agencies

Federal Research and Development Funding

HHS.gov: Open Government Partnership

ObamaCare and the 49-Employee Company

obamacare

Whether you love it, hate it, think it goes too far or not far enough, the gears of ObamaCare are grinding along, theoretically to be fully implemented January 1, 2014.

The politics of The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act notwithstanding, the law illustrates quite clearly the difficulty—and indeed the folly—of massive, top-down re-organizational efforts governments around the world like to employ. Human beings are dynamic creatures that respond to stimuli in order to maximize their own benefits. However carefully politicians craft the language of their regulations, people find remarkably easy ways to sidestep such obstacles, often to the detriment of the economy and the grand schemes of politicians.

ObamaCare induces businesses into providing health care for its employees by issuing a fine on those that don’t. This penalty does not, however, apply to businesses that have fewer than 50 employees. Recognizing a loophole when they see one, many business owners will likely take the easy way out and simply refuse to expand their company past the dreaded 50-employee barrier.

This phenomenon has already been seen in France, where once a company has 50 or more employees the business is obligated at great cost “to establish a committee on health, safety and working conditions and train its members.” This obligation is so expensive to business owners that many choose to deliberately limit themselves to only 49 employees, only crossing the threshold when it’s clear that having x more employees outweighs the deleterious effects of further regulation.

The National Bureau of Economic Research recently performed a study analyzing the effects of such regulatory burdens on French companies. France imposes stringent regulations on companies once they have more than 9 employees; more severe restrictions kick in once businesses have more than 49 employees and again at the 100 mark.

Here’s a graph showing the frequency of French companies by the number of their employees:

France-employment-graph1

The difference between 9-employee and 10-employee companies is dramatic. The drop-off between 49 and 50-employee companies is also plainly evident. This graph zooms in on the data, further illustrating the stark and unnatural reality that there are almost 3 times as many companies with 49 employees than with 50:

France-employment-graph2

Business owners in France routinely discuss their “companies” rather than their singular “company.” As it turns out, it is common practice to maintain several businesses under the 49-employee threshold rather than aggregate them into a single entity. Perversely, the paperwork and bureaucratic red tape involved in starting and maintaining multiple businesses is seen as a better alternative to biting the bullet and hiring that unlucky 50th employee.

The French economy has numerous problems—recently their union work ethic was lambasted by US CEO Maurice Taylor, who accused the French laborers of only working three hours a day-– and their unemployment rate is shockingly high. Struggling to respond to a jobless rate north of 10%, President Francois Hollande has promised to make the economy a priority during his term. It is clear that onerous and arbitrary economic regulations actually damage the economic climate, slowing or even preventing recovery. Lessening or striking them from the books would help revive the economy by simplifying the cost and the process of doing business.

ObamaCare will likely have the same effects on US businesses as France’s strict legislation has had on theirs. Seeking to avoid regulatory oversight, and seeing a perfect opportunity to do so, many businesses will simply refuse to hire that 50th employee and escape from detrimental and unnecessary burdens. Companies have been well aware of the future effects of healthcare legislation since its signing. That likely already accounts for some of their reticence in hiring new workers and why the US unemployment rate stubbornly hovers around 8%.

I am not here to pass judgement on ObamaCare itself or the intentions that lead to its enactment. The point is that regulatory burdens do indeed affect how businesses operate. Companies respond to incentives the same way that individuals do. By drafting these types of regulations, politicians inadvertently (?) help ensure that more people will be left without health insurance because employers are skirting such obligations by refusing to hire new talent. These laws create perverse incentives that make businesses less likely to hire new employees, keeping unemployment up and the economy down.

People are not a monolithic entity and they do not often respond to legislation the way that Washington predicts. As has been proven continuously throughout history—and just as often ignored– the best way to encourage business is to stay out of the way and make it easy to do business.

Laws and policies like ObamaCare and Too Big To Fail muddle the economic waters and contribute to the slow and painful US recovery that the nation now endures. Ending them would be a powerful message that would help unshackle business owners from the capricious laws of Washington and spur the economy on to a real and sustained recovery.

Sources:

Report from the National Bureau of Economic Research