Moral hazard

One of the nice things about living in a civilized society is being able share the risk of catastrophe across populations larger than your family and close friends.  We have all sorts of machinery for this, private and public, from welfare to fire insurance to fire departments, arrangements that protect each of us, for example, from either needing savings accounts large enough to pay for a whole new house (or a triple bypass heart operation) with cash, or being on the street, or dead, if chance rolls us snake eyes or boxcars.

Republicans are much exercised over the incentives to laziness and fecklessness these programs breed in poor people; as Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell observed, if the lower classes don’t set us a good moral example, what’s the use of them?  Continue Reading…

Pulling Jockeys in the Race for Scottish Independence

Scottish support for leaving the United Kingdom is at 47% in the most recent poll, to the surprise of some members of the Tory Party (Whose proper name of course is The Conservative and Unionist Party). Now that independence seems more than remotely possible, some fingers are being pointed among Unionists for allegedly not campaigning hard enough to prevent Scotland’s departure. Some of this is fear of complacency among those who truly support the union, but suspicion of pulling jockeys runs high on this issue, and for good reason.

By tradition and identity, the Tories strongly support a United Kingdom. However, they can also count. With but one seat in all of Scotland versus 41 for Labour, Tory political prospects in England and Wales would be much rosier for Scotland’s exit. The 2010 election results for example would have produced an outright win for the Tories, with no need to enter into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Pro-independence groups point out correctly that since the war, Scottish voters have rarely swung national election outcomes. But it is not clear why that time frame is the relevant one given how lopsided is the current allocation of seats.

For Labour, the shoe is on the other foot. Scotland has been kind to Labour over the last generation, sending a gaggle of MPs to Westminster and also providing many high profile leaders including Gordon Brown and Tony Blair (even though the latter was eventually seen as a Sassanach by many people in the land of his birth). Scottish independence would mean a less liberal electorate in England and Wales, and less chance of Labour gaining a simple majority of seats in Westminster in 2015 and thereafter. If current polling holds up in 2015, Labour could squeak to a majority without Scotland, but many Labour politicians and voters would rather not have it be such a close-run thing.

The ongoing debates are thus bringing out the best in some politicians (like John Major), who are arguing against political interest for what they see as a national good. They also at times are bringing out the worst in other politicians, who make public speeches firmly taking one stand and then anonymously leak the opposite sentiments to journalists.

Wingers-’R'-Stupid Dept.

Stephen Colbert is indeed a comic genius. He does a completely over-the-top impression of a factually clueless and ethically impaired wingnut. And yet actual non-elite conservatives seem to think he really believes the nonsense he mouths. That would be impossible unless it turned out to be the case that most conservative voters believe a whole bunch of stupid sh*t.

Now of course that doesn’t mean that there aren’t lots of smart conservatives, as well as bunch of smart grifters who have discovered that pretending to believe for real what Colbert’s character pretends to believe ironically is easier than working for a living. And of course it doesn’t mean that conservatives have a monopoly on stupidity; no one who has spent any time in Blue Blogistan could believe that. (Cf. #cancelColbert.)

But it remains the case that there’s no conservative version of Colbert: someone who recites liberal nonsense deadpan. And it’s also the case that, if there were, the mass of liberal voters would probably notice that they were being made fun of, rather than nodding in agreement. Whatever their native IQs, consumers of America’s “conservative” media have been trained to act just like stupid people. Otherwise, how could they have been expected to vote to put Sarah Palin within one unreliable heartbeat of the Presidency?

In case you were wondering: Paul Ryan on health insurance

Paul Ryan admits that the popular parts of Obamacare – guaranteed insurance even for those with pre-existing conditions, allowing people up to 26 coverage under their parents’ insurance, a ban on higher premiums for those working physical-labor jobs – wouldn’t be affordable without the rest of it, including the individual mandate. Ryan’s occasional lapses into honesty aren’t really enough to justify his reputation as a Serious Person; he’s mostly a standard-issue downward class warrior and a master of the Magic Asterisk. But that’s no reason not to be thankful when he does tell the truth. “Repeal and Replace” means, in simple English, “Screw you!”

This is why the politics of Obamacare are likely to turn around over the next few months and years. We’re switching from a situation where status quo bias is on the side of the naysayers to a situation where Ryan and the rest of the wrecking crew have to explain to millions of people why what they have needs to be taken away from them in order to support loopholes for corporations and keep taxes low the top tenth of one percent. That’s the logic behind the orgy of rage and fear to which the right wing has treated us over the past five years. My prediction is that health care will be at worst a wash for the Democrats this fall, and that Hillary Clinton will use it to slaughter whatever sacrificial goat the Republicans put on the altar in 2016.

The BLACKEST Credit Card in the World

black card (2)

I have gotten an “exclusive invitation” for a very BLACK credit card that I am breathlessly assured is incredibly BLACK and comes with (no kidding) a subscription to BLACK CARD MAGAZINE which you can ostentatiously carry under your arm as you wave your oh so BLACK card in the face of humbled maître d’s everywhere.

Nigel Tufnel said it best:

Weekend Film Recommendation: A Tribute To Dana Andrews Begins

Dana AndrewsRBC Weekend Film Recommendation takes a break from recommending movies this week in favor of recommending the next best thing: A book about the movies! And with it I commence a month-long tribute to Dana Andrews. I have always found him intriguing because he was such a towering star in the 1940s, anchoring films of superlative quality that were also wildly popular with audiences, including A Walk in the Sun, Laura and of course The Best Years of Our Lives. But beginning in the 1950s his career dissipated very rapidly and few people today even remember his name. What happened to this talented and toothsome actor, who seemed poised to dominate the screen for decades as did similar performers such as Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck?

That’s one of the central questions addressed by Carl Rollyson’s fine recent biography Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews. Nothing else written about Andrews over the years pulls together so many sources of information so skillfully, making this likely the definitive biography of the man for all time. Crucially, Rollyson obtained the support of Andrews’ family and with it access to home movies, letters and anecdotes that get beneath the glossy images that the Hollywood publicity machine creates for its stars.

Rollyson makes clear that Andrews’ path to Hollywood was neither certain nor easy. Dana’s domineering, colorful father was a Baptist preacher in Texas and money was at times tight in the large Andrews clan. Dana and his siblings worked at odd jobs to keep the family afloat, and even as he was later getting a foothold in Southern California theater, he was still driving trucks to make ends meet during The Great Depression. His humble origins may have accounted for why, throughout his life, he remained an unpretentious regular guy more comfortable with the average person on the street than the glitzy Hollywood types who came to surround him when he became a star. It also helped account for him later becoming an avid New Dealer who loathed the political rise of Ronald Reagan (Both Reagan and Andrews would serve as President of the Screen Actors Guild).

Through extracts from love letters Rollyson movingly conveys the central conflict of Andrews’ young adult life. Dana had moved to California and was excited by what he might achieve there. But he was still strongly attached to his long-time girlfriend back in Texas. A painful choice had to be made and he ultimately broke off the engagement with the girl-next-door and married a woman he had met in his new life. Yet he stayed lifelong friends with his first girlfriend, whom he probably recognized understood him and loved him in a way that the many women who later swooned over the famous star never would.

After success in theater, Andrews began to land movie parts of growing significance. He was the epitome of a certain kind of masculinity that was cherished in that era. Outwardly strong, noble and fearless on screen, he simultaneously conveyed, in a minimalistic and naturalistic way, churning emotion underneath. Clearly, he had a handsome face, but it was what was going on underneath that transfixed most movie-goers. Rollyson dissects Andrews’ most critical roles well, helping the reader understand both Andrews’ talents and how some directors (but not others) knew how to maximize them.

In the mid-to-late 1940s, Andrews was one of the most beloved, most highly-paid movie actors in the world. But how many people remember him today compared to Bogart, Peck and Fonda, or even Fred MacMurray, who attained similar heights in that era? Andrews’ steep decline fascinates Rollyson and he goes a long way towards sorting out why it happened. Continue Reading…

Bureaucratic politics 101: the U.S. adjusts its position on the drug treaties

Historically, the United States was the chief architect of the prohibition-oriented international drug control regime, and among the most “hawkish” of the signatories (along with Sweden, France, Russia, Japan, and Singapore, and much of the Arab world). The U.S. did a bunch of finger-wagging at the Dutch for their relatively liberal policies. And the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement in the State Department (“INL” in Alphabet-speak, informally “Drugs and Thugs”) has long been one of the more hawkish players in internal drug-policy debates.

The treaties, on their face, require the criminalization of not only drug dealing but drug use. One of the arguments made against the tax-and-regulation approaches adopted by initiative in Colorado and Washington State was that their adoption would put the country out of compliance with its treaty obligations. There are legal loopholes: the treaties acknowledge that their obligations apply to each signatory only insofar as consistent with its domestic institutional arrangements. Since the U.S. federal government, the party bound by the treaties, lacks the constitutional power to require criminalization at the state level, it’s not clear that the actions by Colorado and Washington State voters can be said to have been illegal under international law.

Uruguay has gone further, legalizing at the national level. The Uruguayan government argues that even that is allowed by the treaties, because the treaties recite the reduction of illegal drug trafficking and the protection of public health among their stated goals, and the Uruguayan law is designed to accomplish those goals. Whatever the merits of that argument legally – personally, I don’t think it passes the giggle test, though as a policy matter I’m glad Uruguay is making the experiment and hope it succeeds – it is one that the United States could once have been counted on to scorn.

And yet, when the U.N. Commission on Narcotic drugs met in Vienna last month, and some member countries got up to criticize the Uruguayan move (which the International Narcotics Control Board, the referee set up by the treaties, promptly denounced) the U.S. had no comment on that issue.

In part that reflects changing U.S. public opinion about cannabis, and the more liberal stance of the Obama Administration compared to its predecessors. But in part it reflects the fact that INCB also blasted Colorado and Washington State, putting INL in the position of having to defend the permissibility under international law of those regimes and of the accommodating stance toward them adopted by the Justice Department. So the voters in those two states in effect forced a change in our national stance in international fora.

Here’s Ambassador William Brownfield, the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of INL, explaining the new stance: the treaties, we are now told, are “living documents,” allowing “flexibility” in how different nations choose to meet their obligations, and we should seek a new consensus about what that means.

Obvious, once it’s happened. (It might not have happened in, say, the Romney Administration.) But, as far as I know, not predicted in advance by anyone, least of all by me.

Footnote It would be easier to take more seriously the self-appointed “Global Commission on Drug Policy” if spokespeople such as Michel Kazaktchine didn’t insist on making nonsensical claims, such as that minor drug offenses account for half of U.S. incarceration (the actual figure is more like 20% for all drug offenses) and that prohibition has failed to reduce consumption (compared to what?) and that alcohol and tobacco control via taxation and regulation have been more successful (by what measure).

Against the Prolier-Than-Thou

The thing is, once you’ve made it, you’ve made it. Once you’ve got your newspaper column or TV show or made your first million, you’re not working class anymore. And, pretty soon, your endless prole-ier than thou platitudes start to ring a bit hollow. You’re like the rapper on his fourth album, still talking about slinging rock in the hood. I’m not saying there aren’t privileged people who, at 40, still haven’t got over the fact that they went to Eton, but I hate them just as much. I guess the point I’m making is that, once you’ve bought £1.5m house in the part of Hackney that’s really Islington, we need a statute of limitations on your underprivileged childhood.

That’s Alex Proud nailing wealthy people who endlessly mention their working class roots or even worse embroider the economic context of their upbringing to make it sound more deprived than it really was. His whole jeremaid is worth a read, not least because it includes an embedded video of the Monty Python troupe’s hilarious skewering of “inverted snobbery”.

Poverty, inequality, and Public Health

IMG_3018Below are my comments on a panel held over the weekend in India to celebrate the opening of the University of Chicago’s new Delhi Center. Regular readers will recognize much of what’s here. I hope it is of interest.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak on this panel for such a special occasion.

I will use my time to discuss some linkages between poverty, inequality, and health. I do so with trepidation, since I can see some of my betters—James Heckman, Jean Dreze, and Martha Nusbaum to name a few—are here today in this audience.

It’s humbling for any American to speak on these topics when so many great Indian political economists have made fundamental contributions. Many of these men and women were motivated by their first-hand observation of famine, deep poverty, gender and caste inequality. These matters are fundamental in the efforts of the world’s largest democracy to address the post-colonial development challenges of one billion people.

These matters have wider application, as well. Scholars, policymakers, and citizens want to know whether, when, and why various forms of inequality harm the most vulnerable citizens. The truth is, inequality sometimes is harmful, sometimes not. The mechanisms are complicated, and often indirect. We can’t always tease them out, which doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.

My own work concerns domestic US poverty and public health policy. Even so, Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation was probably the most important book of my graduate career. His combination of rigorous economics with a passionate commitment to equality and human flourishing was revelatory to me.

I assign my introductory microeconomic students a stylized problem modeled on Sen’s analysis of the Bengal famine. It’s a parable, of course. Like most parables, it’s been cleaned up a bit, crystalized to its essentials before inclusion in the sacred canon of economics problem sets. The basic mechanics remain useful to elucidate one possible pathway through which inequality can undermine public health…. Continue Reading…

ACA enrollment milestone

Midnight was the enrollment deadline, but people who were in process with applications can complete the process through the first two weeks of April. This is a big milestone in the law, but no matter how much everyone wants an instant assessment of the ACA as “working great” or “sucking” that answer is not forthcoming based on how many signed up. I will, however, go out on a limb and predict the answer is somewhere between “working great” and “sucking”.

Here is what I will look for over the next 6 months: Continue Reading…