Olympics grinch

There’s plenty to not like about how the Olympics have evolved: nationalism, commercialization, appropriation by vile host regimes…and now we’re going to be biting our fingernails right through February waiting for a terrorist outrage, or a Russian security outrage, or both.  They have become a hot mess, but fortunately that apostle of cool, tasteful elegance in dress, Ralph Lauren, designed the US team uniforms: understated, gracious, and confident, that’s us. Continue reading “Olympics grinch”

Play nice, g*dd*mm*t!

The rules for commenting on the RBC are clear and not very complex:
1. No insults directed at posters or other commenters.
2. No naughty words that get us banned by nanny programs. Use asterisks.
3. (Special rule for drug-policy posts) No generic ranting.

In the past week I have had to delete four comments and ban one commenter. The banned commenter accused me, falsely, of changing my opinions for money.  Two of the deleted comments were insults directed at commenter Brett Bellmore; one was directed at Matt Kahn; and one was a generic anti-prohibition rant. Other comments have been zapped by other posters.

I don’t do this with any pleasure; becoming a censor was never among my ambitions. But I value the active and intelligent discussion that characterizes (non-drug) posts here, and a certain amount of curation seems to be necessary to maintain that discussion.

Really, folks:  Having demonstrated the factual inaccuracy, logical fallacy, or moral enormity of a statement, it’s not necessary to add that the person making it is a liar, a fool, or a scoundrel. And it’s generally more constructive to look for an interpretation of a claim that makes it plausible rather than jumping to an interpretation that makes it transparently false or monstrous.

Footnote Brett, you could help out by reducing the fraction of your comments containing claims demonstrably contrary to fact, and by moderating the hostility of your tone.

Real Estate Opportunities Provided by Climate Change?

Justin Gillis focuses on which U.S Eastern coastal areas are at increased flood risk due to rising sea levels.    People have to live somewhere. If specific areas such as Norfolk Virginia are at increased risk of flooding, what areas on “higher ground” will experience increased demand to live there?    Could real estate developers help the coastal population to adapt to climate change by identifying geographic areas that have natural advantages in coping with emerging risks?  This is free market adaptation.  Implicit in Gillis’ claims is the belief that we will continue to rebuild our cities in the same places using the same materials and continually repeat our same mistakes in the face of new risks.    There is a group of rational choice economists who argue that we learn from our past mistakes.  This is an interesting debate that offers several testable hypotheses!  If the people of Norfolk Virginia want to keep things as they were, then they are free to do so but should use their own resources to finance their efforts.  If federal subsidies are offered then spatial moral hazard arises.

Reflections on Coverage of Bridgegate and the Gates memoir

Two big cable news brouhahas yesterday — the Christie Bridgegate and the Gates memoir — offer opportunities to see the shallowness of the press corps in action, with a few bright spots dramatically in relief.

On the Christie matter, most commentary has stayed on the surface and has barely asked why Christie was not as upset about the skullduggery as being lied to and why he  and his administration and appointees in the Port Authority seemed unconcerned with massive tie-ups in Ft Lee in the first place.  But  the main question that hasn’t made sense is what was the game in deliberately snarling the traffic in Ft. Lee.  As Gov. Christie and the Ft. Lee Mayor both noted in the last day, the proportionality of this didn’t make much sense.  Perhaps it was intended to warn other NJ politicians to stay in line? Was this about creating a reputation for willingness to retaliate all out of proportion, as deterrence theorists going back to Henry Kissinger and Tom Schelling have at times recommended?   Rachel Maddow, who has been the primary voice raising Bridgegate to national attention,  last night on her show raised the interesting possibility that the Ft. Lee retaliation had nothing to do with the Mayor’s endorsement, but instead based on Supreme Court reappointment politics in New Jersey — the background is that when he took office, Gov. Christie took the unprecedented action of refusing to reappoint a sitting Supreme Court Justice — who was the only African-American member of the court and who had been originally appointed by a Democrat.  Senate Democrats refused to confirm any other appointees for that seat and seemed poised to refuse to confirm the reappointment of a Republican woman Justice who is married to a senior member of Christie’s administration.  On the afternoon of August 12, an angry Christie announced that he was pulling the nomination so that this Justice would not have her reputation besmirched by what he called the “animals” in the state senate— early the next morning the now-fired Deputy Chief of Staff sent the email “time for traffic problems in Ft. Lee.”  Maddow’s suggested connection other than the timing? Loretta Weinberg, the leader of the Democrats in the State Senate, represents Ft. Lee.

Kudos to Maddow and her team  for the spadework in developing this connection as well as insisting on keeping a national focus on this story between September and now.

On the Gates memoir, it’s best to withhold judgment until one has read it — however one major theme has been reporting taking Gates’s excoriation of Joe Biden at face value without any of the background between the two men.   Apart from a smart note by a Washington Post blogger — saying essentially that it’s a little rich for Gates to say Biden has gotten everything wrong since Gates was wrong about the biggest issue (Gorbachev’s reforms and the evolution of the Soviet Union) that he ever faced — there has been little questioning of the source and none of his motivation.   According to one person who has read the book, Gates sprinkles snarky references Biden throughout the memoir.   This is less surprising once one remembers that then Senator Biden opposed Mr. Gates confirmation to the CIA Director role in 1991, and that as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the 1980’s Senator Biden was very critical of the CIA’s role in Iran Contra, and that President Reagan had to back down in nominating Gates for CIA director in 1987.   But other than some vague references to Gates having been a Republican there is no mention of any of this history among the commentariat.

More broadly, the Christie and Gates stories are connected by the proper role of a Chief Executive in relation to staff and of Executive staff in relation to line agencies.  According to press coverage, Gates seems to take umbrage at both WH staff and Presidential questioning of military advice and seems to prefer the George W. Bush style of unquestioning non-interference to the Obama style of deliberative intensity and insistence on civilian control.  In the Christie matter the core of what needs to be unravelled is the Chief Executive’s responsibility –whether by actual knowledge or by setting a tone — for malicious politically-motivated interference with the processes of a line agency (in this case the Port Authority).

If you like your reduced ER use, you can keep it

IMG_1553The latest results are in from the great Oregon Health Insurance Experiment (OHIE).

In a randomized experiment, individuals offered Medicaid coverage showed higher rates of emergency department (ED) use than did their otherwise comparable peers not given the same opportunity.

The effect size was pretty small—about one extra ED visit per recipient, every 3.5 years or so. In dollar terms, this amounts to an estimated annual expenditure increase of something like $120 per recipient. We can’t say from this paper whether the extra ED visits were valuable or cost-effective. We can say that these results will embarrass some liberal advocates who argued that expanded coverage would reduce overall rates of ED use.

They should. This talking point was never properly evidence-based or even particularly plausible given prior research. It’s not obvious that reducing the rate of ED use is even a sensible policy goal. Advocates across the political spectrum should stop using the ED for cheap talking points about the mythical savings associated with universal coverage or about the misbehavior of Medicaid recipients who supposedly waste huge amounts of money through overuse.

We might, instead, take some satisfaction that we have created a system, open 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, which people turn to when they need help. Our challenge is to make this system work.

More here.

The Affluenza Defense

Ethan Couch

Ethan Couch, a Houston 16-year-old, was given probation after having killed four people and grievously injured another in a drunken driving crash. (NYT account here.) At trial, a psychologist offered what’s subsequently been called the “affluenza defense,” suggesting that Couch should not be held fully accountable, since his upbringing in an extremely affluent family had made it difficult for him to develop the normal sense of responsibility for his actions.  The judge in the case rejected the prosecution’s call for a 20-year sentence in favor of probation and a stint at an expensive California rehab facility. Although teenagers responsible for vehicular deaths often escape prison terms, the decision provoked widespread outrage about how the legal system unjustly favors the wealthy.

The outrage provoked by the judges’s decision was totally justified, but the psychologist’s testimony about the effects of growing up in affluent circumstances was also essentially correct. That last fact should not have played any significant role in the sentencing process, but it’s highly relevant for broader questions of social and economic policy.

An emerging body of psychological research shows that people in relatively advantaged positions do indeed feel entitled to behave in many ways that would be considered off limits for ordinary people.  If you have a few minutes, watch this clip of Paul Solman’s interviews with some of the psychologists who’ve done this troubling work. There’s a reasonably solid foundation, then, for believing that someone who grew up in Ethan Couch’s circumstances would tend to have a diminished sense of responsibility for his actions.

But it would be a mistake, I believe, for the justice system to treat him differently for that reason. The longstanding debate on free-will offers hints about how we might think about this issue.  Children at birth differ enormously in ways that affect their adult behavior, often dramatically. Those who exhibit diminished capacity for self-control as small children, for example, are substantially more likely than others to commit crimes as adults. So in some meaningful sense, people born with such deficiencies are less responsible for their crimes.  The same reasoning would logically apply to psychological tendencies shaped by environmental factors.  People who were poorly brought up and misbehave as adults really are less culpable than people who were raised well yet misbehave in similar ways.

But except in extreme cases, society has wisely decided that our justice system should largely ignore such differences.  The logic is that without a reasonable prospect of being punished for crimes, many more people would commit them. Even though some people are clearly more tempted than others by criminal opportunities, diminished moral inhibition is accepted as a mitigating factor only in the case of extremely mentally ill or handicapped individuals.

It’s an imperfect solution, to be sure.  But the alternative would be social chaos.  Ethan Couch’s upbringing may well have made him less able to embrace the idea that bad conduct could produce bad consequences.  But few of us would want to live in a society in which that fact exempted him from responsibility for harming others, because a society like that would have so much more crime and disorder. Warren Buffett and countless other rich people have demonstrated that it is possible to raise morally responsible children even in families with almost limitless wealth.  Society has no interest in sending a message that wealthy parents no longer need take that obligation seriously.

But rejecting the notion that affluenza exempts people from their responsibility to obey the law does not require us to reject evidence that extreme income inequality often promotes socially harmful behavior. That’s not a reason for lenient sentences, but it’s yet another reason to favor policies that would slow the current rapid growth in income inequality.

The late, not-so-great era of WASP ascendency

At the Wall Street Journal, Joseph Epstein has penned a paean to the era of WASP ascendency in American life, whose spirit is captured by quotes such as the following:

Much can be—and has been—written about the shortcomings of the WASPocracy. As a class, it was exclusionary and hence tolerant of social prejudice, if not often downright snobbish. Tradition-minded, it tended to be dead to innovation and social change. Imagination wasn’t high on its list of admired qualities. [….]

Under WASP hegemony, corruption, scandal and incompetence in high places weren’t, as now, regular features of public life. Under WASP rule, stability, solidity, gravity and a certain weight and aura of seriousness suffused public life. As a ruling class, today’s new meritocracy has failed to provide the positive qualities that older generations of WASPs provided. [….]

Trust, honor, character: The elements that have departed U.S. public life with the departure from prominence of WASP culture have not been taken up by the meritocrats. Many meritocrats who enter politics, when retired by the electorate from public life, proceed to careers in lobbying or other special-interest advocacy. University presidents no longer speak to the great issues in education but instead devote themselves to fundraising and public relations, and look to move on to the next, more prestigious university presidency.

The modern American meritocracy certainly has its serious hypocrisies and defects. One could write an entire book about the failures of the American elite in Iraq, the subprime crisis, and more. Perhaps someone named Christopher Hayes* might write such a book. He might call it Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy.

Yet there is something crazy and a little sad about Epstein’s essay. Sure the old WASP elite was a tad snobbish and stodgy. These were hardly their worst problems. Under WASP hegemony, corruption and incompetence were actually quite common in high places, more common than today, in fact. Perhaps the misconduct and stupidity produced fewer scandals. if so, that was only because these behaviors were better-concealed from public view.Where is the honor or the character in maintaining a system of exclusion to protect one group’s social and economic privileges at the expense of others?

The unapologetic exclusion of Jews, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, gays, Catholics. and women did not enhance the integrity or the technical competence of American government. Nor did it noticeably improve elite professions such as scientific research or clinical medicine to exclude these same groups. When I was a Princeton undergraduate, a disgruntled alumnus wrote into the student newspaper to lament the rising presence of “big-city, high-SAT intellectuals,” who were apparently ruining the once-gentlemanly environment. Thirty years before, people like this man successfully maintained quotas that cruelly excluded many among my parents’ generation from attending elite schools. Not coincidentally, the Princeton of (say) 1950 or 1960 was a decidedly mediocre place. We who came later owe a great debt to the pioneering generation who smashed down these barriers and opened the road for others, as well. Our current elites should do some serious housecleaning, but not out of any misguided nostalgia for the unfair and mediocre non-meritocratic era we’ve left behind.

Perhaps I betray my own biases, but I think there is something undignified to celebrate an era and to celebrate the people who so mistreated our own parents, and many others besides. I do have one consolation. Epstein’s misguided essay beats this somewhat similar Walter Lippmann gem, which defines the genre.

*Yeah, I initially misspelled Chris Hayes’ name, which is ironic, given this clip from the University of Chicago’s 67th annual Latke-Hamantasch comic debate.