Friday, December 31, 2010

My exchange on a climate change blog

This blog, called The Intersection,written by Chris Mooney, deals with science, primarily climate change. His recent post is why people reject climate change despite overwhelming evidence. This is the entire post. I posted and then got a reply from someone who missed the point. I point out that climate denial is simply the confirmation bias at work; if you think it's real you'll find evidence for it, if you don't you'll find evidence against it. I got criticized by a poster who pointed out that expert opinion was in favor of climate change and that the evidence for it was of much better quality than that of the evidence against it. True, but irrelevant to my argument. My response:

Jon, your reply to me was well-reasoned but missed my point. By the way,if I left the impression I’m a climate denier, that was a miscommunication on my part. My argument was more about psychology than the truth of climate change. I agree it would be wonderful if people approached the subject the way you want them to do, with thoughtful analysis of the evidence, but they simply don’t. You’re appealing to rationality, but my argument is that reason/logic has little to do with how people approach this issue (and most other issues for that matter).

Arguments that climate scientists overwhelmingly accept g.w., while true, don’t matter to deniers. Psychologists know that people only value expert opinion if they agree with the expert’s point of view.( I heard a podcast from Psychology Today saying this, this isn’t a wild theory I just made up.) My family, for the most part, rejects climate change, and they don’t care about the opinion of climate scientists. They say those people are frauds out to get government grants (one family member actually said this to me a week ago, this isn’t a strawman argument).

My challenge to you is: send your links to all the climate deniers you know and tell me how many change their views. My prediction: you will get zero converts. As my favorite scientist, Scott Atran, said once: it doesn’t do much good when dealing with the basic fact of human irrationality to say that things ought to be rational and evidence-based.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Another tendentious op-ed from WSJ

The Wall Street Journal has many positive attributes, but clear thinking on health care issues isn't one of them. Today they printed an op-ed warning of the dangers of government rationing: by David Rifkin and Elizabeth Foley. Both authors are lawyers; neither has any background in health care. This paragraph was typical of the conservative/libertarian argument that there is a meaningful distinction between good private rationing and bad public rationing.

There's an enormous difference between government-imposed rationing and treatment decisions in the private sector. When insurance companies deny coverage—for example, on grounds that treatment is "experimental" or not "medically necessary"—they do so based on contract language agreed to in advance by subscribers. If you don't like what a particular insurer offers, you're free to shop around. Moreover, you and your doctor have extensive rights to appeal the insurer's denial, and wealthy patients can pay for the care out of their own pockets.

I have to confess I don't follow the logic of the arguments here. Only a lawyer could argue that it's OK to deny care because of contract language in a health plan (which no one I know reads), but let's leave that aside for a moment. I love the "You're free to shop around," point--there's nothing insurance companies love more than paying for expensive medications for sick clients. And when people are really sick, there really isn't a lot of time for waiting on the company to respond to appeals. And don't conservatives generally argue (correctly, in my opinion) that our resources are not unlimited and we need to restrain spending? How can health care costs ever be managed if any time a 3rd party objects to a treatment it is considered "rationing" and evil? Should we provide unlimited health care to everyone? If we should do that, why not unlimited food and drinks? Is it not rationing to only pay a thousand or so a month for social security? I mean at a million dollars a month seniors could have anything they want. Senior poverty would be eliminated. (Actually, no, people could still scream about rationing, because even at a million dollars a month there's a few things people can't afford).

I've posted it before,but this column by libertarian Steve Chapman explains well why the cry of rationing and death panels is demagoguery. These two paragraphs sum it up well:

No matter how we "reform" health insurance, there will still be close calls, where it's not clear that a costly procedure will actually do any good. There will have to be someone, either in government or in the private sector, to decide which operations and treatments should be covered and which should not.

What left and right have in common is the delusion that when it comes to medicine, nothing succeeds like excess. But no health care measure can alter the fact that our resources are not unlimited. We may not want to hear it, but no matter what kind of insurance system you have, sometimes someone has to say "no."

We don't have unlmited resources! What a bizarre concept! Like me, this guy probably just hates old people.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Government run health care bad, private insurance good

The Wall Street Journal editorial page trots out its familiar government is rationing care alarmist message: this is the link here.

Under highly centralized national health care, the government inevitably makes cost-minded judgments about what types of care are "best" for society at large, and the standardized treatments it prescribes inevitably steal life-saving options from individual patients. This is precisely why many liberals like former White House budget director Peter Orszag support government-run health care to control costs: Technocrats in government can then decide who gets Avastin for cancer, say, and who doesn't.

I'm not sure how the Journal editorial staff thinks private insurance works. Are they unaware that health insurance companies routinely deny care to save money? I fail to see the moral distinction between denial of care by government vs. the denial of care by the private sector. As the libertarian columnist Steven Chapman, no fan of the health care law, points out: Any time a third party pays for patients' care, that party will make the decisions in its interests, not in the patients' interests. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Our resources are limited, and unfortunately every patient cannot receive any treatment he wants. That is the cold truth, and all the hysteria over "death panels" and "rationing" doesn't change the reality of the situation.

I might also point out that the editorial's criticism of Orsazg seems inconsistent with the general conservative message of the last few years, i.e. liberals are fiscally irresponsible and are bankrupting us. Apparently, now liberals are too concerned with saving money! Some people are just never satisfied.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Finally someone agrees with me!

For years I have been proposing abolishing the charitable deduction in the income tax code, and I usually get stares that combine incredulity at my heartlessness with a pity for my foolishness. I mean, what kind of a human being is against charity? Well, economist Richard Thaler agrees with me. Fortunately for this post, The New York Times will actually publish his op-eds, so we can evaluate his argument See his column here. These two paragraphs explain it beautifully:

Consider this scenario: Having decided that charitable giving is a worthy cause, the government subsidizes charitable gifts from certain households, and for those chosen to be part of the plan, every dollar donated to a charity is increased by a specified percentage. To qualify, taxpayers must have a substantial home mortgage; the subsidy rate increases with taxable income. Low-income taxpayers receive no subsidy, but donations from qualified high-income taxpayers are subsidized by as much as 40 percent — or more.

You can deduct charitable contributions only if you itemize rather than take the standard deduction, and the most common way a household collects enough deductions to make itemizing worthwhile is to have a big mortgage(emphasis added).

In other words, the public, including renters, are subsidizing contributions made by homeowners, who generally have a lot more money. This isn't fair. His solution is right on the money: make it a refundable credit that anyone can take (refundable meaning you can receive money from the government if your deduction is large enough).

I would make a further point, at the risk of being accused of being anti-religous--many "charitable" contributions to churches and other religious institutions are nothing of the sort. Many churches use money to fund political campaigns, such as the Mormon Church funding Prop 8 (there's a video on this available at Please don't misunderstand, churches have the First Amendment right to support causes they deem worthy. But they do not have the right to a government subsidy for their financial support of these causes.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

My letter to a Tea Party leader

The woman's name is Dana Loesch, she appeared on Parker & Spitzer and spouted off more of the usual cliches. This is my e-mail, not answered:

I rarely get the chance to talk to a Tea Partier, as they tend to get really annoyed at me when I question them. Maybe you're different. I hope you'll do me the favor of answering a few questions.

I was just wondering about the claim you made that tax reductions increase revenue. That leads to a few questions: 1.Who/whatis your source for this belief? 2.Why would we need to reduce spending at all then, couldn't we just slash tax rates to 1% and watch the revenue flow in? 3.Could you name a single economist at any American university who supports the notion that tax reductions at the current rates will bring in more revenue? 4.Aren't conservatives generally against the concept of a free lunch?

You said anything not authorized by Art I, Sec 8 should be terminated. Is this politically realistic, short of a armed libertarian invasion and occupation of Washington D.C.? (Yes, I know armed libertarianism is an oxymoron. I'm making a point here) Should I expect the repeal of Medicare and Social Security once John Boehner becomes speaker? How many members of Congress are going to remove all programs not authorized by Sections 8, and how many would get reelected if they did? (The answers: no, no, zero, zero).

You described big business as a "bogeyman." Do you deny business interests influence our politicians? Is simply removing government going to bring utopia to America? Are there any circumstances you would support regulation of corporations, or is that ipso facto an evil?

Many liberal friends of mine say the Tea Party is racist. I always disagree. Racism isn't the problem with the movement; oversimplification of the world is the problem. Slogans do not lead to effective government.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I'm shocked, shocked!

Dog bites man story:

"Jarrod Massey (casino lobbyist) has admitted that he bribed members of the Alabama state Legislature in exchange for their votes in favor of electronic bingo gambling legislation," Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lanny Breuer said.

What kind of a world are we living in when casino lobbyists have such loose morals? If you can trust anyone, it should be a casino lobbyist. Other than maybe used car salesmen, I can't think of a more ethical group.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Climate follies deja vu

Here we go again. Every winter we're subjected to another would-be climate Christopher Columbus saying the cold weather disproves climate change. This column by libertarian Doug Bandow is a typical, if tedious, take on this issue. The argument goes: It's real cold in ___, so (by some logic) global warming is a hoax.

I guess people like Bandow assume climate scientists should just find another job after every winter storm, as they're obviously wasting time and money. But here's what libertarians/conservatives miss: yes, there have been record lows even in a warming world. But--and this is huge, so pay attention--there have been far more record highs. A warming of a little over a degree is not going to eliminate cold weather.

I should point out, as to not be tendentious, that people who accept climate change as real often make silly statements as well. I've heard "the snowstorm proves global warming," which is not a good argument. Nor is every weather event on Earth tied into global warming; there is still a lively debate among scientists as to whether hurricanes have increased in frequency because of climate change, for instance.

I will use a sports analogy, as most deniers are men: if LeBron James goes 2 for 13 a few times, it doesn't make him a bad player. It's not statistically significant. Over the course of the season and his career, James will have a lot more good games than bad.

Maybe I should care, but I don't

I feel guilty somehow for not caring about the following issues: abortion, the estate tax, DADT, The Dream Act, indicting Dick Cheney, etc... Maybe I should care. I just don't.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Activist judge invalidates individual mandate

A federal judge, Henry Hudson, has has invalidated the individual mandate ,a major part of the health care law. See this article from The New York Times for more details. The article discusses the decision at some length:

In a 42-page opinion issued in Richmond, Va., Judge Hudson wrote that the law’s central requirement that most Americans obtain health insurance exceeds the regulatory authority granted to Congress under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. The insurance mandate is central to the law’s mission of covering more than 30 million uninsured because insurers argue that only by requiring healthy people to have policies can they afford to treat those with expensive chronic conditions.

The judge wrote that his survey of case law “yielded no reported decisions from any federal appellate courts extending the Commerce Clause or General Welfare Clause to encompass regulation of a person’s decision not to purchase a product, not withstanding its effect on interstate commerce or role in a global regulatory scheme.”

I don't agree with this decision. I see Hudson an activist judge who invalidated a law he disagreed with and found weak constitutional arguments to support his case. Now,I should I don't support the law on its merits; I don't think it was fair to require individuals to carry insurance without a public option. But a bad law--and this is a point a lot of people miss in this discussion--is not the same as an unconstitutional law. E.g. I oppose the death penalty, but don't think there's any evidence it's unconstitutional; I am generally pro-choice but think Roe v. Wade was constitutionally dubious. I just read a biography of William Brennan, a liberal activist judge who often made his own preferences part of the Constitution. This is what we're seeing here. Conservative judges can be judicial activists, too.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Another analysis of the budget deal

Thoughts on the budget deal from one of my favorite economists, Greg Mankiw. He actually thinks Obama got more from the deal than the Republicans did.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

And you mean what exactly?

"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. [Emphasis added.] ” Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, 1964.

With no disrespect to the late Justice Stewart, "I know it when I see it" is a pretty weak argument. Recent economic comments from both liberals and conservatives are on this same pseudo-intellectual level. Liberals constantly blast tax cuts for the "rich." What income level makes one "rich" is never defined. I eagerly await for a numerical threshold where one becomes rich. Of course, since living costs are not equal across the country, there may have to be thousands of income levels, varying from county to county.

But let's not be tendentious--conservatives are equally guilty of vagueness to in this argument. I constantly hear "socialism" and "Marxism" invoked to describe Democratic politicians. I eagerly await a definition of these terms, but suspect there isn't going to be one. It's much easier to simply resort to labels than to make a coherent argument.