The science fiction magazine Strange Horizons has published an interview with Iain M. Banks, apparently part of someone’s PhD project (what a cool PhD!) in which he gives a scathing and in my opinion brilliantly accurate critique of Foucault:

The little I’ve read I mostly didn’t understand, and the little I understood of the little I’ve read seemed to consist either of rather banal points made difficult to understand by deliberately opaque and obstructive language (this might have been the translation, though I doubt it), or just plain nonsense. Or it could be I’m just not up to the mark intellectually, of course.

This is exactly what I’ve thought of the little Foucault I’ve read: a few interesting points, hammered home over and over again in incredibly pretentious and overbearing language. I would add that I have partially the same criticism of Chomsky’s political works: in my view Manufacturing Consent is a brilliant book if you read just the first 3 or 4 chapters, and after that it’s just repetition of the same point. The difference of course is that Chomsky’s writing is not incomprehensible and deliberately opaque. In my view, the value of Foucault’s ideas is significantly undermined by the pretentiousness of his presentation, and Banks summarizes it perfectly here.

Banks also nails Freud:

I suspect Freud’s theories tell you a great deal about Freud, quite a lot about the monied middle-class in Vienna a hundred-plus years ago, and only a little about people in general

In my opinion, psychology as a discipline is limited by its subject matter, which is the inner life of middle class women a hundred years ago (and more broadly, middle class people now, and mostly Americans at that). A friend of mine observed about a psychologist at his work that “she has never said anything that wasn’t self-evidently obvious basic stuff, dressed up in psychobabble,” and in my experience in drug and alcohol research psychologists were too busy looking for individual causes to notice the very obvious fact that drugs are addictive, and society is fucked up. The limitations of psychology, in my opinion, can be best summarized by this simple fact I have observed over many years of working with psychologists: if you meet a person with a PhD in psychological research [not clinical practice] you can diagnose instantly their psychological disorder by asking them the topic of their thesis. It tells you a great deal about them, and only a little about people in general. Note that the full passage from Banks in this case also likens Marx’s techniques to Freud’s, putting Marx at no higher an intellectual level than Freud. In your place, Karl.

There’s a lot of other interesting stuff about Banks’s approach to the Culture in that interview, but I thought his frank opinions about these theorists tells us a lot about him as a theorist and ideologue. He doesn’t care for obfuscation and pretension, and he is not misled by psychobabble. Perhaps in that we can see some of the reasons why his books were so popular, and he was respected in both mainstream fiction and science fiction. His death was truly a huge loss for science fiction, and by extension for the literary world generally, though the literary world generally is too busy loving Foucault and Freud to notice. More fool them!

Everyone knows that Obama’s Democrats just got their arses kicked in the mid-terms. The dominant political narrative is that it was a disaster, right? Those stupid Dems, acting on political principle and bringing in a second rate universal healthcare system by running roughshod over the bipartisan Republicans to overrule democracy, no wonder they lost the mid-terms right? This is the dominant narrative amongst political pundits, and all debate seems to be focused on Obama’s repudiation, the coming destruction of Democrats, and the fundamental conservatism of the American electorate. This is how pundits speak.

I’m not American, so although I feel myself qualified to speak to some extent on the theory of American healthcare policy, I don’t feel like I really know anything about US political debates, so I just assumed that the story being presented by these pundits was some kind of biased but basically correct analysis of the situation, I think you know the kind of interpretation I mean, regardless of your politics: accepting the broad truth of the facts presented but maybe having a different interpretation of the implications and the long-term trends and outcomes for your preferred side of the debate. As a non-American who thinks Obama is too right-wing to make it in my own political culture, this is all just academic angels-on-heads-of-pins stuff. However, recently I stumbled on a counter-narrative to the standard view of Obama’s bloody nose, and it got me thinking about the broader issue of how political pundits analyse politics, and whether anything they say is worth anything while they remain ignorant of statistics.

The counter-narrative is that Obama did better than expected, and although the Democrats got a bloody nose in the elections this is normal, and they didn’t do badly at all. This counter-narrative is exemplified by this post I found on Greg Laden’s blog, which is so simple it’s ridiculous. Laden plotted number of seats lost vs. presidential approval rating for all mid-term elections since 1946, using Excel, and showed the line of best fit. The implications are pretty obvious – there is a direct relationship between presidential popularity and number of seats lost in a mid-term, but this mid-term election Barack Obama was not at the bottom of the range of approval ratings, and he did significantly better than presidents would usually do given his unpopularity. The Democrats should have lost about 40 seats in the House, but they actually only lost 10 – a huge victory. A weaker analysis of the Senate suggests he was facing a uniquely hostile senate election, and probably did well given the circumstances. These analyses are very rough and could be done better (e.g. logistic regression adjusted for number of seats, confounders for presidential party etc) but they probably wouldn’t improve on the basic findings: the Democrats actually did uniquely well given their circumstances.

My guess is if you extended these analyses to an analysis of results of the following presidential and congressional elections, you would find that the number of seats lost in the previous mid-term was a big predictor of success, with the implication that even though most political pundits are saying Obama has flumphed it, the data implies Clinton’s job is going to be extra easy thanks to the Big O, and the congressional elections will also be better than normal. But I suspect my reader(s) have not got that impression from the popular press. Where have pundits gone wrong?

If one thinks about the average pundit, it’s pretty obvious what the problem is: they’re a journalist, and journalists are generally thick as shit. Your average political pundit is going to be barely literate and completely innumerate, and they are going to be firmly of the belief that their experience, connections, colleagues and unique insight into the way people in the halls of power think gives them a unique power to analyze political events. I think this is not true, and that it’s physically impossible for modern political pundits to have a broad enough base of experience to provide any insight into the political process: instead, they are simply retailing gossip from their mates. I will prove this by comparing political pundits to actually intelligent sports journalists, and for my example I will choose that most reviled of sports commentators, the UK football (soccer) pundit.

Let us first consider the average political pundit in the USA. He’s a man, obviously (this is serious stuff!), aged in his 40s, with a 20 year career. Given his age he probably graduated from a journalism degree (they were starting to take off 20 years ago) but he may be a graduate of some other field. He probably has some “Econ101″ (in the derogatory sense), so he’s swallowed all the typical rubbish about government debt and how the Chinese own America and so on. He reports deficit busses as if they’re serious politics instead of theatre. Of course he’s an idiot. But he has experience! He has 20 years of experience! But what does this 20 years of experience mean, actually? He has seen, at most, 11 congressional elections (they happen every two years). Of these, if he’s really lucky, three might have been elections occurring in the second term of an incumbent president (e.g. Obama and Bush junior) and maybe six are mid-term elections. Precisely one occurred in the aftermath of a major terrorist event. No one he knows or has ever met has seen a black man elected president. At most 3 of those 11 elections happened against a backdrop of internet-based political activism. He has seen a maximum of six presidential elections, probably four, and has seen the presidency change parties at most three times. He has colleagues that he might be able to discuss elections and the politics with, but these colleagues have seen no more federal congressional elections or presidential elections than he has – they all talk about the same 11 events. This is his “experience.” His boss – let’s imagine a man 20 years his senior – might have 20 congressional elections, 4-5 elections in the second term of a presidency, and maybe 10 mid-terms. This boss has had the remarkable experience of seeing a presidency retained by the incumbent party on a change of president – once. Once. The entire cadre of political journalists have this experience to their name. When it comes to second-term congressional elections, our putative political “expert” is like Lieutenant Gorman in Aliens. “How many drops have you done, Lieutenant?” “Three. Simulated.” What does Private Hudson think of that?

Now let us compare with an equivalent British football pundit. He has seen 20 FA Cups, and assuming he has done his job assiduously has watched every team in the Premier league play every other team 20 times every year. Those games he couldn’t watch he has had a chance to review when needed (eg before crucial matches), giving him experience of watching any one team play probably 15 or 20 times a year, for 20 years. Obviously he focuses on the top teams, but he is able to replay hundreds of games for any team that enters the FA Cup. He has only seen 5 world cups, but he has also seen 5 European cups, and watched the players from the European cup in the Champions League, plus been able to watch international friendlies, African cups, etc. Where he is unfamiliar with a part of the football world, he will have access to mulitple colleagues who are familiar with other areas (Europe, Asia, lower divisions, Americas, etc.) and where he has not been following a team he will have access to a huge compendium of commentary from those who have. There is no chance at all that his colleagues have been raised and trained on the same football experience as him, so when they meet to discuss the football world they will be able to bring potentially radically differing views and experiences to the meeting and, if they take the job seriously, will be able to take away as many different views as there were people at the table. This pundit’s boss will have seen 40 FA Cups, has seen football powers come and go, was around before the era of the oligarchs, etc. This is why football critics are able to identify whole movements in football (like tiki taka) and also identify when they fade away. This is why football pundits can speak authoritatively about, for example, the transitions in the German national team.

The football pundit has experience, and collegiate connections. He or she has access to a broad and deep pool of knowledge. The American political pundit, on the other hand, has hearsay and gossip. The American political pundit cannot claim to have anything that rises to the level of “experience.” He and his mates have seen the same five presidential elections, the same 11 congressional elections, the same two second-term mid-terms. They go to the same cocktail parties and talk to the same media reps. They are peddling nothing better than the perceived wisdom of their five mates, and that wisdom is shallower than the gene pool that your average journalist is drawn from. They are in every way inferior to football commentators.

This problem of political punditry could be solved by application of a simple skill – basic data analysis. Greg Laden’s posts show that, in the absence of experience, even basic data analysis skills can be enormously useful. But political pundits are ignorant of anything resembling data, and they will push back strongly against the idea that analysis can improve their work. As a classic example of this, consider the hostility Nate Silver received for his work predicting American elections, or the way the Poll Bludger was treated in Australia (outed by a major newspaper for disagreeing with their pundits). Because the problem is simple – 5 or 10 events is not sufficient to provide anyone with real experience, at least in a world as complex as politics. It’s not that these commentators are incapable of analysing from experience – they just don’t have the experience. In the modern world, we would never take dating advice from someone with 5 conquests, but we routinely listen to men and women who have seen no more than 5 or 10 elections. This is the level of experience sensible people dismiss as “anecdote.” And in such a circumstance – when you or I know we have insufficient experience to inform our decision – what do we do? We go to data. But political pundits can’t go to data, because they are numerically illiterate. So instead they basically peddle gossip.

The problem with idiots peddling gossip from a politically and socially privileged pulpit is twofold. The first is obvious: they’re wrong. Why should I listen to someone with 5 presidential elections under his belt? How can he possibly have enough knowledge of what goes on on the federal stage to be able to provide cogent commentary? But the second is more insidious: they’re vulnerable to manipulation by powerful or moneyed forces. There are lots of thinktanks out there in the wilderness of American politics, peddling lies that are paid for by various big companies. Why would someone who has only ever seen five presidential elections, and who doesn’t have any ability to properly assess the history of elections, be able to properly analyze political theories put forward by bought-and-paid operatives of the big think tanks? How is experience going to protect someone against the lies these organizations put forth, when their experience is so limited it provides them no context for judging any analysis?

This is an example of the importance of data analysis to modern life. There are many problems where we as individuals lack anything resembling a coherent required level of experience, but where data contains the knowledge of multiple generations, there for us to analyze. Even simple data analyses will take us somewhere, help us to get a context for the problems we’re trying to understand. Someone with hundreds of football games and 20 FA Cups under their belt may be wrong about their understanding of the subtle forces at work in football – they may need data analysis to help them see clearly what is going on in there – but they have the experience to draw from, and indeed if we did data analysis we might well be just looking for numerical patterns in the information the pundit already knows. This is an example in which data analysis can help an experienced expert to better understand their work. But in the case of political punditry it’s different. There is no expert, because people die before they can become experts. Instead we have a gaggle of gossip-mongers. In this case data analysis doesn’t complement their experience, because what they have is not experience, but a couple of moments. Data analysis should replace their work. They are irrelevant, and probably rather than analyzing the actual history of political movements in America, they are regurgitating some canned idea from a think tank. And how can they do anything else? They, personally, are ignorant and naive, but they believe themselves to be experts.

Which is why you shouldn’t believe anything political pundits tell you about elections. At best they’re inexperienced; at worst they’re inexperienced, ignorant, and retelling hearsay from someone who probably has a vested interest in crafting hearsay. Ignore them, and look to the data.

 

Or, perhaps to phrase the question a different way, is the era of the small political party over in modern democratic Anglosphere politics? The question occurred to me today as I read the latest reports of the implosion of Australia’s Palmer United Party, which has been in the Senate now for perhaps four months and is already facing its first split, if reports are to be believed.

The Palmer United Party (PUP) is a new entrant in Australian politics. It is run by Clive Palmer, a mining magnate, and is variously depicted as a political insurgency or a vehicle for Palmer’s self-aggrandisement, depending on who you read. It was entertaining to watch for a while, but the major parties seem to have been fairly sanguine about it, and the leader appears to be batshit insane. There are other small parties in the Senate at the moment but they’re quirks of Australia’s mutant electoral system and won’t last. In terms of quantifiably important parties there are only really two minor parties in Australia: the Greens on the left, and PUP. We could add the Nationals to the calculation here but they are in coalition with the Liberals [Australia's "conservative" party] so are usually seen as a “major” party despite their declining vote share and limited number of seats. The UK has the Greens on the left, and UKIP on the right, both seen as “minor” parties in contrast to the (soon-to-be-extinct, poor darlings!) Liberal Democrats. So it would seem that small parties are flourishing. However …

The Greens and UKIP are actually quite old parties now, having been formed in the early-to-mid 1990s. The Australian Greens, for example, were formed in 1996 federally, and existed before that at a State level – they emerged out of the famous Franklin Dam protest of the 1980s. UKIP in the UK formed in 1993 and was originally a small scale and largely liberal national self determinationist party, growing very slowly until it adopted its racist patois. In fact most of the small and functioning parties in both of these democracies were formed long before the modern political era – the Greens, for example, formed three Prime Ministers ago, which in Australian political terms is a lifetime. Both the Greens and UKIP are characterized by a strong political platform and ideological underpinnings, and whether or not one agrees with their policies, in political terms I think they have to be accepted as coherent. The Greens have a broad leftist environmental and social justice platform, not compatible with our social democratic institutions, built on a manifesto co-authored by one of the world’s most respected philosophers. UKIP are built on trenchant opposition to one of the core European modernizing ideas, and have a coherent and ideologically consistent central goal. Ironically UKIP probably owe a lot of their success to the European parliament they oppose, since it was through strong election results in the European parliament that they convinced the British public they might be worth backing at home. But whatever you think of their politics, UKIP put in long, hard years of work and have slowly built their platform around a central critique and ideological purpose, that taps into the core beliefs of a large part of mainstream Britain. PUP, on the other hand, went from nothing to a handful of senators on the back of their founder and lead senator’s private money. They have no fundamental ideological purpose, and no experience of politics.

But would PUP be the only party that would tear itself apart in the modern political environment, or is it impossible for any new party to form in the modern environment? I think there are three reasons why the time when parties can form and grow and remain stable has passed.

The modern media environment is much more punishing: Back in the early 1990s journalism was not yet under threat from the internet, investigative journalism still existed outside of movies, and it was almost impossible for political candidates to get caught out saying stupid things in non-official forums, because video cameras were big and expensive and Facebook didn’t exist. Furthermore, there was a general assumption that private and political beliefs could be kept separate (for example, I didn’t know the Greens’ political leader, Bob Brown, was gay even though I voted for them) and politics was treated as less of a gotcha game. The media cycle could be measured in weeks or days rather than hours, and it was much easier for small parties to keep a low profile. It was also harder for small parties to get air time, because air time was tightly controlled by a small clique, but I think it’s pretty clear that the modern media environment makes air time for small, amateur parties very dangerous. In the 1990s, “vetting” a party member involved checking they didn’t have a criminal record. Now it means sifting through blog posts, years of Facebook bullshit, dating sites, photos and footage held by friends and exes … And it also means dealing with the risk that organizations like the News of the World have been hacking your phones, something that was reserved only for heads of state in the 1990s. In the 1990s, that most horrible of things, “media training,” was a kind of boutique investment for parties that were starting to hit the big time; in the modern era, it’s a survival necessity, and the major parties have a huge advantage too. This, I think, is also part of the reason that major parties tend to recruit from within their own structure. Enforced conformity is a real bonus in the modern media culture. PUP recruits its members from actual real life, which is political disaster – real people say all sorts of stupid shit.

In modern politics you need huge amounts of money: The amounts of money floating around in modern politics can be eyewatering, and kind of embarrassing when you think about the quality of people representing you. UKIP is almost entirely dependent on a single rich, crazy ex-conservative party donor who forks money over by the truckload. After the paper mill Gunns recently launched a defamation (?) case against the Greens’ leader, he had to take a personal donation of some fucktons of money from an Australian entrepeneur in order to deal with the court costs. Nick Griffin, the only idiot ever to have tried to mainstream British Fascism through the British National Party, was bankrupted recently by court cases. That kind of thing started in the late 1990s, but when the Greens and UKIP formed these kinds of financial pressures weren’t an issue. This is especially fortunate for small parties in Australia, since they receive state funding if they pass a certain vote threshold. Indeed, PUP has been in dispute with the government over staffing levels, since they don’t get the staffing support of a major party (their seat count isn’t high enough) and that kind of support is expensive even if you’re a mining  magnate. In the UK there is a further problem of fair representation: the Greens and UKIP are denied seats in the House of Lords even though their vote share has been growing, because they aren’t “major.” The only solution to these problems is to have more money, and for a minor party to get money requires pretty exceptional circumstances. It’s pretty obvious how this works for PUP: they don’t have “policy platforms,” they have “Clive Palmer’s whim.” He is funding the party and he chooses its policy and its tactics (shudder). For the major parties this is not a huge problem – Labour have union funds and the Tories have corporate donors – and the political issue from our perspective is about governance and disclosure. But from a minor party perspective, it’s a real challenge. As an example, suppose independent leftists in the UK wanted to start a party of the workers that wasn’t tainted by the legacy of Blair and that genuinely represented workers’ demands – one imagines that such a party would be quite nationalist and anti-European, but also very socialist and strongly anti-corporate and opposed to the banking industry. Whether or not you support the potential policies of this bunch of imagined anarchists, it’s pretty easy to imagine that there’s no way they could ever raise enough money to compete successfully in modern politics. But I contend [without evidence] that in the early 1990s they could have – the Greens in Australia and the UK did [I don't claim these are anarchist workers' parties] through drawing on existing environmentalist networks. The kind of money you can raise from even strong, coherent community movements today will last about three minutes against a corporate-funded major party. Which is why only parties of the Oligarchy will arise now, and they’ll be so incoherent and selfish that they’ll never last.

The ideological context is much more confusing: The developed world has drifted for 20 years without a major ideological clash, and the only real ideological clash still left is that between capitalism and environmentalism – a clash that doesn’t have to exist and is, in any case, already represented by mature small parties across the developed world. Everything else has drifted into different theories of how to manage capitalism. There’s just no ideological space for modern parties, and unless something new appears – libertarianism springs to mind, but it’s been hideously unsuccessful to date – I can’t see that there is much chance of new parties being able to find an ideological niche. Furthermore, party membership is declining rapidly, and political engagement occurs in different places now. For example, wikipedia puts the membership of Japan’s ruling party, the LDP, at 800,000 in 2012. In just one week, the Japanese branch of Change.org raised 46000 signatures on a petition to deny seedy sexual assaulter Julien Blanc a visa[1]. Political organization is different now, and the way citizens engage with their polity has changed. In theory this could make political growth easier, but I think in reality it has opened new avenues of political activism, and as the Julien Blanc case in Australia showed, ordinary citizens can use these new modes of power effectively outside of mainstream political culture. This combination of a lack of centralized ideologies that can support new parties, and new alternatives to mainstream political activism in an environment of technical managerialism, make the political context very different. As an example, the Victorian police were key agents in the response to Julien Blanc, tweeting about how wrong his views on sexual assault are and updating the public on his movements. The Victorian Police, ladies and gentlemen – who were famous for tigger-happy murders in the 1990s. As another example in the same vein, if you want to see how far politics has changed in the past 20 years (since the Greens were founded, for example), sex workers can now view police as a key ally in their quest for worker safety, primarily through the activism of sex worker community associations, public health organizations, and even church organizations. This changed relationship between police and sex workers (and even injecting drug users) has bipartisan political support in Australia – Tony Abbott may wink at a radio DJ about a 60 year old phone sex worker when he thinks he’s not being watched, but he almost certainly won’t be changing the laws and social policies that affect sex workers. Obviously most of these achievements were built on first steps by a labour government, but that was only the beginning – the major achievements in sex work law in the past 10 years have been achieved through the work of a much broader coalition of forces working outside of political circles, and legislation has been almost an afterthought. In this context, the role of political parties changes and the role of new political parties becomes much harder to pin down.

There are probably counter-arguments to these three points, and other reasons why parties might be easier to form now than before (e.g. the internet). There are a couple of parties that got thrown up into the senate at the last election through sheer fluke, who everyone expects to be swept away at the next election. One (the Democratic Liberal Party) has a coherent (but batshit insane) ideological basis, and the other (the Motoring Enthusiast Party) appears to have been started as a joke but its representative appears to be taking his responsibilities seriously. Perhaps from their future we can see whether it is possible for new parties to grow in the modern era. I wonder if they will prove me wrong?

fn1: They visited immigration to appeal for rejection of his visa yesterday, I think. I personally would prefer that he were allowed into the country[2] and arrested for sexual assault at the airport. He has video evidence of his crimes. That would be fantastic.

fn2: Although it obviously gives me great pleasure to see this man being given the kind of welcome he deserves in Australia, I don’t like the idea of people’s visas being determined by popular referendum. As a resident of a country of which I am not a citizen or permanent resident, the implications of this as a political strategy are fairly obvious and not very pleasant.

 

From Vox.com, a post summarizing recent findings about how well Obamacare is working on cost containment. There are two particularly interesting links in the post, one from the Kaiser Foundation about the expected 2015 health insurance plan costs, and an updated estimate from the Congressional Budget Office on the future costs of Obamacare. They both present slightly surprising news about how well Obamacare is working.

Falling health insurance premiums

The Kaiser Foundation reviews the cost of health insurance plans annually, and in 2013 it released estimates of the 2014 plan costs. This year it updated those estimates, using comparable methodology, and has found that the cost of some plans is going to fall dramatically, with a 0.8% drop in the cost of plans overall. The Foundation press release is available here, and includes a link to the report here [pdf]. This report is interesting because it looks at the cost of specific types of health insurance plan available through the health insurance exchanges (HIE) set up under Obamacare, so it is directly assessing the cost of plans that were introduced under Obamacare’s rules, operate within its mechanisms, and should be subject to cost containment and competition under the system established by Obamacare. The plans analyzed were the lowest-cost Bronze plan and the two lowest-cost Silvers. These plans are chosen because they are subject to subsidies, so the change in costs will directly affect the government’s budget bottom line, and they are also the plans poorer Americans are most likely to take up.

The system under which these plans operate is costly, but is explained fairly simply in the report. Basically people earning up to 400% of the poverty line are eligible for subsidies when they select these plans, which ensure they pay no more than 9.5% of their income for health insurance and as little as 2.5% for the poorest. Bronze plans get a stronger subsidy rule for people on up to 250% of the poverty line (I think). This is a kind of compensation for having been forced to take up insurance by the Individual Mandate aspect of Obamacare. Furthermore there is a nasty little competition-enhancer built into the act, which I didn’t know about and which is explained on page 4-5 of the document: if you are on a subsidized plan and some new insurer offers a cheaper plan of the same kind, your subsidy will be reduced by the difference in plan costs if you don’t switch plans. So as soon as a cheaper plan enters the marketplace, the insurer offering the more expensive plan will begin to bleed customers; and because there is now no way for an insurer to refuse to sell you a plan, the major blocker of churning (inability to switch plans due to pre-existing conditions) that used to exist will no longer prevent competition from being effective. As we will see, this nasty little trick buried in the law may have a significant role to play.

The Kaiser Foundation analyzed 15 plans from 15 states that included a major city and that have released their 2015 estimated premiums. It found major increases in the cost of plans in some states, from 8.7% in Tennessee to 0.8% in Los Angeles; and major falls in others, from 0.7% in New York to 15.6% in Nevada (page 2; unlabelled figure). Note that this means just in California and NY alone you are seeing no average change in plan costs in an area affecting a population of something like 60 million people. The average fall over the whole dataset was 0.8%; it’s not clear to me if this is a population-weighted average. On pages 3-5 you can see that these changes don’t affect people living on salaries up to 400% of the poverty line in most cases; all the changes actually affect is the size of the subsidy these people receive. It seems to me that this means all the competition pressure on health insurance companies arises from offering plans to people earning over 400% of the poverty line, to employers, and in attempts to grab market share through offering cheaper plans to the subsidized population. I think this is still a huge amount of competition pressure on the insurance companies, and the Kaiser Foundation offers some evidence that this competition is working. Vox.com is all breathless about how “premiums never fall” and “this is unprecedented,” but I don’t know if that is true or not; it could just be that the health insurance companies miscalibrated their plan prices in 2013, when the HIEs were first opening, because they (like a lot of people!) misjudged how popular the Exchanges would be, and now they are able to lower prices because they have a larger pool of low-risk customers than they expected. If that is the real reason for these falls, then it seems likely future falls in premium price are not to be expected; but even if this is the case, it still points to a huge win for Obamacare, since getting low-risk young people into insurance plans to push down prices was a core goal of the policy.

I have a caveat on the future progress of premium prices under best-case scenarios; see my final point below for more on this.

Reduced subsidy cost to the government

The CBO report can be accessed here [pdf], and presents an interesting picture of both predicted costs to the government, and insurance numbers. This report is also an update on a previous report, calculated using the same methodology, so enables comparability over time. Basically the CBO over-estimated the cost to the government of subsidies provided to people taking plans on the HIEs, to the tune of $100 billion over 9 years (that’s a pretty big overestimate!!) The main reason for this overestimate is that the cost of insurance plans is lower than expected, and is expected to rise at lower rates than previously predicted. The average cost now is $3,800, which is expected to rise to $6,900 over the next 9 years; the estimate for 2015 is $3,900 where previously it was $4,400 (page 6), indicating that greater downward pressure has been exerted on prices than was expected, and driving future savings.

The CBO also provides estimates and predictions of health insurance coverage rates (Table 2 on page 4), which show some pretty amazing figures. Most importantly from a coverage perspective, the number of uninsured has been calculated to have decreased by 12 million in 2014, rising to 26 million in 2024 with the majority of those figures being made up in the early years. That’s a huge achievement for health reform in the USA, and if it is sustained will truly be Obama’s great legacy. From the perspective of other nations with 99% coverage of universal insurance it’s a poor outcome, but from the perspective of the USA it’s the biggest social welfare achievement in several generations.

The CBO estimates of coverage include estimates with and without illegal immigrants included, because undocumented immigrants are not eligible for subsidies or access to the HIE, and will form a larger portion of the pool of uninsured as time passes. However, even after excluding them from the pool of uinsured, by the CBO’s calculations the problem of the uninsured will not be fully solved by Obamacare at any time in the next 10 years: insurance coverage will increase to 92% of non-elderly legally resident Americans by 2024 (Table 2 on page 4, again). The exact increase in coverage over a world without Obamacare is not calculated, but it appears to be about 10 percentage points. Now, in 2014, with Obamacare fully functional for 6 months to a year (and some of its provisions in place for a couple of years) coverage is still only 86%. For the sake of America’s poor and sick, I hope that the CBO’s projections prove to be an underestimate.

From the CBO’s projections it is worth noting that Obamacare is expected to cost the government about $150 billion a year a decade from now. That’s not small change! But the vox.com post has some other figures from other reports which suggest that actually there are major cost containment outcomes beginning to show, which is interesting and in my opinion unexpected – I thought cost containment would be one major area where Obamacare would fail. I also didn’t think competition pressures would be effective in lowering prices at least in the short term, so it will be interesting to see if Obamacare exceeds my expectations. Watch this space!

These two linked reports between them do give a fairly good overview of the function of Obamacare, how it works in practice and where its limitations are. Obamacare is a complex beast and it’s worth reading them if you want to get a better understanding of how the new system works from a policy and financing perspective. Reading them also helps to give a sense of how complex the US health financing system is, and how difficult and delicate a task it is to introduce a law aimed at moving towards universal health coverage that doesn’t use a top-down single payer system. The more I see of Obamacare in action, the more I appreciate the challenge Obama faced and the skill with which he developed his signature policy.

A caveat on the future of Obamacare: where the real costs lie

At the bottom of the Vox post is a link to this related post on eight facts about America’s insurance system. It has some interesting material about different problems with the American system, but point 5) seems most relevant to the debate about cost containment under Obamacare. According to this post, hospitals and health plans have very low profit margins compared to drug companies and manufacturers. Part of this is probably just statistical anomaly: major hospital networks and health plans in the USA are not-for-profits, and by design cannot be expected to contribute to calculations of profit margins. But the broader point is important: while Obamacare focuses heavily on competition through health plans, the companies providing these plans don’t have the ability to cut costs through their own operations. If they achieve cost containment, they are going to have to do it through pushing down the profits of the people they purchase drugs and technology from. But these are the people furthest removed along the purchasing chain, and hardest for a fragmented insurance industry to force price reductions from. This suggests that in future the health plans will not be able to further compete on price without further structural reforms to the way the industry works, most particularly some kind of cost constraints on the medical device and drug manufacturers. While superficially this might seem antithetical to the modern capitalist system, it’s pretty standard in most countries with good cost containment programs (Australia and Japan, for example) to have fairly strict price controls on drug companies.

The problem for insurers in America is that they don’t have bargaining power. They need to exert price controls on companies that can sell to their competitors, and because they are offering a service in a fragmented market they can’t effectively withdraw their purchasing power as a last-ditch negotiating tactic. In future I think this means a US administration is going to have to step in to directly fix some maximum prices, or use innovative policy instruments to give defacto joint bargaining power to the insurance industry. I suspect one way that this could be done would be to make the HIE a vehicle for price negotiation – so all insurance plans operating through an HIE can use the HIE as an intermediary for price negotiations with device/drug companies, kind of like the Wheat Marketing Board that used to negotiate prices on behalf of all wheat farmers in Australia. You can bet that the pharmaceutical industry will fight such a change viciously. Another possibility could be to exempt health insurance companies from racketeering or anti-competitive practices laws when they are negotiating with providers, so that they are able to openly collude to fix prices. This would likely also kick up a huge stink, and could have serious negative consequences if other sectors of the economy managed to successfully demand the same right (I’m looking at Microsoft, of course). Another option would be for the government to find ways to encourage (or force) mergers of insurance companies until they reach a large enough size that they can effectively negotiate with providers; but the size required would likely lead to monopoly providers in some states, which would undermine the competition benefits arising from exchanges.

I think this is a fundamental problem of a free market in health, that is going to be very hard to fix without substantially altering the amount of “freedom” in the free market. Obama has shown, I think, that carefully-constructed law has the potential (not yet achieved!) to guide a free market system towards universal health coverage without completely breaking its fundamental structures, so maybe future extensions of Obamacare to resolve these cost constraint limits are also possible. But when we look at how difficult it has been to get Obamacare through, and consider the unique properties of the person who achieved it, it’s really hard to believe that after Obama leaves office there will be another person with the same talents and traits, and the same initial popularity, who will appear in the next 10 years and be able to achieve the next steps in health financing reform in the USA. Maybe Clinton could, though I don’t know; but certainly things will be dire for Obamacare if the next president is a Republican. I really hope that Obama is able to turn Obamacare’s political image around, and use it to win the next presidential election. For America’s poor, the next couple of years will be crucial, and the outcome far from certain.

Norman Tebbit Seeks Another Minority Voter

Norman Tebbit Seeks Another Minority Voter

Today’s Guardian has an article on the UK Conservative Party’s “minority problem”: it’s inability to get a decent vote share from non-white British citizens. The article seems to be quite neutral on the issue of the Tory’s appeal and electoral strategies, at times even appearing to be pasting text from a Conservative pollster (at times the voice changes, and it seems to have a slightly different perspective to the main thrust of the article, as if text had been copied from an email).  The key problem for the Tories is that they just don’t seem to be able to muster a decent representation amongst minorities, which in the UK primarily means British of black or South Asian descent, and are being outpolled by Labour at a cracking rate (16% vs. 68% according to a quoted survey). Now that they’re in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats the Tories are starting to realize that even a small improvement in minority vote could have saved them a world of trouble, and as is often the case that huge gap seems like it should be easy pickings. So what is going wrong? The article describes a series of problems which bear more on the party’s image and past representation of its identity, rather than on anything about its current policy content, and I think the problems they face – and the solutions they have begun to recognize as important – are in many ways analagous to the problem of getting more women to participate in role-playing. The ultimate end point for the Tories if they fail to up this vote is also similar to that facing gaming if it doesn’t diversify its appeal: obscurity and insularity.

The problem the Tories have identified is a really frustrating one: a large proportion of minority voters identify with their policy but just won’t vote for the party. They like the content, but are put off by what’s on the box, and by the people they historically associate with the scene. The article sites studies that found

while better-off white people were significantly more likely to vote Conservative than their less wealthy counterparts, the same was not true for non-whites. That is despite the fact that minority groups were more right wing than the majority on the key issue of tax and spend.

and also identified non-white British as naturally inclined to Tory policy:

high-income people, politically on the right, who want a smaller government (and a tough stance on crime and immigration according to other studies) are still much less likely to vote Tory if they are non-white. Whatever the offer, they simply think this is not a party for people like them [emphasis mine].

Basically the problem is not the policies of the party, or some lack of alignment on fundamental shared goals: it is that the party itself turns them off. There’s something wrong, to the extent that one study even found

even when people support an idea (many minorities take a tough stance on immigration for example), finding out it is a Tory policy puts them off

This is a sign that the problem is the way they perceive the party, both presently and as a party with a political past. It’s not difficult to find examples of why minorities might be uncomfortable with the Tories, such as this election slogan from 1964:

If you want a nigger for your neighbour, vote Labour

I guess the person who coined that slogan didn’t think about the effect it would have 30 years or 50 years later, but a slogan like that kind of echoes down the ages, doesn’t it? The studies cited found other problems too: the “go home” anti-immigrant buses, historic support for apartheid, and the author cites her own discomfort at the claim that “multiculturalism has failed.” The posturing on Europe probably also looks different to groups of people who are more suspicious of the xenophobic direction of politics than are mainstream voters – these dog whistles aren’t heard just by the dogs, but also by their prey, and there’s a lot of bad faith that the Tories have to ask potential minority voters to overlook. They were, after all, going to be the blood on the streets in 1964 …

These challenges facing the Tory party are an interesting mirror of one of the main strands of debate about how to engage women in role-playing, and particularly whether the behavior of men in gaming spaces, and the representation of women in gaming, might be part of the problem. I have argued before that the reason that care in representation of women is important is not that they care about seeing tits-and-arse for its own sake, but that images of lingerie-clad sex dolls with chain mail panties mark out the hobby as a male-only space. They serve the role of girly calendars in a workshop, to make women feel like they are intruding in a male space. These tits-and-arse pictures are the “nigger for a neighbour” campaign slogan of gaming. Alongside them comes the behavior of gamer men – the BO problems, the staring, the rampant mansplaining (fuck, gaming must be the only hobby where socially maladjusted dudes mansplain to other men, like alphasplaining or something), and all of this wrapped up in a nice package in which the men in the hobby are aging as a cohort. And on top of that the rape humour, rape games, and barely-suppressed sexual violence of some products. It’s not that women don’t mind a bit of sexual violence in entertainment (hey, GoT is very popular with chicks!) or tits-n-arse (women like to perve on men just as much as men do on women), and everyone who is an adult has learnt to suffer through BO problems (except the sufferers, apparently); it’s the combination of these things as representative face of the hobby that makes women back away smiling. For a long time the hobby (and the world of nerd-dom generally) has made it uncool and uncomfortable for women to be gamers. Even though they might like the content of the games, and be perfectly comfortable with (or even into) the idea of scantily-clad heroes hacking away at orcs, they simply think this is not a party for people like them.

We’re like the conservative party of hobby-space.

The solution has not come rapidly to the gaming community – certainly in past posts on the topic here, and threads I read elsewhere, I get the sense that male gamers often don’t care about women joining their groups, are actively opposed to it, think that changing the way women are represented and written about is “political correctness” or “suppression of artistic freedom,” or think that these aspects of the hobby are a fixed thing like descending armour class, and that the only people who we care to let into the hobby are people who accept these things. This misses the representational issues and the issue of boys’ club mentality, and it means acting as if the preferences of the boys in the group are not actually malleable preferences, but god-given fixed parts of the environment. Just as the Tories have taken the assumption that the only minorities they want in their club are black men and women who are somehow comfortable with a party that until recently publicly called them “niggers.” Because you know, that’s just how it was back then. Now that the Tories have worked out that they’re heading into very difficult times if they don’t start to reach out to a group that constitutes 14% of the population, they’re working first and foremost on those representational issues, and then on trying to show they’re honest about opening up policy to minorities, to try and overcome that sticky sense of bad history that keeps the party glued to the spot.

But hey, the Tories did well: they only ignored 14% of the population. For most of its history the RPG industry has overlooked 50% of the population …

Some people I know think it doesn’t matter – we’re just a hobby after all and there are lots of other things women can do. But I think that the problem is bigger than that. We are aging as a cohort, with only a small number of people joining us, and the kinds of representational issues that keep women from joining us also make non-nerdy men suspicious of us. If we continue to age with only small numbers of (male) newcomers, as a market we will get smaller, with an associated decline in diversity and quality of products available to us. We will stagnate. This is the fate facing the Republicans in the USA, who also have a minority problem but face structural problems in coming to terms with it, and can’t find a way out of this bind of shrinking into obscurity[1]. We don’t need to be like that, and I think some of the more modern game companies have realized that. I read on YDIS that D&D 5th Edition has a wider range of non-white figures in art, and less sexploitation art; games like Malifaux and World of Darkness, while often rooted in an overly gothic and sub-cultural aesthetic, have at least tried to diversify the way they represent women in both art and game terms. I think Ars Magica was the first game I ever read that regularly had female characters as examples, female players as examples, and switched between male and female pronouns in text. These are small things but it’s these representational issues which first and foremost, I think, signify to women that they aren’t welcome. It’s small steps, but if the UK conservative party can do it, surely we can too?

 

fn1: Spit-flecked obscurity, so there is that …

The most well-respected methods for reducing carbon emissions seem to be carbon taxes and carbon price mechanisms. I have written before about how I think they will not work to achieve a zero carbon state, based on lessons from the field of public health. Here I want to explore in a little more detail just what we might expect in the long-term from a carbon taxation system.

An illustrative example: Effects of carbon taxes on fishing

Fish are a staple food in Japan, and fishing is a carbon intensive practice because fishing fleets use diesel oil. We can get a rough estimate of how much carbon is required to produce a single piece of fish, and use this to estimate how price would change under a carbon tax. First, consider the total carbon emitted in catching fish: this website puts it at between 1750 and 3300 kg for a ton of fish, with the highest carbon emission amongst farmed fish. The analysis suggests that 1kg of wild-caught frozen salmon will be associated with 1kg of CO2; a carbon footprint of up to 6Kg can be expected for fish that is caught in say Chile, and shipped to the US. Taking 5kg as a conservative estimate of the carbon footprint of a kg of fish, we can see that  for a carbon tax of $X per ton, $X/200 is added per kg of fish sold in the super market. So for a price of $250 per ton, we get $1.25 per kilogram; for $2500 per ton, we get $12.50 per kilogram.

The Coles website tells me that salmon fillets are currently $30 per kg. A carbon price of $2500 a ton will increase their cost by approximately 30%.

We can calculate the cost for fresh fish in a supply chain directly, so let’s try this for a typical fresh Tokyo fish, Mackerel. The Seafish.org website has a carbon footprint profiler which indicates that you need to take into account “landed to live weight” and “final processed form to landed weight,” which we can estimate fairly conservatively (though I don’t know the details). This ancient paper (pdf) gives an efficiency of about 3% for shrimp fishing, while this FAO document gives landed weights of between 3 and 84%. Working with Mackerel from that document, let’s assume that only 3% of caught fish is actually edible[1], and make that the “landed to live weight” ratio. The FAO provides a handy guide to “conversion factors” for converting landed fish to actual final processed form, as an annex (pdf) to this guide. Taking the mackerel factor, let’s assume that only 50% of the final fish is eaten, in the form of a fillet. The site then asks us to show how much the fish traveled before and after processing, and by what means. Let’s assume it is landed fresh in Tokyo after a 5 day fishing trip, and that it traveled 40km by truck to the processing plant, then 40 km by van to the shops, and was eaten within a day (pretty standard in Tokyo). Using “Trawling for Herring in the NW Atlantic” as our model fishing method, we get 7.4 tons of CO2 for every ton of final product. So we would need to add X/133 to the per kg price of the fish. For a carbon price of $250, that’s $1.90; for $2500, a $19.00 impost. This site tells me that Mackerel in Japan costs between 600 and 8000 Yen per kilogram ($6-80), so a $2500/ton carbon tax would change this price range to $25-100 per kg. The Coles website tells me Australians already pay $20/kg for tinned mackerel – is it very likely that Japanese will baulk at paying $25 for fresh mackerel? Furthermore, this is for the most inefficient live catch and processing values I can find. If the live catch efficiency goes up to 10%, for example, the impost for those carbon taxes drops to $0.60 – $6.

No one on earth is currently considering a $2500 ton carbon tax. Even $250 a ton is considered radical, but $250 a ton will increase the final price of mackerel by $0.60 – $1.90 per kg. Does anyone seriously believe that this impost will be sufficient to force the fishing fleet to go carbon-neutral?

What are the long-term impacts of carbon taxes?

I chose fishing as an example because it differs from electricity generation in one simple way: short of returning to sailboats, there is no viable low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels for fishing boats at present. So the fishing industry will have little choice but to absorb the price of a carbon tax, pass it on to consumers, or disappear, unless and until an alternative energy source becomes available. If our goal is to get to a carbon zero economy and still be able to eat fish, a carbon tax is surely not going to work. But there are other aspects of the economy that are entirely vulnerable to a carbon tax, most especially electricity generation and public transport. So how well are carbon taxes predicted to work in these industries?

There does not seem to be a lot of available modeling on the long-term impact of carbon taxes, but those reports that have been published are not promising. For example, this report by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby describes a carbon tax starting at $10/tonne and increasing to $250/tonne at $10/year. They use four different established models to identify total, and industry- and region-wide effects of the carbon tax. Their final estimate of the effect of the carbon tax is a 50% reduction in emissions by 2035 (page 30). After that the gains decline. This report, from the carbon tax center, proposes a system of tax and credits that appears to correspond with a $113/tonne tax, and would lead to 25% reductions in emissions by 2024 on a 2012 baseline.

350.org says we need to get to 350ppm by the end of the century to avoid catastrophe; we’re currently on 400ppm and increasing at 2ppm per year. If we halve global emissions by 2035, we’ll be above 420ppm, and still increasing.

As another example, my July electricity bill was $66 for 214kwh of electricity. In Tokyo at the moment this is mostly gas, and would (according to Wikipedia) have released a total of 107 kg of CO2, based on median emissions. At $250/ton that’s going to increase my electricity bill by about $25/month. How much electricity use will that discourage? $25 is a cheap meal out with a few drinks. At $2500/ton it’s $250/month – two cheap meals out and two trips to a love hotel. Am I willing to give up two dates a month in order to keep my electricity use unchanged?

I don’t believe that even a $250/ton carbon tax will be sufficient to force carbon neutrality in electricity generation, and $2500/ton, while it will make solar and wind competitive and force a fairly rapid switch to renewables, may not lead to much change in other behavior, especially in industries like shipping and trucking where alternatives are expensive and still barely off the drawing board. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby report tells us that in the USA each $1/ton of carbon tax is a $.009/gallon increase in petrol prices; $2500 a ton will increase petrol prices by $22.5/gallon. Currently in Tokyo gasoline is sold at probably $2/gallon. Will people completely stop using cars at $25/gallon? Given that a single journey in Japan can cost $5 in parking, and a car can travel 35 mpg, i.e. two trips per parking cost, the total cost of those two trips will go from $14 to $35 in Tokyo. Is that sufficient to stop recreational use of cars?

These reports make clear that even sizeable taxes of up to $250/ton are not enough to get where we need to go. The first report, suggesting $10/year increases in the tax, shows the obvious problem – as the tax grows, the incremental benefit of further increases declines, so going to higher taxes will have smaller and smaller effects. By the time we’re at $300/ton, a further $10/year increase will be less than the effect of inflation on prices in many countries. People will stop responding to those taxes by that time. And as I showed in the case of fishing, there will be many industries where this cost can be passed onto consumers with a negligible effect. I routinely buy fish fillets in Tokyo for $2/fillet, am I seriously going to reduce my carbon footprint if the price of such cheap food doubles?

What we need to bear in mind here is that we don’t want to reduce recreational use of cars by 50% over the next 30 years, or by 90%; realistically, any CO2 emitting form of transport needs to be cut by 99%. These taxes alone are not going to do that.

What do we need to do to achieve carbon zero?

Carbon neutrality will not be achieved by taxes alone. We need additional government interventions to make it happen. Carbon taxes with appropriate transfers to ensure that poor people are compensated for the change are a good start, but they are only a start. We need to go a lot further if we want to achieve these goals. Some policy interventions should include:

  • Complete electrification of freight rail: Australia’s rail freight system (indeed all inter-city lines) is still diesel-powered; it should be electrified immediately, so that it can be shifted to a renewable energy source as the taxes bite
  • Expansion of passenger and freight rail: Most Australian cities are heavily dependent on road transport, which for the foreseeable future is immune to carbon abatement policies. As much as possible, the transport network needs to be shifted to rail, that can be electrified
  • Electrification of all buses: all public buses should be immediately electrified
  • Implementation of tollways: all major interstate highways should be shifted to a toll system, with tolls based on both distance travelled and journey speed, and tolls manipulated to ensure long distance travel is always cheaper by train and bus than by car
  • Construction of high speed rail: this is never going to be profitable in Australia, so it should be subsidized by government, using carbon tax proceeds, and prices fixed in such a way that it is always competitive with air travel and private road travel
  • Minimum price for air travel: Air travel will never be carbon neutral, so it needs to be discouraged or people need to find ways to use their journeys more efficiently (i.e. travel less often and stay longer). A minimum price will encourage this, and should be designed so that electric high speed rail is always cheaper
  • Nuclearization of all large ocean-going vessels: if it’s large enough to have a nuclear power source, it should. No freight should be carried on a CO2-emitting ship.
  • Reorientation of commercial fishing fleets around batteries and nuclear tankers: I don’t know if this is possible, but fishing needs to be redesigned so it is carbon neutral. If it isn’t yet possible to design battery powered ships, research funds should be dumped into this
  • A timetable for the banning of internal combustion engines: Some time in the future, internal combustion engines need to be banned. This timetable should be implemented now. By e.g. 2020, gasoline-using cars should be illegal, so people have 6 years to buy a battery car or convert to CNG; by 2025 or 2030, CNG cars should be illegal. That gives a 15 year time frame to completely electrify the personal transport industry
  • Immediate conversion of cars to compressed natural gas: This should be a brief boom industry, as all old cars are converted.
  • Lower all speed limits: so that cars travel more efficiently and private travel is less time-efficient than public transport
  • Ban all new coal-extraction licenses: No new coal mines should be built anywhere in Australia, and furthermore no new development should be allowed in connection with existing mines. Existing infrastructure bottlenecks to efficient extraction should be seen as a good thing.
  • Divestment laws: Investment funds should be required to divest all holdings in carbon-intensive industries on a reasonable but definitive timetable
  • Scale-up of electric charging points: Cars should be rechargable anywhere
  • Mandatory roof-top solar: for all businesses
  • Mandatory grid integration: no power company should be able to refuse a reasonable request to sell power into the grid.
  • Mandatory storage in new buildings, and subsidies to convert existing buildings: apartment blocks are not efficient solar collectors, but they could still be built with sufficient storage that they can store some solar power for release onto the grid at night
  • Ban all rice and cotton production in the Murray-Darling watershed: water needs to be returned to the river for greening of the river course, because restoring natural wetlands and green areas is essential to improving carbon sequestration
  • Huge rewilding and reforestation programs: Carbon sequestration through forestry management is essential, and this project needs to be undertaken immediately, so that it forms a key part of future carbon reduction strategies. It can be conducted in such a way as to support and restore biodiversity
  • Huge research grants on storage and renewable energy: We need to get to the point where electric trucks and ocean-going boats are a possibility within 20 years. This will need research. We should be doing it

And finally, I think that climate change denial should be illegal outside of scientific journals – if people want to claim it’s not happening they should be required to present peer-reviewed scientific evidence. Funding climate change denial should be a criminal act. The government should further refuse to offer contracts to organizations that have hosted denialists or funded denialists in e.g. the last 10 years. These people need to be driven out of public life and should have no influence on public debate. It is absolutely ludicrous that after three of the hottest months on record (April, May and June), the government’s business advisor is publicly claiming that a period of major global cooling is imminent. That dude should be unemployable, and preferably in stocks[2].

A lot of these programs will require major government subsidies, transfers and loans, and huge government intervention across a range of marketplaces. We need to stop acting as if the worst consequence of responding to the climate crisis is government intervention in markets, and start recognizing that it is the minimum requirement to stave off a civilization-level disaster. It’s huge government intervention now, or civilization collapse later.

So go looking back through history and ask yourself – has any civilization collapse ever been preventable through a small tax that raised the price of fish by 10%? I think you’ll find the answer is no. The emergency is coming, and we need to act as if it’s an emergency, not a minor market failure.

fn1: For farmed fish, this number should be near 100%, obviously.

fn2: This is clearly a rhetorical point

Since I have half an hour to spare and my Obamacare post has triggered some discussion of GOP presidential hopefuls, I thought I’d chuck out two random musings (or questions) on the next US presidential election.

Was George Bush’s apparent stupidity reassuring to “moderates”?

A lot of hay was made in the shining sun of Bush’s apparent bumbling stupidity[1]. But I wonder if this wasn’t actually reassuring to non-conspiracy-theory-minded “independents” and “moderates” that he could be trusted in power. While worried leftists assumed that his stupidity meant he was a puppet for the evil shadow-govt of Cthulhu-worshipping Republican activists[2], for people less inclined to worry about threats from beyond space and time they might have actually been inclined to think “this dude seems pretty thick, but also like a nice guy, maybe he’ll put a little more faith in his advisors than the previous guy did”? I don’t know to what extent Clinton was beginning to grate on the electorate in 2000, but I have a vague memory of Republican attacks on him invoking the “he’s too smart by half” kind of approach, and certainly in Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004 I remember attempts to portray Kerry as too thoughtful and out of touch. The only thing worse than an incompetent dude in the presidency is an incompetent dude in the presidency who thinks he is smart. Whereas a dumb shmuck who appears humble enough to trust his advisors might actually not be so bad – and back then in 2000 the Republican rhetorical trick of claiming that all government policy-makers and advisors were corrupt and untrustworthy was not yet in full swing, so voters might still have had the idea that government sometimes actually gets things right. In that case, some “independents” and “moderates” might have actually been convinced that Bush could do okay. And sometimes he did: PEPFAR was his Bush’s response to HIV/AIDS in Africa and has been one of the most successful global health interventions in history. It’s my belief that Bush introduced PEPFAR because he wanted an alternative to condom promotion and behavioral interventions that accepted the existence of pre-marital sex, but by consulting with his advisors he actually came up with a policy that worked. Of course, he also consulted with his advisors on Iraq, so he didn’t always have quality advisors … but in 2000 voters were judging presidential candidates at the End of History, and the idea you’d have some thick idiot in the presidency making decisions about multiple wars on foreign soil probably didn’t really seem plausible.

Would a similar thick “man-of-the-people” rescue the Republicans from Clinton?

I don’t think a similar approach would work with current potential candidates (e.g. Paul Ryan). People thought it might work with Sarah Palin (which I think is part of the reason they made her VP for Romney), but it didn’t. I think there’s a simple reason for this: compared to the modern crop of post-tea party idiots, George Bush was not an ideological candidate. “Independents” and “moderates” could vote for him as an alternative to too-lefty, too-smart-by-half Gore on the assumption that he wouldn’t be an idiot in charge of a radical ideology. Sarah Palin, on the other hand – in addition to being brazenly, openly stupid and probably proud of it – is clearly driven by an ideology she only seems capable of understanding on a visceral level. You have to be pretty crazy to think that having someone like that with their finger over the Big Red Button is a good idea[3].

Are Republican leaders completely adrift from their intellectual roots?

During his election campaign Romney made a famous gaffe, talking about the 47% of Americans who don’t pay income tax and calling them moochers. He didn’t intend this comment for public consumption, but put it out there in a conversation on political theory for private backers. I find it interesting that the inheritor of a conservative (US-style) political tradition could be so naive about the intellectual history of his own party as to make this comparison at a theoretical level. It has been the goal of conservative politics since at least Reagan to remove people from the federal income tax system. A “compassionate conservative” like Bush would consider it his or her goal to reduce the proportion of people paying income tax, while ensuring that those taxes that were collected supported a compassionate society. A “movement conservative” from the Reagan era would consider the removal of ordinary Americans from the income tax system to be a goal in and of itself. Under the ideology of movement conservatism these people have been liberated from a form of tyranny. In that conversation, if he had any understanding of conservative history at all, Romney should have been saying something along the lines of “our side of politics liberated a lot of that 47% from paying income tax, and I intend to use that achievement to win their votes” or “I consider it a failure of modern conservative rhetoric that we have failed to win votes from people who we liberated from income tax.” Instead he turns on people who are the beneficiaries of conservative political action, compares them with scroungers, and suggests that they are natural friends of the Democrats because they’re all on welfare, rather than keeping the money they worked to earn as Reagan intended. To me this suggests that modern Republican leaders – even the supposedly moderate ones like Romney – are completely out of touch with their conservative intellectual roots. Given the support Romney received from some quarters of the right for this comment, it also seems that a lot of modern conservative pundits have lost it. In place of reasoned political action from a conservative intellectual tradition, they have fetishized a few symbolic components of that tradition (taxes! freedom!) and deploy them as rhetorical weapons in any debate without any consideration for why they are important to conservative tradition, or what the limits of debate about these topics might be.

It is this intellectual drift which I think makes Republicans vulnerable on healthcare, and so badly unable to handle a post-Obamacare world. Serious health policy planners, Obama and his advisors looked at the problem of moving towards universal health care at affordable cost from the perspective of what is possible, what can be achieved, what needs to be done and how it can be paid for[4]. Republicans looked at the problem in terms of TAXES! FREEDOM!!!1!

A sad note on Bush’s legacy

Reviewing Republican behavior in the post-Tea Party World, one almost yearns for a return to the simpler years of Bush. And here I have to say I’m a bit sad about how badly he let himself down. If Bush had not invaded Iraq he would have left a mixed legacy, that would have left historians praising him on some aspects and learning lessons from his era. Instead, he killed a million Iraqis and unleashed the gates of hell in the Middle East: today Obama is considering air strikes on the Islamic State to save the lives of some tens of thousands of christians, who have been left adrift in the chaotic world Bush created. Absent his massive Iraq stupidity, Bush would have been assessed in terms of his compassionate conservatism and his poor management skills, which would have meant:

  • Plaudits and universal acclaim for the success of the Presidents Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, which Bush initiated and which has been hugely successful in containing HIV/AIDS in Africa
  • Criticism for his poor handling of the Afghan war, but acceptance that any US president would likely have to have invaded Afghanistan given the circumstances, and most importantly assessment of the war on its own merits rather than in the shadow of his huge mistakes in Iraq
  • Criticism of his handling of Hurricane Katrina, tempered with the recognition that many institutions at many levels of government and in the private sector were not ready for that event, and that the lessons learned were really important for handling subsequent disasters
  • Plaudits for his engagement with minorities, both through his promotion of (and in my opinion, respect for) black leadership figures like Rice and Powell, and for his willingness to fight his own party over amnesty for Latin Americans living illegally in the USA

Obviously given that the GFC happened on his watch, he massively incresed the deficit and his tax cut ideas were stupid beyond despair, he would never be heralded as the greatest president who ever lived, but it would be nice if his achievements and ordinary failings could be assessed without having to presage them all with his war crimes. When I was at the AIDS conference watching Bill Clinton speak, I kept thinking to myself that it would have been nice if Bush could have been there in his place, to talk about the achievements of PEPFAR as it came to an end, and to urge people to commit to preserving the gains that arose from his legacy. Indeed, his recent speech in Africa, while a bit emarrassingly stilted, was an admirable example of his genuine concern for the health of people on that continent. But of course Bush could never come to a conference like the AIDS conference, because everywhere he goes the shadow of his act of mass murder hangs over him.

And I think it was at that point – or somewhere between there and the GFC – that everything went wrong with the Republican party. Who knows what would have happened in the healthcare debate if Obama had been challenged by an inheritor of Bush’s compassionate conservative, rather than a hyper-wealthy free market nutjob or a bloodthirsty lunatic mummy and his bloodthirsty lunatic Alaskan sidekick? We will never know, because they cocked it up, and Bush destroyed his own legacy with his insane and criminal decision to invade Iraq.

fn1: I say apparent because I’m not convinced he was as stupid as he acted, and a lack of ability to do basic book learning is not a sign of stupidity anyway

fn2: Please note, I make no contention that these “people” do not exist.

fn3: And let’s just think for a moment about how things would be unfolding in Ukraine now if Sarah Palin was President.

fn4: Within the sad confines of modern politics, obviously

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