Saturday, October 20, 2007

Dr Watson and the Thought Police

Watch out! It looks like once again the Thought Police have been unleashed. This time, it was a politically incorrect remark made by James Watson, who in 1962 won a Nobel prize for discovering the structure of DNA, that has triggered the uproar.

Watson is quoted as saying that he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really".

The Thought Police have decided that Watson's comments go beyond 'acceptable debate.' In response to such ‘hateful’ remarks, he is now facing possible charges under the British Equality and Human Rights Commission (his remarks were make while visiting Britain), suspension from his job as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory ‘pending further deliberation’, and widespread condemnation in the press for being a racist. All this in addition to cancellation of his book tour, being banned by the Science Museum of London, cancelled speaking engagements and book signings, and general public humiliation. Dr Watson has since apologized for his comments.

However, is Dr Watson really a hateful racist? Reading the October 14th Sunday Times article in full that contains the quote in question, we see that these comments were made as part of a discussion of his interest in finding the genes that control human intelligence. He recognizes that politics will impede this search, but states that science should ‘hand political correctness back to the politicians’ so that it could get on with the difficult business of solving societal ills. When one compares the progress of the physical sciences, and the great leaps in our quality of life that fields such as medicine, chemistry, and engineering have yielded, with the absence of any tangible progress in the social sciences, one clearly sees that Dr Watson's concerns have merit.

Concerns regarding the lack of advancement of the social sciences are not new. They have perhaps been most clearly articulated by E. O. Wilson in his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. In this book Wilson laments the intellectual paralysis of the social sciences (fields such as sociology, economics, and psychology), and points to a way forward. He argues for linking the social sciences to the natural sciences, principally through the study of ‘brain science’. Unfortunately, until rigorous scientific principles are adopted by social scientists, these fields will continue to be manipulated by ideologues who are more interested in advancing a political agenda than in seeking the truth. When you consider the amount of flack the Thought Police are able to heap upon a famous and highly regarded scientist such as Watson, can you imagine any average rank-and-file college professor daring to speak out on taboo topics? And even more to the point, can you imagine a similar brouhaha arising from a scientist speaking out on a controversial subject in say astronomy, physics, or computer science? No, sadly the social sciences are still mired in emotion, and this is seriously impeding their progress.

Returning to the specific comments that got Dr Watson in trouble, the best that the New York Times could do in refuting his claim that intelligence is a factor in keeping the Dark Continent dark, is to resurrect arguments put forward by deceased paleontologist Jay Gould in his 25 year old book The Mismeasure of Man. Gould argues that intelligence tests are invalid and calls into question whether innate intelligence even exists. Nonetheless, the paper is forced to concede that current research shows that intelligence is, at least in part, genetically determined. Unfortunately, none of the news reports that I have read mentions the larger issues that Watson was attempting to address, choosing instead to focus on the sensationalism. <gasp!> Ironically, it is the political correctness that Watson recognized as hampering the study of intelligence that is attempting to tar and feather him for calling it out.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Bayh Endorses Clinton for President

Boy, this was a real cliffhanger. It’s finally official, Bayh has endorsed Hillary for the Democratic presidential nomination, and she has reciprocated by naming him a co-chair of her campaign. All that’s left for this little political dance to play itself out is for her to select him as her running mate.

The thing that galls me is how the news media continues to portray Bayh as a “moderate”, and uses this as a metric in their political calculations. While Bayh may have the patina of being a moderate, examination of his voting record shows that in reality he is a loyal, dependable vote for Senate Democrats. For example, here is how the Indianapolis Star puts it,

The backing from Bayh, a moderate Democrat, could help Clinton with those who fear her reputation is too liberal to win the general election.

If they think an endorsement by Bayh is going to help Clinton with moderates, I would how Bush’s endorsement figures into their calculations. Another example, this one from the AP,

Clinton said she agreed with Bayh, a centrist, that "Democrats should campaign everywhere in America.”

The drive-by media pass him off as a “moderate” and a “centrist” without presenting any evidence to back up their claims. I would like to know how voting with the Democrats in 24 out of 26 key Senate votes in 2006 makes anybody a moderate. In my opinion, this is strong evidence of the media’s liberal bias -- they perceive loyal Democrats as the center of the political spectrum. No doubt, anyone voting with Senate Republicans over 90% of the time would be labeled a Right-wing extremist.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Greenspan Book Criticizes Bush And Republicans

There has been much criticism of the Bush administration from the political right. One of the best books examining the failures of this administration is Imposter: : How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy by Bruce Bartlett. Much of the criticism revolves around his economic policies, or lack thereof. For someone that was supposed to be a conservative Republican, has has demonstrated remarkably little fiscal discipline. Examples of this include "No Child Left Behind" and the Medicare Drug bill.

While Bartlett's book does an excellent job of detailing the shortcomings of this Administration, it never received the attention that Alan Greenspan's forthcoming book The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World is about to receive. There are some very interesting quotes from the book in this Wall Street Journal article that gives us a taste of that is to come. For example,
Mr. Greenspan, who calls himself a "lifelong libertarian Republican," writes that he advised the White House to veto some bills to curb "out-of-control" spending while the Republicans controlled Congress. He says President Bush's failure to do so "was a major mistake." Republicans in Congress, he writes, "swapped principle for power. They ended up with neither. They deserved to lose.
He is so right. With this sort of stinging criticism coming from a man of Greenspan's stature and credibility, we can only hope that Republicans can learn from this disaster and will emerge smarter and stronger for it.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

American Oligarchy

The 2008 Presidential campaigns are in full swing and talk of “political elites” and “Washington insiders” is everywhere. It’s not unusual to hear stuff like the following from the candidates.
Real change starts with being honest – the system in Washington is rigged and our government is broken. It’s rigged by greedy corporate powers to protect corporate profits. It’s rigged by the very wealthy to ensure they become even wealthier....

Politicians who care more about their careers than their constituents go along to get elected. They make easy promises to voters instead of challenging them to take responsibility for our country. And then they compromise even those promises to keep the lobbyists happy and the contributions coming....

The choice for our party could not be more clear. We cannot replace a group of corporate Republicans with a group of corporate Democrats, just swapping the Washington insiders of one party for the Washington insiders of the other....

It’s time to end the game. It’s time to tell the big corporations and the lobbyists who have been running things for too long that their time is over. It’s time to challenge politicians to put the American people’s interests ahead of their own calculated political interests, to look the lobbyists in the eye and just say no.

John Edwards, 8/23/2007

What exactly does all that gobbly-gook mean in plain English? Primarily, it is a recognition of what everybody already knows -- that America is run by a political elite. This is indisputable. The disagreements are about who constitutes the elite and what to do about it. The people on the left complain that the wealthy elite run America and the solution is always more government, while the people on the right see the problem as too much government and always seek to cut it. But the important points of agreement are that America is run by a political elite, that this hurts democracy, and it needs to be fixed

Before we delve too deeply into this, I want to define the term oligarchy. It is not a term that politicians tend not to use (but it is clearly what Edwards speech was all about) nor is it used very often in the press (yet it is a frequent topic of political commentary). Oligarchy refers to a form of organization where a small number of people hold most of the power. It does not speak to the question of who those people are (corporate elites, “the rich”, bureaucrats, etc) . So you can see that Edward’s speech was all about how America is an oligarchy (ie. Washington is controlled by big corporations and lobbyists). It is undeniably true that America is an oligarchy; however, his perception of the problem (too many lobbyists) and his prescription (not quoted above, but public financing of political campaigns is advocated elsewhere in the speech) are, in my opinion, wrong-headed.

My goal is to shed a little light on oligarchy in American politics – who constitutes the ruling elite, what are the consequences of it, and what can be done about it.

America’s Ruling Elite

One of the more striking characteristics of American politics is how close knit it is. It is remarkable how many of our leaders are genetically related to one another. Of course, there are the well-known “dynasties”, such as the Bush family and the Kennedy clan. But it doesn’t stop there. For example, did you know that former Presidential candidate Senator John Kerry and President George W. Bush are ninth cousins, twice removed, and both men are related to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who’s fifth cousin was President Theodore Roosevelt! (link) American politics is full of such relationships. If one delves into the personalities that run Washington, it soon becomes apparent that everybody seems to be related to everyone else. (link) It is this clan that constitutes the bulk of America’s ruling elite.

The members of America’s political class are self-selected, so at least in theory, anyone can join in the fun. But in practice, only a small number of very wealthy, often-interrelated families play the game at the highest levels of political power. This is an oligarchy -- a society that is ruled by a relatively small number of people. Consider the following example adapted from Prescott Small’s article “Will America Become A Democratic Republic With A Duly Elected Oligarchy?,”

How does this look to you?

George H.W. Bush: 4 years
Bill Clinton: 8 years
George W. Bush: 8 years
Hillary Clinton: 8 years
U.S. Presidency: 2 families, 28 years!

Then let’s try something really crazy:

George H.W. Bush: 4 years
Bill Clinton: 8 years
George W. Bush: 8 years
Hillary Clinton: 8 years
Jeb Bush: 8 years
U.S. Presidency: 2 families, 36 years!

Interestingly, many political scientists believe that oligarchy is an inevitable consequence of large, complex organizations. According to the Iron Law of Oligarchy (no, I am not making this up), all complex organizations have an inherent tendency to develop a ruling clique of leaders with interests in the organization itself (ie. getting re-elected) rather than of its official aims (ie. serving the public).

There are several important implications of the Iron Law of Oligarchy:
  • True democracy is both practically and theoretically impossible.
  • The all-important first step for anybody that desires political power is to gain admittance to the ruling class.
  • Differences among political rivals in an oligarchy is usually small, because they are all members of the same ruling class.
  • Oligarchy leads to apathy and disillusionment with politics

The most troublesome feature of oligarchy is the natural tendency of the political class to put its own self interest (re-election, accumulating greater power and status, etc) ahead of what is best for the public, a process known as “goal displacement”. If we accept for the moment that oligarchy is inevitable, then we must ask what steps can be taken to minimize the detrimental effects of goal displacement – in other words, how can we keep politicians focused on what is best for the public at large rather than what is best for the ruling elite.

This essay shall review the implications of oligarchy in American politics and discuss how best to minimize goal displacement.

Democracy is Impossible

Robert Michels first articulated the Iron Law of Oligarchy in his book Political Parties (1959). The International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Science provides the following synopsis of how the Iron Law works:
  1. Strong organization is necessary to achieve collective democratic goals,
  2. strong organization requires delegation of popular sovereignty to an autonomous and self-perpetuating leadership cadre, and,
  3. an autonomous and self-perpetuating leadership cadre is incompatible with true democracy.

The Founding Fathers had the foresight to recognize that a pure democracy was unworkable. They chose instead to establish a government of elected representatives acting as surrogates for the general public. These representatives are, at least in theory, directly accountable to their constituents. However, as political parties grew in size and influence politicians became answerable to two masters: the electorate and the party.

Today, party bosses and party activists play a very large role in determining who runs for public office. The power of the two dominant political parties, both organizational and financial, severely limits the viability of independent candidates. Political parties also act as a check on the positions that candidates can take. Politicians that stray too far from the party platform risk losing party support and hence put their chances for becoming elected (or re-elected) at risk.

Another check on pure democracy in the United States is the Electoral College. Rather than directly electing the President, the public votes for electors, than in turn, vote for President. One of the key anti-democratic features of this system is that, in most states, the candidate that gets the most popular votes wins all of that state’s electoral votes. This “winner takes all” approach has been credited with strengthening the two-party system because it makes it extremely difficult for third party or minor candidates to garner enough electoral votes to prevail. George Will had this to say regarding the influence of the Electoral College,

The electoral vote system shapes the character of winning majorities. By avoiding proportional allocation of electoral votes, America's system--under which Ross Perot in 1992 got 19 percent of the popular votes and zero electoral votes--buttresses the dominance of two parties, and pulls them to the center, producing a temperate politics of coalitions rather than a proliferation of ideological factions with charismatic leaders.

Because of these and other anti-democratic features of American politics (such as the growing influence of regulators and other bureaucrats) it has been suggested that the modern American political system would more accurately be described as an “elected oligarchy” rather than a true republic.

The Political Class

The aspiring politician needs to curry favor with the political elite, and in many ways his political future depends upon remaining in their good graces. A politician that turns against the political establishment, may soon find himself out of a job.

The political elite is composed of the many actors that are intimately involved in selecting and grooming political candidates, and then influencing their decisions once they are in office. Most important are the political parties, but other players include big business, organized labor, mass media, lobbyists, and special interest groups. William Greider’s popular and thought-provoking book Who Will Tell the People (1992) details the extent to which powerful elites now control American politics. He correctly concludes that America is not a democracy, but stops short of calling it an oligarchy.
Many Americans perhaps think this is how the governing system is supposed to work – directed and dominated by an elite few. Many have come to accept the imbalance an inevitable and normal. But it is a political system of privilege and inequality, a rank ordering that assigns most citizens to inferior status. If fact-filled arguments and expensive expertise are the only route to influencing government decisions, then by definition most citizens will have no access. This is the functional reality. It cannot fairly be called democracy.

Actually, a society in which we are governed by elites that possess “expensive expertise” is a specific form of oligarchy called, you guessed it, elitism. Other forms of oligarchy may involve rule by a certain caste, tribe, race, military band, or whatever. Elitism presumes that the ruling class is in some way superior to the masses. The precise way that they are superior can vary considerably. Let’s take a quick look at two specific forms of elitism that have special significance for American politics.

Aristocracy: Rule by the Best
If there is to be a ruling class, then it would certainly be desirable if they were the best and the brightest among us. This is the optimistic view of oligarchy held by those on the political left. The Progressive worldview places a great deal of trust and faith in a benevolent government that is under the control of an ethical and enlightened elite. This vision of politics takes the view that wealthy Americans -- variously defined as “Big Money,” “the rich” or “corporate America” – are an interest group that corrupts American government with self-interest (“greed”), thereby preventing a redistribution of wealth that would realize the Progressive dream of an egalitarian nation.

Plutocracy: Rule by the Wealthy
Here the ruling class is superior to the general public in terms of financial wealth. There can be no denying that politicians (and the political class in general) are much wealthier than the average American. That fact alone would qualify the U.S. as a plutocracy. But liberals (including Edwards and Greider, quoted above) point to the undue influence that the wealthy have on American politics and advocate a larger and more powerful government with a socialist agenda as a means to bring greater balance to society. Clearly, the net effect of such a plan is to merely trade one form of oligarchy (plutocracy) for another (aristocracy).

In my opinion, it does not truly matter whether American politics more closely resembles an aristocracy or a plutocracy. The real problem is that political power has been co-opted from the people, and our democracy suffers as a consequence. With any oligarchy, there are real and significant consequences for our society. These shall be discussed next.

Choosing between a Giant Douche and a Turd Sandwich

Viewers of the cartoon series South Park may be familiar with the “Douche and Turd” episode. The story revolves around the cartoon characters having to choose to vote for one of two political candidates, one being a “giant douche”, the other being a “turd sandwich”. The show conveys the message that voting is pointless when both candidates are equally horrible.

It is true that most politicians are cut from the same mold. There is almost no perceptible difference among the candidates within each party, and there is remarkably little difference in the positions of leading candidates between the two major parties. Increasingly, it doesn’t seem to matter whether the White House is occupied by a Republican or a Democrat. Indeed, some have coined the term Republicrat to reflect the view that they are essentially one political party with two names. The homogeneity of the body politic contributes to political apathy and low voter turnout. The only “interesting” candidates tend to be the marginal or third party candidates (the Ralph Naders and the Pat Buchanans of the political world) – that have no chance of winning in a general election.

Both structural and functional factors contribute to the conservative tendency of American political candidates. Structural factors represent the way in which our political system operates to foster “mainstream” candidates with moderate positions on the issues. Structural factors include the two-party political system, restrictive ballot access laws, primary elections that tend to reflect the preferences of party loyalists, and the Electoral College (discussed above). Functional factors represent the ways in which candidates garner financial support and communicate with the public. Political Action Committees, special interest pressure groups (such as Planned Parenthood and the National Rifle Association, among many others), and political consultants all help to shape the candidate’s position on issues and develop his “message” to the voters. Consultants are recycled from one election cycle to the next, so it should come as no surprise that although the candidates may change from one election to the next, the message remains essentially the same. As candidates jockey for “front runner” status they often go through all sorts of contortions to appease as many voter blocs as possible. It is only the “second tier” candidates that are willing to risk standing out from the pack in a desperate attempt to grab the media spotlight (John Edwards and Ron Paul are outspoken second tier candidates from the 2008 Presidential campaign).

Perhaps the single most important reason for the absence of ideological diversity among career politicians stems from their concern to maintain their status and livelihood. As politicians become enthralled with their elite positions they become more and more inclined to make decisions that protect their power rather than represent the will of the people they are supposed to serve. Because politicians depend heavily on the media to provide them with credibility, and upon corporations, labor unions, and other special interest groups to provide them with money and votes, they cannot appear too extreme in their views. The political elite (including PACs, pressure groups, and mass media) impose strict limits on what constitutes an acceptable or “respectable” political position. Candidates that deviate from the mainstream risk becoming labeled as “mavericks.” While mavericks may add some spice to an otherwise boring election cycle, they never win elections.

Political Apathy

Thomas DeLuca in his book The Two Faces of Political Apathy (1995) presents two possible causes of political apathy, one is that it is the result of free and rational choice (“my vote can’t possibly make any difference”), the second is that it is a consequence of elite manipulation (oligarchy).

The first face is inherent in the idea of free choice – one becomes apathetic to some issue, but one could have made other choices that would not have led to apathy. The second face implies a condition under which one suffers – apathy is a state of mind or a political fate brought about by forces, structures, institutions or elite manipulation over which one has little or no control, and perhaps little knowledge.

It has been suggested that the DeLuca’s first face of political apathy is actually good for democracy (link). Too many people getting too deeply involved in politics could lead to a messy, unstable democracy. It is this line of reasoning that leads directly to the notion of an “enlightened elite” ruling over the “ignorant masses” (aristocracy). Societies with large and rising levels of apathy are viewed as mature and the high levels of apathy are believed to be “a leading indicator of contentment” of the citizens. Fledgling, unstable democracies (such as Iraq) tend to have very high voter turnout.

The second face of political apathy has traditionally been linked to “false consciousness,” a Marxist notion of the masses being unable to see things as they really are. From the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy,
The state of false consciousness may be the inevitable result of a way of living, and characterizes the generic and chronic kind of servitude that cannot even perceive its own situation. It may therefore coexist with a kind of illusory contentment.

It is this second form of apathy that oligarchy fosters. The masses, for the most part, remain content as long as the government continues to deliver basic services (“make the trains run on time”), and they are offered some opportunity to drink at the trough of government largess, be it in the form of a welfare check, Medicare benefits, or a tax break. Because the masses are weakly organized and have a strong need for leadership, they are inclined to accept the oligarchic elite so long as they are able to cling to the belief that they too are personally benefiting. According to Michels, despite the oligarchic leaders subversion of the democratic aspirations of the masses, the masses remain grateful and obedient because of the elites ability to co-opt dissent through control over patronage and the media.

Resisting Oligarchy

The Iron Law reminds us that there is an inherent tendency toward oligarchy. This tendency is fostered by structural and functional features of American polity. Sociologic research has, however, provided some evidence that this tendency can be resisted. The classic study of the International Typographical Union by Lipset et al (1956) found that a federal rather than unitary power structure, and factional in-fighting are important factors in resisting elite domination. Later studies have confirmed these observations.

Historically, most efforts to combat oligarchy and reinvigorate democracy in the U.S. have focused on campaign finances and term limits. While term limits may have some merit, campaign finance reform that restrict private contributions to candidates are not only doomed to failure, they are actually counterproductive. Other measures with potential include a federal power structure and greater factionalism. Let’s now take a look at each of these four strategies.

Campaign Finance Reform

Unfortunately, most campaign finance reform efforts are blatant incumbent protection schemes. Most of the initiatives that reform activists support, from limiting the amount of time in which a candidate can solicit funds to limiting how much money he or she can raise or spend, has the effect of protecting incumbents and harming challengers. Their usual justification is the simple-minded belief that money corrupts the political process, thereby keeping the ruling elite in power. Yet research has consistently shown that legislators vote the way they do for three primary reasons: ideology, constituent interests, and party discipline (link). Campaign contributions are not a significant factor in deciding how a politician will vote on a particular issue. Popular support for restricting political campaign contributions has its roots in class envy – the misguided notion that the rich can afford to buy political influence but the poor cannot. Yet despite the reams of campaign finance regulations already on the books, the influence of the political elite has not been diminished by one iota. Gary Becker, the Nobel prize winning economist, has had the following to say regarding campaign finance reform,
The McCain-Feingold Law of 2002 and previous campaign finance “reforms” attempt to restrict the competition of interest groups for political influence. I believe these restrictions are as undesirable as restricting who can run for office. Indeed, restrictions on campaign contributions do skew the political playing field toward rich individuals like Steve Forbes, Jon Corzine, Michael Bloomberg, John Kerry, and others who spend large amounts of their own monies. This is hardly a push toward greater “democracy.”

A typical example of recent attempts to foster democracy through campaign finance reform is the Democracy Matters organization. The purported goal of this organization is federally financed political campaigns. Under such a scheme, anyone could run for public office, because it would, in effect, be “free.” Would that lessen the influence of the two major political parties, political consultants, and mass media? Could amateur politicians possibly match the level of organization and sophistication of experienced professionals in running a national political campaign? Of course not. And these schemes would do nothing to lift existing restrictions on campaign contributions that protect incumbents, nor prohibit the rich from self-funding their campaigns. Nonetheless, the na├»ve call for taxpayers picking up the tab for amateur political campaigns continues, including the Fair Elections Now Act that would implement a system of taxpayer financing for candidates running for a seat in the U.S. Senate. It is also worth pointing out that it is simply wrong to compel taxpayers to fund political activity they would not otherwise support. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.”

Term Limits

Another popular avenue for attacking entrenched Washington elites is the term limits movement. By forcing regular turnover of politicians, term limits offer the possibility of breaking down at least one segment of the ruling elite, the politicians themselves. Former Senator James Buckley, has said the following about how term limits may influence the behavior of elected politicians while in office,

Once it becomes impossible for members of Congress to make a career of legislative service, the temptation to bend a vote for whatever reason may yield to the better angels of their nature. They may then be willing to cast principled votes based on an educated understanding of the public interest in the face of polls suggesting that the public itself may have quite a different understanding of where its interest lies.

Buckley is suggesting that the beneficial effect of term limits lies beyond simply throwing elected officials out of office every few years. It offers the hope that politicians will have a greater incentive to act in the public’s best interest. That, ultimately, is the greatest evil of oligarchy – that the ruling elite is inclined to put their own self-interest ahead of those that they are supposed to serve.

Of course, politicians are just the tip of the oligarchic iceberg. The influence of political parties, corporations, unions, and special interest groups would remain untouched by term limiting politicians. So while term limits are a step in the right direction, it is not a complete solution either.


Federalism is a system of government whereby authority is divided between national and state organizations. It is believed that federalism helps to secure democracy, protect human rights, and increase citizen participation in politics relative to a monolithic unitary government. The importance of federalism in guarding against tyranny has long been recognized. Lord Acton wrote the following of the relationship between federalism and democracy,

A great democracy must either sacrifice self-government to unity or preserve it by federalism. The coexistence of several nations under the same State is a test, as well as the best security of its freedom.

In the United States, the power to govern is shared between Washington and the states, but the extent to which national authority is supreme over local authority is subject to considerable debate. Under a system of dual federalism the two are considered co-equal partners, each sovereign. Under such a system, the federal government is limited to only those powers explicitly listed in the Constitution. An alternative view of federalism is known as cooperative federalism, which asserts that the national government is supreme over the states. While dual federalism is not completely dead, it has been in decline in since the Civil War. There has been a movement of political power away from the States to the federal government, even in those areas that have traditionally been considered State responsibilities, such as education, emergency services, and law enforcement. It is not unusual today to have State assemblies pass amendments to their state constitutions only to see them struck down by a federal judge. A recent example being amendments banning gay marriage. Concentration of political power in Washington has greatly increased the influence of K Street lobbyists. A return of power to State capitals, such that the federal government and state governments are more closely co-equal, would be very healthy for our democracy. Yet we do not seriously expect to see this happen.


Factionalism is another important influence that promotes democracy. One measure of political factionalism is the number and strength of political parties. Wikipedia reports that there were 7 major independent candidates for statewide office in 2006, and that as of April 2007 there were 11 independents holding seats in state legislatures. This anemic showing helps to explain why oligarchy has taken such a stranglehold on American politics – the two-party system fosters the power of incumbents and the wealthy power base that supports them. The presence of a strong two-party system in the United States is attributable to the fact that our electoral system is a winner-take-all system rather that one that apportions seats to each party based on the number of votes it obtains (proportional representation) – see Duverger’s Law for a detailed explanation of this phenomena. Berger has described the dilemma of third party candidates in a two-party system:

Minor parties are stuck in a cage twice locked: they must ask voters either to throw away their vote and have it not affect the outcome, or to vote and affect the outcome by “spoiling,” causing the victory of a candidate least preferred by the minor party constituency. Since voting for a third party candidate casts an insignificant vote or worse (i.e., furthers the success of an opponent), third party voting often seems irrational.

Measures that would increase factionalism, such as taking steps to increase the viability of third party candidates, would likely have the effect of increasing political diversity, decrease political apathy, and lessen the influence of the oligarchic elite.

Action Plan

Abolition of legal barriers to the growth and viability of third parties offers the best hope of minimizing the power of the political elite and reinvigorating our democracy. Legal barriers faced by third party candidates include anti-fusion laws, ballot access laws, and campaign finance laws. Therefore, an action plan to rescue our democracy from oligarchy must address these three areas. In addition, as mentioned above, establishing term limits for legislators and pressing for greater States rights would also be expected to have very positive anti-oligarchic benefits.

Abolish Anti-fusion Laws

The practice of voting for candidates that are endorsed by more than one political party is known as fusion voting. Fusion voting has been said to make a vote count twice – first it sends a message about the issues the voter cares about and then it helps elect a candidate. Anti-fusion laws were enacted to protect political incumbents from third party challengers, and they have been wildly successful. Fusion voting is now illegal in most states, and, in 1997, the Supreme Court upheld state bans on fusion voting in order to “temper the destabilizing effects of party-splintering and excessive factionalism.” It has been suggested that anti-fusion laws could be challenged in state courts as violating state constitutional rights of political participation and expression.

Relax Ballot Access Laws

Restrictive ballot access laws are a major impediment to new political parties. According to Richard Winger of Ballot Access News,

In 1994, a new party that wants to field a candidate in every race for the U.S. House of Representatives and have the party name appear on the ballot next to the candidate's name would need to register 1,593,763 members or gather an equal number of signatures. Yet the Democratic and Republican parties need not collect any signatures to assure themselves of a place on the ballot… The extreme disparity of the burdens placed on old, established parties versus new parties has no parallel in any other democratic nation in the world. Indeed, the number of signatures required for Democrats and Republicans to get on primary ballots is itself too high in some states, and as a result about 25% of all state legislative races present the voter with only one candidate on the general-election ballot.

Clearly, the effect of restrictive ballot access laws is to protect incumbent politicians and preserve the dominance of the existing political parties. The usual justification for restricting ballot access is that too many candidates appearing on a ballot would cause voter confusion, however, this has never actually been demonstrated. In fact, voter confusion was not a serious issue during the 2003 California gubernatorial recall race when 135 names appeared on the ballot. To the contrary, an exit poll found that over 80% of voters reported that finding their candidate on the ballot was “easy.” With continued progress in automated voting machine technology, difficulty managing large numbers of candidates should become even less of a concern. Because, Supreme Court decisions have generally upheld ballot access laws, it will likely take a grassroots movement to pressure state legislators to relax their ballot access laws.

Campaign Finance Reform

The type of campaign finance reform that would do the most to reinvigorate our democracy is to eliminate all limits on campaign contributions, and require candidates to provide immediate and complete disclosure of all contributions and donors. Because “second tier” candidates rely more heavily upon larger contributions from a smaller number of donors, attempts to restrict contributions only further empowers incumbents and other members of the political class, such as the mainstream media. Public financing of campaigns further empowers the political class by enabling bureaucrats to stifle candidates that challenge the status quo. Your ability to learn about these candidates would thereby be restricted. Private funding of political activity is vital to our democracy. As former Chief Justice Warren Burger once wrote, “There are many prices we pay for freedoms secured by the First Amendment, the risk of undue influence is one of them, confirming what we have long known: Freedom is hazardous, but some restraints are worse.”

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Global Warming Consensus?

Seems like there is alot less consensus among scientists on the question of global warming than originally thought. Note that the "consensus view" mentioned below is defined as humans were having at least some effect on global climate change.

Of 528 total papers on climate change, only 38 (7%) gave an explicit endorsement of the consensus. If one considers "implicit" endorsement (accepting the consensus without explicit statement), the figure rises to 45%. However, while only 32 papers (6%) reject the consensus outright, the largest category (48%) are neutral papers, refusing to either accept or reject the hypothesis. This is no "consensus."

The figures are even more shocking when one remembers the watered-down definition of consensus here. Not only does it not require supporting that man is the "primary" cause of warming, but it doesn't require any belief or support for "catastrophic" global warming. In fact of all papers published in this period (2004 to February 2007), only a single one makes any reference to climate change leading to catastrophic results.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Bayh on Iraq

The following is a partial transcript of the July 22, 2007, edition of "FOX News Sunday With Chris Wallace".

WALLACE: Let me bring in Senator Bayh.

Your view of this issue? Is Iraq the central front, or should we be focusing more and have we been distracted from Al Qaeda in Pakistan?

BAYH: We have a difference of opinion on this one, Chris. Iraq is not the central front in the War on Terror. As the National Intelligence Estimate indicates, it's Pakistan and Afghanistan.

We've got to finish the job in Afghanistan. We were attacked from there. And Pakistan is where the Al Qaeda leadership is reconstituting itself today.

So the unfortunate reality in Iraq is that it — actually, many of the experts who have looked at this believe that we are actually creating more terrorists than we're killing because of our presence in Iraq.

About 95 percent of the insurgents we're fighting in Iraq are Iraqis fighting over the future of Iraq, not these outside jihadists who are coming in.

And I guess the bottom line, Chris, is, look, we've spent four years, close to $400 billion to $500 billion, we've got 165,000 troops in Iraq, and our National Intelligence Estimate indicates Al Qaeda has gotten stronger.

The strategy is not working. We need to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, but do it in a smarter way.

WALLACE: Senator Bayh, I want to follow up on this because you had a very different view about this issue just two years ago, and let's put it up on the screen.

You said then about Iraq, "It really is a central front in the battle on the War on Terror. And if we leave too soon, it would be a catastrophic event and it would be a major defeat for us, a major win for the terrorists."

Were you right then or are you right now?

BAYH: Well, I'd like to think I was right both times, Chris. And by the way, shame on you in having a politician have to see his own words. But accountability is important in all spheres, particularly ours.

Look, I think we've learned a lot over the last couple of years. And what we've learned most of all is the unfortunate and, in some respects, maddening inability of the Iraqi political leadership to get their act together.

And I think one thing that Kit and I would agree on here is that no matter how long we stay, no matter how brave our soldiers are, including his brave son, this ultimately is up to the Iraqis. They have to make the hard decisions to reconcile their differences or this is not going to work.

Now, two years ago we believed if we just stood by them, if we continued to encourage them, if we said, "Don't worry, we're here for you," that that would increase their security and they'd make hard decisions. That hasn't worked.

So what has changed my mind and many other people's minds, Chris, is that to give us the best chance of them making the hard decisions, we've got to take the crutch away. No more enabling of dysfunction.

We've got to tell them, "Look, you get your minds right, you make the tough decisions, or we're not going to do this for you anymore." That's what's changed.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

TED Videos

I have been very disappointed with the offering on the most popular video web sites, such as YouTube, Google Video, and the like. I have attempted to browse through the "Most Popular" or "Most Discussed" offerings, and usually come away extremely disappointed. Well, I have recently discovered TED an awesome video site with many fascinating talks by some very thoughtful people. I cannot say that I agree with all the ideas of the various speakers - but that is a good thing. They make you think, they challenge your preconceived notions, and they are usually very entertaining. I highly recommend this site.

Here is one TED video that is very germane to my recent posts on Islam. The speaker discusses globalization from the perspective of memes. People often embrace memes so strongly that they are willing to die for them.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Bayh, Lugar split over troop withdrawal deadline

The Indianapolis Star reported yesterday the voting record of the Indiana Congressional delegation on the failed Levin Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 that would have required troop withdrawals to begin 120 days after enactment, with most troops out of Iraq by April 30. The Senate failed to come up with the two-thirds majority required to invoke cloture, hence the bill is dead.

Here is how the Hoosiers voted, according to the Star:

Evan Bayh: Yes (in support of troop withdrawl)

Richard Lugar: No

Four House Republicans: No

Brad Ellsworth (Democrat): No

Four other House Democrats: Yes

The paper reported that although Lugar opposed deadlines, he is pushing his own proposal that would require President Bush to come up with a plan to narrow the mission of U.S. troops. The paper provided the following quote from Evan Bayh on the subject of troop withdrawl...
"It is time to begin the process of extricating ourselves from Iraq," Bayh, a Democrat, said in a statement. "We need to do it in a way that leaves their country as stable as we can. We did not send our brave soldiers overseas to participate in another country's civil war."

No, we didn't. We sent them into harms way to defeat Islamic militants, and we need to keep them there until that job is done. We have in Afghanastan and Iraq dealt them a serious blow, but there is much that still needs to be done, and it will be a long time before we can bring the boys home. We still have to deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, just to name a few.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Ethics Committee Whitewashes Evan Bayh Violations

Back in March we reported on the ethics complaint filed against Evan Bayh by Judicial Watch, a nonpartisan educational foundation that promotes transparency, accountability and integrity in government. Judicial Watch revealed that Bayh failed to disclose his role as a director of the Evan and Susan Bayh Foundation from 2002, the year he was first named a director, until 2005, the most recent year for which this information is available. Well, Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch reports today in The National Ledger
that the Senate Ethics Committee has determined that no ethics violations had occured because the omissions were an innocent oversight. From the article...

Well, Judicial Watch finally received responses from the Senate Ethics Committee as to whether or not there will be any punishments doled out for the violations. Want to take a guess at their response? If you guessed “no,” you were right. Here’s the committee’s reasoning: In both cases, the committee concluded that the omissions were “inadvertent.”

Do any of you seriously believe Clinton and Bayh simply “forgot” they served on family foundations? Highly unlikely. In the case of the Clinton Family Foundation, for example, the Clintons have been able to write off more than $5 million from their taxable personal income since its founding in 2001. That’s a hard number to ignore. Does anyone think Clinton and Bayh misunderstood the question or didn’t know they were supposed to report? I don’t think so. Here’s how the question is phrased on the forms: “Do you hold any reportable positions on or before the date of filing of the current calendar year?'" Seems pretty clear to me.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Is Islam the Enemy?

I was struck by news reports of “brainwashed” children being held by terrorists during the recent siege of the Red Mosque in Pakistan. Apparently, the mosque houses a private school where parents who desire a traditional Islamic education can send their children. All seemed well until the mosque became a hold out for Islamic militants. Then, parents and the public at large expressed shocked at the strident rhetoric of some these children (as young as 10 years old according to the report I read), who were being “held hostage” by the terrorists. The children’s statements were not only supportive of the terrorists, but they stated that were actually looking forward to the Paradise that Allah has promised for those who die while fighting for his cause.

The popular consensus was that the children had been brainwashed by the terrorists. While this may be an example of the Stockholm Syndrome (whereby captives often begin to identify with their captors) I believe that it is equally likely that the children, who by their very presence at the school indicates that they were already being indoctrinated into traditional Islam, were genuinely sympathetic to the jihad. And, as we have seen, traditional Islam is synonymous with militant Islam. Therefore, I believe that the children were predisposed to supporting both the motives and the methods of the terrorists. Indeed, many terrorist organizations establish and run schools (known as madrasahs) for the very purpose of recruiting children.

This begs the question: “Is Islam the enemy?” Are our combatants in the global war on terror just a few fringe extremists, or are we up against the world’s second largest religion? Thomas PM Barnett (TED video), the author of the highly influential book “The Pentagon’s New Map” said the following in a C-SPAN interview (C-SPAN video) that aired on October 20, 2005:

I really stress not making Islam the enemy. What I argue is there are parts of every religion that are fundamentalist, meaning they believe to be a true believer is to separate oneself from the rest of society. In the United States we have the Amish, for example. They do this peacefully. What we see in the global Salafi-jihadist movement are fundamentalists who seek separation through violent means.

This view (which I believe is the prevailing view in Washington) suggests that it is only the fundamentalist – or as Barnett sees it “separatist” – elements of Islam that mean to do us harm. In the current era of globalization there is nowhere left on the planet for a separatist to escape Western culture. So Islamic fundamentalists believe they need to defeat the West, or at the very least, halt it’s spread into their regions of the globe. Is it possible to combat fundamentalist Islam without defeating Islam as a whole? If the fundamentalists are the true Muslims - they certainly see themselves in this way, and their position seems to be supported by the Qur’an - then the enemy of the West is true Islam. To my knowledge there is no particular sect of Islam that is distinctly “separatist” (as are the Amish) and is the source for all the violence against the West. Indeed, jihad is one of the central pillars of Islam. Far from being seperatists, many Islamic fundamentalists seek to restore a global caliphate uniting all Muslims. Jihadists come from every corner of the globe, and every walk of life. This fact was vividly illustrated by the recent episode involving British medical doctors turned terrorists.

Frances Fukuyama published his classic essay "The End of History?" (PDF version) in 1989, the same year as the fall of the Soviet empire, and long before the 9/11 terror attacks. In it he contemplates whether Western liberalism had finally won out over all other competing ideologies (such as communism and fascism), and would ultimately reign supreme over all peoples of the world. In the essay, he dismissed Islam thusly:

In the contemporary world only Islam has offered a theocratic state as a political alternative to both liberalism and communism. But the doctrine has little appeal for non-Muslims, and it is hard to believe that the movement will take on any universal significance.

As Fukuyama sees it, human history is essentially the story of mankind’s ideological evolution. A variety of ideologies have been taken up and discarded by humans over the millennia. Conflicts (ie. World War II, the Cold War) have arisen amongst the various competing ideologies, and ultimately, one may defeat all competing ideologies to achieve what Fukuyama envisions as the ultimate victory -- a universal homogeneous state where all the peoples of the world embrace a single ideology. This point Fukuyama defines as the “end of history”.

As the Soviet Union imploded, Fukuyama did not see any competing ideology standing in the way of Western liberalism achieving global dominance. Indeed, the process we today call globalization is liberalism fulfilling Fukuyama’s vision of a “universal homogeneous state”. But a competing ideology has arisen. Islamic theocracies, richly funded with Persian Gulf oil money, have become a force to reckon with. They are just as incompatible with Western liberalism as the fascists and communists of yesteryear. If the Islamists choose to violently oppose globalization, then Islam is indeed the enemy.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam

I just finished reading “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades” by Robert Spencer (link). I had originally learned about Spencer when he was interviewed on C-SPAN a while back. I have checked out his Jihad Watch web site a few times, but have not followed him very closely. A friend passed the book along to me and I decided to give it a read. Like other books in the “Politically Incorrect” series, it is a relatively brief (270 pages) and easy read.

I found the book to be extremely informative. While I have not researched Islam very extensively, I have since 9/11 made an honest effort to become better informed. I have read other books, watched movies, seen TV specials, and visited web sites on the subject. The problem is that there is a great deal of conflicting information out there regarding Islam, and it’s hard to put everything together into coherent picture that helps to explain the world we live in today. After reading this book I felt I had a much stronger handle on Islam and how it relates to the “War on Terror” that we face today.

I believe the key take-home message of the book is that Islam is not just a religion, it is also a political movement. It is the fusion of religion and politics that makes Islam so volatile, and fundamentally incompatible with modern pluralistic societies. Islamic states are governed by Sharia law, a legal system based upon Muslim principles of jurisprudence that covers all aspects of day-to-day life, including politics, economics, business, family life, and social issues. It is sharia law that gives religious leaders their political power, since they are the ultimate authority on every aspect of law. Many Muslins today seek to unite all Islam under a single global ruler, known as the caliphate. This may be thought of as the Islamic equivalent of the Catholic pope. The caliphate was abolished in 1924, and many Muslims trace their political downfall to this event. Restoration of a global Islamic leader is viewed by some as a means of regaining lost glory. The goals of jihadists is to restore the caliphate and establish supremacy of Islam in the world.

There is no “separation of church and state” in Islamic countries, the church is the state. Consequently, the modern notion of universal human rights, such as the freedom of religious expression, is nonexistent. Indeed, purely religious acts such as blasphemy, apostasy, or conversion from Islam to another religion is a capital offence under sharia law, punishable by death. Furthermore, Islamic law officially classifies non-Muslims as second-class citizens, under what is known as the dhimma. The dhimma are essentially those conditions under which non-Muslims are allowed to practice their religion. Failure to comply with these laws is punishable by death. Within Islamic states non-muslims are offered a triple choice: voluntarily convert to Islam, accept dhimmitude, or death.

Another central theme of the book is that historically, Islam has been spread by warfare. Indeed, Muhammad himself was a warrior, and he lead the charge militarily to spread his new religion as far and wide as he could. The Qur'an is unique among the sacred writings of the world in counseling its adherents to make war against unbelievers. The violence that we see today from Islamic militants is just the latest expression of this warfare. The killing of innocent non-combatants (as occurred in the World Trade Centers) is acceptable because to fight against the persecution of Muslims by any means necessary is the highest good. Other Islamic principles that help to shed light on the current conflict include:

  • Allah will grant victory to his people against foes that are superior in numbers or firepower, so long as they remain faithful to his commands. Islamic terrorists have no fear going up against seemingly insurmountable odds because they believe Allah will grant them victory. Likewise, when things go wrong, it is punishment for not being faithful to Islam. It also doesn’t hurt that Paradise is guaranteed to those who "slay and are slain" for Allah.

  • Prisoners taken in battle may be put to death at the discretion of Muslim leaders. Those who reject Islam are "the vilest of creatures" (Qur'an 98:6) and thus deserve no mercy.

  • Anyone who insults or opposes Muhammad or his people deserves a humiliating death — by beheading if possible. This is in accordance with Allah's command to "smite the necks" of the unbelievers (Qur'an 47:4).

While there are verses within the Qur’an that are more tolerant of nonbelievers, they are subject to the Islamic doctrine of abrogation (naskh). This is the idea that Allah can change or cancel what he tells Muslims. According to this idea, the violent verses of the ninth sura, including the Verse of the Sword (9:5), abrogate the peaceful verses, because they were revealed later in Muhammad's prophetic career.

While all of this may seem rather extreme, the point that Mr Spencer makes is that Islam is extreme. Because the Qur’an is believed to be the literal word of Allah as revealed to Muhammad. It is perfect, immutable, and not subject to the sort of nonliteral interpretation that has mellowed some other religions. Those Muslims that are moderate and do not follow the literal teachings of the Qur’an are not “true Muslims” in the eyes of Islam. In other words, “there are moderate Muslims but Islam itself is not moderate”, as author Ibn Warraq is quoted as saying. Mr Spencer points out that while we are told that it is only the "bad Muslims", the Wahhabis and other extremists, who are responsible for all the violence, it is these very same bad Muslims who most fervently accept, in every area of life, the actual teachings of Islam, while the more relaxed, unobservant, and above all non-literal minded Muslims who are committed to pluralism and peaceful coexistence with non-Muslims.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Immigration Bill Goes Down

A total of 46 senators voted in favor of the bill, with 60 required to invoke cloture and bring the measure to a vote. One of Indiana's senators voted in favor of the bill (Lugar) and one senator voted against it (Bayh).

Some news sources are speculating that while the issue may be dead for now, it will be back. There are some very powerful forces on the left and the right pushing for relaxing our immigration laws, so don't think that this is the end of the issue.

History shows that immigration is very good for the economy, and more immigration is probably a good thing. But, in the post-9/11 world more than the usual amount of paranoia and xenophobia surrounding immigration reform is to be expected. The opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants is legitimate, and the proponents of this legislation were unable to satisfactorily answer the concerns that many well-meaning people on this point. Inadequate border security was specifically cited by Evan Bayh as the reason he decided to vote against the bill after voting for the bill. Ultimately, immigration reform proved too thorny an issue for this Congress to tackle. So it is gone for now. But it will be back on the radar again soon, very soon.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Health Care Reform Is Not Sicko

I watched the new movie by Michael Moore entitled “Sicko” this past weekend. Although it is not due out in theaters for several weeks, it was “leaked” onto the web and is being freely downloaded by thousands of people. Interestingly, Mr Moore does not seem too upset by this turn of events. In fact, he has endorsed it. You can view the below Google Video of an interview with him where he states...

I don't agree with copyright laws and I don't have a problem with people downloading the movie and sharing long as they're not trying to make a profit off my labor... I make these movies and books and TV shows because I want things to change, and so the more people who get to see them, the better.

Given his public statements on the issue, some have speculated that Mr Moore himself is responsible for the leak. There is no way to know whether this is true or not, but at the very least Mr Moore clearly has no problem with us downloading pirated copies of his movie.

So, with that disclaimer out of the way, lets take a look at the substance of “Sicko”. In this movie, Mr Moore attempts to make a case for national health insurance. This is not going to be a movie review -- Mr Moore is clearly an accomplished filmmaker -– rather, I want to examine the specific issues he raises in the film and whether he presents a compelling case for the US adopting a form of national health insurance.

The central theme of “Sicko” is that US health insurance companies care more about profits than about people. He paints a picture of a world in which people who are seriously ill cannot count upon their health insurance to pay for expensive medical care. Conversely, in countries with national health insurance, people have access to free on-demand state-of-the-art medical care as a right of citizenship. Aside: The word "free" (as in beer) is used repeatedly in the movie, only occasionally being qualified. Of course, nothing in the Real World® is ever free, and that is at the crux of this entire debate, but more on that in a moment.

I think the first order of business is to put things into some perspective. The largest provider of health insurance in the US is already the government (source). Medicare, Medicaid, and other State and Federal programs account for approximately 50% of all health care expenditures in the United States. Private health insurance accounts for 35% of the total health care pie (see figure). The other 15% coming from other private sources, such as philanthropy. Private health insurance primarily covers young people with families during their working years. After retirement, Medicare, not private insurance, pays for most care. The indigent are covered by Medicaid. The point being that this entire discussion is addressing only about one-third of all healthcare expenditures in this country. The balance of which, for the most part, is already covered by government programs.

The nightmare scenario that “Sicko” portrays is when a young person contracts a catastrophic illness, such as cancer. The cost of such a disease quickly exceeds the resources of an average family, and therefore the person is at the mercy of their health insurance company to pay the bills. “Sicko” depicts the interests of health insurance companies and their customers as being at odds, with the insurance company seeking to deny coverage or cancel policies whenever expensive care is needed. In actuality, only 14% claims were denied in 2006 (source). Half of these denials were the result of duplicate claim submission, incomplete information, or coding errors. That leaves 7% of all health insurance claims being denied due to coverage-related issues. Upon denial, consumers can appeal the decision to internal and external review boards (source). Federal law requires an internal review process for individuals who appeal a denied benefit claim. Beyond that requirement, 45 States have requirements for independent external review processes for health insurers, whereby denials of health insurance coverage are reviewed by physicians who are unaffiliated with their health plan. In addition, most States have patient protections that allow direct access (without prior approval) to certain health care providers and services. Federal law ensures public access to emergency services regardless of ability to pay (source). A recent research study examining claim denials in a period between 2001-2002 found that 20% of appeals involved experimental/investigational treatments; the remainder involved issues of medical necessity. External review overturned the health plan denial in 41% of medical necessity appeals and 20% of experimental/investigational appeals. Therefore, it is an exceedingly rare occurence that a doctor will recommend a treatment and the patient's health insurance does not pay for it, even if they initially deny the claim.

Health insurance companies are not the only target in “Sicko”. Pharmaceutical companies are also depicted as profiteering. Much has been made of the large difference in cost of drugs within the US and abroad. It is true that the same drug can cost much less in Canada (or Cuba, as was the case in the movie) than in the US. Why is that? The answer is that the cost of a drug in the US is the true cost, while the cost elsewhere is an artificially reduced price (source). The true cost of a product must incorporate the cost of research and innovation. If a drug company is to survive it must recoup the cost of developing a pharmaceutical, and invest money in developing its next product. For example, a copy of Microsoft Vista costs hundreds of dollars within the US, yet a copy can be had on the streets of China for just a few dollars. Because the CDs upon which it is printed costs pennies, pirates can copy and sell Microsoft Vista at a profit for a few dollars. Yet nobody could produce it from scratch and then sell it at such a low price. The same is true of drugs. It is possible for them to copy and sell generic versions of US-developed drugs at very little cost, but don’t count on the Canadians drug companies to come up with a cure for cancer or develop a treatment the next AIDS, SARS, or bird flu.

I am not arguing that the American health care system is perfect. I believe that healthcare is far too expensive. Unfortunately, the cost of healthcare moves in only one direction – up. The reason for this strange behavior is the complete absence of the usual market forces of competition and supply and demand in the health care market (source). It is not that health care is somehow uniquely exempt from the universal effects of supply and demand. Just look at those segments of the health care market that are subject to market forces, such as laser vision correction (also known as LASIK), and you see the steady decline in prices that one would expect from a maturing technology. The above cited research report on the high cost of American health care puts it this way: The overriding cause of high U.S. health care costs is the failure of the intermediation system — payors, employers, and government — to provide sufficient incentives to patients and consumers to be value–conscious in their demand decisions... Translation: If health care consumers were more price conscious, then prices would fall.

In the upside-down world of government run healthcare, too many hospitals is a bad thing, and hospitals need to be closed. Too many MRI machines within a community is a bad thing, and the extra machines must be removed. And too many doctors in a community is a bad thing, and the doctors must be relocated. In countries with national health insurance, all of the above are strictly controlled and the result is a form of rationing of healthcare. Long waiting lists and scarce supply of expensive technology is the norm. In America, 37 States already have government imposed restrictions in the acquisition and deployment of expensive technologies and building or expanding healthcare facilities in the form of “certificates of need” that are are used to limit the supply of health care in a given region. If market forces were allowed to operate, then an abundance of supply would lead naturally to a decline in cost. Instead, governments fear increased supply will lead to “over-utilization”. In short, the problems that exist within the US healthcare system are a consequence of too much government, and cannot be solved by even more government.

Surprisingly, “Sicko” traces the origins of the current healthcare dilemma to Richard Nixon (a Republican). He, in 1973, signed legislation creating Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs). But rising healthcare costs were already a problem in the 1970s, and that is the reason why HMOs were created. In actuality, out-of-control healthcare costs traces its roots back to 1942, when Roosevelt (a Democrat) pushed through legislation that imposed high taxes on corporate earnings but allowed health benefits to be written off as a tax-deductible business expense. This is why we now have the bizarre situation of health insurance being tied to employment, and the unfortunate situation dramatized in “Sicko” of many people feeling trapped in unrewarding jobs for fear of losing their health benefits. "Imagine if auto insurance worked the same way," says Bob Moffit of the Heritage Foundation. "So, if you lost your job, you could no longer drive. That would be profoundly absurd." Because the employer was now paying for health insurance, not the employee, a critical disconnect was made between care and cost. It encourages people to engage in behaviors detrimental to their health because they have no real appreciation for the costs of those behaviors, and the overutilization of care by individuals who believe someone else is footing the bill. In short, it planted the seed for the runaway healthcare costs that we are experiencing today.

Market-based reforms have been slow in coming, but we are starting to see some initiatives that look promising. Among the most promising new offerings are Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). With an HSA the employer deposits funds into a savings account that the employee controls. The employee can spend these funds on any healthcare-related expense, or he can allow the funds to accumulate. If the employee’s expenditures exceed a certain amount with a given timeframe, then a high-deductible insurance plan kicks in to cover them. The key to this plan is turning control over to the consumer. He now becomes aware of costs, because he is paying for them out of his savings account. He is thereby incentivized to get the maximum value for his healthcare dollar. If individuals are responsible for the consequences of unhealthy behaviors, then they will be more likely to adopt healthier lifestyles. In his book "Call to Action" Hank McKinnell writes "[T]he cornerstone of healthcare reform is to empower consumers of health services with as much information and market power as possible. The best way I know to create empowered patients is though the creation of incentivized personal health accounts that unleash the benefits of an ownership society."

In the movie “Sicko” the prime advantage of national health insurance is the ability to get the care you need without having to worry about the cost. But this is an illusion. In the real world somebody always has to worry about cost. In the case of national health insurance, it is the State. They deal with costs the only way governments can, by targeting the quantity of care (ie certificates of need). Fewer doctors, fewer hospitals, and fewer MRI machines. In short, by rationing care. In a market-based system, there are other ways of dealing with cost. Henry Ford realized that there was little point in building an automobile that the average man could not afford. By the same token, what’s the point of an MRI (or drug, or operation) that the average man cannot afford? Costs have soared because they could. Traditional health insurance would continue to pay for care no matter how high costs climbed. But if you empower consumers to shop for medical care the same way they shop for automobiles, that would introduce competition into the market, and drive down costs.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Good Intentions Do Not Make For Good Policy

That is one of the greatest problems with liberals having political power. They are full of good intentions, but they consistently come up short with practical solutions to real-world problems.

Case in point: Evan Bayh’s latest attempt at legislating. He tagged an amendment onto the CLEAN Energy Act of 2007 that required the President to come up with a plan to reduce U.S. oil consumption by 35 percent by 2030. (SA 1508). The amendment to (quoting from the amendment) “reduce our Nation's dependency on foreign oil by investing in clean, renewable, and alternative energy resources, promoting new emerging energy technologies, developing greater efficiency, and creating a Strategic Energy Efficiency and Renewables Reserve to invest in alternative energy” passed a Senate vote earlier this week (6/12/2007).

“Breaking our dangerous dependency on foreign oil is one of the defining challenges of our time,” Bayh said in a statement delivered on the Senate floor prior to the vote. (Hmmm… I wonder what Bayh has to say regarding the real defining challenge of our times – Militant Islamists.)

Bayh’s amendment directs the Office of Management and Budget to work with the Secretaries of Energy and Transportation and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to develop the most cost effective way to reach strict oil savings targets. The amendment would allow a combination of approaches, such as improved fuel-efficiency standards, hybrid cars and the use of ethanol and biomass fuel, to reach the goal.

Note that the amendment does not address the fundamental problem of “alternative” energy sources: They are expensive! If they where more cost effective than oil we would already be using them en masse. Because oil is so cheap we, as a society, weigh the costs of foreign oil dependency and decide to accept the problems associated with it because, on the whole, it is our most cost effective option. Should oil prices rise high enough, and remain high long enough, people would eagerly embrace more cost effective alternatives. Note, for example, how enraged the public became when gasoline prices shot up above $3.00/gallon. (Aside: Senator Maria Cantwell and 24 cosponsors - almost entirely Democrats - tagged another amendment onto the Energy Bill making gasoline price gouging a federal crime (S.1263). What a bold and courageous move).

If Evan Bayh were truly interested in decreasing our “dangerous dependency on foreign oil” there is a simple, effective, and very expedient way for him to achieve this – the tax code. All he would have to do is hike up the tax on fossil fuels to the point where alternatives start becoming more attractive than oil. Then just sit back and let the market and American ingenuity work it’s magic. Since Evan ignores this obvious alternative, I have to question just how serious he is about decreasing our foreign oil dependency. I recognize that a politically unpopular move such as raising gasoline prices would take real political courage, and courage is in very short supply in Congress. But if Evan Bayh truly sees this as the “defining challenge” of our times why does he pussyfoot around the subject (ie. directing the Administration to develop strategies to meet his amendment’s targets) rather than taking direct action that would have a meaningful impact? Furthermore, there is nothing in Evan’s amendment regarding increasing domestic oil production, another way that he could attack our foreign oil dependency head-on if he were really serious about solving this problem. Yet Democrats are very hostile to domestic oil exploration – remember the battle over Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

Friday, June 01, 2007

Recent Evan Bayh News

A recent editorial by Sylvia Smith in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette suggests that Evan Bayh was never really intending to make it to the top of the 2008 Presidential ticket, and that his campaign was merely a show of strength as a potential veep. While this is hardly a novel idea, it's about the only recent Evan Bayh news worth reporting. In her editorial Smith herself comments about how "moribund" the Bayh camp has been recently.

Bayh did write a letter to NASCAR last month requesting that they convert to ethanol. Such a move would accomplish absolutely nothing of substance in terms of energy independence; it is of purely symbolic value - but then Evan Bayh has never been one to offer substantial solutions to difficult problems. Whether the issue is energy independence or intellectual property, Evan is heavy on symbolism and light on substance. While the viability of bio-ethanol as an alternative to fossil fuels is highly dubious, it is a politically popular stance, and if nothing else, Evan is a consumate politician. He wrapped bio-ethanol in the flag, stating "Red, white and blue already runs through the engines of NASCAR, so why not a clean-burning American-made fuel like ethanol, too?" <gag>

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Roots of Political Polarization

There has been much made recently about the polarization of American politics (link, link). The current political climate has been characterized variously as lacking civility, hyperpartisan, the "politics of division", and so forth. Political veterans frequently reminisce about the good old days when it was possible to “work across the aisle” to get things done. Today things are different. Political positions have hardened, and this is reflected in the extraordinarily large number of party-line votes in congress. Congressmen tend to vote as a block, only rarely crossing party line. Books have been written about this phenomena. One recent book, Fight Club Politics by Juliet Eilperin, traces the origins of hyperpartisanship in the House of Representatives to partisan gerrymandering of Congressional districts. Eilperin believes that by redrawing Congressional districts to make them politically safe, the incumbents become more ideologically extreme. Yet the polarization of American politics extends well beyond the House. Take, for example, the Supreme Court where most justices can be accurately characterized as Liberal or Conservative, and they will tend to predictably rule on the Left or Right side of an issue, respectively.

The prospect of looming Supreme Court appointments made the 2000 presidential election one of the most contentious in history. With so much hanging in the balance, neither side was willing to concede defeat. The Supreme Court has assumed enormous power as an ever growing array of human concerns are brought before it. Perhaps more than control of Congress, control of the Supreme Court is now the choicest political plum. The Senate hearings for Supreme Court appointments have become politically charged events. The hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991 are perhaps the most notorious. Anita Hill testified that she was sexually harassed by Thomas when she worked in his office in the 1980’s. While this outrageous claim was totally unsubstantiated it called the confirmation of Thomas into serious question. Ultimately, the Senate voted 52-48, largely along party lines, in favor of Thomas' confirmation, making it the closest confirmation vote for a Justice in the 20th century.

What is responsible for such wide-spread political polarization? I believe the answer is surprisingly simple: Power. While politics have always been about power, never in the history of the United States have the stakes been so large. Due to the expansive reach of government, we have arrived at a point in history where virtually every aspect of our lives have a political dimension. What we can eat, where we can live, when and where we can worship, who we can marry, when we can die, all of these decisions are regulated to one degree or another by our government. Consequently, gaining and retaining political power has widespread and significant implications for average Americans. Nowhere is this effect more apparent than in the economic arena, where loss of political power can have a direct impact on the pocketbook. As growing numbers of Americans become recipients of one or another government entitlement program, reform will become ever more difficult and contentious. The tax code is frequently used for dispensing political favors or inflicting retribution. Businessmen face the prospect of predatory regulators dispensed by political enemies that can easily destroy a successful company. The net result is that a sizable and growing segment of the population sees gaining and retaining political power as a key to their personal economic success. This can transform democratic politics into a form of civil war.

Political polarization is not a uniquely American problem. We are seeing bitter and occasionally violent political battles in many of the mature democracies of Europe. For example, in 2005 we saw protracted violent demonstrations that started in France and then spread across much of Europe. The anti-globalization movement is also a reflection of a desire to hold on to domestic political gains in the face of growing international pressures. As the stakes become ever higher, people are inclined to take ever more extreme measures to hold onto power. If you want to return civility to politics, you have only to decrease the stakes. The economist Martin Wolf has written “For democracy to function the domain of the political has to be circumscribed.” Unfortunately, we now live in a world where practically everything is a political football.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Evan Bayh and Political Corruption

Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.
Ronald Reagan

An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought.
Simon Cameron

Corrupt politicians make the other ten percent look bad.
Henry Kissinger

It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.
Mark Twain

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. It is widely recognized and generally accepted that politicians are corrupt. We could debate whether this conventional wisdom is actually true or not, but we'll save that debate for another time. Let's just accept as a given that the perception among the general public is that politicians are corrupt, or, at the very least, are predisposed to becoming corrupt. Given that politics and corruption are inseparable, the next best thing to having honest politicians is full and complete disclosure of all their financial dealings. Whenever Congress attempts to go any further than this in a misguided crusade to stamp out corruption, as it did, for example, with the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform fiasco of 2002, the results are usually catastrophic, and invariably worse off than they already were. It has been said many times: "Sunshine is the best disinfectant." Transparency, which, among other things, requires financial disclosure, is usually the best protection against political corruption.

Hence we have the Ethics in Government Act of 1978. This law, passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal, requires all members of Congress, each and every year, to disclose all of their relevent financial dealings. The hope is that any potential wrong-doing or potential conflicts of interest will thereby be revealed. Failure to comply is a felony act punishable by fines and disiplinary action by an appropriate authority, such as an Ethics Committee. Unfortunately, there have been numerous instances where public officials have failed to comply with the law and have gone unpunished. Because of lax enforcement some members of Congress believe they can violate the law with impunity. Judicial Watch, a nonpartician watchdog group, reports that Bill and Hillary Clinton, Sen Bill Frist, Sen Harry Reid, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have all had problems with their disclosure reports, with no real investigations or punishments have resulted.

The latest member of Congress with financial disclosure problems is Indiana Senator Evan Bayh. On March 1, 2007 Judicial Watch revealed that he failed to disclose his role as a director of the Evan and Susan Bayh Foundation from 2002, the year he was first named a director, until 2005, the most recent year for which this information is available. You may view Evan Bayh's disclosure filings at the Open Secrets web site. USA Today reports that Bayh spokeswoman Meghan Keck said it was "simply an oversight" that he did not disclose this information. Is it an oversight, or a willful violation of the law? Such foundations can be lucrative tax shelters for the very rich. For example, it has been reported that the Clinton Family Foundation enabled Bill and Hillary to write off more than $5 million from their taxable personal income. It also invites possible "sweetheart deals" for those that generously contribute to or otherwise assist in the work of the foundation. The Ethics in Government Act was designed to guard against such corruption. Repeated, flagrant violation of the Ethics inGovernment Act has become the norm in Washington, and now we can add Evan Bayh to the long list of politicians that fail to comply with the law until confronted.

Pelosi and other Democrats made ethics and greater transparency a top priority in the 2006 elections. When the Democratic-controlled Congress convened in January, the House changed its ethics rules but did not specifically address financial disclosure rules. The Senate passed an ethics bill earlier this month that would boost penalties for knowingly filing false financial disclosure statements. Unfortunately, there is rarely any investigation into disclosure violations that could establish whether a report was knowingly falsified. "Despite all the ethics reforms, there's still no enforcement," said Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor and head of the liberal-leaning Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington.

“Federal disclosure laws are in place for a very good reason – to alert the public to any conflicts of interest and potentially corrupt activity. Too many members of Congress repeatedly ignore disclosure laws with impunity. This has got to stop.” wrote Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “The Committee should investigate whether Senator Bayh’s failure to disclose his family foundation is a willful violation of the rules and law governing such disclosure.”