WHAT IF PAUL RYAN PROPOSED A HEALTH INFLATION TAX ON SENIORS INSTEAD?

In honor of Paul Ryan, I have a thought experiment up on the Washington Monthly blog:

“My fellow Americans, it’s time for straight talk, tough decisions, and tight belts. Health care inflation is a prime driver of our long-term debt. That’s why I’m going to save Medicare with my Health Inflation Tax. It’s a simple solution: each senior will just have to pay a tax equal to the increase in the cost of their Medicare to the government beyond 2.7% a year. So if your individual Medicare costs us 10 percent more next year, your tax will cover three-quarters of the increased cost of your care (the other quarter is on us!). Here’s the best part: if you want lower taxes, you just need to use less healthcare. And you can be proud knowing that as your Health Inflation Tax goes up and up, Medicare’s net cost to the government will never increase by more than 2.7% again. Now let’s come together and get my Health Inflation Tax passed. No demagoguery allowed.”

How popular do you think this plan would be? Would it have gotten the same forty Senate votes Ryan’s plan did on Wednesday?

Read it here.

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WHAT IS LINDSEY GRAHAM TALKING ABOUT? (or “Poison Duck?”)

Lindsey Graham went on Face the Nation today to trot out one of his favorite metaphors:

“If you want to have a chance of passing START, you better start over and do it in the next Congress, because this lame duck has been poisoned,” Graham told CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer.

“The last two weeks have been an absolutely excruciating exercise. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ a controversial topic – some say the civil rights issue of our generation, others say battlefield effectiveness – was passed in the lame-duck session without one amendment being offered,” Graham said.

This is the same guy who warned that the healthcare bill would poison the well for immigration, climate, closing Guantanamo, and the year 2010. It’s a favorite phrase of Lindsey Graham’s. And it’s totally bogus.

It’s bogus because it’s based in a view of politics like marriage counseling, where to get anything done the participants need to trust each other and share common goals, and offenses or betrayals can be paralyzing. When Lindsey Graham talks about poisoning the well, the implication is that Republicans may want to get things done that Democrats want too, but be unable to make them happen because they’re not feeling good about Democrats.
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HISTORY: NOT OVER YET

I was surprised to see Ross Douthat, in commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall, invoke Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, a post-Cold War tract whose star has fallen somewhat since 9/11. Fukuyama argued that whereas the 20th century was marked by intellectual crisis between liberal democracy and its ideological competitors, fascism and communism, once the Soviet Union fell, only liberal democracy was left standing. Now, Fukuyama argued, there is no viable, transnational ideology remaining to compete with liberal democracy, which satisfies a human aspiration for freedom that the Cold War proved to be universal. Thus: the end of history. Liberal democracy is here to stay, and things will not get too much better or worse from here on out. Since his book came out, of course, Fukuyama has gotten slammed by critics on the right convinced that with the Islamist Menace, what we’re actually in is not the End of History a la Fukuyama, but the Clash of Civilizations a la Samuel Huntington.

The stronger critique of Huntington, I’d say, comes from the left. Fukuyama describes, in Douthat’s words,

the disappearance of any enduring, existential threat to liberal democracy and free-market capitalism.

Like Huntington, Douthat places “liberal democracy” and “free market capitalism” in the same breath. Like two syllables on Sesame Street that inch closer together until they become a single word. On a global scale, the ideological competitor to democracy – to one person, one vote, people’s meaningful exercise of voice over the decisions that impact their lives – is laissez-faire capitalism.

Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God offers a great (and very funny) exploration of how acts of consumerism get rebranded by elites as the new acts of citizenship and the market is christened as democratic. But markets are not democratic. And as Michael Moore reminds us with a confidential CitiGroup memo in his new movie, the people who the markets award the most power know this (as he says, the bottom 99% of the population “have 99% of the votes”).

Who will decide what happens to natural resources or public sector jobs in a third world country? The majority of the people who live there, or international elites with structural adjustment plans and threats of turmoil? Who will decide whether a group workers for a union? The majority of the people who work there, or managers that wield the power to harass and fire them?

Those questions will make history.

HOUSE OF ROCK

Loyal readers may have noticed my latest way of compensating for my neglect of this blog is to search out hooks to link back to things I wrote in the days of not neglecting this blog. In that vein, check out the part of Obama’s speech today where Obama cites the Sermon on the Mount:

Now, there’s a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells the story of two men. The first built his house on a pile of sand, and it was soon destroyed when a storm hit. But the second is known as the wise man, for when “the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.”

It was founded upon a rock. We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity — a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.

This strikes me as a good example of an appeal to a religious text on the basis of insight, rather than authority. About a million years ago I blogged about a debate between Sojourners’ Jim Wallis and Americans United’s Barry Lynn where Lynn said the problem with politicians quoting the Bible is that unlike quotes from other literature, quotes from the Bible are appeals to the author’s inherent authority rather than to the author’s particular insight. In other words, biblical quotes are used to support your argument based on who said it (God says don’t oppress strangers) rather than why they said it (because you yourself have experienced slavery). I thought at the time, and I still do, that Lynn was making an insightful distinction, but it cuts against his argument. In a multireligious democracy, we should be concerned when politicians’ arguments rely on appeal to the authority of their particular religious texts (especially if theirs are shared by a religious majority). But contra Lynn, not all Bible quotes are appeals to divine authority. “The Bible says not to steal wages from your employees” is an appeal to biblical authority. “Let’s not copy Moses’ mistake when he hit the rock instead of talking to it” is an appeal to biblical wisdom.

I bring this up because I think it explains why, as a non-Christian (in a democracy with a Christian majority), I’m not bothered on a gut level when a Christian President quotes the New Testament parable about building your house on sand or on a rock to make a point about our economic recovery. The plain meaning of Obama’s speech is not that the Bible commands us to make new rules for wall street, investments in education, etc… His plain meaning is that this metaphor from his tradition, which may be familiar to many listeners, illustrates well why it’s urgent and worthwhile to do so.

This is not always a clear-cut distinction. But I think it’s a useful one. Maybe a useful thought experiment in assessing what kind of appeal to religious text we’re dealing with is to consider: Would using this quote in this way make sense if the speaker’s religion were different from the quotation’s?

ASK AND YE SHALL RECEIVE

After years of resisting the inevitable, Ben Eidelson has finally succumbed to our demands for him to start a blog of his own. Better late than never.

In his inaugural post, Ben considers Obama’s conversation with Joe The Soon To Be Country Music Star in light of Rawls’ veil of ignorance:

Lots of philosophical liberals push the idea that we should endorse whatever social arrangements we would support if we didn’t know who in our society we were going to be. But one concern about these “veil of ignorance” appeals is that they demand an awful lot of empathy. For them to work, those of us who are upper- or middle-class need to be able and willing to abstract from our actual lives and reckon with the possibility that we could have been poor. What’s interesting about Obama’s argument is that it appeals to a similar principle of prospectivity or impartiality, but in a way that’s less demanding. For Obama’s version only calls on us to entertain possibilities we’ve directly experienced: Make policy as if you didn’t know what stage of your life – your own life – you were in. One important limitation of this appeal, though, is that it only works in the context of a society with substantial upward mobility.

As they say on the internets, “Read the whole thing.” Including the comments, which include three Eidelsons and a cast of other characters.

I’ll just add that there’s an interesting study out there arguing that rich people who have moved far up the income scale in their own lives may tend to be more conservative about class issues than their equally rich peers because their own experiences may justify a belief that people as poor as they were could “lift themselves up by their own bootstraps” the same way they did.  It can be easier for these Horatio Algers to disregard claims from the poor or their advocates about barriers to moving up the income ladder – even if those barriers were in fact different, or non-existent, in their own rise to success (like me, Ben may have stories from Jewish day school about discussions along the lines of “Jews came here with nothing and we made it, so why don’t Blacks do that too?”).  Ange-Marie Hancock, in her book The Politics of Disgust, calls this “false empathy” and discusses how public perceptions and public policy about women on welfare got made based on people’s attempts to put themselves in those women’s shoes without noticing they had no soles.  She calls out Senators (particularly women) who supported making moms on welfare track down the fathers of their children for child support as a condition of continued benefits, and didn’t consider the potentially deadly consequences.

THE THOUGHT POLICE STRIKE AGAIN!

Check out this graph from the NYT review of 24:

But “24” also jukes to the far side of political correctness and even left-wing paranoia. In two different seasons, the villains seeking to harm the United States are not Middle Eastern terrorists but conspirators directed by wealthy, privileged white Americans: in the second season, oil business tycoons tried to set off a Middle East war, and last year, Russian rebels turned out to be working in cahoots with a cabal of far-right government officials.

Then riddle me this: In how many places in America are you likely to avoid criticism/ seem more enlightened/ charm those hated liberal professors/ earn a glowing profile from those hated liberal journalists/ make friends by suggesting that what look like terrorist attacks by foreign enemies are really engineered by big business and/or the GOP?

Not many.

Which just goes to show how vapid a term “politically correct” is. It serves two related purposes: first, to reinforce an idea that the left is made up of rigid illiberal thought police; and second, to earn awful ideas consideration from reasonable people on the grounds that to dismiss them out of hand would be politically incorrect.

I once watched an episode of Politically Incorrect where someone suggested bombing all the Arab countries in order to scare off terrorists. He then said something like “Don’t ignore my idea just because it’s not politically correct.” The reason to reject that idea is that it would be unjust and calamitous. The irony is that when Politically Incorrect got booted off the air, it wasn’t for taking on a sacred cow of the left.

The term was popularized in the first place by Dinesh D’Souza. Then he wrote a book arguing that racism is merely “rational discrimination” by whites with a justified fear of “black cultural defects.” Then he got hired as a political analyst by the supposedly all-too politically correct CNN. For his next trick, he’s written a book arguing that conservatives can best discourage terrorism by allying themselves with radical mullahs against gay parents and women who have abortions.

But don’t dismiss his ideas out of hand! That would be political correctness.

FROM RECOUNTS TO RUN-OFFS

The latest turn in the Mexican election drama only confirms that it’s too soon to tell who will lead the country into the next decade. But barring a demonstration of truly massive fraud, it’s safe to say that Mexico will be led by a man who little more than a third of Mexican voters marked on their ballots on Sunday. The next President of Mexico will be the winner of what was ultimately a contest between Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Felipe Calderon, a contest which a third of Mexico’s voters gave up the chance to weigh in on when they chose to vote for one of the three other candidates instead.

Some will no doubt respond that democratic elections are full of tough choices, and it’s on each voter to weigh whether it’s more important to pull the result towards one of the two foreseeable results (the first face of power, if you will), or to shift the sense of the politically feasible (the second face). But it’s worth asking whether that sort of calculation, scintillating as it may be – the same sort of calculation many Connecticut Democrats will have to make if faced with a three-way ticket come November – is good for democracy in the broader sense of how much control individuals have over the decisions that determine the conditions of their lives (a greater problem, by that standard – David Held’s – is the long shadow global capital casts over contests like this week’s).

Because it isn’t necessary that that sort of calculation be necessary.

Mexicans have far less cause than Americans to worry about throwing their votes away in congressional elections because Mexico has proportional representation. Both countries could take a further step towards reducing the centrality of cynical calculation from presidential voting by implementing instant run-off voting.

Instant run-off voting forces politicians to pitch themselves as ideal elected officials if they hope to be viewed in victory as something other than everyone’s second choice. And in elections like the one in Connecticut, and the one in Mexico, where critical, ideological choices are laid out more starkly than we ususally get to see them, it facilitates voters following Paul Wellstone’s imperative to vote for what you believe in – and observers judging better from the results what kind of leadership those voters want.