50. Over Thanksgiving I randomly caught some segments of a (CNBC?) TV program about John Deere and the combines they design and manufacture. They are constantly working on new models that harvest crops more efficiently and more cheaply and are easier to repair and a host of other endless improvements. The show felt like a brief glimpse into the millions of quiet, incremental innovations that capitalism is constantly bringing us, and perhaps part of the reason we are still able to feed an entire planet despite the doomsayers of decades ago. It’s easy to get caught up in the big and more visible bad news and forget the subtle productivity improvements that are quietly advancing in thousands of industries year after year.
I had the pleasure of watching the Lincoln movie over Thanksgiving weekend. The film fills almost three hours mostly with politicians talking to each other, which of course I found terribly interesting. I’m not spoiling too much to tell you that it mostly revolves around Abraham Lincoln buying votes with job offers and deceptions, all in order to pass the super-important Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery.
In reverse order of importance:
There is a narrative of Obamacare as a triumphant reform of America’s medical system, engineered by the smartest technocrats in the country to create better and more affordable healthcare for us all. The obstructionist denialism of the Republicans was dealt a crippling blow with the Supreme Court’s upholding of the individual mandate last summer, and the 2012 elections finished them off. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is now free to work its glorious magic on the citizenry.
There is another narrative of Obamacare as a hodge-podge, cobbled-together, bureaucratic-bloated, corporate-handout monstrosity that was just barely sufficiently greased around the edges to buy enough votes to pass an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress. The overly ambitious assumptions and interventions supporting this precarious nightmare began cracking and unraveling almost immediately, and are fast accelerating towards a tipping point that will precipitate the inevitable collapse of this inherently unstable behemoth.
Even if every exquisite detail of the 906-page master plan was executed as perfectly as comic economist Jonathan Gruber imagined, my bias still expected the results to be less satisfactory than advertised. The scope of the overhaul was too broad and too deep; the entanglement of the new bureaucracy was too complex; the manipulated inputs into the CBO’s rosy cost analysis projections were too contrived. But, of course, as with any exceedingly large enterprise, the plan has not even proceeded according to plan.
The Early Cracking
Well, it’s been two weeks since the Petraeus scandal broke, and the dust seems to be settling as we haven’t had any new shocking plot twists for a few consecutive days. I believe that the real scandal is not what the FBI uncovered (that the head of the CIA was having an affair with his biographer), but how they uncovered it (by poking through private emails with no warrant or even a real suspicion of a crime).
Hamas and Israel are at it again, launching hundreds of rockets and airstrikes at each other. Typical news articles reporting on the latest developments say that around 139 Palestinians have died so far while around 5 Israelis have died. This leads to typical comments like “death totals 130 to 5… sounds like a legit war…”
These lopsided death tolls might lead one to believe the Israel is far more aggressive than Hamas, but this is not necessarily true. The same article says that Hamas has launched about 1,400 rockets into Israel, while Israel has carried out about 1,500 airstrikes into the Gaza Strip – roughly equivalent numbers. The reason the death toll is so striking is that Hamas basically sucks at attacking Israelis, and Israel is much better at defending itself.
In reverse order of importance:
Rand Paul is filibustering the annual Defense Authorization Act to try to get a vote on his amendment to “give American citizens being held by the military rights to a fair trial.” Last year’s NDAA encoded “indefinite detention,” or the authority of the government to hold an American citizen indefinitely with no right to trial or oversight by the courts. Terrorist suspect or no, it’s (in my eyes) a clear violation of the Constitution and a dangerous authority to give a government that is always subject to the “oops cost.”
Paul just wants to explicitly state a common-sense protection for citizens. Harry Reid doesn’t even want to let the Senate vote on it. I’m not familiar enough with Congressional procedures to know how long Paul can hold it up or how likely he is to even get a vote on his amendment, much less get it passed, but man he sure makes me glad he’s in the Senate sometimes. It’s amazing what even one Senator can do to hold back the forces that would trample liberty.
Department of Everything
But Paul’s not the only Republican Congressman impressing me lately, and his influence seems to be spreading. A month after his charge that “not every dollar spent on the military is sacred,” Senator Coburn has released a new “Department of Everything” report that identifies “non-defense defense spending” in the bloated military budget. Some of the most ridiculous highlights:
Now that the elections are over, everyone in Washington is talking about The Fiscal Cliff. But what is this thing anyway? Where did it come from? How worried about it should we be? And what are our politicians going to do about it? Well, I will try to tell you, with helpful illustrations inspired by #StarWarsFiscalCliff (with a couple of Lord of the Rings quotes smuggled in).
A long time ago, in a budget far, far away, choices were made that brought us where we are today… Shall we begin?
Let’s start with our politicians in Washington. We ask for nice things without wanting to pay for them, and they give them to us because they want to re-elected. It’s a nice cycle. Until the unpaid bills start to pile up and the “budget hawks” (a.k.a. party poopers) start to get concerned about the future. So they set dates for the parties to end. But whenever the date arrives, nobody wants to end the party just yet, so they all agree to continue the party for just one more year. After all, it will just cost a little bit more. Until the next date arrives, and they do it again.
For example. The “doc fix” is supposed to cut Medicare costs by knocking 30% off what the government pays Medicare doctors. But do we really have to cut that spending now? Those doctors won’t like that. How about next year? Meanwhile, the “Alternative Minimum Tax” is supposed to increase revenue by overriding the credits and deductions of rich taxpayers, but it’s not indexed to inflation, and every year it threatens to catch millions of “middle-class” families. Oops, better tweak that for next year, too.
Congress has been playing this game for years with relatively minor things like the doc fix and the AMT. But last decade, President Bush raised the stakes on this can-kicking game…
A few days ago Jason Kuznicki, provoked by a misguided capitalist prayer, raved against the “monstrous hybrid of Randism and Christianity so often seen on the American right.” Elaborating in comments, he says, “The one is individualist and professes rational self-interest. The other preaches charity and self-sacrifice. Those two don’t go together.”
It seems that Jason’s statements boil down to the belief that capitalism and altruism are incompatible, even though a lot of American Christians seem to try to combine the two. I’m at risk of straw-manning someone I don’t regularly read – I came to the article though an @ATabarrok tweet – but I think it’s a reasonable assessment, especially considering that Alex’s tweet was followed by a retweet of @AynRandBot stating that “Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society.”
While there are certainly complications and pitfalls, I disagree with the notion that Christian capitalism is a “monstrous hybrid” of cognitive dissonance. I also disagree with the more general idea that capitalism and altruism are incompatible. I do not intend this to be an iconic (or even completely coherent) screed, as I am doubtlessly ignorant on many details, but I do want to make a few points as I mull over this.