The Immigration Bill

So the Senate has passed “The Immigration Bill,” and depending on which pundit you believe there is at least a non-trivial chance that Boehner will allow a few Republicans to join the Democrats in the House to eventually get The Bill, or something rather similar, to Obama’s desk.

As usual, I am generally skeptical that anything too good can come out of a 1,000+ pages that most Congressmen probably haven’t even read, much less understood. In general it is supposed to represent some sort of classic Washingtonian compromise, but if it’s a compromise between the welfare-happy clowns on the left and the national-security-happy clowns on the right, there may be little for even the immigration-happy libertarian types to like.

The General Idea

The Bill is supposed to include a long path to citizenship for illegal “undocumented” immigrants in exchange for a no-seriously-we’re-serious-this-time securing of the border. There are already plenty of conservative types claiming it still doesn’t do enough to secure the border and this is just another round of future-liberal-voter amnesty.

I haven’t read enough to parse those claims, and I have a difficult time taking solid stances on anything related to immigration. I’m not sure how much I really want a “secure border” anyway; economically and politically I’m all for free travel and trade and all that jazz, and I generally expect immigrants to “take” jobs but also “supply” jobs just like any other physical humans who generally occupy space around us; there may even be a net gain with educated students and entrepreneurs and the like. And there’s a strong case that existing quotas and rules are both inefficient and unjust.

The big question, of course, is whether or not The Bill will result in too many new poor citizens who stay poor, dragging down the budget in a way that offsets the economic growth of their new freedom to become better tax-paying American consumers. Any answers to that question are Large Calculations too beholden to existing biases to be very useful.

Specific Objections

However, while I’m not sure whether I support or oppose the overall premises of the bill, there are a few specifics in those 1,000+ pages that I definitely don’t like.

First, there’s the “mandatory use of E-verify, a free, online federal database of people eligible to work in the U.S.” In theory this is a good way to make sure businesses aren’t hiring illegal immigrants. In practice, it’s yet another regulation for businesses that don’t need any more incentives (*cough* Obamacare *cough*) to reduce hiring; I don’t know how the details work, but I wonder if this will further encourage contracting type arrangements over regular employment. And of course, it’s yet another example of federal encroachment into everyday life – now the government knows every time you apply for a job.

Second, there’s the rumblings of a “National ID” card. It sounds like it’s not nearly as bad as a lot of conservative emails want it to be (they’ve been freaking out about such things since at least the “REAL ID Act“), but there’s at least enough stuff about some “photo tool” to make me uneasy. The assurance that “the federal government can only access state driver’s license photos if the state and the federal government enter into an agreement to share them” doesn’t mean much if states are given incentives to do just that.

In summary, the main provisions of the bill may or may not lead to increased prosperity for the nation, but there are at least a couple freedom-encroaching things in those thousand-plus pages, and those are just the ones I know about. So I guess I’m hoping the bill doesn’t pass. But I’m not too worked up about it either way.

Intervention In The Middle East

Two big things happened in the Middle East last week. Obama announced that the United States would send weapons to the rebel side of the civil war in Syria. The next day, a “moderate” “reformist” won Iran’s presidential election.

The first event was the latest chapter in a long history of US intervention in the Middle East. The second event was a reminder of how history is full of those interventions going wrong.

Four years ago, there were enough dissidents of the hardline Iranian Islamist regime to spark major protests (the “Green Revolution”) when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a contested second presidential term. This time, the reformers were strong enough to win a decisive election. There are plenty of arguments that this won’t result in any actual moderating from the real power figure Ayatollah Khomeini, though the signals of popular discontent are clearly strong.

But even this tiny glimmer of hope for a freer, less dangerous, less radical Iran is a reminder of how long the repercussions of botched US intervention can last. Khomeini’s regime, though thankfully and finally beginning to lose support these days, has been in power for over three decades, and was originally swept into massively popular power as he overthrew the US-backed Shah who preceded him.

The CIA helped overthrow Iran’s democratically elected government in the 50’s. At the time, we must have thought that guy was less bad than the other guy. But if that hadn’t happened, perhaps the Shah wouldn’t have been there to foster the anti-US sentiment that led to Khomeini’s rise in the 70’s.

Maybe Khomeini would have created his authoritative regime anyway. Maybe something worse would have happened. Like most history, it’s complicated enough that, combined with my own ignorance (reading Wiki articles doesn’t count for that much), I hesitate to take too strong of a stance.

But it sure feels like US meddling to prevent a “bad” regime in the 50’s quite possibly led to an even worse regime in the 70’s that has been handicapping the lives of millions of Iranians, and scaring international leaders around the world, for decades – a situation that we are only now even hinting at the possibility of eventually resolving.

And it is under all of this context that we learn about the United States sending arms to Syrian rebels. That situation is complicated, too. This development is only the latest in a long line of tip toes closer to the rebels that has already included medical supplies and who knows what else.

But haven’t we seen this game before? We sent weapons to Afghans in the 80’s because we considered them “less bad” than the Soviets who were attacking them, and two decades later many of those weapons ended up in the hands of the Taliban. It doesn’t take too many reports about al-Qaeda connections to Syrian rebels to wonder if we are practically begging history to repeat itself!

No doubt people like Obama and John McCain have more information about the conflict than I do (though I’m not sure how much you can learn from a photo op). I think it’s extremely likely that they only have enough information to think they know more than they do – just enough to convince themselves that “this time it’s different” and we really can tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys… even though we “may be arming Islamic rebels who may well be killing Christians,” all without doing much of anything to end the tragic civil war.

Blogging Break

Apologies to anyone expecting a Last Week’s news update today. I’ve decided to take a bit of a blogging break. My body has been exhibiting some symptoms of stress lately, and I’ve come across some articles by people claiming that the news was making them stressed and they felt better when they stopped reading it. I don’t feel emotionally stressed, and I’ve always convinced myself that the news doesn’t make me stressed and it’s more of a hobby I greatly enjoy immersing myself in, but either way I’ve decided I have an unhealthy and unsustainable addiction to news anyway.

What started out several years ago as a lunch break checking of Google News has ballooned into multiple daily checkings of econ blogs, twitter feeds of economists and political commentators, user-submission sites like Hacker News and Reddit, raw weather data sites, C-SPAN streams…. It’s gotten to the point where I rarely go two waking hours without checking something. I can’t keep this up as a husband and now father, anyway, even if it’s not affecting my health. Do I really need all this information buzzing through my brain and forming into future blog posts as I fall asleep at night? How can I expect God to speak to me about fatherhood when I’m pulling out my phone to check Bloomberg’s commodities tab every time I sit down to poop?

So I’m going to take a break for a week or so and use the extra time to focus on both physical and spiritual exercise. I still think there’s value in being informed and informing others about what’s going on around the world, and I may come back in smaller doses.

I should emphasize that this is not a reaction to the NSA news or some newfound desire to reduce my online footprint. (Although those leaks were really exciting news for me, and I spent a lot of time consuming information about it, which perhaps helped awaken me to my news addiction.) Since I won’t be doing a blog post about it, in brief, the surveillance is worse than I thought, but still not as bad as many people think; we have hard evidence now of call logs, but as far as I know not evidence that actual calls are being recorded and analyzed. We have tech companies giving the government portal access to more easily get data on specific cases, but as far as I know not evidence that data is being full-scale exported straight to the Utah datacenter or whatever. I’m hopeful that this news and any further leak will lead to greater privacy measures. As always, be careful out there and call your Congresspeoples.

Is Obamacare Socialist After All?

There’s a big debate in the wonkosphere these days about “rate shock,” or whether or not we should believe reports that health insurance premiums under Obamacare are going to be shockingly higher than expected, specifically for individuals buying their own plans.

Ezra Klein says these kinds of reports don’t compare plans accurately, especially for the sicker among us who have had trouble getting insurance in the first place. Josh Barro says, “Dear Young People, Your Insurance Premiums Are Going Up Because Obamacare Is Working As Planned” – Apparently Obamacare was always supposed to involve healthy folks paying more to subsidize the sick.

Peter Suderman has now slammed down the gauntlet pretty much proving that no, that’s not really what the anti-rate-shockers have been talking about at all for the last four-plus years when they were basically promising cheaper, better insurance for everybody.

But now that the cat is coming out of the bag, and we’re just debating about whether it’s been out along and how big it is, I’m starting to wonder…. is this actually starting to look a little socialist after all?

See, like everything else remotely connected to Obama, knee-jerk Republicans have been calling Obamacare “socialism” from the beginning, which has provided no shortage of derision from the left. Silly repubs, it’s not a government takeover of healthcare! It’s government giving millions of new customers to private companies! Besides, the whole individual mandate originated with Republicans in the 90’s and was first implemented by a Republican governor! Nobody calls car insurance “socialism”! It’s just like car insurance, except with a government-enforced mandate to fix the adverse selection problem! You’re already paying for it with uninsured emergency room care anyway, so this will bring down costs for everyone!

Except… now… maybe it won’t? Now the young and healthy were supposed to pay higher premiums all along?

Well, this feels a little different.

It’s not quite like Social Security or Medicare, which are more or less taken from everyone and doled out to everyone at equal (and thus demographically unsustainable) rates. It’s not quite like the income tax, which generally funds what are supposedly public goods. And it’s not quite like car insurance, where you’re protecting yourself against risk but also only paying for your own level of risk.

The closest parallels I can think of are things like Medicaid and food stamps, which are more or less funded by everyone and given to the poor. It’s not pure socialism, just as few industries these days are pure capitalism, but I think it’s a little bit socialist. (Perhaps the fact a good portion of the funds are borrowed makes it less socialist?)

So now we have Obamacare. Are we really agreeing that there will be a portion of my health insurance premium increase that is not related to my own risk of future health bills but is really only there to subsidize health bills for more expensive folks? (Yes, any given healthy person can become very sick, but presumably that risk was already taken into account in their premiums, and we are now likely talking about fairly significant net transfers from chronically healthy people to chronically sick people.) Is this basically a sort of hidden Medicaid tax (or how about “charity tax”) with a private insurance middleman?

I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing. I’m not necessarily saying that’s not something our society might want to do. Obamacare proponents have claimed that the people who seem most concerned about rate shock tend to seem least concerned about the people who never could qualify for insurance in the first place. That may be so, but I think the proponents seem least concerned about the crowding out of charity.

If the government effectively raises my “charity tax” by forcing me to contribute to specific funds for others, then I have fewer funds available for other forms of charitable giving. Now you may think that the government can spend that money better than I can, or that there would otherwise be a shortage of it. I may disagree, though not too forcefully; while I could point to all the abuses and moral hazards and other unintended consequences of, say, food stamps, I also believe they probably genuinely help a lot of people in unfortunate circumstances, and I’m okay with some compromises on those kinds of little bits of socialism (not that I’d mind a lot of reform).

So maybe we do want to redistribute wealth from healthy people to sick people, and maybe we want Obamacare to do it. That’s a discussion we can certainly have. But let’s stop pretending it’s not kinda sorta a little bit of…… socialism.

Reasons For Optimism 81-84

81. Airway made by 3D printer saves baby’s life.

82. The global poverty rate has dropped by half since 1990, and the absolute number of the absolute poor has dropped from 1.9 billion to 1.2 billion.

83. 31 Charts That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity. It’s a bit linkbaity, and some of the info is a little old or ambiguous or may be familiar to you already, but overall it’s pretty uplifting.

84. A solar plane is flying across the United States. It’s making lots of stops and going very slowly, and probably not even saving any energy since the alternating driver has to meet up at the stops, but it’s continuing to break various sorts of distance records and on pace for an around-the-world flight by 2015. Exciting proof-of-concept!

Hayek and Knowledge and Climate Change

I’ve been reading some Hayek lately, specifically The Constitution of Liberty, in which Hayek talks about freedom/liberty and what exactly those words mean and why they are so desirable for society.

Hayek believes we should all be “free from coercion.” He is very much concerned with men being able to choose freely between available opportunities and not very concerned at all about what opportunities are available to each one; I feel like a non-libertarian response would involve asserting some equivalence between the two, but I haven’t taken the time to explore that line of thought.

Hayek’s main points, however, rest on the concept of distributed knowledge, or the idea that no individuals have enough knowledge to reliably make coercive decisions that improve the lives of others.

I find these arguments very appealing. It could be argued that, today, computers and the Internet help with the knowledge problem to a useful degree, and I concede there are many instances of coercion that at least appear to have improved lives – such as the airplane smoking ban currently being attributed to the late New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg (due to externalities, that’s something I’m at least ambivalent about).

But I think it’s much easier to find examples of allegedly knowledge-based intervention backfiring and causing unintended consequences, like the ethanol boondoggle, or California’s high speed rail boondoggle, or NYC’s taxicab mess, or the entire War on Drugs, or, oh, almost any time the government has tried to implement price ceilings which led to shortages of the very goods they were trying to make more available.

Incidentally, this is all partially related to why I’m so interested in all the data around climate change. For quite a few years the Smart People have been extremely confident in their predictions about the globe getting warmer and the weather getting worse, but enough time has gone by that I believe we are starting to see results that are beginning to deviate from their earlier oh-so-confident predictions.

Maybe they didn’t have as much knowledge about the way the world works as they thought they did. Maybe the interactions of the Sun and Earth and atmosphere and carbon dioxide and everything else are even less well understood than the reactions of people to artificially suppressed prices.

If true, it would be no surprise to Hayek.

Everything You Need to Know About Last Week’s News #47

In reverse order of importance:

Scientists have recovered some blood from a frozen woolly mammoth, but it may not get us any closer to cloning one.

A new study says mothers are now the primary breadwinners in 40% of US households with children.

Planetary Resources is using a million dollar Kickstarter campaign to raise public awareness for an orbiting telescope project. Only $25 to “take a selfie in space”!

The USDA implemented new country-of-origin labeling rules for meat sold in the US, illustrating the classic struggle between transparency and excessive regulation.

There are massive anti-government protests in Turkey that started as an attempt to stop a park from being replaced with a shopping mall but apparently became a tipping point for discontent with the growing totalitarianism of the Islamist rulers. Or something like that.

We learned more about the confusing events regarding the FBI killing a suspect related to the Boston marathon bombing.

Another week, another drone strike in Pakistan. This time we got the Taliban’s #2 again.

John McCain sneaked into Syria to meet with some rebels. We also heard talk about Russia trying to supply the Syrian regime with weapons, and how Israel feels about that.

The coronavirus continued to spread.

The Financial Pearl Harbor Scam

Sometimes I get advertising emails from Newsmax, a conservative organization that is generally too dogmatic for my tastes. Last week I got one warning me about a “financial Pearl Harbor” that was going to come within “60 days” and that I needed to hurry up and click on this link to watch a video to learn how to protect me and my family.

I’ve seen this kind of imminent warning floating around the Internet for awhile, but I was pretty sure I’d been seeing it for more than 60 days. So the fact that they were still peddling it made me decide to click on it and watch the entire 40-minute video just to see how full of crap it was – and what they were trying to sell.

Well, they were trying to sell something, though it wasn’t completely full of crap. It’s largely based around the book Currency Wars by James Rickards, although to stop you from just checking that book out from the library for free, you conveniently have to buy Newsmax’s special package that gets you the extra “unpublished” “controversial” chapter. Naturally the video is pretty bullish on gold, although to stop you from just buying your own gold you have to get this package to learn about five specific countries to invest in because their currencies or markets are heavily tied to gold or something.

The video is basically high fructose corn syrup for gullible, paranoid, hard-money conservatives, carefully manufactured sugar designed to hit the sweet spot that opens their wallets. It gives them just enough Turkish Delight to convince them there’s a whole castle filled with it for a couple hundred bucks.

But even the persuasive mechanisms have contradictions for anyone who stops to think about it for even a minute. The video combines public knowledge with supposed secretive insider information (a standard conspiratist tactic). But it claims Rickards is leaking classified info that no one in the government wants anybody to know, while simultaneously claiming that some of Rickard’s info was so top-secret that he had to get it cleared before publishing it in the available materials! Both claims are meant to lend credibility to the authenticity and importance of the material, but together they are contradictory… is the government OK with the info being released or isn’t it?

Now the Rickards book may not be complete hogwash, although I suspect the economic events that have unfolded since its publishing are already undermining its arguments, which according to the video have something to do with QE3 being the straw that breaks the economy’s back. But the wallet-prying urgency that Newsmax attaches to the book is definitely complete hogwash!

As I said, I felt like I had seen these sorts of urgent warnings floating around longer than the supposed period of urgency. Thanks to Google’s time-filtering search tools, I was able to confirm this. In fact, it was worse than I thought – Newsmax/MoneyNews has been peddling the Rickards-based “financial Pearl Harbor” since at least last August. But that didn’t stop them from regurgitating that they were “recently tipped off regarding a ‘financial Pearl Harbor’ that will strike America in the next 60 days.”

Apparently the Federal Reserve is manipulating the calendar, too.

Incidentally, this email came from National Review, with the preface “Please find this special message from our sponsoring advertiser” I’m on this list because I subscribe to Jonah Goldberg’s G-File, which I find interesting and humorous. In general I consider National Review a pretty respectable conservative organization that I agree with more than half the time. I expect this kind of peddled nonsense from the Townhall email list I somehow got on, but not from them. I hope National Review realizes how they are risking their reputation by aligning themselves with such crap from their “sponsoring advertiser.”