Thursday, July 30, 2009

Utah Is Both Less and More Republican Than You Think

It was reported on KNRS Radio this morning that the voter demographic in Utah is markedly different than the common perception. It turns out that Republicans are not the largest bloc of voters in Utah—at least per the results of the 2008 general election.

Political Parties In Utah
Utah recognizes four political parties: Republican, Democrat, Constitution, and Libertarian. There are more political parties in Utah, but as explained here, for a party to maintain its state recognized status “an organization must participate in the general election and one or more of its candidates must receive a total vote equal to at least 2% of the total vote cast for all candidates for the U. S. House of Representatives.”

Anyone can start a political party in Utah by getting 2,000 registered Utah voters to sign “a petition seeking registered party status.” But there is a window of opportunity. The petition must be started sometime after the statewide canvass of the regular general election” (i.e. the date the election board certifies the election) and be turned in “before the general election for which it is seeking party status.” If a party fails to achieve the 2% margin in a general election, it can re-register by again completing the petitioning process.

‘Independents’ Day
Now for the interesting stuff: the party affiliation of those that voted in the last general election. KNRS says its numbers came from the Lt. Governor’s office. If Republicans weren’t the biggest voting bloc, who was?
  • The grand prize winners are the independent and unaffiliated voters, coming in at a whopping 55.4 percent.
  • Only 35.9 percent of those that voted were registered Republicans. That’s a little over a third.
  • A paltry 8 percent of the voters were registered Democrats, although, there were localized pockets where the percentage of registered Democrats was much higher.
  • Fewer than one percent of voters were registered with the Constitution or Libertarian Parties.
What gives here? Isn’t Utah the most heavily Republican state in the nation? If there is this huge bloc of independent voters in Utah, why don’t we see anyone but Republicans and a smattering of Democrats winning political office in the state?

Democrats and Republicans Only, Please
The stark reality is that with the exception of occasional (and sometimes spectacular) flukes, only candidates belonging to one of the major political parties are viable. Why is this the case? Some of the reasons include:
  • People register with a political party because they share enough common cause to form a coalition. This gives them power over those that have no coalition. Although the block of independent voters is huge, they have diverse interests. There is not enough common ground among them to coalesce into a coherent political philosophy or power.
  • Political parties provide marketing structure. This includes fundraising, helpful colleagues, an ideology, and a concerted message system. Unaffiliated voters, by definition, lack such structure.
  • The major political parties work very hard to maintain their duopoly hold on political power. They have succeeded in stifling competition and in creating significant barriers to entry into the political market. It may not be difficult to register a party in Utah, but go ahead and try to develop the kind of strength needed to peel away a significant segment of voters and you’ll see what I mean about market barriers.
  • Affiliation with a strong national party is a big marketing plus. In the categories of common products where branding has been successful, the vast majority of us choose among the major brands and ignore the others, even if other products have the possibility of superior value. It works that way for the major political parties as well.
  • To appeal to enough voters to win, the major political parties provide a sort of winnowing process that tends to eliminate the most extreme candidates, especially in higher level contests. Detractors will say that G.W. Bush was a radical right winger and that Barack Obama is a radical left winger, but an honest appraisal of our presidents over the past century will show that they have mostly turned out to be closer to the middle than to the left or right. This reduces voter choice, but that’s not always bad, since many voters—like shoppers—tune out when there are too many choices available.
How the Game Is Played
Although the analogy isn’t perfect, our major political parties sort of work like the NFL, which has two major conferences: the AFC and NFC. The final annual contest is between the winners of the playoffs in the two conferences. Our primary and general elections work something like this. And Americans just eat it up. Despite many noncompetitive games over the years, huge numbers of Americans are drawn to celebrate the Super Bowl each year. While there are many died in the wool fans, most of these celebrants are ‘unaffiliated,’ as it were.

The NFL has been enormously successful in creating barriers to entry into the professional football market. Other leagues have been tried over the years, but they always eventually fizzle. Still, most Americans are relatively satisfied with the situation, even if they aren’t serious fans. The sentiment is similar with our political system. Interestingly, both of these systems are increasingly celebrity centric. But one is just a game, while the other has actual impact on the lives of people near and far.

The Effects of a Closed System
Our nearly exclusive two-party political system provides the political class significant power in steering the public and in getting the public to focus on what the politicos desire. It allows politicians to create crises and then craft ‘solutions’ to them; thus, allowing politicians to play the role of hero. This political duopoly engenders political celebrities that attract fawning fans and that become more important as personalities than their accomplishments should warrant.

The trick that the political parties are learning is how to take advantage of the huge muddling mass of independent voters. Since this group is notoriously difficult to nail down, the parties know that even temporary marketing gimmicks can produce success. Sometimes the unwieldy independents refuse to play along, but it is often possible to get just enough of them to support a candidate or a cause long enough to score a win.

Like it or not, the pathway to political success in the U.S. is through the major political parties. They set the agenda. Political success outside of one of these parties (except in some local nonpartisan elections) is very difficult to come by. Third parties, and even independent voters can occasionally pull the parties slightly this way or that, but they are largely impotent politically.

No third party is arising to harness the large bloc of independent voters because of the lack of coherency among these voters. Simply disliking the two major parties is insufficient grounds for joining political forces, because the situation isn’t yet so bad that unaffiliated voters are willing to exchange the devil they know for the devil they don’t know.

Despite any rhetoric otherwise, if you want to significantly impact American politics today, you will have to do it through the major political parties. There simply are no other alternatives at present, and the prospects for such alternatives developing are bleak.

What This Means In Utah
Upon initial consideration it seems odd that a party to which a little over a third of actual Utah voters belong wins the vast majority of political contests in the state. But it seems even odder that a party to which fewer than a twelfth of actual Utah voters belong is able to win any political positions at all.

The answer to this puzzle is that the mass of voters without convictions as strong as their party affiliated neighbors tends to vote somewhat similarly to those neighbors. So it works more (but not exactly) like the state is about 81% Republican and 18% Democratic. (35.9 / (35.9 + 8) and 8 / (35.9 + 8) respectively, leaving a percent for the third parties.) Democrats are able to win in the few regions where their numbers are relatively high.

Independent and Free or Willingly Controlled?
Registering as an independent allows one to feel elevated above the scrabble of party politics and removes any sense of responsibility to get involved at the caucus and convention levels. But it essentially leaves one a sheep that unavoidably benefits one major party or the other.

I’m not saying that I like this system. I’m just saying that this is the way it in reality works. Changing it would be a nearly insurmountable task, and I have seen no feasible plan that would have any hope of accomplishing it. Still, I must admit that it seems a little hollow to suggest that the only practical way to change the current system is to work within it. The dilemma that has long perplexed me is how one can effectively work within the system without morphing into the same kind of creature he is seeking to destroy—without becoming one of THEM.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Health Care Freedom With a Security Component

Kevin Delaney at y-intercept has during the last few weeks been developing the concept of a medical savings and loan as an alternative to traditional private or public third-party health insurance. He has established the domain “to start a debate about a free market reform called a Medical Savings and Loan.”

The third-party problem
One of the main problems in all third-party payment systems is that the third-party payer is the actual customer, while the patient is simply a byproduct. The actual consumer — the private or public insurer — pays for and gets products and services it wants. In turn, it markets insurance plans. The third party’s demands only somewhat align with patient desires.

It is telling that most individuals have little choice in which private or public health insurance plan they can ‘buy.’ The plan is mandated by law for some and others have their plan chosen by their employer using hidden wages to pay most of the plan’s premiums. They make a lot of hoopla about being able to pick among various plans and care providers, but in reality, the most important choices are controlled by the government, the employers, and the private insurance companies. To be blunt, it wouldn’t work this way if everyone was free to buy any health insurance plan they wanted.

The upshot is that care providers are effectively working for insurers, not for patients. While many providers do their best to take patient desires into consideration, the incentives in the system ultimately cause them to cater primarily to the demands of the insurer, who is their actual employer. This misalignment of incentives increases both costs and patient dissatisfaction.

The underfunding problem
Moving to a purely patient funded health care system would restore the proper relationship between the care giver and the patient. The patient would become the customer and care giver would begin primarily serving that customer base rather than primarily serving third-party payers.

However, such a system would cause unacceptable funding mismatches. This is the basic problem with health saving accounts, which combine a saving mechanism with high deductible insurance. People are left with a great deal of exposure until they save a lot of money. Moreover, those with more health care needs, such as the elderly and those with chronic disease, may find the minimum care they need unaffordable.

The free market solution
Kevin proposes the Medical Savings and Loan as a remedy to these funding problems that would still establish a proper customer relationship between care providers and consumers. Rather than purely paying insurance premiums, each person would save money to be used for medical purposes in a saving mechanism through the MS&L. He would also pay low premiums for catastrophic insurance. The MS&L customer would be guaranteed a ‘loan’ for the difference between the amount of savings and the high insurance deductible.

The entire concept is explained quite well in this article, where Kevin discusses issues such as loan defaults, dealing with high need patients, and incentives in the system. The article does a much better job of exploring the issue than I have done here.

Many people are rightly disgusted with the power that insurance bureaucrats have over their lives. Transferring that power to government bureaucrats under the rubric of having no profit motive would hardly make matters better. In fact, such an immense concentration of power could not help but make matters much worse.

The MS&L would largely remove bureaucrats from the equation, causing a decentralization of power that would produce the kinds of cost reductions and quality improvements we have seen in other freer markets such as food and clothing over the past 40 years. Yet it would still provide ways to properly care for those that would be most vulnerable under a pay-as-you-go system. This plan deserves serious consideration by everyone that is sincerely interested in actually improving our health care system.

Addressing the employer problem
It seems from my reading that Kevin would still seek to preserve the element of employer payment to fund MS&L accounts. I believe that it would be more prudent to completely decouple the employer from the MS&L. My employer has no more business paying into my MS&L account than into my homeowner or automobile insurance account.

The current employer funding of health insurance is nothing more than a substitution for wages that is incentivized by a tax exemption subsidy. The market would work its magic better if the subsidy were eliminated and overall tax rates were reduced accordingly to keep the tax change neutral.

This would more fully expose the pay differential between different employers and would free small businesses from constant harangue about their failure to provide health insurance, caused not insignificantly by their inability to negotiate volume discounts with insurers. This would also reduce the current government-caused market preference for large employers.

Rather, the market would function better if employers simply paid their employees their full wages, allowing employees to use their own funds to invest in whichever MS&L account they wished. MS&Ls would have to compete for customers, much as casualty insurers do currently. Taking the employer out of the loop would create incentives to better serve customer wishes.

So, there you have it: a way to increase freedom in the health care industry while providing a useful safety net. This beats the tar out of all of the centralized coercive systems that aim to restrict freedom with an undeliverable promise of security. Those that oppose the kind of freedom offered through the MS&L in favor of coercive centralization either willingly ignore the evils of centralization of power or else actively seek such power. Liberty has its hazards, to be sure. But it’s the right way to go.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Pioneer Day

In the 1950s, a man in his mid-20s that had grown up watching WWII first hand said goodbye to his native Germany and went forward into a new life in the U.S.A. This working class man eventually married an American girl from Wyoming, became an American citizen, and fathered five sons. I am grateful to be one of those boys. My Dad is one of my personal pioneers.

In the late 1920s a farm wife from Illinois, living in rural Nebraska left the religion of her upbringing and joined the LDS Church. Although living on a remote farm made it difficult, she actively pursued her new faith and did massive amounts of family history research, long before modern conveniences such as computers (or even typewriters) were commonly available.

Later, one of her daughters served a mission for the church in Germany, where she came to know a young German. After this fellow emigrated to the U.S., they courted and eventually married. This would not have happened had not her mother become such a stalwart in the faith. My Grandmother is one of my pioneers. And so is my Mom, as she was the first person in our family to serve a mission for our church. It is unlikely that she and Dad would have even met had she not served a mission.

Today is a state holiday in Utah. Pioneer Day commemorates the arrival of the first major company of Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Although it was a regular work day for me, I got to thinking about the people in my life that were pioneers. I owe them much.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

From Harsh Realities to Ruthlessness

I have been re-reading The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek. Speaking of the transfer of private property to the state, he writes (pp. 114-115):
“To believe that the power which is thus conferred on the state is merely transferred to it from others is erroneous. It is a power which is newly created and which in a competitive society nobody possesses. So long as property is divided among many owners, none of them acting independently has exclusive power to determine the income and position of particular people—nobody is tied to any one property owner except by the fact that he may offer better terms than anybody else.

“What our generation has forgotten is that the system of private property is the most important guaranty of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not. It is only because the control of the means of production is divided among many people acting independently that nobody has complete power over us, that we as individuals can decide what to do with ourselves. If all the means of production were vested in a single hand, whether it be nominally that of “society” as a whole or that of a dictator, whoever exercises this control has complete power over us.

“Who can seriously doubt that a member of a small racial or religious minority will be freer with no property so long as fellow-members of his community have property and are therefore able to employ him, than he would be if private property were abolished and he became owner of a nominal share in the communal property. Or that the power which a multiple millionaire, who may be my neighbor and perhaps my employer, has over me is very much less than that which the smallest fonctionnaire possesses who wields the coercive power of the state and on whose discretion it depends whether and how I am to be allowed to live or to work? And who will deny that a world in which the wealthy are powerful is still a better world than one in which only the already powerful can acquire wealth?”
As I read through this segment this time, it struck me that this can be applied any kind of transfer of significant transfer of power to the state; not just property. Consider re-reading this section with health care in mind, for example. The coercive power that various insurance companies exercise today is an entirely different animal than the case would be if this power were transferred to the state.

Of course, many will counter that progressives don’t want to control the health care industry, but to broaden access. This is a rather odd claim, given that everyone in the U.S. (except in Massachusetts) has access to health care today, although; not all have access to health insurance. Contrast this with more socialized health care systems where everyone has insurance coverage but where access is routinely denied.

Besides, as Hayek carefully points out, it is never the first generation of socialists that wish to restrict freedom. They are too kind hearted to carry to its logical conclusion the system that they design. Rather, it is the next generation that in time is tasked with solving problems produced by the maturing socialized system. To solve these problems within the confines of socialist ideology requires ruthlessness. Thus, socialist systems eventually attract ruthless people to the positions of power, as they are the only ones that can ‘get the job done.’

Today’s health care debate is not about improving health care; it is about power. While some envision the state exercising what they seem to describe as benevolent dictatorial powers free of profit motive, the future will ultimately yield a future of cruelty that will make the current dysfunctional system look like Shangri La by comparison.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Achieving Adulthood

I have worked with young men in church and Scouting settings for decades. I have seen many successfully transition from childhood to adulthood and I have seen many that did not do so well at making this shift.

Our culture has evolved into one that worships childhood and where the transitional stage between childhood and adulthood lasts longer than ever. Some never really grow up and accept the full mantle of adulthood, opting instead for a perpetual post Peter Pan state where they have adult physiques and rights without much adult responsibility.

Experts nationwide have been studying this phenomenon, which some have dubbed ‘adultescence.’ The problem is more pronounced with males than females, but it is rampant among both sexes.

Societies once had clear pathways with well defined mileposts and rites of passage. Young men and women spent time with adult mentors of their same sex that guided them and helped celebrate each new level. Today, by contrast, our adolescents increasingly spend time being mentored by older adolescents that provide role models for continued adolescence rather than adulthood.

The LDS Church has long had programs in place where youth experience clearly defined transitional periods complete with adult mentors. Beginning at age 8, girls and boys have separate activity groups. Then beginning at age 12, they have separate worship and activity groups in two-year stages.

Church leaders are fully aware that participation in these groups tends to decrease as youth age. Then comes the magical age of 18 (or high school graduation). Girls move fully into the women’s auxiliary, known as Relief Society. That presents a serious challenge for many young women, but leaders across the nation are working to find ways to help them through those difficulties.

The story is different with boys. All young men in the LDS Church are asked to serve two years doing full-time missionary work beginning at age 19. The boys that turn 19 soon after graduating high school have a clear transition outlined. Young men that go away to college also make a transition. Many of them attend young adult units for ages 18-25.

I was in a different boat at that juncture. After graduating high school, I was still 17-years-old when the autumn school term began. I lived at home, worked at a local job, and attended a local college. I felt a little out of place attending the youth group activities, but I also was out of place in the young adult group.

A few days after I turned 18, I was ordained to the higher priesthood and joined the men’s auxiliary that was filled mostly with younger married men that had families. Thankfully, I was still very involved in a fraternal Scouting service organization called the Order of the Arrow, where I worked with adult mentors and held youth leadership positions. Eventually I served a mission in Norway.

Church leaders know that this path doesn’t work out so well for many young men, so most young men in my area that are in this same situation are not transitioned to the men’s group until age 19. But it’s not exactly clear what their disposition should be during the time they are 18.

I am thinking about this now because I have a son that has completed high school and is attending college locally. He is about the same age I was at that same juncture in my life. My son has never been comfortable or developed much camaraderie with the other young men in his age group, so he is chomping at the bit to be free of the requirement to attend the youth group activities.

As a parent, I am concerned that discontinuing youth group attendance when my son turns 18 would separate him from some healthy mentoring by concerned adult male role models. That, in turn, could lead to him drifting from patterns that lead to successful transition to adulthood, or it could make that transition more rocky than necessary. And yet, I am loath to play the heavy and require him to attend, particularly when there seems to be no clear policy on the matter.

Church leaders know that even serving a two-year mission is less of a rite of passage to adulthood than it used to be. It is increasingly common for young men (and even young women) to return from serving missions and quickly slide into a sort of perpetual teenagerhood of hanging out with friends with little commitment and spending countless hours in frivolous pursuits.

We were told in a recent leadership meeting that church research shows that for the vast majority of young church members in Idaho, Utah, and Arizona, their lot in life is permanently cast by age 27. That is, the rest of their lives will reflect the career, educational, and family patterns they are in at the time they reach that age.

Of course, some people will make changes. I returned to school when I was in my 30s to complete my formal education. I jumped from a career in accounting to being a software systems developer. This resulted in a more favorable family economic condition than would otherwise have been the case. But I was an exception. Most people simply never exceed the patterns they have set by age 27.

This presents a particular problem for people in their mid 20s that are in no hurry to break out of ‘adultescence.’ They may stay in Neverland so long that they never enjoy the challenges and rewards of full adulthood.

I find myself frequently stealing longing glances at my beautiful children, wondering what the future holds for each of them, and hoping beyond hope that each one successfully makes the transition to become a joyful and responsible adult. My wife and I are earnestly trying to do our best to make sure that happens. But there are so many factors beyond our control in this equation that I frequently drop to my knees and plead for help from a Higher Source.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Back From Camp

I have just spent a week away at Boy Scout camp at Camp Bartlett. Over the weekend, I also visited Camp Loll because I have a son working on staff there. It was a rare opportunity to be bitten by mosquitoes at two fine Scout camps on the same day.

Our boys had a great time at Camp Bartlett. I have spent many weeks at Scout camps during my life, and rarely have any of these weeks been rain free. Although we occasionally had clouds pass over, it was relatively warm and clear all week long. The night sky was constantly clear, offering a fantastic opportunity for astronomy. The air was so calm every night that the tent fabric never even rustled in the breeze.

The camp has completely renovated its field sports area since I last visited. It boasts a large rifle range, a shotgun range, and a nice archery range. It is one of the few camps I have attended that has two waterfront areas: one for swimming and one for boating. The camp has also added a new campfire bowl arena that is one of the finest I have seen at a wilderness style camp.

Camp Bartlett is a large camp with many campsites. I am told that the camp hosted 550 Scouts and leaders during a recent week. There are two main parking areas with smaller parking areas near some campsites. (Our site was not one of those. We had to manually haul our gear.) The camp is large enough to require a lot of walking. One of the adult leaders wore a pedometer. Including the troop hike on Wednesday, he logged 36 miles by the end of the week. We were all a bit footsore by Saturday morning.

Besides many chipmunks and various types of birds, my son was thrilled to see deer and even a young bull moose in the camp. (That had me a bit nervous, because bull moose can be more harmful than grizzly bears.) My son wasn’t as happy with the “demon squirrel” that loudly barked and chattered outside of our tent every morning at precisely 5:15 am.

Since the camp is large, it has a large staff. Each day the entire staff wore the same style of uniform. Some days it was the full Venturing uniform. Other days it was the BSA activity shirt, and other times it was the Bartlett staff shirt. The large staff belted out many camp songs at camp gatherings.

The camp recently (like last week) completed renovations to the parade grounds (a large open field), which were necessitated by upgrades to the septic system. A new, very tall flag pole has been installed, from which hangs a large American Flag that is about 20 feet long. This massive flag flutters even in the slightest breeze. Our troop retired the colors one evening. We practiced using a 20’ tarp, so our performance was nearly flawless.

There are more activities to do than there is time available at camp, so Scouts have to pick and choose. My son tolerated his merit badge classes, although, he quite enjoyed a couple of them. He fished, but never caught a fish. He said that his favorite part of camp was hanging out at our campsite with the other boys, although, all of the boys seemed to enjoy making trips to the trading post for treats.

The week included its normal share of ups and downs. Boys occasionally faced discipline from the troop leader council for some infraction, such as going fishing when it was their turn to do dishes or putting graffiti on the latrine wall. There were a few minor injuries and some homesickness.

The fare one evening was a ‘hobo dinner’ — a meal made of hamburger and vegetables wrapped in aluminum foil and cooked on coals in the fire pit. My son absolutely loves this meal. He can be a picky eater, so he was happy to have a meal that he really likes. But it takes a long time to get a fire burned down to enough coals to cook that many meals, so we were pushing up against a deadline to be at an event by the time people were eating.

Finally, the leaders called for everyone to drop what they were doing and go. My son had saved the meat, his favorite part of the meal, until last. He decided to carry the foil with the meat to eat on the trail. Unfortunately, when he tripped on a root the meat scattered into many pieces in the dirt. My son was heartbroken and cried. He was sullen and didn’t want to go to the event. But, I made him go anyway.

When we arrived at the event, the Scoutmaster asked the rest of the adults to handle it, saying that he had some business to attend to. It was an inspirational honor trail. By the time my son had experienced the messages, much of his self pity had dissipated.

We walked back to the campsite, knowing that there was other food that he could eat there, but that it wouldn’t be as good as his lost dinner. When we arrived, the Scoutmaster explained that there was a new hobo dinner waiting for my son in the coals of the fire.

Unbeknownst to me, the Scoutmaster had run from the event more than half a mile to the commissary, which was closed. He found the commissary director and begged her to open the place and get enough food to make another hobo dinner. She did this for him. He then ran back to camp. His 17-year-old son, who is the Junior Assistant Scoutmaster, had remained to tend the fire. This young man quickly put the hobo dinner together and got it cooking so that it would be done upon our return.

This simple act of service brings tears to my eyes just to think about it. Needless to say, my son was quite pleased. I can only hope that he will see this kind of service as a pattern to adopt for himself.

The closing campfire ceremony on Friday evening was spectacular. On the west side of camp is a large, rustic amphitheater for this purpose. There were fun songs and skits. Then the mood got serious when we sang, My Country, ‘Tis of Thee. The staff then expertly ran through a series of patriotic quotes, songs, and explanations. The program included trumpets playing strains from Fanfare for the Common Man, black powder rifles firing off around the grove in timed intervals, staffers dressed in Native American and mountain man regalia, and even a live deer standing on the south side of the grove. (The deer was unplanned, of course.)

Finally, a staff color guard presented a tattered American Flag that was to be retired from service. We sang the National Anthem and then saluted as the flag was lovingly committed to the campfire while a bugle sounded Taps. We quietly filed out of the amphitheater as the staff quietly sang. It was the perfect ending to a great week of Scout camp.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Vitriolic Good Bye

Those involved in marketing know that every product has a life cycle. Some of those cycles are short (pet rocks) and some are long (Twinkies). A study reported last month found that life cycles of cultural items are affected by how rapidly they rise to popularity. In general, a quick rise to popularity will mean an equally rapid drop, while a slow rise translates to a gradual drop. We call the former phenomenon a fad.

During the 2008 campaign season I wrote five posts that mentioned Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, whom Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) selected as his vice presidential running mate. Only one of those posts discussed Palin in any detail. I steered clear of advocacy, because I wasn’t happy about McCain and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Palin.

2½ years after becoming Alaska’s Governor, Palin announced last week that she will resign the post later this month. It would appear that Gov. Palin’s rapid rise to fame is following the standard model of product popularity discussed above. That is, she appears to be a fad.

The WSJ’s Peggy Noonan says good riddance to Palin in this article. While Noonan offers some very worthwhile insights, the overall article comes across as rather harsh. I have read Noonan for years. She is a staunch Catholic and Republican. Sometimes it seems to me that she holds these two organizations in similar regard. Perhaps this helps explain the hard words Noonan has for Gov. Palin.

Palin, writes Noonan, “hurts … the Republican brand …. Really, she is the most careless sower of discord since George W. Bush, who fractured the party and the movement that made him.” Although Palin is “a gifted retail politician,” she “wasn't thoughtful enough to know she wasn't thoughtful enough” and she “never learned how the other sides think, or why.” Moreover, Palin promoted this lack of insight as a badge of “authenticity.”

It seems that Palin is such a heretic to Noonan’s style of Republicanism that Noonan would like nothing better than to have Palin excommunicated from the party. Does Noonan feel the same way about Palin’s supporters? Her article seems to imply as much.

One of the things that bothered me about Palin from the outset was that she seemed to be little more than a pawn in the game of identity politics — a game which many conservatives decry as un-American. It was Noonan that wrote last September about conservatives viscerally sensing that Palin “is really one of them.” But the fawning, protective approach that some conservatives took to Palin creeped me out as much as did the Obamaton cult worshippers.

In the same article, Noonan pretty much said that Palin was nothing more than a useful cog in the McCain campaign’s political machinations. She wrote, “Palin's friends should be less immediately worried about what the Obama campaign will do to her than what the McCain campaign will do.” Noonan’s prescience on this matter seems to have been quite accurate.

Speculation as to the ‘real’ reason for Palin’s resignation is omni-available, so you can go elsewhere for that kind of salaciousness. But I think that it is completely preposterous to assume that Gov. Palin will ever be able to win any statewide or national election for the rest of her life. It’s even questionable as to whether residents of her home town of Wasilla would re-elect her to her former mayoral or council position. So I hope her reasons for resigning are pretty good.

Whether Ms. Noonan likes it or not, there are a lot of people in the GOP whose brand of Republicanism is more in line with Sarah Palin’s than with John McCain’s or Noonan’s. There’s not enough of them to bring a candidate in their mold to national office on their own, but there’s enough of them that the GOP can’t win a national office without them.

Interestingly, this statement could be turned around and applied to all of the major factions in the GOP. That ought to be food for thought as the members of various inquisitions within the party run around attempting to excommunicate heretics from the party.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Unprofitable Health Care

Health care, some contend, is too special to be driven by a profit motive. As one person grappling with serious health issues and the corresponding costs asked, “Who can put a money value on a life?” Health care, it is said, should not be reduced to consumerism.

We all understand this sentiment. It is especially poignant when life circumstances demonstrate the cruelty of a system of care based on costs. Such sad stories frequently steer the course of public and private policy, as well as legal outcomes.

Unfortunately, many of these decisions are based in the concept of the free lunch. The harsh reality of the matter is that there is always a profit motive in every health care situation, with the possible exception of individual acts of pure charity, which usually can occur only within a tight group such as a family or a small community.

The profit of which I speak is not always plainly visible as financial gain. It can come in the form of power or fame, for example. But if you follow the trail far enough, you will ultimately find the money motive.

Health care is not an unlimited commodity and it always has a cost. Like every other scarce commodity, health care must be rationed. Many want to deny this fact, but in reality, the question is simply which form the rationing ought to take. The laws of economics cannot be repealed even when life is at stake. Someone has to foot the bill.

Most that decry the profit motive call for altruistically collectivizing health care costs. Moreover, they desire health care providers that mainly want to help people rather than those wanting to make money.

Collectivizing anything removes some choices from individuals and transfers them to an administrative bureaucracy of technical experts and bureaucrats that are quite removed from the actual providers and consumers. This inserts a third party into the provider-patient relationship.

The basic nature of all such organizations is to demand uniformity by limiting choice. This is unavoidable because it is the very nature of such a structure to produce such results. Yet, health care is a field that cries for specialty work in almost every interaction, since the needs and responses of humans vary so greatly. Enforcement of uniformity in health care is one of the worst mismatches of needs and solutions in any modern market.

Those clamoring today for increased collectivization of health care should consider the Utah State Liquor Store system. Speaking of government run liquor stores, Manhattan Institute fellow Regina Herzlinger explains in this article:
“Despite their ability as the single payer to extract better volume discounts from wholesalers than private liquor chains can, their prices are not lower than private stores’. Additionally, they slight consumers through shorter operating hours, inconvenient locations, limited brand availability, and inadequate advertising. By forcing consumers to adjust their shopping habits, they raise prices through loss of time. Although some advocates hope that these features limit liquor consumption, this is not the case.”
Although some will cry that you can’t compare liquor stores to health care, I beg to differ. The state-run stores provide a good view of what happens in any government controlled market: restriction of choice and increased costs with no reduction of consumption.

Moreover, it doesn’t even matter if government doesn’t run the whole system. Government only needs to have a significant stake in the market to effectively control all of the players in the market. This is what currently happens with Medicare. Is it any wonder that health care is one of the few areas of life where real costs have increased while satisfaction has decreased over the past 30 years?

For those that are fans of government mandated health insurance competition plans, such as the current Massachusetts system, Herzlinger has additional warnings. “Such markets limit competition, do not control costs, discourage entrepreneurial efforts, and thus cause consumer dissatisfaction.” Additionally, they are proven to be effective in moving people from private health care plans to the plans directly run by government.

Nor do you free yourself from profiteers when moving to a government centric model. Herzlinger writes:
“Why do government-controlled markets require insurance plans that people may not want and prohibit others they may want? The reason is simple: Legislatures that run government markets respond to lobbyists financed by providers and insurers. These interests prefer to sell expensive policies rather than cheap ones; and no one lobbies for consumers. Also, the politics of empathy play a role: People with uncovered conditions often lobby, through the government and media, to force insurance companies to cover their maladies.”
The costs imposed by such mandates are not itemized so as to keep them hidden to the premium payers. But in Massachusetts, the requirement to cover in vitro fertilization alone (for a very few) raises “everybody’s family insurance prices by as much as $900” annually. Ouch.

Herzlinger notes that Swiss citizens are required by law to have health insurance, but they have broad latitude in the coverage they choose and they can buy it from any private health insurance company. It works much as does automobile or homeowner insurance. It turns out that the Swiss “are demonstrably price sensitive.” There is no reason to believe that this would be different for Americans or anyone else.

Health care will be rationed in any system. Period. How do you want that to happen: through individual health care consumer choice that fosters competition and innovation and incentivizes providers to profit by meeting your needs, or by the faceless bureaucracy bean counters that limit choice and stifle competition in the name of altruistic but unobtainable fairness?

Government has a role to play in health insurance, but Herzlinger says that the appropriate role is “is to help subsidize those who cannot afford health insurance; to enable transparency so that people can shop intelligently; and to prosecute fraud, abuse, and anti-competitive behavior. It’s not the government’s job to run markets.”

One recently retired fellow praised government for covering the high cost of his cancer treatments. He opined that proponents of such plans merely want to help care for the sick without a perverse profit motive that doesn’t care at all about the ill.

As we have seen, the profit motive still exists, even in government plans. There are still politicians and heavy lobbying firms and groups that seek to profit by limiting your choices and providing higher cost inferior services and products. That translates into more draconian rationing and loss of life, as is currently being demonstrated in the UK. (Unlike the US model where some lack insurance coverage but everyone has health care access, in the UK everyone has insurance coverage but many lack adequate access.)

Moreover, the man mentioned above seems to have failed to learn over a lifetime that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Someone has to pay for his treatments, even if he is not paying for them himself. This means that someone is going without something they could otherwise have. Perhaps that includes the lady I met who is scrambling to make ends meet while covering much of the cost of her own cancer treatment or the single mom that took a job at a different grocery store with fewer benefits so that she could have more take home pay to meet more immediate needs. When government mandates health coverage, no one advocates for the faceless masses that pick up the costs — the forgotten Americans.

Like it or not, health care is a consumer market. Attempting to disguise the harshness of this reality will not make it go away. The current heavy push for choice limiting systems seeks to bring under the heavy hand of government what little personal liberty remains in the health care system.

If politicians really cared about the uninsured, they would sponsor solutions that expand the freedom to purchase cost effective health insurance rather than ‘remedies’ that mainly seek to expand government power. They would promote fair competition in the health care industry and they would offer ways to help those that can’t afford adequate care without trying to usurp control of a massive chunk of the economy.

But I’m not holding my breath while waiting for that to happen. As I said, there is a profit motive….

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Housing Crisis Remedies Driven By Political Whim

Economist Stan Liebowitz says in this WSJ op-ed that “most government policies being discussed to remedy woes in the housing market are misdirected” because they are based on a misunderstanding of “the actual causes of the mortgage crisis.”

Using real (and readily available) data Liebowitz shows that most of the causes of the housing crisis being promoted by the media and the political class — subprime mortgages, so-called “liar loans,” poor creditworthiness, unemployment, upward reset of interest rates, and under regulation — are only contributory factors rather than the meat of the matter.

To avoid future problems, it is important to correctly understand the basic causes of the crisis. Implementation of all of the “suggestions being put forward by the administration and most media outlets -- more stringent regulation of subprime lenders -- would not have prevented the mortgage meltdown regardless of their merit otherwise.”

The central issue in the current foreclosure crisis is people having no skin in the game. That is, they owe more than their property is worth. Much ado has been made in some corners about people that are “upside down” on their mortgage. It turns out that this is not only a major problem; it is THE major problem. Yet none of the remedies being offered address this matter.

Liebowitz asserts that a “significant reduction in foreclosures will happen when and only when housing prices” reach true market levels “and unemployment stops rising.” He asserts that “current [home] prices are approaching their long-term, inflation-adjusted pre-bubble level,” but he warns that many of the policies aimed at helping could actually derail this natural progression and exacerbate the problem.

In his final sentence, Liebowitz cites “fictitious causes that fit political agendas and election strategies” as the basis for most of the policies presently being advanced as solutions to the housing crisis.

When dealing with political matters it is essential to understand that politics has its own economy. It is the nature of that economy for politicians to publicly hide behind a mask of altruism while responding to political incentives. Political maneuverings are chiefly designed to increase the power of the individual politician or select groups. All the better if this can be done while simultaneously promoting (or appearing to promote) an ideological agenda with which the politician or group is aligned, or while increasing the power of political allies.

Wise citizens should gain a healthy appreciation for the political economy. They must realize that it is necessary adroitly work within this system — though often unpleasant — to advance their own causes, even when those causes are just. The trick is to pull that off while remaining unsullied.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Drowning In Information

My kids and their friends do not remember the days before the Internet. But it really wasn’t very long ago that the hippest people started adding an email address to their business cards. As email became more common, a weird business culture developed where the number of emails in a person’s in-box became some kind of status symbol.

Then came the days when everyone with an email account ended up with overflowing in-boxes. That’s when the rest of us realized that most email is superfluous garbage, and that having a lot of unread email is simply a sign of poor personal management skills. Some people haven’t gotten the memo yet. They apparently can’t read their colleague’s eye-rolling body language when the martyr’s sigh of unread email is uttered.

I still know people that feel duty bound to pore over every single piece of electronic junk that survives the filtering process to arrive in their in-box. The number of hours these people spend watching soaring PowerPoint presentations is truly mind boggling. But that’s nothing compared to the time they spend taking in and forwarding the ever proliferating incredible hoaxes that can’t withstand two seconds of thoughtful scrutiny.

Many in the sub-25 generation can’t understand why ‘old’ people are still so reliant on email. They continue to use the mature technology of cell phone texting while they simultaneously use Facebook and Twitter. But they see these technologies as THEIR domain.

One of my teenagers complained that it was “creepy” when a middle age neighbor added him as a friend on Facebook. It’s one thing to have a parent connection on Facebook, he said, but “old people” should otherwise stay off.

But another son dislikes Twitter’s logo. He thinks it kind of looks like a guy sitting on the can reading the newspaper.

We are becoming a society of the continuously connected. Some boys freaked out at a recent meeting when the scoutmaster told them that there would be no cell phones allowed at Boy Scout camp. (It’s OK. There’s no coverage up there anyway.) Many of these boys are simply imitating their parents.

We suffer from information overload, says WSJ tech editorialist L. Gordon Crovitz. He asks, “What does it mean that for the first time, information is no longer scarce?” Some complain that we have lost depth as the breadth of information access has increased. “The current trend” says economist Tyler Cowen, “as it has been running for decades -- is that a lot of our culture is coming in shorter and smaller bits.” That explains why today’s newspaper contains only a fraction of the content the same paper contained 30 years ago.

“Humans adapt” writes Crovitz, “so we'll learn how to live with information overabundance.” Tools are already developing for this purpose. As is usually the case with new technologies, the young will be the first to become adept at judiciously using such tools, he says.

The image of an older fellow struggling to swim in heavy waves comes to mind. As the man fights to keep his head above water, an agile teenager rips by on a surfboard being propelled forward by the very waves that are threatening to take the man down.

Actually, I much more optimistic about information management than that. Glub … bubble ….

Thursday, July 02, 2009

America's Great Anniversary Festival

Our Independence Day celebrations have thrilled me since I was a child. On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail:
“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not. (The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784, Harvard University Press, 1975, 142 [original spelling and punctuation] as quoted at”
Adams turned out to be off by two days. Although the Continental Congress had formally (and narrowly) voted for independence from Britain on July 2, the actual wording of the final draft of the Declaration of Independence was not approved until July 4. Although annual formal celebrations of independence began the following year on July 4, 1777, it appears to have been nearly a century later that Congress officially designated July 4 as the Independence Day holiday (see Wikipedia article).

At the time Adams was writing his letter to his wife, many Americans openly feared the prospect of war with England. But, like Adams, many Americans were quite certain that they would triumph because their cause was just. The next five years were probably harsher than most had anticipated. American support for the revolution waxed and waned depending on how battles went. There were many times that the cause appeared to be lost.

It seems clear that without George Washington’s complete personal devotion to the revolution, the cause would have failed. As Lafayette was later to say of Washington, “He was the revolution.” In many respects this is true. He held the cause together by the sheer force of his personality and character and Americans responded. Various British and Hessian officers remarked that they were often amazed by these provincials that would defy kings, lose battles, and yet keep on fighting. One remarked that when he looked upon the Americans they seemed to be “a new breed of men.”

Although the British kept winning battles, they proved unwilling and/or unable to do what was necessary to win the war. On the other side of the Atlantic, the initial overwhelming enthusiasm for the war waned as it impoverished the treasury, impaired trade, and spawned new wars with France. After Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, the English felt it was best to let the Americans go their own way, although, a formal treaty took nearly two more years to complete. Due to this and the subsequent adoption of the Constitution, we still celebrate Independence Day each July 4th.

My town has been hosting official Independence Day celebrations since its incorporation over half a century ago. Each year there is a sunrise flag raising ceremony, a community breakfast, a 5K run/walk, a children’s parade, a formal parade, an arts and crafts show, live entertainer performances, baseball games, a golf tournament, a volleyball tournament, a beauty pageant, a rodeo, a small fair, a Dutch oven cook-off, a car show, a concert, a scavenger hunt, and fireworks. It’s a pretty full day. (Actually, some of the events run during the days running up to the 4th.) It would be difficult to attend all of the various events.

Although the town’s population has grown during my lifetime, the community Independence Day celebration still has a very hometown feel to it. It’s a nice time to relax with neighbors and friends. I’m not sure that I see much in the way of “solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty,” but I think that Mr. Adams would find our community’s celebration otherwise quite in line with his 1776 forecast, were he to visit this year.

Here’s wishing you and yours a glorious 4th of July celebration.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Public Official Privacy

The media loves anything that smacks of salaciousness because it sells well. Demand for titillating and scandalous content is obviously quite high among news consumers. Fortunately for these consumers, people that have chosen to live in the public light frequently supply plenty of this kind of material.

Among those that have made recent headlines is South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. While Sanford said this week in AP interviews that he was witnessing his “own political funeral,” he seemed to be doing everything in his power to keep his extramarital affair — the impetus for his professional demise — front and center in the national news cycle until this afternoon when it was announced that he was done baring his soul.

The man claims he is trying to “fall back in love with his wife” even while wistfully recalling his love affair with his “soul mate” mistress. This kind of talk makes me want to vomit. Sanford appears determined to depict himself as a caricature of a figure in a cheap romance novel.

The more Sanford talks about this matter, the more bizarre he looks. Some guys go out on the town with ‘the boys’ to carouse. Sanford admits to taking trips outside of the country with ‘the boys’ to do so. The whole world now knows that among the ways Sanford unwinds is to dig holes in his property with heavy excavating equipment and to leave the country to flirt with foreign women.

Yes, lots of powerful men philander and adulterate. But this is more than a simple boys-will-be-boys story. This kind of behavior is not close to normal. That’s one of the reasons that it makes news. But the fact that this guy is a powerful politician — a governor that until recently appeared to have a shot at the presidency — enhances its newsworthiness. The fact that he’s an unabashed conservative piques the interest even more.

Sanford has earned the ire of just about every stripe of conservative out there because his behavior reflects badly on their various causes. Fiscal conservatives are upset because Sanford has of late been perhaps the strongest advocate for fiscal conservatism in the nation. Sanford also seemed the image of a religious social conservative. Since adultery runs counter to such principles, social conservatives feel violated. As a captain in the Air Force reserves, Sanford appeared to be a strong supporter of national security, so security hawks feel betrayed.

Bob Lonsberry opined on his radio program this morning that it was none of the public’s business what Sanford or anyone else does behind bedroom doors, even if they are public officials. President Clinton’s peccadilloes, for example, should have been a purely private matter, said Lonsberry. The segment where Lonsberry mentioned this wasn’t very long, so he avoided mentioning any qualifiers. For example, would he still hold his assertion of privacy if said behavior involved illegal or unethical behavior? What if an underage person were involved?

I’ve heard others express a similar line of thought. The people of South Carolina are Sanford’s employer. The people of the U.S. were until recently his prospective employer. Does your employer or prospective employer have any right to know what goes on in your personal relationships? Do they have a right to know if you cheat on your spouse?

The law generally thinks not. Most of us have had co-workers whose job performance suffered through a period of relationship problems. In such cases, employers can address the performance issues, but bringing up the personal issues is usually off limits unless the employee asks for help. And then employers are required to keep the matter confidential.

Equating political leaders with employees, however, is problematic. One of the main reasons for rules restricting employers is the power differential between employer and employee. That dynamic is quite dissimilar when it comes to public officials. In this case, the governor holds far more power than any of his individual ‘employers.’

Even if the employee paradigm is accepted, there is a question about whether Gov. Sanford broke any laws or violated ethical constraints regarding the use of official resources. The people of SC have a right to question whether he is sufficiently fit to perform the duties of his office.

In most workplaces, any employee that engages in (even consensual) sexual conduct on company premises can expect to be fired. That’s one reason that Pres. Clinton’s misuse of the Oval Office raised problems. Similarly, there are also grounds for considering whether Sen. Ensign’s (R-NV) liaisons with one of his employees who was the wife of another of his employees exceeded ethical limits.

The world has changed a lot since the days of high profile philanderers like JFK. Historians can dig up many examples of leaders that performed their assignments well despite their personal infidelity. Consider Benjamin Franklin, for example. Is Lonsberry right? Does the public really have no right to information about the personal lives of public officials?

Like it or not, media access to people’s personal lives is more pervasive (and invasive) than ever. Couple this with the fact that some politicians use features of their personal lives as campaign material. Sanford certainly did so, as did John Edwards. Having chosen to deliberately insert personal relationship factors into the public debate, it is difficult to argue that they should be excluded from the public forum when they no longer work in the person’s favor.

The reality is that today’s job description for people embarking on a public career includes lack of privacy for the individual and his/her family and associates. This cost must be weighed when considering such a high profile occupation.

Does this cost us the service of individuals that could potentially do a great job? Undoubtedly. But more significantly, is there anything we can do about it? If so, is it something we should do?