Ten Miles Square


July 31, 2014 9:14 AM Why It Can in Fact Make Sense to Make Big Donations to Harvard

By Keith Humphreys

Philanthropist Ted Stanley has announced a $650 million donation to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Apparently, Mr. Stanley did not accept Matt Yglesias’ argument that such gifts are “ridiculous”. Yglesias sees such donations as inequality maximizing and foolish because not many undergraduates at Harvard and other elite schools are poor.

Thank goodness Mr. Stanley did not accept Yglesias’ argument, which is based on an overly narrow view of what universities like Harvard and MIT do. Research is critical to their mission, and the caliber of scientists and infrastructure they have positions them unusually well to make breakthroughs, including in the treatment of dreaded diseases.

Mr. Stanley wants to advance treatments for serious mental illnesses, in part because his own son experienced bipolar disorder. These devastating diseases are among the leading causes of disability not just in the U.S. but worldwide. The Broad Institute has some of the best genetic and genomic researchers in the world on its staff, and they have already made progress on unraveling the genetic basis of schizophrenia.

From a rigidly egalitarian viewpoint, perhaps what Mr. Stanley should have done is cut up the gift into 10,000 pieces and given small grants to every single schizophrenia researcher in the country, or perhaps directed the gift entirely to universities that currently lack the resources to do genetic research so that they could build capacity over time. But neither of those approaches would be as likely to generate better treatments for serious mental illness as what Stanley actually did: Supported world-class people with world-class facilities to work on the problem.

In addition to being wise, Stanley’s gift is socially just. If we could more effectively treat or even prevent disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, the lives of countless families would be dramatically improved, particularly lower-income families who often lack the resources to care for their loved ones who have serious mental illnesses. Ironically enough, that enormous trans-income-level benefit is much more likely to come about from a gift to a wealthy university than to a resource-starved one.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

July 30, 2014 7:27 PM Progressives Need to See the Bigger Picture on Iran

By John Bradshaw

Progressives who gathered in Detroit two weeks ago for the Netroots convention were not very focused on national security issues, but when those issues did come up there was one loud and clear theme: No more wars in the Middle East. This anti-war sentiment has long been an animating force for progressives and is now understandably heightened by a war weariness shared by a large percentage of the American public. But progressives can contribute more to the national security debate than just a strong voice in opposition to reflexive military solutions. There is a need for a positive progressive vision that supports alternatives to military solutions and finds an appropriate and sustainable role for American national security policy. On one current issue, the effort to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, apprehension about being sucked into another futile Middle Eastern war has motivated many on the left, but there has been less focus on the possible longer terms benefits of a diplomatic agreement in getting U.S. policy in the region on a better track.

Talks between Iran and the P5 + 1 nations have made considerable progress since an interim agreement was signed in November 2013. Tough issues remain to be resolved so negotiations have been extended beyond an initial July 20 deadline and now have November 24 as a target date for reaching an agreement. A good deal that prevents Iran from being able to construct nuclear weapons but allows a civilian nuclear power program under strict inspections is within reach. In return for submitting to intrusive inspections and agreeing to limits on enrichment, Iran would get relief from international and U.S. sanctions. If a deal can be reached and can be effectively implemented, what are the possible positive consequences for U.S. policy in the region?

For decades, the U.S. has been trapped by perceptions of its role in the region that limit flexibility. The implacable hostility toward Iran, complex relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and the alliance with Israel have prevented the U.S. from being seen as an honest broker. Simply signing a deal with Iran, of course, will not ensure the U.S. a freer hand in the Middle East. But if the Iranians comply with the provisions of the agreement and the U.S. implements sanctions relief on its end, Iran would be on a path toward gaining status as a normal nuclear state under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Iran’s nuclear program has long been an obstacle to any move toward improved relations. Putting Iran on track to nuclear normalization can demonstrate the effectiveness of diplomacy to the region and eventual sanctions relief can begin re-integrating Iran into the world economy. A good deal, adhered to by Iran, could “unstick” diplomacy in the region open doors to more constructive possibilities on a number of issues. Progress on the nuclear issue could form a foundation on which the US could build to address Iran’s role in Syria and Iraq, in funding terrorist groups in the Middle East, in Afghan drug trafficking, and other regional issues.

For too long, our inability to deal with Iran has contextualized our engagement with partners in the Gulf, feeding the narrative that the United States is taking sides in a new cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran that needlessly exacerbates Sunni-Shia tensions. By engaging both Iran and Saudi Arabia, the United States can rebuild its reputation as a constructive player in the region.

A responsible, verifiable deal with Iran would strengthen the legitimacy of the P5+1 nations as diplomatic players and would enhance the credibility of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in enforcing nuclear agreements. In the longer term, as former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian recently wrote, a deal could be a stepping stone to greater non-proliferation goals, including a “Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone and a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone in the Middle East.” If Iran no longer has active nuclear weapons ambitions they could become serious partners in ensuring that the Saudis or others in region are also not pursuing such a capability.

Above all, what should resonate with progressives the new diplomatic possibilities in a post-Iran deal Middle East might allow the U.S. to extricate itself from long years of military entanglement in the region and enable a broader focus on other global challenges. For example, an agreement with Iran could help jumpstart the Obama administration’s stalled “re-balancing” toward Asia. A success with diplomacy in Iran could create an image of the U.S. as an honest broker and enhance our ability to resolve volatile issues in the South China Sea.

For progressives, a deal with Iran can be more than simply a path to eliminating the direct threat of Iranian nuclear weapons. It can be a first step toward a more constructive approach in the whole region that allows the U.S. to be perceived more as a diplomatic and economic partner than a military superpower leaving destruction, broken countries, and hostility in its wake. Progressive voices should be heard in the media and in Congress promoting an agreement with Iran not just to prevent war but to open up new possibilities for positive diplomatic engagement in a region that has long jammed American policy in rigid and frustrating approaches.

July 30, 2014 4:06 PM Free Lunch Here

By James Wimberley

Yet another blue-ribbon report on the high costs of delaying action on climate disruption, this one from the US President’s Council of Economic Advisers. It won’t change closed minds. I suppose the drip-drip effect may bring round a few waverers, or shift some real journalists away from false balance.

What it should do is prompt a rethink on strategy among the reality-based.

A money graf from page 14 (italics added):

Recent research shows, however, that even if a delay in international mitigation efforts occurs, unilateral or fragmented action reduces the costs of delay: although immediate coordinated international action is the least costly approach, unilateral action is less costly than doing nothing.

Read this together with recent findings that the absolute GDP costs (footnote) of strong mitigation are very low or nil. In the wooden prose of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, WG 3, Summary for Policymakers, page 15:

Under these assumptions [all countries of the world begin mitigation immediately, there is a single global carbon price, and all key technologies are available] mitigation scenarios that reach atmospheric concentrations of about 450 ppm CO2-eq by 2100 entail losses in global consumption - not including benefits of reduced climate change as well as co-benefits and adverse side-effects of mitigation – of 1% to 4% (median: 1.7%) in 2030, 2% to 6% (median: 3.4%) in 2050, and 3% to 11% (median: 4.8%) in 2100 relative to consumption in baseline scenarios that grows anywhere from 300 % to more than 900% over the century. These numbers correspond to an annualized reduction of consumption growth by 0.04 to 0.14 (median: 0.06) percentage points over the century relative to annualized consumption growth in the baseline that is between 1.6% and 3% per year.

0.06% a year is well within the error of any model forecasts. Over 50 years, it’s noise. The takeaway is: to a first approximation, mitigation costs nothing. (footnote 2).

There is no free rider problem. It does not make sense for the US or the EU to wait for China. Just get started. The same argument applies for China: don’t wait for the USA. It even applies to Costa Rica (which is already showing them an example).

This calls for a rethink of the assumptions that have governed the long and hitherto fruitless struggle for a comprehensive international agreement, replacing and strengthening the partial Kyoto Protocol of 1997. These were:

  1.  Coordinated action is the cheapest and most effective mitigation strategy. (True).
  2. A uniform global cap-and-trade scheme or equivalent carbon tax is the most efficient and least dirigiste way of achieving any given carbon reduction target. (Fair enough, with the large exception of technology development – footnote 3.)
  3. It is essential to get everybody to sign up to the agreement setting out targets and mechanisms, otherwise countries that stay out will enjoy a free ride at the expense of those that do. (False.)

It is assumption 3 that has stymied the process so far. Saudi Arabia and Canada and Bush’s USA (or whoever is competing for the lanterne rouge slot that year) have to be on board, so they get an effective veto. With such a veto, no conceivable universal deal can be an adequate one.

But we don’t need a universal deal and should not try. Instead the aim should be an open-ended coalition or coalitions of the willing, driven forward by the brave and firmly based on the science, not held back by the cynical, cowardly and ignorant. Think of a large city marathon, with élite runners, weekend club ones and sponsored jokers all in the same race.

For an example, one of the coalitions could be to phase out coal: no new coal generators without CCS, sunsetting of existing non-CCS plants by 2030, retraining for miners, etc. There are a lot of countries that don’t use coal today that could sign immediately. The USA and China would join later. But the standard would be down in print.

* * * * * *

Footnote 1
These estimates all use cost in GDP. We should of course use NNP, after depreciation. Talking about the environment, the weaknesses of this as a measure of welfare are no longer marginal. In an NNP estimate, with its corresponding definition of the capital stock and its depreciation, we necessarily assume that apart from a tiny amount of services to ecotourism:

  • Value of polar bears and hundreds of other threatened species: $0
  • Value of Amazon forest: $0
  • Value of Antarctic icecap: $0
  • Value of Himalayan glaciers and snowfields: $0
  • Value of coral reefs: $0
  • Value of anxiety of human populations about climate-driven disasters (hurricanes, floods, droughts): $0 (We are already capturing the costs of the disasters after they happen.)
  • Value of anxiety of human populations about long-term climate change: $0

You don’t have to put a specific money value on these factors, or even think it’s possible to do so, to agree that a GDP/NNP measure substantially underestimates the true welfare costs of climate disruption. So it necessarily greatly overstates the net costs of preventing it. The call isn’t even close.

Footnote 2
Does the low-cost conclusion hold up if action is incomplete? Why not? Where are the strong cross-border interdependencies in efficiency measures, deployment of renewables, etc? There can certainly be mutual learning, and benefits from economies of scale realized elsewhere, but you don’t need a world treaty or bureaucracy for this. Everybody else has benefited from Germany’s solar policy in the last decade. The European coordination imposed by the EU Commission has been at best pointless and at worst harmful in Germany, pressing for the replacement of tested and well-liked FITs by untried “direct marketing” and auctions. Jean Monnet would not have agreed that short-run Pareto efficiency trumps long-run growth.
It’s possible that impacts are non-proportional to CO2 concentrations, so comprehensive action is less costly. By the time we know for sure if the damage curve is non-linear, it will be too late.

Footnote 3
All cost estimates are sensitive to assumptions about technologies. WG3 assume that cost-effective CCS will become available soon, a very big ask. SPM table 2, page 16. Erring on the other side, in pricing renewables they give a median LCOE @ 10% cost of capital of $160 per Mwh for utility solar in favourable regions and $84 per Mwh for onshore wind. Annex 3 to full report, page 7. These are over  twice the going PPA rates in the US Southwest; not distressed prices, but profitable commercial deals. (Wind, solar.) This is one drawback of relying on outdated peer-reviewed scientific literature rather than ordinary news, which for simple prices is just as reliable. General experience with pollution controls and indeed with normal (non-nuclear) technologies is that costs fall faster than initially expected.

You can get a free-rider problem back through technology: why not wait until the Chinese have got solar system costs down to 50c a watt? Maybe so, but it’s imprudent. First, if a lot of people wait and then all rush in at the same time, there is every chance of a spike or plateau in costs - as happened to both US wind and global solar around 2008, for different reasons. Second, you usually save money by taking it steady, planning things right, and building up expertise and supply chains. Third, early movers dominate the equipment market. Look for (rather than at) Britain’s nonexistent solar manufacturing industry. Fourth, in all developing countries demand for energy and especially electricity is rising rapidly. The demand has to be met now, like a teenager’s for a smartphone, next year’s better model be damned. Since wind and solar are already cheaper than fossil fuels in many places, it pays to invest today, even knowing that the gear will be cheaper next year.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

July 30, 2014 10:16 AM Catch of the Day: Paperwork Republic

By Jonathan Bernstein

A Catch for some excellent reporting goes to the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin, who delivered a wonderful example of what two decades of Republican governance, the Gingrich Way, has produced.

A short description:

Step One: Newt Gingrich-era Congress turns a soundbite — unelected bureaucrats are writing all these horrible regulations without Congressional participation! — into a massive make-work mandate to produce meaningless paperwork;

Step Two: Tea Party-era Congress slashes federal staffing, reducing the number of people available to do meaningless paperwork;

Step Three: Government agencies stop bothering with meaningless paperwork. As a result, enactment of some regulations may not be technically correct.

It’s a perfect example of post-policy Republicanism — going back two decades.

In case you’re wondering, this requirement that agencies notify Congress about regulations has nothing to do with scaling back federal power or reducing the government’s role. For that, you need action (a law to eliminate, for example, Coast Guard regulation of offshore fireworks displays, if that’s what you want). All these mandated requirements do is force government bureaucrats to perform additional paperwork, most of which is filed away and never read. Or, lately, not done, not filed away and not read.

If the original idea had merit, it’s pretty clear after 20 years that it hasn’t worked out in practice. Of course, it could easily be repealed or modified. But that would take a Congress that actually cares about the substance of government (though to be fair, Democrats did nothing to clean up the mess when they ran Congress from 2007 to 2011). So, yeah, it probably ain’t gonna happen.

Still: Nice catch!

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

July 30, 2014 10:11 AM Self-Control Makes for Savvy Saving

By Megan McArdle

A few weeks back, when I wrote about the joys of the 15-year mortgage, I got the same reaction from a lot of people: “Why would you repay a loan when at these low rates, it’s practically free money?”

I hear this about a lot of things. “Why would you buy a car for cash/save up to remodel the kitchen/have an emergency fund instead of a home-equity line of credit? Mathematically, that’s insane!”

I don’t think it’s quite as arithmetically unreasonable as my interlocutors suggest. Once you add risk into the equation, the calculations don’t come out quite so neatly. By refinancing to a 15-year mortgage with a lower rate, we locked in 125 basis points a year, completely risk-free. And when the mortgage is completely paid off, we’ll get another 3.25 percent, 100 percent guaranteed and risk-free. There are no risk-free investments that deliver that kind of return. You can make more money by adding risk — but you can lose more that way, too.

Moreover, math is not the only consideration. As I’ve noted before, personal finance is not primarily about math; the arithmetic part is so easy that even journalists can do it. The hard part is discipline.

From time to time, I write about Dave Ramsey, the personal-finance guru who advises people to get themselves entirely out of debt. A lot of people think that the power of his program is getting rid of all those interest payments. And if you have a huge mountain of 18 percent credit card debt or you’re cycling thousands of dollars’ worth of payday loans, then yeah, the interest rate is your big problem.

But for most people, that’s not the case. For most people who are really struggling with debt, the principal is their problem, not the interest: the $30,000 truck on a $35,000 income, the six-figure student loans, the house in the “stretch” neighborhood that’s eating up 40 to 50 percent of every paycheck. Going debt-free fixes their problem not by saving them all those interest payments, but by making it harder to buy things they can’t afford.

Every purchase is a trade-off; you buy this, thereby giving up the opportunity to buy that instead. Debt makes those trade-offs less painful because people care more about now than later. So you get to have this right now while leaving most of the foregone consumption for later periods. Effectively, you lower the current emotional price of consuming something expensive.

Unfortunately, you don’t lower the total emotional price. Later, those trade-offs may still have to be made, and because you had imperfect information, they may turn out to be painful indeed — that extra $250 a month on the mortgage may be the price of the travel soccer team your child is dying to join or flying across the country to see a sick relative.

So aside from risk, one major reason to buy on cash rather than credit is to make the sacrifices first, so that by the time you buy, you know exactly what you’re trading off to get the object of your desire — and that those trade-offs are worth it to you.

Not everyone needs to do this, of course; some people are good at handling credit, while some people can’t control themselves. Long before we decided to refinance to a 15-year mortgage, we decided to take out much less mortgage than we could afford in order to give us more breathing room in our budget; if we hadn’t been disciplined enough to do the latter, then we wouldn’t have been in a position to move to a shorter-term loan.

But even if you’re relatively disciplined, you might be surprised to find how much further a little extra discipline can get you. When I wrote about the Ramsey plan for the Atlantic in 2009, I actually tried his all-cash plan, and I was shocked to find out how much money I saved. Our budget wasn’t particularly extravagant before, and I’d allocated cash into the various envelopes based on what we were already spending. But somehow having to spend cash out of an envelope rather than just pulling out the debit card made me much more frugal. I’d been terrified of running out of money, but we finished the month with extra cash in every single category.

That’s the power of making your trade-offs explicit. And that’s why we’re now trying to save up front for things that other people — even thrifty people with sterling middle-class values — would finance.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

July 29, 2014 4:04 PM Republican Tantrum Damages Government

By Jonathan Bernstein

The good news? Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has dropped his mostly-meaningless holds on State Department nominations.

The bad news? Senate Republicans continue to impose an across-the-board virtual hold on every executive branch nomination.

Having invoked the “nuclear option,” which makes judicial and executive branch nominations subject to a simple majority vote, Senate Democrats now have the votes to force confirmation of any particular nominee as long as they remain united. However, Republican foot-dragging has created a backlog of more than 100 nominees, almost none of whom are controversial, and some of whom have been waiting since January for Senate floor action.

Normally, with an August recess looming, dozens of nominations would be bundled together and confirmed in bulk. After all, as long as there’s no controversy (and almost all of these nominees will be confirmed unanimously once they get a vote), there’s no reason that the Senate couldn’t move quickly on them. But these days, Republicans withhold the unanimous consent needed to expedite nominations, allowing only a handful of nominations to reach the Senate floor each week. Republicans don’t force cloture votes, or even demand time-consuming recorded votes, on every executive branch nomination. But neither will they let them proceed unhindered. Filibustering everything remains standard Republican operating procedure.

I understand that Republicans are upset about the Democrats’ filibuster reform. It has robbed them of leverage over nominations — even if it’s entirely their own fault for having abused that leverage. But Republicans aren’t harming Senate majority leader Harry Reid by blocking nominations. They’re harming the functioning of the U.S. government. (Perhaps it might be nice to have ambassadors appointed in a few important nations?) And they are needlessly, cruelly, messing with people’s lives. On top of all that, they’re eliminating the leverage of individual Senators. As Cruz (maybe) just learned, there’s no point putting an individual hold on a nomination that is already being held up by the entire Republican caucus.

And why? For the sake, as far as I can tell, of a tantrum.

It’s an embarrassment to the Senate and to the Republican Party. It’s well past time for Republicans to get over it and move on.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

July 29, 2014 1:32 PM The “Dear Harold” Advice Card

By Harold Pollack

My friend Dylan Matthews is starting/resuming an advice column. He’s a busy person. I thought I would save him some time by encapsulating the sum total of wise advice on the below index card. I could only fit half of the world’s wise advice on one card. So I suppose Dylan’s column is still needed.

Regular readers will be shocked that it tilts in the direction of #dadtweet advice….

50% of new human knowledge 1900-2014.

50% of new human knowledge 1900-2014. Copyright Harold Pollack

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

July 29, 2014 9:30 AM Two Unknowns of a Guaranteed Minimum Income

By Keith Humphreys

Two people I respect, Dylan Matthews and Mark Kleiman, have both endorsed a guaranteed minimum income as a poverty fighting tool. Here is Dylan’s conclusion, which he draws after discussing the findings of negative income tax experiments undertaken by the Nixon Administration:

A negative income tax or basic income of sufficient size would, by definition, eliminate poverty. We still don’t know if there’d be much of a cost in terms of people working and earning less. If there is, the effect is almost certainly small enough that a negative income tax can offset the lost earnings and remain affordable. The worst case scenario is that we eliminate poverty but see a modest decline in employment. The best case scenario is we eliminate poverty at even lower cost and don’t see much of an effect on employment. That’s a gamble I’m willing to take.”

It sounds great, but there are two unknowns that could undermine the whole approach.

1. What is the effect on the employment decisions of people NOT eligible for the guaranteed income?

Dylan focuses quite appropriately on the labor participation data available from negative income tax research, namely whether the research participants who got the income boost worked less as a result. But what happens to the far larger number of people initially not getting the subsidy could be much more important.

Imagine someone who is working hard 2000 hours a year at $11/hour, generating an income of $22,000. Then the government creates a minimum income of $20,000, which the person could receive if s/he stopped working. The person is now working 2000 hours a year for an extra $2000, i.e., for $1/hour.

Some people would keep working at that low effective wage because they like their jobs or they think they will move up someday or they just believe in the moral value of work. But other people — potentially most people — would be glad to free up 2000 hours a year at such little cost.

When those people move from jobs paying just above the guaranteed income (and such people will exists regardless of the level of the guarantee — $20,000 is just an example) to taking the guaranteed income, two things happen. The fiscal demands on the income support program grow and the tax base to pay for it shrinks. Neither of these possible effects supports the program’s long-term viability.

2. What is the effect of a guaranteed income on inflation in goods that people need to survive?

A number of industries that produce essentials (e.g., food, clothing) pay the minimum wage or just above it to some of their workforce. But as explained in the above example, once there is a guaranteed minimum income, the effective return on working a low wage job (i.e., those offering under or just over the minimum guaranteed income) drops precipitously and could indeed be negative, reducing the incentive to work in such jobs. One might say “Good, that will teach those plutocrats! The minimum wage will have to triple!”. But follow that logic out such that you have an economy where a fruit picker can only be employed for $30/hour and someone who sews shirts together can only be employed for $35/hour and so forth, and you end up with sharply rising prices in the market for essential goods.

This inflation in the price of essential goods means that the basic guaranteed income has to be sharply raised concomitantly to keep it as a meaningful anti-poverty program. This makes the costs of the program per enrollee go up, and also exposes a large group of new people who are just above the new guaranteed income to a strong incentive to quit working. As some of them respond to that incentive, the number of enrollees grows and the tax base to support the program contracts at the same time. Rinse and repeat.

Maybe Dylan, Mark or some other advocate of a guaranteed income has evidence that would allay the worries raised by the above two questions, but barring that, I don’t see a scenario under which a program like this wouldn’t collapse under its own weight within a decade of being implemented.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

July 28, 2014 9:14 AM Killing Obamacare Even if It Hurts

By Jonathan Bernstein

I’ve been mostly staying out of the commentary on the court cases involving subsidies in Affordable Care Act exchanges, because I’m not a lawyer and statutory interpretation, I’d say, is one thing that really is best left to lawyers.

However, questions about how laws are drafted, and how courts work, are a bit different, and so I’ll bring you two quotes. The first is from Matt Yglesias of Vox.com, responding to an assertion that the ACA’s hasty final passage was responsible for sloppyness in the law’s drafting, and thus its vulnerability in court:

Other hypothesis: Since all the same lawyers and judges would have disliked it, legal troubles would have been identical.

Is that correct? Here’s a more elaborate answer, rendered via e-mail, from University of Chicago public health scholar Harold Pollack (I’ve added the links):

Any large national piece of health legislation necessarily includes semantic issues, complex issues of state-federal authority, re-writing the intricate boundaries of ERISA, complicated tax, finance, and regulatory issues. Although ACA was sloppier than it should have been due to lack of conference committee, any bill would also have drafting ambiguities or errors that require proper statutory interpretation. This is true of everything from single-payer to the Heritage Foundation’s [hypothetical ideal conservative] bill. Each of these bills would include various open invitations for an activist judiciary to wreak havoc if it so chose. That’s what happened here.

That’s absolutely true. There is no major federal reform bill, in any policy area, which doesn’t contain ambiguities and crucial passages written in vague or convoluted language. Indeed, for those in the legislative trenches attempting to strike deals, ambiguity is often a feature, not a bug. The point is to get the thing passed, and fight out the details later.

Conservatives may interject here: That’s a good reason not to pass large, complex policies. That’s a fair point, although the liberal rejoinder that it’s better to attack problems with imperfect vehicles than simply to give up on them is also a fair point.

Is Obamacare unique? It’s not unusual for opponents to attack a bill long after it has passed, and it’s common for every interested group to attempt to exploit a law’s ambiguities or shoddy construction to get the best deal for itself. What’s highly unusual, however, is for those who oppose a law to exploit its weaknesses not to improve it (as they themselves see fit), but to sabotage it — even if that results in policy outcomes that they consider worse.

That’s almost certainly the case here. I don’t think Republicans believe that damaging Obamacare so that it provides middle-class subsidies in some (mostly blue) states while providing none at all in other (mostly red) states is actually a better policy outcome than the status quo. They just hope that it will weaken the law sufficiently to lead somehow to its collapse and eventual repeal. That’s clearly the motivation behind House Speaker John Boehner’s proposed lawsuit against President Barack Obama for deferring the law’s employer mandate. And we’ve seen the same agenda in other instances as well, including the advertising campaign, sponsored by conservative groups, to convince young people that they are better off without health insurance. It’s hard to believe that Republicans think that adding to the numbers of uninsured Americans is actually a desirable policy goal.

Yet Republicans are willing to encourage such negative outcomes if that increases the chances of scuttling the law. That’s the real story here.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

July 27, 2014 10:16 PM Cannabis Legalization: Not Whether, But How

By Mark Kleiman

The New York Times comes out for cannabis legalization.

David Frum is still against it.

Neither deals seriously with the balance of advantage and disadvantage; the Times simply blows off the question of substance use disorder and pretends that passing a law forbidding sales to minors takes care of the problem of increased use by minors, while Frum never mentions the damage done by the $40-billion-per-year illicit market created by cannabis prohibition and proposes nothing that would shrink that market.

And neither the Times editorial board nor David Frum seems interested in the question of how to legalize, as opposed to whether to legalize. The Times doesn’t notice that commercialization is only one approach to legal availability, and arguably not the best; Frum simply dismisses a temperate approach to legalization as politically unworkable, without explaining how to make his kinder, gentler prohibition a political winner.

Alas, I sometimes suspect they’re both right. As a matter of practical politics, our only choices may be a badly-implemented prohibition or a badly-implemented legalization.  (If so, I’m inclined to try the Devil I don’t know.)  So far, my attempts to put political and organizational muscle behind the idea of smart legalization have merely illustrated the wisdom of Ralph Yarborough’s maxim, “They ain’t nuthin’ in the middle of the road but yaller lines and dead armadillas.”  I don’t find life as political roadkill especially uncomfortable, but it does get frustrating. It’s not just that continued prohibition and commercial legalization are both bad ideas; it’s that the arguments for those two bad ideas leave no media space, or mindspace, for discussion of the good ideas that might lie between them.

Footnote Ann Althouse does a good demolition job on the Times editorial, though to the best of my knowledge there’s no evidence of intoxication or health damage from second-hand cannabis smoke or vapor.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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