Thursday, June 28, 2012

Compassion Trumps Selfishness

The Supreme Court decided today, 5-4, that Obamacare is legal. That is, in the immortal words of Vice President Joe Biden, “a big fucking deal.”  Affordable health care for millions of Americans who otherwise didn’t have it, was what Obama said he “would stake my presidency on.”  The guy knows how to roll the dice.

The decision was along party lines, with the four conservatives voting against, the four liberals voting for it, and Chief Justice Roberts breaking the tie by saying, “Okay, it’s legal, but only if you call it a tax increase.” 

Why the party-line division? Conservatives are systematically against anything that contributes to the common good.  They seem to believe in radical individualism, which is a great philosophy if you are a rich and privileged individual. Then you don’t have to worry about the other guys (the 99%).
Radical individualism translates also into “states rights,” which is another way to say, keep your government off my personal freedom.

The “official” Conservative objection is that Obamacare represents the worst of “big government” which intrudes on individual freedom.  But this argument is spurious. Insurance is a statistical game. It has nothing to do with individuals. It’s a method of pooling risk in large groups of people, transferring that risk away from the individual, who is not able to sustain it alone.

What about the “freedom” part though?  Conservatives chafe at the idea that they are required to buy insurance.  It should be a free, personal, economic choice, they say. Again, the argument is spurious, because insurance (unlike buying broccoli), is not a personal matter. Insurance is, by definition, communal.

But what if an individual does not want to participate in the community’s shared risk?  Let’s say this person imagines himself or herself  to be a monad, willing to bear their own risk. Shouldn’t that person have the freedom to not participate in the community’s pooled risk and not buy health insurance if they don’t want it?

That would be a defensible choice, but only if that person also agreed not to use the community’s resources when they get sick.  No emergency room services (which the community paid for collectively). No police and ambulance support when you are tangled up in a car wreck (those are public, community-paid services). No publicly funded hospital care. No Medicare or Medicaid. And no public burial when you die. You’re completely on your own. Capice?

Unfortunately, human beings are compassionate by nature (most of us, anyway). We will not watch you bleed to death on the highway because you didn’t buy insurance. We will, in fact, pull you out of your burning car and put you into an ambulance and try to save you, at community expense.  By the terms of the Conservative economic argument, we should instead just step over your body, because you didn’t pay. But that’s not how it works.

It’s the same argument from motorcycle riders who declare it a matter of personal freedom whether or not to wear a helmet while riding. It would be, if you also agreed that when you go down (and you will), the rest of us can just shovel your injured body into the ditch, to clear the highway. Even if you agreed to that (out of stupidity, say), we wouldn’t actually do it, because we can’t, and so your so-called individual freedom makes you an unconscionable social free-rider (and that’s not a Nicholas Cage movie).

Every person, without exception, gets sick, nearly everyone gets seriously injured or suffers a serious disease at some point. Everyone, without exception, gets old. Everyone dies. It is ridiculous to insist on “personal freedom” from pooled health care costs unless you are extremely wealthy, because you will need expensive health care eventually. That's an inescapable fact.

So, Mr. Conservative, you can insist on your precious freedom, and when you do get sick, even though you are a selfish bastard, the rest of us will care for you at community expense.  We’ll curse you the whole time, but we’ll do it. Because that’s how human nature works, for most people.

So the argument that the community has no “right” to make you participate in the shared expense of caring for you, is either profoundly ignorant or psychopathically selfish.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Save Gas In Rising Prices?

I need a second car, small, with high mpg. I thought a hybrid or even an electric would be a great choice, with gas prices going up the way they are. But after a little research, I realized that is not going to happen.

My current car is a 2005 Scion xB that gets, on average, 28 mpg, well over 30 on a straight, flat highway, no passing, no air conditioning. That was terrific mileage back in ’05, but today I would expect a lot more.

The Toyota Prius is the hybrid mileage leader at 45 mpg, or 40 mpg in the city. I used the more optimistic figure of 45 mpg for my comparisons.

Other hybrids, like the Honda Civic and the Ford Fusion get closer to 40 mpg, less in the city. Some, like the Kia and Hyundai hybrids, are optimized for city, so they get 40 in the city and less on the highway. So I took 40 mpg as my point of comparison for non-Prius hybrids.

Any of those numbers sounds a lot better than my measly 28 mpg, as gas approaches $4 a U.S. gallon. It’s $3.70 right now where I live, but climbing inexorably. I am mentally prepared for $5 gas within a year.

But the clinker is the new car price. Hybrids command an $8,000 premium, on average. I can get a traditional gasoline-only small car that meets my needs for a second car, easily, for $20K. But a hybrid of comparable size, power, and cargo space will cost $28K on average. Sure it’s possible to get into the hybrid game for $24K, but it’s also possible to buy a perfectly adequate gasoline-only car for 17K. I’m comparing at a level of features that meet my needs, and at that level, hybrids are $8K more money.

Maybe I should have bought five years ago when there was a $7,500 tax credit for hybrid cars. But I didn’t have the need then. This is now, and there is no tax credit now. A hybrid buyer just has to eat the hybrid premium.

What about an all-electric? I live in the southwest U.S. where it is 25 miles round trip to the grocery store, 50 to school and 70 to the doctor, so I need plenty of “range,” which only the Chevy Volt can offer. (It’s nominally all-electric, though it has a tiny gasoline “assist” engine). A Volt costs about $40k. There is a tax credit of about $2,500 for an all-electric, so the net is $37.5K. That’s a whopping $10,000 price premium. The other, cheaper electrics don’t have range, so it’s Volt or nothing. Nothing is cheaper.

Going back to the $8000 hybrid premium, wouldn’t I save that much in gas purchases in a short time? Alas, no. I don’t commute every day and often my car doesn’t even leave the garage two days out of the week. My annual mileage is only 8400. So I burn 300 gallons of gas in a year. For $5 gas, that is $1500 a year in fuel (and of course I am not actually paying $5 yet!)

If I had a Prius, I would need only 192 gallons a year, costing me $933, an annual savings of $567. That savings would be nice, but it wouldn’t go very far toward offsetting the $8,000 premium I had to pay to get the Prius. It would take me almost 14 years to break even! The warranty on a Prius is only 5 years.

Ah, but what if the price of gas really went through the roof, which it well could? What if gas ramped up to $12 a gallon? The Prius, with its 45mpg would cost me $2,240 annually in fuel, compared to my current clunker, which would cost an eye-watering $3,600. That’s a monster savings of $1,360 a year for the Prius. Unfortunately, that still is more than a six-year break even.

Of course the savings calculations are even less favorable for hybrids other than the Prius, with their lower mpg ratings. So the obvious conclusion is that the savings in fuel costs I could expect from a hybrid do not even come close to balancing the premium I would have to pay to get the hybrid in the first place. The calculations simply scale up the same problem if I were driving 12,000 miles or more a year. The math just doesn’t work.

I could tell myself I would be contributing to America’s effort to reduce dependence on foreign oil, so maybe that $8000 hybrid premium is worth it. Maybe it is, to some rich person. For me, $8000 is a lot of money to donate just because the U.S. congress is incapable of passing a rational energy policy. No thanks; it’s not worth subsidizing incompetence to that extent.

And here’s the sick part. When I look at the mpg of smaller, lightweight “crossover” vehicles, gasoline-only, like the Honda CR-V, I see mileage ratings like 22/32, which isn’t even as good as I get now with my aging box. The new Scions, regrettably, are bigger and heavier and now get only 22/28, no improvement for me. I could get a tiny 2-seater Like a Scion IQ or a Smart, that will make 37 mpg, as long as I stayed away from the freeway, where I would be crushed like a bug by one of those 18-wheelers smoking north out of Mexico.

Or I could bow to harsh reality, and go for a traditional smaller sedan with mileage only slightly better than what I get now:
Chevy Cruz 28/42
Chevy Sonic 30/40
Ford Fiesta 29/40
Ford Focus 28/40
Honda Civic 29/41
Hyundai Accent 30/40
Hyundai Elantra 29/40
Hyundai Veloster 30/40
Mazda 3 28/40

Monday, February 20, 2012

Why Rationality is Not Relevant

In an op-ed column in last Sunday’s New York Times (Feb 18, 2012), Tom Friedman suggests that if Rick Santorum wins the Republican nomination, a third-party candidate for president would emerge, someone more moderate and reasonable, who could appeal to a larger constituency, and possibly beat Obama.

Friedman recommends David Walker, former the U.S. comptroller general under the G.W. Bush administration, for that role, because, according to Friedman, Walker says reasonable, moderate things about fiscal policy.

This idea demonstrates that Friedman misunderstands the current political climate, which has nothing to do with policies. Rather, the upcoming election is about self-identity. Republicans want a candidate who will represent who they think they are, plain working folks. They want someone who can stand up to the snooty elites in Washington who they think try to tell them how to live and what to believe. That’s what it’s about: identity, inclusion, and respect. It has nothing to do with fiscal policy or any other policy.

Virtually no normal person willingly accepts and enjoys a negative self-identity. Nobody will admit or declare, “I am an unschooled, uninformed, unintelligent, unskilled, ineffectual, fearful, dull-witted sheep in search of a shepherd. Help me.”

Instead, a person wants a self-identity that says “I am salt of the earth; embracing the real virtues, the ones endorsed by God, not Washington; I am humble, intuitive, honest, strong, brave, hard-working, steadfast, resilient, self-sufficient, abundantly possessed of common sense, imbued with wholesome, traditional values, rooted in the past, unimpressed by fancy arguments, statistics, or reasoning; and I won’t be bullied. Respect me.”

That’s what the Republican primary is about, identity, not policy differences or “principles.” If discussion were to shift to policy, there would be no meaningful distinction between self and other, which is tantamount to psychological self-annihilation for a person without a mature self-identity.

Rational discourse will only resume when the out-party feels included and respected, and therefore sufficiently safe from bullying and humiliation. Obama thought he could facilitate a bipartisan feeling, but he didn’t count on racism, which is not rational, nor the bifurcation of American society into those who could adapt to a rapidly changing world and those who cannot. He is, in fact, facilitating the eventual return to civil discourse, just by being in the office and conducting himself with dignity. A genuine return to rationality in the body politic could take a long time, generations, perhaps. It’s like growing up: nothing can be done to rush it.

Nevertheless, we should note, the current unpleasant and unhelpful atmosphere of irrational squawking is far, far better than the alternative kind of discourse we see in other parts of the world: guns and bombs.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Why Theocracy?

What is the Attraction of Theocracy? It seems like a lot of people in the world wish for a government controlled by religious principles. Some places have that already, like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vatican City. Some countries are nominally secular but under constant influence and pressure from religion, countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Indonesia, Pakistan, Israel, America.

For certain people, controlling a government seems desirable because of the power and relative wealth it would bring to them. So naturally they would like to see themselves in power. But the venality of a few aside, the real mystery is why so many ordinary people seem also to desire government by religion. Why would anybody want that?

This thought was provoked by a recent article in the Arizona Daily Star ( Rhonda Bodfield, “2 AZ bills would allow Bible class in schools,”
posted Tuesday, January 17, 2012 12:00 am.

According to this article, “A Republican lawmaker from Tucson wants to allow the Bible to be taught as an elective in high school. State Rep. Terri Proud said … HB 2563 and HB 2473 aren't about bringing church in the classroom, but aim to familiarize students with the way biblical references impact literature, art, music and public policy.”

Apparently, instead of explaining to students the meaning of a biblical reference in Shakespeare, it would be better to just teach the Bible itself, old and new testaments.

Arizona being Arizona, this kind of thinly disguised push toward theocratic indoctrination is an endemic disease on the body politic. It can’t be stopped, and probably shouldn’t be anyway, in deference to the First Amendment. And it's not just Arizona of course. The theocratic impulse seems quite alive in national political figures like Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and on and endlessly on.

Still, it made me wonder what motivates people like that. What do they think would be the good part of a theocracy?

Historically, government not separated from religion has led to decades, and even centuries, of violence and oppression. But let’s assume Rep. Proud, and most people, don’t know history and don’t fear it. What then are the positive benefits they would hope to gain from a government imbued with religion?

Let’s imagine the public schools could teach the Bible obsessively to their heart's content, pray in school endlessly, indoctrinate the youth, leading to a uniformity of thought centered on Christian doctrine, expunging evolution, cosmology, and other contentious topics from the curriculum. After a generation or two, we could have a theocratic government, perhaps much like Iran’s, complete with thought police. What is the good part of that?

Why is a government without diversity and freedom considered desirable? Our constitution prohibits the government from supporting any particular religion, and at the same time guarantees freedom of religious expression outside of government. What is the flaw in that setup that makes people want to move instead to theocracy? I just don’t get it.