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by Ken Melvin

… He said I have no opinion about this

And I have no opinion about that

Asked an Honors History Class what they thought was the most important issue facing America. In an earlier period, Patrick, a kid from Africa, responded, “our differences.” In a later period, a black female, in a plaintive voice, responded, “we are different.”

Indeed. We are a world of people with many differences: different politics, different religions, … different cultures. Not just here; worldwide, humans are wrestling with this question: How to live with our differences? Can we humans, after all our centuries, change enough? Change enough to accept our differences?

The importance of these questions came to the fore with the recent onslaught of immigration into Europe and has since played out in referenda/elections throughout Europe and the United States. The pending further, and of greater scale, dislocations caused by global warming/climate change and globalization, makes their answering imperative. Plus: What will resulting cultures look like? At what point does an existing culture become more like that of the immigrant? What is the tipping point? Can the center hold?

Over the past 20 years, really quite late, much of our nation has come to believe that someone else’s sexuality is really none of our business. We, as a nation, now accept lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, LGBT, people as they are. Not ignore them, not tolerate them, not demand that they change; but accept them as they are. Yet, there are still regions of America, sectors of the population, where a majority of the people think that they know how people should act, should think, … that they have the right to demand that others change.


Discussing Differences: A Letter to My Son (a few years from today)

The letter below summarizes my thoughts on a touchy subject. I have put them in the form they are in because I don’t think my son is old to have that discussion in its entirety right now.

To My Dear Son,

One of your mother’s hobbies is investigating her ancestry. She spends a lot of time on various websites, tracking down distant cousins and having email conversations with strangers about whether they might possibly related. She also took a genetic test to give her more information about her ancestry and convinced me to do the same.

I didn’t pay enough attention, but my recollection is that taking into account your mother’s background and my own, your blood, so to speak, is primarily Ashkenazi, Irish and Iberian. In our culture you learn a lot about the Ashkenazi and the Irish, but not so much about Iberia, so let me share some of its key history with you. Perhaps more important than anything else was the conquest by the Moors and the long campaign to drive them out. In 711 AD, these Arab-African invaders crossed the straights of Gibraltar. It took two decades for the Moorish expansion in Western Europe to be halted. A Frankish army under Charles Martel defeated the Moors at the Battle of Tours, but that didn’t help your ancestors; the invaders would enslave and subjugate Iberia for almost 800 years.

Over 8 centuries, a lot happens. There were times when the Moors could be described as benevolent overlords. At other times, the Moors were vicious, crushing their subjects underfoot with little remorse. But the desire for freedom remained through all of that, and eventually, there was the Reconquista. In 1492, the Portuguese and Spanish people finally managed to take back their countries.

A natural reaction might be anger or even hatred toward Arabs and Africans for perpetrating such an outrage on your ancestors. You might even think restitution is in order. That might be a natural reaction, but it is a bad one for a number of reasons:

1. These events happened a long time ago, and they didn’t happen to you. Sure, there is path dependence, and perhaps your circumstances would be very different had the Moors been less cruel, but that is conjecture and wishful thinking. What you deserve, morally, for the suffering of your ancestors is nothing. Absolutely nothing. For the same reason, I might add, you don’t owe anyone else for what happened to their ancestors either.

2. The people who invaded Spain and Portugal and oppressed your forebears are long since dead. Their descendants who were expelled to Africa in the decade or two beginning in 1492 bear no guilt. How could they?

3. 800 years is a long time. Time enough for the invaders and the invaded to mix and match a little bit. The Moors bred with the locals, sometimes by force and sometimes with consent. As a result, there may even be a touch of Moor, however diluted, in your gene pool. It doesn’t show up in the tests your Mom took, but that may well be due to imprecision of the current commercially available technology.

4. In the same way, some Africans today have Iberian genes. Perhaps more than you do, in fact.

5. The sad fact is, we are all, with the possible (but extremely unlikely) exception of the San, descended from oppressors and invaders. And we know one thing with certainty: your ancestors gave better than they got. This is self-evident from the fact that you are here and an uncountable number of bloodlines were wiped out.

As a result, the wise thing to do is to treat everyone with the same respect, at least until they prove they don’t deserve it. But not everyone has wisdom. Sleights perpetrated against their forebears motivate a lot of people. Making matters worse, one person’s oppression is another person’s heroism. For instance, Osama bin Laden, whom you will one day study in a history class, talked frequently about reclaiming Al-Andaluz (i.e., the Iberian Peninsula). To him, the Moors were conquering heroes spreading the One True Faith, and their expulsion was an injustice that must be avenged.

So while you should treat everyone the same at first, try to develop the ability to tell if a person feels the same way. Be very, very wary of those who carry around the past like a crutch or a club. Some of them are dangerous. Most will accomplish nothing, and the reasons for it will generally lie close to home. But people don’t easily accept mediocrity, especially when it is self-induced. People like that will blame you for their failure. These people don’t respect themselves, and they certainly don’t deserve respect from you.



There are limits to the analogy between Clinton’s 2008 primary contest with Obama and Sanders’s primary contest now with her. Clinton doesn’t get that. But she needs to figure it out because the differences matter.

We got to the end in June, and I did not put down conditions. I didn’t say, ‘you know what, if Senator Obama does X, Y, and Z, maybe I’ll support him.’ I said, ‘I’m supporting Senator Obama, because no matter what our differences might be, they pale in comparison to the differences between us and Republicans.’ That’s what I did.

At that time, 40 percent of my supporters said they would not support him. So from the time I withdrew, until the time I nominated him — I nominated him at the convention in Denver — I spent an enormous amount of time convincing my supporters to support him. And I’m happy to say the vast majority did. That’s certainly what I did and I hope that we will see the same this year.

— Hillary Clinton, at an MSNBC town hall-style event, Apr. 21

That is true.  Six days after she lost the California primary to Obama in early June 2008 she made a gracious speech strongly endorsing Obama and urging her supporters to support him, and repeated it in a primetime speech at the Convention.

Which almost certainly is what Sanders will do, almost exactly.  But what he also will do is attempt to play a role in the drafting of the party platform.  And when he endorses Clinton and then campaigns for her he will point out both that Trump’s actual fiscal-policy and healthcare policy proposals, published on his website, are geared toward gaining favor with the Republican Party elite, especially the donors who have been (very) effectively financing the so-called think tanks that draft and dictate Republican Party dogma and have been doing so for several decades now.

And Sanders also will remind the public that he remains a senator, as does Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown and three or four others–among them now Chris Murphy of Connecticut, he made clear a day or two ago in an eloquent statement–who comprise the Senate’s contingent of what’s often referred to as the Warren wing of the Party.

Which is why it is so off-base, so missing the point, for Clinton and many pundits to claim that Sanders’s primary campaign and his decision to remain an active candidate seeking additional elected delegates in the remaining primary and caucus states endanger Clinton’s, and the down-ballot candidates’, chances in the general election.  Because of critical distinctions between the nature of Obama-vs.-Clinton in 2008 and Clinton-vs.-Sanders now, the very opposite is likely true: There were few significant distinctions between Obama’s and Clinton’s domestic-policy proposals, but fairly large distinctions between some of Clinton’s and some of Sanders’.

The main policy distinction between Clinton and Obama in 2008 was on foreign policy. Clinton as a senator had voted in favor of the Iraq war authorization.  Obama, not yet a member of Congress, nonetheless had publicly voiced opposition to it.  The virulently angry Clinton supporters—the 40 percent of her backers who, if the poll she referenced was accurate, thought in June 2008 that they would not vote for Obama that November—almost certainly were mostly middle-aged women, many of them upscale career women like her, and older women, who were angry at Obama for halting the road to the presidency for a woman.  They were not, suffice it to say, pro-Iraq war voters; instead, for them the chance to see woman elected president was paramount. Policy differences, such as they were between two candidates, were secondary.

As Paul Krugman often reminds, the key domestic policy difference between Obama and Clinton was Clinton’s support of an individual mandate to obtain healthcare insurance as a key part of her detailed healthcare-insurance proposal, and Obama’s rather craven opposition to the mandate in his own proposal.  As someone who supported John Edwards in 2008 until it became clear that the race was between Clinton and Obama, but who remembers well that it was Edwards who brought healthcare insurance into the primary contest, proposing a plan that Clinton quickly adopted almost in full as her own because Edwards was gaining media and voter admiration for making it an issue—and who was not pleased that Obama needed to be prodded to propose his own plan and then proposed one that clearly was weaker than Edwards’s and Clinton’s—I seriously considered switching my allegiance to Clinton rather than to Obama.

The deciding factor for me then in choosing Obama?  That I didn’t want another triangulator as a Democratic president, and figured that while Clinton surely would be that, Obama only might be one.  He wasn’t particularly specific about most domestic-policy positions, something that annoyed ad concerned me.  But he was promising change.

Clinton fails at her own (rather large) risk to recognize the differences between the 2008 primary contest and this one, and why Sanders’ campaign is helping her own chances in the general election—a well as those of down-ballot candidates.  To illustrate the key differences between then and now, I’m selecting excerpts from two campaign reports, one by Baltimore Sun political reporters Kate Linthicum and Chris Megerian, from April 24, the other a lengthy Campaign Stops blog post by New York Times correspondent Emma Roller. Both reports are from

Linthicum and Megerian write from the campaign trail in Reading, PA:

In recent months, Bernie Sanders has transformed Dennis Brandau from a guy who hated politics into a first-time voter. On Tuesday, the 29-year-old line cook will proudly cast a ballot for the Vermont senator in Pennsylvania’s Democratic presidential primary.

But the bruising campaign this year also has turned Brandau into a fierce opponent of the Democratic front-runner, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He says he has a hard time imagining backing her this fall if she wins the nomination.

“I don’t know if I can vote for her,” Brandau said. “I don’t even want to hear her talk.”

Sanders’ chances of winning the nomination have dimmed since his 16-point loss to Clinton in last week’s New York primary. Polls show he faces an uphill race in several of the five Eastern states that vote on Tuesday, as well as in California’s June 7 primary.

Some of his supporters remain so steadfast, however, that a #BernieOrBust movement has picked up momentum on Twitter. So has an online pledge for supporters who vow to vote for Sanders as a write-in candidate if he loses the nomination.

Roller reports, also from Reading:

KEITH MANDICH had been to this theater before, to see John Mellencamp.

Now Mr. Mandich, a retired steelworker, was back in downtown Reading, Pa., to see another guy he thought of as a hero for working-­class America: Senator Bernie Sanders.

In his bid for the Democratic nomination, Mr. Sanders has nurtured vocal support from young, college-­educated liberals. But he also has fervent support from people who remember the era of well­-paying union jobs at manufacturing plants — and who are very aware of how far we are from that time.

“I just like Bernie because he’s old like me,” joked Mack Richards, 70, another retired steelworker at the Reading event. Pennsylvania is among the five states holding a primary on Tuesday, and it has the most delegates at stake. Since neither party has locked up its nominee yet, the state’s white working­class voters have more of a voice in the primary process than they have had in years past. In 2008, they were considered Biden voters — the white working-­class denizens of Scranton, Pa., and places like it — whom Joe Biden, Scranton’s own, was supposed to win over for Barack Obama.

This time around, the fight for these voters has focused significantly on a somewhat unlikely contender for juiciest campaign issue: international trade deals and their repercussions.

Any presidential candidate on the stump knows how to work a good metaphor into a speech, and Mr. Sanders knew to use the very ZIP code he was rallying in.

“In many ways, what is happening here in Reading, what has happened over the last several decades, is kind of a metaphor for what’s happening all over this country,” Mr. Sanders told the crowd. “We have seen a city which once had thousands of excellent-­paying jobs lose those jobs because of disastrous trade policies.”

He went on to list corporations, including the Dana Corporation, that had shut down plants in Reading and moved overseas. Mr. Mandich, the Sanders supporter and Mellencamp fan, said that he was laid off from his job at the Dana Corporation, which manufactured automobile frames, when the company closed its Reading plant in 2000. The Dana Corporation was one of the companies that supported the Clinton administration’s effort to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement, which activists and liberal economists argue did more harm than good to the United States economy.

Kevin Wright, a high school physics teacher in line to see Mr. Sanders, saw parallels between the populism on the left and similar sentiments on the right. “We’re the response to the Tea Party,” he said.

His sister, standing next to him, laughed nervously. “Careful!” she warned.

“The Tea Party has taken over the Republican Party,” Mr. Wright continued. “I think our movement’s stronger, and has more numbers, and is more rational and grounded in reality. And you can see that just based on the people here.”

The crowd in Reading skewed a bit older than a typical Sanders rally — possibly because it took place on a weekday afternoon. Fritz Von Hummel, 55, a self­-employed appliance technician who was laid off from his previous job in November, canceled a couple of appointments to come to the event. He said he had not had health insurance for the past seven years because he could not afford it, and he was eager to talk about the shortcomings of President Obama’s signature health care law.

“I’m just furious with the situation the way it is,” he added.

Roller went on to report from a Trump rally a few miles away.  Some of the people she spoke with there echoed refrains similar to those of the Sanders’ supporters.  Here article is titled “CAMPAIGN STOPS: Pennsylvania, Where Everyone Is ‘Furious’.”  The Linthicum and Megerian piece is titled “Voters’ ‘Bernie or Bust’ efforts persist despite Sanders’ vow not to be another Ralph Nader.”

I myself think there’s little danger that most millennials like Dennis Brandau and perhaps-millennials but anyway youngish Sanders supporters like Kevin Wright and his sister won’t ultimately vote for Clinton.  I think they’re more likely to fear Trump than the middle-aged and elderly working-class Sanders supporters.  And I think that thanks in part to social media, they’re more likely to know or learn before November, simply from their web use, that Trump’s fiscal-policy platform is drafted by standard-issue Republican operatives, borrowing from Republican lobbyists and the Club for Growth/Koch brothers’ think-tank-payroll folks.

I think this is so even though Clinton effectively wrapped up the nomination by winning by 16 points in the New York primary in which only those who were registered as Democrats by early October 2015 were able to vote in that primary, and large percentages of young and younger New Yorkers were independents.  Clinton, understandably, doesn’t mention that publicly.  But it is a fact.

And what about the middle-aged one-time factory workers who support Sanders now?  And the middle-class white collar workers whose kids will borrow, or have borrowed, large amounts in student loans?  What about those who pay high healthcare premiums with out-of-pocket expenses that to Clinton may seem negligible but seem less so to the ones who pay these?

These are not people who are livid that Clinton is keeping a Jewish 74-year-old male from gaining the nomination.  They are people who care, deeply, about the policy differences between the two candidates.  And I’m pretty sure that many of them care, as I do, that Clinton keeps feigning ignorance about what people mean when they use the phrase “the establishment.”  And that Clinton has campaigned against Sanders largely using a playbook seemingly co-opted from a used-car-salesman sales manual, pre-lemon-laws.

I myself harbor not so much as a second of doubt that I will vote for president in November, and about whom I vote for.  It will not be the Republican nominee.  And I absolutely know that I will be joined in that by many, many millions of Sanders primary supporters.

And I dearly hope that Sanders will follow the playbook I say above that I expect him to.

And I will say this: Far from hurting down-ballot candidates’ fundraising chances for the general election, those of us who have contributed to Sanders’ campaign—we’ve done so through—will continue to receive, as we already have, ActBlue’s solicitations for contributions to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.  We’ll click the buttons and fill in the blanks, like we have done for Bernie Sanders.  We’ll do so upon our own accord, and also at Bernie Sanders’s urging.  We will be reminded that the Warren wing, the Sanders wing, of the Democratic Party badly needs to grow.  Into a majority in Congress.

Turns out that millennials already have figured this out, according to dramatic results of a newly released poll taken by the Harvard Institute of Politics.  And many progressive older folks know this, too.  At least those who aren’t New York Times op-ed columnists or the like.


ADDENDUM: Just want to add that once Trump chooses Scott Walker as his running mate–he seriously seems headed in that direction, and recently hired Walker’s campaign manager as his campaign’s deputy director or something–the Dems’ problems will take care of themselves, thank you very much.

Added 4/27 at 4:29 p.m.

Distributional Differences Between McCain’s v. Obama’s Tax Proposals: Charles Barkley is a Lot Smarter than Wolf Blitzer

ThinkProgress shows the Wolf interviewing Charles Barkley:

In an interview with former NBA star Charles Barkley today, CNN host Wolf Blitzer discussed the respective tax plans being offered by Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain. This is the on-screen graphic that CNN displayed during the interview, which the network represented as the “average tax bill change”

CNN graphic shows that if you make more than $160,000 a year, the McCain tax proposal gives you a lower tax bill than Obama’s proposal. For the other 95% of the US population, one has to turn to the analysis provided by ThinkProgress. While Charles Barkley was a great basketball player, I have no clue why CNN thought he was some sort of expert on this issue. But even he knew CNN’s graphic was addressing only the impact on the very rich:

Well, I think that if you’re rich — I thank God I’ve been very successful — if you’re rich, you’re always going to be rich. If we pay more in taxes, I got no problem with that. If you’re making that kind of money, a couple hundred thousand dollars here or there are not going to change your life. Let’s be realistic. I’ve been very fortunate and blessed. I did a great job of saving my money. But I got no problem if I’m making that type of money, paying more in taxes to be honest with you.

I think this is where Brad DeLong would plea for a better press corps. Maybe CNN should fire the Wolf and hire Charles Barkley.

Responding to incentives; Notes on Canadian Provincial Differences

The first thing my uncle (who has lived in the Toronto area since, I believe, the late 1950s) asked was “Why on earth are you going to Quebec instead of Ontario?”

Considering the evidence, he may have a point.

  1. Comparison of Licence Plate mottos:
    1. Quebec Province: Je me souviens (which I would translate to “I found myself”)
    2. Ontario Province: “Yours to discover.”

    The second is inviting; the first seems insular.

  2. Possible answers to “religion” when filing paperwork with the English School Board of Montreal*:
    1. Catholic
    2. Protestant
    3. Other
    4. None

    G. K. Chesterton would be comfortable; I started to feel as if I was in the world of the opening scene of Jo Walton’s Ha’Penny, where the producer notes that he isn’t permitted to discuss Jewish actors.

  3. Options for public (U.S. definition) elementary schooling of children in Quebec if parents’s are not Canadian citizens:
    1. English Core Program (68% English-language instruction, 32% French-language instruction)
    2. Bilingual Program (50% English, 50% French)
    3. French Immersion Program (68% French, 32% English)


  4. Options for public (U.S. definition) elementary schooling of children in Quebec if parents’s are (or become) Canadian citizens
    1. French Immersion Program (68% French, 32% English)

Based on the evidence, my uncle may have been correct. Am I already a failed economist?

*Iirc, this is in order, though the first two may well be reversed.

Presidential differences and time lags to policy effects

Cactus states from last year that:

Some readers have said that one cannot read much into the results of all these series, that they do not, in fact, show that Democrats do a better job at these measures than Republicans. These readers tend to want to vote Republican, and they insist that most of a President’s policies have long lag times, so their effects may not even show while a President is in office.

And to some extent, they’re right. For instance, to use a little publicized piece of policy… when GW (temporarily) retired the 30 year bond in 2001, he in effect prevented the country from locking in the very, very low rates that prevailed until the 30 year bond was reinstated. This will result in higher interest payments, probably for decades to come. Similarly, abstinence only programs – children not having the benefit of sex ed are likely to have unexpected and unwanted pregnancies with allthe problems that entails, including abortions, as much as 30 years later.

But most of a President’s policies have a much more immediate effect. And most people who insist on the long lag explanation believe that too – most of them are quick to credit the performance of the economy in the last few years (though, I would imagine, not in the last quarter) to the President’s tax cuts in 2003. And they are quick to credit Reagan for turning the country around – early in the Reagan administration, not during the GHW administration. (Though if one reads the National Review or Clown Hall, one can sometimes find examples where they credit Reagan for everything good that happened in the Clinton years.)

Furthermore, I’ve had posts looking at the correlation between deficit spending and growth, and between taxes and growth. The correlations are there, and they kick in very quickly.

But in the end, the big problem with the lag theory is that the length of the lag magically changes. If Republicans are responsible for the growth during Democratic admnistrations, and vice versa, how do we account for the poor performance of GHW in almost every measure? Did Reagan’s virtues only begin to kick in 4 years after he left office? And why didn’t that happen with Ike, or Nixon/Ford, both of whom were followed by Presidents that outperformed them on most measures?

Similarly, if Reagan had to struggle to build things up after Carter… why did GHW have the same struggle? And if it took Carter only four years to screw things up, why wasn’t that true of the other Democratic administrations? Why didn’t things hit the proverbial fan from 1965 to 1968, or from 1996 to 2000?

And then there is one other problem. To which President would the lag proponents credit the performance during the Reagan administration? Carter? Nixon & Ford? Or does it go back farther, to LBJ? I think none of the above. They will tell you that Reagan was the one that made things the way they were in the Reagan administration, at least the good thing. (I’ve seen the Reagan deficits blamed on Congress many a time.)

I don’t buy the lag story at all. If the data shows that things generally went better in Democratic administrations, its either because God doesn’t like it when we vote Republican, or because Democratic Presidents have followed better policies. Take your pick.

The Current Account Deficit and Dark Matter: Market to Book Differences or Transfer Pricing

Via Brad Setser comes U.S. AND GLOBAL IMBALANCES: CAN DARK MATTER PREVENT A BIG BANG? by Ricardo Hausmann and Federico Sturzenegger:

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) indicates that in 1980 the US had about 365 billion dollars of net foreign assets (that is the difference between the foreign assets owned abroad and the local assets owned by foreigners). These assets rendered a net return of about 30 billion dollars. Between 1980 and 2004, the US accumulated a current account deficit of 4.5 trillion dollars. You would expect the net foreign assets of the US to fall by that amount, to say, minus 4.1 trillion. If it paid 5 percent on that debt, the net return on its financial position should have moved from a surplus of 30 billion in 1982 to minus 210 billion dollars a year in 2004. Right? After all, debtors need to service their debt. So let’s look at how much is the actual return on the US net financial position. The number for 2004 is, yes, you’ve guessed it, still a positive 30 billion, just like in 1982! The US has spent 4.5 trillion dollars more than it has earned (which is what the cumulative current account deficit implies) for free! How could this be? Here the official story becomes murky. Part of the answer is that the US benefited from about 1.6 trillion dollars of net capital gains so that instead of owing 4.1 trillion, it owes “only” 2.5 trillion (which, at best, cuts the puzzle in half, leaving a whole other half to be explained). The other part of the official answer is that the US earns a higher return on its holdings of foreign assets than it pays to foreigners on its liabilities.

A nice statement of the puzzle, which they explain thusly:

We start by assuming that if an asset consistently pays more than another asset, then it is worth more, even if they both have the same historical cost or “book value”. We choose to value the assets on the basis of their returns … We know that the US net income on its financial portfolio is 30 billion dollars. This is a 5 percent return on an asset of 600 billion dollars. So we would say that the US is a net creditor to the tune of 600 billion dollars or about 5 percent of its GDP. Since
the income flow has remained fairly stable over the last 25 years, we would say that so have the US net foreign assets.

Brad seems to have a commentary in store based on our posts here and here. And yes, Brad is thinking about transfer pricing manipulation. But consider the EuroDisney example offered by Hausmann and Sturzenegger where they note that U.S. created intellectual property is generating a lot of income in France. While this income is counted in U.S. GNP, the actual recognition of this income per the GDP accounts for the U.S. and France depends on Disney’s intercompany pricing policy. While the IRS might rightfully argue that this income be counted on the financials of the U.S. parent, the French tax authorities might convince Disney to leave much of it on the financials of the French subsidiary. If the French tax authorities prevail, the net income from abroad accounting that Hausmann and Sturzenegger rely upon for their valuation exercise is distorted. As Brad has his thinking cap on, I eagerly await his contribution to this discussion.

Highlighting Philosophical Differences

Yet another thing that Katrina has done this week is to highlight some stark differences in what people believe about the world and the appropriate role for government.

That’s because Katrina has grimly reminded us of this fact of life: sometimes bad things happen to good people, through no fault of their own. Sometimes people just get unlucky.

Liberal versus Conservative Beliefs About the World

Liberals like me tend to believe that when that happens, our society as a whole will be better off if the rest of us try to help out those individuals who have suffered from circumstance. This doesn’t mean that we think that we can elimninate suffering, or ensure that nothing bad ever happens, or that we should insulate individuals from the consequences of their own actions. But when things outside of an individual’s control devastates their life, we think that it is compassionate and good and just – and even in our own enlightened self-interest – to help out.

Most conservatives, on the other hand, tend to believe that society should play a relatively small role in helping people when they’re down – the primary responsibility for recovery from bad times rests with the individual and his or her family, not with society in a broader sense. Perhaps this difference largely springs from the presumption of many conservatives that if an individual is experiencing bad times, it is probably largely a consequence of their own actions, and that they should have to bear full responsibility for their poor choices.

So if I had to encapsulate in a few words why I describe myself as a liberal, I would simply say this: I believe in bad luck. I think that a huge number of the forces that affect most people’s lives are outside of their control – the parents that they were born to, the quality of their local educational opportunities, the management of the company that they happen to work for, the fortunes of the city or town in which they happen to live, or the industry in which they happen to find work – and that individuals who suffer from a bad family, poor education, being laid off, or a hurricaine, should not be left to live with the consequences of their plain bad luck without help from society at large.

Why Government?

If you believe society should help out those who’ve drawn a bad lot, one might still wonder why the responsibility for giving them a helping hand should belong to the government, rather than private individuals.

The reason for this actually goes back to economic theory. One powerful insight that every first-year economics microeconomics student learns is that when something has a positive externality, or is a public good, the provision of that public good by private individuals will be less than each of those individuals would like. The problem is that such goods suffer from the free-rider problem. In such cases, society is unambiguously better off if the government provides the public good.

Taking care of society’s hard-luck cases is just such a public good. If you help out someone who’s suffering through no fault of their own, then I benefit, even if I haven’t contributed toward helping that person in any way. Our society is made more fair and just and more stable, and I will be able to rest slightly more easy knowing that if it is my turn to suffer the bad luck next time, you have demonstrated that you will help me out. In fact, everyone in society will benefit from your good works, even though they didn’t contribute. And so each of us, even those of us who think that it’s a good idea to help society’s bad-luck individuals, will have a strong incentive to be a free-rider. The result will be an under-provision of good deeds.

The solution is simple, however: let the government take over that responsibility. That way none of us will free-ride, the provision of help will be increased to its appropriate level, and we will all be better off.

In Practice

So what does this mean in practice? It means that liberals support government policies that provide help to those who have suffered from the powerful forces that buffet each of our lives but are outside of our control. As I said, that doesn’t mean that liberals want to try to completely insulate everyone from anything bad ever happening… just that when bad stuff happens that individuals have no control over, we think the government should help out a bit.

Most policy differences between Conservatives and Liberals can be seen in this light. This difference explains why:

  • Liberals believe in a strong and well-run national government that has the resources and organization to provide effective help to the victims of disasters such as Katrina. Conservatives have planned and executed the down-sizing of such federal government responsibilities.
  • Liberals disagree with the new bankruptcy law, which has made it financially much harder on individuals who go bankrupt, since we recognize that the vast majority of bankruptcies are due to plain bad luck – job loss or medical emergencies, in particular. Thus we think that individuals who face these personal disasters should receive some shelter from the corporations to whom they owe money. Conservatives apparently believe that the corporations need more financial protection than the hard-luck individual.
  • Liberals think that government provision of a good education to all people is an important way to help take care of those individuals who happen to be born to the wrong parents or in the wrong part of town. Conservatives tend to believe that education should be more up to the private sector and the private choices of parents, regardless of the fact that many parents do not have the means or inclination to provide a good education for their children.
  • Liberals think that the government has an important responsibility in assuring access to health care for all people, whether they are rich or poor, as a way of assuring that all of us will receive the medical help that we need when tragedy strikes. Conservatives tend to think that the government should have a minimal role in health care – if you are faced with medical bad luck, you should deal with it on your own.
  • Liberals believe strongly in progressive taxation, which provides a subtle redistribution of income toward those members of society who have suffered from a bad draw in life. Conservatives tend to advocate flat taxes, or minimal taxes, both of which minimize the progressive nature of the tax system.
  • Liberals believe in helping people who are laid off from their job, recognizing that this is typically due to mismanagement or broader industry trends, not due to the failings of the individual worker. Conservatives tend to believe that when a family suffers financially from a job loss, nearly all of the burden of coping with that loss should fall on that family.
  • Liberals believe in the social safety net more generally, for example to provide a guaranteed income to the elderly in the form of a stable and sure Social Security system, so that all of our senior citizens can count on a certain income level regardless of the luck that they face. Conservatives want to have the welfare of the elderly depend more on their good or bad choices, and – more realistically – their good or bad luck.

I could go on with this list, but I’m sure that you can fill in additional items yourself. My point is that nearly all policy divides between liberals and conservatives contain a strong element of the philosophical divide that I described above: that liberals tend to believe that people often suffer due to forces outside of their control, and that when that happens the government should help out; while conservatives think that the government should play a minimal role in helping those who have fallen on hard times.

Katrina provides a horrible but effective illustration of this difference in action.


Cuba’s Covid Vaccines Proceed even with US Sanctions

Hit by “renewed” US sanctions (The Guardian) under trump and a Covid pandemic, Cuba is enduring an economic crisis. Pharmacy shelves are empty, people stand in line for hours to buy chicken, and bread is scarce and hard to find. May 6th Cuba reported 1,060 cases totaling 112,714. Another seven deaths occurred bringing the total to 701.

Even as the island nation is under a political siege and suffering from Covid, Cuba is the smallest country in the world to successfully develop its own coronavirus vaccines. Of the 27 coronavirus vaccines in final phase 3 clinical trials around the world, two are of Cuban (NYT) origin.


Cuba’s Finlay Vaccine Institute developed a vaccine known as Soberana 2.

Soberana which means “Sovereign” in Spanish is a Conjugate vaccine. It is the second version of the Soberana vaccines. To make the vaccine, a weak antigen is combined with a stronger antigen as the carrier. The immune system has a stronger response to the weak antigen containing a part of the coronavirus spike protein fused to a standard tetanus vaccine to make it stable and aluminum hydroxide as an adjuvant to boost the immune system.

Getting a Public Option and Who is Resisting It

Want a Public Option? Not So Fast, Say Health Insurers. Guess Who is Fighting It!

Much of this is about an Op-Ed at MedPage Today authored by Wendel Potter. I have added to it as Wendel discusses the impact of insurance as a major influence on healthcare cost. It is one sided and the commentary ignores increased healthcare costs (pharma, hospitals, healthcare supplies, and doctors). I have touched upon both at MedPage Today and here.

The nation’s largest healthcare insurers are making it clear to lawmakers of their opposition to campaign promises to establish a public optionin two states. Insurers are threating the elected lawmakers with a massive, financed lobbying and PR campaign if they try to pass a Public Option. In other words, the healthcare industry will lie to the public.

A Bit of Healthcare History Advocacy

I do not recall the minutia of the healthcare insurance campaign in the nineties’ however, this sounds like the threat of a similar campaign akin to what happened with Hillarycare and also the ACA. The healthcare insurance industry produced the infamous television the “Harry and Louise” commercial in an effort to rally public support against Hillarycare.

If the commercial was run today minus the voiceover (“The government may force us to pick from a few health care plans designed by government bureaucrats“), it would never occur to TV viewers Harry and Louise were talking about anyone other than their healthcare insurance company.

The Harry and Louise ad failed to recognize in a democracy, government was never supposed to be a “we and they” proposition. The ad made it such. The “we and they” relationship should have been between the patient and the healthcare insurer.

The healthcare insurance industry won in 1993 and we experienced a doubling of the costs of healthcare and similar increases in the insurance costs to pay for it.