Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Senate did the right thing–will the House?

by Linda Beale

Senate did the right thing–will the House?

Most are aware that online businesses have an unfair tax advantage. Under the 1992 Quill Supreme Court decision, states cannot currently require online retailers without physical presence in the state to collect applicable sales taxes. Although customers are supposed to save receipts and then pay over the appropriate amount of sales tax at the end of the year, nobody does. And they get away with not paying since it would be an onerous burden on states to assess those taxes without information from the onlines sellers. The result is that the tax-included price for merchandise purchased online is cheaper than for the same merchandise purchased in stores. So our tax system is essentially subsidizing the replacement of mom and pop small businesses with online giants. The mom and pop business often serves the online business in another way–for free: customers may go try on the merchandise at the local store, but then order online to get the cheaper (sales-tax-free) price.

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In the Short Run, We Are All Dead. At Least According to That New Oregon Medicaid Study.

Well, we AB types–readers and writers, alike–are familiar with John Maynard Keynes’s famous line that “In the long run, we are all dead.”  By which he either meant that economists, if they are to be useful, must try to predict and recommend short-term government policies that avoid or help end current, severe economic downturns, rather than just predicting long-term economic results, or instead he meant that since he was gay and had no children, he didn’t care about the long-term economy and wanted economic policy to concern itself only with the here-and-now and never with the long run.

It’s a fielder’s choice, if you ask me.  Which is why you shouldn’t ask me.  And you shouldn’t ask Niall Ferguson either.

Conveniently, in the very same week in which high-profile economists are debating what Keynes meant, we learned that a study of the effects of access to healthcare insurance (in that case, through Medicaid) shows that access to healthcare does not reduce cholesterol levels, blood pressure, or blood-sugar levels, over a two-year period among people who have elevated levels of one of another of these ailments and who were not previously receiving medical treatment for them because they had no insurance. At least it did not in Oregon, where the study took place, for the sampling involved.

The study is being widely interpreted as showing that healthcare insurance does not improve actual health, and has lead some people to suggest that this means that we should not have healthcare insurance at all, whether publicly or privately financed.

But that’s ridiculous. Or at least it’s insufficient as a response.  What the study obviously shows is not simply that we shouldn’t have healthcare insurance but that we shouldn’t have healthcare. We should not have medical care.  At all.  No doctors, no hospitals, no prescription drugs, no medical devices.  None of it.  We’re spending huge amounts of money on healthcare, and now we know that it doesn’t improve health!

In the long run, we are all dead.  And if you have no access to healthcare and have, say, a heart attack, a stroke, cancer, a diabetic coma, or a serious physical injury, you may well die without medical attention even if you would have lived if you’d had medical attention. In the long run, we are all dead, and in the short run those who have a life-threatening illness or injury and no access to medical care may be too, even if access to medical treatment might have lengthened that run quite a bit.*

So we need to end the medical-industrial complex, because, after all, how much difference is there, really, between the long run and the short run?  Lipitor, insulin, and blood pressure medications are okay, I guess, if you have nothing better to spend your money on.

But even if you don’t, why throw your money away on stuff like that, when those things don’t even improve your health?  And, as for the government and Medicaid, and Obamacare, and Medicare, and all that: Well, what’s that line about, families are tightening their belts, so the government should, too?

At least now we’ve finally found the way to stop healthcare inflation.  End healthcare itself.

*Paragraph rephrased and clarified after initial posting, to avoid possible misinterpretation.

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UPDATE:  This post, though obviously satire targeted at the rightwing’s conclusions about the study, also is intended to raise what seems to me a critical medical question that, to my knowledge, no one else has asked: Does the study indicate that the treatments for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and early-stage diabetes are ineffectual?

It may be that the diet recommendations given to these new Medicaid patients–less salt, low sugar, lower-cholesterol diets, respectively–weren’t adhered to by most of the patients.  Or it might mean that, once diagnosed with one or another of these illnesses, those in the study who did not get Medicaid nonetheless changed their diet somewhat in light of the diagnosis.  Or it might mean that the medications that were prescribed for the Medicaid recipients who did obtain medical treatment are less effective than thought–which strikes me as something that should have been the headline takeaway, but obviously was not.

If there’s some other possible meaning to the study’s results, what is it?  Seriously.  If these treatments are medically ineffective, isn’t that something that the public should be told?  And if the treatments are effective in the general population, then why would these very same treatments–specifically, the medications–not work with the Medicaid recipients in the study? And, why aren’t these the questions that the pundits are asking?

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Is Margaret Thatcher Responsible for Silicon Valley, As David Brooks Claimed Recently?

[T]he myth of the welfare state fostering a lazy citizenry just doesn’t hold water. A group of small nations (combined population: about 25 million) that came up with Linux, Skype, Ikea, H&M, and Lego — to say nothing of well-written television shows and mystery novels, innovative designers and brilliant architects from Alvar Aalto to Bjarke Ingels — can’t be that lazy.

— George Blecher, participant in today’s New York Times’ Room for Debate discussion about Denmark’s welfare state, apparently the most generous in the Western world.

The New York Times has been running a sequence of pieces in the last month about Denmark’s uniquely generous public-welfare laws, a categorization that includes tax laws and spending programs that apply to all that country’s citizens, not just certain economic classes of citizens.  I hadn’t read the articles until today, when the Times made them (and their subject) the topic of its Room for Debate discussion.

Which reminded me that last month, in a column paying his respects to Margaret Thatcher after she died, David Brooks attributed the existence of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and all those other successful Silicon Valley companies started since the Thatcher/Reagan revolution began, to … Margaret Thatcher.  To whom he expressed gratitude for saving the Western democracies from adopting Swedish-style welfare-state policies, and–he said, in his trademark unexplained ergo-conclusory-declaration fashion–therefore preventing the end of technological innovation of the Silicon Valley variety.

Yes, Brooks really made that claim, if I understood him correctly.  And I think I did.

My immediate reaction upon reading that column was: Well, maybe some other prominent journalist will pick up that gauntlet and go right to the horses’ mouths, and ask some of these tech innovators whether a few of those Swedish-style benefits would in fact have caused them to forego inventing what they invented, and starting their startups or continuing to innovate and invent through their ongoing companies.

Steve Jobs is gone, so he can’t be asked whether he would have ditched the idea for the iPhone a decade ago, had this country had universal single-payer healthcare insurance, access to quality preschools, and guaranteed decent pensions.  But still alive and active are Andy Grove, Bill Gates, Marc Andreessen, Jerry Yang, David Filo, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Sean Parker, Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, Kevin Systrom, Mike Krieger, and almost all of the inventors of all those apps available to anyone with a computer or a smartphone.

Brooks could have asked a few of them before he made his claim, except that he, well, doesn’t do fact vetting before he makes representations of fact. He just uses his perch as a tenured New York Times columnist to make ever-more-outlandish declarations of what he represents as fact. And receives a huge salary, as per his unquestioningly-renewed contracts.  At a time when his own paper, and most others that continue to practice this pundit-star brand of commentary journalism, are dramatically reducing or outright decimating their actual newsroom staffs, because of severely declining revenues.

I keep wondering whether these folks actually bring in substantial revenues, or whether instead they simply continue indefinitely because, y’know, that’s they way it’s always been.  If the latter, it shouldn’t matter any more than that having good-sized staffs of actual professional reporters and editors was the way it had always been, too, at most mainstream newspapers–until it no longer was.  So, why does it, if it does?

Brooks’ Thatcher-Saved-Us-From-the Fate-of-Sweden column was titled “The Vigorous Virtues.” A headline writer, not Brooks himself, titled the column.  The headline writer, a journalist who had enough vigor to read the column and enough virtue to sum up its claim accurately–and who as of a month ago remained employed at the Times albeit at a salary surely a small fraction of Brooks’s–might also have some refreshing takes on government fiscal policies. Thoughts that aren’t mindless statements of ideology transparently masquerading as fact.  But no matter.  He or she, after all, is not a star.

Much better to have Brooks, who is one, reiterate generically yet again that central and northern Europe are innovation wastelands than to require tangible fact as foundation for declarations inferentially based upon supposed fact. There is a difference between opinion and fact (actual fact and false fact, both), although you can routinely switch out opinion for false fact if you’re a big-name pundit under recurring contract with a big-name media organization.

Poetic license is fine when limited to art, but when published in the New York Times as fact–and these statements, by their nature, are, notwithstanding that they’re made in op-ed pieces–they should come with an explicit disclaimer.  They really should.

—–

UPDATE: Reader Jack posted a comment saying:

Why do intelligent people waste their time and attention discussing anything about David Brooks. Look in the dictionary under either toady or sycophant and you will likely find a picture of Mr. Brooks. As to why he is paid by the NY Times, or any other media company, to regurgitate his gruel? I can only suggest that is easily controlled by those who sign the checks and will produce what he is directed to do so.

I wasn’t sure he was referring to me, since he did specifically reference intelligent people, but I responded nonetheless, explaining:

My intended point wasn’t just about Brooks, or even just about the NYT, Jack. It was about these venerable media companies.  Their finances are really stretched, and they keep sacrificing actual news gathering by relentlessly cutting reportorial and editorial staff.  Yet they keep these big-name pundits under contract, paying them outsized compensation, without giving any apparent thought to whether these people, as individuals, often say anything enlightening or informative.  Mostly, their columns read like Facebook pages.

This isn’t to say that any of these people never has anything insightful or genuinely informative to say.  Thomas Friedman, for example, after years of writing columns that were so clearly just “phoned in” thoughtlessly, became a joke; people started doing hilarious parodies of his columns.  But he’s an actual expert on something important–the Middle East–and his columns on that subject are worth reading because they do provide information and some semblance of insight on that topic, irrespective of whether the actual opinion he advances in one or another column, based on that specialized knowledge, is convincing.

And I do NOT mean to suggest that it is a matter of the age or generation of the columnist.  By far the most important pundit right now is Paul Krugman, because of WHAT he writes, based on his extensive specialized knowledge coupled with his his political leanings. Former Slate writer Tim Noah, who wrote a well-received book called “The Great Divergence,” on the reasons for the rapidly escalating inequality in this country, and to a much lesser extent in Western Europe, detailing his own extensive research for the book, is in his mid-50s.  He was fired recently from the New Republic.  He’s a thoughtful analyst of important socioeconomic issues, and I’d love to see him write periodically for the Times.  He’s unemployed now probably because of his age, yet Brooks and Ron Fournier, both of them baby boomers, have regular gigs and get actual attention–lots of it, apparently–for the truly mindless things they keep saying and saying and saying.

There just doesn’t seem to be any filter through which the people who run these media entities sift what–actually, who–they publish in their oped pages.  It appears to be on autopilot.

I do think the issue of whose political and economic commentary gets fairly widespread attention is important.

 

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Ron Fournier Says Abraham Lincoln Wasn’t a Great President

Great presidents rise above circumstance. Not Obama, at least not yet. At a news conference Tuesday marking the 100th day of his second and final term, the president seemed unwilling or unable to overcome stubborn GOP opposition.

— Ron Fournier, National Journal, yesterday (h/t Jonathan Chait, New York magazine, today)

Fournier’s right, of course. About Abraham Lincoln, that is.  Lincoln was unwilling or unable to overcome stubborn Southern opposition to his agenda of ending slavery and keeping the Union whole.

Personally, I think it was the former.  Unless you count that declaration-of-war thing.  Although if you do, then you also have to count that victory at Appomattox.  Which would mean Lincoln was able to overcome stubborn Southern opposition to his agenda of ending slavery and keeping the Union whole, after all.  And that would mean that he must have been willing to do so, unless that victory was an accident.

Although, under the new definition of the word leadership, that kind of thing doesn’t count, because persuasion just didn’t work in that case.

Take me to your leader, Mr. Fournier.  Once you find one who isn’t a hypnotist or the head of a parliamentarian government. Unless, of course, by rising above circumstance, you mean military coup de tat.

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Key phrase to remember

Lifted from an article in the NYT. In the heat of media debates certain fundamental narratives get lost regarding the tools we use to evaluate policies. Pre-occupation with unemplayment is one of them. While familiar to readers of Angry Bear, it bears reminding ourselves that while ‘economics’ attempts to figure out how the economy works, the heart of our policy and polity can take various forms. This one seemed apt.

…if declines in the unemployment rate are not matched by a rising employment rate.

“We do not want to get to 6.5 percent just by having people pull out of the labor force,” Mr. Rosengren of the Boston Fed said. “We want to get to 6.5 because employment is expanding and we’re adding jobs faster than labor force growth.”

What would an ’employment rate ‘ look like?

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Who Do You Think Can ‘Do A Better Job of Handling’ Political Poll Semantics?

Dems hold small edge in Congressional ballot matchup: A new Quinnipiac poll finds that voters support the Dem candidate in their district over the Republican by 41-37. Sixty seven percent disapprove of the Congressional GOP, versus 60 percent who disapprove of Dems. Sixty two percent say Republicans don’t care about their needs and problems; 54 percent say that about Dems. Republicans hold a small edge on the deficit and gun policy.

— Greg Sargent, Washington Post, this morning

A longtime pet peeve of mine is that so many major political polling organizations routinely phrase policy-preference questions so that the question can mean two separate, often conflicting, things, yet the results of the poll questions are reported as though the question had only one, surely-understood, meaning.

And, first and foremost among that type of question is of the “which party is better on” guns/taxes/the deficit/fill-in-the-blanks variety.  These questions almost always actually are phrased to appear to be asking which party talks more about the particular issue, or seems to care more about the issue.  Yet inevitably the pollster’s PR release represents the poll-question result as indicating the poll respondents’ preference for that party’s policy, rather than the poll respondents’ perceptions of the respective parties’ level of interest in the subject, and the news media dutifully treats it that way.

So the result from a poll question, Question 19 in the Quinnipiac Poll, that asked, “Who do you think can do a better job of handling – the federal budget deficit, the Democrats in Congress or the Republicans in Congress?,” is reported by the polling organization as indicating that voters “prefer the Republicans on the budget deficit.”  The result from a question, Question 21, in that poll, that asked “Who do you think can do a better job of handling – gun policy, the Democrats in Congress or the Republicans in Congress?” is represented by the organization as showing that voters “prefer the Republicans on … gun policy.”

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Baucus Will Not Run in 2014 (yay!)

by Linda Beale

Baucus Will Not Run in 2014 (yay!)

Max Baucus announced to his fellow Senators today that he will not seek re-election to the Senate in 2014.  He has been the top Democrat on the Finance Committee since 2001.  See Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus Won’t Run Again in 2014, Bloomberg.net (Apr. 23, 2013).

As someone who thinks that Baucus has been a hindrance to progressive reform of the tax code and financial regulation, I must admit that I do not find his retirement a loss.  His chairmanship of the Finance Committee has been marked by a failure to understand the most important issues related to federal income and estate taxation and by adoption of positions that are too favorable to Big Money and Big Business (especially Big Banks).  He has been tone-deaf, in other words, to the class warfare waged by the right against the middle class and the resulting growth in inequality in the country that has been worsened by the current tax provisions that support redistribution upwards to the very wealthiest owners of financial assets and businesses.  In particular, he has failed to use his position to push for reasonable reform of the capital gains preference and the wealth-favoring versions of the estate tax passed by the Bush administration.  He has refused to consider a reasonable financial transactions tax. In fact, Baucus was too willing to go along with the initial passage of the Bush tax agenda in 2001-2004, and he did nothing to ensure that the Bush tax cuts would fade into oblivion on the sunset date.  In fact, he worked to make permanent almost all the Bush tax cuts and supported the corporate-friendly “extension” of the broad menu of corporate tax cut provisions (including a retroactive extension of the R&D credit, which cannot possibly serve the purpose it is claimed to serve when enacted retroactively).  The tradeoff provided only token items on the progressive menu.

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