Friday, July 31, 2009

How The Government Made Food Safe

I have to hand it to Reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward and her brief, to-the-point coverage of the House's passage of the New Food Safety Bill. Her headline says it all: "New Law Passed. Food Now Safe."

Yesterday the House passed a shiny new food safety bill, since the one we've been using dates from 1938 and it was all old-timey and stuff. The bill, which the Senate will take up in the fall, gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) a bunch of new inspection and tracking powers. Also, there's more funding for food safety research—because it's not like anyone else is out there trying to extend safe shelf life or otherwise prevent food-borne illness.

Upon passage, bill author Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) crowed (in a Washington Post print edition pull quote, no less):

"This will fundamentally change the way in which we ensure the safety of our food supply."

Which, when you stop and think about it, is a weird thing to hype. Not that our food will be safer—no promises there—but that we are totally going to all the bureaucratic stuff differently now. Ah, Washington.

As someone who's worked closely with many different folks in the food industry, there's a hell of a lot to be said about the utter ridiculousness of this bill and this entire process. To relay one secondhand story, a mid-sized food producer here in Connecticut attempted to try and see Connecticut's Third District Representative Rosa DeLauro with concerns about the bill. DeLauro, who just so happens to be the fairy godmother of this bill, didn't see the concerned parties herself, but her staff told the food producer that the bill was needed and their concerns weren't warranted. When queried for specifics, the staff couldn't give any, other than the bill was quite necessary. I'm probably screwing up a few of the details, but the gist was that DeLauro and her staff didn't know what they were talking about.

And it's not surprising. This bill isn't about food safety and it's not even about a bigger, more powerful government. This bill is specifically for those who think that government has the solution to all of our problems and gosh darn it, if we only let them do what they need to do, they can make the world better for all of us. This is about the "just fix it" attitude I've discussed in great detail here on this blog, where all of our problems can be solved if we just try hard enough.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Let's Put An End to Naomi Klein-style Nonsensical Rantings

Naomi Klein pleads, Let's put an end to Sarah Palin-style capitalism. And if you're in the dark as to what the hell that means after reading through the speech, you're probably not alone. I was lost when Klein tried to portray Palin's appearance on the political scene- weeks before the economic turn down reared it's ugly head- as a last grasp of "capitalism-as-usual."

Putting aside the nonsensical Sarah Palin reference, it's truly dishonest of the left to continue to connect the dots between free market capitalism and bailouts of any price tag. And it's just plain insulting to connect Sarah Plain with an intellectual tradition of free market capitalism that dates centuries back. But at what point does this rhetoric just collapse as the empty house of cards it really is? I mean really, Sarah-Palin-style capitalism? The worst part about Palin was the support she drew simply because the left disliked her and this is almost the same version of the left's demented mindset. Plain bad, capitalism bad, so let's lump them all together in the same big box of badness.

I have no respect for Klein, not because I disagree with what she says, but because she's never intellectually honest with her subject matter. She spent much of "The Shock Doctrine" smearing Milton Friedman, tenuously connecting the legendary free market economist with Pinochet's Chile and the Iraq War rather than actually attempting to refute any of Friedman's ideas about markets and government. If you want to argue for the end of capitalism, fine, that's what Marx did. But at least be honest about it and confront your opponents arguments honestly. Invoking Sarah Plain in regards to any serious economic discussion isn't intellectually honest, it's just cheap politics.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The moral case for health reform?

Ezra Klein asks, "What Happened To The Moral Case For Health-Care Reform?" and I was wondering the same thing myself, as the Obama administration has focused on making the economic argument, rather than the moral one.

Of course, this also raises the question of whether there's even still a moral debate to be had. More than 40 years after the creation of Medicaid, is there anyone out there arguing that the government shouldn't provide some form of assistance to the poor in regards to medical care? Isn't the big debate about economics- what form this gargantuan sector of the economy should take? And beyond that, aren't we talking about just who should be subsidized? The dirty little secret of health reform is that it's not about the poor at all. It's about the middle class, with those looking to have their middle class lifestyles subsidizes playing the victim to the young, uninsured villains who aren't contributing their "fair" share.

Real Health Reform

I've been ranting on the topic for so long now, I figured I might as well but some simple ideas down in permanent form. So what would I do to reform health care? These are just a few simple ideas.

1- Eliminate the tax benefits of employer-provided health insurance. Why not put everyone on the same footing in regards to health insurance, regardless of whether they receive their insurance as a job perk or whether they have to purchase it themselves.

2- On the state and federal level, drastically scale back mandates as to what insurance policies must cover. Let consumers working within a more vibrant market dictate costs and coverage.

3- Scrap Medicaid and replace it with a program similar to food stamps. Give the people who need it money to purchase their own health insurance and make their own health care decisions.

To those of you on the left, I hope you can see I'm not some radical anti-government type who would rather see poor people die on the street then have the government step in to help. I'm all for helping those that need it, but I don't see the need to trash our economy in the process. Rather than taking a system that's already far removed from free market forces and distorting those market signals even further, why not remove the barriers that are preventing a real market in health care from flourishing in the first place?

Monday, July 27, 2009

How Does That Work Again? (More Thoughts on the Incoherence of Health Reform)

From today's Times, "Reach of Subsidies Is Critical Issue For Health Plan." This is what caught my eye:

The Senate health committee bill says “coverage is defined to be unaffordable if the premium paid by an individual is greater than 12.5 percent” of the person’s adjusted gross income.

The major bills moving through Congress would set annual limits on out-of-pocket spending for co-payments, deductibles and similar charges. The limits would be $5,000 for an individual and $10,000 for a family under the House bill, and $5,800 and $11,600 under the Senate health committee bill.

Premiums are not counted against the limits. Nor are the extra charges that people often must pay when they go to doctors and hospitals outside an insurer’s network. People with insurance are often startled to find that they are responsible for thousands of dollars in such extra charges.

I admit to not having followed all the specifics of the various proposals for health reform before Congress, but is this really what we've come up with in terms of keeping costs for individuals down? The government saying, "hey, you can't charge that much?" A $5,000 annual max for out of pocket co-payments sounds oh-so-reasonable, as does a 12% cap on premiums in relation to your income, but what this amounts to is legislative cost shifting, where the healthy will be forced to subsidize the sick. Businesses always find ways to make money, no matter what government tries to do and that's exactly what will happen with health insurance. The insurance companies won't just eat those losses, they'll find some way to shift the costs on to their other customers.

If you're going to have the healthy subsidize the sick, why not just have the government do it directly. Why rely on these mammoth insurance companies as the middlemen?

The real problem with this entire package of health care reform are the contradictory goals of universal coverage and individual responsibility. Either you have a system where people pay relative to the care they need or you have a system where everyone pays the same, regardless of circumstances, but you can't have both. Imagine three single Americans, A and B, and C. A makes $100,000 a year, B makes $50,000, and C makers $30,000. A has a number of serious medical conditions and his medical costs are $40,000 a year. C's medical costs are $10,000 a year, while the very healthy B is only at $5,000. Fleshing out the numbers, you start to see some of the problems. In a system where the sick subsidize the poor, whether through a single payer system or through legislative mandates, B and C will be forced to subsidize the medical care of C, at one level or another. And when you put it this bluntly, it's hard to see how anyone would favor this sort of a system over one where those who can afford it are responsible for their own care.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


I'm having trouble accepting the premise of HBO's new series Hung as the show progresses this initial season. Thomas Jane's Ray Drecker has lost his home to a fire, lost his kids to his ex-wife, and lost his wallet to his first client, a crazed fashion consultant. Nearly at the end of this week's episode, Drecker has yet to service a paid client and he's still living in a tent in his backyard because he hasn't been able to repair his house. But here's the problem: Drecker is a high school history teacher and basketball coach and, apparently, according to his narration, is a former professional athlete. I can understand that the guy didn't have home owners insurance. But what I can't understand is how a guy that's got to be making at least 50k has to rely on charity to by a new support beam for his burned out roof and can't come up with 100 bucks for what the car wash fund can't cover. It just makes no damn sense and is a plot hole that keeps growing wider and wider. Maybe there's an explanation, like some sort of debt, but four episodes in, they haven't mentioned it yet.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

President Obama's Fear Mongering

Missed Obama's press conference tonight, but reading through the transcript I've got a few comments, or one comment really. From the press conference:

This is not just about the 47 million Americans who have no health insurance. Reform is about every American who has ever feared that they may lose their coverage if they become too sick, or lose their job, or change their job. It's about every small business that has been forced to lay off employees or cut back on their coverage because it became too expensive. And it's about the fact that the biggest driving force behind our federal deficit is the skyrocketing cost of Medicare and Medicaid.

So let me be clear: if we do not control these costs, we will not be able to control our deficit. If we do not reform health care, your premiums and out-of-pocket costs will continue to skyrocket. If we do not act, 14,000 Americans will continue to lose their health insurance every single day. These are the consequences of inaction. These are the stakes of the debate we're having right now.

Soooooo ..... 14,000 Americans loosing their health insurance daily, while costs skyrocket, all unless the government does something now. Just being completely logical and honest, how can anyone say that statement makes any sense whatsoever. I mean really ... is health care really just going to become unaffordable for the middle class? No one but the wealthy will be able to afford to go to a doctor? It makes no sense because that's not how markets work. If enough people really couldn't afford any health care, the basic laws of supply and demand would bring prices back down. It's nonsensical, but we're asked to believe this nonsense and have the government take immediate and complicated action that no one fully understand the consequences of.

Catching Up On Old News

I had meant to link to this Peggy Noonan column in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago, when it was published in the wake of Sarah Palin's abrupt resignation from the governorship of Alaska, but never actually got around to it. But better late than never, here it is. I've included Noonan's discussion of the right's myths about Palin below.

McCain-Palin lost. Mrs. Palin has now stepped down, but she continues to poll high among some members of the Republican base, some of whom have taken to telling themselves Palin myths.

To wit, "I love her because she's so working-class." This is a favorite of some party intellectuals. She is not working class, never was, and even she, avid claimer of advantage that she is, never claimed to be and just lets others say it. Her father was a teacher and school track coach, her mother the school secretary. They were middle-class figures of respect, stability and local status. I think intellectuals call her working-class because they see the makeup, the hair, the heels and the sleds and think they're working class "tropes." Because, you know, that's what they teach in "Ways of the Working Class" at Yale and Dartmouth.

What she is, is a seemingly very nice middle-class girl with ambition, appetite and no sense of personal limits.

"She's not Ivy League, that's why her rise has been thwarted! She represented the democratic ideal that you don't have to go to Harvard or Brown to prosper, and her fall represents a failure of egalitarianism." This comes from intellectuals too. They need to be told something. Ronald Reagan went to Eureka College. Richard Nixon went to Whittier College, Joe Biden to the University of Delaware. Sarah Palin graduated in the end from the University of Idaho, a school that happily notes on its Web site that it's included in U.S. News & World Report's top national schools survey. They need to be told, too, that the first Republican president was named "Abe," and he went to Princeton and got a Fulbright. Oh wait, he was an impoverished backwoods autodidact!

America doesn't need Sarah Palin to prove it was, and is, a nation of unprecedented fluidity. Her rise and seeming fall do nothing to prove or refute this.

"The elites hate her." The elites made her. It was the elites of the party, the McCain campaign and the conservative media that picked her and pushed her. The base barely knew who she was. It was the elites, from party operatives to public intellectuals, who advanced her and attacked those who said she lacked heft. She is a complete elite confection. She might as well have been a bonbon.

"She makes the Republican Party look inclusive." She makes the party look stupid, a party of the easily manipulated.

"She shows our ingenuous interest in all classes." She shows your cynicism.

"Now she can prepare herself for higher office by studying up, reading in, boning up on the issues." Mrs. Palin's supporters have been ordering her to spend the next two years reflecting and pondering. But she is a ponder-free zone. She can memorize the names of the presidents of Pakistan, but she is not going to be able to know how to think about Pakistan. Why do her supporters not see this? Maybe they think "not thoughtful" is a working-class trope!

"The media did her in." Her lack of any appropriate modesty did her in. Actually, it's arguable that membership in the self-esteem generation harmed her. For 30 years the self-esteem movement told the young they're perfect in every way. It's yielding something new in history: an entire generation with no proper sense of inadequacy.

"Turning to others means the media won!" No, it means they lose. What the mainstream media wants is not to kill her but to keep her story going forever. She hurts, as they say, the Republican brand, with her mess and her rhetorical jabberwocky and her careless causing of division. Really, she is the most careless sower of discord since George W. Bush, who fractured the party and the movement that made him. Why wouldn't the media want to keep that going?

I particularly enjoyed the point where Noonan points out that all the studying in the world may help Sarah Plain memorize the names of Pakistan's leaders, but will not teach her how to actually think about Pakistan. This isn't about insulting anyone's intelligence, nor is it ultimately about what makes an individual a capable political leader. What it's about is wanting our political leaders to be more than just politicians- to be political thinkers who can lead ideological movements and move politics away from the BS and towards the concrete. Perhaps that's asking too much, but at the least I'd like our politicians to be good policy wonks. Palin has neither, not motivated by policy or ideology. And good riddance if the Republicans hope to reclaim the mantle of limited government and once again be a political force.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Just Fix It!

That seems to be the attitude, particularly amongst some who seem to be pushing hard for health care reform. But if government is in such a unique position to reduce our costs for this must needed service, why limit government to health care? Why doesn't government act in everyone's best interest and also provide us cheaper energy, cheaper housing, cheaper food, and cheaper Ipods?

I'm watching President Obama being interviewed by Katie Couric on the CBS Evening News right now and he's promised that he will not pass a health care bill unless it meets three qualifiers:

1) It does not add to the deficit
2) It reduces long term health care costs
and 3) It benefits middle class families

It begs the question, what ever happened to welfare and helping the poor? I'm certainly not going to come out in favor of income redistribution, but it's one thing to say the rich should pay taxes so the poor don't die on the street and quite another to say the rich should pay higher taxes so the middle class can stay in the rapidly expanding homes they can't afford.

Monday, July 20, 2009


Peter Singer, the much renowned professor and animal rights activist, had a head-scratching piece in this past weekend's New York Time's magazine on the rationing of health care. Singer makes the important point that as a limited resource, health care will be rationed and is rationed in any system of allocation. It's a good point and Singer's use of hypotheticals, both real and imaginary, are fascinating philosophical exercises as to how much human life is actually worth. Except that, in calling for government coverage, Singer neglects to mention why government should be the ultimate rationing agency.

Singer starts his piece by discussing a hypothetical drug that could slow the spread of terminal cancer and prolong life by six months. Would such a drug be worth $50,000? A half million dollars? 10 million dollars? What government provided health care means is that individuals don't get to make those choices, but government, or we as a society do. There's a major difference in any group of people imposing the value of life on everyone else and the each and everyone of us making our own value judgments. This is what the health care battle is all about.

No Room For Reason

Reason's Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie have a column in this weekend's Washington Post urging President Obama to avoid the trappings of the Jimmy Carter presidency and try and be a little more like Bill Clinton. Having read both Welch and Gillespie for a number of years, this comes across as a relatively tame piece as far as libertarians go, designed to appeal to the broader audience of the politically disaffected.

That, of course, didn't stop the Obama attack dogs from ravaging the comment section with baseless attacks and pointless defenses. I got through about half of the comments and I think I get the gist. Welch and Gillespie, lifelong libertarians who hated the Bush presidency, are described as Republican hacks. Many commenters ask why Welch and Gillespie didn't write such scathing attacks of the Bush administration, without bothering to check and see that, yes, they have numerous pieces to their resumes critical of Bush.

But the best were the spirited defenses of Obama, essentially arguing style over substance in pointing out that at least Obama is an articulate leader talking about important issues.

I'm sure I'm not the first to say it, but partisan party politics has so poisoned the political debate that there's no room left for reason. That's not to say there aren't honest conservatives and honest liberals out there, who understand opposing arguments and can find faults in their own political allies, but those sorts of honest thinkers are becoming harder and harder to find.

Monday, July 13, 2009


For the second year in a row, the best major film of the year may yet again have been made by Pixar. My wife and I saw Up this weekend and just like Wall-E last year, were amazed by Pixar's ability to bring truly engaging visual storytelling to the big screen. Up is probably not quite as good as Wall-E but it comes close, utilizing a clever kid's tale to delve into some very adult themes. And talk about bold, an animated film, supposedly for kids, showcases an elderly main character who's just lost his wife. The first fifteen or so minutes of the film are actually the story of the man's (Carl Frederickson) and his wife's (Ellie) meeting as children and a rather poignant montage of their ensuing decades together.

It's an adventure story, replete with talking dogs, flying houses, and unusual birds named Kevin, enjoyable for kids and adults of all ages, but like much of what Pixar does, there are deeper themes at work below the surface. There are unfulfilled dreams, promises made to dead loved ones, and unhealthy obsessions contrasting a quiet, yet fulfilling life. But most amazing to me is just how superior this film was when compared with everything else that comes out of Hollywood. The story was compelling and not completely predictable, the characters were intriguing, and the visuals made it difficult to avert your eyes. For whatever reason, it's as if the animated film makers are simply more interested than the rest of those clowns in actually making a good movie.