Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Letter to the Editor

I submitted the following to the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, concerning a series of incidents in my old neighborhood.
The Rochester Police Department is recklessly endangering its members' safety. After the unfortunate arrest of Emily Good, the RPD could have apologized and used the incident to reach out humbly to 19th Ward neighbors. Instead, the men in blue feel slighted, and retaliated against their critics by selectively ticketing Good's supporters for obscure parking violations. In addition, Good was the victim of a Thursday break-in that appears politically motivated. Officer Mario Masic arrested Good because he felt unsafe with her around: he should feel unsafe without her around. Tips from residents who care about their communities and cooperation from witnesses to crimes are crucial to putting real malefactors behind bars. Police arrogance like this will make tipsters and witnesses more reluctant to cooperate, and leave the real criminals free to strike again. What is more important to police safety: upholding their pride or building relationships?
A smaller point is that Good was also proved wrong by the incident. She suspected that Rochester's finest are racist in profiling suspects. But they proved quite equitable in casting unfair suspicion on a petite white woman! Officer Masic may be a fool or he may be scared sh*tless of working the Ward, but he's no racist.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Studies in leadership

Walter Russel Mead's blog post about Al Gore is less interesting to me in its particular message - that Gore must step down for the global-warming movement to succeed - than in the general leadership principle espoused therein. Mead notes:
Not all character flaws are inconsistent with positions of great dignity... But while some forms of inconsistency or even hypocrisy can be combined with public leadership, others cannot be. A television preacher can eat too many french fries, watch too much cheesy TV and neglect his kids in the quest for global fame. But he cannot indulge in drug fueled trysts with male prostitutes while preaching conservative Christian doctrine. The head of Mothers Against Drunk Driving cannot be convicted of driving while under the influence. The head of the IRS cannot be a tax cheat. The most visible leader of the world’s green movement cannot live a life of conspicuous consumption, spewing far more carbon into the atmosphere than almost all of those he castigates for their wasteful ways. Mr. Top Green can’t also be a carbon pig.

You can be a leading environmentalist and fail to pay all of your taxes. You can be a leading environmentalist and be unkind to your aged mother. You can be a leading environmentalist and squeeze the toothpaste tube from the middle, park in the handicapped spots at the mall or scribble angry marginal notes in library books. But you cannot be a leading environmentalist who hopes to lead the general public into a long and difficult struggle for sacrifice and fundamental change if your own conduct is so flagrantly inconsistent with the green gospel you profess. If the heart of your message is that the peril of climate change is so imminent and so overwhelming that the entire political and social system of the world must change, now, you cannot fly on private jets. You cannot own multiple mansions. You cannot even become enormously rich investing in companies that will profit if the policies you advocate are put into place.
Mr Gore's leadership, the apotheosis of elitism, is also the antithesis of Jesus' prescribed form of leadership: to become a servant. Think of the difference between Gore and another Democrat who lost a presidential election, Jimmy Carter. Despite Carter's failed presidency and odd opinions, he has made himself a credible advocate for the poor and maintained a public voice for three decades.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Redefining Honor

Is the Middle East changing? Is the Arab Spring about democracy, transparency, and individual rights, or just about the price of bread? This amazing Washington Post story of true chivalry suggests that something deep is afoot.
A group of men have committed themselves to an unlikely way of challenging the violence that has swept Syria in recent months, pledging to marry women they have never met.

One [horror story] involves four sisters, from the nearby town of Sumeriya, who were allegedly raped by pro-government Shabiha militiamen. "It made us so mad. Such an injustice. We have decided, we will marry them," said Ibrahim Kayyis, a 32-year-old baker from Jisr al-Shugour, a town that was stormed by troops.

To reclaim their “honor,” families in Syria have been known to kill raped female members. Even if families allow such women to live, they are not eligible to marry.

"We sat and discussed that we want to change this. We don’t want to change just the regime in Syria, but also this kind of stuff. So we will marry them in front of everyone," Kayyis said... Mohammed Mourey, a pharmacist from Jisr al-Shugour who has set up shop in a concrete shack in Khirbet al-Jous, initially proposed marrying the women. "They are victims of the revolution, and we will protect them," he said. Mourey said that when he first thought of the idea, 15 men came forward to volunteer.
This is a small act, on behalf of a single family, but it is the type of meme - like the frustrated vegetable seller - that could go viral in Arabic culture, and change the attitude towards rape and women's honor for the entire generation.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Ideas are dangerous - but to whom?

David Brooks recommends we read a book entitled "Reckless Endangerment". It isn't the latest from John Grisham, but it could be. He elucidated, and I quote at length, since NYTimes is gated:
The Fannie Mae scandal is the most important political scandal since Watergate. It helped sink the American economy. It has cost taxpayers about $153 billion, so far. It indicts patterns of behavior that are considered normal and respectable in Washington.

The Fannie Mae scandal has gotten relatively little media attention because many of the participants are still powerful, admired and well connected. But Gretchen Morgenson, a Times colleague, and the financial analyst Joshua Rosner have rectified that, writing "Reckless Endangerment," a brave book that exposes the affair in clear and gripping form.

The story centers around James Johnson, a Democratic sage with a raft of prestigious connections. Appointed as chief executive of Fannie Mae in 1991, Johnson started an aggressive effort to expand homeownership.

Back then, Fannie Mae could raise money at low interest rates because the federal government implicitly guaranteed its debt. In 1995, according to the Congressional Budget Office, this implied guarantee netted the agency $7 billion. Instead of using that money to help buyers, Johnson and other executives kept $2.1 billion for themselves and their shareholders. They used it to further the cause — expanding their clout, their salaries and their bonuses. They did the things that every special-interest group does to advance its interests.

Fannie Mae co-opted relevant activist groups, handing out money to Acorn, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and other groups that it might need on its side.

Fannie ginned up Astroturf lobbying campaigns. In 2000, for example, a bill was introduced that threatened Fannie’s special status. The Coalition for Homeownership was formed and letters poured into Congressional offices opposing the bill. Many signatories of the letter had no idea their names had been used.

Fannie lavished campaign contributions on members of Congress. Time and again experts would go before some Congressional committee to warn that Fannie was lowering borrowing standards and posing an enormous risk to taxpayers. Phalanxes of congressmen would be mobilized to bludgeon the experts and kill unfriendly legislation.

Fannie executives ginned up academic studies. They created a foundation that spent tens of millions in advertising. They spent enormous amounts of time and money capturing the regulators who were supposed to police them.

Morgenson and Rosner write with barely suppressed rage, as if great crimes are being committed. But there are no crimes. This is how Washington works. Only two of the characters in this tale come off as egregiously immoral. Johnson made $100 million while supposedly helping the poor. Representative Barney Frank, whose partner at the time worked for Fannie, was arrogantly dismissive when anybody raised doubts about the stability of the whole arrangement.

Most of the people were simply doing what reputable figures do in service to a supposedly good cause. Johnson roped in some of the most respected establishment names: Bill Daley, Tom Donilan, Joseph Stiglitz, Dianne Feinstein, Kit Bond, Franklin Raines, Larry Summers, Robert Zoellick, Ken Starr and so on.

Of course, it all came undone. Underneath, Fannie was a cancer that helped spread risky behavior and low standards across the housing industry. We all know what happened next.

The scandal has sent the message that the leadership class is fundamentally self-dealing. Leaders on the center-right and center-left are always trying to create public-private partnerships to spark socially productive activity. But the biggest public-private partnership to date led to shameless self-enrichment and disastrous results...

The final message is that members of the leadership class have done nothing to police themselves. The Wall Street-Industry-Regulator-Lobbyist tangle is even more deeply enmeshed.
Brooks' warning about the "center-right and center-left", which are the political inclinations he feels most strongly, reminds me of G.K. Chesterton's conclusion to Heretics:
I know that there are current in the modern world many vague objections to having an abstract belief... A common hesitation in our day touching the use of extreme convictions is a sort of notion that extreme convictions, specially upon cosmic matters, have been responsible [for] bigotry. But... in real life the people who are most bigoted are the people who have no convictions at all. The economists of the Manchester school who disagree with Socialism take Socialism seriously. It is the young man on Bond Street, who does not know what socialism means, much less whether he agrees with it, who is quite certain that these socialist fellows are making a fuss about nothing...

Bigotry may be roughly defined as the anger of men who have no opinions... Bigotry may be called the frenzy of the indifferent... In this degree it was not the people who cared who ever persecuted; the people who cared were not sufficiently numerous. It was the people who did not care who filled the world with fire and oppression. It was the hands of the indifferent that lit the faggots; it was the hands of the indifferent that turned the rack... Bigotry in the main has always been the the pervading omnipotence of those who do not care crushing out those who care in darkness and blood...

There are people, however, who dig somewhat deeper than this into the possible evils of dogma. It is felt by many that strong philosophical conviction, while it does not produce that sluggish and fundamentally frivolous condition which we call bigotry, does produce a certain concentration, exaggeration, and moral impatience, which we may agree to call fanaticism. They say, in brief, that ideas are dangerous things...

Ideas are [indeed] dangerous, but the man to whom they are least dangerous is the man of ideas. He is acquainted with ideas, and moves among them like a lion-tamer. Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are most dangerous is the man of no ideas... It is a common error... to suggest that that financiers and business men are a danger to the empire because they are so sordid or so materialistic. The truth is that financiers and business men are a danger to the empire because they can be so sentimental about any sentiment, and idealistic about any ideal, any ideal that they find lying about.
While the crimes detailed by Brooks and the dangers detailed by Chesterton are not the same, they are symmetric. In both cases, those who were generally well-accepted pose the most danger. Great fiscal crimes are committed not by those whose clear-eyed fanaticism leads them to excess in pursuit of an ideal: those are normally checked by the balances of republican government. Rather, the great fiscal crimes and abuses of public funds are centrist, pragmatist ideas, ideas that are inoffensive to everyone: homeownership, American auto manufacture, and fighting terrorism. Nobody is against these things, so everyone is willing to make a deal - a quid pro quo to support more money for Fannie Mae, more money for General Motors, or more money for Homeland Security.

Both Brooks and Chesterton suggest that the only ones immune from this disease of moderation are the extreme. Brooks concludes:
People may not like Michele Bachmann, but when they finish "Reckless Endangerment" they will understand why there is a market for politicians like her. They’ll realize that if the existing leadership class doesn’t redefine "normal" behavior, some pungent and colorful movement will sweep in and do it for them.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Democrats Refuse to Raise Revenue

The Washington Post story on a key vote about ethanol subsidies focuses entirely on Republicans: the Post gives them a backhanded compliment about appear[ing] to break with two decades of GOP orthodoxy against higher taxes, voting to advance a plan to abruptly cancel billions of dollars in annual tax credits for ethanol blenders. That's right, before mentioning that a GOP Senate majority was willing to do away with ethanol subsidies, the Post needles them about raising taxes.

The story gets to a Democratic representative in paragraph 7. He said it's "encouraging" that the GOP is considering this cut, as if the Democrats are sane, normal people, and the GOP is a recovering ethanol addict who must be brought along. But Democrats voted 46-6 against the measure. That's the big story: Democrats are so committed to protecting the special interest of ethanol farmers that they are unwilling to raise revenues!

The Washington Post finally interviewed a Democratic Senator who voted against removing the subsidy... never. In fact, the article never explains why Democrats opposed the bill. It might have had other provisions that they disagreed with, but we're not informed. The only Democrats interviewed (mainly VP Joe Biden) seem generally in favor of ending subsidies... but again, it's not really clear.

LA Times and SF Gate articles seem to clear up why the Dems opposed this slam-dunk revenue raiser:
In the end, [co-sponsor Sen Diane] Feinstein [D-CA] voted against her own amendment as did Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Democrats largely voted against the measure after leaders encouraged a "no" vote on procedural grounds. (SF)

Democrats were upset because Coburn forced a vote without the blessing of majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who jealously guards the majority's control of the chamber. (LA)
So there you have it.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Paul Ryan's budget plan chose to fight the major ideological battle of our time on the battleground of Medicare. This may or may not have been wise, politically - witness the GOP loss in NY-26 last month - but it reflects the importance of Medicare in the budget and the urgency of addressing its insolvency.

David Brooks today asks where wisdom lives (a passing reference to the seven-pillared house of Proverbs). I quote liberally, since the original is gated, and add emphases:
The fee-for-service system is incredibly popular. Recipients don't have to think about the costs of their treatment, and they get lots of free money. The average 56-year-old couple pays about $140,000 into the Medicare system over a lifetime and receives about $430,000 in benefits back.... The Medicare trustees say the program is about a decade from insolvency.

Some Democrats simply want to do nothing as Medicare careens toward bankruptcy... For example, Nancy Pelosi said, "I could never support any arrangement that reduced benefits for Medicare." Fortunately, more responsible Democrats are looking for ways to save the system. This is where the philosophical issues come in. They involve questions like: Who should make the crucial decisions? Where does wisdom reside?

Democrats tend to be skeptical that dispersed consumers can get enough information to make smart decisions. Health care is phenomenally complicated. Providers have much more information than consumers. Insurance companies are rapacious and are not in the business of optimizing care.

Given these limitations, Democrats generally seek to concentrate decision-making and cost-control power in the hands of centralized experts. Under the Obama health care law, a team of 15 officials will be created to discover best practices and come up with cost-cutting measures. There will also be a Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation in Washington to organize medical innovation. Centralized officials will decide how to set national reimbursement rates.

Republicans at their best are skeptical about top-down decision-making... In 1967, the House Ways and Means Committee projected that Medicare would cost $12 billion by 1990. It actually cost $110 billion... Medicare’s chief actuary predicted that 400,000 people would sign up for the new health care law’s high-risk pools. In fact, only 18,000 have...

Republicans point out that Medicare has tried to control costs centrally for decades with terrible results. They argue that a decentralized process of trial and error will work better, as long as the underlying incentives are right. They suggest replacing the fee-for-service with a premium support system. Seniors would select from a menu of insurance plans. Their consumer choices would drive a continual, bottom-up process of innovation... In less rigidly ideological times, many Democrats supported variations of this basic approach.

The fact is, there is no dispositive empirical proof about which method is best — the centralized technocratic one or the decentralized market-based one...

I'd only add two things. This basic debate will define the identities of the two parties for decades. In the age of the Internet and open-source technology, the Democrats are mad to define themselves as the party of top-down centralized planning. Moreover, if 15 Washington-based experts really can save a system as vast as Medicare through a process of top-down control, then this will be the only realm of human endeavor where that sort of engineering actually works.
If the current generation of leaders fail to restructure the cost structure of Medicare, the 2020's will likely go into history as a time of major economic upheaval: there just isn't enough money to pay for everybody's dreams. More than defining itself as the party of bottom-up innovation, Republicans need to sell themselves as the party of the Long Run. They need to give tough love to seniors in the name of having enough money to provide opportunities for their grandchildren. They need to rebuke short-run-only types in both parties who see savings and investment as bad economic outcomes. Pivot, Republicans. Don't just advocate against the government - you ARE the government! Advocate for the future, and against those who practice the politics of the mortgage.