How About this for Dealing with Politically Obtuse Relatives?: Just Say “Let’s Stop Trying to Control Each Other”

Every holiday season, pundits and politicians of all stripes weigh in on how to talk to family members who disagree with you. The Democratic National Committee even runs a website,, which gives useful talking points for your red-state benighted family members. Here’s a different strategy for the holidays: Just say, “let’s stop trying to control each other.”

Here’s how it works:

- “These Republicans, they don’t know anything about how to run a health care program. I think they want people to just die, especially people who vote Democrat. People need low-deductible plans with broad catastrophic coverage and full coverage for all basic daily needs. Just read the studies.”

- “Okay Uncle Kevin, you might be right. Or, alternatively, we could stop trying to control each other and forcing others who disagree to comply just because they’re on the wrong side of 50.01 percent of the population. That’s inevitably going to create strife. Just think about how you would feel when you’re on the losing side of an election.”

Dear Mr. President: It’s Time to Ignore the Polls on Syrian Refugees

The latest polls are clear: Americans want little to do with the 10,000 Syrian refugees President Obama has promised to take in, much less any part of dealing with the more than 4 million refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war. According to Gallup, 60% oppose the United States taking in refugees, compared with just 37% who approve.  As clear as the figures seem, however, there are four good reasons that Obama should avoid following the majority’s lead.

The first reason is that Americans are wildly ignorant about Syria, Islam, and the situation in the Middle East. A Pew survey in 2012 caused a kerfuffle when it revealed that 50% of Americans couldn’t identify Syria when it was highlighted on a map of the Middle East. The same survey found that just 42% could identify the crescent and star as the symbol for Islam from a set of four symbols, one of which was the Christian cross and another was the Star of David (about 34% chose Om, the symbol associated with Hinduism). This ignorance would be bad enough, but at least presidents might be able to count on American opinion, if they could only figure out which half of the people to trust!

What’s worse, however, is the collective ignorance that Americans have shown regarding major political issues over time. Thanks to fear, nationalism, religious and cultural biases, and historical circumstances, American majorities have been wrong about a number of very important issues, often over long periods of time; slavery, the treatment of native peoples, and women’s rights are just a few obvious examples. Regarding foreign affairs, the majority’s track record is very spotty. The public was far too slow to recognize the threat of Hitler, far too acquiescent when Kennedy and then Johnson escalated Vietnam to pointless disaster, and over eager to take on Iraq a second time in 2003. Regarding refugees, in particular, the current hysteria has prompted reminders that very similar majorities opposed accepting Jewish children from Germany in 1939, opposed accepting Hungarian refugees fleeing Soviet control in 1958, and more recently opposed taking in refugees from Kosovo in 1999. None of those episodes seem, in retrospect, to reflect wise counsel from the public.

The third reason the president should ignore public opinion on the refugee crisis is that American attitudes are irresponsible. Even in the best of times, American public opinion does not reflect one of the most critical requirements of policy evaluation: a consideration of trade offs. Since individual Americans are not responsible for making tough decisions between guns and butter, they tend to respond to poll questions in a vacuum, unhindered by the context in which policy decisions must actually be made. When you ask Americans what they want, they want it all – military strength without economic strain, influence without upsetting the allies, and victory without casualties. In the wake of Paris, public attitudes are all the more suspect. Terrorist attacks produce fear and fear produces emotional responses, not rational ones. Of all surveys, presidents should least trust those taken in the middle of a crisis.

The fourth reason to question the will of the majority is that it is the toxic byproduct of the political echo chamber. Whether glued to the television or to Twitter, research shows that the mass public remains dependent on the foreign policy establishment for almost all the arguments and cues necessary to form opinions about foreign policy. Since the Paris attacks we have heard the Republican candidates trip over themselves to take ever more extreme positions on the refugee situation. Senator Ted Cruz has called it “nothing less than lunacy” to take in refugees; Carson called it a “suspension of intellect” to consider accepting refugees. Donald Trump has called accepting refugees “just insane” while suggesting closing mosques and considering the creation of a database of all Muslims living in the United States. In today’s information environment, such outrageous statements not only make news but they spread quickly through social media, pushing aside calmer and more reasoned assessments and proposals. Unsurprisingly, then, 60% of the public – and 84% of Republicans  – oppose Obama’s plan to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees despite the fact that the United States has an extensive and lengthy security review process for screening refugees and despite the fact that the U.S. experience with refugees provides no support for exaggerated perceptions of a terrorist threat.

Given all this, neither President Obama, nor Congress, nor the various candidates for president should put too much stock in today’s majority opinion about Syrian refugees. Instead, Obama should lead a patient and vigorous national debate about the benefits and costs of accepting refugees, working toward a policy that meets the long-run interests of the United States. Over time, as the fear and panic from Paris subside, we should be mindful that today’s “wisdom of the crowd” may eventually look like yesterday’s folly.

Academic Freedom, Conformity of Opinion, and the Student Demands

Of the demands being made by protesters in the current wave of unrest on American campuses, some no doubt are well grounded and worth considering. Some of them, on the other hand, challenge academic freedom head on. Some would take control of curriculum and hiring out of the hands of faculty. Some would enforce conformity of thought. Some would attack the rights of dissenters. Some would merely gut the seriousness of the university.

Last night I did a long series of tweets drawing on a website which sympathetically compiles demands from campus protests – – and noting some of the more troublesome instances:

  • From Dartmouth: “All professors will be required to be trained in not only cultural competency but also the importance of social justice in their day-to-day work.”
  • From Wesleyan: “An anonymous student reporting system for cases of bias, including microaggressions, perpetrated by faculty and staff.”
  • From the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: “White professors must be discouraged from leading and teaching departments about demographics and societies colonized, massacred, or enslaved under white supremacy.”
  • From Guilford College: “We suggest that every week a faculty member come forward and publicly admit their participation in racism inside the classroom via a letter to the editor” in the college paper.

My series drew and continues to draw a strong reaction. Now I’ve Storified the tweets as a single narrative, including some of the responses. Read it here (cross-posted from Overlawyered).

Singapore: the Power of Economic Freedom

The Telegraph ran a fascinating collection of photos from different statges of development of the Asian city state of Singapore. The first photo is from 1900, the second is from the 1970s and the last photo is contemporary. The incredible transformation of Singapore from a sleepy outpost of the British Empire to a global commercial and technological hub was partly facilitated by a very high degree of economic freedom. In 1970, the first year for which data is available, Singapore had the third freest economy in the world (behind Hong Kong and Canada). Singapore maintained a high degree of economic freedom over the next 45 years and ranks as the second freest economy in the world today (behind Hong Kong). As late as 1970, per person income in Singapore was 54 percent of the global average. Today it is 321 percent of the global average.

And on the Seventh Day You Can Rest (If You Want)

For 122 years, the California Labor Code has said that employees in all industries are “entitled” to a day of rest “one day therefrom in seven.” The statute also provides that “No employer shall cause his employees to work more than six days in seven.” Mendoza, a former Nordstrom employee, is arguing to the California Supreme Court that the Labor Code should be construed as flatly prohibiting employers from allowing an employee to work on the seventh day of a workweek. To make that argument work he must also convince the Court that the Labor Code prohibits employees from voluntarily choosing to work on a day otherwise scheduled for rest. This radically paternalistic argument not only flies in the face of the plain language of the statute, but it would hurt employees who may wish work on the seventh day of a workweek for innumerable reasons. In a brief filed in support of Nordstrom, Cato, joined by the National Federation of Independent Business, the Reason Foundation, and a handful of California employees, argues that there are many legitimate reasons why an employee might want to work on the seventh day of a workweek: to meet financial goals, to accommodate personal schedules, or simply to maintain flexibility to work when he wants.

Mendoza also argues that employers must require written waiver from employees before allowing them to work on the seventh day of a workweek. But nothing in the Labor Code suggests that there is any requirement for a waiver to be in writing, or for employers to maintain records whenever an employee should elect to work on a day otherwise scheduled for rest. We argue that it would be improper to read language into the statute that would impose such burdensome requirements on employers—both because it would violate first principles of statutory construction and because it would open unwitting businesses up to lawsuits. Moreover, such a paperwork requirement would be wholly impracticable when, for example, an exempt employee might choose to check a few emails on a Sunday evening, something that could be construed to violate the day of rest law.

Finally, we argue that the plaintiff advocates a theory that would hold his employer liable for conduct that California state regulators had long permitted in official agency guidance. Just as there would be significant due process concerns with Congress passing a statute to retroactively hold businesses liable for conduct that was permissible at the time, there would be serious constitutional problems with giving a statute a retroactive interpretation that would impose ruinous penalties on individuals or businesses that acted in good faith reliance on best available guidance at the time. The California Supreme Court should not heed Mendoza’s paternalistic arguments and upset 122 years of treating California’s workers like responsible adults.

The Two Koreas Talk: Time for Thanksgiving?

Whenever North Korea heads to the negotiating table one remembers the traditional description of a second marriage: the triumph of hope over experience. We’ve been here before. Or, more accurately, the two Koreas have.

Still, as Winston Churchill famously said, better to jaw-jaw than war-war. The last Korean conflict left millions of casualties and refugees. Even a minor league war could be catastrophic.

Nevertheless, the Republic of Korea should have no illusions about the latest negotiations, scheduled for America’s Thanksgiving. Nothing much is likely to emerge from that gathering. And nothing that emerges is likely to survive very long.

Debating ObamaCare with Kathleen Sebelius

Back in October, I debated ObamaCare with former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. Kansas City Public Television recently aired a package featuring the debate.

Complete footage of the debate is available here: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, and Part 6.

One memorable moment came after I told the story of Deamonte Driver, a boy from Prince George’s County, Maryland, who died at age 12 because his mother was unable to find a dentist who would accept their Medicaid coverage. An infection that began in an abscessed tooth spread to Deamonte’s brain and ultimately killed him. A dentist could have prevented Deamonte’s death with a simple $80 extraction. But Medicaid pays dentists so little, that only one in six Maryland dentists accepts Medicaid patients. Deamonte’s mother and employees at a local non-profit called dozens of dentists to no avail.

Deamonte DriverSebelius responded that Deamonte would have died with or without Medicaid, and besides there is no alternative because “I don’t know any dentists who take uninsured people at all.” This from, as KCPT describes her, “the woman once charged with leading the nation’s health care system.”

Also on the panel were Tarren Bragdon of the Foundation for Government Accountability and Daniel Landon of the Missouri Hospital Association.