Topic: Government and Politics

A Perverse Burst of Honesty from Europe

European elitists want to create a bureaucratic super-state, but their efforts to further centralize power in Brussels are complicated by the fact that voters generally are opposed to the loss of national sovereignty. In an effort to circumvent these voters and avoid holding referenda, the proposed European constitution has been cosmetically modified and is now being called a treaty. Every so often, however, a politician blurts out the truth and admits (apologies to Hans Christian Andersen) that the Emperor has no clothes.

As reported by the EU Observer, an Italian minister who was closely involved in the drafting process has acknowledged that the text of the constitution/treaty was deliberately made unreadable in order to keep voters from understanding the radical changes that are being proposed. Mr Amato deserves credit for telling the truth, but his admission also is a sign that Europe’s elite have utter disdain for public opinion:

The new EU reform treaty text was deliberately made unreadable for citizens to avoid calls for referendum, one of the central figures in the treaty drafting process has said. Speaking at a meeting of the Centre for European Reform in London on Thursday (12 July) former Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato said: “They [EU leaders] decided that the document should be unreadable. If it is unreadable, it is not constitutional, that was the sort of perception”. …Mr Amato, who is now minister of the interior in Italy, has been a central figure in all stages of the year-long process of writing a new constitution for
Europe. He was vice-president and leader of the socialists in the Convention, the body that wrote the first constitution-draft in 2002-2003 under the leadership of former French president Giscard d’Estaing. …Following two years of ‘reflection’ Mr Amato headed the 16-strong group of politicians which prepared a simplified version of the document. Unofficially known as the “Amato Group” the group stripped the rejected constitution of its constitutional elements - including the article on the EU’s symbols. But the main elements of the original constitution were kept in. …”This is an extraordinary admission from someone who has been close to the negotiations on the EU treaty”, said Open Europe director Neil O’Brien. “The idea of just changing the name of the Constitution and pretending that it is just another complex treaty shows a total contempt for voters.”

Economics and Values

A recent NYT article has roiled the economics blogosphere by spotlighting several prominent economists who ostensibly challenge the “fundamental assumptions” of their field. A snippet:

“Economists can’t pretend that the consensus for free markets and free trade that existed 30 years ago is still here,” said Robert B. Reich, a public policy professor at Berkeley who served in President Bill Clinton’s cabinet.

Part of the reason is the growing income inequality and dislocation that global markets and a revolution in communications have helped create. Economists who question the free-market theories “want to speak to the reality of our time,” Mr. Reich said.

The article references some interesting material, including Alan Blinder’s criticism of offshoring and David Card’s provocative work ($) with Alan Krueger on employment and the minimum wage. However, contrary to its tone, the article is not (for the most part, anyway) about disagreements in economics — it’s about disagreements over values.

Consider, for instance, this bit from Blinder’s recent Washington Post op-ed:

And if the jobs do move offshore, displaced American workers may lose not only their jobs but also their pensions and health insurance. These people can be forgiven if they have doubts about the virtues of globalization.

We economists assure folks that things will be all right in the end. Both Americans and Indians will be better off. I think that’s right. The basic principles of free trade that Adam Smith and David Ricardo taught us two centuries ago remain valid today: Just like people, nations benefit by specializing in the tasks they do best and trading with other nations for the rest.

Blinder does not dispute (and indeed endorses) the economic orthodoxy that trade materially benefits participants. Instead, he notes that a change in trading partners produces both winners (the new trading partners) and losers (displaced partners), and that change can often be painful for the loser — a notion that most all economists would endorse.

Given this economic analysis, Blinder offers a values judgment: the United States should implement public policies to aid displaced workers caught in such change (but he expressly eschews protectionist measures that would prohibit change). Libertarians may disagree with Blinder’s policy proposals (perhaps on the grounds that such policies are not appropriate for limited government, or are economically inefficient, or would create perverse incentives and unintended consequences). But this disagreement is not about economics, it’s about competing values (e.g., limited government is preferable; economic inefficiency is undesirable, perverse incentives and unintended consequences are to be avoided).

Like “hard” science, economics is a non-normative field that attempts to determine certain types of relationships — in this case, economic ones (e.g., what is a minimum wage’s effect on employment; what market power effects result from industry regulation?) — and use those determinations to predict the future. Economic analysis often leads to policy recommendations, but those recommendations are the product of value judgments: Should the well-being of one group of workers (e.g., domestic, unionized, members of a particular group) be promoted over another? Should the harm experienced by displaced workers be mitigated, and if so, how?

From a policymaking perspective, it is useful to distinguish what part of economic policy is about economics and what part is about values. Economic analysis of U.S. farm subsidies and trade protections reveals their effect on farmer and consumer behavior, but good policy ultimately comes from answering such values questions as whether the tradeoff of higher consumer food prices for higher producer revenues is acceptable, or whether ag subsidies are a good use of the public fisc.  Or, concerning Prof. Reich’s comment above about income inequality, good policy would come from answering the values question of whether it is a problem that some people are rich or, instead, that some people are poor.

All of this is not to say that we should not question whether neat, simple economic theory plays out cleanly in this messy, complicated world. The debate ($) over Card & Krueger’s minimum wage findings is one of the most interesting in economics, and the burgeoning field of behavioral economics is reinvigorating long-simmering questions about the rationality of market actors — though those questions may not support the values judgments that the apostates and heterodoxoi presume. But I would argue that economics is not so different from the hard sciences — the core tenets are quite solid (though revolution does occur). What remains (appropriately) shaky is a pluralistic society’s attempts to apply its many values (as well as its hopes, fears, grievances, immediate concerns, and political aspirations), to economic phenomena.

Big-Government Surgeon General

I have written before about how the U.S. surgeon general has become the national nanny, nagging us to stop smoking, lose weight, exercise more and never leave home without a condom. James W. Holsinger, a surgeon and cardiologist from Kentucky, is President Bush’s latest nominee for the post. His nomination has been in trouble because of some retrograde comments and writings on homosexuality. But it is also worth noting that Dr. Holsinger testified yesterday he also supports:

  1. Universal health insurance;
  2. Banning pharmaceutical advertising;
  3. Banning the advertising of sugary cereals and other “junk food” on television;
  4. Federal regulation of vending machines in schools; and
  5. Increasing tobacco taxes as part of a campaign to “make America a tobacco-free nation.”

All in all, a perfect national nanny, and another example of President Bush’s big-government conservatism at work.

Science, Values and Politics

Today’s NYT features a front page, above-the-fold story about former surgeon general Richard Carmona’s charge that the Bush administration interfered with his office by (in the words of the NYT) ”repeatedly [trying] to weaken or suppress important public health reports because of political considerations.” He made the charge yesterday in testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Carmona described Bush administration behavior that ranged from petty (urging him not to attend Special Olympics events because of the Kennedy family’s connection to the program) to outright worrisome (directing him, again in the words of the NYT, “to put political considerations over scientific ones”). His claims add to the image of a Bush White House in which political considerations and ideology trump all others.

However, Carmona’s prepared statement suggests that the Bushies aren’t the only folks caught up in ideology.

Carmona considers himself a person of science, and scientists have an important role in policymaking. They try to determine the existence of various empirical relationships (e.g., certain emissions trap heat in the atmosphere; exposure to tobacco smoke increases the risk of cancer) and use those determinations to make predictions about the future (e.g., ongoing emission of greenhouse gases at certain levels will affect the climate; reduced tobacco use will decrease the incidence of cancer). In this way, science informs policymaking by predicting the outcomes of various policy choices.

But though science informs policy choices, it cannot make those choices. Science is a non-normative endeavor, and cannot answer such questions as whether climate change should be avoided, and whether reducing tobacco use should be used as a means to reduce the incidence of cancer. Those are the subject of value judgments — and, for public decisions, of politics.

Many “people of science” do not appreciate this limit on science’s role in policymaking. They assume that once a relationship is established scientifically, policy choices cogently follow. In making this assumption, they enter their own value judgments as suppressed premises in their analyses. Many doctors see bad health outcomes as not just undesirable, but so undesirable that they should be avoided even at high costs; many environmental scientists have the same opinion about environmental damage. Hence, they would argue that “objective, nonpartisan science” calls for policies to limit greenhouse emissions and reduce smoking. In fact, science can do no such thing; value judgments call for (or against) various choices.

To better understand this, consider the role of a doctor. Five separate times in his testimony, Carmona refered to the surgeon general as “the nation’s doctor” (conjuring the image of 300 million Americans sticking out their collective tongues and saying “ahh”). I trust my doctor to make a scientific determination of the state of my health and to lay out various courses of action concerning my health (e.g., lose weight, take medication, exercise more, quit smoking). But I am the one who sets policies concerning my health — I decide whether the costs of some course of action (e.g., the side effects of some drug, or the pleasure forgone by dieting) is worth the health benefits. Likewise, public health policy should be set by elected representatives who are directly accountable to the citizenry, not by “the nation’s doctor.”

But Carmona apparently wants the surgeon general to become a policymaker. He told the House committee:

[T]he Surgeon General [should] speak and act openly and as often as necessary on contemporary health and scientific issues so as to improve the health, safety, and security of the nation.

Indeed, that role may be too modest for Carmona’s surgeon general; he repeatedly argued that the surgeon general should “serve the people and the world.” He offered lawmakers a five-point plan for the U.S. Public Health Service that included the following:

  • Recognize and plan for the fact that tomorrow’s best hope to achieve millennium goals, extinguish asymmetries, eradicate social injustices, and make the world [a] healthier, safer and more secure place may be the newer, softer force projection of health diplomacy via prospective ongoing sustainable missions globally.

So, instead of just being the nation’s doctor (with policymaking power), Carmona’s surgeon general would be a force projector for the world.

Carmona is correct that politicians should not interfere with the scientific analysis of the surgeon general — the surgeon general should follow an empirical question wherever the science leads. And he may even state his personal opinion — couched as such — on the value judgments that ensue from the science. But the surgeon general should not supplant the politicians in making public policy decisions, nor supplant private individuals in making personal health decisions. And, of course, the surgeon general should not doctor scientific findings to conform them to his own value judgments.

Hillary the Neocon

Don’t miss Ed Crane in today’s Financial Times: “Is Hillary Clinton a neocon?” (Subscribers only, alas; you may have to run out and buy a copy.) Here’s a taste:

“You know, when I ask people, ‘What do you think the goals of America are today?’ people don’t have any idea. We don’t know what we’re trying to achieve. And I think that in a life or in a country you’ve got to have some goals.” Senator Hillary Clinton, MSNBC, May 11 2007

Senator Hillary Clinton’s worldview, as formulated above, is starkly at odds with that of America’s founders. The idea that the American nation had “goals”, just as individuals do, would have been wholly alien to them. For them the whole undertaking of government was to protect our “self-evident” rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This emphasis on the primacy of the individual is the essence of true American exceptionalism.

National goals are a euphemism for concentrated national political power. The “Old World” was full of nations with goals, almost all pernicious. The concept of national goals is not so much un-American as it is non-American. But Mrs Clinton persists in promoting the concept, saying at a recent campaign speech in New Hampshire that rather than an “ownership society” she would “prefer a ‘we’re all in it together’ society”. She frequently invokes the notion that Americans want “to be part of something bigger than themselves”.

She has an unusual ally in this. The one other powerful political force in the US today that shares her frustration over the lack of national goals is neoconservatism.  …

UPDATE: Read the whole piece here.

“Pragmatic” Health Care Reform?

The Washington Post has a story today gushing over how “pragmatic” and “moderate” Democratic presidential candidates are being in pursuit of universal health care. Moderate in comparison to Michael Moore maybe, but let’s look at what those candidates are actually proposing:

1) An individual mandate requiring every American to purchase a specific government-designed insurance plan or face financial penalties. (Edwards and Clinton). Such a mandate, however unenforceable in practice, is an unprecedented (except for Massachusetts) infringement on individual liberty and sets the stage for further regulation of the insurance industry.

2) A “play or pay” mandate on businesses, requiring them to provide employees with health insurance or pay additional taxes (Obama, Edwards, Clinton). Such a mandate would raise the cost of employment resulting in a loss of jobs and lower employee compensation.

3) A government-mandated minimum benefits package for insurance (Obama, Edwards, Clinton). Rather than true insurance—spreading catastrophic risk—the government would require a “Cadillac” policy, leading to a feeding frenzy for special interests representing providers and disease constituencies.

4) Community rating and guaranteed issue, raising the cost of insurance for young and healthy individuals. (Obama, Edwards, Clinton).

5) Price controls on insurance premiums (Obama) and prescription drugs under Medicare (Obama, Edwards, Clinton).

6) Huge tax increases, ranging from $65 billion per year (Obama) to more than $120 billion per year (Edwards).

7) Massive expansion of government health care programs like Medicaid (Obama, Edwards, Clinton). Edwards would also create a new government-run health care program like Medicare to compete with private insurance.

8) Managed-competition-style regional insurance pools or “connectors.” (Obama and Clinton).

The fact that Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and the Heritage Foundation also support many of these proposals doesn’t make them any more moderate. These proposals would radically increase government control over one seventh of the US economy, would increase taxes, destroy jobs, and slow economic growth, and most importantly would lead to worse health care for millions of Americans.

The New Deal Was a Success — at Creating Dependency

Drawing from Amity Shlaes’ excellent new book The Forgotten Man, George Will notes that FDR’s policies were an economic failure but a political success.

It is particularly galling that Roosevelt’s statist policies were so harmful (as Chris Edwards has succinctly explained), yet he is portrayed as the man who saved the nation from unbridled capitalism:

Franklin Roosevelt’s success was in altering the practice of American politics. This transformation was actually assisted by the misguided policies — including government-created uncertainties that paralyzed investors — that prolonged the Depression. This seemed to validate the notion that the crisis was permanent, so government must be forever hyperactive.

…Roosevelt, however, made interest-group politics systematic and routine. New Deal policies were calculated to create many constituencies — labor, retirees, farmers, union members — to be dependent on government.

…Roosevelt implemented the theory that (in [Shlaes’] words) “spending promoted growth, if government was big enough to spend enough.” In only 12 months, just one Roosevelt improvisation, the National Recovery Administration, “generated more paper than the entire legislative output of the federal government since 1789.” Before Roosevelt, the federal government was unimpressive relative to the private sector. Under Calvin Coolidge, the last pre-Depression president, its revenue averaged 4 percent of gross domestic product, compared with 18.6 percent today. …In 1936, for the first time in peacetime history, federal spending exceeded that of the states and localities combined.

…[A]s Roosevelt demonstrated and Shlaes reminds us, compassion, understood as making the “insecure” securely dependent, also makes the state flourish.