On What Planet?

Peter Beinart writes in the New Republic:

The struggle that initially roiled the Clinton administration–between deficit hawks and deficit spenders–is basically over; today, even the most liberal Democrats are fiscal conservatives.

Stephen Slivinski’s new book does demonstrate that today’s Republicans are bigger spenders than LBJ. But as the National Taxpayers Union notes in its latest rating of congressional voting, the average Democrat still votes for far more spending than the average Republican. Democrats offer no plan to avert the impending insolvency of the Social Security system. They have denounced the Republicans’ trillion-dollar expansion of Medicare on the grounds that it isn’t generous enough.

Even the relatively conservative Democrats at the Democratic Leadership Council recently released a plan to spend hundreds of billions more taxpayer dollars on everything from college tuition to housing to socialized health care for children to McGovern-style “demogrants” for every baby, with no plausible offsetting spending cuts.

Ready to Pay More for Longer Lines at the DMV?

The Decatur (Alabama) Daily News reports that a server shut-down froze driver licensing operations on Friday.

Lines that tend to be long on the best days meandered double-file through hallways at the Morgan County Courthouse after a computer server in Montgomery shut down at about 12:45 p.m. The faulty server, which came back online at 3, is owned and maintained by Oregon-based Digimarc Co., a state contractor, according to [the Alabama Department of Public Safety].

Digimarc is one of several companies that are in the business of licensing and regulating driving. Another cited in the story is AAMVA, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, which operates a variety of driver surveillance programs under the AAMVAnet brand.

AAMVAnet is the conduit most states use to access various databases involved in driver license applications and renewals. Alabama uses the service for commercial driver license information, problem-driver point systems and Social Security number verification.

AAMVA is particularly interesting because it styles itself as a neutral interlocutor on motor vehicle administration, police traffic services and highway safety. But according to its non-profit disclosure form, its $30 million in 2003 revenue was comprised of $11 million in government grants and more than $14 million from “contracts/user fees” - most of it likely from operation of the Commercial Driver License Information System.

Anyone who understands the role of self-interest in guiding organizations - even ‘non-profits’ like AAMVA - must recognize that this is an advocate for increased driver regulation and surveillance, most recently through the REAL ID Act’s national identification card. If REAL ID is implemented, AAMVA stands to increase its revenue ten times over.

Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Martha Earnhardt told the Decatur Daily News, “As more and more states go through AAMVAnet, it hasn’t been able to handle the volume.” But AAMVA intends to move you into the national ID program - long lines or not - using your state and federal tax dollars.

More on AAMVA and the REAL ID Act can be found in my book Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misuderstood.

Political Entrepreneurship

From the Washington Post:

[Kevin] Schieffer is trying to persuade the Federal Railroad Administration to give him a $2.5 billion loan for the project [to build a 1000-mile rail line from Wyoming to Minnesota], among the largest in history.

If it succeeds, it could be a boon to farmers – and Schieffer.

The project would cut transportation costs for coal, corn and ethanol, and would make Schieffer what Fortune magazine calls “America’s first self-made railroad baron since the days of Teddy Roosevelt.”…

“He’s talking about using eminent domain out here and just wiping out 110 or 120 farms and ranches out here,” [rancher Paul] Jensen said.

Schieffer received help from an old friend, someone he admired as a South Dakota basketball legend years ago: Sen. John Thune (R), who defeated Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D) in 2004.

Despite opposition from the White House, Thune helped persuade Congress last year to increase the amount of the program from $3.5 billion to $35 billion. Thune, who received campaign contributions from Schieffer and who earned $220,000 as DM&E’s chief lobbyist in the 18 months before joining the Senate, is promoting the project to lure jobs. The law would allow Schieffer to put down no collateral and to make no payments for up to six years. [Sen. Mark] Dayton and other critics fear that taxpayers would be on the hook if the project were to fail.

He’s no James J. Hill.

Two Former Police Chiefs on Overkill

Joseph McNamara — a 35-year law enforcement official, including 18 years as a police chief in Kansas City and San Jose — has kindly praised my recent report on police militarization.

Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper also had some kind things to say about the paper.

The terrific group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) has also put out an extended press release and endorsement.

Is the President Even Paying Attention Anymore?

Via Matt Yglesias, this from President Bush:

“There’s a lot of suffering in the Palestinian Territory because militant Hamas is trying to stop the advance of democracy.”

As Matt properly asks, does it really make sense to argue that Hamas is trying to stop the advance of democracy – when democracy is what put them in power in the first place???

The Happiest Zombies

In the same vein as David’s fascinating post below, here is a refreshingly accurate article on the relationship between wealth and self-reported happiness around the world from the New Scientist titled “Wealthy Nations Hold the Keys to Happiness.” The occasion of the article is the publication of a world map by Adrian White, a Ph.D. psychology student at the University of Leicester, that vividly pictures self-reported life satisfaction around the world. The relationship between wealth and the percentage of people who say they are happy leaps out pretty clearly.

According to the analysis, a country’s happiness is closely related to its wealth, along with the health and education levels of its people. It is no surprise that people spending heavily on healthcare, such as US citizens, rank highly, says White, as this investment increases life expectancy and general wellbeing.

“There is a belief that capitalism leads to unhappy people,” he says. “However, when people are asked if they are happy with their lives, people in countries with good healthcare, a higher [earnings] per capita, and access to education were much more likely to report being happy.”

[…]

Large industrialised countries fared well in the new analysis, with the US and UK coming in at 23 and 41, respectively, out of 178 nations.

This stands in contrast with the recently released “Happy Planet Index” from the New Economics Foundation think tank, which placed Columbia and Honduras high up. The Happy Planet Index ranked each country according to the reported happiness level of its people divided by the amount of the world’s resources they consume.

“In the west we have the tendency to be the ‘worried well’,” White says. Too true.

I like to emphasize that self-reported subjective life satisfaction is a far cry from objective well-being, which includes non-subjective factors like health, longevity, the development of basic human capacities, and more. Complaining about the misery of life under capitalism is a sport for privileged people who, thanks to capitalism, are doing so objectively well that they can spend their days doing things like, say, getting a Ph.D. in American Studies from Berkeley and writing books about how Zombie movies reflect the horror of capitalism.

Now, I think most of us can agree that even if capitalism does give us boneheaded essays on the anti-capitalist implications of shambling, undead brain-eaters, all this health, wealth, and happiness probably makes it a good deal anyway.

Capitalism Saves

The Sunday New York Times has a great article — the first of a series on aging — titled “So Big and Healthy Nowadays That Grandpa Wouldn’t Even Know You.” Reporter Gina Kolata begins with this 19th-century biography:

Valentin Keller enlisted in an all-German unit of the Union Army in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1862. He was 26, a small, slender man, 5 feet 4 inches tall, who had just become a naturalized citizen. He listed his occupation as tailor.

A year later, Keller was honorably discharged, sick and broken. He had a lung ailment and was so crippled from arthritis in his hips that he could barely walk.

His pension record tells of his suffering. “His rheumatism is so that he is unable to walk without the aid of crutches and then only with great pain,” it says. His lungs and his joints never got better, and Keller never worked again.

He died at age 41 of “dropsy,” which probably meant that he had congestive heart failure, a condition not associated with his time in the Army. His 39-year-old wife, Otilia, died a month before him of what her death certificate said was “exhaustion.”

But his modern-day descendant, living in the same town of Hamilton, is healthy and going strong at 45. Kolata interviews doctors, economists, and gerontologists to find out why Americans are taller, heavier, healthier, and living longer. Describing the research of Nobel laureate Robert W. Fogel and his colleagues on Union Army veterans, she notes:

They discovered that almost everyone of the Civil War generation was plagued by life-sapping illnesses, suffering for decades. And these were not some unusual subset of American men — 65 percent of the male population ages 18 to 25 signed up to serve in the Union Army. “They presumably thought they were fit enough to serve,” Dr. Fogel said….

People would work until they died or were so disabled that they could not continue, Dr. Fogel said. “In 1890, nearly everyone died on the job, and if they lived long enough not to die on the job, the average age of retirement was 85,” he said. Now the average age is 62.

Much of this research has surprised scholars:

Life expectancy, for example, has been a real surprise, says Eileen M. Crimmins, a professor of gerontology and demographic research at the University of Southern California. “When I came of age as a professional, 25 years ago, basically the idea was three score years and 10 is what you get,” Dr. Crimmins said. Life span was “this rock, and you can’t touch it.”

“But,” she added, “then we started noticing that in fact mortality is plummeting.”

So why? Why has this epochal change — what Fogel calls “a form of evolution that is unique not only to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of humans who have ever inhabited the earth” — happened? Kolata discusses the benefits of better nutrition, cheaper food, vaccines, and antibiotics. But still:

“That’s the million-dollar question,” said David M. Cutler, a health economist at Harvard. “Maybe it’s the trillion-dollar question. And there is not a received answer that everybody agrees with.”

Kolata is a science reporter, so she’s looking for a scientific answer, and she’s found several that contribute to our health and longevity. But she’s missed the forest. What is it that started changing in the United States and northern Europe in the past few centuries? (Fogel’s book on the general trend is The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100: Europe, America, and the Third World.) Technology, yes. Nutrition and antibiotics and a better understanding of diet and exercise, absolutely. But what caused those things to appear after, as Fogel says, 7,000 generations?

Capitalism.

The introduction of the institutions of economic freedom in the Netherlands, Great Britain, the United States, and then the rest of the world beginning around 1700 caused what historian Steven Davies calls a “wealth explosion.” A great part of the unprecedented wealth creation went into sanitation and more abundant food and later into the research necessary to produce vaccines and antibiotics. Those institutions include secure private property, the rule of law, open markets, and economic freedom generally — or what Adam Smith called “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.”

Capitalism has made the West rich and thus healthier and longer-lived. It could do the same for Africa, Asia, and the Arab world.

Kolata overlooked this point. Her article never mentions capitalism, freedom, or even wealth as an answer to the trillion-dollar question. But it’s still a great report on just how much better off we are. For more data on such trends, check out It’s Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years by Stephen Moore and Julian L. Simon.