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A World in Which Only the Inexperienced Can Manage Big Programs

As we enter the thick of election season, Brian Riedl’s reminder on Vox should be firm in our minds:

… the democratic socialist agenda will face resistance not only from other lawmakers but from basic math. Their promises, which include free college, a single-payer health care system, guaranteed jobs, and more, would require astonishingly high expenditures that would cause the federal deficit to skyrocket. Once the costs become clear, most mainstream politicians and voters will surely balk. Making big promises is one thing; paying for them is another.

Riedl tallies $42.5 trillion (with a “t”) in new taxpayer spending over the first decade of the progressive program.  And, as Stephen Green further notes, “that’s before the ripple effects create the need for even more spending, which creates even more ripple effects, etc., until a once-wealthy country is ruined.”

Fortunately, if a conservative cabal were choosing the representatives of democratic socialism with an eye toward making it easy for the public to see the problem, they couldn’t have done better.  Bernie Sanders, for example, is an old rich guy whose wife’s questionable leadership of a Vermont college may have contributed to its closure.  Recent socialist upstart Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been a veritable gift to conservative meme-makers and humorists.  In Rhode Island, the standard bearer for the far left is Aaron Regunberg, an Ivy League transplant from another state who, as far as anybody knows, has never held a real job in his life.

Unfortunately, it’s a powerful ploy to promise people that the government can give them everything they need and want… and don’t worry, the people in control will always be on your cultural and ideological side.  Promise!  As for those who propose that we govern our society under the restrictions of reality, well, they’re demons, all of them.

Those of us demons in that reality-based camp have our work cut out for us.  The country’s education system has softened up a couple generations for the sort of mushy thinking that leads one to believe that politicians with dubious experience actually running things will be able to manage a number as big as $42,500,000,000,000, which is, like, a really big number.

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When Patients Become Costs in a Socialized System

While we should keep in mind that we’re getting one person’s understandably self-interested perspective on an ongoing series of interactions, Roger Foley’s experience is not exactly out of keeping with other anecdotes or the incentives of socialized medicine:

A Canadian man suffering from an incurable disease claims that despite asking for home care, the medical team at an Ontario hospital would offer him only medically assisted suicide.

Roger Foley, a 42-year-old from Ontario, has cerebellar ataxia, a rare disorder that limits his neurological abilities, restricting mobility in his arms, legs, as well as the performance of other daily tasks.

Dissatisfied with being bedridden in a hospital for two years, Foley asked for another option, and according to some recordings that he has released, people in the hospital system offered him an exit to the graveyard.

We don’t know whether these conversations were just two out of many, the rest of which were much more life-affirming, but without the home-care solution that Foley wanted.  We also don’t know what explanations were given for denial of that service.

Still, when government takes over the health care for an entire society, relationships and the standing of patients change.  We cease to be customers and become costs.  Even in a system in which government provides health care for just a segment of the population — the poor, the elderly, veterans — the patients are still customers, but with somebody else paying.

It is mystifying that so many people assume benevolence and competence within a system that is able to take its resources by force of law.  When such a system hits the ceiling for what taxpayers and central planners are willing to pay, it still has massive power over the recipients of its services, even if that power consists mainly of offering a choice between staring at a hospital ceiling and death.

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Blue Cross Executive Compensation and Social Lunacy

For some reason, WPRI’s Ted Nesi tacked a political ad for far-left progressive Democrat Aaron Regunberg to the end of an article about a massive parting gift from Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island to its departing CEO:

Aaron Regunberg, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, quickly criticized Blue Cross over the pay packages, and argued it shows the state needs to move to a single-payer health system.

“Every day I meet Rhode Islanders who are struggling to pay outrageous health care bills,” he said. “It feels like each year, insurance costs more and covers less. So why is Blue Cross seeking 10% rate hikes while handing their top executives immoral payouts of millions of dollars?”

It’s always strange for a news article to end with a question, which is more appropriate to commentary pieces, so let’s take a stab at an answer:  Blue Cross is seeking 10% rate hikes while handing its top executives payouts of millions of dollars because it can.  Thanks to government regulations, consumers’ options for health insurance are very limited, meaning that competitors can’t take advantage of indulgences like massive payouts to executives, and thanks to ObamaCare, the product that this limited number of providers are selling is mandatory for all Americans.

I realize that Regunberg was in high school in a distant state when Blue Cross was among the leading lights of Rhode Island corruption a decade ago.  Still, it shouldn’t take direct experience for him to understand that creating monopolies and intimate relationships between major corporations and government can lead to corruption.

That the story of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island’s corporate pay structure could be turned into a pitch for a single-payer health system shows how far into lunacy our public discourse has drifted.  Consolidating power helps the powerful, who will quickly find that they have more incentive to work together than to enthusiastically fulfill their roles as representatives for battling factions.

Rhode Island has built this truism into the organizing principle of our entire government.  One suspects that Regunberg is not ignorant of this reality but, rather, is looking for his path to the narrow end of its funnel.

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All We Need for Single-Payer Health Care: A Few Magic Beans (and an Emperor)

Far-left gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown is all in on some generic, unspecified, to-be-determined idea of a Medicare for All scheme, and if Rhode Islanders fall for this, we deserve every consequence we get.  I mean, here’s a guy putting forth a proposal that would radically alter our entire society, and…

Brown relied on his belief that savings from unnecessarily high administrative costs, sky high executive salaries — and lack of bargaining power — will help pay the tab.

Beyond that, he said: “The commission we will put together will explore ways to fund it.”

This is not serious thinking, and Matt Brown is not a serious candidate.  Like the progressive candidate for lieutenant governor, Aaron Regunberg, who has zero professional experience outside of far-left activism, Brown is merely jumping on a bandwagon and doing what politicians do: telling people what they want to hear.  Their ideas are little more than a local echo of some national icon — in this case, Bernie Sanders, whose own claims about saving money with Medicare for all Charles Cooke nicely summarizes, here:

… the Sanders “Plan” is going to save money. And all we need to do to get to that happy state of affairs is:

  • Force every doctor and hospital in America to accept Medicare reimbursement rates for all patients — these are 40 percent lower than the rates paid by private insurance — while assuming that this would have absolutely no effect on their capacity or willingness to provide services
  • Raise taxes by 10 percent of GDP — overnight
  • Explain to the 150 million people with private insurance that the rules have been changed so dramatically that (a) they can no longer keep their plans, and (b) henceforth, tens of millions among them will be paying more in taxes than they were previously paying in both premiums and out-of-pocket costs

Easy!

Here’s the bottom line: The villain in Matt Brown’s health care tale is “monopoly prices,” and his solution is to create an opposing monopoly.  As with most progressive policies, the core request is for voters to make the politician more powerful than people he or she insists are too powerful.  This will work out because progressives say so.

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When a Billionaire’s Undemocratic Influence Doesn’t Matter

A commentary piece by Jason Hayes appearing in the Wall Street Journal last month provides an example of progressives’ not really caring about the influence of “millionaires and billionaires,” provided it’s in their favor:

Michigan’s two largest electricity companies struck a “breakthrough agreement” last month with billionaire California environmentalist Tom Steyer to boost the Wolverine State’s clean-energy requirements. Earlier this year, Mr. Steyer had funded a ballot initiative slated for August to force Michigan’s electricity providers to source 30% of their overall sales from renewable options such as wind and solar by 2030. But under the new agreement, the utilities will aim to produce a minimum 25% of their energy from renewable sources and a further 25% from energy-efficiency measures by that same year. This 50% green-energy goal will effectively govern the state’s energy policy for at least the next decade.

News of the deal between Mr. Steyer and the utilities— DTE Energy and Consumers Energy—has left many in Michigan wondering what happened to the established process for setting energy policy. The deal hasn’t been approved by state officials or voters. How is it possible that two utilities and a single special-interest group can independently agree to raise the state’s renewable energy mandate and get away with it?

Had the Koch Brothers made some arrangement with a state’s electric utilities to take up some policy that would have increased the costs of energy, progressives would have made it the subject of weeks of national outrage.  But here’s the key point:  Most conservatives would have joined them.

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Amplifying Incumbent Protection Program of Campaign Finance

Maybe it’s a trap that has just organically formed due to human nature or maybe it’s a deliberate scheme, but ever-increasing campaign finance regulations are effectively an incumbent protection program.  Consider the next notch on the ratchet, as proposed by state representative Deborah Ruggiero and state senator Louis DiPalma:

The state’s campaign finance laws need to be tightened so officeholders and candidates cannot repeatedly amend their finance reports that list all expenses and contributions in a given period, according to Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown. …

“Mandating submission of a paper bank statement is a good first step, it allows the Board of Elections to easily identify discrepancies, but we should go further and require banks to send electronic statements directly to the [Board of Elections], as is done in Massachusetts,” Ruggiero said in the statement. “Most-needed though are stiffer penalties for repeated amendments to campaign finance reports and not filing on time.”

Having spent many hours working with the Board of Elections Campaign Finance Unit, I can report that situations easily arise that aren’t absolutely clear in the law and can lead to very time-consuming revisions of reports going back months simply to adjust for a $1 discrepancy.  And having worked with local candidates for office, I can also report that even just the prospect of having to fill out these forms is a significant disincentive to run.  If the rules are made even more strict more people will simply decide that it isn’t worth the effort or risk.

The question that arises is whether it’s more important for our democracy to be able to trace every penny that is donated or spent by state and local campaigns or to avoid having more than one-third of incumbents in the General Assembly winning their campaigns simply by getting their names on the ballot, because they have no opposition.  From my point of view, that isn’t even a close competition.

We’re not going to end corruption by catching it in nickel-and-dime inspection of small-time politicians’ campaign accounts.  We need to ensure that all politicians are under constant threat of losing their seats.  The bigger-time the corruption, the more likely the politician will be to hire people to avoid accounting errors, even as the people who would like to challenge him or her out of a sense of public service are tripped up and fined for minor errors and lapses.

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A Democrat Candidate Who Can Help to Change the Political Conversation

What’s striking is that ordinary followers of culture and politics in Rhode Island could very well never hear the perspective that Providence College theologian and Democrat candidate for state representative Holly Taylor Coolman expressed so well in an interview with Charles Camosy for Crux:

I have tried to be clear about what a pro-life stance means for me. It’s rooted in this fundamental commitment to human dignity. It’s rooted in my belief that we have to fight the temptation to exercise our own freedom at the expense of others. And it is indispensably connected to larger concerns: Everything from prison reform to affordable housing to protecting water sources has to do with respecting life. As a woman, I am deeply aware of the challenges that women have faced and continue to face. I just believe that we can find options that respect both women’s dignity and freedom and also the lives of unborn children.

Coolman (running in District 5, Providence) touches on one of the more peculiar differences between the Left and Right in Western discourse these days.  Conservatives tend to emphasize leaving people free of mandates from government, with the proviso that social norms and institutions should be in place to help them “fight the temptation to exercise [their] own freedom at the expense of others,” as Coolman puts it.  Progressives, in contrast, seem to believe that people should be free of all social restraints on whatever the government gives them permission to do.

For the moment, at least, we can imagine having the pleasure of Coolman’s forcing these sorts of debates in Rhode Island politics.

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Public Funding of the Press?

Here’s an interesting item, via former Providence Journal editorial page editor Robert Whitcomb:

In a very modest effort to help save local journalism, New Jersey is enacting a law that dedicates $5 million in state money to strengthen local media outlets. They’re very important as watchdogs in America’s decaying democracy. Political and other corruption rises as journalism fades.

I’m a bit skeptical about the premise.  So, we’ve got “very important… watchdogs” protecting us against “political and other corruption,” and the solution is to increase the extent to which they’re dependent upon government for funding?

The fact that the $5 million would be handed out by a consortium of universities is no comfort.  Even if they weren’t (at a minimum) dominated by public institutions, universities are overwhelmingly left-wing, which will color the news that they support.  Maybe fears about funding a government-news system could be somewhat abated if the consortium were a clever collection of balanced political and ideological interests, but the attempt isn’t even made.

In other words, a propaganda network doesn’t cease to be one simply because the funding passes through the hands of government’s reliable allies, who are also overwhelmingly allies of a particular political party.

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How About a No-Poach Agreement with Government on Private Decisions

Here’s another example of people who have a certain philosophy seeing government as a sort of universal corporate board or universal labor union:

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is leading a coalition of Democratic state attorneys general seeking information about “no-poach” agreements meant to block employees from leaving one fast food franchise to work for another franchise in the same chain.

Healey says Monday the agreements limit the ability of low-wage workers to seek promotions and earn a better living.

The attorneys general say 80 percent of fast food franchisors have no-poach agreements.

Franchises make agreements with their lead corporations for a host of reasons, from marketing to supply purchases to business operations.  They’re simply a step removed from a more-straightforward corporate structure, in which the executives would be able to set policy for when and how employees can transfer from branch to branch.

The key point — that which makes this not a matter of corporate giants versus the little-guy employees — is that these are all ways of making decisions and balancing interests.  The big-government view breaks everything into power, rather than relationships of shared interest, and posits elected officials and bureaucrats as overseers balancing interests.

A shared-interest perspective reveals this to be oversimplified to the point of falsehood.  Good employees are valuable to corporations, which won’t impose burdensome restrictions on them.  A great register operator who wants to move up into management can always move out… to a similar company, so the chain doesn’t have incentive to shackle him or her to the front counter rather than share within the brand.

But that interest has to be balanced against other considerations, like the trust of franchisees that the corporation won’t set them up to fail in competition with each other for customers and employees.  Government isn’t in a position to (or very good at) making these decisions for people, and should stay out of them in the absence of truly egregious abuses.

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Fear of the Unknown Beyond Big Government

If you follow Rhode Island politics at all, you’ve probably heard that independent gubernatorial candidate Joe Trillo hit a rock while cruising his yacht very close to the shore in Westerly so beach-goers could see the campaign sign on its side when they looked up to see where the blaring marching band music was coming from.  In response to Trillo’s blaming of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for faulty maps, Rhode Island Ethics Commission Chairman and Brown professor Ross Cheit tweeted:

In the land of limited government, who produces the navigation charts?

I suggested in reply that Professor Cheit should ask his students about Google Maps and consider whether people who buy expensive boats would create a market for a similar product.  He pretended not to understand my meaning, but it’s pretty clear to me.  People who spend hundreds of thousands, or millions, of dollars on boats have a substantial interest in avoiding things that might damage them of leave them swimming for their lives.  Perhaps it wasn’t always true, but technology is such, now, that something like Google Maps for under the water would certainly be plausible.

It’s amazing how pervasive is this fear of the unknown, as if beyond Big Government there be dragons.

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Progressive Red Tape Around Our Destinies

In harmony with my post, this morning, about the deadly incentives of socialized medicine, Dr. Bastiat has used the experience of a trip to the hair stylist for a compelling explainer of how progressive policies can win the political day, even as they suffocate people’s economic opportunity.  The woman cutting his hair told of how she’d wanted to go into business for herself, but the red tape and the costs it imposed transformed the start-up costs into too great of a gamble; the same was true for her husband, a mechanic.  Nonetheless, their attitude is that they can’t complain; “everything is ok.”

My Uncle Fred (Frederic Bastiat) described this as the seen versus the unseen. Progressives win elections because the benefits they provide are immediate and obvious. They give people free money with taxpayer dollars, or build highways with taxpayer dollars, or start new general assistance programs with taxpayer dollars. They’re working for you, and anyone with eyes can see it. The benefits provided by progressives are seen.

But the damage they cause is mostly unseen. In 30 years, Kaitlyn and her husband could have retired to a very nice community on the Gulf Coast and played golf for the rest of their lives. But they won’t. She’ll still be cutting hair for $12 an hour plus tips, and he’ll still be fixing lawn mowers for the city. Just like they are now.

They didn’t lose a fortune, because they never had the opportunity to earn one. Nothing happened. There they sit. And there they’ll stay.

Progressives may think they’re utopians who dream of a better tomorrow. But, in reality, they are the robotic defenders of the status quo. Everything stays the same because nothing happens. And when things don’t happen, those things don’t make the evening news. They didn’t happen at all, so there’s nothing to complain about. Everything is basically ok. And that’s the way it will stay.

Until it doesn’t.

One could also apply this principle across generations, as I did a bit with my late-Saturday post.  Maybe Kaitlyn and her husband would have been less interested in decades of golf and more interested in setting up their children for a better start than they’d had.  Either way, their children would have had the valuable experience of seeing their parents take control of their destinies, rather than depending on others to build their workplaces, as if “boss” were a separate class.

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A Predictable Scandal with Socialized Medicine

Anecdotes are generally unfair as markers of an entire system, but less so when they are in line with expectations.  Such is the case with Rupert Darwall’s Wall Street Journal commentary about fatalities in the British National Health Service (NHS).  Apparently, the latest scandalous report about parts of the system reveals one hospital’s “unlawful killing” of 650 patients and ensuing cover-up.

What makes this an indictment of the entire system is how precisely in line with the incentives of socialized medicine it is:

The report explains the almost identical dismissal of relatives’ concerns as a result of the “coincidence of interests” rather than conspiracy. When the state is a monopoly provider of health care, there is a political interest in suppressing bad news. In discussing whether to prosecute, one police officer noted the “perceived plight” of the NHS ahead of the 2001 general election. At a pivotal meeting of prosecutors closer to polling day, a government lawyer attacked Dr. Livesley and sabotaged the emerging prosecution case.

Proponents of socialized medicine condemn profit in health care, but a for-profit hospital does not have a financial interest in killing its patients. In the NHS, patients are a cost and troublesome ones can be put on a syringe driver, something a nurse told the police happened at Gosport.

When our society shifts responsibility to government, it tends to focus on the possible up-sides and assume that everybody involved will make genuinely selfless decisions, but what we really ought to watch is the change in incentives. Human beings find it all too easy to determine that something in their own interest is in the interest of everybody, by way of “the system” of which they are a part, even deceiving families while killing their loved ones.

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Having to Win the Culture War to Allow Pluralism

Rod Dreher posted a great comment from one of his readers that captures something important in what I would propose as the pretty typical conservative view:

In a weird way, I’m kind of angry on behalf of liberals, if that makes any sense, because it pisses me off that such fundamental questions can be decided by presidential elections or judicial nominations. Which goes back to why I’m a conservative: I don’t think many of these issues belong in the political realm in the first place, and when they do, I’d prefer they be dealt with at the lowest, most local level of government where it’s practical to do so.

In a country as large, diverse and populous as the United States, it is INSANE for one part of the country to dictate to another, vastly different part of the country how it shall conduct its affairs. I have absolutely no interest in telling people in San Francisco how to live their lives or govern themselves, but it feels like I have no choice because if I don’t, they’ll turn around and impose THEIR will on ME, and I have NO desire to live like San Franciscans. It’s crazy.

Conservatives come to these battles reluctantly, because outside some basic constitutional guarantees, we think all of the difficult questions that the country faces should be answered at the state… if not at the local or community… level.  In the past, I’ve presented the three basic freedoms that ought to be guaranteed at the federal level as the right to speak your mind, the right to work to change the government, and the right to leave.

Progressive zealots can’t abide anything like that.  Progressive non-zealots (what we used to think of as liberals) used to be able to do so, but it seems less and less feasible.  More and more, it seems, those on the Left can’t even differentiate between believing that somebody ought to have the right to do something and believing that it ought to be done.  How do we move forward as a pluralistic society if that isn’t a possibility?  Conservatives are beginning to come to the realization that we can’t.

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Culturally Appropriating the Other’s Victim Status

The other day Republican Rhode Island Senator Elaine Morgan tweeted out the following, from her political competition for District 34:

I’m white. I have privilege. But today and for the next four years, I’m Muslim. Put me on a list.

In all honestly, I’m not inclined attack somebody for a show of solidarity.  The “I’m white. I have privilege.” thing is kind of silly, but if there is genuine persecution going on, there’s nothing wrong with an “I am Spartacus” movement.

That said, I’d like to know the rules.  Wouldn’t it be cultural appropriation for a privileged white person to usurp the victim status of a minority group, particularly in a society that places such a high value on victim status?  Evidence that the appropriator, in this case, places value on victim status arises in the thread of replies to her tweet, which includes her further explanation that she’s “never been given a hand up because [she’s] a woman.”

I’d request a clear guide on all of these matters, but I suspect not having clear rules is key to their value to progressives.  A fine appreciation of the ever-changing rules illustrates a deeper conformity than simple pronouncements of agreement and solidarity.

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