Sunday, March 28, 2010

On healthcare, again ...again

Well since I rely heavily on The Economist as my primary news source, it should come as no surprise to find that I'm essentially echoing their views, albeit in a much less eloquent way. For those of you that aren't avid readers of the news magazine, its important to note that even given these critiques The Economist supported the passage of this bill based on the humanitarian imperative of insuring more people. I can't link to the article for non-subscribers, but here are a few excellent excerpts from their business commentator who puts it far better than I did (feel free to ignore my previous post as this pretty much sums it up):

"Obamacare has taken the most idiosyncratic feature of American health care - the fact that the onus for providing health insurance falls first and foremost on companies rather than on individuals- and set it in concrete."

"Left-wingers point out that employer-provided health care fails to control costs ... conservatives argue that costs would come down if individuals rather than companies were responsible for their own insurance. But Mr. Obama insisted from the first that Americans who liked their existing cover would be able to keep it"

"General Motors complains that providing health care adds $1500-2000 to the cost of every car it produces in America" (!!!)

"... employees feel no compunction about undergoing expensive treatments, since the company pays. The fact that employer-provided insurance is untaxed blunts employers' incentives to control cost"

and finally

"overhauls of something as complicated as America's health-care system only come once in a generation."

Let's hope they're wrong.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

On health care, again

In a word: ambivalence.

So health care passed and depending on who you talk to its either turned this country into an egalitarian paradise or a fiscal nightmare. Both claims are equally ludicrous.

I'm not happy with the legislation that passed because, as I saw it, there were/are two goals to health care reform. We wanted to stop spiraling costs from destroying both private pocketbooks and public entitlement programs, and we also wanted to finally join the rest of the civilized world by insuring most citizens. Well, we've successfully accomplished the latter goal, but even the most ardent supporters of this reform bill have to admit utter defeat on the first.

My lack of happiness stems from our lack of doing what I saw as the more important goal: changing the incentives in this perverse system in order to cut costs. As I saw it, bringing down health care costs would allow more people to afford it and thus bring more people into the system. Bringing more people, however, into a clearly broken system just puts a heavier strain on policies that have been failing for quite some time and will continue to do so.

My lack of outright unhappiness comes from the fact that I don't see broadening the social safety net as an inherently bad thing. I'm glad more people are insured, and it seems that this bill did it in a relatively responsible way. I still think the fiscal aspect is highly overstated: almost everyone compares this bill to the Massachusetts plan which isn't necessarily failing but has far exceeded even the wildest of initial cost estimates. As such, it has turned to the federal government for help, but the federal government won't have that luxury.

The cost estimates from the CBO rely heavily on the ability of congress to approve taxes and recommendations in the future, such as the 'Cadillac Tax' that is supposed to become effective in 2018. This can, and most certainly will be undone with the stroke of a pen once 2017 rolls around and thus the budget estimate becomes meaningless. Likewise, supposed cost cutting measures come from a panel that will set guidelines regarding the efficacy of certain treatments that are contingent on congress signing into law. We all know how well that will work, it's hardly been 6 months since the recommendations for mammograms caused outright vitriol across the country.

Nevertheless, I'm glad to live in a country where more people will be insured and I don't think the effect on growth will be that horrendous. Make no mistake about it though, these taxes will have a net detrimental effect. Caterpillar predicts 100 million in added costs, AT&T: 1 Billion. Yes we'll insure people with that money, but it will absolutely come at the expense of jobs and productivity. I'm okay with that, but it's essential to keep in mind.

The real issue now is how to get at cost. Unfortunately, and I hope I'm wrong on this, passage of this bill makes further reform even less likely if only for the fact that people are sick of hearing about health care. We do, however, need tort reform. We absolutely do need to take away the tax breaks for employer provided insurance. This ridiculous system serves only to obfuscate health care costs and prevents individuals from being able to accurately weigh the costs and benefits of certain health plans and procedures. We would all be much better off if our paychecks were a bit larger and we could use that money to shop around for our own insurance plans like they do in every other non-single-payer country in the developed world. Increasing transparency and bridging the information gap at this microeconomic level is crucial to fixing our macroeconomic problem.

Politically, I laugh in the face of angry Republicans on this one. They claimed the system was broken and provided abslutely no concrete fixes. How hard would it have been to say at the health care summit, here: this is our plan. But they didn't. Instead they talked about tort reform, and even then it was far to late. They had the chance to get these good ideas into the Senate Finance Comittee's initial bill, but they belly ached and left the processs completely. The sad thing is that tort reform would have been great to add to this bill, as would have been the end of employer tax breaks. I think the bill would have been far better with some of these Republican ideas, none of which were at odds with this existing legislation.

Instead they kept them as mere ideas rather than concrete proposals and stood steadfast in their opposition to the current bill which really isn't all that bad and they know it. Just ask Mitt Romney the conservative poster child who passed an 85% similar bill a few years ago in Massachusetts. Whining about the individual mandate is absolutely shameful; this was THEIR idea in the mid 90's. You absolutely can't stop the exclusion of pre-existing conditions without the individual mandate because everyone would wait until they get sick to go sign up for insurance. Likewise, you can't break this bill into smaller chunks and tackle them one at a time as was preposterously suggested: it's clear that these policies rely on one another to be effective.

That's not to say I'm happy with the Democrats, after all, why on earth isn't tort reform in here? Just because it was a Republican idea? Clearly bowing to the unions are why the employer tax break stays put, and why the Cadillac Tax won't be implemented for 8 years, if ever. My inclination is to take the government intervention out of the system rather than add more regulation, but I know not everyone would agree. This is why I advocate less government intervention in the realm of giving tax breaks to businesses that supply health insurance. I just truthfully can't fathom the argument for this system especially in the face of an individual mandate where everyone would be forced to get health care. It's a 'less-government' idea, and why democrats can't support a single decrease in government size is mind-boggling.

In any event, we're left with a new entitlement that is mostly paid for and will help a lot of people in this country, most of whom are from lower income brackets, get access to health care. It also leaves us with a politically toxic and polarized environment which will make further reform on health and other issues more difficult. It adds more stress to an already broken system of health delivery, and it does little to curb costs and nothing increase tranparency at the microeconomic level so that individuals can make more rational decisions. The tax increases aren't crippling to growth, but considering the other inevitable tax increases that will be required to come close to balancing the bloated federal budget, they might quickly approach crippling.

With that rant, I'll leave you with some of the better articles that I've read on the issue. Most of these are critical or ambivalent, and I'm purposefully doing that because the benefits of having more people insured are clear. Reading some critiques can help us decide whether the costs (which are far less clear) are worth the benefits.

From Cafe Hayek

From The Economist
From the American Enterprise Institute

Another from AEI

And as a special treat, here is a fantastic bonus article on entitlements

Saturday, March 13, 2010

On Capitalism: a love story

Another movie review? I'm running short on things to say as of late and can't help myself on this one.

I'm not going to judge this film on its cinematography, because Moore clearly knows how to make a documentary. Rather, I'm going to briefly tirade against the dishonest, illogical drivel that makes up the films content. I'll limit myself to two case studies for the sake of brevity but I could probably annotate the entire film with counter arguments and objections to populist cheap shots (should we somehow feel convinced that Priests and actors know what the hell they are talking about with respect to the economy?).

The first is that we should somehow feel bad that airplane pilots don't make as much money as Michael Moore thinks that they should. Sure I'd love to pay them more, but does anyone think that the majority of Americans are willing to pay extra money on the cost of the airfare to pad pilot's salary? Their job requires education and great responsibility, but how else are we supposed to reward them if not by letting customers decide how much they are willing to pay for their services? Their income is decided not buy some bureaucrat or industry executive, but by the American public voting not with their hopes and wishes but by putting money where their mouth is.

Maybe low income levels will discourage young pilots-to-be from getting their pilots lisence, this dimished supply will inturn lead to a higher demand for well trained pilots who can thus demand a higher wage(!). Artificially setting their wage, however, will encourage an excess supply of people wanting to become pilots and having to compete for a limited number of jobs. We would thus have a large number of pilots, many of whom are unemployed while the rest make a great wage but are ready to be fired on a whim because there is always someone else waiting in the wings to take their tenuous job. I say that having a supply of pilots that meets demand even if their wage isn't as 'fair' as some might like is a far better option.

Moore also goes to an electronics manufacturing co-op to espouse how great it is when companies are run and owned by their members. Somehow through all of this we're supposed to forget the fact that he is in Michigan, and that the capitalist system that he denegrades throughout the film clearly allows, nay enables, this to happen. I say yes to more worker owned co-ops who pay their workers a decent wage, and I bet a majority of the population does too.

Of course, we say this, but are we willing to pay extra money for it? This co-op that he visits seems to be doing a good job, and more power to them. If they were able to produce quality goods at a low price, there would probably be a lot more of them. Even if they weren't able to bring costs down as low as large corporations, if the majority of this country really valued their manufacturing and ownership process higher, there would be more of them because they're not limited by the government or by evil corporations.

Their success is limited by how many people are willing to vote with their money and buy products produced from worker owned co-ops. I belong to a food co-op, and I pay a premium for it. But really, the fact that its across the street from my house is a prime motivator and I'm not willing to pay a 10% surcharge on a car, computer, etc. just to know that it was made from a factory that was owned by its employees. And even if I was willing to do so, I could under our terrible capitalist system...

As best as I can remember, I liked Bowling from Columbine and Farenheit 9/11. I was of course a young, idealistic, liberal college student at the time but can recall that many arguments that Moore made resonated with me to the point of being ready to grab my pitchfork and descend upon the District. The faint recollection of these other films and my agreements with them made my stomach churn as I listened to one illogical argument after another in this movie.

Oh how I hope that his earlier films really aren't this awful upon reviewing. It will make me so jaded about the entire liberal college aged crowd to which I once belonged as well as personally ashamed that I couldn't recognize poorly crafted arguments. For now, I'll simply say that this film is a two hour lesson in half baked economic populism with no understanding of economic reality and no solutions/suggestions for the areas where problems clearly do exist. Instead, we're left with a tried and true delusional argument (I hate to even use the word) about how great life was in the 50's, how ruinous it has since become, and how terrible it is when factories close down because someone else can produce a product better and cheaper.

If democratic socialism is the goal, how is it possible to not once visit or talk about Scandinavia? There is a cogent argument to be made against U.S. style capitalism. I'm not sure I agree with it but I at least acknowledge that if your value systems differ, the Scandinavian model can be an appealing alternative that trades a certain amount of technological innovation for a larger social safety net. This film, however, isn't the place to learn about it or anything else for that matter.

*posted on my blog, fingerprints.and.snowflakes*

On The Hurt Locker

Well at the risk of being too untimely, and having not written an entry in quite some time, I'm going to frantically write down a few thoughts about this years Best Picture: The Hurt Locker.

I'm ever so thankful that Up in the Air didn't win, because really at that point they might as well have given the award to Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. And, I'm also glad that Avatar didn't win either as its plot line was rivaled only by GI Joe (which was clearly robbed of several acting awards).

I'm happy that The Hurt Locker won. It is a deserving picture, and is one of a very select number of movies that really had me emotionally involved. This isn't to say that I felt for the characters, but rather that the tensest moments of the film were gut wrenching for me. I give a great amount of praise to any movie that can evoke a visceral reaction in its viewer, even if every now and then I shook the feeling off and felt rather ashamed at the grip that it had on me. Because after all, I can't help but feel duped when a film can successfully play my heartstrings like a harp from time to time; this to me is the very definition of trite even when done well.

Of course, I'd be amiss not to mention the content of the film which has caused quite a bit of fury in the press, namely that the movie is (apparently) completely unrealistic. As someone who never went to war, I'm not going to comment on the accuracy but I did read a few interesting analyses. All of the events depicted in this film have happened to some degree, but they have happened to different units. In that sense, the film makers weren't being completely untruthful but it does require a bit of information gathering on the audiences behalf to gain anything factual rather than emotional from the film.

Whether its okay to be untruthful in the name of art is an open debate. I personally don't think the film really built up these characters strongly, and it could have easily been shot with a different unit involved in each situation. This would presumably be much more realistic, while changing little in the way of content. But I suppose for narrative purposes, portraying all events as happening to one unfortunate unit in 50 days creates a better story; it is however at least worth acknowledging the expense of realism.

The reason that there is so much uproar is because the film is shot in a very documentarian style. In that sense, it implicitly casts itself as reality and dupes the majority of its viewing audience into the delusion that they understand the reality of life as a soldier in Iraq. Most soldiers agree that they accurately and artfully crafted the tense feeling and tenuous relationships of the military to the Iraqi civilian population. This is why it won an Oscar and why in my mind it is an artistic success that contributes greatly to the public discourse on the successes and limitations of this war and war in general.

I do however tend to agree with the 'wolf in sheeps clothing' argument about the obligations of artists. No one gave a second thought to the factual basis for Avatar, but this film clearly gives the feeling that what the viewer is watching is a direct depiction of reality and in that sense I think artists absolutely do have an obligation to adhere loosely (how loose is to loose?) to facts. I suspect that many would disagree with me here, and the good served by this film may very well overshadow its inaccuracies but its a discussion worth having.

We can all see that film makers obviously benefit by creating a feeling of realism whether through a few words at the beginning (The following events were based on a true story...) or the minimalist approach to cinematography taken by The Hurt Locker. I merely propose that there is a line, which I don't intend to properly articulate, whereby the cost of doing so (in terms of a grossly misinformed populace) exceeds the benefit (public awareness of life in Iraq in this films case).

With regards to the book 'A Million Little Pieces', I proudly fall in the camp that states that no matter how much good this book did in encouraging people to seek help from drug addiction, the author's means of doing so by presenting fiction as fact in the name of making a better story were untruthful, shameful, and should be vilified. I don't propose that The Hurt Locker goes that far (unless it starts showing up in Documentary sections), but it is treading a fine line.

If you have any other examples (I'm sure there are tons that are eluding me at the moment) where art embelishes reality for better or for worse, I'd love to hear about them and discuss the issue further.

*posted on my blog, fingerprints.and.snowflakes*

Sunday, February 28, 2010

On libertarians and the right to bear arms

I had a rather heated online discussion the other day at the blog Cafe Hayek. Entries on this particular blog vary from poignant economic insight, to sheer partisan drivel. But if you can excuse some of the quizzical rants, you can actually find some good libertarian/conservative arguments. My discussion the other day started because the author linked to an article ranting about the right to bear arms and this raised a few issues with me, most of which remain unresolved.

1) If you believe that the constitution grants you the right to bear arms, and that this right should not be impinged in any way, my argument is essentially that you logically must believe that every single citizen has the right to build a nuclear warhead in their back yard, drive an abram's tank on the D.C. beltway, walk around NYC with a pocket full of anthrax, take assault rifles into public schools, etc. Any law preventing either of these scenarios would surely violate the "right to bear arms" tenet that you so strongly believe in. I'm taking extreme examples here, but any strict constitutional or libertarian argument would have to agree with this and any reasonable thinking human being realizes that this would be sheer lunacy and our country would be in ruins in no time.

So, if we throw away the purely libertarian argument, we essentially have to draw a line in the sand that says what arms we truly have the right to bear. I don't claim to know the answer to that, but I'm pretty sure that intra-continental ballistic missiles should be banned, and bb-guns should not. In between is an enormous gulf which I don't wish to get into, but this is where serious arguments can happen.

Should we ban any item that has the potential to kill more then 10 people in 60 seconds? How about anything that can be concealed? Explosives? Projectiles? The ways that you slice up 'arms' could be infinite but I trust that some ways of slicing can strike a reasonable balance between individual liberty and societal welfare. That's a scary thought to libertarians, and if you take a stance on either end of this spectrum I'll grant that your argument is logically consistent. If you however give an inch by agreeing that c-4 explosives shouldn't be allowed on airplanes, you leave yourself open to virtually any attack on the 'right to bear arms' because you clearly don't stand behind that right with all your weight.

2) I have even less patience for the logic behind the constitutional argument than I do for the libertarian viewpoint which I attempted to deconstruct above. Quite frankly, the constitution is wrong. It has been wrong in the past (3/5ths law anyone?), and will be wrong in the future. That's why we have amendments, and I feel strongly that the current incarnation of the US constitution is far better with amendments than it was in its initial framing. As a document, it has surely held up fantastically well over the years, but the day we treat it as scripture is the day when this country is left standing still in an otherwise moving world. How I loathe religious like deference to the constitution....

3) Of course, not all arguments about the right to bear arms defer to the constitutional or libertarian reasoning highlighted above. A well armed populace really might be the best deterrent to crime. While I don't necessarily agree, we could have a lot of heated discussions looking at facts, figures, and natural experiments to see how safe loose gun laws really make us. Depending on what those studies say, I'd have a very open mind. This is a discussion worth having, but best left to another day.

4) Trying to look at the libertarian argument in this one case was kind of illuminating and made me realize that I'm not at all sure of the difference between libertarianism and anarchy (aside from the fact that one sounds so much more academic and intelligent). I fail to see how a single law would pass were it to be judged against the criteria that if it restricts an individuals freedom it is not worth having.

Libertarians avoid potentially calamitous claims about murder or theft by saying that you can do whatever you want as long as it doesn't infringe on the rights of others, but I'd love to hear cogent deconstructions of drunk driving, smoking, speeding, etc. All of these cases can potentially be areas where you harm someone else, so do we allow them? Do we allow some, but not others? Where do we draw the line?

What about wearing a seatbelt or a helmet? By not wearing a seatbelt you're sure to need more medical care when you get into an accident and the costs of this will rarely be recovered from the individual. Make no mistake about it, we all pay more whether its through taxes or insurance premiums to subsidize foolish choices such as riding a motorcycle without a helmet or eating McDonald's 5 days a week. Isn't this an infringement on my rights which in turn could lead to laws to limit this behavior?

5) I've been told that: "A true libertarian asks one question, and one question only about a political policy: does it increase individual liberty? If yes, then a libertarian is for it. No, against."

Presumably restricting the freedom of individuals to restrict their own freedom if they so choose is the one exception...

6) All this criticism and I consider myself a libertarian. Just not a crazy one.

*posted on my blog, fingerprints.and.snowflakes*

Friday, February 12, 2010

On free trade

After listening to this weeks EconTalk, which is essentially a lecture on the merits of free trade that I recommend to anyone who still has doubts, I felt compelled to write a response to Russ Roberts on where I see his analysis falling short.

I'm not going to summarize his argument, but rest assured he makes a compelling, albeit tried and tested case, for why trade helps everyone in the long run and that 'self sufficiency is the road to poverty'. In simple thought experiments, as well as practical real world examples, the benefits of trade are virtually indisputable; my qualm comes when we try to extrapolate these findings to a global scale.

The global marketplace is filled with individuals and groups that not only speak different languages, but also have drastically different cultural norms as well as varying degrees of governmental regulation and support. Recognizing that governments are imperfect (as they are made up of imperfect individuals), we have to account for the fact that conflicts will inevitably arise. In a truly interconnected idealized global economy with high degrees of specialization, countries of the world would be mutually dependent on one another to potentially damaging degrees. This dependence wouldn't necessarily be even as some goods are quite frankly more important to immediate survival than others. Markets provide a way to equate goods by differential valuation, but this doesn't change the fact that humans have several absolute necessities such as food, water and shelter which will always take economic priority over iPods and mattresses.

Let me expand on this thought: Japan has emerged over the past decade as the global leader in automobile sales. It makes economic sense to say: if Japan can produce better automobiles for cheaper, Detroit should close down and there would be no need to produce cars in America. We could instead focus on something that we do well, say harvesting corn. However, if for some unforeseen reason Japan stopped exporting cars to the US, a large sector on which our economy depends would come to a stand still causing massive disruption. And without existing factories, no matter how inefficient they may be, the US would have a several year lag time until they would be able to start producing cars on their own. In this respect, I can see an argument for why we would keep subsidizing a failing industry that is crucial to our economy.

The US could tolerate a lag time in automobile production, but in the case of more essential goods like raw building materials (concrete, steel, plastics, etc.), medicine, and food, any trade disruptions would have absolutely devastating consequences for the country who is on the losing end. To overcome this possibility, countries specializing in relatively low priority goods would have to find other ways to make up for their clear lack of economic power that arises from the inherent inequity of goods. How they do so could involve physical defense in the form of weapons, or pacts with other countries neither of which are ideal options for economically disadvantaged countries that with to retain a certain amount of political autonomy.

To put it bluntly: small, poor countries hardly get a fantastic deal out of this situation. They may benefit greatly from free trade in lieu of disruptions, but when conflicts arise the well diversified rich countries can weather the storm leaving nations that are unable to produce their own food to fall into ruin.

In an interconnected world, economic sanctions could be far more devastating than any bomb. This is not an issue amongst a tribe of traders, or even between states and nations where well designed social and political institutions can easily handle conflicts. Yet, as the circle of free trade grows, so to does the potential for conflict and disruption. Why we can't all just get along is more an issue for philosophers and political scientists but it has real ramifications for the economics of globalization when we realize that there is not a serious institution that can be deferred to in order to solve conflicts on a global scale. When distances expand and trading partners become a number rather than a face, there is a much greater potential for fraud and misrepresentation. Designing efficient conduits for information exchange can help alleviate some of these problems, but cultural barriers may still lead to misunderstandings and outright acts of aggression between trading partners.

In reality, I'm still a staunch supporter of open borders and tariff free goods and I see trade friendly policies as being crucial to economic development and technological advancement across the world. However, serious information/transparency problems as well as cultural/linguistic divides invariably emerge between economic actors as interactions are scaled to the global arena.

Though the costs might not outweigh the obvious benefits, at very least we need to recognize that trade occurs in an imperfect political environment. Therefore there are costs which could outweigh the benefits in certain situations, whether real or hypothetical, and lead to protectionist policies being reasonable options. I don't claim to be able to predict those situations, but as a scientist I recognize that all theories must be falsifiable and we all benefit from further investigation and tests to our theories.

*posted on my blog: fingerprints.and.snowflakes

Friday, February 5, 2010

On why I don't hate the tea party movement

And by don't hate, i mean kind of like. Kind of.

My political views over the past several years can be summed up by saying that I loathe the Republican party ever so slightly more than the Democratic party. My free-market ideology heavily favors economic libertarianism and is therefore more closely aligned to textbook 'small-government' conservatism but unfortunately I find Republican stances on social issues such as abortion, immigration, privacy, gun control, defense spending, executive power, and gay rights as falling somewhere between misguided to utterly abhorrent. My passionate disagreements on these latter issues has regrettably forced me to swallow my economic misgivings and side with the Democrats in most elections.

But perhaps change is afoot. The tea party movement firmly values fiscal conservatism and smaller government in general (read: libertarianism) and as this party grows in size several possible outcomes could happen:

1) Most likely, it will fizzle out and die leaving little to no lasting impact; no one wins and all the outrage is for naught. I'm left hating Democratic economic practices and Republican social/international practices alike.

2) By emphasizing what was once the core ideology of the Republican party above all else, I hold out hope that perhaps Republicans will be persuaded to suspend their unrelenting assault on social issues which has so scorned me over the years. Pro-life, anti-immigration, and pro-war are just a handful of issues that are ideologically unrelated to the issue of small governance and fiscal conservatism but these issues dominate party rhetoric and policy on virtually all fronts.

However, and this is an enormous however, I maintain a lasting skepticism that the tea-party is really only about fiscal conservatism and libertarian economic policies as opposed to the traditional god-fearing, gay-hating, gun-touting, war-hawk evangelical conservatism that I so despise. They've made the populist argument of less government, but time will tell if they stick to such a limited scope.

3) Almost a non-existent but ever-so-delightful chance is that the Republican party could split from the pressure resulting in a clear distinction between Republican moderates and hard-line conservatives. I cherish the thought and would further love to see the Democratic party split into two parties as well. Ideally, this would leave a ruling coalition of moderates at the center with each party having their fringe activists that lose and gain in popularity creating slight shifts in how the ruling center buffers popular opinion and thus governs.

4) Rather than split the Republican party, there is a chance that Republicans could instead be pulled further to the right. Democrats could thus move rightward which would shift the entire spectrum to the right or they could react by moving leftward creating a rapidly polarized government. On the surface, this would be awful but perhaps if it were to occur the outcome could look somewhat like number 3 whereby a vacuum in the center brings moderates together as a reaction against policy crippling polarization that has slowly been occurring.

Of all those options, most sound pretty okay to me except for the dreadful thought of the fiscal conservatism movement morphing into a growing evangelical conservatism movement. As long as that doesn't happen, some intelligent shifts in economic policy and decreasing emphasis on social issues would be a breath of fresh air potentially benefiting both parties.

The Democrats are succeeding in getting people incensed at the growing size of government, and perhaps this can be placated in exchange for a Republican easing on the social front. Any movement that brings this about, no matter how convoluted the means, garners my undying support.

*posted on my blog: fingerprints.and.snowflakes*

Saturday, January 30, 2010

On iPads and Mao Zedong

Let me get this out of the way: I haven't touched an iPad, I don't own an iPhone, have never owned an iPod nor used iTunes, but I am writing this on a MacBook. So there.

That being said, I have more than a slight bit of disdain for Apple. It's not entirely justified, but at least I can admit this much. If you've read my scatter brained review of Up in the Air, its pretty obvious that I struggle at distancing products from reviews and hype. And so it is with the iPad, which seems like a great little toy that I might even want to buy if it were not for the fact that I'm being assaulted from all angles with undying praise for Steve Jobs and his new earth shattering product.

My number one complaint is that I don't understand how no one seems let down by this thing. We knew Apple would release a tablet, we knew it would be a giant iPhone, but seriously, didn't we expect it to to at least have maybe one feature aside from its size that isn't on the iPhone? The iPhone has been absolutely revolutionary, so I struggle to see how the iPad will match this kind of impact when it does nothing new.

My much more biased yet substantiative complaint is that the media fawn over Apple in such a way that makes Obama look like he's Joe Lieberman. So many companies have tablets in the pipeline, and so many others have been doing similar things for years but nevertheless the coming tablet revolution is accredited solely to Steve Jobs and his Jesus tablet. This device might change what an operating system looks like, and who knows, that idea could even stick. But knowing that devices take years to develop makes it pretty obvious that Apple is not some kind of isolated visionary on any of these issues.

How they have built up such a reputation is the source of my disgust, and that is: marketing, marketing, marketing. I have zero reservations in complimenting them on their genius marketing and advertising skills. I doubt they're forcing every publication in the country to sing their praises. Rather, it just comes naturally from the reputation that they have built not by producing the best most innovative, high quality devices, but by producing pretty good ones and marketing them like a snake-oil charlitan all over the world.

I really don't dislike most Apple devices that I have used, and on the contrary find them to be above average products. But no Apple users think they're using an above average product. To the ever growing and highly vocal Apple elite, they're the best products ever made and I just frankly fail to see it. They have become the Burberry of computing. High quality products to be sure but known far more for their prestige. This creates a self perpetuating positive feed back cycle that adds no technological value to the product but greatly increases perceived value.

Their secretive nature and control issues are laughable and I still think it kill the company in the long run if they don't relax a little bit and loosen the death grip that they hold over all of their proprietary software and hardware. Apple is the business incarnation of Maoist communism, with a tight top-down control struture that regulates all aspects of development, production, pricing, distribution, and sales.

This is perhaps most evident in their ridiculous agreement with AT&T which for some unknown reason they are actually going to continue with the iPad. It really makes no sense why they wouldn't relinquish a bit of control and let Verizon and T-Mobile customers reap the benefits of their hardware in the true spirit of the competitive marketplace.

Would I like to play with an iPad? Sure. I might even think about buying one a few years down the line. But someone has to be the one to say that it's just not that big of a deal. Their products just aren't that amazing. Rant complete.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

On deficit doves

It appears that the senate has rejected Obama's proposed deficit panel. While I'm quite frankly not informed enough about this particular proposal to make any judgments, I do think it's time I dedicate a few words to the deficit hysteria that has swept the nation.

For the sake of brevity I don't want to write about the lead up to the financial crisis and what could have been done differently. I wouldn't say I've completely swallowed the Keynesian pill, but ignoring the economic policies allowed the bust to happen, our solutions were limited to letting government spending make up for private shortfalls or to do nothing and let the economy pick itself up by the boot straps over an arduously long period of time.

If your brother needed money for knee surgery, and you had a comfortable credit line that allowed you to borrow a few thousand dollars to help him out, wouldn't you take on some debt to help out? Sure he should have saved and planned ahead incase something like this happened, but given that he didn't you can either loan him money and lecture him later, or you can let him slowly recover. The latter might be better for his future integrity and to teach him a lesson, but it won't help out the other family members who rely on his being able to go to work.

Yet, the government had been carrying a balance on that proverbial credit card for many years. Even thought it makes sense to borrow in order to save the economy during a bust, the elephant in the room is asking the question: why on earth we weren't paying down debt during the boom years?

Counting myself as a relative fiscal conservative, I find it abhorrent that during the most prosperous and profitable years in known economic history, our government was still adding to its cumulative debt burden by running a yearly deficit for the entire duration of the Bush administration. I'll try to refrain from being too political here, but amidst cries about our country heading to a socialist dystopia under the Obama administration, it's at least worth noting that prior republican administration far outspent the Clinton administration which had several years of budget surplus (*gasp*) in the mid 90's.

As the current administration clearly adds to the debt burden with what will hopefully be short term economic crutches to get its brother the economy back on track, its worth asking the question to deficit doves: when exactly will we be able to worry about the debt? When the economy is growing healthily, the US is like an individual who gets a hefty raise every year, so every year he decides to carry a higher balance from month to month on his credit card to keep up with his increasingly expensive tastes. Rather than look at the credit card balance, its far more indicative to look at it interms of income and that is what debt to GDP ratio is for the government. I don't see any inherent problem in our gross level of debt rising as long as we can come to a consensus on exactly what levels of debt/GDP would be problematic.

I don't think we're at that point yet, and most mainstream economists don't either, but public choice economists will also be the first to tell you that unless we set that standard before we hit it, no government will ever admit that we are there.

You absolutely can not have your cake and eat it to, even though all politicians will try to tell you that you can. We can not fund national healthcare without adding to the deficit, it's adding another expenditure without a proportionate income. I'm okay with making this choice, but lets not delude ourselves into thinking that the government budget is anything other than revenue in the form of taxes plus expenditures in the form of social programs, wars, infrastructure, etc.

If we make the choice to care about the deficit, someone has to pay for it. Once unemploment drops back to around 9% and we can safely say our economy is back on track, someone should start paying. Even if it only lasts for a few years, we need to prove that this country has the political will and ability to pay down debt and run a surplus in the good times. That knowledge can go a long way in sending the right signals to the global marketplace about the health of the american government, economy, and dream.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

On terrorists and criminals

Defending the rights of criminals has always been a thankless job but let me give it a try. John McCain was spouting off this past week about why Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab should be tried in a military court and stripped of all rights afforded under the constitution. Seriously John McCain, have you completely stopped paying attention to the words that are coming out of your mouth?

I'll be the first to admit that no longer referring to a 'war on terror' is purely a rhetorical move by the Obama administration, but it nevertheless pleases me greatly. There is not and never has been a unified definition of 'terror' or terrorists. It has always been a convenient word to rouse populist uproar and create a sense of us vs. them, good guys vs. bad guys, all of which makes it easier for the war mongers among us to justify a bloated defense and security budget.

Make no mistake about it, whether we call them terrorists or not isn't going to make them go away. But there is a certain dignity in being honest about the way we label our enemies; axis of evil anyone? Calling every terrible thing that happens in this world an act of terrorism and evil gets us nowhere. And trying to make an arbitrary line between who is a terrorist and who is a criminal on a case by case basis shameful.

If someone can give me a consistent black and white definition of a terrorist, I might reasonably accept the differential treatment that goes with it. Does a terrorist have to attempt to kill more than 5 people? 100? Does it have to be in the name of Islam? How about other extreme religions? Why stop at religion at all, what about political groups? Scrabble clubs?

Wars are no longer, and probably will never be again, fought in the trenches. 'Enemy combatants' and garden-variety murderers are increasingly harder to tell apart from one-another and until we can reliably do so there is no justification in holding these two groups of people to different judicial standards.

McCain and other like minded jack asses think that we can get more information out of terrorists in military courts, and that there is no opportunity for loopholes that exist in the criminal system like plea bargaining and that ever-inconvenient Bill of Rights. Why abdul-Mutallab would decide to give us more information in one context over the other is left as an open ended question. Even McCain is rightfully against torture, so we're lead to believe that he will just voluntarily spill his al-qaeda secrets for our convenience if he is tried in a military court.

I don't think our legal system is perfect, but it is a fundamental pillar of American society that is admired and respected by intelligent, compassionate individuals across the world. Giving up on our principles of justice by arbitrarily deciding to bypass this system in favor of vigilant military tribunals is a slap in the face both to the architects of our great country and to the mere idea of human rights.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

On Up In the Air

Try as I might to clear my expectations before watching a film, often times I admittedly fail miserably and my viewing experience suffers. Based solely on the director, Jason Reitman, my excitement for 'Up In the Air' was contained to say the least; while I thoroughly enjoyed 'Thank You for Smoking', my hatred for 'Juno' is far more intense. I was suprisingly able to shelf these feelings of discontent and was then left struggling to forget about the fantastic reviews this film has received. In the end, I was unable to contain myself from putting my hopes in the sky.

I don't want to delve to deeply into the plot, but the film is about a perpetual vagabond played of course by George Clooney. Rather than live the prototypical drifter life, however, he goes about his life by minimizing attachment to people places and things while maintaining a presumably lucrative white collar job that affords him the luxury of traveling First Class across the U.S. for a great majority of the year.

The plot lays a decent enough foundation for Clooney to make some magic happen, but rather than sit here and praise his performance I was lift a bit flabbergasted at how little he really had to act in order to fill what could only be described as a tailor made role. As the protagonists love interest, Vera Farmiga steals the show in terms of acting but her role is regrettably small in the grand scheme of things. I won't spoil anything, but I have no problems crushing any expectations that a reader might harbor for intriguing plot twists because they never come. Sure, there is a bit of drama throughout, but the majority of the film is a realtively trite romantic comedy that is completely uneventful.

More than anything, the tone of the film is what laid my high hopes down to rest. The overall feeling that the director crafts is so absolutely harmless and inoffensive that I am flabbergasted how viewers are able to walk out with any feeling other than mild indifference.

I'm not trying to be harsh; I actually liked the film and can think of far worse things to do with two hours of my life. Nevertheless I can't help but criticize it in the face of so much praise. In successfully making a film that no one could possibly hate, they succeeded in making a film that few could love. I don't necessarily need gripping plot twists, pertinent satire, passionate relationships, lovable/hatable characters, or probing social commentary to enjoy a film, but I do need something along those lines to enjoy a film enough to want to give it a good review.

Up In the Air is a great example of a very enjoyable, albeit stunningly mediocre, film that is unfortunately shrouded by undying praise from an endless army of critics. If you are a better person that I, and think that you can forget about the praise and view this movie in all its superficial glory, I advise you to do so. If not, don't feel bad; you're not missing out on much.

Monday, January 4, 2010

On financial regulation

I heard several good arguments today from different episodes of EconTalk. While I certainly don't claim to be an economics expert or even a well-versed amateur, I have to say that I'm a sucker for a good argument and will continue to post about well reasoned counterintuitive analyses when I see them, regardless of the topic. And as always, I'd love to hear disagreements.

Charles Calomiris spent a lot of time defending free markets, as economists tend to do. By most accounts, we seem to have avoided financial calamity and are now in the stage of thinking how to avoid this painful process from repeating itself in the future. The token democratic answer, as always, has been that we need more and more regulation over financial transactions in order to decrease systemic risk. I've heard some convincing arguments from the regulatory side, but to use this most recent financial collapse as an example of free market failure is absolutely absurd. The financial industry is without a doubt one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country and when a problem arises it is blasphemous to blame the free market system without any critical regard to the current governmental regulations.

Take a regulatory body that is relatively tangible to most people: the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation). This is the governmental agency, funded by tax payers, that insures deposits up to a certain point (which I believe was at around $100,000 pre-crisis and has since sky rocketed). In the days before the FDIC, if Wells-Fargo failed, you could have kissed your savings account goodbye. The concept is foreign to me, and it seems relatively cut and dry that the average consumer with low to moderately sized checking and savings accounts benefits from knowing that no matter what happens to their bank, their money is safe.

So what's the problem? Well, risk was once, and should still be, a competitive selling point for banks. Why put your money in bank A rather than bank B? Easy, a back of the envelope cost benefit analysis of the interest that the different banks are offering versus the risk of default will lead you to the bank which best suits your individual tolerance for risk and greed for return. The minute that government decided that all balances under a certain nominal value were 100% insured, the consumer stopped using risk as a shopping point, and in turn banks were forced to compete solely on monetary return. In turn, banks logically made riskier investments because the potential returns are much greater and their risk is almost entirely subsidized by you the taxpayer. Blaming the bank for making risky investments, and claiming that its eventual failure is a result of greedy bankers and unrestrained capitalism misses the point by a mile. If the market were truly free, banks would compete to minimize risk and advertise their minimal risk exposure as a selling point to consumers who would in turn determine the optimal amount of risk that they are willing to handle for a given investment.

To be fair, the FDIC is but a small part of the financial system and I'm not trying to boil down this complex financial debacle to something as simple as one regulatory policy. But if we sum enough of these backwards policies up, the financial collapse makes more and more sense. Most of you have heard that much of this crisis rested on a housing bubble, but this housing bubble was again by no means a case of free markets gone awry. Seemingly innocuous government policies, including enormous tax-credits for home owners, played a crucial role in creating an artificial demand for home ownership which lead to an unfounded inflation of housing prices that could only be sustained for so long.

I'm by no means a complete free market liberetarian (yet), but I do tend to think that letting markets decide on at least some of these matters is a far better option then government. Financial reform is in need, and some new policies might be extremely helpful, but it could all be counter productive if we don't delete/revise the harmful policies that were created with good intention, but make little economic sense in hindsight. It's a lot easier to blame the CEO of Bank of America for his greed and affluence than it is to revamp the government support system that drives companies toward such policies. That's unfortunate.

*posted on fingerprints.and.snowflakes*

Sunday, January 3, 2010

On Obama

I'm a few days late with my 'review' of the first year of the Obama administration, but there have been plenty of others to satiate that small percentage of the population that really cares about such matters. Since I started on my blog way too late in the year, here are some brief thoughts on what I missed:

1) The Nobel Peace Prize was ludicrous, and Obama knew it. Let's face it, he is a sitting, war time president, who said all along that Afghanistan was our just war. I have personally opted to plead ignorance on the entire Afghanistan issue, but I know enough about his campaign to say that I'm not surprised that we are committing more troops to this endeavor.

If it weren't for the hundreds/thousands of people risking their lives for peaceful causes around the world, I could actually accept an argument for him winning. After all, I am, without a doubt, ecstatic about compassionate and intelligent image of America that he is projecting abroad. I truthfully feel that this image, as long as it can be backed up with compassionate and intelligent policies, will benefit our national security more than all the airport scanners and abrams tanks of the world combined. This is his greatest success of the year in my mind, but what long lasting impact it will have is open to much debate.

2) With respect to national security, I must say that I find republican rants against his policies utterly despicable up to this point. Detroit was a potential tragedy that was serendipitously avoided, but was it any different from the shoe bomber incident that happened back in 2001 under the Bush administration? It was a security failure, more specifically, it was a failure of security policy that has been virtually unchanged for several years. This system is apparently in need of revision, and the burden of responsibility to do so should and will fall on the current administration. But the question of what Obama has done differently from the previous administration that would make him somehow culpable is absolutely not clear and shouldn't be marketed as such.

3) Health care has been a complete and utter debacle. But who to blame? He made it a priority issue from the start, and learned the lessons of the Clinton administration about drafting a bill in secrecy. Even though it failed before, I find myself wishing that he had opted for that route rather than leave it to our utterly inept congressional system. I'm not happy with the current bills that are supposedly 'close' to making their way to his desk, and I do feel that he could have exerted much more leadership in order to get a better bill rather than stand in the wings as a cheerleader. As it stands, he placed the burden of drafting his most ambitious policy on the senate and if they fail to do so, it will be his failure. If they succeed, they will take most of the credit. It doesn't seem like a smart play in my mind.

4) I'm terribly unhappy about his lack of concessions towards the LGBTQ community, most notably his failure to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell and the preposterous Defense of Marriage Act. Bonus points however for finally extending hate crimes legislation to include sexual orientation. He never was an advocate for gay marriage, so it would be wrong to hold him against that standard but he still has a lot of leeway to make some serious cultural change. As someone whose current position is a living testament to a decades long equal rights struggle, I find myself amazed that he has yet to tread on any firm ground on this issue. History will undoubtedly view him favorably if and when he makes some serious headway towards equal rights legislation, even if constituents in mid-term and even the next presidential election do not. Its worth the battle.

5) He got in over his head with Guantanamo Bay closing, but it was the right thing to do. He shouldn't have set a deadline that he would be unable to meet, but finally making decisions about these people who have been in bureaucratic limbo for years is unquestionably just.

6) Taxing chinese tires, what on earth was he thinking? A pitiful, shameless give away to the special interest unions whose influence is thankfully waning in our country, but clearly not at a quick enough rate. This pointless assault on free trade upsets me perhaps more than anything else this year because there is not a single economically sound reason for it.

7) We were on the brink of financial ruin, and now we're not. Proving which policies were effective and which were give-aways to the financial sector will take some time but at this stage we should all be thankful that some combination of the policies seems to have worked. Upset about deficits? Thank Ronald Reagan.

8) Diplomatic slaps in the face from Iran and North Korea (continuing nuclear proliferation goals and muscle flexing), as well as Israel (not even so much as a blink in their grossly harmful-to-progress settlement constructions) have all been a big disappointment.

I could go on, but I'll stop... for now.

*published on fingerprints.and.snowflakes*