Archive for the 'politics' Category

The Bones of an Idol

December 16, 2009

Health care reform is starting to look as sickly as the health care system it is supposed to fix. First, the public option vanished quietly a week ago. That was supposed to be OK, because Senate Democrats introduced the Medicare expansion which was supposed to cover more previously uninsured people, anyway – and have a greater chance of making it into the law books. Now the Medicare expansion is on the chopping block, too. What, then, is left of health reform?

The exact answer is likely to shift from day to day with the ebb and flow of Congressional politics, but the rough outline is this. First, the individual mandate is alive and well. Americans are required to have minimal health insurance, or else pay a fee. Second, the insurance exchanges are poised to become the biggest change to how consumers buy insurance. In these exchanges, consumers would be able to shop for health insurance much as employers can shop for company-based health insurance today. Third, a number of new regulations for health insurance companies have endured so far in the proposed bills: for example, requiring coverage for pre-existing conditions or capping differences in premiums or coverage by age or by salary. Fourth, as Jamelle writes today, there are “dozens of small measures and experiments aimed at controlling costs while also improving outcomes.”

Substantively, I am afraid, health care reform is falling apart. I have written before on the conflict between expanding health insurance coverage and cutting costs. The problem with health care reform used to be that it tried to do both – aggressively expand coverage while promising to cut costs. The problem with health care reform today is that it will probably do neither. Let’s look at the pieces still standing:

1. The individual mandate. Without further reform, an individual mandate only serves to drive the uninsured into a broken market. Even with generous subsidies, an individual mandate alone props up the status quo by giving insurance companies more customers without giving them incentives to change the way they do business.

2. The insurance exchange. Any insurance exchange. An insurance exchange presumes either that (A) the existing market works fine, or (B) the competitive pressures from the exchange’s creation will be so great as to make the existing market work better. (A) is untenable as a premise for insurance reform. (B) is an odd proposition, because insurance companies already compete to some extent. The exchange-based competition is only a question of degree. While it is a libertarian article of faith that more competition is always more better, actual evidence on competition’s effect on efficiency in the health insurance market is mixed in its implications for the insurance exchange.

3. New “fairness” regulations for the insurance market. These involve highly uncertain tradeoffs between cost containment and increased coverage, as I discussed here.

4. The “small experiments.” These are just that – small experiments, not far-reaching reform. They may well point the way to future improvements in the provision of health insurance and health care, but their place in a reform bill is auxiliary by definition.

To be fair, no reform bill will ever come with the guarantee that costs will be reduced or coverage will be expanded. The modern incarnation of health care reform began as a mishmash of policy proposals, which taken together may well have achieved some improvement over the status quo. Then, the legislative process got to work, axing parts of health care reform when it became politically expedient to do so. The bill that will eventually pass will contain the last policies standing, rather than the best policies to achieve the stated goals.

I consider this a natural outcome of the way we have been talking about health care and health reform. I remember passing a street demonstration this summer where people chanted and held signs to the effect of “Health care reform now!” Well, what kind of reform? Making all doctors wear Mickey Mouse ears on the job would reform health care, but probably not in the way these protesters had in mind. From the very outset, we had committed ourselves to talking about health reform either as all things that are good, or as the worst thing in the whole world. “Health care reform” became a mirror which reflected our personal ideas of what we thought reform should or should not look like. Because the actual bills failed to rally around a single proposal – “insurance exchanges now!” or “Medicare expansion now!” – their details became mere inconveniences in a larger ideological battle between Left and Right.

If this was still a policy debate, I would have suggested that we try to at least agree on a single goal to pursue for now – but pursue doggedly, until it is achieved. Cost control – through regulation, tort reform, or any other possible means – might be one such “compromise goal.” Unfortunately, the struggle over health care reform has ceased to be about achieving either lower costs, increased coverage, or any other substantive policy goal. It has become (or maybe it always was) about flexing political muscle. The credibility of President Obama and Congressional Democrats, and, by extension, electoral success in 2010, are what’s really at stake. So I wouldn’t be surprised, once the administration succeeds in getting a “health care reform” bill through Congress, if the result will bear only faint resemblance to the promises of efficient health care provision and equitable access to health insurance.


College sports and the business of education – Updated

November 28, 2009

(Scroll to the end for an update on this post.)

Writing for the Times, Gilbert Gaul gives new voice to the old complaints about collegiate athletics: they spend too much and siphon money away from the “education” part of post-secondary education.

The rise of College Sports Inc. didn’t happen by accident. Administrators at many universities have allowed athletic departments to operate independently, like stand-alone entertainment divisions. They have separate budgets, negotiate their own TV deals and, in some cases, employ hundreds of coaches and staff. And as long as they continue to collect ever-larger sums from ticket sales, boosters and television, who is going to tell them to spend less?

Gaul holds that college sports use up too much money. I agree. But I can’t get behind his proposal to curb this spending:

If college presidents really wanted to halt the college sports machine, they could try two options. They could insist that athletic departments operate within their university budgets, like the English or biology departments; or they could ask Congress to rescind the tax breaks on the commercial income earned by athletic programs.

The “college sports machine” is not a monolith. This machine has two parts: revenue-generating blockbuster sports, which are run as a business (usually football and men’s basketball), and nonrevenue sports, which are run as a charity. The dominant business model in collegiate athletics has the former supporting the latter, and, ideally, kicking back a few bucks to the academic departments. When we talk about overspending in college sports, we conflate egregious spending on the moneymaking team (five-star hotel stays for football players) with “ordinary” spending on nonrevenue sports. Many if not most collegiate football programs in this country, for example, would probably be able to stand on their own. If most collegiate athletic departments need outside support, then perhaps it is spending on nonrevenue sports – and not excessive investment in revenue-generating ones – that is to blame.

I suspect that propping up nonrevenue sports is what’s hobbling collegiate athletic programs. Gaul suggests that limiting how much money athletic departments can make or spend will fix their overspending problems. But it seems that dropping the financial obligations of nonrevenue programs might be a surer way of getting college sports to pay their way. While I am speaking of both men’s and women’s nonrevenue sports, there is no getting around the issue of gender equality in sports with such a proposition, which runs directly counter to Title IX as it is currently enforced today.

Title IX states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Because athletic departments are considered to be “education programs,” they have been required to demonstrate progress towards or accomplishment of equal opportunity in sports participation. Historically, colleges have done this by establishing new nonrevenue sports for women and cutting existing nonrevenue sports for men. If, as I propose, nonrevenue sports in general are curtailed, female student-athletes will disproportionately bear the brunt of disappearing scholarships, facilities, and staff.

That said, I don’t believe that dropping nonrevenue sports from collegiate rosters will deal any serious blow to gender equality in education or in the broader society. Remember that Title IX applies to college sports on the premise that sports represent an “education activity” that somehow contributes to a student’s education in that college. Running with this assumption, we might conclude from the numbers on sports participation that the real inequality is not between male and female student-athletes, but between student-athletes and everyone else. In 2002, fewer than 2.5% of students enrolled in any college participated in school-sanctioned athletics.* For comparison, when Rutgers and Princeton each fielded 25 men for the first football game ever, the players on the field represented over 11% of the schools’ combined student body.

But I would question even that assumption – that participation in collegiate sports offers men or women a leg up in the world, especially outside the revenue-generating programs. Competing in a varsity sport is at least as draining to a college student as holding a strenuous full-time job. Meanwhile, the socioeconomic gains from such participation are small and elusive: scholarship money is scarce, the “character-building” aspect is questionable**, and the contribution to one’s education is negligible at best, negative at worst. Thus, if participation in college sports cannot be legitimately described as “educational”, then such participation – equal or otherwise – should not be governed by Title IX***. More importantly, if participating in college sports does nothing for one’s education, then colleges have no business subsidizing nonrevenue sports and the student-athletes who compete in them.****

If you’re still not convinced, I ask you to at least get your story straight. Either participation in college athletics is essential to schools’ educational missions, in which case athletic departments should become even bigger money sinks in their quest to enroll anybody and everybody in organized sports; or playing college sports is not an educational activity, in which case it should be excluded from the purview of Title IX, allowing colleges to strip funding from no-revenue-getting teams, men’s as well as women’s. To me, the second story makes much more sense. I’ll take the real economic victory of cheaper tuition and solvent athletic programs over the fleeting moral victory of an athlete of any gender being able to get a .25 scholarship to play games that few people attend, watch, or follow.

Update (02/15/10). As Times blogger Tara Parker-Pope reports today, sports participation really does seem to improve life outcomes in adulthood. While this finding contradicts my original conclusion in this post, it leads to another less-than-rosy implication: because of low overall (organized) sports participation rates in college – see above – athletic programs should become even less profitable to level the playing field between current athletes and non-athletes.

Read the rest of this entry »

How Obamacare Might Increase Costs

September 9, 2009

For those of you following at home, the President gave a big speech on health care reform tonight. Specifically, he argued for a plan composed of three major planks:

First, …. it will be against the law for insurance companies to deny you coverage because of a pre-existing condition. As soon as I sign this bill, it will be against the law for insurance companies to drop your coverage when you get sick or water it down when you need it most. They will no longer be able to place some arbitrary cap on the amount of coverage you can receive in a given year or a lifetime. We will place a limit on how much you can be charged for out-of-pocket expenses, because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they get sick. And insurance companies will be required to cover, with no extra charge, routine checkups and preventive care, like mammograms and colonoscopies – because there’s no reason we shouldn’t be catching diseases like breast cancer and colon cancer before they get worse. That makes sense, it saves money, and it saves lives.

[Second,] We will [create] a new insurance exchange – a marketplace where individuals and small businesses will be able to shop for health insurance at competitive prices. … For those individuals and small businesses who still cannot afford the lower-priced insurance available in the exchange, we will provide tax credits, the size of which will be based on your need.

[Third, U]nder [this] plan, individuals will be required to carry basic health insurance – just as most states require you to carry auto insurance. Likewise, businesses will be required to either offer their workers health care, or chip in to help cover the cost of their workers.

If I may sum up these points, Obama is essentially proposing to

1. Extract more value out of insurance policies, by expanding who, what, and how much is covered,
2. Improve accessibility to individual insurance policies, including a nonprofit, self-sustaining public option, and
3. Mandate that every American carry health insurance.

It’s a good plan for extending health insurance coverage to all Americans, which in itself is a worthy goal. But I am much more skeptical of its effect on health care costs. Health care reform has been billed as including powerful cost-cutting measures. But before we pour our faith into arcane budget estimates, we would do well to remember a few ways in which this plan may end up costing us more, not less, than our current (broken) system.

  • If you have insurance, you may end up getting less services for more money. This would directly contradict Obama’s promise, but it’s a reasonable possibility. Under this reform plan, insurance companies will no longer be able to save money by dropping customers or limiting their coverage. On paper, they would not be allowed to charge customers more, and would have to raid their profit margin to come up with the difference. But in practice, they will almost certainly try to get the money from customers somehow – directly through higher premiums, or indirectly through government subsidies.
  • If you don’t have insurance, you will get it (public or private, subsidized or not), and might therefore increase your utilization of health care. If people who today are being denied health care because of insurance shenanigans get the care they need, they might be healthier for it, but this care won’t come free.
  • Even if you get insurance but don’t increase your utilization of health care, you would still be paying for insurance. You might not use your new policy, but you would still be paying for it. That’s less money in your pocket, more money in the national health care expenditures column.
  • Not all of these cost increases are necessarily bad. Of course it will cost money to provide un- and underinsured Americans with lifesaving (or even just life-enhancing) health care. Of course everyone who can should pitch in to spread out the risk of ill health. If the economic times were good and (dare I dream) the federal government were running a surplus, I would gladly ignore all these factors. However, given a runaway national debt and a shaky economy, we simply cannot afford health care reform that costs more money than it saves. I have a hard time believing that Medicare and Medicaid waste and inefficiency are so great as to equal the costs of insuring the 45-some million uninsured Americans and providing improved health care for everyone.

    There are ways to improve health insurance coverage while tackling the fundamental inefficiencies of the market. I proposed one half-baked and politically unfeasible specimen a while back. In any case, if we cannot have health care reform that both expands coverage and reduces costs, then let us at least be candid about this limitation and the need for further reform. It wouldn’t have sounded as good in his speech, but President Obama would have been prudent to acknowledge that he will likely be far from the last President trying to reform a costly and inefficient health care system.

    That’s what I get for cheerleading

    August 13, 2009

    In this post, I argued that Cash for Clunkers would stimulate overall consumer spending, not just spending on cars. Well, the first month of data is in, and two findings stick out:

  • Automotive sales went up.
  • However, retail sales as a whole declined unexpectedly.

    In light of this, I freely admit that I had been too optimistic about Cash for Clunkers. However, I would caution against writing off the program altogether – its effect may have been too small to counteract some other factor(s) which depressed retail sales; and some of its effects, particularly in buoying auto manufacturing, may not have come into play yet.

    The Times reports on the rest of July’s retail sales data:

    The Labor Department reported that retail sales fell by a seasonally adjusted 0.1 percent from June, and were 8.3 percent lower than a year ago. Economists, who had been expecting an increase of 0.7 percent, called the numbers a sobering reminder of the persistent weakness in consumer spending, which makes up 70 percent of the United States economy. …

    Consumers spent 2.4 percent more on motor vehicles and automotive parts last month compared with June as the government’s popular “cash for clunkers” car-purchase program got under way, but any money that flowed into the pockets of car dealers seemed to come at the expense of other businesses.

    Retail spending excluding sales of cars and car parts fell 0.6 percent. People spent less on furniture, electronics, appliances, books and music, implying that American consumers are still wary of the weak job market and an uncertain economic recovery.

  • Let Them Eat Cabbage

    August 11, 2009

    For an atheist, Christopher Hitchens sure does put a lot of faith in predestination. It’s not the kind about going to heaven, though; Hitchens believes that Bill Clinton need not have visited North Korea to secure the release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee because – get this – the North Koreans were going to release them anyway. In the man’s own words:

    The two young women were picked up in March and released in August. That means they spent almost half a year in the North Korean prison system. Yet to judge by the photographs of them arriving back on U.S. soil, they were in approximately the same physical condition as they had been when they were first unlawfully apprehended. … Ling and Lee had obviously not been maltreated or emaciated in the usual way that even a North Korean civilian, let alone a North Korean prisoner, could expect to be. The logical corollary of this is obvious. The Kim Jong-il gang was always planning to release them. They were arrested in order to be let go and were maintained in releasable shape until the deal could be done. …

    As of last week, and as the result of a huge investment of time and energy and prestige and forced politeness, we can now claim to have reduced the North Korean prison population by exactly two, and they were going to be released anyway. In return, we have immensely gratified and flattered the man who kidnapped them and who makes a daily mockery of international law. There was even “remorse” expressed. But guess by whom? Not by the slave master who makes his territory impossible to enter and impossible to leave. A lousy day’s work.

    I don’t write much about foreign policy in this space, mostly because of my ignorance in these matters. However, even I can tell that Hitchens’ reasoning is patently stupid. First, Hitchens forgets that the role of government is to serve and protect its citizens – not least when those citizens are held captive in a hostile foreign country. By his own admission, Hitchens had been to North Korea. I doubt that if he had been detained, we would have gotten from him a heroic statement directing his government to forfeit rescue efforts. Pending any evidence to the contrary, I conclude that Hitchens views imprisonment by a brutal dictatorship as bad for Christopher Hitchens, but okay for his compatriots.

    This brings me to the second point: Hitchens’ baseless conclusion from Ling and Lee’s appearance that they were going to be released anyway. No one knows what the North Koreans would have eventually done with Ling and Lee. It is plausible that they have not been as mistreated as they might have been so far precisely for the reasons Hitchens identified. However, it is naive – especially of a curmudgeon like Hitchens – to assume that this treatment would have continued indefinitely. If and when the North Koreans ceased to see the journalists as an excellent bargaining chip, nothing would have prevented or even dissuaded them from shipping the two to a labor camp.

    Finally, Hitchens’ tone suggests that he favors either ignoring or bullying the North Korean government. Neither of these measures have succeeded in the past: when bullied, North Korea only grew more antagonistic; and when ignored, it staged dangerous, belligerent stunts to regain the world’s attention. I may not know anything about foreign policy, but I think there is a better way to deal with North Korea: reciprocity from the moral high ground, as famously articulated by Ho Chi Minh* at the start of the Vietnam War:

    Everything depends on the Americans. If they want to make war for 20 years then we shall make war for 20 years. If they want to make peace, we shall make peace and invite them to tea afterwards.

    * I am not arguing that Ho held the moral high ground, only that he had claimed it.

    Can’t Get No Satisfaction

    August 1, 2009

    Mary Katharine Ham, writing for the Weekly Standard, compares the Obama administration’s Cash for Clunkers program to “the KFC grilled-chicken giveaway.” And that’s by far not the most troubling thing about her post. Rather, the low point – indeed, the wide canyon – comes when Ham criticizes Cash for Clunkers for its success. The government actually got people to buy new cars? that are more fuel efficient? The horror!

    Many Obama-supporters on Twitter* today have argued that the program is only a failure insomuch as it is a great success. You see, the Obama administration simply revealed the tremendous demand for $4,500 hand-outs fuel-efficient cars, and should be congratulated for that. The utter lack of competence, planning, or understanding of incentives is not an indication of the federal government’s unsuitability to mucking around in the private sector, but a reason to invite more mucking.

    Here’s the deal. Conservatives have long argued that in this recession, no amount of government spending will have a lasting effect until consumer spending and production rebound. This critique has all but ruled out any government program as successfully stimulating consumer spending and the private production of goods and services. For example, take this Forbes piece from last February:

    If the Bush spending plan can’t productively stimulate the economy, what government economic plan can? None. Production does not need stimulation from the government; it needs liberation from the government . What a productive, dynamic economy requires of a government is that it restrict itself to protecting property rights from force and fraud, and refrain from interfering in free production and trade.

    In a time when consumer spending is beginning to seem more like playing financial Russian Roulette than fulfilling a civic duty, this critique is implausible. If consumers are holding off on consuming, no sane producer would fail to roll back production. You can’t force demand for something by merely making it – witness the unsold inventories of retail goods that have piled up as this recession dragged on.

    But you can force consumer demand by subsidizing it. And that’s what we’re seeing with the Cash for Clunkers program. When people are paid to buy new cars, they will buy new cars. There is no way to get around this – unlike the Arizona incentive for alternative-fuel vehicles Ham mentions, which did not stipulate that owners actually use alternative fuels. Every check cut under the Cash for Clunkers program stands for a new car purchased: no exceptions. And as demand for new cars increases, the production of cars – particularly their production in the U.S. by American workers – will be bolstered by this government action. Under the paradigm of conservative economics, we are witnessing nothing short of the impossible.

    * Ham cites Twitter as a source not once, twice, or even thrice, but four times in a short post. In Twitter veritas.

    Absorb what is useful

    June 4, 2009

    I don’t know if President Obama is big on kung fu movies, but he certainly seems to live by Bruce Lee’s dictum. In a departure from his campaign literature, Obama now says he is “receptive to Congressional proposals that would require Americans to have health insurance and oblige employers to share in the cost.” The Times has more:

    The president said he was open to proposals for “shared responsibility — making every American responsible for having health insurance coverage, and asking that employers share in the cost.” … “If we are going to make people responsible for owning health insurance, we must make health care affordable,” Mr. Obama wrote. “If we do end up with a system where people are responsible for their own insurance, we need to provide a hardship waiver to exempt Americans who cannot afford it.” …

    Mr. Obama’s letter affirmed his support for creation of a new government-sponsored health plan. “I strongly believe that Americans should have the choice of a public health insurance option operating alongside private plans,” he wrote. “This will give them a better range of choices, make the health care market more competitive and keep insurance companies honest.”

    Now, the three remaining supporters of Clinton’s 2008 Presidential campaign might be excused for foaming at the mouth a little. Then, Hillary Clinton promised an individual mandate to have health insurance, Massachusetts-style. Meanwhile, Obama’s plan called for a weak employer mandate, in which some but not all employers would be required to provide or help pay for health insurance. As of this writing, Obama seems to be moving away from this (most likely) less-effective policy and toward the individual mandate.

    There’s just one nagging little thing. Extending health insurance to more people costs money, and the prospective individual mandate lite, in which people are required to get insurance through the myriad private companies or a government plan does little to cut down these costs, either for consumers or for providers. It is trivial to show that unless insurance companies can effectively discriminate against high-risk consumers, the best insurance plan is one in which everybody is enrolled. Short of this drastic ideal, the more people are enrolled in a given plan, the cheaper that plan is per person on both the supply and demand sides, assuming enrollment is uncorrelated with risk. So a good way to equitably lower the cost of health insurance would be to enroll as many people as possible – regardless of risk – in a single plan. This would also have the benefit of cutting down on per capita administrative costs and duplicated overhead costs.

    How does Obama’s plan (or intentions) measure up to this ideal? By letting – nearly encouraging – consumers who are already insured to keep their current health insurance, it does nothing to lower costs for the policies of the insured (which greatly outnumber the uninsured). By allowing the uninsured to sign up for a government plan, it creates just another small insurer saddled with all the problems of the rest of the market. Finally, by encouraging some of the uninsured to seek health insurance on their own, it leaves them vulnerable to the steep premiums that rationally must be charged of individuals purchasing insurance solo.

    A real solution to the problems of American health insurance – bloated administrative costs, underinsurance, high prices – could lie just one radical policy away. If we take as constraints the ideas that 1. Americans will not accept the complete bulldozing of the private insurance market, and 2. there is no guarantee that a government-run program will be more efficient than a private one, there still remains a reasonable policy option that combines wider coverage with lower costs and room for market-driven innovation.

    Consider this: a basic government insurance plan, with mandatory participation, and a deductible-copay system similar to but more benign than existing private policies. This plan would extend basic coverage to everyone, including perhaps most preventative procedures, some ER visits, and limited consultation with specialists, among other things. It would not aspire to provide full health coverage to its enrollees – only coverage for procedures with positive externalities or those which most often bring needless financial strain upon low-income families – and would be priced accordingly. Everything else – prolonged hospital stays, expensive treatments, frequent trips to the doctor – could then be covered by supplemental insurance, which consumers could obtain from anyone. Such a dual-layer system would provide universal, low-cost (but limited) health insurance, without completely turning the health insurance sector into an arm of the government.

    The bonuses next time

    March 19, 2009

    Sir Charles at Cogitamus wins Best Extension of the “Invisible Hand” Metaphor. He also has a good post on the implications of public anger at the AIG bonuses and their recipients:

    For years we have been fed the bullshit notion that our economic system provided “pay for performance.” rewarding greatly those who most deserved it. When one was so gauche as to engage in “class warfare” and criticize the compensation of CEOs and Wall Street titans, and the growing gap between them and the average worker, we were lectured to by the Randroids and libertarians, the business press, and most of all, by Republicans, that this was simply the invisible hand briskly stroking the deserving organ of commerce.

    The AIG situation stands as a wonderfully emblematic moment, a veritable tsunami washing away this illusion. It is but one of many instances in recent years where business elites have chosen to enrich themselves despite their all too verifiable failure. But it is one so stark, so brazen, so jaw-droppingly, gob-smackingly outrageous that it has created a public furor that could be transformative if used correctly. Coming as it does on the heels of Madoff and Stanford, Lehman and Bear Stearns, the stock market meltdown, the real estate bubble, the grotesque manipulation of exotic financial instruments by our financier-illusionist class, the public has simply had enough. They are afraid and angry, bitter and put-upon.

    It would be nice if the bonuses were the thing that finally broke public support for the vast injustices and inequalities of the American economy, but I am not as optimistic as Sir Charles on this point. It is true that Americans are outraged about the bonuses, and that their outrage has even prompted the government to action. Nevertheless, as more huge bonuses to managers of failing organizations loom on the horizon, there seems to be little popular resentment of the idea of million-dollar corporate bonuses as such.

    It is important to distinguish between anger at bonuses given out “undeservedly,” and anger at inflated corporate pay in general. The outrage over the AIG bonuses is likely a mixture of these two different sentiments. Some people are outraged because “the notion that the ‘masters of the universe’ class is in any way worth what they are paid or otherwise worthy of our esteeem and admiriation” has not yet been destroyed by economic realities. Others, I believe, are only upset at the bonuses because their recipients didn’t earn them this time. This latter contingent would not have cared one bit what executive pay was like if the economy were in (seemingly) good shape.

    Sir Charles “want[s] Obama to take advantage of this moment and use it as a cudgel with which to achieve progressive economic ends.” Inasmuch as curbing inflated executive pay is central to American progressive hopes, it is essential that these “winter progressives” (those favoring redistribution only when times are bad) do not turn on the policies they support today because AIG, Fannie, or any other business is making good profits tomorrow.

    Guns stop crimes, but which ones?

    March 12, 2009

    The Alabama shooting spree, in which a gunman killed 10 before turning the gun on himself, is not only tragic, but also damaging to the widely-held notion that guns stop crime – all crime. In this case, the criminal committed murder after murder unmolested by law-abiding gun owners, even in a state that consistently ranks highly for gun ownership rates. How highly? A 2008 post at a gun-rights site quotes the proportion of Alabama residents who own guns at about 66%; while a Reuters dispatch of the same year gives a figure of 57.2% for Alabama households.

    These statistics illustrate the finding, often ignored in debates over gun control, that while widespread gun ownership might stop some crimes, it fails to stop and even exacerbates others. If every citizen were armed and instructed to remain in their homes, burglary rates would probably plummet to insignificance. In general, increased gun ownership might decrease the rates of crimes in which victims are chosen based on their inability to defend themselves, including muggings and burglaries (although see contradicting results here). But what gun ownership has failed to do, some claim, was reduce homicides. Miller, Azrael, and Hemenway write, in the 2002 volume of the American Journal of Public Health,

    Table 3 compares the actual number of homicide victims between 1988 and 1997 in the states with the 4 lowest and 6 highest firearm ownership rates. … In the “high gun states,” 21 148 individuals were homicide victims, compared with 7266 in the “low gun states”. For every age group of at least 5 years minimum age, people living in the high-gun states were more than 2.5 times more likely than those in the low-gun states to become homicide victims. These results were largely driven by higher rates of gun-related homicide, although rates of non–gun-related homicide were also somewhat higher in high-gun states. For all age groups, people living in high-gun states were 2.9 times more likely to die in a homicide; they were 4.2 times more likely to die in a gun-related homicide and 1.6 times more likely to die in a non–gun-related homicide.

    Opponents of gun control dispute the idea that more guns lead to more homicides, citing correlations between higher gun ownership and lower gun deaths at the national and cross-national levels. Setting aside the methodological difficulties of national and cross-national comparisons, there are two reasons why we should not expect increased gun ownership to reduce premeditated murder as it recently happened in Alabama and elsewhere: the nature of the crime and the bystander effect.

    Both gun owners and non-owners are legitimately concerned about “putting guns in the hands of criminals.” In a premeditated murder, the gun is literally already in the hands of the criminal. A citizen targeted by a premeditated murder must either have his or her gun out or else must quickly draw it to stand a chance against a homicidal gunman. But even in a state as armed as Alabama, shooting sprees don’t involve any OK Corral gunfights between victim and criminal. In the exceedingly rare cases where gunmen are taken down by citizens, it is usually a bystander and not someone being shot at who fires back.

    The marks of a gunman would typically rely on others to intervene and stop (or kill) their assailant. The bystander effect suggests that when many people witness or are in the vicinity of a crime, no one will help the victim. Even if the bystanders are armed to the teeth, they seldom attack the gunman. Here, the psychological explanation is supplemented by a social norm: in America, most (but not all) people still count on the police to respond to violence. Arming the citizenry might empower each person to protect themselves, but not to come to the aid of others.

    Increased gun ownership may have made deadly shooting sprees, and other, less-publicized homicides more likely. In the not-so-distant past, commentators on the Virginia Tech shootings have suggested that were the students armed, that tragedy could have been averted. As the victims’ families mourn in one of America’s most armed states, we can only hope that further mentions of this “solution” will fall on deaf ears.

    Mercantilism and intolerance, hard at work

    March 10, 2009

    Word is out that the economic stimulus may – horror of horrors – let undocumented immigrant workers fill as many as 300,000 jobs. As USA Today reports,

    Studies by two conservative think tanks estimate immigrants in the United States illegally could take 300,000 construction jobs, or 15% of the 2 million jobs that new taxpayer-financed projects are predicted to create.

    They fault Congress for failing to require that employers certify legal immigration status of workers before hiring by using a Department of Homeland Security program called E-Verify. The program allows employers to check the validity of Social Security numbers provided by new hires. It is available to employers on a voluntary basis.

    This news comes hot on the heels of Republican accusations that illegal immigrants would be eligible to receive stimulus checks. Predictably, conservatives are crying foul. Their disapproval seems to rest on two pillars: a bastardized mercantilism, and a lingering resentment of immigrants in general.

    The first conservative objection to seeing stimulus money go to (illegal) immigrants is the more surprising one. Michelle Malkin got an early start on making this argument:

    What will the illegal aliens do with their rebates? Remittances, baby, remittances.

    “This package will stimulate one thing for certain: more illegal immigration,” said [Rep. Tom] Tancredo. “It’s just the latest unfortunate example of American workers footing the bill for illegal aliens.”

    The bill would allow so-called “Resident Aliens” to receive rebate checks. The Treasury department classifies someone as a “Resident Alien” based on how much time that person has spent in the United States. No proof of legal presence, however, is required. The IRS’ explanation of the term can be found at:

    “Worse, a large portion of this money will just be sent back to the home countries of illegal aliens,” concluded Tancredo. “So it might stimulate someone’s economy – just not ours.”

    I am genuinely surprised that mercantilism, an economic theory left for dead in the 19th century, is making a resurgence of sorts in conservatives’ critique of immigration. To be fair, there is big money in remittances, not only from migrant workers in the US but also from immigrants around the globe. The fear that (illegal) immigrants will send “American” money from their stimulus checks/wages to Mexico is not, therefore, completely illogical. What is illogical is the conclusion that Americans would never see that money again.

    Mercantilism turned out to be wrong in the first place because the amount of trade in the world economy isn’t fixed, and because trade flows turned out to be much more complex and circular than mercantilists could imagine. In the present context, a dollar sent in remittance to a household in Mexico might be used to purchase Chinese goods sold in Tucson, Arizona. Or, more realistically, it might be used in such a way that it frees up other money – in Mexico or elsewhere – to flow back into the American economy.

    Meanwhile, the internal mercantilism of sorts that has conservatives railing against immigrant workers in the first place is just as misguided. Suppose those 300,000 illegal immigrants materialized to take up “American” jobs. This does not mean that 300,000 Americans will have been put out of work. Illegal immigrants, as any workers, require the services of retailers, professionals, small businesses of every description, workers in the skilled trades, in manufacturing, in government, and so on. Employing any 300,000 people will create or sustain many jobs, including many which could accommodate Americans who are now unemployed. The number of jobs in a country, as the volume of international trade, is never a fixed amount.

    Employing undocumented workers – even sending them tax rebate checks – will eventually have some stimulative effect on the U.S. economy. Opponents of either approach would do well to move beyond claims of a permanent job shortage and a remittance pipeline draining money from America to other countries. Of course, that would probably require them to move on from the second pillar of anti-immigrant sentiment. I hope no one is surprised at the revelation that this pillar consists of simple racial intolerance.

    Yet efforts to prevent (illegal) immigrants from seeing one cent of the recovery package are not built on intolerance alone. They are built on intolerance and questionable economics.