Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Telos of GOP Governance

What precisely are the GOP "ends"?  Clearly it's not the overall health and happiness of Americans.  How do I know this?  Take a look at the Paul Ryan (read: Republican) budget.  It's no secret that this legislation deals with health care costs by shifting the burden from the government's budget to citizens' budgets.  Health care costs remain the same, but now seniors and the poor have to figure out how to manage these costs effectively.

If the ends are simply to shrink the federal budget then the Ryan/Republican plan achieves this goal.  However, what we're left with is a win for libertarianism with no appreciable reduction in human misery.


Monday, April 25, 2011

On Roads, Tolls, and the Beauty of Dallas

It's not every day that you write a letter to a respected policy blogger and have him openly admit that the letter changed his viewpoint radically.  I now direct you to my letter featured on Matthew Yglesias' digs.  The first thing you will notice is that my letter in no way caused a re-think on Yglesias' part, nor did it even contain a point, per se.  

The Dallas Morning News reported on a construction project about to be undertaken by a Spanish firm along the 635 corridor in North Dallas--my stomping grounds.  This five year operation will dig beneath the current highway to build new toll lanes.  No additional free lanes will be built, only toll lanes.  Most importantly, the price of the toll will fluctuate based on current traffic conditions: during rush-hour (when 635 is unbearable), the toll might be several dollars.  

Unfortunately, I was in such a rush to get the email off to Yglesias that he (understandably) mistook my question about whether or not such an operation is likely to "work" as a question only about the likelihood of the toll lanes to decrease congestion and not about the likelihood of the presence of the toll lanes to decrease congestion on the free lanes.  

In Tom Vanderbilt's "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do", the author states forcefully that, based on all available studies, building more lanes does not decrease congestion.  Rather, more lanes simply invite more traffic.  This happens because humans are unusually adept at planning for, negotiating, and avoiding traffic.  Therefore, when new lanes appear, it won't be long before commuters recognize the additional lanes and adjust their travel patterns accordingly (i.e. instead of taking I-90 to 35 to work, they will take 635 to 35 thanks to the additional roadway).  At first traffic will be noticeably smoother, but we shouldn't expect this to last long as additional cars (containing humans making rational decisions) will fill up the new lanes recreating the congestion the additional lanes were intended to fix.  

The question Yglesias took me to be asking concerned the toll lanes.  His response: "Naturally, everyone wants to take the free road. But as 'everyone' tries to crowd onto it traffic moves slowly and some people will want to exchange money for time by taking the toll road. And at any given time of day, there’s got to be some price at which the tolled road will be uncongested."  So, yes, the toll roads will "work."  

But the question I am really concerned with is the free lanes that the average commuter uses on a daily basis.  My initial thought was that the more people that opt for the toll lanes, the more space there will be in the free lanes for the traffic that does not want to pay tolls.  But one of the commenters to Yglesias' post says this is incorrect, and instead uses the logic of Vanderbilt's book to argue that the free lanes may experience less congestion for a short period of time, but before long, more traffic will come to fill the openings left by those cars willing to pay the toll.

A couple commenters disagree with the basic idea (c/o Vanderbilt) that it's impossible to build enough roadway to counteract the increased amount of new traffic.  They argue that people don't drive around aimlessly, so there will not always be a constant stream of new traffic to occupy all available lanes (in other words, drivers will not notice available roadway and drive on it just because they can--remember, drivers are surprisingly strategic).

Another interesting point presented by a commenter is that the more roadway constructed, the less available space for city-living.  I would be inclined to agree with this if not for the extreme driving culture that we see in Dallas/Ft. Worth.  The infrastructure in Dallas is phenomenal; from the High-Five to the Mix-Master to the DFW-Connecter, our roads are--while certainly headache inducing--beautiful in their utility and vision.  The Ancient Romans would, once they understood how we managed to survive without slave labor, marvel at our infrastructure accomplishments.  Thus, in Dallas, I believe, road construction could continue on indefinitely (through double-deckers, under-grounders, etc.) without any loss to the spirit that is Dallas.  

Whether or not all of this is a good thing for the environment and human prosperity is a different question entirely.  Suffice it to say, I am--as I always am--intrigued by the lastest attempt to efficiently move capital from the suburbs and exurbs into the heart of the Metroplex.  Forget the impending apocalypse, the Dallas Megalopolis is stunning.    


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Budget Chicanery

Holy Math Mistakes Batman! I read a Fox News article claiming that the administration overestimated the savings for its long run budget plan by 1.8 trillion dollars. I knew nothing about this story had to be true. I mean the story doesn't even have a writer's name attached, it most likely was plugged into the algorithms' used to attack any Secular Kenyan Socialist President, but I digress. The interesting tid bit was this story was actually quoting a Committee for a Responsible Budget report claiming that the administration overestimated long-term savings, and the real kicker, Representative Ryan's plan did not. When reading this I knew there was something afoot. Let's go to the charts. This is the first chart of the report, and it appears to show this difference in deficit projections:

Unfortunately if you can see that tiny print at the bottom, the CFRB is using CBO reports on Obama's budget, versus using calculate Paul Ryan's budget. My only assumption is they must be defaulting to Ryan's budget calculations. I don't need to rehash the criticisms of this budget proposal, but let's just say Heritage has been reforming its user access to its data sets lately. I just don't understand the point of this report. Why did the CFRB not just put out a detailed analysis of the President's budget? Why did it have to compare it to other budgets if they were not also doing the analysis of those budgets? I wonder if this has something to do with Paul Ryan giving his plan first. By being the first to speak, he became the rule setter of the debate. He was the person out on their own showing courage. Whereas when Obama entered the conversation it became a debate because there were now two opposing arguments. Whatever dynamic is going on here, this seems a tad bit irresponsible to me.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Warpaint at The Loft

I went to see Warpaint last night at The Loft in Dallas.  Their set was like their album: clearly brilliant, but repetitive and boring.  At the risk of sounding sexist, it's hard to avoid handicapping a band composed entirely of women--but this is the second time this year that handicapping based on sex has been completely worthless.  When she played Sons of Hermann Hall a couple of months ago, Marnie Stern's finger acrobatics proved once and for all that male genitalia confers absolutely no musical benefit.  

But what a year for women this is!  So far we've had releases from Anne Calvi, Braids, Micachu & The Shapes, Joan as Police Woman, The Joy Formidable, The Kills, No Joy, and Tennis.  All of which are excellent albums.  


Thursday, April 7, 2011

The War on Retirement

One more thing about the Paul Ryan budget:

Several commentators have already noted that this budget doesn't reduce health care costs one bit--rather, it takes the costs off the government budget and places them on household budgets.  In practice, this means retired seniors will find their savings going disproportionately towards heath care, which was once the prerogative of the government.

This, of course, is directly opposed to one of my pet causes (by way of Jamie Galbraith): early retirement.  If we encouraged retirement much earlier than we do today (Galbraith argues for 55) we could free up countless positions for those just entering the workforce, while at the same time making life far more enjoyable for those 55 and older.

The Republicans, it turns out, don't much care for the welfare of middle-class retirees.  


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Subsidizing grain and health

In thinking about the Paul Ryan budget, I find myself coming back to a debate I held with myself in the run up to the Affordable Care Act.  The issue is this: to what extent do I deserve a government subsidy for my consumption of health care services?  If we assume that the art of politics is simply the redirection of resources from one group to another, then certainly the ACA represents a shift in resources from the elderly to the younger (insofar as "savings" were discovered within Medicare to fund subsidies for those lacking insurance).  Under this assumption, of course I deserve the benefits from the ACA--after all, my cohort voted en masse for President Obama.

However, now the question is a bit less parochial, and instead concerns a particular group of Americans for which I have very little sympathy: senior citizens.  Do what extent do they deserve full government subsidy for their consumption of health care services?  What I like about this question is that it really makes me confront my neoliberal assumptions, particularly the idea that the government should maximize growth at the expense of full inclusion, and provide a strong safety net for the excluded.

Now, our question has morphed into something even larger: to what extent should the government subsidize anything?  How do we measure individual desert in a polity as large as ours, where determining who contributes what to the greater good is hazy at best?  When I am confronted with questions such as these, I look towards human social constants; in other words, those peculiar social arrangements that appear again and again throughout history wherever societal development is advanced enough to produce some modicum of organized government action on behalf of a particular group.

During the late Roman Republic, for instance, a conflict broke out that threatened to rip the Republic in half.  The plebeians, over time, became massively indebted as a result of land policy that benefited large holders of the patrician class.  Then, in a state of complete dependence on creditors, the plebs effectively demanded a leader that would redirect some of those resources to the debtors--a role that populist leaders like Caesar and Pompey were more than willing to fill.  Of coure, in the context of the last century BC, where people barely survived long enough to develop serious, chronic ailments, the only good worth subsidizing was food (grain).

Going back and considering ancient antecedents such as this to modern social arrangements helps me to separate the ageless from the contingent, what's human from what's merely a product of capitalism.  Back to my original question, a conservative would respond, "you only deserve health care services to the extent that you have earned health care services by participating in the economy (and participating well)."  A liberal, on the other hand, would agree that you deserve what you earn, but with the added caveat that if by dint of poor luck you fail in the economy (or are born with a condition that constrains your access and ability to participate in the economy), then you deserve government subsidy for health care.

My view, however, holds that the desire for policy to address inequality is only natural when the disparity in access to resources is obvious to everyone.  As was the case in 2009; as was the case in 1933; as was the case in 250 BC.  In sum, regardless of the fact that senior citizens today (for the most part) represent a rentier class, benefiting from multiple subsidy programs; and regardless of the fact that I am unlikely to develop a chronic condition that requires large amounts of health care services: the essence of subsidized health care points to a deeper human truth than Paul Ryan and others care to admit.



Tuesday, April 5, 2011

SXSW 2011

 A little late, but here are the highlights from SXSW 2011:


Diamond Rings

Cloud Nothings

John Maus

Oh Land

Tahiti 80


Blackbird Blackbird


Monday, April 4, 2011

Fixation on Japans' Nuclear Disaster

The media has become encapsulated with the nuclear crisis in Japan, but why has the coverage on the after effects of the tsunami been so downplayed. If the theories about disaster pornography, or that humans find some sort of sadistic pleasure out of watching destruction unfold, hold true then why are newspapers not filled with both. It seems that double the disaster would be double the pleasure. But yet, all we seem to see are stories on different aspects of the crises, leaks into the ocean, noxious fumes, contaminated cabbages, and the like. So here are a few theories I have:

1. People care more about the present than the past--the nuclear disaster is one occurring in the the here and now, while the tsunami is in the past. Rebuilding is surely already occurring, the wave has come and gone, while the nuclear disaster is still "breaking news." People seem to have a myopia towards most forms of decision-making, why would disaster coverage be no different.

2. People are intrigued by uncertainty that doesn't negatively affect hem--not knowing what will happen next keeps people on the edge of their seats. Who doesn't love a cliffhanger. The obvious addendum has to be that as long as the resulting effects don't have some negative result on them directly.

3. People discount sunk losses--people feel that those losses that you can't get back should become irrelevant. In economics, this notion is known as sunk costs, those expenditures which once you've spent on them you can't get back. Think of buying a car, the down payment you make, you can't get back. This is a bit different then the temporal issue stated above. People just have a harder time placing as much utility on those lives already lost, versus the future expectation of losses. It's a bit of loss aversion, with a twist.

4. Nukes are a human phenomenon whereas tsunamis aren't--people feel that there is more control with regards to nuclear disasters, with that sense of control comes a sense of superiority. People feel that this is something we can and should master. It's almost a sense of romantic humanism, people are rooting for a solution to a human problem. Tsunamis and other weather related phenomenon are viewed more as a black swan, unpredictable and therefore somewhat irrelevant to dwell over.