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Mon Mar 17, 2014 at 04:37 PM PDT

My experience with Obamacare

by adamcadre

As I type this there are two weeks until the open enrollment period for Affordable Care Act plans closes, and the White House is doing a big push to get people to sign up, so I figured that as a data point I would quickly write up my own experience.

From the end of 1997 to mid-2005, I was uninsured.  After I moved from Massachusetts to California, I took advantage of the lower rates out here to get a catastrophic health plan.  It was catastrophic all right.  It paid for virtually nothing.  Once I had to get an X-ray; I checked the web site, and it said that X-rays were covered.  I got the X-ray.  When my claim was rejected, I called to ask what was up.  I was told that because this was a catastrophic plan, what that line meant was that X-rays done in the course of emergency care were covered.  "So I should have gone to the emergency room?" I asked.  Long pause.  Well, no, the insurance rep said — if I could actually choose to go in and get an X-ray, that wasn't enough of a catastrophe.

This was representative.  I've had various minor health issues over the years, for which by far the most common reduction of my bill has been zero.  Once I had some very minor surgery done on my hand, just a few hundred bucks; the insurance did cover $38.50 of that.  I think it also knocked a prescription down from $120 to $105 once.  Aside from that, it was "Paid Amount: $0.00" after "Paid Amount: $0.00".  I was very much looking forward to signing up for a better plan when the open enrollment period started in October.  Then of course there was the infamous "troubled rollout".  My issue turned out to be that the Covered California web site couldn't handle people with irregular incomes like mine.  "How much money did you make this month?"  Well, zero.  Wait, don't put me in Medicaid.  Here's a month when I made eleventy-five gazillion dollars!  Wait, don't make my premium eleventy-four gazillion dollars.  I wound up waiting until I'd done my taxes for 2013, then going to one of those "navigators" with my latest return and a bunch of old ones, to get my information into the system that way.  Here was the result:

The last time I had blood drawn, under my old plan, it cost me $884.94 (not a typo).  Under the new plan: $3.

My old plan knocked about 20% off the price of a prescription.  Under the new plan: every prescription is $3.  I've recently been prescribed about ten different things, so this has saved me gobs of money already.

My insurance kicked in March 1st and within two weeks I actually had a bit of a medical emergency.  (It was a kidney thing I've had before.)  In the past I've had to weigh the pros and cons of seeking treatment, one of the main cons being the $613 bill that would show up later.  This time I couldn't just make an appointment at my usual doctor's office — the receptionist put on his best regretful voice and said that the place doesn't take my particular ACA plan — but it was probably a bit urgent for that anyway.  I found another provider through the web site and went there posthaste.  I saw the fee schedule there — pretty eye-popping.  My cost?  All together now: $3.  "But you couldn't keep your doctor!", opponents might object.  Well, sure I could have, if I'd paid out of pocket, and since my old plan didn't actually cover anything, it would have cost the same as usual.  What I couldn't do is keep my doctor and get the mega-discount.  Sticking to a junk policy that doesn't offer a mega-discount anywhere is not much of a solution.

But what about the premiums?  Couldn't you apply what I just said about doctors to insurance plans?  I could always have gotten a plan with better benefits if I'd just paid more!  Doesn't this law just force people to do that instead of letting them make their own choices like grownups?  …Yeah, not so much.  Compare:

Old plan: $113/month
New plan: $45.59/month

That's right: the new plan is less than half the cost of the crappy one.  Now, if I secure another windfall, then yes, I will have to pay quite a bit more.  But I will be able to do that because, y'know, I'll have the windfall!  What strikes me as interesting about this concern is that it inverts the basic idea behind insurance, which is: I'm doing okay now, but I'll sacrifice a little now so that if my fortunes take a turn for the worse, I can't fall too fast.  Worrying about paying back subsidies due to unexpectedly high income is essentially a matter of grumbling, grr, this may be a pure benefit at the moment, but if my fortunes take a turn for the better, I'll rise a little slower!  It's bad enough to complain about the proverbial "good problem to have"; worse still is to complain about a good problem to have when you don't even have it yet.

A while back I overheard a couple of neo-hippies at the farmers' market proudly declaring to each other that they didn't vote, because it just meant endorsing what I guess we are now calling the "evil corporatist oligarchy" or something like that.  The thing is, I too am way the fuck left of the Democratic Party.  I believe in social democracy and long for the demise of the sadistic plutocratic class that is destroying the world.  I'm not an incrementalist by nature, and the ACA fell far short of what I would have liked to see in the way of health care reform.  But this business of nobly refusing to back the lesser of two evils is bullshit.  A few days ago I was in physical pain, direct suffering that doesn't yield to argument, and now I'm not, and the reason I'm not is that the Democrats swept the 2008 elections and enacted this incrementalist half-measure.  So if you're here to ask your blogger whether incrementalist half-measures are right for you, I can tell you that so far I give this one a thumbs up.

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Fri Dec 21, 2012 at 05:45 AM PST

Apocalypse, we've all been there

by adamcadre

Last year I put together a reading list based on the recommendations of regular visitors to my web site. One book on that list, down in the 50s somewhere because I'd already read it, is The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan. One chapter touches on what has become the standard account of alien abduction: mysterious lights in the sky, a saucer descends, spindly little gray humanoids with big eyes get out and conduct dimly remembered experiments on the unfortunate abductee. I was not particularly struck by Sagan's patient discussion of why such accounts make for a poor match with scientific understanding of possible alien life — i.e., that given that billions of years of natural selection right here on Earth produced organisms as divergent as humans and oak trees, it's astronomically unlikely that billions of years of natural selection on a distant planet would produce anything remotely resembling an emaciated human child. I knew that already. What I was struck by was the demonstration of what these alien-abduction stories do match: folklore. Incubi. Fairies. It's the same cultural neuroses playing themselves out in slightly different garb in order to retain a semblance of plausibility, and back in 1996 that notion was new to me.

One of my hobbies is auditing history classes, and most of them have begun with at least a nod to the question of why studying history might be valuable. To me, one of the most interesting things is seeing the same themes crop up over and over again in different guises. For instance, it's hard to spend any time studying U.S. history without repeatedly running into runaway conspiracy theories. In the 1830s hysteria about the Freemasons secretly taking over the country led to the founding of a political party with enough support to win multiple governorships. Not long thereafter it happened all over again with the Roman Catholic Church in place of the Freemasons. In my lifetime I've seen the same rhetoric applied to the United Nations and its supposed fleet of black helicopters. In a PPP poll a couple of weeks ago, 49% of Republican voters answered that last month's election was stolen for Barack Obama by ACORN, an organization that does not exist. There is something in the American psyche, or maybe just the human psyche, that seems to have trouble coming to grips with events that stem from hundreds of millions of loci of psychological and socioeconomic processes playing themselves out. If something we don't like happens, it must be because a bunch of bad guys plotted it.

Another theme that crops up a lot in U.S. history is apocalyptic thinking. The first class I audited after moving back to Berkeley was on the atomic age. From the description, I expected a wide-ranging course covering Cold War history, the science behind nuclear weapons, brinksmanship strategy, and cultural manifestations of the anxiety inherent in a world where global annihilation requires little more than the push of a button. And it was, but it contextualized all that in the history of American apocalypticism, and for that matter, apocalypticism in general — we started by jumping back 1900 years or so and reading an ancient Greek book called Apokalypsis, better known these days as Revelation. For that is what "apocalypse" means — not the end of the world, but, literally, an "uncovering" — and for all its horrors, Revelation ends with the New Jerusalem descending from Heaven to inaugurate a world without suffering. And this proved to be a recurring theme. I read a big heap of nuclear war books, a few of them on the syllabus but most of them ones I picked up on my own, and I was astonished by how upbeat they tended to be. Look at Alas, Babylon. Look at Tomorrow!. The premise of these books is that, yes, nuclear war means a gruesome death for 99.9% of the population… but for the survivors — and surely we would be among the survivors — the experience builds needed character! Then, once the worst has blown over, we'll be able to rebuild from scratch and create a paradise we could never have achieved if we'd started with the fallen modern world and tried to make things better through incremental change.

I've heard the argument made that apocalypticism, the impulse to just tear everything down and start over, is a big part of what defines this country — what distinguishes us from Canada, for instance. Canada broke with Britain incompletely and in an evolutionary manner that unfolded over the course of centuries. Americans didn't show that kind of patience. When Britain proved insufficiently responsive to American grievances, the colonies went to war, tore down British institutions, and founded a republic. And insofar as I'm glad to be a citizen of a republic rather than a subject of what is still technically a hereditary monarchy, and insofar as I'm glad that it didn't take my country until 1965 to get its own flag and 1982 to get its own constitution, I've long been all for apocalypticism. But lately I've begun to wonder how much the trappings of a nation matter compared to the fundamentals of life within it. We don't have to get our laws approved by a governor general, but we also don't have a single-payer health care system or decent parental leave. I may cringe when a Canadian ATM starts spitting pictures of the fucking queen of England at me, but I have to concede that she's been pretty harmless and that the same cannot be said for Andrew Jackson. And then there's one more legacy of living in a country that began with the apocalyptic decision to launch a bloody war of independence: compared to Canada, in the U.S. you're six times more likely to get shot to death.

Last week, twenty little children and six adults at an elementary school in Connecticut were shot dead by a lone attacker. He had taken possession of a shotgun and three rifles — a .45 Henry, a .30 Enfield, and a .22 Marlin — but chose not to bring these into the school. He did carry two handguns in with him, a 10mm Glock 20 SF and a 9mm SIG Sauer, but these were not the weapons he used in his killing spree. The gun with which he murdered two classrooms full of six-year-olds was a .223-caliber Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle. I've been reading a lot about this massacre, and one of the most interesting articles I've come across is a missive from an avid hunter who writes:

I can't remember seeing a semi-automatic weapon of any kind at a shooting range until the mid-1980s. Even through the early 1990s, I don't remember the idea of "personal defense" being a decisive factor in gun ownership. The reverse is true today: I have college-educated friends […] for whom gun ownership is unquestionably (and irreducibly) an issue of personal defense. For whom the semi-automatic rifle or pistol — with its matte-black finish, laser sight, flashlight mount, and other "tactical" accoutrements — effectively circumscribe what's meant by the word "gun." […]

The "tactical" turn is what I want to flag here. It has what I take to be a very specific use-case, but it's used — liberally — by gun owners outside of the military, outside of law enforcement, outside (if you'll indulge me) of any conceivable reality-based community: these folks talk in terms of "tactical" weapons, "tactical" scenarios, "tactical applications," and so on. […] Which [raises] my question: in precisely which "tactical" scenarios do all of these lunatics imagine that they're going to use their matte-black, suppressor-fitted, flashlight-ready tactical weapons? They tend to speak of the "tactical" as if it were a fait accompli; as a kind of apodeictic fact: as something that everyone […] experiences on a regular basis, in everyday life. They tend to speak of the tactical as reality.

All of the firearms mentioned above belonged to the gunman's mother and first victim, Nancy Lanza. Why did Nancy Lanza own an arsenal including a tactical assault rifle designed for the military? Her sister-in-law had an answer, but before I get to that, let's consider the question of why any of these gun fetishists feel the need to collect these stockpiles, to arm themselves before going out in public, to press for laws allowing them to carry guns in parks and bars and day care centers. Larry Pratt, head of the Gun Owners of America, gave a revealing answer during his CNN appearance a couple of days ago: carrying a gun everywhere, he proclaimed, is what makes one "able to prevail over the criminal element." Now, it's worth noting that this isn't true; on the contrary, possessing a gun not only dramatically increases the rate of impulsive homicide, successful suicide, and lethal accidents, but people carrying guns are 4.5 times more likely to be shot during an assault than those who are unarmed when they're assaulted. But right now I'm less interested in the truth of Pratt's argument than in the way he worded it. Pratt referred not to "criminals," but to "the criminal element." People who commit crimes are criminals. But the criminal element, well, that's a stratum of society. The implication here is that there is some demographic group prone to criminality. Let's not kid ourselves here. This is a dog whistle. He meant black people. I guess you can throw in Latinos, too — Pratt is also the president of a group called "English First." But, yeah, when Pratt was pressed to name a situation in which self-defense could possibly require a military-grade assault rifle, he went straight to race riots. This kind of talk is not rare. A very good friend of mine has an elderly relative who is also stocking up on guns and ammo in order to protect himself from "the uprising." And Nancy Lanza, her sister-in-law told reporters, assembled a personal armory because she wanted to be "ready for what can happen down the line when the economy collapses." That was the "tactical scenario" for which she was preparing.

Note: Lanza bought her weapons from 2010 to 2012, when the economy was actually strengthening. Similarly, as the gun fetishists' professed concern about violent crime has grown louder, violent crime has actually dropped, massively. What has increased over that same period is the power and visibility of minority groups. The last two presidential elections have seen a black man win the White House, voted in by a coalition that looks very different from the membership of the National Rifle Association. And if you think my interpretation of Larry Pratt's rhetoric on CNN was a stretch, you should have heard him on MSNBC. Why do we need so many guns again, including assault rifles? "In order to control the government," he asserted. "The government has been overboard." And when should the .223-caliber Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle owners of America start exercising this control? "When they steal elections," Pratt replied. He didn't spell out whom he meant by "they," but I don't think it takes too much detective work.

Again, study enough history, and you'll find that the surfaces of things change more than the fundamentals. I've spent a fair amount of time over the past few years reading about the antebellum South, and what I've read paints a vivid picture of a population living very well off the stolen labor of a subjugated race, but at the price of living in constant terror of slave revolt. It is hard not to become paranoid when you live surrounded by people who you know have every reason to want to kill you. And while slavery is no longer a sanctioned institution, racial injustice has cast a long enough shadow that the poor and particularly the urban poor are still disproportionately black and Latino. I can't help but suspect that the capital-G, capital-O Gun Owners of America are motivated at least in part by an echo of that old antebellum paranoia: I've been the beneficiary of injustice, and for that there's going to be blowback.

But the main echo I see is with all those nuclear war books I read. Like the authors of those books, the people amassing these arsenals are indulging in a fantasy. They don't like modern society. Why not? Maybe recent changes have left them feeling like the world they identify with is slipping away. Or maybe it goes even deeper. One glimpse into the survivalist mindset was offered by the Unabomber, who argued that our modern, "oversocialized" way of life left people hopelessly neurotic because it's too "remote from the natural pattern of human behavior." That pattern involved gathering into small tribes, chasing down animals to eat, and frequently fighting with other tribes. And what do gun enthusiasts do with their guns? They hunt — pretending that killing animals is necessary to stay fed despite living in an era of commercial agriculture — and they carry them around for "self-defense" — pretending that they're surrounded by enemies. In any case, like Pat Frank, like Philip Wylie, they dream of a time when civilization is swept away. It will be a time of fierce tribulations, but nevertheless, they look forward to it with great anticipation. After all, everyone and everything they don't like will die horribly, and from the ashes will rise a better, purer, more natural society that just so happens to conform to their personal ideal.

There is one key difference, though. During the Cold War, everyone understood that nuclear war would be so devastating that the survivalists of the time knew they could do little other than hide in a bunker and pick up the pieces once it was safe to come out. The "economic collapse" scenario, on the other hand, gives today's survivalists a more active part to play, battling it out with "the criminal element" in an anarchic free-for-all requiring "tactical" armament. They therefore fight for laws that make that armament available to everyone. And "everyone" includes monsters who take the "tactical reality" so devoutly desired by the gun fetishists and bring it into being in malls, and movie theaters, and first-grade classrooms.


Sun Nov 11, 2012 at 03:08 PM PST

Some nattering about negativism

by adamcadre

Poll results on the ESPN web site make no sense to me. An ESPN poll will ask a question like "Who will win tonight's game between the Phoenix Suns and the Memphis Grizzlies?", and a look at the results map will show that 92% of Arizona voters have gone for the Suns and 96% of Tennessee voters have gone for the Grizzlies. But the question didn't ask who the voters wanted to win, but who they thought would win. Apparently over ninety percent of the population, or at least of visitors, are optimists. I don't understand optimism. I never, ever, ever think anything good is going to happen.

A lot of the election postmortem has focused on the triumph of the statisticians over the pundits. In the former camp, Sam Wang projected that Barack Obama had over a 99% chance of re-election, and that Obama would take 51.1% of the major-party vote; as of this writing, it appears that he was off by all of 0.2%. His more famous colleague Nate Silver put Obama's final chances at 91%, and got every state correct — so much so that he gave Obama the nod in Florida with a 50.3% chance of victory there, and indeed Florida was the last state to be called. Meanwhile, conservative pundits and politicians uniformly predicted a triumph for Mitt Romney. Backing them up was nothing so unreliable as math, as David Brooks scoffed, "experts with fancy computer models are terrible at predicting human behavior." No, Romney would win because, as Peggy Noonan put it, "the vibrations are right." Put aside the poll numbers and instead look at "the anecdotal and intangible evidence," Karl Rove insisted, and you'll get "the sense that the odds favor Mr. Romney." Now, I believe in math; my belief in math is one of the main reasons I'm a progressive. Yet up until the swing states started being called in Obama's favor, I suspected that Noonan and Rove and George Will and Charles Krauthammer and Glenn Beck and Newt Gingrich and John Bolton and Steve Forbes and Michael Barone and Dean Chambers and even Dick Morris were right: that blue voters would flake, that red voters would turn out in massive numbers, that Obama-leaning undecideds would change their minds at the last moment. The difference is that what was wishful thinking on their part was a horrifying prospect to me.  And I believed it because it was a horrifying prospect.

I know that my pessimism is, partially, a defense mechanism. I say "partially" because I truly do believe in the First Noble Truth that existence is characterized primarily — not exclusively, but primarily — by suffering. But while I genuinely did anticipate a Romney victory Tuesday night, the main reason I did was that doing so was useful to me. I could have handled the map turning red because I was braced for it, and any surprises would be pleasant ones. This last point is why I cannot comprehend how optimists make it through life. To not only have to face the prospect of an administration whose policies you find abominable, but to not even have steeled yourself for it? For it to come as a surprise? How do you cope?

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It has seemed to me for a while now that there is a central issue in this election, and the hidden-camera clip of Mitt Romney that dominated the news last night gets right to the heart of it. About a year ago I happened across a tweet that referred to comments sections on the web as "the bottom half of the Internet," which struck me as a wonderful phrase. I read a lot of news online, and inertia usually leads me to scroll down to the comments, and I nearly always regret it. No matter whether it's the web site of a city paper, or ABC News, or Yahoo, or pretty much any site you care to name, you can rely on the comments to sound like Mitt Romney does at these fundraisers. More after the jump...

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Sun Apr 22, 2012 at 12:38 PM PDT

"The Pineapple and the Hare"

by adamcadre

A couple of days ago my social networks exploded with chatter about the story that a crazy passage about a talking pineapple had appeared on a New York state reading exam for eighth-graders. Words like "weird," "absurd," and "crap" flew around. One friend-of-a-friend averred, "I'm not sure there's any such thing as a good reading-comprehension question."

As it happens, I made a sizeable chunk of my income in the mid-'00s as the lead developer of the SAT reading program for a major test prep company. I have written hundreds of these things. And my take on all this has proven to be somewhat different from most that I've encountered.

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Sun Nov 20, 2011 at 02:14 PM PST

Occupy the first person plural

by adamcadre

One meme that the right has tried to spread about the Occupy movement is that it isn't about anything. These protesters — what do they want? Where is their list of goals? How do they expect to negotiate for whatever it is they want to achieve without a leader? Underlying these questions is the assumption that the Occupiers are even talking to their adversaries right now. It seems to me that much of the success of Occupy — and it's been successful enough in changing the conversation to issues of economic inequality that we've already reached the "then they fight you" phase — has been in talking, not to the top 1% and demanding anything, but to the other 99% and comparing notes. On the broadest level, this exchange boils down to: "This sucks, right?" "Oh, you think so too?" Which is basic, even embryonic — but very, very important.

For another meme that the right has been pushing for the past thirty years is that it's Morning in America; that as right-wing policies have been put into force, life has gotten better and better; and if yours hasn't, it demonstrates that you must be fundamentally defective in some way. This last part used to be left as an implication, but with each standard bearer on the right more proudly simple-minded than the last, they're now just blurting it out. The message of Occupy is that if you feel like the rising tide of prosperity has left you treading water — or drowning — you are not some contemptible aberration. Not only are you not alone, you're in the majority. Only a small coterie have seen their yachts lifted — and not because they've contributed so much more to the world than did their counterparts in the mid-20th century, but for systemic reasons. They've used their influence to get tax policy rewritten in their favor, checks on corporate power removed, and their grip on society strengthened. And, yes, eventually specific legislation will be needed if this societal divide is ever to be remedied. But that can wait until more people have recognized that there is a societal divide, and on which side of it they stand. You've seen the sign at various Occupy assemblies declaring that "They only call it class warfare when we fight back"? Well, a necessary step to fighting back is realizing that it's not just you who's struggling — that you are part of a class. And that the system is rigged against our class, that this sucks, and that life can be better for us if we work together.

This is the recognition that the Occupy opponents want to head off. Pop over to any big news site and the comments section will be full of people sneering, "You want life to be better for you? Then stop whining and get a job!" But there are at least three problems with this line of argument:

One, a big part of what people are upset about is how difficult it is to get a job. Unemployment has been hovering near 10% for years now, a level that was considered catastrophic not long ago; now those with the power to do something about it just shrug and pass it off as the new normal.

Two, jobs aren't always the solution to the problem — all too often they are the problem. To have to spend most of your waking hours on this earth doing something you hate, in order to earn the privilege of supporting yourself for another day so you can wake up and do it again, worrying all the while that at any moment even that might be taken away from you... is that not itself something to protest? See, right-wing rhetoric notwithstanding, I don't think there are that many people out there hellbent on kicking back and collecting government benefits for nothing. In my experience, people tend to be pretty content with their lot if they can get interesting work, paid at a fair wage, that gives them the satisfaction of contributing to the world in some way. To say that protesters should just go out and get jobs like these is merely a less tasty version of "let them eat cake"; to say that they should go get the soul-destroying kind is sadism.

Three — and this is the important one — "get a job" deliberately misses the point of what "we want life to be better for us" means. It doesn't mean that I want life to be better for me, and she wants life to be better for her, and he wants life to be better for him. It means that he wants life to be better for us, and she wants life to be better for us, and I want life to be better for us. So even if I were currently in need of one, my getting a job, even a great one, would only get us one three-hundred-millionth of the way to solving that problem. As the Occupy movement has highlighted, economic injustice is a collective problem, and solving collective problems requires collective action.

So when multibillionaire Warren Buffett calls for a rule that CEOs be required to pay taxes at a rate at least as high as that of their secretaries, or a group of millionaires goes to Capitol Hill to lobby for millionaires' tax breaks to be reversed, detractors such as Grover Norquist and Gregg Easterbook are being willfully obtuse when they reply that nothing is stopping anyone from paying more than they owe. Again: "we think we should pay higher taxes" does not mean that I think I should pay higher taxes, and he thinks he should pay higher taxes, and she thinks she should pay higher taxes. It means that she thinks we should pay higher taxes, and he thinks we should pay higher taxes, and I think we should pay higher taxes. It's that whole collective action thing again. And as numbers are the key advantage the 99% hold over the
1%, naturally the defenders of the status quo are going to use rhetorical tricks to pretend collective action doesn't exist.

If forced to confront it, those of Norquist's stripe tend to argue that this kind of collective decision-making is illegitimate because no group has the right to impose a choice upon an individual who disagrees. Except, of course, that libertarianism does just that, as Norquist himself admits. Eric Schoenberg, a professor at Columbia Business School, recently confronted Norquist and asked whether, if he's so determined to do away with taxation, he would opt out of the government services that taxes pay for. Norquist said he would. Schoenberg asked why Norquist didn't just move to Somalia, where no taxes are collected and no services are provided; Norquist, in a cutesy bit of sophistry, replied that Somalia's problem wasn't too little government but too much — "competing governments" (i.e., militias) who "compete to be in charge of pushing you around." But that's the whole point of the Somalia argument! The problem with being free to do whatever you want is that there are other people in the world, and if they are also free to do whatever they want, one of the things they might want to do is make you do what they say and kill you if you don't. You can try to defend yourself, but there's only so much armament one person can pack. If enough people band together against you, you will eventually find yourself outgunned. So if you want any kind of quality of life, you have to be part of a collective as well and submit to collective decision-making.

As noted, Norquist doesn't deny this. "I think government, up to a certain point, advances human liberty," he has said, citing the usefulness of a police force and judicial system "to prevent people from stealing stuff out of your car, out of your house." This focus on "stuff" is typical, as the chief way that libertarians differ from anarchists is in their obsession with property rights. The irony is that while the word "social" is anathema to libertarians in economic contexts, property is itself a social construct. There's nothing intrinsic to my stuff that makes it mine, and there have been cultures that would have been perplexed by the notion that I had any right to keep others away from an object I wasn't using. In ours, we have a social contract that we can each claim stuff, usually by paying for it — money being a social construct as well — and I'll respect your right to keep me away from the stuff we collectively define as yours if you respect my right to keep you away from the stuff we collectively define as mine. If you say, "I never agreed to that! You all don't get to collectively decide what we're going to do! I'll opt out of my property rights if it means I don't have to respect yours!" and burgle my apartment, there's a reasonable chance that some people who don't know either of us will capture you and put you in jail, in order to enforce the collective agreement that frees us from having to spend all our time at home guarding our stuff. And libertarians are fine with this. In fact, they insist on it.

The ironic thing about all those posts on the bottom half of the Internet demanding that Occupy protesters stick to individual action to improve their individual lives, rather than collective action to improve the lives of their class, is that making such a post is itself a collective action. Each of those messages was typed on a computer designed and built by other people, processed by software thought up and implemented by other people, transmitted by electrical lines laid by other people, written in a language developed over the course of centuries by other people... and you can say that about virtually everything we do. Everything one accomplishes is really an achievement of multitudes. So if we contend that some of the income from those accomplishments must be shared with one's network of collaborators, i.e., the rest of society — if we point out how absurd it is to think that 1% of the population could be responsible for, and therefore deserve, 40% of the common wealth — if we say that our current lopsided distribution of that wealth is therefore indicative of serious systemic problems that need to be fixed — then, sure, a libertarian can try to argue against us. But what he can't do is say that it's somehow illegitimate to make these kinds of decisions for anyone other than oneself. If it's legitimate to collectively invent the notion of property and decide on rules about it that apply to all of us, then it's equally legitimate to change those rules via the same method.


I'm generally a year or two behind where movies are concerned, and I finally got around to watching this one. It's interesting how different elements of a film jump out at you based on what's been going on in the world, and watching The Social Network in the context of Occupy Wall Street got me thinking about what the movie tells us about the motivations of the plutocrats. I did a long writeup on my own site, but thought that a dramatically condensed (but still pretty long) version might be of interest to some folks over here as well. (Let the squiggly separator here also serve as spoiler space.)

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It seems as though over the past few days the Internet has become a giant device whose sole purpose is to pass along this Elizabeth Warren quote:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you! But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now, look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless! Keep a big hunk of it! But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
This is all true, but I think the argument against "getting rich on one's own" is more fundamental.  Wealth is a social construct.  It is the ability to acquire more goods and services than other people.  And that ability is conferred by other people.  In this respect wealth is different from, say, a river.  If we all agree that the river isn't there, we still get wet when we try to cross it.  But if we all stop providing goods and services in exchange for money, as tends to happen in crumbling societies... then poof, that wealth actually does disappear.

See, money is inherently useless.  It is nothing more than a funny-looking piece of paper, or a magnetic state on some hard drive somewhere.  Even if you're one of those people hoarding gold, all you can do with it by yourself is plate your own headphone jacks or make yourself a dental crown.  Money's value lies in its status as a token representing a relationship with other people.  If we lived in societies small enough that everyone knew everyone else, we wouldn't need money, because everyone would know how much everyone else had contributed to the welfare of the group, and distribute goods and services accordingly.  (Note: "accordingly" does not necessarily mean "in a strict one-to-one manner.")  But modern societies tend to be much too large for that.  Therefore we have a general agreement — an underlying social contract, to use Warren's words — that we will create goods and provide services to others in exchange for these tokens, with the understanding that others will accept these tokens in exchange for the goods and services we want. Why would they?  Because underlying each token is the implicit promise that we deserve those goods and services — that we acquired these tokens by contributing to society.

Normally at this point I proceed to the argument that our society is breaking down because the best way to amass these tokens is not to contribute to society at all but rather to dick around with the tally sheets.  And that's true, but Elizabeth Warren made her comments in the context of a plutocratic hue and cry about taxes, so let me address that instead.  I was going to summarize the right-wing argument against taxation, but as it happens Michele Bachmann encapsulated it nicely in last night's Republican presidential debate, in response to the question, "Out of every dollar I earn, how much do you think that I deserve to keep?":

I think you earned every dollar, you should get to keep every dollar that you earn. That's your money, that's not the government's money.
The problem with this argument is that it is the government's money. Open your wallet and look at your money.  Is your name on it?  No.  The government's name is on it.  Because money is a scoring system for "earnings" that only makes sense within the context of a society, and the stability of that society is maintained by the government — by providing a common currency, for one.  To complain that the rules of society provide that the government can reclaim some of its money as a means of enabling collective action — e.g. to build those roads and schools Warren talked about, establishing those police forces, etc. — is like an NFL team complaining, "Kickoffs are being moved up five yards?!  How dare you!  We earned those yards!  Those aren't your yards, National Football League, they're our yards!"  Just as those yards only have meaning within the context of a football game, money only has meaning within the context of society.  So I would say that you don't need to point out all the ways society helps an entrepreneur get rich to make the argument that "nobody in this country" "got rich on his own" — for it is only in relationship to society that those riches even exist.

But that's a pretty abstract argument that I doubt would connect with many voters, which is one of the many reasons that I probably shouldn't run for the Senate.

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Tue Feb 16, 2010 at 06:29 AM PST

the 59% minority

by adamcadre

Another one from the TLDR files, and belated to boot — I wrote it three weeks ago — but people seem to have liked my last piece so I thought I'd go ahead and post this one, which is much in the same vein. It addresses the question of why the Democrats, especially in the Senate, have been so ineffective despite their big majorities, using the examples of the Canadian parliamentary system and American presidential nomination contests for illustrative contrast. Hint: "cowardice" is not the answer.

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This is probably one for the TLDR files, but I thought some folks here might find it worth a look.  It's about Sarah Palin's speech to the teabag convention and why "lectern" in particular is a bit of a dog-whistle word.

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On January 25, 1995, a radar station in Murmansk detected what appeared to be a Trident missile heading into Russian airspace. It was actually a rocket carrying scientific equipment. Russian authorities had been notified of the impending launch, but none of them had passed word along to the radar technicians — or to Boris Yeltsin, who was given ten minutes to decide whether to launch a counterstrike. Yeltsin decided against it. Why would Bill Clinton have decided to nuke us? It must be a mistake. This is the kind of leeway you get when your leader isn't a saber-rattling prick. Imagine if this incident had happened in 1985 rather than 1995. Do Konstantin Chernenko's handlers give the same benefit of the doubt to the man who a few months earlier had jokingly announced that he'd just launched a first-strike against the USSR?

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I've been dating a Canadian for a couple of years now and have recently been seriously considering moving to Canada. I'd never really taken the prospect very seriously before; I love the Bay Area and when I moved back here I'd hoped it would be for good. But watching the effect Sarah Palin has had on the presidential race has started to change my mind. Not just in the "eeeagh, I cannot live in a country with this cretin as vice president" sense — though it's beginning to look as though McCain managed to find someone who out-Cheneys Cheney. But one of the sticking points I ran into whenever I thought of moving north was simply the prospect of living in a monarchy. I'm supposed to live in a country that has a queen on its money? Really? That was a deal-breaker — until now.

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