Friday, June 24, 2016

Op-ed articles since October 31.

As before,  I have been too busy to post all of my new op-ed articles as they came out.  When I checked just now,  the last time I posted any was October 31!  So here are 7 more pieces,  all but one of which (the one on ownership of public lands) have come out in one or more newspapers.

Packaging medicare-for-all as a defense measure




Despite Hillary Clinton’s claim that single-payer medical insurance is politically impossible,  it might get enacted if shown to be necessary for our national defense.  There are precedents.

Before the Eisenhower administration,  highways were mostly state responsibilities.  But Eisenhower admired the German autobahns he saw after World War II.  His 1919 military convoy across the U.S. had convinced him that good highways would be invaluable during wartime.

Eisenhower’s National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 produced our present freeway system.  Conservative enthusiasm for this major legislation was surely enhanced because it was a defense measure.

In 1957 the U.S.S.R. launched the first artificial satellite. The U.S. had not managed to launch any satellites yet, so Sputnik hit us like a psychological Pearl Harbor.     

The Sputnik scare led to the National Defense Education Act of 1958  funding improved science classes in American schools.  The NDEA also established federal graduate fellowships from which I personally benefited. After I graduated from Willamette University in 1961 an NDEA fellowship financed my Ph.D. studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Before 1958 most education had been considered a state responsibility, and again a major federal expansion was justified by the need to strengthen national defense.

During World War I President Woodrow Wilson backed off from earlier opposition to the proposed Nineteenth Amendment, and he did it in the name of national defense. He said, “I regard the concurrence of the Senate in the constitutional amendment proposing the extension of the suffrage to women as vitally essential to the successful prosecution of the great war of humanity in which we are engaged." 

 Bernie Sanders has put single-payer insurance squarely on the national discussion agenda and many consider Medicare For All an excellent idea.  Hillary Clinton’s argument that single-payer is politically impossible seems reasonable, given Republican hostility to Obamacare, since without some Republican support  no such legislation can be enacted.   But Clinton neglects a historical fact:  “packaging” can have a major influence on getting legislation passed. 

The only program Republican leaders do not want to cut is national defense.  They want to increase defense spending while whacking everything else.  Therefore to encourage Republican support for single-payer, we must bill it as a national defense measure.

The National Defense Medical Insurance Reform Act of 2017 would gradually reduce the percentage of GDP devoted to medical care, thus reducing the danger that medical costs will gobble up resources otherwise available for the military,   research, and education.  It would help fight viruses like Zika or attacks by contagious biological weapons, since protecting anyone requires protecting everyone.  And a healthier population would include more people physically capable of military service, which could be especially important as young people become a smaller part of our population.

Expansion of federal involvement in highways and education as defense measures took place under President Eisenhower,  a Republican. A Republican president might be the ideal person to propose Medicare For All legislation.  Perhaps Ted Cruz would be unlikely to propose any such thing,  but Donald Trump or John Kasich might find it an interesting way to replace deeply flawed Obamacare with broad bipartisan support. 

Woodrow Wilson, who backed women suffrage as a defense measure,  was a Democrat.  As president Bernie Sanders would also be well advised to present insurance reform as a military defense measure.  Hillary Clinton could do likewise if her opposition to single-payer is actually based on its perceived political impossibility rather than being her opinion on the merits.

True leaders of either party can sometimes turn political impossibility into political reality.

Trump's teachable moment: abortions and minimum wage laws





Donald Trump’s ill-considered remark about punishing women for abortions offers a “teachable moment” about . . . minimum wage laws.  Minimum wage laws?!  Well, stay tuned.

Let me make two things clear up front.  I would not vote for Trump for dogcatcher.  And I do not believe that abortions should be illegal, even though I do consider them immoral. (As the great Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out, the side effects of trying to outlaw all sin may be worse than the benefits.) 

Donald Trump is a bull in our political china shop.  You never know what he might say, and apparently neither does he.  But what comes out of Trump’s mouth is not always as crazy as it is inexpedient.  Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. 

If abortions were indeed illegal, it would make sense to punish the patient as well as the doctor.  The relationship between patient and doctor is a voluntary association created by their mutual consent.  Since the doctor could not violate the law if the woman had not consented,  it would appear that both are responsible for the violation and to punish only one of them would be arbitrary.

Likewise with minimum wage laws.  The employer paying less than the legal minimum can only violate the law because someone agrees to work for less than that minimum.  Since the employer-employee relationship could not exist without the worker’s consent,  both are equally responsible for violating the law. It is therefore be arbitrary to punish only the employer and not the employee.
.   
But even militant anti-abortionists denounced Trump’s short-lived proposal to punish women who have an abortion.  And no one ever proposes to punish the worker who agrees to work for less than the legal minimum.   

A contrasting situation can be found in laws prohibiting prostitution.  The logic of the situation is identical to abortions and minimum wage law violations.  A would-be prostitute without a willing client cannot violate the law.  But we find no general reluctance to punish both the prostitute (and/or her pimp) and the client; indeed we often hear vociferous complaints when clients are not punished. 

Unwillingness to punish both parties whose cooperation is required to violate a law may indicate that such laws themselves are not a good idea.   Paying sub-minimum wages,  like abortions,  may be a case where attempting to outlaw actions regarded as bad produces more damage than benefits to society.  Depriving someone of the best possible job he or she can find is,  after all,  a strange way to help the poor. 

Since outlawing abortions and low-paying jobs does not improve the situation,  perhaps government should act instead to reduce the need for abortions and to universalize opportunities for well-paying jobs.  Encouragement of birth control and adoption are obvious alternatives to abortion.  And government could become employer-of-last-resort, guaranteeing employment doing useful work at whatever minimum wage-level is acceptable to the tax-paying electorate.

In a better world, abortions would thus be perfectly legal but rare, and low-paying jobs would be legal but would find no takers because everyone has better job opportunities.

When laws make a bad situation worse,  it is better to have no law.

Voting reform: simulating voter sophistication



What should a voter do if the Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton,  the Republicans nominate Donald Trump,   and that voter thinks both of them are terrible?

Sophisticated voters understand that unless they consider both candidates equally bad,  they should vote for the one they think is less bad.  That is what I did in 2004 when, as a lifelong Republican,  I voted for John Kerry.  Since then, I have become a registered Democrat and, watching Kerry’s impressive work as Secretary of State,  his stock has gone way up with me,  but that is how I saw things in 2004.

It is like this, too,  in life in general.   During my first year on the Adrian College faculty our astronomy professor died suddenly in the middle of second semester.  No one in the science departments knew anything about astronomy, but I had taken an excellent year-long course at Willamette University and done extensive reading afterwards.  I volunteered to fill in and Dean Darrell Pollard, himself a political scientist,  graciously accepted my offer, commenting “well, you’re better than nothing!”  Obviously,  I was not an ideal candidate, but under the circumstances the Dean had to make the best of it.

 Many voters,  however,  cannot bring themselves to hold their noses and vote for the least bad major party candidate.  They  threaten to support a third party candidate or not to vote at all, despite the fact that this increases the danger that the candidate they like the least will win.  Republicans opposed to Donald Trump may even set up a third party candidate of their own, even though that could propel Hillary Clinton to victory.

A simple reform, however,  could allow such voters to retain their unsophisticated thinking but to vote as if they were sophisticated.  And this reform probably could be enacted by a mere change in federal law without requiring any amendments to the Constitution.

All that is needed is legislation providing that voters can cast their vote either for a candidate or against a candidate,  with the results for each candidate being the total votes for minus the total votes against.   This rule would allow voters to cast a vote against Trump without having to vote for Clinton (or, of course, vice versa).  Admittedly,  it would have the same consequences,  but that is exactly my point:  Voters would be able to act as if they were sophisticated without actually having to be sophisticated.

Given that the utility of such a change in election law is driven home by the candidacy of Donald Trump,  it might be appropriate to refer to the necessary legislation as the Trump Act. 

If the Trump Act also applied to primaries,  the dilemma of anti-Trump primary voters--- whether their opposition can be most effective  by voting for Ted Cruz or for John Kasich--- would be resolved.   They could just cast their vote directly against The Donald and be done with it. However initially the Trump Act would probably apply only to general elections and perhaps just for the presidency. 

Rule changes should not be made lightly,  since they sometimes produce results that disadvantage those who supported them.  It might be prudent to include a safeguard in case both major candidates got net negative votes, which could result in a little-known third-party candidate winning. But unless there are other downsides that have not occurred to me,  Congress ought to enact the Trump Act immediately so that it will apply to the elections in November. 

Medicare For All: Clarifying Costs and Benefits




Win or lose in his presidential quest,  Bernie Sanders will have contributed greatly if he convinces Americans that Medicare For All is a good idea.  To date,  however,  he has not done this. 

It does not help that he has grossly understated the tax increases for ordinary Americans necessary to finance his proposed single-payer insurance system.  One does not finance a system accounting for 18% of  the gross domestic product by increasing a family’s taxes by $500, so his claim is not credible on its face.  It invites charges that he is just another demagogue promising to pay for expensive programs by soaking only the rich.  Everyone knows that something sounding too good to be true probably isn’t. 

Speaking frankly about the necessary tax increases would make it harder for Sanders to convince people they will come out ahead financially despite the increased taxes.  But there is actually a very strong case Sanders could make that this would be true for most people. 

The biggest obstacle to convincing people that Medicare For All would save them money is that most Americans grossly underestimate how much medical insurance already costs them.  They only see co-pays,  deductibles,  and the so-called “employee share” of employment based insurance.  But for many people this is a small part of the total cost of their insurance.  Substantial premiums are remitted by employers directly to insurance companies without ever showing up in cash wages and other taxable income.   

This so-called “employer share” is usually misunderstood to mean that the employer is not just remitting the money but is actually bearing the cost. But for the employer this money is not a cost of insurance but a cost of labor.  Like cash wages, the insurance is of great value to employees.  If an  employer paying market wages were to discontinue insurance without raising wages by the amount saved, total worker compensation would no longer be competitive.    

In other words,  employees are really paying—directly or indirectly--- for all of their medical insurance:  typical amounts range from $8,000 per year for individuals to $16,000  or more for family coverage.  So as long as taxes go up by less than this,  people would come out ahead, since all of the costs they are currently paying would disappear.    

Taxes would go up by less because Medicare For All would reduce or eliminate many current costs, thereby reducing the costs of the entire system. Eliminating high-priced executives and corporate profits would produce a small part of the savings.  More substantially,  huge staffs are now employed by hospitals and doctors to deal with complicated and varied policies of dozens of private insurance companies, which themselves have huge staffs processing claims and figuring out excuses for rejecting them.  With only one insurer to deal with,  expensive staffs could be decimated, producing immense savings. 

If Americans understand where their bread is really buttered,  they will support a single-payer system.  Even if he does not become president,  a totally frank Sanders’ campaign can increase national understanding and pave the way for eventual progress.  Win or lose,  he will have made a real difference.

Savng Sanders From His Own Rhetoric


 

The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary have demonstrated that Senator Bernie Sanders is a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.  If his recent momentum continues he might very well get the nomination. 

Sanders has a lot of good ideas about domestic and foreign policy,  but if he continues to use expressions like “revolution” and “socialist” without further clarification it will hinder him in getting the nomination and could prove fatal in November.  This would be too bad,  because he is not in favor of revolution and not a socialist in the sense that most Americans take these terms.

Revolution in its fundamental sense is a forceful overthrow of a government by methods not provided for in its constitution and laws.    When Americans think of revolution they think of the execution of the French king and the subsequent guillotining of thousands of people during the terror of the French revolution.  They think of the Communist seizure of power in Russia in 1917 and the millions of people arbitrarily killed or packed off to the Gulag Archipelago during the following civil war and then by Josef Stalin during the following 45 years.  They think of the Maoist takeover in China followed by decades of disorder,  starvation, and finally the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution. 

Senator Sanders clearly is not calling for this kind of revolution.  He does advocate large changes,   “revolution” in a very different sense,  the sense in which we speak of the Industrial Revolution.  He wants changes brought about by the existing political arrangements enshrined in our Constitution: by people voting intelligently in their own enlightened interests. 

When Americans think of “socialism” they tend to think of the disastrous Communist experiments in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, China,  Cuba, and a few other countries that tried to prevent economic markets from functioning.  Nobody in their right minds wants to repeat these disasters and Sanders is not out of his mind.  His concept of socialism is to reform certain aspects of the legal environment within which our economic markets operate so that they will produce better results  for the vast bulk of the population.  This is the large change that he is advocating for the U.S.  Despite his frequent criticism of big corporations,  he  does not appear to advocate nationalizing them like doctrinaire socialists in Western Europe used to favor. 

If Sanders were to have his way,  corporations would continue to exist and strive to maximize profits,  but the changed legal environment would improve the results of their activities for the general public.  The one exception would be that Sanders wants not merely to nationalize,  but to destroy,  the corporate medical insurance system.

In my opinion his proposed Medicare For All would be an excellent idea.  The necessary tax increases for everybody (much bigger than Sanders admits) would be more than offset by the elimination of deductibles,  of premiums paid by families, and of the reductions in cash wages allowing employers to remit premiums on behalf of their workers under the current system.  If critics want to call this “socialized medicine” (unfair, since most medical providers would continue to be private, as they are under today’s Medicare For The Few),  so be it.  Socialism is a terrible way to organize an entire economy,  but it could be highly appropriate for a specific economic sector like medical insurance.

Who indeed owns public domain lands?



                                                                         
Dean Kennedy [“Who really owns ‘public domain’ lands?”  GT,  February 8, 2016] makes some very inaccurate statements about the admission of Oregon to statehood in 1859.

He claims that the “Western states were admitted into the Union as Independent Republics.”   But none of the states is an “independent republic.”   The Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article VI) provides:  “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in  every state shall be bound thereby,  any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”   That hardly sounds compatible with any claim that the states are independent republics!  There is also the precedent set by the Civil War. 

Kennedy asks when the Oregon state legislature ceded “what are now the federal forest and BLM lands,  the ‘public domain,’  to the United States federal government?”  The question puts the issue exactly backwards since title to limited portions of the land in Oregon was ceded by the federal government to the state at the time we were admitted to the union.  The Act of Congress on February 14, 1859 granted ownership to Oregon of selected parcels of land to be used for state government buildings, schools, and other specific purposes,  contingent on the state agreeing “by an ordinance, irrevocable without the consent of the United States, that said State shall never interfere with the primary disposal of the soil within the same by the United States . . . .”. 

In other words,  land not specifically  ceded by the federal government to Oregon remained owned by the federal government.

Oregon, in turn,  on June 3, 1859, enacted the following language: 

“Be it ordained by the Legislative Assembly of the State of Oregon, That the said State shall never interfere with the primary disposal of the soil within the same by the United States, nor with any regulations Congress may find necessary for securing the title in such soil to the bona fide purchasers thereof; and that in no case shall non-resident proprietors be taxed higher than residents. And that the said State shall never tax the lands or property of the United States within said State.” [1859]

Thus as the law stands today,  the “public domain” lands in Oregon that have not been ceded to Oregon are owned by the federal government. 

I am not arguing that this is an ideal arrangement, though.  My own analysis indicates that no government (state or federal or tribal) should be regarded as a landowner, and that all land and other natural resources not produced by human labor should be considered owned by the public (defined as every man, woman, and child subject to that government’s jurisdiction).  The benefits of exploitation of such land would be captured by government-as-trustee for the public and distributed in an equal social dividend to all members of the public.  See the Alaska oil-based dividend for how this could work on a larger scale.