Friday, April 9, 2010

Destructive Discussions

Why is all political discussion designed to divide, inflame, and reaffirm existing beliefs? There's so much middle ground in politics, and yet people are encouraged to demonize people with a different label. For example, the stimulus package was about 60% tax cuts and 40% spending. So in reality the stimulus package wasn't overwhelmingly liberal or conservative. It was remarkably mainstream. Liberals – broadly speaking – support the Keynesian notion that in a recession temporary increased government spending is the correct thing to do. Conservatives – broadly speaking – support the theory that providing tax cuts let the individuals decide how to spend their money, individuals always know how better to spend their money than the government, etc. Personally I believe that the Keynesian model is correct, but there are plenty of people that disagree with me and that’s fine. My problem is that instead of discussing the pros and cons of stimulus, or how best to deliver stimulus, the right often characterizes the stimulus package as a deficit-adding left-wing shameful giveaway. They repeat stories of absurd uses of the money which are later debunked. They create this fake idea and then suddenly reality isn't being discussed, people are arguing over illusions. The problem is that most people don’t listen critically to their political party or news channel of preference. That lack of thinking critically and investigating the facts lead people to support or condemn a policy not based on principle or reality but based solely on perception.

The healthcare bill is basically mandating coverage and providing tax subsidies to people who can't afford it. How it’s paid for: Medicare Part A coverage will be raised on individuals making more than 200,000$ per year by 0.9%; unearned income (dividends, interest, etc) will have a new tax of 3.8 percent if you’re an individual making more than 200,000$ per year; a “Cadillac” tax on high-end health insurance plans; Drug manufacturers, hospitals, and medical device manufacturers will have a tax (the idea is that they can afford to pay a fee if they have 40 million new customers); a tanning tax; Medicare cuts (again, the idea is that with 40 million new patients they will have a larger profit margin and thus able to afford a tax). If the goal of healthcare reform is to expand coverage, it only works if the healthy and unhealthy join the pool. I think a better way to expand coverage would be a public option, but that’s not what happened. Instead we mandated private coverage and gave subsidies.

That's the exact same theme that Mitt Romney (GOP presidential candidate) used to sign the healthcare bill in MA, and the same theme that the GOP proposed in response to the public option during Clinton's presidency. The GOP argument went something like this: “The public option is socialist; we want to pick our own health insurance and not be subjected to death panels or have government bureaucrats between us and our doctors. Therefore the responsibility should be on the individual and they should have tax assistance from the government”. If this argument was a matter of principle, then it should be supported today. The GOP no longer supports their argument, so that raises the question of what changed. The only answer I can think of is that President Obama is now in favor of that plan; therefore the GOP is now against it. Their behavior doesn't reflect principled opinions; it reflects putting their own political futures ahead of everyone and everything. People may disagree with the healthcare bill, but characterizing expanding private coverage as a socialist government take-over of healthcare is inaccurate. I don’t have a problem with people who disagree with me; my problem is when people disagree with a phantom idea. It’s frustrating to have to defend something non-existent.

It seems like today everyone is arguing about ridiculous meaningless things. There are substantial differences between conservatives and liberals. For example, are property taxes appropriate given the struggle between property rights and the desire to have a progressive tax system? Or, does the good generated by giving corporations tax cuts to lure them to a city (increased employment, increased tax revenue by those new employees) outweigh the unfairness of a corporation receiving a tax cut while small businesses and individuals don't get the same benefits? There are legitimate questions of how to govern - at every level of government - that aren't being discussed and problems not being solved because silly inflammatory things are being talked about. For example, was President Obama born in the United States? Will the healthcare bill bankrupt America? Is President Obama a socialist? Why is the tax system set up like it is, is it unfair? Why are the democrats jamming bills down America's throat without consent? Is America now disarmed (spoiler alert: we are)? All of these questions can be answered easily with factual evidence (or in the case of opinion-related questions, they can be discussed using actual figures and facts), but reasonable discussion can only take place if one has an open mind and genuinely seeks answers.

All too often people search for anything to reaffirm their initial opinions and along the way they disregard any new evidence. It's uncomfortable to change one's mind and learn new things, but not doing so is dangerous in the long term. I regularly read Greg Mankiw (conservative economist at Harvard) and Keith Hennessey (senior White House economic advisor to President George W. Bush) not because I agree with most of their conclusions, but because they have actual things to say, things of substance. I think Paul Krugman is remarkable, but I don’t want to limit myself to only his opinion. I encourage all of y’all to find some people of substance from across the political spectrum, and pay more attention to reasonable people and less to RNC or DNC chairmen.

Politicians and the media benefit from controversy and have chosen a strategy of creating an absence of reasonable thought. The masterful part of it is that instead of acknowledging that each side has good points the narrative goes something like this: the other side is trying to (steal your money / kill the poor) only an idiot would think (you can tax small business indefinitely / minorities are worthless) although in fairness I admit that (they have good intentions / they know how to vote in lockstep). Narratives like that are only designed to increase divisiveness and controversy; unfortunately it’s also often a typical narrative.

Instead of trying to find ways to work together and benefit the nation (or state, city, etc), political leaders often decide to use inflammatory divisive language to get more votes on the next election. That's damaging the political system, the nation, and Americans. The antidote is knowledge and open-mindedness, ironically the same attributes being discouraged by most politicians, most media, and our natural desire to be right regardless of the facts.

Shhh... Don't let the other countries know that America is now disarmed

President Obama has revised the Nuclear Posture Review, defining when it's acceptable for the US to use nuclear weapons. Basically, it says that the US won't use nuclear weapons first against countries that are non-nuclear or countries that are in compliance with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. That means that there's no change in policy concerning North Korea, Israel, India, or Pakistan. The US won't use nuclear weapons first against almost all countries, that hardly seems unreasonable given 1) the devastating nature of nuclear weapons and 2) the fact that nuclear weapons have only been used twice in all of history. The US accounts for 40% of the worlds defense spending (and defense spending in the US continues to rise under President Obama), so it's ridiculous to argue that America lacks the non-nuclear ability to defend itself. Regardless, we still have thousands of nuclear weapons, the question is whether we should use nuclear weapons to respond to a non-nuclear state using biological weapons. I think it's obvious that we have plenty of levels of response before resorting to the weapons of last resort.

In order to come up with the NPR, one has to begin by finding out the biggest threat that nuclear weapons pose. I think we can all agree that one nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist poses a more real threat than 1500 in the hands of the Russian government. Therefore a strategy that acknowledges that threat is appropriate. The NPR realizes that rogue nuclear weapons pose the greater threat, and it still keeps thousands of weapons “because no Earth is better than an Earth without us” with the promise not to use them first on most nations is perfectly appropriate.

Of course, there's more than one way to look at it. Fox News brings the fair and balanced look by asking innocently and inquisitively “Now critics are asking, will the new deal leave the U.S. defenseless until it's too late?" then cutting to footage of a nuclear bomb exploding into a mushroom cloud.