Archive for the ‘news’ Category

Failing to Recognize an Inner Life

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

In its issue of 19 January 1924, Collier's published The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Edward Connell jr. This now quite famous story — repeatedly anthologized and adapted for film,[1] for radio, and for television — is of Sanger Rainsford, a big-game hunter.

At the start of the story, Rainsford and company are on a yacht, moving through foggy darkness in the Caribbean. In reference to their planned destination, a companion asserts Great sport, hunting.

The best sport in the world, agreed Rainsford.

For the hunter, amended Whitney. Not for the jaguar.

Don't talk rot, Whitney, said Rainsford. You're a big-game hunter, not a philosopher. Who cares how a jaguar feels?

Perhaps the jaguar does, observed Whitney.

Bah! They've no understanding.

Even so, I rather think they understand one thing — fear. The fear of pain and the fear of death.

Rainsford dismisses this. The world is made up of two classes — the hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are hunters. On this score, his luck does not hold.

Shortly after this conversation, he falls from the yacht as he goes to the railing to listen, having heard shots in the distance. He decides that his best chances for survival are in swimming in the direction of those shots. As he does so, he hears a cry from an animal that he does not recognize, except in-so-far as it is at the extremes of anguish and of terror. Then he hears yet another shot. Continuing to swim in that direction, he finds his way to an island. Thence, he makes his way to the hunter, General Zaroff.

Zaroff recognizes Rainsford by name, and expresses himself as pleased to think that he might now have a hunting companion. But Zaroff hunts men; as game; as the most dangerous game. The resulting argument between Rainsford and Zaroff is rather like the earlier argument between Whitney and Rainsford, with a terrible amplification. And, because Rainsford refuses to become a hunter of men, he is made the game. He is forced into a life-or-death contest that he never sought, against someone whose skills as a hunter are greater, and who additionally has assistance and weapons that Rainsford does not.

Hearing a sound that he has known — the howls and barks of a dog pack when on the hunt — Rainsford learns the fear of which Whitney had spoken; Rainsford comes to know how an animal at bay feels, because he is now an animal at bay.

I don't imagine any of you learning anything from this story about the perspective of the hunted. But there are as well the perspectives of hunters — the perspective of Zaroff, of course; but also the earlier perspective of Rainsford. Those of us who recoil at killing for sport find it easy to imagine Rainsford as a changed man, who has learned an important lesson, in a terrifying way. But Rainsford was capable of such change, because he is not a psychopath, not a sadist, nor too great a fool to learn. He was simply a man who was very mistaken. Perhaps better men would be better creatures of the same time and of the same place, but he was not truly a bad man.

Theunis Botha was guiding hunters who stumbled into a group of elephants. A female grabbed and lifted him by her trunk; she was shot, and fell, crushing him. My reäction to the story wasn't one of regret. But someone about whom I care (rather a lot) has written

I hope he suffered. I hope he felt every crush and the same sense of helpless panic animals feel when being chased, trapped and shot to death by well-armed hunters.

And I think — my God! — why? What good would such suffering do? It is unlikely that Mr Botha rejoiced in the fear and in the pain that he caused; rather, it is far more likely that, as with Rainsford before he met Zaroff, the fear and pain of the hunted did not register with him. If Botha were a man rather like Rainsford, here he had no time to learn from suffering. Can we recognize the inner life of Theunis Botha and still wish terrible punishment upon him for failing to recognize the inner lives of beasts?

[1] See especially the classic movie version of 1932.

The Shape of Things

Friday, 19 May 2017

There is a stock formula for political action that says that If the state may X for Y, then the state may X for Z! Usually, the state is euphemistically called we; sometimes the person using the formula is instead honest enough instead to say the government.

Often, the X refers to spending. (Taxation is then only mentioned when the spending immediately involves continuation of a tax that was supposed to be temporary.) For example, after the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, after the Paris Peace Treaty of the Viet-Nam War, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the claims were that, since the United States could previously afford to spend as much money as it had on the military, now it could afford to spend that much money on expansion or introduction of welfare programmes of various sorts. However, sometimes there has been a different X. For example, within the movie Scarface (1932), it is declared that if the Governor of Oklahoma could declare military law to cartelize the petroleum industry forcibly, then military law could be used to effect extensive gun control through-out the nation.

There has been rather a lot of talk, since even before he took office, to the effect that Donald Joseph Trump were a dictator. I don't think that it's necessarily unreasonable to assert that he were just that, though he took office with exactly the powers that he'd inheritted from his immediate predecessor, which is to say that if President Trump were a dictator then so were President Obama. The Office of the President has become increasingly powerful over time, with each strong President picking-up where the last one left-off, and adding to the power of the Office, establishing precedents which the other branches have seldom effectively undone. But, whether the refrain is technically correct or not, it is that President Trump be a dictator. If Trump should leave office before the end of his term, then the refrain will become that President Michael Richard Pence were a dictator, as quite possibly he might be.

And if-and-when the Democrats retake the White House, the formula that I noted above will be used. It will more specifically be of the form If we could have a dictator who did Y, then we can have a dictator who does Z! where Y will correspond to the policies and programmes of the Trump or Pence Administration as refracted through the progressive lens, and Z will correspond to progressive policies and programmes, described in terms of their presumed outcomes. This formula will not be used much if at all before the General Election, but it will be used gleefully and self-righteously beginning on the very next day.

(I think it grossly implausible that the Republicans should hold the White House indefinitely; but the public is ever more disgusted with the results of a two-party system, so a Republican loss is not inevitably a Democratic victory.)

No Need for Doors

Thursday, 9 February 2017

84 Lumber bought airtime within the broadcast of the 2017 Superbowl, and presented a video of a Latina mother and daughter travelling through what seems to be Mexico, plainly in hopes of entering America. Inter-spliced with the scenes of their travel are scenes of Americans, clearly constructing something. When the mother and daughter reach the border, they are confronted by a grey and terrible wall. But, as they seek for some hope, they find it — sunlight somehow shining through a section of that wall. Running to it, they find a door. In the awful wall, it was a great door that the Americans in the other scenes were building.

84 Lumber is being attacked for their video, on a theory that its purpose were to defend illegal immigration. Naturally, 84 Lumber denies that their message were any such defense; they now claim that the door were a metaphor for the institutions of legal entry.

I don't encounter a lot of people who will honestly speak in favor of illegal immigration. They ought to do so. There is nothing wrong with illegal immigration. Nothing.

The vast majority of people who oppose illegal immigration or want greater legal restriction on immigration do not do so from racism, and I am very sorry that they have been slandered and libelled; but recognizing the inappropriateness of that accusation doesn't serve to support a case for denying people entry.

Indeed, immigrants might come to our nation and do a variety of things that are violations of the rights of the people who are here now, or that are otherwise undesirable; but every genuine right that might violated by an immigrant could also be violated by someone born and raised here; more generally, every socially corrosive act that might be perpetrated by an immigrant could also be perpetrated by a native. A man or woman who was born here can violate the property and person of someone else; a man or woman who was born here can demand that his or her religion or language be give a privileged legal status; a man or woman who was born here can live at the expense of the taxpayers. None of these behaviors is made better or worse by virtue of where the person were born, nor by whether he or she were allowed to immigrate by the law. I will grant that groups coming from some foreign cultures have a greater share of members likely to do undesirable things of some sorts; but some groups native to America have a greater share of members likely to do undesirable things of some sorts.

There is a dire confusion of the legal with the moral, both on the part of those who insist that illegal immigrants are already in the wrong by virtue of having broken laws that are ostensibly ours in coming here, and by those who insist that there is no such thing as an illegal immigrant. Law can be wrong, and when it is wrong then it may be ignored without doing wrong. Those immigrants here in violation of law are neither wrong simply for being illegal, nor legal because they are not wrong to be here.

America is not a club nor a corporation. The persons and properties within the area occupied by America are not ipso facto in any way the property of all Americans. The right to trade, the right to give without condition, and the right to take that which is freely offered are not rights that in any way reflect nationality. Those who would do business with newcomers are within their rights; newcomers who would do business with those Americans are within their rights.

It's offensively absurd to claim an entitlement to exclude people by pointing to state-managed infrastructure and programmes. They weren't brought into existence through some sort of social contract; ultimately, they were effected through threats of violence; and generally they crowded-out alternative institutions that would have been created by free people. Of course, the welfare state cannot survive in a world of such freedom; it could not survive even if the progressives were allowed to pursue their wildest dreams of taxation, nationally or globally. But so much the worse for the false generosity and false security of the welfare state, which cannot avoid bankruptcy in this century, regardless of whether it keeps all of us trapped on one side or another of its jurisdictional boundaries.

Many people who are going or went through the process of legal immigration may feel that it is unfair for others now to jump the queue; but the queue should never have existed in the first place, and one only compounds the injustice by imposing it upon others.

There should be no queue, no wall, no need for doors.

λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια;

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Years ago, National Lampoon had a monthly column that they entitled True Facts. The title was a joke, not because the contents weren't true (they were an assembly of extraödinary news reports), but because facts cannot be untrue; something untrue is not a fact. Yet many people in various contexts were using terms such as actual fact, real fact, and true fact, almost as if it were possible for some facts to be false, imaginary, unreal. People still do, perhaps even more often. One can find lots of instances of people using imaginary fact; sometimes they do so ironically, but more often they are quite serious. By imaginary fact they mean a proposition that may be untrue, is likely to be untrue, or simply is untrue. In this retasking of the word fact, they've lost the use of the word to talk about facts, unless they add a word such as true. But, with that change in meaning, it not only becomes possible to use a term such as alternative fact to refer to a rival claim, but it becomes harder to see that untrue rival claims don't have equal standing with true rival claims, as they are all supposedly facts.

We aren't at all helped here that a great many people don't understand the words true and truth. That's not simply a problem of vocabulary. Truth is a hard concept, because it entails a meta-propositional act of mapping from a proposition back to itself. That is to say that, in most cases when we apply the word true or equivalent and certainly in the case of true facts, we are explicitly or implicitly making a proposition about a proposition. When we say It's true that I went to the store, that actual referent of the grammatic subject is not I, but the proposition that I went to the store, yet the upshot of this sentence is merely what would be conveyed in saying I went to the store. We perhaps don't need this device of recasting a proposition (I went to the store) as a meta-proposition (It is true that I went to the store), but it is useful because we are not omniscient, and must entertain propositions that are uncertain or discovered to be false; the concept of truth complements the conditions of falsehood and of uncertainty. Yet it is very hard to see that function, exactly because we use the concept to discuss itself. Truth is more easily named than described, if indeed a description is possible.

The difficulty in understanding the nature of truth makes it psychologically easier to embrace such notions as that all aspects of of past, present, and future are simply artefacts of individual belief or of group belief (expressed with formulæ such as truth is a social construct) or that what one wants or ought to want is to be treated a true. The word fact may then be used for components of narratives; embracing one narrative is seen as licensing one to accept propositions as fact that are alternative to components of rival narratives, and to reject propositions for no better reason than that they participate in rival narratives. Evolution of narratives is seen as licensing one to change the status of a proposition from fact to falsehood, or vice versa, even when discussing history. And we may even observe those socially identified as fact-checkers testing claims against narratives which are themselves never fact-checked, because the checkers implictly treat their favored narratives as the ultimate determinant of fact.

When Pilate asked What is truth?, perhaps he was truly curious as to the nature of truth, but he may merely have been asking why he should give a damn about it. Our political leaders have become ever more disdainful of truth. They have long offered us alternative facts, and their followers in each of our major political tribes and in most of the smaller groups as well have decided that, for them, these are the facts. Now we have an Administration that does so more baldly and less artfully. One might hope that this practice will explode on them; but, even if that explosion should happen, their opponents are likely to see an expansion of the envelope within which they may disregard the facts.


Monday, 14 November 2016

A few years ago, in the title of an entry discussing the implications for the world of the failing health of Hugo Chávez, I alluded to a motto that ends leave a beautiful corpse[1]. That entry considered an observed practice:

When a charismatic leader dies aburptly while still in power, his or her supporters quickly begin building a mythology of what would have been accomplished had he or she lived.

I drew attention to how this mythologizing bears upon social policy:

The mythological episode of such leadership is treated as having the same standing for purposes of comparison as does historical fact. When an opponent tries to construct an argument founded on logic and general fact against policies associated with that leader, supporters treat the mythology as if it is a disproof by counter-example. What’s really happening then is that Faith is being mistaken for empirical data.

While death significantly amplifies the power of the mythologizing of a leader who was not given full opportunity to effect the programmes that he or she chose, death isn't essential for there to be some mythologizing; I noted that there was a developing narrative of what President Obama would have done had his party retained a majority in both chambers of Congress for the whole of his terms.

As it happens, charisma is also inessential, though it very much helps. And an odd substitute for direct charisma has been demonstrated. Barack Obama inflamed so much inverted narcissism on the part of his followers that a great many of them chose to treat his successor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as if she were magnificent though she is signally lacking in charisma.

At the same time, her health is failing her, and had she been elected to the Presidency, she would not likely have served through a full term. There would have been an odd sort of race between how rapidly she did things that repelled those who had been her supporters, and when she left office. Depending upon the outcome of that race, she might have left a beautiful corpse.

But Ms Clinton has lost the race for Presidential Electors. Although a few of her supporters cling to an implausible hope that the Electoral College will not merely turn its back on the detestable Donald John Trump but will elect Clinton (as opposed to some Republican other than Trump), she will not be President. And the mythologizing is already under-way, even to the level of having Ms Clinton imagined as rather prettier than she is. [image of Kathryn McKinnon Berthold in the rôle of Hillary Rodham Clinton, singing 'Hallelujah']

One does not have to regard Mr Trump as even tolerable to resist the mythologizing and to see Ms Clinton for what she has been. She has repeatedly been one of the people causing the United States military to engage in the slaughter of innocent people, for stated goals that haven't been obtained because they haven't been obtainable. She has engaged in calculated support of domestic policies such as the War of Drugs and aggressive incarceration policies that have literally led to many thousands of deaths and to the ruin of many thousands of other lives. She and her husband have got rich exactly as brokers of political influence. She has privately spoken against some policies as corrosive while publicly supporting them — or vice versa — depending upon the expected flow of dollars and of votes. She has casually disregarded laws, in the expectation (thus far vindicated) that her connections will insulate her from being charged, let alone convicted.

If Ms Clinton is to be made into a beautiful corpse, it is rather fitting that this transformation be effected while she is undead.

[1] In full, the motto is Live fast; die young; leave a beautiful corpse. It is an elaboration of an earlier motto of live fast and die young. A popular variant is Live fast; die young; leave a good-looking corpse.

Social Consequences of Speciation

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Sometimes, I don't know how to write about important matters. Please bear with me, because this subject is far more important than it might initially seem.

When most people encounter the word species, it is either in the context of a biological discussion, or the word is used as a metaphorical borrowing from discussion of that sort. It actually has more general meanings, the broadest simply being class of things of shared characteristics. But what concerns me here is indeed its biological sense.

Most people who have any notion at all of the word derive their understanding of the biological signification from a combination of observed use and whatever was told to them by middle- and high-school texts of alleged science. Many of them know that organisms are categorized hierarchically, and that species is a finer category than genus. But, if asked to describe the classification of animals as different, say, as are cats and dogs, far more people would descibe them as of different species than as of different family or as of different genus. There is an inferred sense that difference in species is rather fundamental.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives the biological sense thus:

A taxonomic grouping ranking next below genus and subgenus, which contains organisms that are uniquely distinguished from others by certain shared characteristics and usu. by an inability to interbreed with members of other such groupings; such a grouping as denoted by a Latin binomial, and freq. subdivided into subspecies, races, varieties, etc.; the organisms of such a grouping.

That bit about inability to interbreed is a bit loose; for example, most biologists would classify horses and donkeys as of different species, though they can produce offspring. However, a striking characteristic of those offspring is that they cannot themselves produce further offspring. The infertility of those offspring is usually cited towards explaining the speciation.

In any case, The SOED hedged with that usu. because some biologists categorize animals as of different species though they can interbreed down through indefinitely many generations, as in the case of coyotes (C. latrans) with wolves (C. lupus).

Over some decades, anthropologists disagreed over whether to classify Neanderthalers as a distinct species, H. neanderthalensis, or as a sub-species of H. sapiens. As there was no way to observe potential interbreeding, early disagreement turned on issues of overt morphology — the shapes of skulls, dentition, &c. But then interbreeding became, in a sense, potentially observable as it became possible to extract and analyze DNA from remains of Neanderthalers. Initial results (quite surprising to me) suggested no interbreeding, and it became more commonly accepted that they should be considered a distinct species. However, when later genetic evidence began to show the presence of Neanderthaler genes in some modern populations of H. sapiens, the practice of treating them as a distinct species was not universally abandoned. It is still common to classify Neanderthalers as a distinct species, though this implicitly means that species is not being used with the usu. signification. And when, far more recently, a similar archaïc population, the Denisovans, were distinguished, it became fairly common also to categorize them as a distinct species, though their genes are likewise found in some modern populations of H. sapiens.

But, again, when most lay-people hear or read the word species, they are imagining a quite significant distinction. And when they hear and read of Neanderthalers or of Denisovans as distinct species, they infer that these people were not human. Here are three example articles that I quickly found of journalists doing just that in the case of Neanderthalers or in that of Denisovans:

As these archaïc populations are extinct, there may not seem to be any more of a social issue here than there typically is with misunderstood science. But a problem is coming right at us. And it's associated with the point that the genes of archaïc populations are found in modern populations — in different distributions. Take, for example, this article:

The author or authors blithely refer to the Neanderthalers, to the Denisovans, and to an additional, hypothesized archaïc population as distinct species without explaining whatever is there meant by the term. A large share of readers will regard the archaïc populations as not fully human, and infer that different ethnic groups have more or less genetic material that is not fully human. It will be inappropriately inferred that some ethnic groups are thus less human or more human than are others.

Anthropologists and biologists who talk with lay-persons, and especially with journalists and with other informal educators, need to emphasize the arbitrariness in use of the word species, and these scientists need to impress upon their audiences that the word should be avoided or explained in all popular-science journalism that touches upon our relationships with archaïc populations.

Madding Crowds

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

[An earlier version of this entry was posted to Facebook on 30 September.]

A bad leader whose leadership is accepted with little resistance is more frightening than a bad leader whose leadership is accepted grudgingly, and who knows that the acceptance is reluctant.

A sense that Trump would have the freer hand will make some people vote for Clinton who might otherwise have voted for him; a sense that Clinton would have the freer hand will make some people vote for Trump who might otherwise have voted for her. Where these particular calculations are concerned, Clinton has an actual advantage in there being a present Republican majority in both chambers of Congress, because it is expected that Congress would frustrate Clinton more than it would thwart Trump.

But a bad leader is more frightening if he or she has many loyal followers even if these followers are outside of government. The composition of the Congress could change in the upcoming election or in one to follow; and, even if it did not, a President with greater popular support can accomplish more than otherwise, even without his or her party in the majority in either chamber.

Thus, the failure of the vast majority of the most vocal supporters of each of these two candidates truthfully to acknowledge their candidate for what he or she is makes each candidate far more scary to those who are undecided or weakly decided.

Almost no one who is now undecided or weakly decided thinks that either Clinton or Trump is merely not perfect; the voters most likely to be moved see both Clinton and Trump as awful people, and see this with good reason. To be less scared of these candidates, these voters need to read and to hear acknowledgments, from supporters, of just how flawed their own candidates are. (Becoming still more scared of one candidate is not at all the same thing as becoming less scared of the other, though indeed an increase in fear of one could strengthen support for the other.)

Were these supporters more rational, they would change their pitch. But, psychologically, they cannot. Some of them are simply swept-up in the urges of inverted narcissism;[1] and, more generally, supporters cannot admit the truth to others without to some extent recognizing the truth and acknowledging it to themselves. The world would have to be faced as a bleaker and more uncertain place.

[1] Inverted narcissism (popularly confused with covert narcissism, a markèdly different condition) is the felt need to treat some individual as magnificent, even if careful consideration would show him or her not to be so. The inverted narcissist is thus a sort of complement to the narcissist, supplying the admiration that the narcissist needs for comfort. Inverted narcissism plays a hugely important rôle in politics.

Theatre of the Absurd

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

It is often asserted that the current President runs a continuous campaign; that, even now, when he can no longer be reëlected nor get a Congress more to his liking before his Administration ends, he campaigns.

Well, more generally, his Administration has been theatre. The apparent campaigning is a manifestation of that. And to-day I read that he has produced a trailer for his up-coming State of the Union Address. A trailer. It makes perfect sense, because the Address is theatre. It has long been theatre, but he does theatre as did no President before him.

He's been concerned to posture and to act in ways that he expects to be made to look good by to-day's mainstream media and by that bloc of historians who decided, even before he took office, that they would depict his Administration favorably almost without regard to whatever he ended-up doing.

The recent climate accord, for which there was so much build-up and from which nothing came but loose and unenforceable promises, was theatre. The negotiations with Iran, in which many meetings were held to agree that the United States would throw up its hands (something that it could more simply have done unilaterally) were theatre.

Even the Affordable Care Act has become theatre. As costs spiral out of control it approaches its implosion, but it will be portrayed as a Noble Effort, ruined by Republicans and by the inherent wickedness of market forces.

And it was theatre when the man who has killed so many children with his drone strikes wept for the murdered children of Sandy Hook.

Theatre. The cost of the ticket is very high.

Tearing off the Masks

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

I've read that Anonymous has found the names of about a thousand members of the Ku Klux Klan, and is preparing to release them.

I'm hoping that none of the 10 other people in this nation with the same first and last name as I are members, because it could be Hell for the rest of us. I'm also hoping that Anonymous doesn't add names of people whom it dislikes, especially as I might be amongst them.

A few years ago, I challenged their attack on Stratfor. Stratfor was a journalistic enterprise, focussing on issues of global politics (including military action) and security, and publishing both free content and content that required a paid subscription. Some at Anonymous were sure that Stratfor were, effectively, a criminal undertaking because

  • Stratfor communicated off-the-record with policy wonks and with state officials (as did and do almost every other major journalistic enterprise and many of the minor journalistic enterprises); and
  • Stratfor expressed opinions with which Anonymous vehemently disagreed.

So Anonymous stole e.mail, e.mail addresses, and credit-card information from the Stratfor servers. If one had so much as subscribed to a free newsletter from Stratfor, then one's e.mail address was made public, and one was subjected to hoax e.mail from Anonymous. Many who had simply paid for something from Stratfor had their credit card information used to make contributions to charitable organizations (each of which then had to spend resources on returning the stolen money, at a net loss).

The e.mail itself was given to WikiLeaks, which processed it with the help of other journalistic institutions. Some of these institutions shamelessly used the stolen information to their own advantage, though it didn't provide evidence of wrong-doing by Stratfor. Indeed, after almost four years, no evidence of criminal wrong-doing has ever been presented. Stratfor's greatest sin was gross incompetence in the field of security.

None of the major media outlets has drawn attention to the point that the supposed end that was to justify Anonymous's means was not met. They have been virtually silent about this attack on journalistic freedom. That's because, as I suggested in my entry of some years ago, these outlets are themselves afraid of being attacked by Anonymous.

Journalists are fond of seeing their profession as brave. Well, there truly are some brave journalists in this world, but they're in a minority, and the rest don't deserve to see themselves as heroes for keeping company with that minority.

for generations to come

Saturday, 4 July 2015

I believe that I last wrote here about what became the Affordable Care Act — aka Obamacare — in an entry posted on 28 July 2008. I've been meaning to write about it since, but I paused to await the outcome of NIFB v Seleblius, and then again to await the outcome of King v Burwell.

To understand what really drove the Democratic Party to pass the Affordable Care Act, one may look at the experience of the Social Security Act (1935).

The programme of old-age benefits — which is what most Americans have in mind when they refer to Social Security — is one that had been failing slowly over the many decades of its existence. Population growth has slowed strikingly, and life-spans have been extended significantly, so that the number of people paying into the system has declined dramatically relative to the number of people to whom payments have been made. At the same time, in various ways the typical payment per individual has been allowed to climb. The tax used to fund it has never collected enough revenue to do so indefinitely. At times, revenues have been much greater than benefits; but, none-the-less, there has never been a moment over the last 50 years or more when the demographics did not show that, within the expected lifetime of a young person, promised benefits would exceed revenues and exhaust whatever had been saved under the revised programme.

Congress did not plan for the old-age benefits programme to fail, slowly or otherwise. Congress simply didn't take a careful look at the future. The immediate concerns of Congress were to exploit the political gains to be had from promising a pension programme, and to short-circuit political support for the ruinous Townsend Plan.[1] But this slow failure has proved to be hugely rewarding to the party most responsible for effecting the programme.

Because the programme has failed slowly, there was sufficient time for a large share of Americans to become dependent upon it. It was even, for a while, said to be the third rail of American politics — analogous to the rail delivering current to an electrically powered train, in the sense that touching it would prove fatal. As failure has recurringly loomed, Republicans (having increasingly become the party of opposition to the New Deal Coälition) struggled with how to respond to the failure of a programme with such broad support, while the Democratic Party has been able to position itself as rescuer. The slow failure of their creature has been an important part of the success of their party.

Although supporters of the programme often speak and write as if opponents would simply and abruptly withdraw benefits from all recipients, a more common suggestion has been to phase-out the present programme in favor of an overt poverty-relief programme. Thus, for example, those born after some point in time would received reduced benefits — perhaps in some cases no benefits — if they had income or wealth measured above some levels. This idea meets resistance not only from those who would lose benefits, but from those who would then find themselves on welfare.

Younger people, looking at a future tax burden, and perhaps doubtful that the next major reforms will prove sufficient to maintain the programme through their own retirements, are most often open to suggestions of reform. But, as time passes and they age, they find themselves having paid much of the tax that they might earlier have hoped to avoid, so that the principal pecuniary result of a phasing-out would be either to deny them benefits or to place them on welfare. Additionally, as they age, so do their parents, who go from being perhaps middle-aged to being elderly.

A sense may often be retained that they would have been better-off had the programme been phased-out when they were younger,[2] and that those now young would be better-off if the programme were phased-out now. There is, thus, something of the flavor of a sub-optimal Cournot-Nash equilibrium to it all. A lot of people would admit that the programme ought not to have been instituted; but, since it was, and since they would personally be hurt by an attempt to end the programme, they will not assist in an unwinding, and may even actively oppose an unwinding.

And, so, they are increasingly inclined to support the Democratic Party, which continues to promise to do whatever is necessary to keep the programme going.

The Affordable Care Act was intended to creäte another slowly failing programme with a large number of people dependent upon it. There was no illusion on the part of most of those who voted for the Act that this programme would be the one exception in the history of large state programmes. They might not know the core reason that such programmes perform so badly, but they've had plenty of observations of failures. As with the Social Security old-age benefits, each time that failure loomed for Obamacare, the Democratic Party could position themselves as rescuers of the programme and thus of the people dependent upon it in order to receive medical treatment. And the Republican Party would again be forced to choose between protecting their brand and protecting their jobs. The public might perhaps conclude that they would have been better-off had the programme not been brought into existence in the first place, but they'd see themselves now being made still worse-off in any unwinding, however an unwinding might benefit later cohorts.

Indeed, when the President acted to preserve the programme by ignoring the plain wording of the law, a large part of the defense of his action was that a substantial number of people had become dependent upon the programme. Even a great many people who had been insured, at lower cost, previous to the programme could have suddenly found themselves uninsured, and the programme was defended on the basis of a dependency that it had induced amongst those people. Meanwhile, the Republican Party, though returned to power largely because of voter discontent with the programme, has been widely criticized for not agreeing upon some view as to how health care ought to be allocated, and then presenting that view to the public. Many Republicans essentially propose adopting a position they are just stuck with Obamacare, since the Supreme Court has twice now refused to stop it.

However, Obamacare is not a slowly failing programme; it is a rapidly failing programme.

In my entry of 28 July 2008, I explained that the programme was effectively to tax the insurance policies of the healthy in order to subsidize the unhealthy; and that, in the absence of compulsion, the healthy would not insure, causing premia to spiral upward.

In order to make passage of the law politically palatable, the compulsion was relatively weak. The annual penalty for failure to buy insurance is well less than the cost of insurance, and the IRS is forbidden to attempt to collect the penalty (if not paid voluntarily) except by reducing the annual tax refunds of those against whom it is charged. I suspect that the Democratic leadership had some awareness that this penalty structure was going to be inadequate, but were thinking of this weak compulsion as the camel's nose — they planned to get the rest of the beast into the tent in some later session, with higher penalties and more freedom of action for the IRS. They didn't understand that they'd lose control of one chamber in the very next election.

So, indeed, many of the relatively healthy chose not to buy insurance, despite repeated extensions of the buying period. And, as a consequence, premia are going to rise by more than 10%. This increase makes insurance a bad buy for an even larger group of people, who will choose not to buy insurance next year. That will cause a further rise in premia. And so forth. Premia should be expected to increase by more than 10% every year, until the programme implodes as affordable insurance moves out of reach for a huge share of people. (With annual increases of more than 10%, premia would more than double over just eight years, but I do not expect the programme to survive to a doubling of premia!)

There was talk of how, if King v Burwell were decided against the President, Obamacare would go into a death spiral. In fact it was already in a death spiral. King v Burwell could have accelerated that sharply; if the spiral were faster, then the health-care system would have been less distorted by Obamacare, and the unwinding would thus be injurious to fewer people.

The sooner that it were admitted that Obamacare were in a death spiral, the sooner that a drum might be beaten for toughening penalties upon those who refuse to buy insurance. (Or for kicking the insurance companies to the curb, and establishing a more explicitly socialistic system.) But the President is not a man to admit to mistakes, nor do supporters want to admit to yet more deep problems in a programme that has already had many embarassments, as such an admission would increase skepticism. Further, the elected Republicans are unlikely to alienate their base by acting to pull Obamacare out of a death spiral any time soon, though most of them might do so from expediency were Obamacare to last-out a decade.

[1] The Townsend Plan, advanced by Francis Everett Townsend beginning in 1933, was that each person in the United States over the age of 60 years were to be given a monthly pension of $200, conditional upon a requirement that the entire $200 be spent within a month. The theory was that this spending would result in an increase in economic activity that would, in turn, effectively pay for the pensions.

I won't endorse simply claiming that, since the CPI is now about 30 times that in 1933, $200 then would be equivalent to about $6 000 to-day. (Comparisons of so-called price levels becomes increasingly problematic as time-spans become longer.) None-the-less, one should see that a $200 monthly pension would have been rather breath-taking.

The Townsend Plan was supported by a very large number of people, and was especially popular amongst those over or approaching the age of 60 years, and amongst those economically responsible for the support of older people.

[2] This sense will be especially acute amongst those who understand that the Social Security old-age benefits crowd-out investment-savings for retirement. With reduced investment, the economy grows at a diminished rate.