Compare and Contrast

Here are two opposite views of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia. From Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post:

Before he moves on to Israel and then to Europe, before we are consumed by the next scandal and forget, here is a list, for the record, of just a few of the ways in which President Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia was bizarre, unseemly, unethical and un-American…

and from Anthony Cordesman at The Hill:

For all the sound and fury over his public remarks and tweets in Washington, President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia has been a very different story. The president gave the right speech in the right place at the right time. There will still be critics on issues like human rights and Yemen, but the president had a different focus — and almost certainly the right one.

Compare and contrast.

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Priorities

In their expression of concern about the potential plight of immigrants who lie on their naturalization papers the editors of the Washington Post have a tiny, little problem. They don’t cite a single example from real life of the abuse they’re concerned about. The case before the Supreme Court they’re commenting on involved a woman who lied about her husband’s likely participation in the Bosnian genocide, which would seem to me a significant fabrication.

Should we have forgiven the Nazi prison camp guards for lying on their applications for naturalization? I would think not. Neither immigration nor naturalization are rights. They are privileges. It does not seem to me to be too much to ask of applicants for citizenship that they tell the truth on the most important form they’re ever likely to fill out.

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The Greatest Care Anywhere

…except for Andorra, Iceland, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, and 29 other countries where the health care is better than it is here. Those are the findings of a study published in Lancet of international health care systems:

National levels of personal health-care access and quality can be approximated by measuring mortality rates from causes that should not be fatal in the presence of effective medical care (ie, amenable mortality). Previous analyses of mortality amenable to health care only focused on high-income countries and faced several methodological challenges. In the present analysis, we use the highly standardised cause of death and risk factor estimates generated through the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study (GBD) to improve and expand the quantification of personal health-care access and quality for 195 countries and territories from 1990 to 2015.

Fortune remarks:

The researchers examined 32 common ailments—from measles to diarrheal disease to appendicitis—that ought to be treatable by reasonably qualified doctors in a relatively modern healthcare system. Then, based on 2015 mortality rates from those preventable causes of death, the team gave each of 195 countries and territories, what it called a “Healthcare Access and Quality” index score, ranging from a low of 0 to a high of 100.

The United States earned a score of 81—a B-minus, if you will—right on par with Estonia and Montenegro, but unfortunately much lower than most of the rich nations in America’s peer group. Sweden, Norway, and Australia received a score of 90, for instance; Iceland—that brown-nosing snot—got a 94.

But what’s most scary is how poorly the U.S.—which spends about 17% of its GDP on healthcare, and more per capita than pretty much every country in the world—did in preventing death from things like lower respiratory infections (the tiny nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina performs better than we do in this regard), neonatal disorders (Lithuania kicks our butt), Hodgkin’s lymphoma (we’re bested by Armenia, Jordan, the Northern Mariana Islands, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia), and diabetes (more deaths from this brutal disease are prevented in Cuba, Russia, and Moldova).

My point in bringing attention to this study is not to bust the chops of American health care providers. The circumstances here in the U. S. are daunting. Patients are non-compliant, have lousy lifestyles and habits, have too much information but not enough knowledge, are inundated with pharmaceutical advertisements, and are predisposed to shop for physicians who will promise the results they seek.

Rather my point is to suggest that we shouldn’t be comparing the United States with geographically tiny countries with small, homogeneous populations but with other geographically large countries with diverse populations in the hundreds of millions or even billions. By comparison with Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and Russia our health care system is very good indeed.

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Connections

This morning I began going through a mental exercise that, contrary to my original objective, led to me. Inspired by listening to the old-time radio Richard Diamond radio program, which starred Dick Powell, I began thinking about what a small world the entertainment industry actually is and, as an exercise, began trying to connect today’s actress Anne Hathaway to 19th century American show business.

Anne Hathaway got her big break in The Princess Diaries. In that movie she co-starred with Julie Andrews who was married to Blake Edwards who was not just her husband but also wrote and directed a number of her movies including 10, S.O.B., and Victor/Victoria.

Blake Edwards was a protege of Dick Powell’s. He wrote and directed many of the episodes of the Richard Diamond radio program that Powell starred in. Dick Powell is connected to Al Jolson in two ways. First, Powell’s co-star in 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and several others of those Busby Berkeley 1930s musicals was Ruby Keeler, who was married to Al Jolson. Additionally, both Jolson and Powell were under contract to Warner Brothers and hired by Jack Warner.

In 1902 Al Jolson worked for Lew Dockstader in Primrose and Dockstader’s Minstrels. And George Primrose, Lew Dockstader’s partner, went right back to the beginnings of minstrelsy just after the Civil War. Consequently, Anne Hathaway’s connections go right back to mid-19th century American show business.

However, as I worked through all of this mentally it occurred to me that it connected to me, too, since, if you can believe his obituary (not a slam dunk), my grandfather worked for Lew Dockstader at just the time that Al Jolson did and must have known him. It was a big company but not that big.

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NATO’s Slippery Slope

At The National Interest Ted Galen Carpenter outlines the bad precedents set by NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia:

Washington, DC perpetuated and deepened its Balkan blunder a few years after the Bosnia intervention when it intervened in Kosovo. Civil strife in Serbia’s restless, predominantly Albanian province, simmered and then flared in the mid-and late-1990s. This time, Washington didn’t even make a gesture of deferring to the leading European states, but took the policy lead early on. Ultimately, the United States led a seventy-eight-day air war against Serbia, compelling Belgrade to relinquish control to a largely NATO occupation force operating under a fig-leaf resolution that the UN Security Council approved. Russia reluctantly acquiesced to that peacekeeping resolution, despite Moscow’s ties to Belgrade and Russian interests in the Balkans going back well into the nineteenth century.

There has been a clear slippery slope in NATO interventions, from Bosnia where there was at least a humanitarian justification to Kosovo where there wasn’t, to Libya where it was a pretext for regime change and has resulted in persistent chaos.

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The Issues Surrounding a Guaranteed Jobs Program

I was interested to see what David Dayen had to say about a federal guaranteed jobs program in his article in The Nation. I think a well-designed guaranteed jobs program has potential. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be what he has in mind:

The Center for American Progress has been a White House in waiting for mainstream Democratic candidates for over a decade now. When it places something on the agenda, that becomes part of mainstream discussion on the center left. And at its Ideas Conference this week, it embraced one idea that has been kicking around the left for a long time: guaranteed employment for anyone who wants a job.

In “Toward a Marshall Plan for America,” CAP frames this as an answer to growing despair and acute economic pain bred by stagnant wages and lack of opportunity. But few advocates who have been pushing a federal-job guarantee for so long were consulted or even cited in the proposal. And while they’re generally thrilled that their life’s work has entered a broader conversation, they’re concerned that something is getting lost in translation.

So, for example, from my point of view prerequisites include that the plan be set up in the context of serious workplace immigration enforcement and that the plan replace other forms of welfare rather be being piled on top of them.

Issues that surround such a plan include

  • Who is “anyone”?
  • What kinds of jobs would be offered?
  • What would the jobs pay?
  • What would happen in the event of non-attendance or non-performance?

Alternatives in to whom the jobs would be available would seem to be a) American citizens or b) American citizens and legal immigrants. The former would be less costly but counter-productive. In some communities a very high proportion of legal immigrants, particularly refugees, are unemployed.

I found Mr. Dayen’s proposal for the sorts of jobs that would be offered dismaying:

What kinds of jobs would be created? CAP suggests that home health care, child care, and teaching aides are all urgently needed.

I won’t belabor you by reaching into today’s newspaper for examples of the many horrific cases of elder or child abuse to be found among the very groups who would be likely candidates for such a program. Suffice it to say that I think the qualifications for home health care, child care, and teaching aides exceed being otherwise unemployable. At the very least we should demand good intentions which goes against the idea of a guaranteed job.

I fear his other proposal will be politically impossible:

It also cites infrastructure investment for job creation–roads and bridges, but also schools and hospitals.

I predict that there would be deep union opposition to guaranteed construction jobs unless they were union jobs and equally vehement opposition to federal subsidies for increasing the number of union jobs among Republicans.

A median income of $30,000 per year (Mr. Dayen’s proposed $15/hour—a backdoor $15 minimum wage) would be a pretty nice income in Yazoo City, Mississippi or Hindman, Kentucky. It wouldn’t even be a living wage in New York City. That disparity alone suggests that any workable plan would need to be administered via bloc grants to the states, given with substantial flexibility. Too low a pay rate would make the plan irrelevant. To high a pay rate would make it impossible to find workers to take jobs that weren’t administered through the jobs program.

I also wonder about non-attendance or other non-performance. If there are no consequences for simply collecting a pay check without ever showing up for the “job”, how would the plan differ from an outright handout?

Presently, 17% of the U. S. workforce is comprised of immigrants, mostly illegal. All in all it seems to me that the wage and employment effects of serious workplace immigration enforcement would obviate any need for a guaranteed jobs program.

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Environmental Stewardship and the 90% Rule

I found this passage in apiarist Todd Myers’s RealClearMarkets post on bringing our notions of environmentalism into the 21st century attention-grabbing:

In 2010, Bill Ruckelshaus, the first director of the EPA, described the dramatic changes since the agency was launched. He noted that when the EPA was created, “85% of the problems of water pollution in the country were large, point-source discharges, like municipal sewage-treatment plants or industrial operations.” Today, by way of contrast, 85 percent of remaining pollution comes from “non-point sources,” like runoff from streets, lawns and other distributed sources.

There’s a phenomenon well-known to project managers called the “90% rule”. It can be summarized as 90% of the time and cost in doing anything will be in executing 10% of the project. If Mr. Ruckelshaus’s characterization of the EPA’s mandate is correct, the EPA accomplished that portion of its mandate long ago. Getting beyond that will take much, much more money and be significantly more intrusive than the first 90%. Perhaps cost-benefit analysis is long overdue.

While I found Mr. Myers’s plea for an updated environmentalism intriguing, I’d be happy if we got beyond what I would call “NIMBY environmentalism” or, possibly “SOBBY” (Some Other Bugger’s Back Yard), the belief that as long as it isn’t happening here it isn’t happening at all.

Our European cousins have been very proud of their efforts in conservation and reducing emissions but I can’t help but wonder if most of what they’ve accomplished has been simply due to offshoring their heavy manufacturing to China. The VW emissions scandal certainly suggests that some of their assumptions should be revisited. If their autos weren’t as green as they thought, they can’t be producing the results that have been claimed.

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Picking and Choosing Infrastructure Projects

At RealClearPolicy Chris Spear provides yet another self-serving post about U. S. infrastructure which, like most, takes the civil engineers’ professional society’s report uncritically:

Our nation’s economy relies on the continuous and efficient movement of goods and people, but the current condition of our nation’s infrastructure puts that at risk. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s infrastructure a D+ on its 2017 report card. Among the recipients of the lowest marks were the nation’s highways, which the report described as “often crowded, frequently in poor condition, chronically underfunded, and are becoming more dangerous.”

As I respond whenever the topic comes up, the ASCE’s report tells us nothing about what’s worth repairing, only what would need to be repaired if you repaired everything.

The nature of our system requires us to pick and choose. We aren’t going to repair everything, build everywhere, or build everything. Among the many projects vying for federal, state, or local dollars, how to decide which are most deserving?

If we’re looking at the present and the inevitable future, I would think we’d give priority to refurbishing our sewer systems. We’ll undoubtedly need them in the future and the ASCE’s report on our combined sewer system isn’t much rosier than their report on our roads.

If we were looking to the future, we’d give priority to the energy grid and data infrastructure. On both we need to face facts. Private power companies just don’t have much interest in improving the national grid. If it is to be improved and if we plan to increase, for example, the number of electric vehicles on the road, it will need to be improved, doing so will require government funding and leadership.

In terms of data infrastructure although broadband usage in the United States is fairly high (87%), the speed of our broadband and its cost are an embarrassment. Broadband speeds over 25 mbps greatly lag behind Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Norway, and most other European countries and our broadband costs are consistently among the highest in the world. Neither of those are likely to improve without government involvement.

The other aspect of identifying spending priorities is just how long will that road you’re building be used? When the The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 was enacted, kicking off the present system of interstate highways, we could expect to amortize the expense over the lifetime of the roads. Is that still the case?

If the hype of those promoting autonomous vehicles and the warnings of environmentalists are to be headed, it isn’t. We won’t need more roads in 30 years but fewer.

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Reforming Medicaid

I really like the three principles that Charles Blahous lays out as a framework for “forging a consensus” on the reform of Medicaid in his post at e21:

  1. Distinguish between problems created by the ACA and those that existed before.
  2. Distinguish between the ACA’s Medicaid eligibility expansion and its elevated federal match rate.
  3. Recognize that the ACA’s elevated match rate is a problem warranting correction.

Read the whole thing for the explanation and significance of those three bullet points.

Of course, to those I would add that the basic underlying problems are that health care costs are rising faster than incomes and that we’re importing workers at the same or higher rate than the rate at which we’re creating jobs. As long as those are the case we’re going to need to subsidize somebody’s health care and the proportion of those somebodies to the population will increase over time.

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Coincidence?

The world’s greatest authorities on malware, hacking, and cyber-security are the Chinese, the Russians, and the Israelis. Coincidence?

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