Posts Tagged ‘liberalism’

What do Trump supporters and ISIS recruits have in common?

December 19, 2015

UnknownNo, it’s not a joke question. Both actually do reflect a similar dynamic: a wave of disaffection and psychological alienation. Trump supporters and ISIS recruits both feel the world isn’t working for them or respecting them. They’re rebelling against the system and its elites which they see as soft and rotten. Standing against that imparts meaning to their lives.

imagesRadical Islamists portray the West as dissolute; its freedom a lack of discipline; bereft of moral seriousness. Putinist Russian chauvinism similarly puffs its chest as morally strong as against an insipid West. And Trump (now endorsed by Putin) casts himself as a no-nonsense tough guy while our government is run by squishy fools and knaves. Comparable tropes boost similar populist movements in Europe, like France’s National Front.

images-1All this is really a rejection of fundamental rationalist Enlightenment values – the classical liberalism (not big government “liberalism”) of democracy, personal autonomy, openness, tolerance, free commerce, free inquiry and expression, and the worth and dignity of every person. Liberalism, in that classical meaning, is under assault from both left and right, having become a dirty word even among lefties who inveigh against “neoliberalism” (as though some kind of Trojan horse for a rapacious capitalism). The word has particular opprobrium in Europe (Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban pugnaciously vaunts an “illiberal state”).

Such belittling of Enlightenment values is a well-worn theme of cynical disaffected intellectuals, making all kinds of ridiculous arguments – that those values somehow fail to embody more romanticist human proclivities, or that they’ve failed altogether, that misguided rationalism even “led us straight to Auschwitz.” What rubbish.

images-2It’s all a myopic refusal to see how much those liberal Enlightenment values have changed the world, and the lives of human beings, for the better. All those disaffected fools would not have enjoyed feudal times. Nor would the Eighth Century “utopia” ISIS yearns to restore be good for Muslims; the Arab world’s problem is not modernity, but insufficient modernity with its Enlightenment values. And Trump supporters should think twice about the illiberal paranoid state their champion would introduce.

Both Trumpism and Islamic radicalism need to be opposed not just with name-calling (and, in the case of the latter, air strikes and a domestic gestapo), but with full-throated advocacy for the fundamental humanistic values those movements trash. We have to explain them, and promote them, and make them attractive, to show people why they are better than the opposing poisonous farrago of mean-eyed garbage. Humanist ideals are not mere lofty piffle. They are better, not just morally as premised on enabling as many people as possible to thrive – they are better pragmatically because they do in fact promote that goal. In the past couple of centuries, it is precisely the advance of those humanist, rationalist, liberal Enlightenment values that has made a far better world.

Is it a perfect one? Of course not. But, again, if you don’t think it’s better, get thee back to feudal times to see what a really crappy world is like. And the different world today’s anti-liberal movements seek would go in that direction.

Unknown-2This is the case that must be vigorously made. But, in particular, we have woefully failed to meet the propaganda of Islamic radicalism with an alternative narrative. Remember Radio Free Europe, during the cold war? Actively and eloquently spreading free world values, in answer to the other side’s lies. What a success that was in helping to win that war of ideas. Where, on our side, is today’s equivalent? In today’s new war of ideas, where are our verbal boots on the ground?

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Lessons From the VA Scandal

May 30, 2014

Suppose you’re Eric Shinseki (Veterans Administration head).

Actual VA photo

Actual VA photo

You learn of huge problems – a vast backlog of unprocessed paperwork (partly because it is literally paper, mountains of it, not computerized) – and now this scandal of delayed medical attention and resulting horror stories and even deaths – compounded by widespread cover-ups of those treatment delays via fraudulent record keeping.images

So you snap your fingers and order it all fixed. Right? Wrong. The VA is a vast organization, but these scandals tell us it’s not actually vast enough. The paperwork piled up because the VA lacked the manpower to deal with it, let alone take steps to computerize it. Likewise, appointments were delayed because there weren’t enough doctors and other resources to meet patient needs.

Unknown-2No snap of the fingers could have fixed this. It required money. Shinseki should have been shouting from the rooftops, “Houston, we have a problem,” pre-emptively telling Congress and the president the VA is in trouble and needs more money.

But wait, you’ll say: isn’t that what bureaucrats are always whining? That they could do wonderful things if only their budgets were increased? Was there ever a bureaucrat who said, “My budget is quite adequate, thank you very much”?

We’re told the VA scandal shows what a lousy manager President Obama is. I’m loath to dispute that; but I take a bigger lesson. It shows what a lousy manager government is. Especially big government.

Unknown-1It’s actually probably unfair to imagine Obama should somehow have seen and fixed the VA problem. The VA isn’t exactly all he has to worry about. The government is a monster with a million tentacles and a very small brain – the president and his administration – to minutely direct those tentacles’ behavior. Good luck.

Yet the essence of American liberalism is the faith that government, because it is the avatar of disinterested public spiritedness, of the wish to do good – in contrast to a (selfish, grubby, greedy) quest for private profit – will do good, if given our trust (and money). images-5But the fly in the ointment is that government is comprised of human beings, not angels, and while they may indeed be motivated for good, they are also subject to all the other personal motives that govern human behavior in any context. And when those motives conflict with the disinterested desire to do good, it’s a rare person who will sacrifice the former for the latter.

VA staffers are probably mostly altruistic people who sincerely want to help veterans. But caring also for their own asses, in the situation, has made many of them perpetrate a great crime. Performance incentives, great in theory, merely incentivized VA personnel to cook the books to earn the rewards despite screwing patients. (And it’s not obvious how Shinseki might have avoided bamboozlement.)

At least in the private sector, the (selfish, grubby, greedy) profit motive – and competition – impose a certain discipline that’s lacking in the public sphere. Unknown-3That’s a fundamental reason why government is so problematic. No private sector organization could survive in a competitive marketplace treating customers as badly as the VA.

More broadly, the VA scandal shows that we, as a society, have gone way overboard in what we ask of government – greatly outstripping the money to pay for it. It’s not as though we’re miserly with the VA; its budget is huge; yet still evidently insufficient for its ever expanding mission, as more and more veterans survive better and live longer, with ever more and costlier medical advances to help them do so. This story is emblematic of so much of what government does, and why spending outgrows what we can afford. We borrow the difference, but as I keep saying, there’s a limit to how far we can stretch that without triggering economic disaster.

Unknown-4I’m not suggesting shutting down the VA. We must honor our commitment to veterans. But we, as a nation, must get serious about the overall gap between what we ask of government and what is affordable. This is the great problem of the age, which Obama is sweeping under the rug.

 

 

If You Like Your Obamacare, You Can Keep It

November 11, 2013

Unknown-1The President repeatedly said that if you like your health plan, you can keep it (“no matter what,” he even added). He forgot to add: IF the government likes your plan too.

He says he “regrets” people being screwed because they relied on his words. It’s an “apology” akin to those saying, “I’m sorry if my remarks offended anyone” — not sorry about the words themselves, or admitting they were wrong — i.e., a non-apology.

So now all the millions with cancelled insurance are being told: your old plan wasn’t any good anyway, and the government will help you get a better one (once the website is fixed*).

Until then, Obamacare seems to mean more people losing insurance than gaining it. But the real story is the paternalism of government telling folks it knows their insurance needs better than they do, and the new plans will be better because they cover more. What about all those preferring a cheaper plan – cheaper, because it doesn’t cover so much? Tough luck. Government has decided every health plan must cover maternity care, for example; so even if you’re a sixty year old male, you’ve got to have (and pay for) a plan that covers maternity.

Unknown-2It’s another classic case of Liberal Disease: the belief that anything desirable should be required. So if it’s ideally nice for a health plan to cover maternity care, and much else, now it’s all required, for everybody, want it or not.

This is the syndrome responsible for lack of affordable housing. Apartments must meet so many rules and regulations for niceties, raising their cost, that simple cheap rooms the poorest can afford are unavailable. Likewise day care: providers must meet so many government requirements that there’s no cheap day care. And all these requirements were created by the same do-gooder liberals who bemoan the inevitable results, lack of affordable day care and housing. Now they’re doing the same for health insurance.

It was always clear that a key feature of Obamacare is to get insurance to lower-income people by having government (i.e., taxpayers**) subsidize it. So the affluent are paying for the non-affluent. Nothing new there. However, in addition – this is the sneaky part – the healthy are paying for the sick.

Unknown-3That’s what’s really going on with all the requirements for insurance plans. It’s not a “bug” that many folks are forced to pay for a lot of coverage they don’t need, it’s a design feature: another way of sucking money from some people to pay for the health care of others.

UnknownTrue, the very concept of an insurance pool is to spread risk. Everybody pays a little for fire insurance so that the occasional fire is covered. But the difference with Obamacare is that it isn’t voluntary. We don’t get to decide for ourselves whether to participate in this pooling of risk. We’re thrown into the pool.

The administration says that when the dust settles, many people will actually pay less for insurance. My wife was one whose plan was cancelled, and we did get another, through the New York website, a little cheaper. For now.

But the future viability of the whole Obamacare scheme depends on its working as hoped – that is, all the sheep obediently line up for shearing – all the young and healthy people sign up for more health coverage than they really need or want, in order to pay for all the older and sicker folks. imagesIf instead the insurance plans attract too few suckers***, they will hemorrhage money treating the old and sick, causing next year’s rates to rise substantially – thus attracting even fewer healthy young people. And so on, a vicious circle that unravels the whole thing.

* Rather than trying to fix it on the fly, wouldn’t it have made more sense to call a time-out and close the website temporarily for repairs?

** Or more borrowing from China.

*** Yes, there’s a penalty for non-insurance, but for most people it’s much less than the insurance cost. Also, the penalty is on your tax return, and query how well the severely understaffed IRS can police it – will they verify that people claiming to be insured really are?