If Facts Matter….

I’m one of those people who has pretty much “checked out” of the day-to-day hysteria of the Presidential campaign. (I’m old, and there’s only so much I can take….). So I decided not to watch the first debate, reasoning–I think correctly–that my impressions would be irrelevant anyway.

What ultimately matters is the ensuing “conventional wisdom.”

The consensus from all the sources I’ve seen is that Hillary won pretty convincingly. I’m sure the twitter feeds of the white supremacists, and the Facebook feeds of the “deplorables” say otherwise, but reports from credible media, the prediction markets, and  TV news anchors have been pretty consistent.

One news segment was particularly telling. Frank Luntz is a longtime GOP “message mavin.” We have him to thank for the (mis)use of political language: “death tax” rather than estate tax, for example. He is also known for the focus groups he assembles; somehow, in these polarized times, he finds voters who are undecided, has them watch campaign events, and then questions them on their reactions.

The group he’d gathered for the debate was asked, on camera, who won. Five people said Trump; sixteen said Clinton. Luntz said the margin was the largest of any group he’d previously assembled.

For those of us who actually care about substance, there were a number of sites doing fact-checking. Anyone who wasn’t previously aware that Trump occasionally lies (but only when he’s talking) could scroll through the real-time corrections and compare the consistent challenges to Trump’s statements with the virtual absence of corrections to Clinton’s.

For us ordinary people who always, dutifully, did our homework, probably the most confounding element of the 90 minutes was Trump’s obvious lack of preparation–a lack that received a great deal of comment. The Orange One evidently couldn’t be bothered to study, to actually educate himself about the complexities of governance. He apparently believed he could “wing it.” Evidently, he believes Presidents can just “wing it,” too.

The real question, of course, won’t be answered until election day, and that is: how many Americans will base their votes on the best interests of the country, and how many will support an angry, delusional and demonstrably ignorant bigot who defends and deepens their resentment of a  world they find unfair and their conviction that those “others” are to blame?

 

Startlingly Pertinent

Last night was the first debate in a Presidential campaign that–whatever else you might say about it–offers a stark contrast between a governing philosophy and a will to power.

This semester, I am teaching a course that I “invented” a few years back, titled “Individual Rights and the Common Good.” Students begin by reading political philosophers–Aristotle, Locke, Mill, Rawls–and observers like De Tocqueville, before considering present-day issues. The question we examine is, essentially, government legitimacy: when does government’s obligation to protect the common good justify constraining the liberties of the individual?

In preparation for our class on Mill, I reread the Introduction to “On Liberty.” It had been some time since I’d read it, and I was struck with how relevant it remains.

Mill begins by noting the age-old struggle between Authority and Liberty, and he traces the evolution of “authority” from a “governing tribe or caste” deriving its authority from “inheritance or conquest” to “tenants or delegates” of the people, and “revocable at their pleasure.” He writes that constraints on the first category were seen as necessary to protect those subject to the whims of the rulers; he then says

By degrees, this new demand for elective and temporary rulers became the prominent object of the exertions of the popular party, wherever any such party existed; and superseded, to a considerable extent, the previous efforts to limit the power of rulers. As the struggle proceeded for making the ruling power emanate from the periodical choice of the ruled, some persons began to think that too much importance had been attached to the limitation of the power itself. That (it might seem) was a resource against rulers whose interests were habitually opposed to those of the people. What was now wanted was, that the rulers should be identified with the people; that their interest and will should be the interest and will of the nation. The nation did not need to be protected against its own will. There was no fear of its tyrannizing over itself.

As he proceeds to point out, however, this is fanciful:

It was now perceived that such phrases as “self-government,” and “the power of the people over themselves,” do not express the true state of the case. The “people” who exercise the power, are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised, and the “self-government” spoken of, is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals, loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein. This view of things, recommending itself equally to the intelligence of thinkers and to the inclination of those important classes in European society to whose real or supposed interests democracy is adverse, has had no difficulty in establishing itself; and in political speculations “the tyranny of the majority” is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard.

Mill points out that the tyranny of the majority is exercised not just through the law, but through “prevailing opinion and feeling” (something I rather suspect a certain kneeling football player has recently experienced). He then sets out the dilemma which forms the focus of my class:

There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

But though this proposition is not likely to be contested in general terms, the practical question, where to place the limit — how to make the fitting adjustment between individual independence and social control — is a subject on which nearly everything remains to be done. All that makes existence valuable to any one, depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people. Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed, by law in the first place, and by opinion on many things which are not fit subjects for the operation of law. What these rules should be, is the principal question in human affairs; but if we except a few of the most obvious cases, it is one of those which least progress has been made in resolving. No two ages, and scarcely any two countries, have decided it alike; and the decision of one age or country is a wonder to another. Yet the people of any given age and country no more suspect any difficulty in it, than if it were a subject on which mankind had always been agreed. The rules which obtain among themselves appear to them self-evident and self-justifying. This all but universal illusion is one of the examples of the magical influence of custom, which is not only, as the proverb says a second nature, but is continually mistaken for the first.

Some rules of conduct must be imposed. True. And arguments over the nature of those rules and the justifications for them will probably continue for as long as “we the people” continue.

A Different Drug War

A recent post at Daily Kos considered a different and less recognized “drug war.”

Let’s talk about the other drug war: The one being waged against the American consumer by the pharmaceutical companies who benefit from our tax dollars that fund basic scientific research and make up the difference in the tax relief they receive for their own research and development.

The post was prompted by the recent steep increase in the price of the Epi-Pen. Among other disclosures, it turns out that the company that manufactures the pen had moved its headquarters to the Netherlands in 2014, a move that allowed its tax rate to fall from 14 percent to its current 7 percent.

The fact that the company and its well-connected management are making out like bandits by stiffing those who need the devices is bad enough, but as the post points out, it isn’t even recovering its own costs of research and development.

The mechanical device in the EpiPen to deliver epinephrine was developed in the 1970s by a NASA engineer. It was designed for the rapid self-injection of antidotes to chemical warfare agents in battle, and in 1987 it was approved by the FDA for use with epinephrine. Epinephrine itself is a human hormone, first isolated by Japanese scientists in 1901. So the drug couldn’t be patented, although the device itself, the same one created by a government employee, was. The logical assumption, of course, is that a technology developed by a NASA engineer would be owned by all Americans. But it is not.

This is an excellent example of the Achilles heel of arguments advanced by drug companies defending exorbitant prices.

Big Pharma makes the case–correct as far as it goes–that the development of new therapies is expensive. Many promising avenues of research fail to pan out; testing and the regulatory process for vetting drugs is expensive and time consuming. If companies are to continue to sink money into the development of life-saving drugs, they need a financial incentive to do so–a promise that they will recoup their costs and make a reasonable profit.

What they don’t mention is that significant percentages of drug development costs are paid for by government grants–by the many millions of taxpayer dollars that support medical research. (They also don’t mention that, by some calculations, Big Pharma spends more on those interminable television ads than on research. Purple pill, anyone?)

It is especially galling that American consumers are charged more for drugs developed with substantial taxpayer support than consumers of those same drugs in other countries. It would be one thing if our tax dollars subsidized the cost of medications across the board, but it is really unconscionable that the same people whose taxes helped pay for the development of medications are also being charged more for those medications.

Lobbyists for the drug companies have managed to get laws passed that prohibit U.S. government agencies from negotiating drug prices as other countries do. At a bare minimum, those laws need to be repealed.

 

False Equivalence, Delusion-Grade

Tomorrow night is the first Presidential debate, so this seems like a good time to get something off my chest.

I’m fed up with assertions that the candidates are equally flawed, that either would be a “disaster”–as if there is anything remotely comparable between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. And I don’t think I’m the only one who finds those assertions dishonest and self-serving.

I understand the propaganda when it comes from people who don’t want to admit, even to themselves, that their support of Donald Trump is rooted in his–and their–bigotries. I don’t understand it coming from people who actually understand that we are hiring a chief executive for an incredibly demanding job, and who disclaim support for Trump, but then say they will vote for a third party or not at all–both actions an effective, if indirect, vote for him.

I participate in a listserv focused on Law and Courts. It’s a conversation between political scientists and law professors whose academic research centers on legal and constitutional issues and the ways that judges approach and resolve those issues. A recent thread about impeachment law included a post from a (male) scholar who expressed his distaste for both candidates in a fashion that suggested such a near equivalency; that post generated a response that is worth sharing in its entirety.

I categorically reject the idea that one could put Hillary Clinton in the same category as Donald Trump vis-a-vis “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Absurd. Clinton has been in public service for more 40+ years and, by and large, has abided by the rule of law governing the offices she was in, the roles she inhabited, and the causes she advocated for. Did she do some stupid, wrong and probably illegal things during some of that time? Yes, she did. Was it above and beyond what similarly situated men have done? Men whom we laud as tireless public servants? No, she did not.

Not only that, she has endured a relentless 25 year campaign to undermine, demean and thoroughly discredit her. I defy any male politician in public service as long as Hillary Clinton to come away from such a microscope with nothing more damning than the email nonsense.

We can and should be vigilant about the rule of law and the abuse of political power. But the double standard on display right now is among the worst I’ve seen in my lifetime. I was not a particularly vehement supporter of Hillary Clinton when this campaign started but I bloody well am now.

Sorry. But I just can’t take it anymore.

Like the writer of this post–with which I agree 100%–I was not a particular fan of Hillary Clinton at the beginning of this campaign. My attitude was not based upon her performance in the various offices she’s held, which was in each case highly competent; my reluctance to support her was based upon a concern that she was not–and is not–a gifted candidate.

Not unlike George H.W. Bush (the competent Bush), Clinton’s interest is clearly in governing, and she is uncomfortable “selling herself” on the campaign trail. In her case, the 25-year campaign referenced above has made her defensive and scripted. Understandable but unfortunate behaviors on the campaign trail.

Like the writer of this post, however, I’ve been “radicalized” by the double standard applied to Clinton, the raw misogyny, and the obvious delight in criticizing her every move by our so-called “liberal” media. (Since when is working through walking pneumonia without whining about it a “lack of transparency”?)

There is no equivalency between Trump and Clinton. None.

If you needed an operation, and your choice was between a respected surgeon who had saved numerous lives during a long career during which he had also made a few bad calls, and a local B-list actor with delusions of grandeur who had never performed an operation,  who displayed monumental ignorance of medicine generally and human anatomy specifically, I don’t think your choice would be difficult.

There’s false equivalency, and then there’s monumental intellectual dishonesty.

Think about that as you watch the debate.

Market Economy versus Market Society

A recent opinion column from the Lafayette Journal-Gazette caught my eye. Written by Ed Eiler, a former school superintendent, it began

Three recent newsworthy items deserve our attention. The first is a study in the American Educational Research Journal, which concluded rising income inequality in the U.S. is a primary cause of the growing economic segregation of schools. As the gap grows, affluent families are more likely to segregate themselves into enclaves where there are few poor children in the public schools.

The second is a report issued by the Indiana Department of Education that calculated the net increased cost for the state’s education voucher program to be $53.2 million. Some 52 percent of voucher students now have no record of attending a public school.

The final report is one completed by the National Conference of State Legislatures addressing educational reform. The report acknowledges there are no silver bullets and the present efforts at reform have failed. The report recognizes the importance of having all stakeholders be a part of the process of improving our schools.

Why does any of this matter? All of these reports can be tied to the effort to privatize education.

Eiler then references a book by Michael Sandel, who makes an important distinction between markets that deal with material goods, which he finds “valuable and productive” and markets operating  in areas where they do not belong, in our civic lives.

Should educational opportunities be made available based upon the ability to pay? Should we pay children to read books or get good grades? Should people receive health care on the basis of their ability to pay? Should access to politicians and the political system be governed by those who have more money? Should legal representation be affected by one’s financial circumstances? Should you be able to pay someone else to take your place in serving your country? Should citizenship be for sale?

Sandel asserts markets may in fact undermine or crowd out non-market attitudes and values worth caring about and change the character of some goods and social practices. He writes that the most corrosive effect of markets is the loss of our commonality – “we’re all in it together.”

This argument underscores what I have sometimes called a “category mistake.” I’ve previously written that our misguided and unsuccessful drug war is a consequence of placing drug abuse in the category of criminal justice rather than public health. Similarly, too many school reform efforts categorize education as another consumer good, rather than a public necessity.

Of course we all want our children to receive educations that will enable them to compete for jobs and status, just as we all want university graduates to find gainful employment. But the purpose of education goes far beyond those “consumer” goals. Genuine education is not job training; it both enriches the lives of recipients (a market good) and creates good citizens (a social good). As political scientist Benjamin Barber has written, public education is constitutive of a public.

So long as we think of education as a consumer good, a “product” we purchase for our children, we will continue to have affluent families segregate themselves from poorer communities, and we will continue to exacerbate inequality.

Public education is–and must be categorized as–a public good. And an exceptionally important one. Properly understood, it is not something that private markets can provide.