Measles, Lies And Politics

In our politically polarized country, it’s tempting to see arguments about the efficacy of medical interventions like vaccines as examples of “non-political arguments.” True, the less-kind among us (I plead guilty) tend to view “anti-vax” parents as deranged left-wing versions of rightwing conspiracy theorists, or less judgmentally, arguably sane but credulous people who haven’t had access to accurate information. We don’t, however, see this particular controversy as a particularly political argument.

A recent, very thoughtful article in The New Yorker disagrees, calling the measles vaccine a “quintessentially political issue.”

Vaccination is a basic political issue, because it is the subject of community agreement. When a high-enough percentage of community members are immunized, a disease can be effectively vanquished. In epidemiological terms, this is known as “herd immunity,” which cannot be maintained below a certain threshold. When enough people reject the community agreement, they endanger the rest. Willfully unvaccinated adults and children can spread diseases to those who cannot be vaccinated or haven’t been vaccinated, such as infants and people with a compromised immune system; these vulnerable populations would probably be safe in conditions of herd immunity. Vaccination and the refusal to vaccinate are political acts: individual decisions that affect others and the very ability of people to inhabit common spaces.

The author cites evidence that a majority of anti-vaxxers are educated white people who have ample access to credible public-health information and scientific studies about vaccination. Much like those who refuse to believe that climate change is real, they simply choose to reject the science; they choose not to believe the medical consensus. As Frank Bruni recently wrote in the New York Times,

Their recklessness and the attendant re-emergence of measles aren’t just a public health crisis. They’re a public sanity one, emblematic of too many people’s willful disregard of evidence, proud suspicion of expertise and estrangement from reason.

The irrationality triggered by anti-vaccination propaganda is yet another example of the current raging conflict between facts and lies in America–a conflict exacerbated by social media. According to the author of the article in The New Yorker, there are even some reports that Russian trolls have been exploiting anti-vax fears as part of the Russian effort to use disinformation to splinter American public opinion.

What would cause well-educated parents to believe that the entire scientific and medical community is lying to them about the risks of vaccination?

The article attributes this reaction to current levels of public distrust–distrust of authority, of government, and especially of a complex, overly-expensive, profit-driven medical system that has few incentives for robust public-health interventions.

The solution to under-vaccination lies not in getting the right kind of information and messaging to the “vaccine-hesitant” but in changing the politics of health care. Political agreement is unlikely among partners who do not trust each other, and near impossible when one side is explicitly profiting from the other. The American health-care system is ill-suited to protect public health, because a profit-driven industry cannot serve as the guardian of public good.

It’s hard for people to trust the credibility of pharmaceutical companies when those companies are jacking up the price of insulin and other life-saving drugs.

The role of trust is something to consider as lawmakers debate the pros and cons of “Medicare-for-All” and  universal systems like those in place in most other modern countries.

 

The Great Gatsby Curve

There’s nothing like being lectured about work by a “princess.”

Recently, Ivanka Trump responded to the introduction of the Green New Deal’s provision for a government jobs guarantee with a dismissive remark to the effect that Americans prefer to work for what they get, and want to live in a country with the potential for social mobility.

Paul Krugman was on the case.

O.K., this was world-class lack of self-awareness: It doesn’t get much better than being lectured on self-reliance by an heiress whose business strategy involves trading on her father’s name. But let’s go beyond the personal here. We know a lot about upward mobility in different countries, and the facts are not what Republicans want to hear.

The key observation, based on a growing body of research, is that when it comes to upward social mobility, the U.S. is truly exceptional — that is, it performs exceptionally badly. Americans whose parents have low incomes are more likely to have low incomes themselves, and less likely to make it into the middle or upper class, than their counterparts in other advanced countries. And those who are born affluent are, correspondingly, more likely to keep their status.

As Krugman notes, Americans like to believe that we “made it on our own,” that we “pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps” (a phrase that tends to infuriate me, since it entirely ignores the fact that large portions of the American public don’t have anything that could remotely be considered “bootstraps.”)

Then he provides the data.

Among advanced countries, there is a strong negative correlation between inequality and mobility, sometimes referred to as the “Great Gatsby curve.” This makes sense. After all, huge disparities in parents’ income tend to translate into large disparities in children’s opportunities.

And people do, by the way, seem to understand this point. Many Americans don’t realize how unequal our society really is; when given facts about income inequality, they become more likely to believe that coming from a wealthy family plays a big role in personal success.

I had never run across the “Great Gatsby curve,” but it makes sense. Everyone who raises children implicitly understands that those children’s prospects are tied to the quality of the education we provide for them, very much including the enrichment that comes with their extra-curricular experiences. That’s why homes in districts with good schools sell at a premium, why parents shell out eye-popping amounts for summer camps, music lessons and sports equipment.

The “princess” may be unaware that large numbers of Americans simply cannot afford those things–and when they can’t, social mobility suffers accordingly.

Back to the “potential for upward mobility”: Where do people from poor or modest backgrounds have the best chance of getting ahead? The answer is that Scandinavia leads the rankings, although Canada also does well. And here’s the thing: The Nordic countries don’t just have low inequality, they also have much bigger governments, much more extensive social safety nets, than we do. In other words, they have what Republicans denounce as “socialism” (it really isn’t, but never mind).

To put it in terms even a clueless Princess might understand, a generous social safety net provides the bootstraps that allow people to pull themselves up.

 

What The NRA Hath Wrought…

When I saw this headline, “Owner of stolen handgun not liable for child’s death even when weapon is kept loaded and visible on car seat,” I couldn’t believe a court would rule this way on so obvious a case of negligence.

When I read the article, I understood.

Matthew Kendall, 16, of Huntingburg, died July 22, 2016, after he was shot in the head with a Glock 9 mm handgun that was taken earlier that day by a 15-year-old boy who was showing the weapon to Kendall when it discharged, according to court records.

Kendall’s mother, Shelley Nicholson, sued Christopher Lee, of Huntingburg, seeking damages for negligence in connection with Lee leaving his loaded handgun visible through the windows of Lee’s unlocked and unattended truck.

However, both the Dubois Circuit Court and a unanimous three-judge Court of Appeals panel said Nicholson’s case cannot proceed because Indiana law immunizes gun owners from civil liability for any subsequent use of their stolen firearms.

The court quoted the law as providing immunity from civil liability based on “an act or omission” of the owner, if the weapon was stolen and later used to commit a crime or harm someone.

Judge John Baker, writing for the Court of Appeals, said the plain language of House Enrolled Act 1349 required the court rule in favor of Lee, because regardless of how Lee stores his handgun, if the handgun is stolen, he is statutorily immune from liability for any resulting harm.

The Judge considered himself bound by what he called “the clear intent of the General Assembly,” which was to shield gun owners from liability even in situations like this, when an owner failed to take even the most minimal precautions to safely store his gun.

It’s hard to imagine anything more negligent than leaving a loaded gun on the passenger seat of an unlocked car. Absent the statute enacted by the Indiana legislature–undoubtedly under the influence of the NRA–the owner would be liable for his own careless behavior, as he should be.

Americans who own homes or other properties are routinely sued by folks who fall on steps or sidewalks that have been negligently maintained, or who are harmed by other obvious hazards that a normal person knows or should know are capable of  causing harm to a visitor. Laws that punish us for our own neglect or irresponsibility are there for a reason: to remind us that we have a duty of care, and should avoid negligent behaviors that can cause harm to innocent others.

It is absolutely scandalous that lawmakers (presumably in thrall to the clout of the NRA’s gun nut lobby) decided that a standard of behavior that has informed tort law pretty much forever just needn’t apply to people who might be careless with an inherently dangerous possession–a weapon that has one use and one use only–to injure or kill.

If you have a tree with a loose limb in your yard, you need to take care that it doesn’t fall and hurt someone who might sue you. But if you have a loaded gun available to whoever walks by, no worries.

The Indiana General Assembly has protected you. And gerrymandering protects them.

The Vouchers Scam

A recent state report and a blistering–and entirely correct–blog post from Doug Masson pretty much destroy the myth that Indiana’s school vouchers do anything for poor children, or were really intended for use by children “trapped” in failing schools.

The 2018-19 voucher report from Indiana’s Department of Education includes the information that there are over 1,300 households receiving vouchers that have incomes over $100,000. That means those households are in the top twenty percent of Hoosiers by income.

It’s impossible to read the report without concluding that Indiana’s voucher program was purposely constructed to evade the constitutional prohibition against government support for religion–designed to allow taxpayer dollars to be diverted from the state’s public schools and used to promote religious education. (Nearly all of the participating private schools are religious.)

Indiana’s voucher program costs taxpayers $161.4 million and disproportionately serves white children, many of whom are clearly not “escaping failing schools” because–despite lawmakers’ original promises– they never attended public school.

As Doug Masson wrote, after reading the report:

This reinforces my view that the real intention of voucher supporters was and is: 1) hurt teacher’s unions; 2) subsidize religious education; and 3) redirect public education money to friends and well-wishers of voucher supporters. Also, a reminder: vouchers do not improve educational outcomes. I get so worked up about this because the traditional public school is an important part of what ties a community together — part of what turns a collection of individuals into a community. And community feels a little tough to come by these days. We shouldn’t be actively eroding it.

Vouchers have now been around long enough to allow for a fair amount of academic research, and–as Doug points out–that research has pretty thoroughly rebutted the assumption that sending children to private religious schools would lead to improvement in classroom performance. At best, students post academic results that are the same as those of their peers who attend public schools, and in several studies, academic outcomes were actually worse.

What vouchers have done successfully is re-segregate student bodies, and there is some emerging evidence that avoiding racial integration was the real motive for a number of proponents. For others–notably, former Indiana Governor Mike Pence and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos–the voucher program was a way to prop up the declining finances of Christian religious schools.

If they could also destroy the teachers’ unions, well, that was just icing on the cake.

For those looking to avoid integration or working to “bring children to Jesus” with our tax dollars, the rhetoric about giving poor families “choice” was a marketing ploy. (I do think it is interesting that conservatives who are such rabid proponents of individual choice when it comes to schooling and health care are so horrified at the prospect that pregnant women might also want to exercise it…)

The Department of Education’s report should be a wake-up call for Indiana’s lawmakers, but then, this is gerrymandered Indiana, where rural voters call the shots….and those elected to safe seats in the General Assembly feel free to prioritize their ideologies over the will of the voters.

 

 

 

More About Economic Systems

A comment posted to yesterday’s blog noted that I had not defined capitalism. Fair point.

The following description is from my last book, Talking Politics? What You Need To Know Before Opening Your Mouth, in which I included the following descriptions/comparison of capitalism and socialism.

Capitalism is defined as an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit. It is characterized by free markets, where the prices of goods and services are determined by supply and demand, rather than set by government. Economists often define the ideal of free trade as a transaction between a willing buyer and a willing seller, both of whom are in possession of all information relevant to that transaction.

Understanding the importance of free trade to capitalism is important, because it defines the proper role of government in a capitalist system—as an “umpire” or referee, ensuring that everyone plays by the rules. For example, Teddy Roosevelt reminded us that monopolies distort markets; if one company can dominate a market, that company can dictate prices and other terms with the result that those transactions will no longer be truly voluntary. If Manufacturer A can avoid the cost of disposing of the waste produced by his factory, by dumping it into the nearest river, he will be able to compete unfairly with Manufacturer B, who is following the rules governing proper waste disposal. If Chicken Farmer A is able to control his costs and gain market share by failing to keep his coops clean and his chickens free of disease, unwary consumers will become ill. Most economists agree that in order for markets to operate properly, government must act as an “umpire,” assuring a level playing field.

This need for government is a response to what economists call “market failure.” There are three situations in which Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” doesn’t work: when monopolies or corrupt practices replace competition; when so-called “externalities” like pollution harm people who aren’t party to the transaction (who are neither buyer nor seller); and when there are “information asymmetries,” that is, when buyers don’t have access to information they need to bargain in their own interest. Since markets don’t have built-in mechanisms for dealing with these situations, most economists argue that regulation is needed.

Economists and others often disagree about the need for particular regulations, but most do agree that an absence of all regulatory activity undermines capitalism. Unregulated markets can lead to a different system, sometimes called corporatism. In corporatist systems, government regulations favoring powerful corporate interests are the result of lobbying by corporate and monied special interests that stand to benefit from them. You might think of it as a football game where one side has paid the umpire to make calls favorable to that team.

Socialism is the collective provision of goods and services. The decision whether to pay for certain services collectively rather than leaving their production and consumption to the free market can be based upon a number of factors. First, there are some goods that free markets cannot or will not produce. Economists call them public goods, and define them as both “non-excludable” –meaning that individuals who haven’t paid for them cannot be effectively kept from using them—and “non-rivalrous,” meaning that use by one person does not reduce the availability of that good to others. Examples of public goods include fresh air, knowledge, lighthouses, national defense, flood control systems and street lighting. If we are to have these goods, they must be supplied by the whole society, usually through government, and paid for with tax dollars.

Not all goods and services that we provide collectively are public goods. Policymakers have often based decisions to socialize services on other considerations: we socialize police and fire protection because doing so is generally more efficient and cost-effective, and because most of us believe that limiting such services only to people who can afford to pay for them would be immoral. We socialize garbage collection in more densely populated urban areas in order to enhance the livability of our cities and to prevent disease transmission.

Getting the “mix” right between goods that we provide collectively and those we leave to the free market is important, because too much socialism hampers economic health. Just as unrestrained capitalism can become corporatism, socializing the provision of goods that the market can supply reduces innovation and incentives to produce. During the 20th Century, many countries experimented with efforts to socialize major areas of their economies, and even implement  socialism’s extreme, communism, with uniformly poor results. Not only did economic productivity suffer, so did political freedom. (When governments have too much control over the means of production and distribution, they can easily become authoritarian.)

Virtually all countries today have mixed economies. The challenge is getting the right balance between socialized and free market provision of goods and services.