Politics As Self-Delusion

The Ezra Klein article I cited below raises a larger issue, which is the curious phenomenon of the gulf between what people say they want and what they actually advocate.

In health care the way this plays out is upper-middle class lefties, who are upset that their health plan costs so much (and, in many cases, that they can’t visit their doctor with unbounded frequency for every ache and pain without thinking about money), thus run around saying “health care needs to be reformed!”, totally oblivious to the fact that any such “reform” would work by taking more money out of their pocket one way or another. In the extreme version, of course, this can turn into the tragic (and incurable, I suspect) case of the $500k/year New York finance Obama-socialist who thinks his health care costs are too high and that makes a good case for reform.

But actually there are many examples of this divorce between stated goals and political reality. Let’s take all the folks who supported the big McCain-invented issue of “campaign finance reform” 5-15 years ago, for example. Most of those people, when hearing and using that phrase, probably didn’t really know any details of what McCain was always yammering on about and just had some vague notion that it would involve ‘getting the money out of politics’. Well whoop dee doo, “campaign finance reform” passed, and Bush (mistakenly) signed it. So we got what we are all supposedly asking for – ‘to get the money out of politics’. And then Barack Obama 2008 proceeded to spend a record number of hundreds of millions of dollars to buy win the Presidency. I know, I know, this is because he didn’t accept public funds – but wait a minute. Wasn’t “campaign finance reform” supposed to get the money out of politics full stop? Wasn’t it foreseeable that a charismatic like Obama could decline public funds and then spend a record amount? Yes and yes. Shouldn’t this undermine somewhat the arguments people were using to garner support for “campaign finance reform”? Yes. So will all the former “campaign finance reform” enthusiasts look at this reality and have second thoughts about what they supported? I’m not holding my breath.

The larger issue here is that it’s quite often fruitless to take peoples’ stated political views seriously, to analyze their likely effects and outcomes, to discuss them. People don’t adopt their political views for such tangible, objective reasons as that. Often, people adopt political views for how it makes them feel, or for how “cool” it makes them in front of others, or perhaps simply for the age-old healing power of self-delusion.

That’s why we elected Obama, after all. Electing Obama has led to “change”: it ended the Iraq war, it closed up Guantanamo, it stopped torture, it Made Us Safer, it made The World(tm) like us. Well okay, it didn’t actually do any of those things, not in reality. But it has allowed the majority of the country to delude themselves into thinking those things have happened – and that’s the important thing, apparently.

A Tax Hike I Could Really Get Behind
March 15, 2009, 4:19 pm
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Here’s a potential Obama decision I could get behind (if it’s not just a posture): Administration Is Open to Taxing Health Benefits. Of course, it’s no surprise, because if you read the article you’ll see this would be essentially an embrace of a McCain position that Obama had criticized during the campaign.

One of the stupider side-effects of our tax code is that virtually everyone in the country has become conditioned to believe that health care has to come from your employer, via a “plan”. Health care and employers are linked! Everyone knows that! If you have a job, you can have health care, because (hopefully) your employer signs you up for a “plan”. Conversely, if you don’t have a job, you don’t have health care, because how can you get a “plan”? And if you switch jobs, you have to worry about whether your new employer would have a “plan” for you. Would it be as good? Etc.

No one seems to ask, why do health care services have to come in the form of an employer-provided “plan” in the first place? Virtually nothing else is done this way.

Let’s think about cars. Your car needs regular gasoline fills, oil changes, tune-ups, and minor repairs. I don’t know about you, but here’s how I handle those things when they come up: I take my car to a specialist of some sort, he performs the service on my car, and in compensation I give him a thing called “money” (or at least, my credit card). Then I go home and forget about it. If my car needs more work, I end up paying more; if it needs less work, I pay less. Of course there is risk of huge repairs being required, but for that I have a thing called “insurance” that requires ongoing payments, and in return I am covered for catastrophic repairs above a certain amount. I bought this “insurance” myself, after some shopping around, and mostly haven’t needed it. I also used “money” for that. It’s the money that I get from my employer, not the “plan”. This is better! I have more freedom to choose how I use that money. People should prefer this! It’s like the difference between getting $100 cash and $100 gift card for Olive Garden. Is there any real confusion as to which is preferable?

But what if we handled those things the same way we handled health care?

Well, first of all, I’d have to sign up for an Auto Care Plan through my employer. (If I had no employer, I simply wouldn’t have an Auto Care Plan, and presumably would start whining to the government to cover me.) On the first day or week of my job, I’d go to a seminar at my employer, where some lady who works for my company (for whom this is her full-time job!) would explain to all us new hires the options we have for a Car Care Plan. Plan A offers $5 co-pays for oil changes but we have to get our oil changed at particular places, Plan B has $10 co-pays but more freedom in choosing oil change shops, etc. Then on the basis of this we’d have to choose which Car Care Plan we want. We’d be stuck with this choice for a whole year, if we chose wrong we have to wait till the next “Open Enrollment”. Having thus chosen, we’d then get a plastic card to carry in our wallet (because Lord knows we don’t have enough of those), a huge amount of brochures and literature about our Car Care Plan (which of course we all read entirely, right?). And so every time my car needs an oil change, or gasoline, I have to have that card on me (if I forgot the card, can’t get the service – they don’t accept mere money, or at least, if I use money, there’s a huge markup), and pull out that card, and fill out some forms so that the gas station or oil change shop can properly bill our Car Care Group. (All gas stations and oil change shops have people on staff whose full-time job is to fill out and submit that billing and deal with all the paperwork involved.) Sometimes there are mistakes or I forgot to fill in one box, then my Car Care Group nags me and sends me a bill or says I have 45 days to clarify the paperwork if I want the thing to be covered. I might have to call them during office hours 9-5 to argue with them, convince them the thing should’ve been covered. Maybe I win the argument. Then maybe they send me a check, which I’ll have to deposit.

Ah, the convenience of being in a “Plan” to pay for and evaluate the cost of things, as opposed to the hassle and cost of using “money”! One predictable result is that I’d just stop taking my car in for maintenance. Too much trouble.

But health care is important, you say. I’m trivializing things by comparing it to car repairs. Well then, what about food, do we handle “Food” this way? Everyone needs food! Do we handle “Shelter” this way? Everyone needs shelter! Indeed, Food and Shelter are actually the most high-priority forms of health care. You don’t get either of those, you can forget about all the other aspects of your health (cholesterol level, etc.). So then, why don’t we have a system where your employer is expected and/or required to provide you with a “Food Plan” or a “Shelter Plan”? Instead what happens is that your employer gives you a thing called “money” in the form of a thing called a “salary”, and you use that “money” to obtain Food and Shelter yourself.


Oh, but health care is too expensive, you say. Well, one reason (not the only reason but one reason) it’s expensive is that people over-consume health care. Why? Because they don’t see the costs. Everyone (at least, many of those who overconsume) is in a “Plan” of some sort, which insulates them from the actual cost of their choices.

So why do it this way then? Well, it’s a historical legacy dating back to the ’40s. There were wage controls, and Congress came up with letting employers provide non-taxed benefits. So “health care plans” (among other things) were set up as ways for employers to offer attractive compensation that wouldn’t be taxed or controlled away, and they’ve been with us ever since. Take away the tax advantage, though, and just maybe the incentive structure starts pointing in a normal direction again.

I’m proud to say that I’m with President Obama 100%. (Again – assuming he’s sincere.)

Obama and the “Important” Election: Response to Pastorius
November 3, 2008, 12:29 pm
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Pastorius wrote below this post:

Are you telling me that when George Bush ran against Michael Dukakis there were people running around saying it was the most important election evah?

I must have slept through it.

Anyway, I’m in my forties, and whether this is the most important election evah, or not, Barack Obama definitely sucks more than any candidate in my lifetime, with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter …

I responded briefly but wish to expand here.

Generally, I guess where I’m partially coming from is this: the reason we could end up with a sucky candidate like Obama as President is because we have sucky people with sucky ideas in this country. Lots of them. At least half of them. And those people aren’t going away! We will have them regardless of who wins the Presidency. They will make decisions and support this or that stupid cause, illogical principle, or self-defeating notion, regardless of who wins the Presidency.

Am I being harsh in calling them sucky people? Well, millions and millions of people are going to vote for Barack Obama to be the next President

  • because he is black, and they are black. or
  • because he is black, and they are nonblack, and it is ‘chic’ to like/support a black person. or
  • because he is “cool” and they wish to sign up for being cool themselves by joining the cool crowd. or
  • because they (bizarrely) think they ‘won’t have to worry about their mortgage’, i.e. gumdrops will rain from the skies, if he wins. or
  • because they want to stick it to “the rich” (defined as: everyone who makes more money than they do). or, more generally
  • because they are opposed to our country’s defense, success, and power.

Or any number of other reasons I not only have no respect for but I think represent symptoms of a deeper syndrome, a fervent wish for national suicide, mutual vampirism and self-immolation.

Now, suppose John McCain somehow wins tomorrow. Will these people – which is to say, these bad ideas – go away? Not a chance. We will still have them and they will still affect our public life. The only question is how much these ideas will be damped by McCain winning the election.

Not that much, I don’t think. Which is why I don’t think the election is all that important.

Elections done right give people what they want. It does seem to me as if the people want Barack Obama. This is because those people have really bad ideas about the world. And that, not who sits in the White House, is the real problem we are going to be saddled with, it seems to me.

My Fear: The Subprime Frontrunner
November 1, 2008, 6:21 pm
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Erica Jong Tells Italians Obama Loss ‘Will Spark the Second American Civil War. Blood Will Run in the Streets’

“If Obama loses it will spark the second American Civil War. Blood will run in the streets, believe me. And it’s not a coincidence that President Bush recalled soldiers from Iraq for Dick Cheney to lead against American citizens in the streets.”

“Bush has transformed America into a police state, from torture to the imprisonment of reporters, to the Patriot Act.”

(More insanity at the link above.)

So here is my fear: that McCain will win. In a sense, I share this fear with Erica Jong.

This may seem like an odd thing to say given that I prefer am less against McCain to win the Presidency than I am against Obama winning the Presidency. Indeed, if I were going to vote (which I don’t think I will), I would vote for McCain. So why do I fear a McCain win?

Because the media have brainwashed the public so successfully into expecting an Obama blowout. So if McCain actually does win, in that context, I’m afraid we will see an insanity breakout (as illustrated above) of epic proportions.

Here’s the problem, as I see it: with every election that goes by, it seems to me that the media and polling institutions get more and more divorced from reality. There has always been a media bias, but only in recent years has that media bias translated so dramatically into the kind of cooked poll numbers, heavily-slanted predictions, and attempts at creating self-fulfilling prophecy that we have been seeing. The media seem to have really found their oats these past 8 years, realizing that they have the power to manage and control expectations of political outcomes. It seems as if they have collectively decided to use that power to its utmost, with no scruples or honor about it whatsoever, and with no regard for anything resembling objective truth. And it seems to be only getting worse.

In the 2000 election, media and pollsters told us that Al Gore had a slight lead (let’s say something like 51-49) over George W. Bush. Yet the actual election was a statistical tie, if measured by popular vote. And of course, Bush won via the Electoral College. So, the media/polling picture departed from reality, but only slightly (let’s call it 2%).

In 2004, the media and pollsters told us that Bush was very very unpopular, that the Iraq War was a detested disaster, and that Kerry had a slight lead or perhaps even a better lead than they told us Gore had had in 2000. Yet Bush carried a popular-vote lead and won the Electoral College more handily. We now had – let’s say – a 4% divergence from reality. The pre-election media/poll picture was getting less accurate and more mythical.

And people started to notice, too. So much so that when Bush won, frustrated lefty commentators started saying – apparently with a straight face and believing their own spiel – stuff like “this can’t be right, look at the polls! look at the exit polls! Exit polls are never wrong!” This sort of argument was sincerely used by otherwise intelligent-seeming people to argue that the election must have been ‘stolen’. It had to have been! Polls can’t be wrong, and the polls told us that Kerry would win! Some even suggested the polls ought to carry more weight than the actual election.

The cognitive dissonance caused by unrealistic media-created expectations had real effects, too; stories popped up post-election about Kerry supporters who had to seek counseling after the election. The media essentially told all these people a fairy tale that Kerry would win, a fairy tale based on a combination of wishful-thinking and propaganda. The people who believed that fairy tale received a shock.

So that brings us to 2008. The media essentially tells us to expect an Obama blowout. But what if this, too, is a fairy tale? What if 2008 is just a continuation of the trend we started seeing in 2000 (2% distortion) and 2004 (4% distortion)? What if the picture the media and pollsters have been painting this year is distorted by even more, by 6-8% or so?

That’s what we’re being told is the size of Obama’s (supposed) lead, isn’t it?

Arguing against my paranoia here, I suppose, is that the media’s view is based on hard data. You know: polls.

Here’s the thing about polls: the more you learn about how they are done and calc’ed, the more you realize that they all contain a zillion fudge factors. It’s not as simple as ‘ask 1000 people whom they’ll vote for and extrapolate the fractions to the entire country’. All the pollsters multiply Democrat responses by one number and Republican responses by another (usually smaller) number. There are other factors and weightings that go into polling models, including geography, social class, whether someone is (claims to be) a registered voter or a ‘likely’ voter, or whatever. By the time you add up the effect of all these factors, who knows how accurate the polls really are? 5% margins-of-error really begin to add up if you’re multiplying several of them together. Not only that, but the more fudge factors and ‘models’ are thrown into a polling calculation, the more wiggle room there is for, well, bias to creep in. A (D)-leaning pollster might decide to weight the (D) responses 2-to-1 over the (R) responses, if he “thinks” (=hopes) that (D)s now have a ‘natural 2-to-1 background advantage’ in the country. Once you allow the existence of that kind of factor, the potential is there for cooking poll numbers however you like. And the more factors and the more complex the model, the more potential there is. It all boils down to incentives, and bias is a very potent incentive.

It’s similar to the problem that existed in creating bond ratings for mortgage-backed-securities. The rating agencies surely had very complex and scientific objective-seeming models for, say, defaults and foreclosures of the mortgages that back all these bonds, credit-default swaps, CDOs, etc. Models that contain a zillion and one factors that each have to be estimated, modeled, measured individually. The models all said, of course, “this senior tranche of a CDO backed by such-and-such uncorrelated bonds deserves a AAA rating”. The ‘correlation’, of course, being a phony parameter that turned out to be, well, basically 1. We all saw what happened as a result: a bubble in subprime-backed bonds and CDOs that turned out to be completely divorced from reality.

What if the same thing is going on in media reports and polling? Only, not due to greed, but due to bias and, well, ‘hope’, on the part of pollsters and media types?

Is Obama the “subprime” frontrunner?

The media have told us that Obama will win. As a (sort of) McCain supporter, I hope they’re wrong, of course, but in a way I also hope that what the media have been telling us is based on reality – not on wishful thinking and bias. However this election turns out, I hope it wasn’t all just a…just a bubble.

How Rich I Would Be
October 29, 2008, 11:27 am
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I wish I had a nickel for every person who

  • supported the financial bailout and called people stupid if they didn’t favor it, but never had any real idea what the bailout involved
  • blames the current financial crisis on something they vaguely call “deregulation” but can give no details, can make no argument, and obviously doesn’t know what the hell they are talking about
  • pretended to kinda like John McCain in 2000 in arguments with (R)s (when he was running against Bush) but now calls him evil incarnate
  • claims to be tired of “negative campaigning” and the politics of personal destruction, but wrote approximately 70 bajillion blog posts last month speculating about Sarah Palin’s baby
  • is going to vote for Obama to be our next President primarily because he is cool, and they want to be cool too

Oh, how rich I would be.

The Politics of Joe Destruction
October 18, 2008, 1:41 pm
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So let me see if I understand. Obama was on a photo-op/meet-and-greet. A guy named Joe, whose house Obama went past, asked him some critical questions about Obama’s tax ideas. McCain’s side incorporated Joe and his life and times into their argument. Obama’s side (which includes the media), on the other hand, focused on destroying Joe.

Joe, you see, must be destroyed now.

This is not civil politics. This is not reasoned debate. The lefties like to posture as if they’re the “intellectual” side and fret about the supposed “anti-intellectual” sentiments they detect, but this is hardly that.

This is just more high school politics.

I ask Obama supporters – supposedly the “intellectual” side, remember? – what on earth this guy named Joe’s biography has to do with a valid argument over how high taxes ought or ought not to be, and get nothing but blank stares and “McCain started it!”.

Pathetic and juvenile. High school politics.

High School Never Really Ended
October 13, 2008, 10:49 pm
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Robin Hanson likes to say that politics isn’t about policy. This seems to be hyperbole, but there is something to it. That post links to an interesting article called My Team Vs. Your Team. Key quote:

…what has happened in recent years is that partisans have come to identify with their parties in much the manner that sports fans identify with their teams. The strong views they feel on many issues do not drive their party affiliation; it is their party affiliation that drives their strong views.

A few years ago I found myself losing interest in politics as it was generally conducted. The debates didn’t seem like genuine debates and the stances people took didn’t seem secure or grounded. I decided that most politics we see is indeed based on little other than “my team vs. your team” – even on an issue as seemingly substantive as the Iraq invasion/reconstruction – and this was why politics seemed so boring to me. Kabuki debates that are really about something else.

“My team vs. your team” goes nicely with my belief that one’s allegiance to the (D) or the (R) party has a lot to do with how one wishes to see themselves – i.e., whether they wish to be cool. The (D) Party is the “cool” team, the team for “cool” people and their mascots. One thing you are doing when you pick your “team” is choosing your identity. The (R) Party is certainly not for people whose sense of identity is tied up with a wish to be seen as “cool”.

But there is no denying that Barack Obama is “cool”. Look at those socialist-art posters with one-word slogans: oh my my are they cool. How about that “yes we can” Youtube video? Damn, that was cool. Look how he swaggers and carries himself, but not in an overly-testosterone-filled way. Sure is cool. He has cool friends; cool Hollywood people like him, such as Sarah Silverman and John Cusack. He talks cool. I could go on and on. Make no mistake about it: the dude is fricking cool.

And that, folks, is the reason he is likely to be our next President. Because he’s cool. To correct Philip K. Dick: it wasn’t the Roman Empire that never ended.

It was high school.


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