Who Knew Health Care Was Hard?

President Donald Trump was speaking to a meeting of the National Governors Association about health care reform a couple of weeks ago, and he offered up yet another one of those occasional quotes of his that cause us slap to our foreheads. “I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject,” he said. “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”
Every sentient American already knew that health care is darned tricky, and certainly each of those governors hearing the speech were especially well aware of it, so it’s a sobering thought that pretty much the only person in the country who thought it was easy is the president. Even the minimal amount of regulation that a free-market purist would agree to for the ever-evolving and increasingly high-tech medical sector that comprises a full sixth of the nation’s $17.4 trillion economy is bound to be tricky, managing every aspect of it is beyond the ambitions of even the most arrogant Democrats, and any compromise you might find somewhere in between is bound to be exponentially more complicated. The policy questions are daunting enough, but as Trump as surely figured out by now, the politics involved are even more convoluted.
Trump and the Republicans running the two chambers Congress rolled out the first of three promised phases of their plan to repeal and replace the current Obamacare system earlier this week, and if they thought that getting it passed into law was going to be easy they should now be wised up. There are still enough Democrats left in Congress to make trouble for for any changes in Obamacare, although the law is unpopular enough throughout the districts and states that it’s largely responsible for a Republican White House and an electoral victory for a Republican president, and there are still enough pre-Trump sorts of Republicans left in both chambers who won’t stand for any aspect of Obamacare, even those several provisions that poll extremely well with the general public, and what with politics making strange bedfellows they can cause all sorts of complications together.
Unless you’ve been too busy with your reality television show or branding negotiations to have been paying attention, for the past seven years or so the repeal and replacement of the hated Obamacare has been the metaphorical Moby Dick to the Republican’s Captain Ahab. Not one single Republican, even though squishy ones that you still find up way up northeast, voted for the damn thing, everyone last one of them has cast meaningless votes for its repeals on a regular basis ever since. From the most staid conservative publications to the most shrieking talk radio shows the entirety of the party was opposed to Obamacare, which was forced on a resistant public with some procedural legerdemain and a variety of lies about lowered costs and keeping your plan and your doctor that were eventually exposed, and conferred unprecedented powers on the federal government, and had monogamous couples paying for sexually-transmitted disease coverage and Catholic nuns paying for contraception and otherwise permanently altered its social contract with citizens, and generally offended every old-fashion Republican principle. As the false promises about lower costs and freedom of choice were exposed the Republican majorities in Congress grew, and with a Republican president who wouldn’t have gotten his party’s nomination without an unequivocal promise to repeal and replace Obamacare it should have been easily accomplished.
Politics is always complicated, though, and Trump’s apparent belief that it’s actually all quite simple adds another layer of complexity. The parts of Obamacare that allow young people to remain on their parents’ plan until age 26 and let people sign up for insurance at the usual rate after a pre-existing condition have been discovered poll well with the public, the subsidies that are being provided to a reported 20 million or so people are even more more popular with that reported 20 million or so people, and among them are some folks who will have tear-jerking stories to tell on the nightly news, and at this point it’s hard to tell how the unpopular Trump will fare against the unpopular Obamacare. All the Republicans are taking care not to call the new policies Trumpcare, even Trump, who usually loves to put his name on things, because at the moment both Trump and Obamacare seem equally unpopular.
As the pre-Trump sorts of Republicans, we were hoping for that most minimal sort of regulation no matter how complicated that might prove. If the insurance wants to sell policies that allow include children to any old age we’d be happy to let them, and expect that many would find it profitable to do so, but we wouldn’t force them do so no matter what the polls have to say about it. The preexisting conditions thing about Obamacare comes with all those heartbreaking stories, but you could just as easily interview people who couldn’t get flood insurance after their house was underwater, and no matter how heartbreaking it just doesn’t make economic sense. We have some red-in-tooth-and-claw solutions to the whole matter of rising health care costs, too, but we acknowledge they won’t poll well, and admit that the ever-changing high-tech world of medical marvels makes it very complicated.
Interstate health insurance plans and no mandated coverage of unnecessary producers and much of what else we were hoping for wasn’t included in the latest proposal but is promised to come in phases two and three of the great Republican health care reform roll-out, and for now we’ll take their word for it. Still, we can’t help wondering why they’re dishing it out like that. Something in phase one might make sense if it were done in conjunction with something in phase two or three, but not otherwise, these things being very interrelated, and the uncertainty of what’s to come only complicates matters further. Coming up with something better than the undeniably disastrous Obamacare system should have been a relatively simple matter, but of course Trump complicated matters by promising something “wonderful,” which of course is a whole lot harder to achieve.
Trump was all over the place on the issue during his improbably victorious campaign, wowing the Republicans with the usual repeal and replace rhetoric, but also promising the broader public some spectacular but unspecified plan where everyone would be covered and the government would pay for it and the costs would go down and quality of care would go up, and he really should have expected that would prove complicated. He’s already abandoned a campaign position in favor of that stupid individual mandate that requires poor people to pay a penalty for not having insurance, but endorsed a plan that would allow insurance companies to charge a 30 percent fee on people whose insurance have lapsed, and he’s no longer talking about the government paying to insure everybody, but he has abandoned enough longstanding Republican positions about the proper role of free markets and individual liberty and meddling bureaucracies in the nation’s health care to lose some Republican support. On the other hand he’s still retreating from the Democrats’ positions on those very vital questions, and won’t likely get any support from a single one of them.
We’re hopeful that at the end of all this complicated fuss that’s going to consume the next several months we’ll wind up with something that’s at least better than that dreadful Obamacare, but we don’t expect that it’s going to wind up being something as wonderful as what was promised. Obamacare wasn’t altogether bad, otherwise its repeal and replacement wouldn’t be so thorny, but it’s dreadfulness was made all the more apparent in contrast to the sales pitch, and what’s likely to known as Trumpcare surely won’t be altogether good, so its promises should be made accordingly. That’s not the Trump style, of course, and some painful but necessary procedures will probably be left out of the care, and we expect the fuss over it will outlast us all.
One of the few old-fashioned Republicans who has somehow enthusiastically embraced this newfangled Trumpist party is Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who has been surprisingly outspoken in his opposition to what’s thus-far been rolled out. He “tweeted” that the Democrats were too hasty in passing that darned Obamacare when they enjoyed a Democratic White House and majorities in both chambers of Congress, and urged that his own party not repeat the mistake. We like Cotton’s old-fashioned Republicanism, and despite our disappointment with his enthusiasm for Trump’s newfangled party we think his advice to slow down and get it right is sound. The Republicans should take at least enough time to hear all three phases of what they’re doing, gauge just how free-market the party can get away given the current political climate, do what’s doable, and be satisfied if the results are somewhat better than Obamacare even if it so wonderful that nobody dies.

— Bud Norman

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Oh-High-Oh

The good people of Ohio will vote today on a referendum called Issue 3, which would legalize both medical and recreational marijuana use and confer a legal marijuana-growing monopoly on the  small group of wealthy investors who have largely bankrolled the public relations campaign for its passage. This is quite the dilemma for certain types of both conservatives and liberals, but we expect that even the most addled Buckeye potheads will be able to figure out that it’s a bad idea all around.
The more sober of the libertarian sort of conservatives will have to weigh their aversion to legal monopolies on anything against the prospect of legal weed, while the more fervent sort of liberals will have weigh their enthusiasm for both legal weed and legal monopolies against their aversion to small groups of wealthy investors getting rich on anything, and it will be interesting to see how they both choose. The social conservatives won’t find anything to like in the deal, of course, and those Democrats honest enough to admit they don’t mind a good public-private sweetheart deal so long as the state gets its cut won’t find anything wrong with it. So far as we can tell about the ideological composition of the Ohio electorate, this means the referendum could come down to the pothead vote.
If so, any hookah-huffing Ohioan should consider the question from a self-interested perspective and realize that a legal monopoly is always unlikely to meet his demand with a reliable and high-quality and cost-efficient supply better than the currently illegal and thus entirely free market. Should the referendum pass those tax dollars that are tempting even the straightest sorts of voters will be added to the price of a bag, monopolies tend to raise prices further yet, regulators regularly get involved to stifle innovations and further raise prices, and eventually there is a certain wistful nostalgia for the good old days of Prohibition and the friendly unincorporated neighborhood speakeasy and that old neighborhood hippie who always had The Allman Brothers playing during a deal. Given that almost nobody gets jailed for simple possession of small amounts of marijuana anymore, unless they happen to have some on them when they get busted for a more serious crime and have it added on the charges for the sake of plea bargain negotiations, an otherwise law-abiding marijuana enthusiast would not be better of if the referendum were to win.
We won’t be surprised if it does win, though. Public opinion has slowly crawled to a bare-majority support for legalized marijuana, those promised tax dollars are always tempting to voters, by now pretty much everyone knows someone who uses marijuana that they don’t care to send to jail, and such outrageous cronyism and corruption and convoluted capitalism as Issue 3 represents can be sold as responsible regulation of some ineradicable problem. Gambling used to be widely considered a social evil, and was as strictly forbidden as marijuana ostensibly remains in most jurisdictions, but the lure of tax dollars and the pervasiveness of gambling and the promises of sensible regulation have resulted in legal monopolies on “gaming” within a short drive of almost every American. We’ve got a big Indian casino just a few miles of high-speed Interstate south of our own very conservative city, although the office basketball pool and the weekly poker games in the buddy’s basement and the craps games that are said to still flourish on South Broadway remain as illegal as ever, and that referendum passed with the support of all the local business groups as well as all the liberals who hate every industry except the one that does nothing but separate suckers from their money.
All the local offices are still having basketball pools and the same old married guys are still sneaking away to weekly poker games and South Broadway will always be South Broadway, even if the big Indian casino south of town does draw a significant share of the local gambling market, and we expect that a similar legal arrangement regarding the marijuana market will yield similar results. We know a fellow who lives in a remote mountain town in Colorado where there are seven legal marijuana shops to serve a town with a year-round population of 2,300, and we take his word for it that most of the local vipers still patronize the same unlicensed and untaxed and unregulated and downright illegal dealers they bought from before “legalization.” Those promises of tax dollars won’t be kept, the promises of responsible regulation will prove even more overstated, and the inherent problems of an illegal market that can’t call the cops to resolve a grievance will remain.
If Ohioans decide not to send anyone to jail for smoking marijuana that will be fine by us, and neither will we worry if they choose to retain the current laws and continue to enforce them with the usual laxity. We hope they won’t decide on some middle ground that makes it legal for one person to sell the stuff but continues to make it illegal for others, though, as that sort of two-tier legal system does not serve the purpose of democracy and there is way too much of that going on already.

— Bud Norman

The Sickly Orange River

The Animas River in southern Colorado is currently a sickly orange color, the result of three million gallons of toxic waste being dumped into it. Ordinarily the Environmental Protection Agency would be pursuing criminal charges against the greedy earth-hating corporation that caused such a catastrophe, but in this case the agency itself is responsible.
It was entirely accidental, just one of those unfortunate things that can happen when you’re using heavy machinery while investigating a mine site, and the people charged with protecting America’s environment say they feel just awful about it. This is apparently sufficient for the environmentalist left, which is currently rallying to the agency’s defense and placing the blame on the company whose mine was being so disastrously investigated, but they see more concerned more with the government than the environment.
All those companies that have been heavily fined and whose executives have gone to jail for lesser contaminations surely didn’t intend to despoil the environment, after all, and we can reasonably assume that they also felt awful about it. The EPA’s apologists will likely argue that it was acting for the greater good, rather than than greed that motivates those nasty old miners, but we would note that mining industry also serves an essential and arguably more important service than the EPA and that the EPA’s employees are at least as well compensated and as a typical Colorado miner. The consequences of of governmental incompetence can be just as devastating as those of corporate incompetence, although usually more so, and deserve even harsher condemnation
When a corporation encounters one of those unfortunate things that can happen when you’re moving heavy machinery around toxic materials, there’s an EPA and a Justice Department and a Federal Bureau of Investigation and an environmental left around to make so those responsible are held to account, but if it’s the EPA and the federal government that’s spilling three million gallons of toxic waste into a river and turning it a sickly orange and the environmental left is rallying to its defense there’s no real incentive for them to avoid such screw-ups in the future.

— Bud Norman

Insanity in the Heartland

Politics here in Kansas is now so screwy that the Democrats are in court pleading they shouldn’t be forced to field a candidate for Senate and the Republican nominee is lagging in the polls. The explanation for this otherwise inexplicable turn of events is a self-described “independent” candidate offering the usual pablum about bipartisanship and practical solutions, an entrenched Republican incumbent who barely survived a primary challenge by a scandal-tainted neophyte because he’s considered too bipartisan and practical by the party’s base, and the gullibility of the average voter.
The self-described independent was once registered as a Democrat, once ran for the Senate as a Democrat, is now very careful not to deny that he will caucus with the Democrats, and to the carefully attuned ear he still sounds a lot like a Democrat, but it remains to be seen if a majority of this reliably Republican state will reach the obvious conclusion that he is a Democrat. On Thursday he came out for the Democrats’ proposal to re-write the First Amendment to restrict criticism of the Democratic Party, which is about as Democratic a policy as one can endorse, but even that might not make the necessary impression on those Kansans distracted by the upcoming basketball season.
One can only hope that the average Kansan, who is as least as apt to exercise his First Amendment rights as the citizen of any other state, will notice that putative independent Greg Orman, usually described in the Kansas press as a wealthy businessman from Johnson County, is on the record with his support of the odious amendment the to the constitution recently proposed by the Democrats that would allow for further federal regulation of spending on political speech. The amendment is touted as an antidote merely to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which reasonably found that that prior restraint of an anti-Hillary Clinton movie was a gross violation of the the First Amendment, but its inevitable result is a regulatory regime that will restrict conservative opinions while allowing the liberal riposte. Orman’s endorsement of this outrage should convince any sensible Kansan of his Democratic tendencies, but we anxiously await the verdict on how many of our fellow Kansans are sensible.
That entrenched Republican incumbent, Sen. Pat Roberts, has an 86 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, which has spiked during the age of the locally unpopular President Barack Obama, and although that heretical 14 percent has alienated the party’s conservative base we hope they’ll notice that he’s been a stalwart defender of free speech. That Citiziens United decision involved money from the demonized Koch Brothers, who are a mainstay of the Kansas economy and have been forthrightly defended by Roberts on the Senate floor, and Roberts has been quite admirable in his defense of the decision of the principle of letting even the most targeted people express their opinions in the the public square.
Thus far the national Republican party seems aware of the danger that such a usually reliable state is in play, and we’re hopeful that Roberts will have the resources to make his convincing case to the people of his state. The state’s media won’t be much help, inclined as it is to present that radical constitutional amendment as an old-fashioned sunshine law that will reveal the nefarious money-bags greasing the system, but given the mood of the state we are hopeful that Orman will eventually be regarded as another Democrat and meet the usual Democrats’ fate. It’s a tricky race to handicap, though, and could go either way.
Kansas’ prognosticators seem split on how it might turn out. One school of thought holds that forcing the Democrats onto the ballot will split the anti-incumbent vote, while another posits that without an official Democratic candidate Ogman will be regarded as the de facto Democrat and suffer accordingly. Roberts’ reputation as a get-along Republican will cost him a few votes from the party faithful, but might pick up a few among those who buy into Orman’s happy talk about bipartisanship. We’ll be keeping our fingers cross that the party faithful recognize a censorious Democrat when they see one, that those with fantastical hopes of bipartisanship won’t mind Roberts’ occasional offenses against Republican orthodoxy, and that Kansas of all places doesn’t screw up the Republicans’ hopes of taking the Senate.

— Bud Norman

When Winter Lingers into Summer

You might not have noticed, what with all the political scandals and foreign crises and invasions of unaccompanied minors and soccer games vying for your attention, but the American economy remains very, very lousy. According to the ultimately official numbers that were released with little fanfare this week, the American economy is lousier than it’s been since the bad old days of the ’08 meltdown.
The first and most ballyhooed estimate of the first quarter’s Gross Domestic Product was for 0.1 percent growth, which was horrible enough but at least kept alive a streak of anemic growth and could plausibly be blamed on the miserably cold winter that had afflicted much of the nation. That was more quietly followed by a revised estimate of a 1.1 percent decline, and the administration’s apologists arguing that the winter was even worse than they’d realized and it would have been more dire if not for the miracle of Obamacare causing an uptick in health care spending. Only the most nervous sorts of investors and the hard-core news junkies would have heard about the final report of a 2.9 percent decrease in GDP, which is even harsher than the past winter and includes the unsettling news that Americans actually spent less money on their health. Upon closer examination the numbers become even more dismal, with declines in private inventory investment, exports, state and local government spending, and residential and non-residential fixed investment that cannot be explained by snowy roads and falling temperatures.
Still, those ever-bullish proponents of Obamanomics in the popular press are reassuring their readers that the lazy, hazy days of summer will correct the situation. Presumably this is the time of year when a young executive’s fancy turns to thoughts of private inventory investment, and everyone will be herding the kids into the car and hitting the road to a relaxing yet economically stimulative vacation despite the gas prices rising from all those foreign crises that have nudged the economy off the front pages. Those of us less enamored of the high-tax, high-regulation, high-minded anti-caplitalist scheme that has been imposed on the American economy the past six or so years remain bearish.
The smart fellows over at zerohedge.com note that after the miserable winter even if spring and summer and fall bring the rosy 3 percent growth rates that the government has been promising it will average out to a meager 1.5 percent growth for the year. They don’t seem at all confident of that, either, noting that the past 50 years of economic history have never found two years with growth of less than 2.6 percent that weren’t followed by a recession. After a long stretch below that economic Mendoza line another quarter of contraction would force the headline writers to use that dreaded “R word,” and the economy would be once again jostling with the latest scandals at home and catastrophes abroad for news space.
Such dire news should make the stock markets happy, as it will likely force the Federal Reserve Board to keep printing up money and pushing down interest rates at least through the mid-term elections next fall, but it will have an unsettling effect on those portions of economy that make their money honestly. All those scandals and crises don’t inspire much confidence in the nation’s leadership, either, nor do they bode well for the price of energy. Perhaps that invasion of unaccompanied minors from will rescue the economy, but even in the midst of a wet and warm summer we’re still feeling those wintertime blues.

— Bud Norman

Two Holidays in One

Yesterday was Easter Sunday, of course, but this year it coincided with the far more secular holiday of 4-20. For the sake of the squares among you we will explain that “4-20” is a sub-cultural slang term for marijuana. Some marijuana enthusiasts make a ritual of indulging each day at 4:20, although we’re not sure if it’s supposed to be A.M. or P.M, or perhaps both, if your sleep schedule is accommodating, and the 20th day of the fourth month of the year has become an unofficial national 24 hours of marijuana celebration. Easter didn’t prove a distraction for the large crowds that gathered in various cities across the country, and in The Mile High City of Denver 4-20 pushed the holiest day in Christendom right off the front page.
Tens of thousands gathered in a Denver park, according to the Associated Press, to smoke enough marijuana to make the nearby buildings look quite hazy in the news photographs. The state of Colorado has recently legalized the sale and possession of small amounts of marijuana, and although it remains in violation of federal laws and it is still illegal to smoke marijuana in public there seems to be a considerable degree of tolerance regarding the drug. Reports indicated that only 103 of those tends of thousands were cited, and only 92 of them marijuana violations. The rest were presumably handed a more expensive ticket for consuming tobacco in one of the nearby taverns. There seems to have been no violence or other problems associated with the party, and it can be assumed that the nearby fast-food outlets and convenience stores did a brisk business, so the event might become an annual tradition if anyone can remember the location. Most years it won’t fall on Easter, and a few more pious potheads might join in.
A bunch of grubby neo-hippies littering a park and giving a contact high to an entire neighborhood might not seem the most persuasive image that the pro-legalization movement might send to a wary non-pot-smoking public, which thus far retains a political majority in the country, and would probably be more sympathetic to the respectable Saab-driving suburban pothead who tries to hide it from the kids, but they do seem to be on a roll lately. Polling shows public sentiment moving toward legalization with the dizzying speed of same-sex marriage, legislation and referenda are being considered in several states, prominent politicians from both parties have offered their endorsements, and a certain sweet scent of inevitably is wafting across the land like the smoke from that rally in the park. It’s partly the Baby Boomer’s dominance of the Democratic party, and partly the increasing influence of libertarians and libertarianism in the Republic Party, but we suspect it’s mainly because everybody in government at every level is increasingly desperate for more and more revenues. Just as the Great Depression brought and end to the prohibition of alcohol, the current never-ending recession will prompt the government to cut itself in on the enormous trade in marijuana.
When it does happen, all those 4-20 types around the country won’t necessarily be celebrating. They’ve been smoking tax-free so far, and will be surprised to find how very expensive is the government’s fair share. Pot has previously been free of regulatory oversight, as well, and bureaucrats are notorious buzz-kills. In our newspaper days checking the fly-sheets at the local jail we noticed that the only people who ever got arrested for marijuana were selling large amounts in a careless way or had small amounts in their pockets while they were being arrested for something else, but we’re sure law enforcement will take a more active interest in the matter when state funds are stake. They’ll miss that slight outlaw frisson, too, and some will consider take up tobacco to regain that rebel stand.
State governments are all in the numbers racket already, with their lotteries and casinos ruthlessly protected monopolies, and government itself can be understood as sanctified protection racket. In Puerto Rico they’re considering getting in on the prostitution to trade to erase a debilitating debt, along with other ideas ranging from legalizing weed to reviving the country’s once-great coffee trade, and the more indebted states will be tempted to do the same after they’ve taxed all their rich people into other jurisdictions. State-sanctioned marijuana, which would be far more palatable to those aging Baby Boomer Democrats and their haranguing feminist wives as well those libertarian Republicans and their religious friends, will soon be an easy sell to a cash-strapped public.
A better way to fill the public coffers would be to expand the broader economy with tax and regulatory incentives to create more productive goods and services, but that’s a harder sell. There are good arguments against putting someone in prison at taxpayer cost for smoking marijuana, and good arguments for taking small cut on that marijuana to keep someone in prison for something more detrimental to the society, but parks full of grubby neo-hippies and agencies full of rapacious bureaucrats is not going to be a successful combination.

— Bud Norman

The View from Back East

The fortune cookie that accompanied our meal at a P.F. Chang’s franchise somewhere in the endless sprawl of the Philadelphia metropolitan area told us that “A visit to a strange place will bring you renewed perspective.” The faux-Chinese proverb provided by the faux-Chinese restaurant elicited a slight chuckle, given that the joint was eerily identical to the P.F. Chang’s franchise on the far east side of Wichita, right down to the overly-friendly waiter and the over-priced appetizers, but in truth our rare travel beyond the prairie has offered a few fresh insights.
Modern technology and corporate capitalism have done much to obliterate the regional differences that have long strained the union of the states, but there’s still no mistaking that we’re not in Kansas anymore. The television shows and the offerings at the local movie theaters are the same as back home, and although the local news anchors and anchorettes are different they all have the same handsome and pretty and self-serious look about them and the same bright graphics over their shoulders and the same tales of crime and tax increases to report. We’ve passed countless malls with the same impermanent architecture and the same stores as that we pass by on our drives back home, and although the convenience store market is dominated by something called Wawa rather than the QuikTrip stores that dominate the prairie they have the same gargantuan sodas and high-calorie fast foods and sterile atmosphere. There’s a lot more of everything, though, and occasional other reminders half a continent continues to make a difference in the daily life of an American.
These differences are especially apparent in the quadrennial election results, when the states in the northeast light up in blue and the prairie states turn red, and our perusal of the local press provides plenty of other reminder that folks are far more liberal in this part of the country. The Philadelphia Inquirer is obliged to cover the politics of not only Pennsylvania but also Delaware and New Jersey and the rest of the itty-bitty states that are crammed together around here, and little of it makes sense to someone more accustomed to Kansas politics. Gun-grabbing, Muslim-loving, Obama-embracing Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is considered a Republican by the prevailing local standards, and his commonsensical insistence on balanced budgets and non-punitive tax rates even makes him a relatively radical right-winger in the view of the east coast press, and it is amusing to read the speculation that he might win over enough honest-to-God Republicans in the heartland to win his party’s nomination for president. Such crazy talk is unaccountable to the Kansas kind of Republican, but after just a few days back east it begins to make some sort of sense.
The first thing a denizen of the prairie notices after arriving at Philadelphia’s intimidatingly immense airport is the city’s downright claustrophobic population, which can’t help but inculcate the collectivist mindset that is at the root of liberalism. The vast space of the prairie provides room for the rugged individualism that underlies the conservative philosophy, but getting so many millions of people to live together in such a constrained area apparently requires a degree of regulation that only liberals are willing to contemplate. Class differences are also more conspicuous and no doubt more infuriating here, where the poverty is more glaringly oppressive and the wealth more gleamingly opulent, so the enforced egalitarianism of the liberal program has an understandable appeal. Even as it becomes more apparent that it will lead to everyone but the politically connected becoming equally poor and stupid, we expect that a good many northeasterners will be satisfied with the result.
Still, there’s much to be said for this strange part of the country. Prairie folk will also notice that there’s an immense amount of history here, with elegant homes and businesses that were already old when J.R. Meade established the mud-walled trading post that was the very first edifice of what would become Wichita, Kansas, and we can’t help enjoying that irony that everything in our far more old-fashioned hometown is relatively new compared to what we find in this more up-to-date metropolis. The Philly cheese steak sandwiches at a distinctively local little eatery called Romano’s cannot be duplicated elsewhere, even if no one in this seems to know how to cook a proper chicken fried steak, and there are other only-in-Philadelphia touches that have somehow survived the relentless homogenization of modern America. Most of the folks we’ve encountered have been friendly enough, as well, and the modern technology allowed us to watch the Wichita State University Wheatshockers basketball squad extend their thus-far unbeaten season on the internet, even in a place where most people would likely wonder what the hell a Wheatshocker is.
With a return to federalism and a bit of tolerance by both city and country folk, there’s a chance the union might somehow survive that red and blue electoral map.

— Bud Norman

In Search of Silver Linings

How bad was the jobs report released on Tuesday? So bad that the unemployment rate went down by a fraction, the stock markets went up by a percent, and Democrats openly admitted their disappointment.
None of these seemingly positive developments should be mistaken for good news, however, given the currently convoluted nature of the American economy. The unemployment rate dropped only because many thousands more Americans gave up any hope of ever finding a job and joined the record number of economic drop-outs. The stock markets surged only because the jobs report was so dismal that it will almost certainly force the Federal Reserve to continue the incessant money-printing that has fueled the deceptive rally. Even the grudging acknowledgements of failure from the Democrats offers little solace, as it’s all a set-up to blaming the “sequester” budget cuts and the temporary partial government shutdown and other Republican perfidy.
An increasingly anxious American public isn’t likely to be misled about the state of the economy by obviously obfuscated unemployment numbers or obviously overpriced stock markets, but there’s always a good chance that that it will buy the part about Republican perfidy. Both the “sequester” and the partial government shutdown had little effect on most Americans, and went entirely unnoticed by almost all of the significant number of blissfully ignorant folks who avoid reading or hearing the news, but there’s a nasty ring to both of them that can be easily exploited. Any fair-minded observer would concede that the Democrats share at least some of the blame for both the “sequester” and shutdown, and that the currently dismal numbers come long after the former and before the latter, but the fair-minded are an insignificant voting bloc these days. One could make a strong argument that Obamacare, other excessive regulations, higher tax rates, growing governmental debt, and the ever more apparent incompetence of a government that daily acquires ever more control of the country have more to do with the sluggish economy than a slight cut in misspending or paid vacations for nonessential government workers, but strong arguments are easily countered by caricatured villains.
Should the Democrats succeed in their blame game, there’s really no good news in the jobs report at all. There are 148,000 new jobs, and we’re glad for that tiny minority of newly-hired workers, but that number is lower than the already-puny annual average and doesn’t offset the exodus of former job-seekers from the work force. At a time when good news is actually bad news we try to remain hopeful that the bad news presages the good news that the people will at last become fed up and try to reverse course, but the people might just agree that what’s required is more of the same.

— Bud Norman

All the universities are back in session, which is mainly of interest because it signals that college football will soon resume, unless the liability lawyers get an injunction, but it also means the beginning of the presidential speech season. President Barack Obama has long preferred to address college audiences, which still regard him as a sort of rock star, and now he apparently wants to repay the affection by seizing control of the higher education system.
Speaking before a typically adoring crowd of empty-headed students at the University of Buffalo on Thursday, President Barack Obama outlined a proposal that he promises would lower costs, raise standards, and generally work the same wonders for college that Obamacare has brought to the health care system. The plan would have the federal government rate every college and university in the country according to such criteria as tuition, the number of low-income students enrolled, graduation rates, and average student debt load, then dole out federal aid accordingly. Although the typically adoring crowd of empty-headed students seemed to love the idea, their faculty and administrators were probably less pleased.
University faculty and administrators are ordinarily as enamored as their chargers of anything Obama has to say, but this plan is such a plainly bad idea that even the average intellectual won’t buy it. There are already a number of organizations that assess colleges and universities according to much the same criteria that Obama would use, most notably the U.S. News & World Report rankings that provoke howls of outrage from school administrators every year, and all of them are presumably less susceptible to political pressure, more experienced and expert in the pursuit, and nonetheless widely disputed. Any attempt to rate all the colleges in America will be pointlessly subjective, as the right school for one student will be the wrong school for another, and in any case that one student should be better able than the government to make the correct choice. If a student needs information to help decide, it can be easily found even by the average recent high school graduate.
Meting out the almighty federal dollars according to such rankings is an even worse idea. A certain percentage of low-income students are college material and would benefit from continuing their educations beyond high school, but even the government cannot state with any certainty what that number would be, and any attempt to impose an arbitrary quota will inevitably result in luring some students who would be better served by a technical education at a for-profit school, and perhaps at the cost of excluding some middle-income student who made better use of the seat. Other colleges might calculate that they can better improve their ranking by excluding lower-income students, even if they are among the ones who would have done well in school and benefited from the experience, in order to improve the average student debt load numbers. Some schools will try to improve graduation rates by taking fewer chances on students that might succeed, while many others will simply make it much easier for even the most dim-witted but federally-subsidized students to graduate.
Whatever incentives the plan might offer to induce colleges to lower their tuitions will certainly be overwhelmed by the money that would keep flowing in, which is the reason for the ridiculous rise in the cost of a college education in the first place. The cost of college has outraced the overall inflation for the past four decades, even as the value of most diplomas has declined. A degree in engineering or science or something that attests to a similarly marketable skill might still pay for itself over the years of a long career, but degrees in history and English and the like which once told an employer that the bearer had some minimal smarts no longer offer that assurance, and those who major in gender studies or conflict-resolution or such faddish disciplines will soon find that all the gender studying and conflict-resolving jobs have been shipped overseas so that some corporate fat cat can get a tax break. If the oil companies or Big Pharma had hiked their prices at the same rate while offering such diminished products they would be dragged before Senate subcommittees like Michael Corleone and burned in effigy at whatever’s left of the Occupy encampments, but university professors and administrators somehow remain a favored segment of the liberal coalition and should thus be offered federal money to offset whatever losses their price-cutting measures entail.
There’s also the nagging worry that colleges will feel coerced by those federal funds to offer a curriculum in keeping with the current administration’s ideological predilections. Anyone who would dismiss this concern as far-fetched should read up on the recent activities of the Internal Revenue Service, Justice Department, or National Security Agency, or even go back to the early days when the National Endowment for the Arts was rewarding artists according to their enthusiasm for the administration’s agenda, and it’s hard to think of any government in history that hasn’t coveted control of its universities. Most professors and university administrators are quite happy to go along with most of the Obama agenda no matter the financial rewards, of course, but there’s always the off-chance that another Republican might someday be elected president and in any case they have the natural human aversion to regulation. Professors and university administrators are quite fond of regulating everybody else, but subjecting them to the same treatment is rank anti-intellectualism.
Early reports indicate that House Republicans aren’t likely to let any of this happen, and it will be great to fun to watch all the academics siding with them for a change. They’ll no doubt be embarrassed by the company they’re forced to keep, and eager to be back on the other side, but they’ll do it for the sake of dear old ivy-covered U and their phony-baloney jobs.

— Bud Norman

Of History and Housing

Much has been said lately about President Barack Obama’s unreliable knowledge of history. Some have chided him for his recent suggestion that mass-murdering Vietnamese dictator Ho Chi Minh was a Jeffersonian democrat, others for his apparent belief that every advancement in the history of the American economy was a government creation. These errors can easily be attributed to his relative youth and naïve faith in Howard Zinn’s oft-assigned “A People’s History of the United States,” but there’s no explaining how he can get the recent financial meltdown so very wrong.
Obama was still coughing out bong hits with the Choom Gang when Jimmy Carter planted the seeds of the crisis by signing the Community Reinvestment Act way back in the ‘70s, but he was already playing his own small role in the debacle as a bank-suing lawyer when Bill Clinton got the subprime mortgage industry going in earnest and he was there to vote “present” as a Senator when it all came crashing down. He should know as well as anyone that the government employed a variety of both sticks and carrots to induce America’s banks to lower their credit standards and make the hundreds of billion dollars worth of loans to subprime borrowers which inflated a housing bubble whose popping brought down the international financial system. During a speech Tuesday in Phoenix, however, Obama blamed the whole affair on “recklessness on the part of lenders who sold loans to people who couldn’t afford them, and buyers who knew they couldn’t afford them.”
The speech was full of similar howlers. He boasted of a robust recovery creating jobs without mentioning that most of them are part-time and low-paying, touted investments in new energy technologies without mentioning the resulting bankruptcies, talked about a boom in natural gas production as if he had anything to do with it, and repeated his complaint about “phony scandals” as the incompetence and lies of the Benghazi debacle and the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of his political opponents were matters of no importance. More nonsense came in the form of a five-point plan that he believes would simultaneously increase property values and make housing more affordable.
Step one is for Congress to pass “a good, bipartisan idea” that would allow every homeowner to finance his mortgage at today’s rates. He did not mention which government regulations are preventing homeowners from doing so, if there are any, so we assume that the banks have some reason of their own for denying re-financing to certain customers. Perhaps it is the same capitalist greed that prevented them from loaning to unqualified borrowers until the government intervened, but it might also be the same sensible desire for self-preservation.
Step two is to “make it easier for qualified buyers to buy home they can” by simplifying regulations and cutting “red tape.” This is a surprising suggestion, regulations and red tape being Obama’s preferred solutions to most problems, but his complaining about “responsible families” who “keep getting rejected by banks” makes it sound a lot like the old policy of imposing the government’s notion of a good loan on lenders.
Step three is the Senate’s immigration reform bill. Apparently a massive influx of uneducated and unskilled workers with no assets and limited incomes is the fix for a sluggish housing market.
Step four is to “put construction workers back to work repairing rundown homes and tearing down vacant properties.” Obama didn’t mention who would do this, so we assume he meant the government. We’ve been procrastinating on a need repair to our garage, so if he wants send over some federal employees to attend to that he is welcome to do so.
Step five is the one that’s been getting most of the attention from the media, which has been somewhat limited given that the address was advertised as yet another of his “major” ones. Obama proposed that the government begin “winding down” the New Deal-era Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac programs, an idea that was laughed at as a “gaffe” back when Sarah Palin proposed it in ’08, and denounced as racist when the agency’s finances came under congressional scrutiny, then declared that the private sector should play a leading role in providing financing for home ownership. With typical presidential snarkiness Obama added that “I know that must sound confusing to the folks who call me a raging socialist every day,” but he also added that the government should play a “limited role” that would be “just like the health care law that set clear rules for insurance companies and make it more affordable for millions to buy coverage on the private market.” The folks who call Obama a raging socialist every day will not be reassured.
Although Obama sounded almost Hayekian in his denunciations of the old regulatory regime and his praise for private enterprise as the “backbone” of the housing market, and sternly warned against any bail-outs of the sort that he had earlier boasted of providing to the auto industry, it was nonetheless clear that he intends for the government to resume its role of ensuring loans for anyone who might vote Democrat. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would at long last go away, but the government would continue to secure loans and provide a secondary mortgage market. The names will change, just as liberals now call themselves “progressives,” but the policies and their unhappy effects will remain the same.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, as George Santayana famously warned, and those who remember it incorrectly are likely to make things even worse.

— Bud Norman