Friday, April 30, 2010

Stupid Economic Theories

Yesterday, watching the evening news on PBS, I heard this really dim-witted fellow from some misleadingly named organization called something like "numbers-usa" debating the "immigration issue." He made the seemingly obvious claim that since we are short maybe 20 million jobs and that "illegals" now hold 7 million of the jobs that exist, we need to kick them out so that we citizens can reclaim those 7 million jobs. This guy clearly knows numbers only in the way that a flimflam artists does. It's a talent, but one we should watch out for.

Then my otherwise intelligent friend was marveling at the very evident fact that dual income families are now struggling to maintain the standard of living which used to be common when only the men were working. It feels as though there were some kind of conspiracy to dilute the wages of working people. Some kind of OK women, if you want to work, go for it. We'll adjust. Um, yeah, I thought this much was obvious. These two matters are not disconnected. Hello!

The idiocy of the anti-immigrant comment is that this economy is "designed" such that some percentage of the workforce is out of work. That doesn't mean that there is some designer, any more than do the results of natural evolution, no matter what the crazies say. It just means that there is no set number of jobs, such that kicking someone out of his might free it up for you. The issue is systemic. As with food and water and energy, it's usually not the quantity which causes shortages, it's the distribution. The appearance or especially the fear of shortage allows prices to spike. That serves somebody or some class of people that ain't you or me.

A pretty good clue for what's up with immigration is that when you dig, you are as likely to find that it was the right wing which wanted the cheap immigrant labor as it was the liberals who wanted to afford every soul a human chance. Pitting workers against desperate "illegals" does a pretty good job to push the price for labor down. Ditto women.

But these arguments play because we're angry and we seem to need some target for that anger. Someone who doesn't look too familiar in the mirror.

And so some grand artificial debate gets played out over our heads, without our ever having a chance to find where the game is fixed.

Like the healthcare debates; it helps the criminally kleptocratic insurance industry (executives, owners, not workers) when the left side calls for government to just take it over. That energizes the teapartiers, who - probably sensibly- recoil in horror at the notion of civil-service healthcare. So no one imagines what could be accomplished if we were to have some sensible regulation of insurance as we already know it.

Like what if there were severe penalties for not paying legitimate claims? What if there were a time limit to pay, and what if the price for uninsured were required to be identical to that charged the insurance companies? What if the providers were required to get pre-authorization for payment, the client were completely off that hook, and the subsequent negotiations and arguments were required to take place between and among the experts?  I think that's been tried around the world, and it works pretty well.

What if, furthermore, the patients weren't somehow taught that it is their right to feel entitled for treatment for whatever sort of "off" they feel. What if drugs were not deployed as a cure for the stresses of poverty or of warfare? What if we didn't all crave endless medical testing against terror at various what-ifs as encouraged by advertisements from the drug companies? What if those ads were made illegal again?

Well, apart form the absurdity of attempting to put the genie of information back into its bottle, there is reason to think that all the decisions shouldn't really be in the hands of the doctors. Sometimes they might be motivated to call for more tests than you yourself would if fully informed. They're fighting the insurance companies right now, and have to make up for their losses somehow. The system seems stacked against us even as the sides seem to be warring against each other. Coke and Pepsi. Microsoft and Google. Democrats and Republicans. They need each other. But even more, they need us to think they are opposed and in competition.

Drug companies seem to spend, naturally enough, the most money on issues which might require constant medical intervention. Viagra and Lipitor and things like Prozac are the perfect drugs, compared to useful things like antibiotics which might be used once in a while and that's it. Where overuse creates more problems than the drug can solve, but also where the excuse is somehow "out there" that it's we who use them too much. Forgetting that it might be our feedlot meat production system which creates many of the problems. That with bacteria, it should never be about eradication, but more about a kind of ecological balance among the organisms always present in our bodies and environments. By and large, "we" do what we're told within the limits of our education, intelligence and information. I know I'm not one to second guess my doctor, unless there's a really good reason to do so.

The distortions get created from and by the very same sort of motivated misinformation that the racist fellow used to cover his actual fear of difference. I'm sure he's even convinced himself that all he really wants are jobs for his fellow Americans. Drug companies don't want us to know everything about what they're selling - they speed up the voices magically when forced to fill us in. They refine and expand the unreadable print.

Government doesn't have to be populated by geniuses to provide the same sort of intervention to the public discourse - the balance to the body politic - that antibiotics might provide to the individual human body gone out of whack.

It serves someone's purpose to suppose that the problem is that the regulators now are not so clever as those they regulate. That the germs are smart; the terrorists are smart, that the bombs we need are smart bombs, that each of us only wants to get for ourselves what the least of us, the Bernie Madoffs, want to get for themselves. And morally, he is the least among us. Not a one of us would do what he did against his fellow Americans even if we had the chance.

I for one don't really imagine that the folks who work for the NSA are at the cutting edge of cybercriminal investigation (I have inside information). I doubt the government actually has the most computing power, and if it does, I doubt it's as cleverly deployed as the stuff arrayed in the private economy to measure my desire. I worry that dullards in government service will become overeager in their enforcement, just like the FBI did under J. Edgar, knowing which direction their promotion would come from.

So, too much power is no good answer. But there ought to be a way to release the creative energies of the private marketplace without allowing the predators, always, the upper hand. There ought to be a way to allow the financial markets to do their thing with the efficiency of money flows without always presenting those geniuses with that much temptation to dip into the flow for themselves. You don't have to be a genius yourself, you just have to get the sense that your work is valued, secure, amply rewarded against its difficulty and risks. Something we no longer really provide to our civil servants.

And another thing! Wouldn't you think the capitalist system would prefer a mobile work force? How about a nice regulation limiting the drag on mobility now guaranteed by regionally limited and company-connected health insurance. It's almost as though "they" want you to remain enchained. Or pitted against the great unwashed masses of "illegals." Vagrants. Homeless. Border crossers.

Come on, let's get a clue. This isn't as difficult as we're making it out to be.

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