Friday, January 18, 2008
It took a while of reading about Mike Huckabee's 30% sales tax, which he dubs the Fair Tax, before it occurred to me that here in France, we pay 20% sales tax on goods and services (basic foodstuffs are taxed at a 5.5% rate). The main difference between the French system and Huckabee's is that here, that's in addition to a pretty stiffly progressive income tax that tops off at 40%. And that's in addition to a pretty stiff Social Security tax. Socialized medicine does have its costs.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
PACS On Both Houses
Confirming my belief that the government doesn't belong in the marriage business, a study on French civil unions (known as PACS) has found that the closer their legal status resembles that of marriage, the more popular they've become. Not just with same-sex couples, for whom the legal status was ostensibly invented, but also with mixed-sex couples. In fact, gay couples now represent only 7% of those seeking the PACS status. Since 2000, while marriages were declining by 10%, the number of couples getting PACS'ed tripled and now represents 25% of all heterosexual unions:
Similarly, the sociology of the PACS tends to imitate that of marriage. The average age of those entering a PACS, which went from 37.6 years old in 1999 to 31.5 years old in 2006, has approached that of marriage. Another common element between the two types of unions: The seasonality. Couples prefer to get PACS'ed in June and July. (Translated from the French.)
The idea that government recognize the same civil unions for everyone and leave marriage up to the individuals' chosen religious denominations is both fair and consistent with the principles of separation of church and state. But it also has the added advantage of being more politically palatable for people who don't necessarily have a bedrock position on the issue, but are simply uncomfortable for whatever reason with the idea of gay marriage.
Civil unions for everyone means marriage denied to no one. It also places the ceremony of marriage -- all marriage -- where it, as a religious ceremony, belongs: in the private sphere.
Thursday, September 6, 2007
I'm not a policy wonk, and I'm certainly no expert on healthcare. But with the subject getting alot of recent attention, and with Michael Moore's SiCKO just opening here in Paris, I thought it might be interesting to American readers if I offered a couple of anecdotes on my experience of the French medical system.
The first occured on my very first visit to France in 1999, when a case of "water on the ear" clogged my ear canals, leaving me barely able to hear a sound. I'd had similar experiences in the States after swimming a few times before (although never to that degree), and I'd always used some over-the-counter eardrops that chemically dried out the ear canal within days. So I went off in search of some at the local pharmacy, only to find out that they don't exist over here. Of course, my first reaction was to grumble and rail about the superiority of American medicine, until my future ex-wife's family convinced me to do what is perfectly natural for any French person, but is the last resort for an American: go see the doctor.
I called a local ear doctor (an otologist, for any persnickity wordies out there), who gave me an appointment for that afternoon. I went over and explained the problem, and he promptly removed the offending earwax with the help of a funnel-like instrument and filament. Total cost of the procedure: the equivalent of twenty bucks. (As a tourist, I wasn't covered by the French Social Security system, and so I was ineligible for reimbursement.)
The second occured this past winter. My son woke up one day with a slight cough, but without any fever, so I brought him to school as usual. When I went to pick him up for lunch, he wasn't looking so good, and his teacher suggested that I bring him to the doctor. After six years in France, my instinctive resistance to doctor's offices had evaporated. So I immediately walked him across the street where, after waiting ten minutes for the doctor to return from an emergency house call, he was diagnosed with a throat infection. We still had time to make the pharmacy before it closed at noon to fill his prescription. Total cost: the equivalent of twenty bucks for the medical visit, of which (if memory serves correctly) twelve were reimbursed by Social Security. The medication was fully reimbursed.
Two points I'd like to make. First, in writing this post, I realized to what extent one's experiences with a healthcare system become internalized (ie. the resistance I always felt towards going to see a doctor in the States compared to my willingness to do so here). Second, as someone with an entrepeneurial bent, I also recognize to what degree the social charges needed to fund France's generous medical system function as disincentives to initiative. But I wonder if the American system doesn't serve to hide those disincentives in the exagerrated cost of seeking care.
Like I said at the beginning, I'm no healthcare wonk. There are costs and benefits to such an affordable (to the patient) and accessible system. Some of them, like these two anecdotes, don't translate very well into statistics.
Monday, June 11, 2007
Most of the disadvantages of starting the presidential election campaign two years ahead of the presidential election have already been identified. But there's one I haven't seen mentioned. In theory, an election is decided at least in part by the positions a candidate takes on the issues. But the issues this country will be facing in November 2008, as well as the political landscape within which they'll be addressed, will undoubtedly have evolved between now and then. Which means that as things stand, the candidates are really campaigning on hypotheticals.
The consequence is not only to reinforce the importance of personality as opposed to policy as a criterion of selection. It also changes the sorts of policies that get debated, with the emphasis placed on exactly the sorts of longstanding, major-baggage issues -- ie. healthcare, foreign policy magic bullets, and the like -- that have the least chance of getting through the legislative process intact (see Comprehensive Immigration Reform).
Saturday, May 26, 2007
As an immigrant abroad, I've got no choice but to follow the immigration reform bill from afar. Two things I can say, though. First, inviting people to work in America while withholding the possibility of assuming an American identity (which is my understanding of what the guest worker program entails) is a mistake. That's exactly what has undermined French society which, although it offered citizenship to the immigrant laborers who rebuilt the country after WWII, never embraced them into the national identity. The result is an enormous group of people who, at the level of identity, feel that they are neither French nor of the country of origin. In other words, alienated.
Second, Tom Friedman and Matthew Yglesias have got it all wrong when they call for automatically offering visas to foreign-born PhD graduates. Yglesias responds to the obvious drawback, that it encourages braindrain from the countries of origin, by proposing an "exit tax" to be paid (presumably) by the graduate to the home country:
The economic benefits of allowing the highest-skilled people in the world to work where their skills are the most in demand would be very large -- much bigger than the benefits involved in letting low-skill people work in the first world as hotel maids and day-laborers -- so it would be both possible and worthwhile to find ways to distribute those gains relatively equitably.
Unfortunately, applying Major League Baseball's free agent compensation rules to international labor markets overlooks the fact that to a country in desperate need of an educated cadre, money is not an "equitable" substitute for know how.
Furthermore, in a time when well-paid productive labor is increasingly outsourced and poorly-paid "unskilled" labor is increasingly done by immigrants, artificially boosting the supply of PhD labor seems to be a cruel blow.
Saturday, April 28, 2007
Welcome To The Hotel California
Does equal protection under the law extend to punishment after the crime? If so, what to make of California's "pay to stay" county jails, where for the price of a modest hotel room, non-violent offenders can purge their sentences isolated from the general prison population? I can understand the logic in isolating dangerous inmates based on their behavior. But isolating vulnerable inmates based on their bank account balance seems like an admission of inadequate protective services for those who can't afford it.
Sunday, April 8, 2007
I admit to being mystified by Phyllis Schlafly. As a kid growing up in a progressive household, a woman arguing against the ERA made about as much sense to me as a black guy arguing against the Thirteenth Amendment. But in this LA Times op-ed, almost overshadowed by her riveting account of the previous demise of the ERA, she actually lays out her case against an amendment prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender. And it comes down to... alimony payments:
The amendment would require women to be drafted into military combat any time men were conscripted, abolish the presumption that the husband should support his wife and take away Social Security benefits for wives and widows.
Hmmm. Well, there's still the riveting account, which includes this jewel about a conference organized in Houston in 1977 to give a final push for ratification:
The conference featured virtually every known feminist leader and received massive media coverage. But it backfired. When conference delegates voted for taxpayer funding of abortions and the entire gay rights agenda, Americans discovered the ERA's hidden agenda.
A couple of months later, a reporter asked the governor of Missouri if he was for the ERA. "Do you mean the old ERA or the new ERA?" he replied. "I was for equal pay for equal work, but after those women went down to Houston and got tangled up with the abortionists and the lesbians, I can tell you ERA will never pass in the Show-Me State."
Abortionists and lesbians. They'll kill a constitutional amendment every time.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
A while back, I started trying to formulate a description of what I called wonk-free politics. The idea was that government should become less prescriptive and more adaptive. As long as data assessment remained centralized, the actual policy approaches could be experimented on at a local level, taking into account the fact that what works in one setting may not work in another.
New York City's new experimental anti-poverty program is exactly what I had in mind. It offers poor families financial incentives (up to $5,000 a year) for meeting various behavioral goals such as school attendance, academic performance, and steady employment. The program has been privately funded, including a contribution from Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and will be assessed by comparing a randomly selected participant group to a randomly selected control group. If it produces measurable results, it will become a city-funded program next year.
Will it work? Who knows. But it's a streamlined policy proposal that can be experimentally tested. And I'll take that over a telephone book-sized white paper any day.
Monday, February 12, 2007
Chris Dodd Gets Props
I recently proposed a Seven-point Plan I'd like to see the Democratic presidential candidates collectively endorse to demonstrate their commitment to returning the executive branch to the limits of constitutional authority. Well, tomorrow, Chris Dodd is going to introduce legislation into the Senate that seems to get the ball rolling. According to his website, the Effective Terrorist Prosecution Act:
- Restores Habeas Corpus protections to detainees
- Narrows the definition of unlawful enemy combatant to individuals who directly participate in hostilities against the United States who are not lawful combatants
- Bars information gained through coercion from being introduced as evidence in trials
- Empowers military judges to exclude hearsay evidence they deem to be unreliable
- Authorizes the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces to review decisions by the Military commissions
- Limits the authority of the President to interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions and makes that authority subject to congressional and judicial oversight
- Provides for expedited judicial review of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 to determine the constitutionally of its provisions
The Act will basically undo the most egregious measures of the Military Commissions Act passed last year. As TPM Muckraker pointed out, that law passed the Senate with 65 votes, so this is far from a done deal, either to make it out of the Senate or to clear a veto. But it's a good first step in the right direction.
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Is A Wonk-Free Politics Possible?
The other day, in my reaction to John Edwards' healthcare proposal, I explained why I have a hard time getting excited about detailed policy proposals. Only to find quite a bit of discussion on a handful of other blogs I follow about whether detailed policy proposals help or hinder a Presidential candidate.
Now my argument runs somewhat parallel to these other discussions, which were tactical in nature, but never questioned the usefulness of wonkish policy proposals at some stage of the political process. What I'm proposing is an entirely wonk-free politics.
The reasoning being, no matter how well thought-out a policy proposal is, there's always going to be:
- Alternative approaches to parsing the numbers that will contest the predicted results;
- Some legislative compromise that will dilute the intended effect;
- Variations in regulatory oversight that will impact the enforcement;
- Unintended and unforeseen consequences, both beneficial and not;
- And adaptations to the legislation that will dampen or exagerrate the policy's effectiveness.
I said in that first post that government is better suited to setting broad national priorities than it is to micro-regulating policy. Especially in an age when only a small minority of our elected officials even read, much less understand the implications of, the laws they're passing. To say nothing of the electorate.
So what would a wonk-free politics look like? Two things spring to mind, right off the bat. It would emphasize the goals that we, as a nation, want to achieve, while maintaining flexibility with regard to the means we use to achieve them. And it would place a premium on government's responsiveness, in order to capitalize on successes and remedy failures.
I admit, it sounds utopian, and maybe it is. But I can't help but think that there's a problem with the way we conduct the business of government when so many people, perfectly capable of understanding policy discussions, don't even bother to pay attention. Why? Because they know that nine times out of ten, the fine print of a piece of legislation is either unfathomable, unverifiable, or undisclosed.
So, am I just hopelessly naive, or out of touch? Could be, but if so, I'm not the only one:
It is time for us to free ourselves from the constraints of politics. It's time for us to stop settling for the world as it is and start reimagining the world as it might be... That's what we offer the American people: hope. There are those who don't believe in talking about hope. They say, "Well, we want specifics; we want details; and we want white papers; we want plans." We've had a lot of plans, Democrats. What we've had is a shortage of hope. And over the next year, over the next two years, that will be my call to you.
That's Barack Obama at last week's DNC Winter Meeting.
Tuesday, February 6, 2007
Healthcare In Broad Strokes
John Edward's just announced a thumbnail sketch of his health coverage plan. In the coming days, the rest of the candidates will offer their own variations, and eventually a consensus will form about what's electable and what isn't. And if it sounds like I have a hard time getting excited about it all, it's because I do.
Both by temperament and deep-seated skepticism about government's ability to do anything more than establish broad national priorities, I tend to have little interest in policy in the narrow, wonk-ish sense of the term. Luckily, there are folks like Ezra Klein for informative discussions of the nuts and bolts of Edwards' plan.
My own thoughts tend to turn to the context that frames the debate but is rarely mentioned. How, for instance, as a society we've medicalized what are in reality the consequences of poverty, especially in the mental health field. How Western medicine is organized around a model of costly technological and/or pharmaceutical responses instead of less expensive and less invasive preventive measures.
How both of these trends reinforce a power dynamic that leaves ordinary people seeking healthcare increasingly at the mercy of either private insurers or the government's attempts to intercede on their behalf.
Hard to put into quantifiable numbers, I admit. But there are policy wonks for that part, right?
Update: Kevin Drum just posted a nice overview of the plan, including policy and political up- and downsides.
Sunday, February 4, 2007
Getting Back To The Constitution
Hillary Clinton made headlines yesterday by declaring at the DNC Winter Meeting, "If we in Congress don't end this war before January 2009, as President, I will." Forceful, categoric, and obviously aimed to pre-empt criticism of her vote for the Iraq War resolution back in 2002.
All fine and good. What I'd like to see, though, is a Statement of Common Principles committing all the Democratic candidates, if elected, to return the executive branch to the limits of Consitutional authority. What would it look like? Well, for starters, I'd include the following:
- An immediate closing of GITMO.
- The right to trial in open court for all GWOT detainees.
- The categorical repudiation of torture, including inhumane treatment, for interrogation practices.
- The repudiation of extraordinary rendition for all GWOT detainees.
- The repudiation of all forms of domestic warrantless surveillance.
- The repudiation of elective war as an arm of US foreign policy.
- The return to executive transparency by limiting national security classification to a strict minimum.
As terrible a humanitarian and policy disaster as it's been, the Iraq War is in many ways only a symptom of the Bush administration's assault on the separation of powers as laid out in the Constitution. And as much as anything else, the Democratic candidates need to make it clear that they're committed to remedying that.
Sunday, January 28, 2007
Coming Up Empty
So the site's been up a week and I'm looking through it, relatively pleased with how quickly it's filled up with posts and links and most importantly an original thought or two. (I'm hoping the comments will materialize in time.) And then I click through to the Archive index and there it is staring back at me: A big donut under the Domestic Policy heading. (Don't bother checking now, all you'll see is this post.)
Now granted, I'm obsessed with the strategic nightmare that is our current Middle East policy right now, and the rise of China is a particular favorite of mine, too, and all the candidates lining up for 2008 has been grabbing a lot of page one real estate. But is the reason I just don't have much to say about Domestic Policy because I've never been much of a policy wonk? Or is it possibly because it's been six years now since I left the States? Can you have domestic policy insights when you're no longer domestic?