Archive for the Politics Category

Open Letter Regarding Education

Posted in Economics, education, Policy, Politics with tags , , , , , on January 21, 2010 by Josh Wittner

I recently sent the below letter (as an email) to my state representatives, if you have an interest in this issue I encourage you to ask similar questions and/or help me track this down.

Dear Senator and Representatives,

During my perusal of Governor Gregoire’s proposed education plan, which seeks to take steps to meet the standards necessary for receiving funding from President Obama’s Race to the Top program I found myself deeply fascinated about our current education expenditures, in particular respect to K-12 education. During my research on the state Office of Financial Management website I ran across several graphs that show that since 2000 Washington State has fallen, and continues to fall more and more, behind the national average of per capita and per $1000 of income spending on K-12 education. Why is this? Are there specific policy changes or lack of policy changes that are directly responsible for this? Do we know why this is happening? Are the numbers misleading, and if so, in what ways?

If we don’t know, how do I go about encouraging research into finding the answers? If I were to go about researching this, would you be interested in the results?

In my opinion education is the most powerful tool we have for improving the general welfare, empowering individuals, reducing income disparity, and expanding Washington’s economic prowess. If we’ve begun to slack in this regard, as it appears we have, I’d like to know why.

Thank you very much for your time,
Your respectful constituent,
Josh Wittner

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WA State: No Weed For You

Posted in Life, Policy, Politics with tags , , , , , on January 20, 2010 by Josh Wittner

I just watched on TVW the voting down of a marijuana legalization bill and then subsequently the voting down of a much less controversial decriminalization bill by the House Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee (what a name). Legalization was rejected with a 7-2 vote and decriminalization with a 5-3 vote.

The interesting part of the legalization vote was Rep. Steve Kirby’s statement about the flaws in this particular bill and how if they could be resolved he would gladly vote for it:

“I could vote for a bill like this. It’s kind of a big deal, it really is, to go from having a substance that when I was in school they used to show us videos in school of people jumping out of buildings. Reefer Madness, do you remember that?” He said it might come as a shock to people in the room, “but I actually know people who use marijuana on a regular basis,” he said. But, he said, this bill lacks the clarity he’s looking for. “It’s close, but it lacks details that are important to me.” He told the crowd: “Don’t count me all the way out, but count me out today.”

The decriminalization vote turned on all the old out-dated disproved or illogical arguments. Rep. Chris Hurst voted against the bill because it would be confusing for people to have state laws and federal laws differ from each other. That’s essentially telling those that the state arrest for marijuana possession, “Yes, I know its not that bad of a drug and yes I think it should be decriminalized, but you’re gonna have to go to jail, because, well, that’s just confusing.”

The other profoundly irrational argument came from Rep. Kirk Pearson who argued that he’s seen evidence that telling kids that marijuana isn’t going to destroy your life (ignore that all of the seriously destructive elements come from its illegality) increases the number of kids who smoke marijuana. Yes, Rep. Pearson we should continue to put adults in jail and give them criminal records which can ruin their lives so that parents don’t have to watch out for marijuana just like they have to for cigarettes and alcohol.

On that note, here’s the best marijuana advice for children I’ve ever heard. It comes from South park:

The truth is, marijuana probably isn’t going to make you kill people. Most likely isn’t going to fund terrorists, but pot makes you feel fine with being bored and it’s when you’re bored that you should be learning a new skill or some new science or being creative. If you smoke pot you may grow up to find out that you’re not good at anything.

From the numbers I’ve seen kids find out about marijuana around ages 12-13 and at that age it seems to me we’d be better off informing our kids about drugs and sex, instead of lying to them.

State Attorney General and Eminent Domain

Posted in Policy, Politics with tags , , , , on January 15, 2010 by Josh Wittner

Yesterday the State Attorney General Robert McKenna introduced his bill to reduce the state’s power to execute eminent domain. Eminent domain, basically, means that the government can make the decision that the needs of the community are such that the government has the right to take property away from individuals to direct its use to serve community needs. The bills proposed (House Bill 2425 and Senate Bill 6200) mainly seek to clarify the rules by which the state can make these decisions.

A really interesting topic with many valid arguments on both sides. For the preeminent Supreme Court case involving the use of eminent domain, see here.

State Considers a New Tobacco Tax

Posted in Policy, Politics with tags , , , on January 15, 2010 by Josh Wittner

Yesterday the state House Finance and Health Care Committee considered a bill to increase taxes on tobacco products.  I’m always torn on these kinds of sin taxes. On the one hand they increase revenue, which is especially nice in light of the state’s $2.6 billion budget short fall, and they create incentives for people to quit smoking, which saves lives and lowers health care costs. On the other hand they’re terribly regressive taxes, which is especially atrocious in the state with by far the most regressive tax code in the nation.

Your thoughts?

Health Care and Veterans

Posted in Law, Politics with tags , , , , , , on January 15, 2010 by Josh Wittner

Yesterday a friend asked me about health care and it’s effects on veterans. Specifically she had been told by someone at her work that the health care bills now being merged by congress would create new premiums on veterans and she was wondering if this was true. At the time I couldn’t answer her question and decided to review the question in the morning.

After reviewing both the House’s Affordable Health Care For America Act and the Senate’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (and this associated document specifically addressing questions about veterans) I can find no reason to believe that new premiums will be introduced to veterans enrolled in the Veterans Health Services program. Both bills explicitly state that administration of the Veterans Health Services will remain under authority of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Both bills explicitly state that the health care coverage supplied through the VHS meets the minimum eligibility requirements and so there will be no tax penalty for veterans enrolled in the program.

Veterans not enrolled in VHS however will be treated like any other citizen in that they will need to have health coverage, either through the Exchange or the VHS or a satisfactory third party or they will be required to pay the tax penalty.

If anyone out there has any further points on this or indeed any health care related concerns that they have or have heard other’s espouse, just let me know and I’ll help get to the bottom of it and try to provide you as true and clear a response as possible.

Dissecting the Reason Healthcare Plan

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2009 by Josh Wittner

Commenter Ovi, in response to my inquiry into options other than Universal Healthcare, provided this newly released video from Reason.

I’ll dissect it step by step.

The opening statement itself is misleading because it states that the system of insurance itself is the reason that most people don’t shop for price when it comes to health care, but other insurance industries however are incredibly competitive so the statement doesn’t make much sense. The real issue isn’t an insurance system, because the premiums of insurance are directly related to the cost of what the insurance covers, the real issue is that something like 90% of those insured by private health care get their health care through their employer and because of this have lost the sense of personal cost.

The comparison to the fall of non-advancing or stale services or products  like jeans and foodto health care is a poor comparison. As time goes by the cost of old medical technologies (that haven’t been surpassed by new technologies) has gone down, its the creation of newer and often less helpful medical interventions combined with a philosophy that health care should be distributed without pecuniary thought that have driven up medical costs. If health care was a stale industry or one like the utility industry, for example electricity that only adapts to cheaper alternatives, we wouldn’t have rising health care costs. People aren’t willing to pay whatever it takes to buy an apple or a pair of jeans but they are when it comes to medical procedures so the industry adopts new practices to support this and costs go up.

The statement “in 5/6th of the economy individual choice and competition works” is also misleading because it implies that other than health care the rest of the economy runs free of regulation and restriction which simply isn’t true. The electricity industry, which it uses as an example of a correctly functioning free market immediately before this statement, is often horribly limited in choice and competition and is one of the nations most heavily regulated industries.

The main problem I have with the Lasik example is that Lasik isn’t a life expectancy extending medical procedure (which is largely why it isn’t covered by medical insurance, the same way vision insurance is usually separate) and so it isn’t bound by the perspective problems that infect those that are. It is much easier to measure the convenience of no contacts/no glasses in dollar value than it is years of one’s life. Also medical technologies other than Lasik, including life extending ones, get cheaper and better as underlying technology (like lasers for Lasik) get cheaper and better. The implication in the video is that this isn’t true.

I don’t know enough about the Mass. health care system to make any reasonable comments about it, but this point only argues against the current health care proposals (if they do indeed mirror the Mass. system) and not against other functioning, cheaper, equally or more effective systems of universal healthcare.

Okay, now that we’ve hit the boiler plate intro stuff, it’s time to get into the 3 step plan.

The employer based system is a large concern and a clear problem with our health care system, but for better or worse it’s what we have. It’s often said that politics is the art of the possible, and in this case neither side of the aisle has much interest in removing it due to the pressures of the labor unions and companies that have spent tremendous effort creating and arguing for improved health insurance packages. Also a direct and forced removal of the employer based system would see a large premium increase for those 90% of people who have insurance through this system because their collective bargaining power would be removed (which provides them the cheaper and thus more comprehensive plans) and so there’s no constituent pressure to remove it either.

Who is this practicing physician that talks about going to the doctor to get blood pressure management (which can have drastic effects on life expectancy) advice and for information about resolving ingrown toenails (which can be  incredibly painful and debilitating) as wasted dollars? Certainly this information can be provided in cheaper ways (through things like simple science-based medical information websites for example) but that information is medically relevant and should be provided. It’s also important to be able to go to doctors for this kind of information because self diagnosis can be  a terribly dangerous thing to do. The thing is that a diagnostic doctors visit will inevitably be priced on the value of that doctor’s time and it doesn’t matter if you’re getting your potentially cancerous lump diagnosed or your toenail looked at the price will be the same.

I guess the real point here is whether doctor’s visits for these reasons should be covered by insurance or purely out-of-pocket. I’m not sure about the specific regulations on this so I’ll decline to comment on that aspect but in a purely free market I think it’s pretty speculative to state that there wouldn’t be plans that covered these things (especially if there’s enough constituent demand to get regulations on such coverage passed, which I don’t know if there has been).

The “all you can eat buffet” critique of our current system stands in stark contrast to the earlier comment about Mass. rationing health care. What is it guys, do you want rationing or not? And what exactly is better about the free market insurance companies rationing health care as opposed to the government doing so?

Extending the tax exemption to the individual health insurance market seems like a relatively good idea if we don’t fund it on the deficit. We’ll have to find cuts or other taxes to cover this new tax deduction, it won’t be free. I’m unsure of how extending the tax deduction to the individual market without completely removing the job based market provides individual workers with employer provided insurance more options.

The analogy of buying homeowner’s insurance after the fire to buying health insurance with a preexisting condition is relevant only in the case where someone hasn’t lost their previous insurance for some reason beyond their control. Perhaps the regulations forcing insurance to accept people with preexisting conditions is too broad and should be narrowed to only those who’ve lost their insurance because their previous insurance was forcibly severed either by the insurance company or because that individual lost their employer provided insurance, etc. Also if those who develop a condition while under insurance can’t freely change insurance because no insurer will pick them up now, how will the free market pressures operate? High risk individuals will have to stay with their current plans while low-risk individuals can move to cheaper plans which entirely defeats the point of insurance. Those who get sick will be punished as their premiums will continue to rise as the non-sick move to cheaper plans.

The troubles of mandated coverage is worded well here. We must be careful of what coverage we mandate that insurance companies provide because we can overstep our bounds. However the example of teetotallers paying for alcohol abuse treatment is flawed for a couple of reasons. First is that alcohol abuse is in large part influenced by environmental factors, including genetics and so saying that those who have had the chance to avoid these factors shouldn’t have to pay for the risk is like saying because my family doesn’t have a high risk of cancer I shouldn’t have to pay for a plan with cancer insurance. This builds a system where those who were born with high risks because of their lineage and their location are forced to pay much higher premiums for their coverage. Second is that it  implies that no mandated coverages should exist, in which case we end up with more instances of people who are uncovered for medical risks that didn’t turn their way and need either financial assistance or will simply burden our economy with bankruptcy when those costs are levied directly against them instead of the insurance pool. Does it overstep my feeling of individual liberty? Yeah, it does. But does it provide a better system of managing risk with lower negative effects on the economy? I think it does. At least we can agree that this point is much more complicated and expansive than the video makes it seem.

There are many ups and downs to allowing interstate health care market, and since this post is already way too long I’ll save those for another day. I’d suggest a little research on the topic though since it’s certainly not as simple as they make it out to be.

My understanding of the relevant studies on Health Savings Accounts is that they have little to no effect on health care costs as a whole because the amount that they’d cover represents an insignificant minority (1-2%) of health care costs. Any benefits would require an overhaul of the health care system that included changes to the availability of cost/quality information (of which there is just about none). I’m in favor of this even without HSAs. HSAs seem like a non-solution to rising health care costs.

Overall I didn’t find these offered solutions very compelling, but I agree with the end that either way what we’re doing now is just the start.  This solution overlaps the one provided provided the GOP in late October (I believe) in that both remove the interstate restrictions, both remove the preexisting conditions restrictions, and both would result in expensive high risk pools. The CBO review of the GOP health care proposal was abysmal with it only extending coverage to 7 million more Americans and reducing the deficit 68 billion where the Dem’s bill extends it to 36 million Americans and reduces the deficit by 104 billion. But hey, at least its free market principled!

The video in large didn’t present any new ideas and so I encourage any interested parties to research the points more and attempt to crush my statements. Or to provide arguments for why my points are otherwise invalid or unimportant.

And sorry for how long this is.

Social Democracy: Past, Present, Future

Posted in Philosophy, Politics with tags , , , , on December 2, 2009 by Josh Wittner

This essay written by Tony Judt is far and away my favorite essay of the year. It is more fair and balanced, and more honest about what social democracy is, where it came from,  why it’s important, and how it must change than anything I’ve read. For those of us out there who lack ideology, that is, those of us who realize that the world is more complicated than ideologies and that society requires a balance of valid interests, those of us who understand that economic principles are only one part of a larger complex web of ideals which all scream out to be weighed and taken into account when government is applied this essay is for us. Read it.

Tony Judt directs the Remarque Institute at NYU and is the author of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. His latest book, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, was recently reissued in paperback.
 (December 2009)