Some call it lobbying

Others call it intensity

In today’s New York Times, Paul Krugman takes issue with what he calls our “degraded” politics:

We tend to think of the way things are now, with a huge army of lobbyists permanently camped in the corridors of power, with corporations prepared to unleash misleading ads and organize fake grass-roots protests against any legislation that threatens their bottom line, as the way it always was. But our corporate-cash-dominated system is a relatively recent creation, dating mainly from the late 1970s.

And now that this system exists, reform of any kind has become extremely difficult. That’s especially true for health care, where growing spending has made the vested interests far more powerful than they were in Nixon’s day. The health insurance industry, in particular, saw its premiums go from 1.5 percent of G.D.P. in 1970 to 5.5 percent in 2007, so that a once minor player has become a political behemoth, one that is currently spending $1.4 million a day lobbying Congress.

While it’s easy to attack lobbying, the arguments in its favor aren’t completely off the wall.  Individuals and organizations have a right to seek their interest in Congress.  And while the image we have of lobbyists is that of amoral guns-for-hire, there is no shortage of lobbying organizations that fight for things like more food stamp money or school funding in low-income districts.

So what’s the real problem with lobbying? Read more

Whatsamatta you?

Problem definition

During research for a paper on the motivations for radical Islamism, I came across some interesting sociological literature on the definition of social problems, that is, how societies and individuals come to declare activity as problematic.  This is relevant insofar as the analytical aspect of public philosophy generally follows some intuitive sense that there exists a “problem.”  It’s interesting to see what might be going on in our collective heads when we (as esteemed blog writers) or we (as a nation) select certain issues as worthy of concern and rigorous analysis.

According to the literature, social problems are defined and constructed when “normative expectations” are not met. Individuals and communities have expectations for what the world ought to look like and what they ought to achieve.  These expectations are informed by their ideals and identities.  Suppression of political dissent is defined as a problem in America, but much less so in, say, Singapore, due to differing ideals and expectations.  In their 1973 piece, “Social Problems, Problematic Situations, and Quasi-Theories,” John Hewitt and Peter Hall wrote that people define problems when they view a situation as “atypical, unlikely, inexplicable, technically inappropriate, unrealistic, or morally wrong.”  There is no such definition when the situation is viewed “as typical of its members, probable under the circumstances, applicable in the light of conditions, appropriate to the goals begin sought, realistic in its direction,  and morally within the norms.”

Read more

Death panels and democracy

Recent polling shows that nearly half of Americans believe in the “death panel” lie.  The national misinformation campaign on health care reform should really be considered a success given these poll numbers.  (50% also believed that the proposed health care reform would use government money to finance abortions!).  It is also notoriously difficult to correct public opinion once it has been formed.  Getting right to the point — given that outright lying about the facts of proposed legislation to the public is effective, is this sort of behavior endemic to democracy?

The 24 hour news cycle likely does not help, as incentives point to the need to fill airtime with talking points from both sides.  Further, for outlets like CNN that are vested in appearing balanced, there is apparently a compulsion to show both sides of a story, even if one side is a lie.  However, there is certainly an air of “it was better in my day” about blaming the current media.

I’ll take the stand that these sorts of political lies are likely to take hold due to two factors.  The first is confirmation bias — for example, well over half of self-identified Republicans believed the death panel farce.  Of course, the good news there is that the recipients of confirmation would likely have opposed health care reform to begin with, doing little to meaningfully change the political balance.

I’m afraid the second reason might be simple gullibility.

Can anyone make a compelling arguement for how political misinformation in a democracy can be controlled, or is it a permanant feature?


Who lives and who dies?

The emerging story about treatment (or non-treament) of Katrina victims shortly after the hurricane struck may become one of the moral epics of our time:

At a recent national conference for hospital disaster planners, Pou asked a question: “How long should health care workers have to be with patients who may not survive?” The story of Memorial Medical Center raises other questions: Which patients should get a share of limited resources, and who decides? What does it mean to do the greatest good for the greatest number, and does that end justify all means? Where is the line between appropriate comfort care and mercy killing? How, if at all, should doctors and nurses be held accountable for their actions in the most desperate of circumstances, especially when their government fails them?


Facts, values, and stem cells

Ronald Bailey at Reason Magazine insightfully criticizes Michael Peroski, of the Progressive Bioethics Initiative at the Center for American Progress, and his call for a “data-driven” as opposed to an “ideology-driven” President’s Council on Bioethics. Peroski writes:

Proceeding from ideology-driven inquiry entails starting from an answer: “Research on human embryonic stem cell should be forbidden because embryos are equivalent to human lives” and working backwards to a question: “Is research on human embryonic stem cells ethical?” Proceeding with data-driven inquiry means starting with the question: “Is embryonic stem cell research ethical?” and then taking the time to educate the public, gather information about public sentiment on the topic, carefully analyze the costs and benefits of proceeding with or prohibiting the research, and offering a pragmatic recommendation that takes all of these considerations into account.

Bailey correctly points out that Peroski is “basically begging the most important question rather than answering it,” specifically whether and to what extent embryos are indeed human beings.  Data and economists alone are incapable of determining the value of stem cell research.  Ethics cannot be about public polls and cost/benefit ratios only, even though those tools are quite useful.  I dicussed the limitations of this form of “pragmatism” here.


More on healthcare and choice

The healthcare onslaught continues!  Following up on yesterday’s post, here’s New York Times columnist David Leonhardt:

To be clear, the versions of reform now floating around Congress would do a lot of good. They would make it far easier for people without an employer plan to get health insurance and would make some modest attempts to nudge the health system away from its perverse fee-for-service model.

Yet they would not improve most people’s health care anytime soon. Giving people more control over their own care would. White House advisers, however, decided against that option long ago. They worried that opening up the insurance market would destabilize employer-provided insurance and make Mr. Obama’s plan vulnerable to the same criticism that undid Bill Clinton’s: that it was too radical.

Advocating for an open market approach to healthcare is not soley a conservative pursuit.


The Millenials and healthcare reform

Ryan Streeter wonders why the so-called Millienials, who seem to embrace a qualitatively “new” kind of individualism, don’t apply their emergent values to healthcare:

This raises perhaps the most important generational question of the current debate on healthcare in the United States. How is it that the people most accustomed to personal choice in every corner of life are the most supportive of the Obama plan, which reduces the role of individual choice? Or, another way of asking the question is, why don’t younger people demand more patient-centered healthcare reforms such as those proposed by the previous administration? A CNN survey earlier this month showed that while Americans are on the whole rather lukewarm on Obama’s healthcare proposal, a majority of young people support it. And a Gallup poll in July similarly showed that Americans aged 18-49 have a more favorable view of Obama’s proposal than older groups on every issue, from costs to quality to access.


(H/T: Daily Dish)

Releasing the terminally ill from prison

Last Thursday, the Scottish government released Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, on “compassionate grounds.”  El-Megrahi is terminally ill with prostate cancer and has only a few months to live.  His release has created an international uproar, especially following the hero’s reception he received upon return to Tripoli.  His situation raises an interesting normative question: should the terminally ill (or the very old) be released from prison in order to die at home? Read more

Health care and small government

Ed Kilgore explores the tensions surrounding conservative views on healthcare, comparing the arguement against government involvement in healthcare with congressional Republicans’ aggressive stance for intervention in the Terry Schiavo kerfuffle:

The abortion-euthanasia connection matters because the people promoting the “death panel” meme are not, in fact, opposed to government intervention in end-of-life decisions, any more than they are opposed to government intervention in a woman’s decision whether to carry a pregnancy to term. They simply want the intervention to follow their own absolutist views about human life…. It’s part and parcel of a political strategy aimed at denying that government can be neutral on “life,” and that decisions about “life” can be consigned to private decision-making.

Kilgore has indeed exposed a hypocrisy in the conservative argument against health care, but one wonders if anyone took that arguement seriously to begin with.


Be prepared

It’s the Scout motto, but does it matter in politics?

The New York Times reports that Obama has filled less than half of the positions requiring Senate confirmation:

Of more than 500 senior policymaking positions requiring Senate confirmation, just 43 percent have been filled – a reflection of a White House that grew more cautious after several nominations blew up last spring, a Senate that is intensively investigating nominees and a legislative agenda that has consumed both.

Usually, when these sorts of stats come out, most people clamor to attack or defend the process by which nominees are appointed.  The practical question of how quickly presidents are able to assemble an administration is undoubtedly paramount.  But is there also an ethical element at least worth considering?

Read more

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  • Editors

    Jacob Bronsther is a law student at NYU. He has an MPhil in Political Theory from Oxford.

  • Sam Gill is a consultant in DC. He studied Political Theory at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

  • Marc Grinberg is a Presidential Management Fellow. He studied Political Theory at Oxford.

  • John Rood is founder of Next Step Test Prep. He has an AM in Political Theory from Chicago.

  • Luke Freedman is studying Philosophy and Political Science at Carleton College.

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    Ethan Davison

    Han Li

    Charles Wang

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