On Crime and Concealed Carry in Chicago

Saw this today.


I’m glad that people in Chicago can now (barely) exercise the right to effective self defense, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves declaring this as a clear statistical win for concealed carry in deterring crime.

Interpreting stats is just as much about context as it is math. Speaking of context:


I would think getting to the bottom of what caused the 38% increase in 2012 might be helpful in interpreting what a 17% drop between 2012 and 2013 actually means. Until someone in the pro-gun community does that work I’ll take this news with a grain of salt, thanks.


On the Perceived Gender Wage Gap

Leaders on the left have decided they aren’t going to do well campaigning on Obamacare come November. So they’ve been highlighting other issues a lot lately in attempts to draw attention to something else- anything else- that might tip the scales in their favor.

Enter the gender wage gap. Democratic politicians and liberal pundits have been almost constant in reminding us of the fact that women make about 23% less than men when measured simply by comparing  the median income for men in the US vs. the median income for women in the US.

Those bringing up this statistic generally imply (or often outright state that) that this difference largely due to gender discrimination, and follow up by declaring that legislation is necessary to right this wrong.

But both of these assertions rest largely on logical or factual errors. The first violates the principle of ceteris paribus (all other things held equal) because there are a number of factors involved that are completely unrelated to discrimination, and this comparison accounts for none of them. Many of these boil down to the different choices men and women make for themselves. This makes legislation an unlikely solution for resolving most of the perceived gap, and makes the actual gap that may be related to discrimination much smaller. For reference, the Dept. Of Labor has studied this and has some pretty detailed information here.

So why does the left constantly drag out this tattered, irrelevant statistic to support further legislation on the issue?

In my opinion it is a terrible argument, but a brilliant game. Political strategy is often built more on what arguments feel like rather than how strong they are. Let’s think about the chain of events that follows when Democrats use the 23% stat to support Equal Pay legislation.

1) Democrats come out supporting Equal Pay legislation to appeal to female voters, and cite the 23% figure to support it.

2) Republicans/conservatives respond by saying the 23% figure is irrelevant BS with regard to the Equal Pay legislation.

3) If said Republicans/conservatives oppose the Equal Pay legislation, Democrats get to paint them as waging a “war on women.” For Republicans/conservatives that don’t oppose the legislation but critique the 23% figure, Democrats still have a sound byte that makes it seem like said Republicans/conservatives are opposed to the legislation and involved in “the war.”

4) Republicans/conservatives that attempt to debunk the 23% tend to follow up on this debunking with a statement of their own ideology regarding gender roles, the wage gap, etc. This gives them plenty of opportunities to say things that anyone with independent or liberal leanings (esp. women) are likely to disagree with, again bolstering the Democrat’s narrative about a Republican “war on women.”

Perhaps an example will be helpful in illuminating the extent of conservative self-harm on this issue.

Phyllis Schlafly did a rather decent job of eviscerating the 23% stat here: http://www.christianpost.com/news/facts-and-fallacies-about-paycheck-fairness-117959/

But she also, rather naively, played right into the liberal narrative by asserting some rather ridiculous things that are far more likely to alienate women voters than to convert them.

Below are my thoughts on 4 of her main points (some of them paraphrased.)

1. The 23% pay gap is a worthless figure that compares apples and oranges by doing nothing to explore factors outside of discrimination (like choices men and women make) that could affect the gap in median income between men and women.

TRUE, although known, quantifiable, non-discriminatory factors don’t explain the entire gap. There could still be a problematic pay gap, and ignoring this makes her seem either clueless or calloused, neither of which is helpful if women’s votes are important to conservatives.

2. “The pay gap between men and women is not all bad because it helps to promote and sustain marriages.”

NON-SEQUITUR. This is simply a statement of her ideological position- it doesn’t follow from her earlier arguments. It’s a short-sighted position that looks only to the continued existence of marriage as good and ignores two facts: 1) that some marriages are unhealthy and even abusive, and 2) a large pay gap between husband and wife in these situations tends to perpetuate these problematic marriages, too. I don’t think it’s clear that this is a good thing.

3. “The real economic story of the past 30 years is that women’s pay has effectively risen to virtual parity, but men’s pay has stagnated and thousands of well-paid blue-collar jobs have been shipped to low-wage countries.”

MOSTLY TRUE but stated incompletely. It would be more accurate to state as follows: The real economic story of the past 30 years is that women’s pay has risen closer to parity, partially due to choices women have made regarding the relative priority of career and raising families, and partially because men’s pay has stagnated- a stagnation that is partially due to well-paid blue-collar jobs being shipped to low-wage countries.

4. “The best way to improve economic prospects for women is to improve job prospects for the men in their lives, even if that means increasing the so-called pay gap.”

PARTIALLY TRUE and partially contradicted by the logic of one of her other statements- “Since husband and wife generally pool their incomes into a single economic unit, what really matters is the combined family income, not the pay gap between them.”

It’s true that improving job prospects for men can improve their combined family income, but so can improving job prospects for women. More data would be needed to make more than an ideological statement about which would actually be “best” or most effective.

It follows from this that the pay gap between a couple is not a good indicator of their economic well-being, which somewhat supports Schlafly’s skepticism of its relevance.

However, whether or not increasing the job prospects for men would increase the economic prospects for their female partners would depend heavily on whether they have a healthy relationship. Increasing the job prospects for women would directly improve their economic prospects, and this benefit would be less dependent on their relationship being healthy, something Schlafly’s viewpoint seems to completely miss.

In conclusion, conservative commentators like Schlafly should be more careful in how they frame their arguments if they care about convincing others to the validity of their positions half as much as they care about reinforcing groupthink in their own ranks.

In the same vein, Republican politicians and spokespersons should also think this issue through a lot more before they jump to debunk the 23% or address the wage gap issue in general. In fact, given how much political ground Republicans have lost among women, I honestly wonder if they would be better off just voting to approve whatever marginally relevant legislation or policy the Democrats want to put forth to “fix” the wage gap, therefore making this a non-issue politically. This would force Democrats to pull out other cards to reinforce their narrative about a Republican “war on women”.

But successfully playing that strategy would require Republicans to think through issues like abortion a bit more thoroughly. I actually think abortion could be a winning issue for Republicans, but only if they form a position that is well thought out, easy to articulate, and that more closely reflects public sentiment on the issue. If only that weren’t so hard to do.

On poorly interpreting stats to fit one’s narrative about poverty

Ok.  I’ve seen way to many articles and blog posts lately where people utterly fail at interpreting data accurately. Apparently, the recipe for interpreting good data poorly isn’t much of a secret. If you want to jumpstart your efforts in doing so, simply 1) assume you already know what the data will tell you, or 2) ask the wrong question(s), or both.

The observed correlation between race and poverty is a good example. Let’s ask two questions.

1) What race of people are at the highest risk of being in poverty? Blacks and Hispanics.
2) What race is a typical person in poverty? White.

Most people tend to ask only one of these questions, usually depending on their general political/ideological point of view, and the answer to one or the other is likely to surprise most people. How can both be true at once? This is possible because there are significantly more White people in the U.S. than people of any other race. So if you pick a random person living in poverty they are more likely to be White than any other race. But Blacks and Latinos are at a higher risk of being in poverty statistically. So if you randomly pick any Black or Latino in the U.S., they are more likely to live in poverty than any randomly selected White or Asian.

So asking only one of the above questions would result in an incomplete picture. However, it’s important to keep in mind why we’re asking these questions in the first place. Are we looking to place blame? Prove superiority/inferiority of a group of people? I would submit that such activities are not worthy of the attention of thinking people. Nor do I think that statistics would be an effective vehicle for analyzing such things anyway. Assuming that anything at all should be done by government or by communities to combat poverty, our goal should be to identify the kinds programs and policies that might be the most effective in doing so. This means understanding risk (i.e. rates) more than flat numbers, because a policy that can be aimed at a smaller, higher risk population is more likely to be implemented properly and to have significant impact than a policy aimed at a larger population, a low risk population, or both. Understanding risk is not about placing blame, but rather about targeting finite attention and resources to those who need it most.

Speaking of poverty and stats, today I’ll award the honor of detailed critique to Erika Eichelberger of Mother Jones, for grouping together so many problematic/poorly supported opinions in one post supposedly denouncing myths about poverty. Some of her assertions may be true, but there are serious issues with at least a few of them.

Let’s look at some of Erika Eichelberg’s “busted myths.” (I’ve kept her original numbering to make cross-referencing easy.)

6. “Go to college, get out of poverty  [is a myth]”.

First, claiming this is a myth is ridiculous, and Eichelberger backs it up with the weakest kind of stat- a flat number that gives no clue as to the rate of college educated people in poverty, and provides no ability to compare this to the rate of those without a college degree in poverty.

Second, this contradicts general trends regarding educational attainment and earning levels: https://www.census.gov/prod/2002pubs/p23-210.pdf.

Third, not all degrees are equal. Someone that goes to “I smoke pot all day University” and gets a degree in Communications without doing any work does not have the same market value as someone that goes to a good school, studies hard, and graduates with a degree in a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematical field. The US Census captures data on work-life earnings, and it is quite clear that not all degrees are created equal from the standpoint of earning potential. http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/acsbr11-04.pdf.

1. “Single moms are the problem [is a myth]”.

First, saying single moms “are the problem” is indeed a mistake – it places the blame on the single mothers themselves, which does not necessarily follow from the data and is unhelpful. However, it IS true that female householders with no husband present and children under 18 experience poverty at 4 time the rate of married couples with kids under 18, and 2 times the rate of male householders with no wife present and kids under 18. And when comparing among female householders with no husband present and kids under 18, Hispanics and Blacks are again at a higher risk  of poverty than Whites and Asians. This makes Eichelberger’s “myth” busting inaccurate. http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/historical/hstpov4.xls

Second, lacking this larger context, Eichelberger fails to understand what her own quoted stats actually mean. She says “Only 9 percent of low-income, urban moms have been single throughout their child’s first five years. Thirty-five percent were married to, or in a relationship with, the child’s father for that entire time.” But if 35% of urban moms were married to, or in a relationship with the child’s father the entire time, that means that 65% weren’t! That’s hardly insignificant.

What’s more, Eichelberger seems to think these stats make the situation better than we might otherwise think for single mothers. But it’s more likely that the problem of poverty is worse for single mothers than we think, not better. The Census data I point to above looks specifically at marital status, i.e. “female householder without husband present and with children under 18.” This would completely miss the presence of unmarried fathers, who would most likely be invisibly lumped into the “female householder with no husband present” category. If the Census data instead captured “female householders without husband or unmarried male cohabitant present, and with children under 18 present”, truly measuring single mothers, the measured poverty rate for this group is likely to be worse than the data captured by Census that ignoring live-in boyfriends – not better!

2. “Absent dads are the problem [is a myth]”/3. “Black fathers are the problem [is a myth]”.

First, again, calling people “the problem” is pejorative and unnecessary, so Eichelberger appears to take opposing arguments in their worst light – something that should generally be avoided when attempting a critique. A better question is whether the absence of fathers tends to contribute to the prevalence of poverty in the lives of their kids and their children’s mother. Additionally, recognizing whether there is a trend of fathers living apart from their children at a higher rate among some demographics compared to others, that could help focus efforts on communities of people that are at higher risk. This is the context under which race might be relevant.

Strictly speaking, whether a father lives apart from his kids and/or is less involved in his kid’s daily lives is only indirectly related to whether his kids live in poverty in the present. Whether he provides monetary support is the primary question, and nothing Eichelberger raises addresses that question. His level of involvement now may affect the poverty level of his children in adulthood, but that’s not addressed here, either. It’s likely that most perpetuations of this “myth” fail to address this point directly, to, but looking solely at Eichelberger’s article we can’t tell that. But she does nothing to contradict a narrative that absent fathers support their children less, which makes this “myth” still un-busted.

Second, if unmarried mothers tend to live in poverty at higher rates than any other kind of household (despite the fact that some of them have live-in boyfriends), does it not follow that absent dads likely contribute to the problem? This certainly seems common sense, although it would take more specific data to establish this. See below.

Third, the CDC study  Eichelberger cites elsewhere appears to contradict her assertions on how involved dads that live apart from their kids really are. She references work by Dr. Laura Tach at Cornell University to support saying that 60% of dads that live apart from their kids see their kids daily, but this apparently doesn’t translate into involvement in any of the following activities, as the CDC study’s numbers for daily involvement in each activity studied are much lower.

Chart 1.) Level of paternal involvement by activity and race for fathers that live apart from their kids

Percentage of fathers that live apart from their kids that engage with their kids daily, by activity and race

So her position that absent fathers stay involved significantly in their children’s lives doesn’t really hold water, at least as far as the activities the CDC measured. This is particularly true when comparing how involved fathers are when they live with their kids vs when they don’t (compare Charts 2 and 3 below.)

Chart 2.) Level of paternal involvement by activity and race, for kids under 5, when the father lives with his kids

Paternal involvement by activity and race, under 5, father lives with kids

Chart 3.) Level of paternal involvement by activity and race, for kids under 5, when the father lives elsewhere

Paternal involvement by activity and race, under 5, father lives elsewhere

Fourth, while Eichelberger is correct in asserting that Black fathers in the same living situation do tend to be more involved in their kid’s lives than White fathers- both Eichelberger and the CDC authors miss the point when they stop there. Black fathers live apart from their kids almost 3 times as often as White fathers, and statistically, whether or not a father lives with his kids is the most significant predictor of his level of involvement with his children: http://www.census.gov/hhes/families/files/cps2013/tabH3.xls.

Chart 4.) Percentage of kids whose fathers live elsewhere, by race

Kids with father that lives apart

Below (Chart 5) is the result if we take both living arrangements and involvement levels for each activity given each living arrangement into account. Comparing these results with those in charts 2 and 3 gives a pretty stark picture of the impact that a father living apart from his kids is likely to have on his involvement in their lives.

Chart 5.) Total level of paternal involvement by activity and race for kids under 5

Total paternal involvement by activity and race, under 5

Looking at this data we have no visibility into the level of significant correlation between a father’s living situation and his involvement in monetarily supporting his kids. But we can see that to whatever extent a lack of paternal involvement adversely affects children, Black children are likely to be affected the most, not the least. This runs counter to Eichelberger’s viewpoint based on a narrower view of the stats. It also runs counter to the conclusions of the CDC study’s authors and to the rather one-dimensional interpretation of the same CDC study attempted by Tara Culp-Ressler at Think Progress.

In the case of Black men that have heard the stereotype about Black men being poor fathers, the CDC study offers a hopeful counter to this, showing that Black fathers tend to be more involved than others when compared within the same living situation. But the bottom line for fathers is that the single biggest thing they can do to stay involved in their kid’s lives is to stay living with them. And this should be especially take to heart within the Black community as the prevalence of fathers living apart from their children is significantly higher among Blacks than among Whites (or even Latinos.)

In conclusion

Eichelberger demonstrates enough of carelessness and lack of relevant knowledge in addressing these 4 “myths” that taking the rest of her post with a huge grain of salt (or simply ignoring it) would be more prudent than taking it at face value. A well-tuned B.S. meter is a must in our world of 24 hour news and highly productive “news” channels, sites, and blogs that spout opinion more plentifully than facts. Working on this kind of critique certainly helps me calibrate my B.S. meter. I hope it does the same for my readers.

On making progress with issues of race in this country

Mark J. Perry of the American Enterprise Institute had a very interesting Quotation of the Day piece today, drawing attention to (and quoting entirely from Jason Riley’s Wall Street Journal op-ed.  Riley concludes with a quote from the most central figure of the non-violent civil rights movement in the 1960’s in America – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Do you know that Negroes are 10 percent of the population of St. Louis and are responsible for 58% of its crimes? We’ve got to face that. And we’ve got to do something about our moral standards. We know that there are many things wrong in the white world, but there are many things wrong in the black world, too. We can’t keep on blaming the white man. There are things we must do for ourselves.”

Riley isn’t entirely wrong on the facts here, nor is Perry entirely misguided in bringing this up, but I think Riley’s argument is one-sided and incomplete.

Regarding the statistic that Dr. King mentioned about St. Louis – it really hasn’t changed all that much in the last 50 years. If anything, the percentage of crime in St. Louis involving blacks has likely RISEN since 1961. Some of this is no doubt directly due to arrests related to the war on drugs, which has led to a massively lopsided rate of incarceration between blacks and whites, high rates of recidivism, etc. Arrest rates and incarceration rates do not necessarily reflect the proportion of those actually committing crimes- just those that got caught. (Incidentally, the extent to which our prison system turns non-violent offenders into violent ones is one of the major reasons why I think the war on drugs needs to be seriously reviewed and reformed, if not dumped entirely.)

The extent to which differing arrest rates between whites and blacks could demonstrate racial bias is not likely to be significant enough to overshadow some of what we know- that we haven’t been making progress on this front. For instance, according to CDC data, in 2010, 77% of murder victims in St. Louis were black. FBI UCR data from 2010 showing that in homicides with black victims, roughly 90% were killed by another black person. Thus, assuming national data is at least a decent proxy for victim/offender relationships in St. Louis, that means an estimated 69% of homicides in St. Louis in 2010 were likely black on black. That would leave approximately 8% of St. Louis homicides in 2010 being blacks killed by other races, and the remaining 33% being comprised of white and other non-black victims being killed (in the case of whites, mostly by whites- as at a national level only 13% of homicides with white victims were committed by blacks. The stats for “other races” [the FBI’s designation, not mine] are small enough that it’s hard to estimate accurately.)

So any way you slice it, we still have a huge problem with crime in this country, particularly among the black community.

So what does all of this mean?

At this point I could really start to take one of two well-worn paths in trying to address this.

On the one hand, I could take the path Riley chose (the one Perry highlighted), and try to use these statistics to talk about what’s wrong with the black world, pointing my finger as a white man and claiming this is “all a problem of their own making.”

On the other hand, I could choose to use these statistics as proof positive that there’s still so much wrong with the white world, and that this has perpetuated the problems originally created by our history of slavery, segregation, and disenfranchisement of the black community.

But instead I’m going to take a step back from this and recognize the wisdom of Dr. King’s perspective. He did not declare blacks as innocent victims or whites as innocent bystanders. He did not declare blacks or whites as the sole cause of all the challenges faced by the black community. He recognized the underlying truth that this was not (and is not) an “either/or” problem.

If we’re going to find a way to decrease crime and increase the quality of life amongst people of color in this country, we’re going to need to take a “both/and” approach. We need to have leaders in our communities that will encourage people to take responsibility and work proactively to address the issues in their own community. And we need to have leaders in our communities that will recognize systematic problems instead of ignoring them, and work with leaders of other communities to form friendships and solve these systematic problems that are larger than any one community.

A quick thought experiment

Let’s imagine, for instance, going through a pile of transcripts from sermons preached at churches that are primarily made up of a single race. Imagine reading one sermon about “white privilege” and “social responsibility.” Imagine reading another sermon about “personal responsibility.” If I were to give you a mix and match quiz where you had to identify which sermon came from a predominantly black church and which came from a predominantly white church, I bet I could predict your responses.

Of course, the very nature of this experiment is perpetuating a stereotype to some extent. But I’m not trying to say that all black churches are fixated on “white privilege” and that all white churches ignore it. Rather, I’m asking serious questions about those churches that do fit into one of these two categories, because I think there is room for both of them to reflect and grow. I actually think that these two kinds of churches are doing our communities more harm than good. And so I must raise an interesting question about the audience to whom a sermon is preached, especially since a sermon is essentially a call to action.

As a call to action, I have to ask – to what action is a pastor at a predominantly black church calling his congregation when preaching a sermon about “white privilege”? Bitterness? Protectionism? Hatred? They would do well to realize the folly in this when they should be creating a congregation of ambassadors for Christ.

And yes, to what action is a pastor at a predominantly white church calling his congregation when either ignoring issues of race, or addressing issues of race with a focus on “personal responsibility”? Work harder for your own good? You’re not your brother’s keeper? They should recognize that “personal responsibility” is not a concept that functions best as a weapon used to judge others. It requires hard work from all people, and in the kingdom of God, “social responsibility” is part of taking “personal responsibility.”

So. What if all pastors at predominantly black churches in America started preaching more about “personal responsibility” than about “white privilege” and “social responsibility”? And all pastors at predominantly white churches in America started preaching more about “white privilege” and “social responsibility” than “personal responsibility”?

This is a question worthy of some serious reflection, although my own take is that this would create its own problems, as focusing on any of these in exclusion of the others is an incomplete and distorted view.

Thus, my own challenges to pastors and community leaders throughout this country are to:

  • Remember that “white privilege”, “social responsibility”, and “personal responsibility” are all very important concepts when discussing issues about race, equality, etc., and that highlighting one of these concepts while ignoring the others is neither accurate nor ultimately constructive
  • Consider your audience and the actions to which you are calling them
  • Consider how best to work with those of other races, cultures, etc., and extend an invitation to them to be a part of your broader community
  • Encourage people in your community or congregation to interact with others – to be interested in other’s stories and truly LISTEN

And my challenge to each of us: the next time you hear a narrative that puts the blame for our current situation solely on the black world or the white world, remember the wisdom of Dr. King and recognize that even if that narrative is well thought out and based in facts, it is only telling part of the story.

On Narrative Induced Blindness

Narrative is a powerful thing. In fact, I would argue that narrative is one of the most important parts of our formation as people. The narratives we are exposed to, and especially those we accept, affect the way the see the world, the way we communicate with others, and the way each of us attempts to understand complicated and controversial issues.

Writ large, narrative is grandiose. It is imbued with history, with experience, with life. From 10,000 feet, narrative is a story about who we are. A story about how we came to be here. A story about our history as a nation. As men and women. Mothers and fathers; sons and daughters. Whites and Blacks and Hispanics and Asians and Native Americans.

Understanding these larger narratives is vital to understanding when perspectives differ on a particular issue or event. It is vital in helping us take a step back so we can examine the parapets we’ve grown so used to- the paradigms we’ve used to define who we are. In fact, understanding these larger narratives, perspectives, and paradigms and the way they form our communications and thoughts is the most important step in learning to think critically about current events, politics, and religion (let alone something as mundane as interpersonal communication.)

When a story breaks in current events, those with different worldviews draw upon their experience, their understanding, and their paradigm to craft a response- taking what they have learned of the facts and forming a narrative that is designed to help people understand what has happened.

Nowhere in recent current events have the concepts of narrative, perspective, and paradigm come into such stark relief for me as with the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent State of Florida v Zimmerman trial this last few weeks.

Those who identified with a narrative similar to Trayvon Martin’s largely allowed their paradigm to instantaneously form the perception that Trayvon Martin was an innocent teenager who was profiled by a racist and overzealous George Zimmerman, and that Zimmerman was let off easy by the racist Sanford Police because he was White (White-Hispanic, but who’s counting?)

Those who identified with a narrative similar to George Zimmerman largely allowed their paradigm to instantaneously form the perception that George Zimmerman was just a normal guy trying to keep his neighborhood safe, and that, as he described in his own recorded testimony, he was attacked by a thuggish Trayvon Martin, brutally beaten, and used his legally owned/carried firearm to defend himself as a last resort. And, of course, George Zimmerman was then subjected to a racialized witch-hunt fueled by race-baiters and Eric Holder’s Department of Justice, and railroaded into court to face murder charges.

But walking into the courtroom with either of these narratives embedded deeply in our hearts and minds does not help us get closer to the truth. It does not provide any utility in helping us analyze the evidence and come to a reasoned opinion based on the charges made, the evidence presented, and the burden of proof required. I can only imagine what the jury must be facing with this case right now.

So as we’re nearing the end of the trial I think it only appropriate to ask those convinced of both sides on this case to re-examine their own narrative, their own paradigm, and the way that their story affects the way they perceived this case. They way they perceive current events in general. This is an especially important exercise in the early hours/days after a new story breaks, when the information that is released is often incomplete and inconsistent. It is also especially important in forming our own responses to the verdict the jury delivers in this particular case – whatever that verdict happens to be.

This is not a plea for people to give up on their convictions, but to become self-aware enough to know how their own story has affected their perceptions, to respond honestly according to their convictions in the light of this self-awareness, and to recognize the importance and validity of those whose narrative looks very different, even in the midst of raw feelings and vehement disagreement.

We’ve all heard it said that “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But relations between those of different races/classes/cultures/narratives is different – more like tending a garden. In a very real sense, when we aren’t working to actively to strengthen relations between groups with differing narratives, when we become content with allowing our narratives to proceed independently without an understanding of the narratives of others, our relations slowly begin to die. When leaders and individuals in our various communities stop pulling weeds, stop fertilizing, stop watering, stop pruning, this diverse garden of multi-cultural America begins to suffer.

My hope is that we can all learn to live with one hand ready to pull weeds and the other hand ready to water.

On the growing problem of healthcare

Sometimes the simple thoughts are the best when first approaching an issue. For me, healthcare is a perfect example.

Right now, pundits and advocates across the nation are continuing to tell the American people one of two stories: 1) The Affordable Care Act is a great solution to the problems we face with our current system of healthcare, or 2) Obamacare will destroy our economy and our nation.


My response, at it’s most basic, is to offer a few simple thoughts:

First, an intelligent approach to this problem recognizes two truths

  • Obamacare is a huge, overcomplicated bill that will cause massive turmoil in the healthcare industry, is proving hard to implement, and will likely drive up healthcare costs for many people
  • Dumping Obamacare and doing nothing to reform our existing situation is not a real option

Regarding this first point, there are a few simple reasons why overcomplicated bills make bad policy. Take a quick stroll through the search results you get when looking for “The law of unintended consequences” and “Ockham’s Razor”, for instance. Simply put, overcomplicated solutions tend to inject too much change into already complex systems, causing massive disruption and unintended consequences. Simpler solutions are easier to implement, easier to analyze, and easier to tweak if needed. Obamacare is far from simple.

Regarding the second point, it has consistently boggled my mind that Republicans in Congress have done little to provide a comprehensive alternative reform in a unified fashion. They’ve spent so much time fighting for “not Obamacare” that they’ve forgotten the fundamentals of persuasion. It is much easier to persuade people to support your plans if you give them a vision of what you’re trying to do- a vision of how your plans would work. Showing people how Obamacare won’t work only solidifies the opinions that already believe that to be the case- it won’t help win over those who disagree.

Second, healthcare is not the kind of problem where a one-size-fits all solution is likely to work well, because it is not a homogenous problem. While we might be attempted to take a simple approach for the sake of simplicity itself, it’s equally good to understand when your solution to a problem is too simple. The best balance is to have a solution whose complexities are designed to deal with the complexities of the problem, rather than creating additional complexity that is irrelevant.

So a proper approach to healthcare would be best constructed by looking at the various situations that a healthcare policy is meant to address. The best solution for funding each kind of care could be very different.

  • General/preventative care
  • Emergency care
  • Elective care
  • Long-term care
  • Catastrophic care
  • End-of-Life care

It’s also important to recognize the need to absorb various other costs:

  • The cost of social safety net care
  • The cost of R&D for devices and pharmaceuticals
  • The cost of facilities
  • The cost of skilled labor

Looking at health care in this way, it is easy to see how different approaches might work better than others in various care situations.

Take, for instance, a free-market approach, where allowing competition between providers (and even insurance companies) would theoretically drive consumer choice and therefore bring down the costs of care. This would arguably work better in some situations, like general or preventative care, elective care, etc., where a patient really could use cost as one of their criteria in choosing a physician, and where having a system where costs could be known beforehand by patients would be desired. But it would be a terrible model for trying to deal with emergency care, since emergency care, by definition, is driven out of time-critical necessity. Generally speaking, the emergency care provider that is closest, or is on the street people pass by the most, or that advertises the best in effective mediums is the one that people choose in emergency situations. The care is desired regardless of the cost.

In fact, emergency care is a good example where a single-payer approach might be much more effective at providing quality care at reasonable costs than a complicated system of third-party insurance providers like we have currently. But limiting catastrophic care options to a single-payer system could very well limit the options cancer patients have for care, for instance, because most single-payer plans entail a long drawn out bureaucratic process for identifying approved treatments, both from the perspective of cost, and from the perspective that regulations tend to move more slowly than science.

Thus, it is fairly easy to see from a few simple examples, that a one-approach-fits-all-kinds-of-care healthcare policy is unlikely to work well at either providing quality care, or at mitigating costs. I would love to see a well thought out proposal from policy-makers that takes this kind of approach into account. How about you?

On properly measuring the size of government (2 of 5)

In my previous post I argued that measuring government spending as a percentage of GDP is of limited utility when trying to grasp the true scale of government spending over time.

So what do I think is a better measure? The amount the government has historically spent per capita.

This has significant advantages over measuring government spending as a percentage of GDP, giving us a much clearer idea of the extent to which government spending has increased. It also gives us a better method of measuring the value produced by the government on behalf of each citizen.

Here is how much we’ve spent per person to fund the government, measured each decade since 1950. (And yes, these numbers are adjusted for inflation so we’re not just watching a chart showing the devaluation of the dollar over time.)

5 Growth in Government Spending Per Capita

For those that can’t understand why fiscal conservatives grumble endlessly about out of control government spending and are used to looking at charts based on spend as a percentage of GDP, I hope this is a bit of an eye opener.

To give you an idea of how much spending has accelerated over the years, let’s take another look- growth in spending (in billions) and growth in population (in millions.)

Please note- showing spending in billions and population in millions was done to enable a comparative look at the rate of growth we’ve seen in both spending and population by comparing the slopes. Visual comparisons of actual values should not be made without recognizing that the population numbers appear 1000x bigger than they really are.

4 Growth in Government Spend vs Growth in Population

Between 1950 and 2010 our population has doubled, while our government spending has grown at an increasing rate and is currently 10 times the amount we spent in 1950. Again, the spending numbers are adjusted for inflation.

Conservatives are likely to find this even more alarming than they’d previously thought. My hope is that liberals will consider this thoroughly and perhaps even come to admit this might be a problem. One can hope.

Given our current debate over the merits of increasing taxes vs. cutting spending I think this gives clear indication of where the majority of our deficit reduction efforts should focus. However, without looking in detail at the type of government spending that has exploded over time, we wouldn’t know where best to focus our cost cutting efforts. In part 3 I’ll start to look at the different major categories of spending and compare how much they’ve each expanded.

Part 3 will be up shortly…