Saturday, March 19, 2011

Consolidating Blogs

I have consolidated this blog into my other blog and all previous posts are now available at:

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Frayed Social Safety Net

For some, the recent election is indicative of the confusion many Americans feel about government. On one hand, Americans who voted were most concerned about jobs and the economy. On the other, the big gains for Republicans are unlikely to lead to policy changes that would either stimulate the economy or help those in most need of assistance due to their continued joblessness.

Repairing the U.S. Social Safety Net by Martha Burt and Demetra Nightingale does an excellent job highlighting the current state of U.S. social safety net policy, as well as its origins. It also does a nice job highlighting that, despite complaints about how large it is, the U.S. social safety net is woefully inadequate when it comes to supporting the American people. The authors note that in comparison to other countries, U.S. social indicators (such a infant mortality rate, poverty rates, and housing needs) are much worse, in large part due to our weak social safety net.

The book is an approachable and engaging discussion of key issues of public policy and well worth a read.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

No Better Time Than the Present

The surprising release of Aung San Suu Kyi reminded me of a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice
At times I am skeptical of the idea expressed in this quote. However, moments like this make you at least hopeful that it could be true. We also recently watched Burma VJ, a great documentary about the 2007 protests against the military junta in Burma. The documentary focused on a small group of journalists that continually risked their lives to capture and share photos and videos of what was going on in Burma. Their struggle to tell the story of the Burmese people highlighted the importance of an engaged citizenry. The excitement in their voices as mass crowds turned out to support the marching Buddhist monks was infectious.

Such moments are rare in U.S. politics and it can be easy to become apathetic and cynical about democracy and our place in it. However, we need to recognize that, around the world, billions of people are struggling for their right to representation. Democracy cannot function well without constant support and engagement with the people. Even small steps, like voting, help ensure the accountability of your government. And if you feel like your vote doesn't count, think back to the constant struggles throughout U.S. history to extend the vote to different groups. If everyone who thought their vote didn't matter actually voted...well, lets just say it would count.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Social Determinants of Health

I am nearly finished reading Successful Societies: How Institutions and Culture Affect Health and couldn't be happier with the state of research on the social determinants of health. While my work focuses more on health care, I am pleased to see this field progressing so quickly. Public policy which references the social determinants of health is likely years away in the U.S. (though it is beginning to gain traction in some European countries). However, I am definitely beginning to see it filter through discussions of health care policy. Most people recognize that the recent health reform law signed into law by President Obama is really more of a health insurance reform. The law creates a system where more Americans will be insured but it doesn't constrain the excesses of the insurance industry other than to prevent them from doing particularly deplorable things, like refusing to pay for cancer treatment because someone underestimated their weight when they first applied for coverage.

A recent post highlights the continuing danger the insurance industry poses as the law begins to be implemented. Not surprisingly, insurance companies are working to purchase legislators who will be favorable to their profiteering. This was one of the reasons that many people felt that any health reform should further limit the power of these insurers. In some other high-income countries you still have insurance companies through which care is rendered. Such a system can work as it has in the Netherlands and Germany. However, when these companies are singularly focused on profit and not on providing the best care for their clients, it is difficult to not wish for further regulations.

Also, the Commonwealth Fund recently released a fascinating (if not surprising) report which highlights how the U.S. health and health care system is doing in relation to other high income countries for which comparable data is available. The results are not good. The U.S. is in the bottom 2-3 (out of 7 countries) for nearly all of the measures and only on two does it make the top 4. All of this despite the U.S. having the most expensive health care system in the world. However, the authors of the report are optimistic that some of the measures in the recent health reform bill may give the U.S. better results over time.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Only in Theory

A recent editorial in the WSJ lays out the overly simplistic rhetoric that some economists use to criticize those with a more complex world-view.

The piece claims to highlight that "liberals" and "progressives" are woefully ignorant of basic economic principles. The article highlights the eight measures used in the survey:
The other questions were: 1) Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services (unenlightened answer: disagree). 2) Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago (unenlightened answer: disagree). 3) Rent control leads to housing shortages (unenlightened answer: disagree). 4) A company with the largest market share is a monopoly (unenlightened answer: agree). 5) Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited (unenlightened answer: agree). 6) Free trade leads to unemployment (unenlightened answer: agree). 7) Minimum wage laws raise unemployment (unenlightened answer: disagree). 8) Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable (unenlightened answer: disagree)
What the author clearly fails to understand is how overly simplistic these examples are. His use of the term "unenlightened" further shows the author's inability to comprehend that someone may not simply agree with these supposed truisms from Economics 101. However, the true story behind many of these statements is more come complex when you look at them empirically (as opposed to pretending that theoretical understanding plays out perfectly in the real world). Those familiar with the actual empirical literature on minimum wages know that the simple assertion of #7 is simply unfounded. Unemployment is a complex issue and to pretend that it is so largely affected by one factor just highlights how out of touch many in the field of economics are with reality.

Also, anyone familiar with survey methodology can identify poor question design and vague wording in many of the suppositions posed to the interviewees. The question don't ask whether these assertions are "correct according to economic theory." Were that the case, it is likely that many would answer differently (I know I would); and then you could only say that progressives and liberals didn't understand economic theory (something very different from economic reality). The survey questions also make widely unfounded suppositions -- for example, that there is something called "free trade" that exists outside of the minds of economists.

Finally, the questions fail to highlight that the benefits of many of these measures outweigh the theoretical negatives highlighted in the statements. Were it always true that mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services, then such an increase is a minor problem in comparison to having various unlicensed pseudo-professionals posing as actual professionals in a given field. To claim that simply disagreeing with such a simplistic statement in any way impugns the intervieweree is absurd to say the least.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Modern Day Jim Crow

The recent noxious immigration law in Arizona highlights many of the problems of the immigration debate. The measure, as has been the case for measures like it, will not serve to reduce crime or improve living conditions in Arizona. It will simply serve to further marginalize undocumented workers, making it even easier for coyotes and unethical companies to exploit them.

Further, by requiring ALL immigrants to carry around their papers, it strikes an eerily similar tone to precursors to violence in other countries which have marked certain populations as dangerous and attempted to create a parallel system for their treatment. Police are emboldened to stop anyone perceived as being an undocumented immigrant and demanding to see their paperwork. As you can imagine, there are clear racial and ethical undertones in such a law.

A more sane and just approach to immigration is needed, and the Obama administration must be pushed into taking the lead. It is a positive development that the Justice Department has promised to be vigilant as this law begins to be enforced over the next few months.

Anyone interested in the causes of this controversy and workable solutions would be advised to check out one or all of the following:
"They Take Our Jobs!" and 20 Other Myths About Immigration by Aviva Chomsky
Ex-Mex: From Migrants to Immigrants by Jorge Caste├▒eda
The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border by David Bacon

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Next Up: Immigration Reform

With health reform all but passed, many are now advocating that Obama and Congress turn to immigration reform. Immigration reform was something discussed under the previous administration mostly as a way to drum up fears among their xenophobic base. Little to no substantive action was taken, other than the ill-conceived border fence. As I have discussed previously on this blog, immigration reform is necessary and long past due. Until we have a more coherent and humane immigration policy, we will continue to have undocumented workers toil in the shadows, exploited and neglected. These estimated 11 million people do many jobs we could not live without. While none of the proposed solutions are perfect, weighing the pros and cons of each of them and carrying out the best available one should be our focus now. Some sort of amnesty program that sets a cut-off date in the past and provides documentation seems to be one of the most reasonable approaches. Critics argue that a problem with this approach is that it neglects those who tried to immigrate legally. However, this can be rectified by granting visas to these people as well.

In order to properly address immigration reform, trade reform also has to be discussed. Many of the forces driving undocumented workers to the U.S. are a result of trade practices that allow subsidized American industries to dump products on countries at prices that unsubsidized local industries cannot compete with. This hurts the importing country in the long run by making it impossible to keep up the infrastructure that is required to run these industries. Grievances filed by these countries with the WTO, even if won, are often ignored by the United States. Also, the series of bilateral trade agreements negotiated in the past two decades have put most of our smaller trading partners at a significant disadvantage. U.S. negotiators were able to impose their influence on smaller countries that lacked the ability to push for more fair provisions. Often specific industries were given special benefits, while the overall agreement hurt far more producers in that country.