...Archive for September 2020

Universalism and means-testing

Meagan Day points out, correctly, that the pandemic experience has buttressed the case for universalism over means-tested programs:

When eligibility for benefits is conditional, all kinds of bad things happen, ranging from the intentional exclusion of whole (usually maligned and disempowered) demographics to huge numbers of otherwise-eligible people tripping over red tape and falling through the cracks. Another major problem with means testing is political: so long as there’s an income threshold, austerity-minded politicians will always try to lower it, leaving more people out as time goes on. In other words, targeted social programs make easy targets.

Part of the architecture of capitalism is that truly wealthy people are a tiny minority of the population, and the focus on whether this minority gets a minor boost out of a universal program that would bring stability, security, and prosperity to the vast majority (and would be paid for by progressive taxes) has always been a distraction.

Max Sawicky (with whom this blog has tangled on universalism before) responds. In my view Sawicky is far from persuasive:

Means-tested benefits are said to limit eligibility and leave many needy behind, unlike ‘universal benefits.’ Unfortunately, there is no really existing universal benefit that remedies this problem, so we are committing the basic fallacy of criticizing an existing program by comparison to an idealized alternative. There is no reason a benefit founded on a means-testing formula could not be provided to anyone you might like.

The real rationale for means-testing is not that it deprives the unworthy of assistance. That is a straw man often deployed by the less progressive among us. It is that for any sub-group of the population, a means-tested program will be cheaper, or for any given amount of money, it can provide more assistance than a universal one. Advocates for universal benefits must compete with equally righteous left advocates for other types of spending. In practice, public funds are limited. (Also true in an MMT world, by the way.)

It is Sawicky, I think, who is guilty of straw-manning here. That the stated purpose of means-testing is to maximize the benefit-per-unit-dollar to the targeted group is not disputed by anyone. No one suggests that means-testing is imposed explicitly to create bureaucratic hoops in order to deny benefits to the eligible. Universalists suggest that in practice, means-testing of individual programs often has that effect, sometimes unintended, some tacitly intended by public officials who, whether out of ideological pique or in response to fiscal pressures, engineer eligibility criteria to limit disbursals. We had a spectacular example of that when Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis had to acknowledge that his predecessor had deliberately made filing for unemployment benefits difficult, in order to forestall pressure on the insurance fund that might have required raising business taxes. (Unemployment insurance is not a means-tested program, but like means-tested programs it is gated by an application bureaucracy which always has the effect, whether intended or not, of limiting benefits to a subset of the eligible.)

It’s a particularly odd time for Sawicky to write “there is no really existing universal benefit that remedies this problem, so we are committing the basic fallacy of criticizing an existing program by comparison to an idealized alternative.” In the CARES Act, we just had an (almost) universal $1200 cash payment, and despite the fact that the United States lacks the infrastructure for benefits deposits that are a matter of course in more civilized countries, those payments were almost universally received. Someday a comparison will be done of the fraction of the eligible who received their $1200 payments, versus the fraction of eligible people and small businesses that received Federally enhanced unemployment insurance and forgivable PPP loans. Does Sawicky believe the comparison will reflect well upon the latter?

A fundamental misunderstanding undergirds this whole debate, that it’s an argument of “means-testing” versus “universalism”. Universalists don’t dispute the necessity of means-testing, they dispute how and where means should be tested. Partisans of “means-testing” are really arguing for within-program means-testing — that each benefits program should have its own means-based eligibility infrastructure. “Universalists” are also very devoted to means-testing. We just think all programs should share a single, efficiently managed and enforced, means-testing infrastructure rather than jerry-rigging one for each individual benefit. Means-testing is inherently intrusive of privacy. It is costly in time, money, and sometimes dignity, for applicants and for validators. It imposes, in the language of economists, large deadweight costs, from the cost of the exercise itself, and from the social cost of benefits deterred by the exercise and so undelivered. It is simply more efficient to have a single and, um, universal means-test, and use that for all programs.

And we do have a universal means-test. It is called the income tax. Universalists argue that rather than means-testing program by program, we should just provide the benefits unconditionally, but “take them back”, in different degrees, financially, via the income tax. In accounting terms, gross outlays (whether they be cash benefits or “in-kind”) are to be divorced from means-testing and, to the maximum extent possible, any other sort of eligibility bureaucracy that imposes deadweight costs. But net outlays — benefits extended minus taxes paid — are absolutely means tested.

This is just more efficient than multiplying eligibility bureaucracies for every program. But its advantages go beyond eliminating redundancies. Providing benefits up-front and then charging on a sliding scale as income is realized supports the insurance function of social spending. People’s incomes are uncertain and only verifiable after some delay. Requiring demonstration of inadequate means up-front, rather than on the back-end, creates at best a delay between when a shock is experienced and when it can be ameliorated. “Delay” can mean your kid skips meals, you start rationing your insulin, or your family is evicted from its home. It’s a big deal.

Further, from the perspective of recipients, benefit withdrawal is itself a kind of income tax, often imposing very high effective marginal rates at low levels of income. We make programs “cheap” by making people just richer than beneficiaries pay their way, rather than let the burden fall higher on the income distribution. Within-program means testing may be “progressive” relative to no program at all, but it’ll be regressive relative to a universal program funded from the general budget. Bouncy tax rates and cliffs are bad policy that affect human incentives in real, socially costly ways. Restricting means-testing to the tax system allows us to structure incentives rationally and burdens ethically.

Less materially, but perhaps more importantly, universal programs unite and ennoble us while within-program means testing divides and diminishes us. Humans perceive flows of funds and services in gross terms rather than in net terms. We all have the use of the roads “equally”. In net terms, you can argue that poorer people get full use of the roads without much funding them in taxes, so they are lucky duckies. Or you can argue that the rich use the roads much more than even the home-owning, property-tax-paying middle class, so the flow of net benefits is severely regressive. Argue this shit all you want, as a wonk or whatever. Most of us just perceive the roads to be fair and free to all, and the taxes as something else entirely. Roads are common infrastructure, an interest we share, a good reason to support solidaristic government. Given the high salience of gross flows rather than net, it’s a free-lunch in terms of social cohesion to provide services and support to all, rather than make very explicit that some are getting “free stuff” that others are not.

But what about the inflows? If universal outflows to the public are supportive of social cohesion, aren’t the radically varying inflows we require as taxes corrosive of the same? Yes, of course they are. Have you seen how rich people talk about the income tax?

However, these aren’t equal and opposite effects. More affluent Americans still enjoy and support the roads and national parks, despite “overpaying” for them. Many of them would be grateful for the option to send their kids to college less stressfully. Further, developed countries have tremendous flexibility in how we finance universal benefits. There is no one-to-one correspondence between a new dollar spent to support a universal benefit and an increase of divisive dispersion in the tax system. Social democracies support universal benefits with a wide mix of income and payroll taxes that render the benefit system more net-means-tested (when they are not capped) and other taxes (e.g. VATs) that render them less so. Choices about the progressivity of income taxes affect the degree to which the benefits state is net-means-tested, and have potentially complicated effects on social solidarity. (Very progressive taxes leave high-income people disgruntled over the short term, but over the long-term, very progressive of taxation can contribute to a “predistribution” more conducive of solidarity.) Developed countries that control their own currencies have wide latitude to finance benefits with “debt” instruments that are more like preferred equity. If they are careful, they can wisely distribute the inflation risk public expenditure may occasion, rather than let expenditure merely magnify it. A wide variety of regulatory policies (e.g. discouragement of predatory consumer credit arrangements) can reduce the degree to which benefits put pressure on prices and so must be offset with potentially divisive taxes.

Finally, means-testing obligations rather than benefits better aligns social provision with human dignity. When a person applies for means-tested benefits, they are asked to prove their poverty, which in our society shades towards inadequacy, in order to get something that they need. They must make themselves charity cases. When we means-test obligations, no one is humiliated. Detached from “getting a handout”, there’s not much indignity filing a tax return, regardless of ones income. When ones tax bill is high, some people feel pride (“taxes are the price of civilization”) and some people feel ripped off. But no one is diminished in the eyes of their community, or in their own eyes. If you think taxes are theft and the state is predatory, that is a reason to be angry at others. But your high tax bill is not a personal failing. On the contrary. Whether you are content to pay your taxes or outraged that you have to, the cause of your predicament is a source of pride rather than of shame.

From the market or from other sources, the benefits we receive from others without having to beg tell us what we are worth to our society. The taxes we have to pay may be irksome, but they are not deducted from that social expression of value, as long as they are levied on nondiscriminatory terms. There is a free lunch in human welfare embedded in these propositions. We are idiots not to take maximal advantage of it.

Note: While I was writing, Matt Bruenig published a response to Sawicky and Day. I suspect I’ll agree with it, though I haven’t read it carefully yet.

Update History:

  • 28-Sep-2020, 3:55 p.m. EDT: “It is costly in time, money, and sometimes dignity, for applicants and for validators.”
  • 22-Oct-2020, 1:35 p.m. EDT: “…the benefits we receive from others without having to beg tell us what we are worth to others in our society.”


It has become a cliché to say that this election is not about electing a President, but preserving democracy in America. That’s much less because of Donald Trump than because of the “doom loops” (in Lee Drutman’s term) between the two political parties. It’s bad enough that we have only two parties that leave most of us poorly represented. But as the parties increasingly differentiate themselves across issues of identity and culture, the “winner-take-all” nature of our electoral and political institutions can no longer tempered by the horsetrading and difference-splitting. Our conflicts can no longer be resolved by compromises that leave us all feeling represented, albeit imperfectly, and fighting over matters of degree. Instead the parties have manufactured two distinct superidentities, and rehistoricized them as ancient hatreds. Both parties, and the partisans they’ve made us all, agree that we face a battle of good versus evil, sanity versus chaos, for the very soul of the American republic. Only one slight difference remains to be resolved: Which is which, who is who.

Framed this way, I am not neutral, I have a view, my own allegiances. But it is a catastrophe that we have framed things this way. Democracy is a sham, in practice and in theory, if half of the people are simply evil. And they are not, in any objective sense. Our horrible party system, a politics industry that caters to plutocrats, and insiders’ incentives to secure incumbency, have caused us to reconstruct ourselves in this way, yin to one another’s miserable yang.

One source of our discord is majoritarianism, which drives destructive competition between our political factions to win just a tiny margin over the other one. “Majority rules” is a deeply flawed basis for democratic institutions. It conflicts with a more functional virtue, representation, the idea that everybody should have a voice, no one’s interests should fall beneath consideration. Under strict majoritarianism, minorities have effectively no voice if a majority organizes to wield power. In liberal democracies, the most catastrophic harms of majoritarianism are (supposed to be) mitigated by minority rights, basic protections and liberties that even organized majorities are not permitted to violate. But even when those are respected, majoritarianism leaves minorities boxed out of any agency in the national project. When organized factions are nearly evenly matched (as our abysmal political institutions encourage), unsubverted majoritarianism would have 50% of the electorate plus 1 rule entirely, no matter how strenuous the objections of the other 50% – 1. This is not a functional or legitimate way to rule. (Our abysmal political institutions are not so straightforwardly majoritarian, so they don’t have that flaw, exactly.)

Opposing majoritarianism is not a defense of minoritarianism. The idea that some benighted minority should rule is obviously worse. But Republicans’ anti-majoritarian turn is itself a function of the structural majoritorianism of the institutions they contest. Majoritarian institutions invite the question “majority of whom?”, and the winner-take-all character of “majority rules” means the whole ballgame can turn on small changes in the always contested boundaries of the enfranchised. Under institutions where power is proportionate rather than binary, temptations to nibble at the edges of electoral eligibility or convenience disappear. Questions of suffrage become the fundamental questions about the nature of the polity that they ought to be, rather than playthings for party operatives looking to shave a few points from their opponents.

Representation is the ideal to which our political institutions should aspire, not “majority rules”. But representation must not be merely formal. Having “representatives” in a legislative body where they are always outvoted is not really representation at all. A democratic polity requires institutions that ensure the entire public is represented in outcomes, not merely in deliberations that become perfunctory or, even worse, performative, so the routinely outvoted become recklessly extreme, as compensation for impotence and in competition for press. Obviously, contending factions sometimes have mutually exclusive preferences, so that one faction must win and others must lose. But then you should win some and lose some, in proportion to your support among the general public. When possible, compromises should be crafted that attend in degrees to all of the public’s interests, and then passed with a high degree of legislative consensus. And such compromises usually are possible, when politics properly orients itself around conflicts in the material world, where differences can be split and priorities traded, rather than around questions of identity, morality, and status, questions on which contending factions must win or lose with nothing in between. Where compromises are not possible, we should have to take turns. Turn-taking should occur much more frequently than multiyear election cycles. Even within a single legislature, the majority should win only sometimes, and lose sometimes, in rough proportion to its dominance. There should be no possibility, none at all, of any faction dominating eternally, winning so big they need never fear reprisal for whatever they do to others. The golden rule must be a norm upheld and always enforceable between political factions. Our politics creates its public much more than the public creates our politics. We should seek a politics that constructs a public respectful of difference, that wields persuasion as its core implement of change.

Representation in the way I’ve described it can conflict with other virtues. There are tensions between turn-taking and the strategic coherence required to run an effective state. When everyone seems represented, it becomes harder to know whom to hold accountable, and how, for policy failures. It must be possible to take actions, sometimes to make big, contentious changes, and commit to them in ways that won’t immediately be reversed in stupid oscillations when the next turn is taken. American institutions already suffer from terrible status quo bias, and richer representation should not exacerbate that.

These are real issues, but they are (imperfectly) resolvable issues. Representation is the heart of democracy. Forms of majoritarianism that circumvent rather than support it should be abandoned. In the short term, for the United States, this means eliminating abominations like the “Hastert Rule” (which both parties and both chambers have now effectively adopted) in favor of legislative procedures designed to maximize enfranchisement, of the minority party and of diverse factions within the parties. In the medium term, it implies changing our electoral system to one that yields proportionate representation, rather than reshape the public into two bitterly contending factions. In the longer term, it implies innovations within the institutions of democracy that ensure turns are always taken except when strong consensus can be reached.

Note: I’ve just read Drutman’s book Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop, which has helped color my thinking. I’d take issue with some aspects of the political history it tells, but it does a great job of explaining why our politics is such a mess, and casting a light forward towards the kinds of ideas that might remedy it. I heartily recommend it. We’d have a better world if it were more widely read.

Update History:

  • 22-Sep-2020, 12:40 p.m. EDT: “…would have 50% of the electorate plus 1 rule entirely, no matter how strenuous the objections of the other 50% – 1.”; “I’ve recently just read Drutman’s book Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop, which has helped color my recent thinking.”

Politics is an American industry

American industries — the ones that sit at the new commanding heights of the economy — look nothing like the collections of the atomized, competitive firms described in an introductory Economics textbook. Industries like technology, finance, health care, higher education, and media dominate our collective lives, and yet they are not regulated by anything recognizable as open competition for the custom of decentralized consumers. These industries share some things in common.

I. American industries do great things

Health care is really important. Doctors and nurses and hospitals and drugs do great things. Finance is essential. Without a payments system, credit, and investment a prosperous economy would be impossible. “Big tech” and the ecosystem of startups that serves as its farm team really do put much of the world’s knowledge at our fingertips and make it possible, even through the isolation of this pandemic, for us to communicate and collaborate, to escape and to love despite our bodies’ imprisonment. Higher education, regardless of whether employers value it for skills or for signalling, is powerfully transformative for many of us who experience it. Etc.

II. The means by which they finance themselves are problematic

Yeoman capitalism tells a very simple story about how firms and industries get financed. It is supposed to be end consumers who, en masse, finance or fail to finance firms by virtue of well-informed, voluntary choices about whom to pay in exchange for delivered value. This is an apt description of how none of these industries get paid. Health care, finance, education, technology, and media are not for the most part financed by independent bilateral transactions between well-informed parties. These goods are sometime purchased in bundles, sometimes financed by third parties or the state, sometimes financed by contractual contingencies imperfectly understood by their payers (“tricks and traps”, as Elizabeth Warren used to call them), often arranged under circumstances of asymmetric information or simply absent information. Rather than vying against one another for customers, “competitors” in these industries often work cooperatively to secure the shared bases of their cash flow. Citibank and JP Morgan, Berkeley and Stanford, the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins, Google and Apple, they all do genuinely compete for “customers”, but their fates are much more determined jointly, by the terms on which the state structures finance, offers research grants and student loans, by third-party health insurers (public and private), by how antitrust law is interpreted and enforced.

Often the financing of these industries is perceived (accurately) as predatory or plutocratic or both. Outside of informed, competitive markets, payments become less than voluntary. Late fees and overdraft fees, usurious interest on credit you never intended to revolve, incomprehensible medical bills for services not meaningfully chosen at outrageous prices never meaningfully agreed, tuition affordable only by virtue of taking on arbitrary debt, in a context where opting out means foregoing any chance of a comfortable middle class life: All of these financing arrangements are predatory. If you get into Harvard, maybe tuition is paid, thanks to an endowment based on flattering plutocrats. Print media increasingly depends upon supplemental “support” from the wealthy, which conditions the character of the national conversation. Google and Facebook are far from free. Every user and every nonuser of the services pays exorbitantly for their services, and not just in “data”. Their profit margins are embedded in the costs of every good and service that advertises on those platforms. We finance them, but we don’t have any choice or control over the product like we would as customers in a competitive market.

III. The people who work for them are nice

As human beings, at an interpersonal level, people who work in technology, higher education, heath care, technology, or even finance are good people. Not all of them, of course. Perhaps there is some accuracy in a statistical sense to bankers being bastards or Silicon Valley tech bros or whatever. But even within those industries, as among nearly every occupational category, most people are good people, doing the best they can, trying to do the right thing although no doubt accepting some tradeoffs. Nurses are notoriously caring, and yet their salary derives from a predatory, kafka-esque pricing system. My college professors were amazing people. In terms of dimensions like civility or politeness, the workforces of these predatory, problematic industries are probably nicer than the general population, because they are disproportionately educated and the norms we define as polite are to some degree the cultural mores of the educated. And because of affluence. Certain kinds of patience, civility, and generosity are “normal goods” in economics-speak, things the comfortable can afford but the less comfortable must do with less of. However you want to cut it, the people who work for these industries are not “bad people” in any natural sense. You can define them as bad by construction, if you like, by virtue of their complicity in their industries’ sins. But they’d do fine in any Turing test for niceness and decency in which occupational status was blinded.

IV. American industries evolve to insulate most of their workforces from aspects of their industry’s finance

They have to, in order to reconcile points II and III above.

If you ask ER doctors about the “chargemaster” — the hidden skein of prices that vary by procedure, party, and phase of the moon that determines how much you are billed — they will not be great fans! In my experience, most doctors agree that it’s a shitty system, incomprehensible and unjust, and they sincerely wish that it were different. If you ask whether that system affects the care they provide, the answer is usually no. Doctors mostly say they provide the best care they can in medical terms, and don’t think very much about what happens on the financial side. You can argue that this is good thing (best care possible!), or a bad thing (maybe second-best would have been more than good enough and would have helped the patient financially). But it is a thing.

Most people who traded the bonds that in 2006 were stuffed with predatory and fraudulent mortgages never themselves sold home-buyers from minority communities on adjustable-rate mortgages with prepayment penalties that would become unaffordable once the teaser rate expired. They were professionals at big banks, selling to institutional counterparties, all wearing similar suits. A lot of what amounted to fraud in aggregate was straightforwardly justifiable by the people most directly involved in perpetrating it. Real-estate can be valued by capitalizing the rents properties would generate, or in terms of “comparables”, what similar properties are selling for. When market prices started to decouple from capitalization-derived estimates, was it wrong for appraisers to increasingly emphasize valuation by comparables as more “empirically accurate”? Especially since banks, eager to lend, would preferentially hire appraisers “in tune with the actual market”?

In aggregate the industry perpetrated tremendous fraud, but much of it was organized like the translation of Monty Python’s “Funniest Joke In The World“, with each participant never exposed to more than a tiny part of an ugly, lucrative bigger picture, deniable especially to themselves. American industries, which work simultaneously to maximize revenue and keep the loyalty of highly sought professionals, naturally arrange themselves this way.

V. Workforces cannot be completely insulated from disagreeable aspects of their industry’s finance

Somewhere in some office at every hospital chain, there are the people whose job it is to maximize revenue by imposing or negotiating a multiplicity of nose-bleed prices for each medical procedure, none of which will be routinely published or disclosed to patients except at the time of billing. They know it isn’t nice. At every health insurer there are the people whose jobs it is to deny coverage whenever coverage can be denied. All of these people have rationales by which they can justify their work. The hospitals are struggling! (Often the rents in our healthcare system get paid out of hospitals to overpriced providers, drug companies, device manufacturers, administrators, etc rather than accruing as juicy profits in hospitals.) Fighting insurance fraud and limiting coverage to contracted care keeps premiums “low”!

During the housing boom, eager mortgage originators would themselves fudge or (much safer) advise borrowers to lie on loan applications. They understood they were committing or suborning fraud. (But this housing boom has legs! Sure it was lucrative, but they were also democratizing the American Dream, helping new homebuyers succeed despite little blemishes.) Bankers who purchased mortgages to bundle into securities overlooked deficiencies they knew existed in the pools that they purchased. The people they were selling them to (but not people on behalf of whom those people were buying) were “consenting adults”, caveat emptor. Workers at rating agencies would famously take on securities “structured by cows” as part of a focus on “maximizing revenues”. (But they scrupulously applied the formal models that were then the industry standard! Though they knew the model “def does not capture half the risk.” Still, they adhered to procedural norms!)

In these examples from health care and finance, basically a segregated minority of the workforce is exposed sharply to the ickiness of the business model, helping preserve the innocence of the rest. But of course, in all of these industries, there are aspects that cannot be so well shut away. When engineers at Facebook are optimizing for “engagement”, they know what they are doing. The surveillance is not occluded from Googlers by its sexier names, “analytics”, “machine learning”. Until a few years ago, it seemed (at least to me) common for college professors to point to the average “college premium” and argue that the student loans on which their institutions relied were basically a good deal (nevermind the tremendous variation hidden in that premium and that its increase over the decades derived more from falling noncollege wages than rising college wages). Current affairs writers like to think of themselves as proudly independent, but the pieces they pitch, that they expect editors might accept, are conditioned by the perspectives of donors and the red lines of advertisers, as well as by any inherent public or audience interest.

These industries do their best — really! — to carve out zones of independence, within which the incentives that derive from how they are financed are blunted, so that other values can express themselves, and so their professional, decent, often idealistic workers can sleep at night. But they cannot insulate their workforces completely, nor can their workers be absolved entirely for their remunerative complicity with the cash-flow-generating aspects of their industries, however much they may dislike or wish to reform them. And workers overestimate their independence. They internalize the constraints. They make up good reasons for coloring within the lines rather than admit that the gravy train requires they do so. They reflect upon their work proudly. It is only coincidence that their independently defensible choices happen not to conflict irreconcilably with the interests that finance them.

Politics in the United States is another American industry. It runs the gamut from elected officials and their campaigns, to the consultants, think-tanks, lobbyists, staffers etc. Even civil servants and military officers, with secure jobs and government paychecks, are part of the industry, and face the same complicated incentives, as long as the opportunity to rotate into private-sector parapolitics is of value to them.

Like other American industries, politics does great things. A government must be staffed and run, decisions must be made, expertise must be brought to bear in crafting legislation, public policy research must be done. Political parties must contend if representative democracy is to function, and that contest must be staffed and funded. Like its peer industries, politics’ financing model is indirect, predatory, and plutocratic. Obviously the “donor class” that funds PACs and think-tanks is a plutocratic revenue source. Government contracting, revolving doors into which condition civil servants’ real-time decisions, constitute a predatory source of revenue. Politics, like finance, includes certain niches of workers who are explicitly, ostentatiously assholes. But for the most part the politics industry is staffed by well-spoken, idealistic, decent people. Nice people. To outsiders, politics appears horrible: ugly, predatory, oppressive, corrupt. But insiders “know” that while there is some truth to that, it is mostly a caricature. Most people are not selling out or doing horrible things. Most people are working sincerely to advance agendas they believe in. Even many lobbyists, the plainest sort of hired gun, are idealists who choose the causes they work for based on prior attachments and commitments, rather than bending to some plutocrat’s will. (Of course, the likelihood that people working to advance prior commitments succeed at making a career of it is not independent of plutocratic interests. But that is outside the control of the sincerely motivated lobbyist!) Lobbyists are justifiably proud of the resources they bring to bear to support legislative and rule-making processes, resources that far surpass what our intentionally atrophied government makes available to itself for these purposes. Still, it is true that workers in politics cannot completely insulate themselves from the predatory and plutocratic incentives that come with how the money works. Compromises must be made. Just as an aspiring politician can do no good if she cannot get elected (and then re-elected), a research institute can do no good if it has no funding. The people in the industry know this, concede it. For those (not all!) whose political attachments are in conflict with the financial incentives, they lament it. But they also “know” that outsiders underestimate the degree to which their choices are right on the merits, even though they are tarred as betrayals or corrupt concessions. If we were in their shoes, we would understand and feel the same way.

Politics is an American industry, just like all the others. It is awful in some ways, but it is also essential. I think we should wish to reform it, dramatically, but it won’t be reformed alone. It is of a piece with peer industries. It won’t be repaired without also repairing the political economy that surrounds it.

Note: I want to thank all of the people who participated in last month’s “seminar”. I enjoyed it, and hope you did too. I hope to try some other experiment (that involves me talking less) sometime very soon.

Update History:

  • 17-Sep-2020, 2:05 p.m. EDT: “II. The means by which they are financed is are problematic“
  • 17-Sep-2020, 5:35 p.m. EDT: “II. The means by which they are financed finance themselves are problematic“
  • 22-Sep-2020, 12:45 p.m. EDT: “V. Workforces cannot be completely insulated from disagreeable aspect’s aspects of their industry’s finance” (Thanks commenter Jeff!)