Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category
Andrea Campbell has an article in Vox about the often perverse consequences of means testing in social policy. If you really need help, then means testing creates an incentive to completely spend all your assets so you can qualify. She uses the tragic case of her sister-in-law who was left paralyzed after an auto accident and now requires round the clock medical care:
Brian continued: Marcella qualified for Medi-Cal because she is disabled, but because Medi-Cal is for poor people, Dave and Marcella have to be poor to receive it-they have to “meet” the program’s “income test.” Counterintuitively, meeting the income test doesn’t mean having enough income (as in doing well on a test), but rather having low-enough income. The income test is actually an income limit.
Moreover, because Dave is employed, he and Marcella would be in a particular version of the program called “Share of Cost” Medi-Cal. It works this way: as a family of three with one disabled member, they are allowed to keep $2,100 of Dave’s $3,250 monthly earnings to live on. The rest of Dave’s earnings, $1,150, would go to Medi-Cal as the family’s share of cost. That is, any month in which Marcella incurred medical expenses, she and Dave must pay the first $1,150. To our surprise, if Dave earned more money, the extra amount would also go to Medi-Cal: the cost sharing is a 100 percent tax on Dave’s earnings. I figured out later that the $2,100 my brother and sister-in-law are to live on puts them at 133 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of three. Essentially, the way they meet the income test is for Medi-Cal to skim off Dave’s income until they are in fact poor. Brian noted that they are “lucky” that they are allowed to retain that much income; if Marcella weren’t disabled, the amount they’d be allowed to retain would be even lower than $2,100. And this is how things will be indefinitely. In order to get poor people’s health insurance, Dave and Marcella must stay poor, forever.
To make issues worse, California has an arcane system of means tested programs that make it hard to even understand what you might, or might not, be qualified for:
So much for helping my brother and sister-in-law navigate the system. Medi-Cal is a collection of more than 100 programs, each with its own income methodology and rules. A person familiar with Medi-Cal likened the program to the Winchester Mystery House, the San Jose mansion constructed continually over four decades by the odd widow of the Winchester rifle fortune: there is no master plan. “All the ‘rooms’ added on over the years makes it very difficult to see which rules apply to which groups and to follow them all the way through,” this observer told me. And even if Dave and Marcella could retain a bit more income to live on, they are still subject to the asset limit and all of Medi-Cal’s other strictures. They are still trapped in an eccentric’s mansion, where the stairways lead to ceilings and the doors open onto walls.
Campbell nails it on the head when she notes that social policy is a bizarre contraption of programs. Lesson: Make social policy simple and with wide coverage. Otherwise, don’t bother.
In my social theory class, we had a week where we covered theories of sexual identity. A theme in writings from the 1980s or so is that the public adoption of a sexual identity is a political act. To say that one is gay or lesbian is to take a political position. Some people disagreed with that view. The two arguments go something like this:
- One needs to take an open political stance on one’s sexuality because not doing so allows repression. Call this the militant approach to identity.
- One needs to make their identity “regular” – queer people should not confront people so that being gay will be seen as an unremarkable identity. Call this the mainstreaming approach to identity.
This debate has a long history in queer politics, but there is one response that is usually absent, an argument based on game theory. One could argue that given the choice between militancy and mainstreaming, one should employ a strategy that combines militant and mainstream.
How does this argument work? Assume you have two “players” in the model – “society” and “LBGT.” The first mover is society and it can be nice or mean. But you don’t know what will happen. Maybe society is mean today, or nice. LBGT doesn’t find out until they encounter society and they have two responses – militant and mainstream. What does LBGT want? They want a repeated interaction with society that is nice. One strategy that will work is “tit for tat” – mimic what the first player does, hope he gets the message, and then they become nice.
Often people talk about how queers (or other minorities) should deal with allies and enemies. This model suggests an answer that is intuitive and supported by theory and research – tit for tat. Punish bad behavior and reward good behavior.
Today, the US government will close its combat command in Afghanistan. One of the most difficult arguments to have about foreign policy is when to end an intervention, such as terminating our involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan. By the time that happens, many lives have been lost and much has been spent. It is often the case that political groups may seize power and might be anti-American in their orientation. Understandably, people might ask, “Is it all for nothing? Did our soldiers die so that a democratic government would fail and be replaced by tyrants?”
People should ask a different question, “What guarantee do we have that more lives and money will make things better?” We should also ask, “Is there a significant chance that our actions could make things worse?” The answer to these questions is “in most cases, things will not get better with more intervention and they might get better if we stand back.”
The reason is that countries drawing the attention of democratic nations tend to be very broken on some level. In Iraq, the nation was saddled by Baathist tyranny and sectarian violence. In Afghanistan, the problem was a weak state created by decades of Soviet and American interventions, tribalism, and the drug trade. When a third party intervenes in such nations, it is, by definition, an outsider. External threats tend to make people rally around the leader, however vile that person may be.
Instead, we should let nations be free of threat from American forces. That doesn’t mean that the nation will magically heal itself, but, at the very least, it deprives tyrants and charlatans of one source of their power. They no longer have us to point to, or, when we give them arms, they no longer use our guns to undermine our goals. And sometimes it works. Our departure will sometimes allow a political evolution to occur that might be impossible with troops on the ground. Vietnam is still ruled by a communist party, but it has opened up in significant ways and is more integrated into the global economy than we might have suspected in 1975. Ask yourself, what would Vietnam look like today if we had taken John McCain’s advice and stayed 100 years until the job was done?
My co-bloggers are on a roll. Zynep Tufekci and Brayden King have an op-ed in the New York Times on the topic of privacy and data:
UBER, the popular car-service app that allows you to hail a cab from your smartphone, shows your assigned car as a moving dot on a map as it makes its way toward you. It’s reassuring, especially as you wait on a rainy street corner.
Less reassuring, though, was the apparent threat from a senior vice president of Uber to spend “a million dollars” looking into the personal lives of journalists who wrote critically about Uber. The problem wasn’t just that a representative of a powerful corporation was contemplating opposition research on reporters; the problem was that Uber already had sensitive data on journalists who used it for rides.
Buzzfeed reported that one of Uber’s executives had already looked up without permission rides taken by one of its own journalists. Andaccording to The Washington Post, the company was so lax about such sensitive data that it even allowed a job applicant to view people’s rides, including those of a family member of a prominent politician. (The app is popular with members of Congress, among others.)
On Thursday, President Obama is scheduled to make a speech where he will likely announce an executive order that curtails some of the worst aspects of our immigration system, such as deportation of individuals who were brought to our country as children. I fully understand that Obama is a politician, not a magician. Even if he agreed that migration restrictions are unwise, he probably won’t act to pardon every undocumented immigrant.
However, I do hope that tomorrow’s actions won’t be an excuse to restrict migration even more. Instead, I hope that amnesty, or deferral of action, will allow Americans to reassess immigration. I want Americans to realize that travelling from Mexico to Arizona is no different that travelling between North and South Carolina. As long as someone travels peacefully, leave them alone. Preventing someone from taking a job, or owning a home, or enrolling in school, based on their nationality is no different than preventing someone from taking a job because they are Jewish, Black, or female. It’s simply wrong.
So tomorrow, I will cheer for every person who can now sleep without the fear that they will be forcefully moved to another country. But at the same time, I ask my fellow Americans to think seriously about the morality of immigration restrictions and I hope that they see that is simply an unjust law. We need a new world, a world of open borders.
In Open Borders theory, a key hole solution is a policy proposal that is designed to promote the liberalization of immigration while addressing a very specific policy concern. For example, let’s say that I was afraid that Canadians can’t drive. Instead of banning Canadians, we would simply require Canadians to take extra driving lessons before they get a license.
People may think key hole solutions are wonky, or they wouldn’t address the concerns of restrictionists, or just simply wouldn’t work. Here is an example of an actual key hole solution that (a) is widely popular, (b) works pretty well, and (c) is a solution to an issue raised by open borders. It’s called out of state tuition.
The idea is simple. Public universities offer discounts to residents who have lived in the state for a few years. The idea is that once you’ve paid years of sales taxes, property taxes, and other taxes, you get to use a public service at a discount. Why is this a problem? Open borders. America doesn’t restrict what state you can live in. You can move anywhere. But if you haven’t lived in a specific state for a while, you haven’t paid your share of state taxes that go to education. The solution is very easy. Become a resident, file some tax returns, and you get the discount.
What I like about this example is that it is a genuine policy issue (people claiming residency just for the discount) created by free migration. It is also a policy that is simple, humane, and fairly popular. The next time you hear a complaint about open borders ask yourself if there is something easy and simple we can do rather than condemning millions of people to poverty.
A few days ago, we got into a fruitful discussion of college admissions. Steven Pinker wrote a widely discussed article condemning the Ivy League for using non-academic criteria in admissions. I concurred with the basic point, but noted that it is all for naught because Pinker doesn’t discuss why college admissions is set up the way it is. Basically, current admissions policies are designed generate income, political legitimacy, academic respect, and other factors. People simply wouldn’t stand for an admissions policy that would turn Harvard into Berkeley or Cal Tech, where Asians are the majority and Latinos and African Americans are under represented, not to mention all the influential people whose above average kids can’t get into Harvard without the legacy program.
In the comments, Chris Martin suggested that if Cal Tech and Berkeley could do it, it wouldn’t be so bad. I think Chris under estimates the issue. To see why, let’s review Berkeley and Cal Tech:
- Berkeley: This was a school that had a policy where students were given an index that combined a number of factors, such as GPA, SAT, race, extracurriculars and so forth. This system was not changed internally and race was only dropped due to a ballot initiative and various judicial battles.
- Cal Tech: Even though Cal Tech is probably a more elite school than Harvard, it is very different in that the political pressures on engineering and science schools are much weaker. Roughly speaking, every smart kid in America dreams of the Ivy League, but only the nerdiest kids want to go to Cal Tech. In other words, I’ve never heard of wealthy senators intensely lobbying Cal Tech to make sure their C+ son makes it in.
Bottom line: These two cases are not exemplars of internally driven change. Instead, they highlight how constrained college admissions policies are.