25 March 2014

On which I comment on various things

1) Sebellius v Hobby Lobby
Legally speaking this is an interesting case that I'm not sure that Hobby Lobby should win, but I am not entirely unsympathetic to their claims under a 1st amendment protection. Their problem is mainly and chiefly that the specific claims they are making are totally nonsensical or are unsupported by rational empirical claims. Namely that an IUD or the types of pills they want to reduce access to are not abortion related in scientific terms, as their principle objection. They are abortion related in fantasy land terms. We shouldn't get to make decisions about fantasy land terms applied to reality very often, but much less in a way that applies to other human beings who do not share our fantasies or find them unconvincing interpretations of reality. If it's just our own absurdities, we're not typically harming other people by our beliefs in them and we should be free to exercise them as our best judgment, however inane its results.

Economically speaking there are all kinds of problems with this case. One major problem is that we have employers providing health care insurance to employees and provide them a tax incentive to do this instead of paying people more. If we were to get rid of that in the first place, this case wouldn't be an issue. Hobby Lobby's management could just pay for the insurance they want for themselves. Individual people of all kinds could then choose plans that didn't cover certain kinds of contraception if that was indeed their wish and there would likely be plans that did so in the market (they would potentially cost more).

A secondary economic problem is that the types of plans most people have or could have as individuals are designed toward first dollar coverage or pre-paid health care, wherein the provision for birth control makes sound economic sense. It's usually far cheaper for an insurer to pay for some pills or even an IUD than to pay for a pregnancy and a child, so they should do so anyway. I find the idea that insurers should be required to pay for them or could offer no plans that would not somewhat strange simply because they're not all that expensive and should be even cheaper if we were to remove the prescription requirements and make more available OTC. I'm not unsympathetic to the expense being high on women and that they would want insurance to pay for it. A common argument for something like Viagra being paid for for men as a basis for why women should receive free birth control is responded to by me with a "men shouldn't get that paid for either, it should be out of pocket as a regular and anticipated health related expense". Like aspirin only for the penis. A vasectomy versus a hysterectomy is a vastly more interesting trade-off by expense and the medical invasiveness than comparing which pills are covered.

I have no double standard here as I think neither set of pills should be strictly speaking an insurable event versus part of one's yearly private health care spending budget and the insurance or social insurance we use should kick in when that budget is excessive from serious or chronic ailments, emergencies, injuries, or disabilities.

In other words, I don't find this case very interesting other than it is likely a natural continuation of the dysfunctional health care system we already use rather than offering any functional way to reform it.

2) On other strange religious beliefs I don't understand, I still don't understand why the public seems to think it is necessary to compel bakers who think gay people are icky or some such to bake cakes for their weddings or florists to provide flowers or photographers to provide services. Just boycott these business owners out of business or allow others who don't share this dispositional nonsensical belief to compete against them and generate a larger market share and they will go out of business and have to do something else. The level of discrimination against homosexuality is still quite a bit higher than I am comfortable with, but it is not so high that it is legally required (anymore) or protected and enshrined as an act of religious defiance.

If by some strange notion we have erred as a society in recognizing and providing social benefits to these unions, that would become apparent. It would not become apparent by business owners deciding that somehow this is the thing they will take a stand on. That just makes them poor business owners, not morally upstanding citizens worthy of our respect and admiration. Indeed, it makes them less worthy of our respect and admiration as they would be failing at something which otherwise successfully provides desirable (if overpriced) services and even pleasurable occupations to other human beings. But we similarly cannot make the force law compel them to  providing these services to people they would refuse to do so to. The basis for change and legal compulsion in the case of race is very different, facing legal sanctions against people who allowed for toleration and non-discrimination (rather than in these cases, legal sanctions for those who do not), and decades if not centuries of persistent racial hostility as a society even in the absence of those sanctions which have persisted even in their absence. Homosexuality certainly has a similar variety of hostility, and of recent vintage, but it is lifting through social and generational changes at a far more accelerated pace. I think we can let that play out for now rather than anticipating the percentage of people who might try to put up "straight people only" signs.

Point of order: I am not a gay male, so the specific prejudices do not apply. But were I to have a wedding ceremony ever in my life for which I would be distinctly and personally involved, that said ceremony would have nothing to do with a church or other formal religious ceremony might be deemed relevant and of discriminatory interest to some people. I would not want such people to be involved in said ceremonies. Indeed, I would probably want these persons as far away from such a ceremony as possible. I have little trouble understanding why someone might not want to be involved in such a proceeding (religious people are often more uncomfortable with atheists than homosexuals at this point), even as I don't see why they should use that discomfort as a basis to decide not to participate if they're being paid for their services either.

3) Venezuela, Ukraine, etc. I meant to comment on this a couple weeks ago.

What does this mean? I have to back up a beat before making some comparisons to the calls of attention and action that are commonly made now.

Generally speaking people described the "Arab Spring" (and to some extent the Iranian green movement) of a few years ago as a revolt against tyrannical dictators. What I think most people were revolting against was those tyrannical dictators enriching themselves and their benefactors greatly while impoverished conditions for working class and middle class people had expanded. This is why we saw much less demonstration in Saudi Arabia (a clearly tyrannical system), or Qatar (somewhat tyrannical as well), where there was plenty of oil wealth to hand out as favors to keep the public quiet, but open civil war in Syria and Libya, where there was somewhat less or where there were sectarian conflicts over control of that wealth.

The supposition was then made that somehow these activities were caused by US action. Given that other than maybe Morocco and to some extent Tunisia, none of these rebellions produced functional reforms and changes to the status quo, and in the cases of Libya, Syria, and Egypt, collapsed very badly, perhaps people should not have hastened to claim credit for the results. Leaving that aside, unless one includes the US-global financial collapse as a proximate cause, it's very hard to see how these revolts had anything to do with US actions abroad in the form of hostile occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The unstable sectarian regimes and accompanying violence that those occupations involved might closely resemble the post-regime status of some of these countries, but that suggests that our actions are even less useful than previously accounted for at spawning successful and peaceful democratic rebellions.

As another foreign entanglement encroaching on the present, the Georgia-Russia war keeps popping up as some evidence of Putin's territorial designs for expansionism. This ignores that Georgia did much to provoke or even start that war, and that it did so under the expectation that somehow NATO forces would back them up even though NATO forces a) don't have to, b) definitely don't have to if a NATO country starts a war and c) don't have much strategic interest in intervening over a Georgian-Russian territorial dispute.

So what does this mean in the present?

First. American actions abroad may very rarely produce outcomes that are claimed by our leaders as desirable ends. This suggests we should be skeptical not only of forceful actions like deploying troops and equipment, but also that the desirable ends are even achievable at all in some cases. Creating a stable modern government out of Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan has not been achieved in some cases for decades, if not centuries, and has at best a very limited history of upholding, promoting, or sharing, Western democratic values that the formation of instability would result in putative alliances that would provide friendly places to travel, work, and do business between our countries as we might find in say, Europe or much of East Asia. Those relationships were formed over decades too, if not centuries. This means that any positive outcome in Ukraine (or Venezuela, or Syria) would likely have to come out of a long and passive investment with unpleasant growing pains for those countries as they adopted new reforms and policies. It would not be solved by an infusion of American cash via foreign aid or bank loans in most cases, and it would not be resolved by parking aircraft carriers anywhere in particular either.

It is extremely unclear what US missile defence plans in Eastern Europe had to do with Russian territorial pressures or how reducing or altering those plans (often at the behest of the Eastern European nations involved) somehow emboldened aggressive action. People bringing this up have no idea what they are talking about. I am still looking at Mitt Romney and still have no idea what he was talking about on IR concerns. Conservatives trying to hold him up as some kind of hero who would have stood up to Putin need to get a grip. I'd be much more confident the man could have blundered us into a war with Russia over something that doesn't matter very much to us than that he could have single handedly prevented Russian operations with his supposed bravado and acumen. This is not to say that Obama has handled Russia and Putin particularly well. But I have less confidence that Romney or a GOP foreign policy team from their more recent vintage (eg, post-Colin Powell) would have done any better.

Second. American actions abroad often have nothing to do with local and regional concerns of the parties involved. We should not confuse our interests with those of local and regional players. We should be clear about what other parties want out of the situation and that it might not align with our own goals and interests. Perhaps that may mean some interventions would be warranted anyway, but many will not. This is very likely an explanation for why many interventions do not produce the outcomes we claim to desire is that in the race to define our interests, we forget both that we have interests, and, perhaps more important, that other human beings on the planet define their national or regional interests differently than we do. Hegemons can get away with that error but only when they take intelligent actions about where to deploy their forces rather than getting bogged down in every war and every front of action as the US has had a tendency to do and as critics of current policies often wish we would do more often (I'm looking at you Mr McCain, or you, John Bolton).

It seems patently clear that US/NATO policies over the last two decades have been quite expansionary and not exactly peaceful, even if the direction of hostility was no longer the former Soviet bloc that alliance was created to oppose. This course of events and engagements does not justify Putin's actions of hostility in Ukraine and in resolving the Georgia matter a few years ago, but it does explain some of the mindset being deployed behind those actions. And Russia is hardly a minor or local power that American foreign policy establishment figures should have been ignorant of their intentions and reactions to our operations and alliances around them. Similarly it seems far from clear what business it is of Americans who they should support in uprisings, demonstrations, or rebellions or insurrections against de facto tyrants in other countries. Who are our friends in Syria supposed to be anyway? How have we identified them? What of Venezuelans? Are they rising up because of the promise of American democratic capitalism? Unlikely. This seems doubly unlikely that we will be able to choose successfully the winners and losers of a civil discord in another country in a way that will advantage us without it being obvious to the losers of such a discord that we were the benefactor and thus continuing the strife we are setting out to abolish in the first place.

Third, that suggests if there is a need for intervention of any kind, it is unclear what variety of intervention would secure a different outcome than those already at play. What precisely could Americans or Europeans be doing to prevent the Russians from occupying portions of Ukraine? More importantly, why would it be desirable to do whatever that would be. The national sovereignty rights of a large nation are certainly an important interest to protect when they are violated and the possibility of ceding territory are involved. But otherwise, there's not much going on there that should concern us. Russia needs Europeans to buy their natural gas perhaps more than Europeans need them to sell it and it needs a Ukrainian government marginally friendly enough to permit and help enable that trade. But anything other than that is either Russian hubris to believe it can exert that kind of control, or would shut or slow down much access to those markets causing a good deal of commotion in the Russian export economy. Similarly, about the only interest the US had in the Syrian crisis last year (though it persists, nobody here cares), was the use or proliferation of chemical weapons. Once that goal was achieved, through somewhat inept messaging but achieved nonetheless, we don't have much to do with it.
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