Stupid Religious Tricks

The pro-lifers want to spend $4 million on a Super Bowl ad. What would possess anyone to waste that sort of money on an advertisement that will be tuned out by 99.99% of the viewership? Considering that such ads have not been approved by the networks or the NFL in the past, I sense that much of this story is an attempt to get some free publicity for the forced childbirth lobby.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the ad does air. And let us further assume that the true goal of the pro-lifers is reduction of abortions (this is debatable; and I say that as someone with deep experience in the pro-life community). Is this money well spent? In other words, will anyone considering an abortion not have one due to this ad? I would say that is very unlikely. But imagine if we used that $4 million to promote better access to birth control, or provide comprehensive sex education. In other words, why not spend the money on programs that will actually reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in the first place?

I will tell you why. Because most of the pro-life community are religious zealots who not only oppose abortion, but also oppose birth control and sex education. And there is more than a little bit of a desire to “punish those dirty little sluts.” To the pro-life community, the fetus is nothing more than a fetish or idol. It’s tempting to say that their concern for life begins at conception and ends when the baby passes through the birth canal, but they do not even care about prenatal care for the fetus or its mother. You won’t see them lobbying for adequate children’s health care or increasing aid to poor families with children, either.

And beyond the lack of efficacy is an even bigger question about priorities. Why spend $4 million to air a 30 second ad about abortion when there are tens of thousands of children going hungry each day? Or when many of those same children do not have a bed to call their own?

It’s because the Religious Right is obsessed with sex. Never mind that the Bible speaks far more often about alleviating poverty and taking care of the needy than it ever does about human sexuality. Why bother helping to feed the hungry when you can rail against some gay people who want to get married? Why try to alleviate homelessness when there are women who want an abortion?

Nothing makes me more angry than these religious assholes. They are exploiting people’s faith for monetary gain. It’s all a fucking scheme. Many, if not most, of the leaders probably care very little about gays or abortion. What they do care about, though, is the amount of money that will come rolling in every time they attack the “sinners.” I hope that there is a special place in hell for these hucksters and their flocks.

Valuing Altruism

It is no secret that economics gets some things wrong. Despite my own fairly heterodox views, I find that neoclassical economics offers one of the best tool kits for analyzing public policy. Unlike others, I am not averse to using dollars to capture what are non-monetary values.

A case in point is determining the value of altruism to the individual. First, I should mention that for the uber-rational folks, there is very little room for altruism; it simply does not fit into their model of rational maximization. Let us leave that aside for now for other questions. Particularly, why do we need to measure altruism and how can we measure it.

I would argue that without some understanding of how people value altruism, we can not estimate labor markets in general, and the public and not for profit sectors specifically. It’s common sense to assume that people select careers and specific jobs for a whole host of reasons, including salary, benefits, prestige, fit, and so on. Some of these values are fairly idiosyncratic and beyond measurement. Others are more difficult to measure, like altruism.

People enter careers in the public and not for profit sectors for various reasons, but most, if not all, do so for what I shall call its altruistic premium. The altruistic premium is that amount of non-monetary benefit received from working in these sectors. It should be obvious that the AP is not a specific amount, and will vary both with the individual as well as the job. In other words, it is extremely difficult to quantify.

But just because something is tough to measure does not mean we ought not endeavor to do so. What I would argue is that, in some measure, people are revealing their preference for altruism by accepting employment in a job whose wage is below that which their skills and education would receive in the labor market. Herein lies another layer of difficulty- how do we specify the labor market, do we include everything but the public and not for profit sector or do we include the entire labor market? If we opt for the latter, we might underestimate the value of altruism as the lower wages in the public and not for profit sector will push the market wage down. Though, if we instead look only to the private sector wage rate, we could overstate the value of the altruistic premium. This is so because there may be some other characteristic/trait of the person working in the public or not for profit sector that would diminish their market value.

Another measurement problem is that what I have labeled the altruistic premium might also include some other idiosyncratic values. For example, in some segments of the population, public service is highly valued as an end in itself. Therefore, people who are so motivated might be willing to take a lower than market wage more for the prestige of the position than for its altruistic premium.

Again, I am under no illusion that the altruistic premium would be easy to measure. But the value of such a measure is that it allows us a richer understanding of  labor market decisions. I would argue that it also has some carry over to the private sector. Some individuals for are altruistically inclined might opt for the private sector, yet choose an employer who has volunteer friendly policies. Or one that simply keeps the work week to forty hours, rather than sixty. Understanding how people make their labor market decisions has wide implications not only for public policy, but also holds pertinent information for private firms.

Now, back to the rational maximizer. I would argue that altruism is not in conflict with notions of maximization. We already assume that people include leisure time in their utility functions. I am not convinced that we ought to lump altruism into leisure, as I think the trade off is more complex than one of leisure/altruism v. work. Altruism could come at the price of both or either, really.

Hopefully the methodological difficulty does not keep mainstream economics for placing more emphasis on altruism.

Vic Chesnutt, RIP

Vic Chesnutt passed away on Christmas. He had been in a coma for two days, the result of an intentional overdose of painkillers. Vic was always open about his struggles with depression, despair and hopelessness. Even so, his death was a shock.

The holidays are a particularly difficult time for anyone who suffers from depression. As the season changes and the days grow colder and shorter, a sense of despair can become overwhelming. To that, add the stressors of the holiday season. Or, for some, the lack of family or loved ones only underscores their lack of connectedness to the world.

The stigma attached to depression has lessened significantly over the past twenty years, but it still persists. Too often people fall back on stereotypes and prejudices, assuming that people who suffer from depression just have a case of the blues and need to buck up. If it were that easy, there would be no depressed people. Though some depression is situational, most includes a biochemical component.

Chances are someone you know or love has fought through depression at some point in their life. It is not an easy task, and it is made so much more difficult when that person faces cruel stereotypes and lack of support from his/her family and friends. The reality is that depression is not something one can surmount on their own. It takes a support network of family, friends and clinical help.

Vic had that support network, yet he still succumbed to suicide. The pain was simply too great for him to bear any longer. Perhaps Vic’s death can serve as a powerful reminder about how fragile life is. And how quickly it can be lost.

Please, learn the warning signs (here). And, be good to each other.

If I Were Advising Deval Patrick

With the gubernatorial election just over 10 months away and with approval ratings that are pretty much in the dumpster, Governor Patrick can use all the help he can get. For those readers not up to date on the current field, there are two Republican candidates and one independent (former Democrat) vying for the opportunity to unseat the incumbent governor.

First, on the Republican side, are Christy Mihos, a former independent candidate for governor, and Charlie Baker, a former cabinet secretary in the Weld and Cellucci administrations and former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare. Mihos does not offer too many specifics on his website, but the picture it does paint is of a somewhat conservative Republican, particularly on social issues. He favors opt-in for sex education and opposes the use of embryonic stem cells, for example. Mihos has also called for the state to guarantee 40% of its revenues to cities and towns.

Charlie Baker is what is known here as a Weld Republican. It’s essentially our version of the old Rockefeller Republicans- fiscally conservative, socially tolerant. As I have written before, Baker selected an openly gay state senator to serve as his running mate. Similar to Mihos, Baker has called for a change to local aid, such that a defined share of state taxes would be set aside for local aid (unlike Mihos, he does not peg a certain percentage). Baker also calls for the repeal of this year’s sales tax increase, but couples that with support for closing the educational achievement gap and tweaking the state’s health reform efforts (including forcing providers to make public their rates). Socially divisive issues like abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research are absent from Baker’s website.

The independent in the race is former Democrat, and current state treasurer, Tim Cahill. As of yet, Cahill has taken no specific positions (at least as represented on his website) other than arguing (correctly, I might add) that local aid needs to be on the table when discussing budget cuts. Otherwise, all Cahill offers is boilerplate language about being a fiscal conservative and being opposed to tax increases.

Now that is out of the way…. here is the advice I would give to the Governor.

  1. Ignore Tim Cahill entirely. He will be a non-factor in the general, except to siphon off some anti-incumbent votes from the GOP nominee. Also, his position on local aid, though right, is political suicide. Cutting local aid is akin to being opposed to apple pie and motherhood.
  2. Begin campaigning against Baker, but keep it at least somewhat below the surface. Baker is the prohibitive favorite on the GOP side. He has the pedigree and the political moderation to actually win in a blue state like Massachusetts.
  3. Also, the right messaging early on could help to expose fissures in the GOP. For example- focus on tying Baker to the national GOP, who are probably the only group of folks less popular in MA right now than the Governor. This presents Baker with a choice- distance himself from the Party or owning some of the insanity. It’s a win for Patrick either way. If Baker distances himself, he risks fomenting a teabagger uprising (yes, they really do exist even here) that would drive support to Mihos and force Baker into a much more difficult September primary than he has planned. If, on the other hand, Baker fails to distance himself from the national party, the opportunities to tie the GOP around his neck are endless, especially in a blue state like MA.
  4. Ignore Mihos. He has next to no chance of being the eventual GOP nominee. Plus, any messaging that weakens Mihos makes Baker’s path to November much easier.

I am under no illusions that the Governor will actually consider my advice. Not only has he proven remarkably inept at governing, but (notwithstanding 2006) he is an amazingly poor politician. Clearly no state executive is going to be the most popular person in the state during a fiscal crisis, but Governor Patrick has made more than his fair share of optical missteps as well as tactical errors. His one saving grace may just be that he’s not a Republican.

Merry Christmas

As some of you may know, I am not a Christian though I was raised that way. However, I do choose to celebrate Christmas for a couple of reasons. One is merely the tradition and the opportunity to give thanks to loved ones. But the more important reason is to think deeply about the teachings of Jesus, especially as they relate to the hungry, poor and needy.

It would be impossible to read the Bible and not realize that, above all else, Jesus taught us to care for one another. The Canonical Gospels, particularly Luke, are filled with admonitions to care for the poor, sick and needy. And Jesus also says that following the first two commandments of the Decalogue fulfills all the others. To those who may have forgotten, the second is, “you shall love thy neighbor as thyself.”

It is my hope that you will reflect on Christ’s teachings. Consider what they mean and how you can better walk with Christ. I bid you all a very Merry Christmas.

“For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in; I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…I tell you whenever you do these things for the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me.”      — Matthew 25:35-40

A Trustee Not a Delegate

This piece on Tom Perriello has gotten a fair bit of coverage over the past two days. And justifiably so. You see, Perriello actually understands his job as a Congressman in a constitutional republic/representative democracy. Unlike his peers who obsess over poll numbers and the next election, he instead is focused on “doing the best damn job (he) could do representing the people of the 5th District and making a difference.”

This brings us to a larger point- our representatives ought to serve as trustees, not delegates. The greatest achievement of representative democracy is its tempering of majorities and the masses. Senators and representatives are free to vote in whatever way they believe is in the best interests of their constituents, their state or region, the country and/or their party. This autonomy provides a bulwark against popular delusions of the masses, and allows members of Congress to think beyond short term political gain.

However, there are those who would have our senators and representatives vote strictly according to the wishes of a majority of his/her constituents. But not only would this result in crude majoritarianism, but how would we determine the true majority will of the constituents? Should members of Congress poll their districts/states before all votes? Just major votes? Should the poll results from a similar question six months ago remain valid for a vote today? Obviously, one can take this to absurd extremes, but they remain valid questions.

Even in our trustee style system, politicians will still not stray too far from what their constituents desire. There are, obviously, strong political pressures not to deviate, including the desire to be re-elected. And that is as it should be. But we should also expect our members of Congress to see beyond our own parochial and short term interests.

Don’t Let the Door Hit Ya

Before people get too worked up about Parker Griffith, the party switching Congressman, I have to wonder just why Griffith was ever a Democrat. That is not to say that the Democratic Party, or the Republican Party, ought to have some sort of strict ideological litmus test for its members. A political party is at its strongest when it includes more than just a narrow band of true believers.

But Griffith ran in a somewhat Republican district, opposed most (all?) major Democratic legislative initiatives, and stated that he would not vote for Speaker Pelosi the next time around. So what did Griffith get from running as a Democrat? I mean, aside from the over one million dollars poured into his race by the DCCC.