Thursday, March 25, 2010

health care and immigration

Health care reform has passed. I'm mostly ambivalent about this. I've heard of a lot of good cost-saving measures that are going to be tried, and the excise tax is good. I'm ambivalent about making universal health care the federal government's prerogative. But I'm skeptical that a giant new entitlement is going to go hand in hand with cutting health care inflation. And I also just have no idea of all of the nasty little surprises that are doubtless in the bill because, despite appearances, I'm actually a graduate student in physical chemistry and not a professional policy blogger. When congressional proponents of the bill say we'll have pass the bill to see what's in it, my confidence is not enhanced. And while everyone likes to say this isn't the last word on health care and we can fix the sundry fuck-ups later, some nasty surprises are really sticky. Of course my favorite example is the employer health insurance tax subsidy itself, which had innocuous beginnings in WWII wage and price controls and didn't start causing problems until decades later, by which time it had become politically untouchable.

I'm not inherently interested in health care policy, so when it all got very complicated my eyes started to glaze over, even though I think the health care status quo is truly lamentable. I wonder how my interest in and attitude toward all the compromises and horse-trading will differ for an issue I am deeply interested in. Murmurs around the campfire suggest that Obama wants to tackle immigration reform next. The current immigration policy is also lamentable, with 12 million or so immigrants under the radar and therefore easily taken advantage of and unable to seek legal recourse; it's my impression that immigration enforcement has become more brutal since 9/11, though it's been a couple years since I read Edward Alden's great book, Closing of the American Border. 387,790 illegal immigrants were deported by the Obama administration in fiscal year 2009, a 5% increase from Bush's last year in office. And 5,600 migrants have died crossing the border over the last fifteen years. And I just generally think it's crass that all visa applicants are treated as if they're potential terrorists instead of welcome visitors, whether they're well-regarded academics, businesspeople, or anyone else.

But the last time immigration reform was attempted, Bush's mostly laudable effort in 2007, the result was easily worse than the status quo. A 700 mile fence was commissioned and a few thousand more border guards were hired. Will the new immigration reform include stretching the fence across the whole border? Or doubling the fence? I'm sure some asshole out there has already suggested electrifying the fence. One idea for the new attempt at immigration reform includes mandatory biometric IDs for all individuals working in America. Maybe it's just my libertarian paranoia that makes me uncomfortable with getting saddled with yet more documentation to keep for perusal of the authorities. There's a general allergy to the dreaded amnesty, and any reform that has a hope of passing will include fines for current illegal immigrants and measures to make current illegal immigrants go "to the back of the line". I'm not even sure what "back of the line" means. Seeing how we always have more people wanting to immigrate than our visa caps allow, will this mean effective deportation? A fine is reasonable depending on the size of the fine. A fine too large will keep illegal immigrants in the shadows. There are many ways immigration reform could make things worse than the status quo. I hope for the best.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

ten 'books' that have influenced my thinking

Maybe it was just my corner of the Nets that was boring last week, but about the most interesting thing I read was a meme from Tyler Cowen, picked up by Matt Yglesias and Will Wilkinson, among others. I tried to come up with ten books and came up short. Like Ezra Klein, I've grown up in a time when books are not the primary source of even the big chunks of information or worldview I get. Following a blog over the course of years is an intellectually comparable endeavor to reading a book, and I think it can be just as rewarding. The existence of hyperlinks and real time rebuttal and fleshing out from other bloggers adds real value as well. Of course, books are often more carefully researched, but it's fine for the different media to fill different needs. Anyway, on to a rough and ready list of ten big influences.

  1. Atlas Shrugged. This is the only work of fiction on this list, and I don't know what that says about me. My pre-Rand worldview is hazy, but before I read AS in tenth grade I had been on the way to overcoming the conservatism of my family and becoming a liberal of some kind, mostly on the basis of my fresh distaste for religion and a perception of a lack of compassion among conservatives. AS persuaded me of the morality of pursuing one's own happiness, turned me into a cheerleader for laissez-faire capitalism, and conditioned me to more or less loathe the caricatures in my head of modern liberalism. Though I was already a deist at the time, I think AS hardened me against all spiritual mumbo-jumbo and quackeries.
  2. While I read a few books on libertarianism, what really influenced me further in that direction, and into full-on anarchocapitalism, was a group of websites I read regularly from late high school through college, including,, and There were also a bunch of random anarchist essays I found, like Wendy McElroy's Demystifying the State.
  3. The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. I was no creationist beforehand, but after reading this I felt like I really grasped the power and elegance of evolution by natural selection. I think here is where I was first introduced to game theory and the idea that unthinking automata blindly following simple algorithms can lead to incredible complexity. And I put a lot of stock in Dawkins' memes as well.
  4. Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. The broad swathes of history are determined by impersonal factors such as geography. This is humbling, and does a lot of damage to simplistic ideologies.
  5. Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennett. Consciousness is distributed in time and space, and the brain is parallel. And we're all zombies and that's okay.
  6. The Myth of the Rational Voter, by Bryan Caplan. Voters have systematic biases that go predictably in the same direction and don't just happily cancel out. Though I'd given up on anarchism by the time I read this, it had left me with a distrust of democracy. This put that distrust on a firmer footing. Which is not to say the whole idea should be tossed aside. We work with what we have, and acknowledge the limitations.
  7. Constitution of Liberty, by Friedrich A. Hayek. Every liberaltarian's hero. He stresses a pragmatic case for liberty, that society is an evolutionary system, and liberty is what allows the system to sample the greatest space of possibilities. "It is because every individual knows so little and… because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it."
  8. Nonzero, by Robert Wright. History has a direction. We find new ways to tie our fates together, whether on purpose or not, whether we like it or not. This ratchets up complexity and leads to new opportunities for cooperation. This book (and Constitution of Liberty as well) made me way more comfortable than libertarians are supposed to be with welfare states and state aggregations (like the expanding EU and international organizations).
  9. Filthy Lucre: Economics for People Who Hate Capitalism, by Joseph Heath. Aside from learning lots of interesting things, this book really made me think about ideological arguments in terms of tribalism. It's amazing how ideological tribes miss huge chunks of understanding. Cognitive biases and tribalism constitute the core of my thinking about politics and every ideology-prone topic.
  10. Reason Magazine and the Economist. That said, you can't get rid of biased and tribal thinking; I think the best you can do is name and understand the shortcomings of your tribe and biases. I get most of my news about the world through Reason Magazine, a libertarian movement magazine with a mostly cosmotarian flavor, and the Economist, a neoliberal source.