The Underground George Osborne

Paul Krugman has taken on the Conservatives’ new budget, which proposes tax cuts, spending increases (until the election) and reducing the budget deficit in some unspecified way.

Osborne produces a ludicrous budget, and even commentators who acknowledge that it’s ludicrous give him credit for showing

a keen understanding of the constraints facing the country

Think about that: someone says that 2+2=5, and gets credit, because it shows that he recognizes how hard it is to live within the constraint of 2+2 just equalling 4.

Admittedly, it looks like vote-grubbing flimflam, but maybe we’re misunderestimating (to use a phrase popular among conservative Georges) the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Maybe, when you look past the snazzy new haircut we would see a soul in existential crisis, who would cry out from the floor of the Commons like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man:

“Upon my word, they will shout at you, it is no use protesting: it is a case of twice two makes four! Nature does not ask your permission, she has nothing to do with your wishes, and whether you like her laws or dislike them, you are bound to accept her as she is, and consequently all her conclusions. A wall, you see, is a wall … and so on, and so on.”

Merciful Heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason I dislike those laws and the fact
that twice two makes four? Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength.

As though such a stone wall really were a consolation, and really did contain some word of conciliation, simply because it is as true as twice two makes four. Oh, absurdity of absurdities! How much better it is to understand it all, to recognise it all, all the impossibilities and the stone wall; not to be reconciled to one of those impossibilities and stone walls if it disgusts you to be reconciled to it; by the way of the most inevitable, logical combinations to reach the most revolting conclusions on the everlasting theme, that even for the stone wall you are yourself somehow to blame, though again it is as clear as day you are not to blame in the least…

Math and science

Corey Robin updates us on l’affaire Salaita. I was struck by his comment

Thirty-four heads of departments and academic units at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wrote a scorching letter to the University of Illinois’s new president[…] Clearly, far from diminishing, the controversy on campus has only expanded.

What’s even more amazing is where it has expanded: three of the signatories are chairs of the departments of chemistry, math, and statistics. The opposition has spilled beyond the walls of the humanities and social sciences. During the summer, lots of folks dismissed this story because the natural sciences weren’t involved. Well, some of them are now.

Math and statistics aren’t really natural sciences, in the crucial economic sense. The people who dismiss the boycott because it’s just the humanities and social sciences are somewhat expressing a sense that those academics are woolly-headed cultural relativists; but even more, I think it’s about the idea that “serious” academics have big grants and big labs and generally deal with big money. Chemistry is the outlier here. Math and statistics are still much more constructed on the same economic model as the humanities, hence barely one step removed from socialism.

Are you demographic? part 2

I was just eavesdropping on a conversation by a notorious American expatriate Republican, who likes to preach to the heathens British. I can see the appeal for both sides: He gets to spool out superficial right-wing talking points without being challenged, because his interlocutor has no sense of the details; and the Brits feel like they’re hearing some inside dope that sounds entirely different than the line they get from the British press. For instance, America is two nations — coasts and interior (presumably the Great Lakes count as oceans for this purpose) — and that the liberal coastal states are about to sink under the weight of their unfunded mandates

So the future belongs to heartland Republicans, and one reason, he explains, is that the liberal Babylon is losing population to the right-thinking interior. This isn’t entirely true: West coast states are all growing at above-average rates, as are Maryland and Delaware. It’s mostly the industrial Midwest that’s sinking. But the argument is based on an assumption that geography is destiny. Growing the demographic power of staunchly Republican states is not the same thing as growing the demographic power of Republicans.

People don’t adopt the political colours of their new homes (as this fellow should surely understand) rapid growth of North Carolina and Virginia, for example, has been linked to migration from less conservative regions, and to urbanisation, both of which have converted reliably Republican-voting states into Democratic-leaning ones. Population growth in Florida, Texas, Colorado, and Nevada has been cited by many experts as harbingers of future Democratic strength, as much of the increase is coming in Hispanic populations, who have shown much higher affinity with the Democrats.

(The habit of describing ethnic minority voters as being demographically determined was the target of my previous Are you demographic? post.)


What people don’t know about the NHS

… is that it is incredibly cheap. I was speaking recently with a British colleague, who asked how I liked being back in the UK after a year on sabbatical. I mentioned that there are things I really appreciate about living in California, but one of the things I like best about the UK is the NHS. Even without any significant health problems in the family, the incomparable irrationality of the US healthcare system (though even calling it a “system” seems overly generous) is palpably unnerving, at the very least since you’re occasionally confronted with the question of whether this or that problem is significant enough to go to the hospital for, and then you have to consider whether it’s worth entering into a multiyear negotiation over fictional bills for thousands of dollars.

Anyway, I remarked that I wish the UK would just raise its health spending to the European average, that it would be far and away the best in the world, as opposed to limping along as it does now, being the best for equality, but clearly overstretched, and not quite matching the top national healthcare systems. I thought this was simply a platitude, but he seemed genuinely surprised by the claim. On further questioning, he said that he would have thought the NHS was relatively expensive compared with healthcare in western Europe generally.

In fact, UK health expenditures are low, not just compared with the wealthy countries of western and northern Europe, but with respect to the EU generally — including the relatively poor countries of eastern Europe. They would have to spend an additional 6 billion pounds — about a 5% increase — to match the EU average. In 2011 the UK was below average healthcare spending for the OECD, and was still only average after removing the exceptionally high spending USA. (The US, despite the notoriously expensive private healthcare system of which its right-thinking populace is so proud, has considerably more public healthcare expenditure per capita than the UK, on top of the private system. And life expectancy is still several years shorter.)

I wonder if the public would demand more spending on the NHS, rather than accepting the government line about necessary efficiencies and the magic of privatisation, if they knew how efficient the NHS already is, and how little they are spending on healthcare compared with their European neighbours, not to mention the profligate Americans and Canadians.



The tortoise and Achilles enforce property rights

I’ve commented before about how Lewis Carroll’s “What the Tortoise said to Achilles” identifies a paradigmatic gap between principles and action, which may be summarised as “Yeah, what are you going to do about it?”
I was recently reading Jerome K. Jerome’s brilliant comic memoir “Three Men in a Boat”, which reads like a lost work of Mark Twain, if Mark Twain had been a Victorian English dandy (as, I suppose, he almost was in his later years). There was this account:

We stopped under the willows by Kempton Park, and lunched. It is a pretty little spot there: a pleasant grass plateau, running along by the water’s edge, and overhung by willows. We had just commenced the third course—the bread and jam—when a gentleman in shirt-sleeves and a short pipe came along, and wanted to know if we knew that we were trespassing. We said we hadn’t given the matter sufficient consideration as yet to enable us to arrive at a definite conclusion on that point, but that, if he assured us on his word as a gentleman that we were trespassing, we would, without further hesitation, believe it.

He gave us the required assurance, and we thanked him, but he still hung about, and seemed to be dissatisfied, so we asked him if there was anything further that we could do for him; and Harris, who is of a chummy disposition, offered him a bit of bread and jam.

I fancy he must have belonged to some society sworn to abstain from bread and jam; for he declined it quite gruffly, as if he were vexed at being tempted with it, and he added that it was his duty to turn us off.

Harris said that if it was a duty it ought to be done, and asked the man what was his idea with regard to the best means for accomplishing it. Harris is what you would call a well-made man of about number one size, and looks hard and bony, and the man measured him up and down, and said he would go and consult his master, and then come back and chuck us both into the river.

In other words, you can accept the principles of property rights as far as the most devoted libertarian would wish to push them, but they still get you nowhere without a plan of action to enforce them.