Home // 2012 // March

All you need is a subservient population and a lot of cash

A friend of mine of East Coast extraction recently returned from a trip to Boston. He was visiting relations there who are, as is he, well-educated, successful, professionals. Apparently, dinner-table conversation turned to Obamacare (PPACA, if you insist), and his relatives all defended Massachusetts’s health-care “reform” and the controversial federal law which is largely derived therefrom.

“They’re all Democrats,” he told me. “They can’t imagine being anything else. In Massachusetts, almost everybody is a Democrat.”

Furthermore, my friend, a surgeon, pointed out the high concentration of hospitals and medical-research facilities in and around Boston, the high-tech sector, and the long-established concentration of wealth.

“This sort of thing (government-dominated, centralized, mandated health care) can work there. But out here, we don’t have all of that money, and we don’t have the concentration of medical facilities. Most important, people — most people — moved here for a reason. They want to be left alone. They don’t want the government telling them what to do. I didn’t really realize that until I moved here. You can’t impose a plan like this on the people who live out here.”

By the way, wealth plays a major role, so long as it lasts, that is. The Massachusetts legislation was sold as a way to reduce health care costs, but the Beacon Hill Institute points out that “[t]he law did not bring about a promised reduction in health care expenditures. Rather, it permitted the state legislature and governor to expand health insurance coverage to almost all residents, while imposing more than $8 billion in new health care costs to the federal government and on state residents and businesses.” The Cato Institute agrees, finding (PDF) “There are reasons to be concerned about the rapidly growing expense of this program, which even advocates such as Gruber (2009) admit were put aside in the quest for universal coverage.” Driving health care costs through the ceiling isn’t an option in a country that is, simply, broke.

My friend, not surprisingly, is no longer a Democrat. He considers himself an independent, and is desperately looking for an excuse to vote Republican this year — an excuse the GOP seems dead-set on denying socially tolerant, free-market-oriented independents with its ongoing efforts to define itself as the party of homicidal religious fanatics.

Yes, government-mandated, centrally controlled health care can “work,” for a time, in a region of subservient forelock-tuggers, and where deep pockets can be picked to fund the whim of the moment. But, even there, funds eventually run out. And, elsewhere, neither people nor finances are likely to cooperate.

Genetics may make political arguments unwinnable

If you and I entertain such inherently different preferences about the sort of society in which we want to live that common ground is limited, can expansive, top-down policy-making ever be anything more than an in-your-face power play? If political arguments are doomed to be unpersuasive to much of the opposition, no matter how well-stated, because of vast and largely unmovable differences in values and assumptions, isn’t keeping state interference in people’s lives to a minimum a matter not just of political preference, but the only course for avoiding a permanent state of low-level civil war?

I’ve written before about Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt‘s interesting research into the moral foundations of ideology and the different values and assumptions that separate liberals, conservatives and libertarians. These differences hold strong implications for the likely outcome of policy debates, since they make it clear that various factions often speak past each other, since they’re working from varying moral emphases and different concepts of good and bad when it comes to both means and ends — even the language they use can be confusing, since meanings of words vary among the factions.

Now Haidt comes forward with new information suggesting that conversation among ideological opponents can be even more difficult than previously thought. In an article (not yet online), “Born This Way?”, in the latest issue of Reason, Haidt writes of evidence that our ideology is, partially, determined by genetic factors that govern our risk aversion and our openness to new experiences. These innate traits then nudge us along paths in life that tend to reinforce our inherent inclinations.

Haidt is careful to emphasize that we’re not hard-wired into our political beliefs. He’s talking about a nudge that is likely to be self-reinforcing rather than genetically predetermined belief systems.

Genetics explains between one-third and one-half of the variability among people in their political attitudes. Being raised in a liberal or conservative household accounts for much less.

Our genetic traits lead us to respond to situations, pick careers, choose neighborhoods and associate with people in ways that reinforce our tendencies. Haidt points out that society has changed in recent years in ways that make it increasingly easy to surround ourselves with the familiar and like-minded and disassociate from people and situations that would pull us in a different direction.

Technology and changing residential patterns have allowed each of us to isolate ourselves within cocoons of likeminded individuals. In 1976, only 27 percent of Americans lived in “landslide” counties — counties that voted either Democratic or Republican by a margin of 20 percentage points or more. But the number has risen steadily; in 2008, 48 percent of Americans lived in a landslide county.

This same point about Americans self-sorting ourselves along ideological lines was made several years in The Big Sort by Bill Bishop and Robert G. Cushing. Now, Haidt tells us that we’re actually reinforcing genetic traits.

I don’t see anything in this research that’s guaranteed to make liberals, conservatives and libertarians like each other more, or find each other more sympathetic. But I do see lessons here regarding the limits of debate and the wisdom of letting people live their own lives with minimal interference. If we don’t just choose to embrace vastly different beliefs, but we entertain beliefs toward which we’re nudged by our internal source codes, it strikes me as both arrogant and cruel to impose policies on one another that must always be perceived by our opponents as alien and incomprehensible.

Democracy doesn’t change this dynamic, since democratic outcomes may just represent differences in genetic distributions across various populations, with the same impossibility of converting opponents to the majority’s way of thinking.

Yes, we need to be better about trying to understand each other, but I think it’s even more important to make allowances for each other’s preferences. The emphasis should be less on winning overall policy battles than on making as much space as possible for people to live according to their own beliefs — beliefs, it seems, that have their roots at the genetic level.

The super-sneaky trick that defeats TSA’s nude scanners

Believe it or not, the secret to bypassing the new airport “security” scanners is to¬† … wait for it! … hang contraband off your side. That’s because, says blogger/engineer Jonathan Corbett, the scanners display the human body as light, ghost images against a black background, and they display metallic objects as black. So if something metallic is hanging off your side, it literally disappears into the background. He tested his theory at two airports and went through the TSA checkpoint without a hitch each time.

Britain’s Daily Mail points out that Corbett’s revelation about the scanners’ little flaw “comes just weeks after Europe banned the ‘airport strip-searches’ over fears the X-ray technology could cause cancer.”