Monday, March 6, 2017

"Oh No! He's Talking Economics"

I do not consider myself an inordinately smart person.  I do, however, pride myself on being a top-o’-the-line “noticer.”  “Noticing” is primarily what I’ve got going for me.  I cannot originate – e.g., new thoughts or innovations.  I can rarely, bordering on “never” if it’s technology – adequately explain the new thoughts and innovations of others.  I have tried, and people inevitably walk away.  Maybe not literally, but I can see in their eyes that, while “listening to me”, their minds have quietly proceeded to other matters. 

What I can do – he bragged, in his view, justifiably – is notice things.  And then I think about them.  And then – this case being a quintessential example – I write about them.  Because they are interesting.  To me.  And being a person, and you being an agglomeration of persons, imaginably, interesting also to you.  No guarantees about that; I’m just hoping. 

Okay... so.

On a recent “Thursday Walk” I passed a man who, for reasons I am unable to pinpointingly articulate, conveyed the ineffable impression of being a woman.  Even though he was sporting a goatee.  I am not excessively judgmental.  A man can look like a woman.  A woman, if she decides she wants to, can sport a goatee.  My passing glance may be extended a second but that’s it.  I go “Hm” and move on.  (Hoping to, some day, not even go “Hm.”)

Minutes later, in a supermarket, I catch sight of a woman who, to me at least, projected the bearing and characteristics of a man. 

What the heck, I wondered, was going on?

Then I remembered, earlier in the walk, for reasons I no longer remember, the word “transgender” passing fleetingly through my mind.  That triggering precursor must have activated my sensors.  Or so I surmised, as I have no conscious recollection of experiencing “bang-bang” gender curiosity about passing strangers before.

Demonstrating I am hardly a “single-issue noticer”, shortly thereafter, I noticed a clerk addressing a customer in an insultingly loud voice after the customer had been unable to hear her on an earlier occasion.  The clerk’s behavior seemed rudely unnecessary to me.

If she had spoken louder the first time, I would most certainly have heard her.

As you see, my “noticing” emanates in multiple directions.

Which brings me finally to economics.  (The “Oh no!” of the above-written title.  Sorry.  I delayed it as long as I could.)

I have, at best, a rudimentary understanding of economics.  I took one class in what is justifiably nicknamed “The Dismal Science” at UCLA Extension, and as my brain throbbed with talk of “Inflation”, “Interest Rates”, “The Dow”, the “GDP”, “The International Trade Imbalance”, “Unemployment Statistics” and the “Deficit”, among other “meaningful indicators”, I departed that experience with one dominating certainty:

I would never take an economics class again!

Still, you notice things – because you’re you and they’re there – what you notice generating – I think but you can individually decide – the very simplest of questions.  Leading you to wonder, “If I, who was spun propulsively out of that classroom like a sock in the dryer with the door open – assuming a dryer will continue working with the door open which it probably won’t – if I, a proverbial ignoramus, see these very simplest of questions staring me troublingly in the face… I mean, is it possible – it isn’t, is it? – that I see these questions but the economists – evidenced by their never talking about them – don’t?

Two Examples:

I am having lunch with my Financial Adviser, who is discoursing about “retarded growth” due to “falling productivity”, to which I reflexively remark,

“Slacker robots!

Our encounter leads me to ponder our vaunted capitalist system.  (Which I wholeheartedly support.  You need a Financial Adviser, you give the “System” that engendered that miraculous happenstance an appreciative “Thank you.”) 

Having a legitimate – at least comparatively – economics maven sitting across the table from me, I take the fortuitous opportunity to inquire:

“If, in the ‘Capitalist Model’, competition is the prevailing mechanism for driving down prices, why in the arenas of health care, pharmaceuticals and the insurance industry, have prices continued to scarily go up?”

My Financial Adviser replies to that question, but you will have to consult his blog for the answer.  (Spoiler Alert:  He does not have one.)  I exclude his response here for space purposes, and also because I was unable to understand it.  Although I got that, even as an avowed believer that “the government can’t do everything”, the man acknowledged that what I had mentioned was a legitimate problem, whose ultimate solution may possibly require “outside” – Read: governmental – intervention.  (Economics experts among you are encouraged to “Weigh in.”)

So there was that.

The following morning – my activated sensors on the rampage again – I notice an “op-ed” article in the paper written by an expert on political economist Karl Marx, who, the expert reveals, was a powerful advocate for “Free Trade” – because the policy was so destructive to the “working proletariat” it would facilitate the coming revolution.  I had not – among trillions of other things – been aware of that factoid – “The First Commie”, championing “Free Trade.”

This tidbit of information leads me to wonder, “If this information was historically known and generally accepted, why, before they subscribed to those international ‘Free Trade’ agreements did the Government of all the People not anticipate these destructive consequences on the “working proletariat” and make preemptive accommodations for a caring and workable transition?” 

You see how I question both sides?

“He was a fair man.  He didn’t know anything, but he was fair.”

Thank you.  Okay, so it’s not the loftiest contributions.  But that’s what I do.  

Just noticing.

Just thinking about it.

And just writing it down.


Mike T. said...

“If, in the ‘Capitalist Model’, competition is the prevailing mechanism for driving down prices, why in the arenas of health care, pharmaceuticals and the insurance industry, have prices continued to scarily go up?”

Unfortunately, the United States has not had anything approaching the "Capitalist Model" of healthcare for decades, and that is exactly why prices are rising so precipitously. The healthcare sector is riddled with laws, mandates, and regulations that interfere with the free market, preventing it from keeping prices at appropriate levels.

As you know, supply and demand determine prices, even in a highly non-free market. Government intervention has combined simultaneously to restrict supply and increase demand, which naturally drives prices through the roof.

On the supply side, there are licensing laws for healthcare practitioners, including ones giving the American Medical Association--hardly a disinterested party--a practical monopoly on deciding who gets to practice medicine and who does not. Many states have Certificate of Need laws, which require those wishing to build hospitals or open clinics or even buy new medical equipment to get permission from the state--with the acquiescence of their competitors--to do so. (The federal government used to have a CON law but ditched it after finding that it raised healthcare costs by restricting supply.) The FDA restricts the supply of pharmaceuticals, making them cost billions of dollars to develop and pass the agency's tests, while keeping other promising treatments off the market for years and persecuting those who sell natural remedies. (FDA approval is hardly a guarantee of a drug's safety, as witness occasional recalls of dangerous approved drugs, but it helps drug companies reap bigger profits.) And those are just a few examples.

On the demand side, government mandates have virtually forced all healthcare to be paid for by third parties, and who worries about the bills he's running up when someone else is footing them? Health insurance, like auto or homeowner's insurance, should be for catastrophic care, not routine doctor visits or minor procedures. Instead, starting in the 1930s, insurance slowly became the primary payer of healthcare expenses. First the Blues (Cross and Shield) sought to do this in order to make sure doctors and hospitals got paid in cash, but they requested the privilege of being considered nonprofits, which they got in return for accepting community rating, meaning everyone paid roughly the same premiums regardless of how much he was drawing in benefits. That introduced what economists call "moral hazard," encouraging people to take less care of themselves. Then during World War II, the feds imposed wage freezes but ruled that in-kind benefits such as health insurance were not taxable, so employers began to offer increasingly generous insurance as a way to attract employees. State and federal governments have imposed numerous mandates on insurers, such as those requiring certain procedures to be covered, that have increased the cost of insurance. Beginning in a big way in the 1960s with Medicare and Medicaid, the feds tried to repair the damage earlier interventions had wrought by subsidizing healthcare for some members of society at the expense of others. All of this combined to vastly increase demand for healthcare. Put that together with the restricted supply, and it's no wonder prices have kept rising at breakneck speed.

(Continued in next comment.)

Mike T. said...

You suggested that "government intervention" might be needed to resolve this problem, but it should be obvious from the brief overview I've just given you that government intervention is, in fact, the primary cause of the problem and that the solution is not to pile on more interventions in a vain effort to fix the problems created by earlier ones but to repeal the earlier ones. If the free market were really allowed to function in healthcare as it is to a much greater degree in other sectors, prices really would come down to reasonable levels. Healthcare, after all, is a commodity just like food, clothing, shelter, computers, iPhones, and so on.

Karl Marx, who, the expert reveals, was a powerful advocate for “Free Trade” – because the policy was so destructive to the “working proletariat” it would facilitate the coming revolution.

Marx, as usual, was wrong. Genuine free trade--not the kind cooked up in so-called "free trade" agreements that allow governments to reward political cronies--is of benefit to all concerned. Think about it: If it's beneficial for me to trade with my next-door neighbor (and it is, or the trade wouldn't happen), why wouldn't it be beneficial for me to trade with someone in the next city, state, or country? Free trade among countries allows countries to specialize in the things they produce best at the lowest prices, trading these goods and services with each other for mutual benefit. A country that tries to produce everything it needs will not prosper because it will be wasting resources on unproductive pursuits.

Workers may temporarily feel worse off because of free trade (if, say, the company they work for goes under because of foreign competition), but restricting trade will not help them in the long run. It will only benefit inefficient but politically connected businesses at the expense of their customers, who will be forced to pay higher prices. Then they (if they are businesses) will either have to raise their prices, costing workers in the protected industries more, or reduce their capital outlays, resulting in fewer and more expensive products for the workers in the protected industries to purchase.

P.S. If you're interested in learning more about economics in layman's terms, might I suggest reading Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson? It's a fairly short book, and there's a free download available here. Also, since I know you like to listen to books, you could try getting an audio version here, though most likely not for free.