30 June 2009

Obama on Public vs. Private Health Care

A lot of hay was made about ABC News's special on health care reform, "Questions for the President: Prescription for America," which aired last week. Many conservatives and Republicans complained that it seemed more like a partisan "infomercial" than an objective news story, and they claimed it showed ABC News's bias in favor of President Obama (see here, for example).

The contrast between the way the media treated the Bush administration and the way they are treating the Obama administration is certainly stark, but that is not what struck me about this ABC News special. What leapt out at me was the exchange between one Orrin Devinsky, a neurologist at NYU, and the President during the question-and-answer part of the program. According to this account of the exchange, Dr. Devinsky charged that "elites" often propose health care policies that limit the options of the less privileged, while the elites remain comfortable in the knowledge that they will be able to afford to pay for better care if they want or need it.

Dr. Devinsky then asked President Obama if he would be willing to promise that if his wife or children got sick, he would not seek health care outside of whatever is provided by the public health system he is proposing. President Obama would not make that promise. He replied that "if it's my family member, if it's my wife, if it's my children, if it's my grandmother, I always want them to get the very best care."

Quite a telling response, it seems. It is akin to wealthy politicians who send their children to private schools (as the Obamas do), while opposing education vouchers, credits, or other plans to enable poorer people to have choices as well. I do not begrudge the President wanting "the very best" for his family; I want the same for my family, as I presume you do. But a policy that allows an expanded set of options for wealthy people while restricting the options of everyone else seems, to me, suspicious on the face of it. And that suspicion is only heightened when the elites admit that it would not be good enough for them but that they think it is good enough for everyone else.

23 June 2009

This Just In: Pseudonymous Posting

Well, this is not just in, but a student only just now alerted me to it: John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, was revealed a couple years ago to have been posting on competitors' websites under a pseudonym (see article here).

Mackey is an interesting fellow. He calls himself a "free market libertarian," but he believes a company should, as he says, "try to create value for all of its constituencies"; he claims that as CEO of Whole Foods, he "puts customers ahead of investors" and is interested first and foremost in serving customers, not in turning a pofit (see here).

Apparently, a few years ago, when Whole Foods was considering buying rival Wild Oats Markets, a person calling himself "rahodeb" posted on some of Wild Oats Markets's sites various claims, like that its prices were too high, that it was badly managed, that Whole Foods would not buy it until it went into bankruptcy, etc. It turns out that "rahodeb" was Mackey himself, "rahodeb" being an anagram for "Deborah," his wife's name.

According to the article cited above, when it was later revealed who "rahodeb" was, Mackey dismissed the importance of it all, saying that he was posting only for fun, he never wanted or intended anyone to know it was he who was posting those things, many people post anonymously or under pseudonyms on the internet, and in any case he did not mean everything he said--he was often playing "devil's advocate."

I can relate. So too can many people who have written books, articles, blogs, and postings anonymously or pseudonymously. Sometimes people do this for malicious reasons--they want to attack or discredit others and do not want to take responsibility for their attacks. Other motives are nobler: sometimes people are whistle-blowers who do not want to face retribution; sometimes people work in fields where there is strong pressure for ideological conformity and they wish to express independent views, again without fear of retribution; sometimes people are members of a disfavored sex, race, ethnic group, religion, or political worldview who are not allowed by the "tyranny of the majority" to speak their minds.

As James Taranto recently noted in the WSJ, pseudonymous blogging can be dangerous, even if--as in the case of the modern-day "Publius"--one is serving an important function and engaging in (for the most part) serious commentary. Consider, for example, that many of the Leveller pamphlets that played an important role in bringing about the English Civil Wars were published anonymously, or that John Locke never publicly revealed during his lifetime that he was the author of the Two Treatises of Government published in 1690, or that the Federalist Papers were written not by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay but by "Publius," or that Soren Kierkegaard published under probably dozens of pseudonyms, and on and on. (See this site, which lists scores of pseudonymous authors, some who published under many pseudonyms.)

In all these cases, we should evaluate the writing on the merits, not on the identity of the author or on the fact that it is published anonymously. Who knows what motives an author might have for wishing to keep his identity secret? I think we have a further duty, however: if we somehow discover the true identity of an author writing under a psudonym, unless that author is engaging in clear libel or deliberately malicious attack, we should "play along." That is, we should treat the real person based only on our experiences of the real person; we can, if we like, engage the pseudonymous author as an author, but if the person wants to have separate identities, I think we should respect that.

All of us have many circles in which we turn, many lives, as it were, that we lead. Most of these overlap, but some do not, and some we wish to keep strictly separate from others. If a person has one "life" that he wants to keep strictly separate from another, who are we to judge whether his reasons for doing so are good ones, and who are we to take the liberty of betraying his personal decisions? The issue is one of privacy, and respecting others justified expectations of it. Just because one disagrees with what a pseudonymous author says does not entitle one to indulge the base and indeed wicked instinct of desiring to destroy what one does not like, of "outing" someone who wishes not to be outed.

Back to Mackey: One aspect of his story distinguishes it, perhaps, from the others I have mentioned, namely that he was disparaging a direct competitor in an apparent effort to secure for himself a better financial bargain in the process. If one's pseudonymous writings are designed to profit oneself at the direct expense of others in a way that would not be possible if one's identity were revealed, then that, it seems to me, casts things in a different light. Not to put too fine a point on it, that's pretty low.

Aside from such cases, however (which I believe are pretty rare), I say: Long live the pseudonymous writer! May they continue to agitate, spur, lambaste, discuss openly, investigate, and explore--all without fear of punishment for entertaining heretical ideas.

18 June 2009

What I Am Reading

I have just come across a new book entitled Anarchy as Order: The History and Future of Civic Humanity by Mohammed A. Bamyeh. I do not know Bamyeh, but he is a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. I will read the book with interest.

I am also reviewing two books:

1. Alexander Broadie's new
A History of Scottish Philosophy for the Journal of Scottish Philosophy. Broadie is a professor of logic and rhetoric in the department of history at the University of Glasglow, and a distinguished scholar of the Scottish Enlightenment as well as medieval Scottish philosophy. This book looks to be a massive, and impressive, accomplishment.

2. Tony Aspromourgos's
The Science of Wealth: Adam Smith and the Framing of Political Economy for the Adam Smith Review. I do not know Professor Aspromourgos, but he is a professor of economics and business at the University of Sydney. Since the topic of this book is very close to much of my own work, I look forward to reading it as well.

As always, I welcome suggestions for things I should read. Either post them as comments or send them to me at jimotteson (at) gmail (dot) com.

17 June 2009

Worth a Look: My Next Book

Continuum Press has a webpage dedicated to the works I have already published with them, the 5-volume edited collection The Levellers: Overton, Walwyn and Lilburne (now quite a bargain at only $315 for the whole set!), and the work I am about to publish with them, a monograph entitled simply Adam Smith. The latter is part of the series "Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers," edited by John Meadowcroft of King's College London. I am finishing Adam Smith up now, and it should appear in the Spring of 2010.

Wise Words: Smith on Judging One's Own Character

"Common looking-glasses, it is said, are extremely deceitful, and by the glare which they throw over the face, conceal from the partial eyes of the person many deformities which are obvious to every body besides. But there is not in the world such a smoother of wrinkles as is every man's imagination, with regard to the blemishes of his own character." --Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments III.1.5 (1st ed.)

09 June 2009

Update on USC

UPDATE on my previous post: USC's basketball coach, Tim Floyd, has suddenly resigned, allegedly because he has "lost enthusiasm" for his job. I wonder whether this means that trouble is brewing, or perhaps that the NCAA investigation is finally getting up a head of steam.

Is the NCAA a Cartel?

As a college football fan, I have been following--for about three years now--the apparent NCAA investigation into the athletic programs at the University of Southern California. First it was allegations of wrongdoing with the football team; now there are allegations against the basketball team as well. (See here and here for status reports; here is a columnist arguing that USC should be stripped of its recent football national championship.)

As the NCAA's investigation drags on, month after month, one wonders what, exactly, is taking so long. Here is a recent story in the Los Angels Times that discusses the investigation.

One passage in it particularly struck me. A former investigator for the NCAA, now an attorney in Oklahoma, explained the delay thus: "The NCAA is under no real sense of urgency to wrap this up, even though justice delayed is justice denied. The NCAA is a de-facto cartel, and its product is big-time college football. USC is a major component of that. The NCAA doesn't want USC to be off television or ineligible for bowls."

If the NCAA is in fact a cartel, de facto or otherwise, then that would seem to explain its dilatory behavior: it is acting in its own interest, and not in the interest of the game, the fans, the players, etc. (except incidentally). Perhaps true, but sad if so. It would among other things make a mockery of the NCAA's touting of "academics and athletics at its best" and its practice of calling the players "student athletes."

03 June 2009

Some Quick Hits

1. I guess I grew up after the Glory Days of General Motors, because I have never had the romantic attachment to the company or, as people are putting it now, "what it stood for." I have also never, as a rule, liked any GM cars, and I have never owned one. Why, then, must I be forced to support the company? By what right does the federal government take my tax money and give it to GM even when I don't want their products?

2. Was it not even six months ago when we heard over and over again that GM was "too big to fail"? So the federal government gave it $30 billion in taxpayer money, with most estimating that it will be much more before all is said and done. And yet now it is being allowed to fail?

3. I heard economist Stephen Moore on the news say that by his estimate the federal government is paying $300,000 per job saved at GM. Is that worth it? Why can't we have a national discussion about whether making others bear that enormous cost is justified?

4. A recent Investor's Business Daily editorial claimed that at the end of 2008 every household in America had a debt, courtesy of the federal government, of $546,648. Half a million dollars! And that's not including the household's house, credit cards, cars, etc. The editorial also claims that in just the past year the federal government has saddled each household with an additional $55,000 in debt. In ten years, the federal government debt will be 82% of GDP. How can we continue to allow this massive debt to be heaped upon our children and grandchildren, all so that we can continue to live the good, gadget-filled life? I think it is tantamount to indentured servitude, and it is a moral crime of a high order.

Finally, on a totally different topic:

5. I am re-reading C. S. Lewis's excellent Mere Christianity, and this passage struck me in light of the recent flap about Sotomayor: "The Moral Law does not give us any grounds for thinking that God is 'good' in the sense of being indulgent, or soft, or sympathetic. There is nothing indulgent about the Moral Law. It is as hard as nails. It tells you to do the straight thing and it does not seem to care how painful, or dangerous, or difficult it is to do. If God is like the Moral Law, then He is not Soft."