Towards A Good Samaritan World

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Andrew Sullivan thinks the blogosphere has gotten more polarized in the past year:

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "My anxiety about the blog world is not that it will put us out of business but that it contributes to an erosion of middle ground, that it accelerates a general polarization of the nation into people, right and left, who are ardently convinced and not very interested in exposing themselves to facts or ideas that contradict their prejudices." - Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, in an email to Jeff Jarvis, who dissents. The point, surely, is that the blog world can go either way. It's not a utopia. It's subject to the same polarizing forces that beset a deeply divided polity. Jeff's blog is one that manages to build some kind of dialogue between the two sides, in his own internal discourse. But that's rare, isn't it? And isn't it rarer now than it was a year ago?

Has the blogosphere gotten more partisan? I don't know how you would measure it. For one thing, no one could possibly read the whole blogosphere. My impression is that it's not so much that the blogosphere is more partisan, but that there's a certain solidarity against the reactionary left among all those who feel they have something to say and have dreams of changing the world, i.e. among bloggers.

Not all. But most.


  • I was polarized this year, toward the left.

    By Blogger Nato, at 2:20 PM  

  • Were you really polarized toward the left? Maybe this is semantic. For some, 2004 was the culmination of alienation against the Bush administration. In your case, as in Sullivan's I guess, the budget deficit and gay marriage are the biggest reasons. But how about Social Security? How about immigration? How about free trade?

    Right now, the Bush administration is considering a wide range of possible Social Security reforms, some of which would make our overall tax-and-transfer system considerably more progressive. The Democrats' policy is sheer demagoguery and denial. Here Mickey Kaus, a Kerry supporter, but one who is open-minded about the ownership society, seems more like a friend to the Bush camp.

    What is a Democrat to blog about? Josh Marshall, to give just one example, doesn't even hint at offering any solutions. All he can write is a drum-beat to organize the opposition against change.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 2:52 PM  

  • The "ownership society" encourages long-term economic efficiency wrt subsidizing labor immobility which in turn lends itself to structural un-and-under-employment. This can be mitigated in dense city environments, but dense cities get pretty raw deals from the federal govt. A great deal of metropolitan problems are self-inflicted (rent control, arcane zoning laws), but a great deal come from feel-good bad infrastructure subsidies as well.

    As for immigration, Bush has certainly been able to do more than the Dems ever have because he has the power to move the GOP, but the Dems in general would be happy to go several steps further. As for Social Security, I would normally be fair enough to not point out that Bush's medicare drug policy was such a huge step in the wrong direction that even if he fixed Social Security tomorrow, he'd still have to repeal his own laws to have made overall progress.

    As for Josh Marshall et al, well, I won't say I've warmed up to Democratic leadership at all. However, my tolerance for opposition cravenness has risen as my horror at the current state of things has escalated. I carry almost personal vendetta against Wolfowitz, for example, and I've become increasingly jaded about Rumsfeld. Probably the only administration figure about whom I feel a little bit better is Cheney.

    By Blogger Nato, at 3:25 PM  

  • I've always supported free trade - nothing that's happened this year has influenced that at all, though, Bush's sometimes protectionism didn't endear him to me.

    By Blogger Nato, at 3:27 PM  

  • Nato,

    Why are you so sure that the prescription drug coverage was a terrible measure?

    These times are polarizing because we face huge decisions. The demographics alone would be a challenge, but add the terrorism threat in and you compound the matter. We are now forced to change direction and we are paying the price for 20 years of a dedicated and entrenched habit of ignoring reality.


    I can no longer even figure out which is the left and the right. I can distinguish between those with a tendency toward elitism and a tendency towards populism. I can distinguish between those with an old-fashioned liberal bent and those who are more conservative. But I can't see strong uniting ideological characteristics on either the left or the right. All I see is political flux.

    By Blogger MaxedOutMama, at 6:51 PM  

  • MaxedOutMama: yeah, that's why I use a phrase like "the reactionary left." Meaning, more or less: Democrats who stand up for the traditional Social Security program for all they're worth, who think Saddam Hussein should have been left in power, who look back to the 1960s and 1970s as the good times, and who seemed to be motivated by powerful resentment and even hatred for Republicans. That has a concrete reference.

    Nato: While I was opposed to the prescription drug benefit, I think I can offer at least a qualified defense of it. The prescription drug benefit is a response to a genuine market failure, namely the free-rider problem with respect to intellectual property.

    Suppose a firm devotes a lot of expensive effort to developing a useful drug. Then as soon as they market it other firms can make generic brands. The other firms do not incur the cost of researching the drug, so they can sell their product much more cheaply. In that case, the firm which developed the drug cannot recover their investment. Foreseeing this, no firm will develop new drugs under this system.

    If we allow firms that develop new drugs to acquire a patent for their drugs, and then to sell them as a monopolist for a certain period of time, the drug company can recover its investment, and new drugs will be created. This, however, is only a second-best solution. The drug company will restrict the supply of the drug and sell it well above cost. The high price will dissuade some people from using the drug, who would have been willing to buy the drug at cost. This is a deadweight loss to society, because a certain activity which would increase social welfare-- the production of the drug for seniors who were willing to buy it at cost-- does not take place.

    The first-best solution, in theory and from the standpoint of welfare economics, is for the government to pay the cost of developing new drugs. Then the drugs can be sold at cost, and deadweight losses will be avoided. But the government cannot fund drug research and development efficiently. Subtle and highly technical information about both science and markets is necessary to estimate which drug research will result in net gains for the public. The government lacks such knowledge. The drug companies know more than anyone, but if the government subsidizes them they no longer have an incentive to produce what will best serve the public; instead, they have an instead to manipulate the government and maximize their receipts of grant money.

    Now, I don't know that much about the prescription drug benefit, but here's the most charitable reading of it. The government is trying to mix the first-best and second-best solutions to the intellectual property/free-rider problem. By helping seniors to pay for their prescription drugs, the government effectively subsidizes the industry. It alleviates the deadweight losses that result from the patent system, and it channels money, via seniors, to the drug companies, thus indirectly funding drug development. At the same time, the market continues to operate, thus giving drug companies the incentive to pursue drugs that satisfy consumers' needs.

    The payoff to drug research is huge. People live longer and are cured of terrible diseases. Moreover, since other countries rip off our drugs and sell them cheaply on our domestic markets, our drug R&D creates valuable spillovers for the ROW (rest of the world). We might call it a form of foreign aid. Glenn Reynolds likes to blog about possibilities of lengthening the human lifespan, and I agree with him.

    I don't know if this charitable reading of the prescription drug bill is accurate. And even if it is, there's the fiscal issue: this is a huge government expense, at a time when we can ill afford it. Also, the bill wasn't sold to the public this way, as far as I can tell. Still, if I were to design the ideal public health policy from top to bottom, it's possible that something a bit like Bush's prescription drug plan would be part of it.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 3:03 PM  

  • I wish I had more time, but I just wanted to note that if subsidizing seniors' medications creates the positive spillover effect, then the same is true of subsidizing everyone's medications (with means testing, presumably).

    You do, of course, touch on a set of major issues in drug research, including the difficulties of getting a return on one's investment and the problems of scale. I don't know the right answers to the conundrums, but I tend to think our best bet will be something subtle and probably not particularly intuitive. Like education, it's not a normal realm of economics.

    By Blogger Nato, at 8:25 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home