Monthly Archives: December 2013

Vermont’s push for universal healthcare

The Affordable Care Act’s turbulent implementation has ruled the news cycle, but across the country states like Vermont are experimenting with their own plans.

Governor Peter Shumlin signed a revolutionary single-payer plan, Green Mountain Healthcare—the culmination of decades of work by progressive politicians in the state—into law in May 2011. The new system aims to guarantee universal insurance coverage, improve benefits for those who are currently underinsured, include universal dental care and vision care, and increase the Medicaid reimbursement rate to doctors in order to avoid cost-shifting.

In some ways, the system resembles the ACA, but the the most consequential difference is that Vermont’s law will end employer-provided insurance. “God didn’t create the fact that employers are responsible for healthcare for their employees,” says Bernie Sanders, the state’s stalwart socialist senator.

Yet that change has resulted in an echo of the problems Obamacare has faced in remaking the individual insurance market: Plenty of people aren’t happy about giving up existing insurance that they like.

Meanwhile, there are still major question marks about how Vermont will pay for the plan, whether it can achieve the projected savings, and what might happen when an American state tries to import a European-style insurance program. If the ambitious Green Mountain Healthcare is a success, its backers say it will serve as a model for the rest of the nation—especially if the ACA doesn’t achieve full coverage and help bring costs down. Then, they say, statehouses around the nation will look to Montpelier for guidance. But first Vermont has to figure out how the plan is going to work.


William Hsiao projected that the greatest savings in Vermont’s plan would come from unifying the payment system. (Sean McElwee)

The program was designed by Harvard economist William Hsiao, who detailed the plain in a 2011 Health Affairs article. Hsiao projected the state would save 25.3 percent annually in total healthcare spending, lower household and employer healthcare spending, job growth, and higher economic output for the state. The savings would come from lower administrative expenses, reduced fraud and abuse, eliminating middlemen, malpractice reform, and governance improvements. These savings, about $4.6 billion over the first five years, would be plowed back into paying to cover the uninsured and expanding benefits and services leaving $2.3 billion in residual savings. The law also created the Green Mountain Care Board, an independent group charged with overseeing the law and ensuring quality. What the plan didn’t do is lay out how the state government would pay for its increased spending.


A projection of how Vermont would spend savings, based on William Hsiao’s blueprint. (Sean McElwee)

But Vermont has already deviated from Hsiao’s blueprint. The state’s new tort-reform law is not as expansive as he had envisioned. The state is still working through the best system to raise revenues, and Shumlin has appointed a tax expert to work on some plans. Cost-containment pilot projects to reform payment and delivery systems recommended by the Green Mountain Care Board are beginning to roll out. The state has yet to finalize its proposals for raising revenues to fund the program, which the legislature will consider in 2015 and contract out the administrative duties through a competitive bidding process closer to 2017 when the plan is ready to implement.

Complicating the revenue project, the plan’s cost is disputed. A University of Massachusetts study commissioned by the administration to determine the cost of the plan estimated Vermont would need to find $1.6 billion in new revenues to fund the plan in 2017. Though the state will end up paying much more, UMass’s study also estimated GMC would save $281 million between 2017 and 2019 by reducing administrative costs and slowing growth in costs. The new system would eliminate the myriad providers currently in the state, and instead enroll nearly all of Vermont’s citizens in GMC. The UMass study estimates that about 70,000 Vermonters, roughly 10 percent of the population, would continue to receive insurance from their employers, the Veterans Affairs Administration, or their federal government plan. GMC would supplement that insurance.

Under Vermont’s existing system, individuals and their employers pay $2.2 billion each year, which will be reduced to just $332 million. Even with $249 million in federal funds for Medicaid, that leaves a $1.6 billion shortfall that must be made up with increased government revenues. And that’s the more conservative estimate. A recent report by Avalere, a healthcare advisory company, commissioned by Vermont Partners for Health Care Reform, a confederation of hospital, insurance, and business groups, found the UMass study may have understated the cost of the plan and estimates the state will need between $1.9 and $2.2 billion in new revenues. The Avalere report uses different assumptions for administrative savings and payment rates, arguing that the UMass estimate—that GMC will pay 105 percent of Medicare rates—may be too low and would drive providers to leave the state.

“The good news about the Avalere report is even if you take their assumptions, it still shows that we can cover everyone, bring everyone up to a better on-average benefit level as what they have today and spend the same or less money,” says Robin Lunge, Vermont’s director of healthcare reform.

While the national individual health market is both viewed as inefficient by experts and wildly unpopular with most users, its overhaul has still caused uproar. That could be a bad omen for Vermont, which is upending the far more popular employer-sponsored healthcare system.

But one of the advantages of Vermont’s small population may be a tolerance for disruption. “Vermont is a small state, says Sara Solnick, chair of economics at the University of Vermont. “There are very few degrees of separation so people are more willing to do something for everyone’s good for the good of the state.”

Testing the Public’s Appetite for Change

Vermont’s plan is a bold experiment in whether the government can convince humans, naturally risk-averse, to drop their wariness about changes that might affect their access to healthcare.

“At the national level we haven’t had that discussion because it’s politically impossible,” says Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist who worked with Hsiao during the early stages of the initiative, and who also worked on the Affordable Care Act and Massachusetts’ universal-coverage plan. “I am a fan of experimentation. We learned a lot experimenting with one model in Massachusetts and I think we can learn a lot experimenting with another model in Vermont.”

While the bounds of the ACA were tightly circumscribed by political realities, Vermont—a state with a homogenous and reliably Democratic population—has more latitude. But even now, Gruber says the proposals are still protean: “There is no Vermont plan. There are Vermont ideas, but there is no Vermont plan.”

That has led to major challenges on several fronts: medical providers, businesses, and most of all the general public.

Darcie Johnston, a Republican political operative who runs Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, calls the GMC the largest tax increase in state history—even though taxes haven’t actually increased yet—and worries the cost-containment measures Hsiao and Shumlin counted on will fail and the savings will never materialize. She notes that the legislature failed to pass comprehensive tort reform (which accounted for 8 percent of the savings) and says she fears the plan will drive doctors to reduce care or even leave the state. Recent research suggests the fear may be unfounded. Doctors often threaten to opt out of Medicare, but few follow through. In Britain, where nearly all doctors and nurses are employed by the government, medical programs continue to attract students, even as other programs flounder.

But the state’s business community—including groups that support reform—worries about the tax increases that will fund the plan. Sanders argues the new system will actually be a major relief to businesses, which will see an increased tax burden but won’t have to spend vast sums to paying for their employees’ insurance and administer the benefits. The plan amounts to a cost-shift. What businesses once paid in premiums, they will now pay in taxes. Hsiao forecast that cost per employee would drop nearly $1,900, from $2,228 to $332.

The paradox of Vermont’s peculiar politics is that while perhaps only a small, homogeneous state could pass a plan like Green Mountain Care, there are also challenges a single state faces in implementing it that a nation would not. Single-payer can work at the national level, but what about Vermonters who work over state lines, or corporations based in other states doing business in Vermont?

For the plan’s defenders, the best counterexample is to the north. “Canada’s healthcare system began as province-by-province initiative as well,” Lunge notes. “It started at Saskatchewan before becoming a national initiative.”

And just as the Saskatchewan plan became a model for Canada, many in Vermont, including Sanders, hope the state’s plan will eventually become an example for other states. “Americans want to see a model that works,” the senator says. “If Vermont can be that model it will have a profound impact on discourse in this country.”

If Vermont can work through the legal, technical, and administrative complications, it will be easier for others to follow. Lunge told me legislators in other states have called to ask about the system. “There are a number of states that have expressed interest. They have said to me that if ‘you figure this out, that will give us an opportunity,’” she says.

Vermont Health Connect, the state’s insurance exchange, opened October 1 and faced problems similar to the federal government’s system. Since then, Vermont has managed to fix some of its flaws, though it has also criticized its contractor on the project. The launch is phased, so customers can currently choose a plan, but the payment function has not yet finished testing.

The late launch of the payment system, which has been decried by critics, may be a symbol of the administration’s willingness to work with small businesses and customers, who were unwilling to pay for health insurance they would receive in January in October. Either way, the next few months will be crucial, because all individuals and businesses with fewer than 50 employees have to obtain coverage through the exchange by March 31.

A Need for Reform, Nationwide

Vermont’s enigmatic political preferences have baffled political scientists for decades. The state voted Republican in every presidential election for over 100 years, the longest streak in history (1854 to 1963), and had no Democratic governors during that span. Now its home to the nation’s only socialist senator, and after Barack Obama’s home state of Hawaii, no state voted for the president by a larger margin.

Arthur Woolf, an associate professor of economics at the University of Vermont, says the state “is very much like a Social Democratic Western European country,” both economically (because of its equality and prosperity) and demographically (because of its homogeneous population). So perhaps it’s not surprising that the state is also the first to explore a Canadian-style single-payer system. Sanders says, “When I was mayor of Burlington in 1981 we had a commission, we had a lot of discussion, we had town meetings, we brought it people from Canada.” That attempt came to naught, but 30 years later, a Democratic House, Senate, and governor and strong popular support produced a perfect opportunity to pass a major reform. But of course Vermont’s unique political system might make it hard for other states to replicate its single-payer system.

Despite the setbacks for Green Mountain Care, the economic rationale for a single-payer system remains strong. The U.S. healthcare system is dreadfully inefficient and exists in its current condition largely because of path dependency, not its merits. In his seminal 1963 paper, “Uncertainty and the Welfare Economics of Medical Care,” Kenneth Arrow noted the features of the healthcare market that made laissez-faire untenable. The sector is rife with market failures—externalities, asymmetric information, time-inconsistent preferences, and principal-agent dilemmas. As Paul Krugman writes, “There are … no examples of successful health care based on the principles of the free market, for one simple reason: in health care, the free market just doesn’t work.”

A 2012 Institute of Medicine report finds that the U.S. healthcare system wastes$750 billion each year. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found, “Among 34 OECD countries between 1990 and 2010, the U.S. rank for the age-standardized death rate changed from 18th to 27th, for the age-standardized YLL [Years of Potential Life Lost] rate from 23rd to 28th, for the age-standardized years lived with disability rate from 5th to 6th, for life expectancy at birth from 20th to 27th, and for healthy life expectancy from 14th to 26th.” OECD countries pay half of what the U.S. does, in per capita terms, for better outcomes and universal coverage.

If Vermont can slay the chimera of employer-based healthcare, governors across the nation will take notice. “The single-payer model is harder, it requires more change, but it also holds out more hope because it has the best opportunity to control costs and everyone wants to control costs,” Solnick says.

The U.S. healthcare system is in dire need of reform. In a 1928 in Vermont, Calvin Coolidge declared, “I love Vermont because of her hills and valleys, her scenery and invigorating climate, but most of all because of her indomitable people. They are a race of pioneers who have almost beggared themselves to serve others.”

His words seem prescient today.

A Defense Of Pajama Man

Conservatives are really mad this week. Not just about the fact that racisthomophobic comments can get you suspended from a TV show (although they had no problem boycotting the Dixie Chicks). Nope, they’re mad about men wearing onesies. Obama’s aides posted this pic to his twitter, which set off a viral firestorm.

 

The men of National Review took a break from chopping down trees in Appalachia or whatever uber-manly things they normally do to pillory the ad on four separate occasions, with Charles Cooke claiming that “pajama boy” is the “id” of the entire left.

First off, it’s “pajama man.” Ethan Krupp is over 18, so he’s a man, and wearing footie pajamas doesn’t change that. Unless you think Samuel L. Jackson is one too.

Onsies are damn comfortable. If it were socially acceptable I would wear footie pajamas all day, every day. But the implication of the criticism is that your masculinity is somehow tied to how you look or dress, which is weird, because my dad always told me it would about being honest, keeping your promise, and devoting yourself to others (just like Jesus). This faux-outrage reminds me of Tony Porter’s “man box,” where men are so busy blustering they forget who they are.

But seriously, does the Republican Party, which polls about as well with women as hunting does with PETA members, have some sort of Freudian death wish? Or is their new criticism of Obamacare that it’s “gay?” In fact, this hyper-masculinity is rooted in Republican politics, from the top down.

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff notes the Republicans think of government in terms of a “strict father,” while Democrats think in terms of a “nurturant parent.” Thus, Rich Lowryworries that a man wearing footie pajamas is “the picture of perpetual adolescence.” The worry is that the social safety net and unemployment insurance will make people lazy and the poor need “tough love” instead (because homelessness is a cakewalk). Therefore Obamacare, which envisions a more compassionate state, must be equated with weakness.

The problem is that the right’s definition of conservativism is, and will likely always be, exclusively popular among white men who would never be comfortable in a onesie. But manly white men aren’t necessary anymore. We don’t need Spartanesque manly men for our 300-style war against the Persians. But conservatives don’t like that. Harvey Mansfield has written a book, Manliness, warning us of the consequences of a society with thumos.

Now that manly white men have to watch what they say and do, they are lashing out. All this hullabaloo at National Review is really just longing for another era, when government generally minded its own business and predation was rampant, when women, workers, and minorities were violently oppressed and the white man made decisions. They want social Darwinism. Instead we have social democracy. But that day is over. Footie pajamas have won. Tolerance is cool. We just have to wait for the ubermen of the days of yore to finish their hyperventilation and we can move on.

The Disastrous Carbon Bubble

Co-authored with Lew Daly, Director of the Sustainable Progress Initiative and a Senior Fellow at Demos.

While the year’s end saw an uptick in concern about a new tech bubble, the truth is that there’s a much different, scarier bubble we need to worry about: the carbon bubble. What is the carbon bubble? Basically, it’s just another way to describe the worrisome fact that many energy companies are hoarding oil and gas, despite the rest of the world’s effort to move to a more environmentally sustainable economic system. In much the same way that governments fail to accurately measure social progress and sustainability, these companies are stuck in a dying paradigm. As The Economist puts it, “either governments are not serious about climate change or fossil fuel firms are overvalued.”

It’s simple math. In the 2010 Cancun Agreements, the international community pledged to prevent global temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But even this number is likely far too high. After all, the .8 degrees Celsius temperatures have risen thus far has already severely damaged ecosystems and economies. But given that the current trajectory would, according to IEA economist Fatih Birol, increase global temperatures by 6 degrees, 2 degrees is a politically and scientifically feasible red line. And it won’t be easy: The most recent Carbon Tracker report estimates that to have an 80% chance of holding temperatures below that threshold, no more than 900 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2) can be released into the atmosphere between 2013 and 2049. This range is called the international “carbon budget.”

Republicans are wrong about inequality

President Obama has recently attracted attention by acknowledging the problem of inequality and calling for a more aggressive, populist approach. But as he pivots toward income inequality and upward mobility, it’s an important time to demolish one of the most pervasive myths in our society, that there can be a distinction made between equality ofopportunity, and equality of outcome. The line goes something like this:

Equality of opportunity provides in a sense that all start the race of life at the same time. Equality of outcome attempts to ensure that everyone finishes at the same time. To slightly change what the Dodo said in Alice in Wonderland, “Everybody must win and all must have prizes.” [Italics in original]

In truth, outcome determines the next generation’s opportunity. Hence, Obama is right to point out that inequality harms the American Dream. Life isn’t a sprint, it’s a relay race. And where one generation finishes, the next begins.

Great Gatsby Curve

Miles Corak is a Canadian economist most famous for producing a chart showing that income inequality and upward mobility are correlated across nations. When Alan Krueger, then president of the Council of Economic Advisers, dubbed it “The Great Gatsby Curve,” economic wonks took notice.

There are four broad theories about how parents pass on advantage to their children.  One way would be genetic: intelligence, attractiveness, height. Next would be culture: Parents could inculcate a strong work ethic, honesty, extroversion. Then there would be investment: tutoring, job connections, additional safety net. Finally there is the political system: reducing tax brackets, investing in local education, cutting capital gains.

Generally speaking, the first two variables would not be affected by an increase in inequality. That is, as a society becomes more unequal, wealthy parents wouldn’t become more successful at passing on their genetic material or virtues to their children. But more economic power would allow them to entrench their wealth through investment and the political process.

Gregory Mankiw, whose role as an economist appears to be signing off on whatever absurdity the GOP is promoting at the time, has come out heavily in favor of the genetic explanation and argued that there is still lots of opportunity for upward mobility. Charles Murray, the right’s old angry dad-in-chief, has lined up behind the latter explanation. But the thesis that America is teeming with upward mobility and that rich people are just more able to take advantage of it (because of either biological superiority or virtuousness) is patently absurd. It allows elites to absolve themselves of responsibility for the inequality and stagnant mobility they created with their neoliberal policy prescriptions, and claim that the American Dream is vibrant.

But the biological thesis is in dire straits. Nathaniel Hendren, assistant professor of economics at Harvard University, tells Salon that his research with Raj Chetty, Emmanuel Saez and Patrick Kline finds:

We can absolutely reject that theory. In order to believe that theory, you have to believe that the spacial differences across the U.S. are differences in some kind of transmission of genes. Suppose you move from one area to another and you have a kid. Does your kid pick up the mobility characteristics of the place you go to? Now obviously, your genes don’t change when you move. What we find is that kids start to pick up the mobility characteristics of the place they move to, and they do so in the proportion to the amount of time they end up spending in that place. The majority of the differences across places are casual. If people lived in different places, they would have different outcomes.

The cultural thesis may also struggle to explain how increasing inequality would diminish mobility, for a similar reason. If Murray is right that virtues like religiosity and hard work explain the persistence of inequality, are we to accept that moving from one city to another makes parents less virtuous? While the number of two-parent households in a census zone correlates highly with mobility, in areas with large numbers of one-parent households, two-parent households also struggle. So even families who make the right moves may be hampered by the mobility characteristics of the area in which they live.

Although these two explanations strain to describe reality, they represent the concern of “Serious People” because they obscure the role of the neoliberalism that economics elites like to tout. Murray, for instance, has written an entire book that amounts to post hoc ergo propter hoc (i.e., mistaking cause and effect). He argues that a cultural decline has made it harder for the middle class to get ahead, when in fact the struggles of the working class explains its perceived decline in virtue. Take one example. He argues that the working class has abandoned the virtue of “marriage” and points to high rates of teen pregnancy to explain why the working class isn’t upwardly mobile and increasingly poor. But research shows the causation goes the other way; it is poverty and inequality that make the working class more likely to bear a child out of wedlock. Because of this research, parental investment and political rent-seeking best explain how inequality and mobility are correlated.

Parental Investment

Parental investment plays a huge role in how inequality is passed from one generation to another. Miles Corak explains,

What you see in the U.S. is as the labor market has changed and as incomes become more polarized, some families have a lot more resources and there is a bigger incentive to worry about the education of their children. Labor market inequalities shadow themselves in the investment kids get. That’s important in the early years, and that has an influence on longer-term outcomes.

He cites the work of economist Greg Duncan, who shows how parental investment for the top quintile has increased dramatically while the parental investment of poor children has remained stagnant. To maintain equality, the government would have to step in and fill the gap. Without investment, many children who have potential are crushed. The great paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould writes, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

Parental investment also occurs as children transition to the labor market; Corak cites the work of economist Paul Bingley, which shows that the children of wealthy parents are far more likely than poor middle-class children to get a job in their parent’s firm.

 

Such accumulated advantages have been described as “opportunity hoarding” by the American sociologist Charles Tilly. Brookings Institution fellow Richard Reeves warns that the wealthy create a glass floor that can easily become a glass ceiling for others.

The Political Process

The other explanation that comports with the Great Gatsby Curve is the outsize political influence of elites. The idea, forwarded by economist Paul Krugman and political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, among others, is that economic inequalities shadow themselves through the political system. Professor Larry Bartels has shown that policymakers are more responsive to the interests of the rich, so it’s not entirely inconceivable that as the rich get richer, they can start to influence the political process to their favor. The wealthy can work to undermine minimum wages, reduce their tax burden and use government power to quash unions. Such actions were common during the first Gilded Age, and there is evidence that they are back. The U.S. redistributes far less income downward than other developed nations.

To see how inequality shapes public policy, it’s useful to look at a concrete example, like free trade. Dr. John Schmitt, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, tells me that “the whole mechanism for improving the average income in the economy through trade is through depressing the wages of one group of workers and raising the wages of other groups of workers.” But he notes that the workers exposed to foreign competition are never doctors or lawyers; rather, they are factory workers.

As Dean Baker writes in the New York Times,

Nafta could have been structured to bring the pay of doctors and other highly paid professionals more in line with their pay in other wealthy countries by removing barriers. This would have produced substantial economic gains to the economy as a whole (it’s the exact same model as economists use to show gains from the Nafta we have), except these gains would be associated with a downward rather than an upward redistribution of income. The doctors and their allies among the elite have been able to prevent such a deal from being considered by the politicians in Washington, American workers don’t have that power.

This is particularly significant because a recent paper by economists Michael W. L. Elsby, Bart Hobijn and Ayşegül Şahin finds that, “Our analysis of a range of factors behind and explanations for the recent decline in the labor share highlights that the decline of the labor share over the last 25 years is largely driven by U.S. producers facing increased import competition. Thus, if globalization continues during the next decades, then the labor share will most likely continue to decline, especially in sectors that face the largest increases in foreign competition.” That is, the greatest driver of inequality has been the free-trade neoliberal policies pushed for by economic elites, who reap rewards.

Economists Josh Bivens and Larry Mishel show that the dramatic rises in wages for the top 1 percent don’t represent increasing productivity, but rather rent-seeking behavior. They argue that:

In short, the financial sector illustrates that in one of the most important sectors to drive top 1 percent incomes in recent years, there was an extraordinary divergence between what top managers took home and even what shareholders (surely a privileged group compared to the wider U.S. economy) gained. This type of divergence seems like powerful evidence to us that a substantial part of the extraordinary rise of top 1 percent incomes is not a result of well-functioning markets allocating pay according to value generated, but instead resulted from shifting institutional arrangements leading to shifting of rents to those at the very top.

As eminent historian Richard Hofstadter notes, “Once great men created fortunes; today a great system creates fortunate men.” Elsewhere, I’ve written about how seemingly benign policies like patents could be considered rent-seeking behavior. But we subject the poor to free markets, not the rich.

There’s the issue of political donations, too. One study finds that the Adelson family spent more money on the 2012 federal election cycle than all the residents from 12 states combined. Political scientists Martin Gilens and Larry Bartels have both shown that policymakers are more responsive to the concerns of their wealthier constituents. In 2005, Larry Bartels examined how responsive senators were in the 101st, 102nd and 103rd Congress to the preferences of various constituents. His findings are summarized in the chart below.

 

While neither party is particularly responsive to the needs of poor Americans (the number is negative, meaning that if poor Americans desire the policy, it’s actually less likely to happen), Republicans are marginally better than Democrats at responding to the desires of the middle class. Even after controlling for political knowledge and voting behavior, the results held, indicating that wealth, not education or political activism, is what makes politicians respond. Political scientist Martin Gilens has developed such research into a recently released book, “Affluence and Influence,” which records similar findings. Giles finds that, “Policies favored by 20 percent of affluent Americans, for example, have about a one-in-five chance of being adopted, while policies favored by 80 percent of affluent Americans are adopted about half the time. In contrast, the support or opposition of the poor or the middle class has no impact on a policy’s prospects of being adopted.”

Political scientist Frederick Solt researched political responsiveness and participation internationally and finds that higher levels of inequality decreased voter turnout and narrowed the political discussion, with poor and middle-class voters becoming disenchanted. Further, inequality separates the social ties of the rich and poor, creating an “empathy gap” that makes it harder to pass policies that could increase mobility. Political scientists Bo Rothstein and Eric Uslaner note in a fabulous paper for World Politics, “The best policy response to growing inequality is to enact universalistic social welfare programs. However, the social strains stemming from increased inequality make it almost impossible to enact such policies.” The lack of social trust caused by inequality makes increasing opportunity harder (as I’ve noted above), which further erodes social trust and increases inequality.

Wealthy citizens see themselves as “makers” and the poor as “takers,” while the poor see the rich as selfish. Rothstein and Uslaner continue later, “Unequal societies find themselves trapped in a continuous cycle of inequality, with low trust in others and in government and policies that do little to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor and to create a sense of equal opportunity.” All of these factors work together to decrease mobility while inequality increases. As Schmitt said, “It’s not just economic power that’s been concentrated over the last four decades. It’s also political power and the political power is crucial, because it is what allows us to reproduce the economic inequality we have. All of these political policies are being reinforced because the people who have significant economic power also wield significant political power and they change the rules of the game.”

The False Solution: Education

In debates about inequality, education is generally considered to be somewhat of a silver bullet. One of the five correlations the Chetty team found was that a good education system facilitates mobility. Miles Corak noted in our interview that,

If you have an education system that relies very heavily on local property taxes, and that characterizes the U.S. more than other countries, the quality of schooling is going to vary tremendously across neighborhoods and this is in part why there are regional differences. In Canada, the funding of education is more broadly based, and there is more of a tendency to divert resources to poorer neighborhoods. In the United States, it’s actually the opposite, the most underprivileged children get lower quality resources. So the United States spends more money on education than other countries, but it spends it more unequally.

The role of public policy in alleviating inequality will be most effective if it tries to pull the poor up; policies that keep the rich down will be politically unpopular. But while education is generally seen as a key equalizer, it cannot alone create upward mobility (see chart).

The chart shows that, while education certainly helps poor people move upward, they would still be better off being born without the degree but in the top income bracket. The furthest red column to the right shows that 25 percent of the children born in the top quintile who do not get a college degree stay in the top bracket. In contrast, the leftmost blue bracket shows that only 10 percent of the children born in the poorest bracket who obtain a college degree make it to the top 20 percent.

So while education is an important step, it isn’t the only one. It is the preferred policy of the economic elite because it’s easy and safe. It doesn’t threaten their illusion that their success is based on gritty determination and above-average intellect. A real agenda for upward mobility will include higher taxes on the wealthy and capital gains to discourage rent-seeking behavior, a more equitable distribution of educational resources, a higher minimum wage, political reforms for a more open process, more unionization, universal pre-K, paid family leave, a more robust unemployment system and a more extensive social safety net.

For too long in American politics, astronomical levels of inequality have been tolerated because of the mythical American Dream. People always say that you should “dress for the job you want.” In America, most people also vote for the income you want. That’s why bus drivers in El Paso vote for tax breaks in Park Avenue. But now we know that inequality hampers mobility, and that the wealthy are creating barriers to entrench their wealth. These barriers must be broken down if we want real mobility. If the government does act, it still makes a choice: to allow plutocrats to create a system that excludes others. As George Carlin said, “The owners of this country know the truth: It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Megyn Kelly gets Jesus really wrong, Pt. 2

Megyn Kelly said some pretty dumb stuff on Fox News about Jesus (dumb by Megyn Kelly’s low standard, not by Fox News’s geologic standards) yesterday. She claimed that he was “white” and that “just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change.” Which is ironic, because that sounds a lot like how Richard Cohen defended Clarence Thomas from sexual harassment accusations. But the factual inaccuracy of the comments (and the fact that Jesus’s skin color is now considered news) isn’t the problem. The problem is that this marks the latest iteration of a concerted campaign to turn the closest thing Roman-occupied Palestine had to Che Guevara into a banal, white, suburbanite.

This campaign was exposed earlier this year when Christians were astounded to find out that the Catholic Church is concerned about poverty. But anyone vaguely familiar with religion built around the man who said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” (Matthew 19:24) should be aware that Catholic teaching has always been skeptical of concentrated wealth and greed. In Rerum Novarm, Pope Leo XIII writes,

Justice, therefore, demands that the interests of the working classes should be carefully watched over by the administration, so that they who contribute so largely to the advantage of the community may themselves share in the benefits which they create-that being housed, clothed, and bodily fit, they may find their life less hard and more endurable.

G.K. Chesterton said, You will hear everlastingly, in all discussion about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is rich.”

And what of the story of Lazarus? Lazarus is a beggar who waits outside of a rich man’s house and begs for scraps. When both Lazarus and the rich man die, Lazarus ends up in heaven, while the rich man ends up in hell. When the rich man begs for water, Abraham says, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.” (Luke 19:25) Yet when Republicans read the Bible (theology escapes them), they find only, Paul’s exhortation to Timothy, The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” (2 Thes. 3:10b) (I need not delve into a discussion of Pauline theology, but I would like to note that Lenin believed this verse to be the basis of a Communist society).

Christ was not particularly fond of the family, he kicked it with prostitutes and other unsavory cats, and was crucified as a revolutionary for undermining the priestly nobility. He said nothing about contraception, evolution, gay rights, climate change or nuclear weapons. Yet his followers have fought, in his name, against all of these things. Jesus, said “For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” (Matthew 10:35 – 36) Now he is the reason Focus on the Family thinks you should make sure your daughters don’t have any sexytime before marriage.

It’s not just poverty. Christian thought on war, the environment, women and immigration have all been shaped by the conservative political agenda. As Cornel West said, “Christian fundamentalists want to get fundamental about everything but, ‘Love Thy Neighbor.’” Jesus fits very well the words of Eugene Debs, “I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Today, we find him discussed by the very ruling class he denounced around lamb suppers once a year. Whitewashing Jesus is the least of Fox News’s problems. Give me white Jesus over boring Jesus any day.

The new, safe and utterly boring Jesus

I have a new piece coming out at Policymic today about Pope Francis, Megyn Kelly and Fox News. It’s less theological musings and more outright polemic. But we need that. Here’s a quote:

Christ was not particularly fond of the family, he kicked it with prostitutes and other unsavory cats, and was crucified as a revolutionary for undermining the priestly nobility. He said nothing about contraception, evolution, gay rights, climate change or nuclear weapons. Yet his followers have fought, in his name, against all of these things. Jesus, said “For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” (Matthew 10:35 – 36) Now he is the reason Focus on the Family thinks you should make sure your daughters don’t have any sexytime before marriage.

It’s not just poverty. Christian thought on war, the environment, women and immigration have all been shaped by the conservative political agenda. As Cornel West said, “Christian fundamentalists want to get fundamental about everything but, ‘Love Thy Neighbor.’” Jesus fits very well the words of Eugene Debs, “I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Today, we find him discussed by the very ruling class he denounced around lamb suppers once a year. Whitewashing Jesus is the least of Fox News’s problems. Give me white Jesus over boring Jesus any day.

In other news, me and Abigail Salvatore will have a Jesus piece (get it? Jesus piece?) coming out on Alternet next week. I’ll keep you posted.

 

How states subsidize corporations while cutting education

I wrote a bit ago about how states are “tightening their belts” by cutting education. You may think that’s fair, since most states have to balance their budgets. The problem is where they are spending money: big corporations. David Cay Johnston has the newest scoop on the tax incentives states give to corporations:

The fast-increasing use of tax incentives by all 50 states has failed to increase jobs or investment, two respected experts on state tax policy found after reviewing more than 50 years of giveaways.

This year, state government subsidies to corporations, partnerships, and other businesses in New York state alone will total $1.7 billion, triple the giveaways in 2005, according to the new study. That’s $235 taken from the average Empire State household this year and redistributed to business owners on the theory that redistribution will create jobs.

During those years, the number of jobs in New York declined, the state’s official jobs data website shows.2 The total number of New Yorkers employed in 2012 was down 175,000, or 2 percent, compared with 2005.

Think of it this way: Over nine years, the state of New York gave businesses roughly $10 billion, or almost $1,400 from each household, in a jobs program that eliminated 175,000 jobs at an average cost of $57,000. And that’s just state-level subsidies, not those from industrial development agencies.

The 143-page study by Marilyn M. Rubin of John Jay College and Donald J. Boyd, former director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government State and Local Government Finance research group, was prepared for the New York State Tax Reform and Fairness Commission created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). But its findings apply to all 50 states, where tax incentives have been growing like weeds since the turn of the millennium.

Corporations force states to compete to get factories. Matthew Yglesias reports on how insane it’s getting:

It’s no secret that big companies with lots of jobs to throw around try to strike good deals with state and local governments in exchange for deigning to locate there. ButBoeing’s wish list for building a 777X factory is extremely ambitious. For example, they would like to build the factory in a city that will pay for the entire building of the factory, with the following three points listed as desirable:

— “Site at no cost, or very low cost, to project.”

— “Facilities at no cost, or significantly reduced cost.”

— “Infrastructure improvements provided by the location.”

That’s a little nutty. If your strategy for attracting the construction of an airplane factory to your town includes footing the entire bill for an airplane factory, then you might as well just launch an airplane manufacturing company. You can read the whole list here. They are ideally looking for a highly skilled yet low-wage workforce at a location with a dedicated railroad spur and a seaport. Plus low taxes!

The balls on these companies. Seriously.

 

Regulation and inequality

Thomas McGarity, who I interviewed for this Salon piece on regulation has an op-ed in NYT arguing that we should talk about regulatory policy in the context of inequality:

The deadly oil refinery explosion in Texas City, Tex., in 2005, the financial sector meltdown of 2007-8, the Upper Big Branch mine catastrophe in West Virginia and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, both in 2010, multiple disease outbreaks because of contaminated peanuts, eggs, hamburgers and seafood, and dozens of motor vehicle and toy recalls were just a few of the visible consequences of the laissez-faire mentality that has pervaded the American political economy.

Less visible, but equally devastating, were the heart attacks caused by poorly regulated painkillers, the quiet desperation of millions of “underwater” homeowners who owed more in mortgage debt that their homes were worth, and the subtle but steady and irreversible increase in global temperatures as a result of carbon emissions.

The laissez-faire revival also contributed to the growing disparities in wealth and well-being that became painfully obvious during the last decade. While corporate executives, Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers greatly benefited from the three waves of assault on regulation, the fortunes of blue-collar workers and the working poor steadily declined. Median incomes have fallen over the last decade.

The disparities brought on by the laissez-faire revival, however, go far beyond the vast disparities in income and wealth. It is of fairly small consequence to the disabled miner whose boss violated federal safety standards that the mining company’s revenues, profits and executive bonuses are on the rise. But the disparity becomes unconscionable when lax pension-protection regulations let the company spin off its “legacy liabilities” (pension and health-insurance guarantees) into an undercapitalized shell for the sole purpose of filing for bankruptcy protection.

Not all of the adverse effects of the laissez-faire revival have fallen disproportionately on the middle class and the poor. Lax regulation of airplanes is as risky for passengers in first and business class as in coach. The rich and poor suffer from the side effects of hastily approved prescription drugs. But the overall burden of deregulation is borne by those least able to carry it.

Needless to say, I agree entirely.

Noah Smith and Charles Murray are wrong

I’m currently working on a piece on inequality and mobility for Salon, and it’s going to be great. I’ve been thinking about the issues a lot, and I was surprised to see Noah Smith, a great economics blogger, write something I find pretty off the mark. He writes in support of Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart:

But there is a lot in this book that is neither mistake nor distortion, and identifies a major social problem in America today. Murray is not the first to report on the problem – I talked about it here before I had even heard of Coming Apart. But Murray brings a lot of numbers and details that really drive home the scale of the problem.

Basically, America is separating into aristocrats and peasants.

Murray never uses those terms. But that’s what it is. On one hand you have an upper-middle class and upper class who go to good colleges and have skilled jobs. These people tend to have healthy family values – they get married and stay married, they pay a lot of attention to their kids. They are civically engaged and physically healthy. On the other hand you have uneducated masses, who tend not to stay married, to leave child-raising to single mothers, and to neglect the kids. They are overweight, bedraggled, and disengaged from the community. The former he calls “Belmont”, the latter “Fishtown”, after two semi-imaginary neighborhoods where they cluster.

 

Murray correctly identifies education as the key thing separating the aristocrats from the peasants. But he also places too much emphasis on money. I know poor schoolteachers who live the “Belmont” lifestyle, and rich small businessmen who are as “Fishtown” as they come. Our threadbare aristocrats are a little like the Confucian scholar-gentry of old China. Our peasants are pretty recognizable too – they’re the lower classes from the Canterbury Tales.

If you live in America, you must have an inkling of these changes too. If you’re one of the educated class – and if you’re reading this, you probably are – then you must have had at least a glimpse of how the other side lives. You must have seen the awful “food” that they eat, the wrecked, destroyed state of their bodies. You must have at least seen hints of their broken, family lives. Just the other day I got my hair cut in a poor white neighborhood, and the barber spent the whole time telling me about “that bitch” who was the mother of his children. No matter how thick the Belmont Bubble, you must have seen hints like this. And if it doesn’t hurt you to see Americans living that sort of unhealthy lifestyle, then I don’t know what to say to you.

I honestly think this sort of thesis is wildly odious and I honestly hope to receive a tweet from Noah saying it was an elaborate hoax to parody absurd Conservative beliefs about poverty and inequality. Really, the whole post amounts to a grand example of post hoc ergo propter hoc, or as David Frum put it in his six part (!) review of Murray’s silly book,

To understand what Murray does in Coming Apart, imagine this analogy:

A social scientist visits a Gulf Coast town. He notices that the houses near the water have all been smashed and shattered. The former occupants now live in tents and FEMA trailers. The social scientist writes a report:

The evidence strongly shows that living in houses is better for children and families than living in tents and trailers. The people on the waterfront are irresponsibly subjecting their children to unacceptable conditions.

When he publishes his report, somebody points out: “You know, there was a hurricane here last week.” The social scientist shrugs off the criticism with the reply, “I’m writing about housing, not weather.”

Coming Apart details the social problems that have overtaken the poorer half of the white American population over the past generation. This population is less committed to the workforce than its parents and grandparents were. It has more trouble with the law. It has more children outside marriage.

None of this information comes as news to anybody. Social observers have been making these points for years. The novelty of Coming Apart is Charles Murray’s remarkable—and telltale—uncuriosity as to why any of this might be happening.

That is, maybe all of these bad things that are happening to American families are happening because of inequality, rather than what is causing the inequality. Now, the reason that elites and economists like the story Murray presents is because it makes them feel better about their success. “Hey man! I earned this!” they say. And people who aren’t doing so well, it’s because they are dumb stupidheads and promiscuous and lazy. Murray presents four virtues he thinks the richies have that poor people don’t:  industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. Let’s take them one by one.

Honesty:

The first value Murray discusses is honesty, and he points to two trends: higher incarceration and higher rates of bankruptcy among the poorer men. Murray does not question why the incarceration rate increased, rather, readers are left to assume it was a decline in honesty. In fact, numerous public policy factors explain the increase. William J. Stuntz of Harvard Law School argues in The Collapse of American Criminal Justice that the cause is three-fold: a collapse of rule of law, increased discrimination, and harsh sentencing . All of these disproportionately hurt the poor, who face stiff punishments while white collar criminals seem to avoid punishment altogether. Barbara Ehrenreich notes the irony, “Steal $400, you get four years in prison. Steal $600 million, you get a platinum parachute.” Because white collar crime is not “in your face” the sentencing isn’t as harsh. In contrast, petty crimes are often met with unreasonable response. As a result of the “three strikes law” in California, 360 people are serving life sentences for shoplifting. Twenty-four states now have some such “habitual offender” law. Two criminologists found that only 12 percent of the increase in the prison population between 1980 and 1996 and was due to increases in criminal offence (mainly drug crimes) while 88 percent was due to longer sentences and criminals being sentenced to prison rather than a non-custodial sentence . Becky Pettit and Bruce Western found that the risk of prison is highly correlated to education. The evidence indicates that policy, and not a lack of values has increased incarceration among the poor. Murray’s bankruptcy argument is similarly weak, since much of the recent debt accumulation has been caused by the “race to the good neighborhood” and most bankruptcies are brought on by medical costs (62.1 percent).

Marriage:

Next, Murray examines marriage, currently declining among the poor and working class. Marriage is a good, so if it is languishing, an underlying reason may become apparent. There is certainly an economic component to divorce. In the 2009 report, State of Our Unions, compiled by the Institute for American Values Jeffrey Dew writes, “newlywed couples who take on substantial consumer debt become less happy in their marriages over time.” In contrast, owning assets increases the likelihood of a marriage lasting. Finance is, in fact, the leading cause of marital strife,

More generally, conflict over money matters is one of the most important problems in contemporary married life. Compared with disagreements over other topics, financial disagreements last longer, are more salient to couples, and generate more negative conflict tactics.

Another change in marriage is structural. New technology reduces the economic incentive to marry, while birth control reduces the social incentive. Women can now pursue careers and are unwilling to be burdened down by marriage. The current generation is waiting longer to get married, decreasing the number of married couples. At the same time, divorces from the tumultuous 1970s are still inflating the number of divorcees. Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers explain the result:

the proportion of the population who are divorced continued to rise through the 1980s and 1990s, and has only begun to level out in recent years. Thus, despite lower divorce rates and greater marital stability today, a larger proportion of our social networks are divorcees than at any point over the past century.

Although marriage rates may be more stable today, there has been an explosion of single motherhood, which may lend credence to Murray’s thesis. Two researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research (Melissa Schettini Kearney and Phillip B. Levine), however, find that single motherhood is largely driven by other factors:

the combination of being poor and living in a more unequal (and less mobile) location, like the United States, leads young women to choose early, non-marital childbearing at elevated rates, potentially because of their lower expectations of future economic success.

A report by the British Rowntree Foundation had a similar finding: “young people born into families in the higher socio-economic classes spend a long time in education and career training, putting off marriage and childbearing until they are established as successful adults.” Women in the slow track, in contrast, face “a disjointed pattern of unemployment, low-paid work and training schemes, rather than an ordered, upward career trajectory.” This is largely due to “truncated education.”

United Nations, 2011

The chart above shows that countries, like the United States and Britain, which both have low levels of mobility have significantly higher rates of teenage pregnancy, lending credence to the thesis that Pickett and Wilson propose. Obviously, the absence of fathers is important, but as Pickett writes, “young men living in areas of high unemployment and low wages often can’t offer much in the way of stability or support.” Pickett and Wilson find a high correlation between inequality and single-motherhood and absent fatherhood. Although correlation is not causation, since fatherhood, childbearing, and marriage are all goods, it is unlikely the large swaths of the population would abandon them unless driven by external factors. If institutions, and not culture, are driving single motherhood and teenage pregnancy, then institutions can help ameliorate the problem. This seems to be the case: four researchers at the National Institute of Health found, “The overall pregnancy risk index declined 38%, with 86% of the decline attributable to improved contraceptive use. Among adolescents aged 15 to 17 years, 77% of the decline in pregnancy risk was attributable to improved contraceptive use.”

Industriousness:

Murray’s next value is industriousness. He argues that even during times when the economy has been improving, the middle class and poor have been dropping like flies out of the labor force, an assertion that is demonstrably false. A 2005 study by the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank found that,

[labor force] participation rates are pro-cyclical—positively correlated with economic output—and that the strongest correlation for males and females is between GDP today and participation two and three quarters from today. This supports the contention above that labor force participation decisions respond to changes in economic output with a slight lag.

Worse, Murray isn’t only wrong, he’s diametrically wrong. The report finds that the decline in labor force participation decreased more with more educational attainment:

In fact, labor force participation rates have risen among individuals ages 25 to 64 who lack a high school diploma—from 58.3 percent in 1994 to 63.2 percent in 2004. All other education groups have experienced declines, and the higher the education level, the greater the decline.

Thus, we see that those with the highest education (and thus most likely to be wealthy) are actually the most likely to leave the labor force.

Religiosity:

Murray’s final argument is religiosity, which he argues has been on the decline among the working class. Ronald Sider writes in Just Generosity that this may be a significant perpetuator of poverty, “the best predictor of whether young black inner-city males would escape the syndrome of drugs, crime, and prison was church attendance.” The author of the study he cites, Richard Freeman, acknowledges the possibility of alternate causation, that those who are more likely to escape from poverty are those who also attend church, and that church attendance follows from other behaviors. He even writes,

youths’ allocation of time and other activities are significantly influenced by market opportunities (or the youths’ perceptions thereof), with those who believe it would be easy to find a job if they had to find one more likely to engage in socially productive activities than others, and youths who see many opportunities to make illegal money less likely to engage in socially productive activities than other youths.

Either way, Murray argues that the working-class has become less religious, although his statistics suggest, as Freeman’s do, that the real problem is simply less churchgoing, since the church provides a safety net and social network, offering job opportunities and negative pressures on destructive pressures. The data suffers from questions of reporting accuracy; one study found that actual attendance was 50 percent lower than the reported number. Further, is it religion, or the social aspect of religion that accounts for its benefits? If the benefits come from the social network, it is possible that the decline in religious involvement may be compensated elsewhere with other forms of community involvement. Past studies have shown that church attendance can be driven by demographics, since younger people are less likely to regularly attend church. Given that income increases over an individual’s lifetime, this could explain the low attendance among the relatively poor (they are also relatively young).

My argument is that the cultural decline that we are all supposed to take Very Seriously is really do to the very inequality that elites want it to legitimate. I like Noah’s blog, and he has a great post on the labor/capital question that supplements well my Salon article on the topic.

Last round of responses part 2

I didn’t finish my last round of responses yesterday because I caught dinner and a show with a friend. Anyways, some things have happened since then and I will address them and get to the end of Coyne’s criticism.

First off, the funny: someone commented on my blog to say that I am a “Another young christian conservative from the Hudson inst. puffing up his chest.” I am young, but I very much doubt the other groups would take me in. I’ve been told on good authority that a large portion of my religious beliefs constitute heresy. As for Conservative, I write for Salon! I’m a research assistant at Demos. Whatever.

Second off, the good: Paul Sunstone is now on my blogroll (see our back-and-forth) as well as Matt Bruenig.

Third, very, very few athiests seem to understand what religious belief really is like in practice, which is a damn shame.

Fourth, they also appear not to understand the process of online writing. I don’t create the headline or deck for my articles. So a lot of people read the headline and the deck and then tweet at me in anger. I have had fun with them.

 

 

What did I write? This:

“New Atheists” believe that religion threatens progress and breeds conflict and that were religion eliminated, we would begin to solve the world’s problems.

Are you seriously going to tell me that doesn’t represent New Atheist thought?

Fifth, the insane.

 

Well, with me in the insane asylum is Bernard Lewis, one of the leading, if not the leading expert on the Middle East. Here’s what he writes in What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response:

Even the major division within Islam, between Sunnis and Sh‘a, arose over an historical conflict about the political leadership of the community, not over any question of doctrine.

Ouch.

Okay, so back to my response to Coyne.

He argues that people who criticize religion don’t really need to understand to criticize:

And why do you have to be a believer to criticize religion? Do you have to be a Nazi to criticize Nazism, or a segregationist to understand and efface the evils of segregation? It seems to me that being an outsider gives one a certain advantage, at least in seeing and publicizing the harms of religion. Those in the asylum are often blinded to their delusion. And, at any rate, we have a distinguished roll of former religionists who are plenty well equipped “to understand what they castigate.”

My argument here is that you can definitely criticize religious people who try to use their crazy reading of scripture to justify evil actions or policies. But remember that most of these aren’t coming from the religious text, they are being read into the religious text. So you’re wasting your time shitting on Jesus. A large portion of people who are religious don’t understand what real religious practice looks like. Most don’t the scantest understanding of theology. Side note: New Atheists really like dropping the “Nazi” bomb. Of course you can criticize Nazism as the crazy political doctrine that it is. But religion isn’t a series of dogmas. It’s a method for investigating what it means to be human.

Next point:

If McElwee lived in Nazi Germany, he’d probably tell us: “Look, Rommel and von Stauffenberg are working to bring down Hitler. Call off the U.S. and British troops, call off the French Resistance, because any critique of Nazism made from the outside can be made more persuasively by members of the Nazi Party.”

The fact is that the “reform” of religion will occur much faster with pressure from nonbelievers, for many forms of faith have no internal motivation for changing.  And you don’t have to be a believer to see the harm.  If I were offered a plate of dog feces to eat, I wouldn’t be persuaded by the argument, “You can’t know whether it’s bad until you’ve eaten a lot of dog crap.”

Again, I responded to this above. I just quoted it because it’s funny and it illustrates the New Atheist primary tactic: make your reader imagine your opponent as a Nazi as early and often as possible. Classic “poisoning of the well.” If I were a meanie, I would suggest they lack the historical knowledge (or more insidiously, believe their audience lacks the knowledge) to draw from any other historical currents.

Here’s a more apt parallel. Right now the scientific community is struggling with some structural problems at the publishing level: few people are reporting negative findings, the peer review process appears to be breaking down and there is less replication than there used to be. Now, I’m sure the Pope, if he heard about this, might have some thoughts on the issue, but it would be kinda silly for him to publicly announce them. Similarly, while scientists are free to speak on political issues, scientific claims made by religion, etc. they really can’t talk on issues of theology (say, the doctrine of the trinity) unless they have knowledge of the topic. Which most don’t. It’s worth noting that Pope Francis is currently in the midst of the very reform movement atheists believe impossible.

He concludes:

McElwee goes on to espouse a form of NOMA, arguing that we need religion to tell us about the meaning of being human and how to live the good life, and, conversely, religion shouldn’t intrude on science. He’s right about the second part but not the first. Religion doesn’t have any more credibility about the meaning of life and the best way to live  than do the exertions of secular, humanistic philosophy in telling us how to live. In fact, religion is a substantially worse guide for life, because it relies on faith and fiction rather than reason and facts.

I agree, religion doesn’t have any more credibility about the meaning of life and the best way to live than do the exertions of secular, humanistic philosophy. That’s why my religious friends read secular novels and secular philosophy. These all inform their religious believes. My personal exploration for truth involves Jesus and Tolstoy, Marx and Nietzsche, Hitchens and Gould, Muhammad and Confucius, Orwell and Huxley, Tagore and Augustine. But can reason and facts really, really actually explain the human condition?

My argument is this: by ascribing violence and hatred to religion, NA allows the West to ignore the underlying causes of the hatred and violence. Essentially, this is a debate between those who try to understand why they hate us, and those who want to portray all religious people as an ugly caricature and move on.