Had great fun on the Bill Maher show last night with the wonderful Rachel Maddow and reasonable Republican former Congressman Tom Davis. Bill is a true force of nature. Henceforth, I will not be able to refer to our over-stacked defense complex without envisioning “big fake …!”
I thought Rachel made really piercing points about the Iraq war, 10 years later. I was glad to be able to connect the deeply austere House budget in this context as well, referencing the underappreciated point that because the rates of disability are so much higher in this war relative to previous conflicts, our obligations to vets will climb for years to come. Below is a figure showing these costs and their trajectory through 2011, and here’s an update from new research on these costs (from Reuter’s): “The 2011 study found U.S. medical and disability claims for veterans after a decade of war totaled $33 billion. Two years later, that number had risen to $134.7 billion.”
Neither Tom Collichio, chef, anti-hunger activist (and highly knowledgeable wonk—how many master chefs advocate for more gradual phase-outs of means-tested programs?) nor I could convince Bill of the virtue of a Pigouvian (sin) tax on soft drinks. Because of the expensive impact on the nation’s health care bill of chronic diseases related to obesity, their price<social cost, the classic criterion for a negative externality. But Bill’s point, which I ultimately found pretty convincing (he kept hitting me with it after the show!), is that there’s tons of stuff like that—behaviors that people engage in with potential negative externalities. To suggest taxing them all is what give liberals a bad name, he asserted in terms rarely heard in policy seminars.
On the other hand, we all agreed that subsidizing the production of sugar, corn syrup, etc. is nuts.
Bill asked us about Republican empathy, or lack thereof, coming off of the Rob Portman news that he now supports gay marriage, which he links to the fact that his son came out to him a few years ago. I really liked Rachel’s point: good for him, but what he really needs now is a poor son, a disabled son, an elderly son who depends on Social Security.
My point, inartfully made, reflects my DC experience, especially in the halls of power. It may sound simplistic but it’s true. You can fairly neatly divide policymakers into two camps: those who’ve seen close up or themselves experienced the impact of market failure on families’ lives, and those who haven’t. In my tenure as a social worker in NYC, I saw this all the time, and it’s informed my economics ever since. The ones who don’t get this tend to be the ones who vote to slash the safety net and give the proceeds to the rich.