Passing Some Real Time with Bill Maher

March 16th, 2013 at 4:02 pm

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.



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11 comments in reply to "Passing Some Real Time with Bill Maher"

  1. Perplexed says:

    “You can fairly neatly divide policy makers 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.”

    -Great point. Which is why true “representative” government is so crucial to democracy’s ability control the elites in those “halls of power.” When this relationship is undermined by a campaign finance system that filters out the candidates that would actually represent their “constituents” and blackmails or otherwise corrupts those who might, the relationship is destroyed and the power distribution is altered from that of a representative democracy. Having a vote in a democracy is not about having a “voice,” its about having proportional power and influence to have things done as you wish. If we had a functioning representative democracy, the poorest 25% of the electorate would have as much political power as the richest 25%. We are so far from that reality that our claim to having a representative democracy is all but meaningless. It is precisely the success of this power distribution that makes democracy advantages to other forms of government; if we don’t protect and preserve it, we don’t get those advantages. So if we don’t have a representative democracy, what is it that we actually have instead?

    Did you ever get through the Acemoglu/Robinson book “Why Nations Fail”?

    • Jared Bernstein says:

      A bunch of it. And I’ve got a forthcoming paper which riffs off of some of their themes that you touch on above.

      • Perplexed says:

        Truly an amazing book. I look forward to seeing your reaction to it. Put this together with Bob Kaiser’s, “So Damned Much Money, Larry Lessig”s “Republic Lost,” Ornstein and Mann’s “Its Even Worse Than it Looks,” Gregg Palast’s “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy,” and “Winner Take All Politics” by Hacker and Pierson and there’s more than enough for an indictment of this crony capitalist system.

  2. Ken Houghton says:

    “here’s tons of stuff like that—behaviors that people engage in with potential negative externalities….

    On the other hand, we all agreed that subsidizing the production of sugar, corn syrup, etc. is nuts.”

    The clear answer is “if we could eliminate the subsidies, we wouldn’t need the tax. Since it’s politically impossible to eliminate the subsidies, we’re just trying to balance the HFCS budget”

    • Kevin Rica says:

      What most people don’t get about farm subsidies is that they are intended to raise the price to consumers (in order to raise the price of farmland) and actually discourage consumption.

      The government may start buying sugar soon. And ethanol had done its job of raising corn prices. The amount of corn necessary to fill a Hummer with ethanol is enough to feed a whole Senegalese village.

  3. Nick Batzdorf says:

    You, Rachel Maddow, and Tom Collichio were really impressive. This is the first time I’ve seen Bill Maher blown off the stage by his guests.

    About the soda law, I think Bill Maher is right that this is a silly way to go about the problem – certainly from a political point of view, because it’s an easy target for…well shallow reactions like his :). But there’s a lot more to the issue than meets the eye, and Collichio appears to understand this very well.

    Processed food – meaning food with sugar added and fiber removed – makes lots of money, because of the taste and the shelf life. Yet that’s the vast majority of what’s available in the supermarket (I recall 80%).

    And the negative externalities are far worse than Maher realizes, because this is what’s driving our healthcare costs. Processed food leads to diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart disease, and possibly cancer and dementia. There may be more diseases, but those are the ones I remember from the podcast linked below.

    Furthermore, conservatives and people who react like Maher don’t like government intervention in our lives, but the alternative is what we have now: the food industry makes the choices for us by selling us fake food. That’s intervention in our personal freedom not to get sick and suffer the consequences of rising healthcare costs!

    So it’s more than subsidizing corn (although that’s also bad, and it fuels other issues like illegal immigration too).

    The reason this is fresh in my mind is because of an excellent Science Friday podcast on the subject:

    I wish it were transcribed, because reading is much faster than listening to people speak in real time, but this one is really worth the 17 minutes it takes to listen to it.

    • Jared Bernstein says:

      Thnx! Collichio is the real deal–wouldn’t let up on this stuff even at the after-party! He bears close watching.

    • Rima Regas says:

      The argument should be reframed in terms of public and public health policy. Mayors should not be left to fight the FDA’s fight, in absence of a ban on high fructose corn syrup, which is present in almost everything people with less income buy to eat (from bread to deli meats).

  4. Greg Levy says:

    In another observation about those who have up close experience with poverty . . . . President Obama gets a lot of derision on the right for being a community organizer. I’d like to think he’s got a bit more empathy for those in need from having worked in that capacity.

    Great show, with great discussions. I still see a lot of gurests on both sides try to make some of their typical talking points, but I think Bill does a pretty good job of getting folks to go beyond that with some real weighty dialog. This show was a pretty refreshing exception to that rule.

  5. Heather Shipley says:

    Mr. Bernstein, I just wanted to let you know that I stood up and cheered when you mentioned that you were a social worker. I’m working on my MSW right now. Your econ perspective on the show impressed me, but your social work background inspired me. Thank you for adding luster to the profession!

  6. Barry says:

    I was impressed with your suggestion of a microchip-controlled weapon
    Five years later chips are cheap: we could do this.
    – – – – –
    It seems to me disposable income — disposed — is the key to prosperity. The rich don’t spend additional wealth, but us lower 90% would, adding to GDP.