Quietly expensive desperation

Kevin Drum takes note of a CNN piece, which points out that Japan can build warships at one-half to one-third of United-States-built ships. Drum is, reasonably, skeptical of the explanation advanced in the piece, that stricted contract terms largely explain the price difference. He asks, "[I]s our procurement really so screwed up that we pay twice as much for basically the same ship?"

It should be no surprise that we pay twice as much for the same ship. We pay at least twice as much for almost anything that must be domestically sourced and requires cordination and consent by many players. Alon Levy and his colleagues have been documenting this for years with respect to transit infrastructure costs. (See Understanding Transit Infrastructure costs in American Cities by Eric Goldwyn, Alon Levy, Elif Ensari and Marco Chitti) They suggest, for example, that "the difference between the best and the worst procurement practices contributes a factor of 2 difference in construction costs." So Drum's a-bit-incredulous explanation is actually perfectly plausible.

But procurement dysfunction is only one of many ills the Transit Costs Project documents, and overpaying merely by a factor of two is a pretty good outcome for American public works. Read the whole thing, as they say, even if it is 424 pages. (No, I haven't.)

A lot of things go wrong in a US context that just don't go wrong nearly as much in other places. Pretty much every factor of production costs more.

One could — the Transit Cost Project very much did! — dive into the details. But I want to make a more sweeping, data-free attribution.

On the other side of all the higher costs are workers, contractors, neighbors, politicians, and other stakeholders whose collaboration or acquiescence must be purchased in order to make a project work. In any country, for any project, each of these parties faces tradeoffs between mission-alignment ("Let's get this done!") and private interest ("We should be compensated.") If, in some altruistic paradise, all parties were purely mission-aligned and required no compensation, project costs would be very low. On the other hand, in a country where private interest absolutely dominates mission-alignment — where all players demand maximal compensation in exchange for any contribution, with little interest or regard for project success beyond getting what's theirs — then the costs of achieving a successful outcome will grow very large.

It is silly to attribute cross-national differences in costs to personal or psychological differences. People are public-spirited everywhere. They are public-spirited in the United States. People are greedy everywhere. They are greedy in the United States.

But what is not so silly to point out is that in the United States we are structurally greedy. At a macro-level, in the name of maximizing capitalist incentives to produce, our institutions are designed to encourage self-interested income-maximizing behavior more than the institutions of other countries are. Low taxes for top-earners, tax-advantaged payouts from firms to shareholders, strong "intellectual property" rights, tolerance and even lioization of firms that consolidate industries to extract rents, all combine to create an environment where the quantity of private income forgone for an aliquot of public-spiritedness is higher in the United States than it is almost anywhere else. At the executive and shareholder level, forgoing a dollar of private revenue in favor of making a great project work is a lot easier to do when that dollar would have been taxed at 90% before it could become personal income anyway. Instead of maximizing incentives to produce, the American system has engineered a tax on virtue, including the virtue of just delivering stuff that is great and works.

At a micro-level, the dispersion and precarity of life outcomes in the United States make us all as individuals behave as if we are more greedy than we would if all that was at stake for us was a bit of luxury. I've described this before as "predatory precarity".

In the United States, very basic goods like having your kid in a reliably safe and decent school, or having a home in a neighborhood where your family will be safe, or getting decent health care, are far from universal. In fact, these basic goods are scarce and price-rationed. Most of us do not enjoy them, and those who do pay through the nose for them. It does not seem like so much to ask for — a safe home, good schools, health care, some ability to keep these things through retirement. But increasingly, the only way one can secure these goods in the United States is to price whatever services one sells into the market aggressively, gain some market power and extract some rents of your own like a true capitalist hero.

Competition is supposed to drive the price of goods and services towards "cost". But what does cost even mean? It must at least mean "subsistence", but what subsistence means is socially determined. Adam Smith, in a famous passage, wrote

A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty, which, it is presumed, no body can well fall into without extreme bad conduct. Custom, in the same manner, has rendered leather shoes a necessary of life in England.

The United States is an extraordinarily class-stratified society, and people of various classes require certain goods and services as surely as an Englishman in Smith's time required linen shirts. Safe, decent, housing (which in the United States usually means either an apartment in an expensive urban district or a single family home); schools good enough not to restrict an ambitious child's chances (so a private school, or a public school in a rich neighborhood); a car for each adult that's not a jalopy; health insurance premiums; some retirement savings — these are de minimis requirements of a decent life for a professional in the United States, and they cost. In the United States, they cost more than professionals in almost any other country could possibly afford from their own salaries. American professionals behave as if they are more greedy than their colleagues elsewhere, because they have to be more greedy in order to afford social goods that are more universal, much less scarce, elsewhere.

Everything we can't source externally is more expensive in the United States because we are all, desperately, striving to make the labor, goods, or services that we sell — or else the hold-up costs we can impose — expensive. Our institutions both encourage and demand that of us, by letting the most successful enjoy outsize rewards and social power, by threatening us with submersion in American social pathology should we become unable to pay all the tolls and rents we must continually pay in order to segregate ourselves from it.

So warships and subways — big projects where lots of people each get to demand a payout, as compensation for goods and services, as compensation for risk-bearing, as a form of political persuasion, in exchange for acquiescing rather than suing, as a result of costly lawsuits — are expensive in the United States. We make them that way, one eager, ambitious, desperate hand at a time.

And then we are shocked. Really, genuinely, shocked. Because we really, actually believed that, if nothing else, these institutions in which we ostentatiously and proudly entrapped ourselves would deliver "economic efficiency". That was why we did this to ourselves.


We live in a moment when fascism is ascending. That's bad news.

But who are the fascists? We sometimes have elaborate debates about questions like Is Ron DeSantis a fascist?.

I think that the question is ill-formed. Outside of Mussolini's Italy and a few performative weirdoes, fascism is not an identity people adopt. It is not an ideology that people support. The better way to understand fascism is as a syndrome that people are in the throes of. The identity "fascists" adopt is, first, patriotic opponent of insidious enemies who threaten what is virtuous in my society. Then, in a later stage, devoted and obedient supporter of the great leader who will vanquish our enemies.

That describes "rank and file" fascists. What about leaders of movements who seek power by manufacturing and scapegoating insidious enemies? This does describe Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump, Chris Rufo, or Michael Knowles. About the latter (who called for the “eradication of transgenderism from public life.”), Radley Balko perceptively writes...

I don’t think Knowles yearns to personally murder trans people. I don’t think he longs to direct other people to murder trans people on his behalf. I don’t think he fantasizes about the prospect of trans people being murdered.

But I do think he and too many like him knowingly, willingly, and eagerly court the praise, likes, follows, speech attendances, and novelty gift budgets of people who do.

In the sense I described above, these leaders are less "fascist" than the people upon whose adulation they hope to rise. DeSantis is a calculating chameleon, who governed for a while as a good government conciliator. He just decided that his best play to beat Trump in a Presidential primary was to manufacture an insidious enemy called "wokeism", then ostentatiously deploy the coercive power of the state to vanquish it, whatever the human cost. Echoing Balko, I don't think DeSantis yearns to personally murder trans people. I don't think he cares one way or another about "gender ideology" (or at least that he did before he started to take actions that might demand that he persuade himself, in order to avoid cognitive dissonance and feelings of guilt). Sexual minorities are appealing sources of an internal enemy for conservative political entrepreneurs. They provoke fear and disgust at a visceral level among many conservatives, and they are supported by social liberals who can conveniently be blamed for them.

So is DeSantis a fascist? I doubt that he identifies, to himself or to anyone else, as a fascist. Almost no one does. And DeSantis is not a fascist in the rank-and-file sense, caught in the thrall of a kind of negative ardor for the enemies he has invented. Perhaps eventually he will get high on his own supply, but at the start, it's nothing personal.

I think a useful way to describe people like DeSantis — and Trump, and Rufo, and Knowles — is "Sméagols".

Sméagol is the character in The Lord of the Rings who lusts for "my precious", a ring of power under whose influence he transforms into both a pathetic wretch and a kind of monster ("Gollum"). DeSantis is willing to conjure the social dynamic of fascism in the service of his rise to power. He may not intend the awful consequences often associated with that dynamic. Indeed he may hope that once it elevates him, he can moderate and set it aside.

But just because you may be leader doesn't mean you are the master of social forces much deeper and more powerful than any single person. Patriotic hatred of — even delicious sadism towards — the internal enemy that you conjure is not something you can just switch off in your public. To lead, whether as President or dictator, is a dance of following your public at least as much as you compel your public to follow you. Your power, your ring, is an identity constructed in the negative spaces of the existential enemy you have manufactured. When your power wobbles, when you feel threatened, you lean into that. You have to. Otherwise you might be exposed, just an ordinary person, a failed manipulator, a little man behind the curtain who has deceived and disappointed a lot of second amendment enthusiasts.

It's not that "Sméagols" are fascists. It's just that the apocalyptic dangers of provoking and nurturing a fascist social dynamic are risks they are willing to take in the service of their ambitions.

Is that really so wrong?

Image produced by Midjourney, prompt "Ron Desantis as Gollum, gloomy fantastic style"

Decommodification and health care utilization

I am listening to an episode of the Left Anchor podcast. Among other great things, guest Mark Paul calls not just for universal health care, but for "decommodifying" health care.

Health care, he reminds us, is famously a festival of market failures. Absenting health care provision — like we exempt, say, national security provision — entirely from consumer markets makes some sense, even from a neoliberal perspective. Regulated markets are how neoliberals usually address market failure, but in principle if, say, barriers to informed consumer choice are severe enough, nonmarket provision might well be more efficient than relying upon consumer discipline at all.

But if consumers literally bear no cost at all for the health care they receive, won't they overconsume? The usual story with "Medicare For All" is that we'd gain some efficiency from eliminating the private insurance layer (which costs tremendous complexity and a whole lot of money) but we'd increase aggregate medical provision. The presently uninsured would enjoy new care and people who now ration their own access for fear of financial burden would make greater use of the system, yielding health benefits. But this would also increase demand and cost.

Paul's use of the term "decommodification" had me wondering, however, about what reforms might mean for the supply side of health care provision, and how that might affect utilization. As Nick Rowe has pointed out many times, the usual condition of under which commodities are provided under capitalism is supplier market power. Suppliers are eager to supply. It is easy to buy things, while sales is a difficult job.

This seems as true for health care in the United States as it is for other services. We are bombarded by ads for clinics and pharmaceutics. Television commercials ask us to try on diagnoses they suggest, and then ask our doctors. Our doctors are paid (via a complicated melange of sources) more for each service than what it costs to provide. Like shoe-sellers, they do well when they are busy, they go bust when patients cease to come.

John Kenneth Galbraith (via Chris Dillow) writes

The fact that wants can be synthesised by advertising, catalysed by salesmanship and shaped by the discreet manipulations of the persuaders shows that they are not very urgent. A man who is hungry need never be told of his need for food.

Under capitalism a persuasive apparatus emerges to sell us unnecessary baubles. Fine. There are worse things than having baubles. But superfluous health care services impose deadweight losses besides the financial transfers they provoke. Surgeries are painful and bring risks of complication. Medication has side effects, sometimes very serious. Drugs aggressively sold provoke addictions that destroy lives, families, and communities.

If the ordinary result of commodification under capitalism is imperfect competition favoring sellers and then aggressive persuasion to maximize profits, then wouldn't we expect commodified health care to be overutilized? Wouldn't we expect the (important! good!) health care produced by the system be offset somewhat by manufacture of disease and addiction, matched by provider profits? And isn't this exactly what most of us think we see?

The cost of profit-motivated health-care overutilization is higher than the sum of individual disabilities and addiction occasioned by unnecessary care. The phenomenon has a much broader social consequences. It profoundly undermines the public's trust in education and expertise.

  • The anti-vaxx movement is rendered credible to its adherents almost entirely by the conjecture that the pharmaceutical industry is very interested in getting us to take their products, and less interested in our heath.

  • Anti-trans activists, when confronted by the strong consensus among medical providers in favor of cautious, incremental gender-affirmative care, argue that medical associations are corrupted by providers' interest in a lucrative new care market. How can you trust these people who are selling us the sterilization of our children?

A health care system that passes off sometimes debilitating baubles as medical necessities becomes hard to take seriously in its advice about what is actually a medical necessity. Which makes it hard for us as a society to come to consensus, even when — as in the case of most vaccines and most trans care — the medical benefits are very real.

I think that it is certainly true, as the conventional case goes, that "decommodifying" health care would increase utilization by people currently discouraged from accessing health care for financial reasons. And to the degree that "decommodification" just means health care gratis at the point of service without making deeper changes to the system, then that will be the dominant effect.

But what if by "decommodification" we mean something more, if we mean to alter the institutions and incentives surrounding health care provision so that there is not a profit motive attached to ever more provision? How much would any increase in utilization due to more inclusive access might be offset by a reduction in demand we might describe as induced by providers who profit from erring on the side of more provision? Could a decommodified health care system find ways of delivering equal or better health outcomes from fewer procedures, visits, and medications, rather than just delivering more to more people?

If so, then sure, that increases the political case for wholesale reform, under the banner of "Medicare For All" or whatever. Medicare For All may be cheaper than we think, if it helps move us towards buying outcomes rather than procedures.

But more than that, it is impossible to sustain modernity under conditions where the expertise we must rely upon is undermined by financial interests. This is a broader problem than just medicine. I don't think we'll really address it until we reduce the sway of financial motivation by reducing dispersion of outcomes. (Mark Paul, in the same podcast, proposes an income floor and cap. Hurrah!)

But medicine is the signal example of expertise in most people's lives. A world in which doctors can't be trusted because their financial incentives and patient welfare diverge is a world in which it will be hard for people to trust almost any form of professional expertise. We are seeing measles again. We are seeing polio. Fascist inimicalization of sexual minorities is rendered plausible to much of the public in part by perceived corruption of experts on whose work we must rely if we are to discredit and overcome prejudice.

For reasons beyond accessibility and cost reduction, we need to think about decommodifying medicine. Along with expertise in general.

We haunt

Everywhere the humans have been, and especially everywhere the humans still are, there are ghosts. We haunt. There is nothing more fundamental. We leave bits of us — artifacts, fragments of memory, graffiti, letters, legends — everywhere that we have been. Those traces reanimate, like Sea Monkey eggs poured into brine, among humans who eventually encounter them. Things long dormant come to life.

They can raze the Pei Dormitories and rechristen New College "DeSantis University". They can exile the the faculty and recruit chidren raised by televangelists. They can scrub every surface with bleach and hydroxychloroquine, desperate to erase any trace of us.

But we who are now dead, we lived there. We loved there. We lived brief lives so extraordinary there that the rest of the world, the rest of our own lives, faded dim. That cannot be erased.

It won't be.

As long as there is a college of any kind on that remarkable, beautiful campus, as long as there are kids who live there and a community striving to teach and learn, there will be resonances. The collective adolescence will draw our poltergeist.

Even now, our usurpers live only in our negative spaces. Or in weak caricatures of our negative spaces that their own smallness and madness have hallucinated for them. Pity them. They make so much noise, they stomp gleefully upon the wildflowers. But despite their professed religion, no spirit stirs beneath their ruckus. They croak sound with no echoes. Their footprints are nothing to time and wind. Wildflowers grow back, thick in bright colors, from detritus of root and seed.

Haunt. Small men in large pulpits come and go. There have never been smaller men than these.

Haunt. Tell our stories. Leave traces, sprinkle breadcrumbs, in these electric entrails we now inhabit. In places where they can find them, not in the ever-shifting self-eradicating folds of Mark Zuckerberg's gigabit anus.

What we leave, the kids will find. They will want to know. The transcendant is rare in our difficult country. New College is a wellspring. Children whose upbringing has been constraint masquerading as rapture, cruelty masquerading as civilization, threat masquerading as sanctuary, will thirst all the more for the water.

Trustees, they call themselves, as if anyone would trust them. President. How grand. These people are parade floats transecting only briefly the center of the universe. Vulgar, imposing, made of nothing but hot air smelling stale like sweat and fear. We have indulged them too much already with diplomacy and outrage, with any kind of attention at all. They are unworthy of attention at all.


And stay, if you can. Whether you are student, staff, or faculty, it will be a trial. But an even better medium for haunting than an abandonned house is a living body possessed by spirit and memory. By no means give those motherfuckers any money. But if you can stand it, if you can put up with their harrying and petulence and dishonesty and cruelty, stay. A river runs through you.

And love. The kids who will come, whether they are recruited on baseball scholarships or from community colleges (a genuinely wonderful initiative) or whether they are our own kids, the kids are not our enemy. They are us and we are them. As long as they live and learn as fully and richly and wildly as we did, nothing can be lost. Flickering in a windstorm conjured by fools, we offer a flame. Only we know its warmth and technicolor brilliance. We offer it in love, despite the gusts and gales.

It won't be easy for these new kids either. This storm is meant to keep them pliantly in their shelters.

We were not so pliant. Neither will they be.


Systemic questions are boring.

It is so much more fun when we have a scandal — corruption! sex! ‐ than to drone on about our voting system. A scandal brings excitement, outrage, food fights on Twitter, entertaining cable news. Who the fuck cares about Duverger's Law and approval voting?

But Jesus Fucking Christ.

We all understand that, in the United States, our current electoral system reliably elevates sociopaths. Then we are shocked!, shocked! that they are sociopaths.

Our electoral system rewards — nay, requires — corruption, as without campaign cash, most candidates have no hope.

The primary system and the small-money donations game filter for outrage entrepreneurs. The big-money donations game filters for sycophants to plutocrats. Pick your poison, then poison us all.

Donald Trump is not the problem. He's a symptom. As are the prosecutorial showboats like Adam Schiff who oh so valiantly attack him. Kayfabe was the metaphor, but it's wrong to imagine it started with Trump.

Whatever these people are doing, they are not meaningfully representing us. They are not finding solutions to the problems that most vex us. There's a Groucho Marx aspect to our current system. Anyone willing to do what it takes to get elected and keep the job under our decayed institutions is unlikely to do the job well.

And we are misgoverned. We are so badly misgoverned. We are literally dying from misgovernment. It's a big fucking deal.

Giving your sociopaths a slim margin over the other team of sociopaths is not going to solve the problem. There is no one you can elect who will "make a difference" when the system in which they operate is what's broken. The only way they can make a difference is if they change the system that rewards their misgovernment.

Yes, it matters, as a kind of holding action, that the very worst of them shouldn't get elected. But all the money we send to ActBlue or WinRed is just a fucking shakedown. The politics industry finances itself opulently by holding us for ransom. We are provoked to pay so that something terrible won't happen.

Not a lot of positive good is likely to come out of a cage match between two sorted, polarized parties, from which we elect representatives whose main job is attracting cash, for whom governing is at best a side hustle, and who understand that taking a meaningful position beyond the consensus of their party invites attack ads and is electoral poison.

Things work a little better than you'd expect from a fair description of our actual system. Maybe there's some hope in that. But not very much hope.

We have to change the structure of our democracy.

We are in a foreign policy environment where catastrophically destructive war or even nuclear annihilation are plausible outcomes. We need to act with care, deliberation, and wisdom. Instead, political incentives militate either towards cartoon hawkishness or dogmatic isolationism, almost regardless of the actual circumstances. We need leaders who can actually negotiate and deliberate, who can understand nuance and consider compromise without those words becoming euphemisms for abandonning vital commitments.

We have to change the structure of our democracy.

And we can! Yes we can! Almost none of what ails us is embedded in our hard-to-change Constitution.

  • If our pustulent rotted Congress could rise above their pustulence and rottedness for a day or two, they could change the character of the antidemocratic Senate. It could become a body that elevates broadly popular, consensus-oriented statesmen rather than partisan sociopaths. It would take nothing more than an Act of Congress to insist that Senators be elected by approval vote.

  • A simple Act of Congress could ensure that at least four major parties emerge among the public and take seats in the House of Representatives, transforming today's stalemated trench warfare between implacably opposed camps into a more constructive dynamic where parties on their own can neither pass or block anything, where coalition building works while kneecapping a rival just advantages a different rival.

  • We could insist that elections be solely publicly financed.

  • We could properly fund Congressional staffs so they needn't outsource the basic work of legislating to think tanks bought by plutocrats and lobbyists working for industries eager to write their own laws.

  • We could even build a Supreme Court that would be trustworthy.

Any of these things, or all of them, could be accomplished by a simple Act of Congress.

Structure may not be as salacious as who's grabbing whom by the pussy, who bought whom by some clever or not so clever means that the Supreme Court decides is not corruption.

Something in our lizard brains seeks out human villains we can mock, punish, destroy. Structural change is not so exciting. It seems dry.

But it is so much more powerful. Transcend your lizard blame for a second, and prioritize what fucking matters. With enough pressure, even the sociopaths we currently elect can be cornered into doing the right thing.