May 24, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
May 24, 2012
On April 19, Republican Senator Marco Rubio appeared at a policy breakfast in Washington. The ostensible topic was his proposal for a Republican alternative to the DREAM Act, but it wasn’t long before the conversation drifted to vice presidential talk. Since the start of the Republican primary, Rubio has been named at the top of nearly every short list of likely running mates—and for good reason. He is young, charismatic, and popular with both the Tea Party and the GOP establishment. He has a reputation for being serious about policy. He is a Hispanic in a party that badly needs to do better with Hispanic voters. And it hardly hurts that his home state is Florida.
Of course, when the inevitable question arose, Rubio declared in his surprisingly youthful voice, “I don’t want to be the vice president right now.” Was it because he was too inexperienced, the interviewer asked? Rubio, a lively speaker with a canny sense of comic timing, said no. “I’m older than I look,” he explained. “I’ll be forty-one this year, but I feel forty-two.” Later, he said: “Three, four, five, six, seven years from now, if I do a good job as vice president—I’m sorry—if I do a good job as a senator …I’ll have the chance to do all sorts of things.” The gaffe was striking not least because it was a rare moment in which Rubio seemed to be caught off-balance. But Rubio was adamant that he wasn’t angling to be on the presidential ticket. “I think the Senate is a very valid place to shape and drive American policy, foreign policy, which I enjoy deeply,” he said. “If I were running for vice president, I would have to answer questions about my dog.”
All of these coy denials only seemed to heighten Republican interest. And, in the following days, Rubio did all the things one would expect of someone who wanted to be vice president: He gave a well-received foreign policy speech at the Brookings Institution and appeared with Mitt Romney, by that point the all-but-certain nominee, at a campaign event in Pennsylvania. But, in the midst of this media blitz, there was one bit of news that didn’t quite fit: Politico reported that Rubio was planning to hold a fund-raiser at an upscale Capitol Hill restaurant for a Florida congressman named David Rivera.
Given that conservative excitement over Rubio was approaching fever pitch, it was a strange move indeed. For a year and a half, Rivera had been under criminal investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Miami-Dade Office of the State Attorney. In September, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington had named him one of the 19 most corrupt members of Congress. Rivera, in short, was not the kind of person for whom someone auditioning to be vice president would want to hold a fund-raiser.
But Rivera also happens to be Marco Rubio’s closest friend in politics. And, during the course of their friendship of 20 years, he has been instrumental in Rubio’s rapid rise from West Miami commissioner to U.S. senator. A Republican colleague in the Florida House describes their relationship as “one step below blood.” As a result, if Rubio makes it on to the Republican ticket, questions about his dog may be the least of his problems.
THE SON OF FIRST-GENERATION Cuban immigrants, David Rivera was born in Brooklyn, New York, but moved to Miami when he was nine. He went to an evangelical high school and, at the age of 14, volunteered for Youth for Reagan. After that, he was hooked on politics for life. Not long after college, he landed a job as a legislative assistant for Florida Senator Connie Mack. In 1990, at the age of 24, he was executive director of the Miami-Dade County Republican Party. Colleagues attribute his success to a combination of exceptional political smarts and hard work. Rivera had a reputation as the guy who would come in earlier than any other volunteer and leave after the lights had gone out.
It was through his work with Republican campaigns that Rivera met a young college student named Marco Rubio. “They came out of this intensity of the Reagan revolution as very young guys,” says Dennis Baxley, who later served with both men in the Florida House. Rubio had also grown up in Miami, one of four children born to a bartender and a maid, both of them Cuban immigrants. He attended a small college in Missouri on a football scholarship, eventually ending up at the University of Florida. In 1992, when Rubio was 21 and Rivera was 27, they both volunteered for Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s congressional campaign. Their friendship continued during the 1996 Dole-Kemp presidential bid, when Rivera was Bob Dole’s South Florida campaign manager and Rubio was the campaign chairman for Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.
When the 26-year-old Rubio ran for a seat on the West Miami Commission, Rivera donated money to his campaign, according to a forthcoming biography of Rubio by Manuel Roig-Franzia, a reporter for The Washington Post. In 2000, Rivera helped Rubio again in a race for a vacant Florida House seat, recalls J.C. Planas, a Miami lawyer who served with them in the Florida House. “Marco was probably going to get to where he was regardless, but David—especially early on—helped Marco a great deal,” he says. Another former colleague says Rivera looked out for Rubio “like a big brother.” In 2002, Rubio had a chance to return the favor: When Rivera decided to make his own run at the Florida House, Planas remembers that Rubio and his wife, Jeanette, helped with the campaign.
Some observers were puzzled by the close bond between Rubio and Rivera, because outwardly they were so different. Rubio was a devoted family man with boyish good looks—even now, at 40, he still looks like he doesn’t need to shave. “He was a star since the beginning,” says Rebeca Sosa, the mayor of West Miami when Rubio was a commissioner. “He was kind to everyone, so everyone loved Marco.” He was also a dynamic public presence. A former speaker of the Florida House, Allan Bense, recalls a speech Rubio once gave about the American dream that “made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.”…
May 24, 2012
We live in a time when almost anything can be bought and sold. Markets have come to govern our lives as never before. But are there some things that money should not be able to buy? Most people would say yes.
Consider friendship. Suppose you want more friends than you have. Would you try to buy some? Not likely. A moment’s reflection would lead you to realize that it wouldn’t work. A hired friend is not the same as a real one. You could hire people to do some of the things that friends typically do—picking up your mail when you’re out of town, looking after your children in a pinch, or, in the case of a therapist, listening to your woes and offering sympathetic advice. Until recently, you could even bolster your online popularity by hiring some good-looking “friends” for your Facebook page—for $0.99 per friend per month. (The phony-friend Web site was shut down after it emerged that the photos being used, mostly of models, were unauthorized.) Although all of these services can be bought, you can’t actually buy a friend. Somehow, the money that buys the friendship dissolves it, or turns it into something else.
This fairly obvious example offers a clue to the more challenging question that concerns us: Are there some things that money can buy but shouldn’t? Consider a good that can be bought but whose buying and selling is morally controversial—a human kidney, for example. Some people defend markets in organs for transplantation; others find such markets morally objectionable. If it’s wrong to buy a kidney, the problem is not that the money dissolves the good. The kidney will work (assuming a good match) regardless of the monetary payment. So to determine whether kidneys should or shouldn’t be up for sale, we have to engage in a moral inquiry. We have to examine the arguments for and against organ sales and determine which are more persuasive.
So it seems, at first glance, that there is a sharp distinction between two kinds of goods: the things (like friends) that money can’t buy, and the things (like kidneys) that money can buy but arguably shouldn’t. But this distinction is less clear than it first appears. If we look more closely, we can glimpse a connection between the obvious cases, in which the monetary exchange spoils the good being bought, and the controversial cases, in which the good survives the selling but is arguably degraded, or corrupted, or diminished as a result. Once we see that connection, we have to ask where markets belong, and where they don’t. And the question of where markets belong is really about how we want to live together. We can’t answer it without thinking about the meaning and purpose of goods and the values that should govern them.
Wedding Toasts and Gifts
Let’s explore some cases intermediate between friendship and kidneys, which will help to elucidate the sorts of values people generally hold about buying and selling. If you can’t buy friendship, what about tokens of friendship or expressions of intimacy or affection?
Consider a social practice closely connected to friendship—a wedding toast to the bride and groom. Traditionally, such toasts are warm, funny, heartfelt expressions of good wishes delivered by the best man, usually the groom’s closest friend. But it’s not easy to compose an elegant wedding speech, so some best men have resorted to buying wedding toasts online.
ThePerfectToast.com is one of the leading Web sites offering ghostwritten wedding speeches. You answer a questionnaire, pay $149, and within three business days receive a professionally written custom toast. Other Web sites, such as InstantWeddingToasts.com, sell standard pre-written wedding speeches for $19.95, including a money-back guarantee.
Suppose, on your wedding day, your best man delivers a heartwarming toast, a speech so moving it brings tears to your eyes. You later learn that he bought it online. Would you care? Would the toast mean less than it did at first, before you knew it was written by a paid professional? For most of us, it probably would.
Although a bought toast might “work” in the sense of achieving its desired effect, that effect might depend on an element of deception. That’s a reason to suspect it’s a corrupt version of the real thing. So a wedding toast is a good that can, in a sense, be bought. But buying and selling it changes its character and diminishes its value.
How about gift giving, another expression of friendship? Unlike wedding speeches, gifts have an unavoidably material aspect. But with some gifts, the monetary aspect is relatively obscure; with others, it is explicit. Recent decades have brought a trend toward the monetization of gifts, another example of the increasing commodification of social life.
From the standpoint of market reasoning, it is almost always better to give cash rather than a gift. If you assume that people generally know their own preferences best, and that the point of giving a gift is to make your friend or loved one happy, then it’s hard to beat a monetary payment. Even if you have exquisite taste, your friend may not like the tie or necklace you pick out. So if you really want to maximize the welfare your gift provides, don’t buy a present; simply give the money you would have spent. Your friend or lover can either spend the cash on the item you would have bought, or, more likely, on something that brings even greater pleasure.
Joel Waldfogel, an economist, has drawn attention to the epidemic of squandered utility associated with holiday gift giving. In Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays (2009), he writes:
The bottom line is that when other people do our shopping, for clothes or music or whatever, it’s pretty unlikely that they’ll choose as well as we would have chosen for ourselves. . . . Relative to how much satisfaction their expenditures could have given us, their choices destroy value.Applying standard market reasoning, Waldfogel concludes that it would be better, in most cases, to give cash and that there is a 20 percent “value destruction” brought about, nationwide, by holiday gift giving.
If gift giving is a massively wasteful and inefficient activity, why do we persist in it? It isn’t easy to answer this question on the basis of typical economic assumptions. In his widely used economics textbook, Gregory Mankiw tries gamely to do so. He begins by observing that “gift giving is a strange custom” but concedes that it’s generally a bad idea to give your boyfriend or girlfriend cash instead of a birthday present…
May 24, 2012
Over the course of the past century, the American state — the sum of all government programs and policies — has grown dramatically larger and more complex. From a massive standing army to an extensive social safety net to significant taxation, from mortgage guarantees to student loans to environmental protections, the range and scale of government activity taken for granted by American citizens today would have been inconceivable to their great-grandparents.
All this activity has generally improved and become intricately embedded in citizens’ lives — which is why attempts to cut the government back tend to be unpopular and unsuccessful. Yet many also feel that the government has started to overreach and that its costs and burdens are becoming unsustainable — which is why bemoaning the extent and growth of the American state is also a perennial feature of political debate. This tension between the fact of a large, active state and doubts about its value is a distinctive feature of the American political scene.
One consequence and driver of the contested legitimacy of the American state is the degree to which so much government work has gone underground in recent decades, far more than in other advanced industrial countries, which is the subject of the political scientist Suzanne Mettler’s important new book, The Submerged State. Increasingly, Mettler argues, many government policies in the United States are designed to be hidden from view, executed not through direct, highly visible legislation but rather through indirect and passive mechanisms, such as tax breaks, leading citizens to underestimate both the scale of government activity in general and the extent to which it benefits them individually. Thus, by making it seem that Social Security pensions are connected to the taxes citizens themselves pay, or by transferring money to citizens not as outright grants but rather as mortgage interest tax deductions or tax exemptions on employer-provided health and retirement savings accounts, the structure of the submerged state disguises just who is getting what from the government and how.
In regular state programs, there is a great deal of direct interaction between citizens and the government. For example, in welfare programs for the poor, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or food stamps, aid recipients have to meet personally with officials to persuade them of their eligibility. The resulting experience of the state is physical, transparent, and often repetitive. In contrast, almost a quarter of Medicare payments — covering over 11 million recipients — are made through private insurance companies, obscuring the role that the federal government is playing. This helps explain the instantly classic episode of the antigovernment Tea Party town hall participant a couple of years ago who angrily warned his representative to “keep your government hands off my Medicare.”
The submergence of the state is a significant problem for American society, Mettler claims, because it “obscure[s] the role of the government and exaggerate[s] that of the market.” Invisible policies reduce democratic control over the government in two ways: first, because they fly under the public’s radar, they are not obvious targets of reform in the first place, and, second, because they create deep structural patterns of social and economic activity, they are difficult to uproot even once they are noticed.
Take health care. Critics of President Barack Obama’s plans in this sector rage that he has tried to have the government take over one-sixth of the economy, as if the system Obama inherited were not already heavily influenced by state activity. In fact, the existing political economy of employer-subsidized health care largely suited many constituencies, including health-care providers and insurance companies. As Mettler notes, this meant that when the Obama administration approached health-care reform, it could not simply ignore or maneuver around political obstacles; it had to “find ways to work through them, by either obliterating them or restructuring them.” Health-care reform thus involved not simply the normal challenge of policymaking in a controversial arena filled with vested interests but grappling with the existing deep structures of a submerged state that few voters understood was there in the first place.
Dropping state activities below the public’s radar encourages Americans to think that they do not rely on the government for help, even when they do. Mettler reports that “only 44 percent of Social Security beneficiaries perceive themselves to have benefited from a government social program.” Presented with a list of 21 types of federal programs, she notes, 94 percent of people polled who said that they had never benefited from any of them were wrong. People who receive mortgage tax relief, for example, often do not consider themselves to be beneficiaries of government largess and can thus blithely talk about the government as something irrelevant to their lives except as a tax burden
Underestimating state activism also denies the government public credit for the help it provides and allows people to believe that smaller government is achievable without significant harm. Moreover, submerged-state policies are overwhelmingly regressive, thus reinforcing and expanding social inequality instead of counteracting and reversing it. The combination of visible policies that help the lower orders and invisible ones that help the middle and upper classes leads people to think that the government helps only the undeserving poor, allowing politicians to mobilize and exploit antigovernment rhetoric and values even as they continue to funnel support to their better-off constituents…