Sunday, November 7, 2010

Time Horizons: Alan's Objection

So, in the midst of a debate about health care reform and the election, Alan writes the following, which I will respond to piece by piece:
Your time horizons argument seems a naked attempt to say "my vision of the future is the only one that counts because I refuse to accept that you even have a vision of the future." It is bunk and a remarkably ironic position for a conservative to hold.

No, that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that most reasonable people, on both the left and right, acknowledge that the bill was specifically crafted to get a CBO cost and deficit score. Certain provisions were included that few people think will stand. Take these out, and the cost and deficit projection falls apart.

But on the larger point of about conservatives and the future, I'm saying that, again, the most likely outcome will be a cost overrun because these provisions are most likely going to change. I'm not refusing to acknowledge another vision of the future, I'm saying it's unlikely.

And this is a very conservative thing to do. Look, Burke said, that the whole thing about liberté, égalité, and fraternité in the French Revolution sounds so nice, but the path you are going down will lead to people getting their heads chopped off. It won't be pretty. He looked at the long run, and saw the danger.

But, more important, your final paragraph says that besides empirical facts, we also must worry about bogeymen. It expresses a fear of the future that I can reconcile with a conservative viewpoint, but not one that I can reconcile with a privileged long-term view.

In the first paragraph, you say my time horizons theory is bunk. Okay. Let's review what my time horizons theory says. It says that liberals are concerned about empirical fact, which leads them to short-term thinking. Moreover, the concern about the long-term is relatively less important and sometimes concern about the long-term is even viewed as irrational.

Hmmm...that's funny. Because I'm saying that the specific facts of the law are less important than the long-term trajectory of where the law will most likely take us, I'm accused of worrying about "bogeymen." In other words, my focus on the future is viewed by you as irrational. And so, you prove my point with your counter-argument.

Lastly, I'm not afraid of the future. I'm afraid of the future if we go in a direction that gives the state additional power over health, life, and death.

Death panels could come, without regard to foregoing legislation, if death panel advocates were to successfully pass such legislation. I do not understand, however, why people think bleeding heart liberals will write that into law. That fear is about equal to fear of bogeymen.

There are a variety of reasons why this might occur, but mostly because the majority of health care costs are for the very old, near death. I don't have the exact figures, but I think I remember that the 80-20 rule holds, and something like 20% of the oldest account for 80% of the costs. I don't want to get too hung up on the numbers because whatever they are, they account for a large portion of the costs.

Combine this fact with the short-term, empirical analysis of liberals, who want this program and will champion its continuance and drive its expansion, and you get a point where those older people start to look like dead-weight.

Oh, and along the bleeding-heart liberals not doing this comment, it's not like history doesn't have people on the Left calling for sacrifice for the greater good, and by sacrifice I mean people being murdered. Given that murder is more difficult to rationalize than allowing people to die, I can see it happening. But you must understand, I don't think there will be a straight up vote on it. Bureaucratic language and procedures will mask what it really is. They'll call it a health efficiency panel, but it could become a death panel.

And lastly, on the point about the panels could arrive irrespective of the legislation, okay. Great. You generally seem to be saying, look, this bill doesn't have those provisions in it. If at some point in the future people try to do this, then let's worry about that bridge when we come to it, but we ain't there now.

And my response is that this legislation is sending us down a path with a high likelihood that we will come to that bridge, and the concern is that once we get to that bridge the only choice will be to cross it because that same legislation that sent us down this path also lit the forest behind us ablaze.

To put it in more practical terms, let's say the costs are higher than expected. And to be honest, even people on the Left acknowledge the key point was to expand coverage, not cut costs. And that the cost cutting was more or less window dressing. Well, let's say we expand coverage, then we revoke some provisions that will be unpopular, but were supposed to cut costs. So, we do start building up fiscal problems even faster, and have given the government more control. Well, when a massive bill is looking the American people in the face, then a death panel couched in less hideous bureaucratic language might just be something that could get passed.

(Tone surely sounds more antagonistic than I intend as I expect you know.)



william randolph brafford said...

Maybe I will write a post on this some day, but the one thing to watch out for with the time horizons stuff is that moral constraints will look just like putting a high value on the present. Someone could believe that certain kinds of exploitation are just wrong (e.g. sweatshops), no matter what the economic situation is, whereas someone else might see the trade-off between bad working conditions in the short term and economic development in the long run, and weight the suffering caused by present working conditions more heavily than the expected benefits of more economic activity. And of course, classical liberal would rate the long term economic scenario pretty highly.

This might be the difference between a left-leaning liberal/neoliberal and an actual leftist, but I'll have to think about it some more.

Anyways, this point about moral constraints vs. preferences is one I've been meaning to make for a while.

FLG said...


I think I understand what you are getting it. There's a way where my time horizons theory will dismiss a deontological moral argument as being based upon short-time horizons. On the other hand, consequentialist moral arguments naturally fall into the time horizons theory.

My response to this previously was that saying something is universally wrong is indeed a long time horizon argument because you are saying something is forever and always wrong. When they start justifying it on consequentialist grounds, which many on the left are apt to do, then it begins to fall toward short-time horizons.

william randolph brafford said...

Yep! That's what I meant.

Pretty much everybody in the mainstream makes consequentialist arguments about policy, so it's not a huge problem for the theory.

Did we talk about this before? Or was it someone else who raised the objection?

FLG said...

No, I anticipated it. I'm not as dumb as I look.

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