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Three Things Conservatives Wrote This Week That Everyone Should Read

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Welcome to TP Ideas‘ weekly roundup of the best conservative writing! Every Friday, we take a look at three pieces by right-leaning writers that constructively articulate core elements of their worldview. The goal isn’t to find conservatives telling us how right liberals are, but rather to pick out writing that helps liberals understand where their ideological foes are coming from.

So let’s get started.

1. “GruberGate’s Insider Problem” — Megan McArdle, Bloomberg View

Health care economist Jonathan Gruber blew up the internet a few days ago. His comments — that Obamacare was explicitly designed to hide certain policy realities and to extract certain results from the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) scoring process — have inspired conservatives to resurrect their charge that the health care reform was passed on false pretenses.

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Over at Bloomberg View this week, Megan McArdle took a different tack. She acknowledged that Obamacare was widely and transparently debated, and that politicians on both sides of the aisle try to tailor their legislation to CBO’s accounting rules in order to get numbers that comport with their preferred narrative. But she also teases something else out: the tendency of many reporters to wave off this behavior as “what everyone already knows” suggests they see themselves as policy insiders. And that self-understanding undermines one of journalists’ most basic duties:

[O]n every story we report, we should always be the outsiders; most important, we should always, always identify with our readers over the insider experts. That doesn’t mean we can’t root for a political party, or a policy, or a company. We are customers and citizens as well as writers, and we have a rooting interest in our own society. But it does mean that we should not think of ourselves as part of the policy elite; we should identify ourselves with our readers, who are not only less informed than the insiders, but also less informed than we are.

So when I see journalists saying that Gruber’s revelations don’t matter because he’s just kind of awkwardly saying something that everyone knew, I get a little jittery. I am not “everyone,” and neither are any of those journalists. We’re a tiny group of people with strange preoccupations who get paid to spend our time understanding and explaining this stuff. The fact that we may have mentioned it once to our readers, in the 18th paragraph, does not mean that readers read it and understood what it meant. (In fact, if you actually interact with your readers, you’ll be astonished at how little they remember of what you told them, especially if you didn’t go out of your way to headline it. Their minds are already crammed full of information that they need to, you know, live their lives. So they tend to take away a few big bullet points, not the piddling details.) […]

That politicians should try to exploit the accounting rules was inevitable; that is what people do with accounting rules. I’m not saying that’s what the rules are for, or that they do no good; I’m just saying that about eight seconds after your rules are made, some bright Johnny will start figuring out a way to game them.

What is not inevitable is that journalists should effectively sanction this by saying it’s no big deal. We don’t have to get elected, after all. And those politicians and policy makers aren’t our bosses; the reading public is. We shouldn’t act like we’re part of the insider clique that decides what other people need to know — no, worse, that decides what other people do know.

Now, this does not lead to a full endorsement of the conservative take on GruberGate. Whether the mandate is a “penalty” or a “tax,” for instance, it still means money leaving people’s pockets under certain circumstances. And it’s wildly implausible to argue every effort wasn’t made to inform the average voter that premiums would go up for some people. Similarly, once you untangle all the complexities of CBO projections, Obamacare really is a deficit reducer, especially in its second decade of operation.

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But what McArdle’s argument does imply is that journalists have an obligation to walk readers through those complexities in plain and honest language, and to do so again and again, rather than brushing them off as an unnecessary because everyone who matters to the conversation is already in the know. “If we knew this all along and voters didn’t, that doesn’t mean voters don’t have a right to be outraged,” McArdle concluded. “It means that we’ve lost track of whose side we’re on.”

2. “Here’s A Better Idea Than Net Neutrality Knockoffs” — Brock Cusick, The Federalist

President Obama reignited the debate over “net neutrality” recently by coming down in favor of treating internet service providers (ISPs) effectively as utilities. Proponents of the move argue it will keep the internet free and accessible to everyone, whereas not treating ISPs in this fashion will leave them free to provide different levels of bandwidth and charge different rates for different parts of the internet. Opponents of “net neutrality” fear that treating ISPs as utilities would squash innovation.

At the Federalist this week, Brock Cusick argued for a creative third option. Unlike roads or sewers, telecommunication wires are cheap and easy to install. This means multiple telecommunications infrastructures can in fact lay atop one another and compete. But to be able to lay those wires, ISPs need the right to use the telephone polls and properties that are currently held by utility companies. So Brock recommends simply forcing utilities to lease space on these rights-of-way to at least four ISPs, at cost. The idea is that any customer in any area of the country would then have at least four ISPs vying for their business:

Competition and innovation is good. Having only one Internet utility (even if it acts as a common carrier) could produce a lack of discrimination in the present, but it could also produce a lack of innovation and feature development at the physical level of cables and switches. If we could prevent this latter problem, we should, right?

Another concern is that a single, regulated company could become a control point for the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the National Security Agency to easily spy on all Americans. I don’t think anyone reading this should take this civil liberties threat lightly. We all live in the post-Snowden era, and we see the headlines about how the FBI wants a back door into every phone and mobile device. The government does not prioritize our privacy. If we can arrange our affairs such that all Americans have a choice of ISP, and they can choose one that respects their privacy the most (within the law, but not an inch more), we should do that, right?

Competition between ISPs would have one further salutary effect, which brings us back to Netflix. If the average American had several ISPs to choose from, and switching between them was relatively painless, do you think those ISPs would intentionally degrade service to extract payments from Netflix or whomever? Not likely! They’d know that if they did this their customers would all just leave for the ISP that wasn’t. Market competition, when combined with clear consumer information and meaningful power to switch and choose, is both a source of discipline against bad behavior and an incentive to develop better service and greater features over time.

Now, it should be noted that Europeans went ahead and treated its ISPs like utilities a while ago, and they enjoy far better internet service than Americans. There’s also the possibility that, if inequality keeps increasing and elites keep clustering, even multiple ISPs in competition with each other could wind up degrading service to certain portions of the internet simply because they’re all chasing the same clumps of purchasing power. That said, Cusick’s recommendation is an honest effort to preserve a real market in ISPs, while also addressing the fear that they’ll enjoy unilateral monopoly pricing if net neutrality goes away.

3. “Incentive Pay For Congress” — Eli Dourado, Cato Online Forum

Figuring out how to get better behavior and better policymaking out of our lawmakers is a perennial problem of American politics. With the current gridlock, the 113th Congress has been less productive and passed fewer bills than any batch of politicians since at least 1973. Over at the Cato Institute this week, Eli Dourado suggested the American people try to solve this problem in the same way many employers do in the private sphere — by offering a pay bonus for good performance:

A performance bonus would help to overcome some of Congress’s complacency and division in the face of decades-long economic stagnation. By linking the bonus directly with a measure of economic growth, we would create a strong incentive for Congress to search for economic policies that work, even if those policies themselves are unpopular with voters. Peer pressure from other members of Congress with money on the line might reduce the temptation to engage in demagoguery at the expense of the policies that lead to growth.

In order to induce a large change in Congressional behavior, Congress’s performance bonus should be generous. If the incentive led to even marginally more economic growth, then the proposal would be revenue-positive for any level of compensation we might reasonably select. A round number like $100,000 per year might work — it would cost $53.5 million to pay to all 535 members of Congress. Since about 20 percent of GDP is collected in federal taxes, about $267.5 million in additional economic growth would be needed to fund the bonus. With GDP at over $17 trillion, this bonus would therefore pay for itself if it generated at least an additional 0.0015 percentage points of economic growth. […]

One good performance metric would be total factor productivity (TFP), which measures (in principle) how much output can be produced with a fixed, diverse basket of inputs. TFP represents how economists think about the state of technology. We might be able to increase output if we all work longer hours, but this doesn’t necessarily represent progress. By focusing on improvements in output that occur apart from the application of more resources, TFP gains represent more unambiguous improvements in living standards than many other economic measures.

Dourado also deals with a number of objections to his idea, such as the possibility that lawmakers might get the bonus for improved performance that actually resulted from bills passed before they arrived in office. He also points out that TFP “is statistically inferred from a host of other measurements,” making it harder to game that a straight measure like GDP.

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The forum Dourado was contributing to was concerned with encouraging growth. But it’s also fair to say lawmaker’s concern is ultimately the well-being of the country, and far more factors go into that: the health of the populace, the ecological sustainability of our economy, and even harder-to-quantify matters like general happiness and flourishing communities. But it’s not impossible to measure those other values as well (at least sort of), so the basic intuitive appeal of Dourado’s idea could arguably be expanded to include them as well.

Update:

The post has been updated for clarity.