Saturday, September 14, 2013

Real Time With Bill Maher: Counterpoints and Retrospective (9/13/13)

Well, after a month and a half off, Real Time came back on air. The news cycle continued without it, so they had plenty of things to talk about on the show and in the panel discussion. It's time to address those issues. So let's get down to it.

Bill Maher 1: We shouldn't conduct military strikes in Syria.

Zanny Minton Beddoes came closest to advocating our best course of action: decisive ultimatum backed by a credible threat of force. The national interest is hurt when somebody challenges the current international framework. And use of chemical weapons falls under a breach of international norms. The United States has underwritten that framework by spending trillions of dollars and deploying hundreds of thousands of men and arms. And it's done so for a very good reason: stability.

Stability is the precursor to prosperity. Stability is what keeps trade routes open and prevents self-interested parties from stepping over the bounds. It's built the most prosperous and most peaceful global order in human history. Before the ascension of US hegemony, history was nothing more than constant, internecine warfare punctuated by various bouts of peace thrown in as societies rebuilt and rearmed, preparing for the next conflict.

A world without US hegemony will become more unstable and more dangerous unless another country steps up and provides stability. Currently, there is no other country that is capable of looking beyond its own immediate needs. Failure to act in Syria will only embolden others to challenge the current global order. That doesn't end well for anyone.

Bill Maher 2: It seems like the Republican Party is flip flopping on Syria because the President is going back and forth on the issue. They simply don't want to agree with him (because he's black).

Michael Steele had the best response to this. The modern Republican Party always had a libertarian/isolationist faction within it. In recent times, it was a dormant and marginalized element within the GOP. After the fall of the Soviet Union and before the US got bogged down in Iraq, neoconservative hawks ruled the roost in the GOP, riding the vestiges of the Reagan Revolution into various posts of influence inside the Beltway.

But the American public is now war weary. There has always been an isolationist impulse in the American public and it is especially pronounced now. The new class of Republicans in the House better reflects the general American attitude of "it's not our problem". Old guard Republicans, like John McCain, are still openly calling for the use of military force. There is definitely a split within the Republican Party. And Maher is assuming the absolute worst and thinking that the GOP only disagrees to spite President Obama, but the reality isn't anywhere close to that line of thought.

Bill Maher 3: Gun control is dead with the recall of those two Colorado state senators.

His argument is almost, word for word, taken from a piece in The Atlantic. And the problem is that the way it's worded is false. There is obviously still gun control in the United States. I can't stroll into Wal-Mart and buy a fully automatic assault rifle, a silencer, and a rocket launcher. The more accurate statement is that the gun control movement has currently been cowed into silence and submission.

Because while Maher and other Democrats (despite his protestations that he's an independent, if you write a million dollar check to President Obama's PAC, you're a Democrat) want to pretend that thousands of ordinary Americans are getting gunned down in the street, the statistics don't bear that at all. His refrain that 1800 Americans have died from gun violence since Assad used chemical weapons last month includes suicides, although he failed to mention that to the audience.

Gun homicides simply aren't an important issue in national politics today. Some places are more concerned about it than others (Chicago), but the fact is crime and gun homicide is mostly a local issue. The issue of gun control and its effect on crime should be litigated in a similar fashion: locally. And that's exactly what the recall issue did. It was in response to a Colorado law, not Federal statute.

Bill Nye: Republicans have gone off the deep end and they don't care about science at all. Creationism in schools is not science!

You can be a physicist or a mechanical engineer and still believe in creationism. One of my friends is an electrical engineer and he's deeply religious. It doesn't stop him from effectively applying what he learned about electric engineering to his job. Now, if Texas Republicans wanted to use the Bible in lieu of electromagnetic equations, I'd have a problem with that. But really, evolution has no practical bearing on applied science today. Let it go. The liberal fixation with the religious fixation on creationism is nothing more than liberals being smug.

Matt Taibbi: The 1% are doing better than ever. And it's because the system is stacked in their favor.

Actually, when you consider the limitations on deductions and tax rates on investment income, the system is actually stacked in favor of the middle class investor. But don't let that get in the way of cheap, effective rhetoric.

The effective tax on effective income goes up the more money you make. Tax efficient investment accounts like IRAs, 401(k)s, 529s all have contribution limits. Capital gains are also limited on primary residences as well, even though that does nothing to help the hedge funds buying up entire neighborhoods in all cash deals. Investment losses are tax deductible up to 3k, which matters a lot if you can only invest a few grand per year, but completely insignificant when your gains and losses can be measured in the millions.

The law favors small investors. The reason why big investors are doing so well is because they're the only ones investing. The big takeaway should be that investors are the winners of today's economy, not the rich. The fact that both groups are highly correlated should tell policymakers something other than "the rich are evil and rigging the system".

Bill Maher 4: We need Obamacare for college education.

College costs are rising like medical costs are because there is a great demand for it and very little hindrances to financing it. As Maher stated in the show, it's a lot like health costs. But what Maher didn't get is that health care is so expensive is because the financing system is very inefficient. People with "insurance" (in reality, they are nothing more than coverage payment plans, it's not insurance in the true sense of the word) demand too much services because their costs are predictable but their demands aren't.

For example, my health plan has me on the hook for 2000 dollars worth of medical expenses (600 deductible, 1400 in an 80/20 plan) in any given calendar year. After that threshold has been reached, my medical expenses are completely covered by the insurance company. What do you think happens to my demand for medical services after I've reached the out of pocket maximum?

Similarly, in college, we have readily available credit to finance college education. And the people taking on the debt are stupid teenagers who have never had to manage significant amounts of money before and clueless parents who don't really know the true value of college. Given those circumstances, is there really any surprise that the cost of college has exploded?

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