The Women’s March on Washington and the Incorrect Use of Political Language

As I watched online the Women’s March on Washington take place across the country and around the world, I was confused about its goals. Most of the women I know well were not particularly supportive, and when I queried others on social media about the march’s purpose I received almost as many different answers as the women who responded to my question. Ultimately, I took a look at the movement’s mission statement on its website, and this is what I found:

 

quote

There is a lot to unpack in this mission statement, but when I revert back to my Marine Corps officer training on how to write a mission statement, it appears the mission of the march is twofold: 1)  send a “bold” message to President Trump that women’s rights are human rights, and 2)  organize grassroots efforts to create change towards getting more women elected into office at all levels. What is amazing is how few people actually understood this mission. It was as if the participants of the march were speaking a language that was undecipherable to the target audience: Donald Trump, and those who elected him. In this essay I will explain why the incorrect use of political language by anti-Trump protesters was misunderstood by most Trump supporters. I will also explain how the proper use of political language can increase one’s persuasive power in the marketplace of political ideas.

A few years ago I read an excellent eBook titled: “The Three Languages of Politics.” In the book the author, Professor Arnold Kling of George Mason University, argues: “Our political debates are frustrating and endless because each group  expresses itself along a preferred axis.” Kling argues there are three different axes we use as heuristics to define our political language. From each axis we explain our understanding of good and evil. These three axes are: 1) the progressive (liberal, left-leaning) axis; 2) the conservative (right-leaning) axis, and 3) the libertarian axis.headerforkling3axis

Progressives view politics along an oppressor vs. oppressed axis. As such, progressives see the world as a collection of people groups who are either oppressing other groups or are being oppressed by other groups. Their heroes are anyone who is looking out for the little guy or the underdog, and the bad guys are anyone who is big, powerful and dominant. More than any other value, progressives crave equality and they despise advantage.

Conservatives on the other hand, view politics along a civilization vs. barbarism axis. Unlike progressives who see people as members of groups, conservatives perceive the world as a collection of various societies and cultures along a spectrum from civilized to barbaric. To the conservative, civilization is a collection of values, behaviors, and beliefs that have stood the test of time, and barbarism are those forces that attempt to destroy those same time-tested values, behaviors and beliefs – at the risk of destroying civilization itself. Conservative heroes defend what our forefathers built that is good, reliable, and secure, and the bad guys are rebels and revolutionaries who want to topple the status quo. Conservatives are turned off by anyone who breaks the rules, engages in shocking and outrageous behavior, or disrespects authority and tradition. Conservatives crave consistency and positive results, and they despise chaos, anarchy, and disorder.

Libertarians view  politics along a freedom vs. coercion axis, and they perceive the world as a collection of individuals who function at their highest level when left alone. Libertarian heroes are defenders of freedom like America’s own revolutionary Sons of Liberty, and the bad guys are any government or social institutions that create burdensome rules and regulations, obstacles, controls, prohibitions or requirements established to limit free choice. Libertarians believe the only legitimate function of government is to protect the natural rights of all individuals, so they may live their lives as they see fit, and any government intrusion into the individual choices of citizens that isn’t directly protecting lives, liberty, or property, is illegitimate. Libertarians crave freedom and they reject all acts of force that limit individual freedom beyond what is necessary to prevent one individual from harming another.

Based on the particular axis from which we each view politics, we tend to use what Kling calls “axis language” whenever we engage in political discourse. With axis language, we view our personal opinions from the good end of the axis, and we place everyone else’s conveniently at the other, evil end. Like any heuristic,  axis language requires very little thinking, and it isn’t particularly useful in solving complex problems or arriving at certainty. Axis language doesn’t explain “why” people arrive at their political conclusions, it merely explains how they express their viewpoints. Using immigration as an example of axis language, we can observe how liberals, conservatives, and libertarians use different language to express themselves politically:

  1. Progressives will use terms like “white privilege,”  and “undocumented worker.”
  2. Conservatives will use terms like “illegal alien,” “go to the end of the line,” or  “they broke the law.”
  3. Libertarians will use terms like “open borders,” and  “the only thing keeping illegal immigration illegal is the government.”problems_with_illegal_immigration

We use axis language for several reasons. First of all, in a society where progressives, conservatives, and libertarians are rivalrous and hostile tribes, we use it to explain to others which team we belong. Secondly, proper use of axis language reassures others of our loyalty to the tribe, and when we use strong axis rhetoric, we can actually raise our status within the tribe. Axis language effectively whips up hostility towards other tribes, but more importantly, it tends to close the minds of people who are already in our camp. Libertarians will say progressives want a nanny state, and conservatives want a police state, but progressives and conservatives seldom describe themselves in similar terms. What is interesting to note is, axis language tends to be ineffective in winning others outside of the tribe over to our own points of view.

Using Kling’s 3-axis model, we can describe what was said by progressive protesters during the presidential inauguration and Women’s March on Washington, and what was heard by their conservative target audience. The protesters were communicating their displeasure of Donald Trump’s election, as he is the icon of everything  progressives perceive as oppressive: he is wealthy, white, Christian, and powerful1485062278-sshow_wom_march_04. Because progressives see the world along an oppressor-oppressed axis, and progressive heroes fight oppressors,  their chosen rhetoric attempted to communicate their commitment to protecting the weak and marginalized (women, minorities, gays, the poor, and immigrants)  from the newly elected oppressor-in-chief. Images of women adorned in costumes of female genitalia, posters proclaiming:  “Not My President!” and black garbed anarchists burning limousines and hurling bricks through bank windows, were a call to arms to progressives around the world to unite for resistance 2017-01-21t004156z1lynxmped0k00qrtroptp4usa-trump-inauguration-protestsagainst a coming  wave of Trump oppression.

While progressives may have succeeded in energizing their base, they failed miserably in being understood by others outside their own political tribe. From conservatives – who view the world along a civilization-barbarism axis – the backlash was immediate. What conservatives saw and heard was not a resistance against oppression, but instead an open rebellion against civilized society. Violent protesters destroying police cars,  women adorned in profane costumes, and crotch grabbing gestures from celebrity speakers all communicated a need for conservatives to rally the troops to protect society from the Huns at the gate.

While it remains to be seen if conservatives won the presidential election, it is crystal clear progressives lost. As a result, progressives will need to speak in a different political language besides their own if they want to be heard, understood, and taken seriously. Angry speeches attacking President Trump and his supporters might feel good, but if their message is perceived by conservatives as anti-social or counter cultural, progressives will lose what little influence they currently possess. Rather than use the rhetoric of revolution and angry defiance, progressives will increase their odds of being persuasive if they speak in languages other political groups will understand. If progressives are sure their views are good for society, they should make that case rather than attempt to dismantle the current status quo. If they want to help the marginalized, they must stop labeling the majority as racist, bigoted, homophobic, misogynistic, and privileged. To be convincing, progressives will need to communicate that their ideas will make society healthier, stronger, and more orderly; because if they don’t, conservatives will not comprehend the progressive message.

Finally, progressives can be more effective in their message if they stop talking in the past and present tense, and begin talking in the future tense. In his book on rhetoric, “Thank You For Arguing,” Jay Heinrichs encourages us to use the future tense if we want positive outcomes. According to Heinrichs, “blame” comments deal with the past, (i.e., “Trump made derogatory comments about women”), and comments about “values” are in the present tense (i.e., “Trump is a cheeto-faced, bigoted, misogynist”),  but “choices”leading to positive change have the best chance of success when communicated in the future tense (i.e., “We hope President Trump ensures the poor don’t lose access to health care”).  If progressives want to influence others to their viewpoints, they would be wise to speak about how we can work together to make things better for the future rather than blame conservatives for things that happened in the past, or label conservatives in the present as hate-filled oppressors.

We all enjoy free speech, but there is no natural or positive right to be influential; that only comes from skill and hard work. At a time when, in addition to the presidency, conservatives control two-thirds’s of  the state legislatures, 31 out of 50 governorships, and majorities in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, progressives will have to work harder to wield influence. If progressives continue to speak in a political language only they can comprehend; or, if they continue to blame conservatives for past transgressions and label conservatives with pejoratives in the present tense,  progressives  can expect to endure four long years where the best they can hope for is to be politely ignored.

 

Advertisements

A Low Cost, Mutual Aid Alternative to Obamacare

Make no mistake, The Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) is going away. It will either implode under the weight of its own faulty design, or it will be politically dismantled.  Although extremely popular among those with -existing conditions and those who receive subsidies and tax credits, Obamacare is equally unpopular among those middle class Americans who are required to pay for it. In 2017, federal subsidies to compensate insuranceobamacare-repeal-header companies for the costs associated with covering sick and older people ended, and premiums across the nation rose dramatically. The announcement of significant health insurance cost increases around the time of the 2016 November elections contributed greatly to Republican victories for the White House, Congress, governorships, and state legislatures.  Republicans have been very critical of Obamacare since its inception, and they made campaign promises to repeal it, if elected. Now that Republicans are in power, they must answer to those who supported them in the election. What the Republicans are quickly learning however, is their supporters hate the cost of Obamacare, but they love all the goodies it provides: no lifetime caps, coverage for pre-existing conditions, subsidies and tax credits for low income people, and cost shifting of premiums away from older, less healthy people to younger and healthier folks.  Republicans are now in a quandary over how to get rid of all the unpopular aspects of Obamacare while retaining all the popular ones.

At this point I am not willing to speculate on what is going to transpire, but it is safe to say there are only three options: 1) Obamacare will be repealed without an immediate government replacement; 2) Obamacare will be repealed and replaced slowly over a 2-3 year period to give the markets time to adjust; or 3) Obamacare will be repealed and replaced immediately.

Ambitious politicians have a history of making promises they can’t keep. While they are partly to blame, voters are also responsible when we pressure politicians to accomplish the impossible. An example of an impossible task is providing every American unlimited lifetime health care coverage at a price all of us are willing to pay. E63e728454305e0bd296d183d3181f2abveryone wants the security of knowing that unlimited checks will be written on our medical behalf, but few are willing to pay the requisite 30-50% of our incomes for that security. Politicians can promise us that they will deliver such a plan, but they will fail because it is impossible for a centrally planned program to provide such a level of assurance.

A better way to manage health care cost risk than having the federal government do it is for us to do it ourselves through mutual aid. The mutual aid model has been around for decades in the form of health care sharing ministries (HCSM’s).  As a financial advisor, I have been familiar with HCSM’s for over 20 years, and I wanted to participate when I first heard about them; however, my wife Linda was very skeptical about attempting something so unconventional, so I didn’t press the issue; but, when our health insurance premium and deductible both jumped nearly 20% the year Obamacare was established, Linda softened her resistance and we made the jump to an HCSM.  We are extremely happy that we did.

The most important thing people need to understand about HCSM’s is they are NOT insurance. Whereas the relationship between a policyholder and an insurance company is contractual, the relationship within an HCSM is a covenantal agreement between individual participants.

HCSM’s are not-for-profit religious organizations that act as clearinghouses for people who hold similar strong beliefs and who wish to share their medical expenses with each other.  HCSM’s organize the efforts of their participants by funneling financial support towards those participants who incur medical expenses.

Here’s how it works with our HCSM:  Each month the HCSM publishes a newsletter which it distributes to all participants.  The newsletter lists participants who have incurred legitimate medical expenses, and it directs other participants to send a previously agreed amount of money tmain-health-care-sharing-ministrieso those with medical expenses. The gift givers are also encouraged to pray for those to whom they send money.  Recipients are given a list of participants the HCSM has assigned to send them money, and when they receive it, they cross that gift giver’s name off the list. Assigned gift givers who are late in sending funds are reported to the HCSM who reminds them of their commitment, and if they continue not to send gifts as they agreed, they will be dropped from the program.

There are no financial reserves, no legal protections, and no lawsuits; there are only thousands of participants helping each other with medical expenses, organized by an HCSM.  Eleven months of the year gifts are sent to participants, and one month a gift is sent to the HCSM to cover the costs of running the organization. This demonstrates the overhead cost of the program is only 8.3%, which is significantly less than the 20% of overhead expenses and profit insurance companies are allowed under Obamacare.

Most HCSM’s hold strict lifestyle and moral guidelines for participation: no tobacco, drug use, or sex outside of marriage, and only moderate alcohol use is allowed.  Some require overweight participants to demonstrate good faith efforts and progress towards losing weight.  All participants are ultimately responsible for paying their medical bills, and participants are expected to negotiate lower fees from their health care providers before submitting a medical share need to the HCSM.  HCSM’s don’t pay for preventive care; mammograms, pap smears, and annual physical exams; all these services are paid for by the participants themselves. Most HCSM’s (but not all) require members to be  active church attendees, and several require a pastor’s signature verifying a participant’s commitment to the HCSM’s lifestyle and faith obligations. With that said, there is no reason (other than political) why people of different worldviews and values couldn’t organize their own health care sharing programs around common values and needs.

There are many attractive features of HCSM’s. First of all is the cost. Even though many Americans enjoy tax credits and subsidies for participating in Obamacare, the actual unit cost of health insurance is extremely expensive compared to an HCSM. As a married couple in our 50’s, we pay $440 per month vs.  $1101 per month for an Obamacare insurance plan. Whereas our Obamacare deductible would be $6500 per person, our HCSM out of pocket is only $300 per incident (up to three incidents per year). Many folks – after discovering HCSM’s – have been able to retire before age 65 because their HCSM is significantly less expensive than their previous health insurance plan. Secondly, HCSM’s are much more liberal in what they are willing to cover. If your doctor says you need it, your procedure is covered.

One feature I find particularly satisfying is the cooperative and democratic nature of our HCSM. Instead of dictating monthly premiums, our HCSM membership votes on whether or not to raise our monthly sharing responsibilities. Membership participation in determining what we all will contribute monthly ensures we are allocating resources wisely, and it encourages all members to behave in ways that result in keeping total costs lower.

Although 99% of medical claims are less than $250,000, a major concern of many prospective HCSM participants is the fear of a catastrophic event, such as a million dollar claim. In the plan we use, we have enrolled in the “Save to Share” program. In the Save to Share Program, Linda and I agree to set aside $266 per year to be used in the event one of our members has a health care need in excess of $250,000.  In the 3 years we have participated in the Save to Share program, we have never been asked to contribute the full $266 in a single year. Unlike with conventional insurance, the Save to Share program allows members to keep their money until it is actually needed, which in turn helps keep costs down.  Here is an example of how the Save to Share might work:

An individual has a $1 million medical need, and the HCSM covers up to $250,000. Assuming there are 30,000 families participating in Save to Share, each participating family would be directed to contribute $25.00 to cover the $750,000 difference.

There are only 6 HCSM’s in existence today, and this is because current law doesn’t exempt HCSM participants from the Obamacare penalty for not having health insurance unless the HCSM has been in operation since 1999.  If the Obamacare penalty goes away, there would no longer be disincentives preventing new HCSM’s from forming, and new health care sharing programs, organized within affinity groups such as religious orders, fraternal organizations, or even local credit union memberships, could proliferate.

Although  more liberal than pre-Obamacare insurance companies, most HCSM’s have strict guidelines for enrolling new members with pre-existing conditions. But there is no reason for the government not to provide incentives encouraging HCSM’s to accept people with pre-existing conditions. The most efficient way  is to offer tax credits to those participants whose HCSM’s allow a percentage of new members to have pre-existing conditions (i.e., 5%). The key to success for this idea is to have hundreds of HCSM’s instead of the current six.  By spreading the risks and costs among hundreds of different HCSM’s, the shared risks and  costs would be significantly lower than under our current health insurance model which is currently drowning in both.

Rather than react to Obamacare’s ultimate demise, the prudent citizen should proactively investake-care-of-each-othertigate alternatives. For many middle class families, health care costs can now be as high as 25-40% of a family’s annual income. HCSM’s have proven to offer lower costs, higher quality, and less uncertainty than conventional insurance or single payer systems. HCSM’s have proven to be economically viable, but their future risk is primarily political. Unless HCSM’s can generate more public interest, there is a risk these wonderful programs could be taken away.

 

The Right (and Wrong) Ways to Provide Affordable Housing in Whitefish

 

I get nervous whenever people in authority begin talking about fixing social problems with economic solutions. My latest anxiety is caused by recent discussions about the “affordable housing crisis” in my ski resort hometown of downtown-whitefishWhitefish, Montana.  What causes me so much angst is the number of people who believe it is the proper role of government to ensure housing is affordable. First of all, it isn’t; and secondly, when government attempts to make housing affordable, it usually does the exact opposite, causing housing prices to grow much faster than the rate of inflation, and oftentimes ending up with housing costs much higher than in communities that didn’t implement affordable housing policies at all.

“Affordable” can be difficult to determine because Americans routinely  make spending adjustments to ensure they can buy things that are most important to them. For example, in Whitefish, housing can be nearly 50% more expensive than in other communities in the surrounding area. Some families may decide that saving money for their children’s education is more important than their zip code, so they may forego a Whitefish residency; and with the money they save living in a less expensive community, they will invest in college funds. Other families might decide not to have children at all, because living in a resort town like Whitefish is their ultimate goal, while other families with children might decide to live in less expensive communities  and spend their savings on transportation to Whitefish and ski lessons for their kids. Different families make different decisions, and so a one-size-fits-all definition of “affordable” can be challenging. With that said, we should give Whitefish credit for attempting to define housing affordability as such:

Housing is affordable when the monthly payment (rent or mortgage) is equal to no more than 30% of a household’s gross income.

While this definition sounds workable, what it doesn’t do is take into account people’s financial positions over time. For example, many small business owners have unpredictable incomes. In a particular bad year, a business owner might be paying out more than 100% of his earnings towards a mortgage while having to buy groceries and gasoline on his credit card, but in other years his income might be high enough to render his mortgage payment only 10% of his gross income. If government programs offer people less expensive housing for having low incomes, it shouldn’t be surprising when applicants for government assistance “under earn” in order to qualify for subsidized or low cost housing; but soon after they move into their affordable home, increase their incomes to satisfy their particular tastes.

In reality, Whitefish doesn’t have an affordable housing problem; it has a poor economic development problem. For the last 30 years, Whitefish has transformed itself from being a relatively high wage railroad and logging town into a world class resort.  Now, 50% of the jobs available are in tourism related service industries (TRSI). Unfortunately, TRSI jobs tend to pay the lowest wages in any economy. In the last few years, Whitefish has seen significant growth in TRSI businesses and a resulting increase in low wage labor demand. Last summer, Whitefish employers reported hundreds of available jobs went unfilled because workers couldn’t afford to live in Whitefish, and those workers who lived out of town often quit their Whitefish jobs when they found employment closer to where they lived.

The second cause for Whitefish’s lack of affordable housing is the desire of current residents to maintain our beautiful wide open spaces and resort town theme.  Many building restrictions prevent land developers from building houses on small lots, and height restrictions make high occupancy apartment complexes impossible.  In 2015, Whitefish voters approved a 1% resort tax increase to help finance the purchase of a conservation easement from F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company that essentially takes 3020 acres of land out of development, thus reducing the supply of available land for future housing projects.  By encouraging low wage TRSI jobs to locate in Whitefish, while simultaneously limiting housing supply, Whitefish has created its own housing crisis via poor planning.

Whitefish is a wonderful community. With its low crime, friendly neighbors, easy access to outdoor recreation, and quality health care, it is an extremely popular location for older, affluent people who wish to purchase second homes. Because of the high demand, retired transplants from other regions are willing to38277_105092776211022_364462_n-2 pay top dollar to live in our utopia. In order to cater to these wealthy new comers, there has been a proliferation of TRSI businesses, such as: restaurants, art galleries, gift shops, outdoor recreation opportunities, hotels and spas. Success breeds success, and when the first wave of TRSI businesses showed profits, subsequent waves of new TRSI businesses opened in town, creating a shortage of entry level housing. Because there are so many TRSI employers in Whitefish, they are able to place tremendous political pressure on our civic leaders to solve their unique labor problems. From this pressure, we have seen a growing number of community leaders organizing to respond to the TRSI’s self-inflicted labor challenges.

Whitefish is not the first attractive community to experience high demand for cheap housing and a self-imposed low supply.  For many decades, popular cities like San Francisco and New York, as well as resort towns in Vermont and Colorado, have all attempted to find housing for the people who work in their communities. From their experiences we can learn what mistakes not to make.

The first mistake to avoid is implementing  rent caps or price controls. Anytime government artificially sets the price of a good or service above or below equilibrium, the results tend to be the exact opposite of what was intended. This is because rents set below market price discourage investors from constructing new units or repairing the ones they already own. In nearly every community that has implemented rent control, rents increased faster than the rate of inflation. Not only do rent control programs cause rents to increase, they are also notoriously unfair because those who are selected to enjoy rent at lower than prevailing prices are often chosen by lottery rather than financial need, so it is quite often that wealthy, well-connected people who hear about an opening in a rent controlled building will often apply and win.

A second mistake would be to implement programs that force developers to donate lots or homes in new developments for the purpose of allowing  low income buyers to purchase a home at below market price.  While these programs are extremely popular (who wouldn’t want to buy a home at below market cost?), they only help the few people who qualify; but, they force the price of every other newly constructed home in the neighborhood to increase. Let’s say the City of Whitefish only allows a developer to build 20 new homes if he promises to donate 2 of those homes to the Whitefish Housing Authority. These 2 homes would be sold to 2 lucky lottery winners to purchase these donated homes below market cost. The developer in turn, raises the cost of the other 18 homes to compensate for the loss he incurred by the city’s affordable housing policy. When the 2 lucky families eventually sell their homes, they are not going to sell them at below market cost, so those homes are no longer affordable, and new affordable homes will have to be made available to replace them.

Finally, it is a bad idea to use tax dollars to subsidize rent in more expensive neighbstonecreek-apartmentsorhoods. In the same way that federal subsidies in both health care and higher education have led to nationwide cost increases many times faster than inflation, providing government dollars to cost shift the high price of housing will lead to the same fate. Let’s say that a typical home in Whitefish will rent for $1300/month. If a tenant can secure $200/month in subsidies, the cost of that home in time will rise to $1500/month. If the government attempts to offset this rise with even more subsidies, the price will go up every time more subsidies are made available.

There are several ways Whitefish can offer less expensive housing options for its low wage workers. First of all, the city can reduce its restrictions on non-luxury homes, such as manufactured homes, micro houses, and multi-story apartment buildings. Additionally, it can encourage entrepreneurs to provide dormitory-style housing for seasonal workers similar to the kinds of quarters the military uses to house its servicemen and women.  Finally, business owners can be encouraged to collectively develop housing cooperatives to provide low cost housing for their own employees. Businesses could purchase whatever number of housing units they would like, with the stipulation that when they rent or sell they must do so at prices the other co-op members decide.

Make no mistake, affordable housing is not a Whitefish community problem, it is a Whitefish business owner problem. Whitefish TRSI employers aren’t any different than other employers, and if they believe they can get someone else to solve their economic problems via government subsidies affordable-housingor community cost shifting, they are going to try. The easiest way for TRSI businesses to ensure their employees can live where they work is to pay them more.

In spite of the concerns we hear from Whitefish TRSI businesses and their advocate, the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, we should not succumb to their petitions to have the rest of the community – via government policies and programs – to shoulder their responsibility for keeping their own employees happy. Instead, we should think twice before encouraging more low wage TRSI jobs to locate in Whitefish, and we should encourage our civic leaders to ease up on building regulations that discourage the free market from providing  low cost housing options to meet the current demand.