Saturday, December 26, 2009

A proposed constitutional amendment to control corporate lobbying

We the people, in order to ensure our control over our elected representatives, senators and the executive branch, enact the following amendment to the United States Constitution.

The Constitutional right to petition the Government for a redress of grievance under the 1st Amendment is held to be a right of individuals that may be exercised either by individuals themselves or through duly appointed agents/lobbyists funded solely by individuals.  Regulations governing certification, responsibilities and behaviors of such agents/lobbyists may be enacted by Congress to ensure orderly and ethical conduct.  Non-person legal entities such as corporations, partnerships and trusts may only petition the Government under limited conditions and with limited funding mechanisms that are specifically enacted into law.  Such laws as enacted under this provision will expire on the first day of each new presidential term.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Where we went wrong...

I've been reading the 1776 economics doorstop known as Wealth of Nations.  Adam Smith was telling the truth when he promised to be tedious (see prior post).  I'm only about 50 pages through it, but I'm already wishing I'd started reading it 30 years ago (because then I'd have finished last week).

What struck me today was the following [with my clarifying words]:
"In many great works, almost the whole labour of this kind [overseeing a corporate enterprise] is committed to some principal clerk [Chief Executive Officer]. His wages properly express the value of this labour of inspection and direction. Though in settling them some regard is had commonly, not only to his labour and skill, but to the trust which is reposed in him, yet they never bear any regular proportion to the capital of which he oversees the management; and the owner of this capital, though he is thus discharged of almost all labour, still expects that his profit should bear a regular proportion to his capital."
-- Adam Smith, in Book I, Chapter VI of Wealth of Nations

Pretty thick stuff, so here's my modern translation that includes ideas from the surrounding text to get what Smith was driving at
The wages of a CEO overseeing a corporation are based on the value of his labor inspecting and directing the operation, and to some extent the trust invested in him by the shareholders.  But his wages are not proportional to the capital of the corporation as it is not the CEO's capital at risk.  The owner of the capital (the shareholders) expects profit that is proportional to the capital they have invested and have at risk.
Smith is basically saying that CEO's pay shouldn't be proportional to the capital that they oversee!  Try that idea out on one of our present CEO's and you'll find that it would simply be heresy.

I'm beginning to think that the widespread holding of corporate shares by the average wage earner is "capital" that doesn't actually get the rights that are supposed to go with capitalism.  I think us peons are getting capitalisn't.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Scientists are paid...

I absolutely loved this clip on The Daily Show.

His point at the end is classic, that the global warming skeptics want us to disbelieve scientists because they are paid.

Let's look at some numbers. In the world there are likely less than 2000 serious climate scientists. But for the sake of argument, let's say there are 10,000. I imagine that most scientists are getting paid in the range of $50K to $100K in US dollars, with a few of the more visible researchers getting perhaps up to $150K. If we take $100K as an overestimation of the average, that would mean that the total scientific payroll for all climate science is $1 billion dollars - that would be the absolute top, and its likely much much lower. But consider some corporate incomes; here I've got data from corporate reporting (available on Exxon Mobil last year $81 billion, Chevron $43 billion, BP $34 billion, Royal Dutch Shell $50 billion. So without even stepping into the money available from coal, natural gas, or second tier oil companies, we have companies with more than 200 times the income of the the climate scientists. Keep in mind that the climate scientist are trying to support their families and send their kids to school on their income as well!

So tell me how does a poorly financed and disorganized group of ivory tower academics perpetrate a massive hoax on such well funded group of corporations?

Its interesting to note that scientists can't maintain any sort of agreement for very long unless there is truth at the core. And yet, for 40 years the tobacco corporations kept up a well-funded propaganda campaign that smoking wasn't "proved" to cause cancer - do any of you believe big tobacco anymore? Are we really going to need to wait 40 years for the climate skeptics to be proven to be the same type of liars?

Global Warming

Understanding how the carbon cycle affects the global climate is not a simple matter. And yet, scientists can do more to provide a better understanding to intelligent non-scientists. Here is my attempt.

A caveat
At every step, a scientist would say "well its not exactly like that, because…" I'm taking a lot of shortcuts with the science to give a better flavor of what is important without getting to all the complexities.

How a greenhouse works:
To understand the "greenhouse" effect, let's review what a greenhouse does. Consider a glass house that is made with "low-emissivity" glass. The idea behind "low-E" glass is that it allows visible (high frequency) light to pass through, but traps infrared (low frequency) thermal energy - see for more explanation. Let's not worry about plants for the moment, but imagine two glass houses - one with a floor of black asphalt and the other with a floor of perfectly white concrete. Everything else being equal, you might intuit that the glass house with the asphalt floor will be hotter - and you would be correct. The house with the concrete floor will reflect the visible light, which will pass back out through the glass. In contrast, the asphalt will absorb the visible light and re-emit the light in the infrared spectrum - which is trapped within the house by the glass. If you had high-emissivity glass (that passes infrared) then both houses would have similar interior temperatures.

Let us imagine that we have asphalt that absorbs every bit of visible light and turns it into infrared, and we have white concrete that reflects every bit of visible light. Since we are imagining, let us also imagine that the sun never sets and the outside temperature is a constant 70 degrees F and our glass has an "emissivity" of zero (traps all infrared light) How would the temperature behave in our two imaginary greenhouses? First, the greenhouse with the concrete floor should be at 70 F. All the solar radiation energy coming in is reflected back out, so the temperature of the house and the air inside should be the the same as that outside - i.e. simple conduction through the structure of the greenhouse leads to the temperatures reaching equilibrium.

But for the greenhouse with the asphalt floor, all the solar radiation coming in is trapped and raises the temperature of the asphalt and the air inside. As the air temperature rises, so does the temperature of the house structure itself, which then conducts/radiates thermal energy to the outside. How high will the temperature rise in the greenhouse? This depends upon when equilibrium is reached. Since the sun is shining constantly in our imaginary world, there is a constant supply of visible light that is being converted into infrared heat. The temperature will keep rising until the rate at which this thermal energy is conducted/radiated to the outside is exactly equal to the rate at which energy in visible light is being supplied. This process is exactly the same as what happens when you turn up the thermostat in your house - it takes more energy to maintain a house at 72 F during the winter than it does at 68 F because you lose energy from the house at a greater rate when you maintain the house at 72. Understanding this concept of equilibrium between heat transfer rates is critical to understanding the greenhouse effect. We will call the temperature in the greenhouse where all the heat transfers balance the "equilibrium temperature." We can think of this as the temperature that the greenhouse wants to be at once everything is in balance.

Now let's imagine that we have a special type of glass that allows us to control the percent of infrared light that is trapped - that is, we control the glass emissivity. By increasing the emissivity (allowing some infrared to pass through) we can control the temperature of the greenhouse. We can also modify the reflectivity of the floor to change the greenhouse temperature - we imagine a material that we can change from white through any shade of gray to completely black, so as to modify the amount of incoming visible light that is turned into infrared light. With these materials we exert control on the temperature of the greenhouse. Increasing the reflectivity of the floor or increasing the emissivity of the glass will both serve to reduce the equilibrium temperature of the greenhouse. In contrast, decreasing floor reflectivity and/or glass emissivity serves to increase the equilibrium temperature. Of course, whenever we make a change, there will be some adjustment period while the house warms up or cools down to the new equilibrium.

Water cycle in a greenhouse
Things get more complicated when you add water to a greenhouse. Let's imagine that we add a large pond to our greenhouse but otherwise have a gray floor that reflects part of the visible light and converts the other part to infrared. Assuming that the temperature in the greenhouse isn't above the boiling point, we will have a pond with liquid water and water vapor in the air. It turns out that water vapor will absorb some of the infrared released from the floor, preventing it from even reaching the glass. So even if we turn our glass emissivity to high (allowing all infrared that reaches it to pass through), we find that the water vapor will trap the infrared and lead to a higher equilibrium temperature than we would have without the water. You may have heard that water vapor is the dominant greenhouse gas. This is true - but it is also misleading. The skeptics want you to think that because water vapor is present in larger quantities than CO2, then it CO2 must not be important. We'll try to explain why this is not the case.

Here's where things also get a little ugly - we have what is known as a "feedback" mechanism that leads to cycling rather than a simple equilibrium state. When the temperature in the greenhouse increases, the air will hold more water vapor and more water vapor will be released from the pond. For example, put a pot of water on the stove and heat it up to 120 degrees (well below boiling) and you will notice a lot more moisture in the air. This increased water vapor in the air leads will trap more infrared, leading to a higher temperature and more water vapor - the cycle reinforces itself. We call a reinforcing cycle a "positive feedback." If you've ever heard a high pitched scream from a microphone and speaker system you've heard the results of positive feedback - this happens when sound from the speakers enters the mike, is then amplified and fed back into the speakers, then back into the mike and amplified again through the speakers and into the mike etc. However, for water vapor there is a compensating "negative feedback" mechanism: clouds. When the water vapor in the air gets sufficiently high, the vapor condenses into clouds. Due to their fluffy white nature, clouds reflect some of the incoming visible light before it ever reaches the floor where it would be changed into infrared and subject to trapping. Thus clouds, a product of a greenhouse gas (water vapor) are actually a limiting factor on the greenhouse effect from water vapor. So here's the picture when we add water to the greenhouse:

1. Water vapor absorbs infrared thereby raising the greenhouse temperature, which leads to more water vapor and an even higher temperature.

2. Clouds form and reflect some of the incoming solar radiation.

3. The clouds turn into rain, cooling and reducing water vapor in the atmosphere, which leads temporarily to less trapping of infrared, but now more solar radiation is reaching the floor and the pond.

4. Heating starts again and water goes back into the atmosphere as vapor, and we return to step 1.

So rather than having a simple equilibrium state, the water vapor cycle oscillates around some central temperature. Sometimes its warmer, sometimes its colder, but the system is essentially in a dynamic balance. Over a single cycle of vaporization/rain, the temperature evolution in our imaginary greenhouse will be such that the net solar energy input is exactly balanced by the net energy lost to the outside. If we change anything in the system then this central (or equilibrium) temperature will change. Understanding how such changes occur requires understanding the rates at which the processes cycle and leads to some of the mathematical complexities in analyzing climate data.

Summarizing the above: Reflecting white surfaces in the greenhouse will simply reflect solar radiation straight back out of the greenhouse. Absorbing black surfaces will convert solar radiation to infrared radiation, which can be trapped in the greenhouse either by the glass itself, or by water vapor in the atmosphere. With sufficient water vapor we get rain, which temporarily reduces greenhouse gas trapping my removing water vapor from the atmosphere, thereby leading to some cooling. Thus, even though water vapor itself is produced with a positive feedback mechanism (trapping more heat leading to more water vapor), there is a "negative feedback" mechanism in rainfall that clears out the water vapor and allows the greenhouse to cool down again. Thus, a nifty climate cycle in dynamic balance.

Adding CO2 to the greenhouse atmosphere
Much like water vapor, CO2 is a "greenhouse gas" in that it absorbs infrared energy that the floor converts from the visible light. However, unlike water vapor, the CO2 doesn't form clouds to reflect incoming visible light and doesn't rain out of the atmosphere. So if we take the greenhouse water cycle described above and add some CO2, we expect that after a rainstorm (when water vapor has been cleared) the CO2 will absorb some of the infrared that would have slipped out of the greenhouse if the CO2 hadn't been there. This increased trapping of energy results in an increase in the equilibrium temperature of the greenhouse. So if we take our imaginary greenhouse and dump in some CO2 we can expect higher temperatures. We understand this mechanism extremely well, and if this were all there were to the problem, scientists would have reached agreement in the early 1970s and the argument would have been over then. The key point here is that it doesn't matter that water vapor is the largest greenhouse gas, because it has a natural negative feedback mechanism through rainfall. If CO2 levels aren't a problem (which is the skeptics claim), then there must be some negative feedback for CO2 as well. So now we have to investigate the carbon cycle and what happens with CO2 in a greenhouse.

Carbon cycle in a greenhouse
Now let's add some plants to our greenhouse.  Plants live and die in a cycle. When alive, plants take in visible light and scavenge carbon and oxygen from the air (in CO2) and the soil. The carbon is added to the plant stem and leaves while the oxygen is released back to the atmosphere. When a plant dies, bacteria work the opposite direction, eating the plant carbon and excreting CO2. Let's imagine our greenhouse has a fixed store of carbon that is continually being cycled. Some carbon is in the live plants, some is in the soil in dead plants and is being eaten by bacteria and some is in the greenhouse atmosphere in the form of CO2. If the total amount of carbon is fixed, then we will reach some equilibrium cycle in the plant life with some proportion of the carbon in each of these "pools". Once the proportion of carbon in each of the pools is established, we'll have some predictable amount in the atmosphere and some central "equilibrium" temperature about which the greenhouse cycle operates.

Adding fossil-fuel carbon
We can imagine introducing some new amount of carbon to the system. Let's say we take a barbecue into the greenhouse and light a small fire made from coal we dug from a nearby hillside. Initially, the smoke from the coal may prevent sunlight from entering the greenhouse, and reduce the incoming solar radiation. It is possible that this might initially cause a net cooling (if the solar radiation reflected is greater than the heat caused by burning). But after some time, the smoke clears and we have a new carbon cycle. Some of the carbon we introduced will be in new plants that have grown (because there is more carbon in the air). Some of the carbon will be in these soils, and some will be in the air. A new equilibrium system will be developed. This equilibrium will be at a higher temperature. When you added more carbon to the greenhouse, you can't just tell the carbon to "stay in the plants and the soil;" it's going to end up in all three pools: plants, soil and atmosphere. With more CO2 in the atmosphere, the temperature of the greenhouse will rise as more infrared is blocked from escaping.

Net effects
The increased temperature due to CO2 heat tramping will feed back into the water cycle as well, leading to changes in vaporization, cloud cover and rainfall. This is an area where trying to understand the system gets really tricky and the biggest scientific uncertainties still lie. It is difficult for scientist to predict the exact amount of temperature rise because of all the feedbacks between the different effects. However, what is very clear is that increasing CO2 in the atmosphere increases the heat trapping in the atmosphere. The global temperatures will rise until a new equilibrium is reached. Note that if we don't level-off our CO2 emissions at some output that matches the intake of the plants, then we won't ever reach an equilibrium. That is, if we keep treating the atmosphere as an open sewer for an ever increasing amount of CO2, the temperature will simply keep rising until life, as we know it, is unsustainable.

The critical importance of fossil fuels
Our dependence on fossil fuels is the crux of the problem. If we were to heat our homes, power our cars, and generate our electricity by chopping down trees from sustainable forests, then we wouldn't be changing the amount of carbon in the global cycle. But, we are resurrecting carbon that was laid down in times when the world was much warmer and there was much more CO2 in the atmosphere. By digging out and adding the coal (and to some extent the oil) to the present carbon cycle we are pushing our climate back to a much warmer state.

The question for the skeptics
For all the skeptics out there (if any bothered to read this far), you have a responsibility to more than simply be cynical doubters. If you are an honest skeptic, then you need to be able to answer one very simple question: Where is the extra CO2 going to go such that it doesn't affect the climate? The science of global warming is built on an understanding of physical mechanism on how CO2 traps infrared radiation. The rise in CO2 levels is indisputable science. Any skeptic who tries to claim CO2 levels are not rising will be laughed out of any debate. Fact: CO2 levels are rising globally. Fact: CO2 traps infrared thermal energy. Thus, we are left with two possible conclusions:

1) The scientists who have studied the mechanisms of this are correct, and the earth will warm due to fossil-fuel CO2 emissions.

2) The global warming skeptics are hiding some brilliant understanding of a new physical mechanism that will naturally absorb CO2 and prevent global warming.

If you have some brilliant idea as to how the CO2 is actually going to be ameliorated by some negative-feedback mechanism that no one else has looked at, then please let the world know. You can prattle on about climate cycles over the last 10 thousand or 10 million years all that you want - but you've got to answer the key question: WHERE IS THE CO2 GOING AND WHY IS IT NOT AFFECTING THE CLIMATE? If you don't have any scientific explanation with a mechanism for how increasing CO2 doesn't warm the atmosphere, then shut the &!#*(;$ up. because you don't have any scientific basis for your skepticism. Without any scientific basis for your claims, you're either a selfish Luddite or a partisan hack.

I couldn't have said it clearer...

"I am always willing to run some hazard of being tedious, in order to be sure that I am perspicuous; and, after taking the utmost pains that I can to be perspicuous, some obscurity may still appear to remain upon a subject, in its own nature extremely abstracted."
--Adam Smith, in "Wealth of Nations"

By the way - I had to look up "perspicuous"
It's pronounced sort of like "pr-spk-yus" .

Here's a more modern translation

I'm always willing to risk being boring so that I'm clear. If things still aren't clear, then its because the subject is extremely complicated.

Got to love that subtle jab from old Adam - if you can't understand me, its not my fault - it's probably just too difficult for you!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Perverse Incentives

Now that the GOP and conserva-dems have killed the public option, let's think about the consequences that are likely to result.

Firstly, a few notes on how insurance companies operate.  A typical company pulls in about $50 billion in premiums, out of which around 80% are returned to the customers in medical care, or about $40 billion dollars (40/50 = 0.8 or 80%, which is the "medical loss ratio" reported in the insurance company books).  The company chews up $10 billion in profit and overhead on the $50 billion premiums.  Note that only about $2 billion is profit (4%) but it takes them about $8 billion (16%) to process the claims (and pay for corporate jets etc.).  So if you go to the doctor and the doc needs $200 to cover his/her time, you will need to pay $240 to the insurer.

With reform, the insurance companies will get a bunch of new "mandated" customers, let's say that this results in a 20% increase in income from premiums (I don't have any real numbers here, so I'm just guessing).  Based on the old formulation, the company above would expect about have $60 billion in premiums with $2.4 billion in profit and $9.6 billion in overhead for a total of $12 billion while it pays out $48 billion.  But it appears that the reform bill will have a mandated "medical loss ratio", which required the insurance companies to pay out 90% of their premium income in medical claims. Thus, the company would have to pay out $54 billion in claims and would have only $6 billion for profit and overhead.

It seems to me that a company taking in $12 billion in overhead and profit is unlikely to want to see that cut in half.  But that is OK, because mathematically there is another option: $12 billion is 10% of $120 billion, so if the insurance companies can arrange for medical care to cost more, then they can reap the same amount of profit and overhead on the same number of customers!

Perverse incentives: we are going to have a system that provides incentives for the insurance companies to encourage medical costs to rise, so that they can raise insurance rates and maintain the style of living to which they are accustomed.  They won't need to become more efficient, just arrange their books to justify larger rate increases.

What's the solution?  free market competition.  Of course,  the now-dead public option was the only part of the bill that really forced competition on the insurance companies - they are too big and too well connected to actually want to compete.  Keep in mind that free markets are actually antithetical to capitalism.  Most capitalists don't want free markets - they want a monopoly or oligopoly and will work both legally and illegally to get it (which is why Intel recently paid $1.25 billion to AMD to settle lawsuits).

Prepare yourself for insurance rates to rise.  The fault will lie with those who killed competition by killing the public option.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

whither science when attacked by terrorists?

When attacked by terrorists who work outside the established laws of war, a people are faced difficult questions.  The toughest is..;

Do we hold strictly to our values and laws, no matter what the consequences?

People of good will and intelligence can differ in their answer.  It's not an easy question.  Without judging right or wrong, we may observe that a threatened people are likely to discard or revise their ideals if they seem to inhibit self-defense.

Recently, correspondence from some prominent (and not-so prominent) climate scientists have been released.  I've not read many of the actual messages, but have seen much of what passes for "analysis" in todays punditocracy.  The key charge is that the scientists violated the scientific method that requires dispassionate analysis of data.  For the sake of argument, let us assume the pundits are correct (although I am by no means convinced).  Now, I ask you to take a step into a scientist's shoes - even if you don't believe in global warming or anything I write below, pretend for a few minutes that you do and think about how a scientist might view his/her moral obligations.  Step into a role...

You are a typical senior scientist that has studied climate mechanics over an extended period, including 5 years in a Ph.D. program, a 2 year post-doctoral scholarship, and 20 years climbing up the academic ladder to make a salary that (if you're lucky) is about $90K per year (this description is not modeled any any particular person).  You understand a set of difficult and arcane subjects requiring a very high level of math to analyze.  To make the complexities understandable to non-scientists requires a level of communication expertise that isn't part of your training, and you're not very good at it.  You present your results to colleagues in the appropriate framework, discussing uncertainties and probabilities that are inherent in studying any natural system.  You and your colleagues are in agreement that global warming is occurring and is caused by human release of buried fossil carbon in oil, gas and coal into the natural carbon cycle.  The evidence to you and others with your training is simply overwhelming.  But it's not something that you can explain to a congressman, senator or even your teenage son without putting them to sleep.

You see your work distorted by "climate skeptics" who don't use the scientific method to support their arguments. Most don't have enough education to understand the science that you have done.  A few have the education, but are simply the contrarian curmudgeons that exist everywhere and are more interested in the publicity engendered by opposition. Many "skeptics" are funded by industry groups that have a stake in preventing any change in the status quo.  These groups have people trained in communication and government lobbying.  They are free to outright lie about the science.  They do not have scientific studies of their own that can show you are wrong, so they succeed only by casting doubt - in effect using science against itself.  You know there are always things you don't know and things that we may not yet understand correctly.  The "skeptics" use that doubt and caution inherent in your training to dismiss what you have shown to be true.  They use arguments between you and colleagues regarding technical details to throw doubt over things that you and your colleagues actually agree on.  They are winning a propaganda war because you cannot engage in the same tactics.  They seem to connect with the congressmen, senators and much of the public.  You can't just throw up your hands in frustration and cynicism - you understand the disastrous consequences that global warming is likely to inflict on  people across the world.  This isn't a matter of scientific pride, but is a matter of survival of our civilization.  You must decide your next step and answer some troubling questions...

Are you still applying the scientific method if you only present the data in such a way that you frame the proven results and neglect uncertainty? 

Do you try to communicate to the public in a way that they will understand the meaning of the science - even if this means leaving out the doubt and some of the details that might be confusing (or used to confuse)? 

Do you delve into outright propaganda?   

Do you stick by your scientific ideals and present the data and analyses in the correct scientific way that allows the "skeptics" to distort the results?

When survival of civilization is at stake, do you continue to play by the rules? 

Now step back out of the role...

There is a difficult ethical dilemma faced by climate scientists who are opposed by a well-funded and well-organized corporate campaign to obscure the results from science.  We haven't dealt with this problem as a society.  If we want scientists to deliver exactly their science and nothing more or less, are we going to hold their critics to the same standards?  If we can admit that well-intentioned people might torture for altruistic motives, should we be surprised if some climate scientists take the same road with their data for similar motives?  To those familiar with the science, the long-term threat to our national security from global warming is far greater than the national security threat posed by violent Islamic fundamentalism.

The above is meant to neither support nor condemn the climate scientists involved in "Climate-Gate."  I don't actually know what techniques they were using to analyze their data, and without knowing that I cannot have an educated opinion on whether they distorted the data or not. But I believe that some of the quotes I've seen in the scientists' email reflects their frustration of trying to fight the organized propaganda campaign against science.

For myself, I believe that whether we are talking about terrorists attacking ourselves or our science, we need to stick by our ideals.   I believe this because I am an optimist, and I think that we can recover from a lot of stupid or delayed decisions.  But I don't think we can recover from the loss of our ideals.  Once you make exceptions for this case or that in the name of expediency and the "correct" end, it is too easy for the human animal to justify anything.  Science succeeds when it is divorced from propaganda.  Justice succeeds only when linked to law.  There are consequences to such ideals.  I believe that science sticking to its ideals will result in deaths and environmental damage due to global warming that could be reduced by quicker action.  Likewise, staying with the ideals of our laws and rejecting torture may mean that we have less security and possibly more deaths from terrorism (although I'm not convinced on this point).  Nevertheless, as a scientist, I am unwilling to take the step to do anything other than provide dispassionate analysis of data - any step towards propaganda loses the long-term benefits that science has been proven to provide society.  Similarly, I reject calls for lawless treatment of the lawless - it loses the long-term benefit of laws for protecting the innocent who might be unjustly labeled as "lawless" - again a foundation of our jurisprudence that has served us well since the Magna Carta.

Above I've posed a question of philosophical consistency based on fairly disparate ideas.  I'd be interested if you see inconsistencies that invalidate my analysis.

Jobs Chart

Click on the image below for a readable chart.

The chart is from data obtained at

No additional processing to the raw data have been done.
Note that October and November 2009 data are provisional and subject to later revision by BLS

Monday, November 23, 2009

A time to shun...

We know that we can't negotiate, reason with, or cajole the zealots of Al Qaeda - thus, there must exist some line where people cross from being those we can and will hold intelligent dialogue with, and those that we simply must shun.  When those we shun step over the line to illegality or revolution - then we must fight.

There are pragmatic conservatives that recognize no one has a lock on truth - these are people we liberals and progressives can readily negotiate and compromise with.  But there is also the self-righteous rabble on the right that is similar to Iran - theologically and ideologically oriented rather than pragmatic, and hence very difficult to talk to or negotiate with when you don't share their theology or ideology.  Nevertheless, engaging them is a necessary (albeit Sisyphean) task.

Beyond this difficult and frustrating group on the far right, there are those fringers who are as closed-minded and medieval as our terrorist enemies.  Just like those inspired by Al Qaeda, those inspired by the righteous rabble have struck here (remember Oklahoma City? how about the murders in the name of "life")  For those on the self-righteous fringe, I think shunning is our best option.  Until they act on their calls for revolution and armed insurrection, we really can't do much about them without becoming the type of tyranny we despise.  To hold up our liberal ideals, we can only react. Pre-emptive action without proof of illegality is the start of tyranny.

I certainly have no problem shunning the left-wing ELF, the environmental activists who have endangered people with illegal acts, or the anti-globalization protesters that have organized riots around the world.   I think that we of the left have been very careful in criticizing those who do violence in our name, but have been too forgiving of the crazies on the right.

Those that march on the people's elected government with signs such as "next time I come armed" are people we cannot reason with.  They are dangerous.  We can only shun them, watch them, and hope for the best.

The above was inspired by...

Sunday, November 22, 2009


In 1996 President Clinton famously declared "the era of big government is over."  Subsequent policies of both Clinton and Bush followed this supposed paradigm shift by reducing regulation and letting capitalism reign.

But what about big business? Was the era of big business over as well?

Balance.  Yin-Yang.  Black-White.  Zero-One.  Predator-Prey.

Duality and balance underlies most philosophies and engineering systems that work in the real world.

One of the reasons that ships are stable is that when they are rolled to one side by wind or wave, they develop a righting moment that pushes them the other direction.  Remove the righting moment (by a shift in cargo) and a ship will roll over and sink.

When a predator has decimated the prey population, the predator begins to die off due to starvation, allowing the prey population to rebound.  Populations are never stable, but oscillate in a dynamic tension.  No one ever expects the number of coyotes and rabbits to be exactly in balance.

The US Constitution is the exemplar of power duality: Pro-active power is separated into legislative and executive (the judiciary is essentially a re-active power).  Legislative power is divided between a population-based body and a state-based body providing a balance between urban and rural populations.

Capitalism is not synonymous with free markets, but is instead in opposition.  Capital accumulation is maximized for the individual or corporation through monopolies, whereas the wealth of society as a whole is maximized through free markets where capital is at risk.  But the duality of capitalism and free-markets is out of balance.  Capital accumulation in corporations that are effectively immortal and at low risk of failure creates a bias that prevents free markets from being truly free and transparent.  

The past year of economic distress leading to socialization of failure is an example of a system out of balance.  Big business needs a counterweight.  If we aren't going to use big government, then how will we balance?

We need to recognize that we have reached the natural end of an oscillation in our recent spate of deregulation.  We have found the edge beyond which further deregulation becomes a positive feed back that sends the system unstable.  Under such conditions, the only course that makes sense is to re-institute regulations to reverse the system.  Government regulation is the only proven tool we have to encourage free and transparent markets.  No doubt the we will eventually swing to far the other way and government regulation will one day again be stultifying. But that is the problem for tomorrow - today we need to solve the problem of insufficient regulation.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Verba non acta

There's a new bit of political correctness out there - its called "Christmas with a capital C".  The religious right is pushing the idea that saying "Happy Holidays" is somehow political correctness from the left, and that everyone should acknowledge the "holiday" is about Christ.  This brought out the rant in me.  Prepare to be offended.

Am I not allowed to have any other holidays during December? Has Christianity co-opted them all? Perhaps I like to celebrate a pagan Winter Solstice and I might want to wish to you a "Happy Holiday" rather than pushing it into your face that I'm a pagan? (if indeed that's what I am, you'll never really know). You could pretend you're hearing about Christmas when I say "holiday", while I could pretend I'm talking about the Solstice, and we could all just get along a little better by avoiding overt discussion of religion with strangers. Manners and a little pretense helps smooth out societies rough edges.  If you want to tell me your religion in your greeting that's fine.  But why should I then be forced to tell you mine?  If you say Merry Christmas to me and I'm not a Christian, should I hypocritically invoke the name of Christ back to you (and how does that mesh with the commandment about not using God's name in vain?)  Should I merely ignore your greeting, or perhaps tell you "go #*@! yourself"  Seems to me that "Happy Holidays" is a polite and inoffensive rejoinder.

It has been said that I have a "right not to celebrate this holiday," with the implication that if I don't want to call it Christmas then I shouldn't celebrate at all.  But December 25 is a federal, state and local holiday throughout the USA. I can't go to a government office to carry on normal business.  If I am a business owner I will have to pay holiday pay to employees (or be thought of as "Scrooge").  Granted, I'm not forced to go to church or give gifts or have a tree in my house (although there are societal imperatives to do so, especially for the culturally christian sort-of-believers).  However on December 25th, I do not have the right to carry on my normal  business life, so Christians need to acknowledge that they are indeed forcing the non-Christians in the nation to "celebrate" the day.  You shouldn't be surprised that non-Christians want to fill the government-mandated holiday with something that isn't about Christianity. Indeed, they've got a holiday with no religious duties - which would make most people happy (e.g. Labor Day).  Despite not being interested in Christmas as religion, non-Christians may be planning a nice holiday reunion with their family, and they might be happy and looking forward to it.  Why should you expect them to wish you a Merry Christmas rather than Happy Holiday? They don't know or care if you're Christian, but they do know that they're planning a happy holiday and would like to wish you one as well. Is that so terrible?

The more that Christians use the "in your face" approach to the holidays, the more likely it is that non-Christians will eventually challenge the constitutionality of having the Federal government officially recognize the sacred holiday of only one religion as a national holiday.  It is amazing to me that people who have a really strict interpretation of the US Constitution as disallowing any regulation of firearms will then pass blithely over the clause about "establishment of religion" and what it means to have a federal law providing a religious holiday.  You can't have it both ways - either you have Christmas where people are forced to celebrate Christ, in which case the holiday is an establishment of religion, or you have a national holiday that is secular - i.e. available to all no matter what religion -  and people can make of what they will.

So can you just give it a rest?  You've got a national holiday for your religion (not for your god, but for your religion).  So let's stop trying to make people feel guilty about wishing each other a happy holiday.  Saying "happy holidays" is not about political correctness - it is what I feel, and who the hell are you to tell me not to say it or why I say it?  The new political correctness is trying to make people say "Christmas" when they aren't Christians.

The "Christmas with a capital C" movement is another piece of cultural arrogance that doesn't really fit Jesus' teachings.  I have a hard time imagining Jesus saying something like "I don't care how you treat each other, but make sure you celebrate my birth with a capital C, because its appearances that count."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

There's this guy, see...

There's this guy with a car that acts kind of funny. Every once in awhile, the car suddenly slows down by a couple miles an hour for a few seconds, then comes back up to speed.  Not a really big deal but it's annoying. His brother-in-law says the problem is the flibberty-jibbet, but "no worries, its normal and can't hurt anything." Great Uncle Joe agrees, but the story about his 2nd cousin's car with the faulty flibberty-jibbet takes about 3 hours and never really comes to any detectable point.

The guy figures he ought to have it checked out anyway, so he takes the car to a shop. After looking it over thoroughly (which takes an hour), the mechanic says "That's no flibberty-jibbet, you've got a genuine problem in the gobsmacker. Its going to cost a bundle to fix that." Well the guy doesn't really want to part with a bundle; he's expanding his business and can't afford it. The mechanic says that rather than fix the car, if he just drives a lot slower the gobsmacker will take a long time to fail and he might be OK. But the guy doesn't want to drive slower; he'd see fewer customers and make less money.

So the guy takes the car to another mechanic. The second mechanic pokes around for hour and half under the car then tells him the same thing as the first mechanic. But this mechanic adds: "You want to get that thing fixed. Gobsmacker goes bad at high speed your car will come to a dead stop in about 20 feet - no matter how fast you were going. It's an ugly accident."  The second opinion didn't seem to work out, so the guy takes the car to another, then another, and another shop. They all say the same thing. By the end of the week, ninety-nine shops give the car a thorough look-over and tell him the gobsmacker's bad.

At the 100th shop he says "Look, here's a hundred bucks. My brother-in-law and Great Uncle Joe told me the flibberty-jibbet's bad, but all the other shops say it's the gobsmacker. What do you think?" The 100th shop mechanic looks under the hood for a few minutes and says, "Sure looks like a flibberty-jibbet to me." Then pockets the $100.

Satisfied that he'd finally gotten the right answer, the guy drives his car home. Since it's just the the flibberty-jibbet he's got nothing to worry about. Occasionally, he drops by one of the other shops to show them the car's still working and give them a piece of his mind about how stupid they are.

Five weeks later doing 70 miles an hour down the turnpike, the gobsmacker fails. The car stops, rolls, is slammed into by a truck that jack-knifes and 27 people are killed in ensuing 42-car pileup.

Moral of the story - if you can't tell your flibberty-jibbet from your gobsmacker, then listen to the 99 out of 100 climate scientists who can.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

My nightmare

I woke up with a nightmare that I got sick - and didn't die.

I don't have a problem with getting sick and dying.  We all die sometime, and I've got life insurance and savings that will take care of my wife and kids.  We live frugally on one income but have no debt except for the mortgage.  They'll get by just fine if I die.

But here's what happens if I get seriously sick and live.

At first, everything is OK.  I've got health insurance through Blue Cross/Blue Shield.  I've got short term disability and long-term disability and nursing home insurance (this stuff costs a bundle, but I like to be prepared).  So if I get seriously sick and can't work, I'll use up my accumulated sick leave and then my 12 weeks of unpaid family leave (short-term disability kicks in to keep us afloat).  Once we're past that point my employer will have to fire me if I can't work.  Then I'm onto long term disability, which gives me a portion of my regular salary until I reach retirement age - this is a good thing.  The problem is that my health insurance will run out 18 months after my employer fires me (that's the limit of the COBRA coverage).  Now my family and I will find ourselves in the position of having enough money to live on through disability insurance and my wife going back to work, but no health insurance because I'll have a pre-existing condition and no one will insure me.  So to pay the health care bills for my disease, I'll run through our regular savings, kids college savings, retirement savings, and eventually sell the house to live in apartment.  At a certain point, the money I have from the disability insurance and my wife's income won't be enough to cover medical care, but it will be enough to preclude us from getting medicaid.  At this point I'll finally start to die due to rationed care.  My only hope would be to last long enough to get to 65 so that Medicare kicks in.

Why this is a nightmare is that there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.  There is no way to get health insurance that guarantees the insurance company will be forced to stay with me, accept my premiums and pay the costs if I get really sick.

There are two options to help out my family. The first option is to divorce my wife as soon as I get really ill.  Once we split our assets and I have the disability to live on, I'm likely to qualify for Medicaid  This approach is a method of gaming the system and is inherently unethical.  But I can justify it to myself because society has put me into the position where there is nothing ethical I can do to secure the future of my family if I get really sick.  Leaving my family destitute is also an unethical choice. Its interesting that so many people have been forced into artificial divorce that Medicaid will actually go after an ex-spouses assets for up to five years after a divorce.  So the best bet is to divorce early when diagnosed with a long-term disease.

But I have another back-up plan. If I get really sick, I'm going to get one of those really fast motorcycles - and I'm not going to buy a helmet.

At least I've got a plan.  What's yours?

Welcome to my nightmare.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The following is transcript of a Facebook discussion that I had with a friend of a friend, whose position on health insurance reform doesn't really match with mine.  The back and forth got too long for FB, so I've transferred it to here.

In transferring the posts from FB to this blog, the comments in italic blue are from the post by the friend of a friend, the plain text is mine. 

For background, the initial 7 posts are provided in a small font below. I found that the last post was best addressed by breaking it up into pieces and addressing the issues point by point, which is difficult to do on FB.

I started things with my comment on the YouTube clip at
which is entitled "ABC's John Stossel Destroys, Pulverizes/Crushes Obama's anti-American 'Health Care' Plan".  As you might guess from the title, its rather polemical.

Post 1:
He only destroys the Obama health insurance reform plan if you completely let logic lapse. Here's the logic tree (with a lot of snark):

1. Let's start with what wasn't stated: the Obama plan is for health INSURANCE reform. As proposed it will result in some percentage of the populace in a non-subsidized national health insurance plan (not a subsidized national HEALTH care plan). Doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, drug companies can still be for profit (this is a fact - read the plan).

2. But "we know" Obama really wants nationalized health care (even that's not what he proposed and has exactly zero likelihood of passing if it were proposed). Its convenient if you get to attribute to your opponents the ability to carry out completely unrealistic and idealistic goals, even if the original statement by Obama on a national health care plan was "If I were starting with a clean slate..." which he also said he was not starting with. If I were starting with a clean slate I would outlaw nuclear weapons, but that genie is out of the bag as well.

3. "We know" that this proposed plan is but the start down the slippery slope to Nationalized health care. In a logical argument, the proponent of a "slippery slope" is required to detail exactly how the path down this slippery slope will occur. But we can ignore logical argument, because not a single person has given a sensible path by which providing an option for people to choose a non-subsidized, non-profit health insurance plan will lead to nationalizing the hospitals, doctors and drug companies

4. "We know" that nationalized health care in Canada is bad, and we can find lots of anecdotal evidence. Conveniently we'll ignore anecdotal evidence of people in the US denied treatment by their insurance companies. We'll also ignore that when studied on a scientific basis, the Canadian system actually has better overall outcomes than the American system. The majority of people have better care and outcomes in Canada than in the American system. What the American system excels at is providing health CARE (not insurance) for the world's wealthy. I suppose we should be glad that providing a profit motive has enabled us to provide excellent health care to Saudi sheiks. But how many of those procedures that the sheiks pay for will actually be authorized by the insurance companies for you and me?

5. The culmination of the argument: Since Canada's nationalized program is bad, and Obama plan will slide down the slippery slope to become Canada's plan, and we will have no opportunity to prevent that from happening, we must utterly oppose any changes to the present system.

The truly sad thing is that the arguments put forth by Stoessel wouldn't win a high school debate. Firstly, unless you can demonstrate an irretrievable slippery slope, the entire argument comparing the Canadian system to our proposed changes is meaningless and should be ignored. Secondly, even if you were to accept the slippery slope argument, the "Canada Bad" argument is based entirely on anecdote. Every single Canadian anecdote could be answered by a similar anecdote in the American system. For example, small town America is no better off for doctors than small town Canada - they just have a government that is actually trying to get doctors into the small towns. Finally, for an clip supposedly about Obama's policies, not a single policy proposal was actually discussed. Not one. The only thing was how bad Canada was and the implication (unproven) that that's where we would end up.

Arguably, the only point he has is on innovation. If we were to fully nationalize all aspects of health care it might be detrimental to innovation. But you first have to buy the slippery slope argument before you can even get to discussing innovation. The real question on innovation is how we can allow the current non-competitive insurance system to exist? When was the last time we saw innovation in the health insurance system?

I also found it offensive that he allowed a complete mischaracterization of the way science is conducted by letting stand the comparison that "only 4% of the drugs are developed by NIH". What that statement misses is that the NIH conducts the basic science research that is, for the most part completely non-marketable but is critical to finding new approaches. The drug companies are given this basic research (for free) and use it for their applied research in developing drugs. If you want to see the drug companies howl, threaten to cut off all research at the NIH. Another way to make the howl would require them to pay royalties for any drugs developed from NIH research. The drug companies know where the breakthroughs start - they are with innovative and underpaid scientist who do their work on grants because it gives them freedom to creatively think. The applied scientists working in for-profit industry have to follow what the managing executives think will be profitable rather than where their scientific instincts lie. Don't get me wrong - both parts are needed for a successful system. But denigration of the work done by the NIH isn't justified. Truth is that industry won't fund the type of blue-sky thinking that results in real advances. For every 100 creative thoughts a scientist has, 99 are crap. Industry just can't support that level of failure, but the ability to freely fail is vital to scientific advance.

This clip is an incredible polemic axe grinding - no facts, no logic. And people talk about a "liberal bias" in the media.

Post 2
I have lots of other comments on health insurance reform at my blog (link below). I've read the reform bill and I try to be even-handed. I'm really tired of the fear-mongering that we're all going to turn into Canada and die.

Post 3
The slippery slope is by design Ben. The government plan will undercut the and underprice the private health insurers driving more and more to the government provided option. 30 years ago, there were private health insurers in Canada. The government proposed a "government option" to keep the insurers "honest". # of private insurers in Canada today... next to none.

Post 4
So can you show any evidence of the "design" of the slippery slope? How will it work? How will they be able to undercut the private insurers? If you want to make this claim then provide a specific mechanism rather than hand-waving. Any mechanism you design will have stops along the way and arguments that can be made against it. As yet, I've not heard anyone provide a credible scenario that would have us irrevocably go down a slippery slope because we put in a public option.

Because of the way the public option is written, it is no more subsidized than the private insurers will be. So are you telling me that the government is more efficient than private insurers? I thought the whole idea of privatization in the US is that industry, with its inherent efficiencies in the profit motive, is always cheaper than government. You can't have it both ways! How is it that Fed Ex, UPS and the USPS all manage to compete? Do you think if we dropped the USPS that Fed Ex and UPS would drop their prices?

The comparison to Canada is invidious because we have completely different systems, completely different cultures, and completely different forms of government. A parliamentary system has more absolute control and can push things through that will never get through our system. Are you claiming that the Canadian system became what it is by a single act of parliament? That's simply not true. So a slippery slope argument has to show how the public option as proposed must turn into something else. I try to think about things objectively, and can't find any route that makes sense for turning us into Canada. If your going to make this argument, you should have some idea of how it would happen. Otherwise, you're just fear-mongering. You can make wild accusations about where any piece of legislation will take us. The difficult thing is to actually back up your allegations with a logical argument.

The key problem with the present system is that the private health insurers have a medical loss ratio that is entirely unsupportable in an efficient industry. If you don't know what the medical loss ratio is, then you need to do some homework rather than just listen to the blathering news. The industry has been non-competitive so long that they need something to shake up their world. Its not about insurance company profit or even debt maintenance of these companies - they deserve these. If you look at the numbers for a typical insurance company (I'll give you specifics if you'd like - I've gone through some of their books), you'll find that they only pay out 82-85%% of premium dollars in health care. Profit and debt service make up another 4-5%. Where's the other money go? Its billions of dollars a year in "general expenses". I understand when you're making tractors or cars that you have a lot of expenses, but what are the insurance companies spending these billions of dollars on? Its also interesting the most companies (GE, Caterpillar, GM, etc) will have some years that they make money and some years that the lose money. Because of the structure of the insurance industry they always make money - except when they declare losses for tax purposes under GAAP books (typically by buying a competitor) and show a profit to shareholders under non-GAAP books. Guaranteed money makers should always have a smaller profit margin that riskier businesses.

The key measure of competition in any industry is innovation. The only innovation in the health insurance industry is in how to drop people from their roles. The latest one in NY was where a guy had MS and they couldn't drop just his policy, so they dropped that entire class of policies rather than accept the costs associated with their client. We have to fix these problems by regulation or by competition. I vote for competition - the only way the public can compete is by a public option.

Post 5
Hi Ben, I think it's really unfortunate that you have resort to name calling and insults to make a point. Calling me a fear mongerer is really over the top. We dissagree completely on how to fix health care. We do agree that something needs to be done to fix it. But putting in a Trillion dollar health care bill that we can't afford only replaces one problem with another. Anc I believe it won't even fix what it's trying to solve.
If I might make a suggestion, regardless of the fact you have, you're not going to win many if any over to your way of thinking by using the tone in your last post.

Post 6
I will review your arguement when I get home and answer you point by point.....RESPECTFULLY.

Post 7
I didn't mean to insult you. Also, I didn't call you a fear mongerer - only said you are one if you insist on making the Canada comparison and can't provide a mechanism by which it works. And I will stand by that statement. Assuming that you are going to provide some a comparison, my statement clearly doesn't apply to you.

The problem with the video clip was that it was nothing but fear mongering - no mechanism, no facts, only anecdotes and a broad brush comparison of two very different nations and two very different health care systems - there's points to be made, but there was no fair and balanced in that clip, so I'll admit my initial response wasn't particularly fair and balanced.

I do try not to insult people, so I'm sorry if you were offended. Sorry about the tone, it was written in a rushed manner - I'm posing a lot of questions where I think the right is inconsistent, and its hard to say that someone is inconsistent or illogical without sounding offensive. I also probably shouldn't have said you might need to do your homework if you don't understand the MLR, but I guess I've run into a lot of uninformed people, so I apologize for that unnecessary snarkiness. We have to much bombast and I hate to admit that I sometimes add to it.

Anyway, the truth is I'm not trying to convert anyone to my opinion - I doubt that its possible. Very few people actually have an open mind - I hope you're one of them. I'm trying to figure out how people who oppose the public option think - sometimes I need to be a bit acerbic to get a response. As yet, I have not gotten any logical arguments to my questions posed here or on my blog (see link above). I'm perfectly willing to change my mind on the public option if someone can convince me there is a better way. As yet I've not seen a single logical argument that doesn't reduce to a simplistic "socialism is evil" or "we're all going to be Canadians". So you have a challenge: I have an open mind, if you believe that there is no real competition in the insurance industry and you have a better way than the public option to get competition going, bring it on and I'm willing to listen. Maybe you can convert me into opposing the public option!

Monday, October 26, 2009

A defense of lawyers by someone who's not

Society and government exist, at the most basic level, to resolve civil conflicts between competing rights. For example my right (or expectation) to enjoy sunshine on my house in conflict with your right (or expectation) to put a 40-story skyscraper on your lot next to mine. Free market capitalism cannot always resolve civil conflicts (although it is good at creating them). In a free market, an individual or corporation is encouraged to do whatever is legal to secure profit. On the fuzzy area where your rights are infringed by someone else's actions, the free market itself cannot provide any balancing mechanism.

We have three ways of resolving such civil conflicts: 1) regulation, 2) litigation, and 3) vigilantism.

We often hear the tort lawyers pilloried for their role in driving up insurance costs for corporations through "frivolous" lawsuits. While no doubt such lawsuits exist, is the smart response a restriction on lawsuits and lawyers? If such "tort reform" is our path, then we should be willing to increase regulation to balance the loss of accountability. Interesting that some of the same people decrying lawyers and calling for tort reform are also calling for reduced regulation. If we do not have lawsuits or regulations to protect our rights, who are you going to call?

Imagine yourself as the man in Kansas a few years back who had his genitalia erroneously removed in an operation. If this happened to you in Texas today, you would only be allowed to sue for actual economic damages, not pain and suffering, loss of consortium, etc. If you already had a vasectomy, the only actual economic damages would be  any extra time off of work due to extended recovery. It would just be "oops - mistakes happen." That's the Texas version of tort reform. Interestingly enough, Texas tort reform has not stopped the rise in malpractice premiums.

We do need reform of our medical malpractice system, but it's not simply by restricting lawsuits. We need lawsuits to go after the particularly egregious cases of professional malfeasance. However, we also need to recognize that doctors, nurses and hospital administrators are people too.  Honest and accidental mistakes are going to happen.  The only question is how we are going to compensate the victims of such mistakes.  Presently, we have an adversarial system where one side overstates the injury and the other side denies the injury and we waste a lot of court time.

It doesn't have to be this way. Indeed, we actually have two viable alternative examples to follow: the Vaccine Illness Compensation Program and Workman's Compensation.   In the former, the government recognizes that vaccination of all children is a public good to eradicate disease (such as smallpox) but some small percentage of children are going to have terrible reactions, and we cannot predict which ones. So a fund is set up to compensate victims from government revenues.  In the Workman's Compensation programs, industry is required to contribute to a fund to provide compensatory benefits for anyone injured accidentally at work. Note that the worker still has a right to a lawsuit against the company if he/she can show that the injury was a direct and predictable result of malfeasance by the company (e.g. failure to follow government safety standards in an effort to cut costs).

What will you do when a corporation or wealthy individual steps on your rights?  If regulators won't step in and lawyer's won't take your case because the available damage award is too small to offset costs - will you choose the only remaining option: vigilantism? Those that push for a nation without effective lawsuits, without effective regulations, and with lots of guns in public hands are asking for a dangerous and unstable brew.  Seems to me that we need at least two out of the three for a stable society.

Next time that someone quotes Shakespeare's "The first thing... is kill all the lawyers", keep in mind that was part of the plan to overthrow the government and establish a tyranny. If we keep filleting the government and judiciary, we may end up with a spineless entity that can protect nobody's rights.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The socialist home mortgage deduction.

Imagine a nation of 100 million wage-earners where each person earns $100,000 per year.  The federal government is run frugally on an annual budget of $1 trillion dollars so that each wage-earner pays a tax of $10,000 per year - a 10% tax rate (as long as we're imagining, we might imagine something good).  Everything thus far is obviously completely fair.  As long as the government services provided are available to everyone, this could be argued to be a non-socialist system (I would still call it socialist because we have non-voluntary pooling of money for the greater good, but that's another argument).

Let us further imagine that half of the people own their homes, and the other half rents.  To make our thought-problem simple, imagine that all the homes are exactly identical and all the mortgages are exactly identical, such that each owner pays $10,000 per year in interest.

Now into this utterly fair (but bland) world, we imagine the government deciding to institute a mortgage interest deduction to encourage home buying.  Similar to present US rules, those that pay interest on their mortgages will be able to deduct this from their taxes.  So the homeowners will now have an adjusted gross income of $90,000 per year, and will only pay taxes of $9000 per year.  Since half the wage-earners owned homes, the result will be the federal government comes of $50 billion dollars short in its annual budget.  So either the government has to run a deficit, which transfers wealth from future generations to the present generation, or tax rates must be raised.  To balance the budget, the tax rate would be raised to 10.53%, then the renters will pay $10,527 in taxes and homeowners would pay $9,473 - a transfer of wealth from renters to owners.

Any way that you look at it, the home mortgage deduction is a transfer of wealth: either from the present renters, or from future generations.  "Transfer of wealth" from one individual to another is inherently socialist.

Similar arguments can be made for any government program that benefits one group of persons in a way that isn't available to all.  All tax breaks are inherently socialist - someone has to pick up the slack.  So if one person pays less, another must pay more.

So, if you gladly take the home mortgage interest deduction (or the child care deduction, etc.), let us not hear blanket condemnation for all socialism, which would be fundamentally hypocritical.  If you honestly abhor socialism (rather than just disliking the transfer of your wealth to someone else), then make sure you don't take that mortgage deduction next year so that you can pay for your fair share of the government.  Even if you don't like all the government's programs, if you are consistent and have true beliefs that socialism is wrong then you will pay for your fair share rather than foist it on someone else.  Every dollar you take in a deduction is a dollar that someone who doesn't have the deduction will have to pay.  You are taking their wealth.   If you take the deduction, you are enjoying the fruits of someone else's labor - you've bitten the socialist apple and know its taste - let's see you spit it out rather than benefit from the nutrition.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The importance of definitions

It's interesting when I can get conservatives to talk openly without ranting - because I'm finding that part of the violent disagreement between right and left is differing definitions.  Recently this came to the forefront in two areas:  racism and socialism.  For now, I'll just look at socialism.

On socialism, my conservative friends defined public "services" those parts of our system where we pool together our money for the common good that are basic public needs, e.g. military, police and fire. These services were not deemed "socialist".  A socialist "society" was defined as "where the majority of things are gathered together and pooled and then distributed out based on need vice ability to acquire those needs."  In this view, providing those things deemed basic public needs are not socialist, even if they result redistribution of wealth or taking my money to advantage someone else's business (e.g. building roads, providing fire services to a new housing development).  While the quotes were provided by one conservative friend, a similar attitude was echoed by those who didn't see the home mortgage deduction or similar government tax breaks as socialist.  I could not get a clear sense of when "services" morphed into "socialism" in the conservative view.  I'm hoping that I've fairly characterized this viewpoint - I'm not trying to just knock down a straw man.  But I am looking for why conservatives demonize socialism while supporting what I consider socialist policies, and the above is the only logical explanation that I've found.  We simply have different definitions.  

I see this as a logical/definitional problem that is inhibiting reasonable discussion.  The conservative side sees police services as basic - while some on the liberal/progressive consider health insurance services to be basic.  In effect, the conservative "socialism" is defined so that programs they like are not socialism, and programs they don't like are socialism.   This definitional approach allows the right to use the following syllogism

Federal health insurance = socialism.
Socialism = evil.
Therefore Federal health insurance = evil.

Obviously the validity of the syllogism depends on the second statement, which requires the right to define socialism such that none of the policies they espouse can be considered socialist.

It's tough to have a clear conversation about government programs if the definition of what is a "socialist" program depends on the point of view of the individual and what they consider "basic". The only logical and clear definition of a socialist program is one in which the public combines its money to serve something that the public, through its representatives, decides is in the public good. Thus, the US has a large number of successful socialist policies and programs.  The questions of health insurance reform should be based on whether the individual policies are good or not (there's certainly enough to argue about there), and we should simply throw out arguments based on the "socialism is evil" syllogism as being fundamentally illogical.

"Socialism" shouldn't be the bogey-man; whether proposed policies will be effective or not is what we should be talking about. 

We have nothing to fear but the merchants of fear, and those who willingly buy their wares.

My socialist day

I had a socialist day. Breakfast cereal from subsidized farmers. Kids off to socialist school in their socialist school bus. Drove to work on roads paid by socialist taxes. But I wasn't speeding when the socialist-paid police car went by. Fortunately, I didn't have to call out the socialist fire department or EMS. Talked to my mom, who's on social security and went to see her Doc on socialist medicare. I also read some about our socialist military that is protecting us. I picked up our mail, but since the US Postal Service is no longer subsidized, this was actually a non-socialist moment. I  paid the socialist power bill to our city power company (some of the cheapest rates around), and the socialist water bill. Don't you just wish we could privatize it all and make it work so much better (like Wall Street)? I sure would rather be paying my water and power bill to a private company. Just think of how much better it would be if Time-Warner or a telephone company had those local provider monopolies. Socialism is such a bad word and such an evil concept, that anything socialist must be dumped!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Airport Lessons Learned

1.  Before you check your bag, kiss it goodbye.  It may be a long time before you see it again.

2.  If any flight in your itinerary is late, early, lands when it is raining or simply rolls the dice wrong, assume that your bag will not make the transfer.

3.  If you miss a flight, your bag is gone.

4.  Never leave the secure area in search of a bag when you've missed a flight.

5.  If a gate agent tells you to go to baggage claim to get your bag for rebooking, refer to Rule 4.  Stay in security and assume your bag will meet you sometime in the next week or so after you return home.

6.  Don't bother talking to anyone about your bag.  They don't know anything and can't find out anything.  Just wait until you make it to your destination without a bag and file a claim. Anything you do before you're at your final destination is wasted energy.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Nonlinear interactions

A friend sent several though-provoking quotes:
  • If you find no one to support you on the spiritual path, walk alone. There is no companionship with the immature. - Buddha from The Dhammapada
  • Stay with friends who support you in these. Talk with them about sacred texts, and how you are doing, and how they are doing, and keep your practices together. - Rumi 
  • Retire into yourself as much as possible. Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving. The process is a mutual one. People learn as they teach. - Seneca 
  • You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. - Jim Rohn
The response in our group was interesting. We're the inverse of Lake Wobegon, ("where all the children are above average") - we're all below average and our friends are bringing us up.  We all "average up."

It occurred to me that this is similar to what I call the 60/40 split. I'm the kind of person that needs marriage to be a 50/50 relationship - not that each duty should be split in half, but that both parties should be pulling equally (and hopefully the same direction).  I imagine there are couples out there that are happy with some other arrangement, but it wouldn't work for me.  However, the problem with a 50/50 relationship is that we have imperfect knowledge of what the other person is doing, and we have absolutely perfect knowledge of what we're doing (well, perhaps perfectly overestimated).  So when I think things are 50/50 it means I'm probably not pulling my own weight. Thus, my 60/40 split - things are really 50/50 when you feel like they're 60/40. So no need to drop into the resentment dungeon just because I think I'm doing more, because I'm probably not.  

I doubt that my thought is original, but I don't know when/where I heard it or thought it.  I Googled the idea and found some similar marriage advice, proposing that you give 60% and take 40%. Although they pitch it differently, I think the results are the same: you overestimate what you give and underestimate what you take, so a perceived 60/40 give/take is probably a 50/50 actuality.

Back to the group of friends who are all averaging up.  We could propose an inverse relation for friendship - we have excellent knowledge of what we get from our friends but imperfect knowledge of what we give.  So its reasonable, even desirable, for a group of friends to all perceive themselves as below average relative to the group. I don't know anything about social theory, but I suspect that dysfunctional groups exist if one or two people believe themselves superior or are believed by the others to be superior.  There's probably something to say about our political parties in that.

Although mathematically impossible for everyone to be above or below average, there are cases where the average, or arithmetic mean, is simply meaningless.  For example, the average amplitude over one sine wave period is exactly zero - a truth that has relatively little value but is merely inherent in the nature of sine waves.  However, the root-mean-square (RMS) of a sine wave can be computed by successively squaring the amplitude, taking the average of the square amplitude, and the the square root of that average (sounds complicated for non-math types, but it really isn't).  For sine waves of a given frequency, the RMS value describes one unique wave - providing a useful description that you cannot get from the simple average.  

The value of the RMS approach is that the squaring will accentuate the highs and minimize the lows.  This brings us to the idea of nonlinear interactions. If you take two different sine waves and compute a point by point product of the two waves (instead of squaring only one wave) and the take the mean and the square root as done in the RM of RMS, you get another unique wave whose shape depends on the amplitudes and frequencies of the underlying waves but may have a completely unusual shape. It is possible for waves to be out of phase and destructive, or in phase and supportive. 

If I could only move from pedantic to pithy there might be a quotable idea in there somewhere.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

What's in a name?

This blog is a disorganized compendium of semi-logical musings on politics, science, philosophy and the general self-indulgence of blogging by an entirely unqualified pundit wanna-be.

My blog title is probably a bit obscure - a lame mathematical joke. Boolean algebra and logic rely on the idea that certain classes of problems can be solved or effectively analyzed by using only 0 and 1. The answer is true or false, black or white. In contrast, a continuum recognizes the gradations between absolutes - the shades of gray or the infinite sets of real and imaginary numbers between 0 and 1.

We live in a continuum of opinions, but individuals often act as though everything is Boolean relative to themselves - you are either with me or you are against me. You are for the worker or for business. You are socialist or you are capitalist. We perceive ourselves as absolutes of white and black but are moving through a sea of gray. Through eyes seeing everything on our side is right and everything on the other is wrong, we come to believe our perception is reality. The other is a liar, the other wants destruction of our country, the other cares only for profits.

Truth is in complexity and chaos. The only things not moving, adapting and evolving are dead.

Can we have a policy discussion?

I've read the house health care plan.  Similar to any law, some of it is a bit like reading Leviticus, so I won't say that I understand it all.  Based on what I do understand, from the published plan and the president's health care speech, below are the planks of "ObamaCare" if it were enacted as the president proposes.  I've used blue italics for what I consider facts to try to separate facts from my opinion and interpretation

1.  Everyone will have to buy insurance except for those on Medicare/Medicaid.

2.  Those who can't afford insurance policies will be partially subsidized by a voucher funded by tax dollars from a number of proposed sources. Vouchers are used to help pay for insurance from any company at their standard published rates.  Everyone on the voucher program will have to contribute something (no free health care except Medicare/Medicaid).  The government will set standards as to what is the minimum acceptable plan so that tax dollars are not spent for companies that do not provide adequate coverage.

3.  Insurance companies will have to insure anyone who comes up with the money to buy their standard policies at their published rates.  Thus, no pre-existing condition exclusions and no dropping people when the become sick.  Also no raising rates on individuals or small businesses just because the person or an employee becomes seriously ill.  This means that insurance contracts will be multi-year commitments that cannot be dropped or modified to adjust the insurance company's bottom line.  If insurance companies cannot drop anyone and if everyone has to buy insurance, then the unfairness of covering pre-existing conditions should disappear after an adjustment period.

4.  Small businesses and individuals can create "Cooperatives" to negotiate group rates with insurance companies in the same way that big corporations do.  In effect these are bargaining unions that multiply clout in the same way that a worker's union does.

5.  A public plan will be set up to run similar to the U.S. Postal Service.  The plan will not be subsidized (note that USPS is not subsidized - there is a lot of misinformation on this point).  The public plan will set its rates based on what it takes to pay claims and cover administrative costs.  The only subsidies will be the same that the private insurance companies are getting - through the subsidized vouchers that lower-income individuals can use to  help pay for insurance directly from a private company, through a cooperative, or from the public plan. Note that "lower income" implies someone making more than the poor who are covered by medicaid, but less than someone who can afford to spend $5K to $10K per year on a private policy. It seems to me that if the market works correctly, at the start the public plan will be cheaper than the private plans, which will force insurers to become more efficient and cut their administrative expenses.  Eventually, the public plan will be squeezed down because government programs are generally not as efficient as private companies in a competitive environment.  However, the public plan may still be able to fight back (much as the US Postal Service challenged by FedEx and UPS) to maintain some market share.  The dynamic competition between public and private should be a boon to health insurance consumers.

6.  A federal health insurance commissioner would be established to oversee regulations.  As I understand it the key issues will be
   a)  Setting the percentage of premiums that insurance companies must pay out in benefits (controlling the Medical Loss Ratio).
   b)  Setting the minimum policy coverage that will be necessary for a company to be eligible for the federal insurance voucher program.
   c)  Setting policies for creation of the Cooperatives
   d)  Overseeing development of the public plan bureaucracy.

7.  There are additional efforts proposed to reform Medicare and cut waste, fraud and abuse.  However I have not spent enough time looking at these to say that I understand them.  I welcome comments from anyone with information on these.

Back to commentary:  I'm trying as best I can to not spin things, but since I support the plan I probably have put things in their best light rather than worst.  I would really like to hear from people who have rational arguments as to why some of these are bad policies or where I have any facts wrong.   Let's have a reasoned and logical discussion.  I'm not going to change your ideology and you're not going to change mine.  But we can discuss the implications of the above policies on how the health insurance system will work or not work. I don't believe in one party rule.  Democratic republics work best when people of reasoned views can discuss and explain their viewpoints and reach a compromise.

As an example of what we might discuss, one of my major concerns is the idea of the health commissioner controlling the Medical Loss Ratio.  On the one hand, it is very satisfying to my developing progressive ideology to tell the insurance companies that they must revert to the old system of making money by investing premiums so that they are gaining the time-value of money between collection and payout (the historic approach to all insurance).  On the other hand, my well-entrenched liberal ideology (which is different than progressive ideology) says that a direct setting of the Medical Loss Ratio seems a bit like the wage and price controls implemented by Nixon, which were a disaster (note that wage and price controls are, strictly speaking, a form of either fascist or communist policy - two very different ideologies, one from the left the other from the right, the wind up in the same totalitarian place).

Right now, my liberal side is winning and I think that the direct intervention of the government through competition in the public plan would be more effective than prescriptive control.  That is, the public plan will operate with a very high Medical Loss Ratio (Medicare is 96%, compared to 84% for Wellpoint and 82% for Aetna).  If the competition from the public plan is effective the private companies will be forced to become more efficient, which will naturally drive up their Medical Loss Ratio.  I like this idea rather than mandating a specific Medical Loss Ratio.  In the long run, whenever we place regulatory mandates on an industry we find that lobbying power will eventually relax the mandates and make them irrelevant.  However, if we lose the public plan I don't see how we get sufficient competition to ensure a dynamic market, so mandating the Medical Loss Ratio may be a necessary evil.  UPDATE:  Dec 19, 2009.  It looks like the public plan is not going to be part of the senate bill, so I've given the MLR more thought. My conclusions aren't pretty:

If you're interested in this discussion, you should be able to state whether you think the present system is working or broken.  If you think that its broken and the ObamaCare policies won't work, then what are your policy prescriptions?  Is the status quo sustainable?

My views aren't set in stone, but I can't learn and adjust unless and until someone more conservative than myself can challenge me and provide some clear and reasoned ideas. As yet, I have not heard a single conservative politician, think tank or individual provide any reasoned analysis or discussion of the above points.