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.