Friday, April 9, 2010

Destructive Discussions

Why is all political discussion designed to divide, inflame, and reaffirm existing beliefs? There's so much middle ground in politics, and yet people are encouraged to demonize people with a different label. For example, the stimulus package was about 60% tax cuts and 40% spending. So in reality the stimulus package wasn't overwhelmingly liberal or conservative. It was remarkably mainstream. Liberals – broadly speaking – support the Keynesian notion that in a recession temporary increased government spending is the correct thing to do. Conservatives – broadly speaking – support the theory that providing tax cuts let the individuals decide how to spend their money, individuals always know how better to spend their money than the government, etc. Personally I believe that the Keynesian model is correct, but there are plenty of people that disagree with me and that’s fine. My problem is that instead of discussing the pros and cons of stimulus, or how best to deliver stimulus, the right often characterizes the stimulus package as a deficit-adding left-wing shameful giveaway. They repeat stories of absurd uses of the money which are later debunked. They create this fake idea and then suddenly reality isn't being discussed, people are arguing over illusions. The problem is that most people don’t listen critically to their political party or news channel of preference. That lack of thinking critically and investigating the facts lead people to support or condemn a policy not based on principle or reality but based solely on perception.

The healthcare bill is basically mandating coverage and providing tax subsidies to people who can't afford it. How it’s paid for: Medicare Part A coverage will be raised on individuals making more than 200,000$ per year by 0.9%; unearned income (dividends, interest, etc) will have a new tax of 3.8 percent if you’re an individual making more than 200,000$ per year; a “Cadillac” tax on high-end health insurance plans; Drug manufacturers, hospitals, and medical device manufacturers will have a tax (the idea is that they can afford to pay a fee if they have 40 million new customers); a tanning tax; Medicare cuts (again, the idea is that with 40 million new patients they will have a larger profit margin and thus able to afford a tax). If the goal of healthcare reform is to expand coverage, it only works if the healthy and unhealthy join the pool. I think a better way to expand coverage would be a public option, but that’s not what happened. Instead we mandated private coverage and gave subsidies.

That's the exact same theme that Mitt Romney (GOP presidential candidate) used to sign the healthcare bill in MA, and the same theme that the GOP proposed in response to the public option during Clinton's presidency. The GOP argument went something like this: “The public option is socialist; we want to pick our own health insurance and not be subjected to death panels or have government bureaucrats between us and our doctors. Therefore the responsibility should be on the individual and they should have tax assistance from the government”. If this argument was a matter of principle, then it should be supported today. The GOP no longer supports their argument, so that raises the question of what changed. The only answer I can think of is that President Obama is now in favor of that plan; therefore the GOP is now against it. Their behavior doesn't reflect principled opinions; it reflects putting their own political futures ahead of everyone and everything. People may disagree with the healthcare bill, but characterizing expanding private coverage as a socialist government take-over of healthcare is inaccurate. I don’t have a problem with people who disagree with me; my problem is when people disagree with a phantom idea. It’s frustrating to have to defend something non-existent.

It seems like today everyone is arguing about ridiculous meaningless things. There are substantial differences between conservatives and liberals. For example, are property taxes appropriate given the struggle between property rights and the desire to have a progressive tax system? Or, does the good generated by giving corporations tax cuts to lure them to a city (increased employment, increased tax revenue by those new employees) outweigh the unfairness of a corporation receiving a tax cut while small businesses and individuals don't get the same benefits? There are legitimate questions of how to govern - at every level of government - that aren't being discussed and problems not being solved because silly inflammatory things are being talked about. For example, was President Obama born in the United States? Will the healthcare bill bankrupt America? Is President Obama a socialist? Why is the tax system set up like it is, is it unfair? Why are the democrats jamming bills down America's throat without consent? Is America now disarmed (spoiler alert: we are)? All of these questions can be answered easily with factual evidence (or in the case of opinion-related questions, they can be discussed using actual figures and facts), but reasonable discussion can only take place if one has an open mind and genuinely seeks answers.

All too often people search for anything to reaffirm their initial opinions and along the way they disregard any new evidence. It's uncomfortable to change one's mind and learn new things, but not doing so is dangerous in the long term. I regularly read Greg Mankiw (conservative economist at Harvard) and Keith Hennessey (senior White House economic advisor to President George W. Bush) not because I agree with most of their conclusions, but because they have actual things to say, things of substance. I think Paul Krugman is remarkable, but I don’t want to limit myself to only his opinion. I encourage all of y’all to find some people of substance from across the political spectrum, and pay more attention to reasonable people and less to RNC or DNC chairmen.

Politicians and the media benefit from controversy and have chosen a strategy of creating an absence of reasonable thought. The masterful part of it is that instead of acknowledging that each side has good points the narrative goes something like this: the other side is trying to (steal your money / kill the poor) only an idiot would think (you can tax small business indefinitely / minorities are worthless) although in fairness I admit that (they have good intentions / they know how to vote in lockstep). Narratives like that are only designed to increase divisiveness and controversy; unfortunately it’s also often a typical narrative.

Instead of trying to find ways to work together and benefit the nation (or state, city, etc), political leaders often decide to use inflammatory divisive language to get more votes on the next election. That's damaging the political system, the nation, and Americans. The antidote is knowledge and open-mindedness, ironically the same attributes being discouraged by most politicians, most media, and our natural desire to be right regardless of the facts.

Shhh... Don't let the other countries know that America is now disarmed

President Obama has revised the Nuclear Posture Review, defining when it's acceptable for the US to use nuclear weapons. Basically, it says that the US won't use nuclear weapons first against countries that are non-nuclear or countries that are in compliance with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. That means that there's no change in policy concerning North Korea, Israel, India, or Pakistan. The US won't use nuclear weapons first against almost all countries, that hardly seems unreasonable given 1) the devastating nature of nuclear weapons and 2) the fact that nuclear weapons have only been used twice in all of history. The US accounts for 40% of the worlds defense spending (and defense spending in the US continues to rise under President Obama), so it's ridiculous to argue that America lacks the non-nuclear ability to defend itself. Regardless, we still have thousands of nuclear weapons, the question is whether we should use nuclear weapons to respond to a non-nuclear state using biological weapons. I think it's obvious that we have plenty of levels of response before resorting to the weapons of last resort.

In order to come up with the NPR, one has to begin by finding out the biggest threat that nuclear weapons pose. I think we can all agree that one nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist poses a more real threat than 1500 in the hands of the Russian government. Therefore a strategy that acknowledges that threat is appropriate. The NPR realizes that rogue nuclear weapons pose the greater threat, and it still keeps thousands of weapons “because no Earth is better than an Earth without us” with the promise not to use them first on most nations is perfectly appropriate.

Of course, there's more than one way to look at it. Fox News brings the fair and balanced look by asking innocently and inquisitively “Now critics are asking, will the new deal leave the U.S. defenseless until it's too late?" then cutting to footage of a nuclear bomb exploding into a mushroom cloud.

Monday, March 8, 2010

American Conservatives - a third party for liberty and freedom

I was bored, so I decided to read the platform and talk about why their platform is nonsensical and the worst kind of selfish.

“We reject the practice of using Government powers for any purpose of social engineering, and we uphold the principle that the individual is sovereign; where social conduct involves personal choices, the People are best served when those choices are embraced and defended at the family and community level.”

One might read this and think: Government social engineering sounds communistic and socialistic and while I may not understand fancy things I know I prefer vaguely comforting words to vaguely menacing words; and the morons in congress want to ru(i)n my life. Although one needs to add “the morons in both parties” so it's reasonable.

Someone might see businesses that only serve certain races, or neighborhoods only accept a single race, or schools that only accept one race, and think how great everything is. They might even genuinely believe that the cost of preventing social engineering is watching through the window of a restaurant while “the blacks” eat out back. But I'd wager no one who has ever been turned away from every restaurant in their own city walks away thinking how great it is that they have the personal choice to be served from the back entrance of Denny's.

“Persons who are not citizens or resident aliens of the United States have no right to petition or benefit from any agency of the government except for petition of entry or asylum”

This makes perfect sense because people don't have intrinsic rights, they have rights because the government gives them rights and can take them away. Just don't look at the “the government doesn't give us rights we deserve them because we're people” section of the platform.

“Each adult citizen is responsible for the health, education and welfare of himself or herself and their family.”

And if some people happen to be born with a chronic illness, or in a neighborhood with broken schools, or a neighborhood where the only way to make money is to join a gang or deal drugs, and they are essentially doomed to a lifetime of poverty then that's just the cost of liberty. Don't forget, it's fair because the man making 300,000 dollars a year doesn't get to send his kids to free school either.

“We believe the proliferation of dangerous weapons (including WMD) has created a need to act against threats before they are capable of being fulfilled. We support preemption”

Once you establish suspicion as a basis for war, there's rarely any reason to ever not go to war. After all, what's the downside of sending young men to die for you overseas? Better safe than sorry, even if that means soldiers and civilians that don't look like you have to die.

“Eliminate the Department of Education, Terminate No Child Left Behind initiative and terminate federal support of the Head Start Programs”

If there's a bigger waste of money than trying to educate stupid poor people I have yet to see it. If they want to better themselves then they need to take responsibility for themselves and get their own kids private tutors like we do.

“The income tax on individuals can impose an undue burden on those earning minimal incomes. We believe a flat tax with significant personal exemptions offers the best opportunity to distribute the burden fairly.”

This makes sense as long as one assumed the problem with taxes is that the rich pay too much and the poor don't pay enough. Oh wait, their first sentence nullifies all real-world experience and studies about showing how the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer because they says so.


I hear a lot of conservatives say that they want America to be sovereign, and that means not adhering to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. They seem to imply that by joining we would be giving up our justice system, our very sovereignty, our ability to decide our own laws and punishment. There's two reasons why this is a ridiculous argument:

The ICC has received has indicted 14 people in it's 8 years of existence, and of those 14 only 5 are alive and have a court date. All of those indicted are indicted because they committed genocide or other egregious war crimes. The justice system in their nation has, for whatever reason, been unable to successfully prosecute them hence the ICC is. The implication that it will somehow usurp the US justice system is absurd once one knows the most basic facts about the ICC.

How can someone argue against the international rule of law? Specifically, how can someone argue for rule of law, just so long as we are exempt. In fact everyone else should follow it, but we don't have to because, you know, we we're such good people we don't need to anyway. How can we hope to have a moral superiority when we don't support prosecution of war criminals and people who commit genocide?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Healthcare delivery styles

Socialized healthcare: The government hires the doctors and nurses, build the hospitals, every citizen has free (paid in the form of taxes of every citizen not per-visit individual paid) healthcare.

Universal coverage: Doctors and nurses work for private companies, private companies build the hospitals, every citizen has free (paid by taxes) healthcare.

Private coverage: Doctors and nurses work for private companies, one can only afford to go to the doctor by paying for insurance.

What's being proposed in a nutshell is expanding private coverage by using private insurance companies to cover almost all citizens. That's about as far from “government run healthcare” and as weak as “reform” can get and still be called reform. Yet, the GOP is still pretending that they are the only thing standing between a hardworking individual and a socialist nightmare being rammed down America's throat in the dead of night with backroom deals and sweetheart deals that aren't on C-SPAN. In reality the GOP is standing between sick people and doctors while warning of “government bureaucrats standing in between you and your doctor”.

Providing an insurance pool run by the government such as the “public option” open to any citizen was criticized as being too radical of an idea by the GOP, and they managed to quash it. In all fairness though it is a radical idea to anyone from 1910, or anyone that's never had to choose between a mortgage or medicine.

GOP misinformation and popularity

According to a Newsweek poll, Americans are opposed to Obama's healthcare proposal by 40 to 49%. But when asked about the specific proposals, they are overwhelmingly in favor of most parts.

So why are people in favor of the parts but when the parts are grouped together and labeled “Obama's plan” they dislike it? The only conclusion I can draw is that they are misinformed about what “Obama's plan” really means. Perhaps one can blame this on the Democrats not informing the public well enough, but I believe the problem is the GOP pushing misinformation.

For example, according to their purity test they support “Market-based health care reform and oppose Obama-style government run healthcare”. By pretending that President Obama is proposing socialized medicine and the GOP is in favor of market-based reform they are lying. Although it is accurate to say that the GOP is opposed to socialized medicine, that's not being proposed. I would like to point out that I support “freedom and oppose GOP-style tyranny and slave labor”.

The Republicans have branded themselves as free market defenders and President Obama as a socialist. Following from that any proposal labeled “Obama's plan” is unpopular, no matter the actual content of the plan. It seems to me that the GOP has staked their future on opposing anything the Democrats offer, and if they offer something reasonable then the response is to pretend it's something else (i.e. “government-run healthcare”). If they can gain political points by increasing healthcare costs while more people become uninsured then that's the price they're willing to pay.

On a related note, one of the two specific proposals that the majority in the poll opposed is punishing those that didn't buy insurance. Health insurance is a risk pool. When the low-risk people don't join the pool then the premiums have to rise. If I had to share my health insurance only with people with chronic long-term illnesses then my premiums would rise drastically, and cause me to decide to opt-out, which would in term raise the premiums more and cause more sick people to leave in a vicious cycle. It's not debatable that the more high risk people in an insurance pool the higher the cost of coverage. The debate is how to have a healthy population, and while it is cheaper to only cover healthy people (by denying pre-existing conditions) it's not good enough. The only way to have an affordable comprehensive risk-pool is by covering both the high-risk and the low-risk. And the best way to ensure that both groups join the pool is by imposing a fine on those who choose opt-out in the form of a tax.

It's obvious one can't solve the problem of people being uninsured by simply mandating they become insured or pay a tax. That's why government subsidies are being proposed for those that can't afford it, that's why other proposals are being proposed that bend the cost curve and make it cheaper in the long run.

I once had a professor (an intelligent person, but misinformed in my opinion) roll his eyes and comment that “the founding fathers would roll over in their grave” if they knew about the idea of putting people in jail for not paying their fine. Unfortunately I think this is a result of the GOP claiming skewing the healthcare proposals, and skewing reality. Since the founding of the USA paying taxes hasn't been optional, it's necessary to pay taxes because it's necessary for a government to have money to operate. It's like speeding laws, I'd enjoy being exempt while everyone else has to follow the speed limit, but that's not the way it works. The idea that making people pay taxes is against the wishes of the people who founded the US government is being pushed, but it's untrue.

“Providing for the general welfare” is purposely a vague phrase intended to trust the people governing the country to do the right thing. Setting up a system where all (or almost all) Americans can afford to go the doctor is hardly a revolutionary socialist idea. Setting up a system where 43-47 million Americans are in a position where they don't have the option of going to the doctor is hardly providing for the general welfare, and it's hardly the morally right thing to do.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Thomas Sowell's latest article

Thomas Sowell is a syndicated writer, and featured regularly in the El Paso Times. He graduated magna cum laude from from Harvard, has a masters from Columbia, and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He's been a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford for 30 years, written several books, and is by all accounts an extremely intelligent person. But the articles I've seen that he's written are horribly misguided, and the opinions he's written are, in my judgment, completely incorrect.

I read an article he wrote in the EPT this Sunday, you can read it here and judge for yourself whether my criticisms are correct.

He calls overpopulation and global warming “alarms” meant to take away our freedom, alarms that politicians have invented. Yet to believe that, one would have to assume that Science Daily, CNN, New Scientist, National Geographic, The Telegraph, and countless others are all being duped by crass politicians into “believing” overpopulation is a problem, and that Thomas Sowell is immune from their charms and exposing the truth to the rest of us.

Global warming is accepted as fact by most scientists, but for some reason there are some who won't acknowledge it no matter the reality. They never fail to come up with new “evidence” claiming it disproved global warming. The newest supposed evidence being offered that global warming doesn't exist is that it's snowing in New York. Jon Stewart does a better job than I do explaining how ridiculous that argument is here Again, to believe Mr. Sowell's argument one would have to believe that most of the worlds scientists have been duped by short-sighted politicians.

Mr. Sowell refers to “affordable housing” and “universal healthcare” as “the distractions of political magicians”. I would wager that the millions of American citizens that are unable to afford going to the doctor would vehemently disagree that access to a doctor is a distraction.

As far as what role the government should have in providing affordable housing, it's a complicated topic. While I disagree with Mr. Sowell that it's just a cheap political distraction, at least he is consistent with his laissez faire economic philosophy on this point.

Mr. Sowell references “so called health-reform bills” and claims that the bills were rushed through without Congress getting a chance to read the entire bill. The fact that the members of Congress haven't read every word of the two versions of the healthcare bill is factually correct. But members of Congress rarely read every word of any bill, it isn't reasonable or pragmatic to expect that the best use of a Senator's time is to personally read 2,000 page bills written in legalese month after month. To claim that all previous legislation passed by that method was acceptable, but suddenly it's become unpatriotic is disingenuous. Staff exists for the reason that legislators time is a valuable commodity. In addition to that, both versions of the healthcare bill have been up on the internet for quite awhile, including the House version here and the Senate version here. To pretend that healthcare reform (which has been proposed in various forms for at least 40 years and is posted online for anyone worldwide with internet access to read) is somehow being rushed through in secrecy is just plain misleading. I know that Mr. Sowell is aware of all of this, but he is misinterpreting the facts to appeal to those who are inclined to believe that there is a mysterious – yet sinister - plot afoot.

Mr. Sowell claims that “our freedom to make our own medical decisions — on which life and death can depend — was to be quietly taken from us and transferred to our betters in Washington.” Presumably he is referring to the government taking steps to expand healthcare coverage to more US citizens. Unfortunately, his statement mirrors that of the much less respected Sarah Palin and her death panel hysteria. In addition, his statement is factually incorrect. There was never and is not currently any plan under consideration to have politicians make our own medical decisions. That's just not true. Assuming that giving one the choice of going to a doctor (where that choice did not exist previously) doesn't count as a bureaucrat making my personal medical decisions.

Mr. Sowell asserts that the recent Massachusetts election put healthcare reform on hold, and unfortunately it did set it back. But he leaves out the fact Massachusetts has passed healthcare reform that's more progressive than the US healthcare reform proposals, and that Massachusetts historically has relatively balanced political representation.

Mr. Sowell expresses anger that politicians are telling people what their income can and cannot be. First of all, it's important to note that when he chooses to, he will use the word “politician” instead of “government” or “law” for the express reason that railing against politicians is popular, railing against an unfair tax code isn't as exciting. Again, the government does not tell people what their income can or cannot be. There are taxes, but unless one proposes to do away with government completely then one cannot do away with taxes. It's unfortunate, but it's hardly reasonable to malign all politicians because government exists.

Mr. Sowell complains that politicans have branded wealth as obscene, and that they will only be successful as long as we don't think about what they're saying. Then he asks “what is obscene about wealth? Wouldn't we consider it great if every human being had a billion dollars?” and skips down to calling poverty obscene. But it's the skip over that's important, and it's easily missed if one doesn't take his advice to think about what's being said. Because when someone says wealth is obscene, obviously they are referencing the inequality that exists. Wealth only has a meaning because it's relative. Therefore, the inequality of millionaires wearing 10,000 dollar suits stepping over homeless American military veterans dying in the streets can very reasonably be called obscene.

Mr. Sowell says that “the assumption that what A pays B is any business of C is an assumption that means a dangerous power being transferred to politicians to tell us all what incomes we can and cannot receive”. On its face that seems a fair enough statement, but it's fairly simple to imagine many instances in which the payment does concern another party. Some examples of what could legally happen if what Mr. Sowell seems to be proposing (that is, what someone pays for something is only the concern of the party selling and the party buying) is enacted:

Stores announcing that specific genders, or people of a certain race, will be now charged a surtax.

A police officer can demand any fine for a trivial offense, as long as the two parties involved are the government and the individual being fined, there is no reason to involve others.

Raising prices 500% during natural disasters.

Bribing politicians as a matter of course, ushering a new era of corruption.

Standing in line at a coffee shop, and being charged twice as much for the same coffee as the person in front of you.

There are many instances in which I know I want to be charged a “fair” price for a product. That doesn't mean I want the government to go into the restaurant business, but I do want the government to make sure that restaurants can't charge my race an extra fee that makes it impossible for me to eat there because of the color of my skin.

And finishing up his column, Mr. Sowell continues to express his anger at politicians, by referring to “the aptly named White House “czars””. I suppose it's a fitting end to the article, since the people he refers to are not in fact some form of Russian princes, their title is “special adviser to the President”.
Slighting the President by pointing out that he takes advice is an odd approach, but evidently it sounds better when one uses the word “czar”

Almost every part of his article I very strongly disagreed with. Thoughtful disagreement with policy issues is one thing, but simply stirring up emotions without any real basis is something completely different.

In my own opinion, his assertion that resentment is being stirred up to cloak faulty reasoning is a much stronger indictment on the GOP's position as the “party of no” than on healthcare reform.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The free market not paying 100%

According to an article in The Guardian (1), the "World's top firms cause $2.2tn of environmental damage, report estimates". That's 2.2 trillion dollars per year that governments are effectively subsidizing to help out the top 3,000 biggest public companies. The report also notes that if those companies were forced to pay for the costs they're passing onto others it would eliminate about 1/3 of their profits.

The debate over to what extent the government should interfere with the free market is important and legitimate. However, knowing that governments are subsidizing a third of the yearly profit of the world's top 3,000 biggest public companies - so they can pollute cheaper - it's difficult to come to the conclusion that the free market calls for increased subsidies to big businesses.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why God Wants the Gays and Unmarried to Die

I was reading over a newspaper article recently about a leader of a Christian movement to deny city employees' domestic partners health benefits, and I couldn't help but wonder how some Christian leaders have gotten so far off track.

There are three premises of this movement that I strongly disagree with:

1: The idea that an individual is in a position to come into an adults home and inform them that based on his interpretation of an ancient holy text they are no longer free to choose with whom to have a relationship; his approval is now required.

2: The idea that the best way to "love the sinner and hate the sin" is to deny them healthcare. Denying people access to a doctor if they're having a relationship without a license is ridiculous.

3: The premise that Christianity is best served by letting the sick get sicker, but only as long as they're gay or unmarried domestic partners.

The only "family values" being shown here is letting people you disapprove of die. Oh that's right, they love the people so they promise to pray for their soul while letting their bodies die.

El Paso Times Article:

Sarah Palin's Hands

There was a big deal recently when Sarah Palin was paid 100,000 dollars to give a populist speech at the Tea Party convention. The hubbub wasn't over the irony, it was over the fact that she had notes written on her hand. You know, like in high school when you're too lazy to remember five words for an exam so you write them down. She wrote “Energy" “Tax” and “Lift American Spirits”. She had also written "budget cuts" but apparently that was too complicated of an idea so she crossed out the word budget.

Like most people I took having to write down notes on your hand as a stupid move for a politician to do. She was railing against President Obama using a teleprompter to give speeches (which they all do), and using sickeningly folksy phrases like "hopey changey", and generally being phony. Although in the sense of full disclosure, for 100 thousand dollars I'll be happy to add -ey to any wordey.

But, most people focused on the notes on the hand and not on anything else. As Fred Conrad writing for the New York Times phrased it, her "sleight of hand". After reading his article, I couldn't help but realize that we had all fallen into the trap that Sarah Palin had set. She is aware of the image that the media (excluding her employer, Fox News) has of her: unintelligent, hypocritical, lack of ideas, etc. And she used her self-awareness of that image to manipulate the media into reporting the story that she wanted reported instead of one of potentially damaging substance.

It reminds me of an argument I was having with someone recently. I thought I was being persuasive and winning the argument, but made the mistake of letting the other person define the terms and set the tone without realizing it. As soon as we were discussing things using the phrasing and on the terms he had chosen, the argument was over and he had won. Point being, that feeling when you think "wow they've left themselves wide open and vulnerable" probably means they're just setting a trap.

Side note: perhaps the small act of Sarah Palin scribbling over the word budget is showing the difference between how people perceive "budget cuts" versus "spending cuts". Everyone is in favor of spending cuts (that is, cuts in programs we dont' use) but budget cuts is a less popular phrase because it implies cuts in services that one uses. is the column from the NYT that made me think about what she had done.

The Books I'm Reading

I'm usually looking for new books, but I decided to post up a list of the books I'm currently reading in no particular order:

Tip O' Neill and the Democratic Century
Understanding Islam
Physics and Philosophy
Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Tort Reform

The argument for "tort reform" generally runs along several familiar narratives:

1) Businesses are going bankrupt because of greedy lawyers convincing people who aren't hurt to sue businesses because it's an easy way to make a lot of money. Plus, defending against a lawsuit is expensive, thus it leads to legal blackmail.

2) Doctors spend too much time and money running unnecessary tests because they're afraid of being sued for making a mistake.

3) Frivolous lawsuits are making healthcare costs rise, because we as hard working individuals are paying for trial lawyers and lazy people to get rich. The money has to come from someplace, thus it ultimately comes from individual workers and is an unfair forced redistribution of wealth.

4) Liability insurance is expensive for doctors, which means they have to bring in a lot of money to stay in business. Therefore it's not fiscally feasible for a doctor to work in remote or poor areas where they wouldn't make much money - whether or not they want to. Therefore, reducing the cost of liability insurance increases access to doctors and is a good thing.

5) Juries are being unfairly influenced by slick trial lawyers, thus the jury system is systematically unfair and should be corrected by the legislature.

Some of these arguments have more merit than others, some are based in facts but have been perverted, and some are more a matter for personal judgement than objective fact. Of course if there are other main arguments, or if I've misrepresented any of them, etc, I'm open to revision.

The notion of capping limits for frivolous lawsuits sounds a little hinky on its face. Who is better suited to determine whether a lawsuit is frivolous? The plaintiff who was - allegedly - injured, the attorney (or attorneys) with years of experience making a living out of earning a commission from solely successful lawsuits, the judge with a career of interpreting the law, the jury system that is the bedrock of our justice system? Or, should we rely on congressmen with an eye towards the next election passing a law trying to cover every possible contingency? It's interesting to me that the majority of people who claim to make a principled stand in favor of smaller government make an exception for the legislature to insert itself into the courtroom in the very specific role of deciding damages. I digress, the point is that if a lawsuit is frivolous then it follows that no damages will be awarded then it follows that there is no point in capping 0 dollars. So, the only reason to cap lawsuits is to cap damages on legitimate lawsuits since frivolous lawsuits are already capped at 0$ (or negative dollars, since if the lawsuit is declared frivolous the plaintiff has to pay the defendants fees and in some cases their own lawyers as well).

To address question 1: It is factually correct to claim that not being held responsible increases profit. But there are two points to be made: 1, is it morally acceptable? 2, putting aside morality, is it pragmatic? Jeffrey Pfeffer writing for CNN Money said it clearly "The next time you want to complain about "frivolous" lawsuits, picture doing business in a world where promises can't be relied on and you can only deal with people and organizations you already know well. There are undoubtedly abuses and problems in our current system, but the cost of punishing malfeasance is a necessary and small price to pay for running a modern economy." Holding people and businesses responsible to do what they promise, and to some degree not injuring others, is necessary. We don't have a perfect enforcement system, but it can't be solved by the legislature limiting non-economic damages.

To address question 2: the definition of "unnecessary" tests (defensive medicine) is so vague that it is impossible to come to an objective conclusion. There are studies showing that a lot of money is wasted, and there are equally valid studies showing that little if any money is wasted. So, if the problem with healthcare in the US is that we are too healthy then this is the argument for you.

To address question 3: the most generous study, in terms of lawsuits are driving up healthcare costs, that I'm aware of every being conducted was the recent CBO study that said tort reform accounted for 0.5% of healthcare costs. The other less recent studies all claimed less of a percentage. 0.5% of healthcare costs is a lot of money, but it should be noted that as fast as healthcare costs are rising 0.5% is hardly the driving factor.

Additionally, the premise for tort reform advocates in this argument is that medical malpractice costs are unnecessary and wasteful. This is not entirely true. Enforcing a standard of care from a hospital shouldn't be left up to the conscience of the Board of Directors or a huge government beaurocracy. They have their roles in preventing medical malpractice certainly, but so does an individual using the free market via a courtroom to influence the behavior of a hospital or doctor.

To address question 4: the real situation is more nuanced than they make it out to be. It is true that doctors and hospitals that are expected to do wrong (their chance of committing malpractice as displayed by the price of individual malpractice insurance premiums) will pay less for insurance when the insurance company knows it won't be held accountable. Not penalizing someone or some business for malfeasance is hardly a cut and dry issue. There are arguments for and against less liability under certain conditions, but the result of capping non-economic damages at 250,000$ often results in no liability not less liability as I'll show at the end.

To address question 5: Two points. First, the jury system has served the nation well since its creation precisely because it's as close to fair as we can get. The opinion that when a plaintiff and defendant present their case to a jury it constitutes inequity is ridiculous. A person doesn't get to take advantage of the rule of law only when it applies to everyone else. Second, the legislature is not very nimble. Attempting to impose a non-economic damages limit on every personal injury case anyone has ever is clearly not the most effective way to create a fair system of assessing damages.

In summation: non-economic damages includes pain and suffering and punitive damages. Punitive damages are the free market way to change businesses behavior. When a business or individuals sole obligation is profit, the only way to influence their behavior is monetary. Therefore, a large award amount isn't always because the individual deserves the money, it is often as a way of punishing the offenders behavior and preventing the offender from repeating their reckless behavior and continuing to put the public at more risk.

Pain and suffering as opposed to economic damages: if someone has no income then their economic worth is little if any. Therefore: a child is worth less than a stay at home mom, is worth less than a middle class worker, is worth less than a rich person. Most people don't think that one's actual worth is determined by their income, but in the narrow meaning of economic worth in terms of a lawsuit it is. Lawsuits are prohibitively expensive, particularly suing over personal injury. If the defendant is an insurance company then they have virtually unlimited pockets with which to hire the best lawyers, the best medical experts, and drag the case out as long as possible. An individual with a disability represented by a small firm is hardly being unfair to a corporation that makes 500 million dollars per quarter. That's one argument for pain and suffering damages, it's a way of giving people worth as a person regardless of their paycheck. For, if medical malfeasance causes the death of an infant then the price of a lawsuit will have to be less than 250,000 dollars in order to be financially feasible. After the cost of an attorney, a law firm, medical experts to counter the experts of the defendant, months of time and effort, it's rarely feasible. The same goes for smaller mistakes if someone doesn't earn much money. For example, if a hospital makes a mistake causing a a minimum wage earner to spend a month in the hospital. Economic damages will be negligible, and the cost of years of suing and battling the other side most likely will be more than 250,000$. Thus, there is no equality.

So, tort reform as proposed (capping non-economic damages at 250K) will result in immunity for large corporations making large mistakes at the expense of the injured or disabled individual - as long as they don't injure a person with great economic earnings.

Life's Problems

It's good to know that one no longer has to "live with bags under your eyes" because of Hydrolize. I was just thinking that the world would be a perfect place if only those pesky shadows would go away.

Update: my enthusiasm over the world being made perfect was too soon, the other facial cream companies claim Hydrolize does not, repeat not, work.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

More Gay Marriage

Just to clarify:

What I did not mean was that individuals are beneficial to society depending on who they choose to have relationships with. To me that's a personal choice the government has no place interfering with except when one person in the relationship is a child, etc, which we can all agree upon. Should people have gay relationships? I don't think there will ever be a common consensus, and I think that's a debate for the religious or the philosophical, not for legal statuses. In my opinion, who people choose to have relationships with is none of my business, and God knows I'm a man with enough flaws that I'm not in a position to try to judge other peoples lives. Certainly I'm not in a position to try to judge them based on their personal relationships.

In my mind there's a line between what behavior the government should regulate, and under what circumstances the government should grant institutions special legal rights. As I understand it, the government grants special legal status and protections when those institutions benefit the interests of the state. For example:

Corporations get special limited liability because allowing less risk means increased economic growth for the nation;

Giving small businesses tax breaks means increased small business growth which encourages entrepreneurship and innovation and consequently is good for the nation;

Giving the press more freedom with libel and defamation laws concerning public officials encourages honest critique of government officials with less fear or reprisal (although on a side note it's sad what passes for journalism often these days);

Making Senators and Representatives privileged from arrest "in all cases except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace" is granting them special status to prevent them from being detained so they can't vote which is central to democracy;

Giving tax breaks to college students increases college enrollment, which means a more educated population which is good for the nation;

Granting patents encourages inventions because without patents it would be impossible to make money off new inventions, so the act of the government granting special legal status encourages invention;

Giving tax breaks and marriage licenses to married couples encourages (certainly not guarantees) stable parenting and procreation which is in turn good for the nation;

This doesn't mean that the government has magically created stable families, a transparent democracy, honest congressmen, a highly educated population, and everyone is a hardworking inventor. But those things are encouraged by the act of the government granting or denying special legal benefits and protections that the population at large doesn't get. It's a question of what the government can do to encourage institutions to further various state interests.

These things aren't rights, they are privileges that the state grants to institutions when that institution furthers the interests of the state. Me paying taxes does further the interests of the state, but that doesn't mean I should be able to take the same tax deductions on my personal car that a small business owner does, or that I should be like Senators and be exempt from all laws except treason, or that I should get the same tax benefits that a married couple does.

So, in my mind, the question is what institutions provide a clear benefit to the interests of the state by being granted special legal status. IMO, straight marriage has passed that test, but gay marriage hasn't.

So in my mind the question is: how does gay marriage as an institution further the interests of a nation (keeping in mind it should provide a benefit that doesn't exist without special legal status, or will be amplified by special legal status)?

For or Against Gay Marriage

State recognition of marriage exists under the notion that encouraging stable parenting hand in hand with procreation is beneficial to the state. The state doesn't grant special status to married couples to encourage romantic love, but to further the interests of stable procreation. It's obviously not a perfect system, but it does encourage it. If romantic love was the sole criteria for a marriage license then the notion of marriage would become meaningless (polygamy, etc).

While some straight couples are unable to have children, most can. The process of weeding out which couples are sterile, whether just one member of the couple is, whether they are permanently sterile or simply have a very small chance of bearing children, etc, would be a very costly and time consuming process. In addition to which, straight parents adopting children is a benefit to the state. While (as far as I could find, if y'all can find some I'd be interested in reading it/them) there are no scientific studies showing that gay parents are better or worse than straight parents. Which means the burden of proof lies on the people desiring special legal status, because if everyone automatically received the legal recognition then it wouldn't be a "special" status anymore.

Gay couples on the other hand are 100% unable to have children together. Again, as far as adoption I couldn't find any - but will happily read them if y'all find them - studies showing that gay parents are better or worse than two straight parents or foster parents or straight single parents.

The question isn't what behavior the government should regulate, but under what circumstances should the government grant special legal status to someone?

The answer, as I understand it, is when those people provide a benefit to the state. Corporations get special protection from liability because limited liability means more growth, etc. Marriage is benefical to the state because it encourages (not guaruntees) stable parenting and procreation.

Straight marriage has proven benefits for the state, and I'm interested to hear what benefits y'all think gay marriage has for the state? Because my understanding of the law is that unless someone proves that the government granting them special legal status provides a benefit to the state then they don't deserve the special legal status.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Healthcare Reform

First off, anything that's been in the works since 1912 (1) isn't being "rushed through, or jammed down the publics throat in the dead of night". The Senate votes that have taken place at odd times, 2AM, 4AM, etc have taken place because of archaic Senate rules that require 30 hour breaks between some votes (2). It isn't some nefarious plot to take votes without everyone knowing about it. (IMO)

Secondly, the government currently spends about half the total amount of money that's spent on healthcare in the US (3), so the idea that if the government gets involved in healthcare it will be ruined doesn't hold water.
Many solutions that have been offered by the Republicans simply won't work or won't work well enough. Tort reform is getting it's own post, but another example is selling insurance across state lines. As with anything else lowering quality means cheaper products and greater availability. Where the balance should be is a legitimate question, but the proposal does absolutely nothing to rein in long term healthcare spending. At best it will provide lowest possible quality insurance with a price that's rapidly growing (4).

Healthcare was 5.2 % of GDP in 1960, since then it's risen nearly every year, and now is at 16.2% of GDP. (4). In 1960 we spent 28 billion dollars on healthcare, by 2008 we are spending 2.33 trillion dollars every year. (4). We are paying more per capita for healthcare than any other advanced nation (5) (6). Yet, a simple Google search for healthcare rankings show that in every ranking done (there are many, because it's difficult to define what is "good" healthcare) the US performs dismally. I should however, insert a caveat here: for millionaires it is in fact the best healthcare system in the world (7).

Our healthcare system right now is geared towards denying care whenever possible while collecting as much money as possible. Insurance companies are no different from any other business: their goal is profit. I should clarify: the board of Wal-Mart cares nothing about their customers, their sole concern is profits. Small business owners as a rule have more concerns than solely profits. The owner of the small business down the street typically does care about their customers, they opened a business in order to fill a need or provide a service, and they should be well compensated for the value they provide to the economy. In other words, it's extremely rare for someone start a small business with the sole intent of making as much money as possible while providing as little value as possible. Being a small business owner obviously doesn't automatically qualify one as a saint, but in my experience they are overwhelmingly decent hardworking people that care about their community and provide an added value to the nation, and deserve their compensation.

But while some businesses operate with the ethos of adding value while being compensated, others (specifically giant corporations) operate under the philosophy that profit is their only goal. Corporations aren't evil, they're simply operating with the goal of maximizing profit. That isn't "evil" or "good", it just is. And it's beneficial in many ways, without huge corporations we wouldn't have all the advances we have now, the standard of living would be much lower than it is now.

The problem arises when a company makes its profit from denying access to healthcare. Then it becomes a moral issue, one of right and wrong. That's why access to healthcare is unique and profit seeking insurance companies are inherently a poor solution to the problem.

Our healthcare system is broken, and we need both short term and long term fixes. In the short term, perhaps selling insurance across state lines is beneficial. But the only way to curb long term costs is to switch from a paradigm of rewarding businesses for denying care. There are good things in the proposals, like not letting insurance companies deny benefits based on pre-existing conditions. But, the current proposals seek basically more regulations on the profit-driven insurance industry. Depending on the specific regulations, that's a beneficial thing. But the most effective way to increase access to healthcare while bringing down the cost both long term and short term, is to change the paradigm from rewarding those who deny care. Until we change that, more regulation will help but won't solve the problem.

(3) pg 45