Sunday, February 28, 2010

Healthcare "summit", part II

Here are some more points about the so-called healthcare "summit".

8. It is not reconciliation that is perverse, it is the filibusteR, which is not part of the constitution or any kind of "law of the land." It is part of Senate
protocol, and is totally undemocratic. Of course, so is the Senate in a very real sense, since every state gets 2 senators regardless of its population.
Combining this with the filibuster means that something like 30% or less of the population can prevent the huge majority from getting its way. In fact,
combining the nature of the Senate and the filibuster with the fact that so few people vote, you can see how senators representing only a tiny fraction of
the population can prevent anything from getting done. Reconciliation really means majority rule: the basis for most of our constitutional democracy.

9. Tom Coburn is a doctor. So? He makes two main points. Number 1: Fee for services -- in other words, paying healthcare providers on the basis of procedures
undertaken instead of results obtained -- encourages overtreatment and de-emphasizes preventive medicine. This is true, and has been addressed by Obama and other Democrats. Number 2: Tort reform will save lots of money. This is dubious as I have stated elsewhere. Coburn claims that 1/3 of healthcare spending is wasted on non-medical expenses. Yes, but it's not frivolous lawsuits. The outrageous waste is on profits for the insurance industry and duplicated and wasteful administrative expenses. Here in Massachusetts most healthcare companies such as Harvard Pilgrim, Tufts and BCBS are not for profit; in other words, the money they make does not go to shareholders and stock speculators. This is rarely the case in other parts of the country (BCBS in Maine, for example, is part of the same for-profit corporation (Anthem, subsidiary of WellPoint) that is trying to raise premiums in CA by up to 39%.) Execs of these companies are getting very high salaries while gouging their premium payers. That doesn't seem to enter Coburn's calculations at all.

10. A beneath contempt point from the beneath contempt party: John Kyl (PTR whip) of Arizona says that Democrats trust Washington to make decisions while Republicans trust American individuals and families. It takes a lot to be completely beneath contempt, but this babble makes it with room to spare.

11. The Dems have had their moments -- good and bad. VP Biden makes the good point that the Republicans want to eliminate annual and lifetime caps on benefits, and forbid denial of benefits for pre-existing conditions, as well as other regulatory steps, yet they don't want the government to interfere in the free market. He points out that this is contradictory. On the other hand, the President, who was generally pretty tough, is a bit unbelievable when he claims "We have tried to take every cost-containment idea that is out there. Every health care proposal that economists say will reduce health care costs we have tried to adopt in the various proposals." Well, there is one that is the grandaddy of them all that was not even put on the floor by the Dems: SINGLE PAYER. This is the one idea that has been proven to work throughout the world, but is the plan that dare not speak its name. Even its pale imitators, the public option and Medicare buy-in have been throttled by industry shills like Lieberman. Shame on you Obama for this lie.

Which brings me to the really surrealistic part of this whole debate. Dozens of countries throughout the world have universal healthcare plans that are successful, much cheaper than ours, and which produce healthier citizens. The bloviating pols are constantly calling our failure of a system the "best in the world," but no commentator seems to have challenged them. JUST LOOK AROUND AT THE OTHER COUNTRIES IF YOU WANT TO SEE WHAT WORKS!!!!!!!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Healthcare "summit", part I

OK, I went over the outlines and quotes from the healthcare "summit" on Thursday. It took me a while to catch up because we lost internet and TV connections for quite a while due to damage from the latest storm. Here is some commentary on the issues raised by both sides.

1. A big part of the PTR strategy was to use a full printout -- about 2400 pages -- of the Senate-passed bill as a prop to emphasize their silly point that the bill is somehow ponderous and incomprehensible. This of course plays on the fact that reading and understanding difficult and complicated issues is somehow "elitist". The idea of emphasizing this is just what you'd expect from a party that is beneath contempt. The simplest counter is to point out that a complete working description of of the specs of a complicated but functioning system such as, say, a Boing 747, would likewise take thousands of pages. Should we then assume that such a compendium of specs -- each one necessary to describe functionality and specify safety issues -- should be scoffed at solely because it is long, complete and takes up space? This is so absurd as to be ... well, beneath contempt. To bad Obama couldn't have been prepared enough to point this out. Furthermore, the PTR wants the Feds to go into the business of rooting out "waste, fraud and abuse." Interestingly, the bill does address these issues in many pages; increasing the emphasis would make the document even longer -- not that the PTR has had a long and impressive
history of tackling corporate fraud. How many pages of documentation did they produce on KBR and other contractors in Iraq? The PTR loves big government interference -- see the Patriot Act e.g. -- when it agrees with their ideology. The Reagan-era OBRA, a major rewrite of tax policy among other things, amounted also to thousands of pages; furthermore, the "R" in its title reminds us all of how it was passed: rammed through Congress by reconciliation -- as were the Bush tax cuts that primarily benefitted the wealthy.

2. The PTR, no friend historically of either Social Security or Medicare, has decided to use scare tactics regarding the latter. Yes, the Senate bill would cut -- even eliminate -- the Medicare Advantage plans. But these are exactly the kind of inefficient items that they usually inveigh against. In this case, the Advantage plans are subsidized plans run by insurance companies that provide an extra layer of bureaucracy and spending between the actual government
Medicare and the consumer of healthcare. They are an example of an idea that simply did not work -- see my blog on Advantage plans. Only about 20% of Medicare recipients have such plans and there is no evidence that these plans are more "healthful" than regular Medicare. Furthermore, they cost about 15% more than the regular Medicare plans;
this extra cost is paid as a subsidy by the remaining 80% who don't have Advantage plans.
The PTR is also shedding crocodile tears over Medicare/Medicaid doctors whose payments are always being cut -- then restored -- under various Medicare saving plans. Oddly, tort reform which cuts lawyers incomes is a "big idea" for the PTR. However, tort reform is only a very small part of the possible savings related to healthcare. Of course tort reform within reason is a good idea but not so simple. The Texas version of tort reform is basically to screw consumers by limiting the liability of large corporations to the extent that it is cheaper for them to do unsafe
things and pay small penalties than to make pro-safety changes in their products. (Some time I'll relate the story of our dealings with the Texas-based Dell Computer after their laptop set fire to our house.)

In spite of what conservative "experts" such as Paul Ryan say about the terrible condition of Medicare and Social Security, both systems can be made solvent for at least half a century by changing the "tax" structures that pay for them. That is a long story that real economists such as Paul Krugman have related much more authoritatively than I can.

3. In a related attack on a federal program, Lamar Alexander says of the Senate bill: "It dumps 15 million Americans into a Medicaid program" which is being shunned by more and more doctors. That's rather odd coming from a spokesman for the party that thinks anyone can get good medical care by simply going to an emergency room. Emergency rooms are the most expensive possible ways of obtaining medical care, and the least efficient. There are no vaccinations, prenatal care, or preventative medicine that can generally be obtained via that route, and, of course, as any conservative should know, it is by no means a free lunch. Hospitals simple transfer the cost of unpaid emergency room visits to other payers, including cities and states, who must collect it in taxes or other fees paid by the rest of us. Paul Ryan, a big advocate of eliminating Medicare and Medicaid, frankly states that the rationing of healthcare is a reasonable idea, not much different from the rationing of cable TV for those who can't
afford it. So there you have the PTR's love of the "common man." If you can't afford it tough -- that's life.

4. While I'm mentioning Rep. Paul Ryan, some of his analyses of the Democratic plan are a bit misleading. It is important to understand that the savings are "back-loaded" -- in other words, more is saved in the second decade than in the first -- so looking at the numbers for just the first 10 years doesn't tell the whole story. The PRT is making a big deal about Ryan, who at least had something substantive to say. I am not enough of an expert to evaluate his other claims, but I will let you know how they fare when real economists and experts on the Congressional Budget Office evaluation report in.

5. I agree that the Democratic plan as now constituted will not save a lot of money; it has many other virtues, however, like bringing insurance to about 10 times as many uninsured people as anything the Republicans have come up with, while regulating the rapacious and much-hated insurance industry.

6. The PTR has been trotting out its favorite polls, as if to show that the "American People" support their position. Well, of course, one of the American People's most favored ideas is SINGLE PAYER -- an idea so radical that neither party will mention it. In fact, poll after poll has shown that any sort of "public option" enjoys more popularity than either party. (Polls uniformly show that, in terms of trust, Obama comes out way on top, with the Dems a weak second, and the Republicans a very dismal last.)These polls the PTR didn't mention. In no poll does any idea or party get as much as 60% -- the magical number that Republicans think is what's needed to pass any kind of legislation these days. As for popular "disapproval" of the Senate-passed plan, or what the PTR has managed to label "Obamacare", it is doubtful that most people polled could name a single provision in it, or explain in any coherent way why they did or didn't like it. These polls are simply asking people which talking points or propaganda has been most effective. Certainly outright lies, like the "Death Panels" and "losing your doctor" have been very effective, as outright lies often are. Interestingly enough, when people are asked about individual items from the plan, such as regulating insurance company rates, disallowing cancellations for pre-existing conditions etc., the public, as the President correctly pointed out, is quite supportive. And, finally, the polls may show the plan is unpopular, but nowhere as unpopular as the Republican

7. I would like to see a poll which asks the question: "Should the government be allowed to take over Social Security?"

Anyway, it's getting late. I'll write more tomorrow, and add some links to this blog.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tune in!

You can catch the healthcare debate at Blair House (recessed for lunch now) on CSPAN (also on the NY Times Blog). It's worth watching to see the President actually debating members of the PTF. I'll have some comments later when it's over.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Majority Rules

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo (TPM) makes the very good suggestion that Dems stop using the phrase "reconciliation" and call it majority rules. It's about time that they created terminology that is accurate and favorable to their point of view. He also points out that they missed the opportunity to call the "Stimulus Bill" the Jobs Bill. Maybe it's not too late. They certainly need a snazzy name for healthcare reform as well. Anyone have a good suggestion?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tom Friedman on "Global Weirding"

I think that Tom Friedman has been naive about politics (he thought that Bush's war in Iraq was a good thing since it was intended to produce an exemplar of democracy in that part of the world). However, he has a good column today about global warming and the morons who think -- or at least say -- that an Atlantic seabord snowstorm shows it ain't happening. Here's a link.

Public option and/or Medicare expansion

Medicare expansion may not be so much an alternative to the "public option" as a stalking horse for it. It seemed that this idea might actually have been part of the Senate plan were it not for Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, while the public option never seemed to have much of a chance in the Senate in spite of its popular appeal. I personally think that the precedent of being able to "buy in" to Medicare before retirement may actually be a more promising step toward a strong public option than the ponderous and highly restrictive Democratic plan that has been going by that name. In spite of dis-information to the contrary, Medicare is a highly popular plan and is quite efficient in delivering healthcare while controlling costs -- certainly much better than for-profit health insurers. Unfortunately, these are issues where the facts seem to fall before the falsehoods of the PTR and its masters in the insurance industry.

It is important to remember that, underneath the obstructionism of the Chamber of Commerce and other pro-business groups, most businesses -- especially manufacturing businesses such as the automakers -- favor strong healthcare reform because it will help make them more competitive if it can remove healthcare premiums from their expenses. All of their foreign competitors, in fact, have strong single-payer or other highly regulated, efficient and successful plans. As we should all know, workers in the other highly-industrialized countries with which we compete are happier, healthier and enjoy longer life-spans and higher standards of living than our own workers. For all the defects of the Democrats, they do want our workers to enjoy these benefits, while the PTR would favor the status quo. That's one of the major reasons the PTR constantly bashes the Canadians and the Europeans (especially the French).

Saturday, February 20, 2010

There they go again

This from the AP (my italics):

"Yet passing anything but a very modest bill would likely mean using special budget rules that let Democrats override Republicans in the Senate with a simple majority. Using the budget route — called reconciliation — to resolve differences between the House and Senate bills probably would enrage Republicans. "

How will we notice any difference if the PTR is enraged? How can that possibly be an argument for or against any policy, strategy or tactic? If the PTR will give V votes for the Dems healthcare reform, and we multiply by the enragement factor E, then we get the equation (0)(V) = 0. Why does the AP write such claptrap?

Also, what the AP write calls a "simple majority" is what is known in most democracies as, simply, a majority. The filibuster is not a law of nature; it isn't a law of anything -- not even a Senate law. It simply means that someone says that they'll continue talking until shut up by a cloture vote. Why doesn't the AP point out that allowing this to go unchallenged is undemocratic, especially in an intrinsically undemocratic chamber of government (viz.: the Senate).

As more and more newspapers eliminate their own reporting and depend on the AP we will get more and more issues framed by this kind of superficial pop-phraseology. But even staff writers for well-respected newspapers are sometimes guilty: see my related blog on one writer's use of the term "moderates."

Friday, February 19, 2010

Krugman on health insurance "Death Spiral"

Today's column by Paul Krugman in the NY Times has a very concise summary of the major issues pointing to the need for national health insurance reform; read it here. This is nothing new for readers of Krugman or this blog, it's just said very well and is a good source for arguing the issue.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Unnecessary do-goodism

The Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick has proposed that soda and candy be subject to the state sales tax law. Today's Boston Globe has chosen to defend that proposal on the grounds that taxing these products would "promote healthier diets for children." This is a really bad way to support a good proposal. Here's why.

The Massachusetts sales tax law is a very reasonable one. Everything is taxed except for "necessities" such as food, clothing, shelter and medicine. This does a pretty good job of cutting down the regressive nature of a sales tax. However, the law as currently applied seems to classify as food, by default, anything that is edible -- except alcohol, which used to be exempt but is now taxed.

The tax on alcohol is an interesting example. Booze is certainly edible, but hardly could be counted as either nourishing or necessary. Many liberal do-gooders jumped up to support taxing it on the grounds that a tax would discourage consumption of a product they consider unhealthy. This is the unpleasant activist version of the Golden Rule which says "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." (Instead of the less meddlesome one "Do not do unto others as you would hate them to do to you" -- sometimes attributed to Rabbi Hillel.) The Globe position on candy and soda is based on a similar philosophy: Tax these because we think they are bad for you and we don't mind the tax.

It is interesting to note that since the sales tax on alcohol went into effect on August 1, alcohol sales have increased. No one can say for sure why, but they haven't decreased.

The point is that one can make a good case for taxing both alcohol and candy/soda, without becoming an advocate of using tax policy to enforce a paternalistic "doing what's good for you" attitude. The idea is to use that fact that exemptions to the sales tax are for items that are considered necessities or sustenance. Clearly nourishing food, reasonable clothing, shelter and medicine fall into these categories. Neither alcohol nor candy and soda are nourishing or life-supporting. On the other hand, fatty meat and cheese (a source of worry for the Globe), and prepared or highly processed foods are. With moderation you can live -- even prosper -- on these. Try living on whiskey and candy though.

Thus, the basic principles underlying the sales tax law are sound and reasonable. You don't need a do-gooder mentality -- resented by most people -- to remove the exemptions for alcohol and candy. Just observe that they aren't nourishing so don't rate special treatment any more than car wax, sphagnum moss, or chewing tobacco.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

4 + 47 = 51

So progressive senators Mike Bennet (D-CO), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) have written a letter to maj. leader Reid suggesting that a public option be introduced and passed in the Senate by reconciliation. Certainly it would be nice if such a motion could pass, but we still need 47 more votes. This is the kind of thing that a forceful president and majority leader might be able to pull off using behind-the-scenes arm-twisting. But I emphasize might. No source I have seen suggests that the votes are there. That's why we need arm-twisting. In any case, it still looks like we need some Democratic hardball. Why aren't the Dems reminding people that reconciliation is a time-honored technique to make the Senate more responsive and democratic (small "d").

Of course, this is mainly a Senate problem. The House, being more representative of the people and not having a filibuster rule, is actually quite progressive. But nothing, just nothing, is coming out of the Senate's event horizon.

Meanwhile Obama is off in cloud cuckoo land, trying to woo the PTR with promises of new nuclear power plants. Note that no one has yet solved the problem of what to do with spent nuclear fuel and other highly dangerous and long-lived radioactive waste. Nobody wants it, Republican, Democrat or Independent. If this problem could be solved, I'd be all for nukes; maybe if we build 'em, the problem will simply go away.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

On assignment in the Big Apple

Well, just kidding. But I will be in NYC through Tuesday, so no blogs till later.

(As if to challenge my assertion that we New Englanders are -- or should be -- used to snow, it's predicted on Tuesday for our route back home. If only the political gods were as tough on claims as the weather ones.)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Anthem Healthcare in Maine

Anthem Heathcare, which just backed down on increases of premiums in California that averaged 25% and would have been as high as 39% for some customers, also runs Anthem Blue Cross in Maine. The AP reports: "The Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield plan in Maine is asking for increases of about 23 percent this year for some individual policyholders. Last year, they raised rates up to 32 percent." (I wrote about ABCBS of Maine last October.)

I hope Olympia Snowe takes note of this. She has been a great disappointment to me, since she seemed to be someone who sincerely cares about the healthcare issue. Recently, however, she joined the usual PTR folks in stating that the Senate plan was probably unconstitutional, voted against it, and has gone on the record as saying that there is no hurry for healthcare reform. I guess there's no hurry if you have congressional healthcare and don't face a premium increase of 25%. If she thinks that waiting for a constructive Republican proposal will lead to decent healthcare for her constitutuents she's living in a dreamworld.

Unemployment graphic

Look at this very telling graph of unemployment from Nancy Pelosi's website:

Sarah pointed this out to me after reading about it in the blog:

Thanks to all concerned!

Commercialization of weather reports

OK, it's a minor point, but it's the weekend, so permit me.

We in New England just had another snow false alarm. After all-day, all-night ominous warnings on the local TV outlets of the type: "Will we have a blizzard and how much snow will it drop?", many schools and businesses cancelled all or most of their activities. Localities geared up their snow plows and salters, and private snow-removal contractors were engaged. I'm sure thousands of dollars were spent or committed. Yet, the storm mostly didn't materialize in the Boston area.

Now, to be perfectly fair, the National Weather Service did predict heavy snow and wind for at least parts of the area and parts of the day. Yet, the local forecasters have always prided themselves -- and, especially, their stations prided themselves -- on their knowledge of local conditions and weather history. They have played the role of "independents" to the hilt.

I believe -- not too secretly -- that weather situations in recent years have been over-dramatized in order to attract viewers to the "local" or 6 o'clock news and thence to its ratings-conscious sponsors. As I said, all day and all night there are teasers for this prime-time overly long local weather "segment", featuring anything that can be made to seem ominous, almost always with the suggestion that the event will actually happen. The result, I think, is that there is a subtle but not negligible force to produce an exciting report. I don't believe that the forecasters actually consciously generate exaggerated reports, but the pressure creates an attitude that is not sufficiently critical of NWS data. Given that precise weather forecasting in the long-term is mathematically impossible, and even in the short-term is iffy, it's important that local forecasters be careful and critical, and not suggest things to generate hype and viewership.

And one more thing: I live in New England, not Maryland or Georgia -- or even New York City . There shouldn't be headlines in papers here that say "Winter Brings Heavy Snow". Save the ink for either 3 feet in February or 10 inches in May.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Ted has some interesting comments on the previous blog. I substantially agree with him. Of course, I never said that payroll taxes are the best way to finance Social Security; I just objected to the money being "borrowed", probably permanently.

Also, I am behind the times: the Social Security payroll tax cuts off at $106,800. I knew these figures better during the brief time I did our taxes. However, after several consecutive years in which I made numerical mistakes in favor of the I.R.S., my wife forced me out as accountant -- now I do all the vacuuming instead. Things have gotten better financially since then...

Jobs and Social Security

As a matter of principle I'm against the latest gimmick to create jobs: paying corporations to hire by "forgiving" them the payment of their contribution to Social Security. (Full disclosure: I have paid into Social Security all my life and am now collecting it.) For many years and through many administrations the government has been raiding the Social Security Trust Fund in order to pay for lots of things that politicians don't want to raise taxes for. (For some background, see the following piece by William Greider from The Nation.) None of the super patriots of either party dare to make the taxpayers actually pony up for ever more costly high-tech wars and the hardware and humans used to fight them. So they, in their wisdom, have been "borrowing" money paid into Social Security, leaving it with trillions in IOUs. The government can not afford to pay these debts, so Social Security is really in the hole through no fault of its own. The PTR -- What part of "beneath contempt" don't you understand? -- has the incredible gall to blame the Social Security program and try to privatize it.

So, in this setting, it is clear that the latest attempt to buy employment by further jeapardizing the Social Security Fund is totally outrageous and cowardly. What should be done -- should have been done years ago -- is to eliminate or partially eliminate the upper income limit at which Social Security payments cut off. This limit I think is $97,500; in otherwords, an individual's income above this amount is not subject to Social Security withholding. There is nothing magical about this number, and raising it enough or eliminating it will keep Social Security solvent for many decades to come.

As I've pointed out before, Social Security is a social compact. The fashionable word these days is to call it an "entitlement". The people who use this word either don't pay attention to the pejorative tone it has taken on, or deliberately welcome this tone. The word has come to be tied to the idea that someone may feel "entitled" to some benefit without, somehow, having worked for it -- sort of like a spoiled kid who feels "entitled" to get his or her way. In fact, Social Security is a wonderful example of inter-generational trust. We don't make our withholding payments to buy our retirement, we make them to help ensure an economically dignified old age for our parents and others of the preceding generation. We do so in the expectation that the succeeding generation -- our children -- will do the same for us. This is not a fanciful interpretation, but is literally the way the law was written.

Nobody dared to pay for the immense bank bailout by borrowing money from Social Security or, heaven forbid, from the military budget. If the President and Congress want to create jobs, let them find the money from general revenues or from the deficit, or, even better, from taxes on corporate bonuses say, or on companies' profits from offshore affiliates.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


As you know I've been trying to encourage people to use the terminology PTR instead of GOP. The acronym was originally for "Party of The Rich", but a number of people have commented that it is more proper to say "Party for The Rich." It's the same acronyn but reflects correctly that many of its supporter are not themselves rich but for some reason or other think that we must help out our more wealthy and powerful citizens.

I also call your attention to the Comment by Sarah in which she quotes the late Howard Zinn on Obama (from The Nation).

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A trap for the PTR?

Dare we hope it's true? Might it just be that our self-proclaimed bipartisan president is actually setting a trap for the PTR in the upcoming Feb. 25 "summit" on healthcare reform? I mean, the PTR (formerly the GOP) hasn't had a serious healthcare plan since Ronald Reagan's. I've read their "Better Solutions -- a compilation of GOP Alternatives" and it is a joke: nothing concrete, no real plans, no numbers, no tough decisions -- just verbiage, bluff and bluster. If they had to present it, point-by-point in a public setting it would be a laughingstock. So, of course, they should be getting nervous if Obama calls them on it in a public forum.

We can only wait and see if the POTUS and the Dems can actually outmaneuver the PTR for once. Let's hope.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Make 'em vote on it! Also, Palin and Limbaugh

Yes to Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats. They are going to force Republicans to vote on a Democratic proposal rejecting the Republican's own attempt to privatize Social Security. Instead of being the usual punching bags, the Dems will make the members of the PTR go on record with their individual positions on Social Security and Medicare. The roll call, when it happens, should be publicized on the Net and on as many news outlets as possible.

The next move, in the Senate, is to let the PTR try to filibuster. In other words, not accept their assertion that they are ready to do so, but make them actually do it. Make a video of what will be a pathetic time waster, and put it on YouTube and any other mass media outlet they can get it on. The Dems should have been doing this all along, but given that they thought they had a 60 vote cushion, it's understandable that they didn't. Now is the time to make it clear that the world -- or at least the U.S. -- is watching.

And while we're on the subject of publicity, now is the time for the Democrats to publicize the fact that Sarah Palin thinks it's OK for people to call mentally handicapped people "retards" -- providing the folks doing it are Rush Limbaugh. You know him: he's the druggie who preaches about self-control and responsibility, and the one who thinks it's OK to publicly call young children ugly, as long as they were Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of prominent Democrats. Why don't the Dems call out these vicious hypocritical people? Now's the time to frame the debate to the Dems' advantage -- not after it's already been done to them.

Also, don't forget to tell your friends always to refer to the former GOP as the PTR, and make a point of saying that it stands for the Party of The Rich.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

What part of beneath contempt ...

The Times reports that, at the so-called Tea Party convention:

Palin called the deficit in President Obama's 2011 budget "immoral" and added that because it increases the national debt, it amounted to "generational theft."

This is so disgustingly disingenuous as to be, like all PTR verbiage, beneath contempt. Most of the deficit is a direct result of Bush economic policies. The tax cuts for the rich already had led to a trillion dollar deficit early on in his second term. Most of the rest resulted from his de-regulation policies which created the financial crisis that Obama inherited.

I never heard one peep of complaint from the PTR about the burden on future generations of the Bush deficits.

But why go on? What part of beneath contempt don't we understand?

Tempest in a teapot department

This is from Associated Press, concerning the popular John Edwards:

"Andrew Young said yesterday that he has the original copy of the tape showing Edwards in a sexual encounter in a safe deposit box in Atlanta."

(Is this an example of safe or unsafe deposit-box sex?)

Friday, February 5, 2010


I sent the following letter to a Globe Staff member. I suggest that everyone write similar letters when appropriate.

Thank you for doing such a good job writing for the Globe. It is nice to read local writers in a local newspaper instead of the usual wire services (and the Times staff).

I have just one complaint, and that is how you use the word "moderate" in its various forms. For example, in today's Globe you write (about Senator Joe Lieberman) that "he has proved to be a powerful moderating force in the Senate." In fact, this amounts to editorializing. Because most people like to be thought of as "moderate" -- as opposed to "radical", say, calling someone a moderate in our political climate is a gesture of approbation. Now many people don't think of Senator Lieberman as a moderate. You suggest -- no, in fact assert -- that his action of "keeping a public insurance option out of the Senate health care bill" is evidence of his moderation.

Are you certain that the "public insurance option" is immoderate then? I suggest that the opposite is true. Every poll I've ever read says that most Americans in fact favor some form of the public option. Certain a majority of Democrats -- who, as a result of actual elections control the Presidency and who have a very large majority in both houses of Congress -- support the public option. It would be part of the Senate bill if majority rule were the rule in the Senate, instead of filibuster by the minority. Opposition to the public option is probably confined to senators and members of the House who represent about 30% of the American public. (Remember that the Senate is not "one person one vote" but is dominated by low population states.) So how is Lieberman a "moderate" by joining this small minority in opposing it? Sounds more like the opposite.

Please be careful how you use this word.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Chaos at Toyota

The situation with Toyota is, of course, compounded by the arrogance of a large multinational corporation, but I believe a large part of it, especially with the Prius brakes, is a result of the inevitablity of chaos -- unpredictability in complex systems -- a basic theme in the book and movie Jurassic Park. As a mathematician I have seen the proofs of how large systems, obeying complex rules (non-linear differential equations), are very sensitive to "initial conditions", i.e. the "given" or "set-up" rules.

In simple terms, if you have a complex system you simply cannot be 100% certain it will behave as you predict, because you can't ever measure or set up things accurately enough so that 100% predictability is even theoretically possible. Only time and much tinkering can ameliorate the situation, and even then there are inherent, unavoidable possibilities for the unforeseen.

When Toyota decided to completely redesign its braking system and build it around regenerative braking -- the transfer of the energy of the moving vehicle into battery power -- it created a new and complicated system with all the inherent possibilities for chaos. Only time and lots of fixes and recalls will help tame this problem, and there will be others. The history of any innovation shows this phenomenon over and over. (A classic is the airplane-mounted machine gun, which in the early days would often shoot out the plane's prop. There was also the bridge that self-destructed when a simple weather system created resonant and destructive vibrations that had been unforesee by its engineers.)

I discussed chaos previously in a blog about economic theory.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Don't Ask...the PTR

It is amusing to see the PTR scrambling to find its position on "Don't Ask Don't Tell." Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen put it well when he said that in the military, where honor and honesty are central, you can't ask people "to lie about who they are." The PTR, always wrapping themselves in what they think is the flag, has long proclaimed that allowing gay people in the military is bad -- in fact, gays in general are bad to their way of thinking. Now, each day, more and more generals and admirals are saying not so. Colin Powell has just joined Adm. Mullen and other top soldiers.

What will the Party of The Rich do? I guess they could try to show Mullen and Powell are socialists, or at least dupes of something ... maybe the gay "agenda"?

The PTR is eventually doomed, as its essential demographic shrinks to a handful of white plutocrats and homophobes. But they still command a lot of votes: fear-mongering, the Big Lie, and ignorance are still potent forces. Can the country survive long enough to outlive them?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

More conservative mischief

So now "conservatives" are trying to put mandatory healthcare prohibitions on state ballots. As usual for the conservative agenda, this is an anti-people move couched in the language of "independence", "states rights" and "freedom."

Except for the very rich, everyone would like to buy affordable health insurance. The only people who aren't rich but have misgivings are those those who can't afford it. In order to make healthcare affordable -- in order to may any kind of insurance affordable -- it is necessary to "spread the risk." This leads to a two-fold conceptual problem.

1. By its nature, insurance is mathematical, and people tend to be impatient or totally resistant to mathematics and its careful logic. They would like to have insurance, but only if they are going to need it. Of course, if the only people who bought insurance were the ones who will need it, then it wouldn't be insurance, it would be: "pay for the service you need." There is no free lunch here. If only people who are going to crash their cars bought insurance, then the premiums would be equal to the cost of repairing the damaged cars; in other words, it would be very expensive to buy the insurance. Thus, to keep rates down, insurance companies want to sell insurance to as many people who won't get into accidents as possible. They would also like to charge higher rates to as many drivers as possible, using any excuse to do so. They would also like to avoid paying settlements as much as possible. The insurance companies hire mathematicians who are experts in maximizing profits and minimizing losses over many thousands of policies. These are statisticians or actuaries, and they know this business far better than any average person could. A handful of people might beat the odds and pay a low premium yet get into a very expensive accident, but on average most people will pay much more in premiums than they will ever collect. That and investing premium money is how insurance companies make most of their profits. If you don't believe how well they do, look at the value of their stock offerings.

Because insurance spreads the risk, it is, in a very real sense, a kind of socialism. This leads to a wonderful contradiction, since socialism is the biggest dirty word in the American English. (Unless it's socialism for the rich, in which case it's called "trickle down" economics or "Reaganomics".)

2. Hardly anyone outside the insurance industry thinks that people should have their claims rejected for a "pre-existing" condition; even the Party of The Rich is against this kind of nastiness. Yet, if we are to stop insurance companies from doing this, we can't allow people to purchase health insurance only when they are sick, since if we did, only sick people would buy it, violating the need to spread the risk (see 1 above). No insurance provider, public or private, could possibly survive such a situation.

It follows that, except for the rich, no one could logically support purely voluntary purchase of health insurance at the same time they support preventing rejection of previous condition claims.

Thus, what the conservatives are doing is trying to prevent the vast majority of people from having meaningful and reasonably-priced health insurance. This is not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of unalterable logic -- as in items 1 and 2 above. It is essential that this message be gotten out as soon and as often as possible, since the conservative Big Lie machine is already cranking out the nonsense about "independence", "states rights", "freedom" and other claptrap.


This is an unalterable, logical, mathematical fact, equivalent to the non-existence of the proverbial free lunch.

It is time to stop all this "bipartisan" nonsense -- that somehow the PTR and the "conservatives" have some truth and justice on their side. They don't. Their position is to transfer as much wealth to the already wealthy and powerful as possible. They have waged undeclared class warfare for decades now, and it is time to call them on it. This latest move to prevent mandatory health insurance on the state level shows once again that they want to destroy health insurance.