31 July 2009

I must be a genius

Because the "cash for clunkers" ran out of money?

Nope. Because the cars people were buying with it were things like Hyundai. That's the only car mentioned of course. Doubtless some people bought American like they always do. But realistically, cheap foreign (read: Japanese or Korean) cars were the best deal. I have no illusions that this is good for automobile manufacturers, but probably not most traditionally understood to be American ones. And that will be the interesting point moving forward. I suspect we will see that Congressional members from places like Georgia will be for this as is in about a month and those Michigan and Ohio representatives will be saying that this was "too successful" and seek to add more provisions. If not, then perhaps there's some hope yet for globalization.

29 July 2009

wacky movie selection concept that I thought about far too much

"If you were to have a DVD-collection draft with five buddies (and by the way, don't think I haven't done this) in which everyone picks six actors in snake fashion and you get every single movie they made on DVD, Hoffman would be a sneaky late-first-round pick. You'd get "Almost Famous," "Boogie Nights," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Scent of a Woman" and about 10 watchable indies, right?

(Because you asked, my top 12 looks like this: Hanks, De Niro, Cruise, Stallone, Pacino, Douglas, Freeman, Damon, Hoffman, Costner, Hackman and Denzel. Late-round sleepers: Clancy Brown and Joe Pantoliano. Admit it, you want to make your own list.)"

I'd had to consider this, since it does fit in with my usual means of comparing movies and actors/actresses in quality assessment. But naturally several of those suggestions were not first rounders. Cruise and Stallone? Seriously? Rocky is pretty much it on Stallone's resume, and Cruise you could get Jamie Foxx instead to pick up Collateral No Brad Pitt or Ed Norton? And of course there's the generational gap where you're missing out on Bogart or Brando, even Connery which gets you pretty much all the decent Bond films. Besides, there's probably a couple women I'd consider on that list. Even with my war film dominated collection. Uma's been the main deal in Tarantino's work for example. Maggie Gyllenhaal? You couldn't sneak Dark Knight or Stranger than Fiction by someone that way?

I figured an easy solution would be to look for people with the most movies over 7.0-7.5 on imdb.com, or the best ratio of such films in terms of more recent stars (Christian Bale or Daniel Craig?). But that turns out to be really hard, in part because lots of people are in tons of crappy movies and only a couple really good ones (John Travolta with Pulp Fiction being about it) or because there are people you'd never think of who were in lots of good movies, but were always "that guy", the guy you don't recognize but is always in good movies, not the star of the show. PSH is one such guy, but he's pretty recognizable now. Plus 7-7.5 rating does filter out a lot of crappy movies doesn't really cut it for assessing some movies that you still wouldn't want that were otherwise watchable for other people. So I'm not sure what the solution to that would be.

Actually, I pretty much know the solution: just buy the movies you wanted to begin with. And not think about that much. What I could think about instead is the underlying argument that the defining movie of the past decade was suggested to be Almost Famous. And that's probably not that bad of an argument. It's not the best film. That's not the argument. Something like Dark Knight has a huge advantage for that case here because nobody saw Memento or Cidade de Deus. While I think Lord of the Rings were an excellent films personally, it doesn't have the same cultural resonance as any of those 3 because it's really a far older story just finally made into a decent movie. Besides, City of God was set in Rio, and Americans don't care about poor slums in other countries, at least not until Slumdog came out last year. There will be Blood was pretty good too, but there's several other historical type films like that (Gladiator, Prestige, Hotel Rwanda, Pianist, Pan's Labyrinth). Those to me seem like good films about another period in time with a important message for now. Not a message about now, but perhaps set in another time.

The argument for this is more like a sum total of the things that happened in one place on film. You could certainly argue that 9/11 did make a good case for Dark Knight there too, because there's a lot about how a population responds to fear and how it can easily create its own monsters in response. But I think culturally a lot of what happened the last decade was we kept looking backward in a sort of nostalgia for things the way they used to be, and we knew somehow weren't ever going to be the same, and that we lived in a world that we thought was pretty big, thought we were a big piece of it, and discovered that we weren't that big anymore (that again, was a 9/11 effect). And that sort of seems like Almost Famous, even though it came out in 2000. There's also the issue of a bunch of people who never really amounted to much else being involved in it. What's Kate Hudson or Cameron Crowe done since? I think we've invented a capacity for people to be excellent or relevant only once this decade and then to persist only if reminding ourselves that they once mattered (Britney Spears? or isn't this pretty much every American Idol winner?). So yeah. I can live with that pick. Of course, I didn't see anything else in this list that shot out at me either. Maybe No Country for Old Men, because that's basically the same theme. But it's less optimistic about our chances than I'd say most people have been. I'd pick it instead. But someone who actually likes people probably wouldn't.

Eating books will make you thinner. I better hide my library

Obesity and fake numbers

I don't understand the insistence on BMI. I think we know when someone's body fat has reached dangerous levels. And it isn't at 30 or whatever BMI number they're using. For example, I'm pretty sure most people who know me would think I'm at least reasonably healthy (I myself do not consider myself in good health, but this is because I've existed in a state where I was probably in excellent health before and have since grown more lazy and indolent without enough people around with which I exercised regularly). Yet I have a BMI just under 25 (the cut-off point for being considered "overweight"). Most elite athletes have their body's dimensions publicly available (sometimes they are distorted of course, Kevin Garnett's reported height is famously shorter than his actual height). And even they often have what would be termed either a high normal or an overweight BMI. Really? That defensive end with 2% body fat is overweight or isn't in excellent health physically? This is simply a idiotic way to attempt to calculate or measure physical health. It is an equation or a statistic masquerading as a scientific way to measure body fat. Body mass is a totally different figure than its physical health, the stability of that health, and the rate of socially undesired body fat. It's about as useful as the sizes on women's clothing as a measure of overall health (especially considering the US has much lower sizes than say Europeans).

I do think something that is overlooked is the opposite conception. That is to say, if we used to be a thinner society (it does seem sensible to ignore any supposition that thinner is necessarily healthier), why? What caused us to get heavier, wider, or fatter? It might indeed be sensible to ask if any of those things that caused this change are bad from a moral standpoint, and certainly from a medical perspective as well. I certainly would agree that a decreasing amount of physical activity should be considered bad. Or a significant change in diet might be worth examining.

It doesn't make sense to agree that obesity is an epidemic once you study it however. If anything, it seems more like an invented one that dietary products or exercise gyms and equipment manufacturers can profit from at unreasonably high levels from people who won't get any thinner and soon discover this "problem". Only to buy back into the program at the behest of others or because of continuous social pressures.

We also have a inverse problem that we are told about 500 different ways to eat healthy, or to lose weight, or to live longer, many of these are conflicting with each other. Or, if rendered into a sensible plan of personal health, near impossible to consider for the average person doing given time or budgetary concerns. As usual, it seems best to refer to the wisdom of comedians. "is milk good or bad?".. and "I think everyone's health is different". If we could live in a world that doesn't enforce some social means to reflect that what you look like on the outside is as important as your actual physical health, maybe we would have a world that people's individual health could be measured in a mathematical equation, something like HDI or happiness indices. Until then, it seems better to just ignore any numbers on health and eat what I want.

And maybe do some more running.

27 July 2009

Uhh.. yes...fighting with India you say?


Contained the article is the idea that the British saying this about America in the 1930s would be insane. But actually the prospect of war of some sort between America and the Brits was still pretty healthy up until the 1930s economic collapse hit and paralyzed most governments (other than Stalin, Duce, and Hitler). The main impetus for the Washington Naval Treaty in the 1920s was to prevent a major naval arms race between the UK and US. Especially in the Pacific, where the British were actually allied with the Japanese at the time in an attempt to curb our spreading influence. Of course it had some rather unpleasant unintended consequences (namely, Japan's huge Pacific fleet), and since that alliance ended pretty much right after the treaty was signed. But the idea that the US and Britain were close and allies throughout the 20th century, as they have become since the war, and were not prone to potentially dangerous fits of mistrust is rather fragile. Even after the war, the British had major conflicts with us over their interests in the Middle East (such as the Suez Canal) that, had they had the influence or power as in their British Empire days of say 1930, could have spawned some sort of major incident of diplomacy. Even shooting wars.

Despite all that semantic use of history, I'm in agreement the idea of a real shooting war with China is extremely low in the "foreseeable future" (whatever that term means). Particularly given they're a member of the nuclear fraternity. Same with India, a shooting war with which seems even less plausible as they have fewer competing interests with us regionally or globally over resources or territories. Taiwan and North Korea for example are both causes of regional friction to all interested parties. While for Pakistan there is much agreement between India and the US how to handle.

I do think they will be a strong competitor to our current hegemony this century, both of them will be in fact, but not militarily. I am therefore in agreement that we have plenty of super expensive fighter jets for the time being. Particularly since we're way more likely to fight small-scale forces in guerrilla style engagements instead of nation-states with elaborate radar defense grids and coordinated air force patrols. Also because we're more likely to blow up F-22s in Hollywood than actually use them to fight our enemies abroad.

I also think there are people on both sides of the Pacific looking warily at each other and trying to guess just how likely that possibility is, and coming up with answers that are extraordinarily high. We had such thinking throughout the Cold War. Maybe people like Cornyn need to just grow up and stop trying to fight new wars by looking for the old one again. Or maybe they need to be aware of just how superior our equipment would be to crushing any single nation-state's armed forces in an organized conventional battle of forces for at least the next couple decades. Talk like we're about to fight a war with China being used to defend funding unnecessary defense projects reminds me an awful lot of the "missile gap" talks in the 1950s and 60s. We had over 3 times as many warheads as the Soviets back then. Everybody important knew it. Every one of them knew it wouldn't matter if we had anymore. But we kept funding them anyway. I'm pleased that we didn't make the same mistake now, so far. Maybe we're learning.

health care, the insurance version

I had a bit of a revelation on this. I started out trying to classify the utility of private insurance within health care as an industry. It occurred to me that part of the problem, indeed, a major problem, is that health insurance controls much of how health care is run, or not run. There are various examples used by conservative pundits on how health insurance is supposed to work. Generally the most common is the example of a car and your auto insurance. Your automobile coverage doesn't cover oil changes and tires, it covers accidents and the physical or medical damages involved in those. So why would you need health insurance to cover every little thing? Now that's a sensible analogy (to a point) on how health insurance is indeed supposed to function, as a means to distribute emergency or unexpected health costs through risk pools in the same manner as other forms of insurance on our property do. But that's not what it actually does. The reason is that health insurance is not a different industry from health care provision. It's basically like a giant billing department for the health care industry as a whole, with its own independent powers able to command both patient and doctor.

Rather than operating as a independent agent that you send the bill for an emergency event to and they pay it (or quibble over, just like every other type of insurance), they tell you what YOU will pay. In other forms of insurance, you select how much you will pay as a deductible and that's pretty much it. And they'll pay whatever but they have some people they prefer you to send it to so it'll be cheaper for them. Health insurance is presently set up such that you don't get to make those choices, they command you if you want the use of their service where you will go and pre-determine a price as a result. It would be like instead of car maintenance, the actual purchase of a car was controlled by some car insurance company. You could say you wanted a particular car, but they say no, that costs too much and won't let you buy it. Or if you do go ahead and buy it, they won't insure it. Or something like that.

This is more among the pressing needs for reform. Health care is idyllically defined by conservatives as residing between a patient and doctor, without any government bureaucrats in the way. But it already doesn't exist in that space. That's the real reason we need a reform. Because there are bureaucrats already intervening into that space. It would be fine if an insurer negotiated prices the way auto insurers do with body shops and recommended you go within a pre-arranged network. But what if you want, or indeed must, go outside? In automobile insurance, they generally pay up for you to take it somewhere else, and grumble over the amount like a good financial entity is supposed to when they give you back some of your own money. They don't let you do that in health insurance. That's a main reason people are pissed.

The secondary reason is that a market option in this way doesn't operate the way people have come to expect for health insurance. We think of health insurance as health care coverage, in the way that health care programs in other developed nations pay for pretty much everything. That's not how insurance works however. As demonstrated by the inadequate analogy earlier. Or at least, if that's how it will work, it will be pretty damned expensive and not everyone will be able to afford it. Which is the situation we find ourselves in now. The problem with even a perfect market efficiency that controls costs and aligns incentives between patient and doctor (in a way that our current system does a terrible job of), is that not everyone will be able to afford a product which minimizes or at least helps manage the cost of having that health care provided when needed (or when demanded). With the cost of many procedures and drugs mounting, it remains then to have a means of providing more universally that coverage to those who cannot afford it. Subsidizing it through our employers has its own problems, portability going without saying as a huge problem. But also relating to the persistent complaint that insurers are implausibly denying coverage payments. Because most people purchase their coverage through a group rated plan at work, they were never examined in any risk pool, nor have many health insurers had to pursue a means of evaluating such a pool. As a result, claims that could be paid, but at say an increased cost of insuring someone, go denied because health insurers do not adequately assess the risk of insuring any individuals that they actually pay for. Standardizing plans would be of some use to doctors and health care administrators, but still wouldn't reduce costs at the lowest end of the spectrum without high deductible options that most poor people wouldn't be able to afford in the event of a real problem. Universal coverage doesn't automatically shift the system from the supposed disincentived profitability of health insurers to providing adequate care, but might at least resolve the issues of coverage for the poor or pre-existent condition problems.

The basic problem of cost for such a plan is resolving the issue of a scarce resource and its distribution. The current setup being touted to study efficiencies of outcomes or value. And indeed, that's a valuable economic behavior that doesn't exist in our current system. It is not clear that it couldn't exist outside of a universal coverage program or initiative either. That's the reason for my resistance to a public plan. I have no problem with the existence of a public plan on health care for the purposes of helping provide health care to some people, namely people who cannot afford it any other way or to some extent the elderly whose health expenses have grown and incomes have largely stopped. But we already have such programs and they have clearly not controlled costs in a general sense yet. Why not see if valuable cost control programs can work in them before presuming them to work in a general economy?

I'm going to back up a second and go over what presently exists, and what's clearly wrong with it that the people demand some repair for

1) Our present system, operating through market efficiency, necessarily doesn't cover everyone (because of scarcity and in a few cases, individual assessments of risk versus value). There is a viable economic argument that suggests having coverage of some sort for nearly all people would be of some utility to lowering costs generally. More importantly, the public feel that health care access is a basic right and with health insurance or coverage being a gatekeeper preventing it, there must be a reform that allows all people to have access (or at least reasonable access, not emergency room access).

This is known in economics as a distributional problem, not a market failure. It would be a simple problem to repair through subsidizing care or incentives for the purchase of medical insurance for a large percentage of the people who are presently uninsured. Providing care or access to say illegal immigrants or upper-middle class individuals who have chosen not to buy or prioritize health insurance is another matter, and that's still about 10-20 million people between those two groups. The proposed mandate to have insurance and with an associated fine, it might be cheaper for some people to simply not buy insurance still and just pay a fine. There are of course lots of ways to provide coverage as well which would not satisfy the public's conception of insurance care. MSAs or HSAs for example operate in a very different way than, say, Canada's health insurance system which seems to be the direction the public wants to move in. We could very easily use government funding to provide HSAs to everyone so they'd all have universal health insurance and would be covered in the event of a catastrophic health emergency, exactly the sort of risk that insurance as an industry was designed to help manage. But that's probably not what people would want. And in some cases, such as chronic care requirements, families with young children or about to have one, that probably wouldn't be the best financial decision for the individual in mind anyway.

2) People generally feel that their current system, with health care provided through employers is acceptable or that the coverage they personally receive is ok. However there are significant minorities who have inadequate coverage or receive inadequate care as a result of the types of coverage they do have, suggesting that there are necessary regulatory reforms to the way insurance is marketed, used, or mandated. The most significant complaint is the denial of coverage for "pre-existing" conditions. This leads to an argument over adverse selection or moral hazard positions within insurance. The problem with all of these arguments is that most people receive insurance as a benefit through their employer, without a real medical examination or personal history to determine where they might fall in a risk pool of some sort.

It should be easy by now to decide actuarial cost tables for the likelihood of disease A, and its likely average cost to treat, and then assess a premium over and above for insuring a person who has a higher likelihood of getting that disease. We cannot do that presently, both because the insurance is paid for by a third party and because there are specific states' regulations that prevent doing so. Since it is after all insurance, if someone has a higher risk of a heart attack, I'd rather they cost more to insure. People may complain that this sort of pricing would make it difficult to insure some people. That may be true. However, many of the costs of diseases that require chronic care, such as diabetes, are best managed by the habits of the person who requires that care. If they have no incentive to manage their own care better, I'm greatly concerned that this increases the general cost of health care. We can see this all the time with cholesterol or heart disease. These are almost chronic conditions requiring medications or in some cases, invasive surgery to repair. But a good portion of the cause is the diet of the people involved. Because of the incentives at present, it is cheaper for them personally to eat whatever they want and let the insurer cover the cost of their health rather than to exercise some personal control. Somewhere along the line, our incentives must be aligned with our doctors or our insurer (regardless of whether that is the government, our employer, or a third party payer) to lead a healthy life. If we want to live an unhealthy one, and eat whatever, drink to excess, smoke, not exercise, etc, that should be fine too. But those cumulative decisions should cost us something extra if we want to then have someone else clean up the mess. I'd agree that we shouldn't simply deny outright the access to coverage. That seems like a poor long-term marketing strategy for one thing. But if you're going to tell insurers that they have to take people as they are, they're going to charge everyone a higher rate. I want coverage cheap and affordable for healthy people, and not as cheap or affordable for less healthy people. That's either being specifically denied or specifically ignored by this present process of reform. I think the idea that everyone should pay more just so some people don't have to is ridiculous, particularly relating to the conception of health as a personal decision. If you are poor and cannot afford health care, that's one thing. I might be willing to help that out. If you are just stupid or irresponsible with your health, fuck you. I'm not willing to help that out with my money. I'll offer advice to maybe help you make it cheaper on your own, but I'm not paying extra so you don't have to. I've previously offered ways to get around that part of the problem, even in the event of a "universal" health care system. It would be easy enough to tax the goods that people purchase and are prone to abuses of our bodies through the formation of complications. Cigarette taxes just went up. Alcohol probably should go up, particularly at the state level (Wyoming hasn't raised their alcohol tax since the repeal of Prohibition for example). Other tobacco products should go up. They could tax and legalize marijuana (I'd suggest doing the same for other banned narcotics, but nobody ever take that seriously, at least there's a shadow of a chance at doing so with pot). These taxes would go directly into subsidies for say, health insurance, treatment/prevention programs, building new clinics, etc. If the cost to insure me was still higher even in the presence of such a program, I'd probably have nobody to blame but myself. The real problem with that sort of idea is that it is not enough to properly fund the cost of insuring all people, but I think it at least offers some structural cost control.

3) The assumption seems to be that having all people with insurance, and fixing goofy problems with adverse risk selections would also somehow lower costs. There are other efficiency problems being addressed to help lower costs being put forward, but these are not serious issues relating to controlling the continuing inflation of medical costs. the basic realization runs that our costs are increasing at an unacceptable rate. Why? Well depending on your persuasion, you have a different beast to blame. Insurers are milking the beast and getting profits off of the health care system. Subsidies that currently exist do not offer incentives for individuals to manage their care, such as with medicare/medicaid. We need to emphasize preventive medicine, and so on. Probably some combination of these things is the actual answer, but the first one is the one that I feel a particular need to address. Even in the event of a universal health care program there will be things that won't be insured. Some of these are voluntary health procedures and nobody seriously thinks that, for example, a breast enhancement should be covered. Even something like Lasik is considered voluntary, since you could just get glasses or contacts instead. But there is still a gap between what we could afford to cover and provide and the gold plated insurance that some people have right now. That gap will be covered by private insurers. They're not going anywhere because they fill a vital role in the marketplace. They may shrink, they may not be as profitable, they certainly may need some better regulatory attentions, but they're not going to be killed off. In fact, I haven't seen any well-considered plan put forward that will attempt to transfer the power of insurance coverage from them to begin with. If anything, the idea that we need to insure millions of uninsured people is just going to increase the pot of money that they could compete over. What we really need to do is make sure they're actually competing over that pot of money and that their profits are seen as legitimate. The disconnect here is that many people don't think their health care should be a matter of profit. Well, that may be true, regarding their health CARE. But since we employ a third party to pay for that health care, that's a totally separate industry. I don't see anyone complaining that your car insurance company is profitable. Or your life insurance. There are of course reasonable complaints about the way insurance companies relate to the public, such as how they pay back on claims or the amount of control they exert over where you can go (especially with health care). I agree completely that the conception of managed care as controlled by the insurer is a stupid economic decision. I don't think they should exert that much influence that they could refuse to pay for something just because it will cost them more for you to go to a different doctor or have a different but better procedure done or because it was a pre-existing condition. Those are all valid complaints. They exist for various reasons, but they don't exist by default because these are profit-seeking companies. That's a stupid argument. A profit-seeking company that fails to serve its customers, ie an insurer that doesn't pay its claims or haggles unnecessarily, is an company that goes out of business in the long run. People will stop doing business with them because there's always in the market an entity that will realize it can profit by offering a higher quality of service, drawing more customers to it at the expense of its most vile competitors. Look at cell phones, Verizon or T-Mobile routinely score pretty well on customer satisfaction surveys. They seem to be doing reasonably well financially. Sprint on the other hand has had a notoriously terrible reputation on customer satisfaction. And at one point they were losing a million customers a year. There are still lots of players in the medical insurance business, despite the notional oligarchy it has created from large scale barriers to entry and the present system of tax free transfers of wealth to augment their profits (which has a further effect usually of increasing the economy of scale problems). People could shop around if they were unsatisfied. Even under the current system, where our employers pay for this, if enough of the employees are displeased with a benefit, wouldn't it be likely that the employer would seek to change it, by maybe going with a different insurer or at least a different plan?

I don't imagine that I have much sympathy for the public's demands. I don't really have much sympathy period for most things. But since it is inevitable that something be put forward to resolve these problems, here's the one I'm most pleased with
1) Require those who do not already have health insurance coverage, and who do not oppose health insurance on religious grounds, to enroll themselves and their children in a public/private funded plan.
I can live with this simply because there doesn't seem to be a way around getting everyone covered. At least make it an individual decision to do so.
2) Make employer-provided insurance portable by converting the current tax exclusion for health benefits into a tax deduction for individuals.
It is absolutely essential in my view, and that of many economists, that employer coverage be made a voluntary process rather than the current system where it is the norm. We could also see the amount currently paid by employers in health benefits transferred into real wages as a result of this bill. Which would be a huge boon for people who could afford cheaper plans or would need somewhat less coverage than what is presently provided. The default rate of coverage should also be that provided to our Congress. Some people have better plans than that, and they are welcome to pay for them if that is their wish.
3) Medicaid, SCHIP, basically all disappear.
This appeals to conservatives in some sense. But the reality is that if everyone has coverage, you don't need these programs.

The basis of that bill was these findings
1. Ensure that all Americans have health care coverage;
2. Make sure health care coverage is affordable and portable;
3. Implement strong private insurance market reforms;
4. Modernize federal tax rules for health coverage;
5. Promote improved disease prevention and wellness activities, as well as better management of chronic illnesses;
6. Make health care prices and choices more transparent so that consumers and providers can make the best choices for their health and health care dollars; and
7. Improve the quality and value of health care services.

The only problem is that despite a blizzard of rational people from both sides of the political aisle saying that this (Wyden-Bennett) looks like a decent idea, nobody is talking about it in Washington. No major lobbyists like it. Unions probably despise it. The public hasn't really heard about it. Even if they had, it's a rather radical change to go from employer based coverage to individually purchased coverage anyway (about as radical as going to a single payer system). Major change isn't likely, despite the evidence being that we precisely need only a major change (and isn't that sort of the embodiment of Obama's phenomenon anyway, Change is good?). I'd rather have a single payer or that than whatever we seem destined to end up with. Some sort of half-breed that doesn't fucking work to address the problems involved. No thanks.

Eating books is not the cause of obesity

Don't finish your books, or your meals.

I would think the food problem is the same in the sense that, yes, you can always finish it later if you really wanted to try to.

It provides greater difference in the sense that a longer book isn't necessarily providing more value. A bigger meal in economic sense does, because it has more calories or more value to consume. That's why many of the middle-upscale restaurants have larger portions, so they can charge more for the perceived value. You could in theory charge more by the page for your writing, but then you'd have a converse effect that some people (book snobs) would rather you wrote less and said more. Food snobs are the same way I guess. Look at the portion sizes of high scale restaurants, value is conveyed by quality or uniqueness of product rather than volume. But then it's hard to say that a particular dish tasted bad in the same way that a book wasn't to our liking. It's more that it just wasn't healthy for you to begin with and eating half was just as bad as eating all of it (at least if you ate out frequently in this manner, like most Americans).

The opinion of a book snob, sort of like me, views the commonly consumed fare like say the Harry Potter books, as a terribly written populist drivel worthy of the highest possible disdain. As unworthy of even picking up, much less finishing. I imagine the food snob would look at the carb loaded and meat-itarian diet I have with a similar air. But even I know to keep off McDonald's or only go to Cheesecake Factory once or twice a year as if it's some sort of indulgence (which it is). Food that tastes good is providing value in the same way that a decent work of fiction would, but it is valued, correctly, and used differently. The correct reaction would be to demand smaller portioned sizes at a reasonable value. Or to simply accept the current supply and amend our consumption intakes (by packing up half of a dinner out for later), in the same way that people can read part of a book and finish it some other time. It isn't to same to suggest that they should only eat half of something they enjoyed eating in the way that one would somehow read only half of a book they were enjoying. The rate of consumption is more important for food than books, but the quality is a different measure.

weigh in

I like to take a bit longer to reflect on some news stories that shouldn't be it would seem. So here's the run down on Gatesgate.

Some basic background. I'm not black, despite a fair predilection toward jazz and hip-hop. So I won't really comment on the racial implications. I am of the opinion that the injustice suffered would be just as severe if Gates had been white, but I am also aware that the likelihood of that injustice could have been diminished in those circumstances. I have had the anecdotal talk over the dreaded traffic stop, the sort of driving while black stop, but I've never actually seen it happen. Whatever the racial elements of this story are, I am unfamiliar and don't really care (not from lack of a sympathy for the problem, but because there's a different problem on which I can comment).

Specifically, I am concerned with the apparent attitude of people condemning the actions, the (non-violent) resistance, of Gates to the undesired intrusion of police authority into his home. The attitude seems to declare the following
1) Thou shalt not get sassy or exhibit behavior implying defiance of any kind with police
2) Thou should go to jail for behaving like an ignorant ass toward police
3) Police are there to project authority, not to protect your rights

The line of police state authoritarianism basically says that you must respect police and not question or second guess their motivations or actions because they're out there upholding the law. In many cases, I will be perfectly willing to target my derision on the appropriate target, the people who made or wanted a silly or vague law enforced. But where that law is vague it is open to abuse on the part of the officers enforcing it. I cannot believe it is a sensible thing to appoint to police the ability to punish and detain people who annoy or antagonize them without violence or immediate ill intention and threat posed to themselves or others. A statute intended to detain "disorderly conduct" that is taken to mean that "this person is insulting and annoying, I'm going to haul him off to jail" does not require us to acknowledge the class or race of the subject being arrested. It should trouble everyone equally. If Gates had used direct threats at the officers or the public, or his behavior was of a sort designed to represent a danger to the community, then it makes sense. He was basically asking a question, albeit in what looks like ignorant asshole behavior to some. Fortunately or not, being an ignorant asshole is not an arrestable offense. Or at least it probably shouldn't be up to police officers to make that determination. Quite simply, abusing police powers in this way is and should be reasonably considered "stupid".

There were several themes that emerged in conversations over the issue. Basically the difference of opinion I have is based on "you have to respect the police/law". I might agree that the law can be respected and that police often have a difficult job to do to enforce it. I don't agree that you HAVE to respect that at all times. I in fact fully expect people to be able to question authority, rather than defer to it. Police are not the authority, we are. They exist to protect and project our rights as individuals by carrying out the legally required framework of investigation and detention of criminal actions against ourselves or our property. They do not exist to boss us around or to demand information. The classic expectations of conservatives have come to mean that police exist to impose the rule of law upon us. This seems to be why social conservatives focus so much on creating legal frameworks for their version of societal mores rather than appealing to our reason for the premise and purpose of those mores. They believe that law is an unquestionable authority for the direction of people's actions. I believe that law is to be a reflection of our most basic and simplest mores (at most), and where it isn't it is bad law. Some law becomes necessary as a result of reasoned analysis, such as avoiding murder, rape or wanton theft. Other law, like euphemistic "disorderly conduct" or "tumultuous behavior", is vague, uncertain, and probably unnecessary. Sure people should respect a police officer, but that's because it's a PERSON carrying out an often impossible task on our behalf. Not because they are the walking embodiment of something purer and better than ourselves.

The "power trip" that is often created by being a cop is something I've witnessed. It's not natural to elevate people on that basis. They are specialists in the service of the community, important ones at that. But the one thing I didn't hear that was said in Gates' case was "can I help you sir" or "the reason I'm here is....". A reasonable cop at a traffic stop will explain why they stopped you after asking how you're doing (always a fun question at that moment), not start off asking if you are drunk (I've had that experience several times, I'm not sure I drive like a total maniac, but I do have some odd habits). A reasonable question on seeing a man get on the phone inside a house rather than flee might have been "can I help you sir". There's a line of suspicion or wariness that allows a cop to ask for ID in a way that isn't insulting or implies the criminal nature of everyone or anything. That wasn't in there, therefore the officer acted stupidly. I'll let someone else, perhaps more qualified to do so, deal with any accusations of racism.

My advice for the people who want instead a police state that imposes law without question and expresses disdain for forms of protest or complaint with the existence of unfairness in the law is these simple three words.

Move to Iran.

24 July 2009

cars and rolling heaps of scrap metal have this common

And in the opinion of most economists, they should scrap the scrapping scheme.

It serves as a temporary subsidy for new production, sure. It's basically like the inverse of a guns for cash system. In the guns system, generally poor people turned in whatever worthless old guns they could get rather than fully or semi-automatic handguns and rifles that they had available for use in criminal enterprises (of the sort the scheme was supposedly designed to attack). Here the scheme basically subsidises the purchase of a new car by people who were probably already going to buy one, reducing the profitability of the companies involved (but compensating them for that loss) with the supposed intention of increasing short-term productive hours needed to manufacture the appropriate supply. I guess the theory is to get people who wouldn't be buying new cars out there and to keep the used market from flooding by eliminating a fair number of useless cars, but these turn out to be cars with either some marginal worth left turned in by people who can afford a new car right now with the subsidy. Meanwhile the totally useless cars that poor people would turn in if they could afford the new car, still go out and chew up energy and generate pollution. The actual supposed environmental target of the idea is totally counterproductive as they end up generating a ton of pollution to make new cars on the theory that people will trade up for them, but then neglect that the people who by environmental and economic standards would benefit us still cannot and thus do not participate (and further still that the normative consumer who buys vehicles on the basis of fuel economy already did so).

True there are people because this scheme targets the less useful environmental number of MPG who will benefit by consuming less energy with a new car (presuming they keep it at least a few years). And not all poor people (at least those with cars) own clunker, gas guzzling cars anyway. But the lead paragraph basically outlines the premise "Similar schemes in Europe have helped ailing firms sell more cars". It's entirely designed as a subsidy program, but sold to consumers as an energy efficient response to worldwide energy shocks. Consider who it helps most. Largely overseas manufacturers who make cheap and fuel efficient cars. Now since I own one such vehicle and consider most American, and some European, cars to be terribly inefficient piles of rolling metal and plastic, I'm not terribly distressed by this notion of free trade. But presumably the people who put in place the program are or will be disabused of this conception of stimulating demand when they start getting angry calls from Ford or GM.


lie to me

Or you could do what presumably millions of people do and date or marry other people who tolerate or even enjoy such things rather than practice arts of cloak and dagger mysteries. Sex or pornography addictions are one thing and online flirtations still another (to say nothing of real life dysfunctions). Finding a different means expression of a spouse's (or the potential for one) sexuality? I'm not sure that's always going to be worth it, but where it is, what's the point in hiding who you are from generally the most intimate person in your life?

Other news, which feels like last year's news since it was fairly obvious: Sarah Palin will have millions of dollars available to her to frontline for various conservative groups. Cashing in always looked like the most likely reason. We'll know in about a month I guess if it's the only reason, but "Follow the money" is just about the oldest routine in journalism and political analysis.

Pitfalls of regulatory systems

Laws of unintended consequences make it difficult to properly value such things. But sometimes it does appear we need some better technocratic advice on how to run a country and less business-minded advice.

This is one of the more complicated arguments involving reducing pollution generally. Hybrids see this all time such that people would have to drive them for several years (much as they would in an economic sense for any car, only now for pollution's sake as well). There's pollution generated by individual optimal use, which is low, and then there's pollution generated to create, which is not (at least not yet). Individual optimal use however doesn't always exist. People consume energy more easily when they think their costs are low, or they tolerate and/or create greater traffic conditions which waste fuel and generate more pollution. There's a careful balance required that I'm not sure policy makers understand in order to create actual conservation of energy or less pollution. Given how easily they screw up less technically demanding fields, I am not optimistic.

skip the ceremonies

As part of the ongoing debate over new-atheists, there was this contribution.

We must gather shoes together in abundance. Brothers! Follow the gourd! The premise being that apparently atheists aren't able to escape the ritual and ceremony portions of organised religions and still maintain a cohesive social function.

I wouldn't limit this goofy tendency to religious implementation. Corporations or businesses do stuff like this all the time with the pretext of community building or team building or some such. Maybe not always through singing, but many definitely have affirmative statements of worth, value, and purpose. I would argue that it is instead those moments of free flowing conversation and discourse that really create a sense of community, purpose, or value and not the artificially dispensed slogan machines. Even though discussion is often totally without direction, sometimes even without moderation, and must be invoked by the members themselves rather than through some hymnal or canonical book.

But then I'm basically an anarchist.

16 July 2009

i don't want to grow up?

i see a future of unmarried and childless wastelanders

I'm not sure what part of America this guy comes from, because the impetus on having kids or getting married around here is still pretty strong on average (unreasonably so in my opinion). Perhaps among highly educated people (or weirdos like me) the delay is natural, but I don't even see how it's unhealthy to a society. Even if you delay having children, you can still have kids at a naturally occurring clip (the necessary for population stability say ~2). I also don't see how this demographic trend was unusual relative to the history of affluent societies, and thus how it would be construed as "wrong". I'd say "so what?" to this problem.

I might agree personally to the assumptions being made, but I recognize that my situation is distinct from the average. My standards for even friendship are impossibly high. That doesn't say much for my standards in women (suffices to say, I am not or no longer easily impressed). And I've never had much interest even in idle contemplation of having children (actually I've somehow managed not even to meet with any of my friends' kids thus far, to be fair they mostly moved far enough away that a meeting on these pretenses would feel absurd). But I don't see this as a commonly held trait among others.

Most of my friends and peers, while having delayed somewhat for these things, are married, and several have a child out of that pairing "already" (with the loose assumption that within the first couple years of marriage is quite soon enough to start reproducing). While I'm not generally in a position to know, I would figure they're rather contented with these decisions having waited. It would seem to me that with all the evidence of the benefits on individuals for waiting to make such choices as having children or settling on a mate, it doesn't look like there's a greater danger posed to society that we must go around exhorting people to make these choices sooner. In fact, the cost of doing is often born not by the people making the choices but by the society itself around them. I'm much happier not having to pay very much to support someone else's children. I might be okay with paying a little bit to educate them properly, but not to have to take care of basic necessities. If you cannot afford a child, as is common if you have kids earlier, it's difficult to say that we've made an excellent life decision. Or if this happens on a frequent basis, it's hard to see how this would make an excellent society.

People can worry all they want about some sort of a barren individualistic society resulting from people delaying these choices. I'm not seeing enough of a lone wolf tendency in others to take their concerns seriously.

14 July 2009

the war of the sexes continues

uncivilised debates continue

Reading the online forum comments between the two, I'm not sure what Bartow's problem is (having not read her site much). Or even what she is trying to draw attention toward. Maybe someone else can clarify. The identification of a trend that having no or few women in politics is cause for political incompetence when the evidence for such a trend is only one data point is a valid criticism, and she hasn't responded to it. Her further unpacking of that specific problem was unsatisfactory as well. It basically said that Palin is held in contempt because she is a woman (rather than because she's a rambling idiot) and that Sanford is held in a level of "esteem", relative to Palin, because he's a distraction?

The other argument she raised is relevant: that state's leaders should be (or at least, that they could be) evaluated based on their relative state population data points and economics. In Palin's case, the data aren't as helpful as she'd like to believe because of oil prices causing a budget crunch, and this brings up the need for relative comparisons within each state. Meaning: if South Carolina is bad off now, what if it's always been worse off than Alaska? How are we to evaluate the distinct state economics and relative populations (which are also naturally distinct in demographics of age or ethnicity) through comparison to each other, mustn't we make adjustments based on something like relative rates of decline or advance under the leadership of each person? Comparing Alaska's current economy and demographic data points like health to South Carolina's is only nebulously useful and making claims that Palin or Sanford is responsible for these (when it is fully possible that there are other undefined causes) is likewise only the starting point of an intellectual curiosity, not a well-defined claim of the competence or incompetence of either. So I can accept her critique of the study originally involved as valid, but her specific advancement in example of it doesn't really help her out.

It's her extrapolated defence that is at issue. In no case does she automatically point to a demand or intrinsic need for more women generally (particularly by disregarding of their political affiliations) in politics as an indicator of successful governance. I don't doubt that there should be more women in politics/authority generally, simply out of a ratio or law of averages problem. Nor do I mean to suggest that all women in roles of authority have demonstrated incompetence on the level of a Sarah Palin. They are, in fact, as effective on the average as men have been (by which we might mean anything from "greatest thing since sliced bread" to "totally inadequate" depending on one's perspective of authority). What I take exception to is her actual argument being made for this (desirable) outcome. It is weakly advanced because it is unsupported by any evidence that women in charge means anything different than men in charge. We can make a case that women in judicial roles have distinct viewpoints which are on occasion valid and necessary for consideration or inclusion. Even if it's a weak case, it is still supported by vigorous objections on the part of someone like Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, which are not merely limited to ideological basis points. I'm not sure that the same has historically applied to legislators or executives. If she's saying it should, we'd have to see some evidence that women are doing something different in those positions than men are (which I don't think that evidence exists) that projects competence or in its absence, incompetence. Since Palin has basically done the same things that Sanford has done from a governance standpoint, it's difficult to perceive that her position as a state executive has carried a great deal of weight for this argument. Perhaps she (or someone else) can come up with a better example.

congressional contempt

Read the damn bills?

When this idea came up for a poll among a political discussion I was having, it was actually broadly popular (though as noted, it was most supported by conservatives). I disagreed with the idea of "forcing" legislators to read bills. Not because it wouldn't create simpler laws as outlined, but because it probably wouldn't have this effect. Even when they do read "bad laws" they can still vote for them is more my problem. It only slows down the process of passing laws generally, it has no real effect on how useful they really are. Maybe having fewer laws would occasionally be beneficial. The second and more important reasoning was that they usually have plenty of time in the Senate anyway to revise, amend, or "fix" the bills. It's the House versions that can be raced through because of the rules of the Congress. But all the additional time does, and this is a common complaint of the Senate, is allow MORE complexity or lobbying into the bill rather than less.

My contention is sort of like objecting to some of the legislation with the idea that we're already getting about as good a product as we can get and it's not satisfactory. The idea that somehow we would improve the quality of content by having it written by the legislators into something like plain English by providing sufficient time to read the bills is laughable because it does not alter the circumstances surrounding the construction of bills. It would be a simple matter to continue to vote for these goofy pieces of legislation including the air-dropped waivers as a normal matter rather than their obscurity they today enjoy and no major changes would necessarily evolve except that fewer laws would be passed. This may be a desirable effect, and in fact underscores the reason that conservatives tend to favor the idea more so, but it is not a satisfactory change in and of itself where there remain challenges or state emergencies that only Congressional law can mandate changes (which on occasion, they do).

hiv versus women

women naturally weaker to hiv

That would make sense from an evolutionary perspective. The disease is more likely to be spread by men (both from heterosexual or homosexual sex), given an assumption of promiscuity levels. Viral diseases have basically evolved to co-exist with their hosts as long as possible in order to spread to more hosts. The scary "super-virus" types that kill people in a matter of a couple days are actually too well designed as killers and can fan out the death tolls in a few weeks as a result (though doing so in a paralyzing and often horrifying way). AIDs types diseases linger for a decade or more, giving lots of time to spread in the intermediate period. They're not evolved to kill but to spread and to survive. Killing is an incidental event to the disease.

So now being an ass is illegal?

Nebraska case over email

I am somewhat curious...how in the hell did this become a court case to begin with? It would seem appropriate to file for some sort of active restraining order if someone is being deliberately insulting or consists in their behavior as harassment and that violating that would constitute some sort of police or judicial response. It does not seem appropriate to decide that such actions as sending offensive or harassing email constitutes any of the provisions for unprotected free speech. It is not anything like libel or yelling fire in a crowded theater.

dietary habits for the ordinary american

I remember ordering by counting calories

I did it the other way around. By finding something on the menu that had the most calories per dollar. Maximum value. I'm not sure there's anything at Cheesecake Factory that would be a terribly great "value" unless it had around that 1600 calorie mark (and was roughly under $16-17 per plate). Leaving one stuffed to the gills. And that Miso Salmon is pretty good.

The cheesecake itself is probably the best "value" by this logic. The distinction I have versus everyone else going there is probably that I have so rarely any reason to go there. And then of course that when I do, it's like Thanksgiving and I only have the one meal of three to five thousand calories for an entire day. Reading dietary habits of "ancient" Americans does not impress upon me a need for us to cut down (in Lewis/Clark days an average American male of their status consumed around eight to nine thousand calories daily). It mostly impresses upon me a need to do more labour intensive work. I'd be perfectly happy (and generally always have been) to eat several times the "recommended" daily allowance of calories in one day. I just also have been perfectly happy to move around enough to allow me to do it from time to time.

go here if you were really curious

How HGttG saves the world

Don't Panic

I'm beginning to think that the text book of any economic theory could be summarised with the title page from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It really comes down to something just that simple. The economy goes up because people keep their heads and make usually reasonable assumptions about the future, measured calculations in the aggregate (certainly not in the individual world of course). It goes down when people panic.

Sometimes that panic is perfectly justified. And then the key becomes how to stop it. There might be some reasonable measures needed, such as a chapter in that prospective text entitled "Don't get excited either", where people begin to make irrational assumptions. Things like "housing prices CAN'T go down" or "this complex financial derivative that I don't understand MUST be worth something."

We have a few things going for us.

1) Obama. I personally don't always agree with him. Many economists don't, or certainly agree with many of the policies that have originated with this administration. But the public still has some sense that this is an unflappable character we've elected who will be working very hard and very intelligently to help resolve this situation. FDR inspired the same charisma, to the point that when he finally settled on an agenda for a while, even the markets responded with a healthy dose of optimism. There were many false positives that for some reason FDR's team did not pick up on. Or maybe FDR's semi-inate political sense against inflation and deficits. There's a story about a press junket in 1936 for economists about how they'd conquered the deflation problem and wages were improving, that things were generally getting better and they could start tackling the INFLATION problem (which didn't yet exist). The assembled economists openly laughed. It was no laughing matter. The result of this policy assumption was the second half of the Great Depression, starting in 1937. We may see the same adjustment period. In both cases, the frequent but timely use of the President's bully pulpit can be used to restore a dose of boisterous confidence or sanity. I think Obama has been picking his spots rather well thus far, even if some consider him to be spreading his agenda too far and wide. I'm not sure yet if his actual agendas however are going to be greatly useful, or at least, the version as enacted into law by Congress.

2) Bernanke. I don't mean that I have confidence or the markets have confidence in him now. But this was a guy who built his career on studying the Great Depression. If the Fed is somewhat unshackled from Congress (a position I'm not quite clear on how it is, it's supposedly autonomous), it's possible we would see a better policy lying about for the path out of the woods. Then again, it's equally possible, given the Fed moves in October of last year, that we'll end up deeper into the woods than we ever wanted to be. The mixed response of countries like China, who own a considerable portion of our debts, to our monetary policies has not been encouraging. I suspect some dash of technocratic governance would be encouraging to the general market, certainly more so than the sort of half-assed governance we've been getting for a long while now (at least as long as I've been following politics, way back to parts of the Clinton administration).

3) No Bush, No Paulson, No Greenspan. I think the first two are self-explanatory. Greenspan is credited in part with an expansionary period leading up to this debacle, and with under-regulating encouragements that are widely seen as ripping up the financial sectors, particularly by distorting the housing market. I think this is a fair criticism. There was certainly a period of easy money that got us into the problem. I think we can at least patch up the leaking parts that deregulation created. If not fix them to satisfying levels, at least keep the water from flowing in at destructive levels (certainly more plausible a circumstance with these people out of the way). It's clear though that we still don't have a solution which addresses the tightening of money that created the present situation, something which occurred in a post-Greenspan era, and shouldn't be a burden. (Actually that's Bernanke's fault). There's a difference between "easy-money" of the sort created from thin air to give loans to people who already cannot afford them and "easy-money" of the sort provided to expand the economy by giving it to people who will multiply it by making sensible risk assessments. Right now there's very little of the second because banks either aren't loaning it out or aren't able to make sensible risk assessments. I'm not sure which of those possibilities is worse (given the amount of money we, taxpayers, loaned to banks specifically so they should loan it back out).

At least the first is immediately actionable if we have the right minds attacking it: penalize the excess reserves rather than provide incentives to keep the money there, in a safe, boring, non-multiplying vault. As we are currently doing. The second can be mollified by steadily repairing the housing market. They really should have had the FDIC coordinate with some of the regional and national banks to get people to re-negotiate into favorable terms as quickly as possible, even hamstringing into some write-offs of debts in exchange for a promise to cut the government or the bank a check for any recovered value (up to the write-off amount) later when they go to sell their house. Foreclosures depress the market further and can cause death spirals, which are hazardous to individuals (and by extension the financial instruments that are based on these loans made to individuals), and to banks generally who must hold the properties at a depressed price level with no way to generate income from them. They are often better off taking a lower price of income coming in for a while rather than swallowing whole the losses. The idea would not be to keep housing prices leveled, but to get them to level off more gradually than they have been so as to establish a decent and manageable trend line. Banks can operate with the assumption of loss. They cannot operate with the assumptions of loss and continued loss without any inkling of profitability in sight.

13 July 2009

echo chambers and kindle

How Kindle is killing snobbery

"There's a wonderful chapter on the rise and fall of the video phone, which creates an incredible social pressure for people to appear attractive onscreen, which sets off a kind of arms race -- purchasing masks and bodysuits to wear on the phone, and so forth." --

I've never understood social complexities of status. The fact that I am a snob of some sort does not mean I must be conspicuous about my semi-strange or out-dated consumer tastes. It mostly means I'll have nothing to say to people who talk only about things I find beneath my interest. Based on my understanding of a social network or a social context of status, it seems more important to have broad interest and thus be capable of interacting with a wide selection of people than to be an apparent expert in one or two things.

Since I'm anti-social generally, I don't care to interact with a wide selection of people and by extension don't place much importance on my status in the broader competitive nature of things. I tend more to care about specific status interactions rather than some general or popular conception of my "status". Things that are influenced by competency or expertise, even of a broad nature (since I'm a quasi-generalist academically speaking, dabbling in whatever interests me that week).

And quite frankly, I'm in agreement that the Internet gives more of a reinforcing nature of snobbery anyway in the format of all the sharing of information it enables. It means instead of conspicuously draping before the commoners that you have the vestiges of an education or class status, you are draping it before your peers in a competitive reinforcement of your intra-group interests.

Thoughts on the level of ad-targeting.

So when I click to look at the story on the new surgeon general (odd how many postings are done immediately and some are taking forever), the list of ads along the sidebar is as follows:

1) Colon Cleansers
2) lose 47 lbs
3) anti-aging creams
4) whiter teeth
5) lose 48 lbs

Would anyone think these are related beyond the abstract discussion of "health or health care"? A typical person interested in who the surgeon general is (or at least is likely to be) is probably not a person who is likely to purchase scam-like health products, diets, etc, even though they may very likely care more about their personal health or health care. In other words, they're are probably not the typical American person for whom such ads are likely to carry some effect.

I sympathize that advertising on the web isn't quite a full-fledged developed concept with immediate and likely buyers. Ad targeting as it were in ways that TV or radio could only dream of. But it's funny when it gets it wrong.

10 July 2009

I am just a regular

I'm not sure what exactly I'm doing with these other than passing along the works of people who appear quite a bit wiser than I. Not that there's anything new there.

complex factors of learning racism

This one is really complicated. I see it expressed all the time that "racism is learned". But really that only applies to what we know as overt bigotry or hatred. The sort of subtle group favoritism, something that also applies to issues like nationalism or sports rivalries, is also learned, but it's mostly learned out of something "normal", group behavior or identity. And tolerance or acceptance, something necessary to overcome both types is also learned.

cold, rational markets

Obviously temperament seems to play into the nature of ideology. But this does raise the question: who is right? Because it seems appropriate to consider that we need both the cold rational types AND the people who give a damn to be right at certain times, particularly when formulating public policies. So the trick is more when to tell the difference. As a practical example, the cold rational type tells you when you can't afford a house or a car or some other expensive purchase, or how to structure the expense in such a way that it will. The emotional concern tells us what to do with it once we own it or impulses us to act and buy something we really wanted, and all we're really doing by acting rationally is tracking it in such a way as to make it as beneficial to ourselves in the financial way (by waiting for a sale or a deal). So where does that apply to public policies, things like minimum wages which seems to be structured out of a "feeling" preference rather than an examination of its efficacy as a policy itself (something which is rather uglier than our feelings of providing a few extra dollars to a few poor folk at little overall cost or risk to ourselves).

Report card on reform
market based reform instead
I did question some of this myself. But my focus was more on the consumer end. And looked at abstractly, many of these reforms generate substantial costs for consumers and businesses without really benefiting anyone, such as by fixing interest rates or setting up monitoring of CEO payment and bonuses. Maybe this just goes back to the super-rational tendencies to not be concerned with "feeling" better about things, like say "sticking it to the man" by fixing an upper limit on compensation packages. Something that economists and generally intelligent people didn't associate directly with general economic problems. Though income disparity in general was naturally a problem to be attacked, there were more constructive ways than this (education, control of health care costs, general tax reforms, etc).

And really it seems more natural to offer an escape clause than to tell the banks how to run their business.

poker and zugzwang

If nobody has picked up on it, if someone on the Internet talks about something relating to game theory, it tends to end up here. Even Dark Knight's Joker routine was basically a rehash of the Prisoner's Dilemma over and over. Poker is one of the more basic applications of game theory (why I ended up using it to explain my moral theory).

Catcher in the Rye 2

Or not. I thought this was interesting for the same reason anyone else would. What exactly is the law on referencing a famous character or literary plot in a new work of fiction written by a different author? Well it looks like it's whatever the judge looking at the case thinks it should be. When a work is old enough, and well-read enough by the public, then they sort of just permit it.

libertarians are the civil rights movement It's easy to confuse the age old value of liberalism, fostering individual merit and potential, with the "libertarianism" of state's rights advocates like say, Gov Wallace. It's a problem that persists to this day wherein state's rights-ers can claim that it should be up to states and local governments to either ban or accept the rights of homosexuals to marry with the implicit knowledge that they will move to ban such things anyway while giving the appearance of being fair-minded. And yet actual libertarians look at the problem and say "it shouldn't be up to any government at any level to restrict the rights of any individual on the sole basis of their sexuality." I constantly find new battles to fight with people who claim to be libertarian for this reason. They're only "libertarian" until it is inconvenient to them or some moral principle: abortion, gays, racism, xenophobia, national security, whatever. It's really annoying that nobody seems to know what this is.

going out on a highbrow note

Yup. Use your pee to lure the dog back home. Sounds perfectly reasonable.

I'm not quite sure what this all is, but it does not occur to me that I'm coming up with or expressing anything. I appear to be merely collating data.

09 July 2009

a serious debate of a one-sided nature

Along with a long-standing series of battles over things like abortion or evolutionary theory, I've now started fighting a running debate over my support for something like excise taxes on tobacco or alcohol (something I detailed in a rather lengthy essay on health care sometime back). The principle opposition I am encountering at the moment (it's actually a popular idea, for once, that I'm pushing), is instead to establish a requirement that people receiving public assistance are screened in a mandatory fashion for tobacco, drug, or alcohol use and if they fail these tests, they don't receive payments or food stamps (SNAPs) or whatever it was, or at least that such aid cannot be used on "non-necessities". I've gathered that the principle objection to welfare state policies is something like "poverty should suck", but this is bordering on ridiculous.

I'm just going to post the series of back and forth on this here. At one point the subject is attempted to be changed to "but people are cheating the system and getting money they don't deserve!", which 1)doesn't have anything to do with how they spend aid once they receive it and 2) isn't something I would disagree needs better management or deserves penalties for the fraud it propagates. What people do with the money is a separate issue entirely and should have remained the subject of discourse. Other person's name will be simply be "them", one because I don't think anybody would care who they are and two because it's in my experience a common enough mindset that they are representing that it should be plurally argued. It's strongly related to the sort of anti-intellectualism of religious fanatics, only with a more secularised tone. I did at least clean up his grammar and spelling errors to give an appearance of fairness to the debate (apparently necessities is spelled with two 'c's...and obviously I use a lot of words that spell check doesn't even know "externalities" "surveil"? seriously Firefox, I don't know what you've been doing without me...).

Begin rambling debate

them: "I don't believe in telling people what to do that's why I kind of have a problem with this. If this is costing working class families billions of dollars because they are paying to treat themselves that's one thing, but I really start to have a problem with the whole system when working class families are paying for this treatment on lower income people. I know its a whole different argument but people on public aid should be required to take a piss test a couple times a year, they should not be drinking, smoking, or snorting , just to get us started."

Me: "You're missing the point. It's costing US billions of dollars, not THEM (the actual users of tobacco). We are subsidising their behavior by covering some of the actual cost of their decisions. Taxing that behavior recovers the cost.

Similarly, not having any money go into low-income health care costs us something as well, if for no other reason than it deprives us of their possible productive labour inputs when maintained by basic health care or for the more pressing "personal" reason that we would have to pay for the written off costs of free health care provided by doctors bound by non-market based medical oaths to tend to the sick and dying, that's why we have that social welfare program in the first place.

And if you're saying you don't believe in telling people what to do then your solution of drug testing everyone is far, far, far worse than simply levying a tax which is ultimately voluntary. A mandatory piss test is an involuntary intrusion. An employer MAY have a valid reason not to have employees who are inebriated working for them (I am not sure that this claim is necessarily granted for any or all employers or for all substances, including substances that often are not tested for, such as alcohol), but I don't see why the government needs to make that distinction when it can use less privacy-invasive means to recapture the costs."

them: "When I was talking about the drug test I was talking about people on public aid. The way I see it its kind of like living in my moms house you live by her rules or get the hell out. If you want to smoke weed, cigs, and get drunk fine, but its not gonna happen on the tax payer dime because at that point you are not a "free man" anyway. If a regular joe schmoe wants to do his thing and is responsible for his actions and accepts the consequences for his actions that is a completely different ballgame. We need to start holding people more responsible for their actions in this country and stop making excuses for everyone's individual unique boo hoo sob story. Sometimes I wish they (lawmakers) would just come out and admit it "we want cigarettes illegal" because with all these laws it seems we are all but there."

me: "I understood what you were talking about. And it's still far worse than simply taxing the damn things to recover the societal costs of use or abuse that are amassed. There isn't any reason to treat poverty like it is prison."

them:"I not talking about poor people, I am talking about people on public aid you don't have to be poor to be on public aid. A good way to get people off that crutch would be to make them as uncomfortable in that situation as possible. I'm not saying starve them to death I am saying limit benefits only to life's necessities. No one should have to pay for an alcoholic to be on welfare."

me: "Precisely what sort of public aid are you talking about?

Roads? Schools? Tuition assistance?

You don't end up on welfare or medicare or SNAPs or SSI for disability if you have money.

I might agree the benefits of social welfare systems could be restructured, but I would prefer that we do so by removing the transfer payment portions and replace them with cash transfers. If they want to blow the money on booze and blow, by all means. But then don't expect us, the tax payers to help out on the rent payment. I think you'd see a much better, more palatable decision making process if it included actual cash flow management instead of payments in kind and this sort of system allows people to actually make decisions that increase their income naturally without having to sacrifice state welfare along the way."

them: "Public aid like, welfare, food stamps, wic, and link ect, these sorts of programs. As for your third sentence, you are severely misinformed, people with a very livable wage work the system all the time. I work with one of them, I also have a friend in the business and sees it all the time, but because she is more liberal, she pretends not to see it. and its not just people with money, perfectly able to work collect these bennifits also. I live in an area with a high concentration of white trash I see it all the time, esspecially with the business I am in.I know it may be easier said then done but in the long run it could be far cheeper. But I would like to see some kind of audit system, where you do have random drug tests. In this day and age of computers, it should be easy to turn away purchases at the store when they use cards such as no beer, soda, cookies,candy, fancy butchered cuts of meat, and everything should be generic, If its good enough for me its good enough for them. This is all just a start though you could really expand on all of this."

me: ""work the system" --- That's called fraud, not public aid. This sort of fraud is factored in (I am not "misinformed").

It would not be prevented by the sort of thing you're talking about doing either and to my mind is a much larger problem than worrying about what people use public assistance for. It's a much worse thing that they abuse it when they don't need it.

And you really should think carefully on that last sentence. "really could expand on this". That's the primary reason I am adamantly opposed to your proposal. You can of course "really expand" a tax system instead, but any excise tax is ultimately voluntary. Direct control and constraint of the sort you are proposing is not."

them: Maybe I need to be a little more clearer with my thoughts, I don't think I am projecting them to you clearly enough. I was referring to people working the system who are on public aid, I understand that is fraud But I am not calling "work the system" Public aid. I used the misinformed comment in relation to a previous statement you made "you don't end up on welfare or medicare or SNAPs or SSI for disability if you don't have money". People with money do end up on these programs, sorry man I hate that I am right but its the truth, I know them and I know of them, it happens. We do agree though about an abuse of the system being a problem, I was just putting an idea out there how to crack down an abuses. Right now the system goes largely unchecked, I was on unemployment once and had to show I was actively seeking work do people on these programs have to do that? Yes excise taxes are voluntary, but in my mind someone spending your money and my money needs severe limits and restraints on the money they spend. I don't mind people who are truly in need, buying the necessities for life,( key words truly and necessities), until they get up on their own two feet. But we need to stop and get a handle on the people committing "Fraud" and wasting away on taxpayer money. Like I have said before ( I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said something like it first) the only way to get people off gov dependency it to make them uncomfortable in their current situation.

me: "You are projecting your thoughts quite clearly. I just don't think they make any rational sense if your object is a small government, as I do. Your object is apparently to use government as a punitive force. I can accept that as your rationale, but no matter how many times you say it I will not accept it as justified logic, especially in this instance with better alternatives available (such as manipulating the price mechanism to capture externalities caused only by those directly using substances and not providing a guilty until innocent accusation on everyone else for something that usually isn't even illegal in the first place: buying alcohol, tobacco or junk food...)

It's fine to punish fraudulent behavior and abuse of public aid, I think anybody would agree to that, but I don't see how your proposed solution would have anything to do with reduction of fraud. That's basically a totally different and unrelated problem to what you're discussing with people, in your mind, mis-allocating public aid that they actually need rather than people who don't need it abusing the system by taking aid when they do not need it. I really don't see how it's necessary to tell people on what to spend it, something we already do by issuing public aid in the form of in kind payments and subsidies rather than straight cash (like a negative income tax). Quite simply, no matter how many times you rephrase your statement, it comes across to me as "I'm going to engineer it to punish people for being poor". Apparently you think that's a sensible idea. I do not and I am not moved by your arguments, nor will I be.

I see the primary reason to be concerned with economic theory as the ability of a society to best use its resources to alleviate that condition of poverty. I do recommend that we do so as often as possible with a mission of mercy and dignity, and do so as often as possible without government programs or direct government controls over the nature of aid (such as by providing education or job training rather than restricting access to consumer goods). Your idea has nothing to do with the alleviation of poverty but rather your own personal dissatisfaction of it. As a result, it does not appeal to me to follow through with as a public program. In the particular instance, to my point of view, given the rates of addiction and substance abuse and their strong correlation with a condition poverty (either as a cause of or a result of, depending on the psychology), it makes more sense to subsidise treatment or foster addiction moderation through the price mechanism than it does to punish people for a what is often a medical problem.

And it makes no sense to effectively punish and monitor people who have not committed any transgression whatsoever (who don't smoke, dope, or drink to excess) for example by requiring them to submit to regular testing. You're talking about a police state. Something, even strictly applied, I cannot accept as a functional mandate. As you said "you could really expand on all of this". I strongly encourage you to think very carefully on that statement. That's precisely the sort of problem with any government monitoring program, not just this one. Remember the furor kicked up when it is revealed that HSA/DoJ was watching right-wing organisations (not that they hadn't been before under W) as a result of the PATRIOT act and its broad power to surveil people, that's precisely the sort of abuse this idea is prone to. You're better off not surrendering such control to government in the first place rather than supposing your specific end is the only means it would be applied.

I do not see the logic in having a mandated GOVERNMENT controlled measure on what people may spend their money on and deciding for them what their priorities must be, even if the money is public assistance. It's bad enough that we tried to ban alcohol and do ban narcotics from my perspective. People who are not on such things are just as wasteful and unproductive with their spending in other ways, and we are not engaged in trimming such inefficiencies from their lives either, and this is true regardless of income (as if poverty was somehow a cause of fiscal irresponsibility). Why is it then necessary to use public aid as a means of exerting control?"

08 July 2009

thoughts on the gender of sport

Iranian race car women

Instead of this sort of thing we get Danica Patricks and Anna Kournikovas in American sports. Even though Anna was Russian, she was decidedly an American product of woman's tennis, a model playing tennis in other words. The European model of tennis put women like Seles, Graf, Navratilova at the forefront because they were actually good at it (though Seles' grunting was a controversial story for a while). Marketable commodities, I agree, carry some weight in the nebulous regions where sport and entertainment engage one another. But in the end, shouldn't someone have to be good at what they actually do and that the novelty effect of it being an attractive woman doing something well is merely a side effect cash cow for advertisers? There is, while not as well documented, a similar effect for male athletes who appeal broadly to women and their own advertising side revenues, so it isn't quite a sexist system, only one that more prominently benefits attractive women, and it's one I'd be prepared to accept so long as these were women who were also giants of their event and not women who merely had giant boobs or some such merely participating in a sport. I suspect also the Michelle Wei effect in golf was working out this way, but eventually people caught on that she wasn't that great and that golf isn't either a coed sport like racing or a scantily clad one like tennis where her gender and sex appeal was as marketable. We're learning, after a fashion. We haven't quite gotten there yet with soccer or basketball. But this is more because of the product. Americans don't like soccer except every 2-4 years, despite the fact that our women are really good at it and happen to usually be attractive there isn't a successful model for a woman's pro soccer league, and basketball is just a huge gap in athleticism to provide entertainment value. Women don't dunk enough to overcome any gap in actual game (and there are indeed women who are very talented at basketball, certainly better than say 99% of men who play).

As far as Iran, it's generally surprising what levels of freedoms they grant and what they don't to women. They let her compete (which is short of remarkable in many ways), but she had to wear a hijab while driving inside a race car... and then had to conceal herself in some way when she actually won an event. Different. Culture. In America they'd probably encourage her to drive half-naked if they could get around safety considerations and there would be plenty of photos of some exuberant celebration (a la Brandi Chastain).

age of reason

Having recently entangled myself in frequent clashes with avowed religious conservatives over the small range of topics they feel themselves compelled to harangue the rest of us with as though these monologues presented some wisdom, I was also engaged in completing Paine's work, which was, in effect, a basic critique of the biblical texts (presumably the same texts upon which these present effects are taken). One thought which occurred to me, and which at least partially occurred to Paine, was that it is only in the language of our opponent that we can defeat the force of their arguments. We can never really do so with them personally, as all matters of belief really come down an acceptance of subjective arguments, but it can be done with others, the undecided bystanders or innocents afflicted by the conflicts of ideas and beliefs.

Thus in a recent "debate" over evolution, rather than bury my opponent with a procession of ideas, it became clear that his tone and language itself was the necessary target. A person who would be willing to take the processes and operations of scientific method and condemn them to a position where we may take of it as we please, as though its conclusions were of a supernatural philosophy, is not a person likely to be convinced of arguments steeped in the rational world from which scientific theory is based. Evidence, when presented, will be dismissed for example. Or calls for ever more evidentary support made, shifting the goal posts as it were. While such doubts are structurally essential in science, physical, observational, and extrapolated evidence eventually commands that we surrender. We cannot all command the world to be flat by our beliefs, we must accept that this planet has the character of a globe, and is in fact, quite a bit round. Thus the essential argument being made by such people is not based on evidence, but on deconstruction, wherein they base their belief, positive or negative upon the contrarian conclusions of theological study or pseudosciences. While it is certainly a sensible intellectual policy to study various points of view within science, it does require that these points of view submit themselves to some measure of scientific examination of course. But our opponents in such a debate are often unaware of such a distinction, and claim their own "scientific" findings or evidence in support. Thus what is learned is that learning apparently only happens through some means of revealing information. And observed or direct information can be somehow disregarded, often in a manner which reinforces the original belief rather than pushes it aside.

What happens when an argument of theirs is deconstructed in a like manner, by say manufacturing evidence against it or by compelling a coherent argument to be made when there isn't quite one? Well, unfortunately these logical precepts have little impact upon the desired target. Telling a ID/creationist to read a book on evolution by someone who actually studied evolutionary theory certainly would help them make more constructive arguments, arguments which might even be of use to scientific advancement and knowledge, but this is unlikely to actually happen of course. People are always more comfortable given their preconception of the universe, and that intellectual world is not a world to be trifled with, particularly when peopled with minds unaccustomed to divorcing themselves in contemplation of a new idea. It is my contention that I learn most about a subject by engaging it as directly as I can, looking for ways it can convince me of its truth or wisdom, subtracting my doubts until I have finished, and then evaluating it with all its particulars. I have, despite my lack of personal interest in faith, studied after a fashion the particulars of religious institutions, their theological dogma and development. I would not regard this study as granting some grand expertise on the subject, but I also did not come to it merely by examining only the detractors of religious faith either. I came about it by examining the institutions and canonical texts themselves where possible, the histories of the institutions and people. Evolutionary theory, when examined solely through a prism of creationist mysticism certainly would have great holes, in a like manner to that of a study of religion and institutions of religion would have if only studied from the perspective of militant atheists. But these "holes" in evolutionary theory are not holes of logic, as is contended, but of omission. And these can be made because facts are removed and altered in a classical battle of ideas, weakening the strength of the original argument by removing the legs on which it stands. This is a natural and useful method, but only if the removal is validated by facts rather than force of will.

As I said, the engagement is not without merit for the effect it has upon the bystanders. It must be necessary to engage with great will the strength of the arguments put forth in support of evolutionary theory. These are gained by mountains of evidence. It eventually becomes necessary to bury opponents in them, not for their sake, or the sake of silencing their asinine and persistent objections in the face of scientific study, but for the sake of reducing the power of such objections in the minds of the unassuming who observe these rancorous public debates between ideology and evidence.

It also eventually becomes clear that science ultimately will be at war with religion. If only because of the mindset of the religious and their tenacious defence of institutions which exist largely to pillage one another in the name of god(s). I have little qualms with individuals and their opinions, their subjective nature to decide what to believe in life, even to accept personally some manner of mysticism or revealed knowledge over the natural philosophies of the sciences. Such behavior of the spiritual or metaphysical basis, where it moves men to tolerance and even fellowship is generally harmless. But to use and abuse institutions established nominally for fellowship and devotion to one another so as to pass judgment, defame, castigate, and torture one another instead is something that must be absolved of the human condition to create any form of actual moral peace and justice. Where it becomes often sensible to abolish powers conceded to governments to establish a general liberty of each person to make of themselves what they will and to form a society that permits such movements as to follow our dreams within any harmless forms, it seems likewise necessary to abolish powers conceded to organised religions and allow each individual the liberties required to make their conscience sensible, certainly to free it of the conflicting hypocrisies of the classical and mystical scriptures on which they are fabulously and weakly based, and to gather or converse with like-minded individuals, or unlike, free of some man-made charge to extend a business relationship within that circle and a hostile relationship without it.

07 July 2009

the economics of free

Rain Man would say now "YouTube sucks"

While all well and good, it actually emerges that giving things away for free is a profit seeking model. Hulu for example has been making money by re-airing digital copies of popular shows and selling brief advertising space embedded in the episodes. The reason YouTube makes no money (or in fact loses almost half a billion dollars a year) is the content it uses often sucks and nobody wants to be associated with it in the first place. It suffers an additional problem in that it's actual popular content is somewhat difficult to predict and thus successfully market the things that "don't suck", or at least the things people actually viewed in great frequency. Hulu already has a built-in predictor in the form of the relative popularity of a given show, particularly with the millennial generation probably more likely to find cable TV annoying.

The reason the internet as a whole has failed to monetise everything is simply because not everything that is produced or shared via the internet has any monetary value or even seeks such value. I know for instance that I do not produce such things. Most of what is produced in the sort of democratised way of the Internet actually is quite worthless in economic terms, but it is subsidised by the things that are shared that do have some economic value. There are specific industries (journalism for example) that needed to draw this distinction and somehow monetise their products but that have instead moved the other direction and sought to give away more free content by producing more crap content instead of focusing on the actual embedded advantage of journalism (namely, the freedom of the press to do investigative reporting and produce quality works that people will read and be informed by).