Let’s Have a REAL “Earth Hour”

Of course I totally support Earth Hour but in my book it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

For those who don’t know what “Earth Hour” is or was, I gather it’s a very special hour once each year wherein people are supposed to abstain from one aspect of civilization. In particular: artificial lights and such. This is a fantastic idea (and so, so good for the Earth, which I bet totally noticed) because, as everyone knows, human civilization is bad for the Earth. BAD.

But artificial light is only one trapping of human civilization! I was shocked and chagrined to observe that there were so many others that kept right on going, blasphemously, all through Earth Hour. Things such as: the artificial (and sinfully non-tree- or cave-shaped) shelters we’ve built for ourselves, the clothes we wear, the language and writings we’ve created to transmit/record our knowledge, our laws and social arrangements, and our heat, which stems from the original sin of them all – our fire. How can we justify continuing all of those things during so-called “Earth Hour”?

Next year during “Earth Hour” I want to see – at minimum – buildings razed and people walking around naked cannibalizing each other for (uncooked) food.

Because it’s for the Earth.

Questions You Can’t Ask

Steve Sailer asks if Indians just like memorizing stuff. As usual when reading Sailer, a little nagging voice went off in my head – call it my internal lefty conscience, bred sometime between 4th and 9th grade I suspect – saying “you can’t say that!”

Because you can’t say that one race or another ‘just likes’ doing X or even allow for the possibility. Right? That’s, um, racist or something.

When I was growing up there was a public-service ad campaign one one of the local TV channels about racism (which seemed to back to earlier times & was still in constant rotation, heightening the sense of unease because of the outdated fashions/slang). This TV station was always running weird, fuzzy, ’70s-vintage public service ad campaigns. In one of them, which I rather liked, a bunch of different soft-focus beautiful scenes were played over Italian mandolin music, and at the end some (I gather) Italian-American kid goes “I’m proud to be an Italian-American.” Which is hilarious to me now because I never would have suspected there had ever been any bad feelings towards Italian-Americans to correct in the first place had I not had to puzzle over why this ad was ever created. Another one in the same series had a kid being proud to be Chinese-American. (I don’t remember which other subgroups the creators of that ad series decided needed to be told to be proud about themselves.)

But the ad I’m recalling now was against racism and one of them puzzled, frightened & creeped the heck out of me every time it came on. It showed a little white kid walking with his grandfather (I think they may have been fishing), and the kid said something like, My friend so-and-so is lucky he can’t get sunburned because he’s black. And the grandfather said something like: that’s prejudiced! This scared the heck out of me because I had no idea what was “prejudiced” (a word I first heard on that ad, and had to look up in the dictionary) about what the kid said and couldn’t figure it out. My gosh, I’m just realizing now that I thought about it a lot! You know what else? I’m still not sure I know! So if some random, innocuous thing the kid had said touching on race was “prejudiced”, what was one allowed to say or observe? I had no idea!

I believe this confusing muddle is how a lot of white people learn about racial issues. (Perhaps that explains President Obama, but that’s a different topic.)

Now, I might be remembering the ad wrong, but the point is that’s how I ended up remembering and internalizing it. That’s what I got from it: some innocuous thing you say could turn out to be “prejudiced”, and that’s really really bad in a way that will make even your grandpa turn up his nose at you. So watch it! I’m afraid that most of the things we’re ‘taught’ as kids by well-meaning teachers, or self-anointed teachers, or even a few not-so-well-meaning teachers, on this subject are equally ill-posed, vague, and arbitrary.

That’s how the little voice got in my head that cries ‘you can’t say that!’ whenever I see a question such as posed by Sailer. You can’t say that one race/nationality likes X. All races/nationalities have all human properties equally-distributed. That’s what you have to say.

The truly ironic thing is that in this case the ‘correct’ idea is anti-diversity. If someone believes in ‘diversity’, they necessarily believe that some races/nationalities have statistically different properties, propensities, and tendencies than others – and so it’s perfectly fair to ask whether Indians like memorizing stuff. If that weren’t true there’d be no such thing as ‘diversity’ at all; at least, ‘diversity’ would be a pretty hollow/shallow notion that had only to do with different cuisines. Which can’t be right, because ‘diversity’ is so important. Right?

I don’t know whether I think Indians just like memorizing stuff more than other nationalities, but I do know that, contra my internal lefty conscience voice, it’s a perfectly fair question.

Global Warming, Simplified

The global warming issue really boils down to two questions:

1. What sorts of future climates is it within our power to arrange for?

2. What’s the best one, all things considered?

Question 1. has to do with feasibility. Not all conceivable future climates (mild spring days, every day!) are humanly possible to create, even given infinite resources. Of course we know one that is: the ‘status-quo climate’, i.e. the one that will be in our future if we take no conscious actions either way. That is certainly possible to arrange for. There may or may not be other significantly-different possible future climates we could create, or a range of climates (the idea that decreasing/increasing CO2 would act like a thermostat that cools/heats the earth is clearly contemplating one such range). These need to be identified, and the actions needed outlined, by anyone wishing to discuss Things We Should Do To Improve The Climate For Us intelligently.

Question 2. on the other hand is about preferences, effects, and (importantly) costs-benefits. Not all possible climates would be equally ‘good’ for all people. It’s not always obvious how to even define ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’. Or how to weigh alternative forms of goodness (or badness). And ‘all things considered’ is a key phrase here! If Climate X would be idyllic and wonderful, but bringing it about (rather than nearly-as-good Climate X’) would require a massive genocide and enslavement of the survivors, then count me out, and I say let’s just go for X’.

Notice one question that is irrelevant to the issue: whether ‘global warming’ is taking place right now, or has been taking place recently. Who cares? Notice another question that is irrelevant to the issue: whether humans have ’caused’ global warming. Who cares?

Neither of these questions matter! The only questions that matter are 1. and 2.: What futures could we arrange, and which one – out of those – should we arrange?

If questions 1. and 2. could be answered, the path would be clear: do the things (from 1.) needed to create the best climate (from 2.), and we’d be done.

Question #1 is mostly, if not purely, a scientific question. In my opinion, what most people fail to understand is that question #2 isn’t. Although science can inform the answer, at root it’s an inherently political question, and always will be. So people who claim to get their opinion on global warming from ‘science’, or that the entire question should be settled ‘based purely on the science’, are in effect saying that they haven’t thought the issue through, haven’t considered the full scope of the matter, and don’t want others to either. In a way they’re being anti-science.

How we address global warming intrinsically has a political dimension. Science is not about ignoring important dimensions of problems. It can be about ignoring unimportant ones, if necessary. The global-warming enthusiasists who style themselves “pro-science” are actually doing the opposite.

So Much More Pathetic Than Patrick Dempsey

I get the impression that there’s a low-level ‘populist’ anger against the finance sector brewing. At least, that’s the picture the media wants to paint us. Also there’s the fact that someone I work with got yelled at by her neighbor, I guess.

One one level I understand the anger about things like bailouts, high executive pay, and high profits while socializing high risks. Sure.

But on another level the animus doesn’t quite make sense. Why are people mad? You’re probably gonna say: because they’ve lost jobs, their homes have lost 30% of their value, their mortgages are underwater, and their 401k’s are down 50%. That’s your answer, is it?

Let me ask you this: why was their house and 401k so highly valued in the first place? for some of these people you could even ask, why did they have that job in the first place? Because there was a bubble. And this is not meant as praise, but still: financiers are the ones who made that bubble, you ingrates.

The point is that it makes little sense to be angry about people you blame for taking away something that (a) you never really ‘had’ in the first place (i.e. “Zillow said my home was worth $1.5 million!!!”) and (b) you only ever thought you had because of their actions. At worst, you were tricked into thinking you were richer and more coddled than you actually are.

Poor you!

It’s as if the Patrick Dempsey guy in the movie Can’t Buy Me Love got mad at the girl he paid to pretend to like him in the first place so he could be popular for the fact that he wasn’t actually popular. Wouldn’t that have been pathetic?

Did finance screw up? Yes, I believe so (though I believe that government screwed up more, if possible). But let’s not forget that one of the side effects of their screw-up was that millions of Americans ended up swindling China and Dubai into buying fricking McMansions for them so they could walk around feeling rich and high on the hog for the last decade-plus. There was even a g****mn TV show called “Flip This House” for crying out loud!

The current tantrum against finance – if there really is one – amounts to millions of people saying “Hey! you took away my pyramid scheme! just when it was working so well!” And many of the government solutions people clamor for, and which this and the previous administration have attempted, amount to saying: “Let’s bring it back!

Which is like the Can’t Buy Me Love guy ending the movie by trying to pay the girl even more so he can have his trumped-up popularity back again.

That’s not a movie I ever wanna see.

Obama’s Comedian Samurai

It’s a bit late to still be writing about the Jon Stewart-Jim Cramer episode, but it brought out a point I wanted to make before I forget. The salient point for me was never whether Jon Stewart was “right” in his criticism of Cramer or CNBC. I actually took the time to watch the clip, and Stewart made plenty of perfectly-valid points, and Cramer did not acquit himself well at all.

But the real issue always was this: why was Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, even talking about this stuff in the first place? Tune into this thing in the middle and you might assume this was the culmination of an investigation of some sort. But in reality Cramer was there after a sequence of events which traces back through Stewart’s response, to Cramer’s written criticism, of Stewart’s original diss of CNBC. And the question is: what prompted Stewart’s original diss of CNBC?

The answer is that CNBC’s Rick Santelli had criticized President Obama’s policies on-air. So The Daily Show decided to slam CNBC. Period.

For all his posturing as waging an important critique of CNBC’s business reporting and its role in the financial crisis, and speaking up for those harmed by market events, and granting the fact that his criticisms had merit on their face, the reality is that I doubt Jon Stewart would ever have talked about, mentioned, or noticed CNBC (let alone Rick Santelli) in the first place had this not happened. Had what not happened?

Had Santelli not dissed his man, Obama.

A lot of energy is expended in life, on the air, and on the ‘net in the service of political arguments. I guess what I’m saying is that most of these aren’t genuine arguments. They are not folks on two sides of an issue engaging in sincere, open-minded dispute seeking to learn truth. They are teams, cliques, tribes – sides. Folks defending their side. Jon Stewart clearly has a “side”. And (unfortunately) he also has a platform, The Daily Show, a comedy show way past its sell-by date that was originally set up with the far-funnier Craig Kilborn as host.

Essentially, people like Jon Stewart (consciously or not) see themselves as a loyal samurai to their Democratic-Party lords: threats to their rule and honor and greatness, and criticisms of their actions (whatever they are, whether they have merit or not) must be met in force. That’s the samurai code.

The fact that someone named Rick Santelli had dissed his “side” came to Stewart’s attention, one way or another. So he, and his writing staff, who are obviously intelligent and clever people, sprung into action, and used their platform to craft what amounted to a counterattack – the original embarrassing-to-CNBC clip which (ultimately) roped Jim Cramer into the dispute.

Now, notice that their counterattack made little effort to rebut, dispute, or even really address the substance of what Santelli had said. Likewise nor did Stewart make any attempt to defend or even discuss administration policies whatsoever. Indeed many observers to the brouhaha may not even be aware of what Santelli said or why Stewart even started talking about CNBC. Essentially The Daily Show successfully changed the subject. This may just be because Santelli’s rant itself wasn’t juicy enough to crack jokes about & attack, so the Daily Show staff simply widened the net and targeted all of CNBC, basically by digging up ‘gotcha’ clips from the past (which, let’s note, casts doubt on the current meme that The Daily Show is some sort of useful corrective to mainstream news). So this is why the controversy ended up becoming “about CNBC” and even Jim Cramer (note to Daily Show writers: technically, Jim Cramer is a totally different guy from Rick Santelli).

Understandable enough. But seen in this light, the “controversy” takes on a slightly different flavor. Superficially, it had the characteristics of a political dispute about current events – one guy said one thing, other guys said other stuff, and back and forth like that, and the dispute referenced markets and the economy and certain troubles of the day. But the root of it all was: your guy dissed my guy so we’re gonna diss you.

What was missing from the whole thing was any genuine discussion of substance on the original points (which, by the way, I don’t necessarily think had merit). Even though the controversy was cloaked in a thin veneer of having to do with substantively arguing with CNBC/Santelli about the markets and such – and, importantly, benefitted from the perception that that’s what Stewart was doing – all that was really going on here was Stewart saying diss my guy, will ya? well let’s see how you like THIS. And then setting out to destroy and embarrass CNBC by association and by bringing in red herrings (such as whether CNBC commentators predict market behavior accurately).

The result is that a controversy that began by Rick Santelli criticizing actual policies ended up being about Jim Cramer vs. Jon Stewart. Like who’s cooler? Who’s lamer? Isn’t Jon Stewart cool?

The reason I bring all this up is because I don’t think this was the exception. I think this illustrates the norm in our political conversations. It’s not just Jon Stewart, it’s everyone. It is very seldom that I encounter or stumble upon anything resembling what I would recognize as a real, genuine, open-minded political debate; most of the time what I see is instinctive, reactionary “my side”-ism. As a result I get easily bored and disinterested in politics (and hence have little to blog about).

To turn Jon Stewart’s razor back against him: he (like Jim Cramer, only more so) has a TV show that a lot of people watch. He could be using that platform to bring up, talk about, and hash out political issues in a stimulating and informative (yet still, of course, funny) way. But instead he uses it for what is obviously motivated by naked, transparent side-defending maneuvers1, and yet pretends that’s not what he’s doing (and garners acclaim for being a sincere spokesman for truth – something he most certainly is not). And that’s why the guy rubs me the wrong way. Not because I think he’s “wrong” (I don’t, in this case!), or even (as the more common criticism goes) that he hides behind the comedic platform to launch his attacks, but simply the fact that he’s a phony who’s motivated solely by partisanship and pretends he’s not. No conversation is truly advanced by this.

Ok, I guess I also don’t like him cuz I’ve never thought his comedy was worth a damn, even back in the days of the UPN talk show, and before that the MTV talk show, and before that the appearances on VH1′s standup-comedy shows, etc., and yet somehow we’re still stuck with the guy. Yeah, there’s that too.

1Although, to play devil’s advocate, I’ll admit the thought crossed my mind listening to his comments (many of which seemed to dwell on CNBC’s role as prognosticators and all the people who supposedly rely on them for financial advice) that perhaps Stewart sincerely and legitimately feels burned by CNBC due to making specific investments/financial decisions based on their commentary & losing a lot of wealth from his personal portfolio (which of course is still measured in the tens of millions). If this were his motive, I would have to retract most of the above, although it would convert Stewart’s little-guy-defender’ism into a different sort of hypocrisy and phoniness.


Cleanin’ up those stars


On the matter of the 90% bonus tax.

  • This issue is hopelessly polluted by the fact that on Wall Street, what gets called a ‘bonus’ is what normal people would call ‘the rest of my salary that the company’s been keeping from me’. For the rank and file bank employee, this isn’t a bonus-bonus in the sense of “because you did an extra-special job, here’s a little something extra”. It’s the rest of your f**king salary, because the bank has been underpaying you all year for those 60+ hours/week you work, dangling the ‘bonus’ (the possibility of reaping a bounty in a good year, the threat of getting the shaft in a bad year) as a carrot and/or stick.
  • Another complication is that people judging this situation, including Congress, bandy about these as raw numbers without factoring in cost-of-living. I realize that $250k for a couple w/kids living in the suburbs in the middle of the country means you’re upper class: at the very least you have a McMansion, 2+ SUVs, a plasma TV with surround-sound in your entertainment room, and plenty of college savings. But $250k for a couple w/kids living in Manhattan means you live in the f**king ghetto next to the housing projects, have a ‘kitchen’ which can only hold one person at a time, and when you take your kids on walks you have to dodge the drug addicts. I exaggerate only slightly.
  • The calculus is, on the other hand, different for the executive types whose bonuses are measured with 8 digits. No one would defend the bonuses AIG has given on their merits. The problem – and what pisses me off – is that what the House has now passed will mostly affect the rank and file, not the AIG idiots everyone’s probably thinking of.
  • Perhaps what this episode illustrates more than anything else is that the “bonus” system on Wall Street is totally insane. I don’t know how it evolved but it is ridiculous and would not be missed, were Wall Street to adopt a more normal and sane means of compensation, i.e. giving people most of their salaries as salaries.

Full disclosure: no, as it’s currently written, I would not be affected by the 90% rate, so that’s not where I’m coming from with this. But I do know people who will be affected, and it’s going to be a shock to them if it goes through. These “bonuses” are budgeted into their lives. Our friendly, mentally-stunted sociopathic demagogues in Congress are now entering the dark territory of f**king with the lives and plans of a lot of good people (and their families) – most of whom probably voted for them and their party – just so they can be grandstanding moralists and pretend to care about wastage of taxpayer money. And hopefully distract you from the fact that they’ve already wasted a thousand times as much by throwing the money at AIG in the first place, passing bills these geniuses didn’t even f**king bother to read.

Whichever way this goes down, the fallout from this is not going to be pretty.

The All Too Obvious Double Standard

This is a point perhaps too obvious and redundant even to be worth the electrons it’s typed on, but if President Bush had given a foreign ally’s head of state the ‘gift’ of a bunch of mainstream-movie DVDs that only work in the US, it would have been late-night-comedy fodder for the next three months and provided dramatic illustration for all of his critics as to just how much of a provincial bumpkin he is. What this illustrates once and for all is that President Obama’s image among his fans as a suave, sophisticated, cosmopolitan friend-maker who presents a shining image of our nation to the world (who will therefore love us and cause us no problems) is utterly impervious to facts, in particular to his actual words and deeds. Obama is axiomatically cool and so it doesn’t matter what he actually does, meanwhile Bush was axiomatically uncool and therefore all criticisms of him were valid (but can’t be applied to Obama). This is our politics evincing the same old high school patterns yet again.

Galactica = Matrix

Haven’t seen this interpreted seriously anywhere yet but at the end of the Battlestar Galactica finale, when Six and Baltar are in modern-day earth talking about God, Baltar says “you know it doesn’t like to be called that”.

I suspect the writers intended this to be a clue that in the world of Battlestar Galactica, God is a machine. All the ‘angels’ and ‘head angels’ become explainable too, if Battlestar Galactica took place in, essentially, “the matrix”.

Trader Joe’s

Homemade Trader Joe’s commercial. Hadn’t realized how much I miss Trader Joe’s where I live.

as seen on Seth Roberts

A 99-Book List

Book meme stolen from here: bold the books you’ve read, italicize those on your ‘to be read’ list, & tally the total. Supposedly the average is 6. Note, the list there seems to be missing a #93.

There are some that I know I’ve technically read at some point in the past, but remember almost nothing about them (e.g. the long hard slog through Madame freaking Bovary in AP Literature…argh). I’ll give myself only half a point for those cuz I don’t feel I’ve earned the full point. On the other hand, if I read it long ago, and don’t remember much, but still feel like it made a big impression on me & I read it with full attention at the time (e.g. Charlotte’s Web, Lord of the Flies), I get the full point.

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (seen the miniseries, which was great, but as a result feel no need to read the book)
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien (+1/2: I must’ve been about 11 when I read these)
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte (+1/2: English class; may not have read the entire thing)
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte (+1/2: English class…)
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare (I guess…eventually..)
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot (I even checked this out from the library a couple months ago, but never got around to reading it)
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll (in the process of reading it on my iPod actually)
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis (+1/2: 10 years old?)
34 Emma – Jane Austen
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis (but isn’t this covered by 33?)
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hussein
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown (terrible book, but a quick & oddly fun read)
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert (+1/2: another highschool-days “read”)
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery (but I’m giving myself +0 because I “read” this in French & didn’t understand a bit of it)
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Results: 24 read, 5 of which are 1/2-point, for 21.5 points total. 5 on to-be-read list.

A Tax Hike I Could Really Get Behind

Here’s a potential Obama decision I could get behind (if it’s not just a posture): Administration Is Open to Taxing Health Benefits. Of course, it’s no surprise, because if you read the article you’ll see this would be essentially an embrace of a McCain position that Obama had criticized during the campaign.

One of the stupider side-effects of our tax code is that virtually everyone in the country has become conditioned to believe that health care has to come from your employer, via a “plan”. Health care and employers are linked! Everyone knows that! If you have a job, you can have health care, because (hopefully) your employer signs you up for a “plan”. Conversely, if you don’t have a job, you don’t have health care, because how can you get a “plan”? And if you switch jobs, you have to worry about whether your new employer would have a “plan” for you. Would it be as good? Etc.

No one seems to ask, why do health care services have to come in the form of an employer-provided “plan” in the first place? Virtually nothing else is done this way.

Let’s think about cars. Your car needs regular gasoline fills, oil changes, tune-ups, and minor repairs. I don’t know about you, but here’s how I handle those things when they come up: I take my car to a specialist of some sort, he performs the service on my car, and in compensation I give him a thing called “money” (or at least, my credit card). Then I go home and forget about it. If my car needs more work, I end up paying more; if it needs less work, I pay less. Of course there is risk of huge repairs being required, but for that I have a thing called “insurance” that requires ongoing payments, and in return I am covered for catastrophic repairs above a certain amount. I bought this “insurance” myself, after some shopping around, and mostly haven’t needed it. I also used “money” for that. It’s the money that I get from my employer, not the “plan”. This is better! I have more freedom to choose how I use that money. People should prefer this! It’s like the difference between getting $100 cash and $100 gift card for Olive Garden. Is there any real confusion as to which is preferable?

But what if we handled those things the same way we handled health care?

Well, first of all, I’d have to sign up for an Auto Care Plan through my employer. (If I had no employer, I simply wouldn’t have an Auto Care Plan, and presumably would start whining to the government to cover me.) On the first day or week of my job, I’d go to a seminar at my employer, where some lady who works for my company (for whom this is her full-time job!) would explain to all us new hires the options we have for a Car Care Plan. Plan A offers $5 co-pays for oil changes but we have to get our oil changed at particular places, Plan B has $10 co-pays but more freedom in choosing oil change shops, etc. Then on the basis of this we’d have to choose which Car Care Plan we want. We’d be stuck with this choice for a whole year, if we chose wrong we have to wait till the next “Open Enrollment”. Having thus chosen, we’d then get a plastic card to carry in our wallet (because Lord knows we don’t have enough of those), a huge amount of brochures and literature about our Car Care Plan (which of course we all read entirely, right?). And so every time my car needs an oil change, or gasoline, I have to have that card on me (if I forgot the card, can’t get the service – they don’t accept mere money, or at least, if I use money, there’s a huge markup), and pull out that card, and fill out some forms so that the gas station or oil change shop can properly bill our Car Care Group. (All gas stations and oil change shops have people on staff whose full-time job is to fill out and submit that billing and deal with all the paperwork involved.) Sometimes there are mistakes or I forgot to fill in one box, then my Car Care Group nags me and sends me a bill or says I have 45 days to clarify the paperwork if I want the thing to be covered. I might have to call them during office hours 9-5 to argue with them, convince them the thing should’ve been covered. Maybe I win the argument. Then maybe they send me a check, which I’ll have to deposit.

Ah, the convenience of being in a “Plan” to pay for and evaluate the cost of things, as opposed to the hassle and cost of using “money”! One predictable result is that I’d just stop taking my car in for maintenance. Too much trouble.

But health care is important, you say. I’m trivializing things by comparing it to car repairs. Well then, what about food, do we handle “Food” this way? Everyone needs food! Do we handle “Shelter” this way? Everyone needs shelter! Indeed, Food and Shelter are actually the most high-priority forms of health care. You don’t get either of those, you can forget about all the other aspects of your health (cholesterol level, etc.). So then, why don’t we have a system where your employer is expected and/or required to provide you with a “Food Plan” or a “Shelter Plan”? Instead what happens is that your employer gives you a thing called “money” in the form of a thing called a “salary”, and you use that “money” to obtain Food and Shelter yourself.


Oh, but health care is too expensive, you say. Well, one reason (not the only reason but one reason) it’s expensive is that people over-consume health care. Why? Because they don’t see the costs. Everyone (at least, many of those who overconsume) is in a “Plan” of some sort, which insulates them from the actual cost of their choices.

So why do it this way then? Well, it’s a historical legacy dating back to the ’40s. There were wage controls, and Congress came up with letting employers provide non-taxed benefits. So “health care plans” (among other things) were set up as ways for employers to offer attractive compensation that wouldn’t be taxed or controlled away, and they’ve been with us ever since. Take away the tax advantage, though, and just maybe the incentive structure starts pointing in a normal direction again.

I’m proud to say that I’m with President Obama 100%. (Again – assuming he’s sincere.)

Medieval Economics

They pushed through a giant pork/spending bill by calling it “stimulus” – a piece of terminology that means nothing based on gross theories about the economy that have no sound basis. If the economy recovers soon (though so far, things don’t look so hot), they will take credit and say the “stimulus” is what did it. If not, they will simply say that the “stimulus” wasn’t big enough. So either way they can’t be wrong. See how that works?

This is sort of like a medieval doctor who says that a patient needs to be bled to release his toxic humours and fluxions, etc. – pieces of terminology that meant nothing based on theories about biology that had no sound basis. If the patient recovers, the bleeding of the humours is what did it. If the patient doesn’t recover, and dies, well….I guess we just didn’t bleed the patient enough!

Same logical content.

All brought to you by the “Reality-Based Community”, of course.

Movie Question

Are they almost done turning all the comic books into movies yet? How many more can there possibly be?

Ok, I admit I liked Spiderman 2, Hellboy was pretty good, and the first X-Men was all right. And in fact Ghost World, which was terrific, was a graphic novel, so I guess that counts too.

But at this point we just seem to be scraping the bottom of the barrel, and I can’t wait till we get through this weird phase of movie history. What worries me is that it seems to be dragging on and on.

I believe there was a time in movie history when people thought it was weird that so many novels were turning into movies. Took it as a sign of laziness or inability to come up with original stories. Whatever the merits of that criticism, the comic-book-to-movie phenomenon seems to take things one step furtehr: perhaps not only are today’s moviemakers unable to come up with original stories, they’re unable to do their own damn storyboarding. A graphic novel, after all, is just a story contained in its own storyboard.

So I’m afraid we may be stuck with the phenomenon.


Catching up on posts I’ve starred.

  1. Patrick J. Michaels in a podcast:

    Either it seems you think the world is coming to an end from climate change, and pronto, or you say there is no such thing as climate change.…Now it’s gotten to the point where if you say climate change is real, but it’s not the end of the world, both poles of the debate get angry at you.…But, in fact, that is the truth: climate change is real; it’s modest. It’s proceeding at a rate that is below the statistical rates predicted by the climate models; in other words, those models are in the process of failing.

    My 2.1 regular readers know what I think about those models.

  2. Obama’s foreign policy as “Facebook diplomacy”:

    The focus here is on amassing “friends.” It matters not that you share no ideals or goals with these “friends.” The important thing is to collect them so that everyone can see how loved you are. You suspend judgement or discernment of any kind, and just “friend” everyone. Then you send your “friends” virtual goodies and wait for them to reciprocate.

    The only real thing about any of it is the time lost to silliness.

  3. The ‘Obama Bear Market’. It’s amazing, just six months ago, if the market was doing poorly, this was a valid reason to criticize the President, according to all the Smart People. I’ve been listening to people (a) whine about the economy and (b) blame President Bush over it, for practically the entire past 8 years. And the economy was doing well! It was in a freaking bubble! People were rich!

    Suddenly, those same Smart People, in the midst of a much much worse market, can find no words of critique for the President whatsoever. I wonder what has changed? Oh, right. Stupid question.

  4. Arnold Kling gives us Rachel Kling’s one-sentence summary of every sociology course: “There’s poverty and America sucks.”.

    I can take this further; I once observed that a sizable chunk of social-science education could be summarized by putting six letters (and some punctuation) on a chalkboard: “USA: Bad.” Just put that up, have the students look at it and copy it down, and then send them home. Think of all the man-hours, resources, and paper this would save!

  5. A commenter to Michael Totten asks a rhetorical question:

    I mean, how stupid are these guys? Do they think the reason why France & Germany didn’t join us in Iraq is because we weren’t nice to them– or that Britain joined us because we *were* nice to them?

    I’ll answer that: yes. Yes that’s exactly what some people on the left think. Or rather, it’s what they pretend to think, for the purpose of winning political arguments. (I’m not sure certain people know the difference.)

  6. Let me explain how the calculus works inside the heads of people, mostly on the left, who (unlike me) are paying close attention to The Great Jim Cramer-Jon Stewart debate of 2009:

    1. I’m a “progressive”.
    2. So, I like Obama, because Obama’s “progressive”. (After all he’s black and skinny and upper-class! He reminds me of the one black kid at my junior high. Anyone who was friends with him was automatically cool.)
    3. Obama did some stuff, like ‘Stimulus’, that I don’t know much about or have real arguments for, but Obama did it so it must be good.
    4. I heard someone latch onto “Keynsianism” as a justification for the policy, whatever it is, so I’ll just use that. The important thing is to unthinkingly defend the policy (whatever it is) against all criticism.
    5. Some guy named Jim Cramer on CNBC, which I’ve never watched before, criticized Obama. Obama! Therefore, regardless of the substance of the criticism, he must be STOPPED.
    6. Jon Stewart made fun of Jim Cramer? THAT’S AWESOME!!!!1 HA HA!!! Please keep making fun of people who criticize Obama, Jon Stewart, you’re my favorite! I’m totally linking that. Everyone go see a comedian make fun of someone who criticized Obama!

    Same thing happened to Sarah Palin and “Joe the Plumber”. Political debate conducted almost entirely through reflexive, unthinking ridicule and Comedy Central. That’s where we are.

    *Oh, sorry, I forgot to refer to the people with the preceding thought process as “the reality-based community”.

  7. The underappreciated scientific approach of Seth Roberts, in six words: “cheap frequent tests of something important”.
  8. We Giants fans have our problems with Barry Zito, and legitimately so, but just try to read this without tearing up.

Troop Shell Game

Important post at Greyhawk (HT Ace). Apparently a brigade of troops was diverted from Iraq to Afghanistan, which made the news, but then another brigade was just sent to Iraq in its place anyway. In other words, the stationing of troops was manipulated for purposes of PR.

Which is precisely what all you geniuses have been asking for the last five years, with the constant whining about whether/how many troops we have stationed in Iraq mostly from people who haven’t been and won’t be affected one way or the other by where troops are stationed. They are asking for symbolism over substance, and in President Obama, that’s what they have gotten.

Damn It Feels Good To Be A Banker

Guess this is kinda old, but I got a kick out of it.

That Brendan Benson Side Project

“Level” by the Raconteurs. (Whom you might know better as a Jack White-from-White Stripes side project, but they’re pretty good either way.)

Stimulus Math

Back in January, Nancy Pelosi famously misspoke by claiming that “Every month we don’t have an economic recovery package, 500 million Americans lose their jobs”.

Let me defend Nancy Pelosi. This was obviously just a misstatement. What she meant was that every month they didn’t pass the “stimulus”, 500 thousand Americans lose their jobs. It’s obvious that’s what she meant, so lay off her.

Well, since then, the “stimulus” was passed. And the new jobs report came out yesterday. Guess how many people lost their jobs in a month where the ‘economy recovery package’ did pass?

650 thousand.

So there’s your comparison: every month without a “stimulus”, 500 thousand jobs lost. I boldly predict that every month with a “stimulus”, there will be something around… 650 thousand jobs lost.

I guess Pelosi just left that last part out.

One Day Short Of A Full Year

364: That’s the number of blogs I currently subscribe to, according to my Google Reader. Almost one for each day of the year. If I don’t clean up my reader in a day or so I will easily get up to the “1000+ new posts” level. Thus, the whole endeavor requires constant maintenance and vigilance.

This surely raises the question: what is wrong with me?

Actually, 364 is the number of RSS feeds, not “blogs” per se. Some of them are local news feeds (I seem to have a strange fascination with following local news from places I used to live – far more so than when I actually lived there). A few of them are probably job-search agents from, like, 2007 and 2005 that still churn out jobs-by-keyword in fields I don’t work in. Some are robots that do things like find academic articles in this or that journal (and which I basically ignore). And a good chunk of them are probably dead blogs that haven’t posted anything in months or years.

But the fact remains that I seem to subscribe to, and follow, a HUGE amount of info streams (in theory – in practice I skim/skip through most of this tidal wave, of course). And it grows all the time, if only because I use Google’s browse/discover feature to let it recommend new feeds it thinks I might like (based on other folks who subscribe to some of the same stuff as I do), and am constantly subscribing to new things sight-unseen. In some cases this has meant that because one day I randomly decided to subscribe to, say, a physics blog, then after a while due to Google’s recommendations I slowly but surely end up exploring & subscribing to the entire ‘physics blog’ branch of the blogosphere, even though I rarely read any of them (even if I could understand them). Google has also apparently decided I’m really interested in the Seattle Mariners, in Israel, and in the mortgage industry – cuz my current recommendations are all heavily weighted toward those areas for whatever reason.

But what am I really looking for in all this flood of info? I guess I’m looking for very specific, niche, small type blogs, the fear being that there’s a blog out there that would be just perfect for me, enrich my life & bring me useful links and/or writing on a regular basis, and I just don’t know about it cuz it’s too small and/or never linked by others. You know, like this blog! I’m looking for blogs like mine, I guess. What an egomaniac.

The “subscribe to as much as possible and let Google recommend my way through the blogosphere” is one approach for drilling into the various branches of the ‘sphere, trying to find those few blogs – like Cobb, Curiosity, TMLutas, Mike Beversluis, and Sheila O’Malley that are each either smallish, valuable, and/or that I just feel lucky to have stumbled upon.

The problem is that my current method may not be a very good one. Looking at the above list, I don’t think I found any of those blogs that way. The more common vectors for these and other good finds have been: (1) following an impressive commenter on some larger, more popular blog; (2) exploring highly unique personal connections/interests through straightforward blog searching; (3) recommendations on blogs I like, and (4) folks who link to me – or to a former blog of mine – or at least, folks who are recommended by other niche folks who’ve linked to me.

The dual problem to all this is: how will the people (all 5-7 of them) who might be inclined to like my blog ever find it? Perhaps the preceding paragraph is an indication of the likely answer.


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