Thank God For Biden
January 31, 2010, 8:16 pm
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I wonder why nobody has mentioned the most important aspect of Year One of the Obama Presidency, which is that (thankfully for the U.S., and for the world, and humanity in general) it has meant that the Vice President is Joe Biden rather than Sarah Palin.

As you recall, had the 2008 election gone the other way, Sarah Palin would have ascended to the Vice Presidency, i.e. the most important and most crucial position of power known to humankind. Right-thinking people the world over gasped in horror because they recognized what a disaster that would have been, given the unparalleled importance of the office of the Vice Presidency. With Palin at the reins of the Vice Presidency, humanity probably would have been doomed. Because of all that stuff she would have done as the Vice President.

But instead, we got Biden pulling those powerful strings. And we’re so much better off for it with Biden (I’m pretty sure that’s his name) doing all that important Vice President stuff this past year, and for three more. Go Biden! Keep doing all that hugely pivotal and noteworthy Vice President stuff you do so well. I, and the world, thank you for it.

The Real Pigs At A Trough
January 31, 2010, 2:43 pm
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The idea is once again making the rounds in the blogosphere (see this BBC article, via Cognitive Science Blog) that plebes aren’t smart enough to vote their own self-interest.

This is a puzzle that has plagued caring, magnanimous lefty thinkers for ages: since lefty ideas are so obviously beneficial and salutary for plebes (indeed, as illustrated by the BBC article above, this can just be taken as a given: no argument for it is even necessary), why won’t the dumb plebes just pull the lever for them and let lefties do whatever they want?

I think this blog post from some time ago covered the response pretty well. Boy that’s a good blogger. (All right, yes, I admit, that’s a link to my own blog.)

But seriously, the fact that lefties continually see this as an inexplicable puzzle to be solved says a lot not merely about their own arrogance regarding the obviousness of their ideas, but more importantly, about how they view democracy and voting.

We are learning in a backhanded way that the lefty model of democracy is that people are supposed to vote, always and unfailingly, to maximize their wallets. Any deviation from this, lefties find inexplicable. In other words, lefties actively encourage (and see it as a ‘puzzle’ that needs ‘studying’ when it doesn’t happen) the notion of democracy as each person voting to do what’s best for Me, Myself, and I. The stereotypical/Adam Smithian homo economicus was never so simplified and extreme!

If Politician A promises to steal $5 and give it to me, but Politician B promises to steal $6 and give it to me, I’m supposed to vote for Politician B. And if I don’t, it’s puzzling. Hard to understand. This is seriously what lefties think.

The reason I seem to be belaboring this point is that it’s really quite striking: this attitude is a double-whammy of insult. Because the fact that lefties have this attitude shows contempt not only for the plebes whose interest they pose as defending (like that excellent blogger linked about said: that they are all just pigs at a trough), but for democracy itself. Their continued trotting out of this ‘paradox’ is a tacit admission that lefties see democracy according to the old adage: two wolves and a sheep, voting on what’s for dinner.

A final note, given that this is how lefties see the world and democracy, what does it say about their own policy preferences? Last time I brought this up I was roundaboutly sarcastic, but let me say it in a straightforward way: if this is what lefties think democracy is about, maybe it’s time we started examining lefty policies with a critical eye towards whom those policies will benefit – i.e., lefties. Often, upper class lefties.

Plebes may not reliably vote their own self-interest, but billionaire Al Gore certainly seems to.

Seriously, How Many Times And How Many Different Levels Of Sarcasm Am I Going To Have To Employ In Order To Say This?
January 30, 2010, 12:59 pm
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Ok, let me just say what I think plainly:

The guy (guys?) who keeps releasing these “audiotapes of Osama bin Laden” is not Osama bin Laden.

It’s just some fucking dude speaking into a tape recorder, and sending the tape off to fucking Al Jazeera, via which it apparently passes directly through to our media completely uncritically. Notice once again how every single news story about these things contains a passage like

The new message, the authenticity of which could not immediately be confirmed,

Read that. And think about it. Please! I challenge anyone, anywhere to explain to me just exactly why the hell they think the dude speaking on this tape is Osama bin Laden.

More to the point, I challenge our own news media to do their fucking jobs and investigate to confirm just exactly whether there is any factual basis whatsoever for believing this guy is Osama bin Laden. There’s a damn Pulitzer in it for the first reporter who embarrasses the entire Western media by proving that for the past four years they’ve been publicizing free of charge the wacky views of some random Chomsky-loving global-warming-believing Yemenite (or whoever he is) as the views of Osama bin Laden. Why won’t anyone do it?

Out Of One, Many
January 29, 2010, 3:30 am
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I still always get a chuckle when I hear someone (an individual, singular) referred to as “diverse”.

(One of the bosses told someone on the trading floor that their next new hire should be someone who is “diverse”.)

Health Care As A Utility
January 28, 2010, 11:45 am
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I complain a lot about how medical ‘insurance’ is used in this country, and about how its (mis)use betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of risk. But I don’t offer any solutions!, you chide.

Well, this post is not going to change that. But I did have some additional thoughts that may be more constructive.

Of course my basic complaint is that the role of insurance – hedging against large, surprising costs due to risky events – has gotten all mixed up and intertwined with the concept of a payment plan – regular payments designed to smooth out costs and perhaps benefit from package discounts. Seems to me the fact that ‘insurance’ has turned out this way must, on a fundamental level, mean that people just really want to buy all their medical care with payment plans.

Indeed, one of the most common complaints and fears people seem to have is paying for medical stuff ‘out of pocket’. Imagine someone needs a pill daily that costs $10 per dose. Listening to the average person on the subject of health care, it’s easy to come away with the impression that people would much much rather have a ‘plan’ that ‘covers’ that pill for $300/month than to have to buy that pill daily for $10/day. Even though the cost to them is the same either way (ok, pretend all months have 30 days for the purpose of this discussion). Doesn’t the $300 exit your pocket monthly either way? Actually, I suspect that the average person would actually be happier having a ‘plan’ that cost $350/month to ‘cover’ those pills than to have to (gasp) buy them ‘out of pocket’. People seem to value ‘plans’ so much, and fear this ‘out of pocket’ thing so greatly, that one gets the impression they’ll pay a premium for a ‘plan’.

People want to pay for their medical care via payment plans. They don’t want to have to see numbers when they’re actually at the doctor or pharmacist. They don’t want to be confronted with cash registers at the doctor. Rightly or wrongly, it’s pretty clear that’s what most people want.

The result is the system we have, and the constant politicizing of the so-called ‘insurance’ industry, pressure to ‘cover’ more and more things, to pay ‘out of pocket’ for less and less, and to get the government all involved and mixed up with what is ‘covered’ and who decides. In other words, the result is the intermingling of true insurance with buying routine medical care via payment plans. And this is what people like me don’t like. I wish I could buy an insurance policy that was just insurance for catastrophes/large costs, and then deal with other medical care – routine checkups, needed drugs, health maintenance, etc. – some other way. Whatever way I felt like, or thought was most economical, or most convenient. You know, like how I buy virtually all other stuff.

But let me try to meet everyone halfway. Because actually there’s nothing wrong with a payment plan per se. I do understand the appeal of it. And there are many, many other things we do buy on payment plans – an important subset of which we call utilities.

Take your cell phone, your land line, water, garbage, electricity and gas. Essentially we buy all these things on payment plans: we get billed once a month, and we use the things (or not) throughout the month. Although our bills can vary with the amount of usage (typically the bills are of the form base fees/taxes + a cost that scales with usage), we certainly don’t get ‘billed’ with every single usage – we don’t have to break out the credit card and pay ‘out of pocket’ for each flick of the light switch, each fill of the bathtub, each call to the friend down the block. And what a pain in the a** it would be if we did! There’s a fundamental logic in how these things are paid for – even I can understand that.

And so maybe people just fundamentally want their health care to be the same way – something you use, because it’s an ongoing human need, but you don’t have to break out the credit card for each time you use it. In other words: fundamentally, basic health care (if not emergency health care) is a utility. So let’s treat it like one.

Note that this approach is neither left-wing nor right-wing. It doesn’t necessarily mean government takeover of health care, but it doesn’t necessarily not mean a government takeover. The question is just what works better. Some utilities are essentially government monopolies, but others have been privatized to at least some extent, and some utilities have shifted back and forth between the public and the private. Electricity is typically quite public; in the case of cell phone companies, you are basically dealing with private companies.

Some benefits of this approach: it would leave room for shopping around (like people do with their cell phone plans). It might also make people stop and think, a little bit, about their seeming obsession with paying for things via ‘plans’. Notice that most people aren’t really all that happy about how cell phone plans work – signing lengthy contracts, paying high monthly fees whether or not they use it, etc. I submit that the way we pay for health care has a lot of the same problems (and more – after all, at least the government doesn’t incentivize our employers to garnish our paychecks to pay for our cell phone plans) – but people just don’t notice it because they don’t think about health care the same way that they think about their cell phone plans.

They should. And if Basic Health Care was essentially a utility, a monthly service, like cell phone plans, then maybe they would – and maybe they’d stop and see that what they’re asking for when they clamor for government to ‘reform’ ‘healthcare’ is the health-care equivalent of asking the government to take over Sprint and then force everyone to sign up for 50-year cell phone contracts in which the government has the power to limit the number of minutes.

Maybe people would stop asking for stupid, self-defeating things, in other words. Hey, I can dream.

Slang and Skin and Other Observations From A “Tea-Bagger” (?)

One of the more bizarre moments in Keith Olbermann’s bizarre rant against Scott Brown (deftly ridiculed by Jon Stewart) was when Olbermann called Brown “tea-bagging”. What the heck does that even mean? Brown is a “tea-bagging” so-and-so? As in, he likes to “tea-bag”? “Tea-bag” as a verb? And the act of “tea-bagging” is what, exactly, Mr. Olbermann? (Yes, yes, I am aware there is such a slang term that refers to something sexual, not exactly sure what, but I want to know what it’s supposed to mean in this context.) One of my pet peeves is slang shorthand, evidently from the internet, that literally doesn’t mean anything but enters the political lexicon.

Hate to break it to you lefties, but “tea-bagging” (or, being a “tea-bagger”) – to imply that someone “tea-bags” – just doesn’t actually really mean anything, yet in certain circles people say it to each other and nod knowingly and think they are communicating something. Other examples that come to mind: a couple years ago when lefties adopted the word “truthiness” from some other Comedy Central show and started splashing it around, thinking they were communicating something meaningful about President Bush; or the more generic, but equally meaningless, use of the word “wingers” – as in, lefties calling a conservative or a right-winger a “winger” (which still makes no sense to me – how/why is the word “winger” supposed to specifically connote right-wingers but not left-wingers?). In all these cases the only thing the use of these meaningless insidery-slang terms really communicates is ‘I read way way too many echo-chamber left-wing blogs’. It’s the political equivalent of dropping phrases like ‘all your base are belong to us’…just makes me want to back away, slowly.

Speaking of geniuses in the media, Chris Matthews just said he “forgot” Obama was black during the President’s State of the Union speech. Doesn’t this imply that prior to that, Obama being black had been in the forefront of Matthews’ mind?

Regarding President Obama’s appearance, the one thing I will say is that he has aged a lot. He now looks significantly older to me than he did just a year ago. Grayer hair, ashen face, sunken sockets. This is a known phenomenon that happens to all Presidents during their time in office, but I am a little surprised it’s taken only a year to affect this President. I wonder what he’ll look like three years from now.

This has been a bunch of shallow observations by your friendly neighborhood,
Sonic Charmer

Workplace Lessons
January 26, 2010, 3:54 am
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Lessons from a ‘fat cat’ grunt in the heart of President Obama’s favorite punching-bag industry….

  1. When someone senior to you says “we”, that means “you, not me”. As in: “We need to build a model to calculate such-and-such” or “we need to get data from so-and-so”. We meaning you. The person saying this will do no such thing, i.e. no thing, i.e. nothing.
  2. Whatever model/calculation/analysis you’ve been asked to do, when you’ve done what you were asked, and so (understandably) you think you’re done done, and you send it off, you’ll inevitably be asked to do it over again. Just with, like, one of the difficult-to-change parameters changed. “Yeah, this is great! But can we do it assuming that a year has 17 months?” (Corollary: Always do everything in the most generic way possible, assuming you’ll be asked to change everything, up to and including “# of months in a year”.)
  3. Senior people see no contradiction whatsoever between (a) not giving you all the data/info you’d need to model something 100% rather than 95% and (b) being surprised that you made assumptions regarding that 5%. “What?? We need to get the rest of that 5% of data”, they will say. And for what they mean by “we”, see #1.
  4. New hires to your team, somewhat paradoxically, mean more work for you. If they’re junior to you, you’ll just end up having to do everything yourself anyway. If they’re senior to you, they just become yet another person who gives you grunt work (and thinks they’re the only one giving you grunt work). If they’re roughly the same level as you, you’ll have to show them the ropes about, like, everything, they’ll be flooded with work at the start, and so will never have a chance to get up to speed to the point where they’re not relying on you. Any way you slice it – more work for you.
  5. Managers who are smart but don’t know how to navigate the politics well inevitably think the answer is more conference-call phone meetings. Long, drawn-out conference calls, full of people with accents who mumble.
  6. The lower someone is on the food chain, the less likely their email is to get to the freaking point and state what they need and who they need it from. A high-up person might send an email to one person (Jimmy) saying “Jimmy I need you to XYZ”, or (at most) Cc one other person, perhaps subconsciously so that the other person is a ‘witness’. A lower-down person meanwhile will forward an email chain to Jimmy, eight other people, and Cc’ing seven internal mailing lists saying only “Can someone please advise on the below?”

Osamsquatch, You Know His Hate Is Real
January 24, 2010, 1:35 pm
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Have you heard about the new “bin Laden” tape? Here’s how we know it’s really the voice of bin Laden, and thus newsworthy, according to CNN:

CNN could not independently confirm the authenticity of the message, but the CIA has in the past confirmed Al-Jazeera reports on tapes from the al Qaeda leader.

Well, that makes sense! There were some other tapes in the past that were also purportedly recordings of the voice of Osama bin Laden. Al Jazeera did reporting on those tapes. And the CIA “confirmed” those reportings. (And we all know and believe that everything coming out of the CIA is 100% correct.) Therefore, ergo, ipso facto, this tape is also the voice of Osama bin Laden, so we should all totally pay attention to what it says and discuss it and whatnot. On our blogs.

I know I’m convinced!

To borrow the impeccable logic of Tenacious D:

Scientists have proven that the Sasquatch, he is real.
Take a look at the plaster cast of his foot, now you know he’s real.
Listen real close to the audio tape, not human no you know he’s real.
Couldn’t be a man in gorilla suit, no fuckin’ way.
No, you know he’s real.
Real, real, real real, real, real, really real, real.

The Election Where Everyone Finds Out
January 24, 2010, 12:57 pm
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Following the apparent stalling of Obamacare due to Scott Brown’s Senate victory, I’ve seen various commentators make the point that at least some Democrats, given the seeming ease with which their momentum abates, are behaving as if they never actually wanted ‘healthcare’ reform to be passed in the first place. This seems to confirm my sitcom theory of ‘healthcare’ political dynamics. (Or perhaps I should call it, my Chandler-Phoebe theory? The Bing-Buffay Hypothesis?) Anyway, just call it The Election Where Everyone Finds Out.

Chandler: Okay, listen, how far am I gonna have to go with her?

Monica: Relax, she-she’s gonna give in way before you do!

Chandler: How do you know?!

Monica: Because you’re on my team! And my team always wins!

Chandler: At this?!

The Disillusioned Center-Left’s Case Against Obama: He’s Just Not Living Up To All That Stuff We Made Up About Him In Our Heads
January 23, 2010, 10:15 pm
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I suppose it’s only natural that we’re starting to see a few public changes of heart, come-to-Jesus moments, regarding President Obama coming from the left part of the spectrum. Theatrical statements of disapproval, of regret, of disappointment, of how he has “let them down” in this or that regard. Call it strategic distance-putting, call it sincere, call it what you will – but inevitably stuff like this does seem to happen anytime a formerly-beloved public figure dips in the polls. Here’s a typical example from Mort Zuckerman (“He’s Done Everything Wrong”).

I am certainly not a fan of President Obama (and indeed have become a bit less of one over the past year). But I do find myself wondering: what on earth are these lefties talking about? There is nothing that President Obama has done that wasn’t completely and entirely predictable. Exactly what is he doing that wasn’t expected of him? Packing his administration with no-private-experience ideologues? Expected. Antagonizing Wall Street and playing the populist? Expected. Trying to shove through a monstrous, opaque, intrusive ‘healthcare’ bill? Totally expected.

On all these things and more, I think President Obama, and his supporters, could just respond just by saying: “Um, we’re doing exactly what we wanted to do, and planned to do, and said we would do, and then you voted us into office by a landslide. So what the heck is the problem?” And you know what? They’d have a freaking point.

When folks on the left or center-left express disillusionment and dismay that President Obama hasn’t governed as some sort of pragmatic non-ideologue who unites the country, takes the middle road, and keeps the pork and yuck out of government, it seems to me that the fault lies not with Obama. It lies with the people who bizarrely believed Obama would do otherwise in the first place.

There was never any objective, factual basis for believing that President Obama would be any other way than what we are seeing. Apparently, a large chunk of Obama’s voting base consisted of people who invented some sort of counterfactual, reality-immune fantasy in their head and then voted for that fantasy when ticking ‘Obama’ on their ballots. I’m sure there are plenty of valid criticisms to be made of President Obama, but the fact that the real President Obama doesn’t correspond to naive, irrational voters’ fantasies doesn’t strike me as one of them.

Every Private Health Insurer In Existence Should Be Perfectly Free To Refuse To Cover People Who Have Pre-Existing Conditions

Sometimes it’s best to state one’s unpopular/out of vogue views directly and upfront with no sugar-coating. Let me try to explain straightforwardly what I already explained with sarcasm – a view I hold that, it seems, would cause people to consider me a Neanderthal in mixed company:

Insurance companies should be perfectly free to refuse to cover people who have pre-existing conditions.

Why? Well, I think we have to go back to basics and ask ourselves what an insurance company is, and sells: a group of people that sells a contract that says “pay us $X/year, and in return we promise to give you this list of payouts in the event that such-and-such health events occur”. (Obviously the role of “insurance” has drifted somewhat, because nowadays the payouts seem to trigger even on run of the mill events such as ‘regular checkup’, but that doesn’t change the preceding description.)

Insurance companies, of course, are private groups of people in a business to make a profit. They are not in it for charity. They do not even need to exist (they are not features of the landscape, nor groups of immortals). They are people, like everyone else. So in order for the whole thing to be at all worth it for them, they need the “$X/year” part to match up – more than match up – with the “list of payouts in the event” part. Otherwise, what the hell are they doing it for? Otherwise, why wouldn’t they just close up shop and send all their employees/actuaries to find other jobs?

That being established, let’s ask ourselves what a “pre-existing condition” is. Seems to me it’s a health condition that makes a person far more likely to need payouts. Right? If it means anything, that’s what it means.

Now then. If you’re far far more likely than the average person to need payouts, but you still think that insurance companies “shouldn’t be allowed to” refuse you an $X/year insurance plan, what are you saying? Essentially you’re saying you have the right to get something for nothing. You have the right to pay less for a contract than it’s actually worth to you. You have the right to demand that other people give you way, way more money than you’re giving them. Equivalently, that insurance companies (which, remember, are groups of people) – any group of people that happens to be associated as an ‘insurance company’ and that you decide to approach – are required to subsidize you upon demand.

But that is absolutely, positively, utterly freaking flat-out ridiculous. If that’s what you think, my only question is, what the hell is wrong with your head? Are you an idiot?

What the hell gives anyone, pre-existing condition or not, the right to demand that other groups of people “cover” them (i.e. give them large payouts in return for small streams of money)? Hello? Anyone? Can someone explain that to me?

If you have a “pre-existing condition” I certainly recognize that you’re in a bind. But trying to get the government to force other people to give you large sums of money (which is what such a rule amounts to) is not the solution. Hey, I’d like large sums of money too! Can I get the government to force other people to buy me a house in exchange for me giving them a baseball card? Pay for my kids’ college in exchange for me giving them a $2 bill?

The fact is that someone with a pre-existing condition is (on average) going to be getting huge huge payouts compared to the value of the typical “$X/year” insurance plan. A contract that says “we’ll pay out a million dollars if you pay us $800 a year” is going to lose that company money. Period. But companies do not exist for the purpose of signing contracts that lose them money. People at companies who sign such contracts get fired, as well they should. So companies certainly should not be forced by the government to sign contracts that lose them money. But that is what “covering” a person in known bad health is: a contract that is very very likely to lose an insurance company money.

Companies can and should be perfectly free to refuse to do so. There should be no legal restriction or even social taboo on any company that refuses to do so.

Alternatively, I suppose companies can (if they choose) quote such a person a true market rate for covering them. After all, even people with pre-existing conditions won’t cost their insurance company an infinite amount of money. Maybe if instead of paying $X/year the person would pay 10*$X/year, then the contract would be worth it to the company. That’s for the company to work out, and it’s for the person to decide whether they want to enter that arrangement. For the government to force the company to give that person a below-market rate (of only $X/year) is flat-out wrong.

And of course, all that really results is that the other policyholders, of average-or-better health, pay higher premiums because of it. In other words, healthy people end up subsidizing the unhealthy. If this is a good idea or a necessary one, let’s have it be done via a safety net – which we already have (it’s called Medicaid). Instead what we constantly see from “progressives” are proposals to launder their safety net through private companies via rules, regulations, and ridiculous distorting mandates. This seems to be today’s left’s new favorite method of socialism, yet in a way, it’s not a new method at all. Back in some of the early decades of the 1900s it went by the name fascism.

And it is wrong.

To Smarties, Details Don’t Matter
January 20, 2010, 12:04 pm
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The really strange thing is I’m still not sure most lefties really know or can articulate why they think it’s so important to pass this ‘healthcare reform’ thing they’re working on. I’ve already pointed out how the arguments they keep giving are utterly backwards and make no sense on their own terms. I’m still waiting to learn how the middle class being taxed more and fined for health care is supposed to be a solution to the problem ‘health care is too expensive for you’.

At this point it seems to just boil down to this:

  • President Obama needs an accomplishment
  • This is a big/giant/sweeping bill
  • That would count as an ‘accomplishment’, regardless of details

If I’m right this is nothing more than classic Smart People behavior. Obama (with his fans/syncophants helping) is working on a Class Project and wants to finish it for the Extra Credit this would bring him. Details of the Class Project don’t really matter as long as it meets the Assignment (‘pass healthcare reform’). If something-or-other that could be termed ‘healthcare reform’ were passed, then he could put a bullet-point labeled ‘passed healthcare reform’ on his College Transcript. And that’s about all there is to it.

Because details don’t matter.


Socialism, Dictatorship, Whatever You Desire: It’s All In The Commerce Clause

This article about the constitutionality of the health care mandate has a ‘constitutional expert’ make the following rather interesting argument that it falls within the commerce clause:

Wake Forest University constitutional expert Mark Hall says almost every legal scholar he knows considers an individual mandate for health insurance consistent with Congress’ power to regulate.

“An individual who goes out and tries to purchase health insurance cannot buy a policy that covers pre-existing conditions or that asks no medical questions. Such a product is simply not sold in most states, and it can’t really be sold economically unless we require most people to have insurance,” he said. “So the requirement is really part and parcel of the regulation of the structure and conditions of the marketplace that would allow a very desirable kind of product to be sold.”

Boiled down, this argument asserts that (1) if a ‘very desirable’ (according to someone) product doesn’t exist on the market because offering it would be noneconomical, then (2) Congress can do whatever it takes to make it economical, and be within their powers as stated by the Commerce Clause (note that even the pretense of this having to do anything with ‘interstate’ is subtly dropped by this expert).

Here’s a ‘very desirable’ product, in my opinion: a million dollars cash per year, guaranteed, for life. I mean, all else equal I think most people would agree that they’d rather have this product than not have it. Alas, it would be noneconomical for some corporation to offer everyone this ‘product’ (because under the terms as I’ve just laid them out, they’d be paying out a lot of money and not getting, well, any in return). Hence, Congress – per the Commerce Clause – can do whatever is necessary to make this product exist. Which in this case would basically mean Congress can confiscate any wealth above some maximum so as to give it to corporations as subsidies for the million-bucks-a-year-for-everyone program (the ‘desirable’ product we would like to artificially bring into existence). In other words, Congress can set up pure, equalizing, levelling socialism of a sort that the Soviets could only dream of. It’s all right there in the Commerce Clause!, according to a Constitutional Expert.

Here is another, equally-interesting argument:

And Yale legal scholar Akhil Amar said the fact that a requirement to buy health insurance would be enforced through fines shows Congress is exercising an even more fundamental constitutional power: its power to impose taxes.

‘Do X or we’ll fine you’ automatically lies within the Congress’s power to impose taxes. Fascinating. I suppose X can be anything and it doesn’t matter. It’s sort of like the Constitutional equivalent of ‘Jeopardy!': as long as Congress phrases their diktat in the form of a tax, it’s all kosher.

For example: “Don’t print that newspaper column critical of government policy”? Unconstitutional – First Amendment. “Print that newspaper column critical of government policy and we’ll fine you a billion dollars”? Constitutional – tax! “Don’t believe in God”? Unconstitutional. “Believe in God and pay a fine”? Constitutional – tax!

Sometimes I get the feeling that being a ‘constitutional expert’ nowadays is nothing more and nothing less than the the art of constructing arguments according to which the Constitution has no meaning whatsoever.

The Smart Position on “Healthcare”
January 19, 2010, 12:33 am
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Key points, if you’re a Smart Person:

1. You must spell it and refer to it as ‘healthcare’. One word. Because that’s totally a word. A totally real English word.

2. Your definition of ‘healthcare reform’ is ‘any sweeping, mammoth bill having something-or-other to do with healthcare coming out of Congress at a time when a majority of them have the letter (D) after their names’.

3. You, as a Smart person, support anything that qualifies as ‘healthcare reform’ per 2. regardless of details, which you don’t care about or (most likely) even really know about. Smart People don’t have to know any details whatsoever about ‘healthcare reform’ to know they’re in favor of it (and people who aren’t, are Dumb). As long as it’s big, opaque, expensive, and intrusive enough, and was written by (D)’s, then Smart People are sure it’s just fine.

4. You are free to make stuff up about ‘healthcare reform’ that isn’t included in any proposal on the table, and incorporate that made-up stuff into your argument for it. Whatever changes, realistic or fantastical, that you think ought to be made or fantasize about making to the ‘healthcare’ system, you are free to pretend they actually are part of this or that bill under consideration and (therefore) cite them as part of your Smart argument for passing said bill. Whatever grievances, real or trumped-up, that you have against the current ‘healthcare’ system are part of your Smart argument for ‘healthcare reform’ regardless of whether that ‘reform’ would fix or even address those grievances in any way.

Does the above description fit your position on ‘healthcare’? If so, give yourself a big pat on the back: you, my friend, are Smart.

Garbage Day
January 18, 2010, 9:26 pm
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And if she throws her heart away, I’ll be there on garbage day.

The Fading Postracial Ego Boost
January 17, 2010, 1:35 pm
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Looking at the below graph, howcome nobody thinks it’s strange that Obama’s approval rating has dwindled?

That graph comes from Matthew Yglesias in a post where he’s playing defense for Obama. So let’s take it as an upper estimate of Obama’s approval. So even in the best case, using numbers an Obama sycophant will admit to, he’s lost something like 20 points.

But why? Why should it have gone down at all?

The graph above shows there is a bloc comprising at least 20 percent of the country that was happy with Obama at the start, and now is not. Most explanations are focused on why those people aren’t happy with him now. But the real question is why were they happy with him in the first place?

The only idea fronted is that Obama’s gone ‘too far’ in various respects, and turned people off. This is a bit irrational. I submit there is nothing Obama has done or is doing that wasn’t completely predictable and that voters shouldn’t have known he was going to do from the start. Are you telling me it was unknowable and unpredictable that President Obama would try to shove through some kind of ‘health care reform’? What then? His policies today should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who wasn’t completely ignorant or in denial.

My explanation is that voters were simply irrational in the first place. Consistent with the views expressed by Bryan Caplan in Myth of the Rational Voter, a lot of people voted for Obama irrationally – without taking into account such things as what he would actually do. Instead Obama got a lot of support from voters on the basis of, well, being a black guy and how good it would feel to vote for a black guy. The psychological benefits of voting on this basis were pretty high, and the estimated costs pretty low, so that’s what a lot of people did.

According to my theory, then, the graph above is essentially a graph of those psychological benefits wearing off over time.

Riding The Next Bubble
January 16, 2010, 6:16 pm
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When addressing the economy and 10% unemployment, most political commentary seems focused on (a) what went wrong and (b) how to reduce unemployment.

I say let’s think outside the box and look on the bright side. (a) Actually, a lot went right, we’re just not appreciating it. (b) High unemployment may be the most cost-effective solution to our situation.

(a) First, any story of ‘what went wrong’ has to begin with the fact that China (for whatever reason) has spent at least the last two decades busily making stuff and giving it to us for cheap, including tons of big-ass houses for our middle class to live in. Guess what? That’s great! We still have all that stuff (for the most part) – and we still have all those houses. If this was a “bubble”, we certainly got the better end of it. China slaved away (and still slaves away) in factories. We shuttled back and forth between our McMansions and the Starbuck’s in our SUVs, idly entertaining ourselves.

(b) Second, the 10% unemployment is a double-edged sword in the sense that the reason many of those people are unemployed is that their former jobs simply weren’t economically viable. We could only afford to pay people to go and do jobs such as (e.g.) Diversity Coordinator For because of how uber-wealthy we all felt. To the extent such jobs were a deadweight loss, we may actually be better off just paying those people to stay home now (i.e. keeping them on welfare/unemployment) till they can find something genuinely economic/productive to do.

The Keynesian answer to that is ‘but that’s a waste!’ and so we’ll invent useful, ‘shovel-ready’ projects for all this idle labor to contribute to. Yet somehow I don’t see a whole lot of ‘shovels’ in the future of a laid-off web programmer. The Obama-Keynesian hybrid answer is that instead we’ll have a bunch of nice left-wing things for them to do such as Carbon Trading, Green Energy, Obama Youth Brigades, and something or other related to ‘Healthcare’ (but without healthcare training, i.e. middle-layer healthcare management of Obamacare). This is all a bunch of Disneyesque fantasy and it’s hard to see how any of it is more productive than unemployed people just staying home and enjoying themselves.

So what is my answer? Simple: let those people stay home, watch cable and surf the net in those cool granite-countered houses China bought for them until the economy figures out a genuinely good use of their labor. The downside people will see in my bold plan is that this will continue to drive down the housing market (i.e. too many vacancies, too many non-cashflowing rental slots…). I don’t think that’s a downside. Let’s take those houses China gave us and make them far more affordable. Why is that a bad thing?

The prediction that follows from this is that the next boom will come in whatever industry is best able to make use of people who, because they were unemployed but the ‘net is cheap, have spent 90% of their waking hours plugged into the net for however-many years this recession takes to run its course. In other words, it will be something very much resembling ‘blogging’, ‘twittering’, and so on – only profitable.

Figure out what that thing is, invest in it now, and you’ll make a killing. This has been another round of half-assed economic theorizing by your friendly neighborhood….

Sonic Charmer.

When Six Bosses Is Progress
January 16, 2010, 1:21 am
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The most problematic thing about having multiple bosses is when they basically don’t know about each other. The one boss will ask you to do something and talk as if he’s the only one who asked you to do something (or at least, not quite understand, or act as if he doesn’t understand, that other people ask you to do stuff too), and then wonder why each thing takes so long. If this is true of all bosses, that’s a problem. Someone has to want you to be paid.

That’s why a major goal of mine these past six months has been to shed bosses. I’ve had some successes. Circa mid-summer, the number of people who simultaneously knew about me, weren’t too high above me that they would just delegate rather than speaking to me directly, could credibly ask me to do something, and thereby expect it to be done in finite time, was approximately eight by my informal count. I have now successfully shed, through promotions, reassignments (including my own), or transfers, approximately six of those (working directly under the seventh).

However, over that time more people have started to know about me and give me stuff to do, and there have been some new hires, so net-net there are now about five new people who have been added to the ‘regularly gives me stuff to do’ category.

From 8 bosses in multiple groups, to 6 in just 1-2 groups, in six months – not bad I guess. They still act like they don’t know about each other and can’t understand why 100% of my time isn’t devoted to each of them though. Try as I might, I still haven’t figured out a way to devote 600% of my time to something.

Bitter Extract
January 14, 2010, 10:31 am
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One surprising thing about Mike Judge’s recent comedy Extract was that it just wasn’t that funny. But the most surprising thing about it was how he chose to deal with a key plot point. This will require a giant SPOILER so you’ve been warned.

The basic setup is that Jason Bateman’s character (under the influence of drugs and consistently horrible advice from his ‘friend’, Ben Affleck) has enlisted a gigolo to seduce his wife, so that he himself can have an affair with the hot, sociopathic Mila Kunis character without guilt. The gigolo is repeatedly shown to be none too bright. We see the gigolo phone Bateman the next day and report effortless success at the seduction, at which point Bateman (who initially didn’t remember the ‘plan’) becomes distraught. We see Bateman’s soft-core-porn nightmare-fantasy of how the seduction played out. Then we see the gigolo continually returning to the neighborhood. But for most of movie, we don’t actually see any direct movie-evidence that the gigolo and Bateman’s wife actually did anything.

My conjecture as an experienced movie-watcher, having seen similar situations play out over and over again in movies like this, was: the gigolo had gone to the wrong house and seduced the wife of Bateman’s annoying neighbor instead. This comedy setup was so obvious and the movie was playing it so coy and secretive about what had taken place between the gigolo and Bateman’s wife that I was about 99.5% sure this was how it would play out. And I was not alone, far from it.

But closer to the end of the movie, we learn in an abrupt scene that the affair had indeed taken place all along, there was no mistake or misunderstanding about the address or anything, the straightforward explanation was correct. When this happens the movie almost audibly goes ‘clunk'; it feels like a golden (if obvious and comfortable) comedy opportunity dropping and fizzling in midair. But more importantly it feels weird by how much it stands out as a non-obvious choice. Why did Mike Judge write it that way when the more obvious and safe comedy approach would just have been to send the gigolo to the wrong house? (Compare with Office Space – at one point Peter had thought the Jennifer Aniston character had slept with his boss Lumberg, but it turned out to be a different Lumberg. This was a more ‘standard’ comedy choice that preserved Aniston’s likability as a character.)

In a way, comedies having the female lead be unfaithful is a daring, bold choice, I suppose. It’s certainly not cliche or the norm. The Hangover, which came out around the same time, also featured female infidelity prominently. But historically, most such movies wouldn’t dare to do this, for fear that the female becomes too unlikable to the audience (which of course was not a problem for The Hangover, since she was supposed to be). It would be the comedy equivalent of, say, having Jason Bourne (whom the audience likes and roots for, but is a killer-assassin after all) kill a kid – something the Bourne movies didn’t dare to do either.

Apparently Mike Judge wasn’t overly afraid of this sort of audience alienation. Why? Possible reasons:

1. The audience has changed over the years, and now wants women to cheat on men. That’s the new thing. Women in the audience dig on it, as a fantasy. Feminists in the audience think it’s only ‘fair’, after all these years of things being in the other direction in movies.

2. The men in the audience (and Mike Judge) wanted Bateman to be able to sleep with Mila Kunis. Under current PC or feminist or whatever unwritten rules, Judge couldn’t get away with this unless he also had Bateman’s wife be unfaithful fifteen times over. Similar, Ed Helms in The Hangover couldn’t get away with whatever Vegas debauchery we weren’t shown, and accidentally marrying the stripper/escort character, unless his fiancee was demonstrated to be a super mega b***h a zillion times over. In a sense, the Ben Affleck character was right all along: to morally be able to have an affair, Bateman had to get his wife to have an affair too.

I see the answer as a combination of 1. and 2. They really go together, after all. I do think the audience has changed. I also think movies like Extract and The Hangover, while trying to play by the rules of this new audience, are also primarily made for men as a reaction to this ‘new thing’. Both movies want their men characters to assert themselves and their independence, to get more respect than they’re given, to be treated better by their women (let’s not forget that the context for the main action in Extract is that this successful, good company president has a wife who ignores him and won’t sleep with him; and the temptress is an amoral female con artist who shows up with the intent to rip everyone off and take advantage of them). These movies even want their men to fool around a bit on the side (albeit they have to have the women fool around too, to be able to get away with this).

Maybe that’s why they’re not all that funny: because while on the surface they’re comedies, deep down there’s a sadness to them. These are movies fundamentally coming from a place of male bitterness – bitterness at how they’re being treated by women nowadays.

January 13, 2010, 1:41 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Starred in my Google Reader:

  • Kenneth Anderson at Volokh Conspiracy wants us to reaffirm the 1989 Sofaer doctrine on non-state actors & self-defense. (No, I had no idea there was such a thing either. That’s why it’s such an important post.)

    The essential element is that there is a category of use of force in self defense that is neither law enforcement, nor is it armed conflict in all the specificity of the laws of war because the use of force does not rise to the level of sustained fighting required under treaty and customary law of war. It is its own category, self-defense; it is not standardless, because it is subject to the customary law requirements of necessity and proportionality [...] If a state cannot or will not control its territory, the United States has no legal obligation to sit idly by — in armed conflict or out — to watch it being used as a safe haven for non-state actors.

    A zillion undergraduate-level arguments based on variations of ‘terrorism is a noun you can’t declare war on a noun dude!’ just went poof.

  • People ask why I read Steve Sailer. A big reason is that he often says things that are just damn interesting, such as “most careers in 21st Century America are more or less in marketing”.
  • A status theory of blog commentary, at Meteuphoric.
  • The House Next Door considers whether Pixar is conservative. Cited not so much for the discussion itself (which is fairly straightforward/obvious) as for this remarkably-hedged statement:

    Such conservatism is also not antithetical to great art.

    It’s really hard to like Pixar movies and admit some of them have conservative themes simultaneously. You see, sometimes, some people are just really embarrassed to be seen saying anything that could be construed as non-derogatory of conservatism.

  • Whiskey with another fascinating discussion of the feminization of TV shows and how it kills revenue. Reminds me, I think the new 24 season starts soon?
  • Bookworm: “One of the defining features of Islam is its obsession with sex.”. Well yeah, it’s almost as if the whole religion exists solely to make sure any chicks I have sex with only have sex with me, unless they’re prostitutes.
  • I got really bored trying to look into “the Chait-Manzi debate” and still haven’t quite figured out what the hell it’s all about. I disagree with Paul Krugman though, that much I’ve sussed out.
  • Witty rejoinder department, via Megan McArdle: a shocking pattern in the layout of Woolworth’s department stores.
  • Charles Rowley says

    the Keynesian model [...] has been resuscitated by opportunistic economists, not because they believe in its merits as an agent of macroeconomic rehabilitation, but because they recognize its political value as a weapon for moving economies from laissez-faire to state capitalism, or (hopefully) beyond that to fully-fledged socialism.

    I totally agree, of course, but this makes discussion impossible, or at least irrelevant. I can’t discuss things with people I do not believe to be sincere. I have been listening to people pretend to believe in “Keynesianism” and “the multiplier” for a year and a half now, and I don’t believe a damn bit of it – and (in my not so humble opinion) neither do they. I guess all I can do is wait and see if they ever decide to stop faking and engage in honest conversation.


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