Monday, December 28, 2009

Why is it OK to hate rednecks?

One of the big frustrations with the secular community is you can't excommunicate anyone.

Wishful targets include the lawsuit-happy Freedom From Religion Foundation, which wastes resources on little details like attempting to block missionaries from American prisons and promotes the "Winter Solstice" as an alternative to Christmas.

Another ripe target is an atheist YouTube user who posted their version of the ten commandments. More of a text slide show with pirated music then an actual video, this submission is a cluster of heavy-handed and awkward political insertions like "thou shalt not kill - nor empower your government to kill for you."

But it was commandment number six that really caught me off guard.

"Thou shalt treat all human beings as equal regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation and culture." [SIC]

Sounds well enough, but then it was immediately followed by this message.
"This one is the hardest. It is difficult for the yokels sitting on the front porch playing the banjo to understand abstract notions such as belonging to the tribe of humans not just the immediate tribe in which they marry their sister."
How ignorant does someone have to be to write a message of tolerance than betrays ones own prejudices in such a harsh manner? I'm not one to run around being offended all day, and I'm kind of used to seeing this view, but not smack in the middle of a tolerance lesson.

If we look at that this through the lens of Thomas Sowell's Black Rednecks and White Liberals, where the divide between urban blacks and rural whites is blurred, we see that the statement could be rewritten as:
"This one is the hardest. It is difficult for the darkies sitting on the stoop drinking malt liquor to understand abstract notions such as belonging to the tribe of humans not just the immediate tribe in which they rape a white woman."
How is the second, modified statement any less crude, offensive or hateful than the first? Unfortunately, the first statement is socially acceptable in American culture, while the second one is thankfully unacceptable.

The word for this prejudice put forward by Dr. Warren Farrell in his 1993 book "The Myth of Male Power" was "ruralism." The term is badly needed, but obscure in the popular culture. What I find frustrating is that the same people who are leading the charge against the more antiquated forms of prejudice and discrimination, like sexism and racism, have no interest in thwarting ruralism, and worse of all, are unabashed to make ruralist statements and jokes in public.

It's very painful to watch sometimes. I know there are other people that see ruralism the same way, but I feel very alone when I witness it. Maybe it's a good thing I can't be excommunicated from the secular community for asking this, but why is it OK to hate rural people?


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The superficial nature of video game protests

When Microsoft put the download-only Shadow Complex on sale this week for a mere $10, it renewed my amusement in a politically-motivated boycott of the game.

The reason for the boycott is a little drawn out. Shadow Complex takes place in the same world as Orson Scott Card's Empire novel. Besides being a sci-fi author, Card is also a vocal opponent of gay marriage. While Card was not directly involved in the development of the game and his unwelcome message is not included in the game, he did receive royalties from Epic Games.

While the Shadow Complex boycott failed to make a significant impact, it's mean-spiritedness and feigned outrage is reminiscent of the campaigns to scare away the advertisers of radio hosts Glenn Beck and Don Imus. The difference is the Shadow Complex protesters sound like they would indeed like to play the game, while the anti-radio protesters don't actually listen to those programs.

Other superficial video game protests included a push to not release Devil May Cry 4 on the Xbox 360 and a general whine-in that Left 4 Dead 2 came out too quickly after the first title.

When did gay marriage become the litmus test for human decency? Don't get me wrong, I'm a strong supporter of gay marriage and it will be a victory when it becomes the norm. That being said, it is not equal to the American civil rights struggle that peaked in the 1960's.

Some on the left try to compare the quest for the rights of blacks to the modern gay rights movement. You can't compare an era of reckless racial violence and oppression to a period with rude talk from religious figures. Indeed, it seems some on the left have a nostalgia for the civil rights struggle - when good and evil was easy to see - and wish they'd had the chance to participate in that noble effort.

While Card is on the wrong side of the gay marriage debate, his view is actually pretty common and his involvement in Shadow Complex is minimal. In addition, Card's view on gay marriage is completely separate from the Shadow Complex experience - one has to read up online to know anything on the subject.

Compare that to some of the direct progressive political messages in video games. The Mirror's Edge intro cutscene includes a left-wing fable about the evil police state beating up peaceful protesters. Every Mass Effect subplot involving a corporation reveals they have zero ethical standards and break the law whenever it can result in higher profits. Even the Fallout universe has an intact Republican party to draft evil presidents from.

While these sort of views may make me groan, I have learned that video games are just one more place I have to tolerate different ideas. Perhaps the people who really want to play Shadow Complex, but won't allow themselves to, haven't learned this lesson yet.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Youth rebellion takes dressy turn

A New York times piece on young men dressing better than their parents outside of work raises an interesting question.
Today the well-off 55-year-old is likely to be the worst-dressed man in the room, wearing a saggy T-shirt and jeans. The cash-poor 25-year-old is in a natty sport coat and skinny tie bought at Topman for a song...

“I think it’s a reaction against the homogeneity of casual wear,” said Gordon Henderson, the design director of Topman. “There’s nowhere to go with that in terms of personality, whereas a suit sets you apart. And now there are suits that are cut for young people. There’s never been that before, so it’s new to them.”
Why has youthful rebellion always been restricted to a narrow template of automatically rejecting societal norms and the signs of achievement?

I remember a class in high school categorized our political views and I was shocked to find myself in the dreaded republican camp. I didn't know any of the positions the different parties or philosophies took, but I had it in my head that Republicans were the bad guys in Washington. It was just the natural thing to believe after hearing all the jokes and snide remarks over the years.

As I came to terms with this, I realized that youthful rebellion was sort of stupid and predictable. Instead of taking it in the direction MTV wanted me to go, I ended up rebelling against my generation.

In college I started wearing suits, ties and vests for fun. I got it into my head after watching the scene in Trainspotting where Sick Boy dresses up for the big heroin deal. After college, I was the one guy in my newspaper office who regularly wore a tie. I now own more suits than pairs of jeans.

It's interesting to me that more of my generation has come around on this issue, although it took them a little longer to get here.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

More proof health care reform is needed

An econ blog entry from the New York Times makes a good argument for why some form of health care reform is needed.

I hear a lot of people on the right say America has the best health care system in the world. I think what they mean is America has the best health technology. Although a bad reform plan would destroy further innovations in health technology, the focus is on the way we distribute that technology. That's what the issue is about today - changing our health care insurance laws.

The current system is heavily regulated and filled with flaws. It is not, as some on the left assume, a market-based system. While our current system does encourage some technological innovations, it could still be better and the GOP is currently backed in a corner where they have to fight a nationalized health industry.

Unfortunatly, this fight, while important, takes the form of preserving our current system - and our current system of health care distribution is flawed.

Thanks to Brad Delong for the link.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Can you spot the fallacy?

Allstate has been making a claim on television for a little while and today they mailed it directly to me.

There was a logic failure in Allstate's premise that jumped right out at me. Do you see it too?

"Nearly 7 out of 10 customers who switched their auto insurance to Allstate paid less. In fact, drivers who switched saved an average of $396 per year!"

Someone who reads this quickly may believe seven out of 10 people will save money by switching to Allstate, but that's not what it's saying. The figure listed only considers the people who did switch, not the entire pool of potential customers.

Here's a possible scenario: Gordon already has car insurance, but thinks about switching to Allstate. He gives Allstate his information and the quote reveals that switching would cost him more money than staying with his current insurance company. Gordon does not switch, and is therefore not calculated in the advertisement.

Jack, on the other hand, has a different driving record and lifestyle and is given a quote from Allstate that will save him money. He gets counted in the "Nearly" seven out of 10. Because he'll save money, it's reasonable to see why he switched.

Unfortunately, this figure doesn't tell us how much of the population is like Jack and how much is like Gordon. It doesn't even tell us if the people who switched opted for less coverage.

When you strip away the clever wording, the only thing Allstate has told us that it is indeed possible to save money by switching to their service, but winning customers with that lead is a hard sell.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Most people have good intentions

One thing I have a hard time tolerating is when I hear an activist speak about the secret evil intentions of their opposition.

How many times did I hear that George W. Bush was making all of his policy decisions to help the oil companies? What about Republicans who were "obstructing" the government health care plan in congress to help the insurance industry. From the right we hear people say President Barack Obama is purposely trying to destroy the American economy with welfare state programs.

The big assumption these people make is that the opposition agrees with them on economic matters. For example, that President Obama believes a government-run health care program would cripple the American economy and drive up costs because he wants to orchestrate a post-America totalitarian state. Perhaps he also dons Abe Lincoln's hat and twirls his mustache while tying women to train tracks.

But here's the rub - reasonable people disagree on some pretty big subjects. Economists are split pretty close to the middle on the impact of minimum wages. About half believe they help poor people by raising their income, the other half believe they destroy jobs that unskilled, impoverished people can hold.

But outsiders - most of whom haven't bothered to learn the issue in any great detail - say the other side is lying to cover a hidden agenda. The anti-minimum wage economists were bribed by corporations, they may say, or the pro-minimum wage economists are part of a secret socialist cabal.

Look at the rancor around the reputations of John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman in political discussions. Conservative activist David Horowitz includes Keynes' book "The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money" on his list of 50 worst books of the 20th century. Conversely, the mere mention of Friedman's name is enough to bare the teeth of any sociology grad student.

But the economists aren't on board for either of those extremes.

Bradford Delong and Greg Mankiw identify themselves as students of both Keynes and Friedman, saying that although the two economists disagreed on some policy directions, both shaped our understanding of modern economics. Friedman picked up where Keynes left off and you need to read both to understand the world.

While Keynes and Friedman disagreed on a lot of policy decisions, they both shared the scientist's role of trying to find the truth. Both of them made political recommendations that they thought were in the best interest of everyone.

But sometimes good intentions aren't enough. The law of unintended consequences shows that very good people, with the noblest of intentions, can do some pretty terrible things.

Take socialist Julius Nyerere, the first president of
Tanzania. Nyerere, a former teacher, was a wise man of great integrity. His priority was to help the people of his nation - a rare leader in the corrupt African political world. Unfortunately, his collectivist policies destroyed the Tanzanian agricultural industry.

Nyerere is best remembered by his send-off from The Economist following his death in 1999:
“He was a magnificent teacher: articulate, questioning, stimulating, caring. He should never have been given charge of an economy.”
My favorite line from the 2008 presidential debates is when Barack Obama said that his opponent John McCain really does think his policies would help America, but "He just doesn't get it."

Funny, that's exactly what I think about President Obama.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sci-Fi Socialism

The biggest flaw of a planned society is information. My compatriots will usually say the flaw is the lack of incentive to spend other peoples' money responsibly, or the different values people place on things. Both of these points are valid, but they are smaller hurdles than the information problems.

The big problem is that information is not centralized, and a central planner doesn't know the best way to distribute all resources. As Sean Masaki Flynn wrote of the Soviet Union:

"The entire problem is far too complex and requires too much information to be solved. The result was that resources were constantly being misdirected and wasted. For instance, food often rotted at farms because no railcar had been scheduled to take it to cities; the officials hadn't accounted for an early harvest, and the railcars were busy elsewhere. In a price system, the farmers would have simply paid to bid the railcars away from other uses. This solution wasn't possible in a centralized economy in which prices weren't used to allocate resources.
However, as much as I agree with this, one thought has always stood out - what if someone designed an intelligent computer program that could include every detail of every persons waking life? Wouldn't that solve the problem better than capitalism.

Like many hypothetical solutions, it turns out someone already thought of this plan - and implemented it in 1970's socialist Chile. That brings us to the link I stumbled upon today that inspired this post. Project Cybersyn was an attempt to rule an economy from a digital center.

So how well did it work?

Awful. It didn't work at all. Partially because of tech limits of the day, and partially because the focus was making a project that looked like it would work, instead of actually making it work.

But if Cybersyn had both of those problems what would happen if they were fixed? What if we had modern computers, or even futuristic computers? Wouldn't that work.

Well, no. This still doesn't solve the problem of centralizing information. Each person has their own wants and desires that cry out to be satisfied. How can we understand all of those at once? Look at the trouble the government ran into trying to centralize information on it's own "stimulus package."

The only way the government knows how to get information together to its central command is to ask people to fill out forms in great details. We can see how well that turned out. It doesn't look like there's a new way solving this problem - just an existing one.

That solution is capitalism. People will simply spend their money on the wants and desires they find the most important. When they don't have enough money, they will have to make some compromise. This is also a quick response - a lot quicker than the slow wheels of government.

But hey, if you can think of a new system that communicates what resources people needs, takes into account how precious those resources are in relation to the actual important of the desire, and does so in a fast, productive manner that doesn't violates basic human rights standards, than I'm all ears.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

Conservative litmus test

There's been a lot of undeserved attention to a list of supposedly conservative principles grandiosely named the "Resolution on Reagan’s Unity Principle for Support of Candidates." A "true conservative" is supposed to support at least eight list of the ten positions.

Naturally, I expected a bunch of TheoCon blathering about Bibles, taxes and abortion; a dead-serious parody of Glenn Beck's nine principles and 12 values, with the name of The Gipper plastered onto the title for undeserved credibility.

I was hoping to fail out miserably, just to confirm my belief that the Republican party members who speak up are the no-nothing yokels. So how did I do?

Sadly, inconclusive. Two of the issues I honestly couldn't answer with a simple yes or no, and two I disagree with. The list reads:
(1) Smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes by opposing bills like Obama’s “stimulus” bill
(2) Market-based health care reform and oppose Obama-style government run healthcare;
(3) Market-based energy reforms by opposing cap and trade legislation;
(4) Workers’ right to secret ballot by opposing card check
(5) Legal immigration and assimilation into American society by opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants;
(6) Victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges;
(7) Containment of Iran and North Korea, particularly effective action to eliminate their nuclear weapons threat
(8) Retention of the Defense of Marriage Act;
(9) Protecting the lives of vulnerable persons by opposing health care rationing and denial of health care and government funding of abortion; and
(10) The right to keep and bear arms by opposing government restrictions on gun ownership
Questions 1 and 2 were basic libertarian fiscal positions, although they really had no cause to mention Obama in the wordings. Free market economics are an eternal concept, Obama is just modern representative of the opposition. Perhaps the authors simply found it politically convenient to paint the alternate view in terms of Obamitude.

The third question doesn't have an easy answer. Can't I support market-based energy solutions without taking a stand on cap and trade? I've studied the issue extensively and it's got a lot of advantages over past legislation. The most obvious being that is solely measures the output of pollution - instead of forcing a specific measure of reducing emissions. Basically, it is a market-based solution, although in a government-regulated arena. I'm not sure where I stand on the issue so I can't say I support that principal.

Questions 4, 5 and 6 are fine, although I don't try to gussy up my opposition to amnesty by saying I'm motivated by protecting legal immigration.

What worse than that is the cowardly working in question 7. In specific that phrase "
particularly effective action" in place of what I can presume means going to war. I'm reminded of my favorite line from George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language" just after the sample paragraph of an English professor defending murderous Russian totalitarianism with cloudy wording. Orwell wrote:
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”
I believe in keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Iranian government, which operates under the belief that Allah has given them the right to kill infidels. I believe in going to war for that, if we must. What I don't believe in, however, is lending my name to a principle written like what a human resources manager would say to a crying orphan.

Question 8 I just flat-out disagree with, and as I've said before, is inconsistent with conservative principles. Opposition to gay marriage is about limiting what social contracts adults can make, passing an official interpretation of the Bible and all under a big federal law signed by Bill Clinton (and sadly sponsored by Libertarian Bob Barr)

Question 9 takes something I agree with, keeping payments for abortions private, and grafts it with something unrelated that I don't; opposing rationing. Other possible phrases for rationing: Medical triage, cost-benefit analysis and not putting an infinite value of human life.

Question 10 is an easy one - keeping guns in private hands. It's too bad, because this far in this frustrating list I was really hoping for a third item I could conclusively disagree with.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Health care wish list

There's a lot of talk today on why health care is so expensive, and there's plenty of explanations being offered. I've heard speakers on the left say its as simple as greedy insurance companies, and speakers on the right say... well, there isn't really a consensus from the right, just a lot of talk about how our current system helps people pretty well and it would be ruined by a government plan.

I've already demolished the silly and intellectually lazy "greed" explanation, and the Republicans are confusing our health care technology with the way it's distributed. Both of these views are wrong, but still dominate the debate today. The truth is, our current system has a lot of problems and needs to be reformed.

With three weeks until the 25th, it would be a Christmas miracle if our representatives could address the following issues that drive health insurance costs up:

*Stop covering routine checkups. Insurance is about spreading the risk of a catastrophe around; a bunch of people pay a little and the ones who are unfortunate get to use it. Instead, we have health care plans that cover yearly checkups, and people have no incentive to shop around for the cheapest doctor. Instead of a restaurant model where you pay for what you take, the American health insurance system is set up like a cruise ship: Once you get your ticket and board the ship, you stuff yourself at the buffet until it hurts to eat. Stop insulating people from these costs.

*Bring higher co payments into the equation. One of the biggest problem we have with is people consuming too many health care products; resource-heavy treatments with few benefits - if any at all. Robin Hanson explains why using more drives up costs, but not health. We need a way to discourage people from taking what they don't need.

*Thwart the insurance oligarchy by allowing people to purchase health insurance from other states. Currently no states allow it, and that's why we don't have a Geico equivalent for health insurance. These silly restrictions bring costs up by blocking competition.

*End mandated coverage requirements. Special interest groups, such as chiropractors, lobby to force insurance companies to provide their services. Chiropractors are like Shriner clowns - silly on the surface, but surrounded by the hurt and writhing. I want to be able to find a health insurance plan that doesn't cover nonsense like spinal massages, magic wands or therapeutic astral projections.

*Provide "death panels." I'm sure they're rather be called triage teams, but there's nothing logical about this right-wing scare tactic against a government-run health care plan. As Milton Friedman said, "Nobody can accept the principal that an infinite value should be put on an individual life." There is a limit on how many resources should go into helping one person, be it in a life-or-death matter or something trivial. It's what the health insurance companies do now, and should continue doing.

*Tax health care benefits. Companies don't "provide" health insurance to their employees - they lower their wages and buy health insurance with the money. One of the reasons companies do this is a tax dodge - this switcheroo currently keeps people from having to pay their full share of taxes, even though health care is just as much a part of their salary as the dollar bills.

*Snag the freeloaders. I suppose it's good that we have legislation that force hospitals to treat everyone, but hospitals have little recourse for people who choose not to pay for health insurance and just head to the Emergency Room when something comes up - knowing they won't have to pay. We could install some kind of debtors prison system or work-release program. Anyone who doesn't like this solution is free to start a charity to pay for those bills.

*Cap malpractice insurance. People don't sue bad doctors for malpractice; they sue doctors they don't like. These lawsuits drive up the cost of being a doctor- even good doctors have to pay an armload to insure against it. Even if this has no impact on insurance rates, this solution comes with the added bonus of keeping money out of the hands of lazy freeloaders and black-hearted lawyers.

*Accept that price increases will not go away. Health technology is unique that instead of getting cheaper over time, like calculators and televisions, the price keeps going up. We have to realize that as we find more and more ways to improve the quality of a life, it will consume more and more resources in line with the complexity.

*Don't cherry pick the examples when talking about other government-run health care programs. There's a lot of talk about how well a government program works in another country. However, there are relevant examples of programs that failed in America. If you want to talk about the strengths of these programs, make sure you address the problems that caused similar programs to fail.

*Solve the pre-existing condition puzzle. This is the big riddle in health insurance. Poor people who already have a health problem can't get coverage for something they already have, but simply forcing health insurance to cover these costs would drive up costs. Just like letting people buy car insurance after an accident, covering pre-existing conditions would discourage people from buying insurance. That defeats the entire idea of insurance. One solution is forcing everyone to buy health insurance, but that didn't work very well in Massachusetts
. I don't know the solution to this problem.

I hope my list is enough to lay the foundation for a good understanding of what's wrong. I make no claim to have the solution to a very complicated problem, but I do believe these concerns need to be part of a real reform.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Feel good about buying from sweatshops

With the Christmas shopping seasonal in full swing, it's easy to be scared away from buying perfectly good gifts because some activist has told you they were produced by sweatshop labor. For a long time, I thought that's a good caution to factor in. Like most people, I had never heard what economists had to say on the matter, and was unaware that my "moral" position wasn't merely wrong, but harmful as well.

I'd love to be able to punch out the perfect post on why sweatshop labor is the best thing to happen to the people of poor nations, but Paul Krugman already wrote the definitive short essay back in 1997.

Go on, read it. I'll wait right here.

Krugman convincingly states that as bad as sweatshop labor is from our perspective, it's better than the inhumane labor alternatives the workers would otherwise be doing. It also has the unintended consequences of improving the standard of living for the poorest of the world's poor - something foreign aid has failed to do.

Krugman isn't alone in this view. Other liberal econ bigwigs such as J. Bradford Delong and Jeffrey Sachs have not been shy about the positive effects of sweatshops, although Krugman has the harshest words for the opposition.

The Nicholas D. Kristof piece from the Delong link probably has the best introduction line for sweatshops:
They should start an international campaign to promote imports from sweatshops, perhaps with bold labels depicting an unrecognizable flag and the words "Proudly Made in a Third World Sweatshop!"
I've seen plenty of liberal churches host bazaars selling handmade third-world crafts, such as wicker baskets and wooden bookends, with the intention of drumming up business for the impoverished artisans. However, the same feeling of generosity isn't there when someone buys a top-notch pair of GAP Original Khakis. Still, the money is going to help the same sort of person, although perhaps one who was not blessed with artistic talents.

On that subject, Krugman closed his aforementioned 1997 piece with the following: long as you have no realistic alternative to industrialization based on low wages, to oppose it means that you are willing to deny desperately poor people the best chance they have of progress for the sake of what amounts to an aesthetic standard--that is, the fact that you don't like the idea of workers being paid a pittance to supply rich Westerners with fashion items.
Couldn't have said it better (or as harshly) if I wanted to. Happy holiday shopping, and please remember to buy global.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Herbal industry poisons the free market

It's rare to find an issue where I side with a Republican over a Libertarian, but today's David Frum column on herbal supplements brought on that unfamiliar feelings.

As Frum correctly spelled it out, the FDA was neutered interfering when herbal hucksters make fraudulent health claims by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. This labeled herbal supplements as "dietary supplements;" so herbs are now considered food and not drugs.

But herbs really are drugs - that is, unless they do nothing. Then they're just a placebo.

I've had to come to terms with this. For once, my concern is that the laws don't let the bureaucrats in the Food and Drug Administration do enough. As much as I love the free market, I still see every dollar that's spent on these silly herbs as a vote for needed government interference. This doesn't make me a Democrat, just merely a Republican on this issue.

While some modern libertarians say that consumer protection activists will warn enough consumers away from scams like herbs, the idea of government shutting down fraudulent merchants was supported by Milton Friedman.

The difference here is that the companies are lying about the products. Fraud is different from just selling a risky product. While I don't want a nanny state, I don't think live wires should be left lying on the ground with a sign saying they're safe to touch.

Frum made a subtle reference to vitamin supplements being hocked on AM radio. By this he means, sadly conservative talk radio like Rush Limbaugh (who I mostly like) and Michael Savage (who I never like). While I'd like think of herbal healing as purely a granola head obsession, the truth is I have seen it from plenty of right wingers.

Not only did Frum get the role of the government right, he also demonstrated a familiarity with modern science that I had given up on finding in another conservative.

As individuals, we have trouble distinguishing between anecdotes: "My neighbor took zinc for her cold and she said it really helped," and data: Most colds last four days, so you could smoke yak-dung cigarettes on day three and feel better on day four.

We are poor balancers of risk: Look at the rising number of Americans who resist taking vaccines because of astronomically remote chances that something might go wrong.

We are vulnerable to placebos: "Hey -- I took the 30-day free sample and I feel sure my vision did improve!"

We are swayed by prejudice and ideology: The film-maker Spike Lee wrote in Rolling Stone in 1992: "I'm convinced AIDS is a government-engineered disease."

The reason we should defer to experts is not that the experts know everything. Of course they don't. It's just that they know more than non-experts do.

It's not that science has all the answers. It doesn't. It's just that astrologers, shamans, and natural healers have none of them.

Was there anything in this column that wouldn't make a member of the scientific skeptic movement cheer? Frum nailed this issue, which is rare for a conservative speaking about science. It was all the more impressive because it meant distancing himself from some conservatives and libertarians because that's where the facts lead him.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Take that Ricardo: Blizzard-grown beets

I try to keep my criticism of the "buy local" movement to it's soul-crushing ignorance of economics, and away from the environmental arguments. It's not because I respect the view. I do not. It's just that other people have already done a great job of quashing any intellectual defense those claims held.

My usual response is to just pose the following scenario: would it be better for the environment to grow orange trees greenhouses in a New England winter, instead of trucking them in from Florida?

That always makes them pause to apply some real math, because clearly the issue is more complicated than just the mileage of the rutabaga. So imagine my surprise when the Portland Press Herald reports that a number of Maine businesses will be growing crops in greenhouses during the cold, dark winter months.

The trouble with the environmental arguments is that they assume that the production methods of different sized farms have roughly the same environmental impact, and that the dragon to slay is the fuel used to transport food across the world.

Shortening the supply chain, however, is a lot more complicated than the activists realize. It's unfortunate that they haven't done any real research on the total impact from using wasteful small operations with a ton of overhead and transporting the food by using a fleet of small pickup trucks instead of efficient large boats and 18-wheelers.

I wonder if there's an upward limit to what kind of ridiculous claims the buy local activists can get away with before someone in the press catches on. I'm not expecting them to learn comparative advantage or anything serious, but when a movement that uses a lot of environmental claims to get people to buy its goods sells so many that they build propane-heated greenhouses to keep the operation running year round, it's obvious the green they care about is decorated with dead presidents.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

The audacity of

Whose fault is it when a government website reports fake sunny information on an epic scale?

According to Vice President Joe Biden, it's the general public who submitted the information to, which purports to show the specific effects of the stimulus package.
"There was bad civics classes for those" who reported the data, Biden said. "They had to fill out a form, what district are you in, and there was no such district."
Ed Pound, spokesman for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board which operates, had the same thing to say:

"We report what the recipients submit to us. Some recipients clearly don't know what congressional district they live in, so they just throw in a number for their congressional district."

To recap: The government has an ambitious website to track exactly where they are slinging "stimulus" dollars - a naked attempt at manifesting congressional pet projects - and list exactly how many jobs have been saved. When this website is shown to have major flaws - in this case listing districts that don't exist - it's the fault of the people who filled out the forms incorrectly. In other words, stupid members of the public sent in forms filled out in crayon and government employees aren't responsible for posting it.

Did anyone notice that last leap of faith? employees can't be bothered to check the authenticity of the information, even for something as simple as seeing if Arizona has 15 congressmen or only eight.

What's been left out of the discussion is just how dumb the public must be to fill out those forms incorrectly. On Nov. 2 the Wall Street Journal posted a vanguard story on the issue.

Paula Moore-Kirby, 42 years old, had less trouble with the Web site, but couldn’t work out how to answer the question about how many jobs her father had created or saved. She couldn’t leave it blank, either, she said. After several calls to a helpline for recipients she came away with the impression that she would hear back if there was a problem with her response, and have a chance to correct it. So with 15 minutes to go before the reporting deadline, she sent in her answer: nine jobs, because her father helped nine members of the Corps to work.

“You could fill out the form in 10 minutes, but we were trying to fill out the form correctly,” she said, guessing that she spent up to eight hours on it in total.

In short, a shoe store owner got so frustrated with the forms he asked his daughter to help. They had been selling boots to the Army Corps of Engineers for years, but since nine pairs of boots were bought with $889.60 of stimulus money, they were required to list how many jobs were saved for The question was hard to answer and Paula ended up writing nine - for the nine boots purchased.

It doesn't sound like we have a stupid public bumbling through simple worksheets. It sounds like we have an awful web of red tape and cumbersome forms that paints an optimistic view of the stimulus plan.

Thanks to Greg Mankiw for the WSJ link and the chart.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Swords are drawn in southern Maine

It looks like Portland Buy Local has a new enemy - Scarborough Buy Local.

The Press Herald just reported the formation of a like-minded pseudoeconomic activist group in the city that borders South Portland.

The angle I didn't see addressed in the story was that Scarborough residents will now be discouraged from buying in Portland. This Balkanization of Maine business communities simply means people will be discouraged from buying things from not only out of state, but also out of town. Will the city of South Portland be the next to form it's own "buy local" campaign, or does the presence of Maine's largest mall inside the city limits disqualify it?

What's interesting is the Scarborough Buy Local founder Karen D'Andrea seems to be directly responding to my criticism that Buy Local campaigns only succeed in generating more business to its members.
"The real importance of buy local projects is not about getting businesses more business, it's about the community," D'Andrea said. "This will create a stronger, more sustainable local economy."

Contrast this to what some of the owners of the Scarborough businesses who signed on had to say:

Sue Bayley, general manager of Bayley's Lobster Pound, said she joined to help make the family business more visible to residents.

"Some people aren't aware of what's available to them outside the supermarket," Bayley said. "For the advertising alone, it's well worth the cost of joining."

Joe Palmieri, owner of Chicago Dogs on Route 1, also joined. He said it's a great way to promote small businesses in a down economy.

"Together, we are a lot stronger," he said.

Following this is another reguritation of the "success" story of "buy local" retailers to prove the campaign works. It shows that retailers who signed on did better - or as D'Andrea might put it, businesses got more business. There is no mention of the preservation of community or any improvements to the local economy.

D'Andrea snuck one more howler in at the end.

"This is a relatively new way to do business," D'Andrea said... "

This is a completely old way of doing business - ancient, in fact. The only difference now is people have a choice in where they buy things - they aren't humbled by mere geography and the distance their horse can take them in a day.

I'm sure D'Andrea means well, but for someone who has such a strong interest in economics, she doesn't have a good grasp of the basic concepts.


Monday, November 9, 2009

A story is only as good as its sources

Reading between the lines, a story about a Maine family that has suffered two tragedies points to a third: mental illness

On Oct. 29 the body of Michal Flisiuk, 55 of China, Maine was found burned in the parking lot of the New Orleans hospital where his daughter Blanka Peridot died in 2007 after giving birth to a stillborn son.

Fire investigators believe he may have set himself on fire with a cigarette and something combustible or bizarrely committed suicide. The fire was put out before it engulfed the entire car and papers inside the cab of the vehicle were left intact.

The family, however, believes both father and daughter were murdered by a conspiracy that involves the Louisiana State University Public Hospital, New Orleans law enforcement and the city coroner.

Besides going to the media, the family has posted bizarre You Tube videos that juxtapose taped phone conversations, news reports and highway footage shot from a moving car. Michal Flisiuk also ran several websites about his late daughters, most of which is erratic and difficult to follow.

The different "clues" the family mentions carry little weight. A wrong number phone call asking for a name they claim sounded like the name of one of the doctors involved. They also say the hospital has never revealed the cause of their daughter's death. I find this hard to believe, and the reporter did not confirm it. Instead, we have a line saying the hospital did not release a statement.

The reporter failed to mention the phalanx of laws that restrict the release of medical information to the media. Perhaps the family should give permission to the hospital to release the records.

This isn't a joke; it's not a funny subject. Everything I can see here shows a family that tragically lost a daughter, as well as a grandson, and obsessed over finding someone to blame. This may have lead the father to take his own life and it only fits into the paranoia.

And what is the press doing? Holding hands with the delusions as they go over a cliff.

This story could use a few skeptical sources, such as responses to the families' wild allegations from relevant experts. Until that happens, I'm filing this story under journalistic negligence.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Scariest dowsing story ever

I was at a party this week talking to a carpenter. He told me about working at a job site where they were going to be digging near some underground electric cables and hired a surveyor to mark on the ground where the cables were so they didn't contact them while digging and risk a horrible, screaming death.

After marking the length of the cable on the ground with flags, the surveyor volunteered a little piece of advice in case there's ever a rush and they don't have time to have an exert find the electric cables.

I knew exactly where this story was going, but I kept listening with eyes wide and mouth agape.

The surveyor bent a few pieces of wire into L-shaped rods and held them loosely over the underground cable. Sure enough, they started off as parallel, but the rods crossed when held over the cable.

The surveyor actually recommended dowsing for dangerous underground electric lines. Really.

I still can't believe this.

I'm used to dowsing being one of the easy skeptical topics, and we normally associate it with silly water-seekers who make people put their well in the wrong place. There's also the hucksters who sell fake drug-detecting devices to schools and police patrols.

But then there are the dowsers who endanger live with these "tragic wands." - the ones who sell scam devices that promise to find
wounded soldiers or earthquake victims trapped in rubble.

I think underground electric cables may be a new low, as this will actually move people into harms way, instead of failing to detect people harmed by something else. A Google search confirmed that electric line and electric cable detection is in the resume of dowers, along with sewer and gas pipes.

When the stakes are this high, misinformation takes on the mantle of evil.


Why did gay marriage fail in Maine?

It's good to see a reporter break away from just repeating the conventional wisdom and get his hands dirty with some numbers.

After Tuesday's disappointing election results, where Mainers voted down both gay marriage and restrictions on tax increases, there was a lot of grumbling about who was responsible for sinking gay marriage.

Matt Wickenheiser at the Portland Press Herald took on the water-cooler explanations that it was Republicans versus Democrats, rural people versus urban voters or Southern Maine's cosmopolitan population versus the rugged North.

Keep in mind that a "No" vote on question one was a vote in favor of gay marriage.

In Maine, only six counties had more registered Republicans than Democrats in the latest listing on the secretary of state's Web site, from about a year ago: Franklin, Hancock, Knox, Lincoln, Piscataquis and Waldo.

Two of the four counties that voted against Question 1 are on that list. Eight of the 10 counties that have more Democrats voted for repeal.

In Cumberland County, Portland, the state's liberal center, voted strongly in support of same-sex marriage, 20,085 to 7,242, a difference of 47 percentage points. Two neighboring cities, Westbrook and South Portland, also voted against the repeal.

But only a few of Maine's other large communities voted "no." Bangor voted against repeal by about 900 votes, as did Saco, by about 600 votes.

After all, why would all these supposed Republicans suddenly dominate a state election in the Democrat-friendly Maine, but also vote down the tax cap on question four by nearly a 21 percent margin.

Instead, Wickenheiser broke down the number to show that specific religious stances correlate with the votes.

Religion apparently played a role in the vote. There are. about 200,000 Catholics in Maine, with the church considering about 30 percent of them "active." Three areas are considered very Catholic – Lewiston, Biddeford and far northern Aroostook County. All of those areas supported the repeal.

Small evangelical churches also played a role, according to the article. While the Bible is getting blamed for a this defeat, it's important to remember that the No on One camp was not shy about using liberal churches in their campaign, as well as making religious statements to back up their arguments.

For example the TV ad with Yolande Dumont of Lewiston and her extended family:

I've been a Catholic all my life, my faith means a lot to me," says the woman. "Marriage to me is a great institution, it works, and it's what I want for my children too.
The article didn't give any numbers to back up the well-understood belief that the gay marriage opinions are easily predicted by age, just testimony from an academic. It also didn't give a breakdown of which religious sects supported and which opposed - but that's to be expected because those numbers aren't available by looking at area voting records.

So while there still is a separation between church and state, there is no separation between church and politics.


Monday, November 2, 2009

Overemphasizing the "youth vote"

The vote on gay marriage in Maine takes place tomorrow, and once again columnist Bill Nemitz managed to alienate me with his weird arguments even though we're on the same side.

Today he tried to glorify the impact of the youth vote on this close race by comparing the voter turnout with the percentage of votes for past gay rights issues. He didn't calculate where the youth vote factored in - which was supposed to be his point - but this must be overlooked because of the conclusion he reached is so silly.
"Bottom line: The more Mainers turn out in special elections on matters involving equal rights for gays and lesbians, the more favorable the outcome for Maine's gays and lesbians."
What were the numbers he listed that he was summarizing with this broad stroke?

In 1995, the gay side lost by 6.5% with 44% voting
In 1998, the gay side lost by 2.5% with 31% voting
In 2005, the gay side won by 10.3% with 40% voting

He's trying to form a pattern with very little information - and his pattern doesn't even exist. It's clear the only correlation is the passage of time and gay-friendly votes, not voter turnout. This dismantles his entire premise.

A better conclusion would be that the public is getting more gay-friendly over time. Perhaps the youth of Maine is more gay friendly - and stay that way when they become 30 somethings, while the older generations eventually die and stop voting against gay rights.

Edit: Gay marriage lost out in Maine this week, with a voter turnout of 54 percent. I'd say this broke the pattern, but there was never a pattern to speak of.


Friday, October 30, 2009

Has the whole world gone insane? (Gay marriage edition)

We're down to the wire on the gay marriage issue here in Maine. If referendum question one passes, the 2009 legislation to legalize gay marriage will not take effect. As a socially liberal conservative, I find myself on the opposing side of a lot of my allies and I find myself confused and annoyed by some of the weird arguments gay marriage foes are making.

Unexpectedly, the Bible has been left on the shelf for most of the campaign season. I like to tell myself that it's not conservatives who are opposing gay marriage, but Christians who happen to be conservatives, but I know that's not a realistic way to look at the situation. Both sides are willing to cite their religious views as inspiration.

What drives me bonkers is that the anti gay-marriage campaign has stolen their strategy from the liberal playbook by moving the issue away from the adults the law is made for, and instead focusing on how it will effect children. We hear that legalizing gay marriage will give public school teachers permission to talk about the gay lifestyle in class (News flash - that was already happening in the 1990's when I attended a Maine public school) and that children will be brought up in gay marriage households (That's the gay adoption issue, and Maine already has it).

Can there be anything more overtly disgusting that a supposedly conservative group cowering behind children for political gain? Their campaign logo is two parents holding hands with two children under the watch of a floating Maine - not a subtle reference to their "protect the children" arguments on what is clearly an issue about adults.

I confess to suspecting a lot of things about homosexuality, but only knowing two of them for sure: Gays exist, and they are not going to go away.

With those two points in mind, we need to make sure our laws coincide with reality. Right now in Maine there are thousands of romance stories between people of the same gender that will be here on Nov. 4 no matter what the outcome.

In social circles, gay marriage already exists in Maine - it just hasn't been legally certified. I've talked to a few liberal pastors in Maine and all of them said they will perform gay weddings if asked. The only difference is Augusta currently doesn't admit these romances exist, and the legal rights and responsibilities that come with marriage are not automatically included.

Stand for Marriage Maine has said that allowing gay marriage would infringe on religious freedom because gay couples would force unwilling churches to marry them. Can there be a more ignorant view on conservative principles?

According to Larry Iannaccone, economics professor at George Mason University, America owes its high religiosity to the free market on religious faiths. He said because America didn't establish an official church, it allows the public to choose the church they like best. Unpopular churches dry up and go away, and that is exactly what Stand for Marriage Maine is concerned with. Gays will just go to the churches that welcome them.

Some people, like the president, think "civil unions" are a good compromise. I do not. I think there is already too many obtuse, wordy pieces of legislation on the books that every citizen is expected to know and follow - from what renovations you are allowed to make at home to what you and an employee can agree on for a wage. Civil unions present further unnecessary complications and red tape for the sole purpose of preserving a mythical 1950's vision of what is and is not a marriage.

Legalizing gay marriage in Maine is not about redefining marriage, or endorsing the gay lifestyle in our society. Legislature follows the trends of the our society - not the other way around. This issue is about weakening the state's power to define marriage and letting the individual - not society - determine how one wishes to live one's own life.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Anti TABOR scare tactics

Next Tuesday in Maine there's a vote on the Tax Payer Bill of Rights, known as TABOR, which is currently in effect in Colorado. It's a system that would limit government spending increases based on inflation and population growth.

This morning I heard a laughable anti-TABOR radio ad. With a scary music playing over a series of "rural" sounding voices listing horrors like making the parents of student athletes pay for some of the equipment, or college students having less of their tuition subsidized; this gem stands out

I'm a Colorado physician and I can tell you that TABOR was a mistake... [then after a very rough edit jump] child immunization rates have plummeted.
Can you say post hoc ergo propter hoc? (Well, I can. Even with only one Latin class under my belt.) Maybe falling immunization rates have other causes, such as, I don't know, a growing pseudoscience movement specifically telling people not to vaccinate their kids.

You think?

From what I've seen, all of the anti-Tabor forces do is take any negative changes that occurred after TABOR was passed and blame it on TABOR. It's like getting a haircut, falling asleep at the wheel, and then suing your barber.

Maybe TABOR and immunizations are related, and maybe state funding is the culprit. Colorado's libertarian Independent Institute doesn't think so.

Detractors also claim that TABOR limits Colorado's health spending and that things are so bad that the state ranks last in childhood immunizations. These bogus claims are based on willful misinterpretation of the National Immunization Survey, a telephone survey of the immunization status of children under age 3. Estimates of coverage rates in states with relatively small populations are estimated from small samples and are subject to error. The Centers for Disease Control note this in the information they publish with the surveys. In 2002, the point estimate of coverage for Colorado for a couple of the vaccine series was lower than any other state. However, when the errors caused by small samples were considered, it was likely that Colorado had immunization rates that were similar to other states like it. As one would expect if mere statistical variation caused the low ranking, 2005 immunization data put Colorado nowhere near the bottom. (Thanks to for the link)
Another weird charge against TABOR is that sometimes "it got so bad voters suspended it." I'm sorry, but do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Letting voters suspend it is part of the TABOR experience - it was designed that way as a safety feature in case something remarkable comes up. It's like scolding a fighter jet manufacturer for a pilot ejecting from the cockpit. The ejection seat was a feature, the dogfight with a MIG was the real problem.

How's TABOR doing now in Colorado? Depends who you ask. A recent poll said the majority want it to change, but not go away altogether. In 2008 Colorado voter's rejected a chance to gut TABOR when they denied Amendment 59. It sounds like voters think it's not perfect, but a step in the right direction.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reverse blog: 2012 edition

Is there one sane person who believes the world will end in 2012? I'm not looking for a brain surgeon, just one calm, well-adjusted person.

Enough well-informed, articulate people have already tackled this issue that I don't feel the need to get into it. I just want to know if there is one sane person, perhaps a member of the Mayan church, who is able to read one of these doomsday scenarios and say, "Yeah, that sounds reasonable."

Has anyone out there heard of one?


Thursday, October 15, 2009

The war between economists and localists

The Freakonomics blog just concluded it's three part anti-locavore series from guest writer James McWilliams.

Part one

Part two

Part three

Like all of the other anti "buy local" posts on the blog, the comment sections were immediately descending upon by "buy local" true believers.

I don't think enough has been said about "buy local" being just another pseudoscience.

The"buy local" argument contradicts what we learned from Adam Smith and David Ricardo about the creation of wealth through specialization and the division of labor. It's not that these well-intentioned people have an alternate view and wish to challenge these fundamental concepts - they simply don't understand them.

It's like Paul Krugman wrote in Pop Internationalism:

...We learn that the authors on my reading list do not base their disdain for academic economics on a superior or more subtle understanding. Rather, their views are startlingly crude and uniformed... [the view] is dominated by entirely ignorant men, who have managed to convinced themselves and everyone else who matters that they have deep insights, but are in fact unaware of the most basic principles of and facts about the world economy.

Like a lot of pseudosciences, the hyper-protectionist "localism" movement is dominated by die-hard activists who ignore their critics and continue to push woo - and the general public lacks the tools to digest their claims rationally.

I was skeptical when I first encountered the buy local claims a few years ago. It was nakedly a protectionist strategy and seems to break a lot of windows, in the metaphor of Henry Hazlitt. As I've researched it, I've found over and over again that economists are on my side. Always. I've tried my best to find an actual economist willing to support a buy local movement, but every web search just turns up more economists speaking against it.

This is another case of scientists versus creationists; just like biologists have creationists and psychologists have Scientologists, economists have "buy local" activists.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Some crimes do have explanations

A story about a small band of Florida juveniles setting another teen on fire because he owed one of them $40 set off a minor journalistic wince today. A county sheriff was quotes as saying:
"That's what this comes down to. It's retaliation. They deliberately sought him out, poured alcohol on him and set him on fire. I can tell you there's no way to explain it, no way to rationalize it."
The emphasis was added because it parallels something Benjamin Radford wrote in Media Myth Makers about a 10-year-old who burned down a church in Massachusetts.
Fire officials said that the boy admitted to excusing himself from Sunday school class to visit the bathroom, but instead set a fire in a wastebasket, then returned to class and waited, he said, "just to see what would happen."
Fire Chief Leonard Laporte was quoted as asking rhetorically, "What makes a 10-year-old do this? I don't know. Is it a craving for attention? Who knows?" Well the boy knew, and he openly explained it to the police and the fire department. Laporte, like many people, apparently refused to believe the very clear and simple explanations offered by the perpetrator himself.
Just like Radford wrote, there is a way to explain what those kids did in Florida - they tried to brutally murder another student because he couldn't or wouldn't pay them the money he owed them.

There is no reason to hang a large, rhetorical "Why?" over this like it's an unsolvable puzzle. The Florida sheriff officer had just finished chalking it up to retaliation. This certainly doesn't justify it, but it does explain it pretty clearly.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Capitalism doesn't mean loving big corporations

I love capitalism the way other New Englanders love the Red Sox.

I often hear anti-capitalist enthusiasts paint my side as cheerleaders for big corporations. While I do think big companies and the rich are unfairly portrayed in a villainous light, I've never looked at them as the focus. Instead, being for capitalism isn't about supporting the capitalists, it's about supporting the market.

The free market is a brutal, violent jungle - a Darwinian crucible that kills weak firms so that the strong ones may expand and be copied. The popular view is that this arena-style market is targeted and softened by left-wing activists and legislators that just screw things up by redistributing resources poorly. They intend to help "the little guy" compete, but end up launching leaky vessels into the sea - and a lot of these failing ships need to be rescued.

While this is correct, it's only part of the story.

The other threat to the market is the reigning champions - the big companies themselves. Frankly, they don't want to compete. They want to game the system. This involves a plethora of tactics; from regulations to keep competitors out, to bailouts when the company fails.

Capitalism is meant to be brutal, and the attempts to soften it come from both the apparent winners and the losers.


Friday, October 9, 2009

Really? REALLY?

It was just announced that President Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples."

While I don't support most of Obama's policies, I don't automatically criticize everything he does. Still, even I think this is award is completely underserved. Simply put, Obama hasn't accomplished anything yet. A quote from the CNN article puts it into perspective, in a great example of a statement that both sides can agree with.
The committee wanted to be "far more daring" than in recent times and make an impact on global politics, said Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the International Peace Research Institute.
The Nobel Prize Committee wanted to "Make an impact on global politics" huh? Couldn't have said it better myself.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

An article free of gluten and serious questions

The Portland Press Herald started off this article wrong right from the subhead.

Gluten-free on the rise
An increasing number of Maine businesses are banking on the foods' growing popularity.

It's ambiguous enough to imply that gluten is becoming more popular, when in fact, it's irrational fear of gluten that's on the rise. In a similar spirit to chronic Lyme disease, glutenphobes blame a wide, vague and often contradictory list of symptoms on gluten. Who can't say they've had unexplained weight gain, weight loss, fatigue or a hangnail?

Is it any wonder the anti-gluten activists claim up to half the population is allergic to this protein?

The Press Herald story continued, but it didn't get much better.

The products were developed because of the Stefanos' need to remove gluten from the diet of their son Marco.

Five years ago, when he was 15, he started suffering from depression and anxiety. A cousin with similar issues had responded well when gluten was removed from his diet. The Stefanos followed suit and Marco's well-being improved.

The obvious question is, did Marco ever see a doctor and take a blood test for celiac disease? It certainly doesn't sound like it.

Celiac disease, where a person really is allergic to gluten, does exist. I'm not arguing that it doesn't. What I'm simply saying it sounds like the usual problems associated with someone diagnosing a medical illness after clicking through a quick, online quiz decorated with cute photos.

There was also a person in the article who sold gluten-free dog food.

He believes that some customers are motivated by their dogs' food allergies while others like supporting a Maine business that is supplied by Maine growers.

Sometimes customers turn to his dog biscuits because of their own health issues.

"In some instances, where it's not the dog that has the gluten intolerance, but the owner is celiac," he said, "they don't have to have a sock on their hand when they feed their dog a treat."

Psychosomatic anyone? Placebo effect? Post hoc ergo propter hoc? None of these concepts exist in the world of this story, although there is a quick shout out to the buy local crowd. Sometimes flawed minds do think alike.

Maybe it's not fair to single out the Press Herald on this one. The reporter and editorial team were probably never trained in reporting science or health issues and just winged it, and certainly most news teams would have handled this the same way. Still, when you put out a newspaper and you can't be bothered to learn to separate myth from reality, you're doing something wrong.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Just how greedy are health insurance companies?

I was talking to a friend about what's wrong with the America health insurance system after she presented a link to what I see as a ridiculous presentation about the greed of an insurance company.

In a sea of numbers, the article and accompanying video lamented that Wellpoint was suing the state of Maine to raise premiums b 18.5 percent. This number was stressed over and over, and for good reason - it's a scary number, that's almost a one-fifth increase.

But further down, after a lot of hot air about greed and rich CEO's, the important number came out; Wellpoint wants to keep a profit margin of 3 percent.

A mere 3 percent? That's a pathetic amount of money! The Maine Superintendent of Insurance even ruled 3 percent was "excessive and unfairly discriminatory." But 3 percent is peanuts. It's not even one-fourth of what non-profit groups embezzle.

Sure, the money adds up if you look at the total revenue generated, but the company has a lot invested - all of which is very much at risk to the whims of the market.

The entire greed-based explanation for our health care problems is ridiculous if you try to take it seriously.

That is, insurance companies knew they could always charge more, but decided to wait until now to rake in the money. Isn't it odd that they waited until the focus of the entire world was on them, and still decided to ratchet it up? Even with the government threatening to change the rules and cut their profits for this very reason? And if its such an easy way to make money, why are so many insurance companies leaving the marketplace?

One reason this view is so popular is that it's an emotionally satisfying explanation. Instead of a complicated list of what's wrong with our health care system, it's much easier to say that the bad people are hurting everyone and we can fix it by having the government take over.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

To some, only racism can explain opposition

In less than a year, disagreeing with the president has gone from a patriotic act to pure racism.

At least, that's what I keep hearing.

This weekend on Real Time with Bill Maher, actress Janeane Garofalo was the latest left-wing speaker to claim that the populist anti-Obama movements marauding across the country are motivated by racism.

Originally I considered this such a weak argument that I didn't consider it worthy of my time and effort. But it's coming from so many angles I really can't ignore it.

Surely there's a lot of things that motivate people to feel and act certain ways, so why should racism be the biggest one?

Consider this: Political activism made a huge comeback in the W. Bush years. I believe a big part of that can be attributed to the Internet. The Internet was dominated by tech-savvy young people, who tend to be liberal. They had a very powerful way to share information, as well as build political organizations, and this came out at the same time as a pretty serious social conservative took office for eight years.

I think both sides experienced a polarizing effect. Instead of using more general-interest news sources like in the past, people were able to turn to more overtly biased news sources like MSNBC and Fox News, as well as blatantly one-sided Internet news sites. This is a recipe for a powerful protest movement.

Enter Obama, and people on the right say, "me too," and do the same thing. Advances in technology, as well as its osmosis into our daily lives, allows this older batch of protesters to use the Internet to organize as well. Sadly, they are following the same tone as the previous protest culture - perhaps they think what happened over the last eight years gives them permission.

In addition, the anti-Bush movement didn't disband, but morphed into an Obama fan club.

So what we have is a hostile political atmosphere, with both sides glaring at the other with distrust, and claiming to know exactly what's right for America.

But what do politically-horny celebrities chalk it up to? Something more complex and well-thought out? Nope, just racism.

This brings us back to what I wrote before about false positives. The argument for opposition to Obama as motivated by racism is: There's a mostly-white movement opposing a black president, so therefore one causes the other.

Please. Can there be anything more intellectually lazy?


Monday, September 28, 2009

Snap judgment

A news story came over the wire about a 16-year old black teenager who was beaten to death in Chicago last Thursday by three other teens.

While no motive was mentioned, the story identifies the victim as an honors student. Given this limited information, I unthinkingly decided on a motive for the violent crime and scanned the rest of the story for confirmation.

What motive did I leap to?

Resentment for being an honors student from underachieving black youth.

There's a lot of ways to categorize this type of automatic response. Bias, snap-judgment, thin-slicing, stereotyping and I'm sure someone else will attribute it to some form of racism.

I never thought about a fight that got way out of hand, gang violence, revenge, a dispute over a girl, random violence or drug violence. The perpetrators were not described and that left a blank slate to fill in. Most importantly, I was already of the opinion that there's a problem in black inner city schools where students who try hard are socially stigmatized and accused of "acting white."

I don't know how big this problem is, I don't know how much that factors in to racial differences in test scores. I do know that I don't like the notion that getting good grades is some form of a "betrayal" and the explanation makes sense to me.

So with this mindset, my flawed human brain saw a potential to "prove it" with this tragic event by projecting what I really think is a problem onto this case. After all, assuming the "acting white" explanation for differences in test results is true, that doesn't mean that it was the cause of this violent act. If this turns out to be an example of gang violence, that certainly doesn't disprove the "acting white" story.

My point here is bigger than this story, or this explanation. It's that as much as we try to be rational, we must all struggle with our own biases and recognize them when we can.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Another gold star for Switzerland

Is there anything the Swiss can't do?

The same European country that boasts an amazing GPD and GNI, mandatory gun ownership, right-to-die clinics, low war rate and states rights and gave us the Volvo has done it again and slapped a pair of Zurich-issued handcuffs on film director Roman Polanski.

After being found guilty of getting a 13-year-old drunk and seducing her in 1977, Polanski fled before being sentenced and had been living openly in France - openly enough to win an Oscar for directing The Piano.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Getting away with a terrible crime

CNN has reported the latest undeniably false rape accusation story, and it follows the standard template.

-Male(s) accused of sexual assault have reputation ruined forever.

-Police find glaring problems with accusers story.

-Accuser is unnamed by press, wrongfully accused are named and pictured

-Police or district attorney decline to charge false claim maker.

-Sympathetic line for accuser's emotional well-being.

-All justified by saying real victims might be discouraged from reporting.

To this I ask one question. What value do we place on those potential case reports?

We've all been told that real rapes are under reported. As terrible as that is, we have to compare that to how many false reports are made and what damages that does.

Tawana Brawley to the more recent Duke lacrosse case, false accusers have walked free after creating some pretty big messes that could have put their victims in prison for decades. Once free, those found guilty will have to register as sex offenders and face further social costs for the rest of their lives.

What's unknown is how large a slice of the real reported rapes would go unreported if these criminal cases were pursued. It's just assumed that the damage to society would be more than the benefit of discouraging further false reports.

While the percentage of false reports is hard to measure, there are credible reports of 25 percent and higher. Whatever the exact number is, each one is a tragedy. Each represents the life of the victim - the falsely accused - that is marked with shame for all eternity. Even if found innocent, the accused are still distrusted in some circles.

Forgotten here is the damage from false accusations to real rape victims. They certainly haven't benefited from a watered down definition of rape, a view that rape is a normal, or a society that tolerates false accusers, which leads to legitimate accusers being treated with suspicion.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Newflash: Jimmy Carter says something stupid

In an otherwise dull Associated Press story about Jimmy Carter accusing Obama critics of racism, former president Carter said something completely disturbing, reckless and foolish to say about America.

"The president is not only the head of government, he is the head of state," he said. "And no matter who he is or how much we disagree with his policies, the president should be treated with respect."

Since he used to be one, Carter should know very well that the United States president is head of the Executive Branch - not the entire government. You can say the president is the individual endowed with the most power in the United States government, but with the oh-so-purposeful system of checks and balances, the president is no more the head of government than the lead guppy is in charge of a school of fish.