Sunday, August 30, 2009

Minimal Wellstone-ing

Most of the "Wellstone" political martyr talk wasn't done by the Dem party or the Kennedy family, but by the media. Almost every news and quasi-news show reporting Ted's death mentioned health care within ninety seconds of mentioning his death. The service (from what I gather, I didn't watch it) was mostly tactful.

Except for this (via HotAir):

Let us pray for Obamacare... At the least, this is pretty tacky. But ya can't attack little kids, can you?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Wright wrong on Evolution Compromise

Author and commentator Robert Wright recently wrote a New York Times piece in which he singlehandedly attempts to arbitrate the boundaries between science and religion - “A Grand Bargain Over Evolution”. Oddly, I find Wright is generally doing more harm to the materialists, though I think he’s asking too much of both sides. It’s only a “grand bargain” if both sides agree.

I say Wright does more violence to the atheist point of view in part because religious apologists have been beaten so ferociously by others already. Since at least as early as the publication of A Brief History of Time in 1988, science has confined God’s role to the moment of the Big Bang. Wright too, seems to banish interventionism past the birth of the universe, or at least past the beginning of natural selection.

In his efforts to purge interventionism, Wright attempts to put some flesh on the bones of materialist morality. Materialists certainly have a respectable account of the development of moral sentiments, which Wright describes. I think most serious apologists would acknowledge this, though Wright unfairly confines apologists to the insufficient thinking of C.S. Lewis. The conceptual groundwork for the evolution of morality was around as early as the mid 1970s (see Mary Midgely’s 1978 book Beast and Man), and the mathematics had mostly caught up by the mid 1980s (Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation in 1984, and Michael Taylor’s The Possibility of Cooperation in 1987). I find it hard to believe that serious contemporary apologists are two or three decades behind in the literature.

Wright then goes on to posit an external morality independent from any concept of God. I find myself much less compatibilist than Wright on this issue. This is a topic deserving of much more attention than I’m giving it here, but Wright’s attempt to reconcile this problem with an analogy to sensory perception falls flat. There’s simply no reason to go beyond Nietzsche when discussing a materialist morality.

Where Wright really falls off the rails though, is his talk of a “higher purpose” to evolution. The introduction of teleology to evolution is a gross mistake in the understanding of evolutionary theory. The sooner one banishes teleological thinking from evolution the better one understands it. Wright talks about the “purpose” of an organ or organism without acknowledging the problematic thought process this sort of language promotes. What Wright calls the creative power of evolution is little more than a quirk of thermodynamics; Earth’s surface has experienced a localized decrease in entropy due to the energy provided by the sun and the core of the earth.

Tacking back to the religious, Wright then suggests that the teleological ends of evolution might be a peaceful global society. “Clearly, this evolutionary narrative could fit into a theology with some classic elements: a divinely imparted purpose that involves a struggle toward the good, a struggle that even leads to a kind of climax of history.” (I would suggest Wright’s own left-of-center politics has crept in to this grand historical vision.) This is juxtaposed against a materialistic “meta-natural-selection” in a multi-universal context. Some compromise!

Wright’s fundamental mistake is in telling each party that they must accept or acknowledge the intellectual kludges of the other party. His messages are largely cris-crossed to the wrong audiences. Deists may believe in a teleological evolution in order to stomach most of the science, but atheists need not accept this compromise. Atheists may imagine a set of quasi-Platonic moral facts in order to shield themselves from nihilism, but believers need not accept this.

In the opening paragraph, Wright observes, “Most scientists and most religious believers refuse to be drafted into the fight. Whether out of a live-and-let-live philosophy, or a belief that religion and science are actually compatible, or a heartfelt indifference to the question, they’re choosing to sit this one out.” In trying to sort out the vocal fight between the brash partisans on each side, Wright is needlessly stirring up philosophical hornets’ nests. If most people have reached a modus vivendi, then there’s no reason for Wright to butcher the philosophies of both sides.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Kanjorski: Rebuild Faith in Government

Congressman Kanjorski was on CNBC this morning when he left this gem pass his lips:

We have to take the time, now, to start rebuilding faith in government. I mean, after all, if we start thinking about it, the government and the people are one and the same in the American system. So, if you're going to condemn the success of government, you're condemning the success of the people.

Few words are more abrasive and offensive to conservative sensibility. As our political system drifts further away from the prescribed Constitutional order, Kanjo's statement becomes increasingly scary.

The whole video is just under 9 minutes. Skip ahead to about 6:50 to hear the question and response.

Exit questions: How many times did Kanjo use the word "exacerbate", and how many times did he use it correctly?

(Cross posted at PAWatercooler and DPUD)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Shocker: Medicare not that efficient

The Heritage Foundation notes that "administrative costs" as a percent of total costs is a grossly misleading calculation given Medicare's skew to the older, care-intensive population. Figuring administrative costs on a per person basis, Medicare has greater costs than private insurance.

Is "per person" the correct metric? Maybe not, but it sure ain't percentage of total costs.

More analysis and linkage (including some back and forth between Paul Krugman and Heritage) via Nate Benefield at the Commonwealth Foundation.

Can we now dispense with this "Medicare for all" nonsense?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Less DC-Centric Health Plan

I don't agree with 100% of this piece from The Atlantic, but it does a fine job of analyzing why our health care system is so screwy. This guy's proposals are light years ahead of anything floating around Capitol Hill this year.

It's fairly long, so allot some time.

In other health care related news, I'm giving up on co-ops. Not that they couldn't be helpful if done properly, but the potential existence of "good" co-ops wouldn't change my opinion on HR-3200 or anything that remotely looks like it, and the heated argument between conservatives over co-ops obscures the fact that HR-3200 stinks to high heaven.

Ted "Wellstone" Kennedy

All indications are that the Democrats are going to try to turn Ted Kennedy's death into a rallying cry for Obamacare. Let's hope that turns out about as well as when they exploited Paul Wellstone's memorial.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

District 9

I saw several kids under 13 at a showing of District 9. It’s not for kids. It’s rated R for a reason (and no, it hasn’t any pirates). The film has zero nudity and very little other sexually suggestive content. Given the American tolerance for violence and language, it takes a lot of both to get an R-rating without sex. Don’t take your kids to see this film. Just don’t.

I’m certainly not revealing anything new to say that District 9 has strong racial overtones. For Pete’s sake, they set it in Johannesburg. But race is an imperfect analogy for the movie, and one that the movie doesn’t force down the viewer’s throat. If you’re worried about a ham-fisted race lecture, don’t be. Look to Alien Nation for your racial commentary. Instead, worry about more mundane distractions, like character and plot.

Plausibility in science fiction is a tricky subject. Sure, the aliens have interstellar travel, impossibly powerful ray-guns, and tractor beams, but we’ve come to expect that sort of thing. On the other hand, District 9 shows us these technologies as having been developed by a race of barbarous insectoids with no notable social structure. Amidst this barbarism, exploitation by (black) African gangs*, and policing by defense contractors Multinational United (MNU), two “prawns” are able to conceal a secret, sizable both in its importance and physicality, for nigh three decades.

* - (By the way, how did we get Nigerian gangs in South Africa? Did the writers forget to look at a map, or did I miss something in the movie? edit - apparently Nigerian gangs are a real problem in S.A.)

The whole eviction notice process is likewise implausible (-perhaps even comical), but at least it gives a welcome swipe at bureaucracy and the ways people use legalism to justify deplorable actions.

It’s to the movie’s credit that one gets quite a ways in to it before it becomes apparent who the “good guy(s)” is/are, or if any were to appear. Even after that, an impulsive betrayal is,... let’s just say not very well thought-through, but keeps the audience clear that our protagonist has not become morally perfect.

All in all though, I wouldn’t say it was a particularly bad movie, but it wasn’t great either. Most of the elements are derivative of other science fiction, but they’re put together in a relatively fresh way. Sort of, “This park bench made from your recycled plastic bags.”

Final grade: B-plus.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Tenth Dimension

Visualizing ten dimensions:

(via boingboing --> Ritholz)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Co-op redux

In a memo from June 18th, Heritage gives analysis of potential health co-op models that is more or less like the one I gave a week ago, but in much more detail.

Math, Marriage, and "Clerks"

Supposedly, given a population of 100 potential mates, the optimal time to stop and settle is after 37 discarded options. It's science! Or math, anyway.

Those familiar with the movie Clerks should find this amusing.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Quote of the Day: Blood Type

Jim Treacher is a never-ending fount of snark --
Can you imagine if someone impersonated an M.D. at a GOP townhall & spoke against ObamaCare? Within 24 hours we'd know her SSN & blood type.

By the way, that would be "Doctor" Roxana Mayer, who was invited by the Obama organizer caught with the Che Guevara poster.

Speaking of preventive care, actual Doctor (Harvard MD, Psychiatrist) and conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer says preventive care, on the whole, will increase rather than decrease costs.

Anywho, back to Treacher's point -- do we know more about Roxana Mayer, or Joe the Plumber?

Another Battlestar?

Director Bryan Singer and Glen Larson (creator of the original TV Battlestar Galactica and other hit shows) are planning a big-screen Battlestar Galactica totally unrelated to the recent "re-imagined" TV series on Sci-Fi/SyFy.

Another re-imagining. A re-re-imaginging. I like BSG, but for Pete's sake let it alone for a few years, mmmkay? I could almost forgive the back-to-back Hulk re-imaginings given how bad the first one was, but this is getting to be a real trend. Like the Batman re-start.

One re-imagining per property per decade, please.

(via Slashdot)

Monday, August 10, 2009


The idea of Non-profit Health Insurance Cooperatives is a concept being thrown around as a potential compromise on the public/government option in Obamacare. I'm not reflexively hostile to the idea of co-ops, but what people envision when they mention co-ops must be more fully fleshed out before I can get on board.

Conservatives believe the health insurance bill, as it currently exists in the House, is a thinly veiled attempt to undermine private insurance and move toward a government single-payer monopoly. It's hard to disagree. It's the type of incrementalist Fabianism I've come to expect from Obama.

So what do co-ops do for this?

I can envision two models for Health Co-ops:
  1. Relatively small, perhaps regional or local independent co-ops that operate and are regulated just as normal insurance companies are regulated. The analogy would be what credit unions are to for-profit banking institutions, or agricultural co-ops.
  2. Relatively large, monolithic Government-Sponsored Enterprises closely tied to public policy objectives of the federal government. Think Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac, or the Post Office. "Fannie Med".

When Republicans say they're open to the idea of co-ops, they're probably talking about the former. When Democratic pols assure their supporters that co-ops are the same or equivalent to the "public option", I have to think they're referring to the latter.

A government plan would have several distinct unfair advantages over private insurance: It would not pay taxes; it would wield outsized power to "negotiate" (fix) prices, driving providers to increasingly pressure the private market for profit; and it would be able to hide behind the same kinds of government accounting that have provided us with the demographic time bombs in Medicare and Social Security.

Type-1 co-ops have only the first advantage, but, judging from the credit union analogy, would not meaningfully undercut private insurance. Whether this type of co-op solves many problems is unclear, but at least it would remove the much-maligned profit motive from the equation. More of a co-op's revenues would likely be used for actual health care rather than marketing, and premiums might be marginally lower than for private insurance. It would represent "competition" in a much truer sense than Type-2 co-ops or a government plan.

Type-2 co-ops would have all three problems, and would essentially be the equivalent to a government plan. Moreover, it would be more subject to political influence from Washington.

Of course, even if we get a workable co-op framework there's still a lot to dislike about the House bill.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Taking Credit Where it isn't Due

Unemployment and jobs numbers came out today. Jobs were only down 247 million, better than many expected, and unemployment had a slight downtick. (How do those figures jibe? Folks dropping out of the workforce are not "unemployed". Look for that to tick up again when they extend unemployment benefits once more.)

Of course, this will fuel a continuation of absurd claims that the stimulus is "working" despite only $73 billion having been spent by the end of July ($197 billion "available").

By comparison, here's a non-exhaustive back-of-the-envelope account of what's been done so far, much of it done by the Federal Reserve. The Obama stimulus has been a drop in the bucket compared to numerous actions taken many months ago, and in some cases over a year ago.

Some of this is apples and oranges: some direct payments, mostly loans, some loan guarantees, some policy actions of no particular cost, some of indeterminate cost, but it ought to give some relative scale to the issue.
  • The Bush rebate checks - $168 bn
  • Initial TARP bank bailout - $350 bn (Total TARP $700 bn authorized)
  • Fannie/Freddie GSE "conservatorship" $200 bn initial commitment, potentially trillions in liabilities.
  • AIG bailout, an initial $85 bn.
  • Bear Sterns (non-recourse loan to JPMorgan) - $29 bn
  • TAF (Term Auction Facility) $20bn loan auction, plus a coordinated $10bn by the Euro Central Bank
  • TALF (Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility) $200bn initial, $800 bn expansion authorized. (Including a $100bn Treasury backstop)
  • Money Market guarantee program (AMLF) $??
  • Money market short term loans (MMIFF) $600bn
  • Federal Reserve purchase of Treasures - $300 bn
  • Reduction of Fed Funds rate to an unprecedented range of 0-0.25%
  • Expansion of FDIC deposit insurance

There's more, but frankly it's tangled alphabet soup of acronyms and programs. Some of the programs have been reduced as others have expanded.

The WSJ took a look at the Fed's balance sheet, which had a slight tick down recently, but overall we're still on the order of >$1 trillion above where the Fed was before.

WSJ graphic (Fed data):

And that's just the Fed. How much do you think Obama's $73 billion is responsible for any nascent recovery we might be in? Negligible.

Let's cut the "stimulus" in half and pocket the rest of the money for debt reduction. We're gonna need it.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Quote of the Day: Partial

Andy Levy (of Fox's "Red Eye"):
Are people who say they believe Obama was most likely born in Hawaii, but they just want more evidence, Partial Birthers?

In other "partial-birther" news, Andrew McCarthy of NRO gives a lengthy explanation of why he wants to see the long-form birth certificate even though he's convinced Obama was born in Hawaii.

Long story short, Obama is a big fat liar. He lied on his bar application about never having been known by a name other than Barack H. Obama (such as Barry Soetoro, as he was known for several years in Indonesia), that he was at least a nominal Muslim while in Indonesia, and was very likely a naturalized minor citizen of Indonesia. He lied about his first job, where he met his wife, how he attended prep school in Hawaii (his grandparents, not his mother's food stamp existence), the anachronistic account of Selma, AL's effect on his parents' meeting, etc., etc., ad nauseum.

Barack Obama is, at least in the minds of any sane individuals, the legitimately elected President of the United States. He is, however, a shameless liar, and the Hawaiian records are probably hiding --to borrow a phrase-- an inconvenient truth.

Specter gets TeaPartied

Apparently "Tea Party" may be becoming a verb. That's the best description of the rowdy Town Hall at Philly's Constitution Center featuring Arlen Specter and HHS Sec. Sebelius as they try to sell Obamacare. This has been getting widespread attention on (mostly) conservative blogs, but for you'ze guys who don't read those, I doubt this will be on the evening news. Much more video at Panzramic.

Indeed, how can you sell a hurry-up vote on legislation that isn't finalized and won't be read by members of Congress proud of their ignorance?

This is why the Administration wanted a vote before the recess. Legislators will be getting an earful from their constituents, and much of it will be negative.

Defying Gravity - Decent Start

Good enough that I'll watch again. How they handle the mystery cargo will make or break the show. If it goes too "Event Horizon" I won't be happy.

I was initially put off by the side remark about abortion being illegal in the future and needing just a few Justices to reverse that "stupid law", but they managed to inject a little nuance when Zoe starts hearing/imagining a baby cry on the spacecraft.

Of course, it's another long-arc major network program -- and science fiction no less -- that probably isn't cheap to produce. So it will probably be canceled by the end of the first season.

The only semi-big actor is Ron Livingston of "Office Space". I recognized Laura Harris too (Dead Like Me, 24), but most of the cast are people I've never heard of. That'll help keep the budget down, but it wasn't enough for NBC's "Kings", so ABC had better get their promotional material right and build some audience. They probably ought to consider re-running the pilot at least once more to try to build audience based on word of mouth from the first run. If you don't hook 'em now the series is doomed.

Here's another one that should have launched on SyFy.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

GDP-Stimulus misdirection

The second quarter GDP report of negative 1% annualized wasn't too bad. (That's the first read on GDP, subject to multiple revisions.) Obama viewed that as the perfect chance to lie about the efficacy of the stimulus.

The stimulus didn't do what they said it would do, which is stop unemployment in its tracks. You'll recall this chart, which is the Obama team's projections of unemployment used to sell the stimulus with the subsequent actual unemployment added:

Several Democrats have admitted that the stimulus either hasn't done much or wasn't intended to. There are still low-level rumblings among Democrats about yet another stimulus bill.

The stimulus hasn't even been spent out that much. Here's a chart of the spend-out based on figures from

If we spot the administration a few days after the end of the second quarter and use the July 3rd figures, $60.4-bn of the $787-bn stimulus had actually been spent out, and $174.9-bn was "available". That's less than 8% of the total stimulus spent, less than a quarter "available". And recall that a disturbingly small amount of the spend-out was for actually stimulative projects. Fractions of fractions of the stimulus promoted economic growth by the end of the second quarter.

But that didn't stop the POTUS from claiming that the politically flailing stimulus contributed meaningfully towards the not-as-bad-as-expected GDP print.

From the AFP reporting:

"The report showed that in the first few months of this year, the recession we faced when I took office was even deeper than anyone thought at the time. It told us how close we were to the edge," Obama said.

"But it also revealed that in the last few months, the economy has done measurably better than expected. And many economists suggest that part of this progress is directly attributable" to the 787 billion dollar economic stimulus package known as the Recovery Act, he said.

"This and the other difficult but important steps that we have taken over the last six months have helped put the brakes on this recession," he said.

The economy will eventually recover, but the second quarter preliminary GDP number had very little to do with the stimulus. Who are these "many economists" and how many of them draw White House salaries?