Archive for February 2007

Beautiful Screen Technology

I saw this e-ink screen technology on a Sony e-book reader at Fry's Electronics the other day.  It is gorgeous.  Give me one of these with Linux and a web browser, and it will be very close to the device I have been looking for (something like the form factor of a Nokia 770 and the capability of the small sony handeld computer)

Blame It On The Profits

Steven Pearlstein has a column on the American health care system based on a recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute.  As Mr. Pearlstein reads it, the problem with the American medical system is all about the profit - it's all about the doctor profit stacked on the drug profit stacked on the insurance profit.  If the government would just take over and get rid of all that profit, the system would run smoothly and be much cheaper.  I am flabbergasted that anyone at Cato would remark on such an article with approval.

First, while I worked at McKinsey & Co, I never worked for the global institute.  However, though I have not yet read the study, it would be unusual to the point of uniqueness if their recommendation for the industry was more government control and less profit motive, but I guess it is possible.  More likely, Mr. Pearlstein is reading the study through his own progressive lens.  Anyway, let me deal with a few parts of the article:

Even after adjusting for wealth, population mix and higher levels of
some diseases, McKinsey calculated that we spend $477 billion a year
more on health care than would be expected if the United States fit the
spending pattern of 13 other advanced countries. That staggering waste
of money works out to 3.6 percent of the nation's entire economic
output, or $1,645 per person, every year.

I will agree that for a variety of reasons, there is a lot of waste in the medical system.  We will get to "why" in a minute.  However, note that the author is taking a leap from "we spend more per capita than Europeans" to "staggering waste."  The US spends more per capita on a lot of things than the Europeans, in large part because we are wealthier (by a lot, and more every day).  One man's waste is another man's preference.  However, I would agree that health care is unique, in that it is the one industry where the decision maker(s) on whether to purchase a service is not the same person who is paying the bills.  I think we will find, though, that I and Mr. Pearlstein differ on who the person should be who should do both simultaneously (I say each person for himself, he says Nancy Pelosi and George Bush for everyone).

But let's get into all that money-grubbing.  Mr. Pearlstein reads the study as saying the problem is all that profit.  Because we have layers of profit in the distribution channel, our health care costs more than it does in Europe, where you have the efficiency [sic!] of government management.  Before we get into detail, I would observe that this fails a pretty basic smell test right off:  Nearly every single product and service we Americans buy, all of which are rife with layers of nasty profits in the supply chain, are cheaper than their counterpart services and products in Europe.  If this layering of profit without government management is a problem, why is it only a problem in health care but not a problem in thousands of other industries.  But anyway, to details:

Let's start with one the American Medical Association hopes no one
will notice, which is that American doctors make a lot more money than
doctors elsewhere -- roughly twice as much. The average incomes of
$274,000 for specialists and $173,000 for general practitioners are,
respectively, 6.6 and 4.2 times those of the average patient. The rate
in the other countries is 4 and 3.2.

According to McKinsey, the
difference works out to $58 billion a year. What drives it is not how
much doctors charge per procedure, but how many procedures they perform
and how many patients they see -- a volume of business 60 percent
higher here than elsewhere.

Ooh, those greedy doctors.  They are the problem!  But read carefully, especially the last sentence.  He makes clear doctors in the US are not making more because they charge more, they make more because they see more patients --- ie, they work harder than their European counterparts.  Where have I heard this before?  Again, in every other industry you can name, the fact that our workers work harder than their European counterparts is a good thing, leading to lower costs and higher productivity.  So why is it suddenly bad in medicine?  For this I would instead draw the conclusion that their are perhaps too many procedures (an expected outcome of the screwy incentives in the system) and thus too many doctors.  Doctors, whom Mr. Pearlstein paints as enemy number one in the health care system, are actually its greatest asset, being 60% more productive than their European counterparts, certainly something to build on.

Don't be distracted by arguments that American doctors need to make
more because they have to pay $20 billion a year in malpractice
insurance premiums forced on them by a hostile legal system, or an
equal amount for all the paperwork required by our private insurance
system. The $58 billion in what the study defines as excess physician
income is calculated after those expenses are paid.

Walter Olson, are you listening?  Since Walter is not here, I will say it for him.  Malpractice insurance premiums themselves are only a part of the cost of runaway malpractice.  Defensive medicine, including the overuse of tests, is another big cost.  Malpractice is one big reason doctors prescribe so many more tests and procedures than their European peers.

Proponents of a government-run "single-payer" system will certainly
home in on the $84 billion a year that McKinsey found that Americans
spend to administer the private sector portion of its health system --
a cost that national health plans largely avoid. But as long as
Americans continue to reject a government-run health system, a private
system will require something close to the $30 billion a year in
after-tax profits earned by health insurance companies. What may not be
necessary, McKinsey suggests, is the $32 billion that the industry
spends each year on marketing and figuring out the premium for each
individual or group customer in each state. Insurance-market reform
could eliminate much of that expense.

What freaking planet does this guy live on?  Does he really think administrative costs are going to go down in a single payer system?  That's insane.  I am willing to believe that the number of procedures will go way down, as Congress starts to ration care in favor of building bridges for their constituents  (a savings likely offset as America's world-leading doctor productivity discussed above takes a nosedive).  Does he really think that administrative costs will go down?  Most administrative costs today are for satisfying government paperwork requirements - how is having the government run everything going to reduce these?   I would argue exactly the opposite -- that eliminating government from the equation would reduce private administrative costs substantially.

I won't bore you with any more, but he doesn't miss the chance to blame health care costs on drug and hospital company profits as well.  Just for entertainment value, I urge the reader to look up a few P&L's of some of these companies.  The profit as a percent of sales for Humana is 2.3% of sales.  So if you wiped out all that egregious profit at Humana, you would save all its customers a whopping 2.3% (before, of course, the incentives problems take over and costs bloat for the lack of a profit incentive to manage them). Insurer CIGNA's profit is a bit under 10%.   Merck's profit is a more comfortable 19% of sales, which means that by cutting their profit to zero we could get nearly a 20% discount on drugs.  Of course, new drug development would cease, but the AARP doesn't care about drugs that won't be on the market after their current constituency is dead.

Isn't it more reasonable, as I am sure the McKinsey study actually concludes, that the problem is not in companies making profits or doctors working hard, it is in having a health care system, built the way it is through distortive tax law, that gives neither patient nor doctor any reason to consider costs when deciding on care?  Can you imagine such a screwed up system in any other industry?  How inefficient would retail be in the US, for example, if we all had a "shopping policy" that paid for all our purchases.  Would you give a crap about the price of anything?  Would you hesitate one second buying something you may not need but is covered by your "policy"?

Mr. Pearlstein sortof agrees, but its hard to find this incentives point in the middle of all his blame-it-on-the-profits progressive rhetoric.  Here is our one hint that Mr. Pearlstein understands that the true problem is this mismatch between payer and decision-maker.  Unfortunately (emphasis added) he has a really destructive perspective on the issue:

What we have here is pretty good circumstantial evidence of
Pearlstein's First Law of Health Economics, which holds that if you pay
doctors on the basis of how many procedures they do, and you leave it
to doctors and their insured patients to decide how much health care
they get
, consumption of health services will rise to whatever level is
necessary for doctors to earn as much as the lawyers who sue them.

Mr. medico-fascist Pearlstein thinks the big system problem is leaving it to you, the patient, to decide what health care you get.  The solution for him is to have the person spending the money, preferably the US Congress, decide how much health care you get.  I think a much saner solution, and the only one consistent with a free society, is to get back to a system where the same person who gets the care, pays for the care.  If its a good enough system for 9,999 things we purchase each year, its good enough for health care too.

Middle East Empires

A cool animated map showing the ebb and flow of empires in the Middle East.  Like watching a Civilization game replay at high speed.

Hat tip:  Mises

Good Freaking Luck

Harvard has a new president.  Good freaking luck.  That job chewed up someone I respected (Neal Rudenstine) and someone who tried to reform the institution (Larry Sommers).  I would rather try to bring good government to Haiti than try to run that dysfunctional organization in Cambridge.  Premiers of the Soviet Union had less power than the Harvard faculty wields.  I am one of many Harvard graduate students I know who appreciate the education we got but hate the institution.  My Princeton roomie Brink Lindsey helped start the NOPE campaign - Not One Penny Ever (to Harvard).

If you want a taste of why, below the fold I have included an excerpt of a chapter from my book BMOC (still at Amazon for those who have not used up their Christmas gift certificates yet).  This chapter is pretty autobiographical, except for the part where the character is, you know, a girl.

From the end of Chapter 8 of BMOC:

Susan looked around her small apartment in the nightmare that was the Peabody Terrace apartments, a pair of Harvard-owned hi-rise apartments located across the river from the business school.  Susan was convinced that these apartments were part of a 1950's Soviet plot to undermine America's youth.  The building design was right out of East Berlin, with its all cast concrete construction.  Even the interior walls were concrete, giving it the warmth and ambiance of a World War II German pillbox.  Her tower had an elevator, but it only stopped on every third floor, a cost saving measure also borrowed from the East Germans.  Of course, her floor was not one of the stops.  

She had dithered about whether even to apply to Harvard, and had applied in the last application group, after most of the spots in the school had already been filled.  She was not actually accepted into the school until well into June, leaving her just about dead last in the housing lottery.  Only a few foreign students from strange, lesser developed countries she had barely heard of were so far back in the room queue, which helped to explain why her entryway was always choked with the smell of bizarre foods cooking using unfamiliar spices.  Her walk to and from school involved crossing a lonely and poorly lighted footbridge, which was, coincidently, the coldest spot in New England on most winter days.

Whenever she walked into her building, she had difficulty fighting off a sense of despair and loneliness, even despite her generally sunny disposition.  The building was that depressing.  To make matters worse, she had spent most of the winter fighting with the Harvard administrative departments over the temperature in her room. She had complained nearly every day about the cold, and knew things were bad when frost started to form on the inside of her windows.  A worker from building services had finally come by, but instead of a toolbox he brought a thermometer, which he placed in the center of the room and just stared at for five minutes.  Then he picked it up, looked at it, and declared that the room was fine.

"Fine?" she had screamed.  "How can it be fine?  It's freezing in here!"

"Mam, the thermometer says 54 degrees.  State law says we don't have to do anything unless it falls below 50 degrees," observed the housing guy.

"State law?!  Who gives a shit about state law?  What about customer service?  What about the sixty grand I pay to this university?"

But she had gotten nowhere, at least until she started putting the oven on broil with the door open to try to keep the room warm.  Once the building services folks saw that, with all the implicit fire and liability dangers, her radiator had finally been fixed.

Looking around the cold and depressing room, she decided she definitely did not want to be here now.  She wanted to celebrate her new job, not stare at four bare condensate-dampened concrete walls.

Vista Update -- It Still Sucks

Short version: avoid Vista.  Longer version:  I wrote previously about Vista writing a new chapter in fair use: 

Because, having killed fair use for multiple copies, believe it or
not, the media companies are attempting to kill fair use even for the
original media by the original buyer!  I know this sounds crazy, but in
Windows Vista, media companies are given the opportunity to, in
software, study your system, and if they feel that your system is not
secure enough, they can downgrade the quality of the media you
purchased or simply refuse to have it play.  In other words, you may
buy an HD DVD and find that the media refuses to play on your system,
not because you tried to copy it, but because it feels like your system
*might* be too open.  The burden of proof is effect on the user to prove to the media companies that their system is piracy-proof before the media they paid for will play...

Back to the book
analogy, it's as if the book will not open and let itself be read unless
you can prove to the publisher that you are keeping the book in a
locked room so no one else will ever read it.  And it is Microsoft who
has enabled this, by providing the the tools to do so in their
operating system.  Remember the fallout from Sony putting spyware, err copy protection, in their CD's -- turns out that that event was just a dress rehearsal for Windows Vista.

Via Instapundit, Bruce Schneier concurs:

Windows Vista includes an array of "features" that you don't want.
These features will make your computer less reliable and less secure.
They'll make your computer less stable and run slower. They will cause
technical support problems. They may even require you to upgrade some
of your peripheral hardware and existing software. And these features
won't do anything useful. In fact, they're working against you. They're
digital rights management (DRM) features built into Vista at the behest
of the entertainment industry.

And you don't get to refuse them.

The details are pretty geeky, but basically

Microsoft


has reworked a lot of the core operating system to add copy protection
technology for new media formats like HD-DVD and Blu-ray disks. Certain
high-quality output paths--audio and video--are reserved for protected
peripheral devices. Sometimes output quality is artificially degraded;
sometimes output is prevented entirely. And Vista continuously spends
CPU time monitoring itself, trying to figure out if you're doing
something that it thinks you shouldn't. If it does, it limits
functionality and in extreme cases restarts just the video subsystem.
We still don't know the exact details of all this, and how far-reaching
it is, but it doesn't look good....

Unfortunately, we users are caught in the crossfire. We are not only
stuck with DRM systems that interfere with our legitimate fair-use
rights for the content we buy, we're stuck with DRM systems that
interfere with all of our computer use--even the uses that have nothing
to do with copyright....

In the meantime, the only advice I can offer you is to not upgrade
to Vista.

We have about 50 computers in the company and I have banned everyone from upgrading to Vista.  I have studied Vista and there is nothing there that helps my business, and a lot that hurts it (e.g. higher initial price and much higher system requirements.)  If we upgraded, we might have to replace half our old ink jet printers just because the manufacturers are really unlikely to write Vista drivers for them.  We have 4 Dell's in the closet with XP loaded.  After those are used up, I will build all the future computers myself.  I have several OEM copies of XP on the shelf (less than 1/2 price of the Vista retail upgrade) and I will buy more if it looks like they are going to stop selling it.  I would switch everyone to Linux, except most of my employees are not very computer savvy and its just too hard to get them all trained.  I will probably only buy Vista for one box, which is my gaming machine at home, and even that is at least a year away before anyone has a killer DirectX 10 game I have to have.

I Win $25 Million!!

Via Volokh:

Richard Branson is offering a $25 million prize for the development of a technology capable of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

I Win!

Tree

OK, I get that he is actually looking for some solar-powered device that plates out carbon from the air on a cathode, or whatever.  Or maybe a big nuclear-powered Air Products plant pumping liquid CO2 down an old oil well. 

By the way, I wonder if it will occur to anyone that if you really want to offset carbon, you probably need to clear cut old growth forests, bury the logs, and plant new trees.  I would guess that a newly growing forest absorbs a lot more CO2 than old-growth redwoods (anyone know?)  And no, I am not really suggesting it.  I got in enough email hot water a year ago when I suggested that if global warming was really to become a problem, we could reverse it pretty quickly with about 30 man-made Krakatoa's, made from the creative use of some of those H-bombs still lying around.  Maybe we could even use them to dig a new canal across Nicaragua, killing two birds with one stone.

Anyway, I like Branson's idea.  This kind of price approach has yielded some interesting results in other fields.

Mohammad Cartoons, Redux

Google is a private company and can have whatever rules it wants for taking down videos at YouTube.  However, I finally watched the banned "anti-Muslim" video and boy was it a letdown, more so even than finally seeing the Mohammad cartoons.  It's literally a 9-1/2 minute video of music playing over text quotes from the Koran.  Period.  No voice over, no criticism.  Just the Koran in its own words, so to speak.  As I said, Google can do as it pleases with its posting policies, but it really looks like an ass for banning a user over this.  Particularly if it is true that similar videos profiling other religions in similar ways did not trigger a ban.

I would like to help Google by suggesting terms of use that are consistent and easily understandable and appear to reflect their current policies:

No video may be posted on YouTube that might result in a Middle Eastern man showing up at our headquarters building with a couple of pounds of C-4 strapped to his chest.

Environmentalist and Anti-Capitalism

The Jawa Report links a pretty fun episode of Bullshit! that takes a poke at the environmental movement.  Don't expect to get a lot of new facts, but it is funny, particularly the classic "Ban di-hydrogen monoxide" petition.  But the real thing I took away from the video was just how anti-capitalistic the environmental movement is.  Listen to the slogans -- its much more about "anti-corporate greed" than anything about the, you know, environment.  Listen carefully for the part where environmentalists take personal responsibility for using computers and cars that the evil corporations produce.  That admission comes right after Teller's dialog.

Neptunists and the Vulcanists

I like reading about the history of science, and one of its more famous chapters is the debate between the Neptunists and the Vulcanists in early 19th century Great Britain.  At the risk of oversimplifying, the debate was over whether the earth's features (and life on it) were formed slowly over long periods, or relatively quickly through catastrophes.  Secondarily, it was about heat and fire vs. water as forces shaping the Earth (thus the names).  Eventually a consensus  (an actual consensus, not a declared one) developed that they were both right in some ways and both wrong in others. 

What struck me reading about this again over the weekend was that it took decades, and sometimes centuries, for this to sort out.  Take the part of this debate over extinction.  The initial consensus was that extinction was due to catastrophes, ala the Biblical flood.  Then Darwin came along and shifted the consensus away from catastrophes, showing that extinctions occurred in the normal order of species action-reaction to threats and opportunities.  And then in the 20th century, revisiting the K-T geologic layer we have come around to dinosaur extinction being catastrophic as a result of a big meteor.  Except nowadays there are scientists who think this is too simplistic.  Geology, in turn, made it all the way until the 1960's before anyone was even talking about plate tectonics, something that was still being derided in the 1970's but is fundamental to our understanding of numerous aspects of the earth today.

And so it goes in normal scientific inquiry.   Scientists expect it to take decades and generations to really shake out new theories and areas of inquiry.  Sometimes, as with Newton's laws of motion, we still accept the theory, though even here we have tweaked at the edges (e.g. relativity when things are moving fast) and exempted certain regions (e.g. quantum mechanics and the very small).  Other times, we have thrown theories that were cherished for decades completely away (e.g phlogistan).   After decades of work, string theory in physics could easily be thrown out completely and looked upon as the 20th century's phlogistan, or it could really be the theory of everything Einstein searched for in vain.

Which is all fine and expected, except when governments are standing by to make trillion-dollar choices, as they are in global warming, a scientific body of inquiry that is barely 20 years old.  Go back to any new scientific theory in its first 20-years, and think about the governments of the world betting the entire global economy on scientific understanding of that theory at that point in time.  It's pretty scary.  We'd probably have a 5-trillion dollar government controlled medical leach industry.

Sun, Sun, Mr. Golden Sun

Q&O has a nice roundup on the science around the Sun and the Sun's well documented increase in intensity and its potential affect on global warming.  As I have mentioned before, there is a growing body of evidence that some warming has to be laid at the Sun's doorstep.

The best measurements of global air temperatures come from American
weather satellites, and they show wobbles but no overall change since
1999.

That levelling off is just what is expected by the chief
rival hypothesis, which says that the sun drives climate changes more
emphatically than greenhouse gases do. After becoming much more active
during the 20th century, the sun now stands at a high but roughly level
state of activity. Solar physicists warn of possible global cooling,
should the sun revert to the lazier mood it was in during the Little
Ice Age 300 years ago.

Climate history and related archeology
give solid support to the solar hypothesis. The 20th-century episode,
or Modern Warming, was just the latest in a long string of similar
events produced by a hyperactive sun, of which the last was the
Medieval Warming.

There is a lot more.  I am not ready to say, though, that the substantial increases we have seen in atmospheric CO2 levels are not also having an impact.  That impact is just a lot less than warming-panic-spreaders like Al Gore would like to acknowledge  After all, it is much easier to demagogue your way through an election beating up Exxon and GM than by beating up the Sun.  And, after failing to take over the economy under the banner of socialism, statists want to use global warming to take a second shot at world domination. 

Why the CO2 contribution to warming exists but is greatly overstated is explained here.

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

The EU has an odd definition of the term "free trade."  Apparently, low taxes, in the EU's world, are irreconcilable with free trade.

In a move that is both remarkable and disturbing, the European
Commission plans to file a complaint - and threaten protectionist trade
barriers - because attractive Swiss tax policies are supposedly a
violation of a free-trade accord. The bureaucrats in Brussels are not
arguing that Switzerland is imposing barriers against EU products.
Instead, the Commission actually is taking the position that low taxes
are attracting businesses that might otherwise operate in high-tax
nations. The implications of this radical assertion are
breathtaking. It certainly is true that a nation with more
laissez-faire policy will attract economic activity from neighbors with
more burdensome levels of government. But if this migration of jobs and
investment is a "distortion" or trade, then the only "solution" is
complete and total harmonization of all taxes (and regulations,
spending, etc). If the Euro-crats succeed with this argument at the
European level, it will be just a matter of time before similar cases
are filed at the World Trade Organization.

Paris Hilton Is a Better Investor than Harvard MBA

New SEC rules being drafted by the Bush administration are set to declare that Paris Hilton is a fully "accredited investor" with full freedom to invest in any way she likes.  I, who graduated near the top of my class at Harvard Business School, shall likewise be declared not capable of investing and the government will limit my options "for my own good"

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has just proposed
that the amount of liquid net worth an individual must have before
investing in hedge funds and other so-called risky investments be
raised to as much as $2.5 million.

The largest program the government has for protecting us from our own investing incompetence is called Social Security, which takes retirement savings from us by force and has the government invest it for us.   As I showed in previous posts, Social Security is returning -0.8% a year on our savings.  Thank god the government is investing this money for us - no way I could have beaten a -0.8% a year return during the greatest 20-year bull market of all time.

Tinfoil Hat Observation:  I use Google search to find old posts on my site.  Usually it is flawless.  For some reason, though, my post titled Social Security Ripoff is not indexed by Google.  A follow-up post on the same day is indexed, as you can see from this search, but not the original.  I have never failed to pull up a post before, even with inexact search words, and have never failed with the exact title in the search.  Weird.   Maybe something in the comments, I will have to check.

Pro-Business, Not Pro-Free Market

It is always worth reinforcing this distinction, Via Cato-at-Liberty:

Representatives of the business community frequently are the worst
enemies of freedom. They often seek special subsidies and handouts, and
commonly conspire with politicians to thwart competition (conveniently,
they want competition among their suppliers, just not for their own
products). Fortunately, most business organizations still tend to be -
on balance - supporters of limited government. But as the Wall Street Journal notes, some state and local chambers of commerce have become relentless enemies of good policy

Our Government -- I'm So Proud

I'm not sure this one even needs comment, via Tom Kirkendall

A volunteer waitress and a widowed great-grandmother who tends bar at
the Lake Elsinore Elks Lodge are due in court later this month after
pleading not guilty to misdemeanor charges of operating an illegal
gambling operation.

Margaret Hamblin, 73, and 39-year-old Cari Gardner, who donates her
time as a waitress at the lodge, face up to one year in jail and a
$5,000 fine for allegedly running a $50 football pool [ed: yes, fifty whole dollars] at the facility,
the Press-Enterprise reported.

The charges stem from a Nov. 20 investigation by state Department of
Alcoholic Beverage Control agents into an anonymous tip that lodge
members bet on NFL games.

Behind the bar, the armed agents found an envelope with $5 from each
of the 10 members taking part in the pool. The person who came closest
to guessing the combined score of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the New
York Giants was to pocket the contents, according to the
Press-Enterprise.

"It was just regular 'Monday Night Football,' " said Hamblin, who
has tended bar for 40 years, six of them at the lodge. "We were sitting
at the bar, and the gang wanted to do something," she said, according
to the newspaper.

Timothy Clark, who heads the department's Riverside district, which
issued the citations, said football pools "are a violation of the law,
and we will take whatever we feel is appropriate action to ensure
compliance by our licensees," the newspaper reported.

Each Day, A little Bit Harder

Every day, the government makes it a little bit harder to run a business.  Today's water drop in the ongoing Chinese water torture comes from TJIC up in Massachusetts

Governor Deval Patrick, returning to one of the more contentious
issues of his campaign, has begun quietly putting together a plan to
limit employers' access to the criminal records of potential employees.

Aides have been meeting with lawmakers and advocates working
to limit the scope of the Criminal Offender Record Information law,
which gives many employers broad access to criminal records. Activists
argue that many applicants are rejected for jobs based on minor
criminal convictions, crimes unrelated to the post"¦

Somehow, they are going to do this:

Patrick has not yet settled on specific legislation, an aide said, but
wants to give employers access only to criminal information that is
relevant to the job being sought.

Let me ask you readers a question:  If a company hires an employee with a criminal background who then does harm to someone (say a customer or another employee) in the workplace, who get's sued:

  1. The employee, who is held individually responsible for his own actions
  2. The employer, who hired the employee in good faith but was not able to get a reference (because lawsuits have pretty much ended the practice of giving honest information about ex-employees) and was not able to do a background check (because the government would no longer share criminal records)

If you answered "1", then you either have been in cryogenic sleep for 30 years or you have never run a business.  No hope, I suppose, of tying liability protection for employers to this legislation, I guess.

By the way, the 800 pound gorilla in the room is the war on drugs.  I am sure the concern here is that more and more white collar workers are saddled with petty drug convictions that are hurting their ability to get jobs.  I would have not problem wiping all the drug possession offenses off the record, particularly since I don't think these possession offenses should be crimes anyway.

Update: From the indispensable Overlawyered.com

Holier than Thou

So can I assume from all the angst over this that no scientist who is a strong proponent of anthropomorphic global warming has ever accepted money or an honorarium for their research or publication?  May I assume that no environmental group has ever screened who they were going to give research grants to based on the scientist's prior writings and outlook on the topic?

No?   I can't assume those things?  Then what the hell is all the fuss about?  Paraphrasing Casablanca, its like being shocked  (shocked!)  that planned parenthood gives most of their political money to Democrats.  Science today runs on money.  Ask a professor.  It is no longer "publish or perish" it's "get grant money or perish."  Isn't this whole brouhaha really a subset of the free speech debates that are going on today?  In the latter, folks of one ilk or another argue that some speech or position (e.g. holocaust denial) is so outrageous as not to be covered by free speech rights.  Isn't that what this whole debate is about -- ie, are we going to label global warming skepticism as so outrageous and untenable that we are not going to allow money to be spent or speech to be allowed from its proponents?

In that light, it sure raises the stakes on trying to hold onto political power, if politicians are allowed to define what speech, and scientific inquiry, is allowed.

Update:  Whoops, I just saw this.  I think I am on to something.  James Taranto quotes the Boston Globe's Ellen Goodman:

I would like to say we're at a point where global warming is impossible to deny. Let's just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future.

The Bizarro World of Health Care

Can you imagine any other product or service you buy for which you would have to sign this release, which was part of my health insurance application (emphasis added):

You understand and agree that you are applying for individual health
insurance for you (and your family).  You further understand that this
application for health insurance will be fully medically underwritten
and that coverage is not guaranteed. You are personally paying the
entire premium for this health insurance coverage.  Your employer is
not contributing in any way to the payment of premium, either directly
or indirectly
.

Do you agree with these statements?

You mean my company is not paying for my new Taurus?

State-Run Companies and Investment

Kevin Drum is concerned that projected drops in Mexican oil production are a leading indicator that the "Peak Oil" theory is coming true.  I would argue that, in fact, it is a trailing indicator of what happens when you let governments run producing assets.  Drum says:

The issue here isn't that Cantarell is declining. That began a couple
of years ago and had been widely anticipated. What's news is that, just
as many peak oil theorists have been warning, when big fields start to
decline they decline faster than anyone expects. So far, Cantarell
appears to be evidence that they're right.

Actually, fields in the US do not tend to decline "all of a sudden" like that.  Why?  Because unlike about any other place in the world, oil fields in the US are owned by private companies with capital to make long-term investments that are not subject to the vagaries of political opportunism and populism.  There are a lot of things you can do to an aging oil field, particularly with $60 prices to justify the effort, to increase or maintain production.  In accordance with the laws of diminishing returns, all of them require increasing amounts of capital and intelligent management.

Unfortunately, state owned oil companies like Pemex (whose assets, by the way, were stolen years ago from US owners) are run terribly, like every other state-owned company in the world.  And, when politicians in Mexico are faced with a choice between making capital available for long-term investment in the fields or dropping it into yet another silly government program or transfer payment scheme, they do the latter.  And when politicians have a choice between running an employment meritocracy or creating a huge bureaucracy of jobs for life for their cronies they choose the latter. 

I am not arguing that US politicians are any different from their Mexican counterparts, because they are not -- they make these same stupid choices in the same stupid ways.  The only difference is that we have been smart enough, Mr. Drum's and Nancy Pelosi's heartfelt wishes notwithstanding, not to put politicians in charge of the oil fields.

By the way, I wrote on Peak Oil here.  A while back I dug into the 1870 archives of our predecesor publication, the Coyote Broadsheet, to find an article on the "Peak Whale" theory:

[April 17, 1870]  As the US Population reaches toward the astronomical
total of 40 million persons, we are reaching the limits of the number
of people this earth can support.    If one were to extrapolate current
population growth rates, this country in a hundred years could have
over 250 million people in it!  Now of course, that figure is
impossible - the farmland of this country couldn't possibly support
even half this number.  But it is interesting to consider the
environmental consequences.

Take the issue of transportation.  Currently there are over 11
million horses in this country, the feeding and care of which
constitute a significant part of our economy.  A population of 250
million would imply the need for nearly 70 million horses in this
country, and this is even before one considers the fact that "horse
intensity", or the average number of horses per family, has been
increasing steadily over the last several decades.  It is not
unreasonable, therefore, to assume that so many people might need 100
million horses to fulfill all their transportation needs.  There is
just no way this admittedly bountiful nation could support 100 million
horses.  The disposal of their manure alone would create an
environmental problem of unprecedented magnitude.

Or, take the case of illuminant.  As the population grows, the
demand for illuminant should grow at least as quickly.  However, whale
catches and therefore whale oil supply has leveled off of late, such
that many are talking about the "peak whale" phenomena, which refers to
the theory that whale oil production may have already passed its peak.
250 million people would use up the entire supply of the world's whales
four or five times over, leaving none for poorer nations of the world.

End to Voice Mail?

I really hate voice mail.  It's like reverting back to the bad old days when data was stored on tapes and you had to spool through the whole thing to get what you want.  If you have 8 or 10 voice mails, there is no way to scan them to find the most important, you have to listen to them in order.  And how many times have you listened for five minutes to someone rambling on, waiting forever for them to get to the point or just give you their freaking phone number so you can call back.

So I am excited to try this service called SimulScribe.  Right now, it appears set up mostly for mobile phones, but I have an email into them about land lines.  Basically, you forward you phone to them when you don't pick up, and they record the message from the caller and then transcribe the message and send it to you by email or text messaging.  According to PC Magazine, it works pretty well.

A Personal First: The Police Solved a Crime

Here is one reason that my regard for the police has fallen over the years:  Since I was about 25, I have had about an equal number of traffic tickets and robberies.  I have had my car broken into on four separate occasions, and have had my garage burgled once, and have had my company's property broken into and robbed seven or eight times.  Over that same period I have probably had 8 or 10 tickets (though unfortunately four of them were in the same year, causing me to face losing my license).  Can you guess which category the police spent the most time on?

Let's take the most recent example of each.  On the ticket side, I was cited for not getting all the way into the right-hand turn lane before making my right turn (really).  It was about six in the morning.  The cop had obviously invested substantial time waiting at that corner, hoping to catch a miscreant.  Then, once citing me, he went through the trouble of making notes on the incident and then showing up on my court date and testifying from his notes to make sure I was punished for my crime.

OK, now the burglary side.  My car was broken into in a parking lot at night, and my golf clubs were stolen, ironically at the exact same corner where I was busted for making a sloppy right-hand turn.  I called the police.  I'll bet anyone who has experienced such a theft already knows what happened.  I begged and pleaded to get a police officer out to the scene of the crime.  Nope, sorry, too busy.  No one would even bother to show up.  I begged them, saying that there was a security camera and the crime probably was on tape -- nope, sorry.  To even get a police report in the system (which my insurance company needed) I had to go to the police station myself and fill out all the paperwork.  When I turned in the paperwork, I asked who would be working on the crime, and they just looked at me pityingly, like a small naive child.  Because, of course, no one was going to spend one second on the crime.  Just like no one had ever spent a single second investigating any other of the thefts of my property.

So do you see my reason for resentment?  I naively used to think that breaking and entering and theft were far worse crimes than making a poor right turn.  But, conservatively, America's combined police forces probably spent over thirty man hours making sure I was punished for my traffic violations, while they invested zero time solving a series of thefts.

So it was with dumb shock that I got the news that the Coconino County Sheriff's department had actually solved a petty theft case against my property in the Flagstaff area, had apprehended the criminals, and had recovered some of the stolen property.  Now granted, these thiefs were dumb as a post, left what was essentially a calling card on the site, and were convicted felons who were well known to the local police.  But still, credit where credit is due.  Thanks.  Finally.   

Licensing Death Spiral

Frequent readers will remember that licensing is one of my big pet peaves, so it will not surpise anyone that I enjoyed TJIC's article on the licensing "cycle of suck"

Here's the cycle of suck:

  1. a guild of professionals decides to drive up their wages by limiting the supply through accreditation
  2. to put teeth in the accreditation, they complain to the politicians
  3. politicians see a chance to scratch a back (and get theirs
    scratched in turn) and pass regulations limiting the practice of the
    profession by the non-accredited
  4. the price rises and the supply drops
  5. marginal consumers can't afford the price
  6. politicians see a chance to scratch a back (and get theirs
    scratched in turn) and use taxpayer dollars to increase the supply of a
    service"¦but just to a target consumer group

Hair braiding or delivering cows, its all the same phenomena.  As usual, I can't make a post on licensing without a quote from Milton Friedman:

The justification offered is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason
is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for
the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are
invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of
the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone
else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is
hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary
motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who
may be a plumber.

More of my posts on this topic indexed here.

Check the Thermostat!

While we all argue about man's impact on the climate (my most recent take here), why isn't anyone checking the thermostat?

The New
Scientist report, along with other scientific assessments warning of
global cooling, also come as a blow to the campaign -- led by David
Suzuki and one of the directors of his foundation -- to portray all who
raise doubts about climate change theory -- so-called skeptics -- as
pawns of corporate PR thugs manipulating opinion. If the Suzuki claim
is true, then the tentacles of Exxon-Mobil reach deeper into science
than anyone has so far imagined.

Dramatic global temperature fluctuations, as New Scientist
reports, are the norm. A Little Ice Age struck Europe in the 17th
century. New Yorkers once walked from Manhattan to Staten Island across
a frozen harbour. About 200 years earlier, New Scientist reminds us, a
sharp downturn in temperatures turned fertile Greenland into Arctic
wasteland.

These and other temperature swings corresponded with changing
solar activity. "It's a boom-bust system, and I expect a crash soon,"
says Nigel Weiss, a solar physicist at the University of Cambridge.
Scientists cannot say precisely how big the coming cooling will be, but
it could at minimum be enough to offset the current theoretical impact
of man-made global warming. Sam Solanki, of the Max Planck Institute
for Solar System Research in Germany, says declining solar activity
could drop global temperatures by 0.2 degrees Celsius. "It might not
sound like much," says New Scientist writer Stuart Clark, "but this
temperature reversal would be as big as the most optimistic estimate of
the results of restricting greenhouse-gas emissions until 2050 in line
with the Kyoto protocol."

It turns out that while we may be encountering some of the highest temperatures in a couple of centuries, the sun's output is also at its highest point in centuries:

Irradiance

Fixating on the Wrong Thing

For the last couple of years, much of the debate about detention at Gitmo has focused  on silly arguments about torture.  Flushing a Koran -- Torture!  Showing a picture of a naked girl -- Torture!  The comfy chair  -- Torture!  As I wrote in this post,

Here is my fervent hope:  If I ever find myself imprisoned by hostile
forces, I pray that they will torture me by sitting me in a chair and
having me watch them flush books down the toilet.

If I bought into the theory of Rovian infallibility, I might argue that this was all a clever trick to distract the country with the left hand while the right was really doing the damage.  Whether planned or not, the media certainly fixated on the left hand, while the right was doing this:

In a series of probing and sometimes testy exchanges with a government
lawyer, two of three judges on a federal appeals court panel here
indicated Thursday that they might not be prepared to accept the Bush
administration's claim that it has the unilateral power to detain
people it calls enemy combatants....

"What would prevent you from plucking up anyone and saying, "˜You are
an enemy combatant?' " Judge Roger L. Gregory of the United States
Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit asked the administration's
lawyer, David B. Salmons.

Mr. Salmons said the executive branch
was entitled to make that judgment in wartime without interference from
the courts. "A citizen, no less than an alien, can be an enemy
combatant," he added.

The real threat to freedom and the American way here was always the Bush administration's incredible theory that it had a right to name anyone a combatant and then detain them forever, without any sort of independent review or appeal.  Particularly in a "war" with no defined enemy.  It's incredible to me that the Congress and courts have let this slide as long as they have, and good to see some scrutiny may finally be applied.  Hat tip: Reason.  More here, here, here.  Looking back through my archives, I seem to have made this same point months ago:

One of the problems I have making common cause with many of the
civil rights critics of the Bush administration is that they tend to
hurt legitimate civil rights by exaggerating their claims into the
ridiculous. 

A good example is detentions at Gitmo.  I believe strongly that the
Bush administration's invented concept of unlimited-length detentions
without trial or judicial review is obscene and needed to be halted.
But critics of Bush quickly shifted the focus to "torture" at Gitmo, a
charge that in light of the facts appears ridiculous
to most rational people, including me.  As a result, the
administration's desire to hold people indefinitely without due process
has been aided by Bush's critics, who have shifted the focus to a
subject that is much more easily defended on the facts.

Government Workers Protect Themselves

A few days ago, I did the calculations on my Social Security statement and discovered the government was paying me a -0.8% a year return (yes that is negative) on the taxes paid into the system on my behalf.  But rest assured, government workers, who know they are sticking it to us with Social Security, would never allow such a thing to happen with their own pensions:

In New York and Oregon, public employees who contribute their own money
to retirement plans get a guaranteed rate of return that is often far
beyond what the market provides, and taxpayers must make up the
difference. In Oregon, the return is 8 percent annually"”about double
what safe investments like treasury bonds provide today.

Part of a great article by Steven Malanga on the growing power of public sector unions.

Statist Hall of Fame

I propose that we waive the normal waiting period and induct Eliot Spitzer right away into the statist hall of fame.  Few men in modern government have been able to demonstrate such a lack of respect for the rule of law and individual rights vs. their own power than Mr. Spitzer:

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was unabashed on Wednesday
about declaring himself a "steamroller" and the most accomplished
governor in the history of the state after three weeks on the job.

"I
am a fucking steamroller and I'll roll over you or anybody else," the
Democratic governor told Republican Assemblyman James Tedisco in a
private conversation last week, the New York Post reported on Wednesday.

"I've done more in three weeks than any governor has done in the history of the state," Spitzer also said, the Post reported. 

Asked at a news conference if the comments were inappropriately boastful, Spitzer replied tersely, "No. Next question."

Twenty-five years ago at Princeton, Mr. Spitzer's uniquely irritating ruling style inspired the normally silent and apathetic majority to rise up in an incredibly humorous coup, let by the Antarctic Liberation Front.