Thursday, August 30, 2007

Sucky math skills

Way back in the dawn of time, last May, the President signed a military spending supplemental bill while at the same time proclaiming a list of 18 bench marks it was hoped the surge (supported by the new funding appropriations) would help the military and Iraqi government meet.

In July the administration provided an update on progress toward meeting those benchmarks, but even that most optimistically spun view found "satisfactory" progress had been achieved on only 8 of the 18. For the record, thats 44.4 percent.

The Washington Post got its hands on a copy of the soon-to-be-released GAO report, and it paints a completely starker picture, including:

* Finding the number of Iraqi units capable of independent operation declined from ten in March to six in July, contradicting the administration's findings.

* Finding the number of attacks on Iraqi civilians has remained effectively unchanged, going from 25 per day in February to 26 per day last month, directly contradicting the administration's claims.

In total, the GAO determined satisfactory progress has occurred on two of ten security benchmarks, and one of eight political ones. That's 20% and 12.5% respectively. Overall, it's a 16.67% success rate.

Meanwhile, our President is putting out word he will ask for as much as $50 billion more next month to further support the surge. That's in addition to the $147 billion request already on the table. Doing the math once again, we get $197 billion, a fair chunk of change.

Apparently our President thinks progress in Iraq has been soooooooo outstanding, that not only should we not re-evaluate as to whether we should be there at all, we should instead be pumping even more money, and more blood, into the struggle.

Frankly, I don't understand how a Yale degree can be as prestigious as it is when 16.67% isn't just considered a passing score, but is considered such a magnificent grade it's worth substantial reward ... like, say, an additional $50 billion attached to a no-restrictions spending bill.

Or perhaps our President simply needs to take one of x4mr's math courses.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Teacher troubles

United States Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has announced his resignation this morning, effective Sept. 17. The NY Times has a story, and not surprisingly the blogosphere is abuzz with people leaping in to declare their opinions on Gonzo ("it's about time", "a good man hurt by a hyperpartisan atmosphere"), potential successors, who not to confirm, will there be a recess appointment. or maybe a long list of nominations who are expected to fail confirmation, thus keeping a "temporary" replacement in the position for the rest of the Bush term, and so on.

I'd provide links, but they aren't hard to find. You can't wander anywhere through political blogs today without tripping on something about this story, a state likely to remain true for the next few days as well.

However, there was another article in the Times today I found more interesting, and ultimately far more significant than the resignation of a man who seemed fortunate if he remembered to tie his shoes in the morning, and was the living embodiment of the Peter Principle.

It's not news there is a dearth of capable teachers in this country for the "hard" classes - things like, say, engineering, science and math (rather than cloth). It's also not a surprise this lack hits hardest in areas where qualified teachers are most needed - struggling schools in poor areas, such as inner cities.

However, I at least wasn't aware of exactly how bad the situation has become. The article talks about how school districts are spending as much as $7 billion trying to recruit candidates from across the nation. It mentions $10,000 bonuses for teachers signing on to teach Algebra, money to help with house down payments, of districts being short hundreds of teachers as schools open for the fall, of schools without any certified math teachers.

Apparently two factors are combining to create the problem:

1. A large number of teachers from the "baby boomer" generation approaching (or already having reached) retirement.

2. New teachers leaving teaching at unprecedented rates.

The article cites a study (full study results available here) finding nearly a third of all new teachers are gone after three years, nearly half gone after five years. Unsurprisingly, the turnover is worst at low-income schools. New teachers come in full of ideals and hope, are chewed up by the meat-grinder of reality, and spit back out disillusioned and dissatisfied, looking for new careers. Preferably ones that actually pay salaries commiserate with the amount of work they do ... and anyone who thinks "hey, they work normal weeks and get summers off" has no clue as to how much work good teachers have to put in on evenings and weekends.

In the back of my mind I've hoped to be in a position by my mid-50's where I could afford to leave industry and work as a math or computer science teacher, preferably at some inner-city school ... apparently, not having gone through the grinder yet, I still have some ideals. I may have to take the leap sooner.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Blood in the water

According to a post at Roll Call, Rick Renzi has announced he will not run for re-election in 2008.

This isn't any kind of surprise, of course. Renzi won re-election last fall despite some ethics questions arising late in the race. Those questions, which involve a land-swap deal which benefited friend and contributor James Sandlin to the tune of $4.5 million, and associated investigations (including an FBI raid of the Renzi family's insurance business offices), have only magnified since then. Combined with the notable lack of fund-raising (just $20,000 banked as of July 1) for what would presumably be an even more contentious and expensive race next year, and the vultures have been circling for some time.

Democrats, sensing blood, have already been lofting hats into the ring, including Ann Kirkpatrick, Mary Kim Titla and Howard Shanker, with Steve Owens likely to join them. On the Republican side, Steve Pierce and Ken Bennett have previously expressed interest if Renzi opted not to run.

This will be a high priority race for both parties. Based on past history, an open seat should favor Republicans - after all, Renzi won by eight points last year despite the bad political environment and the ethical questions. While the 2008 political environment right now is shaping up to be even worse for Republicans than 2006 was, and any Republican candidate won't have the incumbancy edge Renzi enjoyed, presumably they won't have the same ethics cloud either.

Still, the district demographics have been moving in favor of Democrats in recent years, and liberals seem much more energetic and motivated for 2008 than conservatives. Out of the gates I think this seat will lean Republican, but if another "blue wave" occurs, this seat could get swept up as well.

With at three House races (CD1, CD5 and CD8) expected to be competitive, there will be a lot of money spent on political advertising in Arizona next year. With a possible battle royale looming in 2010 between Janet Napolitano and John McCain for McCain's Senate seat (plus the likelihood of tight contests for the same three House seats, regardless of who wins in 2008), Arizona is shaping up as a real battleground state.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

September Storm

Last fall saw what was widely perceived as a pivotal election. Democrats took control of the House (which was expected, although the margin was larger than anticipated) and the Senate (which was a large surprise ... some pickups were expected, but not six). The unquestioned impetus for this revocation of Republicans was Iraq occupation, and the demands of the electorate that "something" be done about it.

What started off as a Congress filled with hope saw some early successes such as an increase in the minimum wage. However, the elephant in the room wasn't addressed until April, and ultimately the hopes of the majority of voters were denied when Congress passed a no-strings war funding bill to last through the summer. Not surprisingly, rather than being hailed as "bi-partisan", the story was instead how Democrats had backed-down in the face of demands from one of the least popular Presidents in our history.

Still, there remained some small beacon of light - at the end of the summer the spending bill wold lapse, and Congress would review the situation to see if the President's escalation merited further investment, both in lives and money, in what seemed increasingly like a quagmire.

Skip ahead to mid-August. Despite a series of claims of an improving military situation - including, but not limited to, the now (in)famous O'Hanlon/Pollack op-ed piece in the NY Times, or the relentlessly warmongering Joe Lieberman (who recently pushed for action against Syria) - it's questionable as to whether the situation is really improving at all. As I have noted before, the military says attacks and civilian casualties are on the decline, but provides no actual numbers to support it. Independently compiled statistics seem to indicate civilian casualties are stable, but attacks have actually increased by 5%, which would directly contradict the claims of improvement.

Perhaps most importantly, US troop losses aren't showing any notable decline, and the loss of 14 more yesterday doesn't help in that regard.

Despite how they like to present their visits on talk shows and in op-eds, when O'Hanlon, Pollack, Lieberman, et. al. visit Iraq, they don't really visit Iraq. What they do is spend time in the Green Zone, maybe head out to a few cities where they visit with military officials, and maybe some carefully vetted Iranian representatives, and are essentially reliant for their "impressions" and "opinions" solely on information from these sources, information which they really can't verify.

Never mind that the opinion of those who actually are out risking their lives every day, those who really can attest to what the daily situation is like on the streets of Iraq, is nearly 180 degrees away from what these hit-and-run visitors present.

The latest to participate in one of these dog-and-pony shows is Democratic Senator Carl Levin, who returned from an extensive two-day survey the situation to announce:

"We visited forward operating bases in Mosul and Baghdad. In these areas, as well as a number of others in Iraq, the military aspects of President Bush’s new strategy in Iraq, as articulated by him on January 10, 2007, appear to have produced some credible and positive results. "


"We note the continuing improvement in the ability and willingness of the Iraqi Army to conduct combat operations against the insurgents ..."

That would be the same Iraqi army who, along with Iraqi police, are helping insurgents place bombs along roadsides to kill Americans. Yes, that's progress.

Levin goes on to mention that while the military aspects may be improving, he sees little (if any) hope in the political realm. Of course, that caveat fails to get any mention ... all the headlines are along the lines of: "Surge working, Levin says".

It doesn't take the Oracle of Delphi to see where this is headed. Even though the entire point of the surge was to allow the Iraqi government to make some hard political decisions, which it has utterly failed to do, it won't take many Democratic defections to pass another military bill free of constraints such as time lines for withdrawal, despite that being the key underlying reason many of the freshman Democrats were elected in the first place.

These days you see a lot of posts at conservative sites (why, here's one now!) discussing how Congress "is even more unpopular than Bush". Which is true. It's the reasons for that unpopularity which they don't discuss, but which are most interesting.

A CBS poll from earlier this month spells it out nicely (via Greenwald):

"Do you approve or disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job?"








ALL adults

25 63 12

Republicans 24 66 10

Democrats 28 59 13

Independents 23 66 11

The approval ratings among Republicans is actually somewhat high when compared to the percentage of Democrats who approved the last Republican Congress. Independents are lower, but not by a huge margin. What really stands out is the low percentage of Democrats who approve of the job Congress is doing. If that number were up in, say, the mid-60's, which is pretty typical for members of the party which controls Congress, the overall approval rating would be pretty standard.

Those disaffected Democrats (and one suspects a large number of the disaffected Independents) aren't upset because Congress "isn't supporting the troops", or is "micromanaging the war" or any other Limbaugh-led talking point. They're pissed off (and increasingly more so) because this Congress was elected large to create opposition to the administrations policies - to actually do something about warrentless wiretapping, about habeas corpus, about, most importantly, getting our young men and women out of Iraq.

All of which this Congress has steadfastly refused to do.

If Levin et. al. manage to talk themselves into caving to the President again next month, allowing yet another unfettered prolonging of the war ... well, if you want to see Congress play limbo with its approval ratings, there may never be a better opportunity

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Congressional Exodus

Shortly after the last elections, as the magnitude of the Democratic victory became apparent and people started to discuss the ramifications, one item which was speculated about was how many Republicans in the House, having become comfortable in majority status, might find themselves chaffing after being newly relegated to the minority.

We may be finding out.

Deborah Pryce, a Republican from Ohio's 15th district announced today she will retire when her term ends next year, after serving 16 years in Congress. It's an open secret J. Dennis Hastert, Republican from the Illinois 14th district is expected to announce plans tomorrow to retire as well when his 11th term ends. There is even speculation he may not finish the term, necessitating a special election to fill his seat.

These aren't just an House members. Hastert is the former Speaker of the House, having filled that position longer than any other Republican in history. He's 65 now, though, and had indicated several months ago he was contemplating retirement. The potential surprise here is if he opts to leave early. There is no obvious "successor" to his seat, and if a special election were held and a Democrat were to win the seat, it could portend an ugly 2008 for Republicans.

Pryce is a bit more of a surprise. She was in the 4th position in GOP Congressional leadership prior to the last elections and is only 56. Were the Republicans to gain the majority again in 2008 or 2010, maybe even 2012 she would be well-positioned to claim an even higher role.

The last few elections have become increasingly difficult for her, though, and she only one by a fingernail last year in a race which came down to a recount. Her opponent in that race, Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy, has already announced she will seek a rematch next year. With 2008 shaping up as potentially another Republican disaster (The Economist has said Republican strategists are already describing 2008 as "a catastrophe" or "Armageddon", barring some unforeseen drastic change in the landscape) she may have seen the handwriting on the wall.

It's not surprising there would be some turnover. People burn out, people find other things they want to do, etc. When you are talking about 180 or so people, some of them are going to leave voluntarily. However, having two fairly high profile Republicans announce nearly simultaneously their plans to step down has the potential to open the floodgates.

If the Republican party finds itself having to defend a number of open seats (and I haven't even mentioned Arizona's own Rick Renzi here) in a steadily deteriorating political environment ... well, it may not actually be Armageddon, but it might feel like it to conservatives.

Update: Another Republican, Chip Pickering of MS-3, said yesterday he would not seek re-election in 2008 after six terms in office.

This is not a terribly competitive seat, and whoever the Republican candidate is should hold the seat comfortably. However, the retirement of Pickering, who is only 44 and would have been expected to win re-election easily (he faced to opposition last year) is another signal that some number of Republicans may not be enjoying the transition to being the minority party.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

One step closer to another war

Various news outlets have reported today on administration plans to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the main core of the Iranian army, to be a terrorist organization. Combined with the reports last week of "Cheney and the Warmongers" pushing for military strikes in Iran, this is a huge concern.

The stories mention the idea of declaring a large part of the Iranian army to be terrorists is supported by Condoleezza Rice as a means of putting additional pressure on the Iranian government vis-a-vis negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. The primary goal seems to be increased sanctions against Iran from the UN security council.

I actually support that goal, and I am more supportive of Rice's approach towards Iran then the Chene-gang's bomb 'em now approach. I am afraid, however, this declaration will open some potential doors to the latter group as well.

First, such a declaration ties in nicely with the recent propaganda wave declaring all the evidence of Iranian support for Iraqi insurgents. I mentioned yesterday some of the logical inconsistencies these claims bring up. Outside of that, however, the primary "evidence" cited for Iranian ties to the insurgents has been the increased use of explosively formed penetrators (EPFs) against US troops.

These devices are particularly dangerous as they are specially designed to penetrate armor, up to and including tank armor. Administration and military officials have been claiming the sophistication of these devices indicates they must have been built elsewhere (i.e. Iran) ... despite the fact a factory for making them was discovered in Iraq six months ago, thus proving insurgents have the capability of making them internally.

In addition to simply adding another line to the bomb-Iran chorus, however, there is a more insidious concern. If the Iranian army is declared to be terrorists, then under the terms of the Authorization for Use of Military Force the administration can launch attacks those forces without seeking further Congressional approval first.

So we have on one hand an increasing chorus of voices, including the Vice President's, actively advocating launching attacks against Iran, and on the other hand a political step which would make it easier for the administration to launch such attacks. We're on the verge of starting a war with yet another country allegedly in support of our troops who are in the midst of a civil somewhere they shouldn't be in the first place.

Apparently the "surge" has been so successful we're looking to bring it to other nations too, by unpopular demand!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Same song, second verse

McClatchey newspapers reported last week that the neo-con wing of the administration, led by Darth Cheney himself, are ardently agitating for an airstrike against alleged terrorist training camps inside Iran.

Just what we need - open hostilities with another Islamic nation. What, two isn't enough? For all the shouts of "jihadists" coming from some quarters, it almost seems like some elements of our government are determined on creating a crusade of their own.

This all ties in with the recent chorus of claims that Iran is providing material support to Iraqi insurgents. Of course, this creates an odd catch-22 for the administration - all this supposed aid from Iran is directed to Shiite factions, and attacks from Shiite organizations are on the uprise. Shiite factions are most assuredly not associated with al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, the administration has been busily trying to conflate all insurgent attacks in Iraq with al-Qaeda in Iraq, which itself is supposedly "the same people from 9/11". Except for the fact al-Qaeda in Iraq never existed prior to 9/11.

But what's a few blatant logical inconsistencies between friends ...

What makes this article especially worrisome to me are two items:

1. Warren Strobel, one of the authors of the McClatchy piece, was one of the few journalists who consistently got things right in the run up to the Iraq war, challenging administration claims about WMDs in Iraq, alleged nuclear programs, etc. On every matter, Strobel (and his co-author on many of those pieces, Jonathan Landy, was eventually shown to be right.

There is nothing new about neo-cons such as Cheney, Norman Podhoretz and others of their ilk pushing for new and better wars. However, the fact Strobel put his name to this recent article just makes it all the more credible that, even though Cheney hasn't had his way on the issue yet, he may in the near future.

2. The military is pushing the whole "these devices must have come from Iran" angle, despite having found a factory in Iraq making them as far back as last February. This is exactly the type of misinformation and propaganda used to stampede us into invading Iraq in the first place.

When in trouble, people revert back to what they know ... and apparently what certain significant portions of this administration know is "nuke em til they glow".

I can't believe I am saying this, but I am desperately hoping Condi prevails in this matter. Even as our troops continue to die in Iraq while the Iraqi government teeters on the edge of collapse, Cheney continues doing his damnedest to prove yet again he can always make things worse.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Alternative futures

There has been a great deal of thought, discussion and debate in recent years about finding some way of removing our dependency on oil imports and all the benefits which might ensue (less pollution, less money going to despotic governments, which might force them to enact some real, meaningful reforms, etc.).

One approach would be to enforce increased mileage standards, although a proposal along these lines was stripped from the energy bill recently passed by Congress. Another approach would be increased interest in alternative fuel research, which includes anything from "clean" coal to sugar or corn ethanol and biodiesel.

The problem with the alternative fuels approach is the cost - no one wants to invest a lot of money in the necessary research and production infrastructure unless there is a reasonable expectation of making a return on it. I don't know what the exact figures need to be for alternative fuels to be competitive with petroleum, but estimates seem to place it in the $70-75 per barrel. I.e., if the price of a barrel of oil gets to about $75, alternative fuels can be competitive at that price point.

Soooo ... Devin Nunes, a Republican Congressman from California, has introduced an interesting idea - a bill which would have the government create a futures market for alternative fuels.

The idea is fairly simple. If someone is interested in building a biodiesel plant, for example, and can make a small profit at, say, $72 a barrel, they can purchase some futures that might guarantee them a rate of $72 five years from now. If, when the time comes, the cost of fuel is higher than that figure, then they can sell at the higher rate. If the cost is lower, then they sell at the lower rate, with the government essentially paying the difference.

I find this notion appealing on a variety of levels. First, I like the "predictive" power of future's markets. Sites like Intrade or various sports-based futures sites are a lot of fun to peruse. It would be interesting to see how a similar market did predicting the future cost of a barrel of oil, and how that affected auctions for various types of alternative fuels.

Second, I like the idea of a possible "free subsidy". What I mean by this is yes, if the price of all drops below the value of the future price, then the government pays the difference. I don't necessarily see this as bad, but rather think of it as a subsidy to help create the necessary national infrastructure for refining alternative fuels. On the other hand, if the price of oil actually rises above the futures rate, then the oil can be sold at the higher rate, the government is out nothing, but the needed infrastructure has still been built.

It's an interesting idea, and one I think merits investigation. I wonder if Buffel Grass can be converted to biodiesel? For a guaranteed $75 a barrel, maybe x4mr would be motivated to find out.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Economic Falacies

Rudy Giuliani recently became the latest Republican advocate of supply side economics when, during the last Republican debate, he said of his stint as mayor of New York:
"I lowered income taxes by 25 percent. I was collecting 40 percent more from the lower income tax than from the higher income tax."
Not surprisingly, this statement was met with loud applause. Conservative sites such as ThinkRight soon had postings up showing Rudy in all his glory, explaining to us poor, benighted liberals why cutting taxes actually increases tax revenue, while raising taxes will surely crush economic growth.

Of course, what Rudy doesn't mention is that, in the time he was busily creating this miracle of modern economics, the stock market was in a huge boom. Tax revenue was, of course, going to go up regardless.

What Rudy also fails to mention is that virtually no economist, of any stripe, seriously argues that supply side economics actually leads to increased tax revenue. At best, it creates enough economic growth to offset some small amount of the revenues lost by lowering taxes. Tax cuts do not "pay for themselves". Nothing is free.

Don't take my word for it, poke around some on your own, try to find any paper in reputable economics journals which claims enough tax revenue will be generated to offset that lost by the tax cut. Make sure you allocate a fair chunk of time for it - it's going to take a while, if you manage to find one at all.

Let's look at a modern example. In 2001, the Bush administration pushed through significant tax cuts, primarily for corporations and the wealthy. From 2001 to 2003 tax revenue declined significantly. Even with recent increases in revenue, once inflation and population growth are accounted for we are only just now back at the revenue level we had in 2000. That's roughly 0% growth in revenue. Meanwhile, we have lost the considerable amount of revenues which would have been brought in had the tax rates stayed at their higher values.

In the 1980's, after the Reagan tax cuts, tax revenues dropped the next two years. It wasn't until four years later that they returned to their original levels (adjusting for inflation and population growth, you actually have to extend to year five), despite a growing economy. Meanwhile, the national debt skyrocketed. Clearly, the cuts did not "pay for themselves".

Meanwhile, in both 1990 and 1993 (the first under Bush I, the second under Clinton) taxes were raised, primarily on corporations and the wealthy. There was widespread grumbling this would harm the economy.

Instead, tax revenue (not really surprisingly) increased at double the rate it had in the 1980's. Economic growth in general remained roughly the same. However, while overall growth remained the same, growth in personal incomes was considerably higher in the 1990's than it was in the 1980's, or has been in the first decade of this century. The rich are getting richer, while the average worker is not seeing benefits from the "booming" economy, either in the bottom line of their pay check or in the form of increased government services.

When Giuliani insists you can increase tax revenues by lowering taxes, he's living in Fantasyland. Unfortunately, a lot of people who either don't have the time or don't have the inclination to actually research the validity of these claims end up believing this wonderful, magical land actually exists somewhere other than in conservative pipe dreams or Disneyland.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Success? This is Success?

Last month, "only" 80 US soldiers were killed in Iraq, down from 101 in June and a high of 126 in May. The administration and various war-supporters are already touting this as near irrefutable proof the surge is working, and if we just wait yet another six more months the true genius of Our Glorious Leader (and Dubya too!) will finally be revealed for all to see, even liberals.

Being the spoil-sport I am, however, I wanted to look at a few more of the numbers, which are available here. In looking at them, two things stand out:

1. The 80 deaths last month are essentially identical to the 83, 81 and 81 in January, February and March of this year respectively. That's when the surge was initiated. Put another way, there has been effectively no drop in US casualties per month since the start of the surge.

2. For whatever reason, possibly the onset of the stifling summer heat, both 2005 and 2006 saw low casualty figures for US troops in July when compared to adjacent months.

June 2005: 78
July 2005: 54
August 2005: 85

June 2006: 61
July 2006: 43
August 2006: 65

With 20 casualties so far in August, we are on pace for 88 or 89 more dead soldiers this month. I am sure the same set of people will find some way to explain to the heathen unbelievers such as myself why an uptick in the death count (if the pace continues) would also be evidence the surge is working.

The surge can't fail, only the rationale can fail. If the rationale fails, simply change the rationale. Long live the surge! ¡Desea vivo la oleada! Long live the Emperor! Er ... uhm ... we mean the Vice President of course.

Even if one looks at the numbers, though, and somehow manages to talk himself into believing the surge is succeeding militarily, what Lord Cheney, Prime Minion Bush and others induced to spread the gospel of Success In Iraq hope your forget - really, they need you to forget - is that the military aspect was always the least important part of the surge.

The whole point of placing additional troops in Iraq was to help create "breathing space" for the Iraqi government, which in turn was supposed to achieve certain political "benchmarks". The military aspects have always been secondary to the political ones.

Needless to say, however mediocre (at best) progress might be on the military front, it gets an A+ grade compared to the political situation.

Despite no progress whatsoever on meeting the desired benchmarks, the entire Iraqi parliament has opted to take a month break. In the interim, the largest Sunni block resigned at the start of the month, five more cabinet members announced yesterday they would boycott government meetings (an action one described as "first step toward withdrawal" from the government), and six ministers from Moqtada al-Sadr's faction, who walked out in April, show no sign of coming back.

Meanwhile, as the British prepare to pull out of Basra, Shiites there are pushing for more independence.

As we approach the mid-September date for the much-awaited report on the effects of the surge the Iraqi government, on whose behalf the surge was allegedly initiated in the first place, the government which is supposed to be making progress toward a new Constitution, agreeable power-sharing and financial arrangements, the government we have sent 30,000 more young Americans over to fight and possibly die for ... that government is on the verge of collapse.

Apparently I am overdue for my administration-sponsored brainwashing. No matter how hard I squint, no matter how rosy I tint my glasses, no matter how often I chant happy mantras to myself ("Mission accomplished!" "Greeted with flowers!"), no matter how much effort I expend in positive thinking ... I just can't make this look like progress.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Free-market Failure

Everyone knows health insurance in this country has some profound problems. Where things differ is on how to resolve those problems. Liberals tend to favor approaches which make health care more generally available to everyone, approaches which tend to be more "socialized" (Oh the horror! Oh, the humanity!). Conservatives tend to preach the supposed efficiencies of the free market and capitalism.

A discussion I had this morning with Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Arizona just cemented for me why conservatives are simply wrong on this matter, and free market health care will never work to get everyone insured.

Someone I am close to suffers from severe depression, and has for the two decades I have known her. She goes through long periods of time where she has trouble getting out of bed, let alone getting out of the house. I can tell how well she is doing at any time by whether or not she is returning my phone calls when I leave messages -- if I get a call back in a day or two, she's doing well. No return call, she's doing poorly.

Fortunately for her, she and her family are relatively well off, to the extent she does not need to work if she doesn't wish to. She consistently does part-time work for various projects, but I don't think she's worked full time for several years. Which is fine - like I said, she doesn't need to.

She's been in therapy for her depression for a long time as well, and has tried various medications. One this past spring seemed to be working well. She was as happy and full of energy as I had seen her in over a decade. Unfortunately, it turned out to have some side-effects and she was taken off of it, and things aren't going well again.

In the midst of all this, she needs to get some individual health insurance. It's understood her depression would be a preexisting condition and not covered, but that's not a problem. All she's looking for is something in case she breaks a leg, or needs knee surgery because she slips and falls, something like that.

She's 39, decent health (other than depression). She doesn't smoke, doesn't do drugs, drinks rarely and not to excess. She has had no surgeries. Her family doesn't have a history of cancer or anything like that. She does have eyes which require eyeglasses or contact, but so do lots of folks.

Anyhow, because she's currently in a bad state of mind she asked me to look into what was necessary to get her insured. I spoke to BC/BS this morning and got the general information and rates, which I will call her with later today. However, the agent I spoke with mentioned that, depending on what medication she was on for her depression, she might be uninsurable.

Think about that for a moment. A person otherwise in good health, with no major health-affecting vices, no background of problems or family history, someone who can easily afford health insurance may not be able to get it at all. Not just no coverage for her depression (which is understood), but simply no insurance at all.

You have someone who wants health insurance, can pay for, is willing to pay for it, and it may simply not be available to her. The free market at work - all they want are the people who can pay but who won't actually make any claims. The incentives are to look for reasons to deny coverage, not provide it.

As long as we continue to insist on private health insurance, our health care system will continue to return underwhelming satisfaction and results at an inflate cost, while guaranteeing some (large) number of citizens will not have insurance at all, even some who can afford it. Additionally, people who otherwise wouldn't need (or want) to work full time will be forced to, simply to maintain health benefits.

That's obscene.

I didn't know what (if anything) her current medication was, but made arrangements to have an information packet and application form mailed out. We'll hope the insurers generously, graciously and benevolently acquiesce to insuring her.


Friday, August 3, 2007

(Im)Material Consciousness?

Over at x4mr's blog there have been a couple of posts (here and here ... read the comments too) and comments discussing the underlying nature of consciousness. Well, really almost any x4mr post is interesting and thought-provoking in one way or another, but I find this discussion particularly enjoyable, for whatever reason.

X4mr, who clearly has thought about this in far greater depth than I ever have, asserts there is more to human consciousness (or any form of consciousness) than simply that which is found in the physical realm - that feelings, intuition, thoughts, sensations all have some non-physical element to them. For example, how is the fact I find this set of threads on x4mr's site "particularly enjoyable" denoted in any physical sense?

Well, I don't have a firm position on this question, but what position I do have is on the other side of the fence, so I am going to attempt to make a case that consciousness does ultimately come down to a question of matter. (I'll note I don't have my feet firmly planted in this position, and it's entirely possible that, over the next few months as x4mr expands on his views he will persuade me to his camp - in which case this post will likely be viewed as some horrible embarrassment).

Let's start by considering the universe as a whole - a big task, I know. However, no matter how vast the universe is, all the physical elements of it can be broken down into some collection of very small parts: photons, gluons, quarks, etc. One effect of this is the sum total of all the physical elements of the universe comprises a countable set of particles. A very large countable set, but a countable set nonetheless. I would expect that set would consist of substantially less than a googolplex of elements.

The issue becomes tying non-material things (such as thoughts) to the material world (such as our actions). This is the mind-body problem, one of the great questions of philosophy, and for which there is yet no real consensus or agreement as to a solution. As x4mr notes, there are many great minds who have determined "There has to be more to reality than the physical world." However, many great minds have also decided concluded only the physical exists.

Ultimately, memories, thoughts, sensations are denoted by electrochemical reactions in our brains. One argument in favor of a physical approach would be to simply note those reactions are defined by a series of interactions between very small particles. An electric current is the flow of electrically charged particles, and those particles are physical. Chemistry is the study of interactions of various forms of matter, and matter is physical.

Further, in recent decades we have been able to do more and more research on the brain. We can tell which parts of the brain are in use when different thoughts are occurring, different things are being perceived. We can tell what physical locations of the brain are responsible for what. Suffer brain damage to some small, specific part of your brain, and you may lose short-term memory, while still being able to recall your childhood.

If I physically remove part of your brain, why would your ability to recall short-term memories be permanently affected unless, in the end, this ability was described by physical processes?

Our greater understanding of the physical working of the brain is further exemplified by the recent news of a man regaining significant functionality after use electrical stimulation of specific parts of his brain. Doctors were capable of doing that because they were capable of isolating the physical locations within his brain which needed stimulating. They didn't stimulate non-physical locations.

It's inarguable consciousness has, at a minimum, a physical element. The only question is whether or not there is something more to it. X4mr and other dualists believe there is. Monists, or specifically physicalists, believe there is not.

Well known sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke (of "2001 - A Space Odyssey" fame) formulated three laws. The best known is the third: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

I assert recent scientific advances/studies, as well as Occam's Razor, lend increasing support to the physicalist view. Things like how memory and thoughts work, how the mind and body interact, only seem magical now because our science isn't advanced enough ... yet. We're getting there.