Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Why I Probably Won't Be Voting for Obama Again

It would seem that meaningful health care reform has been killed in the Senate. Really and utterly destroyed. Joe Lieberman, Bill Nelson, and a few other conservative "Democrats" have said that they will not vote for the bill as it stands. Let us take a brief detour through the history of this process.

Medicare was created in the U.S. in 1965 under Lyndon B. Johnson. It is offered to those who are U.S. citizens or have been living as legal permanent residents for 5 years or more, who are 65 and older, and have been paying taxes for Medicare for at least 10 years. Medicare is a single-payer system, and in fact is the largest single-payer system in the world, covering 43 million Americans in 2007. The program has been under constant scrutiny since its inception, and indeed has a lot of problems - one of the largest being huge fraud issues. Medicare has been updated several times since its creation, and largely has gotten better by most measures of such things. Conservative opposition has always been the strongest, and typically fall along two pillars - 1) It's too expensive; and 2) It leads to socialism.

As to expense...yes, I'll give them that. The Medicare system needs significant overhaul to cut costs and perform audits on treatments. Clean up the program, and you will probably see significant savings. Al Franken has made this a huge talking point - the guy is very much in favor of Medicare, but recognizes it needs significant work.

As for the second pillar, that of fear-of-socialism...well, I offer this to the conservatives. If you really and strongly are opposed to all "socialized medicine," and are so concerned about principles and values as you claim, then propose an amendment to eliminate Medicare. Get rid of it. Tell all your constituents that Medicare is "evil" and "socialized" and is ruining American freedom and that you're going to eliminate it and allow the elderly to exercise their freedom of choice and buy their own health insurance out of their own savings (because subsidizing them would be exactly the same problem). You'll be saving money and protecting American values. I don't understand why you haven't already done this when you controlled Congress and the Presidency.

More below the fold...

Let's jump ahead to the Clinton administration. A bit arbitrary and skipping over some things, definitely, but this is a blog post, not a history of health care in America. Clinton made it an important part of his presidency (in some parts spearheaded by the First Lady) to introduce health care reform. Part of the problem was that it wasn't sold very well, and conservatives and the health care industry made their case loudly and well (whether or not it was a valid case is an entirely different point, but here is the problem inherent in humans - we don't often, if ever, make choices based purely on logic). Clinton tried and got little done - it was all basically shot down by Congress. We had no meaningful reform, despite the fact that so many conservative members of Congress claimed that they were quite happy to legislate reform, so long as it was the right reform.

Let's skip to the Obama administration. This is not as arbitrary. For more than a decade very little was done with health care, despite conservative control of government. That silence may, in fact, be the most damning evidence against them of all.

Obama campaigned primarily on promises of health care reform, on significant reform in foreign policy, on constitutional adherence and on transparency in government. In foreign policy...well, he's done a pretty good job. He has restored a large part of foreign nation's relations with the U.S., and has taken a tough but measured stance on specific groups. While I don't fully agree with the idea of sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan if your only purpose is hunting down the reported 100 or so people left, I'll give it to him, it's a strong political message, and at least he's showing he is attentive to the situation there.

However, Obama has made little moves to eliminate or reduce Bush's foreign or economic policies. I see this as a significant failure. The Patriot Act, tax cuts, even the TARP bailout. Let me be the first to state that I do agree that some sort of bailout was necessary to prevent a deeper depression - whether or not we should have had a bailout may not be the right question. How the bailout was carried out...that is entirely a different question. The bailout should not have been, I think, at a $1:$1 ratio, nor do I think that it should have come without any oversight or regulations. Basically, nothing has been done to fix the basic system. Obama's speech in the past few days about the bankers' responsibility? Please. A glorified publicity stunt - a public slap on the wrist, nothing more. He's asking them to self-regulate. The media complains that the White House doesn't have much leverage in this situation. Please. My ass the White House doesn't have leverage. Let's look at it this way - the only reason most of these banks are still afloat is because the American tax-payers bailed them out. Obama, as the representative of the American taxpayers, should be able to tell the banks a few things, as that we own a rather large stake in them now. And what should he tell them? Well, first of all, that they're going to open up lending again. And if they need a little assistance in that, well, we could just eliminate the whole credit default swap mess that got us into trouble to begin with. Executive decision - regulatory power, hell, use whatever agency you want to decide that they're fraudulent and just effing ban them. That's a big stick right there.

But Obama consistently makes deals with the bankers and continues to open loophole after loophole for them. I believe that he is smart enough to realize that he does have the ability to push for regulation, (certainly Britain and France have recognized it). I believe that if he had the will to do it, he could accomplish it relatively easily. Which leads me to believe that he simply doesn't want to do it.

So now let's look into health care. If we go with the most progressive/liberal option, Obama could have pushed for a single-payer system. This would essentially be like expanding Medicare to everyone. The basic pros would be everyone would be covered with health insurance, and assured coverage. The basic cons would be costs and likely tax levies. But, instead of pushing for this, they compromised to a strong public option - a government run insurance plan that most anyone could buy into. This would also have come with significant regulation reforms to bring down costs in other areas such as Medicare. I was in support of this plan to begin with, but again and again the Democrats compromised, and the White House stood basically silent or encouraged such compromising. Now the public option, if it happens at all, seems likely to be a completely toothless measure that would cover very few people, be vastly more expensive than it would have been to begin with, and chock-full of loopholes. I am not in support of this type of public option.

Now, granted, the House passed a proposal with a public option. It's not everything that we would want, but...maybe it's a bit of a step forward. But let's look at the Senate. Here we have the utter breakdown. The Obama administration has again and again called for "bipartisan support" for this bill, and has signaled his willingness to compromise again and again to get even one Republican vote. But that's exactly the problem - they have given you the laundry list for what it will cost to get even a single vote from their side of the aisle. We'll have to eliminate the possibility of a public option, we'll have to eliminate the expansion of Medicare, we'll have to mandate that everyone gets private insurance coverage, we'll have to reduce regulation. Essentially, if we take out all meaningful reform and fill the coffers of the private insurance companies, then we might get a Republican vote or two...but probably not.

So here are the basics - the Senate's bill does not include a public option. That got eliminated due to "conservative Democrats" like Joe Lieberman and Bill Nelson. Then someone proposed that we could expand Medicare to people 55 and older in special cases. But Joe Lieberman didn't like that, so, of course, we have to bow our heads to him. The Obama administration has made a deal with him and has basically told Harry Reid to accept whatever Lieberman says. Lieberman says that not only will he not vote for any bill that has a public option or Medicare expansion, but that he will join a Republican filibuster.

Let's look at the situation. If the Democrats had any spine at all, this would be a very easy fix. There is a special option for budget resolutions in Congress called reconciliation - it's a fairly drastic measure, but let's be honest...the Republicans used it all the time when they were in power, including to get the Bush tax cuts passed. Back when they were in control, reconciliation was just another means of doing business, while filibustering (the Democrat's option at that time) was a horrible and obstructionist policy. Now that the Democratic Party controls Congress, reconciliation is a means of railroading policies and destroying American freedoms, while filibustering is a noble venture to protect the people. Hmm...politics as normal.

Anyway, the point is, you could have a Senator, one of the ones already locked in to vote for a reform bill, go on any of the programs that Lieberman and Nelson are touring and say something like the following:

"Oh, hi Mr. Lieberman, Mr. Nelson. I'm sorry to see that you've been wasting your time on these talk shows. You see, we've decided to split the bill. Yeah, it's going to be a headache, but, here's the thing. We're going to put in a public option, or an expansion of Medicare, or whatever the American people want, and make it a budget matter. Then we're going to push it through in reconciliation. I'm sorry, but you are effectively irrelevant now. Oh, what's that you say? It's going to cost too much? Well, it's up-front costs, maybe; but the Budget Office has already returned estimates that show that these measures would save us a helluva lot of money over the next decade. So, at the very least, it's budget-neutral. What about that war that's going on? I notice the conservative senators across the aisle never had any budget problems when Bush was in office. How odd it is that they and you are complaining about the budget now. Oh, and we're going to push private insurance out of business? Look, I really don't think that's going to happen - FedEx, UPS, and the USPS all coexist quite happily. And if they have to trim their belts a bit and offer better services, well, that's capitalism for you. Socialism? To begin with, that's ridiculous, and on the other side of it, a majority of Americans want significant health care reform and are in favor of a public option. So, you tell me, if the American people want it, why are you standing in their way? Even if it does smack of socialism to you?

"You see, (interviewer's name), the problem is that most of us in America believe that when you have two opposing views, the truth must be somewhere in the middle. Our issue is that here we have one side, the conservatives and people like Mr. Lieberman, who are so far off into non-reality, that even when you take the middle ground between them and the facts, you're still wrong. It's like when you split the differences between American progressives and the "pure" Republican party, you're still pretty conservative. We need a fact-based approach to this, and here are some basic facts - private insurance premiums have continued to rise unchecked in the past years; health insurance is covering fewer and fewer people for fewer and fewer conditions, and thus excluding more people for more conditions; the majority of American tax-payers, who people like myself and Mr. Lieberman are ultimately accountable to, want strong health care reform like a public option; the people elected Obama, who ran on a platform of strong health care reform; and no significant reform has happened in quite a long time. Beyond these basic facts, there are the numbers of comparing different health care systems around the world. On any standard measures, ours ranks fairly low. Conservative congressmen are wont to say "Our health care system is the best in the world." I can only assume that they include the V.A. and Medicare in that, as they often tout our treatment of veterans and the elderly. If that is so, why are they so opposed to a government-run plan for the rest of us?

Could it be that these senators and representatives are not truly representing the will of the people? Could it be that they have been bought off by private insurance companies? We know they receive significant amounts of money through that lobby, and it seems that opposition to health care reform is directly correlated with the amount of money being received from them. Which brings us back to Mr. Lieberman, senator from Connecticut. You stand to gain a lot from revenue increases for private insurance companies, Mr. Lieberman, and have proven time and time again that you have no real interest in actual reform. Thus, we have decided to cut you out of this process. We are going to reconciliation, and we will spend every nickel we can to run an actual progressive against you in Connecticut in the next election. Don't pretend to be surprised or angry. You can pack your things and move to the other side of the aisle if you want, but for now, you've effectively been cut out of the debate."

You want to tell me that the Democrats don't have leverage to spare right now? Fuck, it's like everyone's taken a stupid pill. I think the issue here is that, with a few notable exceptions, no one, including Obama, is really interested in creating real reform in this area. Maybe the lobby is too big and there's too much money in it for them; maybe they were never interested in reform to begin with but just wanted to garner some of the progressive vote - I don't know. What I do know is that Obama has completely given up on a lot of his campaign promises. While I think that's normal for politicians, it's also disappointing to have allowed the process to go this far and then have the guy who proposed it in the first place stomp it down.

I know that Rahm Emmanuel has his strategy - gather whatever support you can from conservatives by compromising, because progressives will never vote for the other guy. They're expendable. Well, maybe that's true. We're not so crazy as to vote for ass-hats who have been coming to the forefront of the conservative movement recently. But, maybe we're not so stupid as to keep voting for people who are going to turn out to be conservative-lite in the end.

So, for now, I'm probably not going to be voting for Obama again. Don't caution me about voting against whatever crazy-person the Republicans offer up...at this point, I'd almost relish knowing again that the person in power has no intent to do anything but selfishly promoting their own power and control. I'm not sure that it's less dangerous than having someone who promises so much and not only fails to delivers, but purposefully does the opposite. Obama can win me back, but it's going to be a hard, hard fight.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Who Wins in the Health Care Overhaul: Patients, Hospitals, or Insurers

Evaluating Republican and Democrat health care proposals can be boiled down to how the plans impact the Three Interests of Hospitals, Insurers, and Patients. It doesn't seem like you can have your cake and eat it too when it comes to our health care market. I argue that the Republican plan most supports Insurers and Patients but does little to stem health care costs and puts the majority of bargaining power in the hands of Insurers. The Democrats' plan, broken down into those with a strong or weak/no public option, supports Patients. Ultimately, Patients win in the Democratic proposal, with mild benefit to Hospitals and mild or adverse outcomes for Insurers. These proposals however miss the fundamental problem with the health care economy - the existence of an adversely incentivized arbiter between patient and doctor known as the insurer.

Right now, Insurers and wealthy-treating, research-oriented Hospitals are the winners. In our liberal system, market regulations allow, and industry practices take advantage of, the relative health and wealth of middle and upper class populations to offer high quality plans and care because the wealthy can afford them. Those who can't afford the newest treatments or drugs or become too costly (i.e. sick or disabled) are the uninsurable and underfunded in research. By excluding the poor and unhealthy, our current system is allowed to operate on largess for the wealthy and parasitic accumulation of debt and disease on the poor.

The under-publicized Republican plan provides a range of incentives to patients, businesses, and hospitals to participate in the current insurance industry. Basically, the plan allows more people to have the kind of insurance we have now without any strings attached to Insurers. The cornerstones of the Republican plan are tax credits to the uninsured to pay for health insurance, limitations on medical liability, and insurance pools for individuals, small businesses and other groups (www.gop.gov, Rep Roy Blunt's summary) . There are other, more ambiguous and less ambitions proposals in the Republican Plan. I focus on these three and mention some of the other highlights in saying that Insurers are the winners here.

Insurers win because the Republican plan is built on making it easier for people to get private insurance without changing the insurance industry. Ironically enough, what is asserted as lowering the cost of health care are the insurance pools and tax credits that make insurance more affordable. Affordable health insurance is not cheaper health care. To put a price on these subsidies, the Congressional Budget Office puts the additional cost for just a quarter of the uninsured at $1 trillion over the 10 years. In addition, there is language in the Republican House Bill to incentivize Medicare and SCHIP (children's insurance) patients to move to private insurance. While these proposals would add to the health care roles, they in fact do not reduce the cost of health care.

The real cost-cutting measures for Republicans are in medical liability claims (House Bill), "increased competition," and efficiency savings. First, by capping how much and who you can sue for, say, dying from getting the wrong heart in a transplant, doctors and hospitals can reduce their costs by having to pay less in their own insurance, reduce their defensive mechanisms (like quality assurance procedures), and paying less in the case of a lawsuit. Now, while I'm not sure what the difference between a $20 million and $200 million legal suit means for the plaintiffs, the logic of price reduction is sound. Such savings however are not a panacea. The beneficiaries here are Hospitals and Insurers and (indirectly directly, around the elbow to the knees) Patients (maybe).

Second, GOP.gov asserts that their plan would increase competition by allow patients to get insurance from any state and comparing coverage and rates through an online portal. The actual Patients' Choice bill does not mention inter-state plans but Insurance Exchanges at the state level. This is the only market restructuring proposal in the Republican Plan. While such an exchange would make insurance shopping easier, it is unclear whether or not it would actually increase market competition. As we all know from buying cars, televisions, appliances, and other products from mature industries; competition often produces fewer, bigger firms and less product diversity (not to mention an ambiguous relationship with the quality of the product).

By subsidizing and incentivizing private insurance with minimal changes in the insurance industry itself, the Republican plan looks to expand private insurance's customer base without interfering with business as usual. More people would be insured (though how many poor folks the Republicans would be willing to hand money out to is historically laughable), but through the same kinds of insurance that we have now and which have not proven to reduce medical costs or properly incentivize treatment and research. The biggest winners would be Insurers and maybe the poorer hospitals and those receiving the tax deductions depending on how much is actually spent subsidizing private insurance. When it comes to market bargaining power, who gets to enforce cuts on whom, private Insurers win out hands down. Hospitals and the current cost structures inflating our Health bills would be relatively untouched.

The loose ends of the Republican plan are where both parties' plans come together to benefit hosptials. They include a number of government oversight mechanisms for improving hospital efficiency, rewards for evidence-based medicine, and a focus on lower-cost prevention and treatment approaches. These proposals are not game-changers or world-makers in terms of policy. These oversight proposals cannot change our overall health care economy because they do not internalize the motive to cut costs, reduce the economic drag of the uninsured (by insuring them, covering their procedures, or otherwise eliminating the burden of their health debt), or guarantee adequate health care to meet our standard of living.

The Democratic Plan, depending on whether or not and to what extent there is a government run insurance company, benefits Patients most. (I use "Patients" instead of "people" because insurance agents, doctors, nurses, and officials are people too.) Patients benefit through subsidies and the elimination of rejections based on pre-existing conditions (a guarantee made in the Republican plan, but remains highly ambigious in that it's supposed to be implimented through increasing or creating new (unspecified) programs for those with pre-existing conditions). On the subsidy front, both Republicans and Democrats are on the same general page.

The game changer, as it always is, is the extent to which government will be involved in paying for health care. The bigger the public plan, the more dangerous it is to Insurers. The weaker the plan, the less effective the bill will be in changing the underlying economics of health care. As I said above, without a change in the market structure, there will be no stopping health care inflation, better incentivizing research and development, or adequatly supporting the health of poor and rural populations.

This gets to the heart of why you cannot make all three Poles of health care happy and actually improve the American health care system. Health insurance is an arbiter between patient and care. The current free market nature of that barrier means that the bureaucrat mediating my relationship with my doctor is in it to make money from both of us. In a government run program, the bureaucrat between my doctor and me is in to provide a service within his budget. Neither are, at bottom, in it to make sure I get the best care or that the doctor and hospital offer the best care at a sustainable pay structure. The public option replaces the doctor-greed-patient relationship with the doctor-administrator-patient relationship.

There's an economic wall disconnecting producer and buyer and, in both cases, the middle man has the most leverage to make patients pay more and receive less and hospitals provide more for less without quality of care entering into the patient-hospital relationship. Hospitals don't compete with one another on price and it is extremely difficult to know what a patients' care would have been like at another hospital. To improve the hospital-insurer relationships (paying hospitals more and getting better care for the dollar), you have to increase prices on patients to fund the added expense. To reduce costs for the patient, the insurer must force hospitals to cut costs and shed unprofitable practices like prevention programs. There is another option for health care economics.

Let's imagine that insurers had no market bargaining power, meaning consumers can choose any hospital and insurance plan they want at any moment and hospitals can treat anyone regardless of whether and what form of payment. (This would be much like the world of a single payer which works on a administrator-hospital-patient traid). The connection between patient and hospital is effectively immediate and the health care economy is driven by hospital competition and the balance between quality of care and cost of care. Insurance then is an administrative task of making sure the hospital can cover its costs while patients get maximized quality. In this case, insurers make no profit and have no bargaining power, but hospitals and patients find a free market balance between demand for and availability of services.

Where bargaining power is concentrated in the hands of the insurer, only a maximum of two of the three players can win. In the Democratic plan, patients win because the government can negotiate lower prices with hospitals, drug companies, and other health care providers; out-compete private insurers; and subsidize below market-value plans. Think of the U.S. Postal Service. In the Republican plan, Insurers win through more consumers, government funded hospital cost-cutting, and government-absorbed high-risk/high cost patients. Imagine the Cash for Clunkers program without rules about mileage. In both plans, the middle man's leverage ensures that patient and hospital are detached from one another.

In neither plan are we really addressing this fundamental problem with the economics of health care.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Peace Sells... But Who's Buying?

Obama does not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. Obama is a relatively decent, left-of-center President who has restored America's standing in the world and taken steps to ensure peace. Fine. But he still presides over a country that practices "extraordinary rendition," where people are nabbed and sent to countries where they can be legally tortured (in ways that make Gitmo look like Disney World). That is simply a defeating condition of his eligibility to receive a peace prize. And I am not even claiming he is a horrible president; I realize his actions are circumscribed by political realities he can't control. But so far he has done exceedingly little to transcend those realities, opting instead to prove how adept he is at working within them. Again, fine: he is a good politician. But so far he has not shown the moral courage that would make him truly deserving of the prize.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Supreme Court on Corporations: Citizens United vs. the FEC

The current case of Citizens United vs. the FEC, the Supreme Court is confronting one of the most foundational constitutional issues since Brown vs. Board. Despite all of the angles taken by the plaintiffs and justices about fair elections, the role of money in politics, and the purient interests of government to make rules in regards to free speech; the one that matters most is the most taken for granted: does the bill of rights apply to corporations sui generis? My answer, as I will elaborate below, must be no; but I will consider the implications if the court decides it does.

The core rule driving the debate is that it is currently illegal for corporations to spend money on "electioneering communications" (meaning "an appeal for a vote for or against a specific candidate"). The rationale for the challenge is whether or not Hilary: the Movie is such a communication and advertisement, and whether or not the rules of enforcement are overly burdensome. (See Cornel Law for a full but short overview.) At face value, these claims are very different from the arguments being made to the Supreme Court and, frankly, this case could technically be solved without any major change in statute. However, the Appelant and thus the court and Appelee (Citizens United) have focused the issue on whether or not the law against electioneering communications is constitutional by way of arguing that free speech protections apply to corporations. Listen to the arguments at NPR , read the Citizens United brief (pdf), read the FEC's brief (pdf).

The question of whether electioneering communications are unconstitutional stems directly from the interpretation of who (and now what) the first amendment applies to. Scalia makes the argument that 95% of corporations are small business “indistinguishable from the individual who owns them.” Ginsberg's take is that corporations are not "endowed by their creator with inalienable rights" and raises the additional issue of corporations partly owned by non-citizens (see re-examination available on NPR or secondary news source).

While these touch the core issue of the application of the first amendment, they do not touch on the legal basis of corporations - which are not mentioned in the constitution and are pure legislative constructs from a legal point of view. Corporations are, in a legal sense, only what legislatures say they are and are not, and only a constitutional amendment can override that.

While I will ignore convenient arguments about judicial activism and rewriting the Constitution, the basic question is whether or not the Bill of Rights applies to corporations and the answer is a potential watershed moment in our history. Let's go into some of the potential implications. First, to extend the right of free speech to corporations subverts any rules on what can be seen on television or expressed in any other media except for what is already proscribed for individuals (including language, sexual content, violence, drug-makers' claims about a new drug, etc.).

Second, the peaceably assemble clause of the first amendment could also be used to severly limit laws on how corporations can be organized and run. For example, if a corporation's plant is shut down for sweatshop practices, the government can be taken to court for preventing peaceful assembly. Other such practices may include certain types of price fixing, cartel formation, and any scale of merger. Free market supporters who may not have a problem with the first and second implications should not forget that they would imply that we lose the ability to control monopolies and whatever their impact on government and politics more generally.

Lastly, the notion of voting rights also comes to the table if corporations are treated as people. While the idea that corporations would themselves have a vote is a constitutional stretch of cosmological proportion, to rule that corporations must be treated as people under the constitution raises these issues directly.

I don't mean to come off as a sensationalist about this ruling, but these issues become new fundamental questions with potentially history-changing impacts if the Supreme Court so rules. Of course, if the majority opinion does not base its finding on the notion that corporations are people, none of this matters nearly as much.

My guess is that the ruling will be overturned (Citizens United wins) because the law itself is too broad to defend the purient interest, the argumentation supporting the purient interest has been poorly defended over the course of the case (in large part because it is strapped by overbroad wording), and the right-leaning court is just not gonna hear it. However, such a blatant endorsement of the corporate personhood position will likely be found in an assenting opinion, but not the majority opinion (thus giving it credence without necessarily the force of Supreme Court interpretation); while the dissenting opinion will opine the view as it really supports the majority opinion and offer suggestions on how to regulate corporate money in campaigns given the majority interpretation.


Monday, September 21, 2009

Can We Sue for Being Offended?

A quick one for today. A Christian hotel-owning couple is being sued for offending a Muslim patron. Now, the actual elements of the conversation are not reportable due to the court proceedings, so I don't know exactly what happened. What appears to have happened, however, is that a Muslim patron became involved in a conversation about religion. The Muslim patron became offended at the conversation, and went to the police, and complained that she had been offended by the conversation, and felt there were "threatening or oppressive" elements to it.

Where do I stand on this? At this stage, I stand completely behind the Christian couple. If the same thing had happened at a Muslim hotel, believe me, I would stand completely behind the Muslim couple. This has nothing to do with the religious beliefs of either party. It's a basic element of free speech. You do not, or at least should not, have the right to not be offended. If a conversation is offending you, walk away, don't sue the people. I don't care if it offends your deeply held religious beliefs any more than I would care if it offends your deeply held political leanings. Trust me, if this is all it takes, I'm sueing the pants off of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, to name just a few. I am almost daily offended by the things they say. But does that make any sense? No. They have a right to their freedom of expression, just as I do, and I freely exercise that right and call them idiots and then list my reasons for doing so. That's the point.

Now, granted, this all took place in England, where the laws and the courts are a bit different, but even a commentator on the article brings up that the police are also charged with protecting freedom of expression, and that the Public Order Act has been used and is being used probably too aggressively, especially in cases where people's feelings are hurt.

Man, maybe I should change career paths and sue people for a living for a while. Then I can retire and drink away all my conscience concerns. On a remote island, or on top of some mountain.

Hm...it's not sounding so bad after all...


Saturday, September 19, 2009

ACORN, Tea Parties, and Militias: the New Conservative Grassroots

These three headline-makers signify the emergence of the newest wave of conservative grassroots organizing that will set the tone for the next brand of conservative politics. Within a long view of history, they are really not that unique. Looking to the near future, there are some very troubling dimensions, some healthy directions, and a nascent map for conservatives' political future. To sum it up briefly, the conservative grassroots is emerging as with all inter-election periods for the party out of power in the U.S.; however, it brings with it a dangerous fringe tied to the mainstream raising the question of how the grassroots will address its violent impulse.

The grassroots are the muscle and skeleton of political activity, from elections to petitions to agenda setting. This is particularly true for the grassroots of the party out of power. Remember all of the liberal anti-war, anti-WTO, and '06 and '08 election organizing during the Bush years? With the arrival of current Democratic power, the conservative grassroots have plenty of grievances to air with (seemingly) no hope of immediate success and a highly visible enemy to fight. At the center of the rebirth of the conservative grassroots are the Tea Party groups and emerging militias (including the hybrid militia-interest group Minutemen organizations) advocating for smaller, less intrusive government. While the social conservatives still penetrate the Tea Party groups, social conservativism of the anti-evolution, anti-homosexual, and other bible-thumping varieties are being comparatively deemphasized.

First, the ACORN catastrophe. You've been living in an internet news hole if you haven't heard about the everyday investigators posing as a pimp and prostitute getting advice from ACORN staff on escaping the law and taxes. Here's a list of primer reports: Original Source (Biggovernment.com), NY Times Blog Round-up , "Congress stops funds to ACORN". Just search "ACORN" on your favorite news aggregator for more than you will ever want to know.

So, what does this have to do with the grassroots conservative movement, since the specific motivations and political ideologies of the investigators are open to interpretation? First, it is an immense blow to progressive grassroots organizing on the marketing and funding front. While community organizing, like taxes, will never go away; the pure toxicity of being associated with this scandal is sure to further inspire the conservative grassroots and weaken liberal organizing. This is one of the many-yet-to-come successful attacks on liberal groups (though ACORN considers itself nonpartisan) that will continue to drive the conservative grassroots' sense of efficacy and purpose and weaken public trust in liberal causes. It is a major victory.

Compare this to the Tea Party protests in D.C. and across the country this week. The massive, well coordinated protests demonstrate the energy of the conservative grassroots and foreshadow the ideology that will be put forward in the next two election cycles - small government through reduced taxes, less market regulation, and less (non-socially conservative) law enforcement. The conservative grassroots are pissed at the bailout, the ballooned government deficit, and enlarged health care programs. Essentially, we have a libertarian wave tinged with some conservative Christian dogmatics. That is exactly what we will continue to hear in the next election cycle and what will drive the conservative grassroots to the poll. The big question for politicians who will be up for election is the extent to which these groups' ideology and counter-Democrat mobilizations will be taken up by independents and other conservative blocs (like the hawks, mainstream conservative Christians, and moderate conservatives). The big question for society at large is the extent to which these groups will become linked with the radical, violent fringe of militias and anti-immigration bigots.

The Southern Poverty Law Center's report on the resurgence of the malitia movement (that spawned Timohy McVeigh and includes other highlights such as Ruby Ridge and Waco) has helped spark an undercurrent of news reports on the issue of violent American malitias. The center's report links the shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC, the murder of a Latino Family in Arizona, and the murder of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas with many others throughout the country to this growing militia movement. The storm of brutality is built on the injection of anti-immigration racism, a radical libertarian anti-Nationalism, and new fangled rebirth of white/Christian supremacy according to the report. The groups that have thus far been named in this movement include various wings of the minutemen movement, the Oath Keepers, the nativists, Birthers (who claim Obama is not American-born) and the NRA (due to their "Prepare for the Storm 2008" membership drive with gun manufacturers).

What may be more frightening now than in the 1990's version is the connections these groups and their ideology have with mainstream institutions. These groups' ideologues include Bill O'Reilly, lambasted for his "subtle encouragement" and *wink wink* commentary on the murder of Dr. Tiller, Lou Dobbs, for his racist special reports on illegal immigration and conspiracy theory episodes about Mexicans' invasion plans, and Fox commentator Dick Morris who said, "Those crazies in Montana who say, 'We're going to kill ATF agents because the U.N.'s going to take over' — well, they're beginning to have a case." Incredibly, high level politicians have echoed the rhetoric including Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH), Texas Governor Rick Perry's talk of succession at an Austin Tea Party, and Representative Michelle Bachman's (Minn.) claim that Obama was creating "reeducation camps."

The conservative grassroots movement has its feet on the ground and the big question is how far and in what direction it will go. The violent bigotry of the militia movement has found rhetorical resonance with some mainstream conservatives, but it is seriously questionable as to what, if any of it, would actually translate into a policy platform or mainstream ideology. In fact, I would hope that some conservatives find it offensive that I mention the two in the same breath. The fact of the matter remains that, unlike the Muslim population, American conservatives have (and probably will continue to) largely failed to publically take a stand against or even acknowledge their own. The surprising exception is Glen Beck, though he continues to foment hatred and conspiracy theories. They have yet to prove that they are not like their fringe.

I anticipate a further escalation of conservative grassroots activism and the development of a more contemporary conservative ideology and platform over the next two years reaching an apex in a strong party platform in 2012. Along with this however, I too anticipate the largely uncheced growth of the violent fringe, more conspiracy theories and extremist policy quackery, and, unfortunately, more bloodshed in the name of the conservative agenda. I predict that either a large republican swing over the next two election cycles or a more intense attack like Oklahoma City will deflate the movement and turn it away from violence.

On a more optimistic note, should conservatives emerge as a reasonable force with the ability to know when they are being lied to by their leaders, then we might actually get a better, more responsible government in the support for reduced government spending and deficits. Though I doubt that any serious bipartisanship will happen within the next decade, the swing towards smaller government should at least put deficit reduction on the table before Obama's term is up and maybe some pork barrel regulations will finally be put in place (though I doubt it).

All in all, the Tea Parties are the map to the conservative future, there are conservatives who might kill you with an IED and some in the mainstream will condone it, and at the end of it all, some sad progress might be made.


Monday, September 14, 2009

The Sorcerer in California with Marriage Infedility...

A few quickies for today, just for the chuckles of it all.

First, a completely straight article about magic in Islam. Now, the more secular or not-believing-in-magic among you, or those of you who just happen to think that religions other than your own are a little kooky, will probably find this somewhat humorous. I'll admit, I do too. I can't help myself. But there is an interesting point to take away from it. Note the descriptions of 1) the rituals performed by the magic-sellers and 2) the rituals performed by the religion-sellers, or, in this case, sheiks. Not so different, eh? Well, actually, that's to be expected. Traditionally there has been a very thin line between "magic" rituals and "religious" rituals. The difference, in some views, is only the kind of person performing the ceremony. You see, to both these people, the magic is real. The sheiks are just on the "good" side and will break a curse for a nominal fee. The "sorcerers" are on the "bad" side and may make or break a curse, for the right price. The rituals are nearly identical, it's just one guy gets to wear a funny robe or hat and claim ultimate divine authority, and the other guy wears a funny robe or hat and claims (usually) some lesser or personal authority. Now, for those of you who want to claim that we are too civilized for that kind of thing, need I remind you there are groups in this country who still practice and believe in faith healing, in praying for more rain or less rain, spiritual anointing, that prayers protect people, and that God may give you what you want if you ask and believe hard enough. A very, very thin line.

Secondly, this article about a recent study. It would seem that, on average, one out of every thirty-three women who regularly attend worship services have had sexual advances made by religious leaders. So, on average, for everyone 100 women in a congregation, 3 have been advanced upon by a religious leader. And two of those three were probably married at the time. Ahh...see, this is what I've tried to tell you before - watch the people who protest the loudest that they are the most moral. They're the ones typically hiding something. See, once you have it so ingrained in your head that you are the morally superior one, you can start writing off discrepancies, because you ARE moral, or God forgives those few discrepancies, and anyway, you're still much better than the rest of THOSE sinners, they must be ten times as worse. It's called cognitive dissonance, and it's one of the oldest tricks in the book. So, to be clear, I'm not saying "moral people aren't moral," I'm saying "people who CLAIM THE HARDEST to moral often are not." It just so happens that religions and religious people like to hold high that particular banner, and so there is a biased population there. Lest we forget Ted Haggard, who only recently has discovered (after years of fire-and-brimstone preaching against gays and divorcees, etc) that his sexuality is "complex" and will take time to resolve, after snorting meth with a gay prostitute...right. Lest we forget California Assemblyman Michael Duvall, who loves having affairs with "really hot" women, enjoys a bit of spanking, and...oh, is so totally against allowing gays the right to marriage in California and is a strong promoter of "traditional family values." Lest we forget all those Catholic priests who...well, you get the idea. This isn't commentary on religion directly, although anyone who knows me knows I have my beef with organized religion, especially when it tries to wiggle its way into policy, but it is something to be noted. Keep a careful eye on those moral vanguard, lest you be disappointed when you find out just how much of con men they are.

Lastly, a straight-faced sarcastic proposal to make divorce illegal in California. I think he's very good. A little obvious with the sarcasm of it all, but very good overall. I've always wondered exactly what people meant by "traditional marriage." It's sort of a moving target. People throw up other words like "Biblical marriage" or "faith-based marriage," but that's really just another place-holder, like "Intelligent Designer" or "God" is for "we don't yet know how this happened." I mean, it would seem to me that polygamy was allowed for quite a few people in the Bible, so long as you were wealthy enough...and there were all sorts of bride-prices, dowries, sacrifices, and feasts that had to go on. I don't see too many people selling slaves along with their daughters, but...maybe that's just me. I also don't see too many Christians basing their marriages off of the Talmudic traditions, but, I guess as much as they like to claim we are a Judeo-Christian nation, there aren't too many Judeo-Christians out there.

The problem is even worse if we try to take an archeological perspective of what a "traditional marriage" would be. It'd be like gathering together a human, sheep, pig, cat, dog, rabbit, horse, ox, bear, dolphin, and mouse and asking "which one is the mammal?" Oh, you can pick one and say it's your favorite, but, as you can maybe guess, the answer's not quite right. So, really, all we have again is a group of people who want everyone else to follow their favorite system, to make everyone adhere to their laws. Now, in a federal sense, an certain bit of this is understood - you obey the traffic laws, giving up some bit of your own freedom, to enjoy the benefit of a mass transportation system. When you get married, there are certain legalities you have to get through, and you pay a tax to enjoy some benefits of the state. Okay, that's fine. But when a particular group, religious or otherwise, wants to legalize its own way of living, and only its own way, there's a bit of a problem. Imagine, if you are Christian, that a Jewish group wants to mandate that only Kosher food can be eaten from now on. Goodbye cheeseburgers, shrimp, and a helluva lot more. They're just protecting the sanctity of food preparation, and doing it in a very tradition-minded way. Do you have a problem with it? God decreed it, lest you forget as you munch on those shrimp cocktails. Now, Paul did indeed say it was okay to break Kosher, but also note that he said you shouldn't do it if it would offend those with whom you were dining. Well, well, if it's going to offend some of the more tradition-minded Jews, you'd probably better stop.

Or imagine if a Muslim group wanted to U.S. to adhere to Sharia law. Would you have a problem with it? What if, just imagine, they were the majority in this country? Would you have a problem with it then? Would you feel that your rights as a group of people are being trampled on? That some religious group is forcing their view of things onto the public through legislation?

There is a solution, though. It's not a perfect one - few are. It's cobbled together and frail, sometimes barely hanging on. It offends a great deal of people, but it allows society to work, however hobbling it may go. The solution is brilliantly simple - no religion, no philosophy, no particular group, even the majority, gets special treatment or free reign in legislation. You are free to practice your own religion, or lack thereof. However, just the same, I am free to practice my own, however different they may be. So long as they do not interfere with each others private rights, there is no problem (I can't kill you because my god told me to. I can refuse to eat cheeseburgers though). So, why don't we take a hint from the Constitution, you police your own religious community, I'll eat some shrimp scampi, and we extend the right of marriage to everyone, regardless of what particular bits of flesh they possess where (legislate only the minimum necessary - need for consent, proof of stability and support if needed, minimum age requirement, and maximum relatedness if-you-so-desire), and we all go home happy.

That's just my two-cents anyway.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Little Lighter

Alright, so the last post was pretty angry. That's been building for a while. I want to add a little something to maybe lighten the mood, brighten your day, or maybe just give you an example of someone who understands what it means to be human. I give you, Tom Waits:



Monday, August 24, 2009

Republican "Bipartisanship" is Letting Republicans Get Their Way


It really never ends in this country. Probably nowhere else, either, but as that I live here, it's my current primary concern. I'm talking about this. A delightful little argument about how Democrats can achieve bipartisan cooperation. The undertone, of course, is taken straight from the Rush Limbaugh play book, which can be seen in this four-part series from his 2009 RNC CPAC address. Now, Limbaugh is, in my opinion, the very definition of repugnant. His entire show focuses on thinly veiled racism, sexism, and outright bigotry and hatred. Yes, he does indeed want Obama to fail, and I can't honestly bring myself to believe that he means just Obama's policies. Now, the one good thing about Rush that I can say is that he's often honest about his viewpoints. I say often, because like everyone else, there's always an element of obfuscation somewhere.

Anyway, Rush's idea of "compromise" and "bipartisanship" is really "we get what we want all the time." The Republicans are clearly in his pocket in this, which is why those of us on the more progressive front have a hard time understanding why the liberals in Congress and the White House are paying them any attention at all. They've made it clear that they're not going to go for anything supported by a liberal, ever, and after all this effort of reaching across the aisle, the Democrats will get, oh, about zero Republican votes. They've drawn their wagons, done their poll research, created their talking points, and they're doing what they do best - turtling and jamming their fingers in their ears, crying because it's THEIR birthday, dammit, and it'll be their way or the highway.

No, I'm sorry Rush, I don't have any respect left for you and your kind. You yell and scream that this is not the America that you grew up in like that's a bad thing. I'm sorry, but I think we've improved a lot since your toddler days - we've made some inroads into ending segregation and discrimination (I'm sorry that it offends you that there is anyone other than older white males in America); we have passed legislation that improves the quality of health care received by seniors (ah, yes, Medicare...that burr in your side!); we, despite our previous president's best efforts, have made major progress in the sciences (I know, reality really encroaches on your worldviews, but...there it is); and, I suppose most importantly for you, a majority of the American people decided they didn't like doing things your way anymore and voted a bunch of your guys out of Congress, and perhaps more importantly, voted for a president who promised to bring radical change. You want to talk about a mandate? There is was. Maybe you missed it.

Now, my vitriol isn't entirely directed against Mr. Limbaugh. No, he has plenty of cronies and plenty of others who think just like him anyway. You see, they have a sense of entitlement - they're conservative, they represent the "true America," so even when the majority of us vote against them, they're still entitled to have only their policies passed. See, when they were in power, they could do whatever they wanted, and now that they're out of power, they're still supposed to be able to do whatever they want, didn't you know?!

And, no, I'm no bleeding heart begging "can't we all just get along?" I'm ready to go for a more progressive agenda. We've got the power now, let's use it people.

I'm tired of all the talking points and rhetoric. I'm tired of the cliches in this. I'm tired of seeing people on or about to go on Medicare yell that the government should have nothing to do with health care. I'm tired people arguing that the government should have no right to interfere with a person's health decisions, and then try to legislate anti-abortion laws. I'm tired of having Republicans propose Advanced Care Planning and then other Republicans calling it death panels and having it removed. I'm tired of Republicans saying that they'd be happy to compromise, and then for every compromise they say "it's not enough. It's not our policy yet." I'm tired of the ignorance, of the outright stupidity, of the hypocrisy. I'm tired of this. I'm tired of old rich white men say that they're being put-upon and how hard it is to afford their multi-million dollar mansions with all these taxes while people starve to death or die because they can't afford health care. And sorry, yes, I am a white man myself, though nowhere near as wealthy as these guys.

But let me tell you something honestly, if I were making enough to be able to afford to cover myself and my family with health insurance, I would consider it an honor and a civic duty to thank the country that gave me the opportunity to do so, and to thank those who support the base of our country, and give back a little in taxes towards covering them. Because, let's be honest. You're already giving tax dollars to cover people who don't have health insurance - they use emergency rooms, which are quite expensive, and the funding for emergency rooms comes from...ah, that's right...tax dollars. So, your choice is - pay for very expensive treatments with your tax dollars, or maybe contribute to a more efficient and cheaper health insurance for other people. But that's the ultimate problem with the upper echelon conservatives. They honestly believe that they have reached where they are with absolutely no help. They don't drive on roads that are paid with by tax dollars. They didn't attend public schools. They never had an emergency operation. They have always grown and cooked their own food. They didn't have family members or friends who know people or had contacts. They were never on food stamps or welfare. They will never go on Medicare. They were never protected by police. They never had to use any medications that were created by research generated from public funds. No, they have never needed anybody, and they're not willing to part with their hard earned cash. Now, the truth of the matter is that a lot of them have very good lawyers who can get them out of paying a lot of their taxes anyway, so they don't have to fear that they might be contributing to someone else's benefit...no, because that would be just awful.

Part of me hopes that the health care bill does eventually get a real vote. Let the Republicans vote against it. It won't matter. They'd never have voted for it anyway. Let the blue dogs vote it down too. That's fine. More people will die or go bankrupt. They really don't care. But maybe, just maybe, in a few people's minds, a small inkling will start to appear that these guys are all crazy hypocrites, that they have only their own self-interest and pay-checks in mind, and that they really don't represent the people. Maybe, after that, or, failing that, years from now when the present generation of conservatives die off, maybe there will be actual reform. Progress always comes in small incremental steps, usually long overdue. We'll get health care reform eventually, probably long after many of those who could have used it most have passed away, but it will come. That's the problem with conservatives, why they always have to fear - the world is always changing, and slowly...painfully slowly, we're beginning to wake up from their nightmare and realize that maybe, just maybe we should treat people equitably. Maybe someday we'll have a little compassion and realize that it's the nice thing, the moral thing, the ethical thing, hell, the Christian thing to do to help those who are less fortunate. My advice for those conservatives out there who are so for their own wealth and so for "morality" but are so against health care or any sort of social services...read your damn Bible. It's not my damn Bible, and I don't consider myself bound by it. It's your damn book. Either follow it, or quit spouting it and pretending to believe a word of it.


Friday, August 21, 2009

How I wish I had those squidly tentacles of doom...

So I'm just going to link to PZ at Pharyngula for this post on the age of the earth. It's too well done and too good of a take-down for me to really try to add anything to it other than "Snaps!" and, perhaps, "Boo-yah!"

Ah, science. Helping people more closely approximate reality for over 300 years.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Converting Poe

I have every reason to believe that this is a clear example of Poe's Law. But that's part of the reason it cuts so close - I've had these kinds of arguments, online and in person. In each of them, you take a second, turn your head, and say "Wait...really? You...REALLY...believe that?" I've always wondered if some of the people I've had discussions with were actually trolling/Poeing...but most of them seemed sincere enough afterward.

Anyway, watch, cringe, facepalm, laugh.


Monday, August 10, 2009

The Inherent Contradictions of Conservative Opposition to the Public Option

Political hypocrisy is nothing new. We've all seen it, heard it, and lived it from pretty much every politician...ever. At this point it's really the degree that matters. Do you go with the politician who is always going to be lying, or the one who is only going to disappoint sometimes. Jaded? Perhaps.

But let's consider this issue in regards to say, the public option that the Obama administration has proposed for health care reform. We already know that the public option is a compromise from a single-payer system, as in, in committee, the public option was hammered out as an acceptable compromise. Now, of course, the conservative voices in Congress are saying that the public option should be compromised, revealing a few things - first, that of course they never intended to actually work with the idea of a public option, but were waiting for the public option to be revealed as "the plan" instead of as "already a compromise," and secondly, that these guys are in the pockets of the health care industry. The Young Turks have a good commentary on a Keith Olbermann special comment that nicely sums that up:

In fact, I'm just going to go ahead and link you to The Young Turks in general. They're fairly excellent.

Anyway, the point of this post was really to look at the conservative position and see if it stands up to itself.

To me, it seems to break down to three points of contention:

1) Government control
2) Free market economics
3) Government ineffectiveness.

Let's think about these things. These are all talking points of the conservatives, in one way or another, and you hear them all the time from these "town-hall meetings." We'll get to those in a second.

First, we have the issue of "Government Control." Conservatives, naturally, want government to keep its hands off of their health care and medical issues. This has led to the rather ironic statement being yelled "You tell the government to keep its hands off my Medicare." Pause for blinks and awkward laughs. OF COURSE Medicare is government-run health care. OF COURSE it has been since the 60's...um, right. But, anyway, we'll go back to medicare later. If you main point is that you want to keep government out of your health care and medicine, then OF COURSE you must support the right for a woman to choose to have an abortion, and OF COURSE you must support the right for a person to remove a family member from life-support, and OF COURSE you must support the right for researchers to work with stem-cells....Oh...right. We're only against government interference in health care in some issues.

Our second issue to consider is the whole issue of the free market. A frequent conservative talking point is that the public option is actually a nationalization of health care, or that it would out-compete any private insurance and drive them out of business. On the first point, no, the public option is not a nationalization of health care insurance. It is a public INSURANCE OPTION. Which, basically means, you have the OPTION to get your health INSURANCE from a government source. The government is not taking over hospitals or doctors. It is merely an insurance option. Yes, this does mean that someone will have to determine exactly what the public option will cover and which health care suppliers are preferred. But is that any different from a private insurance company? No. Another thing that people say is that they're happy with their employer insurance and don't want to be forced to go with a public option. Well, first off, you're not forced to go to the public option. Secondly, the only reason that most people really like their employer insurance (i.e., cannot discriminate for pre-existing conditions like private insurance can) is because of a government mandate. Already, the hand of government has intruded into your health care. Now, the other problem is the whole "driving private insurance out of business" or "dominating the market." As this is a public OPTION, you would assume, perhaps, that one would be in favor of having yet another competitor in the market, especially when private insurance companies tend to dominate entire states. In most projections, the public option would drive down costs across the board, because, yes, the government can do it for cheaper overall and would be a competitor in the market. Would they drive out other companies? Well, even if they did, would this not be the utter definition of a market economy? The better option prevails unless the private insurance companies can compete? Also, since so many claim that a government program would fail miserably, it's surprising to hear so many say that it would out compete private options. But that dovetails into our last point.

Third, the common refrain is that government cannot run health care. You hear this on Fox News talking points - the government can't run Cash for Clunkers (which it can and is an example of a program that is almost TOO successful), so how can it run health care? Well, part of the problem, already mentioned, is that the government does run health care - Medicare and Veterans' programs. That's right. Medicare, considered one of the best programs by the people insured under it, is government run. Likewise, conservatives always talk about the top quality care that our armed forces receive (partially in compensation for lower wages), and that too is government run. An excellent take down of this point can be seen here, in a interview between Jon Stewart and Bill Kristol:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Bill Kristol Extended Interview
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorSpinal Tap Performance

So, if you're going to claim that Medicare and Veterans' care work, which conservatives tend to do (and just try to maintain any political capitol when you say you are going to take away Medicare), then it's very hard to say that government cannot run a health care program with a straight face. Also, again, the general contradiction of saying that government programs would out-compete private companies and would also be horribly run and an utter failure.

Lastly, the trope of of "nameless, faceless bureaucrats between you and your doctor." How this is different from the nameless faceless people in my insurance companies, I don't know, but regardless. Most of the rhetoric is outright lies, such as the "nationalization of health care" and "death panels," but let's also go back to Medicare. People on Medicare tend to like it. They like it a lot. So, if we already have a well-running program to cover people over 65, why not extend it back to 55? Why not 45? 25? Why not everyone? Granted, a legitimate question is "how are we going to pay for this," and that is an issue we should talk about, but it is also clear that nearly 50 million Americans are uninsured, and preventative care can do a great deal to lower costs overall, in the long run.

This issue has been made a clearly political one - conservatives want to stop Obama, and want to pocket the money that insurance companies are providing for them. We know that public options can work - we have examples from around the world. Unfortunately, the conversations we should be having are not the ones that are going on. There are jokes of town-hall meetings going on around the country because conservative groups are funding, educating, and shipping people around to these town halls to protest, fill up the front rows and disrupt the meeting so that the senator or representative cannot talk or offer counterpoints. Now, if they wanted to ship people in to go up to the mic and voice their concerns and allow a rational debate, then that's fine. That's democracy. However, as it stands, they are not allowing anyone else to talk but themselves. They're trying to drown out every voice but their own and ignore any rational points, as well as the more-than-majority number of Americans who want major reforms (a la Gallup polls). That's not democracy. Sorry.

I promise this will be the last point - you often hear conservatives state that we have "the best health care system in the world." What they don't tell you is that this is based on an opinion poll. The World Health Organization has a different idea. We spend more money than almost any country, and yet have lower quality of care, ranked 37 in a WHO assessment. Are there problems with this measurement? Of course it's arguable. But at least it's more objective than a simple opinion poll.

Anyway, that's my two-cents. I'm not saying the public option is perfect, but I can't stand anymore to hear the utter hypocrisy from the conservative side and listen to the constant contradictions. They don't even have a leg to stand on, if this is the way they're going to be arguing. I'm sure Jason could offer more, and tell me where I'm bullshitting, and I fully welcome that. Any thoughts?


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Standing Up for Simon Singh

(This is simply a repost of an article by Simon Singh, which got him sued by the British Chiropractic Association. A lot of skeptics are reposting this article today in support of Mr. Singh.)

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results - and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that "99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae". In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer's first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying - even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world's first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: "Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck."

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Thunderf00t Debates Ray Comfort

An interesting series, unedited, of a video debate YouTube personality Thunderf00t had with Ray "Bananas are the Atheist's Nightmare" Comfort. It goes about how you'd probably imagine. I'm not saying Thunderf00t had a great performance here. I'd say it was very good, but not great. But, on the other hand, he was clearly more interested in having the discussion than winning the debate, so, points to him. The part that's the hardest to watch is all the variations of "I know this is true" "Why?" "Because the Bible says so and the Bible is true" from Ray. His absolute statement near the beginning of "I know what happened in the beginning, you don't know, but I do, in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" is...well...painful, to say the least. You also get the sense that there is one proposition that Ray will never, ever, EVER consider - maybe, just maybe, the Bible is not absolutely true. Comfort brushes aside any other scripture as drivel or evil lies, but never applies the same logic he uses to bat those aside to his own scripture. He begins with the unquestioned assumptions that God exists, it is the Christian God, that God created everything, and that the Bible is absolutely true and as long as someone is born again, they can never be wrong when reading the Bible. The other extremely painful part is in Part 7 of this playlist, when Thunderf00t describes in detail an observed instance of speciation, a ring species of salamander, well, perhaps more accurately a forked speciation event, but, regardless. Ray agrees with every part until Thunderf00t gets to the conclusion - "That's speciation." Ray then goes on to basically say "Okay, sure, there is this species of salamander, that after sufficient geological distance cannot interbreed with the two ends of the range. Sure, you can interbreed salamanders from each fork all the way back to a common salamander at the top of the fork, and the two at the end of the forks cannot interbreed. But this is not speciation. This is not evolution. It's just infertility problems. Even though they can still breed with themselves or other salamanders close to their part of the river." I wanted to scream just a bit after watching that fail of logic. I know that this kind of response happens on both ends. You feel that you are using logic and reason to its height, and whomever you're talking to is just not getting it, or accepts every step until the logical inference to the conclusion. I do feel, however, that Ray got himself into more trouble in this kind of situation, however, because Thunderf00t makes it clear that he doesn't accept at face value Ray's basic premises. That's important - if you accept Ray's premises, such as God existing and having created everything and the Bible being absolutely true, then yes...it all makes sense. But that's exactly where the atheist draws the line - show me that your premises have merits, and then we can argue about the finer points of deduction or induction. Ray utterly fails to provide any evidence to back up his basic premises.

Anywhere, here's the video. Watch it if you can stomach it:


Monday, July 20, 2009

Commemorating Apollo 11

I wanted to make a short post to commemorate today as the 40th Anniversary of the first Moon Landing. A few days ago was the anniversary of the launch, and I meant to put up something then but didn't get around to it due to being sick for a while. Anyways, recovering now, and I would ask you to take some time and browse around The Big Picture's post on the Apollo 11 mission, or go check out Phil Plait's blog for a bit of a more personal reflection. I wasn't alive at the time of the landing, unfortunately, but it's had its impact on me in other, less direct ways.

The Moon landing was an important and historic achievement, perhaps largely political in its time, but in the long view it has come to symbolize something about humanity in general - our curiosity, our outward and upward reach, our scientific and technological advances, and the general hope that pervades our species for a better world. There is something impressive about the speed with which we went from the first flight to stepping forth onto another world. Likewise, it is hard to believe that is has been close to 40 years since humans have really left Earth orbit. I hope we return soon, with forethought and a well-laid plan, and continue to press out into not just our solar system, but eventually the cosmos as a whole. In a way, we are returning to the primordial oceans that birthed us, we are going home.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Marx’s Theory of Finance

To develop a basic, classical Marxist theory of finance; we must understand the basic profit principle of Marx: M'=M+ΔM or Money-Capital-Money'. In Marx’s mature thought, everything is built on this principle and all human economic activity is reducible to achieving M'. But, because Marx discussed his theory in terms of labor-produced goods and set labor as the only way to create profit, applying Marx to finance and especially trading becomes oblique in some ways. The reason why we must consider Marx’s perspective (and why you should continue reading this article) is that it helps us understand the difference between good finance and bad finance. But first, a short word for the anti-communists out there about the difference between Marxist thought and communism and their policy implications.

Marxist thought, at its core, is a theory of economics that described how we make profit by combining capital investments and labor. Communism is a political ideology based on the ethical and political implications of the labor abuses that this drive for profit can create. While Marx himself was certainly anti-capitalism because of these abuses, I do not believe that there is any metaphysical reason why we cannot produce profit humanely. In fact, I believe that a fully humane capitalism is possible. I will not discuss why here. I only mention this to assuage conservative readers that this is not another hate-mongering polemic on capitalism and private property.

Now, the key problem with applying Marx’s thought to finance is that finance does not produce goods in the traditional sense. They do not buy low and sell high to their investors. On top of this, the tertiary finance sector which trades in derivatives, is two steps removed from the traditional economy. Thus, Marx’s M-C- M' profit formula and fundamental motivation becomes, at best, only indirectly applicable. In the most traditional finance sector – savings and loan – the leap is relatively easy for Marx. Financiers invest (add M) for a slice of the final profits M'. This formula for motivation and economic causation however does not apply to speculative derivatives trading, collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), and other tertiary financial economic activity that has become a mainstay in our system.

Why is this such an issue and why should we care what Marx might have to say about it? First, since these tertiary activities are mainstays and they do not fall into a smooth image of how profit motives translate into real, goods and services-based profit; it is crucial that we understand how they interact with the main economy to better predict and regulate these activities. Second, Marx’s theory is very clear about the relationship between what people think, what they do, and what happens because of it. While his thought itself is very general and now analytically outdated, it is still in line with the basics of micro and macro economic theory. Thus, it offers a comparatively clear way of interpreting tertiary financial activity while not seriously violating basic economic principles.

So, what makes tertiary finance so special and un-amenable to a basic understanding of capitalist economics that we have to create a whole new interpretation of it? Capitalism, at its core, works because it adds real value to real things and earns a fair return from it. As Marx throws away talk about prices as a proxy for understanding the real value added, we too must throw away the notion that capitalism makes money simply because it gets more money than it puts in. Tertiary finance latches on to this process in a very distant way, putting money into money that is somewhere backed by real value-adding processes. These financiers make money when the money they invest produces more money. The problem is that, because the link to real value-added process is so convoluted and, adding to that, the gambling economy of short-term trading practices, the M' that traders achieve is not easily traceable to any actual value created. Hence we can have toxic assets with no way to measure their actual value.

To better understand a bit of the range of tertiary finance practices and address one of its central self-defenses, we can look at speculative derivatives trading. To keep it simple, speculative derivatives trading operates by allowing investors to put money in actual goods and the returns that investors make come from the change in value brought about by other investors and market demand for that good. For example, I invest in the derivatives equivalent of a barrel of oil at $100. Five other people invest at increments of $105, $110, and so on. I then sell my derivative at the final $130 to the sixth person. I’ve made $30 because people were willing to pay $130 for a barrel of oil. (For those of you who know the technical dimensions of derivatives, I know I’ve cut out 99% of what actually happens for the sake of simplicity). While no more value was added to the barrel I bought and then sold, I still made money. The central rationale for this among economists and free market defenders is that this process helps the process of putting an accurate value on the good being traded. In essence, the actual value of the barrel I bought was $130, but the market did not know that until I sold it and, it was only because others bought it at higher prices (the proof that the barrel was worth more than the $100 I bought it for) that I could sell it for the more accurate value.

This accurate valuation hypothesis of the role of tertiary finance can hold water theoretically under the assumption that investors will not pay more than something is worth and will buy something when it is valued less than it is worth. Here we have the disjunction with the basic logic of capitalism. Tertiary profit is made when the estimated value increases. Primary profit increases when the actual value increases (primarily through productivity increases). (Note: increased market share, or selling to more people, does not constitute an increase in profit or value, only a redistribution of existing profit in Marx’s analysis). While there are many cases when tertiary profit increase occurs because primary profit increases, there is no reason to believe that this is actually what happens without a thorough business analysis. What this means is that the tertiary sector has an incredible leeway to make money without actually producing anything of value or contributing to the overall efficiency of the market.

The current recession is not the only time in which some have claimed that the profit businesses report were not based on any value created. Compare former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s analysis of the 1980’s merger and acquisition bonanza with Gowan’s diagnosis of the present financial crisis. To save you some time, both argue that the large amount of profits generated were based on non-capitalist gains like artificially inflating and deflating market bubbles and taking government write-offs for merging and writing down sick companies. The lesson is that when we disconnect the capitalist motive for M' from the actual process of adding value to objects, we open ourselves up to diverting money to paper profits and a pure gambler’s game which are tangential to contributing to the production of real value.

What does this have to do with discerning good and bad finance? What I’ve implicitly argued and now explicitly state is that good finance is attached to real value, meaning that financial profit is generated by the creation of actual value. This does not necessarily mean that tertiary practices are bad, but they require much more conscientious review than primary or secondary finance (such as mutual funds, 401Ks, and the like). What is bad finance is the intentional attempt to make money by manipulating market values and disconnecting the value of a tradeable from the actual value which backs it. The CDOs that accumulated so many types of financial vehicles from so many sources that no one could trace them and that have melted our financial sector are criminally negligent at best. The second insidious form finance is that which makes profit from the loss of value. A good example of this would be predatory lending such as some forms of sub-prime mortgaging and many credit card policies. No, you cannot legislate consumers’ financial intelligence, but you cannot legitimate a business that financially generates and then profits from financial destruction. It usurps the creation of value and acts as a parasite on the capitalist system and our society as a whole.

There are two lessons that I believe can be taken away from a classical Marxist theory of finance. First, solid capitalist finance is linked to actual value. Second, finance disconnected from actual value contributes to the destructive and free-riding dimension inherent in capitalism. Though Marx’s vision of our ultimate evolution away from capitalism seems irrational now, I believe his underlying image of the economy is still useful in interpreting modern markets and capitalist enterprise and can contribute to a more ethically sound way of creating real value for our lives.


Friday, July 3, 2009

The Importance of Blogs

This is a post about how and why blogs will become an important foundation of genuine, participatory public discussion and how you, reader, can help lead the way. Basically, traffic-building strategies like search engine optimization (SEO), blog carnivals, trackback, and RSS/syndication align profit, informational value, and readership with low overhead and search costs. This means that anyone can blog, but only those who provide the most valuable information in the most easily accessible way will dominate in the long run. The "long" in long run dominance will be shortened by people like you reader as we develop more sophisticated interests in linking to blogs and, for you fellow bloggers, in learning how to build traffic.

A lot of server space is taken up by online articles, wiki-entries, and of course, blogs about the future of blogging and its role in society. One general consensus as I find it is that blogs are an unprecedented way for everyday people (not newscasters, public officials, or media stars) to have a public voice. For example, here is Technorati's stance and Scott Rosenburg's defense of bloggers against the apparently not-so-everyday journalist. Whether blogs are good for democracy is its own niche in the blogosphere and academia. There is the Habermasian Angle of free, open, and rational discussion ultimately reaching consensus and the information filtering argument in the spirit of John Stuart Mill. You should also read the blogs prompted by Arianna Huffington's debate on the issue for more complex positions. The jury will be out on this question and many others for a long time and will probably come back with mixed results like every other complex issue. However, when it comes to efficiently finding and consuming information, the blogosphere and internet as a whole has unmatched and probably unavoidable potential.

The first reason and lesson for readers, particularly you bloggers, is the fact that blogs run on traffic and traffic is created by content value. If you make valuable content, visitors will like you. If visitors like you they will come back. They will bring their friends by linking to you on their own blog, linking your blog on Facebook and MySpace, or the old fashioned word-of-mouth. This is the sage advice of bloggers' bloggers like Copyblogger and Steve Pavlina. As you may notice from the links, these are veterans' advice for turning a blog into a traffic and money-making hub. While not everyone cares about the money in blogging, those who dominate the field and their content niches do. If this is any indication of the future of blogging (and when has history not followed the money?), blogging will only create more high quality information, scale up on traffic, and become more commodified.

As an aside, the commodification of blogging opens up a whole other bag of worms that I will not get into now and that does pose some serious downsides, particularly over the medium run, and are likely to raise new questions and issues as it reshapes content on the internet.

The second dimension which both drives growth, quality content, and accessibility is the slew of traffic-building marketing tools currently used which link the traffic-quality base to integrating, content-driven marketing. Take Search Engine Optimizaiton (SEO), syndication, and blog carnivals for example.

SEO is the process of tailoring a website so that it is most easily found and visited from search engines. It can be such a technically intensive and profitable mode of traffic building that Google's own discussion revolves around hiring an SEO consultant. They do however provide a Starter's Guide (pdf). In total, SEO is a creater-side strategy which should aid search engines and reader heuristics (i.e. bookmarks, links on networking sites, feed following, etc.) to increase the overall information search efficiency among blogs. While it is not for everyone, it is but one efficiency tool.

Syndication increases visitors' ability to follow a blog's activity and return to the site and the same kind of starter information is also available. This may be one of the best ways to generate the medium term readership (those between one-time browsers and regular readers) which more fully tests a blog's content value. Additionally, social bookmarking sites like del.icio.us, which offer other forms of tracking, also offer another means for ranking and ordering blogs.

Lastly, blog carnivals are when a group of bloggers write posts on a certain topic and post them to a single site hosting the carnival. Not only does this provide a (rare) source of editing, they deepen personal, professional, and hyper-reference relationships between bloggers, expand readers' blog networks, and condense topical discussion to a much more localized venue.

These three tools exemplify the intrinsic link in blogging between growth, content quality, and accessibility in the realm of marketing a blog. First, these tools are cheap and accessible for those just beginning (unless you hire an SEO consultant and what self-respecting internet cowboy or cowgirl would?). Not only is it relatively easy to start a blog, but to market it. Second, these tools operate on the same logic of information organization as one of the most basic internet features: the hyperlink (I'll return to the awesomeness of this feature in another post (maybe)). Third, building hyper-reference networks through embedded images, hyperlinks, etc. transfers the status of linkers providing more cognitive and emotional meaning than any other dimension of a link. Lastly, each of these also makes the organization of information more efficient by matching content with entry point content like the text in hyperlinks or Google search results.

With the basic framework tied to traffic, content, and search efficiency; the last cornerstone is the basic economics of blogging - little overhead, low barriers to entry, and an unknown upper-limit on profits. There is little pre-startup selection meaning that everyone who wants a shot can get one. There is little natural selection, meaning that even if you're not successful, you can still do it without going broke. If you actually get the ball rolling on your blog, almost all of it is profit. Remember though that time is money and putting up a respectable blog takes a lot of it.

Lastly, how much money could be made in blogs is utterly unknown and new ways of turning readership into income are being invented everyday. (The ethics of monetizing blogs is also another major niche debate which I hope to address in another post. Lets just say for now that most strategies are at least annoying, but there are some methods that might benefit you, reader).

Blogging is an economic wild west and there's plenty of room for everyone right now to make some money and for some to potentially make an unimaginable figure based on high quality content and readership. In my opinion, the economic incentives are aligned to make blogging a crucial source for the public imagination, education, and discussion. We're not there yet and will not be there for probably another decade (in which time we'll figure out better ways to organize information on the internet, develop better-quality information, scale up blog production, and see more centralization of blog readership at the same time that readership grows exponentially).

The question and challenge for you reader is one, whether you care (and, if you've gotten this far, probably do); two, how can you do your part to help us all bring rule to this wild west; and three, to create the next generation of blogs. For those of us who are not full time bloggers or have hopes of being one, start tagging and linking to blogs you know and like. Put them in your RSS reader or Twitter them. Make it easier for others and yourself to find them. Also, as we all know you're good at, rain the criticism down. Make sure no bad content goes unpunished and no good content goes unmentioned. For those who are thinking of trying to live on blogging, I dare you to go beyond the achievements of the many great bloggers today, start finding the upper limit of readership and profit, and push. Since money, readership, and content are so intertwined in blogging, pushing the limits will open the doors to a bigger, better blogosphere; not immune to corruption, but subject to a much sharper "bend towards Justice."