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politics

What Just Happened?


Note well: I don’t talk about politics on Contra very much. When I do, I impose what I call heroic courtesy on myself. I suggest that you do the same in the comments. Furthermore, I demand civility. (This is not the same thing as courtesy, and not as good, but with some individuals it may have to do.) There will be no hate words like libtards, republithugs, deniers, or anything stupid of that sort that wasn’t even funny the first time. If you use playground logic like tu quoque, I will allow it, but I will call you on it. If you’re a purely emotional thinker who simply wants to vent, there are other, better places for that. Go find them.


I boggle. I was ready to admit that this was a disturbingly weird election, and beats the runnerup, 1872 (go look it up) hands-down. I took notes over the past six months and privately predicted a number of things, including a clear Clinton victory (if not a landslide) and either a tied Senate or Democrats by one or at best two seats. Didn’t happen, and what was disturbingly weird now takes its place as the weirdest single event that I have ever witnessed. So, indeed, what happened? I took some notes last night. Let me share them with you.

  • Hate loses. Yes, it does. I now understand the psychological purpose of online hate, though it took a few years to figure it out: In counseling circles it’s called journaling, which is a mechanism for the release of tension and frustration. Venting or griping are other common names for the process. People who have no way to journal often die young, like my grandfather Harry Duntemann. So it can be a useful, nay, lifesaving mechanism. However, it has to be done in private. Either do it with your likeminded friends over a few beers, or in the private online echo chamber of your choice. Just don’t do it where the larger world can see it. You will be silently tagged as a hater and marked down. You will persuade no one. In fact, a growing number of people look at online hate and say, This smells of fear. Fear implies a force worth understanding, and sometimes that understanding changes minds in a direction away from the fear behind the hate. By hating, you may be persuading others that your side is either a lost cause or bogus to begin with. Do you really want to do that?

    My analysis suggests that three words cost Hilary Clinton the Presidency: “basket of deplorables.” It’s one thing to use verbalized hate as a means of dissipating tribal fears and frustrations, directed at an opposition candidate. It’s quite another to explicitly express hate and (especially) contempt for millions of voters, right there in front of every TV camera in the nation. The right took the phrase and turned it into a badge of pride. “I’m deplorable and I’m OK. I sleep all night and I work all day.” Etc. Like nobody on the campaign could have seen that coming? I’ve never entirely understood this business of “energizing your base” by calling the other guys names. You already own your base. Why drive away people who might give you a hearing if you just. remained. civil? Why? Why? Why?

    There are admittedly other issues at play too complex to go into here, like Ms. Clinton’s alleged mishandling of classified information, or this general demonization of whites and the working class by the fringes of the progressive left. Ms. Clinton did not reach out to working-class whites. She bowed to her fringes by insulting and marginalizing them, and did not take up the issues that concern them. This was entirely avoidable. Her base would have voted for her anyway, apart from a handful of Jill Stein fans and Berniebros. (BTW, I was much impressed with the campaign of Jill Stein, and of the candidate herself. I offer her as an example to progressives trying to win future elections.)

  • The mainstream media lit a funeral pyre and jumped gleefully into the flames. The media has always leaned left; it leaned left when I was in college 45 years ago, and we all understood how journalism selects for a certain idealistic and largely emotional mindset. What happened this time is that the media abandoned all pretense of objectivity and went full-in for the Democrats. I knew about push-polling (publishing deliberately skewed polls to demoralize your opposition) but have never seen it mounted as broadly as it was. Worse, a lot of journalists let their inner haters leak out on social media, and whether they were merely venting or not, those who saw their posts took it as naked, hateful bias of the media as a whole. Never forget, anybody: What you say online reflects on your industry, whether you issue disclaimers or not. Better to just shut up and do your job.
  • Media analysts lost the ability to question their own assumptions. How could the pollsters get it all so wrong? I’m a journalist, and I learned from the best. Fortunately, it was not political journalism, so emotional thinking and tribalism didn’t really come into play. I learned the importance of checking facts, evaluating sources, and looking for different ways to come at any given topic. Most important, I was taught to leave my preconceptions at the door. In political journalism, preconceptions generally come in the form of tribal narratives, and questioning tribal narratives can have awful consequences for tribal operatives. So journalists and pollsters kept repeating their narrative-respecting explanations until those explanations became indistinguishable from reality. Then real reality intruded, and made them all look like incompetent goofs.
  • Alternate news sources are now ubiquitous, and mature. Nearly all of these are online, and even those supposedly stupid deplorables out in farm country now have broadband. So people did not have to rely on mainstream news sources that made no secret of their biases. The Wikileaks drama was surreal, especially FBI Director Comey’s flip-flop-flip on whether or not Ms. Clinton performed actions that broke the law. Other details that I have not yet verified (like whether Chelsea Clinton used Clinton Foundation funds to pay for her wedding) would not have been covered on mainstream outlets at all, but the alts put it up in lights. Ditto evidence of vote fraud in many places around the country. I’m a Chicago boy, and we saw it happening on a large scale fifty years ago and ever since. Denying that it happens is simply a lie; the big questions are where, how much, and how to stop it. Without the alt media, those questions would never have seen the light of day.
  • Nobody wants to be a lightning rod. The mainstream media and most people on the left have made their hatred of Mr. Trump clearly known ever since he turned up on the scene. If somebody like a pollster asks you whom you support, are you necessarily going to say the guy that everybody on the news clearly loathes? To some people, politics is like life itself. To many people (myself included) politics is a disease that robs people of their humanity and turns them into killer apes. Dealing with combative political people is not fun, so the best strategy is to avoid the topic entirely. This is the great magic of secret ballots: You can lie or make excuses when asked about your preferences, and then vote your private position in private, with no one the wiser, and nobody to roll their eyes and write you down. I always lie to pollsters because I hate the very idea of polling and want it to go away. Stick a pitchfork in polling; it’s done. Post-2016, polling will be seen as either worthless twaddle or backchannel campaigning. The delicious irony is that the pollsters did it to themselves, by forcing ordinary, non-political people to hide or mis-state their true but private positions on things.

That’s my note pile, scribbled after a long, bleary night reading and viewing election analysis and trying to cut through the blather and outright nonsense that passes for political insight these days. Take from it what you will. Note that none of this is to suggest an endorsement of any candidate, party, or position. I’m a contrarian, so I take pride in pushing back at the pushers, even if I have sympathy for the pushers. I do not like to be pushed. After almost twenty years of Contra, you all should understand that by now. Nor do I ever talk about the specifics of how I voted. It’s a secret ballot. Can you keep a secret?

I can.

Third Parties Don’t Work. They Really Don’t Work.

Oh, dear. It’s time for my quadrennial warning against third parties. This year is worse than most, because we have two of the strangest and least appealing candidates competing for the Oval Office in my considerable lifetime. I won’t be talking about them here, and I’d prefer not to talk about them in the comments either. Remember, all: heroic courtesy.

Here’s the deal: I’m hearing a lot of people saying that they want to vote for a third party, because neither of the two major parties has put forth a candidate they can stomach. There are third parties, the two largest of which are the Green Party and the Libertarian Party. Why not vote for them? Why not? Perhaps because of the First Law of Third Parties in America:

Third parties hurt the chances of the major parties that they most resemble.

It’s true. Follow along with me here, as this isn’t differential equations. We do not have a parliamentary system in the United States. We have a two-party system, and it is very spectacularly and exclusively two-party. This would be true even without the electoral college, so don’t claim that eliminating the electoral college would fix the problem. (The electoral college does make for trickier math.) Third parties are legal, but they don’t do what you probably hope they will do, which is to elect a President that you can look at without losing your lunch. Instead, they can help elect a President that will make you lose your lunch twice as fast.

This year, in fact, they may help elect a President that will make it difficult for you to ever eat again.

Consider the Green Party. Which party does the Green Party most nearly resemble? The Democratic Party. If the Green Party weren’t on the ballot, for which party would Green Party supporters vote? Not the Republicans, let’s say. Same deal with the Libertarians. If the Libertarian Party were not on the ballot, for which party would Libertarian Party supporters vote? Not the Democrats, ditto.

Let’s consider political reality at this point: Are there Libertarian-leaning people who generally vote Democratic? Maybe a few; I’ve never met nor heard of one but some may well exist. Are there Green people who generally vote Republican? Somehow I doubt it.

Here’s the critical point: Presidential elections are winner-take-all affairs. The candidate with the most electoral college votes takes the office. All the other candidates are out of the picture. Read that again. The person with biggest electoral college ballot pile wins. End of story.

So this is how it works in real life: A vote cast for the Green party candidate is in almost all cases a vote not cast for the Democratic candidate. If enough people vote for the Green party to bring the Democratic candidate’s vote count down below the Republican candidate’s vote count in your state, the Republican candidate wins your state, and your Green vote counts for less than nothing. Same on the flipside: If enough people vote for the Libertarian candidate to bring the Republican candidate’s vote count down below the Democratic candidate’s in your state, the Democratic candidate wins your state, and your Libertarian vote counts for less than nothing. If there is enough of this vote siphoning in enough states, a different President takes office than the one who would have in the absence of any third parties.

I simply cannot comprehend why so many people don’t get this.

It’s happened at least once in recent history: The Greens under Ralph Nader threw the election to the Republicans in 2000. Whether Ross Perot threw the 1992 election to Bill Clinton is debatable. If all the Perot voters would have otherwise voted Republican in all the right states, perhaps. But Perot was an odd case, in that he had support (if not equal support) on both side of the political aisle, largely from genuine independents who mostly hated the status quo at the time. I’m pretty sure John Anderson did not throw the election to Reagan in 1980, though being sure of that is made hugely more complex by the intricacies of the electoral college system. Everything depends on who the third-party voters would have voted for in the absense of the third party in question, and that’s an alternate-universe issue that is almost by definition unknowable.

So let me be annoyingly repetitive: You can choose between one of two parties, or you can generate electoral weirdness by voting for a third party and possibly bringing the candidate you most loathe into office. You may consider both parties evil. Evil, however, is what’s on the menu. It’s either hot dogs or hamburgers, and vegans are out of luck.

This may be unpleasant, but it’s how things work. You choose between the lesser of two evils. I do it all the time; in fact, I do it almost every time. You’re going to do it this time too if you have any sense at all. There is no least of three evils, or four. Only two count.

We have a Republic. It may not be the Republic you want, but it’s the Republic we have. Do your best to keep it.

Pirates of the Caribbean, V2.0

I originally thought it was a hoax when I heard about it this past January. It sure sounded like one. But it’s for real: The World Trade Organization has given the otherwise unexceptional Caribbean nation of Antigua permission to sell US copyrighted content, without any payment to copyright owners.

WTF?

It’s revenge, people. Antigua was making a pretty good living in online casinos until 2001, when the US outlawed online gambling. What was a $2.4B annual business dropped by two thirds. (Apparently, two thirds of the world’s stupidity lies within US borders.) I’d be temped to say that nothing of value was lost, which may have been true unless you were Antigua. So Antigua went to the WTO asking for compensation for the loss. The WTO gave them all American copyrights, free of charge. There’s a $21M cap on the annual take, but as best I can tell, no time limit on the grant. Basically, Antigua can sell anything copyrighted in the US at all.

This is the plot of a comic novel. It reminds me of nothing more than The Mouse That Roared, which was a 1959 sendup of nuclear weapons politics. A US firm creates a clone of the signature wine of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, which is a nanoscopic country somewhere in Europe, probably bordering San Marino on one side and Liechtenstein on the other. The Duchy goes for the throat and declares war on the US, expecting to lose and make up for lost wine revenues in foreign aid. Instead, the country accidently captures the horrible Q-Bomb from a secret lab (with a bumbling crew of Robin Hoodish bowmen) and the US surrenders.

Except that this time, it’s real. Buried in my notes on possible novels is something I called TC Pirates in Paradise that dates back to 2006. A disgruntled engineer slips something extra into his company’s “smart” wall-wart product: a powerline networking system that sets up a hidden filesharing node every time it’s plugged into the wall. Nobody notices at first. He leaves the company, and nothing happens until a billion file-sharing wall warts have been sold into the wild. Then he reveals the secret, and all hell breaks loose.

Ok, not my best idea, and people would get annoyed at me for making fun of piracy. But man, this could be a marvelous high-tech farce with a title like Pirates of the Retail Channel. The whole business was made possible by a loophole in WTO rules that allows intellectual property to be used in punitive trade settlements. The glass on your irony meter will shatter explosively when you realize that the treaties that allow this are the same treaties that US copyright interests pushed for years ago and occasionally use against other countries. If those guys didn’t know what a “petard” was before, they’re sure as hell reaching for the dictionary now.

Antigua didn’t create its own online casinos. It licensed other people to create them, and took a cut of the profits. One wonders if they’re going to license Pirate Bay clones and do the same thing. Certain issues are unclear, primarily whether they’ll be able to strip DRM. On the other hand, who would stop them? (They could just download pre-stripped copies from Usenet and sell them.) What sort of prices are we going to see? Would they dare to become the Five Below of online commerce? Windows 7 for $5? And how soon before DRM-stripped items would show up on the rest of the pirate ecosystem? Is it any wonder that Adobe is giving up on selling boxed software?

No, I don’t approve. But man, I giggled. Politics is its own punishment, as the US copyright lobby is figuring out about now. If Rockhound57 and HockWards need to flee the country, well, Antigua would be the logical place to go.

Popcorn anybody? Let’s watch.

Odd Lots

Mile High High

Last week, when nobody was looking, Colorado legalized marijuana. There’s some paper-pushing to be done, but at some point marijuana will be sold to those over 21 under much the same sort of regulatory mechanism as alcohol. The referendum got surprisingly little press, even here at home, and doubly even here in Colorado Springs, where Certain People just can’t shake the suspicion that somebody, somewhere, is having too much of a good time. I’ve been getting email from a few of my friends who have been (or maybe still are) users, asking me how we pulled it off.

It’s called democracy. People in Colorado got sick of a certain kind of intrusive government, and they kicked government’s ass. This is what initiative systems are for. As best I can tell it wasn’t that hard, for reasons I’ll relate shortly.

There was a Kliban cartoon in the January 1972 Playboy (this link is the best I could find) that simply nails the absurd position that marijuana has held in the national neurosis since the 1920s. In case you can’t see it well, the cartoon depicts a cop hauling a guy into the police station wearing a costume that looks remarkably like a certain illegal plant. The caption, spoken by the police chief: “I admire your initiative, Flynn, but we can’t arrest them for impersonating marijuana.”

For most of a century, we have allowed ourselves to be so terrified of a weed that even the idea of looking like marijuana gets our cortisol coursing. Carol bought a houseplant decades ago called a false aralia. The first time I saw it, a chill ran down my spine. (I had never seen the real thing except in books.) If it weren’t for the boggling amount of money wasted and the number of young lives ruined, the whole business would be sitcom fodder. It’s all now coming apart.

Here’s my analysis of why it happened:

  • Colorado has an excellent initiative system, which has largely been used to limit the power of government. Lots of silly initiatives get on the ballot. Almost none of them pass. The ones that do are generally worthwhile.
  • Colorado has had a legal medical marijuana system since 2000. The world didn’t end. Wild-eyed stoners weren’t enacting Reefer Madness in the streets. Nothing happened.
  • Although the chemical machinery of marijuana is poorly understood, it does seem to work in certain cases, especially for suppressing nausea in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Politicians who campaigned against MMJ back in 1999 were positioned as championing the suffering of dying people. Instant third rail.
  • The cumulative effect of our war on drugs is making even very conservative people question whether the benefits gained are worth the collateral damage. I know a number of Republicans who were very much for the initiative, though they denied being users. The issue did not fold along the usual dotted lines.
  • I was told by a psychiatrist I know that the hazards of marijuana are hugely overstated. I’ve read in several places that most of the pathology that we see in marijuana users has other unrelated causes. I know people who have been regular users since the early 1970s, and they’re all articulate, successful individuals. This used to be a contrarian point of view. No more.
  • That same psychiatrist told me that Obama instructed the DEA to back off individual users after he took office in 2008. I’m sure there are conservative marijuana users somewhere. I’m just as sure I’ve never met one. The Democratic base is full of them. Obama wanted to carry Colorado, and he did.

That’s “how we pulled it off.” Here, at the risk of getting screamed at by my conservative readership, is why I think it’s a good thing:

  • Legal marijuana means better, cleaner, and more predictable marijuana. One of my user friends out east says he envies the quality of the weed sold here and in California. What he gets in the alley is often dirty, contaminated with mold, and sometimes adulterated with other plant material.
  • Legal marijuana means that research into the uses of THC and the host of other active compounds in marijuana is more likely to happen. Research is now almost impossible, so what we know falls pretty much in the category of folk medicine. Knowledge is Good. Always.
  • Prohibition drives up prices, and money powers criminal activity. Cheaper marijuana probably means less money going to drug gangs here and in Latin America.
  • Local cultivation also means less involvement of foreign drug gangs.
  • Money and manpower spent suppressing marijuana is money and manpower not spent suppressing other, far more dangerous drugs. Meth is deadly, and it is not on my friends list.
  • There is a nontrivial amount of money to be had in taxes on legal marijuana. Yes, it’s a tax I myself won’t have to pay. I like that kind of tax.
  • There is a nontrivial amount of labor required to cultivate marijuana and create “downstream” products like edibles and tinctures. I’d rather those jobs be here than somewhere else.

None of this is original with me, but it’s the position I’ve come to after much thought and a fair bit of research. (Most recent piece of which: Super Charged by Jim Rendon. Decent, but not worth hardcover prices. Wait for the paperback or watch for it used.)

So. Given that even possessing marijuana remains a federal crime, will anything come of it? Invading Colorado with hundreds of door-kicking DEA thugs could turn Colorado red next election. Don’t wait up for it. The Feds will make a great deal of noise, but the same thing will happen as happened in 2000, when Colorado approved medical marijuana: nothing.

I think we’re approaching a sort of tipping point: The more states that legalize marijuana without dogs and cats living together, the sillier that all the sound and fury over marijuana becomes. Sooner or later the Feds will quietly fold, and even the Republicans will vote to repeal marijuana prohibition. As goes the US goes the rest of the Western world. It won’t be next year or the year after, but I still hold that it’s science fiction, not fantasy. Moreover, it’s dull science fiction. (Rather like Bowl of Heaven…but I get ahead of myself.)

Juggling Three Trillion Eggs

June is likely to be a pretty thin month on Contra here for a number of reasons, most of them cooking down to the degree that my time and energy are committed to other things. I appreciate your emails, though. The boy is alright, if winded and maybe a little grouchy.


I knew that Obamacare was in trouble when its supporters stopped calling it “Obamacare.”

One of the law’s politer fans among my readership sent me a note earlier today, certain that the Supreme Court was going to hand down its ruling on the Affordable Care Act this afternoon. She knows I’m interested in the topic and that I have skin in the game. (I’m a freelancer and thus have to buy a policy on the individual market. It’s the largest single expense that Carol and I have.) We’ve discussed it before. She and I always used to call it “Obamacare,” without any suggestion that the term was some sort of epithet. No more. Well, there won’t be a decision today, but whatever you want to call the law itself, the issue’s been much on my mind.

I’m a skeptic of the ACA, mostly because of the risk of an adverse selection death spiral in the private insurance business. The bill enacts penalties that are trivial compared to the cost of either buying or providing coverage, which means that some people and small businesses are likely to pay the fines rather than comply, particularly since the bill forbids any kind of criminal sanctions for noncompliance. (Most of my earlier points may be found in this post.) The nature of the Supreme Court’s decision is critical. If the Court throws out the individual mandate while leaving the rest of it in force, the death spiral is almost inevitable. If the court throws out the entire bill, we’re back where we started. If the bill continues as passed, nobody knows what state the health insurance business will be come 2015.

“Affordable care”, alas, is a false promise, even if the entire bill survives intact. Revealingly, the bill’s key architect now says that the ACA will raise insurance premiums, especially for young people. My own premiums will likely rise by 19%. Given that Carol and I are square in the demographic that the insurance industry loves to hate, I guess I should be glad that we have coverage at all.

Even that isn’t a sure thing. I’m going to make a point here that I haven’t seen anyone else make in the years-long discussion: No matter what you intend to do, reforming a sector of the economy as large as health care guarantees that there will be a certain amount of blood in the streets. Health care expenditures now consume about 17% of GDP–three trillion dollars–a number that makes most American industries look like rounding errors. Any change that embraces that much turf and that much money will be disruptive down here in the waiting rooms. Any change. Insurance companies will reduce their presence in some areas. People will game the system. Prices of drugs and medical equipment will rise, triggering layoffs and outsourcing and trimming of insurance benefits. Doctors who are approaching retirement age may leave the field early rather than endure the paperwork and the fee limitations, leaving us with an even greater shortage of skilled practitioners. There will be mistakes and confusion on a truly epic scale, and a substantial number of people will slip through the cracks. Tumors will grow, conditions will fail to be diagnosed, and many will suffer.

This, furthermore, is best-case. If something goes wrong, well, the consequences are impossible to predict, beyond their being bad.

Do I have any better ideas? No. There are too many pathological conditions in play here: Nobody knows what their current health insurance costs. Everybody wants somebody else to pay for it. Human variability among individuals is broader than we’re willing to admit. We know far less about the workings of the human body than we claim to. Health care costs are hugely concentrated among relatively few individuals (I’ve heard 90/10 most often, but have not seen good numbers) so even policies with spectacularly high deductables will cost a great deal. Healthy people are too willing to ascribe their health to moral superiority, and bad health to bad behavior. (This is a phenomenon I’ve dubbed “Higgsism,” from the hero of Butler’s Erewhon.) Almost everyone is still repeating Ancel Keys’ scientific fraud, that carbs are good and fats are bad. The “death panels” meme cannot be un-coined.

Etc. The end result is that I consider universal health care an unsolvable problem, as most people understand the term “solvable.” (My definition of “solvable” does not include “imposing a solution by force on the public that the public does not want.”)

Whatever happens next week when the Supreme Court hands down its decision, we are in for a wild ride. You can’t juggle three trillion eggs without breaking some. Before you say that’s ok, imagine that one of those splats on the national carpet is you.


Pause before clicking that comments link, and recall that my tolerance for tribal hatred is close to zero. Note well that I did not use the words “liberal,” “conservative,” “Democrat,” or “Republican” in this post, nor any of various possible synonyms. If you intend to comment, I dare you to do the same.

Odd Lots

Big Banks and Small Customers

I haven’t seen this come up in recent discussions, but it’s something more people need to understand: You do not hurt large banks by withdrawing your own (small) accounts. Really. On the contrary, you’re doing them a huge favor, and making them more efficient and more profitable.

Even small banks make no money on consumer checking accounts. Big banks run a sigificant loss on such accounts (from what I’ve read, on the order of $300-$400 per account per year) and would prefer not to have them at all. Banks and bank-like institutions like credit unions and savings-and-loans make virtually all their money on loans. Checking accounts especially are loss-leaders to get consumers in the door so that bank reps can sell loans and (to more affluent customers) investments.

Large banks have angered consumers by attempting to raise fees to cover the service costs of checking accounts and small savings accounts. (The recent ATM fee debacle is a good example.) It’s become stylish to protest by closing accounts and going to smaller institutions, particularly credit unions. How this hurts the big banks I can’t imagine. Small accounts provide a certainly amount of liquidity but at a high cost in customer service manpower, printing, and general overhead. The best outcome for big banks would be to drop all customers with less than about $10,000 in cash in their accounts. They’d be flayed alive in the media if they just canceled and refunded such accounts. Now these costly customers are punishing big banks by canceling the very accounts the banks would love to cancel themselves.

I guess it makes about as much sense as anything in politics these days.

UPDATE: The article that triggered my line of thought here is paywalled and I couldn’t cite it, but I’ve since discovered this discussion with the Motley Fool guy in the Christian Science Monitor. (Thanks to gmcdavid over on LiveJournal for the link.)

There’s the additional issue that if everybody pulled small accounts out of the big banks, the big banks would feel it. However, if only a relative few participate in Bank Transfer Day, the banks benefit. The effect is not linear, and cooks down to the difference between eating their lunch and washing their dishes.

Odd Lots

  • Freedom matters, and in honor of Independence Day here’s an eye-opening report on the “state of freedom” in the fifty American states. I knew a lot of this from my research nine years ago, when Carol and I decided to leave Arizona, but it’s nice to see it all in one free (in the other sense) document.
  • From the Words I Didn’t Know Until Yesterday Department: draisine, a human-powered device for moving over railroad rails. This is evidently a European term; over here these are called handcars or inspection speeders or rail cycles or a number of other things. Definitely note the hot-pink draisine-built-for-two on the Wikipedia page. (Thanks to Aki Peltonen for dropping the word to me.)
  • Although I’m sure that everyone in the civilized galaxy has seen the cartoon, I wasn’t aware that “thagomizer” is now paleobiological jargon. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Here’s a list of somebody’s picks as the ten best hard SF books of all time. I agree with about 50% of the picks, though Robinson’s Mars trilogy was so slow and padded-out that I could barely finish it. (I have not yet read the Egan book cited.) I sense as well that Somebody Doesn’t Like Heinlein’s Politics. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
  • Despite a 500-fold increase in cell phone use in the last 20 years, malignant brain tumor diagnosis is down in that timeframe. This interests me, as three people I knew died of brain tumors (the largest cancer cluster in my circle of acquaintance) and it makes me wonder. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • I had just a couple of comic books back in the early Sixties, and one of the most intriguing was an extra-long number from DC called Secret Origins that had the backstory for five or six of the most famous DC superheroes. Oddly, what I remember most clearly was the backstory for Green Lantern, especially the little blue guys on the Planet Without Consonants and (most intriguing of all) a power ring with a flaw that prevented it from working against anything yellow. Trouble is, if you remove the flaw, the ring loses its power completely. Now that’s cool–alas, in what may be the canonical Green Lantern for Dummies page, the yellow gotcha isn’t stated clearly and I wonder if it was just abandoned back in the 1960s.
  • Forgot to aggregate this back in January: One of the most bizarre articles I’ve ever read on any major site in recent years. This totally, completely, utterly certain guy is angry at other guys for being totally, completely, and utterly certain–and that about something totally, completely, and utterly trivial. My take: We “know” nothing at all with certainty, and the more certain you are that you’re right, the more certain the rest of us should be that you’re wrong. Nyah-nyah!
  • And another Odd Lot that has lain around for some time: Polish troops trained a young bear to carry ammo during the Battle of Monte Cassino. My father was at that battle, working a radio station on the back of a truck, but he never mentioned seeing the bear. The bear is said to never have dropped any munitions, which I’m sure was a good thing for the bear, and possibly my father as well.
  • Here’s a bogglingly weird Dickensian artifact that I’d never heard of before: A key gun. It’s a gun built into the key to a (large) prison cell lock. I’m sure if it had worked better I would have seen it before now.

The Unenforceable Mandate

I hadn’t intended to write anything about health insurance reform, in large part because the debate has become so utterly poisonous, but also in part because I felt that the important issues have been adequately dealt with elsewhere. Well, there’s something that isn’t really being discussed and should be, because it cuts to the heart of how health insurance works, and may be the hinge upon which the PPACA (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) succeeds or fails. One would think that that would be discussed all over the place, but it’s not, neither in the liberal press (which I read) nor in the conservative press (which I also read.) In fact, so little has the issue been mentioned anywhere that I’ve begun to think I’m missing something crucial.

So let me begin by reiterating what most people know or should know: Health insurance is a really lousy business. Profit levels in health insurance run from 2.5% to 5%, depending on who you’re talking about and whose numbers you believe. Insurers are not making a lot of money, and what they do make they make only by doing everything in their power to exclude the people who need health insurance the most. Google “recission” and “purging” (sometimes called “reunderwriting”) in a health insurance context if you don’t believe me. Many people (including me) consider such practices tantamount to fraud, but that’s not the point I want to make. The point is that even while making full use of recission and reunderwriting, the health insurers are earning maybe 3% profits on average.

Like I said, a lousy business.

So. Enter health care reform. Insurance companies will be required to take (and keep) all comers, irrespective of pre-existing conditions. That’s called “guaranteed issue.” To make it work, all people will be required to buy health insurance, including people who choose not to buy it today, typically because they’re young and healthy. This requirement to buy insurance is the “individual mandate.” The individual mandate enlarges the pool of the insured and thus the amount of money available to pay claims. Without the individual mandate, people would buy insurance only when they needed it, which really isn’t “insurance” in any honest sense of the word. The pool of funds to pay claims would shrink, and claims would explode. The insurers would be gone like that.

Basically, the price of guaranteed issue is the individual mandate. You can’t have the first without the second. I think this is well-understood and not controversial at all. The devil, as usual, is in the fine print. In the bill as passed, people who choose not to buy health insurance will be required to pay a minimum fine of $695 in any given year, or 2.5% of their income, whichever is greater. Those fined would still be able to get insurance when they needed it under the provisions of guaranteed issue. This in itself is a problem, because the cost of insurance is likely to be much higher than 2.5% of income for a huge number of people. 2.5% of a $100,000 annual salary is $2500–dare ya to find a policy for that. A guy making $100K could just pay the $2500 and buy a guaranteed-issue $7000/year policy as soon as the bad lab tests came back, thus saving $4500/year without any downside for all the years that he stays healthy, and pushing that saved cost onto the insured.

I think this is dangerous. It’s not being talked about enough, but it’s being talked about a little, in a few relatively large publications. However, it’s not why I’m writing this entry.

A few weeks ago, I read an article by Timothy Noah in Slate about this very issue. Noah’s thrust was elsewhere, but my jaw dropped when I read Noah quoting from the health care reform bill itself. I clicked through to the monster PDF text of the final bill as passed, to verify what he had said. I blinked. I rubbed my eyes. I got up and went to the fridge for some diet ginger ale. I came back, and it was still there:

In the case of any failure by a taxpayer to timely pay any penalty imposed by this section, such taxpayer shall not be subject to any criminal prosecution or penalty with respect to such failure.

This from page 336 of the bill as it was passed. On the same page, there is a provision that the government may not

(i) file notice of lien with respect to any property of a taxpayer by reason of any failure to pay the penalty imposed by this section, or (ii) levy on any such property with respect to such failure.

Read those quotes again. The bill outlaws its own enforcement. If you refuse to buy insurance and refuse to pay the fine for not buying insurance…nothing happens. The individual mandate is thus unenforceable, but you can lay odds that guaranteed issue will be mercilessly enforced against the insurance companies. I’m sure there’s some legal interpretation to be done here, but Noah’s point is that there is considerable temptation for mass civil disobedience on the individual mandate without any downside for those disobeying. What he doesn’t say is that such mass civil disobedience could lead to the collapse of the private health insurance industry.

Others in the blogosphere have begun to notice this in the last few days. But why hasn’t it shown up in the major media? You’d think the Wall Street Journal would be screaming about it in every other issue. Didn’t anybody actually read the bill?

Don’t answer that.