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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.

Vintage Kids’ Books: Look Quick

I don’t feel particularly good today, for no easily identifiable reason, but I did want to call attention to a blog I happened by while browsing around for gifts for my godchildren. The author (unnamed except as “Scribbler”) has reviewed an old children’s picture book most weekdays since mid-2007. The books are generally pre-1990, and many are a great deal older than that. I spent most of an hour skimming the site, and happened upon a lot of kid books I don’t think I’ve thought about since I got my first library card at age 6 and quickly exhausted the Edison Park branch of the Chicago Public Library.

The reviews are affectionate and honest, and reflect my own reactions, what little I recall of them. Among the books it brought to mind are the highly understated Georgie’s Halloween, about a little boy ghost who makes Casper look manic; Dinny and Danny, about a dinosaur and his caveboy; Little Galoshes, about a farm boy who is known to the farm’s animals by the sounds his boots make; Ola, in which a Norwegian boy goes down the mountain to cavort with girls, trolls and other strange creatures; Sam and the Firefly, about a firefly who learns how to write persistence-of-vision messages in the night sky, several tales of Babar the Elephant, and a canonical host of others.

She can’t and doesn’t list everything. I didn’t see any of the Otto books, nor Space Cat, but that’s OK. I already know that stuff, and was looking for things I might have forgotten.

I have to act fast, I think. Your Wonderful Beneficial Federal Government has all but banned children’s books printed prior to 1985, under the assumption that they might have been printed with ink containing traces of lead. So countless copies have already been burned as hazardous waste, and it’s more or less illegal to sell them. Never mind than an almost unthinkable portion of world culture will pretty much vanish over the next few years due to CPSIA. The most popular books will be reprinted with modern inks; most will not, and will eventually be forgotten.

The law will not be enforced until early next year, but after that, you will be risking a $100,000 fine and jail time for selling Dinny and Danny to an adult at a yard sale. Doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat: Your party is at fault. The only member of the House who voted against this thing was Ron Paul.

On second thought, I know why I feel lousy.

Rant: The Case for Killing Newsweek

newsweek09212009.jpgI am aghast. Yesterday afternoon I was at Barnes & Noble, and at the checkout stand I saw what must be the most appalling magazine cover ever to appear on a mainstream US magazine. It wasn’t on Hustler or Soldier of Fortune. It was on the latest Newsweek.

I don’t dabble in politics much here, and I haven’t had much to say about the health care debate that others haven’t said many times, and probably better than I would. But I want to make my position clear: If health insurance reform collapses, it won’t be due to any vast, right-wing conspiracy, not with ol’ Newsweek leading the charge. Salon ran this piece back in August. Same gist. Similar stupid title.

There is a meme abroad, and while I don’t know if it has a name, I call it “Lammism.” The gist of the meme is that the elderly are an expensive extravagance, and money spent on them would be far better spent on younger people. This is not a new thing. I gave the meme its name in honor of former Democratic Colorado governor Richard Lamm, who famously said in 1984 that the ill elderly “have a duty to die…and let our kids build a reasonable life.” I guess it’s us or them, Dick, right?

It doesn’t matter that the Newsweek article is far more nuanced than its moronic title suggests. It doesn’t matter if “society needs to have this conversation with itself.” All that matters is that we are scaring the living crap out of our elderly, and if the elderly don’t sign on to health insurance reform, we don’t have a bill. Furthermore, if we dismiss their fears out of hand and pass a bill anyway, there could well be another party in control of Congress after the next election.

The elderly are not simply being paranoid. They know that Medicare is a very sweet deal, especially compared to the insurance situation of a great many younger people. They know that the government spends a huge amount of money on their care and sustenance. Given articles like those I mention above, they can be forgiven for fearing that when the government goes looking for health care cost savings and “waste,” that they will be first in line for close examination. They know that without fairly constant and often expensive medical intervention (paid for through Medicare) many of them would be disabled, dependent and suffering, and a great many more would simply be dead. Small wonder that they’re willing to believe the fearmongering lies of death panels that do not exist.

(The elderly might wave the magazine and reply: Yet.)

In Newsweek, we have a classic example of a print publication floundering to survive, and willing to risk it all on a misleading and alarmist cover line that bears little connection to the cover story. The plug on the cover of the latest issue isn’t connected to Granny. It’s connected to Newsweek.

Please join me while I pull it.

Odd Lots

  • One of the most remarkable photos of a volcanic eruption ever taken apparently happened by sheer chance, when the ISS passed over the Kuril Islands just as the Sarychev Peak volcano let loose. The rising plume literally punched a near-circular hole in the cloud cover.
  • Just in case you happen to see a nuclear weapon go off, having one of these in your pocket would be handy to quantify things. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the pointer.)
  • From Bruce Baker comes a pointer to a NYT article about the perils of being an outsourcee for an unscrupulous publisher. And so much for our textbooks being created by experts with advanced degrees.
  • John Cleese’s lighthearted but still informative documentary “Wine for the Confused” can now be seen on Hulu, at the cost of a few Toyota commercials. I’m good with that–and in complete agreement with Cleese that knowing good wine from great wine is not automatic, and in fact knowing good wine from bad takes more effort than most would think. Don’t miss it. (Thanks to Roy Harvey for letting me know it was there; I saw it on TV a couple of years ago and much enjoyed it.)
  • We may gasp at 64 GB thumb drives now, but storage technologies coming to market in the next few years will make 1 TB thumb drives not only possible but commonplace. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
  • The annual amateur radio Field Day event happens this weekend, from 1800 zulu on Saturday to 2100 on Sunday. I’ve got the radios boxed up, and will be experimenting with a interesting rotatable dipole made from a pair of AN-45G collapsible military whip antennas, on top of a pipe mast made of four 5′ sections of 3/8″ pipe mounted on my ancient telescope pipe base. The rotator is my right hand, turning a greased 2″ pipe joint on its own threads. I’ll describe the dipole with photos if it works; if it doesn’t work I’ll admit failure and quietly forget about it. But if you’ll be on the air, I’ll be working solo from a nearby campground as K7JPD. Listen for me.
  • From the Too Weird To Be True but True Anyway File: The woman who may well become our first Hispanic supreme court justice stated quite flatly in her Princeton University senior thesis that “…in Spanish we do not have adjectives. A noun is described with a preposition.” I’m a Polish-German-Irish-French ubermongrel who last took Spanish in 1973, and even I know better than that. So…can I be on the Supreme Court instead?

The Algernon Conundrum

My previous entry on drug prohibition (December 5, 2008) triggered a great deal of discussion, and prompted someone to send me a link to a story on chemical cognitive enhancement. People are using a number of drugs and non-regulated chemicals to give themselves a performance edge at work or school, and the question of whether this is a good thing or not is complex. Caffeine tops the list of cognitive enhancers by popularity; I also have an intuition that certain “smart drinks” containing herbals like ginko biloba really work because they have more caffeine than Mountain Dew. Most cognitive enhancers are stimulants of some kind, and people who depend on them often lose sleep, which some research suggests is behind a great many health problems from obesity to hypertension. Other less obvious effects may exist. Caffeine is ancient but most other nootropic drugs are not, and we have no clue what they might do to the human system over an adult life of forty years or more.

However, someday we will know. The question then becomes: If we can improve brain function with chemicals that have no adverse effects, should we? And if those chemicals actually make human beings brighter, less angry, more social, or more effective in other ways, are there grounds for restricting their use? One could argue that life’s game is now all about brains and personality—brawn went out of fashion as a career choice a generation ago—and letting people “cheat” with pills or patches is fundamentally unfair to those who can’t afford the pills or patches or by some odd quirk of physiology do not respond to them. Beyond that, objections thin out pretty quickly. The benefits are immense, and if the costs were modest, we could make the enhancers available to anybody who wanted them.

The remaining objection is subtle: There are rarely any free lunches. Assuming that we can find cognitive enhancers without some sort of damaging side effects might be naive. Evolution made us as we are, and did so at the cost of billions of “bad throws” of the genetic dice. Making better humans may come at a cost, and the SF writer in me wants to ask questions like this: Suppose you could boost your intelligence radically using a chemical that cranked up brain chemistry at the cost of burning your brain out after forty years or so. I’m not talking about a little better detail recall or a little more personal energy to work through your do-it list. (That’s what people who use Ritalin or Provigil today are achieving.) I’m talking about being able to grasp and integrate massive amounts of information into your daily experience of life; of being able to hold dazzlingly interesting discussions with other people that range across all human knowledge; of being able to understand the ways that widely separated facts interlock and shed light on things that you would never have thought were related at all. Burning through a do-it list a little faster is just a temptation to add more drudgery to your life. But being able to kick back and your chair and Put It All Together, wow! That would tempt me. I’m not naturally prone to envy, but I confess to being a little envious of the dazzlingly bright people I’ve met in my life. Looks, eh. Wealth, eh. Power, yukkh. Brains, yeah.

Now, suppose that being such a person would reduce the length of my life from eighty-five to sixty years. Would I still be tempted? That’s a tough question, especially if the last twenty-five years of my life were assumed to be lived within a gradually deteriorating body. To have a dazzling mind while still having a body capable of making use of it—that’s the temptation. If the cost is early death, well…what would you do?

I call this the Algernon Conundrum, from Daniel Keyes’ seminal story and novel, Flowers for Algernon, which I read in high school and which affected me deeply. A mentally handicapped man becomes a genius through medical intervention, but the effect is short-lived, and discovered to greatly shorten the life of the lab mouse (Algernon of the title) that first underwent the procedure. Charlie soons reverts to his original self, with the implication that he will die far younger than his peers. The novel side-stepped the obvious question: Was it worth it? That was forty years ago, and I still haven’t decided. I doubt I’ll live long enough for it to be a choice I’ll have to make, but I often wonder how our grandchildren will deal with the difficult tradeoffs that medical technology will inevitably offer them. Drugs? Getting high, well, that’s going to be the least of it.

Rant: The Lesson We Haven't Learned

Prohibition of alcohol as a legal institution ended 75 years ago today. It was the second-worst thing that the United States has ever baked into its legal system. Slavery was far worse, of course, though slavery was not originally an American idea and came to us from far older cultures. Prohibition created the Mafia (see Colin Wilson’s The Criminal History of Mankind) and legitimized the sort of neighbor-against-neighbor suspicion and all-your-privacy-are-belong-to-us government overreaching that psychopathic idealism (in the person of Woodrow Wilson, the most evil man ever to hold the Presidency in the US) tried and failed to institutionalize earlier in the century.

Understanding Prohibition is tricky these days, and it took a long time for me to figure it out. It was a perfect storm of sorts, fed by the Industrial Revolution, the abject nastiness of big city life, and especially immigration. At the base of it, Prohibition was a cry of fury against the flood of Irish and southern European Catholic immigrants entering the country (legally) after 1880 or so. The lives of these people were uniformly and almost unimaginably miserable. Catholic immigrants were considered subhuman by mainstream Protestant Americans, who exploited them whenever opportunity allowed, and blocked their path into higher social classes by every means available, legal and otherwise. (My mother, the daughter of penniless Polish immigrants, said little about this, but what she did say was chilling.) It’s no surprise that immigrants took to drink. Cut off from their own birth cultures and living in a culture where Americans of (slightly) longer tenure actively and unapologetically hated them, they drank and drank wildly, sometimes drinking themselves to death. Immigrants were blamed for the coarsening of American life in every way, were condemned for not learning English, and for creating a criminal underclass. The weird stridency of Protestant anti-Catholicism (which still exists in some places, weirder than ever) pushed the movement over the top.

Prohibition gave us violence, police corruption, organized crime, and a justification for government intrusiveness that ultimately spawned the political division that gave us two Americas on the same soil: One feeling that government is the solution, the other that government is the problem. Only slavery damaged us more.

You would think that 13 years of Prohibition would have burned something into the collective American consciousness: This doesn’t work. But no: The states had to be bribed into letting go of Prohibition by being granted powers over alcohol that would have been struck down as unconstitutional prior to 1933. The unsated prohibitionist psychology then turned to psychoactive substances, and while the prohibition we now have on the books is less broad than the one against alcohol, its effects run much deeper. People resist (as they resisted Prohibition eighty years ago) and when people resist, we tighten the screws even more, creating a global, multiethnic network of organized crime, destroying young lives for minor infractions, and denying painkillers to people dying of cancer. (This may not happen often, but having watched my own father die slowly of cancer, I insist without qualification that it must not happen ever.)

The answer isn’t to eliminate all regulation of psychoactive substances. The answer (as always) is a little more complex than that. We have to honestly ask ourselves: Would things really be worse if we loosened up some? (Of course, there’s no way to know without trying.) But more than that, we need to put some serious time and money into researching why people abuse drugs and alcohol to begin with. Most substance abusers that I’ve known well were clearly depressed. I didn’t make the connection when I was younger; it wasn’t until losing my publishing company dipped me (lightly) into the bad water of depression a few years back that I grasped that depression is a form of pain that simply can’t be understood without experiencing it. It isn’t just sadness; it’s something far darker and stranger, a gray force that saps the will and dims the light of one’s own humanity. Depression and substance abuse are strongly correlated, and while causes and effects are still not clear, I intuit that many seriously depressed people reach for primal stimulation (sex, drugs, booze, gambling, risk-taking) simply to remind themselves that they aren’t dead. And when that doesn’t work, the next step is as obvious as it is appalling.

We can do better. Alas, because so little research is being done, we don’t know how much better we can do. Prozac is cheaper than prison (both financially and psychologically) but until we as a culture can get past the weird notion that depression is a mark of a weak personality (and treating depression a sop to childish intransigence) the drugs will flow, the violence will continue, and the flames of young lives will wink out under the pressure of an unnameable but unbearable pain.

…If You Can Keep It

Ben Franklin's grim congratulation is ringing in my head tonight, and even though the whole election thing will (with some luck) soon be over, I'm sad. A good part of the sadness is a consequence of all the hateful tribal rhetoric I've had to listen to for over a year now, but a lot of it is for personal reasons that I'm not talking about at the moment. (A couple of people on my LJ friends list know what's going on, and I'll ask them not to mention it.) Carol's in Chicago and I'm here by myself. The universe's perversity has tended toward a maximum today: My dinner exploded in the microwave and (in a stunning reversal of the usual puppy scheme of things) I peed on my dog. I'll tell that story in the next Odd Lots; we have more important things to discuss tonight.

What's the key issue this election year? Lord knows it's not gay marriage; we've heard nary a peep about that. Nor is it abortion, nor any species of sexual shenanigans, nor the separation of Church and State. Health care is a live issue, but the War is winding down and people just don't seem especially exercised by it anymore. The economy, sure—but $2.35 gas relieves a lot of other pain, and we won't know much about the future until the next regime takes its seats in the new year.

What I'm seeing a lot about is a far darker and more dangerous issue: Vote fraud. The Wall Street Journal ran a huge article on it the other day, and explained what any reasonably aware person has already heard: The Democrats tend to commit vote fraud by giving the vote to people who are not qualified (the dead, noncitizens, imaginary individuals, family pets, people who have already voted) and Republicans by keeping the vote from people who are qualified, by imposing unreasonable conditions on the exercise of the franchise. No partisan squeals allowed here; nobody's hands are clean. It happens (I'm a Chicago boy; like, vote fraud doesn't happen? Puh-leez.) and it highlights a debate few people seem willing to take up: Should we work to minimize fraudulent voting? Or should we work to minimize voter disenfranchisement? It is not a simple question, and in an era when Presidental elections are swung by 400-vote margins, it is a gravely important one. The two positions are in tension: The harder you crack down on fraudulent voting, the more likely it is that marginal voters will be discouraged from voting at all, even if they're qualified. The harder you crack down on disenfranchisement, the more likely it is that unqualified voters will slip through the nets, via deliberate fraud or simple confusion.

The photo ID issue is an interesting one from a partisan perspective. We are essentially the last nation in the developed world that does not require presentation of a government-issued photo ID to vote. There is rich irony in Democrats screaming “disenfranchisement!” over a requirement long enforced by lefty paradises like France and Sweden. People say I lean right, but I have long supported a national ID card, especially since we already basically have one in our state drivers' licenses. The issue, as I have said before many times, is not the existence of the card itself but what we allow government to do with it. Enumerate the circumstances under which the card may be demanded, and make any noncompliant request a felony with a one-year minimum sentence. I'd support that in a heartbeat. I'm amazed, in fact, that vote fraud is so lacking in penalties. Did Acorn in fact register a goldfish to vote? If so, somebody needs to do time. Did Republicans purge registered voters from the roster in Ohio? Somebody needs to do time. Lots of somebodies. If we must spend more money—a lot more money—ensuring that Somebody Is Watching while the democratic process operates, I'm good with that. Even honest mistakes must be punished. When democracy itself is at stake, there are no honest mistakes.

Don't deny it: Democracy is at stake. Vote fraud is a frightening issue because it undermines faith in the democratic process. When too many people are convinced or have convinced themselves that [The Enemy] has stolen the election (plug in whichever Enemy you are tribally obliged to condemn here) they will be less likely to even attempt to vote, and much more willing to listen to clever tyrants who will “clean up the mess” and make those trains run on time.

I'm a purist on issues like this. Vote fraud aside, money is also a dangerous corruptor of the democratic process. Money is not speech. Money is force, and force has no place in the democratic process. Shouting down your opponents is not debate. (And my readings tell me that what the First Amendment was really intended by the Founders to guard against were government reprisals against political opponents.) It may sound perverse, but the contrarian in me feels that the (careful) regulation of political speech connected with the democratic process actually yields greater freedom to more people in deciding who should govern (and how) than simply allowing the richest contender to buy the podium. I think the hoary old stoplight metaphor applies here: Uniform and careful restriction of movement by stoplights allows greater overall freedom of movement on crowded roads than just letting everybody drive without any regulation whatsoever until we're all in a state of wreck-littered gridlock.

I'm running long tonight, but here's my whacko solution to the money issue, which I may have mentioned in this space before, though it's been awhile: Require that all campaign contributions go to a bank account created for the office (or the initiative proposition) rather than to a candidate. Then give contributed money in equal proportion to all candidates who qualified for a place on the ballot for that office. It's trickier for initiatives, but it could be done with some care. Supposedly campaign contributions are not to buy the office, but to educate the public. If that's the case, how better to inform the public without preference than to allow each candidate an equal budget with which to inform the public? Hands off the content of the message, obviously, but make sure that nobody's simply writing a check for the podium and walking away with the election in his pocket.

I know, I know, it's impossible. But trust me: It would work, and we would all be freer for it.

_ . . . _

And with that I bring this series on politics to a conclusion. It's been a long day. I'm tired, I'm sad, and the kitchen smells of incinerated salmon. I voted two weeks ago using the Colorado mail-in ballot, which is good, or I'd be even sadder. I never fail to vote, but voting always depresses me. I do the research. I sit in my comfy chair, and I think. I think of the consequences of supporting this candidate or that candidate, and each of the two sides of every initiative proposition I am faced with. I take notes. I read those notes. I look more things up. And I think some more. And I get sadder.

Consider what I'm facing: I'm deciding who goes bankrupt. I'm deciding who loses their businesses. I'm deciding who loses their homes. I'm deciding who gets their money taken away, and to whom that money is given. I'm deciding who goes to war to be maimed or killed. I'm deciding who gets thrown in jail and for what offenses. I try to see the consequences of each decision I make, but it's like trying to look ahead in a Go game: Very soon a combinatorial explosion of possibility singes the remains of my hair to remind me that no matter which way I decide, somebody wins, and sombody loses. Somebody gets rich, somebody goes broke. Lives are destroyed.

This is the naked face of politics: There is no moral high ground. There are no good solutions. In truth, there are no solutions at all, only endless compromises in which countless good people suffer. That is the human condition, and this is how it works in a democracy. All other mechanisms of governance are far, far worse. All of which is good to keep in mind tonight, and on all future nights when you have taken the vote (which is to say, the lives of others no less worthy than yourself) into your hands. Politics is not joyful. Politics is not fun. If politics does not break your heart, you have no idea at all what the hell you're doing.