Transparency and Credibility

There's a great food blog that I read. I used to read it with much more zeal than now, and that's the subject of my story. See a few ago I noticed a recipe for what amounted to a casserole made from a can. Had I drifted back in time to the 1950s? No, upon further review this was a post sponsored by "Campbell's Kitchen". I was shocked and yes even a little offended.

The problem wasn't so much the fact that they were accepting advertising from Campbell's, rather that now I didn't know which stories are advertising. For example, in this review of store-bought gravies (something I would not ever buy anyway, but I'm into taste tests of all sorts), Campbell's gravy got an honorable mention. Is that because it was actually tasty or because Campbell's slipped a little cash their way. There's really no way to know. Worst of all, nothing the author might say could prove otherwise because how do we know he's not being paid off to deny it. It's a horrible spiral of assumed deceit.

Beyond just a silly food blog, this is basically the same problem facing Congress. When a congressman takes campaign money from a person or company, and then later passes legislation that benefits that entity, how can we ever believe that the money didn't affect their decision? And even if the representative is being honest and trying their best, does the money subconsciously alter their behavior?

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A Reasoned Treatise On Health Care

This is an article which is a long time coming. Unless you've had your head in the ground, you can't have missed the discussion on health care going on lately. I've had plenty of chance to muse over the issues myself, both on my own, with my wife and with a number of my friends. I've heard a lot of good ideas, but also some misunderstandings and I'd like a chance to lay things out as I see them.


In my time as a working adult I've had the opportunity to experience pretty much the whole range of health care options. I started at the top, working for a large company who had quite a few options. We picked the one that matched our coverage needs the best, based on the fact that we were planning to start a family. When that momentous occasion came, we ended up payed very little out of pocket. It was quite nice, in fact. And for all that, the cost was very reasonable, my share of the cost, anyway.

Many Americans are in this boat and I think for them, their perspective is clouded. They see a decent system, payed for by the economy of scale of a large company, which gives them good options at decent rates. But such is not the case for everyone.

Jump forward just a few months. The tech bubble burst and I ended up out of a job. For over a year we squeaked by without any insurance. It was rather scary actually. Our new son needed shots, of course, but they were $70 a pop at the doctor. He recommended we go to the county health department instead where the shots where subsidized down to about $10. We had a few things come up. Our son had some breathing trouble early on, something that delightfully has disappeared, and every time he'd have trouble we'd be stuck with a hefty doctor's bill. We would panic if he started having trouble on a weekend and generally we'd (well, he would) suffer through until Monday morning when a doctor's office visit was much cheaper.

I would not wish that experience on anyone, but it's something 40 million Americans experience every day.

After suffering for a while I finally landed a decent job at a small company. The drawback was they didn't offer any benefits, but compared to slogging extended warranties or worse, it was a huge step up. Once we'd saved up a small amount, managed to move out of the in-laws' house, we looked to our options for health care. We came away somewhat depressed. In the end we found a plan on the open market which gave us basically what we needed for basically what we could afford.

Since we were coming in without a current health plan they were very emphatic about not covering preexisting conditions, especially pregnancy. In fact, to cover pregnancy at all required a separate rider, a separate waiting period, and a separate deductible. That was the time of our lives so we shelled out the extra cash and put our family on hold for a bit. Things worked out OK, but I would rate that experience somewhat lower than our first insurance scenario.

Eventually we moved on to a new company, where I'm still working in fact, and they had some pretty good plans. The deductible was higher than we would have liked, and it didn't quite cover as much as we wanted, but it worked and it wasn't outrageously expensive either. But nothing stays the same, and this was no different. Every year our premium went up by $40 a month. Every month some small aspect of the plan was reduced or dropped. Vision care, gone. Dental care, optional. Coverage amounts were lowered but somehow we kept paying more.

The current situation is that we're now on a high deductible health plan coupled with a health savings account. There are some benefits and some drawbacks, the primary one being that every expense is now out-of-pocket making for a strong disincentive to seek necessary care. I'm not yet certain how I feel about this plan but so far (it's been just 3 months) I'm not convinced.

My Options

So hypothetically speaking, if I'm dissatisfied with my situation, what can I do? Well, I do have a few options.

  1. Drop my health care. Obviously that's not a reasonable solution, not with the costs of health care in this country. Just about anything is preferable to that.
  2. Seek out a health care on the open market. For all the people working for small companies, or who own their own business, that's their only choice. The costs are high, the benefits not all that great, and the selection is limited. Consider the amount of leverage a single customer has and you can see it's not really in the company's interests to be competitive.
  3. Get a new job. In this economy that's often easier said than done, and the simple fact is I like my job. I like where I work and what I do. And even more importantly, why should that have anything to do with my health insurance? Does my employer choose my car insurance? My home insurance? My grocery store? The simple fact is that it's rather ludicrous for a health care plan to be tied to employment at all. It's merely a historical happenstance that it occurred that way at all and now we're stuck with it. Life would be much simpler, for both me and my employer, if the two were separated completely.
  4. Or just stick with the one plan that's offered me.


Let me switch topics just a bit and address a point which I think is entirely overblown by far too many people: the term "socialism". In some circles even mentioning the word is like preaching vi usage to an emacs mailing list. Too geeky for you? How about wearing a Yankees jersey to Fenway Park? You get the idea I hope. Many people have made "socialism" a religious issue when it needn't be so.

I put the word in quotes above because it's a very mis-understood word and used completely out of context. Consider for a moment a few very socialist institutions: your local police force, the school system and the Forest Service. If we were to take a strictly capitalist approach to those organizations we would have private armies, private schools and private forests. Well, we do. We have both, so don't let anybody convince you that one cannot exist in the presence of the other.

But just looking at the police for a minute, I think we can see that a capitalist police force would be much less efficient. Those with money to hire guards would be able to protect themselves. Those without, well they'd have to fend for themselves. That in turn would encourage more crime by those more destitute which would lead to a pretty miserable feedback loop I fear. So it's in everybody's self-interest to provide for a common police force. And in this country I would argue we've done a good job of it. There's the occasional account of corruption or pandering, but far and away most cops are good folks doing a good job.

We've established that some scenarios just play out better with a socialist scheme, and I would also argue that many scenarios work better with capitalist setups. And many more are a mix because dogmas rarely work perfectly in the real world. The task we face is to select the one that is the best fit. We shouldn't let ourselves be driven by blind ideology or clever witticisms about liberty or freedom. Never let yourself be so vain to think that your ideals are without fault.


Well then, where does that leave us? First and foremost, before you make any choices you need to go watch Frontline: Sick Around The World from PBS. It's the most honest, unbiased collection of the facts of health care around the world that I've ever seen. I reserve the right not to debate anyone who has not watched it. Yes, it's that good.

Next, take a glance at two good Washington Post articles about our current system and the proposed changes.

Now that you've done that (I'm very patient, aren't I?) I can suggest to you what I would prefer. I would like health care to be divorced from employment. I would like minimum health insurance standards to be enforced on insurance providers and required of citizens, with subsidies for low income levels. I would like the option to buy up to better insurance if I felt it would benefit me.

Speaking to a few specific points, I would like to have the public option merely for the fact that it fills a needed gap and provides a certain incentive for private companies to stay competitive. I'm not convinced yet that co-ops would fill that role, but I'm not opposed to those either.

I'm also not against a single payer system (aka the Canada system) in principle. The devil is always in the details but I don't believe we should exclude it just because it's "socialist" or because the moose people do it.

The biggest stumbling block I see to coming to consensus on health care, to bringing affordable insurance to all Americans, to reducing the nightmare that is our heath system, is that people aren't willing to listen to each other any more. I see too much hate. Too many ideologues. Far too much 24 hours cable news. We have to forget our biases and start acting civilly again. If we do, I think we all stand to benefit from the results.


Drug Policy

Lately I've put a bit of thought into the state of drug policy in our nation. It's really not in dispute that illegal drugs are a major problem which doesn't seem to be on the road to solution. It's been over 20 years since Reagan declared a War on Drugs. The war has been rather successful in much the same way the War on Terror has, it's built up our police force and ruined the lives of countless people but really hasn't reduced the amount of drug usage.

Now before we get all into this, I guess I should lay down my stance on drug usage. Generally speaking I'm against usage of mind altering substances. There are exceptions of course, such as doctor prescribed or over the counter medicines (although I do try to avoid those whenever possible). I generally steer clear from even caffeine because a) it has never affected me much, b) I don't care much for the typical caffeine conveyances (soda) and c) I would prefer to not get addicted.

I did find it rather interesting in Michael Pollan's book, Botany of Desire, that nearly every (or maybe he did say every) culture on Earth has some sort of mind altering substance which it condones. So in once sense it's rather hypocritical of us to deny one person his drugs just because his choice differs from our own. But of course the details do matter and meth is different from pot is different from caffeine, so we can't simply lump them together.

It's only natural that we would choose to legislate something with such potentially harmful side effects, and it's human nature to want to punish those who can't follow the rules. But we have to be realistic about the results. While it may feel good to put those no-good pot smoking hippies in jail, what we really have to judge in our approach is whether we're decreasing the amount of crime and violence associated with drug abuse and whether those hippies are actually any better off. That's really the direction I'm coming at this from.

As a recent report from the CATO Institute found, when Portugal decriminalized (which is not the same as legalized) all drugs they actually saw a very positive outcome. John Tierney recently wrote on that topic as well. And Freakonomics a few months ago had a very enlightening debate about legalization.

To sum up, I'm not encouraging drug usage but I don't believe our current prohibitionist laws are doing anybody any good, from the law abiding citizen spending tax money to house criminals to the addict himself who might very much like to get sober. It's the ethical and economical thing to do.


New Credit Card Bill

It looks like the latest credit reform bill is going to become law. I've read through the law and it really sounds fair to me. What always surprises me is when people make comments similar to those contained in this BBC News article, "the industry has warned that the measure could backfire, leading banks to issue fewer credit cards thus making it harder to get credit". I'm failing to see the problem. Many people do have too much credit.

Now I'm not against credit. It's certainly a useful financial tool, without which I likely would not own my own home. But it needs to be done wisely, and that's a challenge when credit companies get to write all the rules such as when you can go bankrupt. This bill will equalize the system and hopefully stem some of the nonsense going on.


A Rose By Any Other Name

Stephen Dubner, the famed economist behind Freakonomics (an excellent book, btw), posed the question, is it time to rename 'Digital Piracy'?" The answer is an unequivocal "yes". Despite what Shakespeare said, sometimes a name can mean everything. I refuse to accept the word "piracy" as anything other than high-seas pillaging. I suppose one positive outcome of the recent surge in Somali piracy is that people are realizing that copyright infringement hardly warrants such a strong word, especially when we have a perfectly adequate one. Let's not let the geniouses at the RIAA, who've had a wonderfully successful program of suing their customers, dictate our terminology on the matter.


Non-terrorist List

Congress passed a new law requiring the Department of Homeland Security to create a new terrorist watch list. This one is actually a list of people who are not terrorists, but have been mistakenly labeled as such. That would be thanks to the famous no-fly list that the TSA maintains which is riddled with inaccuracies but doesn't provide for any practical way to get yourself off of it, until now. So in a sense, this is a step forward. It addresses problems that the TSA has been burdening Americans with. Unfortunately, it's only a partial solution. The whole idea of a list of people so dangerous that they can't fly, but innocent enough that we can't arrest them is ludicrous. The fact that the list is poorly maintained and horribly inaccurate is just icing on the cake. The only sensible thing to do would be to dump it and spend our money (estimated at $100 million per year) on something much more effective.

Don't even get me started on the liquids ban.


Absentee Voting

According to this AP story, about 1/3 of Idaho voters this election cast their ballot absentee. I'm actually surprised that it's that high, but not because I think it's a bad idea. Quite the opposite, in fact. See, I grew up in Oregon and cast my first ballot there via mail, as all elections have been for at least 15 years I believe.

In Idaho it's a bit harder than in Oregon, since voting by mail isn't the default. To mark my ballot I had to use a toothpick to punch out a paper ballot. But it wasn't terrible either and I think most people could manage it, possibly even some Floridians.

But also mentioned in that article is that some state representatives think the high number of absentee voters is a bad thing. These are the people we like to call "misinformed" and "crazy". Why would it not be a good thing? Instead of spending an hour of my business day in a school gym, I can vote at my home. Instead of trying to pawn my kids off somewhere, I can leave them be in the house. Instead of standing in long lines, I can vote whenever I've got time. Instead of being rushed to pick between two people I've never heard of, I can sit down and read about them on the Internet. That makes it a win-win-win-win.

I just don't understand why everybody hasn't moved to voting by mail.


VoteGopher.com: Getting Down To The Real Issues

For a while now I've wanted to create a full list of all the political topics being debated and how the various candidates feel about them. See then I could rank them and come up with an algorithm to figure out who most aligns with my view. Luckily, I decided to google around first and I found somebody already did it: Vote Gopher.

Vote Gopher is a non-partisan site devoted to getting facts out, without any spin. I've only been browsing around for a few hours tonight but so far I'm impressed. I compared their candidate position statements with some I found at other places around the net and they appear to all agree, so from what I see their information is accurate. I've also been giving them a very critical eye regarding neutrality and thus far I see no reason to doubt them.

What I find most refreshing about the site is that it skips past all the mumbo jumbo and gets straight to the details. No more yammering about how old McCain is or whether Obama is wearing a US flag pin, as if those things really matter. The real questions are what will the next President do and they have extensive statements from each candidate on that.

So far I've found that I'm pretty split on both candidates. In fact, both candidates are surprisingly similar in many areas, such as stem cell research (both favor) or carbon cap-and-trade (both favor). What's nice is that generally the areas they agree on are the ones which align with my views (and I suspect most American's, hence the concensus).

Don't wait. Run over right now and sign up for an account. Start tallying up your issue votes and see who you really support.


The Truth Comes Out

I have long been a critic of many things our current government, as faithful readers are aware. I came across a very insightful interview with Michael Chertoff which I found both surprising and depressing.

The good news is that in some ways, Chertoff has some good ideas. For example,

The larger challenge -- and frankly one that is further out -- is to find a way to partner with the private sector to enable and encourage them with some to the capabilities that we have to increase their defensive capacities, but on a voluntary basis, meaning not making them do it or regulating them into doing it. But instead offering them the opportunity -- much the same in the non-cyber-world, we go to people who run power plants and dams and we share information and best practices that they can use to defend their own assets.

That's a great use of government resources. It's not in private industry's interest to make security a priority, since security is a cost with no immediate return. The government can fund research, encourage secure practices and require security. That makes us all better off and combines the advantages of legislation and free markets.

Next he addresses the recent hubbub about laptop seizures,

The only thing that happened recently is that I ordered the policy to be put online in the interests of openness and transparency. We get about 80 million people a year coming to our airports, and a very small number are put into secondary inspection and that's based on some suspicion that the inspector has about the person.

It is that pool of people in secondary that have their things gone through, they can have their luggage and documents gone through. And nowadays because you can bring contraband through on a laptop, they can have their laptop looked at.

If things are really as he describes, it really doesn't sound that outrageous. What I think is that the policy they posted is written poorly and doesn't indicate what's actually going on. So if this policy only applies to those who are suspected of something and therefore brought in for secondary screening, put that in the policy already! This whole flap would have been avoided.

Now, on for the more interesting bits. Wired asked him about the huge mess knows as the no-fly list. He says,

In the airport environments, supposing there is a terrorist Jim Smith and that person should be on the watch list, the question is how do you distinguish them from the other Jim Smiths and the answer is you need an additional bit of data, such as a birthday.

That would override or eliminate most false positives.

So the solution to a bloated list is to make the list even bigger? Mr. Chertoff, when you realize you're at the bottom of a 10 foot hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. There is no way that 1,000,000+ terrorists are walking around in this country just chomping at the bit for their chance to hop on an airplane and blow it up. It's not realistic. Given that 99% or more of that list is cruft, of course you're going to have false positives. That's all you're going to have and even in the off chance you find a bad guy, everybody will assume it's just another incorrect assessment. The whole no-fly list needs to be junked.

And then the shoe drops. He reveals the true motive for most of the "security" measures deployed of late.

If you stopped using the watch list and basically anybody could get on a plane without knowing their identity, sooner or later something would happen -- and people would lose their lives, and then there would be another 9/11 Commission and we'd hear about how you had this system and you would have kept them off and these people lost their loved ones on a plane.

Let me rephrase that for you. "If something happens, even if I had no way of actually preventing it, my butt is going to be dragged before Congress. I would rather inconvenience hundreds of millions of innocent people than risk that to happen. At least then I would be able to say I had 'done something'."

What we really lack here is a way to effectively measure how well security mechanisms are working because terrorist events are very rare. Between the time the World Trade Center was bombed the first time and when it was attacked on 9/11, we very well could have said "whatever it is we're doing, it must be working". Well clearly it wasn't but how would we know that? Chertoff even gives us a great example of this,

I don't know if they do it anymore, but when I was a kid we all had polio shots, and after a while, you just don't know anyone with polio. And the question was raised was, why are we taking these shots? There's not that much polio around. And one of the reasons there's not that much polio around is that everyone is getting inoculated.

It's very easy to measure whether a polio vaccine is working because it was so widespread and results were quickly available. It's simple to see that spending money on the polio vaccine is worth the money. The same is definitely not true of terrorism. We can spend billions (as we have) and still not know whether we've actually made a difference or not. That's money wasted for no appreciable amount of security, and that folks is the current motto for the Department of Homeland Security.


Scope Creep

Accordig to The Register a man was indicted on fraud charges for opening thousands of accounts with ETrade and Charles Schwab. He had them send micro-payments, just a few cents each, and then collected the booty. Interesting story and may he rot in jail. But what I find particularly interesting is that his "undoing came as a result of the USA Patriot Act, which requires financial businesses to verify the identity of their customers". Wait, wait, wait. I thought the Patriot Act was to catch terrorists. Surely that isn't what they're claiming.

Make no bones about it, all these new laws to fight the "war on terror" have ulterior motives. Sure, they may help find terrorists but there is no doubt that LEAs have received a carte blanche for laws they've always wanted. They've learned well from Microsoft, it appears, and have passed around so much fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) that our lawmakers have given them pretty much whatever they want. What we really need is to settle down and quite acting out of instinct and fear, and instead use a little of that logic stuff.



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