Monday, April 18, 2005

What to do about health care?

First, as we considered last time, the problem is fundamentally insoluble. People want more health care than they can afford. The whole country wants more health care than we can afford, we want to live as long as we can, as healthy as we can, and we want somebody else to pay for it. There's no general solution, either we accept that rich people can afford very expensive treatment while poor people can hardly afford any medical care at all, or we take money from rich people to give poor people some small fraction of what they want, or we do something else along those lines. In every case except the first, somebody has to decide who lives and who dies. Nobody wants to be blamed for that decision.

We don't want a single-payer system for medical care. It would probably be considerably cheaper, but it would mean that citizens had no recourse. As it is, if you need expensive care and your insurance doesn't cover it, you have the consolation that you could have chosen some other insurance carrier. You can ask your employer to switch carriers so the next guy will have a better chance. You have gambled and lost, but at least there's the chance that somebody is winning. With a single-payer system there's no such chance, everybody is subject to the same system.

The best we can do is muddle through to some kind of system that doesn't cost too much and that nobody likes but nobody will rebel against.

Meanwhile, it would be nice if we could cut costs. Every medical test or other procedure that was done cheaper at the same quality would allow us to get more medical care for the same money. One obvious way to encourage that is to arrange for the testing to be cheap for new technology that's designed to do the same jobs as older technology but cheaper. Given a choice between spending a tremendous amount of money to test something new that will fill an unmet need at a high price, versus spending the money to test something that can out compete an existing product on price, which would you choose? There's no profit cap on the new thing.

Here is an alternative that I think is worth following up, that would distract some from the insoluble problem. The federal government could put more money into public health. Public health is a legitimate venue for government. Some of it can't be done without government coercion. Most of it can't be done for profit. To the extent that a strong public health program improved the health of the public, our health insurance money would go further.

Various public health initiatives are currently stalled because people don't like them. We could cut unnecessary health costs by reducing tobacco use. But most tobacco addicts are unable to quit, and many don't want to, and the tobacco lobby is quite strong. Fast foods are generally recognised as rather unhealthy, they provide too-large portions of fats and starches and in some cases carcinogens. The fast food corporations tried providing healthier foods in healthier portions but found that past the first fad they didn't sell well. Etc.

Public health diagonostics are potentially cheaper than ever before. The big cost was record-keeping. Start a trial with 1000 people, in 4 years more than half of them would move and would need to be tracked down. But it's far easier now to track people who don't mind being tracked. And there's more insurance etc information available to qualified researchers.

Imagine that the thing went superbly well. Tobacco use was cut to insignificant amounts, and tobacco-related diseases went way down. Obesity went way down along with obesity-related diseases. Simple sugars got used much less, so fewer diabetic symptoms. Environmental carcinogens were strongly cut and so age-adjusted cancer rates dropped 80%. Health care costs would not drop at all. We would spend the same money to get lots of new medical care, things we couldn't afford and don't even know about today. It would be a good thing even though it would not help the health-care crisis at all. We would be healthier, we would live longer and get more of our expensive health care at older ages than currently.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

The medical care problem.

Here is a statement of the problem as I see it.

First, people occasionally have medical emergencies for which there are treatments available that cost far more than they an afford. Currently this happens at least once per lifetime. At least once per lifetime there's a medical emergency that has treatment the person cannot afford, and the patient dies whether the treatment is done or not. Many people have one or more additional major medical treatment that they do survive.

To deal with the problem of rare emergencies that the person cannot afford, we set up health insurance. Healthy people pay for sick people. Provided a small enough minority gets expensive treatment, the system can pay for itself. This made sense. However, it turns out that far too many people have medical emergencies. And the insurance system got switched around from this sensible beginning.

"Systems expand. And as they expand, they encroach." The insurance industry could do collective bargaining. Each large insurance provider could negotiate cheap rates with hospitals etc to reduce its costs. This was a necessary measure. People want more health care than they can pay for, and at regular rates they would bankrupt the insurance industry -- or the industry would have to raise rates beyond what customers could afford. However, a side effect of insurance industry bargaining was that medical fees were increased for people who don't have insurance. If you want to buy a car and an insurance company wants to buy 10,000 cars, who'll get the better rate? If you want to buy healthcare....

Since the insurance companies could get good rates, they expanded into providing payment for routine care too. They could charge you less than you'd pay yourself for routine things, and still make a profit. When the uninsured rates for routine care rose to make up for the insurance discounts, the uninsured couldn't afford routine care either.

All this was not enough to cover rising healthcare costs, though. So the insurance industry did have to raise rates beyond what most individuals could afford. So employers were called in to pay for health insurance. If you have a great job, you can get great health insurance with it. Businesses that are raking in the money can afford to pay high rates for their employees. If you have a mediocre job then your company can afford mediocre health insurance, but it's better than nothing. If anybody is at fault it's you for not deserving a better job. This approach worked for awhile, for a lot of people.

But the rates kept rising, until increasingly businesses could not afford adequate health coveriage for their employees either. This encouraged them to hire part-time or temp workers who didn't get health insurance.

Meanwhile, costs kept rising and more people were uninsured by employers and could not afford insurance themselves. Many of them were voters. So the government stepped in to provide payment. As the costs continued to rise, it became more than the government could afford.

To reduce costs, both insurance companies and government needed "adjustors". They could cut costs by keeping medical experts from prescribing benefits that weren't necessary. How would an insurance adjustor with a 2-year degree, sitting on the 27th floor of an office building in chicago know whether your doctor's treatment was unnecessary for you? She can compare against common practice, compare against what thousands of other doctors are doing in similar circumstances. And except in a philosophical sense it doesn't matter whether she's right -- she controls the payments. She justifies her salary by the money she saves.

This distorts medical practice in subtle ways -- as well as the unsubtle ways. Say your doctor wants a medical test. He prescribes it, and it gets done by technicians in another windowless lab. It used to be those technicians were highly-trained med techs, but as they get priced out of reach more of the work gets done by trainees under the supervision of med techs, or under the supervision of former trainees. How much should your doctor trust those results? Clearly, as far as he can test them. So when he sends the lab two identical samples under different patient names and IDs, and the results are wildly different, that tells him something. When he sends a sample from a patient who ought to test normal and it doesn't, that tells him something. When he sends a sample from a patient that he already knows should test high and it doesn't, that tells him something. Etc. When he gets unacceptable results he can complain and get the lab straightened out or he can test out another lab. But none of this testing is legitimate as far as the insurance adjustor is concerned. Unnecessary tests are wasteful.

Nobody wants to be responsible for deciding not to give people medical care that they need. So we farm out those decisions to anonymous workers who will do the tasks demanded of them, and if they drink themselves into a stupor after work each day to forget the implications, it's nobody's business but their own and their doctors and their insurance adjustors. It's a natural progression to outsource those jobs overseas.

The whole thing comes because we want more healthcare than we can afford. So we look for somebody else to pay for it. First we tried to get the healthy to pay for the sick, but it cost too much for the healthy people to afford. So we got employers to pay, but it was more than they could afford too. So we went to the biggest money source of all, the federal government, and it's more than the government can afford.

Should we decide that your lifespan should depend on your wealth?
"If life was a thing that money could buuuuyyyyy"
"The rich would live, and the poor would diiiieeeee...."

So now what? It isn't like people are being unreasonable. They don't want to die.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Random paranoia

Banana prices have gone up 18% at SFW, where they used to be 33 cents a pound. They have also gone up to 39 cents a pound at the korean market where they used to be 27. My natural thought is that the banana republics that used to have their currency pegged to ours are getting unpegged. But maybe it's due to bad weather, or the vagaries of the market economy.

Salmon prices are up from $4/pound to $5 and sometimes $6. The korean market sells whole salmon for $3/pound, though. They used to sell salmon heads for $1.50 a pound but they don't have them now -- however they have cod heads for $2.00. And they have whole tilapia for $2.50 too.

At SFW the cheapest cuts of beef are up to $5/pound, from $4, not counting heart at $3 and kidney at $2.50. The korean market has beef shank at $2.50 a pound and beef hind shank at $3. But flank is up to $6, skirt is up to $5.50, frozen tendon is $3.50, tripe is $2, tail is $3.50, and frozen neck bones are $1.35.

Chicken is up. I can get a whole chicken for 99 cents a pound at the korean market, but it's one of those strange-looking ones. They have small frozen turkeys at 99 cents a pound, and frozen duck for $2 a pound.

Green beans are 95 cents a pound at the korean market and $1.65 at SFW. Tough-skin tomatoes are 95 cents at the korean market and $1.79 at SFW. Romaine lettuce is $1.75 a bunch both places.

Milk is $2.50 for 1%, $2.65 for 2%, and $3.05 for whole milk at SFW. That's by far the cheapest, milk costs $3.49 at CVS and $3.69 at Safeway.

Eggs are cheap, 89 cents an extra-large dozen at SFW and 99 cents at the korean market.

Beans are expensive at the korean market (and presumably higher quality), they're up at SFW, most kinds of dried beans were 69 2 weeks ago but 78 today, with some variation. An exception is dried split peas, which are 62 in the american aisle and 45 in the hispanic section.

Canned peaches have gone from 89 to 1.05 at SFW. The light syrup ones have sugar now instead of pear juice, but there are still canned pears in pear juice.

Cheese is up. Bread is up. Fresh produce is up. This is inflation. But you can get a lot more computer for the same price than you used to, which for some people makes up for it.

I've noticed myself buying extra food for emergencies. One day's worth of canned food for the car, in case we're driving and people get hungry. Another week's canned food plus vitamins to put in the car quick if we want to. It doesn't really make sense -- if you can get gasoline you surely can get food. I feel comforted to have it.

A couple months of dried food -- rice, beans, flour, pasta, oatmeal, vitamins, etc. More trouble to cook but cheaper and bulkier and so less valuable, less worth stealing. Ten gallons of water stored and stuff to purify creek water.

A couple weeks of backpacking food, mostly dried with a little freeze-dried for emergencies. It doesn't make sense -- how far could I get on foot with a 2-year-old? It's a comfort.

A candle stove in the car (and can opener, and spoons), and a zip stove with extra batteries ready to load.

All things I kept in california in case of earthquake. There isn't going to be a major earthquake in northern virgina. Somehow I feel a little better to be a little bit prepared. I'd feel better still if I knew what I was preparing for.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Random party conversation

At a birthday party at Chuckee Cheese's with my daughter, I met somebody from a DC think tank. There was a birthday show going on, *very* loud. When it got a little quieter I pointed to the Chuckee Cheese mascot. "Is that a rat?"

"That's Chuckee Cheese. Just like on the sign outside."

"Yes, but is it a rat?"

"It's a rat or a mouse."

"Out of all the animals they could have had, how did their marketing people think to use a rat?" The big manikin wiggled its long nose and batted its eyes like it knew that it was cuter than a thousand children. I tried to imagine somebody inside wearing that big head as a mask. I could see two tiny irregularities on the face at what would be eye level on a human, that seemed too far apart and way too small for eyeholes. But then, it could be a fiber optic deal. Spread them out on one end and you'd get a wide field of view, but the perspective would be off. You'd have to learn how to walk with that.

"That's true. They could have used a rabbit or a kangaroo."

"Or even a raccoon. Say, I overheard you talking about social security. Do you write to publish?"

"Yes, sometimes. We're just a little think tank, we only deal with one issue, but I'm writing a paper about how social security affects our issue and vice versa so I've spent a few weeks finding out about it."

I said, "Good. We need more people to understand about that, though it doesn't take much to understand how it relates to the Bush administration."

"The media has been doing a piss-poor job of reporting this. The issue isn't anything like what people think it is."

"Yes, I'd been hearing about that from blogs and such, but I didn't study it in detail myself."

"They say it has a long time before it goes into crisis, but really it goes broke in 2017. They want to count one point seven trillion dollars in treasury bonds as assets, plus interest. And the government won't be able to pay those bonds, so they aren't really assets for social security. I don't trust the Bush administration, but they're right about this."

I said, "Why do they talk about social security and not medicare?"

"Medicare would be an even harder problem so they're going after the easy one first. And social security is in deep trouble in 2017."

"Well, but that isn't something wrong with social security, that's something wrong with the budget. Why is the US government spending so much more than we collect?"

"I'm a moderate and I don't say whether taxes are too low or too high. But yes, there's a problem with that and it's going to hit social security in 2017. They can't count those t-bonds as assets. This business of the government loaning itself money is just wrong."

"There's a simple solution about that for social security. Just sell all the t-bonds and buy commercial bonds. Then social security wouldn't be loaning money to the government. We'd get more interest from them too because there's the chance they might default while government bonds never default. US bonds are the safest investment there is."

"Um, it used to be that way."

I said, "It still is. Do your really think the US government would default on its bonds? That's something sleazy third-world countries do. You don't really want our bondholders to think that, do you? So anyway, social security could sell all its t-bonds and buy commercial bonds, and bonds from the british government and the german government and all like that. There isn't any danger that britain will default on their bonds, or germany or japan or india. It's only the USA that's in trouble."

"But if social security sold their bonds the government would be in deep shit."

"Yes. It isn't social security that's in trouble, it's the federal budget, and a long time before 2017."

"Well, when you look back at how it got this way it wasn't just republicans and it wasn't just recent. I'd put the blame about 50:50."

I said, "Yes. But who are you going to trust to get us out of it? The Bush administration has shown us they're liars and thieves. They're talking about social security instead of medicare because social security has money they want to steal, and medicare doesn't. We can't get a start on a solution for another four years. We need a reform government and I don't care whether it's republican or democrat, but the people who got us into this aren't going to get us out. Certainly not under Bush's leadership."

"Excuse me, I have to take my son out to play the Chuckee Cheese games and win tickets."

Awhile later I met him in the aisle as he was returning to the table. I stuck out my hand. He seemed surprised for a moment, then he shook my hand. "Good conversation!"

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

What do the elections mean?`

Here's my guess: In the short run, iraqis generally will see the new government as their government. So they'll be less tolerant of attacks on it. However, if they later see that the iraqi administration is not actually controlled by the elected representatives, then they'll have more support for insurgents attacking government workers.

So the foreign suicide bombers etc will continue as before, no change. Some of them might get stopped or turned in by iraqis who would have tolerated them before.

The local resistance will tend to target assassinations against high-level police and army officers etc who look particularly competent. They don't want splashy unpopular attacks, so pinpoint assassinations will be better. Also they might make more attacks on US forces since they'll be making fewer attacks on iraqi government troops. US forces are harder to hit and they hit back harder, but they'll be more popular targets.

In the longer run there's the question whether we act to make the new government look irrelevant. Immediately after the highly-publicised "handover" seven months ago, Allawi announced an amnesty for insurgents. But Bremer then announced that there could be no amnesty for insurgents who had attacked US troops (which at that point was probably the large majority of them) and Allawi had to back down. Allawi announced he'd be buying tanks and planes, and Bremer announced that the budget was frozen and Allawi had no money for tanks or planes. At that point Allawi's credibility was shot. The handover was revealed as a farce and it hardly mattered when Allawi then approved airstrikes on iraqi cities and the total destruction of Fallujah. The elections have given us at least a credibility moment, and the longer we can go without destroying the impression that the elected government has power, the better.

Why did the iraqi elections happen?

There were predictions of widespread violence. It didn't happen, the elections went smoothly with essentially no violence -- less violence than on a typical day in iraq. Why was that? Why were the predictions wrong?

It probably wasn't because of our security. We were stretched way too thin. Unless the ban on cars did it. Say there was a significant attack, and afterward the insurgents tried to scatter. If they moved by vehicle they could be blasted from the air, and if they didn't move by vehicle they couldn't get real far. We could cordon off an area and find them. Maybe? There are bound to be some tactical consequences of that if it's true.

But there weren't many attempts to disrupt the elections. Why not? The media had predicted there would be.

A second factor is that in the places where there was a consensus against elections, the elections did not happen. No polling places = no violence. But that was a minority of sites.

Here's what makes sense to me. I can't claim a whole lot of evidence for it, though it's compatible with all the evidence I've seen.

I claim that the iraqi insurgency is divided into four components. Those are:

1. Foreign fighters and their supporters. These are few and weak, but they know how to get media attention. Presumably some of them are led by someone or something with the label Zarqawi. Their primary purpose is to fight americans and they don't care how many iraqis die in the process. They like having US troops pinned down in iraq. An estimated 5000 foreign fighters are keeping130,000+ americans stuck like flypaper. They don't like shias and shias don't like them. So if US troops left and a shia-dominated government took over iraq that would be bad for them.

2. Iraqi resistance. These are iraqis who choose to fight americans. Most of them are sunnis at present, the shias are conserving their strength and training but not doing much fighting. Their shared goal is to get the occupation troops out. They may disagree on lots of other things but they can try not to discuss that until later.

3. Gangsters. These are iraqis who choose to rob people. They can pretend to be the resistance or not. Sometimes they are the resistance; underfunded groups may get funds that way.

4. Fake iraqi resistance. These are people who pretend to be the resistance for purposes other than theft. Followers of one politician might kill another politician and blame it on the resistance. Foreign hit teams might kill anybody they think would help iraq get strong later. Etc.

Groups 1 & 4 might want the elections not to happen because they don't want iraq to improve.

Group 2 might want the elections not to happen because they think it's another scam to make the puppet government look more legitimate.

Group 3 wouldn't care.

The obvious approach for group 2 is to argue the case with iraqis. But if iraqis do choose to vote, would they kill random citizens for it? That would be stupid. They need support from those citizens. They might bomb a polling station before it opens to kill puppet-government employees and the troops guarding them, but what good is it to kill random people who simply disagree about voting? That would mean admitting that they think the random citizens are their enemies. And there's always a chance the elected puppet government will show some spine and tell the americans to go away. It would be *unpopular* for them to kill people who vote.

In the end it's only group 1 who'd attack the polls, and they're weak. They would make a big fuss in the media ahead of time, but then they couldn't do a whole lot.

And I think that's what happened.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Some simple number about military occupation

The occupation numbers are a little big deceiving. Look at it this way: How big a standing army can a nation afford? Most nations can't do much over 1% of the population. For the USA that would be an army of less than 3 million soldiers. We have a great economy, we could do 6 million if we wanted to. We've done a lot more than that but it was for world wars, not something we'd sustain. To run a successful occupation, though, we move in enough solders that they're 2% of the population (1:50) or 2.5% (1:40). If they wanted to raise an army to match that it would be hard for them even if they weren't under occupation. 1:50 is overwhelming force. Occupy at that level for 10 years and more than 1% of the women are likely to marry american soldiers and go to america.

What percent of our population can we have occupying other nations? 1%? Then we can't use that method to occupy more than about 300 million people total. But 1% of our population is much more than 1% of our young men. We'd be having a whole lot of foreign brides, and a whole lot of young american women would be left marrying foreigners. This isn't a bad thing unless you have something against immigration and cultural diffusion. But it isn't trivial. It's a great big cultural thing, shaping the genes and the culture of future generations of americans as well as the places we occupy.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Voting machine reform

Touch-screen voting is potentially a good thing. Think about the difference between using an ATM machine and going to a bank where all bookkeeping is done by hand. Doing this stuff by computer is potentially accurate and efficient. The immediate trouble is there is no way to tell whether it's been done right. This has to be handled, or else give up the machines.

The first natural approach is to try to make sure the hardware and software is correct. With current designs this is pretty much impossible. Even if the voting machine companies revealed their secrets, neither they nor anyone else can verify their designs. Some of them use smart-cards. These are tiny computers that sit in cards about the size of credit cards, that you slide into the voting machine. They carry computer code that can reprogram the voting machine. You must verify not only the software on the voting machine but also the software on each card. Some systems use complex wireless networking. They have complex methods to make sure that outsiders can't pose as a computer on the network and present false data. But if an outside computer can after all do that, how would you know? It's very hard to understand the methods they use to stop intrusion. And what if they designed the system to let them break into it, would you catch them? Even if experts say the voting will be done correctly, how can they be sure?

The second approach is to try to make the system work even if the machines are unreliable. The first obvious approach is to make a complete paper trail. If the paper records back up the computer records, then it's correct. Ideally this would involve perfect printers. Every transaction on a particular voting machine gets recorded on a single long continuous scroll of paper. Even if you get access to the paper you can't insert new records without pasting in a new section of paper, and you can't remove old ones without cutting the paper. It ought to be reliable. But what if the printer breaks down? Say it jams and somebody's vote turns into an overprinted mess. Do you reprint that, or do you accept the data is lost? Either way there's room for glitches that could look like cheating. And where there are glitches that look like cheating there's room for cheating that looks like glitches. So you need a perfect printer, and those are extremely expensive and still not always quite perfect.

Well, but you don't have to make it that good. You can have a printer that makes a bunch of individual paper ballots. You vote with the touchscreen. The printer prints out a copy of your vote and shows it to you behind glass. You agree that this is how you voted -- if it isn't then you squawk. Once you agree, the last step is that the voting machine counts your vote and your paper ballot goes into the ballot box. Paper ballot boxes don't have to be checked unless there's some question, but they *can* be checked if there's any question. You might check a few of them just on general principle, but not too many because it's a slow expensive unreliable process. The advantage of this approach is that you can use cheap printers. The ballots don't have to be attached to each other any more than traditional paper ballots were. If a printer jams you just plug in a new one, cancel the unfinished vote, and try again. The disadvantage is that the backup is no better than the old inefficient unreliable voting system.

Here is another approach. It doesn't require that the machines be reliable. Here goes.

When you vote, you have a pinpad that you use to type in a set of numbers, say 8 digits. The voting machine adds its own 8 digits and prints out a slip of paper with all 16 digits. And it lets you vote. The votes are not just counted by the machines, they go onto a website where every vote is displayed with its 16-digit number. Anybody can count the votes.

You can look up your vote by looking up the 16-digit number, and you can tell whether the vote that got recorded for you is the vote you actually cast. If your vote is not there, then your vote was not counted and you have a right to be upset about it. If your vote has been changed then you similarly have a right to be upset. There isn't any way to prove the vote was yours. The slip of paper with your number could have been printed on some other printer. But your name is on the list -- you voted. If the vote you claim was yours is somebody else's, whose is it? Which vote is yours? If it turns into a big enough outcry that people actually check, it would be very hard to falsify more than a very few votes.

There are other ways to cheat besides changing a vote. One way is to add extra voters with their own numbers. They'll never look up those numbers. So it takes traditional methods to make sure that only legitimate voters vote. Still, for each precinct you can publish the list of voters who voted along with the list of code-numbers and votes. If a name is on the list that doesn't belong there, people may eventually notice.

The good thing about this approach is that it's somewhat transparent. You aren't depending on election committees to detect fraud, you can do some of it yourself. The voting machine can't just mess up the totals -- if you have 649 voters listed as voting then you'd better have 649 votes. And if you do, you can count them and so can anybody else. The main bad thing about this approach is that the votes aren 't completely secret-ballot. You get a slip of paper with your code on it, that shows how you voted. If somebody can intimidate you into voting the way they want, they can also intimidate you into showing them the code to prove it. Similarly if you sell your vote, you can prove that you did what you're getting paid for. It isn't *really* proof since with a little bit of prep time you could look up somebody else's number and print it on similar paper, but it's enough to cause problems.

It's bad for voters to get intimidated by employers or police or priests etc. But I'd rather have a voting system where people can stand up for the truth if they have the will to, than one with no way to tell whether your vote was falsified.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Another random conversation at a party

"After the election I was too depressed to talk for a couple of weeks. We're going to move to mexico, not now but in a couple of years. Canada is too cold for me." She smiled.

The other woman was hispanic, married to a turk. "I'm getting a turkish passport. It's a lot better to have that in europe than an american one, and it drives my father crazy every time I tell him."

There followed a long conversation about how disappointed they were in Colin Powell and John McCain for abandoning their principles and supporting Bush, with the turkish husband explaining that those guys were republicans first and they had to support whoever the party supported regardless of their principles.

At a pause in the conversation I said, "I've been listening to talk radio on my commute, Michael Savage. It's interesting."

"I couldn't do that. My blood pressure couldn't stand it."

"It's fun. He used to be all outraged at liberals. But there aren't any important liberals left. Bush is completely in charge and all he can do is be outraged at Bush."

"That does sound like fun. What is he mad at Bush for?"

"Partly for being nice to Clinton. He was real upset when the Bushes showed up for Clinton's library opening. Bush senior said nice things about Clinton and Bush junior hugged him. And he got mad that Bush appointed Clinton so something about the tsunami."

"Why is he mad at Clinton?"

"He has a list. He said ten of them. I remember some ... he didn't like Clinton's abortion stand, and he thought the airstrikes in Kosover were war crimes. But it's all up to Bush now and Bush is the new problem. Savage says the republicans and democrats are both bad but democrats are worse. Now Bush is just as bad as the democrats."

"Bush is a lot worse!"

"Yes, but remember these are republicans talking. Bush has a giant deficit. He set up a great big useless Homeland Security bureaucracy. He has us in this no-win war. He keeps spending more money and interfering with people's lives."

"Those are all things I hate about Bush."

"Yes. But republicans say they're things that democrats do. Now they vote republican and Bush does the same things. I wouldn't be surprised if the party splits."

"You mean, Michael Savage is setting up wedge issues for republicans. That's something democrats aren't any good at."

"Yes. Bush is a borrow-and-spend big-government politician. He's just exactly what a lot of republicans vote against democrats for, but they got it anyway. They hate it."

"Borrow and spend. I like that."

"I like listening to him. Talk radio lives on outrage. Now the republicans are running everything and there's nobody else to be outraged about."

Random conversation at a party

Somebody I didn't recognise, sitting with his wife and baby in the corner. I stopped and played peekaboo with the baby a little. Then the parents started chatting with me. At a pause I asked, "What do you think about the war?"

He stopped and thought. "The iraq war?"


"Well -- I think you have to make your stand and stick with it. If you keep thinking about it there's no end to it, and it will drive you crazy. And you ought to know my company is a defense contractor. We make things for aircraft carriers. And I support the troops. And, well, the war has been good to me."

"I'd think it would be good for some contractors and not so good for others."

The couple looked at each other and grimaced. "It's been good for me. But I worry some about the sailors on long deployments. Less of everything, it's hard on them and they have to cut corners and get by without proper maintenance. But they knew what might happen when they signed up."

"We don't have to do it that way. We could spread out the sacrifice."

"What do you mean?"

"If we rolled back the tax cuts we could pay for what they need."

"The tax cuts have been good to me."

"Same here. But we could do our part for the war and support the troops."

"Huh. Our budgets are shot. They told us to cut 10% of everything to go for the war. It's all screwed up. If we had the funding...."

"That's what I was thinking about the war being better for some contractors than others. Whoever's getting your ten percent...."

"It sure is hot in here. I need to go get another drink."

We nodded to each other in passing after that. He seemed to be drinking pretty heavily.

Democracy building in iraq

The reconstruction budget for iraq lists $162 million already spent for "Democracy", more money than has been spent for oil reconstruction. reference

I wondered where that money went. Here's where:


In 2003, while U.S. troops waged war in Iraq, RTI International won a huge contract to build the peace. Originally budgeted at up to $467 million over three years to help bring democracy to Iraq, it was part of the largest nation-building effort since World War II's Marshall Plan.

But now the U.S. government isn't renewing that contract, even as the country prepares for crucial national elections in January. About 2,000 of RTI's Iraqi employees and 200 international staff have already lost their jobs this year because of contract cutbacks made by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

By coincidence a report last year said RTI had 200 international staff in iraq and 2000 iraqi employees.

RTI won the USAID contract April 11, 2003. It submitted the only bid. A senior USAID project officer told The Washington Post that RTI was "the linchpin, the catalysts, the enablers" for reconstruction efforts.

RTI was supposed to open offices and hire staff in all 18 Iraqi provinces; design programs to help women, children and minorities; train local government officials and create neighborhood, city and regional government councils; process and administer small emergency-grant requests; and coordinate it all with the military and other humanitarian organizations.

For various reasons it just didn't work out.

- The Coalition official in charge of the Kut compound refused to authorize the placement of defensive measures along the river, saying that they would obstruct the view. The compound at Kut was besieged and overrun by insurgent forces.

There was a rumor among the iraqis that they were zionists....

Permanently pulling international staff from many rural provinces "was an overt decision," Johnson said. "The more outlying the province, the more we were very much on our own. We didn't know how long (violence) would last - we were stretched too thin to protect 17 different locations," he said.

What's this about 15 of the 18 provinces being all quiet? Maybe it's quiet wherever the US troops aren't, provided we don't send any civilians.

Michael Rubin, who had an inside view of the Iraq policy debates in the Bush administration and of RTI's work, said, "It was almost like we hired RTI to build an appliance, and then the time came to plug it in, and no one plugged it in."

Rubin served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and in Baghdad from 2002 to 2004, and is now with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"The fact that we're allowing this to fall on its face does a disservice to our whole mission," he said.

Well, yes.

RTI and others will be able to bid on a new multiyear USAID contract next year.

And others. Want to go in there and take RTI's place?

Friday, January 07, 2005

When is it OK for US government employees to torture?

Here's how to do it: Torture is illegal and we don't do loopholes to make it legal.

If you are on the spot and you have a suspected terrorist (or other suspected criminal), and you must get information quickly to protect innocent or righteous lives, and in your judgement you have no better method to get that information, you should go ahead and do illegal torture. Videotape it, if you have the resources to do that. Put it in the official record what you're doing. Get whatever results you get. And be ready to stand trial.

If it's important enough to torture a suspect for, it's important enough to stand trial and maybe take your punishment. If you aren't sure enough to put your career and freedom on the line, then don't do it.

If the President (or maybe the Governor) decides that you did the right thing he can pardon you. We don't need to change the laws for it. We only need to change the laws if we expect it to happen so often that the President doesn't have time to review the cases.

Torture should be illegal. It should be rare. We don't need to mess with the laws about it.

The same rules apply to civilians. If you capture a suspected terrorist, and you are sure he's doing a terrorist act and there isn't time to get the authorities in to interrogate him, you can torture him on the spot. If possible get a cell phone going to the police or whoever you can reach, and get the info to them as fast as possible, preferably straight from the victim. The recording will be part of the case against you. If you're right maybe you won't even go to trial, or you won't be convicted or sentence deferred or you'll be pardoned. If you're wrong.... But if you're sure, it's your duty to accept whatever consequences come to you personally when you torture somebody to protect the innocent.

Saturday, December 11, 2004


People talk about getting energy from growing plants. There are several problems -- it isn't a lot of energy, it's spread out and takes effort to harvest, there's a maximum amount that can be collected, and the more of the earth's surface we plant to harvest the less is left for actual ecosystems.

Here's a slightly hopeful note about one point, the maximum energy. When ecologists look at the most "productive" ecosystems they come up with things like marshes and estuaries. What they have is places that plants have everything they need to grow, all the minerals and water and sunlight etc, and can grow very fast. And they don't have an excessive number of herbivores etc chomping on them. And -- in places where the plants are underwater but only a little bit underwater -- the plants don't have to put resources into physical support.

On land plants try to raise their leaves high. You get corn stalks and tree trunks. The reason is that plants that get higher get the sunlight and shade lower plants. It costs. The more resources they put into cellulose to lift them, the less they have for chloroplasts. And they have to lift water -- six feet, a hundred feet -- the energy they spend lifting water is not available for other uses. But they have to win the zero-sum game of getting the sunlight before some other plant gets it and leaves them in the shade.

If we're willing to do monoculture with genetically-modified plants, we have a chance to increase the yield. A field of 4-foot-high corn that haves as many leaves as 8-foot-high corn does, can potentially produce more energy. It doesn't have to build as high and it doesn't have to transport as high. It can put the extra energy into seed or into cellulose, you pick. We may not know how to do that genetic engineering now, but we will.

A plantation of trees that each grow a little more than ten feet tall might give you a fair number of eight-foot boards. It can give you more wood than taller trees do. (Or more seed, etc. When you know how, you get to choose.) The reason plants have to play the zero-sum game is that their competitors play that game. Get rid of the competitors, and the plants you design can play the game you designed them to play.

It may be possible for us to get more food or more biomass from the same cropland. Not enough to support a 20th-century american lifestyle for more than a few people, but it could do better than it does now.

Alternative energy

We need substitutes for oil. This is a no-brainer.

Carter tried to do that and he lost. Ever since then alternate energy has been something that politicians give lip service to and then essentially do nothing. We get a pittance in alternate energy research, and nothing more. Carter showed that it's something that people actually vote against, not for.

Carter failed with "the moral equivalent of war". Could we get it with actual war? Or with the claim that, for example, china was waging economic warfare on us and we had to defend ourselves?

Probably not. We could get more giant coal-fired electric plants. But to get immediate results in a war we'd give more money to the ones who're already getting it. What we need isn't more misdirection; we don't need to fool people. That's how politicians pay off their debts without getting the public mad at them. What we need is only to persuade enough voters that it's worth actually acting on, and we need to present a plan that will amount to more than just further subsidies to those who're already best at getting subsidies.