Sunday, December 27, 2009
"Act so that the maxim of thy will can always at the same time hold good as a principle of universal legislation." (Critique of Practical Reason)
That sounds really fancy, as translations from the German often do, but it can be reduced to the proverbial mother's question: "What would happen if everybody did that?"
In other words, it's a bad idea to lie to other people, because if everybody lies to everybody else, society cannot function.
So, bankers and financiers are appalled, yes, appalled, that people are walking away from mortgages when they go "under water," i.e., when the value of the house is less than the value of mortgage. The borrowers feel that they shouldn't make $500,000 payments on a $200,000 house. And this behavior is something that violates Kant's principle (known as the "Categorical Imperative"). If, after all, everyone just defaulted on their obligations, your boss could just decide not to send out your paycheck next week, and then where would you be?
So, this article by Daniel Gross is about how common this terrible behavior is on the part of big corporations.
Are you appalled?
Saturday, December 26, 2009
I reviewed this book back on November 7. It's a good book, and I'm sure it's out there in paperback now for your reading pleasure.
Since I finished it in October, and posted the review six weeks ago, I think it's time to remove it from the Current Reading list.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
There is among historians a general feeling that the revolutions of 1848, which starred patriots like Kossuth, were uprisings against imperial governments which were preventing landowning classes (the Magyars, for example) from oppressing their Slavic peasants.
And there's the U.S. Civil War, a fight for the freedom to prevent people from being free.
This article by Daniel Gross is about something similar, if much less profound; it is about banks returning huge amounts of money to the U.S. Treasury, in order to have the right to waste their shareholders' money as they wish. I own stock in Citigroup, and when I consider that my company's management chose to give back billions of dollars, which they could be using to make profits and to straighten out their business, in order to get rid of government criticism of the amounts they pay themselves.
The next stockholders' meeting, I vote to remove the entire board, to cancel the executive compensation plan, and to put Ralph Nader in charge.
I plan to delete the books finished in October this weekend, and then I'll delete the books finished in November, and then we'll be into January.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Saturday, December 19, 2009
This article by Eugene Robinson provides a nice look at Palin then, vs. Palin now.
Well, as somebody once said, where you stand depends on where you sit.
I believe that I previously flagged this article over at my Facebook account; if it seems familiar, maybe you saw it there.
In any event, I hope this article provides you and yours with some Christmas cheer.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
As always, the choice of viewpoint character is critical, and Furst's protagonist is Nicholas Morath, a Hungarian aristocrat living in Paris and carrying a Hungarian diplomatic passport. I would have to go back and re-read Somerset Maugham's Ashenden stories, but I think that Furst manages some of the same atmosphere. This is a rather episodic novel, in which each of the four sections could almost stand on its own, but there is a definite trend of increasing tension through the entire work.
One of the keys here is that Hungary was going to enter the war as an ally of Germany, so that Morath is viewed in France as a potential enemy alien, when he detests Hitler and opposes the fascist Arrow Cross group in Hungary. I've been enjoying this book, and I'm going to be sorry to see it end. But that won't stop me from finishing it tonight, if I can just stay awake.
I just realized this morning how out-of-date my Current Reading list was. I removed a number of books which had been listed there for months, all of them long since read and, where appropriate, returned to the library.
I have added a few books that I am now reading. On this trip I have finished two thrillers by John Sandford: Dark of the Moon and The Hanged Man's Song. I am in the middle of those now listed in the Current Reading section on the right side of the blog space.
As always, your comments on any of these books that you have read, and suggestions for other books to be read, are welcomed.
Glenn A. Knight
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
A Path out of the Desert. Terrific book on grand strategy for the U.S. in the Middle East. The author is Kenneth Pollack. This is one of the few books I've read that suggest to me that I really need my own copy. Pollack is way beyond military solutions for the problems of the Arab Muslim world, and, based on my experience, he's right on about the need to reform education.
Bibliographical note: Pollack, Kenneth M. A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East. New York: Random House, 2008. xlvii + 539 pages.
One of the strengths of this book is that it delivers most of what it promises. When most people, like the retired colonels and generals on various TV networks, talk about "strategy," they don't really mean strategy. Sometimes they're addressing tactical questions, sometimes they're addressing theater problems, but those aren't matters of strategic scope. A real strategic principle, like the "Anaconda" strategy of the American Civil War, or containment of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, takes into account the broad political and economic features of the situation, and the interaction of initiatives and challenges on various fronts.
For example, it makes no sense to speak of a "strategy" for Afghanistan. For our efforts in Afghanistan to succeed, we need a strategy for dealing with Islamic extremism throughout the Muslim world. We need principles to work in Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kirghizia, Pakistan, and India, as well as in Afghanistan itself. We need to integrate our Afghanistan policy into our general strategy. The problem at the moment is that we don't seem to have a grand strategy.
Although Pollack confines himself to the Arab Middle East, with some references to Turkey and Iran, the general principles he enunciates, as well as his prescriptions for action, are applicable from Morocco to Indonesia, from Somalia to Bosnia, wherever the Islamist ideology is opposed to American interests.
Read this book! Then we can discuss it.
Glenn A. Knight
So here's another excuse. I had posted 12 pieces in November when, just before Thanksgiving, our computer stopped displaying anything on the monitor. The computer might have been working, but we couldn't see any product. After trying a few things, we took the computer to Staples, and it's been there ever since. Well, the day before Thanksgiving we authorized them to send it to a subcontractor. They said it would ship on the Friday, but it didn't ship until the Monday. They said the subcontractor worked on weekends, but they don't. They said the subcontractor would provide updates; they haven't. And it wasn't back by December 10, so we flew off to Florida not knowing if our computer liveth.
Now I'm in Florida, using my mother-in-law's computer - Windows 98 and a dial-up connection. I have managed to get through my e-mail, and even send a few e-mails to people. I have visited my Facebook account and used the messaging service there, as well as commenting and posting some items. Now, I'm going to see if I can successfully post to my blog from here.
Glenn A. Knight
Monday, November 16, 2009
I think it's worth reading, even if it isn't exactly cheerful. I also think that it may, just may, reveal a deeper problem. There's a tendency to measure performance by the measures you have, the ones that are convenient to collect. Sometimes that leads you to overestimate the importance of easily-determined indicators, and to ignore problems that don't show in the metrics you're using. A lot of companies have gotten into trouble trying to manipulate the markets to elevate their stock prices. The Bush administration got into trouble trying to elevate the home ownership numbers.
From Gross's piece, I'd have to say that such efforts to game the markets were not only misguided, but futile. We're back to square one.
So far, I think Gerson is right. People don't send their kids to war, they don't like to see kids sent to war, because it's the reasonable thing to do. They have to feel the rightness of the policy. So Mr. Obama does need to use his rhetorical gifts to sell the public on this war, as well as to show the military that he is committed to this policy.
However, when Gerson wrote speeches for George W. Bush, he used emotion, and Bush ended up as the most unpopular President since Nixon, and regarded by many as the worst President since James Buchanan. There are two problems with appeals to emotion:
First, emotion can be used to replace reason, to support policies that aren't really justified. One of the dangers here is that emotion can suppress debate, can prevent the consideration of reasoned alternatives.
Second, once the public and the military have been persuaded of the rightness of a course, once they are fully committed to the policy, the leaders lose their flexibility. If you look at the end of Vietnam, one of Richard Nixon's problems was that so many Americans looked at the negotiations with North Vietnam and the Viet Cong as a betrayal of the men and women who had died in the war. And those Americans were the ones who supported the war, the ones who enabled Nixon to maintain some momentum in Congress.
Appeals to emotion may be necessary to gain public support for an increasingly unpopular war, but if Obama takes that course, he may find himself riding the tiger of public opinion.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Joe Lieberman, the senior Senator from Connecticut, Independent (against his will), and his party's candidate for Vice-President in 2000.
Lindsay Graham, the senior Senator from South Carolina, Republican, and one of the leaders of the effort to impeach President Clinton (Graham was then in the House).
These are the guys who are going to be responsible for the passage of some kind of climate bill. I think you should be reading up on these three Senators, and what they're trying to do.
So you shouldn't have to look into the link provided above, here are the two books in question:
SARAH FROM ALASKA
The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar
By Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe
PublicAffairs. 301 pp. $26.95
THE PERSECUTION OF SARAH PALIN
How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star
By Matthew Continetti
Sentinel. 226 pp. $25.95
There are a few problems with the approach, however, and I would like to mention those that come to mind.
Problem one is that every nation has a particular set of interests. While some of those interests may coincide with ours, others may conflict. That means that one needs to make one's pitch to act in accordance with the shared interest in a manner which makes the interests we don't share less important. For example, China is a big importer of oil. The United States is a big importer of oil. Therefore, we both have important interests in the free flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf area and into the areas where it is to be consumed. So the Chinese might be expected to cooperate with us in clearing pirates out of the Malacca Straits.
We also see our interest in the free flow of oil as demanding that we oppose instability in the Middle east. We should be in favor of moderate democratic reform, while opposing Islamic extremists, violent revolutions, or the seizure of power by parties which might cut off the flow of oil. (See Kenneth Pollack's excellent book A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East for lengthy discussions of all the points raised in the last two sentences.) China, on the other hand, has based its oil policy on signing long-term contracts with countries will to sell cheap because no one else will do business with them. China has, for example, oil deals with Iran and Sudan, and has invested heavily in developing oil fields in Sudan. Therefore, the Chinese have not been cooperating in pressing the government of Sudan about Darfur or other human rights issues.
Problem two is that the interests of the leadership of some countries don't coincide with the interests of their people. Governments in the Middle East have consistently mismanaged their economies, partly out of fear of business becoming a competing power center in their societies. We can talk all day to Hosni Mubarak about the ways in which the long-term economic interests of Egypt depend upon a thorough-going reform of the educational system, and he'll block those reforms as too likely to produce a generation of young people ready to think for themselves and to defy authority.
Pollack suggests that, in some of these cases, we may have to provide incentives (subsidies, bribes) to induce the governments to do what is in their countries' interests. This should not be necessary, but we don't live in a perfect world.
Finally, there is the problem of cost. All nations, with a few exceptions, have an interest in at least slowing climate change. But this is a very expensive proposition, so they also have an interest in minimizing the cost to themselves. (Is this an example of the tragedy of the commons? I think it is.) So India may agree that carbon emissions need to be reduced, while also arguing that it is other countries who should bear the burden of those reductions.
Following shared interests to find agreement is a great idea, and it will produce results. But it will also encounter a lot of difficulties.
Friday, November 13, 2009
J. P. Beaumont, whom we left happily sipping McNaughton's in Seattle, turns up in Ashland, Oregon, looking for his runaway daughter, and stumbles into the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, an AA meeting, and a murder. He does find his daughter, but her appearance in the novel is only intermittent.
The first murder victim appears to have been run over by car, until Beaumont cuts himself on the knife protruding from the corpse's chest. The murder weapon turns out to have been stolen from the production of Romeo and Juliet being staged at the festival, and all eyes quickly turn to Juliet. This Juliet may have killed more than the envious moon, and she certainly isn't what it says in the playbill.
Beaumont sets off on a series of wild-goose chases and red-herring pursuits that take him to such garden spots as Walla Walla, Washington, and Medford, Oregon. He manages to stand up his new girlfriend at least once too often. And his guards red Porsche is destroyed when a gas explosion destroys an old farmhouse when Juliet and other actors hang out.
In the end, we solve a lot of mysteries, we get Beaumont's daughter married off, we see a murderess off the stage - permanently. But we don't get to see Beaumont take a drink. Through all the stress and strain, the Serenity Prayer, or something, keeps him high and dry.
As you may know by now, I not only read books, I listen to them. This is in part Dave Drake's fault. Years ago, in an act of great kindness, he gave me copies of the audiobook versions of his books Lord of the Isles and Queen of Demons. Since then I've listened to many, many books, sometimes in the car while driving, sometimes while jogging or exercising, sometimes while sitting my study, and sometimes while lying in bed. Overall, it's been a good experience, but there have been technical glitches. For one thing, the players tend to work up over one's belt or waistband, resulting in the player, and the tape, crashing to the ground. This is hard on players, and it's hard on the nerves having one's headphones suddenly yanked to one side.
Mr. Frum asserts that the iPod provides a superior audiobook experience. Listening is still best reserved for lighter reading. Multivolume histories, books of closely-reasoned logic, and scientific treatises may not be so suitable. I listen to a lot of mysteries and thrillers, and so, apparently, does Mr. Frum. In fact, having read his essay, I'm going to look up Alan Furst. Whether I have an iPod with which to listen to his books is in the hands of the gods. Or Santa Claus.
All of you addicted readers should find David Frum's essay of interest, and some of you will find his suggestions about the iPod and the selection of material useful. Of foremost importance, perhaps, is his point about the quality of the narrator. There are some terrific narrators out there, like Richard Ferrone, who does John Sandford's Prey novels. For one thing, he pronounces "Porsche" correctly.
I think I’m a pretty typical American, so far as my health insurance situation is concerned. I get my health insurance through my employer, and my share of the cost comes out of my bi-weekly checks in an amount small enough to cause me very little pain. I’ve been happy with the service I’ve gotten from my healthcare providers, including my radiation treatments for prostate cancer, though I was irritated to learn that my favorite eye doctor was excluded from the latest list of preferred providers. I think it’s really too bad that some people don’t have insurance, and I worry that my own insurance might either go away or become so expensive that I won’t be able to afford it.
There are problems with our current system, and I think something ought to be done about them. At the same time, I don’t want to wreck a system that seems to produce pretty good results most of the time. So I welcome the initiatives by the Obama administration and the Congress to reform the system. There are just a couple of areas in which I think the pro-reform forces (and their opponents) seem to ignoring the elephants in the room.
First, there’s the simple matter of supply and demand. If demand for a good or service goes up, what did our economics teachers tell us would happen to the price? The price will go up as well. What does the act of providing insurance to many uninsured people, or insisting that their employers and the insurance companies provide coverage, amount to but an increase in demand? As many as twenty-five million people who do not have insurance today will be able to walk into a doctor’s office or a hospital, flash a card, and demand service. That is a ten percent increase in the demand for medical services, and I would expect the prices of such services to increase accordingly.
The second elephant in the room is the rate schedule. Doctors and hospitals complain that Medicare and Medicaid pay less than the “cost” (read: list price) of various procedures and tests. Congress has declined to enforce limits on payments to doctors in the past. And some doctors won’t take Medicare patients. When people compare the U.S. system to that in other countries they need to note that the rates for some procedures are set much lower than those here, and that doctors and hospitals aren’t permitted to decline to treat people. One way to lower costs is to enforce a reasonable rate schedule and demand that all doctors and hospitals accept payments according to that schedule or lose their licenses.
Third, there is the shibboleth about coming between the doctor and the patient. We don’t want, says President Obama, to have any bureaucrat, government or private, coming between the doctor and the patient. Well, we may not want that, but that’s exactly what we need to do. We need to stop doctors from ordering unnecessary tests (especially when they own a share in the laboratory), from performing unnecessary procedures, and from prescribing unnecessary drugs. The total of healthcare costs is the total income of hospitals, medical workers, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and the government agencies involved (Medicare, Medicaid, USPHS, Indian Health Service, and so on). In order to lower healthcare costs, we have to lower the incomes of some of those people and organizations.
There are a lot of specific improvements in the healthcare reform bills before the Congress. A lot of good things are going to be done. But none of those things will lower the cost of the healthcare system unless we face the three problems I have outlined above. Frankly, I don’t think that Congress is capable of dealing responsibly with problems whose solutions are likely to be very unpopular. But I can always hope that there are some adults up on Capitol Hill. I’d like to think that there are.
Sometimes I lives in town,
Sometimes I haves a great notion,
To jump in the river an' drown.
Those lines are from a song called Irene or Goodnight Irene. My Uncle John used to sing that song, accompanying himself on the guitar. Some of you might recognize the third line as the source of the title of Ken Kesey's book Sometimes a Great Notion, which was made into a movie with Paul Newman and Henry Fonda. Irene is both memorable and evocative.
Some time ago I had the notion of setting up my own blog, posting my thoughts and musings to it, and eliciting comments from my hundreds of readers. So far, friends, the hundreds of readers have failed to materialize, but I still think this was a great notion. I have posted some very nice stuff to this site, and some of you have contributed your own essays, reviews, and comments. If there is any fault to be found here, it is all mine.
I have sometimes slacked off, contributing a brief review of an audio book, or reproducing someone else's column with only minimal comment. But I'm fighting back against that tendency toward intellectual laziness.
During the past few weeks, I've been involved with a terrific contest hosted by The Washington Post. The Post started by invited all comers to a contest to choose America's Next Great Pundit. The deadline for entry was October 21st, and some 4,800 of us responded. Yes, us, for I entered the contest. The essay on pluralism and monism which I posted here on October 24 was one of the pieces I drafted as potential entries in that contest. The one I submitted was on a different topic, and was cut to meet the contest's 400-word limit. In addition, I submitted a one-hundred-word statement about myself and why I should be selected.
Ten people were selected from 4,800 entrants, and I was not among them. Five of them were eliminated in the first round, after submitting 750-word essays. The rest of us entrants were invited to comment, and to vote, upon these essays. The five winners then moved into Round Two. Voting started today, and four of them will move into Round Three once the results are in on Sunday.
But it's Round Two I want to talk about. For three days, Tuesday through Thursday of this week, each of the entrants had to blog. On Tuesday, at least one submission had to be something that might turn into a regular feature. On Wednesday, in what was called the "Beyond the Comfort Zone Challenge," they were expected to attended a meeting hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations, concerned President Obama's upcoming trip to Asia, and post on that event. On Thursday, they had to respond to at least one of their readers' comments. So I got to see some samples of both good and bad blogging, and I hope I've learned some lessons.
The main lesson I've learned is that there is no substitute for good writing. And that's what I promise you'll see here at Knight's Castle.
And if you have any great notions, let me know.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
The longer we live, the more we learn. From my library catalog listing, I have learned that J. A. Jance's first name is Judith. The first of her main characters I came across, the heroine of Shoot/Don't Shoot, is named Joanna Brady. The protagonist of the last two Jance novels I've heard is J. P. Beaumont.
J. P. Beaumont, "My friends call me Beau," is a homicide detective on the Seattle police force. I was born in Seattle, and, though I haven't spent a lot of time there, I find that I enjoy running across familiar placenames. This novel starts with a murder near the Pike Place Market. It alludes to Queen Anne Hill, Bellevue, and Boeing Field. If you're not from Seattle, or don't know the place, it provides some of the value of a travel book along with your murder mystery.
This is the fourth of J. A. Jance's J. P. Beaumont series, but it's obvious that Beau has led an active life. He lives in a penthouse condominium purchased with an inheritance from his second wife. He drives a Porsche 928 which he somehow acquired from a woman featured in a previous book. (Gene Engene, who reads the book for Books in Motion, pronounces that "porsh," as a drunk might say "porch." We cognoscenti know that it is "por-shuh," after the late, great designer of the Volkswagen and the Tiger tank.) His partner is hospitalized, recovering from an accident suffering (one supposes) in the previous book. And Beau drinks McNaughton's whiskey, which, I happen to know, is going to get him in trouble later.
Based on this book and Failure to Appear I'd say that Ms. Jance has an interest in the theater. In this case, the first victim is a stagehand at the Fifth Avenue Theater in Seattle. When the stagehand's roommate also turns up dead, Beau starts to suspect something. While checking out the theater, he arranges a dinner date with the star, Jasmine Day. He's impressed by her stage costume of long, blond hair, a cobalt blue dress, and matching Cole Haan shoes. So impressed that he ends up taking her home with him. Then he finds a witness who says that the murder was committed by a woman with long, blond hair, a long dress, and blue stiletto-heeled shoes. Uh-oh!
Taking the Fifth develops into a tale of disguise and deception, involving huge shipments of cocaine, a DEA agent with enough money to fly his own plane, and Beau nearly having his head knocked off by his lady friend. The scene in which Beau is on one end of a telephone line, with a terrified woman whose house is being invaded on the other end, is quite effective. This is, like most mystery novels, popcorn fiction. Or, one might say, Chinese dinner fiction: an hour after reading it you're hungry again. But Beau Beaumont is a reasonably appealing character, and the plot has enough twists and turns to hold one's interest.
Niall Ferguson has become a very popular, very well-known, and probably quite wealthy historian. He has gotten into the business of writing television documentary scripts, which he converts into books that can ride the wave of publicity from the TV version. The Ascent of Money is one such, and I should say now that I did not see the television series. In fact, until I read the Acknowledgements at the end of this book, I was unaware that such a program existed. Its origin as a Ken Burnsian voiceover for a television audience helps to explain the simplicity and clarity of the narrative of The Ascent of Money. This is a very readable book, and it contains some charming and well-told stories.
The basic structure of this book is indicated by the title; Niall Ferguson portrays the development of our financial institutions as a matter of increasing complexity and hierarchical evolution. That’s fair enough, although, just as in biology, there are plenty of simple forms being created today, along with the complicated financial products that triggered the recent crisis. It is, by the way, a good thing, I think, that Ferguson wrote this book in early 2008, before the full dimensions of the crisis were known, and before its impact on the “real economy” was apparent.
The chapters reflect Ferguson’s structural assumptions. “Dreams of Avarice” is about the invention of money and the evolution of banking. While one of Ferguson’s first stories is about a mountain of silver, he makes it clear that, even in Sumerian times, money was as much a matter of accounting and marks on paper as of precious metal. A lesson that is clear throughout The Ascent of Money is that money is trust: credit really does depend upon credo. And that is true whether we’re talking about cash, bank accounts, bonds, stocks, real estate, or derivatives.
“Of Human Bondage” is about the development of bonds and the markets for them. “Blowing Bubbles” concerns stock markets and investment bubbles, primarily the grand-daddy of them all: The Mississippi Bubble. “The Return of Risk” takes up the story of the insurance business. “Safe as Houses” is about the real estate market, and the development of securities based on real property. The last chapter, “From Empire to Chimerica,” is the most speculative, but it does give a clear portrait of the interdependent relationship between Chinese productivity and American debt.
This is a very painless way to learn a lot about finance and something about economics. It may also serve to help some of us to understand some of the events that have shaken the banking system over the past two years. How was it that big insurance companies were so vulnerable to the machinations of supposedly private deals among wealthy investor? Why did the banks’ strategy of passing their mortgage risks off to other people through debt-based securities backfire? Why is it that we still do not know the full extent of exposure of American banks to these problems? And why has 2009 seen 99 bank failures, some of them of very large banks, when the government “rescued” the system a year ago?
I’ll recommend The Ascent of Money to those of you who don’t know much about finance. One of the things I have been learning is that you can’t know too much about the stuff that may determine whether you spend your golden years living in a refrigerator box under a bridge. Another is that most of us casual investors don’t have the time, energy, training, or instincts to understand finance on more than a very superficial level. Reading The Ascent of Money is an enjoyable way to get an overview of a subject that many people think of as dull. But the understanding it provides is, of necessity, less than profound.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
These warnings have three things in common: a conviction that the issue in question is so important that we should ignore everything else and focus all of our energies and attention on it; a belief that overcoming this challenge will at least lessen, if not eliminate all of our other problems; and a tendency to view dissenters as evildoers. When I say “dissenters,” I don’t mean merely those who disagree with the speaker on the substance of the problem and its solution. I mean particularly those who don’t put the speaker’s issue at the top of their personal catastrophic hit parade.
I was taught by my first political science professor to mistrust monist explanations and to prefer pluralistic accounts. As soon as someone says, “The problem is …” my nonsense detector starts beeping. And when they say, “The solution is …” that beeping rises to a shriek. Life isn’t simple enough for any one thing to be the problem or for any one thing to be the answer to our problems.
Marx believed that everything in society arose from the distribution of economic forces. Even he, however, was forced to introduce the concept of “false consciousness,” in order to explain why people didn’t, in fact, behave according to his view of their economic interests. We have seen this variety of monism more recently, not only in James Carville’s “It’s the economy, stupid,” but from a number of analysts baffled by the tendency of working folk in the red states to persist in voting for Republican candidates. Economics is not the answer, and neither is original sin, man’s violent nature, man’s non-violent nature, women’s non-violent nature, Western imperialism, Zionism, or anti-Semitism.
There are many good examples of this sort of rhetoric in the current healthcare debate. Is the free market the solution to all of the problems we see in healthcare? Is, on the other hand, the creation of a government-owned health insurance company going to put a stop to all of the bad behavior of private insurance companies? Will the Obama administration’s efforts to extend health insurance to more people bring about the end of American civilization? Will they, on the other hand, save our society and economy from all of their problems?
No one problem is going to destroy this country, and no one government program is going to save us from all of our problems. Nor will the rejection of any one government program avert all foreseeable disasters. We have a multiplicity of problems, for which there are a multiplicity of solutions, some of which will raise new problems of their own.
Mystery novelists tend to do series. I suppose that's because their readers like that sense of continuity you get from opening another Brother Cadfael book, or another Kinsey Millhone adventure from Sue Grafton. John Sandford's Prey series features Lucas Davenport, who starts out as a detective on the Minneapolis police force, changes jobs a few times, and is, at the time of Broken Prey, an investigator with the Minnesota state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. (I presume the BCA is fictional.) Broken Prey is the sixteenth novel in the Prey series, which started in 1989.
To admit a personal bias, one of the reasons I like Sandford's novels is that he locates Lucas Davenport in St. Paul, living not far from the University of St. Thomas. There are allusions to St. Catherine's, as well as to the University of Minnesota. Based on descriptions of Lucas's neighborhood, he's living not far from the school I attended for a couple of years: Macalester College. Sandford never mentions Macalester in any of his books that I've read; maybe it's too Protestant for his tastes. In any event, some of the scenes Sandford sets have a certain familiarity for me, even a bit of a nostalgia value. Broken Prey, however, is set in southern Minnesota, and so had very little of the familiar about it for me.
One characteristic of Sandford's style is that he uses a variety of viewpoint characters, including the murderer. This often serves to obscure, rather than reveal, which of the people Davenport is investigating, may actually be the culprit. Broken Prey uses this device to good effect, as Sandford generates a netful of red herrings.
The story, simply put, is that someone is murdering people in particularly grotesque ways. A young woman is found to have been flailed before having her throat cut. A man is found posed in an odd position; his son has been killed by a ferocious blow to the head. So Lucas and his team, including his partner Sloan and his old friend Elle, the psychologist nun, set off to track down the elusive serial killer. There are more killings, many more killings, before they catch their man. Sandford has always provided graphic descriptions of his murders. This time, the massacre in the state mental hospital just goes on and on, and seems to have very little point to it. Unless, of course, Sandford believes that the mentally ill are all better off dead.
From Davenport's point of view, the case is not very satisfactory. Not only does he not prevent the serial killer from striking again, the villain precipitates a bloody shootout. And, even when the killer is dead, his motive and his personality remain elusive. This is the sort of story which isn't very satisfactory if you examine it too closely. Can people really control a person, even a crazy person, effectively at long distance? I doubt it. Can someone as crazy as this character maintain the pose of a normal, working professional for years? I doubt that, too. Fortunately, Sandford maintains a pace that precludes the reader spending the time on that sort of analysis.
Broken Prey is a good listen. Ferrone is a very competent narrator, and the story moves right along. It kept me popping one cassette after another into my player.
This falls into the class or sub-genre of the medieval mystery, a cult spawned by Ellis Peters and her admittedly excellent Brother Cadfael novels. (I've read them all, I think I own them all, and I've even seen Derek Jacoby's take on Brother Cadfael on PBS.) While the Cadfael novels took place in the 1140s (the first was set in 1139, as I recall) and in the neighborhood of Shrewsbury, Bernard Knight's Crowner John novels are set later and further south. 1195 it is, and the office of coroner, or "crowner," is a new one, created by King Richard's bureaucrats to extend royal power into the jurisdiction of the county sheriffs.
I read one of the early books in this series. It might have been the first, Sanctuary Seeker (1998). The Tinner's Corpse (2001) is the fifth of the Crowner John mysteries. There are now 13 of them out there, with a 14th due in 2010.
Sir John de Wolfe is the coroner for Exeter and its county, and the former Crusader is King Richard's man through and through. This leads to conflicts with his brother-in-law, the country Sheriff, which is one of the many occasions for trouble with his wife. So Sir John spends a lot of time out of the house, chasing skirts, drinking ale by the quart, and solving murders. One might note that it is not the coroner's job to solve murders, but merely to assemble a jury to determine causes of death. If the death is by foul play, the matter is supposed to be handed over to the sheriff. John de Wolfe, though, doesn't trust his brother-in-law, so he tends to hang onto these cases until they are solved. Sir John is aided by his henchman, Gwyn, and his clerk, the unfrocked priest Thomas.
The most interesting aspect of The Tinner's Corpse is the anthropology. Knight describes the society of the tinners, whose ore was so precious that they had their own law and court system, except for capital cases. After many, many description of the peasant farmers on their little holdings, it is refreshing to explore a different facet of medieval society. In fact, it is refreshing to be reminded that there were different facets to medieval society. In the course of his work, Sir John meets all sorts of people, and this gives Bernard Knight occasion for a lot of social commentary. Thankfully, Knight pretty much sticks to the facts and reasonable suppositions, and doesn't spend a lot of time bemoaning the plight of women in medieval English society.
The mystery itself is pretty standard. A tin worker is killed, in what seems to be an attack on his master's prominent position in the industry. Another leading tin master is suspected. Other suspects are raised and then dismissed, and Crowner John closes in on the culprit. It is, as I say, what this journey in search of the guilty party shows about the people among whom Crowner John lives that makes the book worth reading. Or, in this case, worth listening to.
The Tinner's Corpse is on eight cassettes.
I think Gross's key point, that the magazine market might already have bottomed out when Conde Nast woke up and smelled the coffee, is both important and quite possibly correct. As noted above, I receive a number of periodicals. Over the past couple of years, I saw page counts diminish dramatically. I see this as a result of two related forces. First, there are fewer advertising pages. Second, because the magazine is selling fewer ads, it is forced to cut back on content. Information Week, which ran around 60 pages an issue a couple of years ago, has been down in the 30s and 40s more recently. The Economist produced a lot of issues under 100 pages in 2008 and dipped into the low 80s a few times. Even Commentary slimmed down for a while.
Of course, the biggest change on my list was to U.S. News and World Report. The venerable weekly cut back to alternate weeks in early 2008 and then became a monthly. It also became thinner, and each issue has become a mini-book on a single issue: health, the economy, retirement, education, and so on. That a drop in advertising revenue would lead to cutbacks is obvious. A little more subtle is that by focussing each issue on a single topic, the magazine is trying to recruit a lot of advertisers interested in that topic.
So, in 2008 and early 2009 a lot of the magazines I see, from The Atlantic to Wild Bird put out thinner editions and made other changes to react to the economy. But that trend may be over. I'm now reading the October 3rd issue of The Economist, and it hits 122 pages, plus a lengthy special report on the world economy. So Gross may well be right, and the magazine trade may have hit bottom, or at least a bottom.
On the other hand, some publications may be in death spirals. Advertising has dropped, so they've cut content, so fewer people read the paper (in fact, some publications have set out deliberately to cut circulation), which limits advertising rates, so revenue falls even more, so there are more cuts, and so on to the ghastly end. Information Week may be in that boat and sinking fast. Our local newspaper, the Gazette, has shrunk to three sections, and it seems to be shrinking to invisibility. It is also becoming even more parochial than it has been. Even major sports stories have to have a local angle. I'll miss the Gazette a lot less than Gross misses Gourmet.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Either way, for the nation's foremost conservative journal (The Spokane Spokesman-Review? I don't think so.) to be so pessimistic about the Republicans' chances at this point in the midterm race indicates that the GOP is in serious trouble. And who among us doubted it?
Two things really struck me in Seib's article. One is that seven of the 40 Senate Republicans, that's 17.5%, are retiring. The other is a great map showing Democratic districts in which McCain took a majority of the Presidential vote. Those districts, by and large, abut Republican areas of the country. If the Republican thinks the Democrats who hold these districts are vulnerable, I'd flip that thought over. Those Democrats ran ahead of President Obama when the Republicans had a relatively attractive candidate. They're supposed to do better with no one leading the ticket? I don't think so.
I've been working a lot, but things are going pretty well, and my company seems to be making some good decisions. If you follow the link under the title, you'll see that someone thinks that Verizon's deal with Google may even outdo ATT's iPhone alliance with Apple. Here's another link to take you straight to the article in the Daily Beast http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-10-06/googles-better-iphone/. I note that the author leads with the well-known problems iPhone users have encountered on the ATT network, which is partly their own fault for being bandwidth hogs. Seriously, Apple pushes the 85,000 apps you can get on the iPhone, and iPhone users seem to use all of them. ATT just hasn't built out its network to tolerate that kind of volume.
Well, I hope everyone who drops by is having as good a day as I am. And a good evening to you all!
Monday, October 19, 2009
Shoot/Don't Shoot was my first J. A. Jance mystery novel, and I was sufficiently impressed that I have since obtained another book on tape, a couple on CD, and a couple in print. Why so many? Well, once I got to the library and started checking their holdings, I found that J. A. Jance has not one but three series in print, each with its own chief character. J. B. Beaumont, a Seattle detective seems to be the earliest of Jance's creations. Joanna Brady, the Sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona, and the main character in Shoot/Don't Shoot is the second. The newest is Ali Reynolds, the principal in Web of Evil.
One of the things both my wife and I look for when we find a "new" mystery writer, that is, one with whom we are not yet familiar, is a substantial backlist. I suspected that J. A. Jance would not disappoint in that department when I realized that Shoot/Don't Shoot was published in 1995 and recorded in 1996. With three active series, and a new book in each coming out every year, J. A. Jance has produced reading (and listening) material that will last us a good long time.
From internal evidence, Shoot/Don't Shoot appears to be the second novel featuring Joanna Brady. There are references to earlier events which resulted in the death of Joanna's husband, and led to her subsequent election as Sheriff of Cochise County. Now that she's the Sheriff, Joanna has to attend the Arizona Police Officers' Academy in Peoria, outside Phoenix. This means that she must leave her nine-year-old daughter in the care of her grandparents, a difficult separation so soon after the death of the child's father. But the family will get together for Thanksgiving in Peoria, although Joanna's mother Eleanor seems determined not to join the party.
Naturally, all does not go smoothly with any of Joanna's plans, as Thanksgiving is disrupted by an attack on one of Joanna's classmates, the death of one of the instructors, and a disturbing surprise sprung by Eleanor. I won't give that one away, but I think I can reveal that the plot is driven by a series of murders which appear to have been the result of domestic violence. The obvious solution is that the husbands and boyfriends, men who have already encountered the legal system, finally went too far. But what if the obvious solution is not the correct one?
Shoot/Don't Shoot is light entertainment, but Jance creates some engaging characters and puts them into complicated, and sometimes amusing, situations. Joanna Brady is sufficiently complex, and has enough open connectors out to the community, to provide the central character for quite a number of mysteries. I am looking forward to my next adventure in J. A. Jance's world.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Richard Russo is a well-known novelist, author of Nobody’s Fool (1993) (the movie version of which, with Paul Newman and Bruce Willis, I have seen), Empire Falls (2001), and Bridge of Sighs (2007) (which I’m planning to read). Empire Falls won the Pulitzer Prize. Maybe I should be reviewing Empire Falls, which I read in June and July of this year. But Straight Man is my most recent Russo read, and it is a good one.
The hero, viewpoint character, and narrator of Straight Man is Henry William Devereaux, Jr., known to one and all, except his mother, as Hank. Hank has the misfortune to be an English professor at a university in Western Pennsylvania, and is, during the time the action of the novel occurs, the acting chairman of the English department. I say “misfortune” because Hank is the son of a famous English professor, and comparisons with his father all seem to be to Henry, Sr.’s advantage. The father has written many books; the son has published one slim novel. The father has taught at Columbia and other famous, top-rank universities; the son is at West Central Pennsylvania University. (As a graduate of Eastern Washington University, and a sometime visitor to Northern Colorado University, I understand just how much academic dignity is stripped away by a geographic modifier.)
Hank has a few problems. His wife is away visiting her father. His daughter Julie is having marital problems, which come to a climax when she comes to Hank’s house with a black eye. The English faculty want to hold a recall election to strip Hank of his chairmanship. The university is planning to fire a number of faculty, and Hank may be forced to come up with a list of candidates for the axe. And Hank’s creative writing class isn’t doing a lot of writing, and what there is isn’t all that creative.
Some time or other I read that a successful character should, on the one hand, be a distinct individual, a character and not a cartoon, but that, on the other hand, that character should represent aspects of life that a reader could identify with. I guess Richard Russo read that advice, too, because he applies it very successfully. Not only Hank Devereaux, but his father, his mother, his daughter, her husband, the members of the English department, and other members of Hank’s community, are clearly and succinctly drawn, standing out as real individuals. At the same time, I found plenty to identify with in Hank – his tendency to smart-ass remarks, for example. Early in the book that one earns Hank a nose punctured by the binding of a spiral notebook.
I should point out that this is a very funny book. The scene where Hank is speared by the notebook is great. The restaurant scene, when his tablemate manages to insult half of the patrons in the place, all of whom have some relationship with Hank brings out the claustrophobic quality of small communities. And the scene when Hank decides to eavesdrop on the faculty meeting considering his recall is priceless. And then there's the duck.
So what can I say? Richard Russo limns great characters, he builds good scenes, he has a terrific ear for dialogue and a wonderful sense of humor, and his people are real people, people with whom one can identify, even if their foibles are a touch exaggerated. If you haven’t read any good fiction lately, Straight Man is an excellent place to start.
One needs to look at not only San Francisco Bay, but the entire Delta - the system of waterways, islands, pools, and banks formed from the confluence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers near Sacramento. This system drains into San Francisco Bay, which is part of the same large ecosystem. The Delta is referred to as the largest estuary on the West Coast. (That raises a question: Is Puget Sound considered an estuary? There is no one big river that flows into it, as far as I know.)
Now then, the insatiable appetite for water of Southern California has led to the construction of two huge aqueducts, one state-run and one federal, carrying water pumped out of the Delta into the Central Valley and down to Los Angeles. This has created massive environmental problems, killing off local species and their breeding areas, and opening the system up to invasive species. So, we have The Economist telling us that the Bay Area's ecology is severely damaged, and that the cause of this is the diversion of water from the Delta to the south.
And is someone doing anything about this? Well, there were five water bills before the California legislature this year, but none of them was even put to a vote. Meanwhile, the drought continues. I see an on-going story here. (For an account of an earlier episode, see the movie Chinatown, directed by the reviled Roman Polanski.)
As Frank Sinatra sang, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere!" The appeal of New York in various fields - finance, broadcasting, journalism, ballet, classical music, cuisine - is undeniable. So when a kid from Meridian, Mississippi, finds that he can't make it there, it's time to retire.
I've been posting quite a bit from Daniel Gross's Moneybox column. Well, I think it's a good column, and economic and financial affairs have been, and continue to be, critical for the country at this time. Afghanistan, gay rights, and Bo's birthday may be hogging the headlines today, but the economic and financial issues facing this country are going to be driving the real news for a long time.
Monday, October 5, 2009
One of the problems is that geoengineering solutions to things like global warming are cheap enough, and technically accessible enough, that many countries would be able to apply them. For example, a number of countries would be able to launch a rocket into space to distribute sulfur powder, aluminum powder, or water, in order to increase the albedo of the earth. This would cause more solar energy to be reflected, which would counteract global warming. However, it wouldn't do anything about the acidification of the oceans due to increasing carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, and it might have side affects which would do great damage.
The authors acknowledge that much of the risk of the geoengineering approach is that a single country could undertake such an initiative, without even consulting its neighboring, which all of the measures required to limit and diminish carbon emissions require cooperation among many countries. About the ninth time China and the United States refuse to take effective action to reduce carbon emissions, the Netherlands - which is at real risk from rising sea levels - might be tempted to hire an Ariane from the ESA to put up some protective shield.
In discussing this concept with some of my friends, I find that most of them are really concerned about the unknown unknowns. That someone would undertake a measure which could have really unintended, and unanticipated consequences. After that, there's the concern that one man's meat is another man's poison - that is, a sudden increase in albedo, with consequent cooling, might slow polar ice melting, but it might also cause draughts in the Sahel or flooding in the Rockies.
There are, of course, other large-scale geoengineering projects, besides those aimed directly at global warming. Exploitation of tidal flows, or harnessing the heat of volcanoes might be examples.
However, even if these ambitious measures don't have evil consequences, it would be very easy for the public to perceive them as the causes of any destructive events which followed their implementation. You and I might know that post hoc ergo propter hoc is fallacious reasoning, but to most people it's just common sense. That is, after all, what most common sense is: fallacious reasoning. So I wouldn't want to be in the shoes of the guys who drill a thermal tap into the side of Mt. Rainier a week or so before an eruption wipes out Tacoma.
Isn't that just too depressing?
What's worse is that the FHA, the only lending organization in the country to retain some shred of sanity over the past few years, is now buying subprime loans. "In the second quarter, about 14.4 percent of the FHA's loans were at least one month past due."
There may be another shoe waiting to drop in the housing/financial crisis. Can anyone say "Double-dip recession?"
I suppose that's the real good news: The banks are doing well enough that they no longer need some of these guarantees. Until the next time.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
"Yesterday [September 17] , at a panel I moderated in San Francisco, Donna Wells, Mint.com's chief marketing officer, stunned a room full of digital marketing pros by noting that she really didn't have much of a marketing budget. Mint.com has gone from zero to 1.5 million users in two years with no ad campaign, save a mid-five-figures sum spent on search engine terms."
Mint.com's strategy reminds me of my days as an impecunious college student at Macalester, when I parlayed free tickets and complementary passes, into a series of dates with a girl at no cost to me. Is there another revolution going on?
Years ago, numerically-inclined political scientists figured out that you could set up a "Guttman scale" of Congressional votes, ordered from liberal to conservative, and specify just where any given member fell on that scale. For example, only the most liberal members would vote for a single-payer healthcare system, and only the most conservative would vote against the nomination of Ray LaHood for Transportation Secretary. The Republicans seem to be trying to confine their party to those few loyalists scoring a perfect "10" on that scale.
This sort of exclusion is making the Republican Party into a regional party, one whose partisans will fit the same space on the electoral map as did supporters of George Wallace and Strom Thurmond.
A while back I published an essay by Dave Drake about his feelings of having been abandoned by the Republican Party. Apparently, Olympia Snowe feels the same way.
I think the most important part of this article is the following quote: "When lenders review applicants, they look at five factors: identification, account history, public records (bankruptcy filings, court records of tax liens), consumer statements (challenges to the status of an account with a lender), and inquiries. That last item is the most crucial for those of us with no credit: It shows how many times lenders have requested to review an applicant's credit history. The more times that information has been reviewed (and rejected), the more suspicious you look as an applicant."
An ad hominem argument is not in itself fallacious. It is pretty much the opposite of an argument from authority. In the latter case, an argument from a relevant, germane, qualified authority is perfectly usable. On the other hand, an argument from authority where the nature of the authority is not germane to the subject matter has problems. (Does the term "expert witness" ring a bell?)
Just so, an ad hominem argument attacks an assertion by attacking its source. This is invalid if the nature of the alleged fault in the source is irrelevant or unproven. It is not true, for example, that everything Rush Limbaugh says is false just because it is said by Rush Limbaugh. No, everything Rush Limbaugh says is false because Rush Limbaugh chooses to say false things.
So, Keith Olberman's "muckfest" misses the point. It doesn't matter if Glenn Beck is a convicted perjurer, a pederast, an embezzler, or a right-wing hack, as long as what Beck says has the color of truth. You might not want to believe what Glenn Beck says because he is such an oily, sleazy, unsavory person, but that doesn't make his statements untrue. (Similarly, you might not want to believe Keith Olberman because he is an agressive loudmouth, but his behavior doesn't make him a liar, either.) Even if Olberman means to focus on the unsavory nature of many of Mr. Beck's statements, one should remember that unpleasant, insulting, and gross are not synonyms for untrue.
Today, on Meet the Press, David Brooks referred to the media circus about health care, and how it didn't bear much reality to what real people were thinking about the issue. Right on, David!
Monday, September 21, 2009
I read Tom Ricks's book Fiasco. I read it in the summer of 2007, while traveling to the Pacific Northwest. It was very critical of the way the Bush administration and the military had handled Iraq to that point. I have also read his more recent book, Gamble. The focus of that book is very different, and it takes a much more favorable view of the U.S. military. In particular, Gamble is very high on General David Petraeus, and it gives much of the credit for the "surge" to General Ray Odierno. In this, it is somewhat at odds with The War Within by Bob Woodward, which attributes much of the impetus for the surge to Stephen Hadley, Mr. Bush's second National Security Advisor.
The perception that Ricks has turned into an admirer of the military, somehow reversing his positions along the way, is, I think, as mistaken as the perception that Woodward turned on the White House and changed from an admirer to a critic of Mr. Bush. To some degree, both men may have been victims of the thinking that recent trends will continue. When Woodward wrote Bush at War, the war in Afghanistan was looking like a success, and Iraq had not yet been invaded. When he wrote Plan of Attack, the situation in Iraq was looking very dicey. When Ricks wrote Fiasco, about the same time that Martha Raddatz published The Long Road Home, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran published Imperial Life in the Emerald City, nobody thought that the war in Iraq was going well. There were differences among observers about why it was going so badly, but it was hard to find an admirer of the Bush strategy in Iraq back in 2006-2007.
The surge actually did turn things around, although it did so in ways that may not be sustainable. For one thing, it appears that the Iraqi government doesn't like the concrete barriers Petraeus ordered erected all over Baghdad, and there have been several recent bombing as a result.
In any event, I would urge you to read Ms. McKelvey's article, and read Gamble, and make up your own mind.
This column should be a sobering reminder to those of us who rely on employer-provided health care programs that change is coming, with or without the reforms being pressed by President Obama and the Democrats in Congress.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Here's the key paragraph on the political front: "That risk is highest for the political division of the Failure Caucus. The conventional wisdom on the right holds that President Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress are setting themselves up for a big fall through their overreaching. But I'd argue that it's the Republican Party, which was always on the side of greater growth, higher stock prices, and more wealth, that has painted itself into a corner. Many Republicans opposed the initial bailouts because they were conducted by an unpopular Republican president in conjunction with a Democratic Congress. (In Todd Purdum's Vanity Fair article, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson conspicuously praises congressional Democrats and conspicuously says little about congressional Republicans.) Then they doubled down with virtually uniform opposition to the Obama stimulus bill, which had been watered down to attract Republican votes. In order for Republicans to be vindicated politically, the bailouts and the stimulus—and the economy at large—must fail. Thus considered, every positive data point, every sign of stabilization in the housing market, every rise in the S&P 500, every TARP repayment, is something of a rebuke. As the clouds part, the historic party of economic sunshine is in the strange position of praying for rain."
I think "failure caucus" is a good name for these self-interested prophets of doom, and I think it particularly appropriate that a picture of John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, is at the top of Gross's column.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Sunday, September 13, 2009
The very title of Michael Ledeen's piece shouts out the author's paranoia, panic, and rampant fear-mongering. The lead (or "lede") for the piece is even more indicative of the author's state of mind. "As a global conspiracy aimed at our destruction grows, not only does Obama fail to respond to the threat, but he actively helps our enemies."
The End of the World.
The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming! Ledeen thinks that there is a conscious, intentional, centrally directed conspiracy of the Russians, the Iranians, the Venezuelans, and the Syrians to bring about the fall of the United States. There are a lot of things I could say about this notion, but here's the main one: So what!
All four of these countries are in economic decline, they have fragile or even self-destructive political leadership, and they are incapable of offering a serious threat to the United States. Sure Hugo Chavez hates us, but he's busy taking the Venezuelan economy into a deep-dive into socialist incapacity. Oil prices are down, and that's hurting both Venezuela and Chavez. Syria is exhausting its minuscule oil supplies. Even Iran has so mismanaged its oil business that it is importing refined gasoline at the same time that it ships natural gas to China at bargain prices.
Mr. Ledeen has mistaken the anti-American rhetoric of political elites who are trying to distract their publics from the messes they've made at home. Of course President Obama isn't making a big deal about this "threat;" it isn't worth his time. If Mr. Ledeen and his fellow "conservatives" had as much faith in the capitalist system as they profess, maybe they, too, could refrain from hysteria.
I watched the speech, and I thought that the president got off to a very good start. The first thing he did was to remind us of two of the main problems with the current system:
- About 45 million people have no health insurance, and many, many people are without coverage from time to time;
- Although most people are satisfied with the coverage they have (and that means about 265 million people), many are concerned that they could either lose their coverage, or that their insurance won't cover what they need it to.
Some time ago, I posted about an article in Commentary in which the authors identified three major problems of the health care system; President Obama dealt with two of them. (The third, the increasing cost of Medicare and Medicaid as the population ages, Mr. Obama, like everyone else, sidestepped. That is a scary subject. I'll refer to that later.)
I agree that these are major problems, and I agree that the "President's plan," which is actually embodied in five - that's five - bills in Congress addresses them to a substantial degree. The plan would provide coverage for many of those 45 million people. It would not guarantee coverage for illegal aliens, of whom there may be 10 million in the country. It would prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, it would require many employers to provide health insurance for their workers, it would provide subsidies to help poor people pay for their insurance, and it would even require people who don't want (and would say that they don't need) health insurance to buy it.
These provisions, taken as a whole, also deal with the number two problem: concerns about losing one's coverage. The president's plan does not provide for full portability of health insurance from one employer to another, but it does take steps to ensure that people don't lose coverage when they lose or change their jobs. In particular, the provision about pre-existing conditions should reduce the fear that one could lose insurance coverage by accepting a better job.
Taken by themselves, these provisions are going to cost money: $900 billion over ten years, according to Mr. Obama's figures. If we assume that the average employer's policy on a worker costs about $12,000 per year, and that the 35 million additional people to be covered work out to about ten million households, that would come out to $120,000,000,000 ($120 billion) per year, or about $1.2 trillion over ten years, about 33% more than the president's estimate. The total may be reduced by providing low-ball (low-coverage, high-deductible) policies for a lot of the people who are currently without insurance.
The pre-existing conditions provision means that insurance companies are going to have to cover people they have intentionally avoided in the past. That is going to raise rates for everyone, because it is going to increase the risk the insurance providers are taking on. I'm not sure anyone knows how much the insurance companies are going to want to set aside to cover this increased risk.
One of the more interesting points is that this plan does not impose a government run health care system on the country. The U.S. Government is not nationalizing the health insurance companies or requiring them to transfer their policies to a government insurance agency. The proposed public option would be an insurer of last resort, and would probably have trouble competing with the private insurance firms. What remains unsaid is that a very large part of the health care costs in this country are already covered by U.S. Government agencies, and it is their fiscal problems that are going to break the system.
Some 80% of health care costs, that is, payments to doctors and hospitals, nursing homes and other providers, not insurance premiums, goes to pay for care for people over the age of 75. These people are, by and large, not covered by private insurance, but by a combination of Medicare and Medicaid. (Some of them receive services from the Veterans Administration.) In addition, the government pays for health insurance for its civilian and military employees and runs a system of military hospitals all over the world. So the government is already paying something like 80% of the charges incurred by the health care system, and is a significant provider of health care services. These costs are only going up, and the premiums for Medicare are not rising to meet them. What happens if millions of Americans are told that Medicare won't pay for Mom's bills at the home, and that they're going to have to pay for her care out of their own insurance, or out of pocket? Nice question.
Of course, the real question is which of the various Congressional proposals will make it to a conference committee, and what kind of Frankenstein's monster of a bill will be sent to the president for signature. (Remember that Victor Frankenstein was a doctor!) That's when we'll see how serious these people - both Republicans and Democrats - are about reforming health care.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Sunday, August 23, 2009
- Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America. Thomas L. Friedman. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.95. [Previous rank: 1]
- The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008. Bob Woodward. Simon & Schuster, $32.00. [Previous rank: 2]
- The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Andrew C. Bacevich. Metropolitan Books, $24.00. [Previous rank: 6]
- The Post-American World. Fareed Zakaria. Norton, $25.95. [Previous rank: 5]
- The Devil We Know: Dealing With the New Iranian Superpower. Robert Baer. Random House, $25.95. [New Listing]
- The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA From 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America. James Bamford. Doubleday, $27.95. [New Listing]
- America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy. Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft with David Ignatius. Basic Books, $27.50. [Previous rank: 12]
- The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran. Hooman Majd. Doubleday, $24.95. [New Listing]
- The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq. Bing West. Random House, $28.00. [Previous rank: 7]
- From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. George C. Herring. Oxford University Press, $35.00. [New Listing]
- The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism. Ron Suskind. Harper, $27.95. [Previous rank: 3]
- The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals. Jane Mayer. Doubleday, $27.50. [Previous rank: 4]
- The American Way of War: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men, and a Republic in Peril. Eugene Jarecki. Simon & Schuster, $26.00. [New Listing]
- Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq. Linda Robinson. PublicAffairs, $27.95. [Previous rank: 15]
- Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism. Bernard-Henri Levy. Random House, $25.00. [New Listing]
As I pointed out in my earlier post, a lot of the cost factors are due to internal processes within the healthcare system. I also noted that universal insurance would, by increasing demand, tend to increase the price of healthcare.
In the comparison with France, we see another factor driving demand.
As regards the better health outcomes in other countries, such as France, a lot of people use that figure as if it were due to the health care system. Actually, a lot of that effect is due to people's behavior which keeps them out of the health care system altogether. For example, we don't have more people with diabetes because the medical care system treats diabetes patients badly. We have lots of diabetes patients because people pursue patterns of eating and exercise which lead to Type 2 diabetes. If they didn't do so, they wouldn't get into the health care system at all.
I tend to look at the medical care system in conventional economic terms, although I'm aware that there are some interesting anomalies in that system. If demand for services goes up, then the price will also rise. If, therefore, people in country X have a healthy lifestyle, avoid obesity, eschew risky behavior, their demand for medical services will be low, and the price of these services will also tend to be low. If the people in country Y eat too much, exercise too little, and subject themselves to chronic diseases, then they will end up demanding lots of medical services, and the price of medical service will rise.
I might also note that 80% of medical costs are attributable to a rather small number of elderly people. Thus, the miserable health outcomes numbers, and the high price of medicine, are due to people smoking, drinking, eating too much, eating the wrong things, and living sedentary lifestyles in the 1950s and 1960s. Lacking a reliable time machine, there isn't a whole lot we can do to remedy that situation.
Going forward, I might note, the health care system, as presently constituted, is not responsible for stopping us from eating fried chicken, which may be, with smoking, the single largest risk factor for diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, which are, in turn, risk factors for heart attacks and strokes. Maybe the department of Health and Human Services should take on that task, including the fight with the department of Agriculture which is busy promoting the sale of unhealthy food. But the medical system isn't going to solve our social problems.
Saturday, August 1, 2009
The five books which were reviewed in Commentary's February 2009 issue are listed here.
Outliers: The Story of Success. Malcolm Gladwell. Little Brown. 320 pp. $27.99. Reviewed by Brian C. Anderson.
Innocent Abroad: An Intimate History of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East. Martin Indyk. Simon & Schuster. 512 pp. $28.00. Reviewed by Dean Godson.
So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government. Robert G. Kaiser. Knopf. 416 pp. $27.95. Reviewed by Dan DiSalvo.
Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics. Dagmar Herzog. Basic Books. 320 pp. $26.95. Reviewed by Justin Shubow.
Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners. Laura Claridge. Random House. 544 pp. $30.00. Reviewed by Jonathan Kay.
In addition, Terry Teachout's article "The Trouble with Alfred Hitchcock" relies on a book by Donald Spoto, Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies (Harmony, 352 pp., $25.95) to support Teachout's opinion that Hitchcok was "a sexually frustrated man whose view of women was - to put it mildly - unattractive."