Sunday, December 26, 2010

One for the history buffs

I thought this was really interesting: Germany just finished paying off their WW-1 reparations.

I had been under impression that the reparations were paid off in the 1920's, by hyper inflating the debt away. I had no knowledge of the post WW-2 German government's agreement to assume debts stemming from the Treaty of Versailles.

It is amazing how different the world can become in a span of two generations.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


I've been on Youtube watching videos of Milton Friedman on this issue or that. They are particularly relevant nowadays since we have a resurgence of anti-government and anti-regulation sentiment in this country. I think all of this is very healthy, and I agree with it completely even if I take issue with the abrasiveness of the methods employed (in other words, I agree with the point of the Tea Party but I take issue with the style and methods).

In this video that I linked, Milton Friedman talks about the folly of consumer protection agencies and how absurd that they can be. He finishes by concluding that we don't need government bureaucrats to protect us from ourselves - that we can be trusted to make the right decisions.

An important point that is missed from people who whole heartedly subscribe to these sorts of views, however, is that government regulations and interventions have distorted the market that Milton Friedman and maybe the Tea Party completely trusts to solve the problems that we face today.

Take obesity. Politicians like Sarah Palin have come out and mocked Michelle Obama for wanting to stop children from drinking soft drinks, and the Republicans in general scoff at the idea that we might impose a tax on soft drinks. But the point that these sorts of people miss is that the government has intervened to subsidize corn farmers and these subsidies have artificially driven down the cost of soft drinks; thus have encouraged overconsumption. The cheapness of fast food is another example, thanks to generous subsidies to meat farmers. I do not believe it would be possible for McDonalds to be so cheap without those price supports - and if a trip to McDonalds cost 2-3 dollars more, people would consume far less fast food.

The government does other things, like imposing tariffs on Brazilian ethanol, which is much cheaper than American ethanol, to protect our market. The government has all sorts of regulation regarding property development, commercial development, that stipulate that they must have so many parking spaces available or be so close to this or that. Furthermore, roads are paid for by government, instead of the costs appropriately going to the drivers of cars. This tangled web of regulations, inappropriate subsidies, and other incentives have distorted the market and seem to have contributed to urban sprawl, over reliance on cars, and a lack of other transportation mechanisms in many cities.

Current disciples of Milton Friedman like Greg Mankiw have written about negative externalities. Mankiw argues that driving cars imposes negative consequences other than having to pay for fuel: roads are more congested, CO2 is released, and geopolitics is far more complicated (we need secure sources of oil). Mankiw is no liberal - he is the former chairman of the council of economic advisors under G.W. Bush. He argues for a gasoline tax to account for these externalities and price gasoline so that the market can respond appropriately.

This is an important lesson for Republicans, libertarians, Tea Partiers, and anyone else who wants to keep "government out of our lives" - government is already in our lives. You cannot rely on the market to solve problems if the market is already distorted. We need to make sure we are removing these imbalances to the market before we start deregulating everything. Until then, I'm going to side with Michelle Obama and encourage government bureaucrats to help prevent our children from drinking so many soft drinks.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Cowen on Income Inequality

One of my favorite bloggers, economist Tyler Cowen, has a long piece about the great socioeconomic challenge that America is grappling with.

The cause of rising income inequality has been something I have been very interested in lately. Any philosophical justification of an increasingly progressive tax code, for me, requires accurate interpretation of the causes of that rising inequality. In other words, there needs to be a good reason for increasing taxes on 'the rich', which may be necessary in the future, beyond simply that "they have the money".

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On hackers and security breaches

I was having dinner with my father last night and he brought up a good point about Wikileaks, and computer hackers in general. For years, the prevalence of annoying viruses, trojans, and spyware have exposed weaknesses in the internet and in browsing software. We have responded over the years by developing firewalls, pop-up blockers, spam filters, secure browsers like Firefox, virus scanners, et cetera. As a consequence, the infrastructure of cyberspace is much stronger than it originally was. Theoretically, imagine if these breaches had never taken place. Our internet would remain as porous and vulnerable as it was in 1995. Then the day might come when those weaknesses could be exploited by an enemy cyber-attack, instead of by 15 year old hackers looking for bragging rights or viagra salesmen.

So in a sense, all of the hackers and viruses have strengthened the internet in the same way that infection and environmental insult strengthens the body's immune system. Funny that my dad was the one who made this analogy and not me, because he is a mechanical engineer and I spent the last year doing immunology research. In the recent Wikileaks controversy, thousands of relatively harmless diplomatic documents were leaked to the press by a US government employee. Embarrassing maybe, but not catastrophic. Imagine instead if one US government employee had been paid to steal and secretly deliver thousands of documents about the construction of nuclear or chemical weapons to the North Koreans or the Iranians. It is suddenly very easy to see that Wikileaks did us a favor for exposing these serious vulnerabilities in our system.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ron Paul on Wikileaks

Ron Paul speaks on the house floor about Wikileaks.

During the video, Paul mentions that some are calling for Julian Assange's assassination. I'd like to add that those "some" are pundits at Fox News. Here is a video if you don't believe it. Just stop and think about that for a second. Julian Assange did not hack into or steal anything from the US government. He simply published documents that were leaked to him by someone inside the US government. Doesn't that sound like something a journalist would do?

Fox News is calling for the assassination of someone for committing what is in essence a journalistic act. And everyone is OK with this. Did I miss something?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Obama's tax cut cave/compromise

The left is fully up in arms about Obama's compromise with Republicans regarding the extension of the Bush tax cuts. There are talks of Democrat Senators filibustering the bill, of primary challenges to Obama in 2012, and all other sorts of nonsense. I wish I had some insight into Obama's decision making process, because from our perspective it is very difficult to distinguish between Obama being spineless / indecisive and Obama having extraordinary strategic insight, a knack for predicting the outcome of political battles, and reacting appropriately.

I'm not a huge fan of Paul Krugman, because he is such a partisan. For months his NY Times opinion column has called for more fiscal stimulus and expansionary monetary policies in order to get the economy moving. I agree with him on the need for those programs! However, in the current political climate there is no way Obama is going to get another stimulus bill. There is no way he is going to get the GOP to go along with all sorts of other reasonable proposals that would improve the economic situation. The only remotely stimulating policy that Obama can get in the short term is an extension of the Bush tax cuts, and furthermore there is no way the GOP will let the cuts for the top 1% get decoupled from the rest. And yet Krugman has blasted Obama's compromise on these cuts as a policy sell out.

Every time the North Koreans do something provocative, there will inevitably be a bunch of loud people who puff up their chests and say its time to take a stand and "do something" about the DPRK. The South isn't afraid to fight, but the consequences of that fight are too great. Even if the ROK could conquer the DPRK in a week, the DPRK could still level Seoul in hours and kill tens of thousands of people. Obama, like the South Koreans, knows that it is stupid and rash to escalate a situation if unprepared for the consequences of escalation. That is why the South Koreans don't "stand up" to the North - because if the North calls the bluff, the South looks even worse. Likewise, the left is furious that Obama isn't "standing up" to the GOP. But what if he did, and the GOP called, and taxes went up for everyone? Obama would then have to either back down, and look far worse, or accept the damage to the economy and the middle class. And as he put it in his address to the nation the other night, Obama is not willing to let the middle class get hurt as a consequence of political theater in Washington.

Four more related tidbits:

1. I read that Obama and Pelosi pushed Reid to bring up the issue of the Bush tax cuts before the 2010 election and Reid refused b/c two Dem senators didn't want to be on record voting for tax increases before the election. This revelation makes all of this self-righteous indignation coming from Democratic congressmen about the issue even more humorous, since they are the reason the issue was punted in the first place.

2. In the 2008 election, everyone projected their own values onto Obama with regards to his message of "change", and of course he was willing to let everyone do that for political reasons. For many on the left, that meant a shift to left-wing progressive politics. It never meant that for me. "Change" never meant going from partisan and divisive right-wing politics to partisan and divisive left-wing politics. It meant going away from partisan and divisive politics. This tax cut compromise is vindicating my interpretation of what Obama actually based his presidential campaign on.

3. Who wins politically here? Certainly, Barack Obama. The long game on this issue is in the Democrats' favor anyway because they can just vote down or filibuster tax extensions for the wealthy in 2012, when the economy is stronger and Obama isn't up for re-election. Meanwhile, the Republicans just compromised with this supposedly radical left wing socialist president and greatly legitimized him in the process. When this goes through, the American people are going to recognize that Republicans were willing to hurt the economy to protect the wealthy and the Democrats were willing to hurt the economy to grandstand about the middle class. Meanwhile, Obama made a politically challenging decision that will benefit the American people.

4. The issue on which I remain the most torn is whether Obama is actually a strategic thinker or an indecisive leader. Clearly he has been naive at some points, but that doesn't really strengthen or weaken either scenario. Regarding health care reform, geopolitical dealings with Iran, and this tax cut compromise he has looked like a great strategic planner who figured out how to get the most he could given nontrivial political constraints. On other issues, especially with dealings with Israel and the Palestinians, he has looked incompetent, unprepared, and weak. The jury is still out for me.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

From the wikileaks archive

This title on the NY Times about one of the wikileaked documents: "Cables Discuss Vast Hacking by a China That Fears the Web".

This post is a continuation of the one immediately before: Of course China fears the web. Open access to information is lubrication to the workings of democracies; it is poison to the workings of autocracies. This is why Wikileaks is intrinsically a force for good, even if we don't have a particularly fond view of it at this moment.


*** Update ****

Right on cue, Ron Paul weighs in: "We need more Wikileaks. In a free society we're supposed to know the truth. In a society where truth becomes treason, then we're in big trouble. And now, people who are revealing the truth are getting into trouble for it."

*** End Update ***

I was thinking about how Western governments are pursuing Julian Assange after the latest Wikileak dump. I've read a lot of these leaked documents. Not many of them really say anything that we don't already know, but even more than that, I actually think they paint the US in a pretty decent light. It looks like we have a pretty capable diplomatic corps around the world who are working to advance US interests. More importantly, and someone might call me naive for saying this, but in most of the cases "US interests" happen to align with the interests of most other nations, and indeed arguably the world. The US is a hegemon, and people are naturally suspicious of such power. The great debate the world over is whether the US is more of a benign or a malignant hegemon; I think these documents really strongly support the case for the former.

In the short term, this leak is a little embarrassing, I guess. However, our long term interests definitely lie with transparency access to information for all of the people in the world. If the people in North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other repressive nations were better informed, we would all be a lot better off. While open conflict or belligerency may in the interests of politicians and industrialists, it certainly isn't in the interests of people...and better informed people are more difficult to manipulate.

To really be a force for good, I'd like Wikileaks to make a better effort to target other nations in their efforts for "transparency". They've leaked American documents what, three times now? Yet the US is already one of the most transparent nations in the world, and most of those dumps weren't particularly revealing, although the push for American transparency is always healthy. Meanwhile, Wikileaks should start turning their efforts to decidedly less transparent governments around the world. If they did that, they'd prove to me that their intentions are pure, rather than just an exercise in left wing anti-Americanism.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A good point

Some people may see the leak that shows the Saudis want us to bomb Iran, and say "AHA! See? We should bomb Iran."

But Mark Kleiman points out:

"What could be better, from a Saudi viewpoint, than war between the U.S. and Iran? Note that the Saudis (and our other Arab quasi-friends) are willing to fight Iran to the last American. They have no interest whatever in doing anything themselves."

Indeed. We would weaken Saudi Arabia's greatest regional rival while simultaneously causing the price of oil to skyrocket.

Interestingly, when we invaded Iraq in 2003, who was the greatest beneficiary? Why, it was Iran! We destroyed Iran's greatest enemy and rival while simultaneously increasing the price of oil by shrinking the supply as Iraq's wells went offline. Of course, many people said that destroying Iraq would send Iran "a message" but things didn't quite work out that way - it has been the opposite.

Maybe we should let the people in the Middle East handle their own problems?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Experimental therapies are free

A useful quote for people outside of medicine who are looking for cures:
"Whenever you see an "investigator" charge patients to undergo an experimental protocol, be very very wary. Be very, very afraid. In general, with very few exceptions, reputable medical researchers do not charge patients to undergo experimental protocols; their studies are funded with grants from the government, private foundations, or pharmaceutical companies."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Stick this one in the "I told you so" file =)

Vatican changes position on condoms and AIDs.

Epidemiologists are physicians who have spent their entire careers studying the science behind disease transmission and infection. Any epidemiologist who suggested that condoms could worsen the spread of AIDs would have their license revoked immediately.

What the Pope finally realized is that it is morally indefensible to take a position that is in opposition to such unanimous scientific opinion solely because that position is more consistent with existing church dogma. Fair enough. He is only human, after all.

This could be a useful learning point. I've heard representatives of the Vatican on more than one occasion complain about how the "liberal media" is out to smear Benedict and the Catholic Church. If I was in the Catholic hierarchy, the lesson I would take away from this is "pick my battles" and "think before I speak".

When the Catholic church makes wildly unsubstantiated and frankly destructive claims such as "condoms makes AIDs worse" it has the unintended consequence of alienating a lot of reasonable people. And it is these people who, the next time, may not be as willing to give the church the benefit of the doubt when it does stake some morally defensible position.

A lot of these people might work in the "liberal media" or be consumers of it. They might be more accommodating to Church positions on issues that result from lots of debate, soul searching, and serious consideration instead of positions that almost seem like they came out of nowhere from a sort of "because I said so" dogmatic attitude.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Another Obama foreign policy failure

Russia agrees to work with NATO in developing missile defense shield.

On a more serious note, Republicans blocking Obama's nuclear arms treaty with Russia is a bit of the worst kind of politics that I've seen, which is, blocking something that is good for the country just to spite Obama. I expect to hear a lot about that in the presidential campaign.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

An overdue pro-Tea Party read

I really liked this:
Anyway.  I am almost more frustrated by the means of the current right more than the ends that they are pursuing.  I hate the idea that political gains could be made by lie, deceit, and manipulation.  More importantly than my desire to see a more pure political process is that I do not believe political gains made by such methods are sustainable.  Republicans may have accomplished electoral victory this year but there will be a big question whether or not they accomplish legislative victory; the former is worth nothing without the latter.  When you gain political momentum on false pretenses...for example, by lying about Obama and demonizing his intentions, you aren't winning an argument in the minds of the American people, you're just scaring them.  And the Democrats can obstruct just as easily as Republicans can, and scare the American people right back.
I think the thing that conservatives should always remember is that I think that big government policy wins by default.  When there are major crises, and the problems seem intractible, the people ultimately demand that "someone" do something about it, and that someone tends to be Uncle Sam.  You can look at the New Deal post Great Depression, or TARP in 2008 by a "conservative Republican".  When there is a crisis, government intervenes.  Back to the topic at hands, Republicans have been playing a scorched-earth policy here.  Cause gridlock, spread misinformation about Obama.  Win the battle.  I fear that conservatism in general, something that I sympathize with as illustrated by the essay I linked above, will lose the war as a product of this kind of strategy.  Because we can make gridlock now, and the Republicans will come back to power.  But ultimately government must function, and it must function effectively.  Because if it doesn't, there will be more crises, and government will inexorably expand. 
Conservatives should be less short-sighted.  The foundation of a strong conservative movement won't come from cheap sound bytes put forth by idiot news casters on Fox.  They'll come from real thinkers who don't need to beat their political adversaries with lies - they can beat them with better ideas and stronger arguments.  That was the movement that Buckley and Goldwater supposedly started and it lasted a generation.  The movement of intellectual hacks like Palin and Gingrich will last two years.  If that. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

People actually care what this man says.


"What have I told you about diet and exercise? Exercise is irrelevant.... "How do you know all this?" One of the reasons I know what I know is that I know liberals, and I know liberals lie, and if Michelle Obama's gonna be out there ripping into "food desserts" and saying, "This is why people are fat," I know it's not true. "Rush, do you really believe that? It's that simple to you, liberals lie?" Yes, it is, folks. Once you learn that, once you come to grips with that, once you accept that, the rest is easy. Very, very simple. Now, my doctor has never told me to restrict any intake of salt, but if he did, I wouldn't. I'd just spend more time in the steam or the sauna sweating it out."

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Worth reading

If you want to know why I despise the right of this country even as I always saw myself as a moderate part of it, read this:
Reality is subjective, but only to a point.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The backlash will begin tonight

Interestingly enough, I am not only a fan of divided government but I suspect that Barack Obama is as well. Barack Obama in 2008-2010 was to some extent a victim of his own success. He had this enormous progressive mandate and huge majorities of Democratic congressmen to back him up, but I don't think he is a very liberal guy. Thus he was stuck between his tendencies to be a pragmatic centrist and the pull of the outer fringes of his party. Republicans really had no choice but to oppose anything and everything that happened in congress, because otherwise they would have gotten steamrolled by a Democratic agenda...and to some extent, they did anyway.

But the Republicans just retook the house, although I am not sure about the Senate. And unless the economy just absolutely refuses to improve, I think there will be a backlash in the country from the left. There is a palpable feeling in the left half of the country that they have been cheated. Democrats won fair and square in 2006 / 2008, and Republicans abused rules and procedures to gum up the works of government in every way possible. A lot of people aren't happy with it. Obama did not get to accomplish what he wanted, and millions of his supporters know he was more than accommodating and made efforts to be bipartisan. These people aren't happy about it, and there will be a backlash.

It is one thing to go out in a midterm to support the sort of weak Democratic congressmen that have been half of the problem anyway. So the "enthusiasm gap" in this election is not at all surprising. Now, the Tea Party has its way - Republicans are back in power, but they have promised the impossible. They have also only spoke of confrontation, of refusal to compromise. They would do well that above all, this election was not an affirmation of the Tea Party and it was not an affirmation of Republicans, who remain less popular than Democrats still. It was a rejection of incumbents, none of whom are getting along while the economy remains a smoldering mess. If Republicans think this is a mandate to act on these ridiculous fantasies they've been having, they will be sorely mistaken.

My hope is that this election opens the door for some genuine bipartisanship. Now that the GOP has some say, it has something to lose. I think Obama will be ready to listen, if the Republicans want to talk. But if the GOP thinks a winning strategy is to come out and try to repeal Obamacare, consider impeachment, or continue to be obstructionist, they will only make the backlash worse. 230,000 people just showed up for a rally with Jon Stewart, which was really nothing more than a rally to support Obama that was described as otherwise for obvious reasons. Republicans would do well to ask themselves why. They say pride comes before the fall. I've never seen a group of more arrogant, prideful men than some of these Republican candidates who have won tonight. I hope to be pleasantly surprised, but I suspect I won't be.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Purging the moderates

I was thinking the other day about something that I think has pretty important implications, and so I am going to write it down. There were many reasons why I voted for Obama in 2008, but one of them was particularly relevant for conservatives. I've always considered myself slightly right of center, but I had grown to be so disgusted with the Republican party that I considered electing Obama to be an important repudiation of those policies. I mean here we have the "party of small government and fiscal conservatism" turning a surplus into a deficit, expanding unfunded entitlements, engaging in reckless and often aimless foreign was precisely the opposite of what "conservative" means to me. And so I told many of my friends and family in 2008, especially conservatives - vote for Obama to show the GOP how disgusted you are with them.

The problem is that over the last two years the GOP hasn't learned the lessons that I wanted them to learn. They've simply gone after the easy solutions and talking points and avoided the tough questions. The real issue Republicans should be grappling with is how we can efficiently reform our health care can we reform medicare, can we privatize or reform social security? How can we moderate our foreign policy aims? These are all very, very tough questions. These questions would require very intelligent people to grapple with in an effective way. But instead of doing that, who do we have? Well, most prominently we have Sarah Palin.

She is a know-nothing, and she is a perfect metaphor for the entire GOP "revival" in the last two years. The new batch of tea-party Republicans know how to get votes by appealing to religion and xenophobia, but they have no real ideas. They've retrenched into the worst excesses of the Bush era but have learned none of the lessons of Bush's mistakes. They are going to waltz into power November 2nd, and suddenly realize how none of them has the intelligence or the political courage to even begin to come close to grappling with some of our serious problems. The most they will do is cut taxes for the wealthy and defund Obamacare - both of which will actually worsen our deficit woes. No doubt, it IS a big step backward. And this is NOT what I had in mind when I wanted to vote for Obama to teach the Republicans a lesson. They've learned all the wrong lessons.

Anyway, the main point of this article is this insight I had. I was thinking about how Mitch Daniels basically got the smack-down by the conservative establishment for proposing a value-added tax. A VAT or consumption tax would actually be a pretty effective tax because it would provide lots of revenue, could be manipulated to be progressive, but wouldn't penalize investment and saving. But anything with the word "tax" is anathema to today's conservatives, so Daniels got put in his place.

I was thinking to myself how sad it is that an entire political movement could have become so close minded and outright committed to group-think. But you know what? That is the exact same thing I thought about Democrats in 2005. I used to HATE reading progressive blogs because I found them nauseating. Anyone who so much as lifted a toe out of the accepted "party line" was immediately put back into place. I used to think that was such a great sign of intellectual weakness.

I suppose I haven't been alive long enough to really draw a correlation here, but maybe that is what parties who are out of power do. They retract into a shell, where they coalesce around their more radical ideas and shun anyone who speaks of compromise. Even when they are out of power, they become more ridiculous, more insular, and more radical. Which, intuitively, would make them STAY out of power if everyone voted like me. But I guess what they are doing is waiting until the party that is IN power screws up badly enough that they win it back by default. I guess thats the state of our political system.

This insight was oddly comforting.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How to fix rising health costs: ax physician pay?

This was the thesis of a recent blog post by Matt Yglesias, who I regularly read. Here how I responded in the comment section:


I feel the same way about Yglesias' crusade against doctors as I do about his crusade for the oppressed rights of division-1 athletes. Which is, he is technically correct, but I really feel like there are bigger fish to fry in the worlds of labor exploitation and health care, respectively.

For starters, fully 1/3 of all health care spending is administrative; step 1 should be working to reduce some of this awful inefficiency. Step 2 in controlling health costs for me would be to devise a payment system that rewards outcomes, not service. We would see staggering increases in efficiency, as physicians respond to incentives just like everyone else if working in a market system (which our current health care system is not). We would also, incidentally, see a corresponding natural reduction in physician compensation, in particular as procedure-based specialties take a hit when there ceases to be funding for pointless interventions which have no proven benefit. This will solve a huge amount of the problem of physician overcompensation by itself.

And there is of course step 3, step 4, et cetera of things we could do to improve our health care system. Way down on that list somewhere I might include "axing physician pay". You should keep in mind though that the US economy has more inequality than Finland in general. That is of course a bad thing, but it applies to all industries, not just health care. Is the right way to approach a systemic problem like that really to just target the high earners in one field in particular? I'd be much more in favor of a more progressive tax code with drastic educational improvements, college assistance, and other things that will help reduce inequality across the US economy as a whole.

By the way, when you write "axing physician pay" on your list, you also better put in provisions that also allow for state funding of medical school. There will need to be drastic increases in resident salaries, too. Medical school and residency will also need to be less rigorous (in most European countries residents don't work over 40 hours per week).

I am a fourth year medical student. I will finish with about $ 230,000 of debt. It has been a tough four years, but I feel fortunate to be in medicine. Next year, I am starting residency in general surgery. My residency will be 9-10 years long. 5 years for general surgery, 2 years for fellowship in oncology, and 2-3 years of research built in. I will be working 80-100 hours per week during the 7 clinical years. I will be making about 45,000 dollars in salary in compensation during this decade, which incidentally will be covering the best years of my life (late twenties through mid thirties).

And sure, when I come out I'll be making 250,000 starting off. Perhaps overpaid, although I don't know anyone who is going into general surgery in particular for the money. There are a lot of battles to be fought, Mr. Yglesias, and its annoying to see you almost in passing mention that there are all of these lazy doctors who don't deserve half the compensation they get...and all we have to do to fix health care is pay them less. I will be more than happy to join you in calls for axing of physician compensation once the other dozens of awful inefficiencies and exploitations of the system have been ironed over.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Intern work hours

Maybe some people wonder why I don't spill my beans about the medical profession the way that I do about politics. Ultimately it comes down to what is a career and what is a hobby. Politics / economics / et cetera is a hobby for me, and I'm not making a career in it. Thus I feel no inhibitions whatsoever (as is probably painfully obvious) and say pretty much whatever I feel like. If I was currently pursuing a political career, you can bet that this blog wouldn't exist. When it comes to medicine, since I am such an amateur and anyway am attempting to build a career, input (I need to learn a LOT) is far more important than output (nobody in the medical profession cares about my opinion).

I will comment about the new law regarding intern work hours, however. Previous restrictions implemented in 2003 or so limited residents to an 80 hour work week. In the last few weeks, a new law was passed that limits interns to a 16 hour shift only.

My perception on the issue is this: certainly, there should be reasonable limits to how much residents work. I don't care what anyone tells me, I don't think it is sane or reasonable to expect a resident to regularly work over 120 hours per week. Although I do know those crazy times come and go periodically; even as a medical student I clocked approximately 110 hours one week (it was a big funny joke at the time, but would get old if continued for 5 years). On the other hand, residents should not be limited too much; in Europe they can't even work over 40 hours. Training will certainly be inhibited.

I do think the 80 hour week is a reasonable goal. I don't like the new law, limiting us to 16 hour shifts though. This will compromise continuity of care, which is important for learning. Also, working 16 hours straight is easy. I'm just hitting my stride at 16 hours. Working 24-30 hours straight isn't really hard either, even when not used to it. So I think the 16 hour limit was misguided. That really doesn't make anyone's life better.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Enjoy your right to drive a car

Google has been successful in designing cars that drive themselves. I've believed for years that it is a matter of time before the average person can no longer legally drive. Here is how I foresee the chain of events:

1. Automated cars come on the market

2. Automated cars demonstrate vastly superior safety record and reduced accidents.

3. Insurance companies will think to themselves, "why should we insure a manual driver when we know automated cars have a near-perfect driving record?" Insurance costs will skyrocket for manual drivers.

4. At some point there will be a lawsuit involving a manual driver who errs and kills passengers in an automated car. Manual driver will be sued and lose the case. At that point, there will be legal precedent for suing every person who drives manually and makes a mistake.

5. Manual driving is made illegal by new legislation, or becomes de facto prohibited secondary to high costs and vulnerability in court.

Think about it this way: we used to let people drive and drink alcohol, right? At some point we recognized that driving under the influence of alcohol is significantly more dangerous than driving sober. Therefore, driving under the influence is illegal. Nobody will insure you if you drive drunk. You can go to jail if you drive drunk. What happens when we find that driving manual is significantly more dangerous than letting the computer drive? Probably the same thing.

I look forward to this inevitable outcome, and you should too. There are tons of advantages to a fleet of automated cars:

-Smoother traffic. Computer models have shown that traffic jams are due to sub-optimal spacing between cars that cause slight fluctuations in speed; these fluctuations ripple backward through traffic and amplify. Automated cars would never have this problem.

-Less traffic in cities. At any given time, a large percentage of traffic in a congested area is represented by drivers who are circling and looking for a parking spot. The computers of automated cars could automatically located the closest empty spot and drive straight to it, reducing the overall traffic load. Alternatively, the car could drop the passenger off at the destination and then drive to a nearby lot to wait until the passenger needs pick-up.

-No need to stop at red lights. Automated cars could perfectly time passage such that we travel through intersections seamlessly from all ways without slowing down. This might be a little harrowing at first, I'll admit.

-Faster average driving speeds, since the automated driver won't make mistakes.

-More relaxed travel. Instead of fighting traffic and dealing with road raging psychos, we could catch up on our reading, watch movies, or nap.

-Tens of thousands of people won't die in auto accidents every year.

I will finish this with a funny college humor article: what if Google released Skynet?. FYI, "Skynet" is the sentient artificial intelligence in the Terminator movies that attempts to destroy humanity.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Emulating Jesus Christ by being absolutely nothing like Jesus Christ

I honestly wonder if people like this have read the Bible even a single time.

If someone wishes to be a religious leader, serve the God of Abraham, AND be politically active, there is a religion for that - Islam. Muhammad was the messenger of Allah and he was also politically active, therefore following his example would necessarily involve both.

In contrast, it is very clear from reading the New Testament that Jesus Christ was decidedly apolitical. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. If you asked Jesus Christ if he was voting for Pelosi or Boehner, he would say "no comment". A Christian pastor who is politically active is about as representative of Jesus Christ as Pope Urban II was when he ordered the Crusades.

Make no mistake, I am not evaluating the merits of a religious leader being a political leader. I am just pointing out what should be obvious facts: Jesus Christ was not a political leader, Muhammad was one. If a Christian religious leader believes that they should act in a political way, they should consider converting to Islam, since that religion is probably closer to their core philosophical beliefs than Christianity.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Heinrich Heine in 1834

Yes, 1834.

"Christianity - and that is its greatest merit - has somewhat mitigated that brutal Germanic love of war, but it could not destroy it. Should that subduing talisman, the cross, be shattered, the frenzied madness of the ancient warriors, that insane Berserk rage of which Nordic bards have spoken and sung so often, will once more burst into flame. This talisman is fragile, and the day will come when it will collapse miserably. Then the ancient stony gods will rise from the forgotten debris and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes, and finally Thor with his giant hammer will jump up and smash the Gothic cathedrals.

Do not smile at my advice -- the advice of a dreamer who warns you against Kantians, Fichteans, and philosophers of nature. Do not smile at the visionary who anticipates the same revolution in the realm of the visible as has taken place in the spiritual. Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder. German thunder is of true Germanic character; it is not very nimble, but rumbles along ponderously. Yet, it will come and when you hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world's history, then you know that the German thunderbolt has fallen at last. At that uproar the eagles of the air will drop dead, and lions in the remotest deserts of Africa will hide in their royal dens. A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Who would root for a team that doesn't even take the field?

Good question.  That is why I won't be bothering to vote in this election.  Congressional Democrats deserve the beating they have coming, for being such a bunch of wimps.

Most recent example, and why I am writing this, is the Dems decision to punt on the Bush tax cut issue, which is as sure of a thing as you can get in politics.

Well done, Republicans

The other day, Republicans blocked the passage of a bill that would repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". Abusing the filibuster contrary to the designs of the Founding Fathers in order to deprive patriotic Americans the right to defend their country? That is an impressive display of something. I'm actually not really even sure what descriptor to use anymore. Shameless, reprehensible, backward, stupid, evil...none of these really fit.  Is there a word that encompasses all of them?

Interestingly, this really exposes what the conservative opposition to gay marriage is all about. It isn't about defending families, defending marriage, or defending religion. Its about bigotry, homophobia, and hate.  People with a conscience should take comfort:  like every other institutionalized form of bigotry and prejudice, the ban on homosexual marriage will soon end up in the dustbin of history, where our descendants will gaze upon it and wonder how their ancestors could have been such a bunch of jerks.

I'll finish with this comic.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Who is the anti-Christ?

I was reading the other day that a non-trivial number of conservative Christians believe that Barack Obama is the anti-Christ. This is crazy. Not the part about the anti-Christ coming to destroy America; that part is pretty reasonable. What is crazy is the notion that Satan would deliberately choose to come as Barack Obama.

Consider: Satan is supposed to be very tricky. When Satan does come as the anti-Christ, he will need to find a way to be accepted among Jesus Christ's followers - especially the ones who will be on guard for the anti-Christ. What a terrible disguise Barack Obama would be! He is a pro-choice Democrat for one, so that raises red flags (and thus is a bad disguise). After all, whether or not one believes that abortion is evil, there are literally hundreds of millions of Americans who support abortion rights; they can't all be the anti-Christ. Obama also has a funny sounding name; his Dad was a Muslim, he has lived in Indonesia, and he is biracial. These are all attributes that draw attention to Barack Obama, most of which happens to be unfortunately negative (ie, the birther movement of the Tea Parties). Thus, we can conclude that Obama would be a terrible vessel for Satan to use as the anti-Christ. Way too obvious.

They say the wolf will come dressed in sheep's clothing. The anti-Christ will need to blend in naturally with the right-wing Christians who will be looking out for him. Thus I suspect that the anti-Christ will almost certainly be white, although could be either male or female. Definitely will be physically attractive, and a decent orator (which excludes George W. Bush from the running). The orations of the anti-Christ will be very emotional in nature, to appeal to our primal, irrational, and often evil side. Naturally, the anti-Christ will profess great faith in Christianity and may even present him/herself as a Christian leader. Finally, since most of the devout and evangelical Christians in America are Republicans, the anti-Christ will also certainly be a Republican.

Jesus Christ will need to come to earth to save his followers from the anti-Christ. With this conclusion, we can infer then that the anti-Christ will inevitably fool the majority of Christians into following him/her. This makes sense upon further consideration. Satan is supposed to be the Prince of Darkness, and the Master of all Evil. How competent of a villain would Satan be if he could not even deceive the majority of Jesus Christ's mortal followers? Thus, if the anti-Christ is among us, he/her will be held in high regard by a strong majority of evangelical Christians, who will have been fooled by the wolf in sheep's clothing.

We know from Biblical sources that Jesus Christ was apolitical, was an "outsider" in the sense that he did not recognize traditional forms of authority, and that he was persecuted greatly. The anti-Christ will naturally attempt to mimic Jesus Christ in these regards. He/she will pretend to be working for the good of the people as an outsider, and will claim to be viewed by the establishment with contempt. The anti-Christ will also feign persecution by anti-Christian forces, and will elicit a sense of victimization among his/her followers.

In truth, the anti-Christ will be a great persecutor of others. Some of these persecutions will be difficult to see, because the anti-Christ will try to present the perpetrators as victims and vice versa. For clarity, imagine where Jesus Christ would stand on an issue; the anti-Christ would take the opposite stance. For example, would Jesus Christ support the waterboarding of Muslims picked up in Afghanistan or holding men indefinitely without trial in Guantanamo? Of course not, but the anti-Christ will support these positions by pointing out that they are probably all terrorists who want to kill Christians. What would Jesus Christ say about plans to build a Muslim community center in downtown Manhattan? I think he would be OK with it; so naturally the anti-Christ would not. Again, the anti-Christ will pretend that the persecutors (Christians who are willing to strip American Muslims of their rights to build houses of worship) are actually the victims (by claiming that Muslims want to kill or convert Christians) in order to confuse Christians.

Another example: Jesus Christ would certainly not advocate military force to solve our foreign policy problem; the anti-Christ will naturally be more open to those suggestions. Jesus Christ knows that all humans are sinners and that we are all equal in the eyes of God. Jesus Christ would not hold a homosexual in lower regard than any other person. Naturally the anti-Christ will take strong positions against homosexuals, but like always, the anti-Christ will claim that the persecutors (Christians who wish to deny homosexuals equal rights, such as the right to serve their country in the military) are actually the victims (the anti-Christ will claim that homosexuals want to molest or corrupt children, destroy Christian families etc). Would Jesus Christ support rounding up illegal Hispanic immigrants like criminals and shipping them back to Mexico? Nope; so the anti-Christ will, but will pretend that Americans are the victims instead of poor immigrants, by claiming that Hispanics are committing crimes, stealing jobs, abusing public services, et cetera.

I do not know how soon the anti-Christ will come to destroy America, or if he/she is already here doing this evil work. I suppose it is also possible that the anti-Christ works through multiple people at the same time to advance Satan's evil agenda. In any case, I think I have established a useful set of descriptive factors, so that we may potentially identify the anti-Christ(s) and work to marginalize him/her. As a recap, here are some possible attributes of the anti-Christ:

- Attractive, well spoken
- Uses emotionally charged language, induces strong emotions in others
- Could be male or female
- Caucasian race
- Republican
- Christian, with generally high marks from Christian groups
- Claims to be a political outsider
- Pretends to be persecuted
- Political support for the persecution of others

I am not really sure if there is anyone in American life with all of these attributes, but if there is, we should really watch out for him/her.

**** UPDATE ****

I swear I knew nothing about this soon-to-be-released book, "The Persecution of Sarah Palin", until days after writing this post.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

American Enterprise Institute on the Bush tax cuts

Long synopsis here:

A summary.  We cannot afford to extend the middle class tax cuts because of the deficit, but we can afford to extend the tax cuts for the top 2% despite of the deficit.  I kid you not, that's the argument they are making.

The thing is, I don't actually doubt that extending cuts for the rich but not the middle class would promote faster overall growth.  Of course it would!  But there is more to an economy than purely GDP. 

Economic growth over the last two decades has been quite unbalanced, with increasingly stark wealth disparities.  You don't need to be a socialist to think that uneven economic growth is a bad thing for a society.  What is more difficult is figuring out what to do about it.  Instead of those solutions, what is coming out of AEI is a recipe for how to continue economic growth for the top 2% and stagnation for the middle classes.  I wouldn't blame someone for not being thrilled about that.

The right has only itself to blame for the expiring of the top Bush tax cuts.  I've no doubt that Obama would have agreed to an extension as a quid pro quo for Republicans playing ball on some other issue (cap and trade maybe?).  Alas, Republicans have refused to cooperate on a single issue.  Now Obama is presented with a tempting opportunity to be the economic populist that the GOP portrays him as.  I don't blame him for seizing it.

In Mexico, a war every century.

Interesting Op-Ed in the NYT.  Money quote:

"But this is not the way things are. We (Mexicans) are dealing with a situation generated, to a great extent, by the market for drugs and weapons in the United States and by the refusal of many Americans to recognize their own portion of responsibility in these tragic events. The drug war will have to be resolved on both sides of the border.";jsessionid=8BE04864C366600E2B0CAE00E236544C.w5?a=660860&f=28&sub=Contributor

Thursday, September 09, 2010

"Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings."

***** UPDATE *****

1. More regarding point 4 below, where I connect the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim sentiment with the political aspirations of the GOP. Here is Andrew Sullivan elaborating on that point: "You reap what you sow. You turn a benign Muslim community center into a "stab in the heart" of Americans (in Sarah Palin's words) and someone soon will up the ante." The fact that Palin herself doesn't support the Koran burning is irrelevant. If you help ignite a fire, don't try to claim innocence when it starts to burn out of control.

2. Terry Jones totally chickened out. He says he canceled the burning because the NYC Imam agreed to move the mosque there. This is BS for two reasons. One is because the NYC mosque organizers promised no such thing. Two is because Terry Jones' motivation for the burning never was the NYC mosque. He was doing it because he claimed the book "is full of lies", and he probably thinks he is doing God a favor by burning Korans. Presumably he still believes that. My money says the real reason he canceled the burning is because getting death threats isn't as fun as it sounds. He is a fraud to begin with (read about his ministry in Germany), so I'm not surprised that he bailed on his publicity stunt when he realized he might actually be in danger.

3. The Westboro Baptist Church has promised to stage a Koran burning if Jones backs out. This is not surprising. We have 300 million Americans, many of whom are crazy. We have all seen how much attention someone can get for threatening to burn Korans, so I definitely expected someone to repeat, although not to quickly. As I said before, the real story here is that Muslims world-wide just need to grow up and realize that throwing a temper tantrum every time someone insults their religion isn't going to repeal the 1st Amendment.

***** END UPDATE *****

That was Heinrich Heine in 1821. I read this quote with connection to the Florida Pastor's decision to stage a "Quran-burning day" on 9/11 this year. A few thoughts on that:

1. Burning books is fundamentally un-American.

2. This pastor has a right to make a fool of himself and his 50 followers.

3. If I was a Muslim I'd be most bothered by the predictably childish reaction to the burning, not the burning itself. That is, millions of Muslims worldwide with apparently nothing better to do will have a childish, almost Pavlovian reaction to this "insult". They will work themselves into a tizzy and probably dozens of people will die because of some irrelevant stunt pulled by some jackass in Florida, United States, of all places. Such a reaction is a sign of intellectual weakness, of insecurity, and of backwardness.

4. There is a very clear connection between the mainstreaming of attacks on Islam and the political inclinations of the right. A majority of Republicans think that Obama is a Muslim or is not an American. This is not novel. The right does this sort of thing all the time. Hispanics, homosexuals, and atheists are the tried-and-true scapegoats; Muslims are a more recent addition. These tactics are proven; they work very well. They don't make America a better place.

Thursday, September 02, 2010


Not to say that hyperinflation in Germany was a good thing, but it actually took place many years before the Great Depression and well before Hitler took power.  It wasn't hyperinflation that led to Hitler coming to power, in fact, it was the Great Depression.  Hyperinflation in 1920's Germany was certainly disruptive but in the aftermath Germany was not left in a terrible economic situation.  After all, when there is hyperinflation, what did people do?  Consume and invest.  A rich man would build a factory, or a house, or purchase equipment, anything rather than let the money get eaten up by hyperinflation.  Once the economomic picture settled down, all of these investments still had real productive value, as France discovered shortly thereafter.
On the other hand, consider deflation.  People with debts are worse off:  think of middle class people with mortgages, car payments, student loans, etc.  These people will seriously struggle and certainly will decrease their discretionary consumption (think of American farmers in the 1930s).  Now consider the rich:  people who may have a bunch of liquid assets.  They have every reason to sit on their fortune rather than invest it.  They will postpone purchases for as long as possible so that the money becomes worth more through deflation.  This means less consumption, and less investment.
I can understand why inflation is something to be avoided in general.  However, from my rudimentary economic knowledge I'd think that given our current contractionary situation, inflation might be a good thing while deflation will exacerbate the problem significantly.  Right now we are on the verge of a deflationary spiral, whether or not people want to admit it for political reasons. 
Disclaimer:  there is a conflict of interest to this post.  I am sitting on approximately $ 200,000 dollars of student loan debt (as are most medical students).  So I stand to gain a lot more from inflation, which will eat away my debts, than deflation, which will exacerabate them. 
Too much deflation and I may be forced to flee the country.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ignorant or Malicious

I think the organizers are mostly the latter, and the attendees are mostly the former.
It is funny though that many conservatives are saying that Muslims should not build a mosque anywhere near ground zero out of sensitivity for the victims of 9/11 families.  There is an obvious parallel to this rally in the pre-civil rights oppression of African Americans, incidentally by a cohort of Americans then that is remarkably similar to the average tea party protester today.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

I love Ron Paul.  His recent rant about the demagogery surrounding the NYC mosque is a classic piece.
Money quotes: 
"The justification to ban the mosque is no more rational than banning a soccer field in the same place because all the suicide bombers loved to play soccer."
"Conservatives are once again, unfortunately, failing to defend private property rights, a policy we claim to cherish. In addition conservatives missed a chance to challenge the hypocrisy of the left which now claims they defend property rights of Muslims, yet rarely if ever, the property rights of American private businesses."
"It is repeatedly said that 64% of the people, after listening to the political demagogues, don't want the mosque to be built. What would we do if 75% of the people insist that no more Catholic churches be built in New York City? The point being is that majorities can become oppressors of minority rights as well as individual dictators. Statistics of support is irrelevant when it comes to the purpose of government in a free society—protecting liberty."
Ron Paul was and is the only true conservative of the Republican Party.  All of these other fools...Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell and the like, are frauds.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Super interesting article about a Chinese Lt General

Democracy is the most powerful weapon:
I personally think China will surely democratize smoothly in the next few decades.  There really won't be a defining moment; it will be a gradual process.  The Chinese authoritarian state is/will gradually morph(ing) into a one-party state with increasingly full civil liberties.  Eventually it will look like Japan for the last 40 years, where the dominant political party held control but politicians competed for control of that party.  Opposition parties may compete, but will generally do poorly.  Finally one day, an opposition party will win an election, but hardly anyone will notice, as happened in Japan last year.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

On the mosque "at ground zero"

Sam Harris is not OK with the mosque because he believes that Islam is unlike other religions and that previous Western liberal tolerance towards Islam betrayed weakness.

I disagree with him on several counts. The first is the issue of Islam being a violent religion in passage. That, it undeniably is. There are quotes in the Koran that invoke violence. But at the end of the day - what does that prove? Nothing, really. There are violent sections of the Christian bible. And furthermore, people do not need religion to make them evil - they can do that on their own. They also don't necessarily become evil because of religion. In other words, even though Islam does advocate violent action in certain parts, it does not follow that Muslims are destined to become violent. No doubt someday they will mostly come to ignore their religious tenants just like we have here in the West.

The most important point of disagreement is the context of our tolerance. There is a fundamental difference between European tolerance and American tolerance of Islam. Europeans were tolerant from a position of Muslims on that continent not being well integrated into the society at all, an extremely anemic European growth rate, and a very robust Muslim birth rate from a relatively high starting base population. In other words, Europeans are tolerant of Islam out of weakness.

In the United States, we can be tolerant of Islam for different reasons - we can be tolerant because of our strength. We do not have to fear Islam because we know that it poses no threat to America. Why? Well for starters, American Muslims are far more integrated than European ones. This is a testament to our melting pot society, which has an almost limitless capacity to absorb and welcome newcomers. Muslims succeed in America, and they feel welcome in America. Furthermore, they represent a very tiny proportion of the population, barely 1%.

Americans should not worry about the mosque near ground zero because we are strong enough such that we don't need to. Allowing the mosque reflects our confidence and strength, even though a similar situation in Europe might have reflected weakness. This partially explains the European tendency lately to overreact in bits of anti-Islamic hysteria (the Swiss, the French); they are compensating! Nobody in the world will question that our allowing the mosque is from a position of strength - except maybe all of the unpatriotic Americans who are expressing their vote of no confidence in their country by whining about this issue.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Bombing Iran

"Netanyahu’s belief is that Iran is not Israel’s problem alone; it is the world’s problem, and the world, led by the United States, is duty-bound to grapple with it."

This is a quote from Jeffery Goldberg's recent comment in The Atlantic. I will admit that the Iranian Republic of seven years ago is different from the one of today. Then, there was a widespread distribution of power among clergy, the religious assembly, the Supreme Leader, Ahmadinejad, and the Revolutionary Guards. Now the more moderate clergy has been sidelined, and the more extremist Revolutionary Guards and their leader Ahmadinejad have consolidated power.

The nation looks more like a police state / dictatorship than it did seven years ago. I absolutely hate WW2 analogies, but I actually think it is appropriate here: Iran now looks like Germany in 1932, where the brownshirts and the SS were on the brink of a major consolidation of power within the nation. So too may the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Ahmadinejad be poised.

Any time power gets more concentrated, it is unstable, and more dangerous - especially when the people in whose hands it is concentrated have apocalyptic religious beliefs, and thus are likely irrational and hard to deter. So before having finished the article, I will say that the thought of a military solution to this problem does not turn me off nearly as much as it did previously.

If I was Obama, what would I do? I would tell the Israelis flat out that settlements in the West Bank stop TODAY if they want our military / diplomatic support in a year from now if things get a bit hazy. If we have to go to war, we have to go to war. The world has to know that we at least did everything possible to prevent that eventuality, which Obama has virtually done, save successfully restrain Israeli provocation in the West Bank.

The chicken or the egg?

Actually, I am pretty sure that scientists recently figured out which came first.  Anyway, I sometimes wonder:  are Americans short sighted, gullible, and stupid because this is the dismal state of our national media?  Or is our vapid and useless media just catering to a hopeless audience?  I mean, Fox News for example certainly did not invent stupid, it just profits from it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Chinese docs and patients

I did a month long surgery rotation in China in April.  When I came back, I told people (friends, family, docs) that American surgeons have it lucky:  if the patient does not do well, the worst that could happen is we get sued.  In China, you get sued and you get beat up by the patient's family.
I don't think people believed me when I told them this, or maybe thought I was exaggerating.  I'd tell them that if a patient had a bad outcome, the docs in some places would wear a helmet to work the next day.  And I'd get this look like "Nick, you're full of it."
Quote from a recent NYT article.  "In 2006, patients or their relatives attacked more than 5,500 medical workers, reflecting wide discontent with China's public health care system."
See?  I wasn't exaggerating.  American doctors have it great.  Our patients generally respect us.  They only sue us 5% of the times when they could.  And, they don't beat us up when things don't go well.

quote of the month

"There's still this notion that we should build big roads everywhere because the car represents personal freedom. Well, that's bullshit. The truth is that most people are prisoners of their cars."
This comes from a great article about traffic and road congestion, and the future of American urban planning.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Barack Obama is a better man than I

Apparently he has initiated regular face-to-face meetings with senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

It would have been really difficult for me to do this sort of thing given the extremely low opinion I have of McConnell in particular. But this sort of action is really the thing that Obama promised for his presidency. "Change" was never about being liberal or moving the country to the left. That had been done before. It was about consensus seeking and bipartisanship. Just because the Republicans have downright refused to play government thus far does not make Obama a less bipartisan politician.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Gay marriage

Many people agree:  government is too big, it shouldn't be involved in private affairs, and individuals should be free to live as they wish so long as it doesn't harm others.

Many of those same people would however disagree that the government shouldnt be involved in private affairs vis a vis marriage.

I guess they think gay marriage will harm others?  Id be interested to hear an argument for that position that couldn't be extended to outlaw all sorts of "amoral" behavior, thus destroying the separation of church and state and turning America into a theocracy.

And then of course many of these same advocates of private freedom of government intervention might also oppose homosexual military service, again because I somehow should believe that gay military service harms others.  Even though every other western nation allows it, including Israel.

Everyone likes big government when it suits them, I guess.

Monday, August 02, 2010


My rule of thumb is that more access to more information by more people is always a good thing. And even in the case of Wikileaks, it is a good thing. If the war in Afghanistan is going so poorly that we have to lie to the American people about it, maybe we should reconsider how or whether to fight it. Anyway, I think that nation-building in Afghanistan is, while perhaps an exercise in futility, not a grave threat to world peace. I would think Wikileaks could really do a much better job at promoting world peace if it figured out a way to get information to citizens in countries like North Korea, Iran, and other places with tons of censorship. More information to more people = better, after all, and Americans already know Afghanistan is not going well.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A government bail-out that you won't see the Tea Party complain about

Continued federal subsidies to farmers. So much for the whole "free market, small government" capitalism thing that they're always talking about.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Obama and BP

One thing I'd like to point out in light of all of the GOP attacks on the way Obama treated BP. Republicans have asserted that the 20 billion dollar escrow fund is a "shakedown" and that it is unlawful. Granted, they all backed off because they realized that it was politically a bad position to be in - but was there any merit to their position? I would argue no.

I agree that it would be illegal if Obama was trying to force BP into putting 20 billion into escrow, since damages claims should go through the tort system. But from what I know, Obama simply asked BP to do it, and BP complied instead. This is a subtle difference, but a relevant one.

If someone was to rear end me on the road, I could ask them to give me a few hundred dollars in cash. It would be convenient for both of us, after all. That way, I wouldn't have to deal with the courts, I wouldn't have to call the police. The person who hits be benefits as well, since their insurance won't find out and they end up paying less in the long run. That being said, if the person who hit me refused to give me a few hundred bucks cash, theres no way I could force them to do it. Instead, I would have to use the court system, and would probably try to get more than just a few hundred bucks in damages for my inconvenience.

Obama wanted BP to put 20 billion in escrow because it will result in very rapid payments to people who are injured financially by this oil spill. Obama benefits from this because it is going to be good politics - people will see that he made action on the issue, that people are going to get paid, and that BP is punished. Yet, BP stands to gain as well and I have no doubt that this is one of the reasons they complied with Obama's request. BP knows that using the tort system, they would have had to paid out huge sums of money anyways. Furthermore, not being seen by the American people, investors, the world as cooperating would probably injure their long-term bottom line by damaging their reputation.

Besides Obama and BP, I think the people on the gulf coast are going to benefit from this as well. It took decades for the Exxon Valdez oil spill damages to get paid out to some of the claimants. The tort system is a slow and cumbersome beast. It obviously is the judicator of last resort, but there is nothing illegal about avoiding the tort system if all parties agree.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Strategic Default

Former Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. on strategic defaults: "Any homeowner who can afford his mortgage payment but chooses to walk away from an underwater property is simply a speculator — and one who is not honoring his obligation.”

When I read that quote, I thought it was one of the most audacious things I had ever read. The entire world banking system was on the verge of collapse two years ago until it was rescued by the Obama administration. And the reason it almost happened was because bankers on Wall St. were recklessly speculating with the savings of American citizens. Who wasn't honoring an obligation? Regular citizens are held to a higher standard than banks?

Meanwhile, here are the Republicans going after strategic defaulters. Again, these are the regular citizens who have made a business decision that their home is no longer a smart investment. These citizens decide to cut their losses and walk away - and suffer the consequences in the contract, which state that they must surrender the property.

There may be an economic explanation for widespread strategic defaults should be discouraged, although I don't really see it at the moment. It is certainly bad for the housing market *now* but it wouldn't be bad for a housing market *in general*, since the threat of strategic default would serve as a powerful incentive for banks to not feed housing bubbles or try to profit off of them. At any rate, its pretty heinous to see the Republicans go gung-ho about pursuing regular Americans and forcing them to stick with bad business decisions when Mitch McConnell and the Republicans have been defending Wall Street from any regulation whatsoever.

If anyone remembers, Jim Cramer (of Mad Money) went on the Daily Show a couple years ago and got a beat down by Jon Stewart that was so complete that it was actually awkward to watch the show and Cramer looked like he was going to cry. Well the reason that Cramer caught Stewart's attention in the first place is that on Mad Money, Cramer referred to Americans who were walking away from their mortgages as "losers".

I'm just trying to figure out how in our culture, corporations and banks who f*ck up beyond belief deserve to be preserved, bailed out, and protected from any regulation. But average Americans, who don't do finance for a living, when they decide that they can no longer afford a mortgage and walk...what are they? They're "losers", who "aren't honoring their obligations". It is just too ironic that the only reason many of these citizen defaulters were in those mortgages in the first place is because banks were giving home loans people with bad credit for zero money down.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Oil

I think one important point that keeps getting lost on impatient Americans is why BP was drilling in the first place.  They were drilling because Americans refuse to use less oil.   BP had to drill because our energy policy for the last decade has been "drill baby, drill" when especially after 9/11 it should have been "conserve baby, conserve".  We didn't want nuclear power or mass transit.  We wanted SUVs and strip malls.  We went to war for it.  Now the gulf is paying for it.

The saddest thing is through all the whining and bitching about this oil spill, nobody is talking about how we reduce our dependence on oil.  We need a gas tax, nuclear power, and public transit - and soon.  Until we decide to make a sacrifice I seriously am sick of the whining about BP, who did the job we paid them to do, with risks that were clearly not part of the fee but that should have been (this is why we need an oil tax).

Friday, May 21, 2010

Welcome to the 21st century

Pakistan blocks facebook because some Westerners were having a Muhammad cartoon drawing contest.

In a single generation, people in many underdeveloped nations around the world have been catapulted from traditional local society into modern globalized societies. It has been an extremely difficult transition for many people, most visibly for people in many Muslim-majority nations. Americans take it for granted that in the United States, our modernization took place over more than a century. We had time for social movements to gradually challenge societal norms.

For example, In the 1920s-30s we experimented with prohibition, and then decided that drinking alcohol is OK. We came to accept political involvement of women early in the century as well with women's suffrage. Civil rights for minorities and women's liberation developed over the next few decades and culminated in the 60's. Acceptance of homosexuality has been a gradual process over the decades as well, and look how far we still have to go. Maintaining the separation of church and state, as the Founding Fathers intended, has been a constant battle - but it has been an important one, to keep religion out of politics.

Imagine if the USA of 1900 was thrust into 2010 in a matter of a couple of decades. America in 1900 afforded women and minorities few rights. Homosexual behavior was unthinkable, at least in public. People were far more religious and would have tolerated religious assaults far less than Americans do today. Alcohol would soon be made illegal. This is a world not hugely different than the one seen in many Muslim countries today.

Muslims around the world need to develop thicker skin. I believe the freedom of speech is the most important right that Americans have, and that means I have the right to draw a picture of Muhammad without being threatened for it. Liberal apologists of Islam in particular need to remember that - it is the fanatics who are threatening violence, and not the people who are drawing pictures of Muhammad, that are the problem here. That being said, the visceral reaction we see to something so innocuous, such as in the case of cartoons of Muhammad causing Muslims to flip out, is the result of basically a massive culture shock experienced in those Muslim nations.

Americans wouldn't have behaved any differently in 1900 if people in some other country were mocking Jesus Christ or desecrating Bibles. We would have thrown a temper tantrum, too.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Double standards

I think this article brings up a good point.

Case 1: Harvard University bans military recruiters from campus because the US Military discriminates against homosexuals.

Case 2: Harvard University accepts the donations of princes from Saudi Arabia, which executes homosexuals, discriminates against women and religious minorities, et cetera.

I can accept case 1 or case 2 but not both.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The death of conservatism

The problem: online social media (twitter, facebook) is too liberal. The conservative solution? I bring you Ricochet:

"The distinguishing feature of Ricochet will be its unique format, which promises to look unlike any other site on the net. "It will not be a news aggregator, or a megachat like Daily Kos, but instead will be a feed like Facebook or Twitter or Tumbler," says James Poulos, Ricochet's managing editor. Approximately 40 contributors will have an online conversation that is akin to a conservative cocktail party."

The name of this new network is actually spot on. "Ricochet"; as in an idea bouncing around a closed room with hard walls. I cannot think of a more perfect analogy for the conservative mindset of today. Actually employing superior arguments than liberals is apparently not an option anymore. Conservatives just want to sit in a 40-person echo chamber and repeat their mantras:

No more taxes
No more debt
No cutting spending
No Mexican people
No black presidents non-American citizen presidents
No ending wars
No alternative energy
No regulating banks
No regulating oil companies

Sounds like a pretty effective strategy to me.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A job for the Tea Party Movement?

That is, if they are serious about protecting our liberty, and stopping the inexorable rise of a bureaucratic monstrosity of a government which tramples on the Constitution. From Greenwald:

"A bipartisan group from Congress sponsors legislation to strip Americans of their citizenship based on Terrorism accusations. Barack Obama claims the right to assassinate Americans far from any battlefield and with no due process of any kind. The Obama administration begins covertly abandoning long-standing Miranda protections for American suspects by vastly expanding what had long been a very narrow “public safety” exception, and now Eric Holder explicitly advocates legislation to codify that erosion. John McCain and Joe Lieberman introduce legislation to bar all terrorism suspects, including Americans arrested on U.S. soil, from being tried in civilian courts, and former Bush officials Bill Burck and Dana Perino — while noting (correctly) that Holder’s Miranda proposal constitutes a concession to the right-wing claim that Miranda is too restrictive — today demand that U.S. citizens accused of terrorism and arrested on U.S. soil be treated as enemy combatants and thus denied even the most basic legal protections (including the right to be charged and have access to a lawyer)."

And for what danger are we prepared to surrender some of our most precious rights?

You are 13 times more likely to die in a railway accident than from a terrorist attack
You are 12,571 times more likely to die from cancer than from a terrorist attack
You are six times more likely to die from hot weather than from a terrorist attack
You are eight times more likely to die from accidental electrocution than from a terrorist attack
You are 11,000 times more likely to die in an airplane accident than from a terrorist plot involving an airplane
You are 87 times more likely to drown than die in a terrorist attack
You are 404 times more likely to die in a fall than from a terrorist attack
You are 17,600 times more likely to die from heart disease than from a terrorist attack
You are 1048 times more likely to die from a car accident than from a terrorist attack
You are 12 times more likely to die from accidental suffocation in bed than from a terrorist attack
You are nine times more likely to choke to death on your own vomit than die in a terrorist attack
You are eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist

Americans are a bunch of excitable little children. The Founding Fathers would be embarrassed that we are their legacy.

Addendum: a picture is worth 1000 words...

Laura Bush: hippie?

I didn't see this coming. The former first lady believes that women should have abortion rights, and that homosexual should have the right to marry. In fact, she urged her husband to not make gay marriage a major political issue in the 2004 campaign.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Now you know how I feel...

...every time someone in America claims the world is only 6,000 years old. Behold: the Iranian equivalent of the American creationist.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Dealing with the sexual abuse crisis

Pope Benedict shows that he gets it:

"This we have always known, but today we see it in a really terrifying
way, that the greatest persecution of the church does not come from
the enemies outside but is born from the sin in the church," he added.
"The church has a profound need to relearn penance, to accept
purification, to learn on the one hand forgiveness but also the
necessity of justice. And forgiveness does not substitute justice."

The rest of the Catholic hierarchy needs to follow Benedict's example.

Monday, May 10, 2010

"No lesbian is qualified to sit on the supreme court"

That's the American Family Association's view of Obamas pick.

Its funny that conservatives are surprised that everyone thinks that their Tea Party protests have racist undertones. Maybe its because of bigotry against homosexuals? Or racial profiling laws in Arizona that would make the Gestapo proud? Or racial profiling at airports?

I mean if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck...
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Thursday, May 06, 2010

I'm not always right

Actually, I originally thought Joe Lieberman was a loser, so I was initially right. Then for some reason I warmed to him. He has been solidly back into my loser category for some time now, though. Here is Joe:

"I think it's time for us to look at whether we want to amend that law to apply it to American citizens who choose to become affiliated with foreign terrorists organizations, whether or not they should also be deprived automatically of their citizenship and therefore be deprived of rights that come with that citizenship when they are apprehended and charged with a terrorist act."

That's right. If you are accused of terrorism, you are stripped of your rights and presumably then shipped to Guantanamo. Awesome.
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This is why it is important keep American forces in Afghanistan so we can beat the Taliban:

Because if we don't, they will manage to find mentally unstable and technically incompetent American recruits to fail to start really big fires in Times Square.
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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Spy game

A great read if you like WW2 history, spy stuff, or both.
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An analogy

Imagine you live in a one room house without plumbing. Your much wealthier neighbor has a far larger house, and has plumbing to boot.

Now imagine your neighbor strolls into your house, goes to the middle of your one room, pulls down his pants, and takes a crap on your floor. When asked why he does this, he simply says that he was worried that his toilet would clog and overflow onto his bathroom floor, which his servant would then have to clean up. Better to just go to the bathroom elsewhere, he says.

I read something that was quite eye opening the other day. Nigeria has experienced massive oil spills almost on a yearly basis. The reason is because most nations don't have the strict regulation on oil drilling that we do here in the states, so oil companies operating elsewhere have a worse track record from an environmental point of view. When there is an oil spill off of the US coast, we are up in arms, but when it happens elsewhere those citizens can't really do anything about it.

So here's the kicker. After this Gulf of Mexico incident, what I hear a lot of Americans saying is "hey, maybe we shouldn't drill off of our coasts as much, and regulate it more carefully when we do". But what I don't hear as many Americans saying is "hey, let's use less oil".

If we are using the same amount of oil, but less comes from our shores, that means more comes from the shores of poorer nations - nations who are less politically able to stick it to the oil companies when they mess up. Since more oil will come from weaker regulatory areas, that means in net there will be more oil spills because of this Gulf of Mexico disaster, not less. But the spills won't be off of OUR shores, so its not our problem, right?

The solution: gas tax. Why do you think Europe uses so much less oil than we do? They have smaller cars, more public transit, and walkable cities because they tax gasoline so much more than we do. Start the tax small, gradually increase it over 15 years so as to let our economy absorb the impact with ease. Take the tax money and pay down the deficit, fund alternative energy research, hell just give it all back to the citizens as a tax return. That is an energy policy that would reduce oil spills. Not to mention the geopolitical benefits of reducing our dependence on terrorist-funding oil.

The response to the Gulf of Mexico spill is not "drill baby, drill...just somewhere else" - it is to use less oil. But I mean, the most powerful response we could have had to 9/11 was to use less oil, too, but we didn't do it then either.
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Sunday, May 02, 2010

Finding humor in racial controversy

A third year law student @ Harvard got herself into some hot water for
the following remarks:

"I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans
are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. I
could also obviously be convinced that by controlling for the right
variables, we would see that they are, in fact, as intelligent as
white people under the same circumstances. The fact is, some things
are genetic. African Americans tend to have darker skin. Irish people
are more likely to have red hair."

Obviously, there is an academic taboo on the questioning of any
group's average intelligence. And, as much as I am a person who
generally doesn't like thought taboos, this one is a relatively
acceptable one because when a cause for a problem is found, the search
for other causes might also cease. I went to the London museum once
and read a quote by a rich man who was convinced that the poor
vagabonds and riff-raff on the streets were just the unintelligent
half of Londoners. But amazingly, some of these people were sent to
Australia and prospered. The problem wasn't intelligence, it was a
lack of opportunity. Similarly, up until about 1980 China was dirt
poor and experiencing no economic growth. To have assumed that the
cause was a lack of average intelligence among Chinese would have been
clearly incorrect.

At any rate, I laugh at the outrage of this comment by this Harvard 3L
because the strict, literal interpretation of what she said is
actually, undoubtedly, and unquestionably true. The whole concept of
race, from a genetic point of view, isn't particularly water tight.
That being said, we can still attempt categorize human populations at
least from a basis of recent shared ancestry since some groups of
people split off and multiplied in relative isolation. The legend is
that the Japanese were originated from 1000 Chinese sent to the island
by the emperor. Those 1000 Japanese were of course genetically
Chinese, but by sheer luck some genes among those 1000 might be over
represented or under represented; furthermore, you have other
indigenous groups that those 1000 may have had contact with. This is
known in evolutionary biology as the founder effect, and its an
important cause of diversity. Thus the modern population of people of
Japanese descent undoubtedly has a different genetic composition, on
average, than people from mainland China - again, by sheer luck.

We could classify groups of humans in any numbers of ways (which as a
complicated variable is part of the reason this can be so touchy -
because people with ulterior motives can draw the maps based on their
biases), and then *in theory* we could quantify the attributes of
those groups. And the averages would undoubtedly be different,
probably ever so slightly. Nobody of course gets into hot water when
they remark that the Dutch are the tallest people in the world, but
there are genes for height as well as for intelligence. And in fact,
to deny that intelligence lacks a genetic component is actually to
deny the theory of evolution. The entire theory of evolution is based
around the principle that advantageous genes get selected and
propagated. If intelligence wasn't at least partially genetic in
character, it never could have been selected upon, and humans never
would have had the runaway growth in intelligence that we saw in human

So cut up the human species any way you like...say by those whose name
starts with "K" rather than "L", and you'll find slight genetic
variation among the averages. How useful is this? Well, not very
useful. For one, as I mentioned above, the separation in the first
place is very arbitrary. Second of all, while height is very easy to
quantify, intelligence is not. I for one am convinced that there are
probably dozens of subcategories of intelligence. Some people are
more creative, some people are more street smart, some people are more
book smart, some people are better at reading emotions, more musical,
better at organizing, or whatever. We really can't quantify
intelligence in a meaningful way, so at least until we can its not a
very promising place to be looking for the source of our problems.

So back to this law student's original statement. Taken literally, in
the first sentence she said something that is undeniably true: it is
possible that African Americans are less intelligent. But of course,
its also possible that they are more intelligent. And it also depends
on what aspect of human mental function we are analyzing, and it
assumes we can measure that function with perfect accuracy, and that
we know the complex relationship of nature and nurture in the
formation of intelligence. Since we don't know any of those things,
its kinda silly to say one way or another. Actually, it was her
second sentence that really struck me as the racist one, not the first
one. In the second sentence, she sets white people as this sort of
intelligence benchmark that maybe African Americans could hope to get
close to or even reach.

Moral of the story. Intelligence is at least in part genetic, and
there will undeniably be at least some differences in intelligence
between groups depending on how you chop humanity up. But
intelligence is a really complicated thing, and so is anthropology,
and we cannot even begin to quantify intelligence, or to categorize
humanity in a meaningful way. Thus, to tie the two together when
making social observations is unscientific, and probably ill advised.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Drill Baby, Drill

Just a reminder that empty slogans that pretend to deal with our
energy problems can still have consequences:

Oil will run out. We can find an alternative now or later. The
question is whether or not we want to destroy huge areas of the United
States in a last ditch effort to sustain or addiction, or start
weaning ourselves now. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Iraq update

Politics in Iraq aren't just deadlocked - they are regressing. It has
yet to spill into massive bloodshed, fortunately. One thing I do know
is that it certainly isn't time for conservatives to start
retrospectively describing the invasion as an enormous success.

The troop surge was not an end, it was a means. The surge didn't
establish a stable democracy in Iraq, it simply gave a (probably
small) chance for that outcome. Don't be so foolish as to confuse the

The fate of Iraq lies in the hands of the Iraqis, of course. We could
occupy Iraq with 500,000 troops for the next twenty years and still
fail to establish a self-sufficient, stable democracy.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

You stay classy, Republicans in Arizona

The new hispanic racial profiling law that just passed there is an embarrassment to our democracy. Its funny that Republicans liken Obama to Hitler - and yet, this sort of policy would be a better fit in Nazi Germany than the USA. National Republicans support it, and it is another issue on which John McCain sold out.
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Friday, April 23, 2010

Palin on Obama's new arms reduction treaty

Here is Miss You-Betcha:

"We miss Ronald Reagan who used to say, when he would look at our enemies, he would say: 'No. You lose. We win.' That's what we miss. And that is what we have to get back to. No administration in American history would have considered such a step."

Palin's astounding stupidity never ceases to amaze me. This woman was almost a frail heartbeat away from being the President of the United States. John McCain is incredibly irresponsible for picking her as a VP.
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