I am furious over a discussion I had with a co-worker today, not because of the position she took is wrong, where mine was right. Rather it’s because the position she took is accurate. We were discussion politics, though no particular issue (and I took no sides on any). I stressed the importance of facts and logic, she stressed that actual power comes from manipulating public opinion.

In essence, we’re both right (I’m just a little more right). Because power comes from the people (at least in democracies and republics), in order to have power one must have the support, or control, of the people. There are two basic ways to do this: 1) convince the people their best interests lay with you and your agenda, 2) manipulate the people into following you whether or not your agenda is good for them.

Her argument seemed to say that not only do politicians take option 2 more often than not (something I agree whole heartedly with), but that it’s the “right” option to take. I rather believe that option 2 is destructive and option 1 is the best bet for the long term. Allow me to explain.

If you have a rational agenda and can explain the merits, flaws, and expectations of a particular policy or piece of legislation, then you gain lasting support. People who don’t like the merits or see the flaws as outweighing them will be against it, but those who can live with the flaws or consider the merits worth it anyway will be for it. Plain and simple. Of course, there will always be your base. If you’re on the left, a certain group of leftists will be for anything you do. Likewise, if you’re on the right a certain group of rightists will be for anything you do.

The thing is there’s those pesky independents and swing votes. They’re the ones who decide elections, therefore it’s they you need to be concerned about. If you choose option 2, and your policy turns out to be a disaster, you’ll lose their trust for a long time. However if you choose option 1, and things go badly, you’ll still have their trust because we all saw the outcome as a possibility worth the risk.

Still, I can’t watch a single day of politics without seeing option 2 put to full use, especially when politicians and pundits debate important issues. And I rarely see option 1.

As an example, let’s take a tiny piece of the Health Care Reform law recently passed. While the bill was being debated, those on the right of things claimed “unconstitutional mandate!” It became almost a battle cry. The argument even seemed sound. The left’s response to this? “There’s no mandate!”

So, who do we believe? Neither side provided any facts, references, or anything. Everything was an appeal to emotions, attacks on their opponents, and other more subtle formal fallacies in pithy little sound bites.

If the right had only said: “in section XYZ it states ABC. See? Right there – mandate” we could have known they were right. Likewise if the left had said “in section XYZ it states ABC. See how that’s not a mandate?” it would have settled it. Instead they fight and bicker for months over this issue (and others) without providing one solid fact to hang the argument on.

This is option 2. They don’t talk about the actual tangible expected benefits, the merits of the policy, admitting the flaws and explaining why they haven’t dealt with them. The other side doesn’t do it either. Instead they fill your head with promises of things they want you to believe the policy will do, without really showing how those things accomplish the goal or even how the policy does them. It’s all an attempt to manipulate the people into delegating our power to whomever is most masterful.

And that just makes me sick. If a policy is will do one thing for the country, no amount of hoping or manipulating will make it do another. Likewise, if a policy won’t do that thing, no amount of hoping or manipulating will make it do so. It’s not even a matter of opinion. Certain things WILL bankrupt the country. Others will make it more solvent. Certain things WILL erode freedom. Others reinforce it. Opinion only comes in on whether we WANT the outcome, whether the outcome is good or bad, not what the outcome will be. Only the facts and logic can tell us what the outcome of a policy will be.

Meanwhile, the country languishes while two parties compete to see which set of policies will destroy it while convincing the people one side is the good guys and the other bad. I say they’re both bad!

Until we see more truth in politics (ie. facts and logic), we will never make meaningful progress on any of the major social issues facing us today (and for the last few decades for that matter).

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Beast

March 27th, 2010

Beast Screenshot Beast Screenshot

A remake of a 1984 game with the same title, Beast is a game of strategy and speed for 1 or 2 players. Squish or trap beasts, crush eggs before they hatch into stronger beasts and avoid dangerous blocks.

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It struck me quite suddenly how the sub-prime lending meltdown with all the associated money madness that nearly caused a market meltdown resulting in bailouts that angered most and a recession that’s hurt many, is connected to Health Care.

Many years ago (30 if you believe some stories), the government decided it wasn’t fair that certain people couldn’t afford to buy a house. After all, it is the American Dream. Someone probably even mentioned it was “a right” to own your own home.

Naturally, the government had to do something. So it forced banks to lend money to people who were at high risk of not paying them back, people who had little or no money for a down payment, no collateral, etc. These people would lose little more than their credit rating if they simply walked away and paid nothing back to the banks.

To manage the risk financial institutions were forced to take on these mortgages, they came up with all the monkey business we’ve heard about. The assumption was that by grouping high risk mortgages together and buying securities (credit default swap, etc.) on them, they could sell them around and reduce their individual risk.

This was all well and good until the risky mortgages started to show why they were risky. So many people were defaulting on their loans, some because they couldn’t afford them, others because they were totally irresponsible, more yet because they were convinced they could afford them. The result of all that buying and selling of bundled debt and securities on that debt was lower individual risk, but unacceptably high systemic risk.

So it all fell apart and only ridiculously large sums of money from governments around the world kept the economy from collapsing (or so we’re told).

So goes Health Insurance (not the same as Health Care). Health Insurance is a bet. When you buy health insurance, you’re betting you’ll get sick. The insurer is betting against you. If you get sick, you win the bet and the insurance company pays. If you don’t get sick, the insurance company wins and you pay (your premium).

Insurance companies disallow preexisting conditions because it isn’t a fair bet. If you’re betting you’ll get sick when you’re already sick, that’s cheating. There’s probably ways the insurance companies take advantage of this rule, unfairly excluding people, particularly those who were cut off of their insurance just when they got sick, but that’s not the issue here.

Each bet insurance companies make is a risk. They try to balance the risk by charging appropriate premiums so they can pay out potential insurance claims, pay their employees, and make a profit in the process, which is the whole point of running a business. Decent profits allow them to grow and expand coverage and make more policies. Exorbitant profits should show consumers they don’t play fair (or possibly are just winning a lot of bets at the moment).

Once again however, the government has stepped in saying “it’s not fair.” This time, it’s not fair that people can’t afford insurance or are being excluded for preexisting conditions, etc. Instead of changing the rules so valid preexisting conditions are covered while others may still not be, the government has simply said, “Insurance companies can’t deny coverage based on preexisting conditions.” Or essentially, “Insurance companies have to cover everyone, or else.”

Insurance companies will essentially be forced to take on excessive risk, resulting in much more money going out in claims, so more money must come in.

“That’s okay,” the government says. “Everybody must buy insurance, or else.” This the government says so insurance companies have a chance at balancing risk. If healthy young people have to buy insurance, it’ll help pay for the older or sicker people to get health care, instead of simply waiting until they’re old and sick to get insurance.

Sounds like a win for everyone, right? Possibly. If all the rules are written just right, it might balance risk well enough to allow insurance companies to continue operating in the long term. But if there’s anything wrong with the rules, risk will be unbalanced and we’ll be headed for a health insurance crisis on the scale of the sub-prime mortgage fiasco.

Further, mandating that everyone buy insurance is outright unconstitutional. I buy insurance. I like having insurance. But I don’t think the government has the right to mandate that I do so. I’ve heard all the arguments and they fall flat. Car insurance is not required, unless you want to drive on public roads. Regulating commerce is not the same as mandating that commerce take place. Promoting the general welfare is not the same as mandating the purchase of a commodity.

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I hear a lot of argument about whether or not the proposed Health Care Reform bill will be deficit neutral. Proponents of the bill claim it will be deficit neutral by means of taking money from other areas of spending, reducing fraud, and raising taxes. Opponents claim it won’t be, pointing out that three or four years of taxes will be collected before any benefits are paid (as if that’s proof against deficit neutrality), claim some of the money is double counted, and that reducing fraud won’t work (or they’d already be doing it).

The truth of the matter is no one knows. We can put our best people and their best calculations on solving the question, but even if they decide that after all the money wrangling involved in the bill, it comes out to be deficit neutral – or even better, reduces the deficit – it isn’t good enough.

What we should be worried about is whether the bill will reduce our health care liability. By liability, I mean the amount we, the government, and we, the people, spend on health care each year. If all the bill is doing is throwing more money at the problem, that’s not a solution, it actually worsens the problem.

Allow me to explain. The government, like each of us has a limited capacity to earn money. We do it by working at our various occupations, the government does it mostly through taxation. In our case, there’s only so high a salary the market will bare. The better we are at our jobs, more experience, etc. the more the market tends to bare. The worse or less experienced, the lower the salary.

Taxation follows a different set of rules, but it still has rules. The Laffer Curve is one representation of those rules. Summarized, it goes like this: If the government wants to increase revenue, it can do so by raising taxes, so long as it is on the left side of the curve. Once it passes the peak, raising taxes any further will tend to reduce revenue. This is due in part to those people and companies that are taxed the most will start moving to where taxes are lower, or finding loopholes in tax laws that allow them to pay less, when the tax rates start to get too high. It is also because taxes are a drain on the economy. Drain too much at one time and the economy as a whole suffers, resulting in lower tax revenue for even higher tax rates.

I don’t know where we currently sit on the curve, so raising taxes might still be a reasonable thing to do. But if we raise taxes now to pay for supposed Health Care Reform, if the reform doesn’t also include real and credible methods of “bending the cost curve” downward, more taxes will eventually have to be raised again and again to keep the program “deficit neutral” until we pass the peak point on the curve and start to head down the back of it.

The only thing I’ve heard about this bill’s effort to actually reduce costs has to do with two things. First, I hear payments to doctors from the government will most likely be reduced further for government plans such as Medicare. This isn’t reducing the cost of health care, it’s cheating doctors and patients on other insurance plans. Those costs that aren’t paid by the government are subsidized by other patients who are charged more for their services. This essentially helps drive up the cost of health care for those of us not on a government plan.

Second, they propose that by getting more people insured, the cost of insurance will go down. This isn’t necessarily true. Without an individual mandate to purchase health insurance (which many believe is unconstitutional, myself included), there is no reason an otherwise healthy person would buy health insurance. By disallowing preexisting conditions as grounds for denying insurability of a person, people will be allowed to buy insurance when they get sick. In other words, healthy people won’t buy insurance, but sick people will. Sick people then will need coverage, something more expensive than their premiums so insurance companies will either go bankrupt, or raise their premiums more.

If anyone knows how else this bill is supposed to actually reduce the cost of health care, I’d sure love to know. The above two points don’t even address the cost of health care itself, just of health insurance. Either they love to conflate the two, or they don’t understand the difference between them. Health care costs are the costs of doctors, facilities, medical supplies and pharmaceuticals. Health insurance costs are the payments we make to a third party as part of a contract that if we need medical care, they’ll pay a predetermined type and portion of the costs.

The real problem isn’t that health insurance costs are skyrocketing, it’s that medical care costs are skyrocketing. We can weep and wail and gnash our teeth about insurance companies making profits, and there’s real legislation we might pass to mitigate that “problem” without directly penalizing them for being successful capitalists, but it’s still not addressing medical costs.

What health care reform needs rather than more money thrown at it (not that money won’t or can’t help), is actual reform. We must do something to control the costs of health care, not insurance. If we open up the insurance market, the market will take care of the insurance costs, but only if we do something about the real problem.

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A Few Words on Gravity

March 12th, 2010

One regularly used and specious counterargument to the objection that a scientific theory is “just a theory” is to point out that gravity is also “just a theory.”. The implication (sometimes explicitly stated) is that since no one would doubt that gravity exists, no one should doubt whatever other theory is being considered.

I say the counterargument is specious for good reason. Gravity is a fact. There is a phenomenon we call “gravity.” The “Theory of Gravity” however is science’s attempt to describe the phenomenon in a quantifiable manner, ie with a model. Over the course of history, science has developed many models for gravity. Each one has in time been proven to be either wrong, or incomplete. The current Theory of Gravity describes gravity accurately so far as we can tell, but one would be foolish to rule out a future advancement that might revolutionize our understanding of gravity.

For example, we observe strange and unexpected gravitation in the universe at large. We don’t have a good explanation for this behavior as of yet, but many have posited “dark matter” or “dark energy” is involved, to make the current gravity models fit.

Meanwhile, we have a good working model for gravity. A large body of experimental data has been shown to agree with predictions the current gravity model makes. In particular, ie. there was a bunch of data that the model had to describe/fit initially, and the model has since accurately predicted future data. For example, if you drop any weight of any shape in a vacuum, shoot a satellite into space, or anything else where gravity is concerned, the model predicts the outcome with a high degree of accuracy. Any lack of accuracy we might observe between the prediction of the model and the outcome of events is generally from other forces involved, such as air resistance.

So, we see that while “gravity is just a theory” it is a pretty good one. The model fits past data very well, one might say perfectly within margins of measurement errors. But more importantly, it accurately predicts future data, such as outcomes of experiments done by physics students do an equal degree of accuracy.

This is vastly different from most of the theories that gravity is compared to in argument. Climate change/global warming for example has no model that is able to make such accurate predictions. It does have a model that fits existing/old data to a degree of accuracy (not as good as the gravity model). But so do many competing climate models. In fact, other models are better able to predict future data. The model itself doesn’t prove or disprove the theory behind it, but the lack of a good, reliable model does place the theory on a completely different plane from that of gravity. One that is much lower and subject to skepticism.

So, please. Stop comparing things to gravity just because both are called “theories.” There is no relation between them beside the fact that the models for each of them might be wrong. It just turns thinking individuals off from your argument. Instead, if the “theory” has merits, discuss them.

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Any scientific subject, once sufficiently politicized, warrants skepticism, particularly by those who philosophically oppose, or disagree with those who willingly, recklessly, and religiously embrace it. Skepticism is even more warranted when politicians, not scientists are making all the arguments. Particularly since everything in politics seems to be a means to an end.

Now by “skepticism” I don’t mean to say we must deny or prove false the science in question, but we must carefully examine the science, scientific process used, and especially those scientists involved in it to make sure the matter is in fact scientifically supported or whether it is partially or wholly false or at least not certain.

One blog I read is written by a Statistician, William M. Briggs who regularly comments on the science, and particularly the math and statistics of the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) theory that is so often touted as “settled science.” There are several points which he grants the AGW side is accurate. Firstly, it is clear that we humans have an impact on our environment, and that impact can be both positive and negative depending on our behaviors and the scale of them. Second, it is well known that we pump loads of CO2 into the atmosphere each year and we have every reason to believe that CO2 is a global warming gas (if that’s not actually proven beyond doubt, there’s very good evidence for it).

The point where he debates that AGW is at least “not settled” if not so wrong it needs to go back to the chalk board, is in their models. According to our statistician, and common sense, any good model should do two things well. Number one, it should accurately model, or fit existing data upon which it is built. Number two, it should accurately predict future data, or data not yet in the model and disjoint from the data already in the model.

So far, again according to Mr. Briggs, the AGW models have succeeded at the first requirement, but failed at the second. Does this mean (ie. prove) that AGW is false? No. It does however mean that the science is not only “not settled” but has a lot of work to do before it is.

Mr. Briggs further argues that there are other models for climate that also fit past data and actually do a better job of predicting future data. Does that mean these other (non-global warming) models are correct? No. The wonderful thing about models in this debate is they don’t really prove anything. Yes, a model that accurately predicts future data is compelling and useful, but it is not proof. And the failure of a model to predict future data devalues the model, but doesn’t prove the theory false either.

Mr. Briggs is the first to admit he might be wrong and AGW might be as true as anything. But he makes the point many times that the scientific process is flawed to the extent that the scientists involved are flawed, and that any number of biases, errors, or mistakes resulting from individual or collections of scientists could be present and probably are. In answer to the objection that the science is “peer reviewed” he often brings up studies or articles that were also peer reviewed that are either meaningless, ridiculously flawed, or blatantly wrong.

Again, none of this means that AGW isn’t happening exactly as the scientists say, when the models aren’t predicting the new data accurately, scientists refuse to examine themselves, their own biases or their process of peer review, there is plenty of reason for skepticism.

Furthermore, when politicians pick up any topic of science, I almost have to add the “so-called” prefix to the word “science.” Politicians are smart, smart people – they somehow convince the voting public that they’re better than the alternatives, so we vote for them. They do this by argument, debate, and rhetoric. Mostly, lately they do it by promises, smears of opponents, flattering blocks of voters, and a never ending series of logical fallacies. In this political arena, science is often held up as the great light of reason and truth amid the quagmire of lies, propaganda, and maneuvering that is so prevalent in politics. In this struggle for power, whenever a politician (or political party) sees something in science that might help them gain favor, power, or influence, what reason do they have for not holding onto it?

Now, if both sides immediately sees the value and truth of that science, there’s no political gain to be had, everyone just nods and says “yep that’s how it is” and moves on. Occasionally there’ll be a propaganda war or smears that the other side doesn’t value the particular science, but that ends pretty quickly as the public comes to understand the positions of the sides are actually equal.

But if one side or the other looks at the science and sees a problem with it, or at least that it might not be true (science is always wrong, until it’s right), the side that embraces it can use that opportunity to gain power and influence, while at the same time belittling and smearing opponents. I can think of a number of examples that I will go into later if there’s interest.

This is exactly what has happened with AGW, the democrats have latched onto AGW and republicans have been mostly skeptical. For this democrats have smeared republicans as “deniers” putting them on the level of Holocaust deniers, implicitly and explicitly. This is not unexpected. If republicans had latched onto some bit of science that could change the world, and democrats resisted it, I’m sure mud would be slinging in the opposite direction.

The key points I’m getting at are: 1) Skepticism is both a healthy and necessary part of science 2) Skepticism is not “denying” truth 3) Politics muddies science 4) Science isn’t perfect 5) No one should believe in an aspect of science because politicians say it’s so (or actors or people standing to gain lots of money, etc. – they’re all politicians too even if not in public office).

Mr. Briggs makes very good arguments for all of my points (although imperfect ones in some cases). Again, AGW may actually be happening. That’s what skepticism is: saying “I’m not so sure” rather than “that’s not true”. Yes there are people who believe AGW is false, some rationally, others irrationally. Also, there are those who believe AGW is true, some rationally, others irrationally. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about skeptics. And anyone who would demean a skeptic of any science, particularly one that is far from proven (“scientific consensus” isn’t proof), would also demean the scientific process.

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When I was a child it was always a big deal for my family to see a movie. Unless one was showing on television, we didn’t often rent movies and even less frequently go see one in the theater. When we did then, it was a special experience.

I don’t know if it was this, the novelty of movies, or their big budgets resulting in stronger performances, better visual effects and music, or perhaps my limited attention span (being only a child), but I found myself gravitating towards movies quite preferentially when given the choice between them and regular television, more especially when given the choice between them and books.

Perhaps it was well then that my parents rationed movies. I may never have read anything or come to appreciate books the way I do now. You see, as I get older I find my attention span is much longer than it was years ago. The result is an increased appreciation for long running television shows with continuous narratives (not like The Simpsons where each episode is essentially stand alone), and even more so for long book series.

Even as recent as three years ago (before the kids were born) I appreciated a good movie. Sometime between when they were born the last six months or so, I find I can’t even enjoy a book that’s under 350 pages, unless there’s at least one sequel. I suppose the reason for this is that I enjoy a long narrative. A good movie may introduce an interesting universe, problem, cast of characters, and more, but it has to resolve everything in under two hours, or four to six if there’s a sequel or two. An average novel gives you around ten hours (unless you read really fast) and that still feels short for me.

In contrast, a single season of a television series gives you around twenty episodes. Giving about forty minutes per episode it comes out to a little over thirteen hours. Almost adequate for me. Some series give twenty-two to twenty-four episodes per season, which comes to maybe sixteen hours. Assuming the format is not just episodic, but also gives sufficient time to a continuous narrative, I like single season series.

But what I really like (in television) is the long series (5+ seasons) which gives a continuous narrative and especially ones where there’s loads of character development throughout. Absent a good series to watch, I prefer the epic fantasy novel series where each book tends to average near 1000 pages and there’s at least three, sometimes twelve or more books. That can take quite a number of hours to read, and can really involve you in a narrative.

I suppose what drew me to movies in the past was the flashy effects, music and other big budget bells and whistles, where what draws me to entertainment media now is the story, rich with character, change, and plot. Those things are just harder to attain to in a movie where you only have an hour or two to do everything.

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Last time I wrote about socialism. I relayed a story about a professor who graded his class as an average of everyone’s performance, and discussed how it was a valid single dimensional example of how pure, true socialism fails under the weight of human nature.

This time I’d like to write about capitalism. I don’t have a story I consider to be as cute or pithy that derides capitalism, but given the current economic and political climate, I feel there is enough sentiment both toward and against it that I really don’t need one.

To be clear in what I mean by “capitalism” let’s define it thus: A system (economic and social) in which property, business, and industry are owned by private individuals and not by the state. In particular, any products, results, or outcomes that each individual is able to accomplish belongs solely to that person or to those persons with whom it has been contracted. This is in opposition to the socialist tenant that outcomes ought to be shared equally. Capitalism gives each person two main things that socialism fails to, those being 1) the threat of failure, 2) the incentive to excel.

First, the threat of failure. In a truly free market, everyone is free and otherwise left alone to accomplish what they can or, importantly fail to. This means there is no free ride. No one is going to bail you out if you can’t stay afloat. More accurately, no one is obliged by the system or government to bail you out. This threat of failure is a good motivator for those who would like a free ride. It keeps them productive and puts the burden of their support squarely on their own backs.

Second, the incentive to excel. If anyone by his or her intelligence, work ethic, supreme talent, or other superior ability is able to produce more than someone else, they are able to keep what they earn. Since many of us like comfort much more than the daily struggle, the incentive to work harder or be better at something keeps us on our toes and allows many of us to achieve higher standards of living and much comfort.

This is about the extent to which capitalism wins out over socialism. But capitalism isn’t without its flaws. Take for example the Industrial Revolution. During this period the flaws of the capitalist system reared its ugly head so clearly that it couldn’t be ignored, even this many years later. Many business owners, particularly in the rising industries, succumbed to greed (ah, that human nature again), were so focused on profit (ie. capital) that they abused and exploited their employees to get it. Since nearly every business was doing it there was nothing the working class people could do. Working conditions worsened, salaries sank, health, and living standards as a whole suffered. If someone were to complain, they’d most likely be fired on the spot and replaced by the end of the day by someone who’d keep his mouth shut.

This is where unions came in. Workers united and basically forced businesses to treat them fairly. Improvements didn’t come all at once, but the relative respect workers enjoy today is largely due to the unions, even in non-unionized work places. But unions, it turns out, are a lot more socialist than they are capitalist. You see, unions are there to protect each member (except when they’re not), and collectively ensure the good of the whole. This is a socialist tenant. Capitalism would dictate every person should take care of his or her own self.

My point here isn’t to say that capitalism is bad, or that socialism is bad – or that either of them are good for that matter. My point is that in capitalism, if everyone plays by the rules and does what’s right , actually works for everyone. But then it is also true that in socialism, if everyone plays by the rules and does what’s right, it works for everyone too.

So why so much criticism of both capitalism and socialism (especially socialism)? Because not everyone plays by the rules and certainly not everyone does what’s right. This is human nature. In capitalism this leads to a few getting very wealthy while many become very poor, the vast majority being somewhere in the middle. Many aren’t paid what their work is worth but what those above them can get away with, while others are paid much more than what they’re worth. In socialism this leads to apathy and lower standards of living for everyone, except perhaps a small ruling class that doles out the diminishing results of everyone’s labors.

It seems then to me that the best system would be either the right mix of capitalism and socialism, or a completely orthogonal system I’m not aware of as of yet. We certainly want everyone to be paid what their work is worth, and we don’t want to demonize or punish the wealthy just because they worked harder. Further, we’d like to be sure those who absolutely can’t take care of themselves are taken care of. The important thing in seeking a system isn’t looking for one that looks good on paper, but looking for one that matches the people, their morals, desires, and motivations, then applying the right set of limitations and rules to catch and penalize those who would exploit the system.

That system, as far as our country is concerned, looks a lot more like capitalism than it does socialism, but it contains elements of both. It’s been a long time since we were purely capitalists, and the people clearly don’t want to be socialists. Many are uncomfortable with the degree of socialism we have already while others feel the problems we face are caused by capitalism. Both sides have merit to their arguments, but less than they think. Even so, supposing we continue to “progress” closer to socialism, I doubt very much that any of the core ideals of capitalism will ever be given up without a fight.

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I recently heard a news commentary that referenced a story about a professor who taught his class about socialism by applying it to their grades. Supposedly, the outcome was progressively diminishing grades until everyone essentially gave up and failed the class. Disbelieving the account, I looked it up on Snopes.com.

Apparently the account is a legend, probably written as an object lesson by a staunch capitalist and circulated via email for years before being posted on various websites in various forms. In further research, I found postings where hot debate ensued between socialists and capitalists about both the meaning of the story, the validity of the story (assuming it was even true), and whether that evil professor wasn’t breaking a number of rules by grading that way. I also found an amusing reversal where the professor graded capitalistically and the wealthy kids ended up buying their work to get all the A’s while the middle class kids had to drop out to create the work for the wealthy and the poor kids got neither A’s nor money for their work.

Among the primary criticisms I read against the socialist grading story was that it wasn’t true socialism. Those making this point argue that those with greater ability should/would tutor the kids who struggled until everyone got an A, or at least a B. Other criticisms indicate that this wasn’t real socialism for one reason or another, often including that old “means of production” line.

But let’s be clear. If you boil down socialism to it’s core principle, you get the following: equal opportunity or apportioning of the outcome to each individual, contributed to by the whole. Since socialism is intended to work in a society, the ideal is that everyone would get equivalent pay for equivalent work, whether they’re farmers, laborers, businessmen, scientists, or whatever. Whatever people produced would be taken by the whole (be that the government or other organization), divided up fairly and equally and each would get his or her share.

As an ideal, I like socialism. Under socialism we’d pay anyone who worked in the basest jobs, those necessary for our society to exist, the same thing we pay everyone else. After all, we need them to do those jobs so we can do these jobs right? Of course, right.

The socialist grading story actually does that, but in one dimension. We can debate whether the students should have helped one another or not, but in the story they didn’t. More importantly, in historical attempts at socialism, they didn’t, so that aspect of the story is valid. The point of it is this: some students were able to produce a lot (ie. get an A), while other students weren’t so able (ie. B-F). Likewise in a society under socialism, some will not be able or willing to work and necessarily be subsidized by those who produce more than them. By averaging the grades, the professor in the story does in one dimension what socialism would do to all dimensions: take from all what they produce, average it and return the parts to each.

So far so good? The story could have continued with the smartest students continuing to perform well. Other students, buoyed by not getting failing grades, might then have worked harder to bring up the average and the class would have taught that mean old professor a lesson. Of course, the story doesn’t go that way, and neither does society.

Welfare has been a significant cost to our country for decades. And it wasn’t until limitations were put on it that the roles of those receiving it finally diminished. Why is that? Welfare is a little like socialism. We take from those who have and give it to those that don’t? On the surface that’s good. But what happened with welfare? While, yes, many people are ashamed to be on welfare or want to support themselves and get off as quickly as possible, there was an increasing number of people who just wanted free money so they could do nothing. The same is true for all of society. If you tell everyone they don’t work, they’ll be supported by those that do, a certain fraction of the population will drop out and live on the work of others.

So, the writer of the story was not wrong to project the student’s who did poorly but got good grades (relative to what they deserved) wouldn’t work harder. What about those students who earned an A on the first test but got a B?

Here we get to incentive. Some people are naturally hard working, they do as much as they can because that’s just what they do. Most of the us though need incentive. In school, I worked hard because I wanted that A in every possible class. If just learning stuff was good enough I probably wouldn’t have worked as hard. The same is true for society at large. There are a number of professions that are extremely demanding, hard, and require incentives for there to be enough of them for there to be any benefit to society.

Doctors for example. They have many years of training in addition to what most of us get, just to be able to do what they do. Then they have to deal with difficult problems, difficult people, long days, limited personal and family life, and so on. Without incentive (ie. more money to be made) most doctors wouldn’t have bothered. Yes, some would have, but there’d be a severe limitation on availability. So, the writer of the story was correct to depict the students who initially performed well, backing off and performing progressively poorly on the tests.

These two aspects of socialism, the free ride, and lack of incentive, are the backbone of the argument against socialism. True, socialism doesn’t espouse these qualities in the ideal definition, but they come as part of human nature.

So my conclusion here is this: The story is a good object lesson about socialism, not executed according to the ideal, but according to history and human nature.

Next time: Capitalism, or Comparing Oranges to Moldy Apples

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Software and Health Care

February 24th, 2010

Recently, at work I was given the task of improving a piece of software that ran slowly, consumed far to many resources and was far to rigid to perform any more than the single task for which it was originally created. As I began looking into the code, I discovered that worse than all that, the code was an utter mess and there was absolutely no way I could may even the most marginal of improvements without starting from scratch.

So I did. While I worked on recreating one part of the software, a colleague of mine worked on another. Eventually, I finished my parts and got to testing and tuning his parts. As I went, I continually tested my new code and ideas against the existing system to ensure the new product was better than the old one. With little exception, the new product ran at least twice as fast as the old, consumed fewer resources and was flexible enough to handle the original task as well as a wide range of current and future potential tasks. I was pleased.

Then I got to the code my colleague worked on. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it on the surface. Given ideal and even the least ideal circumstances we imagined the software might face, it appeared it would run faster than the old code, perhaps even two or three times faster. Yes, we had to admit it would consume much more memory, but the speed improvement would be worth it as the old software was far too slow.

But once I got into testing against the old software (like I did for the parts I worked on) I came to a stunning and all together disappointing realization. First, we were consuming far too many resources which was bringing the hardware to its knees, even more so than the old software did. Second, and far worse, we were running as much as seven to ten times slower.

So what happened? Even in far from ideal circumstances the software should have easily out performed the old software. The answer was simple: circumstances were even farther from ideal than we thought. This made our software (which was smart enough to deal with even the worst case) take much more time and resources dealing with the terrible cases it faced. Unfortunately, this was the standard case and our beautifully crafted software was far from adequate for the task.

So I worked tirelessly (then tiredly) for weeks trying to squeeze the new code my colleague wrote to get the performance out of it that we needed. After all, we couldn’t go back to the old software since it was a nightmare to maintain and too rigid for even current tasks. But finally, I had to admit there was nothing I could do.

Nothing short of rewriting it yet again myself. So I finally threw away the code my colleague wrote and started from scratch for a second time. Carefully considering how the old software did the task, comparing it to the flexibility of how our attempted solution was designed, in the space of just two days, I wrote a solution that not only consumed fewer resources, but ended up running two to three times faster than the old software.

Yay for me, right? Sort of. If it hadn’t been for the original implementation I wouldn’t have known what works well. If it hadn’t been for the second implementation I wouldn’t have known how bad the circumstances were the software faces, and wouldn’t have seen how that can effect performance. While I’d like to claim a stroke of genius here, I pretty much have to say it was the process of elimination: we already did everything that wouldn’t work, then I did what would.

This, it seems to me, is like the Health Care debate/bill in the United States Congress today. Clearly, the current system isn’t working for everyone, and increasingly for anyone. It is slow, cumbersome, expensive and getting more expensive at a rate no one can afford in the long term. The Federal budget already devotes a huge percentage to health care related programs and will continue to have to devote more money to them, else abolish or diminish them. So, President Obama rightly made it his agenda to “fix” it, by asking Congress to create a piece of legislation that would somehow make things better.

There’s probably a lot of good things in the bill Congress eventually came up with. I hear there’s some sort of tax incentive, rules against insurance companies dropping patients when they actually become sick. There’s probably a lot that’s good. However, there’s enough that is – let’s call it “less good” – about the bill that public opinion has turned sharply against it. Some examples of “less good” qualities of the bill include throwing money at states wholesale just to win votes from their senators/representatives.

Does that mean we should keep the current system as is? Absolutely not. Many people still want reform, just not this reform. Like my software system, the original health care system isn’t working like we want and consumes far too many resources. But if the new system is only being approved by a slim margin (if indeed it gets that much) because votes were effectively purchased for it, how much better can we hope it will actually be? Reform yes, for the better? Maybe not.

I don’t expect us (by “us” I mean Congress) to just throw that bill away and let it go to waste. I expect us to start from scratch again, taking lessons learned from the current system as well as the bill and try to make something beautiful. I don’t pretend to know what that bill will look like, but whatever it is, it had better not resort to pork, special interests, or any other means of purchasing votes to get through either house. Health care is far too important a subject for any bill to be voted for or accepted for anything other than its merits.

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