Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Rape, Abortion, and the Violinist

Analogies are not always appropriate but I’ll present Judith Jarvis Thomson’s Defense of Abortion from 1971 that framed the Roe v. Wade debate at the time. The essay is quite a bit longer and presents other arguments in favor of abortion rights, but here is one part:

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you." Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. "Tough luck. I agree. but now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him."

The strength of this analogy is that Thomson is not denying that a human life is involved, or even that of a legal “person”, she is asking whether the lives of all persons should be protected, and to what extent that protection should be mandated by law. Does the individual have any determination as to how their body should be used. We can try to convince the life-giving donor to acquiesce to a certain moral code, but is it right, or even possible, to mandate it?  

What is your moral responsibility to the violinist, and what is the government’s role in protecting the life of the violinist at your expense? Can personal morality be legislated to this degree? Certain moral codes, such as that of the Roman Catholic Church, are very clear on the sanctity of human life, no matter the “method of conception”, even if it is rape.

Mitt Romney has said that he will protect the woman’s right to abortion is cases of rape-- this week anyway--but that could change by January since he seems to waver on this and every other issue. Alternatively, Paul Ryan, who could very well be the President in the event of Romney’s death, is very adamant about his views. He says that human life is so precious that abortion should be disallowed in all instances except where the mother’s life is in danger.  Ryan says that rape is merely a “method of conception”, and the method of conception doesn’t matter.

Personally, I find this clip chilling. But in Ryan's defense, this is exactly the stance of the Republic Party platform.


Thomson continues later in her 1971 essay:

My argument will be found unsatisfactory on two counts by many of those who want to regard abortion as morally permissible. First, while I do argue that abortion is not impermissible, I do not argue that it is always permissible. There may well be cases in which carrying the child to term requires only Minimally Decent Samaritanism of the mother, and this is a standard we must not fall below. I am inclined to think it a merit of my account precisely that it does not give a general yes or a general no. It allows for and supports our sense that, for example, a sick and desperately frightened fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, pregnant due to rape, may of course choose abortion, and that any law which rules this out is an insane law.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Bill Nye: Creationism Is Not Appropriate For Children

And I say to the grownups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need people that can—we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.

MY COMMENT: One thing that still puzzles me is the ability of many very intelligent individuals to deny the full elegance of Darwinian evolution.  I think theistic evolutionists, as found for example in the Roman Catholic Church, are the most puzzling. They can understand the process of genetic mutation and natural selection, the age of the earth, the fossil record, molecular biology, etc, yet persist in the superfluous belief that a god is necessary to orchestrate the process. This brand of creationism is odd to me.

Friday, August 24, 2012

McCain: "GOP is wasting its time..."

From AZ Family:

PHOENIX -- Arizona Sen. John McCain says his party is wasting its time at this year's national convention by calling for constitutional bans on gay marriage and abortion...

...McCain also questions part of the Republicans' tough stance on illegal immigration, specifically a section that would deny federal funding to universities that admit illegal immigrants. 

"I think that's a state issue that the states should decide whether they want to do that or not," McCain said. “My position is that, as a federalist, that's a state issue." ...

...On Thursday, McCain called Akin [the Republican nutjob who said that "legitimate rape" does not lead to pregnancy] an "idiot." He then added that the Republicans need to do a better job of recruiting women into the party. 


My Comment: It must be fatiguing being a remotely sane Republican, having to deal with the constant drone of inane social stances year after year, and it just gets worse every election cycle. This election should be about the economy, and Obama's immense vulnerability as employment lags and deficits mount. If the Republican party just shut the f**k up about abortion and gays for 6 lousy months they might actually win this thing. It should really be a drop kick.

If the GOP had honed to their core principles of truly advancing personal liberties (for abortion and gay rights), and getting government off our backs, they might actually have more loyal voters. Women are always going to have abortions, think of a way to reduce the number, like providing comprehensive health care such as Massachusetts did. Gays are always going to have sex--icky!--, get over it and let them be happy with decent rights.

Instead we have to endure the embarrassing flip-flops by Mitt Romney as he sells his soul for a government job. The guy has more money than God, isn't there a beach on which he could lather Ann with sun tan oil in peace? I hear the Caymans are pretty nice. Here's a video by a fellow Republican:

Embarrassing. It's not like Mitt's running due to some overweening devotion to fundamental principles. He has none. Romney ran away from his hallmark achievement as governor-- Romneycare-- instead of embracing it and promoting himself as the authority on health care reform, just when the electorate could be convinced that we need an expert.

Inexplicably, the Republicans have made the same mistake twice-- they fielded a lethally flawed candidate just like they did in 2008 with Sarah Palin. Srsly. WTF?

I would have thought this campaign would have been a no-brainer, centered around the complex tax code, unemployment and the deficit...all issues that might have traction with moderates...but no, the Republicans go back to massaging their time-worn peccadilloes and fetishes, and wasting their time.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Yet again.

J. D. McPherson-- North Side Gal

(h/t Smokehouse, who, btw, needs to get his own youtube channel, like, yesterday.)

Free Market Medicare Reform Won't Work

Vice-Presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)
Health care is not a free market; never has been and never will be. There are too many competing interests with asymmetric information. Doctors, pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers, hospitals, outpatient facilities, etc. are paid according to necessarily complex formulae. Patients are simply not equipped to make reasonable decisions with any kind of expertise. They just aren't.

The reason Medicare functions is because it is heavily regulated to the point that market forces are expunged. Providers are paid according to a formula and are expected to deliver a product that conforms to a rigid set of standards. The patient is not expected to know if his/her medication is efficacious or his/her surgeon is competent, federal and state regulatory bodies ensure quality. Some decisions are left to the discretion of the physician, but most individuals would be surprised at the lack of freedom doctors have to perform tests or surgery. Strict criteria need to be met before Medicare will pay, and disciplinary action is meted out if the standard of care is not met. For a provider to lose the ability to bill Medicare is professional or business death.

The notion that patients, especially old and debilitated ones, can navigate a "free" health care market is delusional. And the notion that this would save money is downright insane. How do we know this? From the failure of Medicare Advantage, a tiny piece of free marketing, to cut costs or improve quality. On a larger scale, free markets in Medicare would be disastrous.

Peter Orzag summarizes how Paul Ryan's Medicare fix would work. Seniors would have a choice to enroll in a commercial insurance plan, or if too expensive, fall back to traditional Medicare. This is a boon for insurance companies. Like Medicare Advantage, the private carriers will select the healthiest and wealthiest and leave the poor and sick to the government-financed Medicare plan. Orzag:

In 2012, Medicare Advantage bids have come in on average a bit below traditional Medicare costs, analysis by the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee shows. Even more relevant to the revised Ryan plan is that, in 2009, the second-lowest bid in each U.S. county -- which is what the new plan would be based on -- was an average of 9 percent below traditional Medicare, a new analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows.
As [National Review columnist Reihan] Salam wrote, “we have new research which finds that had competitive bidding been in place in 2009, it would have reduced Medicare expenditures by at least 9 percent while preserving access to the Medicare defined benefit for all beneficiaries.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page cited the same analysis and made the same point. Case closed?
No, because there’s very good reason to believe that the 9 percent differential is a mirage -- and that experience to date does not support claims that private plans in Medicare lower costs.To see why, imagine two beneficiaries. One has medical expenses amounting to $150 and the other, $50. The average cost is $100. Now imagine that a private plan bids $90 to cover beneficiaries, so it looks to be about 10 percent cheaper than traditional Medicare. That plan, however, while it is designed to be very attractive to the $50 beneficiary, isn’t appealing to the $150 one, so that person stays in traditional Medicare.
The result is that total costs rise from $200 ($150 for the expensive beneficiary plus $50 for the inexpensive one) to $240 ($150 for the expensive beneficiary plus $90 for the inexpensive one). So even though the plan “looks” like it saves money, it doesn’t. It overpays to cover the $50 beneficiary. (And that’s not even taking into account another factor: that if Medicare’s purchasing power is splintered, its negotiating leverage will be reduced. So the prices it must pay could rise. That would drive up the cost of covering the $150 beneficiary, pushing the total above $240.)
To counteract the selection effect on Medicare Advantage plans, a risk-adjustment process is used. The system has improved over time, but evidence suggests it still does not work very well. The models used to adjust payments can account for only about 10 percent of subsequent cost variation; even the most optimistic estimates suggest they could account for only 20 percent to 25 percent of the variation. This gap allows plans that can better predict beneficiary costs to game the system by selecting beneficiaries who are expected to cost much less than their risk-adjusted payments. (Plans do not always want the least-expensive beneficiaries, but rather those who are the least expensive compared with their risk-adjusted payment. The implication is the same, though: Plans can beat the risk adjustment, and be overpaid.)
How big is this selection effect in Medicare Advantage? The evidence suggests it’s huge. The most careful analysis was reported in a 2011 National Bureau of Economic Research paper by Jason Brown of the Treasury Department, Mark Duggan of the University of Pennsylvania, Ilyana Kuziemko of Princeton and William Woolston of Stanford University. In 2006, Medicare Advantage plans were overpaid by more than $3,000 per beneficiary because they were able to select beneficiaries who cost less than their risk-adjusted payments. About $1,000 of that overpayment reflects what the plans were paid, rather than what they bid. So relative to their bids, the plans were overpaid by $2,000 per beneficiary -- or roughly 25 percent of the bid, on average.
It's all about selection. Traditional Medicare today is actually run fairly efficiently, mainly because they have pricing power with providers and the administrative costs are lower than private insurers. Physicians accept 80% of their customary fee to see Medicare patients because to do otherwise would close their practices to a large swath of the patient population. Likewise for drug companies, hospitals, etc. Under Ryan's plan, the healthiest seniors would opt for a commercial plan-- at a higher cost-- and leave the sickest seniors to the traditional Medicare. With only the few sick seniors enrolled in traditional Medicare, the program will certainly lose money.
Furthermore, Ryan's plan changes Medicare from a defined benefit program to a defined contribution program. There is no guarantee that costs will be controlled, in fact there is pretty good evidence that costs will skyrocket as per the above example, with the difference made up by either patients paying more or the government funding the shortfall.
Investment tip: If Romney/Ryan win in November, buy United Healthcare (UNH) stock, especially if the GOP controls both houses of Congress. Cha-ching!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Ryan likes to spend money

...but doesn't like to raise revenues. Arithmetic tells me this equals deficits.

Back in 2002, Paul Ryan tried to convince us all that Keynesian stimulus was the only way to save a flagging economy...and that was the THIRD stimulus bill for the late stages of a relatively mild recession. Here is Ryan's impassioned plea for deficit spending when the GOP controlled the White House:

In 2002, Ryan makes the standard case for stimulus to extend unemployment benefits, put people back to work, provide funds to spur demand, and in general, he makes an argument that would do John Maynard Keynes proud. Ryan also correctly points out that unemployment is a lagging phenomenon and that patience is necessary before judgement. 

Now, of course, he's flip-flopped, calling it all "a failed experiment." Granted, the tax cuts and de-regulation certainly failed, but did the stimulus in 2002?

Mediaite notes that, in addition, Ryan voted in 2009 for the Republican version of stimulus that was tabbed at $715 billion. And I'll repeat, just to be complete, that Ryan also voted for every war funding bill, Medicare Part D, TARP and the auto bailouts. And he voted for the Bush tax cuts, and is in favor of cutting taxes for the rich even further by lopping off all capital gains taxes, which would effectively lower Romney's tax rate from 13% (half what I paid) to 0.82%... less than 1% !!!! No wonder Mitt picked him, he's the consummate water-carrier for the economic elite.

How the hell is he going to balance a budget like that? If you think it doesn't mean raising YOUR taxes, think again.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Paul Ryan Blinked (ideologues always do)

A few points.

1. While I agree with this speaker's premise, TARP was hardly the first, although it is the largest, of the government bailouts. Barry Ritholtz has done the play-by-play in his entertaining and informative book Bailout Nation. Beginning with Lockheed and Chrysler in the 1970's, and regressing to the Greenspan easy- money era of irrational exuberance and dollar devaluation, the bailout of Orange County California, Long Term Capital Management, etc, Ritholtz weaves the entire sage up to TARP, which he calls "history's biggest transfer of wealth -- from the taxpayer to the Banksters..."  

2. You don't have to be an acolyte of Ludwig von Mises to understand the damage that eliminating moral hazard does to the economy.  Why should anyone be careful or honest when there is no punishment and all the players will live to see another day?

3. TARP had real losers, and I don't just mean the taxpayers. As referenced in this video, the banks who were not leveraged, who were responsible, had to fund bailouts of their competitors. And investors who saw this debacle coming likewise had to support failing banks with their taxes while perhaps knowing all along that it was a house of cards.

4. And Paul Ryan, the forthright student of Ayn Rand and von Mises, voted for this egregious bailout. This is the essence of hypocrisy and/or lack of conviction. If you don't believe in free markets that's one thing, but if you devote your life to the raw efficiency of free markets then why on earth would you go against those principles right when they are needed the most? Ryan blinked. 

5. Which was proof then, and now, that his whole candidacy is an act. It's bullshit. This talk of the curative powers of free markets is a debating technique left over from high school. When the shit hits the fan, Paul Ryan has no trust that free markets can solve anything.

6. Which brings us to health care. Now Paul Ryan claims he wants to inflict free market theology on Medicare with the hope that it will bring down costs and improve quality. It won't. If any market is encumbered by inefficiencies, risks of spotty access, asymmetrical information, decision-making under duress, potential for malfeasance and cherry-picking customers, it's the health care industry. If seasoned bankers and investment analysts cannot evaluate financial instruments, then how can seniors be expected to comprehend medical efficacy, quality of care and insurance actuarial statistics?

7. Under Ryan's plan, blind and demented seniors (me in 20 years) will be forced to navigate the health insurance market place with a voucher that is projected be worth half of what my insurance will cost. Fraudsters and charlatans will eagerly separate me and my cohort from our life savings-- and who will bail us out? And at what cost?

8. And one final point: Ryan's plan does not require seniors to purchase insurance at all with that underfunded voucher, so what happens when (not if) some demented, blind senior goes into the emergency room with congestive heart failure and no insurance? Who pays for that? And who pays when thousands, or millions, do it? Is Ryan going to repeal EMTALA, too, and let them just die? 

Friday, August 10, 2012

"Whither Conservatism" Redux

The greatest benefit of writing a blog-- since hardly anyone ever reads it but me- ha!- is to review some of the columns to see where my thoughts were on a given date. Four years ago today I penned a blog called "Whither Conservatism." This was during the 2008 election cycle shortly after the Democratic nomination had chosen Sen Obama (not my first choice) and still two weeks before anyone had ever heard of Gov. Sarah Palin. Hard to fathom.

The country's economy was flattening in August 2008, the housing market was punk, but few saw anything like the collapse we were about to experience. I wrote a blog post about George W. Bush's policies, calling them neither conservative or liberal, but coining a new term: "anti-conservative". I predicted how we would have hell to pay at some point very soon, and I rarely make predictions here but that day I did. My basic premise was that we were f**ked and the next President (Obama or McCain) would take the blame. You tell me if I was correct.

I quoted University of Chicago economist Charles Wheelan who said:
...Seven years of fiscal recklessness hasn't solidified a tattered safety net, or fixed a broken health care system, or upgraded the skills base of America's working class, or improved our crumbling infrastructure, or updated our outmoded international institutions... We're spending like drunken sailors, but we're not even getting the hookers and booze...
...Republicans are starting to distance themselves from Bush. There's something pathetic and unprincipled about that, given that they were complicit in the policies that have made him unpopular. If the Republicans truly stood for sensible conservative policies, they would have ditched him six or seven years ago -- and we'd be better off for it...

Wheelan is a smart guy. And I'll repeat this categorically: if you voted for George W. Bush in 2004 then you need to just shut the hell up about spending, any spending. Just shut up, you're only embarrassing yourself. 

I concluded the post:
I would add that the Democrats have been complicit as well to some (albeit lesser) degree. Upon gaining leadership in the House and Senate in January 2007, I would liked to have seen a barage of subpoenas and testimony about the various alleged illegalities perpetrated by the Bush administration. Sure, Conyers, Feingold and a few others have been vocal in this regard, but the Congressional majority leaders have been almost giddy in their silence.
The next president will inherit the worst situational maladies since Carter took office in 1977. Obama or McCain, upon being sworn in, will need to confront two stagnant theaters of war, a worldwide recession of our making, poor relations with our allies, record budget deficits, spiraling health care entitlements, lack of confidence in US capital markets, palpable governmental incompetence-- all of which have been either unaddressed or mismanaged during a lame duck presidency.
The opposing party of whoever wins in November will be quick to tag the next president with the culpability for these problems as they percolate and explode in the next 18 months.
The anti-conservatism of George W. Bush.

Indeed. Of course, it didn't take 18 months, only 2. The market collapsed, triggered by subprime loans and credit default swaps, but it doesn't matter what triggered it, the die had been cast. Spending begot more spending. Bush and his Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson backed up the truck and transferred the Treasury to their banker buddies. TARP and the auto bailouts were a done deal before the next president and Congress took over.

Commenter Eric said at the time-- and remember this is August 2008-- said:
That is how it works: after fucking everything up (Nixon)...the conservatives will blame the democrat for all the problems (Carter)... Then they boot him out of office, elect a new conservative (Reagan), who takes credit for turning things around.... Which was actually done by the Democrat......
You can think that they are stupid.... but it's a Beautiful cycle the Republicans have the Democrats running in... It's like being a rat in a Maze for most Democrats.
The Democrats are worried about making things right.... When the Republicans are just worried about "Getting away with it."
Spot on. And Barack Obama is the latest rat. How come he didn't see this coming? 

So do I have any predictions today? Not specifically. I'm amazed that the American voters have not given up on Obama given the electorate's usual short attention span, but then even in 1980 the polls were still pretty tight until Reagan pulled ahead of Carter in the last month. Still, I will be surprised if Romney does not win this thing in November. That's how the pattern works.

The economic statistics-- and let's face it, every election is about the economy-- are showing signs of life and the US is leading the world out of this malaise, but there is still a a lot of infection. I doubt the developed economies can grow enough to make up for the slowdown in China and India, and Europe is not helping with their bickering and austerity. The most worrisome long term issue in the US entails the structural non-discretionary spending that is cooked into every budget projection. We all know that taxes will need to be raised at some point just to cover the government-mandated entitlements, especially when interest rates start to creep up...but that's another blog entry.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Keepin' it real, yo


From the Youtube site: "The song is characterized by its strongly addictive beats and lyrics, and is thus certain to penetrate the foundations of modern philosophy."


(h/t JB)


Quote of the Day:
“You will not be right simply because a large number of people momentarily agree with you. You will not be right simply because important people agree with you. You will be right over the course of many transactions if your hypotheses are correct, your facts are correct, and your reasoning is correct.”
~ Warren Buffett, in 1962 (h/t Jonathan Burton of MarketWatch)

Saturday, August 04, 2012


Quote of the Day:

"Look, when people want to get married, we ought to let them get married.  We have enough people that won't go and get married. I want to make every opportunity I can for any couple that wants to, to go get married."

~ Gov. Phil Bryant (R-MS)

Can it be? A conservative southern governor is advocating for gay marriage rights?

Nope. Gov Bryant is stuck still fighting the last war: racism. A Baptist congregation would not allow a black couple to be married in their building and forced them down the street to another church. To his credit Gov Bryant seems to have caught up to the 1970's mindset, but when asked about gay marriage, he said:

"I wouldn't say gay couples, no," Bryant said. "I'd say a man and a woman. Let me make sure, let's get that right. When I say couples, I automatically assume it's a man and a woman."