Monday, December 31, 2007

Sony's Chutzpah

Since Sony contends that it's "stealing" to copy music from your own CD to your own computer, let's see how they instruct buyers of their MP3 player's to acquire music - Walkman instructional video: How to acquire music.
So you have your brand new Walkman video MP3 player from Sony. Now let's get some music on it. There are two main ways to get new music for your Walkman video player. You can rip CD's that you already own, and you can get music from multiple online stores. So let's rip some CD's.

I just went out and bought a new album. With the CD in the drive, I can navigate Windows Media player to the "rip" tab....
(They next demonstrate how to rip this Sony CD.)

They strangely forgot to mention that their customers who follow their instructions are thieves.

The RIAA Does It Again....

Why are major media companies so eager to brand their customers as thieves?
Now, in an unusual case in which an Arizona recipient of an RIAA letter has fought back in court rather than write a check to avoid hefty legal fees, the industry is taking its argument against music sharing one step further: In legal documents in its federal case against Jeffrey Howell, a Scottsdale, Ariz., man who kept a collection of about 2,000 music recordings on his personal computer, the industry maintains that it is illegal for someone who has legally purchased a CD to transfer that music into his computer.
Sure, the music industry knows that very few people are listening to CD's in their portable players - almost everybody now uses an MP3 player - and they have to know that if they could find a way to effectively enforce their notion that every one of these customers is a "thief", CD sales would drop to almost nothing. But away they go....
The Howell case was not the first time the industry has argued that making a personal copy from a legally purchased CD is illegal. At the Thomas trial in Minnesota, Sony BMG's chief of litigation, Jennifer Pariser, testified that "when an individual makes a copy of a song for himself, I suppose we can say he stole a song." Copying a song you bought is "a nice way of saying 'steals just one copy,' " she said.
But lawyers for consumers point to a series of court rulings over the last few decades that found no violation of copyright law in the use of VCRs and other devices to time-shift TV programs; that is, to make personal copies for the purpose of making portable a legally obtained recording.
And that makes sense... except, of course, that Congress in its infinite wisdom has criminalized doing so with most DVD's, as most are recorded in an encrypted format.

It's Public Domain -But He Had Better Be Dressed In Green

With Peter Pan about to (once again) fall into the public domain, Great Ormond Street children's hospital is preparing for the loss of revenue from licensing the story:
A vital source of funding for the hospital will come under threat from January 1 when Peter and his Neverland companions are thrust into the public domain. Author JM Barrie bequeathed all the rights to Peter Pan to the hospital in 1929 and they have provided badly needed funds ever since.
In many senses, Great Ormond Street has been a good steward for the Peter Pan legacy. Unlike companies which directly produce entertainment works, and which may guard their intellectual property at the expense of creativity and innovation, Great Ormond Street has licensed the story for adaptations and sequels which depart markedly from the Barrie original, and from what a media company might deem an appropriate depiction of the story's characters. That said, in my opinion, copyright protections are already too long.
When some order was first brought to global copyright under the Berne Convention of 1886, the intention was to reward authors and the first two generations of their descendants, explains Mark Owen, head of intellectual property at law firm Harbottle & Lewis. Copyright now expires 70 years after an author's death.

But in an age where characters and works survive for longer and in more media than ever before, copyright cut-off points are increasingly coming into question, he adds.
Let's be honest - a miniscule amount of the vast body of copyrighted material is of much interest even five years after publication, and virtually none is of interest seventy years after the author's death. The people who are interested in again extending the protection are companies like Disney, which do not wish to see their earliest works fall into the public domain. Nobody needs to be reminded of the irony in Disney's building its fortunes on public domain works, only to repeatedly and successfully lobby Congress to keep anybody else from doing the same with its own creations.

Meanwhile, Great Ormond Street is trying to prepare for a post-Peter Pan future:
Much of the hospital's hopes are down to Peter Pan in Scarlet, the winner of a competition to become the classic's official sequel. Commissioned in 2004, well in advance of the original's copyright expiry, the new tale by Geraldine McCaughrean has already been translated into 37 lanaguages and printed in 40 editions.
I can't help but wonder if the change of costume figured in to why this particular book was the winner. Depict Peter Pan in green, and you're in the public domain, but if you put so much as a hint of red on his costume.... (Here's a review of the sequel.)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Profitability of Gift Cards

A bit more on gift cards as excellent gifts... from the perspective of retailers:
Wasted coupons will be chalked up as the shops' own Christmas present. One US chain, consumer electronics company Best Buy, this year booked a profit of $19m (£9.5m) from unclaimed gift cards.

Retailers also gain from tokens that are cashed in, as customers top them up by an average 40% of their face value.

Spending is even larger on coupons given to staff by companies as an incentive. At electrical stores, the average employee voucher is put towards a widescreen television.

Since an average of six weeks pass before a voucher is redeemed, it serves the the retailer as an interest-free loan.
Not too shabby....

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Airport Security, Revisited

The New York Times finally publishes something sensible on this subject, courtesy of an airline pilot.
Six years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, airport security remains a theater of the absurd. The changes put in place following the September 11th catastrophe have been drastic, and largely of two kinds: those practical and effective, and those irrational, wasteful and pointless.

The first variety have taken place almost entirely behind the scenes. Explosives scanning for checked luggage, for instance, was long overdue and is perhaps the most welcome addition. Unfortunately, at concourse checkpoints all across America, the madness of passenger screening continues in plain view. It began with pat-downs and the senseless confiscation of pointy objects. Then came the mandatory shoe removal, followed in the summer of 2006 by the prohibition of liquids and gels. We can only imagine what is next.
(I can't argue too much with that.)
But of all the contradictions and self-defeating measures T.S.A. has come up with, possibly none is more blatantly ludicrous than the policy decreeing that pilots and flight attendants undergo the same x-ray and metal detector screening as passengers. What makes it ludicrous is that tens of thousands of other airport workers, from baggage loaders and fuelers to cabin cleaners and maintenance personnel, are subject only to occasional random screenings when they come to work.
Makes sense to me....
And rather than rethink our policies, the best we’ve come up with is a way to skirt them — for a fee, naturally — via schemes like Registered Traveler. Americans can now pay to have their personal information put on file just to avoid the hassle of airport security. As cynical as George Orwell ever was, I doubt he imagined the idea of citizens offering up money for their own subjugation.
Or, as Paul Krugman notes, if you're rich enough....

FairTax - The Fine Print

I have long been of the opinion that the "FairTax" proposal is so insipid that it should be an automatic disqualifier for any Presidential candidate who endorses it. My reaction was initially premised on the publicly touted aspects of "FairTax" - look what happens when you read the fine print.... (PDF). (ht: Ilya Somin.)

Monday, December 24, 2007

Health Insurance "Focus" and Cost Containment

The Washington Post tells us,
When it comes to health care, the way policymakers define the problem determines the answer they produce. Democratic presidential candidates tend to focus on the uninsured, Republicans on rising costs. Both are important: The unaffordability of health insurance won't be addressed without tackling health-care costs, but reducing cost growth alone won't solve the insurance problem.
That, of course, is false.
  • Clinton: Right up front, "Hillary's American Health Choices Plan covers all Americans and improves health care by lowering costs and improving quality. It speaks to American values, American families, and American jobs." She explains further that she sees potential cost savings through such measures as prevention programs, chronic disease management, reduction in administrative costs, electronic medical records, improved communication between doctors, and waste reduction.

  • Obama: While Obama doesn't focus on cost containment, his plan summary states, "Senator Obama strongly believes that greater use of health information technology can contain costs and improve the efficiency of our health care system. He introduced the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program Efficiency Act, which would leverage the federal government's purchasing power to encourage increased adoption of technology by participating health plans."

  • Edwards: Provides numerous examples of how costs might be contained, including increased competition, better communication between doctors, lifestyle choices, error reduction, telemedicine for rural areas, and malpractice reform.

So just how do the Republicans focus on "rising costs"? Well, the McCain plan ballyhooed by the Washington Post... doesn't. At least not as they describe it. Instead it removes the tax preference for employer-based health care, and gives employees a tax credit ($2,500 per individual and $5,000 per family) which will be inadequate to replace a typical employer-based policy. I would venture that the Post's own employees receive insurance that costs substantially more.

McCain wants to change Medicare such that it reimburses " doctors and hospitals for treating overall conditions, not performing individual tests and treatments." Pilot programs in this area, the Post notes, have shown little promise. If McCain proposes to extend this proposal to all treatments, the obvious retort is that, given how much of Medicare costs go to end-of-life care, does he propose not paying hospitals, clinics and doctors when their patients die? As for other major costs, such as hip replacement surgery, how would this proposal change anything? Does he propose that doctors and hospitals not be paid until the outcome of treatments are known? Is the goal here to improve Medicare, or to convince doctors and hospitals to opt out? Is this really a shallow effort to put Medicare at a disadvantage as compared to private insurers, who currently cannot compete with Medicare without a hefty subsidy?

Mr. McCain's plan is weakest on the underlying problem with the health-insurance market, in which insurers have every incentive to cherry-pick the healthiest purchasers. "We should give additional help to those who face particularly expensive care. If it is done right and the additional money is there, insurance companies will compete for these patients - not turn them away," Mr. McCain says.
So, to make up for a market failure, we're going to provide such massive subsidies for the chronically ill that insurance companies can't wait to sign them up? Boy... that sounds like cost control to me....

Let's compare the "cost control" focus of the other major Republican candidates....
  • Giuliani: Quality and price transparency to "expand competition and open up new motivation for improving quality and reducing cost", malpractice tort reform, streamline the FDA drug approval process, use electronic medical records. You know... everything John Edwards has said, and less. Meanwhile he proposes a cost increase with the proposal that "Health insurance must be redefined to cover wellness as well as sickness."

  • Huckabee: Huckabee's primary focus is on preventing chronic disease - again, something that will result in (at least) a short-term increase in health care costs under the current system. Beyond that, "We can make health care more affordable by reforming medical liability; adopting electronic record keeping; making health insurance more portable from one job to another; expanding health savings accounts to everyone, not just those with high deductibles; and making health insurance tax deductible for individuals and families as it now is for businesses." That is, an even stronger echo of Edwards and Clinton.

  • Romney: Romney is a strong advocate of individual mandates and big government subsidies to make insurance affordable to all... or was that last year?This year he says, The health of our nation can be improved by extending health insurance to all Americans, not through a government program or new taxes, but through market reforms. - that's the entire summary of his health care plan from his website.

I guess this turns on how the Post defines the word "focus". The Democratic candidates address both universality and cost control. The Republican candidates echo some of the "cost control" ideas of the Democrats, particularly Edwards and Clinton, propose "reforms" which will reduce or eliminate insurance coverage for even more Americans, and... because they mostly ignore the uninsured... the Post describes them as being "focused" on cost containment.

If the Post was trying to achieve balance with that description, it failed.

(Meanwhile, at the Times, we learn that doctors will not turn in their incompetent colleagues or report serious mistakes by other doctors, and that a third will order expensive unnecessary tests - not out of worry of litigation, but simply because their patient asks - perhaps at a testing facility in which they have an ownership interest. I'm not sure that either set of candidates is addressing these issues.)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Visas for Skilled Workers

You could argue that Craig Barrett's editorial in the Washington Post demonstrates self-interest, as relaxed standards for bringing skilled workers into the United States would benefit Intel. But Intel is a huge company - if Intel wishes to open offices in Europe and employ foreign workers under Europe's new "Blue Card" proposal, Intel can be expected to do that.
Despite the hot-button nature of immigration issues, though, E.U. politicians advanced the "Blue Card" proposal in late October.

The plan is designed to attract highly educated workers by creating a temporary but renewable two-year visa. A streamlined application process would allow qualified prospective workers to navigate the system and start working in high-need jobs within one to three months.
The current system in the U.S. is lacking on any number of fronts. First, it is abused by employers who wish to bring in overseas workers at rates of pay significantly below those of domestic workers. Second, workers are abused by employers who impose significant penalties if the employee attempts to switch jobs, effectively indenturing the H-1B worker to the employer. Third, some employers take full advantage of the weaknesses of the visa, withholding paystubs so workers cannot change jobs, and laying them off or underpaying them and threatening to fire them if the abuses are reported. Fourth, while it is understandable why the government wishes to restrict H-1B workers to certain jobs where there is a shortage of U.S. employees, the net effect of the restrictions is to reward employers for gaming the system while hampering the visa holder's ability to negotiate for a raise, change jobs, or to apply their skills in a way that may in fact be best for the U.S. economy (e.g., starting their own business venture either "on the side" or as an alternative to employment).

I suspect that some of the fears of a relaxed system - direct competition between U.S. citizens and foreign workers for the same jobs - would be lessened by a system that borrows from the E.U. "Blue Card". While it may seem a bit counterintuitive that giving foreign workers more latitude to compete with U.S. workers would not worsen the job market for U.S. workers, if foreign workers are freed to change jobs to pursue higher wages they will no longer be a "cheap alternative" to U.S. workers. An increased number of applicants for the same pool of jobs can depress wages, but I don't think it can be reasonably disputed that allowing employers to hire H-1B workers for below-market wages drags down the market as well. Our current system is supposed to prevent that from happening, but often instead contributes to that outcome.

Another Poorly Conceived Washington Post Editorial About Iraq....

When the Washington Post says this:
The common blind spot among the Democrats is Iraq. Eager to please a constituency that despises the war, the candidates commonly promise to "end" it, ignoring the reality that Iraq is still an active battlefield for al-Qaeda. Mr. Obama rails against the failure to destroy al-Qaeda's camps in eastern Pakistan, where no American troops operate, yet proposes to control al-Qaeda in Iraq with a "minimal over-the-horizon military force" - a plan that would duplicate the Pakistan problem. Ms. Clinton says that "we cannot succeed" against al-Qaeda "unless we design a strategy that treats the entire region as an interconnected whole, where crises overlap with one another and the danger of a chain reaction of disasters is real." Yet she would effectively exclude Iraq from that strategy.
What exactly do they mean?

When the Washington Post alludes to "the reality that Iraq is still an active battlefield for al-Qaeda", what do they mean?
  • Is it that al-Qaeda will view a withdrawal from Iraq as evidence of American weakness, and thus (even though peripherally involved in the actual combat) withdrawal would hand them a victory? (If so, is it necessary to win every battle - whatever the cost - in order to win a war, even if the resources we allocate to that battle could be put to more effective uses in fighting that same war?)

  • Is it (despite all evidence to the contrary) that they believe al-Qaeda is significantly invested in the war, and thus that victory would diminish its fighting force, munitions, and capacity?

  • Is it that they believe that the Iraq war poses an existential threat to al-Qaeda, such that if we defeat the Iraq insurgency they will be wiped from the face of the planet? (And if so, what are they smoking?)

Is is something else entirely?

Is the statement, "...yet proposes to control al-Qaeda in Iraq with a 'minimal over-the-horizon military force'" meant to reference an actual fight based in Iraq against al-Qaeda, or the battle with the separate group which calls itself "al-Qaeda in Iraq"?
Al-Qaeda in Iraq is the United States' most formidable enemy in that country. But unlike Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization in Pakistan, U.S. intelligence officials and outside experts believe, the Iraqi branch poses little danger to the security of the U.S. homeland.
Not that I would want to quote the Post against itself.... Are they thus arguing that we have a moral duty to defeat "al-Qaeda in Iraq" to protect the Iraqis, despite their express belief that it poses little to no direct threat to the United States, even at the expense of targeting "Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization in Pakistan"?

Back in 2001-2002 we were told that it was part of bin Laden's plan to lure the United States into an economically crippling, unwinnable war in the Middle East. Most likely he had been reading the history of the Vietnam war, and anticipated a similar psychology among U.S. leadership - that we wouldn't want to show "weakness" by abandoning a fruitless war. But perhaps he was simply reading the Post. (I am not endorsing an immediate withdrawal - unlike the Post, I don't buy into the false dichotomy that our only choices are the status quo or complete withdrawal.)

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Emulating Huckabee?

Chris Suellentrop quotes, with apparent approval, a blogger who believes that the Democratic candidates should emulate Mike Huckabee's rhetoric:
What are the nuances I’m talking about? For one thing, as far as I know he never uses Reagan-type racist code terms like, “state’s rights”, which is code for keeping black people from voting, or “welfare queen,” which is another, racially loaded term.
Okay... so which Democrats are imitating Reagan in their use of such terms? Shouldn't this admonition in fact be directed to the other Republican nominees?
In fact I believe he is on record as saying that the major problem of the American prison system is that it is filled with people who are drug addicts, not criminals, and that instead of prison they should be in rehab. Since the majority of prisoners in American jails are persons of color, this statement is profoundly un-racist.
Where is the evidence that this message resonates with the American public? That is to say, out of the mouths of a serious contender for the Democratic nomination, or out of the mouth of Huckabee as a Republican nominee, what about it will resonate as a good idea as opposed to evidence that the speaker is "soft on crime"?

In fact, outside of a minority who recognize it as a disaster, is there any significant movement to reconsider the policies behind the "War on Drugs"? While it would be an improvement if public opinion shifted toward a more balanced approach, with addiction treated as a public health issue and a focus on the demand side of the "War on Drugs" as opposed to a continuation of failed policies directed at supply, I suspect that at present, rhetoric directed against the "War on Drugs" will hurt candidates in either party. Promises to provide funding for rehab as an alternative to jail will likely inspire to questions: "With what money," and "Why is that your priority, when there are so many other people in need?"

Friday, December 21, 2007

Rolling Baggage

A peculiar editorial in the New York Times takes on rolling baggage. The author's primary concern appears to be that rolling baggage is annoying to air travelers - that is, the ones who don't have similar bags. People get bumped, have bags rolled over their toes, have to deal with delays while passengers try to stow their bags in overhead bins.... Fair enough. But those problems arise less from the bags themselves, and more from the inconvenience and delay of checking your luggage and retrieving it at the end of a trip. Not to mention the rough treatment often given to checked bags, with new scars appearing on your bags at the conclusion of pretty much every trip. It would be easy enough for airlines to impose more restrictive rules on the size of carry-on luggage, but instead they're doing the opposite - imposing additional restrictions (and surcharges) on checked luggage.

It's also a fair argument that rolling luggage often results in people packing more than they need - it's easier to carry extra weight, because you don't have to carry the bag through the airport, and it appears to be human nature to want to fill a suitcase even when you know that you're packing more than you need.
Also: aesthetics. Your dorky rolling bag doesn’t say, “I’m embarking on a voyage.” It says, “I’m going to a conference in Cleveland.” And maybe you are, but you don’t have advertise it. The swashbuckling adventurer hoists a leather rucksack, or a battered canvas duffel. He doesn’t tug his bag behind him on a leash like a stubborn and especially boring pet.

It’s easy to see the appeal of wheeled luggage, of course. It eases our burdens and lifts the weight off our shoulders. It keeps our neatly pressed jackets un-mussed. But rolling bags are really functional only for the type of journey that goes taxi-airport-taxi-hotel-shuttle bus-convention center. Outside this comfortable circuit, they’re often useless.
Well, a lot of the people with those rolling bags are the equivalent of somebody going to a conference in Cleveland. And with all due respect to the swashbuckling adventurer, I've been smacked more than a few times by oversized duffels, and have been held up while people tried to squeeze them into overhead bins.

I found this argument somewhat amusing:
I’ve been traveling a lot recently, in countries ranging from developed to less developed to dear Lord, is that a monkey attacking a naked child? In harsher conditions, a dainty rolling bag is absurdly out of place. It’s no fun rolling those wheels across a “street” that’s just a rain-soaked blotch of mud. Or bouncing them up the stairs of a packed train station. Or dragging them through a marketplace where puddles are indeed full of fish and goat entrails. (Enjoy that pungent odor when your bag is back in your room.)
The comical inference is that the author initially tried to "rough it" on a lengthy journey through the developing world with a rolling suitcase designed as airplane carry-on baggage, but found it to be wanting. If so, I'm not surprised by his conclusion - no sensible person would try that. But I'll tell you this - while I avoided marketplaces littered with goat entrails, I did quite a bit of travel with a "rolling duffel" from L.L.Bean, and found both that I could use the handles and strap to carry the bag when I didn't choose to roll it, and that it was at times terrifically convenient to be able to roll the bag instead of carrying it. Including at airports and railroad stations in the developing world.

What About Common Values

I'm somewhat used to hearing people like Michael Erik Dyson argue that Bill Cosby is wrong to focus on social factors which contribute to poverty, while disregarding economic and historic factors. The obvious retort is that as an individual you can't change history, and you can't change the socio-economic standing of your community, but you can change yourself. The statistics may suggest that a particular individual is most likely to end up in prison, but personal choices can instead place that individual in college. Even though Bill Cosby is addressing a particular racial minority, it is a mistake to view this as a race issue.

Recently the Washington Post ran an editorial by Khalil G. Muhammad, under what is perhaps an unfortunate headline, White May Be Might, But It's Not Always Right. Some significant errors in the editorial have been addressed elsewhere. But I am more interested in the argument itself, and what appears to be a glaring internal inconsistency, than with its support.

Muhammad opens by relating how his mostly white students at an Indiana university agreed with Cosby's perspective on parenting.
After hearing Cosby plead for poor blacks to embrace their parenting responsibilities, many of the students said they wished their parents had followed his advice. They regretted that some of their peers had done poorly in school, abused drugs and alcohol, and run afoul of the law. These problems, they agreed, might have been avoided with more supervision at home.
That could be taken as evidence of the universality of Cosby's argument - he's making his case to a particular audience, but his concepts of good parenting are not race-based. Muhammad doesn't take that view:
Cosby and the recent Pew study are the latest in a long finger-wagging tradition of instructing poor blacks to lift themselves up by their bootstraps and reject pathologically "black" values.
But who is defining these values as "black"? It does not appear to be Bill Cosby - that characterization seems to come from his critics. If presented as a straw man to knock down, it's a dishonest response. Muhammad appears to be deliberately misrepresenting Cosby, and misrepresenting a question posed by NPR, in order to build up this straw man.
Unfortunately, this line of questioning reinforces one of the most persistent myths in America, that white is always right. The myth reflects an enduring double standard based on "white" and "black" explanations for social problems. And it assumes that "white" culture is the gold standard for judging everyone, despite its competing ideologies, its contradictions and its flaws, including racism.
Okay, then - let's cast aside all racial components of Bill Cosby's argument. Let's look exclusively at what Bill Cosby favors - stronger families, family support for education, educational achievement, staying out of legal trouble, comporting behavior to the norms of the majority culture - which of those aspirations would Muhammad describe as either representative of "white culture" or as inconsistent with "black culture"? If the argument is that a minority culture should be treated equally with the majority culture, and its differences in lifestyle and dialect should not affect the prospects for a member of the minority in education, employment, or any other sphere of life, that's an ideal which I have never seen actualized in any culture. Perhaps Muhammad views the axiom, "When in Rome..." as a "white value", but is there any nation where it does not apply? Further, as previously noted, even where the response to the minority is unfair, and even where the majority reaction may evolve over time and become more accepting, it's not something an individual can change. By all means work for change but, fair or not, base your personal choices on reality.
If lower-class "black" values are so distinct from those of the rest of America, particularly the "white values" supposedly now embraced by middle- and upper-class blacks, why, according to the Pew report, do less than a third of white Americans graduate from college? Are legions of whites similarly devaluing higher education? Are they "acting black"?
Perhaps this is intended as a reductio ad absurdem and not as a straw man but, again, this doesn't have to be a race issue. The choices made in poor white communities that result in economic failure and the perpetuation of poverty do not represent "acting black" any more than the analogous choices made in poor black communities represent "acting white". In both contexts, raising children with Bill Cosby's advice in mind can help break the cycle of poverty.
If we insist on explaining racial disparities in terms of black vs. white values, then we need to explain what exactly white values are. When we do, we'll find that whiteness is an inadequate standard by which to judge good black people vs. bad ones.
Which is probably why that standard is the preferred straw man of Cosby's critics, rather than one he proposes.

Predatory Lending

Is George Will being deliberately obtuse?
Clinton is fluent in the language of liberalism, aka Victimspeak, so, denouncing "Wall Street," she says families were "lured into risky mortgages" and "led into bad situations" by those who knew better. So, lenders knew their loans would not be fully repaid?

Jesse Jackson speaks of "victims of aggressive mortgage brokers." But given that foreclosure is usually a net loss for all parties to the transaction, what explains the "aggression"? Who thought it was in their interest to do the luring and leading that Clinton alleges?
This should be a no-brainer. Mortgage brokers, who received a hefty commission when they connected borrowers with subprime loans, had no incentive to worry about whether the loans would be repaid. They had an incentive to steer borrowers to the loans which returned the greatest commission, regardless of whether it was the best loan for the borrower. Similarly, lenders who intended to sell their mortgages as soon as the ink was dry had little cause for concern that the mortgages would go into foreclosure - they made their money when they sold the mortgages, and the risk was passed along to the buyer.

I'm not absolving borrowers of responsibility. In a lot of these cases I have the reaction, "What were you thinking?" I'm not one to max out the loans on my home, spending every penny of equity (and then some) with the notion that real estate will inevitably appreciate by 10-20% per year. I'm not one to look at an interest-only loan with a teaser interest rate and not ask, "What will I have to pay when the teaser period ends - and can I afford it?" But I'm not going to join Will's insipid pretense that lenders thought that these were all good loans, or that nobody had an incentive to steer borrowers into mortgages for amounts beyond what they should reasonably borrow, or on terms which created significant risk of default, as it's patently untrue.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

North Korea and the Axis of Evil

We had a comment troll stop by to ask, in a thread on a completely different subject, if I "still think" North Korea doesn't belong in the "Axis of Evil". The proper answer is, "What axis of evil?"

The comment troll's confusion apparently emerges from the fact that I have previously commented on the use of the term "Axis of Evil" as a propaganda tool. The term is an allusion to the Axis powers of WWII, and is meant to suggest cooperation, collaboration and conspiracy. As anybody with a whit of knowledge on the subject knows, there is absolutely no coordination between the three nations named by Bush - Iran and Iraq had been in conflict for decades. Why was North Korea dragooned into the "Axis"? A common explanation is that the Bush Administration didn't want the "Axis" it to be all Arab or all Muslim, thus preferring North Korea to a nation like Syria. Another is that he simply pulled in the names of the three nations against which he most wished to pursue military action. But in no meaningful sense is there an "Axis of Evil" comprised of those three nations.

The question of whether the government of North Korea is evil? While evil is a loaded word, in North Korea's case the question is not a hard one - it's among the world's most vile governments. But my disdain for Kim Jong-il doesn't inspire me to buy into propaganda spun by dishonest politicians. I guess that's where the comment troll and I part company.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

My Poor Ears...

Have you ever watched something that is so atrociously bad that it's kind of funny? Courtesy of the National Republican Senatorial Committee via Wonkette.

There is something worse than being politically tone-deaf, and this would be it....

A Moment of Honesty

It's nice to see a politician speak with a bit of candor about his struggles with addiction. And given the number of addicts on Capitol Hill, all too rare.

Perhaps eventually, one will do the same about recovery.

Campaign Songs for 2008

For some reason, political candidates like to select theme songs for their campaigns. I don’t think that’s sufficiently democratic – even Hillary Clinton’s vote was limited to a handful of songs – so I thought I would make some suggestions.

Republican Candidates
  • Mitt RomneyEverything To Everyone, by Everclear. A song about a habitual appeaser for a man who will say anything to get elected, even if he said something completely different fifteen seconds earlier. The song is about how appeasement leads to failure, and I suspect that it will prove to be on the mark.

  • Mike HuckabeeMissionary Man, by the Eurythmics. Although the imagery may be a bit too “papist” for a Baptist minister, I suspect that behind his smile lurks a missionary man every bit as severe as the subject of this song. And is that a mountain of money, no... Target Gift Cards piled up to his chin?

  • John McCainMy Back Pages, by Bob Dylan. He probably hates the song, but he is a man largely defined by the Vietnam War, and fans of Nostradamus can probably relate every passage to something in McCain’s career. As a soldier and statesman he learned a lot of life’s lessons, but Pat Robertson need not worry – he’s younger than that now.

  • Rudy GiulianiLet’s Have A War, by Fear. For the candidate who never mentions 9/11... or is it his windfall profits that he never mentions.

  • Tom TancredoWhite Minority, by Black Flag. It could be background music for his next anti-immigrant commercial, conveniently ending with the declaration, “We’re all going to die!

  • Fred ThompsonAct Naturally, by Ringo Starr. For ironic effect.

  • Ron PaulFool On The Hill, by The Beatles. There may be more to him than meets the eye, but few seems to notice.

  • Duncan HunterWho Are You, by The Who. How many people even remember that he’s a candidate, let alone have any idea what he stands for?

Democratic Candidates
  • Hillary ClintonLove The One You’re With, by Stephen Stills. I don’t at all mean to diminish Hillary Clinton’s own record of achievements, or her own qualifications as a candidate. But there’s a reason her support hasn’t wavered in the face of innuendo about Bill’s return and a “co-presidency.” But for the Twenty-Second Amendment….

  • Barack ObamaAnything You Can Do, by Irving Berlin. Don't be fooled - his platform is better than anybody else’s, and if you doubt that… just ask him. (But don’t go listening to anybody else.)

  • John EdwardsTwo Princes, by the Spin Doctors. With his humble roots and present wealth, depending on the context he can assume either role - he has one foot in each America. Does that make his proposal more attractive, or less so?

  • Bill RichardsonBreak Stuff, by Limp Bizkit. Not because it exemplifies him, but as an exercise in contrasts. And you can’t argue, that song choice would draw some attention to a campaign that doesn’t otherwise command much notice. If the children’s story of the Tortoise and the Hare has ever been put to music, that would also be a possibility.

  • Joe BidenNew Kid In Town, by the Eagles. He has a legacy of solid work and is hoping for a comeback album, but his stardom seems to have passed in the blink of an eye and the nation seems to think he belongs on the oldies station.

  • Chris DoddShe Will Be Loved, by Maroon Five. He seems like the best friend who has always been there but doesn’t get noticed, even as everybody else breaks your heart.

  • Dennis KucinichPromises, Promises, by Naked Eyes. It’s wonderful what you can promise when you know you have no chance of winning, but what would Kucinich do if he were actually elected?

  • Mike GravelDon’t You (Forget About Me), by Simple Minds. Er, who are we talking about, again? (No offense intended, Mike, but your campaign isn’t resonating. Take solace in the line, "It's my feeling we'll win in the end".)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

It's Probably My Fault....

I said "David Brooks got it right", and probably set off some sort of shift in the cosmos leading to today's column, which is one of the silliest pieces of mind-slop ever to spill across a major newspaper's editorial page. I would share some comments, but I think it speaks for itself.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Dangerous Religiosity of Romney

What a peculiar day for the New York Times editorial and op/ed pages. First we have a reaction to Mitt Romney's "Religion in the Public Square" speech:
Mr. Romney spoke with an evident passion about the hunger for religious freedom that defined the birth of the nation. He said several times that his faith informs his life, but he would not impose it on the Oval Office.

Still, there was no escaping the reality of the moment. Mr. Romney was not there to defend freedom of religion, or to champion the indisputable notion that belief in God and religious observance are longstanding parts of American life. He was trying to persuade Christian fundamentalists in the Republican Party, who do want to impose their faith on the Oval Office, that he is sufficiently Christian for them to support his bid for the Republican nomination. No matter how dignified he looked, and how many times he quoted the founding fathers, he could not disguise that sad fact.
In examining Romney's speech, David Brooks got it right:
[Romney] insisted that the faithful should stick stubbornly to their religions, as he himself sticks to the faith of his fathers. He insisted that God-talk should remain a vibrant force in the public square and that judges should be guided by the foundations of their faith. He lamented the faithlessness of Europe and linked the pro-life movement to abolition and civil rights, just as evangelicals do.

* * *

The first casualty is the national community. Romney described a community yesterday. Observant Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Jews and Muslims are inside that community. The nonobservant are not. There was not even a perfunctory sentence showing respect for the nonreligious. I’m assuming that Romney left that out in order to generate howls of outrage in the liberal press.

* * *

In Romney’s account, faith ends up as wishy-washy as the most New Age-y secularism. In arguing that the faithful are brothers in a common struggle, Romney insisted that all religions share an equal devotion to all good things. Really? Then why not choose the one with the prettiest buildings?

In order to build a voting majority of the faithful, Romney covered over different and difficult conceptions of the Almighty. When he spoke of God yesterday, he spoke of a bland, smiley-faced God who is the author of liberty and the founder of freedom. There was no hint of Lincoln’s God or Reinhold Niebuhr’s God or the religion most people know — the religion that imposes restraints upon on the passions, appetites and sinfulness of human beings. He wants God in the public square, but then insists that theological differences are anodyne and politically irrelevant.
Another nearby column, by atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, illustrates the mendacity of Romney's position. Reacting to some (to Western eyes) bizarre and excessive sentences issued against women under the auspices of Shar'ia law, Ali asks,
It is often said that Islam has been “hijacked” by a small extremist group of radical fundamentalists. The vast majority of Muslims are said to be moderates.

But where are the moderates? Where are the Muslim voices raised over the terrible injustice of incidents like these? How many Muslims are willing to stand up and say, in the case of the girl from Qatif, that this manner of justice is appalling, brutal and bigoted — and that no matter who said it was the right thing to do, and how long ago it was said, this should no longer be done?
Romney, apparently, would have two responses to Ali:

First, she's an atheist, so who cares what she has to say. ("Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.")

Second, judges should be guided by the foundations of their faith. ("Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests.")

How dare you question a judge who applies the letter of the law, as guided by his faith, in advance of your "religion of secularism"?

I expect that if Romney were confronted with this example, he might respond along the lines of, "Islam? Oh, that's different." I'm sure he'd dress up his answer, but I suspect that at it's heart it would boil down to "that's different" - after all, as Brooks pointed out, the only reasonable interpretation of this speech is that he's pandering to a faction of religious conservatives, and they won't be in the least offended by the idea that their religious beliefs should be followed to the letter while those of other religions "are different." If not, I will reconsider my impression that his speech is shameless pandering, but I'm not holding my breath.

Ultimately, that's probably going to keep this speech from having any appreciable impact in Romney's standing in the polls. To much of his target audience, it seems that Mormonism is no closer to Christianity than is Islam.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Women Get Pregnant! (And Men Don't)

Surprise! You heard it here second, folks. You heard it first from Professor Kingsley Browne, as another reason why women should not be permitted in military combat or combat support roles. It goes without saying that pregnancy will cause women to, at times, be unable to perform in various military roles, including combat-related roles. Whether this should disqualify all women from such roles? Browne would answer "yes", whereas the military has implicitly answered, "We can plan for it, and accommodate it". Professor "argue from anecdote and don't worry about the facts" asserts,
Women’s ability to avoid deployment by becoming pregnant is a constant source of resentment among men. Intentionally injuring oneself to avoid deployment is a court-martial offense; intentionally becoming pregnant to avoid deployment brings no penalty at all, nor does becoming pregnant to avoid deployment, missing the deployment, and then aborting the pregnancy – a pattern that creates even intensified resentment. This latter phenomenon is almost certainly something that the military does not track, so it is hard to know how widespread it is, but while I was researching my book, several people (all Navy officers) spontaneously mentioned it to me.
Okay... so the fact that women can get pregnant causes resentment among the He-Men of Kingsley Browne's military - although they're chomping at the bit to demonstrate their toughness and masculinity on the battlefield, they simultaneously resent women because some become pregnant and aren't deployed? The toughest of the tough succumbing to womb envy?

It is interesting that the "worst example" of pregnancy Browne can muster is one that he can't actually demonstrate has ever occurred. Even assuming it had, it would seem to be an exceedingly rare phenomenon. But given a few misogynistic whispers about what could happen, Browne places them "front and center" in his argument.

Browne seems reluctant to place the "you can't put women among a bunch of horny men" argument on Volokh, perhaps because he fears being eaten alive in the comments, but it's so much part and parcel of his mindset that I knew he had to be making it. Sure enough.
Combat groups have to be cohesive and cohesive groups are cooperative, focusing on a mission. And if you take a group of, you know, late teens, early twenties guys who are focused on a mission, drop a few women into the group and all of a sudden their focus is somewhere else....

I don't know if you've heard of this book called "Love My Rifle More Than You" by Kayla Williams, a woman who served in Iraq, and she described her experience in Iraq as a massive frat party with weapons. And, uh, the fact is that there's human nature and military discipline doesn't always trump human nature.
From another interview,
Q: Is there any other reason women shouldn't be flying combat aircraft?

A: Well, the possibility of being a POW, which raises special problems. Once captured, female prisoners face a substantial risk of rape, and that's something that, for the most part, men don't face.

Q: If a woman is willing to take that risk, shouldn't she be allowed to?

A: The thing is, it doesn't just affect her. The captors may very well also have male prisoners, and can use the abuse or threats of abuse of female prisoners as a means of extracting information or other kinds of co-operation from male prisoners....
Because there's no military in the world that would try to elicit confessions by sexually abusing and sexually humiliating male prisoners, right? And men just can't take it when one of those cowardly, untrustworthy women who serve with them might get hurt.

In summary, Browne has two valid points:
  1. Strength differences exist between men and women, and those differences are a valid consideration when determining who should serve in combat roles; and
  2. Young women serving in the military become pregnant at a considerable, predictable rate, and their inability to serve in certain military roles during and after pregnancy, as well as whether their units will remain effective if they cannot deploy, are valid concerns for the military.
For some reason, he apparently feels compelled to bury those points in a mountain of misogynistic supposition. Wouldn't it be more useful to look at how the U.S. militaries (and other militaries that are sexually integrated) have accommodated women, and whether or not those accommodations had an effect on combat readiness? Would that be so hard?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Cowardly, Untrustworthy Women....

Kingsley Browne has added to his list of reasons why women shouldn't serve in combat-related military roles. Men don't trust women, and women are cowards. The first post reminds me of two things - the incompetent analysis William Saletan attempted to pass off as "evolutionary biology" to support the thesis that black people (as a "race") are less intelligent than whites or Asians, and of why we used to have a racially segregated military. Browne could have written this forty years ago, as a protest against troop integration, and he wouldn't have to change much of what he says.

Browne doesn't require much support for his thesis - any grain of sand will do, provided it arguably weighs against women:
A study of male and female support troops in the Gulf War, none of whom had seen combat, found that women reported significantly more psychological stress than men, especially stress in anticipation of combat.

Empathy also has negative effects, as it not only engenders a reluctance to kill but is also associated with greater guilt for having killed. Some reports coming back from Iraq suggest that women are suffering higher levels, and a more severe form, of PTSD than men are.
For the first argument, that could mean that women are more in touch with their feelings than men - not that they felt more fear, but that they were more aware of their fear. We could extrapolate from that, Browne-style, that perhaps it should be interpreted to support the role of women in combat, because they're more conscious of their fear and thus able to discount its effects when making decisions. I'm not saying the evidence supports that - I'm just demonstrating how Browne's style of speculative argument cuts both ways.

As for "some reports" suggesting that women suffer from higher levels or more severe forms of PTSD, it seems implicit within Browne's description that the evidence is not yet in - but if it weighs against women, he reports it anyway. And again we have something that cuts both ways - is the problem that women suffer greater incidence of PTSD, or is the problem that men underreport their psychological symptoms (particularly "manly men" of the personality type that Browne has described - masculine leaders, physically aggressive, strong, fearless, highly tolerant of pain....) I'm willing to accept that the evidence is not yet in. In contrast, Browne doesn't seem to care.

As for manly men seeking out social opportunities with many men, well, great. As for “masculinity” and “leadership” being "the two most important traits of soldiers who were judged to be effective fighters", that's great also, but overlooks the fact that it is implicit that not all soldiers were deemed "effective", let to be especially "masculine" or to be "leaders". While it seems reasonable to accept that women, definitionally, are less masculine than men, women are capable of leadership. And less "masculine" men can and do serve in combat. Also, to Browne, trust isn't built over time (all that effort the military puts into building unit cohesion, apparently, is wasted) - it's a gut reaction based on manliness:
In making gut-level decisions, the human mind tends to be attentive to the kinds of information available to us in our ancestral environment. So, good grades at a military academy or high scores on a personality test would be unlikely to engender trust even if they were in fact correlated with combat performance, in the same way that a woman’s appearance will be more important to the strength of a man’s sexual attraction to her than a certificate of fertility from a medical specialist. Intuitive judgments are not easy to change with reasoned argument.

Thus, there is reason to believe that some impediments to effective sexual integration are, in a sense, “hard-wired” into us. If so, the resistance of combat troops to sexual integration is not something that they are going to “grow out of.”
The common name given to those "impediments" being... sexism? "Sorry, ladies, men are sexist by nature and you need to just put up with it." And this thesis is built upon what? A foundation of assumption. (I wonder if his mention of sexual attraction is foreshadowing - as I indicated yesterday, I think it's just a matter of time before he unveils the "you can't put women among those horny guys" argument.)
Some respond to this line of argument by contending that a tendency of men not to trust women is “men’s problem,” not women’s. The issue is not, however, whose “fault” it is (and it is not clear that the concept of fault is even relevant here). Instead, the point is that this lack of trust – whatever its source – poses a risk to the effectiveness of military units. Thus, the lack of trust is a problem for both men and women, as well as for the military (and the nation) as a whole.
If there is a lack of trust, and if it cannot be overcome, that's a potential issue, sure. But as of yet, Professor Browne has not demonstrated that the lack of trust exists, let alone that it is "hard wired", and has not demonstrated that it is a problem. While he keeps telling us what he thinks of women, he's doing an astonishingly poor job of supporting his various assumptions and prejudices.
Aristotle wrote that “a man would be thought a coward if he had no more courage than a courageous woman.” That may seem a gratuitously chauvinistic comment, but it captures an important truth. How often does one even hear of a woman referred to as a coward? The dictionary defines “cowardice” as “disgraceful fear or timidity.” We do not decline to label women cowards because women do not display fear or timidity. Instead, we do so because we do not find women’s fear or timidity disgraceful in settings in which we would see disgrace in men.
It sounds like a gratuitously chauvinistic comment because it is a gratuitously chauvinistic comment. It may be that women are not often characterized as cowardly, but it is fatuous to assume that this means that women cannot be brave.
We should never forget that the average soldier would really like to run away from the fighting. The group prevents him from doing this. If group morality allows for an “honourable” means of flight, it will be accepted gratefully.

Exactly this dynamic may have been in play in 2004 when a mixed-sex platoon of reservists refused a direct order to drive a fuel convoy, although the Army’s reticence about the incident compels one to rely on (perhaps unfair) speculation. The reservists argued that it was a “suicide mission” because their trucks were not armored. News reports did not indicate who the ringleaders of the mutiny were, although it came to light when a female specialist left a message on her mother’s voice mail asking her to “raise pure hell.”
It "may have been in play"? Or it may not. But it doesn't matter to Professor Browne because, as with his EP-3E example, he apparently isn't one to let the facts get in the way of his argument.

Whether as a result of contagion or under the guise of "protecting" fearful women, this idea that being around women turns men into quivering cowards is interesting, but where's the actual support for that? Even in Browne's cartoonish version of "evolutionary psychology", shouldn't we be expecting that the manly men of the military will be puffing out their chests and engaging in acts of bravado in order to impress the ladies? The question becomes, why does Browne see women as a population of emasculating Delilahs?

Update: Prof. Browne's "latest responses to comments" are partially responsive to points I have made here. For example, with regard to race,
The fact is that race and sex are different as categories. Although both of them have underlying biological bases, racial segregation in the military had nothing to do with the biology of race and everything to do with the social meaning placed upon race. Despite arguments to the contrary, however, sex is not just a social construct, and sex differences relevant to military service exist irrespective of what we think about them.
That, of course, is not responsive to the analogy. The comparison was not premised upon gender being "real" and race being a "social construct". The analogy was drawn on the basis that sexism and racism are both real, and that Browne's sexist positions do not appear any more valid than the racist justifications for past military segregation. There were, and are, people who will happily argue that race is "real" and that the intellectual and social differences between races cannot be overcome. Browne rejects their version of "evolutionary psychology", but he has presented no genuine foundation for his own.

As for his failure to cite to authority,
When I started writing my entries, I had to make a judgment about whether to cite to the relevant literature. I decided, for better or worse, not to, for a variety of reasons. First, assuming that I did not provide authority for every assertion, there was the difficulty in drawing the line between assertions for which I would provide authority and those for which I would not. Second, not all (or perhaps even most) readers of blogs expect or want to read heavily sourced, academic style writings, and I assumed that people seriously interested in the underlying research would go to my book (and, of course, I hoped that they would buy it for themselves, as well as for everyone on their Christmas card list).

Perhaps the most fundamental reason for not citing to the relevant literature is that a one-sentence assertion in a blog post might be summarizing several pages of my book, which in turn might be citing numerous authorities. To give one example, in my post on cohesion and trust I stated: “Formation of, and functioning in, large cohesive groups is easier for men than for women, and men are more accepting of hierarchy than women are.” I was criticized for “bald assertion” in making this point, and, of course, the assertion was “bald,” if that means that I cited no authority for it. However, that one sentence summarized about five pages from my book that contained nineteen footnotes that cited to over twenty separate sources, most from the psychological literature. That does not mean that my inferences and conclusions are correct, of course, but it does mean that I didn’t make them up out of whole cloth.
That's a cop-out. First, whatever his initial impression about blogging, it would have been clear to him pretty much from the outset that he was expected to do more than make "bald assertions". Second, complaining, "citing to authority is hard", is not a compelling reason to leave your arguments unsupported. If he really has to cite to five pages of explanatory text and fifteen footnotes to support a single sentence, he leaves the impression not that he has engaged in careful research, but that he is hiding behind a maze of overlapping sources which may or may not actually support his blanket thesis. And if we are to accept that this is typical of his work....

To look at it another way, the study of small group dynamics is a bona fide field of study, and not a new one. There are decades of research into group formation, function and cohesion, many of which consider gender. If Browne cannot find among the body of peer reviewed studies on this subject even one which supports his sentence, such that he must draw his conclusion based upon a mishmash of fifteen or more sources, it is more likely that the body of work upon which he relies does not adequately support his thesis than that he correctly gleaned an insight from the works of dozens of social scientists, for whom this is their primary field of study, that everybody else somehow missed.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Women in Combat

Over at the Volokh conspiracy, guest blogger Kingsley Browne opines that women don't belong in combat. Lawyers tend to open with their strongest argument, in this case strength. Browne follows up with a post about the fragile psychology of the fairer sex. He has yet to get to the "you can't have women among a bunch of horny guys" argument, or the "women might be sexually abused by the enemy" argument, but I'm quite confident that he will.

Apparently this stuff falls under the guise of "evolutionary psychology", which is a legitimate field of discipline but in the hands of somebody like Browne seems to become justification for taking all of his sexist preconceptions and calling them "science". Given that he has actually published a book on this subject, his reasoning is surprisingly weak and relies far too heavily on anecdote. For example:
Some assert that these large physical differences can be overcome through training. In fact, however, training often increases the sex difference.
If you take a man and woman of equal strength, and give them similar training such that the woman meets a strength standard, it may well be that at the end of the training the man exceeds that standard. But that's not even slightly relevant to the question of whether the woman meets the standard - she does.
When a Navy EP-3E reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese fighter plane over the South China Sea in April 2001, the muscular pilot had to “wrestle” the plane down to a safe landing on Hainan Island. He reported that it took “every ounce” of his strength to keep the plane in the air until he could land. Perhaps there are many men who would not have been able to meet that challenge, but it is unlikely that any female pilot could have.
In another context Browne asserts that the pilot was a 220 pound man - maybe he thinks that the minimum weight for pilots should be 220 pounds, just in case? Or would he recognize arguing from the anecdote as absurd within that context?
Similarly, if a ship gets struck by a bomb, missile, or mine, all hands may have to turn to the tasks of damage control, such as fire fighting, flood limitation, and evacuation of the wounded. In 1988, after the guided-missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian mine in the Persian Gulf, it came closer than any other U.S. ship since the Korean War to be sunk due to hostile action. Sailors of all specialties turned to fighting the resulting fire and flooding.

Because the captain of the Roberts was concerned that shells would “cook off,” he ordered one of the magazines cleared of ammunition. A “bucket brigade” of fifty sailors – twenty percent of the ship’s crew – passed the fifty-pound shells from man to man. Although the regular job duties of many of these sailors did not require heavy lifting, if the sailors had been unable to perform when necessary, the Roberts would almost certainly have sunk.
I would expect that, even within this emergency context, some thought was given to which men would be best suited to the "bucket brigade". I doubt that the Captain called upon fifty random people to take this task. Even if we assume that no women on the ship would have been suited to man the "fire brigade", what percentage of women would have to be on board before you could no longer call upon fifty sailors able to heft the shells? To Browne, that number appears irrelevant, but practically speaking I doubt that under current Navy policies it could reach a point where the Captain could not adequately man his "fire brigade". If we're going to get into a series of "but's"... "But the military could change its rules and allow more women," then that's when the argument about physical strength should be made.

Browne is concerned that even in support roles, women may have to engage in combat.
Hand-to-hand combat (yes, it still happens) is the last resort of all war-fighters, as well as of those occupying support positions, whether signalmen, clerks, cooks, or truck drivers.
Even though he acknowledges that women perform in many combat support roles, and cannot point to even an anecdote where disaster resulted, this vision of "hand to hand combat" is enough in his mind to disqualify all women from combat support.

I am going to give him his due - there are positions in the military which require significant physical strength, and whether you are looking at the population at large or within the military itself, you are likely to find far more men who are capable of performing those positions than you are women. But there are many combat support roles which require less physical strength, and there are many women who can perform feats of considerable strength. Although Browne concedes that women can be tested for their physical capacity, he deems this irrelevant as he consider gender an appropriate proxy for " predicting whether one has what it takes psychologically to be effective in combat ". Which takes us to his second, weaker argument.

One of the dangers in the field of psychology is that somebody will hear a general rule of human behavior and assume that it must apply to everybody. More commonly, even a good a rule of thumb may apply to only 80% of the target population. So when Browne asserts that women are more risk averse than men, or have higher fear levels, even if we assume the validity of the studies behind his assertions, if he knows what he's talking about he should be aware that he's not actually describing all women. Add to that self-selection - the fact that women who do not have a psychology that disposes them toward combat and combat support roles are not likely to seek out that type of military career - and the rule of thumb may become nearly or wholly inapplicable to the self-selected population.

The same holds true for his broad statements about "physical aggression and dominance". When he starts extrapolating further, telling us how empathetic women are and how they are predisposed to feel "heightened guilt and anxiety... about acting aggressively " It's simply not true of all women. To get to the point where Browne wants to take us, we have to assume that women who are interested in combat and combat support roles have higher levels of anxiety, guilt, empathy, etc., than an average man - something he has failed to even attempt to show. And we have to assume that military training cannot help people overcome squeamishness at such acts as pointing a firearm at another human being and pulling the trigger, or running toward somebody who is shooting at you and trying to kill you - yet it does. If he's trying to imply that it is more difficult to train females to face their fears, anxiety and guilt, he should present his evidence. (Browne admits, "Some women possess more physical courage and willingness to kill than some men.", but gives no apparent thought to why that's the case.

He also argues that women withstand pain less well than men. I suspect that if you look behind that claim you will find that for all people, your ability to withstand pain is related to your prior experience with pain. A high school student who plays football or joins the wrestling team is likely to experience physical pain and stress as part of his sport of choice, and to gain tolerance for that pain as a result of practice and competition. The military seems to understand this, and it no doubt plays a role in why boot camp is physically gruelling. The question becomes, are women in combat and combat support roles insufficiently able to withstand pain to reliably perform their duties? Browne, as you might expect, presents no evidence on that question.)

With no offense intended to Professor Browne, my guess is that if you picked an average woman out of a combat support role, she would outperform him physically, on the mental issues he deems crucial to combat, and in tolerance to pain. That's fine - his personality led him to hang out in law libraries, study and become a professor, despite the constant risk of paper cut, and hers led her into the military. It's what you should expect.

Update: Browne responds to comments over at Volokh (which I haven't read), and some of what he says relates to points I have made. He confirms that I was correct in anticipating a "that's different" defense, in relation to his anecdote about the 220 pound pilot:
The point of that story was not that all military planes present equivalent strength demands but that strength demands can crop up when things go wrong, even if a job does not require strength when things go right (which is the same point made about the USS Samuel B. Roberts). Moreover, no matter how high-tech the aircraft, once you are shot down, you are essentially an under-armed infantryman whose obligations are to survive (and assist fellow crew members in doing so, perhaps by dragging them from the wreckage), evade pursuers, resist potential captors, and escape from captivity.
The first point begs the question - if the answer is, "you can never be too strong," then we need to increase strength standards across the board. If we don't, strong enough remains strong enough, whether any given man or woman might benefit from additional strength in times of crisis. As for his implying women are too weak and craven to survive behind enemy lines, again he's arguing from his own biases, and he makes no effort to support his new claim with any evidence. Did he even stop to ponder that there were three women on the EP-3E crew at the heart of his example?

He argues that men are more likely to have personality characteristics "to overcome fear in the face of mortal danger, to be willing to take the fight to the enemy if the mission demands it – risking their lives in the process – and to inflict lethal violence on the enemy..." and thus,
That’s where the lack of predictability comes in. It is a staple of the combat-behavior literature that it is often a surprise who turns out to be an effective fighter (and who doesn’t). Because some people do very well in training but bomb out in actual combat, you can’t count on training to weed out those who won’t do well.
Perhaps it hasn't occurred to Browne, but the finding he cites relates primarily to men. After emphasizing (perhaps caricaturing) the psychological difference between men and women, when it is convenient to his argument Browne assumes them to be the same.
One or more of the commenters made the valid point that women who want to serve in the combat arms are not going to be the “average woman.” That is true, but the men who serve in the combat arms are also not “average men.” There will be a selection bias operating in both groups, although no doubt the female combat volunteer would deviate more from the female average than the male combat volunteer would from the male average.
Another argument of convenience. Browne is happy to compare the entire population of women to the entire population of men. He is happy to compare the entire population of women to the act of a single man in an isolated situation. But when you ask that he look at the actual population under discussion - women who want combat and combat support roles in the military - he implies that the comparison should be to men who are seeking combat roles. So much for using gender as a proxy.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A Note To Dell Customer Service

Dear Dell,

1. When I purchased my computer from you, you presented a list of warranty options. I chose what I wanted.

2. You don't need to call me to try to sell me a more expensive warranty. I already had that opportunity, and chose what I wanted.

3. And if you are going to call me, don't robocall me. Have a real person at the other end of the line when I answer your completely unwanted solicitation, not an awkward pause while your attack dialer tries to connect me with a sales agent.

Thank you.

Keeping Kosher

Ages ago, when I managed a deli, I once kept a straight face and avoided even a hint of sarcasm when responding to the question, "Is your ham Kosher?" But that question, like everything else, can be outdone.

Friday, November 30, 2007

I Can't Support Him Anyway, But...

Thanks to Michigan's legislative effort to hand the primary to Hillary Clinton on a silver platter, I can't vote for anybody but her, Kucinich (who tried to remove his name, but didn't follow procedure), or Dodd. Write-ins don't count. So why even bother with a primary?

Assuming Michigan undoes its "early primary" legislation and gives primary voters the opportunity to choose between all of the candidates.... Oh, it's not that I don't see value in the three frontrunners (and some who are trailing behind), but it's difficult to choose. We can talk about electability, personality, qualification, whatever - there are a number of decent candidates, but I can't say one truly excites me above the others.

I can say this, though.... If Obama maintains his present course, in a theoretical Michigan primary where he's on the ballot, at this point he's losing me. The Social Security "crisis", the diminishment of his wife as part of his attempt to diminish Hillary Clinton, and now his approach to health care? Add to that the fact that, by his measure, I am many times more qualified than he is to address foreign policy issues (during my childhood I lived in two other nations for a total of thirteen years - that's more than 3:1)?

His approach to these issues seems silly and divisive. His positions suggest that either he has a hard time recognizing and setting priorities (see, e.g., my prior comments on Social Security reform), or is spending too much time listening to pollsters who tell him to pitch his campaign to the center-right.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

False Advertising?

Richard "Dickie" Scruggs is in trouble....
Prominent Mississippi trial attorney Richard "Dickie" Scruggs, the brother-in-law of outgoing GOP Sen. Trent Lott, was indicted by a federal grand jury Wednesday on charges that he and four other men tried to bribe a Mississippi state court judge.

According to the 13-page indictment, Scruggs and three other attorneys -- including Lott's nephew Zach -- attempted to bribe Mississippi Third Circuit Court Judge Henry L. Lackey with at least $40,000 in cash.
I wonder if the defense will claim "false advertising" - after all, what sort of lackey doesn't accept bribes?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Timing Is Everything

This phenomenon isn't unique to politics, but....

Have you ever noticed the deadlines for matters that are not priorities, and for actions that are expected to fail, are always pushed off past important election dates, or the end of a President's term of office? With Bush's policy toward the Israel-Palestine conflict, that first happened with his so called "road map" (which he seemed to quickly forget), and now appears again with his suggestion that a peace deal of some sort will develop out of his new efforts by December, 2008. The estate tax repeal expires in 2010 (no doubt after the midterm elections) - putting the eventual expiration or compromise deal out of the "danger zone" for either Bush or his successor. Remember also the adjournment of the 9/11 Commission reports to avoid harm to Bush during his last election?

Aren't elections supposed to increase accountability?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Health Care Costs

The New York Times has a published long, unsigned editorial on health care costs, The High Cost of Health Care. I don't know whether to praise the Times for trying to tackle the issue, or criticize it for presenting such a superficial summary which, as it seems, nobody on their editorial staff wished to sign. Maybe both?

The editorial starts out by being simplistic:
Almost all economists would agree that the main driver of high medical spending here is our wealth. We are richer than other countries and so willing to spend more. But authoritative analyses have found that we spend well above what mere wealth would predict.
If you look at health care costs and their growth, the U.S. was pretty much in line with other developed nations until those nations developed national health care plans. It was at that point that our health care costs started to rise at a disproportionate rate. The fact that we are increasingly recognizing that reform to limit health care costs is necessary reflects that, if anything, our nation's wealth allowed us to delay addressing the issue. To the extent, though, that our wealth plays a role in our health care costs, it seems to be primarily in our tolerance for waste (about 20% of each health care dollar) and bureaucratic inefficiencies:
This is mostly because we pay hospitals and doctors more than most other countries do. We rely more on costly specialists, who overuse advanced technologies, like CT scans and M.R.I. machines, and who resort to costly surgical or medical procedures a lot more than doctors in other countries do. Perverse insurance incentives entice doctors and patients to use expensive medical services more than is warranted. And our fragmented array of insurers and providers eats up a lot of money in administrative costs, marketing expenses and profits that do not afflict government-run systems abroad.
People may neglect the fat and waste in their budgets when they have a lot of discretionary income, but it becomes harder to do so when that discretionary income is reduced due either to increased cost or other priorities. What we should not do is pretend that individual consumer choices can affect health care costs or waste, or that people are "choosing" to spend more on health care - individuals have next to no influence on the cost of health care, which is primarily determined by the amount insurance companies deem appropriate for particular medical services.
If citizens of an extremely wealthy nation like the United States want to spend more on health care and less on a third car, a new computer or a vacation home, what’s wrong with that? By some measures, Americans are getting good value. Studies by reputable economists have concluded that spending on such advanced treatments as cardiac drugs, devices and surgery; neonatal care for low-birth-weight infants; and mental health drugs have more than paid for themselves by extending lives and improving their quality.
And again, the canard that this is an individual choice - that people choose between an extravagance (such as a "third car") or an overpriced health care system, and choose the latter. The "reputable economists" thing... Not one is named. And I think any reputable economist would also concede that other industrialized nations get the same or better results while spending far less money per capita.

The first proposed "solution" involves noting that health care outcomes are often the same in rural hospitals as they are in far more costly urban hospitals. Most likely to some degree higher salaries, specialist referrals and infrastructure costs, but I would venture that the leading contributing factor is health care technology. Cutting edge diagnostic technology is expensive, and when hospitals have it they will seek to recover the cost of their investment, as well as the continuing costs of staff and maintenance. When a hospital doesn't have a huge number of expensive diagnostic imaging machines, it can't order a CT scan for a suspicious headache - in most cases that's going to turn out to be an unnecessary expense that significantly inflates an emergency room visit. If the Times is sincere in suggesting this as a leading point for "reform", it needs to confront the fact that our access to expensive health care technologies is one of the leading factors that proponents of the status quo use to argue the superiority of U.S. health care over that of other nations. ("Our outcomes may be no better, or even worse, but we have all the cool toys.")

The second proposed solution is to "stick to what works", with the Times observing quite reasonably that a lot of medical care is not science based - it flows from a doctor's impressions or experiences. The problem here is differentiating between what medical science can quantify and what it cannot - it is not necessarily going to be an improvement to require doctors to follow checklists and protocols in a primary care setting. Sometimes the doctor's patient questioning or intuition is what will bring about the proper diagnosis, while that may not be immediately apparent from the standard tests or questions. Where treatment is symptomatic, it may not matter whether the science is behind the treatment - if palliative care works, the patient feels better even if the diagnosis is incorrect. Also, as is noted here, the human body is not a machine and the same treatment may produce very different results in different patients. I am a huge proponent of science-based medicine, but it is not a panacea.

The editorial presents a nebulous comment about managed care - it might reduce costs, but it might also produce a backlash if it (again) resulted in the denial of care. This is a peculiar issue as insurance companies don't have to pay for treatment that is not medically necessary, so in theory people could already be required to pay for their discretionary care above and beyond that level. The bigger problem with managed care was its broad effort to categorize expensive, potentially life-saving techniques as "experimental" and to deny them on that basis. People dying of cancer did not enjoy hearing that bone marrow transplants were "experimental" and thus not covered. If the Times wants to go back to that form of "managed care", yes, there will be a backlash.

The fourth proposal is that the U.S. should catch up with the world in health care information technologies. This alone should evidence how our so-called health care "market" has failed - when these costs can be passed to the consumer, insurance companies are happy to do just that. When the sky is not the limit and costs must be contained, health care systems typically act to contain these costs. It is no surprise that the V.A. is a domestic leader in health care information technology, while "private insurers" trail far behind the rest of the world.

The Times makes a valid point about prevention - there is an enormous potential for cost savings in prevention, but there is also an enormous cost in implementing a broad system of preventive medicine. The Times notes that there is potential for improvement in disease management for the chronically ill, but that there is little evidence to date that this will result in any appreciable savings.

The Times endorses allowing Medicare to negotiate for discounts when purchasing pharmaceuticals and, while this may not produce windfall savings, it seems like a no-brainer. The various private insurers which the government subsidizes to compete with Medicare are permitted to negotiate discounts.

In terms of who would "pick up the tab", the Times proposes paying providers less. The Times notes that this will make them unhappy, but seems to take a "but what are they going to do about it" approach to the issue. If we act before things reach a total crisis, we shouldn't have to cut reimbursement rates (save perhaps as adjusted for inflation) - the long-term outcome would likely be the same, but doctor's don't have to take an actual pay cut in order for us to get back on track.

In terms of emphasizing primary care, which the Times endorses, perhaps an alternative would be to compensate all doctors at primary care rates if their services could have been performed by a primary care physician. Specialists could accept the reduced compensation, or could defer that type of treatment to lower-cost providers.

The Times endorses requiring a consumer contribution to health care costs. I agree with that - there should be a means-tested copayment for medical services and pharmaceuticals, perhaps capped on an annual basis, even for those on Medicaid. (The amount may have to be negligible or subject to waiver for some health care recipients, but even if it's 50 cents a copayment can inspire some level of thought as to whether a visit to the doctor is necessary. At low income levels a copayment might also be applied once per course of treatment, so that people are not discouraged from seeking follow-up care.)

To support this, the Times references a study which occurred from 1974 to 1982, tracking health care expenditures by people who received varying subsidies of their medical care (with copayments capped at $1000):
A classic experiment by Rand researchers from 1974 to 1982 found that people who had to pay almost all of their own medical bills spent 30 percent less on health care than those whose insurance covered all their costs, with little or no difference in health outcomes.
The findings must be considered in association with health care costs - my guess is that the same study, conducted today, would find an even greater savings due not to need but due to health care inflation. But it also ties back to what the Times observed earlier - it is difficult to put a value on preventive care. Some of the savings comes from people not seeking care for a cold or flu that gets better by itself - as most illnesses will. Some of the savings is documented as coming from people not being treated for high blood pressure - something that may not result in much cost savings over eight years, but could result in significant long-term savings for treatment of heart attacks and strokes. The study's findings in a bit more detail,
At the end of the experiment, the researchers concluded that the “use of medical services responds unequivocally to changes in the amount paid out of pockets.” Per capita expenses on the free plan were 45 percent higher that those on the 95 percent coinsurance plan. For outpatient services, adults on the 25 percent coinsurance plans spent only 78 percent as much as those on the free plan. For children in that group the figure was 74 percent. On the 95 percent coinsurance plan adults spent 60 percent as much as those on the free plan and children 59 percent as much.
The goal in setting a copayment would be to provide people with an incentive to think before incurring medical costs, but not to create an impediment to their seeking necessary medical care. Short-term cost savings is not so important that people should not be discouraged from having high blood pressure or obstructive sleep apnea diagnosed or treated, or from having their infant examined for an ear infection or acute respiratory illness. Also, as the Times notes, we have to respect the fact that individuals lack the expertise to manage their own medical treatment - they need a doctor's guidance.

The times also correctly notes that individual choice will have little overall impact, because health care costs are not evenly distributed:
Most health care spending is racked up by a small percentage of individuals whose bills are so high they are no longer subject to cost sharing; they will hardly be deterred from expensive care they desperately need.
Right now we have the worst of all worlds - when these people are uninsured or underinsured, we force them to treat at emergency rooms - the most expensive source of medical care. When they are insured, but become disabled from work, we allow their insurance to lapse such that they become uninsured. (Wouldn't an easy short-term fix to this to be to mandate that health insurance policies include a disability provision which will cover a patient's premiums until the person either recovers from or succumbs to a disabling illness?) Then, when the patient is financially ruined, we finally step in with Medicare and Medicaid.

This is exceptionally simplistic:
Deep in their hearts, many liberals yearn for a single-payer system, sometimes called Medicare-for-all, that would have the federal government pay for all care and dictate prices. Such a system would let the government offset the price-setting strength of the medical and pharmaceutical industries, eliminate much of the waste due to a multiplicity of private insurance plans, and greatly cut administrative costs.

But a single-payer system is no panacea for the cost problem — witness Medicare’s own cost troubles — and the approach has limited political support. Private insurers could presumably eliminate some of the waste through uniform billing and payment procedures.
There are many flavors of "single payer" that we could implement, including versions which allow consumers to choose between private insurance plans (much like the present cafeteria of health care plans offered by many employers), and most plans (like Medicare) would also allow private supplemental insurance. To hope that private insurers will suddenly take it upon themselves to implement cost-savings methodology that would either benefit other insurers, or cause them to incur costs which might cause their premiums to briefly be higher than their competitors' before dropping to a lower level due to new efficiencies? A pipe dream.

As previously noted, government-paid health care systems, domestically and internationally, lead in this area. Market purists may wish to ignore the facts, but the same logic applies as with consumers - if the health care provider is forced to absorb the costs, it will seek greater efficiencies - with the primary difference being that providers actually have the power and control necessary to effect change. U.S. health insurers don't - they just increase insurance premiums and pass along the cost.