Conservatives and libertarians will hate it because it tramples on their freedom of choice and because it costs more than it ought to. Liberals and progressives will hate it because its a giveaway to companies that are widely agreed to be Evil Incarnate. Centrists will hate it because it won't work.
This isn't a "starting point" that can be refined as time goes on. It is a step in the wrong direction -- awarding even greater power and money to the already too-powerful insurance industry. It will give the industry the ability to raise premiums even higher and faster because people will legally have no choice but to pay them.
All major pieces of legislation evolve over time. They tend to do a better job of doing what they were designed to do in the first place. This was true for Social Security, Medicare, and many other social programs. It would be true for this healthcare bill too. The problem is that this healthcare bill doesn't do much of anything for citizens. It simply makes a gift of our freedom and livelihoods to the insurance industry, pure and simple. The bill will indeed evolve over time; the wussy regulations it creates to protect patients will get stripped out the instant the Republican party controls the government again.
I can swallow the idea of paying taxes to support a public service -- if the public service actually works. I cannot swallow the idea of being legally obligated to buy a product from a private party.
It's amazing. The Democrats in the Senate have actually managed to find an arrangement of circumstances that would actually be worse than the status quo. That's quite an accomplishment, given the breathtaking moral bankruptcy of our health insurance system.
Kill the bill. It will sink us.
A good friend of mine remarked recently that while he liked reading my blog, it was depressing him. So I went back over the archives, and I realized that a lot of it has been pretty depressing. But then again, it's been a pretty depressing time for America, and I think a lot about national issues. There have also been some rough patches in my own life; my advisor at UCLA closed down his group and moved to the UK, and I had to figure out what to do with myself. That has colored my writing.
Tomorrow, two things are happening that believe will administer a stiff dose of optimism around here. First, America will be under new management. Second, I am scrapping my plans to work in physics, and joining Jonathan Eisen's lab. These are not wholly unrelated events, and so I decided to address them together.
First up, the big picture stuff.
On the evening of November 7th, 2000, I discovered rather to my surprise that I do, in fact, love my country. My recollection of the evening and the time that followed has an amusing resemblance to a romantic comedy; I played the insensitive jerk who doesn't appreciate his wonderful girlfriend until she is suddenly gone. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that she is carried away by baboons. Or perhaps Richard Gere. Or maybe Richard Gere playing a baboon.
Then, for the first excruciating half of the movie, I slowly begin to understand how much I needed her. I discover, to the merriment of all, that I cannot cook, that I don't understand money, and so on. The movie trailer features a memorable scene in which I am eating molding Chinese takeout in my underpants as my life comes crashing down around me.
Then, and epiphany! I should win back the girl from the baboons, or Richard Gere, or whatever. Some amusing side characters are introduced who help me on my hilarious and humiliating quest of self-discovery and girl-retrieving.
That's kind of how it went. Instantly, as soon as the results started to come in, I felt an icy lump in my stomach. When it became clear that George Bush was going to win, I started to recognize the feeling. It was familiar. The last time I had experienced it, I was a fifteen-year-old at the bottom of a drainage ditch, looking at how my right hand was twisted around backwards and resting backwards against my forearm, the radius snapped and the ulna cracked lengthwise and telescoped into itself.
The most lucid memory I have about breaking my arm was that it did not hurt. The pain came much later, after everything was nicely set and wrapped up, and the doctors had explained that it would heal nicely. But at the bottom of the drainage ditch, there was this very singular feeling. Not fear, or pain, or surprise, but cold, icy dread, like the firmware of my brain had suddenly broadcast the message, CRITICAL ERROR! and terminated everything else in my head. Emotions, ideas, thoughts, memories, all were gone. There was nothing but a paralyzing tsunami of Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
That's what I felt on November 8th, 2000. Something terrible had happened. I had lost something really, really important, but I was too dumb to understand what it was. My country, which I had loved all along but never appreciated, had been carried away by baboons.
As the months and years unfolded, I got to know what I had lost from the shape of the hole it left. I discovered the first ragged edge of that hole during the Hainan Island incident. America suddenly seemed bumbling and weak, thundering with indignation and then groveling pathetically. The State Department evidently couldn't even be bothered to write the official letter of condolence for Wang Wei's death in Chinese, and so the CCP naturally translated it to sound like an admission of guilt. The Bush presidency was pretty much downhill from there.
But this is a romantic comedy, after all. I spent the summer of 2006 in Oxford, mostly apologizing for the idiot in the White House to all the nice people I met from the rest of the planet. I came home determined to get my country back. So I started researching candidates for the midterm elections. There were some really great people running, and so I sent in my tiny little donations over the internet. I signed petitions, sent grumpy letters to newspapers and did a little phone banking. Six months later, a nice lady from San Francisco became the first woman to wield the Speaker's gavel.
So, you get the idea. Struggles, setbacks, successes; lots of painful, cringe-worthy scenes that screenplay authors think are funny. I've got my country back, and I've learned my lesson. I'm never going to take her for granted again. Today, the credits roll. The movie is over.
The prognosis for the next couple of years is dismal. The economy sucks, our financial system has utterly collapsed. Wall Street is a financial Chernobyl; we've gone through the blackout, the meltdown, a series of ruinous detonations as various subsystems superheat and explode, and we are now watching it belch radioactive smoke into the Jet Stream as the whole thing slowly burns. We are also hurtling towards a point-of-no-return in the great phase diagram of atmospheric carbon. Oh, and we're fighting two wars.
Nevertheless, I'm pretty happy. Our problems have solutions. We've just elected a guy who has a very clear view of this colossal mess we're in, and doesn't flinch.
Now, I'll take a step down in scale a bit, and talk about why I'm leaving physics.
I decided to study physics for a very simple reason; our planet's atmosphere is filling up with carbon, and if we don't stop digging shit out of the ground and lighting it on fire, we're going to wreck the place. Like most people, I figured that we need a big source of energy that doesn't involve burning black stuff from the ground.
But the more I learned about the energy economy, the more I came to understand how wrong I was. Yes, we use a lot of energy. Most of it is from burning black shit we dig out of the ground. But for the most part, we fritter it away. We spend gigawatts lighting empty rooms, running idle computers and refrigerating nonperishable food. We blow a big fraction of our electricity into the night sky, benefiting no one, except perhaps future generations of alien astronomers. We blow billions of gallons of fuel driving to places we don't want to go, flying to places we don't want to see, and moving products we don't enjoy.
In the very near future, we're going to have less fuel and less electricity. And you know what? It's going to be fine. Little by little, prices will go up, and the waste will go away. In retrospect, we will see that most of the energy we use today was utterly and completely wasted. We will learn to waste less of it, and everything will be fine. People will wonder what the big deal was.
There will be some fancy technologies, like solar panels and wind turbines. I learned a bit about that by designing a solar array for my mother's house this summer. It generates more than she uses, cost about as much as a small car, and took three days to install. It will pay for itself in about sixteen years, or maybe sooner if rates keep climbing, and it will last for about 40 years. It was almost disappointing how straight-forward it was (though it was a lot of fun). Cutting her energy use from almost 40 kilowatt hours a day to less than 10 was totally painless. When it's time to replace the washing machine and the refrigerator, her house will draw less than 7 kilowatt-hours a day. The panels generate about 13 to 17 kilowatt hours a day; her last electric bill was negative $102.
In a nutshell, here is the solution to the energy crisis : Stop being a pussy.
We don't need to be "saved" from this. Not by fusion reactors. Not by advanced nuclear whatever. Not by magical carbon sequestration. The human race will have fewer gigawatts to play around with, and so we'll use them more carefully. The reality of the energy crisis is this: Our sense of entitlement and its associated low inclination to innovate is coming face to face with the laws of physics. Physics will win. Exit crisis, pursued by a bear.
Energy is neither cheap nor abundant. It never has been, and it never will be. If you don't believe me, get on a stationary bike and do 860 calories of work (you'll burn about 2400 calories, or three good meals). That's one kilowatt-hour. You will be tired as hell. Right now, you pay about a dime for that much work. No matter how you generate it, it's crazy to pay so little for so much. It should come as no surprise that there are hidden fees in the fine print, like "may destroy the Earth." Cheap energy was always a Faustian pact.
There are lots of good reasons to build reactor tokamaks, but cheap energy isn't one of them. Fusion would be a great power source for space exploration; the fuel is everywhere, you don't have to worry as much about radiation, and you get your vacuum pumping for free. Sometime soon, I think we'll do just that. But for now, I simply refuse to grind through all that horrible mathematics just so Cody McFuckhead can leave his X-Box running while he goes on spring break.
This is actually a delightful discovery. As long as I was getting my understanding of the energy situation from media sources, it looked very very grim. Things look totally different once you become conversant in the ways we make, transport and use energy. Climate change is a real crisis and a real problem, but the solution is anything but rocket science : Bulldoze all coal-fired power plants, and forbid the construction of new ones. Do it on a nice predictable schedule, and let utility prices rise just at a pace that allows people to keep up with the adjustments they have to make. Provide targeted aid where it's needed, like weatherizing and insulating houses for low income families. Space it out over ten years, and start with the utility markets that can adjust the fastest.
Bulldozing our coal fired plants would cut America's carbon emissions in half, an only sacrifice about 27% of our generating capacity. If organized carefully, utility prices would rise to less than $0.40 a kilowatt hour, and then fall to near previous levels as conservation measures come on line. Why is that so scary? We don't suffer from a lack of alternative energy, we suffer from a lack of balls.
I thought about this a lot over the summer. Obama's victory finally gave me the clear concience to change direction. The newspwpers are filled with hand-wringing about the budget deficit, but I'm more concerned about America's chutzpah deficit. Obama might not be able to fix the budget anytime soon, but he's already recapitalizing our country with a desperately needed infusion of guts.
I was always interested in the computational side of physics, and so a shift to computational biology is not as big a shift as I'd feared, especially since I am only just starting. It's a different world, and I'm already starting to feel that it's a better fit for me.
Energy has always fascinated me. "Follow the money" was Mark Felt's advise to Bob Woodward during Watergate. If you want to understand politics, economics and history, money is the skeleton that gives shape to events. The currency of the universe is energy. It is the specie of all things from galaxies to microbes. If you want to understand the physical world, you follow the energy.
The energy balance sheets seem to contradict the idea that we have a crisis of power generation. Quite the contrary; they indicate a massive glut. That in itself raises other questions. For example, how has this glut of cheap energy distorted our economy? How will the end of this glut change our economy?
I'm not an economist, and I don't want to be one. In any event, following the energy leads to other more interesting questions. How has the flow of energy shaped us? A photon strays into the waiting chloroplast, ultimately making a sugar molecule. The molecule becomes part of the meal of a gazelle. The gazelle and a hunter sprint together through a blazing sunset over the Rift Valley a hundred millennia ago. We owe our existence to a wrinkle in the ledger books of the planetary energy accountancy. How does that work?
Things are looking up.
I like this ballot system much better than the InkaVote thing they have in LA, and much better than any kind of computerized bullshit. I spent four years using computers to design fusion reactors, but I sure as hell don't trust them with an election. Pen and paper, thanks.
To be clear, I do hope he wins, and I will vote for him. I hope he finds a way to win back my endorsement. However, I simply cannot actively support him after his vote on FISA.
Kudos to Obama for his artfully penned response to the gigantic groundswell of outrage, but this is something that leaves me profoundly disappointed. FISA was an unnecessary, rotten, law to begin with, and this law takes it from rotten to putrid.
Let me put it this way. Say you are an FBI agent, and you are working on a case. You think you need a wiretap ASAP. If you don't feel that the case is compelling enough to wake a judge up at 4 AM to get her to sign a warrant for your wiretap, then the agency probably shouldn't waste its time and resources pursuing the case.
The whole reason for requiring warrants to search and seize property is to focus law enforcement on compelling cases. The system is designed to weed out speculative and frivolous investigations, and investigations for improper purposes (political intimidation, for example). The administrative burdens placed on law enforcement are SUPPOSED to be burdensome. Sure, we should feel sympathy for the plodding investigator as he navigates through the red tape. But we should also recognize that the hassle he must undergo is a sort of administrative calisthenics. It makes for more thorough investigations, more accountable practices, and more successful prosecution.
If we want to help our hypothetical plodding investigator, we shouldn't make his job simpler. We should give him more material resources. Worried about not getting warrants quickly enough? How about expanded staffing to process warrants? Better IT infrastructure to handle the process faster and more efficiently? Or heck, why not just set aside office space for judges nearby the operations center? Processing warrants is one of the key duties of serving on the bench, and in my experience, judges generally take all parts of their jobs very seriously.
Even if we grant, for a moment, the ridiculous "ticking bomb" scenario that seems to motivate all conservative thinking on domestic security, special legal "tools" like FISA are still totally unnecessary. Terrorism cases are not unique in the urgency with which they must be pursued, or in the scope they must cover, or in the potential number of victims. Ordinary homicide investigations can be just as urgent; racketeering and organized crime cases can be just as broad in scope; environmental cases can involve just as many victims. Terrorism is unique only in the sense that it can potentially combine these aspects. Terrorism cases are bound to be complex and difficult, but the difficulties have nothing to do with complying with appropriate judicial oversight. Any competent homicide detective knows how to obtain a warrant when she needs one in a big hurry. The FBI organized crime people know how to obtain warrants for complex investigations. Investigators who handle environmental cases often use the potential for mass casualties to obtain authorization to conduct wide-ranging investigations. Terrorism investigators need to do all those things at once, and so they need low caseloads, a lot of very competent support staff and a well-run computer network.
As with any other class of investigation, we should not expect better results by relaxing judicial oversight, or in the case of the new FISA law, no oversight whatsoever. Quite the contrary. Exception from the fourth amendment allows more latitude for sloppy work, but won't help an honest cop catch any bad guys. What conservatives are really asking for when they rail against judicial oversight is that they don't want honest cops; they want Gestapo.
Naturally, conservatives don't want the EPA or the Forrest Service to have expanded investigative or enforcement powers. Extra-constitutional intrusions into the private lives of Americans are evidently reserved for manly things. For girly things, like protecting spotted owls from logging companies and children from arsenic poisoning, conservatives never fail to come out in favor of judicial micromanagement. This works in concert with their habit of appointing industry lobbyists to the judiciary.
What angers me about Obama's position (and the Democratic leadership) here is that they conceded a fundamental philosophical point to the GOP. They are granting that security theater is more important than the law. Not only that, but in the same stroke, they endorsed the criminal behavior of the people involved in what is probably the largest and most serious breach of the fourth amendment in our history. I cannot abide it.
I will vote for Barack Obama, but I'm not going to endorse him, or give him any more money. Instead, I encourage you to contribute to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Why I Won't Vote for HillaryHillary's campaign has focused relentlessly on one theme: Experience. She's been fighting for middle-class Americans for a long time, particularly on the subject of health care. People who don't like her have tried to minimize Hillary's role in the Clinton White House; they evidently don't remember the 1990s. The trouble is not that I don't think she has the experience, it's that I'm not particularly impressed by her accomplishments.
That's a pretty sweeping assertion, so let me offer the most important example of what I am talking about. The touchstone moment of Hillary Clinton's tenure in the White House was the introduction of the health care package. At the time, it was clear that health care was in crisis, and the plan assembled by the Clinton White House under Hillary's supervision probably would have more-or-less ended the crisis. I'm not going to claim that it would have been a great system, or that it was a wonderful piece of legislation, but it was clearly a bold step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the bill failed, and it failed so spectacularly that it hobbled Bill Clinton's domestic agenda even after his successful reelection.
Why did it fail? It failed for a lot of reasons, but here are the ones that stick in my mind :
- It was a gigantic piece of legislation, more than a thousand pages of dense legal jargon. I still remember the news clips of Congressional aides setting out copies of the bill on overloaded, buckling folding tables. There was no hope whatsoever that an ordinary person, even a very motivated one, could have learned enough about the bill to understand it on its merits.
- The bill was produced in secret. The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons even went as far as to sue the Health Care Task Force to find out what was happening in the closed meetings. They were drafting legislation that would change the whole health care system, and they shut out the doctors. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
- The plan itself was a hideous chimera; the idea was to take the scenario under which most Americans obtain health care coverage (i.e., from their employer), make it mandatory. Then, there was a system of price controls, and various other administrative thingamajigs... In short, it lacked any kind of unity of vision that would have allowed the Clintons to articulate how it was supposed to work.
- The Task Force deliberated for a very long time to excrete this gorgon of a proposal, and by the time it was out in the open, the initial enthusiasm and excitement had evaporated. The bill's opponents had a nice, long time to organize their attack. The attack went off like clockwork, and Newt and his cronies rode the momentum of this attack into the 1994 elections and seized control of Congress. The Clinton's didn't just loose the health care bill, they lost every bill that could have been promulgated to a Democratic Congress.
The original act has been updated several times since the program was created, but the original legislation completely captured the theory, practice and most of the essential features of the program. It was fairly simple, it was astonishingly efficient (even before computers), and it works.
Hillary's health care bill didn't fail because the nasty Republicans killed it. It failed because it was a murky tangle of legal spaghetti-code constructed in secret under dubious circumstances and championed by a callous, tardy and tone-deaf technocrat.
Hillary claims that she's learned from her mistakes. On a personal level, I'm more than happy to forgive her. I think she made an earnest effort to do something good for a lot of people. However, the fact remains that we've seen Hillary spearhead a major legislative effort, and she did just about the worst job you could possibly imagine.
There are a lot of people who are very excited about the prospect of a female president. I think it would be pretty great, actually. On the other hand, she is running for president. You don't put someone in that office because you like them and think they deserve your loyalty. You put them in that office because you want them to do a good job, period. The presidency is not a reward; it is a duty. It should be given to person best able to peform that duty, and Hillary has an established record of arrogance and poor decisions.
Women have fought for a long time to be taken seriously in the workplace, in academia, and in politics. I take Hillary seriously, and I seriously don't want her to be president. She clearly has the brains and the grit to be president, but then again, I don't think she's particularly unique among women in that regard. There are millions of women who could competently serve in the capacity of President of the United States. There are women out there doing much harder jobs.
The Clinton campaign mantra is that Hillary is experienced. Yep, she certainly has lots of experience fighting for good, worthy things. On the other hand, she also has a conspicuously inauspicious track record when it comes to accomplishing these good, worthy things. She and her husband presided over the Democratic Party's most devastating legislative failure of the 20th century. I don't see why we, as voters, should reward failure.
Since then, Hillary has managed to help precipitate a number of other spectacular legislative failures :
- Voted to authorize the Iraq war
- Voted for the PATRIOT act (twice)
- Voted to confirm John Roberts
- he is nevertheless an astonishingly accomplished individual and
- he has never done anything to wreck the Democratic Party.