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Health care for everyone costs half as much

The facts of the cost control debate are crystal clear: Countries with universal, accessible health care (note that I didn’t say “health insurance”) have per capita costs that are about half those of the US. ( e.g. Klein, Krugman, Somerby also has links to original data.) Should I repeat that? Our system of health care for people who pay costs twice as much as health care for everybody.

It’s that simple. The data are out there. So why are they invisible? Why doesn’t Obama point that out in his many TV appearances? He talks about cost control, but makes it seem it’s so complicated we need a 1000-page bill for it and over four years to implement. Why isn’t the simple fact a small enough sound bite for the chattering classes?

I think we’re up against more than interests vested in obfuscation. All the vested interests in the world aren’t enough to explain why people are so willing to believe it when the facts are so blazingly simple.

I think we’re up against a fundamental sense, a lizard brain thing, that says you can’t possibly get something unless someone else loses it. Win-win is counterintuitive. Lose-lose is even more counterintuitive. If my money is not being spent on those no-goods, then I must have more left at the end, right? And when that falls flat, when the whole damn economy is suffering because we refuse to have universal health care, then the problem is, obviously!, that too much money is still somehow being spent on no-goods.

The facts are eclipsed by the inability to understand them.

That has a practical application. It means that in this health reform debate we’re having nationally, the point to hammer home is not only that compassion and cost control go together, as Krugman has pointed out. The corollary is even more important. Lack of compassion does not lead to savings. Lack of compassion leads to trillions in wasted money.

The ads we should be running should show fiscal “conservatives” clutching a single dollar bill while setting fire to a sea of burning hundreds.

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Stealing Iran . . . Stupidly

The statistics don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. The stealing of the Iran’s June 12 election has been obvious from the start. But that’s the nature of statistics; it’s real value is telling you that you what don’t know, it’s eliminating false positives. Walter Mebane of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor has done the work to show that this disgraceful event really is a fact. I saw his article (pdf) when it first came out in mid-June, but seeing it again in Science News jogged me to talk about it. From SN:

“[Iranian election data] suggests that the actual outcome should have been pretty close,” says Mebane…. The official results showed Ahmadinejad getting almost twice as many votes as his closest rival.

Mebane cautions that the anomalous statistics could imaginably have an innocent explanation, that limited data is available, and that he is not himself an expert on Iranian politics. Nevertheless, he concludes that “because the evidence is so strikingly suspicious, the credibility of the election is in question until it can be demonstrated that there are benign explanations for these patterns.”

[A couple of paragraphs follow discussing the distribution of numbers in real data, known as Benford's Law.]

When Mebane studied polling station-level data from Iran, he found that the numbers on the ballots for Ahmadinejad and two of the minor candidates didn’t conform to Benford’s Law well at all.

In any fair election, a certain percentage of votes are illegible or otherwise problematic and have to be discarded. When people commit fraud by adding extra votes, they often forget to add invalid ones. Suspiciously, Mebane found that in towns with few invalid votes, Ahmadinejad’s ballot numbers were further off from Benford’s Law — and furthermore, that Ahmadinejad got a greater percentage of the votes.

“The natural interpretation is that they had some ballot boxes and they added a whole bunch of votes for Ahmadinejad,” Mebane says.

Mebane also received data from the 2005 Iran election that aggregated the votes of entire towns…. If Ahmadinejad fared poorly in a particular town in 2005, you wouldn’t expect him to do especially well there in 2009 either. …

The best relationship the model found produced 81 outliers out of 320 towns in the analysis, a strikingly high percentage. Another 91 fit the model, but poorly. In the majority of these 172 towns, Ahmadinejad did better than the model would have predicted.

“This is not necessarily diagnostic of fraud,” Mebane says. “It could just be that the model is really terrible.” But since the first analysis gives evidence of fraud, the cities the model flags as problematic are the sensible ones to scrutinize.

For me, the new bit of data in all that is just how bad they were at faking it. That gives watchdog groups a big opportunity if they can somehow get at the raw data before it’s destroyed.

I only regret that we in the US, with our long string of elections-as-theater, don’t have the Iranian opposition’s fire, and that we do have much more polished cheaters.

Update, Jul 24, 2009. I see today that there was another excellent article on the BBC on this topic, providing yet more examples of voting anomalies.

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I have Issues with cell phones

Let me start by boasting about my driving. In over forty years on all kinds of roads, I’ve had two accidents, both of them fender benders. One was thirty five years ago in Afghanistan. Driving there was, shall we say, different. And the other one happened at three mph in one of those parking lot traffic jams about twenty years ago. My car, being a reliable Japanese thingy, didn’t even have a smudge on it. The other car needed $900 worth of work. The US at the time did not require car bumpers to withstand at least 5mph impacts.

Okay. So that’s point one. Very safe driver. Point two is that, like all Boston drivers, (that’s where I learned to drive), I’m brilliant. I swear, I could be a fighter pilot. My reaction times are still faster than twenty year-olds, at least judging by the amount of time it takes them to wake up when the light turns green. Part of me is kind of looking forward to getting doddery enough so that other drivers no longer make me nuts with how long it takes them to see anything.

Now we get to cell phones. (I told you we’d get there eventually.) I’m not big on phones, and I hadn’t used them while driving. One day about five years ago I decided it was time to get with the program. I took a call while I was on one of those California town roads: four broad lanes in each direction, perfectly straight, well-behaved drivers, and slow traffic. I was being very careful about the whole thing, so dialing while driving was going to be the advanced course. My part of the conversation started a bit disjointed, but gradually it got better.

The next thing I knew, I was in the middle of the intersection — eight lanes north-south and eight lanes east-west, it takes time to cross an intersection that big — with two walls of polite California drivers, who had a green light, waiting for me to get out of the middle of the road. I’d sailed into the intersection with the red light right in front of me. Nobody even honked.
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It’s not about taxes

I live in California, and you may have heard that we’re having a bit of an argle-bargle about a budget in this state.

The history, for those who’d like it: Back in the 1970s, enough Californians felt their taxes were too high to limit property taxes by law. The limit is low, (1.5%, I thought, but wikipedia says 1%) and — this is the biggest deal — the assessed value of the property can’t increase more than 2% a year until it’s sold. The new assessed value is then based on that sale price. You’ve probably heard about property values in California. A house worth $60,000 in 1978 is worth $600,000 now, but it’s taxed at around $100,000. There’s something to be said for this in the case of retirees on fixed incomes, for instance. However, they forgot to limit it to people of limited means. It applies equally to movie stars. And to commercial real estate which can stay in the same hands forever, even when it’s sold, through the magic of shell corporations. That turns out to be a loophole big enough for the whole state to fall through.

Proposition 13, as it’s known, also said that any tax increase had to pass with a two-thirds supermajority. We have two, count ‘em, two, Republicans more than a one third minority. So that voting bloc, in its infinite intransigence, can stop any budget from passing. The situation is not helped by a Gropinator who vetoes legislation just to show off, as far as I can tell.

(Update: I should mention that the up-to-the-minute blog for all things political in California is calitics.com.)

On to the gnarly present. As Krugman wrote, California may once again be ahead of the curve in showing what happens when a bunch of Republicans decide to play politics with the future. This is not, at this point a faults-on-both-sides situation. This is a bunch of Republicans playing politics with the future. They have made the (apparently accurate) judgment that repeating NO NEW TAXES on an infinite loop will keep getting them re-elected till hell takes over.
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News you can use: swine flu and face masks

Have you had the experience when hiking of shifting your way-too-heavy pack a bit and it feels better for a while? I feel like doing that just now. Enough with the hopelessness of getting real health care reform during our one opportunity in a generation. Enough with so-called Democrats, whether they’re warming chairs in the Oval Office or on Capitol Hill. Let’s talk about swine flu, and, specifically, face masks. Should you or should you not stock up on face masks?
an N95 face mask
The CDC–. Wait, I’ll start over. Even if you feel the government is not your friend, the CDC really does know about face masks. Honest. The CDC starts the discussion at what are known as N95 masks. These are rated to stop 95% of airborne particles and droplets that are larger than 0.3 microns in size. As you can see in the picture, these are reasonably formidable, thick, stuffy-to-breathe-through face masks.

The good news is that aerosolized droplets exhaled or sneezed out are mostly larger than 0.5 microns. The bad news is that if the particle floats long enough to evaporate the associated water, a “naked” flu virus is on the order of 100 nanometers. That’s 0.1 microns. Now, a bare virus doesn’t survive, but if it retains, say, half its water droplet, it might well be smaller than 0.3 microns. In other words, it’ll pass through the mask as easily as you can pass through a doorway.

Note that I’m not even addressing the issue of the space between the mask and your face. This is all assuming you have a perfect fit with no gaps which are, say a tenth of a millimeter big. A tenth of a millimeter is 100 microns. Picture how big that looks to a 0.5 micron droplet.
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