July 19, 2017

Debating Net Neutrality Live

Tomorrow, July 20, at noon ET I'll be debating "Net Neutrality" on "Vermont Edition", a Vermont Public Radio Program. Bradley Holt, a developer advocate and senior software engineer with IBM Watson Data Platform, will be defending the 2014 regulations. I'll be explaining why I think they stifle innovation and protect the dominant Internet players like Google and Amazon who lobbied for them. It's a live call in discussion moderated by Jane Lindholm.

Live streaming available at http://digital.vpr.net/online-streams.

More about the show at http://digital.vpr.net/post/net-neutrality-and-you-whats-stake-internet-regulation.

See also:

“Net Neutrality” Protects New Monopolies from Old

Internet Fast Lanes

An Open Letter to My Friends at Google

Don’t Make the Internet Safe for Monopolies

Drug-Addicted Babies

A Repugnant and Maybe Necessary Step

“From 2003 to 2012, the last year for which statistics are available, the number of babies born dependent on drugs grew nearly fivefold in the United States. Opioids are the main culprit, and states like Kentucky are particularly hard-hit: 15 of every 1,000 infants here are born dependent on opioids.” – from an article by Catherine Saint Louis last week in The New York Times.  

This tragedy effects not only the babies and the mothers who often can’t care for them. Neonatal intensive care units are overwhelmed and don’t have enough incubators both for these afflicted children and those born with other severe problems. It seems there is a news story every day in Vermont about the increase in children needing foster care. Should standards for foster families be relaxed to meet the increased need? How many more caseworkers do we need both to monitor more adoptions and to cope with a mushrooming case load of abused children and distressed families? These are just some of the questions which have no good answers but can’t be ignored.

What about prevention? We’ve tried a war on drugs. We lost. Will legalization of drugs decrease abuse? We haven’t finished the experiment but I doubt it.

If we can’t prevent drug abuse, perhaps we have to concentrate just on reducing the number of children born to drug addicted parents (I don’t mean just addicted mothers; I mean addicted fathers – present or absent – as well). Banning sex by addicted people – or even getting them to use condoms - is unlikely to work.

Suppose we offered $1000 no questions asked to anyone between 18 and 45 who is willing to be surgically sterilized. It may well be an offer that addicts can’t resist. Men may well be more inclined to take the offer than women. It probably would reduce the number of addicted babies and babies born to addicted parents six months after it goes into effect.

There is a lot to say against this idea. The money will go for yet more drugs. Some people will recover from their addiction and regret the choice they made when they were less than competent to make a life decision. There will certainly be people who take the $1000 just because they are in desperate need of cash – or to feed an alcohol or gambling addiction.

To some this will sound like the kind of racist eugenics which motivated Margaret Sanger and many other Americans when she founded Planned Parenthood. However, this is not a racist solution; something certainly needs to be done about addicts having addicted babies here in the snow-white parts of Vermont. The drug epidemic does not respect social classes. The decision to be sterilized will be as voluntary as the decision to use drugs; although clearly some people cannot help themselves when drugs are involved.

I find this idea repugnant, frankly; but I’m afraid it may be necessary. My hope is someone has a better idea. I know we must address this ongoing tragedy and will not be able to do so with rose-colored glasses on.

July 14, 2017

“Net Neutrality” Protects New Monopolies from Old

Over the next decade which companies do you think will be better able to exercise monopoly power?

  1. Amazon
  2. AT&T
  3. Comcast
  4. Facebook
  5. Google
  6. Regional phone companies
  7. Verizon

If you’d asked me this question in 2000, I would’ve picked AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and regional phone companies. They are part of local duopolies for wired infrastructure.  They had a comfortable relationship with the FCC which regulated them nationally and with most of the state regulators. They saw the Internet as potentially disruptive and would’ve preferred to have its potential for innovation slowed by regulation. Amazon and Google (and most of the Internet community of the day) were against FCC regulation of the Internet exactly because that would chill innovation.

The Internet won; the FCC chose only the lightest of regulation. We got innovation; Facebook and Twitter happened; Google and Amazon grew enormously.

And then guess what. In 2014 at the urging of Google, Amazon, and the rest of the Internet establishment, the FCC decided it needed to regulate the Internet after all. In an Orwellian twist, this regulation was given the attractive name of Net Neutrality. Its stated purpose is to protect us from abuses that AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and the like “might” commit.

Are the telcos more powerful than they were in 2000? Of course not; even their landline duopolies are less powerful as more and more last mile access to content is wireless and wireless becomes more and more competitive.

Are Google and Amazon more in need of protection now than they were then? Sounds absurd but they’re the establishment now. They are strong enough so they can’t be toppled by smaller competitors with the same products. The only commercial threat to them – as it always is with dominant players – is disruptive innovation. And what better way to slow innovation than regulation? Note also that regulation is usually favored by those who think they can control the regulators (telcos in 2000; dominant Internet players in 2014).

“Net Neutraility” forbids telcos for charging content providers a premium for “fast lanes”. But Google, Amazon, et al already have private fast lanes and local data centers and data caches so that their content can reach consumers faster than content from anyone else. Conveniently Net Neutrality regs don’t cover the private internet expressways. In fact if you pay Amazon to host your site, you too can have a fast lane. But you can’t buy that fast lane from AT&T ala carte without the hosting because they’re not allowed to sell it.

What if someone were to provide a drone-mesh-based fast lane and charge more the faster you want your content to go? Would that be a threat to us? No. Would it be a threat to Amazon and Google? A little; it might be disruptive. Better, in their minds, to subject that service to the strait jacket of regulation. What if telemedicine requires a guaranteed faster service than the public Internet provides? Does it just have to wait until the whole Internet gets faster to start saving lives? Why shouldn’t AT&T or the drone-based ISP be able to sell the faster service at a premium?

If all the ins-and-outs of the Net Neutrality debate are hard to follow, just ask yourself in 2017 if Google’s search dominance is more of a present danger than AT&T’s eroding monopoly. I’m not for regulating Google or Amazon purely because of their size; but I’m certainly against regulation like so-called Net Neutrality which protects their dominance.

See also:

Internet Fast Lanes

An Open Letter to My Friends at Google

Don’t Make the Internet Safe for Monopolies

July 11, 2017

Freedom, Responsibility, and Preexisting Conditions

We want the freedom to decide whether or not to buy health insurance but we don’t want to take responsibility for the cost of healthcare when we get sick and don’t have insurance. Evidence: Americans hated the individual mandate in Obamacare enough to give Republicans control of Congress in 2010 and we are now insisting that Congress repeal the individual mandate WITHOUT leaving us uncovered for preexisting conditions. No politician of either party nor the President wants to tell us that we’re asking for freedom without responsibility. Not surprisingly there is no replacement for or repair of Obamacare which can meet these conflicting demands.

We don’t expect to be able to buy house insurance when we smell smoke. Banks mandate that we buy insurance before granting a mortgage.

We can’t get driver’s liability insurance after an accident. That’s why there’s a mandate for the protection of people we might hurt to buy liability insurance before we register a car. We don’t have to buy collision insurance for our cars; but we won’t get reimbursed after an accident we caused if we don’t. Fair enough and not buying may be a good economic decision if you can afford to replace your car. We certainly don’t expect to be able to buy insurance to cover a “preexisting” collision.

Just to be clear, I’m NOT talking about the problem of coverage for preexisting conditions if you change jobs and must change insurers or when you first leave your parent’s policy and get your own. As long as you have continued coverage from someone, there’s no actuarial problem in covering these conditions.

Insurance obviously only works if people buy it before they know whether they’ll need it. The premiums of the lucky ones who don’t collect fund the payouts for the unlucky ones who do have a loss (plus the expenses and profits of the insurance company). Obamacare acknowledged this by mandating that everyone buy insurance. This mandate actually makes the question of preexisting conditions moot. If you have to buy insurance, you can’t wait until you get sick to make the purchase. Everyone, healthy or not, is in the pool.

But Obamacare has its own contradictions which are causing its actuarial collapse. The cost of insurance for young people is so high and the penalties for not buying so low and so rarely enforced that young, healthy people are NOT buying. On the other hand, the premiums are kept low for older people (because of a hoped-forl subsidy by the young) so older, sicker people do buy. Insurance companies then pay more in claims than they collect in premiums. They either charge even higher premiums, which cause enrollment to drop further, or leave the insurance exchanges or collect a government subsidy or some combination of the three actions.

We can’t fix or replace Obamacare without facing the contradiction of wanting the freedom not to buy insurance without the responsibility of paying for care when we need it. Here are the options:

  1. Socialize all medical costs. Government pays them all. In essence, however, this amounts to an insurance mandate. We’d all be buying insurance but the cost would be hidden in our tax bills. Bernie Sanders will tell you that the cost will be in the tax bill of “the rich and the cawperations” but I’m afraid that money will also be needed for the free college he’s promised. We have already done this with the large percentage of Americans on Medicaid and, to a lesser extent, with us geezers on Medicare who did pay some (involuntary) premiums.
  2. Keep the individual mandate AND coverage for preexisting conditions and stiffen the penalty for not buying. Politics aside, this could work actuarily if premiums for younger people reflected the actual cost of insuring that age group; but then, of course, the cost to the elderly would go up. This solution is between a political rock and a hard place.
  3. Drop the individual mandate and leave those who choose not to buy insurance responsible for the medical costs they incur. Note that the indigent get “free” insurance in the form of Medicaid so they will not be affected. This does not mean that we leave people who gambled and lost to sicken or die; we can’t do that. Not buying insurance is a financial decision. The consequences of not buying should be financial as well. You get the care you need when you need it; you pay for that care either immediately if you can or over time if you can’t. Liens on assets and garnished salaries are as appropriate for collecting this debt as they are for any other.

The choice is stark: we either give up freedom or accept responsibility.

See also:

Freedom and Responsibility

July 07, 2017

Alexa: The End of a Great Relationship

“Alexa, you’re disappointing me,” I said.

“I’m not sure about that,” replied Alexa, my Amazon Echo.

I once described the device gushingly as a “wonderful listener”. I had great plans to make her the hub of the DIY home security system I’m designing. She used to play whatever music I asked for. She answered questions pretty well.

But the affair is over. Alexa doesn’t play nice with others anymore.

The Home Security Fail

Echo supports a website called IFTTT, which allows even non-nerds to program connections between devices and services. IFTTT is also supported by my home security camera, Arlo. Great, I thought, I can make them work together. There are already IFTTT scripts you can use so that you can tell Alexa to arm or disarm your security system. There are scripts to send email or texts when Arlo sees motion. But I couldn’t find a script to have Alexa tell me when the camera detects motion. “Aha,” I thought, “a product opportunity. I’ll write one.” (I’m retired; I would’ve just made it available free.)

Then I found out why there are no such scripts: Amazon does not support an IFTTT interface which lets you tell Echo to do things, only an interface so Alexa can tell other things what to do. In my experience a willingness to give suggestions but never take any on the part of one party does not lead to a good relationship. This is actually Amazon being selfish. Amazon-provided services, like the one they hope to make replace what’s left of the home telephone, can make Alexa speak up. But Amazon has apparently decided to keep this interface to themselves. They have a right to do that, but they make Alexa a lot less desirable as part of any system if she can’t be made to tell her owners what’s going on.

The Music Spat

“Alexa,” I said on Independence Day, “play ‘Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue’.” Every 4th since 9/11 Mary and I play this Toby Keith song loudly.

“Here is a sample from ‘Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” said Alexa and proceeded to play a 20 second snippet. Then she asked me if I wanted to sign up for an Amazon Music account.

I remembered that lately she has been picky about just playing music without specifying what service to get the music from. “Alexa, play ‘Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue’ from my iHeart Radio account.”

“Do you want me to set up a ‘Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue’ radio station on iHeart Radio?” she asked.

“When I said “no”, she just shut down and played nothing. So I tried again and said “yes”. She started to play music but not the song I asked for. She didn’t respond to some of my profanity.

I told her to play from Pandora. She said my Pandora account wasn’t linked (it used to be). I linked it. “Do you want me to set up a ‘Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue’ radio station on Pandora?” Still can’t get her to play our song.

This all used to work so I did some research. Turns out that Echo now supports two types of music service linking: music library and radio stations. You can only get specific songs and artists from music libraries. Music libraries supported are only Amazon Music and Spotify paid service. iHeart and Pandora are “station suppliers” when accessed through Echo; they play songs like the ones you requested (in their opinion) but not what you requested.

Sorry, my dear Alexa, that doesn’t work for me. I made a Bluetooth connection between Echo and my droid phone (not as easy as it should be). Played ‘Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue’ from my Google Music account, and made Alexa a Bluetooth speaker. Finally we heard our song. To be fair, this is very similar to Chromecasting (Google) my Amazon prime video to my TV.  Google doesn’t want to play nice with Amazon any more than vice versa. But it was Alexa I was infatuated with.

Alexa, you’re disappointing me.

See also:

Arlo: DIY Home Security

Alexa – Cover Your Ears

July 03, 2017

Freedom and Responsibility

Once the American Revolution was won, the colonies had the freedom they’d fought for. They also had the responsibility that came with freedom. When things went bad, there were no bossy Brits around to blame. And things did go bad. The Articles of Confederation adopted by the Continental Congress and eventual the colonies were inadequate during the war and a failure after. The current constitution, adopted in 1789, saved the day – but not without a great civil war.

A lesson for Independence Day is that freedom comes with responsibility.

We’re debating whether various drugs should be legalized. I think the answer, as it has been for alcohol, should be “yes”. With the freedom to use drugs comes responsibility (that’s why children, who aren’t responsible, don’t get freedom).  Drug use can’t be a mitigating factor for a crime even if the immediate decision to commit the crime was clouded by drugs. The decision to use drugs (or alcohol) led to the crime. Society has a responsibility to publicize the dangers of drug (or alcohol) use and to provide some help to those who are dependent. But, if society has an unlimited responsibility to those who choose to use, then society must take that choice away. That puts us back where we started with drug use banned. We can’t have freedom to use drugs without personal responsibility for their effects on us and how we deal with others.

We’re debating whether banks should be free from Dodd-Frank constraints. Yes, IMHO but only if they also have the freedom to fail. If there is any possibility of bailouts, then no freedom for banks. Bernie Sanders is right on this: too big to fail is too big to exist.

What about loans that provide the freedom to go to college? Sure. But the recipients have the responsibility to spend the money wisely and to pay it back whether they spent it wisely or not.

Shouldn’t we be free not to have our children vaccinated? No! Because you can’t take responsibility for the consequences either to your own children or to society as a whole, whose herd immunity is diminished by your choice. No freedom without responsibility.

What about freedom not to work at an “unfulfilling” job? Goes with the freedom not to eat assuming there’s some job available, you’re able to work, and there’s a daycare solution.

What about environmental regulation which restricts business? Businesses (I’m a businessman) should be careful what they wish for in this case. If there are no regulations, then you are responsible for harm that you do. Regulation can be a needed protection both against competitors who cut corners and unlimited liability. This is a tradeoff against freedom, one that I think we often need to make.

The glories of freedom should be celebrated on Independence Day. Celebrate responsibly!

June 28, 2017

Planting Cut Flowers

My friend Nancy quoted me a bit of extreme wisdom: “Making policy without studying history is like planting cut flowers.”

Bingo. Much of what passes for policy today is an attempt to get the bouquet and beauty of flowers without any messy work with seeds, roots, and dirt.

Healthcare won’t improve with the top dressing of more and more government subsidy. In fact life expectancy in the US has gone down for the first time since the peak of the AIDS epidemic despite the introduction of Obamacare. The roots of escalating health costs are obesity, opioids, and the fact that we can prolong life greatly if expense is not a consideration.

Businesses look for government grants to bypass the cumbersome business of attracting private investors or leveraging income from early sales.

We want a higher minimum wage without the training or skills which makes workers worth more.

We want everybody to be able to go to college without addressing the root problem that our K-12 system is graduating people who aren’t ready to flower in a post-secondary environment.

For politicians there’s an obvious advantage in planting cut flowers so long as they don’t whither before the next election. It takes a long time to make visible progress from the roots up. It behooves us all to study history.

June 23, 2017

Arlo: DIY Home Security

We already have a traditional home security system; but I’m a nerd so can’t resist the new gadgets. The sandbox for my experiment is Mary’s currently unprotected vegetable garden. Despite a fence, it is subject to immediate attack by critters unknown whenever a leaf pokes above the dirt. Nothing can survive there except weeds (critters don’t eat weeds), grapes, and raspberries. Obviously we need a crittercam to identify the culprit.

I bought Arlo (see picture below) because it’s double wireless: runs on lithium batteries and uses WiFi to talk to its base station. Software nerds try to avoid wires. The camera includes a motion detector so it only records video when it thinks something is going on. Video clips go immediately go the cloud where they’re stored free for seven days with more time available at a premium; the critter won’t be able to destroy anything to cover its video tracess. Arlo supports IFTTT (If This Then That), which lets me program connections with other devices. It comes from Netgear as does my router making me think (correctly) that setup would be easy, Arlo got pretty good reviews on Amazon. I did not do a thorough search of competitive devices – too many of them.

The starter kit comes with one camera and a base station, which can support up to 5 cameras on the free plan. The base station is physically connected to your router with an included Ethernet cable; does mean you must have a port available on your router. You put batteries in the camera and turn it on. You pair it with the base station by holding it close and pushing the pair button on both devices. Easier than Bluetooth. However, this tells us that the camera is communicating directly with the base station by WiFi and is not actually part of the WiFi network managed by your router.  You won’t like this limitation if you have used multiple routers to extend the area of your home WiFi network; the cameras will still all have to be in direct range of the base station and you may need multiple base stations.

You use the Arlo smartphone app (iOS or Android) to set up the camera and then the app is the best way to monitor what’s going on. First I put Arlo on a table in the living room. Every time I walked by, my phone promptly buzzed. The app let me view the latest recording (me shambling by), earlier recordings, or a “live” view – whatever the camera sees now regardless of whether motion has been detected. There is also a browser-based version of the app for use on your computer. If you want it to, Arlo will send you an email when he detects motion. Most intriguing, Arlo triggers IFTTT events; this means IFTTT scripts could be written to do almost anything when motion is detected including setting off an alarm (or perhaps a sprinkler in the garden). Will blog about that when I do it.

Once Arlo passed the living room test, it was time to install him as crittercam. The base is a metal hemisphere which attaches with one screw (even I can do that). There is a magnetic indent in the back of Arlo which gloms onto the hemisphere so you can angle the camera in a good range of directions. We angled him towards a collection of lettuce we’d put out as critter bait.

Arlo (2)

I may have angled Arlo too high. He reported a couple of intrusions but there was never anything to see. I do expect some false alarms; things move outside. Then I went out to take Arlo’s picture for this post. I thought he’d take a video of me taking a picture of him. But he didn’t notice me until I was latching the gate on the way out. I could need an Arlo Pro with advertised better sensitivity, a wider angle lens, and sound; nerds are suckers for upgrades.

Arlome

Haven’t caught the critter yet but it won’t be long.

June 20, 2017

Teach a Person to Fish and…

We all know the Chinese proverb:

“You give a poor man a fish and you feed him for a day. You teach him to fish and you give him an occupation that will feed him for a lifetime.”

Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, thinks that robots will do all the fishing we need so we’ll have to provide free fish daily:

“There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better. I want to be clear. These are not things I wish will happen; these are things I think probably will happen. And if my assessment is correct and they probably will happen, than[sic] we have to think about what are we going to do about it? I think some kind of universal basic income is going to be necessary…”

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich agrees:

“…we will get to a point, all our societies, where technology is displacing so many jobs, not just menial jobs but also professional jobs, that we’re going to have to take seriously the notion of a universal basic income.”

I think this is elitist nonsense. “You are useless,” is what Musk and Reich are saying to many people around the world; “but don’t worry; we’ll feed you like the animals in the zoo (so long as you vote the right people into office).” It’s hard to think of any worse solution to the non-existent problem of not enough jobs than a universal dole.

Bernie Sanders, whom Reich supported in the primaries, does believe in jobs. His plan for free college, at its best, would be a form of teaching people to fish. However a degree in political correctness with minors in sloppy thinking and grievance politics doesn’t teach you how to bait a hook… or how to weld or wire circuits or plumb. Of course there are college whose students are taught to fish. Champlain in Burlington, VT (of which Mary is a Board member) teaches not only accounting but also digital forensics. Not surprisingly, almost all its graduates get jobs.

Donald Trump, whom Reich calls a fascist, also believes in jobs; that belief got him elected. IMHO the reason so many people voted for Sanders and Trump is these voters don’t like being told by elites that they are useless. I think Trump is wrong to blame unemployment principally on foreign competition (including illegal immigrants); I think he is absolutely right to support apprenticeship programs as a way to teach fishing and welding and circuits and plumbing.

Apprenticeship is also the best way to learn computer programming, as I know from experience. Two more advantages of apprenticeship as opposed to classroom learning: your teacher is a useful role model because she is practicing what’s she’s teaching and you learn that you can learn a skill. The specific skill may become obsolete; it will certainly change. But, once you know you learned how to catch trout, you will be confident that you can learn to catch tuna.

We know there is no current shortage of skilled jobs, for many of which a college degree is useless. There is no unemployment among commercial truck drivers, welders, plumbers, electricians, dispatchers, etc. etc. Anyone with these skills can find work (although sometimes relocation is necessary).

But what about unskilled jobs? Well, they certainly haven’t disappeared yet; look at the help-wanted ads. Retailers are finding they need to pay more to get workers; always a good sign. One reason why entry-level wages haven’t gone up faster, unfortunately, is that welfare benefits in many states including Vermont go down more quickly than take home pay goes up at salaries near the minimum wage.

Farmers around the country are complaining that Trump has scared away the undocumented workers who used to work at minimum wage (if that) so there’s no way to harvest the crops or milk the cows. I admire the migrant workers and their work ethic. Farm work is hard; legal residents can earn as much or more at McDonalds, which doesn’t hire undocumented workers. Farmers will need to pay more to get people who do have an alternative to take hard farm jobs. That’s a good thing even though food prices will go up some. People won’t stop eating. But there are jobs!

Will these jobs exist tomorrow or will they all be automated away as Musk and Reich seem to think? My friend Andy Kessler writes:

“This is a false premise. All through history, automation has created more jobs than it destroyed. Washboards and wringers were replaced by increasingly inexpensive washing machines, while more women entered the workforce. Automated manufacturing and one-click buying has upended retail, yet throughout the U.S. millions of jobs go unfilled…

“The economics, which they apparently stopped teaching at Harvard, are straightforward: Lowering the cost of goods and services through automation allows capital—financial and human—to attack even harder problems. Wake me up when we run out of problems.”

Milking a cow is done with a machine. Clerks at McDonalds enter orders on computers. Automation makes each human’s contribution worth more, not less. All the jobs will change; some will disappear. New unimagined and better jobs will materialize. I’ve made a living for most of my life from computer programming. The job didn’t exist when I was born.

No one is “useless”. Our affluence lets us help those who need help; we should do that generously. The best help will often be teaching a person to fish.

See also: No Job is Bad

June 15, 2017

Fathers Are Coconut Shells

That’s our role with respect to our daughters; I have two. Father’s Day reminds me of this, but it’s been known since antiquity.

We’re supposed to be very tough, protect the vulnerable young ladies from any and all threats. Locking a girl up in a tower may be a bit extreme; but, if you remember, Rapunzel ended up living happily ever after.

We’re supposed to be very tough (I may have said this already); but we’re also supposed to lose. It wouldn’t be good for the coconut species if the fruit could easily be eaten by rodents; it also wouldn’t be good for the species if the shell were made of plastic. Eventually it has to rot away. It’s our job to lose, but not until the right suitor comes along.

If a young man blanches at the prospect of cleaning the Augean Stable, good riddance to bad rubbish. Do you think he’ll take out thrash? If he won’t fight the Nubian Lion, how’s he gonna deal with the IRS. If he can’t kill a Hydra, think of the crabgrass problem they’ll have. Don’t think he gets welcomed with open arms after he finishes his Herculean labors, either. By definition no one is good enough for a daughter.

His last task is to convince his beloved she wants to be with him even more than she wants to obey her father and then to bravely abscond with her. At that point we do our job and lose. The coconut shell shreds. Hopefully they live happily ever after.

We may even get to play with the grandchildren when our sons-in-law forgive us. They do get very understanding as soon as they have daughters of their own.

BTW, mothers have their own methods for dealing with unworthy daughter-in-law candidates. But they (the mothers) play rough.

Happy Father’s Day.

June 13, 2017

The World is Getting Fat

More than 10% of us are obese. That’s not “us” Americans; that’s “us” citizens of the world. According to a study funded by the Gates Foundation and published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the number of obese people has doubled or worse in 75 countries in the last 25 years. It hasn’t gone down in any of the 195 countries studied. Although a greater percentage of adults than children are obese, the obesity rate among children has been going up faster than among adults in many countries. In this study, obesity is defined as a body-mass index (BMI) over 30; people with a BMI between 25 and 29 are classified as “overweight”.

From the study:

“In our systematic evaluation of the health effects of high BMI, we found that excess body weight accounted for about 4 million deaths and 120 million disability-adjusted life-years worldwide in 2015. Nearly 70% of the deaths that were related to high BMI were due to cardiovascular disease, and more than 60% of those deaths occurred among obese persons…

“… Across levels of development, the prevalence of obesity has increased over recent decades, which indicates that the problem is not simply a function of income or wealth. Changes in the food environment and food systems are probably major drivers. Increased availability, accessibility, and affordability of energy-dense foods, along with intense marketing of such foods, could explain excess energy intake and weight gain among different populations. The reduced opportunities for physical activity that have followed urbanization and other changes in the built environment have also been considered as potential drivers; however, these changes generally preceded the global increase in obesity and are less likely to be major contributors.”

Malthus has apparently been turned on his ear by abundance (and foreign aid):

“Many of the countries with the highest increases in the prevalence of obesity are those that have a low or middle SDI [roughly prosperity level - TE] and simultaneously have high rates of other forms of malnutrition. These countries generally have limited financial resources for nutrition programs and mostly rely on external donors whose programs often preferentially target undernutrition; consequently, food security frequently takes precedence over obesity in these countries.”

The word starvation doesn’t appear in the study and malnutrition only once, so I don’t know if death rates from lack of food have gone down as much as death rates from too much food have gone up. In the developed world, death rates from BMI-related causes have not gone up as much as average BMI has; the study speculates that more treatment for these diseases is available in the wealthy world. Probably one cause of rising health care costs.

In a generation, the world’s problem with food has shifted, in many places, from too little to too much. This change is largely due to technology and the increase in productivity both of people and of farm land. We live in a time of abundance, something I’ll write about more. Ironically abundance, like scarcity, can be a problem.

June 09, 2017

Swampy Puddle Drained

Good news from DC.

Tuesday Attorney General Sessions sent an order ending the practice of using settlement money from corporate wrongdoers for political slush funds. His statement accompanying the order says:

“When the federal government settles a case against a corporate wrongdoer, any settlement funds should go first to the victims and then to the American people— not to bankroll third-party special interest groups or the political friends of whoever is in power. Unfortunately, in recent years the Department of Justice has sometimes required or encouraged defendants to make these payments to third parties as a condition of settlement.  With this directive, we are ending this practice and ensuring that settlement funds are only used to compensate victims, redress harm, and punish and deter unlawful conduct.”

According to a UPI story, the Justice Department previously forced Bank America and Citicorp to make payments to groups which Congress had deliberately defunded including National Council of La Raza, the National Urban League, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, and NeigborWorks America. You may or may not agree with these groups. You may or may not choose to contribute to them yourself. You may even lobby your Congresspeople to have money appropriated to these groups. None of that justifies Justice (or any other department) having the ability to appropriate what would have been funds paid to victims or the government; appropriations need to be made by Congress even if Congress doesn’t always do what you want.

Note that none of this is an argument for reducing the penalties that corporations pay for breaking the law; the question is just who decides where the money goes. There shouldn’t be any question. If there are identified victims, they should be compensated. If there is a fine, the money goes to the Treasury and should be spent per Congressional appropriation.

Allowing a corporation to pay part of its penalty with contributions reduces the punishment and makes the deterrence less effective. Fines aren’t tax deductible; contributions can be. Moreover, a contribution can be used for positive PR.

From a good government PoV, the party which appoints the federal attorneys should not be able to use settlements to reward its supporters. Do you want Trump appointees deciding which interest groups should be funded? Neither do I. I didn’t like Obama appointees making these decisions either. This may not be illegal but its corrupt.

One more example of such a settlement is Volkswagen and its cheating diesels. I have one; I was very proud of my 40+ MPG until I found out this was at the cost of heightened nitrous oxide emissions. Nitrous oxide is not only a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide; it also has a direct negative effect on human health. Part of what VW is paying is $2.7B to fund “environmental remediation” projects and $2B for charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. Victims (including me) also get their cars fixed and some other money.

Superficially this sounds good; VW harmed the environment; they should pay to fix it. But no one knows how these mitigation funds will be spent. Part goes to a trust fund administered by the states. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources is asking for public input on how it should spend our share. In other words, the federal attorneys who settled this case with VW (subject to court approval) get to create slush funds in each of the states which will be spent without appropriation by the state legislatures.

If Sessions’ order had been in effect when this settlement was reached, the $4.7B would have gone into the US Treasury. If Congress felt that it was best spent on some sport of environmental projects, they could have appropriated it for that purpose. If they felt it was better used for healthcare or defense or addiction-prevention, they could have so appropriated it. It could even be a drop in the tax relief bucket.

Sessions order is a welcome small step back to good (and constitutionally correct) government.

June 06, 2017

Minimizing Civilian Casualties

The question is which civilians when and where.

“US military reports 484 civilian deaths by US-led coalition attacks, but outside monitors put the number much higher,” says an Aljazeera story about the battle for Mosul since mid-2014 when ISIS took control there. Life and death are surely hell for the people caught between ISIS and very slowly advancing Iraqi forces who have “coalition” (mainly US) air support. But life and death were hell for many of them since ISIS took over the city. We don’t know how many people were killed for the sin of being Shiite or not properly following ISIS orders in Mosul alone. We know how many victims of ISIS-inspired terrorism there have been in the West. We have no idea how many people have been murdered, tortured, or sold into slavery by ISIS-affiliates in the Middle East and Africa – but we know the numbers are huge.

Aljazeera goes on to quote its reporter Osama bin Javaid:

“Saving people is proving to be easier said than done. Aid workers and rights groups have been repeating their concerns that in the process to push ISIL out, Iraqi forces must make sure that civilians are not caught in the crossfire.”

Javaid doesn’t explain how the Iraqi forces are supposed to “make sure” that civilians whom ISIS is hiding among and behind are “not caught in the crossfire”. The New York Times explains the problem:

“Some of the soldiers here, as well as one resident who had managed to flee, spoke of the Islamic State fighters’ trying to round up anyone still living in the area and forcing them to retreat with them toward the Old City.

“It’s a chilling thought, horrifyingly consistent with how the Islamic State has fought this battle for months. The militants’ last stand may well take place behind a wall of civilians.”

The only way to prevent these civilian deaths would be to stop fighting ISIS – which would lead to many more civilian deaths. Perhaps some civilians in Mosul would be spared if the ISIS fighters were allowed to escape Mosul and continue killing somewhere else. But this is not an acceptable solution.

Meanwhile the battle for Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the ISIS caliphate, has just begun. Crushing the head of the ISIS snake in Raqqa won’t end terrorism, of course. However, decapitating the command structure will help prevent ISIS from organizing the kind of huge attack on the West it is longing to commit (and no doubt planning). The US finally decided to ignore Turkish objections and armed Kurdish forces, who are willing to fight for Raqqa. We are also supplying air support and advisors. A swift victory in Raqqa is important in order to capture and kill as much of the ISIS leadership as possible. There will be more civilian casualties. That is terrible. But not as terrible as allowing ISIS to regroup and continue its murderous ways.

Al Jazeera quotes UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein:

“[the] rising toll of civilian deaths and injuries already caused by air strikes in Deir Az Zor and Raqqa suggests that insufficient precautions may have been taken in the attacks…just because ISIL holds an area does not mean less care can be taken. Civilians should always be protected, whether they are in areas controlled by ISIL or by any other party.”

The story does not contain any suggestion from al-Hussein on how citizens who are being used as shields should be protected. The NY Times story describes ISIS snipers shooting fleeing civilians. These lives could be saved if ISIS would let people get out of the way of the battle instead of shooting them.

We don’t have to – and can’t – wait for another 9/11. As painful as it is, we must recognize that civilian casualties in Mosul and Raqqa are the terrible price the world pays – because of ISIS – in order to prevent even more civilian casualties in more places later. This is a terrible choice to make. We must face it.

May 31, 2017

Merkel and Trump are Both Right

Europeans should take their fate into their own hands.

European self-reliance is good for us (the US), good for them, and bad for Putin despite the nattering talking heads opining on how he is enjoying what appears to be a NATO spat. The first result of this need for self-reliance is that Germany will begin to up its contribution to NATO to the required 2%. Merkel had been pushing for that. According to The Economist, her opponent in the upcoming election Martin Schulz is against an increase in German defense expenditure. Trump has helped Merkel’s argument that Germany can’t free-ride on American expenditures. If German and other continental European contributions go up, NATO will be stronger, as it needs to be to confront an increasing Russian threat.

Merkel said: “The times in which we could totally rely on others are to some extent over, as I have experienced in the past two days.” Rebuilding Europe including our former adversaries after WWII was a brilliant stroke of US policy. An alliance with Europe is still crucial, but treating these countries as continuing dependents is no longer useful nor needed. The second benefit to Europe paying their fair share to NATO is that they will feel and act like equal partners.

The USSR used to draw a parallel between its construct of satellite countries and US-financed NATO. The comparison was always far-fetched but it is ironic that NATO remained US-financed as the satellites became independent nations. An alliance of equals will be a strong hedge against resurgent Russian colonialism. Trump and Merkel are helping make that alliance more equal.

May 26, 2017

It’s Time for “Anonymous Sources” to Stand Up

Or shut up.

Anonymous sources have an honorable role in bringing down dishonorable governments; remember Deep Throat and Watergate. But today’s news – at least in some outlets – is built entirely on anonymous sources. Some may be in the White House, itself, as far as I know; others are in the vast bureaucracy which is congenitally resistant to change.

The leak channel is not used only to discredit the Trump administration. This week someone with a security clearance leaked British intelligence on the Manchester bombing to the NY Times where it promptly appeared on the front page and at least temporarily disrupted intelligence sharing during an ongoing investigation. Someone should go to jail for that, even if it’s the same someone or someones who’ve been leaking the details of investigations of the Trump campaign. Publication of the Manchester intelligence by the NY Times  is a sign of anonymous source addiction.

If someone really knows that candidate Trump or a member of his campaign staff had treasonous conversations with Russian officials, then the good of the Republic demands that someone stand up and detail the evidence in person and for attribution. Is he or she afraid of losing his or her job? Not a good enough excuse. Is she or he afraid for her or his life? Not plausible; this isn’t Russia. The media aren’t afraid for their lives.

Why do we need multiple parallel investigations if someone already has the evidence? If no one is willing stand up, then the “media” should turn off the leakers as a source on this story. Cover ups are where we need leaks. We don’t have to worry in this case that there’s a cover up underway. There is a special prosecutor; there are multiple Congressional investigations.

At the least papers like the NY Times and the Washington Post should hold their leakers accountable when they leak false information. My friend Dan Gillmor, no friend of the current administration and a vigorous proponent of a free press, wrote:

"A suggestion for the New York Times: Stop using anonymous sources except in the most rare of circumstances. If you can’t bring yourself to doing that, the next time you get burned by these people, burn them back.

"The promiscuous use — make that abuse — of unnamed sources by our top news organizations is an ongoing, sick joke in journalism circles, and I believe one of the key reasons that journalism audiences have less and less trust of the craft. The Times is the most notable offender, because it’s the supposed Newspaper of Record.

"Despite a history of promising to reform its ways, and despite the staggering damage that lying anonymous sources to do [sic]  its reputation, the Times is shameless and incorrigible in giving them a platform to deceive us... "

Last fall the Washington Post ran a story that Burlington Electric has been hacked by Russians, sources anonymous. Turns out that anonymous sources were wrong (to be polite). Washington Post finally confirmed no evidence of the hack but never outed the sources or explained how it happened to get misled so badly.

A few weeks ago sources leaked that then FBI chief James Comey requested more money for the investigation of Russian interference in the US election just before he was fired. The story died a day or two later when the current acting Director testified to Congress not only that this didn’t happen but that the FBI doesn’t ask for money case-by-case. The story should have continued with who leaked a lie. Lying sources don’t deserve protection.

I do believe that media are free to keep making the mistake of using these sources, but media could do us all a great favor by telling sources to stand up or shut up and exposing those sources who lie. There should be no tolerance for those who leak information like the British intelligence on the Manchester bombing. The Times running that story is a sign of anonymous source addiction.

May 22, 2017

Comey Proved Himself Unfit to be FBI Director

What Trump did TBD.

Anonymous sources (natch) have leaked that former FBI Director James Comey wrote a memo after a meeting in February with the President quoting Trump as saying “I hope you can let this [an investigation of just-fired National Security Advisor Flynn] go”. Assuming that the leak is accurate and the memo exists, which seems likely since the sources are described as Comey’s friends and the ex-director hasn’t repudiated it, this tells us more about Comey than it does about Trump.

We don’t know if the President is accurately quoted  or not. We may never know. And, if he did say it, we don’t know without more context whether it constituted obstruction of justice.

If Comey just made this up, he is clearly not fit to be FBI Director.

But let’s assume Trump said what Comey says he said and Comey took it to be an attempt to obstruct justice. In that case Comey had a duty to report the statement immediately. But he didn’t. He just created a memo to be part of a file to be used if he ever had a dispute with the President. He got fired; out came the memo. It didn’t come out when he told Congress that the investigation hadn’t been interfered with. It came out a day or so after Comey’s former colleague and temporary replacement Andrew McCabe also testified that there had been no political interference with the probe. He must not’ve gotten the memo. That’s not a joke; shouldn’t Comey have left a copy of this memo for his successor?

J. Edgar Hoover was infamous for the files he kept on friends and enemies alike. The files arguably kept Hoover in power through the terms of six US presidents until he finally died in office. His name is on the FBI HQ; his practice of political blackmail should not be kept alive in the building.

The bipartisan hypocrisy around Comey has been incredible. Back in the Obama days, he fell out of favor with the White House for confirming that there is a “Ferguson” effect – an increase in murder rate attributable to police reluctance to police in a climate of extreme political hostility. Then Comey exonerated Hillary Clinton in the case of her email server, strangely taking on the role of a prosecutor, and he was back in favor with Democrats and out of favor with Republicans. Trump accused him of whitewash. Then he announced he was reopening the Hillary investigation because of documents found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. Trump said Comey redeemed himself. Democrats excoriated him and called for his resignation. Then he quickly announced no new evidence. Trump accused him of whitewash again. In the end  Clinton accused Comey of costing her the election which, she said, she was on track to win before the grand reopening. Finally, Trump fired him and some Democrats hope that the firing and what’s in Comey’s memo file will be enough evidence for impeachment. Enough to make your head spin.

Comey and Trump can’t both be right but they can both be wrong. Comey’s unfitness for office doesn’t imply anything one way or the other about Trump. Unless the conversation was recorded, we’ll probably never know what the President actually said. None of this tells us anything about relations between the Trump campaign and Russia or, even more broadly, about Russian interference and attempted interference in our election. These are the most important issues and are what we have a special prosecutor for. Obstruction of justice is important as well; it brought Nixon down when he tried to cover up Watergate – it can also be an excuse for prosecutorial overreach. However these issues work out, the country is better off without James Comey as FBI Director.

May 16, 2017

Vermont Teachers Should Send Their Union to Detention

As most Vermonters know by now, the legislature is in extended session trying to deal with the issue of teacher healthcare. The position the Vermont NEA, the teachers’ union, has taken puts job protection for union staff ahead of the interest of the teachers, the students, and the taxpayers. Teachers should tell their union to back off.

All involved agree that, because of provisions in the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare), the current health plans the teachers have all must be changed or they will be classified as “Cadillac Coverage” and penalized. The need to change to health care plans means that every Vermont school district is negotiating health care with its employees at the same time. This synchronization creates a unique opportunity to combine all health care coverage for teachers in Vermont public schools into a single large contract which the state will negotiate both with the NEA and with the insurance carriers rather than individual districts, of which we have hundreds, negotiating separately with the union and the insurance carriers. Since there are only two insurance carriers in Vermont, leverage in this negotiation is important.

Governor Phil Scott, who proposed the plan being debated, has estimated that savings will be over $76 million/year, partially because the new plan – to avoid being a Cadillac plan – will have higher deductibles and copays. Scott has proposed that roughly $50 million of that savings be used to fund Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) for teachers, who will be able to use these HSAs to cover the higher deductibles and copays. In this way the teachers are held harmless even though they are losing their Cadillac plans. “Held harmless” is pretty good; Blue Cross, the biggest of the two health insurers left in the state is asking for a 12.7% increase. Most private sector employers will have to pass most of whatever Blue Cross is eventually allowed onto their employees.

The remaining $65 million of ANNUAL savings will relieve pressure on the education fund, which is mostly funded by property tax revenue from sky-high property taxes. TBD whether this savings is used to take pressure off other education programs which might have to be cut without this savings or is used for property tax relief (or some degree of both).

So the education fund benefits. The taxpayers benefit. And the teachers keep very generous health benefits without having to pay more. What’s more both teachers and students benefit from having local school boards concentrate on local educational issues rather than the esoterica of healthcare What’s the problem?

The teacher’s union apparently isn’t focused on the very real benefit to its members or the taxpayers. It is incensed that they will no longer get to spend expensive staff hours negotiating with every school district in the state over healthcare; they will only get to negotiate healthcare once with the state. BTW, all other negotiations stay local. So the NEA is adamantly against this plan. And the NEA is a big campaign contributor.

To its credit, the Vermont Legislature despite its overwhelming majority of Democrats and Progressives, has not given the NEA the support it probably thought it would get. There were enough Progressive and Democrat votes in the Vermont House to give the plan a one vote victory until the House Speaker cast an unusual vote to create a tie and kill the bill. The Governor has threatened to veto a budget which does not accomplish the goals of the plan he proposed. It’s clear that there are not enough votes to override a veto; the legislature is still looking for a compromise.

Linda Joy Sullivan, a former public school teacher and one of the Democrats in the Vermont House who voted for the savings, wrote the following on vtdigger.com:

“What Gov. Scott recently asked my colleagues in the Legislature was simply to allow the state, with its superior bargaining power, to negotiate a better deal. I was a bit skeptical about whether we will achieve $26 million in savings, and I knew that any tax savings would not have directly reduced property taxes, but I could not see how it wouldn’t have improved our ability to secure quality health care – full health care benefits for our teachers – at a far better cost.

“From a business perspective, it’s a no-brainer. If the plan was to downsize health care coverage for teachers, that would be one thing. I was not hearing that – I heard instead that the proposals under consideration had the support of Vermont’s school superintendent association and are supported by actuarial analyses that seek to better match our spending to experience.”

All of us Vermonters, teachers included, need to be in contact with our legislators this week to make sure union staff cannot put their interests before the interests of teachers, students, and taxpayers.

May 12, 2017

Perpetrator of Fraudulent Vaccine Scare Speaking in Stowe

Should he be allowed to speak?

The most prominent speaker at a “Hope and Healing” event to be held next week in Stowe, VT is a despicable charlatan. Andrew Wakefield’s manipulation of test results to indicate a non-existent link between vaccines and autism made Time’s list of five great science frauds. More importantly, the hysteria he started and cynically exploits is partially responsible for a rise in preventable diseases. According to Time:

“…the General Medical Council in the U.K. revoked Wakefield’s medical license, citing ethical concerns over how he recruited the patients in the study as well as his failure to disclose that he was a paid consultant to attorneys representing parents who believed their children had been harmed by vaccines.[emphasis mine]”

Should he be allowed to speak? Yes; people who want to hear him have the right to do so. Free speech is not just for popular ideas.

Should he be speaking at Stowe High School, which, incidentally, does require its students to be vaccinated? That’s a tougher question but the answer is still Yes. The School is available for rent and this makes its auditorium an asset to the town outside of school hours. The school board should not be put in the position of deciding which opinions are allowed. Every opinion has opponents.

But what can we do to counter this harmful narrative?

  1. Don’t pay to go to the event. According to organizer Chiropractor Bradley Rauch as quoted in The Stowe Reporter the money earned from the conference will go first to speaker fees and expenses. In other words, if you buy a ticket, you are helping to fund Wakefield’s campaign of misinformation. The website for the conference “All profits will go to charity…” However, one of the organizations in the list of charities, Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice does not appear to be a charity. Its website does not say it is a 501(c)3 or that donation are tax deductibles. The coalition IS a cosponsor of the event. So actually at least part of the profits are going to the sponsors despite the claim that “All profits will go to charity…”.
  2. Be informed and help inform others. Bad ideas need to be countered with good ideas. I started this post with an ad hominem attack on Wakefield even though I generally deplore such attacks. However, it is relevant that his contribution to the study of autism (the subject he is speaking on) was a deliberate harmful fraud. The last part of this post is the argument for mandatory vaccination.
  3. Don’t go to Bradley Rauch for medical services. According to The Stowe Reporter story, he is planning to open a clinic in Stowe to treat autism. I’m not suggesting a boycott to punish him for his ideas. I am saying that he has demonstrated terrible medical and ethical judgment in his choice of speakers so I wouldn’t want him treating anyone I care about.

The argument for mandatory vaccination which you won’t hear at the conference.

We used to have periodic epidemics of polio, smallpox, rubella and other diseases. Huge numbers of people were either killed outright or left badly damaged. When I went to grammar school a long time ago, there was usually at least one classmate in permanent braces as a result of polio. Not true anymore. Because of vaccines, smallpox has been eradicated and we no longer have to vaccinate against it; polio is almost there.

So why can’t people just decide for themselves whether their children should be vaccinated? Two obvious reasons are that parents don’t have an inherent right to risk the life and health of their children and that, especially in a society where many health costs are socialized, everyone else will have to pay for the disease that could have been prevented. But let’s put those two arguments aside.

There are always some people who cannot be given a particular vaccine, either because of a general medical condition or because they’re allergic to the ingredients of the vaccine. So long as everyone who can get vaccinated does, the risk to those who can’t get vaccinated is very low

According to the Wrold Health Organization paper Vaccination greatly reduces disease, disability, death and inequity worldwide (which is also the well-documented source for other assertions in this post):

“’Herd protection’ of the unvaccinated occurs when a sufficient proportion of the group is immune. The decline of disease incidence is greater than the proportion of individuals immunized because vaccination reduces the spread of an infectious agent by reducing the amount and/or duration of pathogen shedding by vaccinees, retarding transmission.” [footnotes deleted but available via the link]

Those who can’t be vaccinated need herd protection. Those who diminish the herd effect by refusing vaccination for themselves and their children are putting those who can’t be vaccinated at deadly risk.

Most vaccines are not 100% effective, even if they are always administered properly, which, of course, can’t be the case. However, so long as there is sufficient herd protection, there is very little risk for those few whose shots didn’t take for one reason or another. However, if there is a large enough group who just don’t get vaccinated, then those individuals for whom the vaccine didn’t work are at great risk.

California used to have very liberal laws on refusing vaccination. NOT vaccinating became a fad among the nominally well-educated health-food-eating citizens in affluent Marin County. In 2015, only 84% of that County’s students entering kindergarten were fully vaccinated according to the San Francisco Chronicle in a story about the ensuing measles outbreak. “Last year there were 61 measles cases in California — the highest since the disease was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000. The state beat that number in the first month of this year.” California, seeing that there could easily be epidemics of more deadly diseases, has sensibly made it more difficult to avoid vaccination except for those who have a specific medical condition which would make a particular vaccination unsafe.

Part of the anti-vaccination hysteria comes from the falsified study by Wakefield. Because of the scare the article engendered, huge followup studies were done. That was easy because there is lots of vaccination. Absolutely no statistical or causal link has been found between any vaccination and autism. Nonetheless, the myth lives on.

The truth is that every vaccination does have some small risk. If it’s by injection, there’s a tiny chance of infection. There’s a very small chance that the vaccine, like anything else, can be contaminated. There’s an equally tiny risk that the recipient will have an undiagnosed allergy to the infection. Obviously new vaccines like the one for Zika have to be thoroughly tested and procedures can always be improved. We always must be aware new data can surface.

Ironically, as long as almost everyone else gets vaccinated, those who opt their families out of the very small risk of a tested vaccine get a free ride on the very herd protection they are compromising. Society can’t afford to let that happen. We can’t leave those who can’t get vaccinated or whose vaccine doesn’t work at risk. We can’t give preventable epidemics room to blossom. Some vaccinations must be mandatory. This is an example of a case where the needs of the society come before the needs of the individual and state compulsion is justified.

May 07, 2017

Why Government Subsidies Never Make Anything More Affordable

And why we can never get rid of them.

The chart from American Enterprise Institute could almost be this whole post. Costs

As you can see college costs have increased almost four times as fast as general inflation over the last twenty years. Four-year college has gone from being a stretch for middle income families to being affordable (at list price) by only the very rich. How can a product get priced out of reach of its customers? It takes government help.

Now It’s a laudable goal to make sure that everyone who wants to do the work can get a college education and prepare for better paying jobs than he or she would be able to get without a degree. So the US government provides grants and subsidized loans, both with a means test, and “unsubsidized” loans without a means test. I put “unsubsidized” in quotes because the interest payments on these loans don’t begin to cover the default rates and because no commercial lender would make these loans at these rates.

If this aid were available only to the most needy, it would not have had this distorting effect. But it’s hard to get votes for a program just for the needy, so aid for the middle class was added as well. Student debt has gone up about 400% after accounting for inflation in roughly same period according to Pew Research Center. To the young, loans on which they don’t have to make payments until after graduation are close to being grants. Colleges have no need to be frugal since parents no longer have to come up with the payments. In fact, in order to attract the students and the federal money that comes with them, college are in an arms race building fancier and more elegant dorms and rec centers as fast as they can. College costs have soared. Graduates are burdened with onerous debt. The extra money has made college LESS afforfable

How do we break this cycle of increasing subsidies pushing costs higher? Socialists say “make college free”. Of course that doesn’t reduce the cost, it only shifts it. And recipients of free tuition have even less reason to care about the actual cost of their education than those who must pay for it someday.

We will have to cut back on loans to the middle class; there will be not only cries of anguish but also real pain since college costs have ratcheted up to unaffordable.  College costs will come down in response to customer pressure; but this will also be painful. Colleges bonded to fund their luxury offers to students; a decrease in revenue will put some out of business.

It’s a lot easier to start an entitlement than to stop it. Does that sound like health care whose cost increase are also much above inflation? Stay tuned.

May 01, 2017

Internet Fast Lanes

You may be surprised at who has them.

The Internet Association - lobbying organization for Internet giants like Google, Amazon and Netflix – is adamant that it is necessary to apply of 1935 phone regulation (Title 2) to the Internet to assure that there are no premium “fast lanes”, that all bits are treated equally, that Internet access providers (ISPs) do not prioritize their own content over content from competitors.

Internet Association members sometimes say that they could actually afford to pay more for fast lanes but they are worried about the little guys, the startup, who may not be able to pay more and whose websites therefore won’t be as zippy as they need to be.  They’re worried about innovation. They’re worried about you.

In fact, however, the web giants like Google and Amazon have private networks which connect to the Internet in many locations. They have data caches (think of them as content warehouses) around the world. Their websites DO pop up faster than yours because their bits travel mostly on their private networks and avoid Internet backbone and interchange congestion. In other words, they have private fast lanes. You can't achieve this speed for your website unless you A) build a private network of your own (unlikely); B) host your website on Amazon or Google in which case they MAY share some of their private access network. I have hosted services on Amazon; they charge me more depending on how many locations I want my data served from. In other words, faster is more expensive on their network.

Conveniently these private fast lanes are specifically exempt from the 2015 FCC regulations which reclassified Basic Internet Access Service (BIAS) in a way which lets the FCC micromanage it and prohibit public “fast lanes”. The members of the Internet Association are “edge services” so unregulated.

From a technology PoV the ISPs could offer small customers premium transport which allows your site to compete better with Amazon. The 2015 regulations make that illegal. They protect Amazon and Google from competition both by you and by the ISPs – all in the name of “Net Neutrality”. Do you think this had anything to do with the fact that Google made a 180 degree switch? It lobbied for years to assure that the Internet was not treated like a telephone network. That was when telcos wanted regulation to protect themselves from competition. Now it’s the members of The Internet Association who would rather compete in the regulatory arena than in the marketplace.

It is true that Internet speeds are not what they could be, especially in rural areas. Part of that problem is that there relatively few Internet access providers.  But is there more concentration in Internet access than in search? I don’t think so. Should Google be regulated? No. But neither should they be able to use regulation to protect themselves from competition. Google correctly sees the ISPs as potential threats. They were once going to compete with them by offering Google Fiber. That would be good for all of us. But Google isn’t going to string fiber if it is cheaper to use regulation to protect themselves from competition.

The current regulations, which I think should be repealed, protect the members of the Internet Association from ISPs. Even more importantly, they protect the big Internet content providers, who own their own fast lanes, from the competition you might provide if you could rent a fast lane from an ISP when you’re still too small to have your own private network.

See also:

An Open Letter to My Friends at Google

Don’t Make the Internet Safe for Monopolies

Net Neutrality. What’s It All About?

Do you Want Comcast to Know Your Underwear Size?

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