December 24, 2007

Code Bloat and Design Patterns

Steve Yegge recently wrote an article about the horrors of code bloat in Java and Jeff Atwood at Coding Horror provides a summary with remarks. Although I am not much of a Java coder, Steve's assessment that both the language itself and the mindset of the developers using it tends to lead to bloated code is something that my brief exposures to Java have confirmed for me. However, Steve moves beyond Java to more general programming architectures, such as design patterns and static typing that I'm not sure is completely fair. His primary complaint seems to be that in Java, implementation of design patterns tends to lead to cut and paste boilerplate in Java because it has no generics/templates, but he also seems to reject design patterns in general as "boxes" for arranging code that inherently make the same functional code implementation take up more space, helping to contribute to his 500K lines of bloated code.

While I agree that with code, less is often more, I think that Steve is also suffering from a lack of perspective here. First, he notes that his Java game is composed of 500K lines of his own code. I believe his first mistake is to forget that his code, in using Java libraries, is probably really built of a significantly larger code base of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of additional lines of code in the languages libraries that he no doubt uses. The same is try of almost any modern language. Even short C programs often rely on hundreds, if not thousands of lines of code composing core libraries, such as stdlib, stdio, string, etc. and also various operating system, filesystem, device drivers, etc. In other words, almost any modern program relies of a vast base of code that we view in abstract terms, but would never try to comprehend thoroughly because it is both impossible and unnecessary. However, we often conveniently ignore this fact and talk about only our own code.

Given this perspective, I disagree with some of Steve's critique which seems to reject static typing (primarily, it would seem, because of Java's lack of good features for avoiding duplicating code) and design patterns as inherently bloating. In fact, my understanding of design patterns is that by design, they provide more consist and abstract ways of interfacing with blocks of code to provide an abstract usage of the code that does not require so much specific knowledge of the internals, much like the above mentioned core libraries, os implementations, drivers, etc. While supporting that lower coupling often requires a bit more code to make the behavior less specific and more self-contained, at least theoretically, this should decrease the amount entagled code at a higher level.

Thus, while Steve makes some good points about Java in particular, I wouldn't be so quick to reject static languages and design patterns.

1. Steve Yegge. "Code's Worst Enemy". Stevey's Blog Rants. December 19, 2007.
2. Jeff Atwood. "Size is the Enemy". Coding Horror. December 23, 2007.

November 4, 2007

America is not on the Brink of Fascism

About a month ago, Cameron sent me an article by Naomi Wolf entitled "Fascist America in 10 easy steps" worrying that President Bush is quickly leading us down the path to Fascism. Here is my response to that article:

1. Invocation of a ubiquitous enemy

While it is reasonable to suggest that a nation is more likely to sacrifice certain freedoms when under threat by an enemy (and indeed, the sacrifice itself may often be reasonable) and that many dictatorial regimes have used real and imagined threats to gain power, it is absurd to suggest that stating the truth concerning real threats to this country, such as global, Islamofascist terror, is a step towards Fascism.

It is also important to note that the supposed parallel between the Richstag fire [1] and the subsequent Enabling Act [2] and September 11 and the PATRIOT act is quite a stretch. Despite its controversial measures, the PATRIOT act is a far cry from essentially transferring all legislative power from the legislative branch to the president (or from the Reichstag to the Hitler [2]) by arresting a large part of the opposition in Congress.

While it is certain that the PATRIOT act expanded the surveillance powers of the federal government and that September 11th was a powerful motivator for the original passage of the PATRIOT act, it is important to note that the invocation of Fascism can be seen as a similar fear tactic. What one ought to do is rationally evaluate threats, such as terrorism and fascism, recognize that real threats DO demand real action, and determine the best course of action. Oh-my-gosh-fear-mongering->fascism (or oh-my-gosh-fear-mongering-fear-mongering) is not an appropriate response to every potential danger or security legislation.

[1] "Reichstag Fire". Wikipedia. October 1, 2007.
[2] "Enabling Act". Wikipedia. September 27, 2007.

2. Gulag creation

According to Wikipedia, the Russian Gulag was a Communist department in charge of prison camps for prisoners of all kinds, but includes an emphasis on the usage of such prisons for political prisoners [3]. This hardly seems equivalent to prisons in Guantanamo and secret prisons elsewhere where the vast majority of the inmates were apprehended abroad on battlefields such as Afghanistan and certainly do not include mere political dissenters or opponents, such as the Communist party members arrested by the Nazi's following the Reichstag Fire that such prisons are supposedly equivalent to.

[3] "Gulag". Wikipedia. September 25, 2007.

3. Thug Caste

Under this argument Naomi Wolf posits that a facist shift is facilitated by "paramilitary groups of scary young men who terrorise citizens". Based on this premise, she attempts to compare Mussolini's Blackshirts and Hitler's Brownshirts to security contractors involved a Iraq and Katrina and "angry young republican men, dressed [identically], menacing poll Florida".

First, security contractors in Iraq are not "terrorizing" US citizens. They are in Iraq. Wolf attempts to claim that they at least set a precedent by being immune from state law. Unfortunately, the state law they are immune from is not that of the US, but Iraq. I suspect that our troops are likewise immune from Iraqi prosectuion. However, they are not immune from our own laws. As a result, one such contractor group, Blackwater is currently under investigation. [4] It should also be noted that as with our own soldiers, the firing of guns is to be expected in dangerous areas and particularly with an enemy that uses civilians for shields, the death of civilians is, regrettably, to be expected as well.

Second, Wolf provides the better observation of security contractors working in the US, in helping deal with the Katrina disaster. According to Wolf, one guard admitted firing on unarmed civilians to another reporter. Unfortunately, there is no citation and brief searchers were unable to find anything specific. However, even if the claim is true, one instance is far from "groups of scary young men [terrorising] citizens", "roaming the...countryside", or "staging violent rallies [throughout the country]".

Finally, Wolf begins to grasp for straws, citing "Groups of angry young Republican men...menacing poll workers in Florida". Again, no citation. I couldn't find much on this either, but I'm pretty sure that the "angry young Republican's" probably didn't do much anything worse than many of the fairly aggressive protests we hear about occasionally. I'd hardly characterize such groups as "paramilitary", "above the law", "beating...communists", etc.

[4] Sinan Salaheddin. "Iraqi PM Disputes Blackwater Version". Associated Press via September 18th, 2007.

4. Internal Surveillance

Wolf's next claim is to compare the Nazi SS spying on civilians in order to subjugate them and Federal surveillance including wiretapping of phones and e-mails to catch terrorists. I've discussed the wiretapping program before [5][6] and the basic conclusion is two-fold. First, there is no justification for the definitive conclusion that the government is actively surveiling the general populace. Second, they are hardly employing the kind of surveillance follow up that the Nazi's used, even if they do engage it such illegal surveillance.

[5] Brenden Hartford. "On Politics of Paranoia and Intimidation". Facebook Notes. April 2nd, 2007.
[6] Brenden Hartford. "More on the NSA". Facebook Notes. April 9th, 2007.

5. Harass Citizen's Groups

Extending the last point, Wolf claims that infiltration and harassment of citizen groups is the next step. For this step, Wolf fails to offer any facist parallel and cites "a church in Pasadena" being investigated by the IRS for "[preaching] that Jesus was in favour of peace" while churches that "got Republicans out to vote" were exempt". Although Wolf does not name the church, a search for Pasadena churches being investigated by the IRS brings up articles on All Saints Episcopal Church, which is being investigated by the IRS for "alleged politicking" [7]. This article originally published in the LA Times reveals that "[preaching] that Jesus was in favour of peace" is a reference to a sermon which sought to enact a debate with Jesus, John Kerry, and George Bush during the 2004 presidential election season. Although this may not be grounds for revocation of the church's tax exemption, it is far from a simple sermon of peace. Wolf provides no citations for churches actively getting out the Republican vote and provides no specifics to narrow the search, so I can't comment on that.

Wolf moves on to claim that a "secret Pentagon database" lists some peaceful anti-war events as "suspicious incidents", which is supposed to support the ACLU's claim that anti-war and environmental groups have been "infiltrated by agents". The only evidence of infiltration I see here is that Wolf somehow knows the contents of a "secret" database.

Next, Wolf claims that CIFA, a counterintelligence agency is monitoring ordinary activists as "potential terrorist threats". Because Wolf fails to name any specific cases or groups, I really have no idea what she is talking about, but I do know that some "charities" are suspected of funding Islamic terror groups which may explain some of the alleged scrutiny. [8]

Finally, Wolf cites a "little-noticed" law that defines animal rights protests as "terrorism". Alas, "little-noticed" is hardly a search-able key word and as usual, Wolf provides no specific citations.

[7] Scott Glover, Louis Sahagun. "Pasadena Church May Fight IRS Summons". LA Times via September 18, 2006.
[8] Josh Gerstein.
"Islamic Groups Named in Hamas Funding Case". The New York Sun. June 4, 2007.

6. Arbitrary Detention

Wolf then tries to claim that probable errors in the Terrorist Watch list resulting in travel delays are akin to Communist China's political suppression techniques of repeatedly imprisoning and releasing people (and probably treating them pretty poorly during imprisonment). Wolf also tries to cite an airline employee as an authority on the inner workings of the Terrorist Watch list. According to the FBI Terrorist screening center, [9] all delays do not indicate that an individual is in the list. Furthermore, the list matching is apparently not exact to catch name variations, which can result in false positives that have to be worked out.

[9] FBI Terrorist Screen Center. "FAQ". FBI website. Accessed October 22 2007.

7. Target key individuals

Wolf notes that many fascists and communists went after academics who disagreed with them and tries to claim that the Bush administration is doing the same thing. Again, Wolf lists no specific cases or identifies any individual targets. While there have probably been a few cases of conservatives calling for academics to be fired (Ward Churchill comes to mind), I doubt there is a legitimate case that the Bush administration somehow orchestrated it. People have a tendency to denounce those that disagree with them, such as Churchill. But this is not limited to liberal academics. Larry Summers, former president of Harvard, resigned after aggressive attacks by feminists after remarking that it was possible that men and women statistically tend to have greater apptitudes for different abilities, which might account for certain field disproportions apart from blatant discrimination. [10] The same Larry Summers was later canceled as a speaker in a California university because feminists at the university were concerned about supporting that message at about the same time that the president of Iran was invited to give a speech at an east coast university. [11] Neither case seems to parallel Facist and Communist oppression of academia.

Wolf then mentions one CIA contract worker whose security clearance was revoked for posting on an intranet blog that "waterboarding is torture". If this is a reference to Christine Axsmith, she was also fired. [12] Of course, I suspect that no matter where I worked, if I remarked internally that my boss or bosses were a bunch of evil torturers, I'd probably receive some negative consequences too. I also fail to see how a computer security contractor qualifies as "a key individual".

Finally, Wolf mentions the firing of 8 US attorneys. Although I am not that familiar with that case, I do understand that US attorneys are hired by presidents and most of the attorneys are changed when a new president comes in. In other words, the attorneys work for the president. It isn't some kind of neutral office, like, say, a judge.

[10] Wikipedia. "Lawrence Summers". Wikipedia. October 16, 2007.
[11] John Wildermuth. "UC Regents find new speaker for event". San Francisco Chronicle. September 16, 2007.
[12] Mark Mazzetti. "CIA Worker says Message on Torture got Her Fired". New York Times. July 22, 2006.

8. Control the press

Next, Wolf tries to conflate hardship for journalists with micromanaged or essentially exclusively publicly run medias in communist and facist countries.

Wolf begins with Joshua Wolf. According to Wikipedia, [13] it sounds to me like Joshua Wolf went to an anarchist protest that became pretty violent. Because the protestors themselves wore masks to hide their identities, Joshua Wolf was one of the few identifiable people associated with the protest and was known to have the most extensive video footage. As part of a police investigation, his footage was subpeonaed, and he refused. As a result, he was jailed until he agreed to release the footage. I don't see any evidence here of conspiracy by the Bush administration to control the media.

Next, Wolf cites Greg Palast, who according to his own claims was attacked by Exxon, not the Bush administration, for filming their refinery, leading them to report him to Homeland security for filming "critical infrastructure". [14]

Next up is Joe Wilson, who Wolf notes:

"accused Bush...of leading the country to war on the basis of a false charge that Saddam Hussein had acquired yellowcake uranium in Niger."

As a result, the popular myth goes, his wife was viciously outed as an undercover CIA spy, ending her career. Of course, the truth is not that simple. His wife's relation in the story was not spite, but a matter of history, because it was by her suggestion that Wilson be given the job of looking into the alleged attempt by Iraq to get yellowcake uranium, which formed the foundation for his claim that the yellowcake claim was bogus.

Next, Wolf claims that our troops are threatening to shoot embedded reporters they don't like. First on the list is Kate Adie. [15] According to Wikipedia, she was shot by an irate Libyan. Last I checked, "irate Libyan" is not the same as "US soldier in Iraq". Second is Terry Lloyd, who died in a fire fight between US forces and the Iraqi Republican guard. Lloyd was not embedded and Wikipedia makes no mention of any threats. It sounds quite possible that he was probably in the wrong place at the wrong time and got caught in the crossfire. [16] Wolf then closes this accusation by claiming that CBS and AP staff were arrested and taken to violent prisons. A quick search did not turn up anything.

Wolf closes this argument by claiming that a steady stream of lies from the administration is polluting the news. Wolf does not list any specifics, but her own article seems to be permeated with speculation, half-truths, and vague references itself.

[13] Wikipedia. "Josh Wolf". Wikipedia. October 8, 2007.
[14] Greg Palast. "Palast Charged with Journalism in the 1st Degree". September 11, 2006.
[15] Wikipedia. "Kate Adie". Wikipedia. October 21, 2007.
[16] Wikipedia. "Terry Lloyd". Wikipedia. October 8, 2007.

9. Dissent Equals Treason

Next, Wolf argues that under the oppressive Bush regime, disagreeing with the administration is considered treason.

Her first example is the "Lichtblau/Risen" stories. This was the case of the New York Times publishing a story [17] revealing the classified surveillance of money transfers out of and into the US through a Belgian bank (Swift) in order to connect, tract, and capture terrorists. Wolf worries that Bush called this "dissent" disgraceful and some Republicans and conservative commentators called for treason chargess. Of couse, the issue here was not that the editor and reporters disagreed with the Bush administration, but that officials in the government had leaked classified information to reporters and the reporters had in turn leaked that information to the public, including terrorists, essentially destroying the effectiveness of the program. This was not an issue of disagreement, but of revealing US secrets.

Second, Wolf mentions the Palmer Raids against those whom Wolf classifies simply as left-wing activists. According to Wikipedia [18], the Palmer Raids were precipitated by several waves of bombings by socialist and communist revolutionaries in the US. Again, this is much more than simply "dissent" as Wolf is trying to claim.

Third, Wolf compares Stalinist descriptions of opponents as "enemies of the people" and the defining of Weimar supporters "November Traitors" to the usage of the term "enemy combatant" as described in the Military Commissions Act of 2006. However, as before, Wolf here seems to confuse "dissent" with violence. A combatant is hardly one who simple disagrees with the administration.

[17] Eric Lichtblau, James Risen. "Bank Data is Sifted by US in Secret to Block Terror". New York Times. June 23, 2006.
[18] Wikipedia. "Palmer Raids". October 30, 2007.

10. Suspend the Law

Finally, Wolf claims that the John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007 gives the president the power to arbitrarily declare a state of emergency in one state and appropriate without governor approval, the "militia" of another state to enact it. The text of the bill [19] appears to only include the word "militia(s)" once, regarding "the demobilization and reintegration of [Iraqi] armed militias".

Probably, her reference is to the power mentioned in Wikipedia [20] to declare martial law and mobilize National Guard troops without authorization of the state governor when public order has been lost and the state and its constituted authorities cannot enforce the law. In other words its not as opened ended as Wolf makes it out to be.

[19] HR 5122. "John Warner National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007".
[20] Wikipedia. HR 5122. October 30, 2007.


In conclusion, we should carefully guard our rights from external attacks and internal encroachments, but Noami Wolf's view of the present state of the US is paranoid and often incorrect.

Noemie Emery of the Weekly Standard provides an insightful response to Wolf's article:

Noemie Emery. "The Horror! The Horror!". The Weekly Standard. September 3, 2007.

October 6, 2007


I've been watching the SCHIP controversy over the last few weeks with some interest. One of the primary things I've been watching is the President's weekly radio addresses and the Democratic response. Last week was completely uninteresting. It featured President Bush effectively attacking the SCHIP bill, while the Democrats provided a really short sob story and an emotional appeal from 1 kid that benefited from SCHIP, without even recognizing any of President Bush's critiques.

This week was a bit better.

Factual Discrepancies

The first thing I noted, was that both parties had different figures for who is eligible. Bush claimed that:

"more than 500,000 poor children who are eligible for SCHIP coverage are not enrolled in the program."

Hoyer, however, had this to say:

"millions of other children who are currently eligible...are not enrolled due to the program's limited resources."

As neither Bush nor Hoyer cites any source, I do not know where the numbers are coming from. I suspect each has a separate source. What would interest me the most is the criteria used by each source to come up with their figures. If I have time, I may do more research on this later. If anyone knows anything about it, please let me know.


Hoyer makes several claims.

Fiscally Irresponsible

First, he claims the bill is not fiscally irresponsible:

"The President claims...this bill is fiscally irresponsible. The truth is, this legislation is fully paid for."

In two recent entries, Congressman John Campbell explains what Hoyer means by "fully paid for". In the first, "The Revenue Raiser, aka Tax Hike" John Campbell discusses the "sin tax" on tobacco products. The idea of "sin taxes" is the dangerous idea that something that is deemed bad by certain people should be discouraged (and made profitable to government). Especially with the increased push towards national health care, we will probably see more and more taxes aimed at "encouraging health" to keep the cost of health care lower. For example, a "fat tax" on fast food, or a maybe a tax for any food outside a government approved diet. In his other entry, "The President just Vetoed the SCHIP Bill", he points out that "cigarette taxes are one of the most regressive taxes, that is, a tax that falls more heavily on lower income individuals as a percentage of income." In other words, part of funding poor children's health care is taxing other poor people (possible the parents) heavily for smoking.

However, the next method of "funding" SCHIP that Campbell cites is even more irresponsible:

"In order to disguise the $40 billion in spending the Senate proposes to cut SCHIP by 80% in 2013, of course the supporters of this bill do not really intend to cut SCHIP, which would force millions of kids off the program, so the overall cost of the bill is closer to $110 billion, which more than doubles the cost of the current program."


Hoyer further claims:

"under the President's proposal more than 800,000 children who now receive coverage under CHIP would lose that coverage."

Unfortunately, he provides no explanation of how this occurs. According to the President:

"My Administration has added more than 2 million children to SCHIP since 2001. And our 2008 budget increases SCHIP funding by 20 percent over five years."

However, elsewhere, Hoyer claims that the legislation passed by Congress does not change eligibility. With Bush citing problems with SCHIP covering children of well-off families (with incomes of up to $83,000) and even covering adults, a glaring problem Hoyer complete ignores. The President claims:

"States are spending SCHIP funds on adults...based on their own projections for this fiscal year, Minnesota, Illinois, New Jersey, Michigan, Rhode Island, and New Mexico will spend more SCHIP money on adults than they do on children."

Perhaps Bush's proposal restricts eligibility (which, given his claims, seems perfectly reasonable).

Creeping National Health Care

Hoyer continues:

"The President claims that this legislation would lead to a government takeover of health insurance. He is wrong."

Or is he? As the President pointed out, a plan that was originally designed to cover poor children who's families can't afford health care has been expanded to include adults and families with incomes of up to 4 times the poverty line ($83,000).

In fact, Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic essential argues that the expansion of SCHIP is a good thing because it is closer to national health care:

Conservatives combat S-CHIP with fuzzy math: Chip Off
by Jonathan Cohn
"if you think providing insurance to these people--and, eventually, to all Americans--is good thing, then maybe we should expand S-CHIP after all, eventually using it as the foundation for a universal health care system. Don't let the conservatives fool you. When it comes to health care, government isn't the problem. It's the solution."

President's Promise

Hoyer also accuses President Bush of violating his campaign promise. According to Hoyer, Bush promised:

"In a new term, we will lead an aggressive effort to enroll millions of children who are eligible but not signed up for government health insurance programs. We will not allow, he said, 'a lack of attention, or information, to stand between these children and the health care they need."

Hoyer claims that by vetoing the SCHIP bill, Bush violated this promise. However, the question here is not cutting or expanding SCHIP, but how much to expand the program. Bush proposes to increase the program by 20% over the next 5 years. The bill in question more than doubles SCHIP over the next 5 years, then cuts it by 80% in 2013. The fact that Bush does not agree with everything Hoyer wants to do does not mean he has broken his promise to provide health care for poor children.


In conclusion, it seems to me that Bush's veto was completely justified. Although in contrast to Jonathan Cohn, I would like to see a move towards more privatization of health care, I think we can agree that barring any major changes towards that end, there is no reason to suddenly pull funding for children's health care. However, Bush's proposal does not appear to do so and a grossly irresponsible bill is not the solution.

September 20, 2007


As Matteo points out in the comments on my WordPress blog, malaria is not a bacterium. The original remarks may have given that impression, although I only used bacterium as an example of a quickly reproducing organism. I apologize for any confusion this may have led to and hope the corrections made above make are more clearly true than they were before.

Edge of Evolution

I recently finished reading Michael Behe's new book, Edge of Evolution. Although I liked his previous book, Darwin's Black Box and its introduction of the concept of Irreducible Complexity, I think this new book is better written and contains a powerful argument.


The primary focus of the book is what evolution (chance mutation + natural selection) is capable of. Instead of turning to theoretical models or logical arguments to analyze the idea, Behe does something much better and more scientific: observation of the changes wrought by evolution in malaria (and in humans related to malaria).

Trench Warfare

The study begins by observing that most observed changes attributed to evolution are really degenerative changes that provide a competitive edge against something dangerous, like malaria. A key example of this is Sickle Cell anemia, a debilitating blood disease that also decreases susceptibility to malaria (and is likely widespread, especially in malarial zones, for this very reason). Behe compares this to "trench warfare" in which bridges are burned to slow down enemy troops rather than built to advance friendly troops.

Bacterial Window into Epochs

Moving on from this observation, Behe shifts focus from human evolution to malarial evolution to focus on changes in malaria over the course of its battle with humans, especially their advanced medical drugs over the last century. At this point, Behe makes what I believe to be the most important observation of the whole book: that organisms such as bacteria reproduce many times faster than larger creatures, like humans, and therefore should exhibit a level of change akin to millions of years in larger creatures in much shorter periods of time. In a sense, providing a more observable window into the generational effects of evolution. As a result, if evolution were responsible for dramatic changes in organisms, such as bacteria to humans, then we should be able to see some of that power in a relatively short time in bacteria. Unfortunately for philosophical naturalists, as Behe catalogues the actual evolution of malaria in recent times, the changes are neither powerful, nor dramatic.


In conclusion, I found Edge of Evolution to be a highly informative book and highly recommend that others read it.


Of course, there are many who take issue with Behe's book. Perhaps the best critique of Behe's book is from Abbie Smith at the Panda's Thumb, in her guest article ERV & HIV versus Behe. Behe loses.. Unfortunately, as Casey Luskin points out at Evoluiton News & Views at the Discovery Insitute in his article "Pandas Thumb Fails to Refute Michael Behe on HIV Evolution", her key observation that supposedly contradicts a remark Behe made about the evolution of HIV, does not quite fit her critique.

Another interesting critique comes from Nick Matzke at the Panda's Thumb in his article "Of Cilia and Silliness (More on Behe), in which Matzke critiques some of Behe's remarks on cilia construction in a cell, claiming that not all cells that construct cilia do so in the same way as Behe's example.

I found no response to Matzke on Behe's Amazon blog, which deals with quite a few critical reviews of Edge of Evolution.

However, what I find most telling is that almost all the critiques tend to ignore the Bacterial Window argument of Behe that I explained above, chosing as Smith and Matzke did to bicker over some minor details and interpretations of the book rather than dealing with the big picture of Behe's argument, which notes that it is not what we see, but what we don't see in real world observations that matters most.

August 27, 2007

Sick the Book

Jonathan Cohn replied via e-mail to me recent remarks on health care regarding his comments at the Plank. He directed me to check out his book Sick. I've decided to check it out and ordered it from Amazon, but it will take a week or so to get here.

In the mean time, I looked around for some reviews, and this was the most detailed one I could find quickly.

According to Nicholas Beaudrot's review, the book is essentially a series of sob stories coupled with some observations about the status quo which Beaudrot identifies with an inability to spread risk in the current system. I suspect Cohn's argument is a bit more complicated than that, but I'm not sure how universal health care will "spread risk". Perhaps I'll find out...

August 22, 2007

Government Money for Symptoms or Real Solutions?

Recently, the bloggers at The Plank have been posting quite a few articles supporting government health care, and SCHIP (State Children's Health Insurance Program) in particular. What struck me about these two posts:

The SCHIP on Bush's Shoulder - Ben Crair
The Kids are Alright - Jonathan Cohn

was the lack of any willingness to consider what a real health care solution might look like and clear demonstration that such programs are incremental national health care programs.

Real Success

Cohn claims the program has been "remarkedly successful at reducing the number of low-income children without insurance". While it is true that SCHIP provides health care for some children, what should the real measure of success be for such a program? It is great to help children, but Ben Crair notes in his article that "since 1996...the average cost of a premium for a family plan has grown five times as fast as the federal poverty level" (emphasis mine). In other words, while the government throws money at a problem symptom (uninsured children), the underlying problem (health care costs) is becoming horribly worse and tax payers are eating it (in taxes and in funding their own health care).

Rather than stopping to wonder what government could do (or stop doing?) to address the root problem of high cost health care in the US, Crair and Cohn argue that the program needs to be expanded. Indeed, Cohn declares that he has no problem with expanding the program to cover the middle class and even upper class households.

Incremental Nationalization of Health Care

Crair reveals that "When SCHIP was first created...eligibility [was generally restricted] to families making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Since then...several states have increased that cap to 300 [or 350 in NJ] percent. Cohn addresses concerns that a program established to provide health care for poor children is becoming a program to provide health care for middle class children in two ways. First, he observes more than 90% of the children in SCHIP are under 200% of the poverty line. Second, and more importantly, he admits that he "personally would have no problem with government insuring middle-class Americans -- and upper-class, too."

It seems to me that rather than ignoring the rising costs of health care and just hoping for a magical government solution, one should try to understand why health care costs so much and what can be done to solve the real problem.

August 18, 2007

The Global Warming Challenge, Take 1

Yesterday, I challenged [2] those who fear global warming and think we should take drastic and often coercive regulatory measures to save ourselves from the dreaded roasting of the earth to providing substantiated arguments for three primary ideas:
  1. Human cause
  2. Consequences
  3. Human solutions

This morning, Sharon took a crack at these on Facebook.

Human Cause

Whether or not humans caused the problem is a great argument. But I think it's irrelevant to the situation at hand, or at best, not the only thing to consider. - Sharon

It is reasonable to argue that global warming is a natural occurrence, that it will cause horrible things to happen, and that we should do something about it, but it seems like the action we should take is much less clear in this case.

Point 1 has been argued back and forth hundreds of times. It's impossible to say at this point who's feeding whose pocket, and where the truth really lies. Without being a climatologist myself, the best I can say is that there's good evidence on both sides of the argument, enough to convince any reasonable person of either side, with a sufficiently open mind to good logic and facts. All that really goes to show is that *we don't know*. - Sharon

I obviously disagree. It seems to me that the doom prophets are long on supposed disasters and calls to action, and short on solid evidence and arguments. Indeed, I would argue that this also characterizes much of the discussion we have been having here. I have spent quite a bit of text examining reasons to doubt that global warming is caused by humans and in reply I have received limited claims and opinions to the contrary and a lot of arguments that we should do something.


Sharon begins with several seemingly well justified premises:
  1. Temperatures are rising
  2. Polar caps are melting
  3. Ocean levels are rising

Before moving to any negative impacts, she attempts to bolster to expected magnitude of these three effects by arguing that global warming begets more global warming.

Positive or Negative Feedback

Sharon argues that given these premises, global warming will make itself worse through positive feedback. In support of this idea, she cites a Science Daily article. The article offers the following argument:

an increase in arctic temperatures...could result in...higher levels of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere...[fueling] global warming even more.

The study found...elevating summer temperatures by about 2 degrees Celsius...on plots of arctic tundra increased the CO2 emissions by 26 to 38 percent under normal snowfall. When snowfall on some plots was increased...[a reasonable possibility]...CO2 emissions increased 112 to 326 percent.

Although this is interesting, the article presents no significant impact or magnitude of this discovery. It makes no attempt to compare expected CO2 emission increases caused by this effect given expected warming with any figure (CO2 emissions from cars) that means anything at all to me. Furthermore, as the mechanism for the release is plants drawing CO2 out of the soil and releasing more of this absorbed CO2 into the air than it draws from the air and uses, I suspect the equilibrium here is relatively low. Therefore, this article provides very little reason to suspect a significant increase in global CO2 emissions and thereby global increases in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Rather than accepting that Global Warming will worsen as a result of natural positive feedback, it seems to me that the global system is much more self-correcting. Assuming the CO2 even is a major cause of the global warming we are experiencing, it also stimulates the growth of plants, which work to extract it out of the atmosphere, as demonstrated by sources I cited in my last article. [2.5, 2.6]

Therefore, it seems to me more likely that rather than a delicately tuned system that could spiral out of control on account of minor changes, the climate seems much more like a self-correcting system. Furthermore, as the articles also demonstrate, this effect will be a boon to farmers, helping them grow more food to feed people around the world. So far, on the whole, global warming sounds like a positive thing for the world, not a negative thing.

Swift Destruction

As further evidence, Sharon points to the recent discovery of well-preserved frozen mammoths, which were probably frozen pretty quickly. I don't remember a whole lot about this case, so I can't say much about it without further research. However, as Sharon remarks, I would consider the flood as a prime suspect, but I do not think the event, whether by global or local flood, lends itself to the granted causes (melting polar caps and thermal expansion of the ocean). It seems to me that both of these lend themselves to a slow creep of rising water (mm over years) [3] rather than a sudden deluge.

It should also be noted that the mammoths froze before SUVs.

Death and Destruction

Based on these 2 arguments, Sharon makes the following argument:

The polar ice caps melting drastically in unpredictable manners causing vast havoc over the world will definitely cause a lot of death. I'm not going to argue that's a bad thing, other than that I'd kind of like humanity to be around for a while. I'm fond of them. And while aquatic life is great and all, a tree falling in the forest is just that.

This is certainly a real impact. Allow me to summarize:
  1. Vast Havoc on Land
  2. Destruction of Humanity (and probably many animal and plant species as well)

However, I do not see how these really follow from the given premises and the 2 arguments Sharon presented, given for the moment. Am I misunderstanding an extent here?

Human Solutions

But the important part of what I believe falls around point 2. Assuming A.) we'd like humans to be alive and B.) we'd like humans to be alive on THIS planet forces us to say a few things. - Sharon

Sharon follows this with the two examples:
  1. NASA's search for asteroids on route to strike earth
  2. The fate of the Spotted Owl

Essentially, the argument offered here is summed up by this excerpt:

The world is complicated. Bloody complicated, even...My point here is that we don't always know what we're doing in terms of ecological harm or help. In fact, we barely know at all. But if we do nothing, we're guaranteed to lose all of what [evolution|God] has created so far. And so it seems that even though our hand may be heavy and stupidly placed sometimes, we should try to save some of it. Because once it's gone, like the spotted owl, we're not going to get it back. And who knows but what might some species or other be essential in the long run to our survival. - Sharon

In other words, we do not know if global warming is a problem or not, but we should try to fix it anyway. Unfortunately, it is one thing to plan for contingencies and significantly restrict the production of certain goods based on the idea that something might be a problem. If we tried to fix every possible problem, not only would find ourselves attempting obviously impossible things, but we would find ourselves attempting contradictory solutions. For example, consider trying to stop global warming because it might be happening, and at the same time trying to stop global cooling, because that might be happening as well! It was not so long ago that the next Ice Age, rather than the next Scorching Age was what people were concerned about. Even today, some people are concerned that global warming will cause the next ice age. [4]

In short, we should require solid evidence that global warming is going to cause serious problems (1) and that there is something we can do about it (2). And remember, this isn't just a question of us "doing something". Many of the proposed plans to solve global warming would cause major hardship and possibly even death for many people around the world. For example, as I pointed out in my previous article [2], the diversion of corn production from food to ethanol is causing food shortages in Mexico and CAFE standards designed to decrease emissions from cars kill about 2000 people in the US every year. As someone once said, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

Trusting God

It is true that the Bible does outline some future events that require humanity to still be around when the events occur. As a result, we can know that Global Warming won't kill us all. However, that does not mean God won't allow humanity to hurt itself pretty badly. The Biblical account is full of people who did stupid things that God let come back to bite them.

But if I were in my home with the rising water and praying to the God of the Bible to save me, at least one scenario has him up there saying "Well you dummy, I showed you how you were supposed to be careful and responsible. It was your own choice not to be careful with your [nuclear plants|emissions|resource usage|]." - Sharon

I suspect God would also be wondering why the person was sat in the house and watched the water coming, then stayed in the house will the water came in the house. This analogy reminds me of the story of a woman who climbed onto her roof during a flood. Once there, she proceeded to pray to God for deliverance. A boat and a helicopter both came by and offered to save her, but she replied that God would save her. After drowning, she got to heaven and asked God why He did not rescue her. God replied that He tried twice, once with a boat and once with a helicopter and she turned them down.

Human Arrogance

I have heard the argument several times that the very idea that humans could affect any global system is patently arrogant and absurd. I do not subscribe to this notion. It should be noted that it was because of man's wickedness that God destroyed the earth with a flood (not by our power, of course, but on account of us).


I am not sure what fate vs. freewill really has to do with this discussion.


[Forgive me for the rhetoric, I'm a 2AR junkie. It's habit.] - Sharon

Don't worry, rhetoric happens. ;)


In summary, I asked for three arguments regarding Global Warming:
  1. Human cause
  2. Consequences
  3. Human solutions

and I'd say she spent most of her time arguing for 2.

Human Cause

She presented a reasonable dodge on 1, arguing that the whether man caused it or not, any potential problems will hurt us just as much. This approach makes it possible to argue that bad things will happen and we should do something, but it also makes it unreasonable to blame people for destroying the planet. It also makes it harder to argue that there is much we can do about (or else we'll probably have to work harder, if we've influenced the global climate once, it shouldn't be as hard to influence it again. However, if we accept that human activity has not yet significantly influenced global climates, we have a lot further to go).


Unfortunately, I did not see any specific or substantiated consequences to global warming. What I saw was two fairly weak and vague arguments attempting to support the idea that global warming will speed up and that climate change can happen fast. This was followed by several long arguments illustrating that we don't know what is happening, but we should do something. All of this was interspersed with repeated leaps of logic to the destruction of humanity and the earth as we know it.

Human Solutions

No concrete recommendations with accompanying expected results were presented, although many calls to do something were included. Again, what I am looking for here is specific actions that we can take and what results we should expect from these actions. Even if I bought the Consequences of Global Warming arguments, I'd be left with nothing specific to do or any expectation of actually helping at all. In fact, I might do the wrong thing and just make us burn or freeze faster!

In conclusion, I find Sharon's argument in defense of global warming devastations and the call to act now decidedly unsupported by facts, evidence, or reason.

[1] "Increased Arctic Temperatures Could Speed Up Global Warming". ScienceDaily. 3/2/1999.
[2] Me. "Global Warming Revisited". Ramblings. 8/14/2007.
[3] Sea level rise. Wikipedia.
[4] Thom Hartmann. How Global Warming May Cause the Next Ice Age.... 1/30/2004

Some Environmental Issues

CAFE standards

In the Facebook comments on Global Stewardship, Sharon argues that the vehicle emissions problem is exacerbated by people too poor to buy efficient vehicles, rich people too unforgivably stupid to buy efficient vehicles, and corrupt regulators who fail to enforce government standards.

First, for the purpose of clarification, I would like to know what the it in "that's the way it is" is refering to. Sharon, were you referring to the CAFE standards (government coercion) or people to poor or stupid to buy the high mileage vehicles?

Second, as I pointed out before, CAFE kills. Of course, people die driving anyway, and a few more deaths really is a small price to pay to save humanity. However, if global warming is not a real problem, then the sacrifice purchases nothing. Given the evidence I have presented that global warming is not a real problem, I am inclined to conclude that CAFE is an unjustified and unproductive regulation with horrible consequences.

Human's can impact local environments

Humans have the ability to impact our planet in ways that no other species do. And disregarding history following the industrial revolution, most of the impacts were felt relatively quickly by the communities that caused them. You fish an area out, you don't get fish, and you bugger up the food chain. Etc. - Sharon

I definitely agree that there are many excellent examples of humans drastically changing and even harming local environments and ecosystems. It also does not seem that far-fetched to posit that at least at some point, humans may be able to significantly impact such systems globally was well. However, it seems to me that in the case of global warming the facts are at best inconclusive regarding a significant human influence, and even less convincing regarding the supposed consequences of global warming.

Year of Rest

Remember how the Jews were commanded to plant crops in an area for six years, and leave it fallow on the seventh? A perfect example of intelligent planning, on a local level. Now it'd probably take 50 years of farming to totally destroy that land of nutrients...but that is stupid. Plan now, don't get buggered later. I'd have to say that knowledge like that in the old testament is one of the strongest testaments to veracity of the bible, even though I do not believe in any sort of deity.

Agreed (except on the lack of God's existence). I think it is also important to remember that the rest was not only for the land, but for the people too. I often think that our society gets caught up in acquiring things and making money and often forgets to take a break and enjoy life.

Tragedy of the Commons

...we have to come up with that type of guidelines technologies...Common sense says so, religious sense (stewardship) says so, and the planet is even starting to tell us so... - Sharon

It seems to me that a lot of the real problems that we face here are really a problem of ownership. For example, consider over-fishing. There is not much incentive for fishermen to limit there catches because they know that most other fishermen won't. This leads to a lack of restraint in fishing because the fish are held in common, and the benefits go to the first one to catch them. Such a system also lacks incentive for anyone to restock supplies, because they would be unlikely to receive a significant return on their investment as other fishermen catch their fish.

For this reason, I support fish farming, which introduces ownership into the picture. It provides a more sustainable food supply based in fish.

Similarly with logging, when the logging lands are held in common, there is a great incentive to cut trees down before anyone else gets to them, and almost no incentive to replace them for someone else to cut down later. It seems to me that a better system for the production of lumber is tree farming.

Nuclear Power and Grey Magic

Cameron offered the following argument support of the point I made on using non-sustainable resources. He remarks:

there is no reason [not?] to use something just because it is "limited."...When it comes to limited items, say nuclear fuel, what other uses do they have? And why shouldn't we use them while they are a *better* option then what we have now, until we can actually do the right thing? Making incremental improvements? Easy. Change from gasoline and refineries to electric and nuclear and THEN to electric and . Everytime I see an argument, it seems completely along the lines "USE WHITE MAGIC", and ignoring the gray magic in between. - Cameron

Sharon and Remington seem to agree, for the most part. Especially on the issue of using nuclear power. Unfortunately, as Sharon points out:

People are afraid of nuclear power. That's about it. It's not rational, it just is. Nuclear power, imnsho,is one of the better options we have right now. - Sharon

I wish it weren't true, but I think Sharon is right about why the rate of replacing coal and oil powerplants in this country with cleaner nuclear power is so slow.

Hopefully that will change in the near future.

August 14, 2007

Global Warming Revisited

Apparently, my remarks on Global Warming touched a nerve with Remington on Facebook, who made 3 comments on them today. He starts off by challenging my laziness. He asks:


What is it that You don't want to give up or change, to help change for a "subjectively" better world? Your car? Food and other resources that are transported...obscene distances to save a few cents? - Remington

First, the primary thrust of my first post was that I remain unconvinced that Global Warming is a significant problem. To summarize, Global Warming Worries rely on 3 primary tenets:
  1. Global temperatures are rising
  2. Rising temperatures are substantially caused by human activity
  3. Rising temperatures will cause many bad things to happen

While I agree that the case for tenet one is fairly strong, I believe that the case for the latter two is much weaker.

Cause of Warming

First, regarding the human cause of global warming, I pointed out that history and climate archaeology indicates that earth has experience periods of warming before, well before the advent of the gas guzzling SUV. This is further driven home by the recent discover of an error in NASA's data for US temperatures. The correction of this data knocked several of the recently touted "streak of hot years" down quite a bit in the rankings (at least in the US), giving us 4 of the top 10 hottest years in the 1930s [1] and the discovery of a global warming the 20s. [2] Admittedly, the NASA adjustment is not huge and is still relatively warm (if a degree or so can count as significantly warmer). [3]

In fact, scientists have long argued that earth's climate goes through cycles. Some short term cycles are El Nino and El Nina which go back and forth over periods of years, while some long term cycles take place over periods of thousands to millions of years (supposedly ;)), such as Ice Ages (which must obviously be interspersed with Warmer Ages). Included in this list is the previously mentioned polar melting on Mars [4], and it is quite reasonable to conclude that there are natural causes of global warming. Thus, the fact that we are observing warming trends does not mean that this is significantly influenced by human activity.

Results of Warming

Second, I pointed out that there are possible benefits to not only a warmer climate, but having more CO2 in the atmosphere. [5][6]

Error on the side of Safety?

Would it not make sense to place your bet and error on the side of safety, rather than splurge now and worry later? How much would your life really change if you took mass transportation? - Remington

As a minor point, I also observed that most of the plans to reduce emissions do not sound like they provide any significant benefit, even according to the doom prophets promoting them and these plans are not without their own harms.

Furthermore, such plans often have unintended consequences. Consider the rising cost of food in Mexico, not a rich nation, [7][8] as a result of the emphasis on using ethanol and the potential risk of corn shortfalls further exacerbating food and fuel supplies (and thereby prices). [9] And lets not forget that while biodiesel releases less CO2, it releases 2% to 10% more NOx than standard diesel, and NOx aggravates respiratory problems, such as asthma. [10]

To err on the side of safety is not a bad idea, but one can not live without some risks. Consider the man who stays in bed all day to "err on the side of safety", fearing that he may fall, be run over by a car, etc. if he gets out of bed, only to become sickly and weak as his muscles atrophy. The issue is not as simple as just doing something.

My Carbon Footprint

You will probably, as a computer programmer, have the same office that you go to, 9 to 5 (or worse) everyday, theoretically making a commute with mass transportation possible. Imagine the horrors if you gave up driving everyday from a suburb, lived near work, and rode a bicycle. - Remington

Actually, especially during the school year, I do not drive my car that much. I live close enough to the university to walk and I usually do. Furthermore, Cameron and I consistently use much less energy than the average household of our size, according to PSE.

When I work in the summer, I have car pooled at least most of the way with my dad for the last two summers. Finally, the thought of living close enough to work to ride a bike is actually inviting to me, but not something I can afford to do at this time.

Admittedly, I dislike riding buses, primarily due to their slower pace, indirect routing, and time sensitive nature. I also suspect that rumors of their energy efficiency are highly over-rated, given that much of the time, they seem to be less than full.

We Live Here Too

Your dissmissal of Shanon's first argument basically amounts to "everything we do makes us a fuck up, so why worry about fucking it up more?" - Remington

I am afraid that you misunderstood my point there. First, I agreed with the general idea of what Sharon had to say. We are stewards of this earth and thus need to take care of it. However, my second point was to point out that clarification is needed in understanding what is good stewardship and what is truly abusing the environment.

The core of my argument here was that the common method of defining human abuse seems to be to imagine an environment without humans, compare this to an environment with humans, and then instantly classify any difference as a negative effect of human beings. This is an incorrect, inconsistent, and unjustified assumption. In circular fashion, it begins by assuming any change by humans is bad, and then reaches the same conclusion. Furthermore, the converse assumption seems to be made about everything else in nature. Thus, when considering animal x, the changes it imposes on the environment are considered part of the natural system or balance, in stark constrast to humans, who are always seem to be viewed as external to the system and therefore a problem rather than a part of the system. Finally, there seems to be no justification for this double standard. My argument there was not that humans are inherent screw ups.

It cuts both ways

If even the middle class (like Brandon) can't be bothered to change their oh-so-wonderful lifestyles, why would the rich and powerful? - Remington

One of the things that strikes me about your remarks is the glaring lack of any attempt to directly engage the arguments I have presented regarding the true nature of global warming. I would submit to Remington that if he can't be bothered to actually demonstrate that a problem exists, he has no basis on which to castigate other people for (1) disagreeing with him and (2) not acting as he sees fit.

Capitalist vs. Socialist Strategy

I would love to see capitalism to support renewable energy and see it as a possible source of profits, but until it becomes, as always, more cost effective, it won't happen quickly. - Remington

The introduction of Capitalism into this discussion, it seems to me, helps to clarify exactly what is going on here in relation to government. Capitalism is, first and foremost, not an economic system. It seems to me that Capitalism is better understood as , a system of personal freedom and property, that has economic consequences. Thus, a Capitalistic society allows individuals the freedom to choose to act, or not to act, on issues such as global warming as they are convinced in the free market place of ideas to do so.

Convsersely, modern liberalism, tends towards a more socialistic approach of elite politicians controlling what we do based on their conclusions. Whether we trust individual citizens to do the right thing or not, I think we should be able to agree that we can't trust politicians any more (and probably less). It should also be noted that politicians and governments have an incentive to grasp onto doomsday scenarios such as Global Warming in order to justify expanding their power.

The Bible's Relevance

...and quotes of the bible (which, as an atheist, I dismiss immediately), are hardly enough for me to change my stance. - Remington

This does not surprise me. I also suspect that Sharon, as an Atheist, did not find them particularly persuasive either. However, as I believe the Bible to be true, I also believe it to be relevant on this issue. This is particularly relevant to others who are not Christians because Genesis is often used against Christians by environmentalists. You cite it yourself in your third comment when you remark that "they demonstrate 'dominion over the earth'". My primary intent in citing Genesis was to show that not only does the Bible teach the stewardship Sharon believes in, but it does so in balance with the human dominion that is so often cited outside of that context.

Iraq's WMDs

I won't say that any argument of mine is terribly strong, but as he believes with Iraq's WMD, I'd rather take the safe course and act now. - Remington

I am not sure how my supposed past misjudgements alter reality against my current arguments or how my own past history at all is related to the reasonability of my current arguments. I am not asking anyone to take my word on this. I am merely asking that they consider my reasons for my views. I would also like to argue that WMDs were a substantiated danger of Saddam's Iraq, but this issue is already large enough. If anyone wants to know what I have to say about that, let me know.

Fuel Efficiency

When people advocate and ask for more fuel efficient vehicles, they are not asking drivers to change their lifestyles, just drive sane vehicles that aren't gas-guzzling peices of materialist bullshit. A stretch Hummer gets 8 miles to the gallon, so that fools and their money can be parted as they demonstrate "dominion over the earth", without consideration of the harm they do. - Remington

Like Remington, I find stretch Hummer's to be absurd and wasteful. However, I do not support forcing others to not make or buy them. Stretch Hummers are also an extreme not driven by most people. Unfortunately, CAFE standards result in lighter, more dangerous cars. As a result, it is estimated that CAFE causes several thousand additional traffic deaths each year. [11]


As I pointed out earlier, Remington presents no reason to believe that Global Warming is caused by humans, that it can be stopped by humans, or that it will actually cause anything horrible to happen. He merely assumes that it does. Therefore, I challenge Remington and anyone who believes that Global Warming is man-made, reversible, and/or will cause horrible things to happen to present arguments and evidence that this is so. Specifically:
  1. Present evidence that human activity does cause significant global warming. Please include a reasonable impact here, such as 25% of Global Warming is due to human emissions.
  2. Present actions that we can take to decrease global warming significantly. This should likewise include some ballpark figure as to what we can expect to receive for our sacrifice. Ideally, this will also be tied to presented harms of Global Warming.
  3. The Harms of Global Warming. Please present real impacts. Things like death (any creature) are particularly good here. The cost of air conditioning does not count.

If anyone thinks that I am being unreasonable in these requests, please let me know how.


[1] Mark Steyn. "Warm-mongers and cheeseburger imperialists". ocregister. 8/12/2007
[2] John McCaslin. "Inside the Beltway", The Washington Times. 8/14/2007
[3] Bradford Plumer. "Global Warming Debunked! (or not....)". The Plank. 8/13/2007
[4] Kate Ravilious. "Mars Melt Hints at Solar, Not Human, Cause for Warming, Scientist Says". National Geographic News. 2/28/2007
[5] Sylvan H. Wittwer. "Rising Carbon Dioxide is Great for Plants". Policy Review. Fall 1992
[6] Mark Shwartz. "High CO2 levels can retard plant growth, study reveals". Stanford Report. 12/5/2002
[7] Brittany Sauser. "Ethanol Demand Threatens Food Prices. Technology in Review. 2/13/2007
[8] Manuel Roig-Franzia. "A Culinary and Cultural Staple in Crisis". Washington Post Foreign Service. 1/27/2007
[9] Ethanol and food price volatility. Econbrowser. 7/22/2007
[10] "Comparison of Biodiesel, ULSD and CNG for Use in On-Road Heavy-duty Applications". Steve Richardson & Company, LLC. 2004?
[11] "Corporate Average Fuel Economy". Wikipedia.

August 2, 2007

Warren Buffet's Low Tax Rate

Several weeks ago, Cameron was wondering on Facebook why Warren Buffet pays less taxes than he does. Curious, I asked for a reference and Cameron sent me this link a few days ago:

Warren Buffet Pays 17.7% Tax Rate; His Employees Pay 32.9%

The article cites Warren Buffet himself as complaining that he unfairly pays less taxes (about 17.7%) than his secretary (about 32.9%). The author then links to 4 other article commenting on the same issue. I found Greg Mankiw's remarks to be the most insightful.

Essentially, Buffet's observations are misleading for two primary reasons:
  1. Social Security Taxes
  2. Pre-Capital Gains Taxes

As Mankiw points out, the vast majority of Buffet's immediate income is taxed as capital gains, whereas his secretaries immediate income will be taxed as regular income. It appears that Buffet's figures are really based primarily on this fact (15% capital gains tax vs. a 33% rate, including 12% Social Security taxes, for his secretary).

If my memory serves me correctly, social security taxes max out at around $100k. Thus, the money Buffet makes over $100k, which is most of his income, will essentially diminish the effect of that 12% on his income to a negligible amount. Accounting for this fact, his secretaries comparable taxes were really only around 21%, just 4% more, not 16% more, as Buffet claims.

Furthermore, as Mankiw points out, Buffet's capital gains do not come from nothing. They come from assets he owns, such as businesses, which are taxed at a corporate rate of about 35%. Thus, the capital gains tax is not really a 15% tax on income, but a 35% + 15% of the remainder, effectively a double tax. This is most easily seen in the case of dividends. When a stock holder receives dividends, he receives them proportionally to his ownership in a business, which is taxed before he gets paid. Thus, his assets are taxed at about 35% in the corporate pool, and then he gets taxed another 15% (maximum) on the 65% remaining when it comes out of the pool and into his directly controlled assets. Hardly a mere 15% tax and probably enough even with multiple caveats to actually place Buffet's real tax rate significantly higher than his secretaries.

July 21, 2007

Link(s) of the Week

Lying politicos and media malfeasance - Michael Medved

In this article, Michael Medved discusses the actual text of the HR2956, the [Ir]responsible Redeployment from Iraq Act, which was generally explained as being a withdrawel from Iraq bill. Medved points out that the text, contrary to most statements by politician and media reports, although a horrible idea written in vague terms, is actually a troop reduction plan, not a complete withdrawal plan. I recommend reading this article as well as the Act itself to see more specifically what he is talking about.

July 18, 2007

FBI Spyware

I stumbled on this Wired article today. It discusses an FBI spyware program that apparently sneaks onto a users machine and reports various statistics to the FBI, and it was used to identify an "anonymous" MySpace user. What struck me about the article was the following remark:

such surveillance...can be conducted without a wiretap warrant, because internet users have no "reasonable expectation of privacy" in the data when using the internet.

It seems to me that the real issue in this case is not so much what data they gather, but where they gather it from. According to a reference to an older article that discusses the recent ruling that came to the above conclusion, the decision seems to be based upon a previous ruling that it was ok to gather call lists through phone companies because the information is essentially public to the phone companies. Thus, the ruling argued that ip addresses are essentially equivalent to phone numbers, and thus it is an equivalent case to a previous ruling. However, it seems to me that the key difference is not what is being gathered, but where it is gather from. In the supposedly equivalent case, the data was gathered external from the person being watched, whereas in the spyware case, the person's property is actually used against him.

Although I general think that law enforcement is held back in this country, this seems like one case in which the courts are actually allowing them to over step their bounds and violate the 4th amendment.

July 15, 2007

Global Stewardship

I've received several responses on my recent global warming post.


Eat, Drink, and be Scary?

The first is from Kenpo on Blogger, who remarked:

Good points, though the "eat, drink and be scary" at the end is probably sending the wrong message. - Kenpo

I apologized if I left the impression that I was arguing for "an eat, drink, and be merry" willful ignorance of problems. That was not my intention. My point was merely that some people are too willing to embrace a doomsday scenario, and based on that scenario, accept any proposed solution, regardless of its effectiveness or relevance.


On Facebook, Sharon made several points. I want to focus on three of them.

The first was the following:


For me it's never been a question of right or wrong, or proof. It's been a question of stewardship. We have a responsibility to take care of the things we have. If there are choices and technologies we can choose that are better for the planet in the long run, we should plan on it. - Sharon

I agree that we are to be good stewards of this planet. Genesis records that Adam was placed on earth (in Eden) to dress and keep it:

Gen 2:15 And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

Thus, we are here to take care of and protect the earth. For this reason, I find it reasonable to not waste, not litter, recycle what we can, etc. However, many people believe that we should do much more, from decreasing emission, to rejecting the modern world, to rejecting humanity itself.

It seems to me that the primary issue here is how do we define a normal or better planetary state? If one begins by defining the ideal state of the planet without humans, it is not surprising for one to conclude that the planet would be better off, or more ideal, without humans. If one defines every change made by humans as negative and destructive, it is unsurprising for one to conclude that the world would be better without humans.

Elsewhere in Genesis, God also gave the following command:

Gen 1:28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Thus, we are here to care for the earth, but also to rule and to use it. Clearly, there is a balance in this beyond the scope of this post, but the point is that a vision of a good planet can and should include us.

Non-sustainable Technologies

Sharon's second remark was the following:

Any technologies that are not sustainable in the long run are unwise no matter how you look at it. - Sharon

I'm not sure I necessarily agree. It seems to me that throughout the past several hundred years, we have seen unsustainable technologies come and go, providing benefits while they were in use. I think a prime example of this is actually oil and gasoline. Even if we reject any possibility that such resources can be renewable, it is clear that there are other technologies currently in development which may be able to take its place, such as nuclear power, solar power, etc., or a collection of them.

Furthermore, it seems to me that arguing that something valuable should not be used because it is limited is somewhat akin to observing that if a very fine cake is eaten, it will not be around to be enjoyed later. A perpetuation of this idea leads to no good ever coming of the cake (unless it is really pretty and ends up in an art museum, but that's beside the point).

Responsibilty of the Powerful

Finaly, Sharon made this remark:

And if those in power can do their best to make it easier for the rest of us to be responsible for our eco-footprint, everyone will be served in the long run. - Sharon

To an extent, I agree. Those who have the ability to produce roughly equivalent products with one being better for the environment ought to do so. However, I do not believe that those in power have the right to insist, based on their possibly subjective vision of a better planet, to coerce others to comply with their plans, especially when those plans are ill-founded.

July 14, 2007

Impact of Subsidies vs. Taxes on Gas Prices

Recently, Kenpo commented on my article from 2005 regarding oil company profits vs. Federal revenues. He observes:
on the "government making gas so expensive" front, isn't gasoline subsidized by the Federal government? In European countries where it isn't, gas is the equivalent of $5+ per gallon. Or so I've heard it said... - Kenpo
In reply to this, I have 4 points:

Primary Focus is Profit, not Price

First, the primary focus of my article was on profit, not price. Essentially, I was just pointing out how hypocritically it was for politicians to complain about corporate profits when the government itself profits more from the same industry.

Gas Price is Still Raised by Gas Taxes

Furthermore, regardless of government subsidies, the effect of government tax policies is still to raise prices. Furthermore, it should be noted that while these officials berated the oil companies for profiting off rising gas/oil prices, their response was not to attempt to lower their own contribution to the high price, or even to enact price controls (which would have been a bad idea, but would at least been an idea that attacked the alleged problem). No, their response was to recommend that government should increase taxes, which could only influence the price of gas by increasing it even more!

Government Taxes Exceed Subsidies

However, a limited amount of research turns up the following figures:
Subsidies$35 billionGreenpeace
Revenues$60 billionTax Foundation
Net$25 billion

Although the Greenpeace data is from 1995, the TaxFoundation article shows that government gas revenues remained at a fairly constant rate until 2004 (in fact, I think gas taxes have increased since then), and I suspect that subsidies did not change much either. Add to this government requirements on fuel blends, inclusion of expensive alternative fuels like ethanol, etc. and despite the subsidies, it seems quite reasonable to conclude that the government's influence on gas prices is to raise them, not to lower them.

European Gas Prices: Case Study

Finally, I do not know a whole lot about European gas policies, but I suspect the reason European gasoline is so expensive has to do with similar government controls and taxes that are more restrictive and higher than our own. For example, according to Wikipedia, average US gas taxes (state & federal) are around 42 cents per gallon. In contrast, German taxes on conventional gasoline amount to about 65 cents per liter, or about $2.46 per gallon, over 5 times US tax rates.

July 11, 2007

Why I am not worried about Global Warming

With all the recent noise about Global Warming generated by the ill attended Live Earth event, I am again appalled that so many ignore some obvious questions or simply reject them out of hand. It seems to me, that 3 issues in particular illustrate the essentials that are missing from much of the dialog.

Human Responsibility Questionable

While it seems obvious that by generating and releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, humans have some impact on CO2 levels. However, the connection between human CO2 output and climate is not nearly so simple. Following are two demonstrations of this.

The Climate Changed Before Industrialization

  1. According to Wikipedia, a period of time known as the Medieval Warm Period (800-1300 AD) was characterized by relatively high temperatures across at least Europe. During this time, Greenland was green enough to be settled by the Vikings.
  2. This period was followed by the Little Ice Age (~1300-1850 AD) during which glaciers advanced in Greenland and the Thames froze over during the winter in England.
These and other records indicate that Earth's climate naturally changes. This might seem obvious, but much of what I hear in the general news seems to imply that Earth's climate is in a state of delicate balance and any deviation can cast Earth in catastrophe. This is decidedly untrue.

Changes in Extraterrestrial Climates Indicate at Least an Extraterrestrial Factor

As TH Barb notes here, data indicates that Mars is enduring climate warming as well. Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that at least part of the warming currently occuring on earth is not related to human emission of CO2.

Possible Benefits

Furthermore, almost all discussions of Global Warming seem to dwell on horrible catastrophes that seem like they came out of some Hollywood Catastrophe film. Almost none of the discussion observes that the previously mentioned Medieval Warm Period is associated with a relatively prosperous period of European history, not numerous climatological and geological catastrophes.

Additionally, it is well known that plants rely on CO2 in a manner similar to our reliance on oxygen. Thus, increased CO2 levels tend to lead to increased plant growth, certainly a boon to farmers needing to stave off the horrible famine supposedly looming in our future as a result of global population growth. This article provides some details on the effects of CO2 on plant growth. A more recent study, despite the misleading headline, comes to a similar conclusion. Although the headline is "High carbon dioxide levels can retard plant growth" a careful reading of the article itself reveals that a depletion of other resources, not high levels of CO2, resulted in decreased plant growth in the 3rd year. In other words, the first 2 years demonstrated high growth, but depleted other resources required for plant growth that were not resupplied, resulting in a poor 3rd year. Armed with fertilizers and other tools, I seriously doubt this will be a major problem for farmers.

Drastic Plans Yield Minor Results

Even if we assume that human CO2 emissions are a major factor in global warming AND global warming will drastically and negatively influence the world, there seems to be little reason to change our emissions unless there is good reason to believe that such changes will have a significant impact on reversing global warming. In the few cases where I have heard the impacts discussed, it seemed to me that the benefits were ridiculously small in comparison to the probably massive economic impact of such changes. If the world as we know it really IS doomed to end within the next 50 years, I see little reason to intentionally make the remaining time we have worse before it gets worse anyway.