Science Addiction

A dormant blog by Devanshu Mehta

Tag: Politics

The Elevator Pitch for Health Care Reform

I participate on, where people can ask questions and get answers from the community. At 2am this morning, I got a question on politics from someone in Florida:

Can someone explain this healthcare shit they are trying to pass? It sounds like everybody will be forced to buy insuance and that sounds like crap to me. Help me understand it, cause it sounds like bad news bears to me.

I almost ignored it. But the dude really wanted an answer and he’s from Florida, where every vote counts. Or at least, it should. Now I realized I couldn’t reply at length, the conversation had started in bad faith (shit, crap) and I had to answer quick or he wouldn’t be paying attention any more.

So, very quickly, this was my answer:

It’s going to be tough convincing you since you start out calling it shit and crap. But here’s a try: there is a mandate to buy health insurance. You could be fined for not getting insurance. But people below certain income levels will get government assistance to buy it. And there are all kinds of things that bring insurance (and health care) costs down. Also, no one can be denied coverage by an insurer and an insurer cannot rescind coverage when someone is sick.

An additional 30 million people will be covered, costs for coverage (on average) will drop by $3000 per year, seniors can’t be charged more than 3x others (currently as much as 11x), women can’t be charged more than men (currently up to 50% more), the federal deficit is reduced and medicare is solvent for 10 more years than without the bill.

Phew. That was my elevator pitch for health care reform. It probably has holes the size of Aetna in it– I’m generalizing, I’m oversimplifying and I’m glossing over. But that’s what you get if you’re stuck with me in an elevator.

And I couldn’t have done it without this graph at the Wonk Room. I wonder if the Floridian dude saw that coming!

UPDATE: I got a reply from my Floridian:

“Thanks for your reply. You made it easier for me to understand, and it doesn’t sound as bad as I thought. I am still not convinced it is the right thing to do but that’s not really what I was looking for. I just needed understanding and you help with that. Thanks again. Have a good holidays.”

If only all political disagreements could be this civil.

The Politics of Swine Flu

We all have our bogeymen, the thing we blame for everything. For some it’s immigrants, for others it’s Cheney and for still others it’s the French. Similarly, we all have our panaceas, the thing we believe can solve all problems. For some it’s Obama, for others it’s the free market and for some others it’s covering-your-ears-while-shouting-lalalalalala-i-cant-hear-you.

Swine flu has brought out the worst of these tendencies. So far, I’ve seen the following:

  1. Susan Collins, Republican senator from Maine, has been put on the defensive for negotiating to remove pandemic preparedness from the stimulus approved by Congress. aka The Republicans are to blame for swine flu.
  2. A caller on NPR’s On Point yesterday tried to connect the spread of swine flu to illegal immigration. As if people didn’t legally travel between the Mexico and other countries. aka I have a sad life, can I blame an illegal immigrant?
  3. To prove that even people on the left see the world through ideological goggles, another caller on NPR’s On Point said that maybe if we had Obama’s universal health care, we wouldn’t have the epidemic. aka I have this great hammer, and all I see are nails!
  4. Yet another caller, said that maybe factory farming is to blame. aka I buy groceries at Whole Foods, why don’t you?

In another context, I may agree with each of these points to different degrees. But I also find such ideology driven comments for every unrelated national news story as knee-jerk and self-centered.

Everything That Has Happened Before…

… will happen again.

First, a passage from HG Wells (via Dani Rodrik):

Everywhere as the Conference drew near men were enquiring about this possible new leader for them. “Is this at last the Messiah we seek, or shall we look for another?” Every bookshop in Europe proffered his newly published book of utterances, Looking Forward, to gauge what manner of mind they had to deal with. It proved rather disconcerting reading for their anxious minds. Plainly the man was firm, honest and amiable, as the frontispiece portrait with its clear frank eyes and large resolute face showed, but the text of the book was a politician’s text, saturated indeed with good will, seasoned with much vague modernity, but vague and wanting in intellectual grip. “He’s good,” they said, “but is this good enough?”

He speaks, of course, of Roosevelt and the expectations in 1933 before the representatives of leading nations met in London to find a way out of the Great Depression.

Now let us fast forward 66 years, to 1999 and landmark legislation to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 that passed congress with bipartisan support:

Congress approved landmark legislation today that opens the door for a new era on Wall Street in which commercial banks, securities houses and insurers will find it easier and cheaper to enter one another’s businesses. […]

”Today Congress voted to update the rules that have governed financial services since the Great Depression and replace them with a system for the 21st century,” Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers said. ”This historic legislation will better enable American companies to compete in the new economy.”

That’s Obama’s economic adviser Larry Summers, just so we’re clear. But this is the real money quote:

”I think we will look back in 10 years’ time and say we should not have done this but we did because we forgot the lessons of the past, and that that which is true in the 1930’s is true in 2010,” said Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota. ”I wasn’t around during the 1930’s or the debate over Glass-Steagall. But I was here in the early 1980’s when it was decided to allow the expansion of savings and loans. We have now decided in the name of modernization to forget the lessons of the past, of safety and of soundness.”

Dorgan was one of only 8 senators to oppose the bill.

UPDATE (3/31): NPR’s All Things Considered had a feature today drawing parallels between the circumstances surrounding 1933’s London conference and Obama’s summit with the leaders of the G-20 this week.

The mood was dark, but there was still hope: The United States had a dynamic new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He had taken office just three months earlier, and the world was waiting to see what he would do.

The Fall of General Motors


[From GM Bankruptcy – Will General Motors Surrive with Bailouts and Buyouts? | Blog | Personal Finance News & Advice]

How Do You Say “Irony” in Chinese?

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman recently said at a news conference:

“Many people have a false impression that the Chinese government fears the Internet. In fact, it is just the opposite.”

The news conference was in response to the Chinese government banned all of YouTube, in response to a single video of Tibetans being beaten. [via Arthur Bright at the Citizen Media Law Project]

Road to Recovery: The 48-State Solution


[From FiveThirtyEight: Politics Done Right: The Real Republican Road to Recovery]

Change Watch: A National CTO is not a Fairy Godmother

Everybody seems to have a wishlist for the incoming president. Some organizations have even put together humongous documents with recommendations for the new administration. I’ve been covering some of them here— when they seem interesting and within my areas of interest– but the sheer volume of “what I really want from the new president” is astonishing. Many on the left are already disappointed with Obama, 60 days before his inauguration.

One position that everyone on the Internet seems to have an opinion about is the mythical Chief Technology Officer that Obama had promised the nation. has been formed– not by the campaign- to solicit ideas for a CTO agenda.

Jim Harper makes an excellent point. A CTO can’t undo legislation or executive orders or court orders. Says Harper:

I’ve got some news or you: These are policy proposals that would be beyond the purview of any CTO. Policy proposals go through Congress and the President, advised by his policy staff. They do not go through a CTO.

If the Baltimore Ravens asked the team physician to kick field goals, the results would be about what you’d get from asking a federal CTO to carry out these policies.

Excellent point. The CTO cannot repeal the DMCA or the USA Patriot Act or mandate Net Neutrality. What the CTO can do is shine sunlight (thanks Jim Harper). A CTO can open up federal government data with portable and open data formats. RSS, XML, APIs– ways for people and machines to process, visualize and analyze the governments (our) data.
Obama’s official agenda says the following:

  • Open Up Government to its Citizens: Use cutting-edge technologies to create a new level of transparency, accountability, and participation for America’s citizens.
  • Bring Government into the 21st Century: Use technology to reform government and improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens while ensuring the security of our networks. Appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure the safety of our networks and lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.

UPDATE: I’ve added this as a suggestion on the web site- “bring expectations for CTO in check. CTO is not Santa.”

A CTO will not have power over courts, legislation and executive orders. A CTO will have power over how government uses technology- so bring your expectations down to earth, and ask for things like more transparency in Federal government and use of open standards in federal communications, documents, etc.

Vote for it! Use the system to change the system.

Change Watch: Privacy, Innovation and a side of Transparency


Tim Jones at the EFF has just finished his threepart series outlining how the new leadership in Congress and the Executive branch can restore what has been lost over the past eight years.

There are two aspects to how privacy has deteriorated over the past eight years. On the one hand, claiming war time needs, the government has increased warrant-less surveillance of Americans by alarming proportions. Jones highlights the flawed FISA Amendments act which granted immunity from litigation to telcos, the States Secrets Privilege, which allows the executive branch to shield itself from judicial review. The abuse of National Security Letters to acquire data from Internet service providers has also been increased. On the other hand, corporations have much more control of user data than ever before and the balance is decidedly against the consumer. In Jones’ words, “the privacy of personal data should not depend on how long an ISP has stored that data or whether the data is stored locally or remotely. “

Innovation is an area that most directly affects consumers and technologists. Jones suggests– and I agree- that balance should be restored to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) and that serious patent reform is required. Both issues, as they currently stand, favor the incumbents over consumers and inhibit innovation.

On transparency, the government should resemble the Sunlight Foundation— if you haven’t already and take a look at how they are working on making data about the government available in formats that are easy to parse, process, analyze and visualize. Obama has promised much in this direction- and is certainly a refreshing web site- but the post-January reality will be determined by his administrations response to Freedom of Information Act requests and opening up the data of all branches of government.

Until inauguration day on the 20th of January, I will be covering some of the aspects of the transition to the Obama administration that affect technology and open government in a series called Change Watch .

Will the Web Kill the Two Party System?

Via Julian Sanchez and the newly launched Law & Disorder journal at Ars Technica, here’s an excerpt of David Carr’s piece in the New York Times:

More profoundly, while many people think that President-elect Obama is a gift to the Democratic Party, he could actually hasten its demise. Political parties supply brand, ground troops, money and relationships, all things that Mr. Obama already owns.

It’s a novel idea, but Sanchez is rightly skeptical- the system and its participants have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo. The way the electoral college works- where one candidate needs to get more than half- means that a simple plurality of votes is not sufficient and this is not going to get resolved any time soon. People are more likely to vote for a lesser of two evils who might actually win, than the better candidate who will not.

The Internets Hijack Online GOP Rebuilding Efforts

It started out as a good idea, but how long could it have lasted? Well, less than a week.

Last week, a few young, forward-thinking Republicans launched Rebuild the Party– a web site that would allow the community to suggest and vote on ideas to rebuild the Republican party. It went well for a couple of days, while suggestions ranged from “Small “c” conservatives” to “Be more inclusive”.

Pretty soon, the progressive masses of the Internets and the Ron-Paul-ers learned of the site. Look at it now. The top suggestion with more than four thousand votes is to “Give all Red Blooded Americans a pair of Truck Nuts for their F150’s!” Not a bad idea if you’re a funny trucker. A horrible idea if you’re trying to rebuild a party. Ron Paulers have taken the next few slots, though the liberal hoi polloi have managed to sneak in “Scratch backwards B into own face; teach themselves a lesson”.

Once the liberal blogs took notice, this was bound to happen. Remember, liberal blogs are more popular than conservative. Of course, as Wikipedia has taught us, trolls tire faster than a sincere community- so the web site should survive once the masses find a new toy.

UPDATE: And now all the “spam” has been deleted, but the RonPaulers remain.