Maryland will probably try to force Wal-Mart to subsidize this.

Maryland is really stepping into stupidity with its foray into addressing the current politically desirable hot potato health insurance crisis. I’m not sure which is worse, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s plan, or the naked defectiveness of politicians from a plan in the General Assembly. Consider:

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) will call for expanded coverage of the state’s 780,000 uninsured — one in seven residents — in his State of the State address today, aides said, highlighting a proposal that would bring more of the poorest residents into public programs and require private insurers to allow young adults to remain on their parents’ plans until age 25.

What kind of nonsense is that last new regulation, other than an outright admission that politicians love to coddle people into ignoring reality and the consequences of their own choices. At what point will parents be allowed to kick their children off of their policy? If it’s so desirable for insurers to include young adults on their parents’ insurance, wouldn’t they have already offered such policies? Might current burdensome regulations and perverse incentives be the reason why those under 25 “can’t” purchase affordable health insurance? Making those worse will help? At some point, maybe people can leave the care of their parents and go directly to the care of the state. No one ever has to make any tough choices for himself. Even if he wants to make those choices.

General Assembly leaders are offering more ambitious plans that would add a $1 tax on cigarettes to pay for covering tens of thousands of low-income workers and offer subsidies to small businesses that provide coverage. Many workers who can afford insurance but choose not to pay for it would have to buy it or face penalties.

The governor opposes a tobacco tax increase, and even if lawmakers approve it, there is some sentiment to use the revenue to cover other needs. And despite the momentum in the Democrat-controlled legislature, initiatives of this magnitude often take more than a single session to sell.

A $1-a-pack increase in the tobacco tax also is the centerpiece of an effort by the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative to expand health care access through Medicaid and drug treatment. Although other states have approved tobacco tax increases to pay for health care, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has expressed concern that if the tax acts as a deterrent to smoking, the revenue source could plummet.

If it might not work, why are Maryland’s elected officials so ready to implement it? Because it might work? And even if it works, the outcome might be bad? What? Politicians can’t control themselves, even when they allegedly have good intentions. They will botch the implementation of the noblest of plans. They should not be allowed anywhere near such an important, vital aspect of individual life.

Continuing to hide costs is not exposing them.

Robert Samuelson’s column about health care proposals in today’s Washington Post is interesting. I agree with the gist of what he says, but there are a few phrases that rub me wrong. They’ll be used to advance stupid(er) plans. For example:

For decades, Americans have treated health care as if it exists in a separate economic and political world: When people need care, they should get it; costs should remain out of sight.

Who defines need? In a health system with even minimal government involvement, the wrong person will influence need. That’s minor, I think, because his implication is clear enough to everyone but the most obtuse and/or ideological. But his follow-on, that costs should remain out of sight, is the problem now. Perpetuating that only changes the assumption that medical care should occur regardless of cost to essential medical care should occur regardless of cost. Again, if we can’t define need beyond a placeholder for a basic point, absent individual circumstances, we’re doomed to end up where we are after reforming the system.

The hard questions won’t sit still, because health care (now a sixth of the economy, up from one-eleventh in 1980) is too big to be hidden. Myths abound. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the doubling of premiums for employer-provided coverage doesn’t mean companies shifted a greater share of costs to workers. In both 1999 and 2006, premiums covered 27 percent of costs, says Paul Fronstin of the Employee Benefit Research Institute. It’s simply the rapid rise in total health spending that’s depressed workers’ take-home pay.

Unless we advocate a complete separation of employer and health insurance, using take-home pay as a measuring stick will create sub-optimal solutions within the confines of our already bungled system. And note the key word, depressed. That’s not an accident. People are “suffering,” so something must be done. If the share of costs from premiums is consistent, take-home pay lower than it would be without employer-paid insurance is merely a signal from the market that costs are escalating. To Mr. Samuelson’s earlier point, this should remain out of sight? Without the incentive to accept health insurance benefits as compensation, individuals would see the direct cost of their choices through greater expenditures, rather than “depressed take-home pay”. Presumably, they could then better define need based on their own situation.

Throwing a Hail Mary in the First Quarter

Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst knows a lot and is proposing a plan clearly designed “for the children”. Evidence (and rights) be damned, of course.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican, is proposing a sweeping mandatory random testing program in public schools for steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.

“It will save lives. That’s the whole purpose,” Dewhurst said. “I’m convinced steroid use in high schools is greater than people want to admit.”

“You can’t put a price tag on a young person’s life,” Dewhurst said.

Thankfully Lt. Gov. Dewhurst is willing to admit it. And he has a plan. And money to solve this “problem,” thanks to Texas’ $14.3 billion budget surplus. It’s there, and the kids are “at risk”. That’s enough, with logic like this:

Dewhurst said schools should be willing to go along if the state pays the bill.

Oh, that solves it. The state will pay, not the schools or the taxpayers in the school districts who send the money to Austin. And it’s for the kids, so no sensible person could possibly oppose the expense.

That could be brilliant logic, if it weren’t so obviously stupid. The rest of the article is worth a read, just to comprehend the scare quotes and the “we’re not violating their rights” guarantees. There’s an argument there, I guess, because participating in school sports is voluntary, but the motivations expressed by those quoted are discouraging because they so resemble every other well-intentioned boondoggle that only gets more severe and expensive as it proves ineffective to the extent originally promised.

How important is cheaper bacon?

I don’t write much about vegan issues because there are only so many non-mainstream issues I can discuss before I give the impression that I’m ready to abandon society, live in a hut and forsake showering. Sometimes an issue worth mentioning hits the news.

The largest U.S. pork supplier, Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, said yesterday [01/24] that it will require its producers to phase out the practice of keeping pregnant pigs in “gestation crates” — metal and concrete cages that animal welfare advocates consider one of the most inhumane features of large-scale factory farming.

Activists hailed the decision as perhaps the most significant voluntary improvement ever made in animal welfare, but they said the stage had been set by the recent passage of two state initiatives that would ban the use of the crates.

That’s indeed overdue but significant. I accept that my dietary choices will remain the minority in my lifetime, barring some unanticipated development. But I’m still amazed that even a minimal shift like this has taken so long. Any basic awareness of the issue should reveal exactly how cruel this is. It seems only someone with a complete indifference to the suffering of farmed animals could deem cheaper meat more important than a small level of decency. Basically, I’d be curious to hear how this could be considered humane or defensible:

While they defended the use of the crates — which are so narrow that the animals cannot turn around and some have to lie uncomfortably on their chests — they said their own research had concluded they could be replaced by group pens without any long-term problems or cost increases.

Remember, these are pregnant pigs that cannot turn around and may be forced to lie on their chests. I’m not going to jump on the animal rights soapbox because I know most people see that as extreme. I don’t think it is, although I’ll grant that some activists take that to its extreme. But actions such as this don’t need to be motivated by any notion of rights for animals. Actions like this are about the humans who care for and consume these animals in a time when it isn’t necessary for survival. We don’t think it’s acceptable to mistreat “cute” animals like cats and dogs, so why is it acceptable to mistreat other animals? Because we decided they taste better? That can’t be enough.

For what it’s worth, I think the seriousness with which this will be undertaken and to which it will be adhered is explained by the implementation timeline of this decision. Smithfield expects all of its pig nurseries will be converted to group pens within 10 years. Many animals will suffer over the next decade.

Striking the Match

I know I’m overanalyzing with my interpretation of this because I come into the story with a (not really) unrelated bias. I also know that the author’s point is worth considering, that the foundation is a device to discuss a separate issue. But I can’t get past the obvious flawed assumption in promoting the photojournalist’s use of that device.

A photo of a young boy lying expressionless in a hospital bed hung behind Thorne Anderson.

“This is a boy who had a circumcision,” Anderson said. “It was discovered in that circumcision that he had a condition that would not allow his blood to clot.”

“Now, ordinarily this is very easy to treat. You can take regular dosages of a simple blood coagulant and then he can lead a relatively normal life. However, in Iraq, these blood coagulants, which are available everywhere in the third world, all over the planet, were banned from import under (the United Nation’s economic sanctions on Iraq). Because it was conceivably possible that they might be used as a precursor to a chemical weapon.” Anderson said.

“As a result, this 5-year-old kid died right in front me while I was making these photographs,” he said. “It was at that moment that I really became committed to covering the story in Iraq. Seeing this fraud, political conflict reduced to a human level created a frustration that made me want to tell this story.”

Before I step into any additional assumptions, I’m assuming the boy’s circumcision was not medically necessary. The article does not say, so I should not discount the possibility that it was medically necessary. But I will assume it was not; I’m probably correct. And it makes a useful device. (I’ve already addressed the more foundational assumption of ritual circumcision, which is glossed over to the point that it’s accepted by most as required by faith.)

The boy died because of circumcision, not because of economic sanctions that blocked the importation of blood coagulants. I don’t mean to sound cold, but if no one had cut him, the boy would not have bled. If he hadn’t bled that day, he wouldn’t have died that day. Bleeding and economic sanctions were the manner and the catalyst, respectively, of death, but they were not the cause. Circumcision killed that boy. Ignoring this is how statistics misrepresent the true complication rate of circumcision.

Dude, Where’s My Gas Tax?

Charles Krauthammer starts off with a great premise from his Friday column:

Is there anything more depressing than yet another promise of energy independence in yet another State of the Union address? By my count, 24 of the 34 State of the Union addresses since the oil embargo of 1973 have proposed solutions to our energy problem.

The result? In 1973 we imported 34.8 percent of our oil. Today we import 60.3 percent.

Most everything else in his essay is worth reading. The bit about ethanol, in particular, is useful because we’re not getting the full picture. There are unintended consequences, as the cost to feed livestock increases (not necessarily a bad unintended consequence for vegans). More farmland must go to grow corn. And few in power will acknowledge how government protections irrationally impact decisions regarding ethanol since sugarcane can be used to make ethanol at a significantly more efficient, effective cost in dollars and energy expended. But we must prop up our sugar industry from foreign trade. As Mr. Krauthammer says, we’re not really serious about tackling the issue of oil dependence as much as we’re interested in making the politically correct choices that appear responsible.

As good as it is, I’m still left with questions from Mr. Krauthammer’s essay. Particularly, from this:

First, tax gas. The president ostentatiously rolled out his 20-in-10 plan: reducing gasoline consumption by 20 percent in 10 years. This with Rube Goldberg regulation — fuel-efficiency standards, artificially mandated levels of “renewable and alternative fuels in 2017” and various bribes (er, incentives) for government-favored technologies — of the kind we have been trying for three decades.

Good grief. I can give you 20-in-2: Tax gas to $4 a gallon. With oil prices having fallen to $55 a barrel, now is the time. The effect of a gas-tax hike will be seen in less than two years, and you don’t even have to go back to the 1970s and the subsequent radical reduction in consumption to see how. Just look at last summer. Gas prices spike to $3 — with the premium going to Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chávez and assorted sheiks rather than the U.S. Treasury — and, presto, SUV sales plunge, the Prius is cool and car ads once again begin featuring miles-per-gallon ratings.

No regulator, no fuel-efficiency standards, no presidential exhortations, no grand experiments with switch grass. Raise the price, and people change their habits. It’s the essence of capitalism.

I’d quibble that the essence of price increases mandated by the government is not capitalism, but that’s not really my point. I haven’t refueled my car in several weeks¹, so I can’t really say what the current average is. Also, I’m too lazy to look it up on The Internets. I’m just going to assume $2.50, since it’s an easy number to work with. My assumption means that, to reach Mr. Krauthammer’s suggestion, the government must increase the current gas tax by $1.50 per gallon. Done. And then?

Where does the money go? When the actual, untaxed price of oil fluctuates higher the next time some crisis arises, will the government adjust the extra tax down to keep the price stable at $4? The goal is to reduce consumption, not bankrupt the economy, I assume. So what do we do when capitalism interferes with the essence of capitalism? I don’t trust politicians to be noble with that extra $1.50 per gallon, if nothing else. (Don’t tell me that $1.50 per gallon would go to “energy independence” programs or whatever. Two words: Social Security.)

I agree that this would have at least the effect that Mr. Krauthammer and other supporters suggest. But I’m skeptical. There will be unintended economic consequences, as well as waste by politicians. I don’t like artificially unleashing these demons to make us do what we “should” do.

¹ Public transit is great, except when it leaves me stranded in the cold for an hour, as it did Friday morning.

Forgive me if I can’t find my outrage.

I will not be upset by this story:

Citing the controversy surrounding the Dakota Fanning film Hounddog, the leader of the state Senate Republicans says he wants the government to review scripts before cameras start rolling in North Carolina.

I’m serious when I say I will not be upset. The headline – “Republican Scripts need reviewing” – is designed to outrage. Look at the First Amendment violation! I can buy into that. Except, I can’t.

That system, said state Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, would apply only to films seeking the state’s lucrative filmmaker incentive, which refunds as much as 15 percent of what productions spend in North Carolina from the state treasury.

“Why should North Carolina taxpayers pay for something they find objectionable?” said Berger, who is having proposed legislation drafted.

State Sen. Berger is correct. Why should North Carolina taxpayers pay for something they (might) find objectionable? I’d take him a step further, though, and ask why should North Carolina, or any taxpayer, pay for film production?

Berger pointed to South Carolina, which requires up-front applications from producers, who must attach a copy of their script.

Even so, said Jeff Monks, South Carolina’s film commissioner, the state does not assess the content of a proposed movie.

“Censorship is not part of our activity,” he said. The purpose of asking for the script is to see whether it conforms to the budget and schedule information producers are required to provide.

“We want to see if this film is doable and a good investment for the people of the state,” he said.

It’s not a legitimate government expense. Film producers will find cheap, quality locations without government help through competition. Movies are their investment. Taxpayer money spent to benefit producers is not an investment to the taxpayers. I’m sure North Carolina residents will not be sharing in the profits of Hounddog. This should be obvious.

With this story, the familiar refrain is always that he who pays gets to decide. This is true whether it’s customers buying vegan cookies instead of non-vegan cookies or a government buying film production instead of commissioning paintings. If you don’t want censorship, don’t take someone else’s money. The First Amendment protection against censorship only applies to your own dime.

(Source: Fark)

The rare positive bears the stain of the negative.

More on Major League Baseball’s decision to give its most faithful fans the shaft sell exclusive rights to the Extra Innings package to DirecTV, this time courtesy of Buster Olney’s Insider blog at ESPN (subscription required). Olney has received a multitude of e-mails since writing about this deal several days ago, most of them negative. He has seen the occasional positive spin, even if it’s flawed:

Count me among the minority of baseball fans that’s actually in favor of the DirecTV deal. No one talks about the monopolistic control Comcast has in the cable industry and, as anyone with even a passing familiarity with economics can tell you, the winner goes to the highest bid. Comcast likely gambled on the fact that MLB wouldn’t want to deprive some subset of its fans, but MLB never blinked. Now, I not only finally get the Comcast monkey off my back, but I’m also saving a lot of money every month with the same access to more channels and premium content. What’s not to like?

— Jon Phillips, Seattle, Wash.

I don’t care if some people like the deal, but at least like it for the correct reasons. From Mr. Phillips’ e-mail, every benefit he projects onto this deal is a benefit he could’ve gotten before the deal, while still enjoying Extra Innings. I contend that getting “the Comcast monkey” off his back wasn’t that important to him. The savings from DirecTV didn’t suddenly improve with this deal. I suspect they’ll dissipate, since DirecTV will now have monopoly power over Extra Innings. The access to channels with DirecTV didn’t change. DirecTV had the package every year leading up to this deal. Yet, Mr. Phillips never switched. His hatred of Comcast, however justified, is clearly irrelevant based on his own behavior. The only thing that changed is cable lost the last content it had that Mr. Phillips valued. That is what will send Mr. Phillips to DirecTV. The rest is just feel-good beliefs.

But is that enough to make this a good deal for Major League Baseball? After doing some research into adding DirecTV – I can be outraged and still cave to my addiction – to my house, there are very real costs involved to me. Also, the goodwill that baseball possesses as our national pastime and that it rebuilt after the labor shenanigans in ’94 can’t have a definitive dollar value, but it exists. That extra $30 million DirecTV reportedly offered is not “found money”. Major League Baseball may value it more, but it has a price.

While important, this is where you start?

This article is incoherent for the last two-thirds, but it raises a wonderful opportunity to restore Constitutional principles. I’m sure Democrats will screw it up based on the provided quote, but I can dream for a moment about America:

The Republican-controlled FCC — which makes far-reaching decisions on telephone, television, radio, Internet and other services that people use daily — has sparred infrequently with Republican-controlled congresses. But the Democratic-run 110th Congress is about to heat up the grill, starting with a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on Thursday.

Senators vow to press the chairman and four commissioners on matters such as media-ownership diversity, Internet access, broadcast decency standards and delays in resolving various issues. The hearing may cover the waterfront, Democratic staff members say, but there’s little doubt that the agency will face a tone of questioning unseen in recent years.

“They’ve effectively emasculated any public-interest standards that existed” for radio and TV stations, said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), a committee member who plans sharp questions on decency, media consolidation and other topics. “The entire Congress for years now has been devoid of any kind of oversight,” he said, and the new Democratic majority is launching a process that will force the FCC to “beat a path to Capitol Hill to respond.”

If Sen. Dorgan intends his sharp questions on broadcast decency to imply that the FCC isn’t doing enough to protect the public (the children!), we might as well repeal the First Amendment because the politics of family values has clearly kicked the principles of liberty in the nuts male anatomical part and declared victory. The “public-interest standards” isn’t promising, either.

I don’t see any servants for the public.

I’ve been slammed at work this week with preparing for a software demo next week, so my ability to gather news worth discussing has been limited. That makes today as good a day as any to discuss something that I’ve thought about occasionally: term limits for Congress. I’ve always been against them because a method of term limits (regular elections) already exists. If you don’t like your elected representatives, vote against them. If your opinion is the minority, work to convince others. Term limits seems like the lazy way out.

I’m not immune to reconsidering my position, though. Career politicians are not generally helpful to the nation. That’s an imperfect generalization, but one that suffices close enough to accuracy most of the time. There should be relatively regular turnover. Since it’s not happening through the established, more effective method, perhaps I should reconsider.

The most common theme I’ve heard suggesting that we revisit term limits revolves around some variation of “it’ll limit the damage they can do.” This is flawed for two reasons, I believe. First, and most obvious, if we’re trying to limit the damage, the system is flawed, not the lack of term limits. Whatever it is that lets Congress flout the rules and reward itself at the public’s expense should be remedied. This is where elections should come in, but voters show a great propensity to believe that their representative is the good one. (To be fair, there are other, incumbent favoring factors.) Let Congress know that it can’t spend with abandon. Let it know that violating the Constitution will not be tolerated. These are the heart of the real issue.

Second, and more important, if we’re trying to limit corruption and influence-peddling, we must remember that unintended consequences can and will occur. Some of these might be positives, but if politicians are moral defectives, as Kip states, is it unreasonable to believe that term limits will only serve to condense their negative behavior into a shorter period of time?

I’ve seen nothing from most politicians to believe that they won’t sell out America to the highest bidder when they want to get re-elected. When they can’t get re-elected because of term limits, I suspect they’ll properly plan ahead to make sure they set themselves individually by rewarding whoever can most help them when they return to the private sector. We could debate whether or not this shift in behavioral time frame would cause more or less harm, and that would be interesting. I tend to accept Kip’s thesis, so I don’t think it’s debatable that a shift would occur.

Self-interest will still drive too many politicians if we implement term limits. Politicians won’t be better at dark art, just quicker. I remain unconvinced that term limits will solve the real problem. We’d be better suited going after the root than the symptom.