Wednesday, October 31, 2012

It's okay, that was just the primary

For months there has been the attempt to moderate Romney's image.  He won in part by taking the more extreme path.  He didn't go off the deep end like Ron Paul, but he clearly was not running in the primary as a centrist.  Now he's tacking back toward the center, shaking the etch-a-sketch if you will.

Which Romney are we supposed to believe is the real one?  If the primary Romney was the real one, then he's currently running a nation-wide, by which I mean a half-dozen states, campaign of deception.  If that was the real one then I'm rather terrified by the prospect of putting him in the White House.

On the other hand, if the real Mitt Romney is a centrist, then that may be even worse.  It means that he was willing to spend months lying to Republican voters, pandering and spinning to appeal, with varying success to the far-right.  I'm rather wary of someone who not only runs a massive deception campaign, but who succeeds at it as well (the failures are less worrisome, due to their failure).

A centrist Romney might appeal to me.  But a centrist Romney who got there by lying on a massive scale, that's not appealing.  It means he was willing to take on, not just different, but opposite positions, to get elected.  To get power.  That raises the question, why?  We didn't need a second centrist candidate; we already have one.  Maybe Romney thought that he was the only one who could get the job done.  Not that he was offering a different vision, but the same vision but better.

I'm a fan of the notion of "same idea, but implemented better."  I'm a fan of fixing government before we throw it out.  I do think that Obama could have done some things better, even while staying approximately where he is on the political spectrum.  I think it would be great to see two left-of-center candidates fight it out in the competence battles.  But we're not getting that.  Instead we're getting a left-of-center moderate facing off against the Great Deceiver.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Milk is Murder

Humans are a strange species for many reasons.  Among them, we drink milk our entire lives.  For some reason we continue to produce the enzyme which breaks down lactose.  The linked article demonstrates the strangeness of this and gives a few theories for why this mutation is evolutionarily advantageous, though there is no definitive answer.

Milk was not necessarily an advantage by itself.  That is to say, the milk may have offered no new nutrients, so it was not a better food source (particularly since the common milk derivatives such as yoghurt and cheese have most of the lactose converted anyway, so most people can eat them without the mutation).

I offer this theory: it's not the milk that gave an advantage, but the animals and from them, the disease.  Those who could digest milk would have more reason to keep milk-producing animals around.  They would be the ones who are therefore constantly exchanging disease with animals.  Given their proximity, they'd be more likely to be resistant and survive, relative to those who have little contact with animals and therefore are more vulnerable to cross-species diseases.  While those who had direct contact would be more often sick, those who were not in direct contact would suffer more serious consequences, such as mass death.

We saw this demonstrated on a large scale in the Americas, where the Europeans who had frequent contact with animals and their diseases, and who had suffered terribly for it, did survive them, while the Native Americans were devastated by them.  Could this have happened on a small scale earlier in human history, centered around milk-producing animals?

Monday, October 22, 2012

If I'm not perpetually terrified, I'll sue you

You might have seen the recent story of a few Italian scientists and public officials being convicted of manslaughter related to a 2009 earthquake.  In short, they didn't tell everyone to be terrified, consequently they were not, and then an earthquake hit and killed a lot of people.  The BBC has more detail.  There are a few problems here.

First off, they look more like scapegoats than convicted criminals.  If the goal was to sweep for public officials who could have prevented deaths, why limit it to prediction?  Shouldn't building inspectors, building code writers, and construction companies and employees be going to prison as well?  Surely they are at least partially responsible for the buildings which collapsed.  A better prediction wouldn't have made their buildings not fall down.  That they are left unscathed suggests that the goal was not to systematically punish those responsible, but instead to pick a few high-ranking people to make an example of, thereby deflecting blame from all others.

Second, earthquake prediction is not an exact science.  It has gotten better and is certainly valuable, but to expect predictions with sufficient precision to prevent this incident is ridiculous.  Surely we aren't expecting them to have announced months before that a quake could strike in the coming months.  What do the residents do with that information beside panic?

Seismologists in Italy must be rather nervous and after this, more prone to reporting false positives, all in the name of caution.  Of course they aren't doing this out of public welfare, since they were already doing that and crying wolf does no good, but instead because of their own self-interest.  This isn't me attacking them, just noting that people tend to respond to incentives and punishments and at the current time, the punishment for a false negative has spiked.

This leads me to the rocketing cost of healthcare.  Much of that cost comes, not from actual care or even the astronomically expensive new cancer treatments, but from the tests and more tests.    Doctors, like the scientists, are worried about false negatives.  So they order more tests.  Of course we'd want to rule out those things which are easily detected or most dangerous, but eventually there comes a point when the added information from the tests is not worth the money spent on the added tests.  And yet, if the doctor's freedom and finances are on the line, why wouldn't he order more tests?  It only takes the one time that he acts sensibly and is wrong for the malpractice suit to roll in.

I'm a cautious person by nature, the sort who is prone to indecision, always wanting to know a little bit more.  Yet even I can see that this is absurd, to attack experts for making judgements in their area of expertise.  Sometimes they will be wrong.  That isn't their fault, but merely a property of the universe.  Sometimes things go badly.  We should prepare for that and try to prevent it, but we should not becomes so focused on the possible negative events in the future that we create a certain one now.

It's the bargaining power, not the contributiion, that determines wealth

One of the fundemental flawed assumptions in our economy, and one which hinders reform, is the assumption of a meritocracy.  This is tied in part to what I discussed a few posts back, the way our langauge is permeated with loaded words.  We use terms such as "earned" and "made" rather than "got" or "received" when discussing income.  These suggest that salaries are entirely justified, subconsciously reinforcing the myth of the meritocracy.

While one's contribution to society matters, that is only one aspect when determining income.  Bargaining power matters as well.  History supports this.

Look at the impact of unions.  Did they make workers more productive?  Beside the slow effects of bargaining for training, no.  In the short term their effect was not an increase in the contribution of workers, but the bargaining power.  They gained leverage.

While the contribution matters, it is the bargaining power which can be changed.  This is why the solution to inequality is not training or education (though those will help), but increased bargaining power for workers.  This takes the form of not just unions, but also laws to protect the right to form unions and bring complaints.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Polygamy and the 1%

The scientists are still out on whether humans are monogamous or polygamous.  In the meantime, monogamy is pretty common.  More broadly, women are expected to have one husband or boyfriend, though a man may have several wives.  Cultures treat this in many ways.  Some use it almost as a form of a safety net for widows who would have trouble remarrying: men marry the widows of their brothers.  Others just require that men be able to financially support the women they marry.  And at the lowest end are the cultures which give no rules at all to the men while the women are sluts if they look for a second boyfriend or husband when the first cannot support them.  There are better and worse ways to do polygyny (multiple wives), but the end result is bad for men.

Yes, I did say bad for men.  Women may end up in a bad relationship or social structure, but there is at least the possibility for polygyny to be a step up from poverty and a cluster of fatherless children.  For men it means that some men have many wives.  Naturally there will be slightly more women born than men (it gets worse with sex-specific abortion and child abandonment), but not by enough to support much polygyny.  There will be men who are unmarried, not because they are bad people, but because there are not enough women or because they are concentrated with too few husbands.

These unmarried men don't like their situation.  They tend toward extremism and violence.  And why not?  They have no children and no hope, why would they not try something extreme?  Why would they not be jealous and resentful toward those who have all the women?

Concentration of women does society no good.  It isn't likely to help the women and it is guaranteed to harm the men.

Should we believe that money is any different?  I see no reason that excessive concentration of wealth won't deprive a large segment of the population, creating a large group that has no interest in a safe, stable society because it does not benefit from the safe, stable society.  Of course the pie can grow, and it does, but if most of the growth is all consumed by the 1% and the remaining pie is growing slower than population, then the pie is effectively shrinking.

Monogamy might be less fun and have less stature than polygyny, but it is safer.  In the same way, jobs and wealth must have something near an even distribution to avoid instability.  Not perfectly even, but when a falling tide raises some boats, something is not working properly and cannot continue for long.