Thursday, December 31, 2009

More on Asteroids: I Heard It Through the Grapevine

If you read my post of August 25, you may be pleased to hear that the Russians are considering an attempt to deflect an asteroid from hitting the Earth. Good news, except that NASA estimates that the asteroid in question, Apophis, has a maximum probability of 1 in 250,000 of hitting us between now and 2068. The AP account of this doesn't give much confidence that the head of the Russian space agency knows what the hell he's doing, or indeed is sober:

Without mentioning NASA's conclusions, Perminov said that he heard from a scientist that Apophis is getting closer and may hit the planet. "I don't remember exactly, but it seems to me it could hit the Earth by 2032."

The head of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program is tactful:

"While Apophis is almost certainly not a problem, I am encouraged that the Russian science community is willing to study the various deflection options that would be available in the event of a future Earth threatening encounter by an asteroid."

The Russian space agency's own website, quoting the AP, seems somewhere between embarrassed and mocking:

Russia may deploy defensive spacecraft against the Apophis asteroid, which is almost certainly not going to hit the Earth, according to remarks by the head of the country's space agency....Perminov refused to be drawn on the details of his Apophis scheme, though he did specify that there would be no nuclear explosions. This is probably just as well, as weapons of mass destruction are forbidden in space by international treaty.

Can't wait to hear how this turns out. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

If You Can't Beat 'em, Buy 'em

All the stories about how opium grown in Afghanistan is funding the Taliban finally got me to wondering: why don't we just buy it up  and destroy it? Estimates that I have seen are that opium in Afghanistan is a $64 billion a year business, of which about a quarter goes to the growers. So, bidding above the current price to make sure we corner the market, we could still theoretically buy the entire crop for $20 billion or so, about the cost of 20,000 soldiers. This would have the additional benefit of reducing the world supply of heroin, at least in the short run, by 90%.

Like most things, this is not as easy as it sounds. A simple supply-and-demand analysis suggests the Taliban would still end up with some of the opium. But they would get less of it and at a higher price, a price that we would set. A further complication is that the Taliban have guns, and so do the warlords. But at a minimum, it greatly complicates their life, and drastically reduces their income.

This is not a Swiftian Modest Proposal; I'm quite serious. The possibilities seem even more dramatic in other places. Take Somalia, everyone's favorite example of a failed state, where we are worried about both Al Qaeda and piracy. This is a country of about 10 million people with a total GDP of around $5.5 billion. So for about 1% of the US military budget we could hire, well, the entire country. Realistically, it would probably be better to hire only a quarter or so of the population, so we're not stuck there forever, but this makes the costs even lower. Having hired them, we could then put them to work looking for foreign terrorists, building roads, building schools, digging wells, taking literacy classes, and so on. Presumably this would be better in the long run than just paying them to dig holes and fill them in, but even that would be a bargain.

I can't shake the feeling that this sounds like a joke, but someone will need to explain it to me.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Now, About Those Cadillac Plans

We read that all health economists favor the tax on "Cadillac" health plans as a way to control costs. If that's really what they think, I'm willing to listen. But I'm skeptical.

Yes, there's a strong argument for taxing things like free spa weekends. These are essentially a tax dodge, driven by the fact that wages are taxed and health benefits aren't. But it seems unlikely that benefits like this are huge contributors to the high cost of American health care.

A lot of plans are high-cost simply because they have more complete benefits. For example, some include vision and dental coverage. But basic vision and dental coverage should be (in my opinion) part of every basic plan. There are a lot of low-income people who just can't afford to get dental care, and never do, and as a result have bad teeth. And eyeglasses? OK, maybe not Armani. But none?

Other plans are higher-cost because they have low copayments and deductibles. The basic idea of co-payments and deductibles in health insurance is the same as in auto insurance: to accept some increase in the risk people bear in order to make them pay part of the costs of their decisions. The hope is that making the insured bear some part of the cost will lead to less frivolous use of the resources, such as, in the case of health care,  visiting the doctor every day for insignificant complaints or just to have someone to chat with.

The question is how much cost-bearing is the right amount. This is especially tricky in health care, because bearing more of the cost may result in not going to the doctor enough, leading to more high-cost emergency room visits and hospitalizations, as in this study. And covering 60% of the cost, as the lowest-cost plan in the Senate bill does, seems to my inexpert eye not enough to keep people from getting into serious financial trouble from health problems.

Bear in mind that in some countries patients have no copayment, and yet those countries have much lower health costs than we do. I don't know what fraction of health care costs are accounted for by patients choosing to overuse services, but I'd guess (and that's all it is) that it's more than negligible but less than large.

So I'd have to see more evidence before I accept the claim that the Senate's tax on high-cost plans will significantly improve efficiency. And I'm totally mystified by the claim that taxing the very rich, as the House bill does, is an inappropriate way to pay for health care.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Pious and the Dead

Oh, that Catholic Church. They're at it again with Pius XII, for whom Pope Benedict has just cleared the way to beatification, and thence eventually to sainthood. They noted that this "is in no way to be read as a hostile act toward the Jewish people." Don't worry, I didn't read it that way, any more than I read Pius's inaction during the Holocaust as hostile. Indifferent, yes. Acquiescing to evil, yes. But I wouldn't say hostile.

According to the Times, a Vatican spokesman said the beatification process looks at Pius's "Christian life"  and not at the "historical impact of all his operative decisions." For "historical impact" read "the deaths of countless innocent people." And isn't the Christian life, let alone the saintly life, all about decisions?

At least no one is going to say of Pius that, hey, he was a victim too, as Benedict did when he described the Germans as being "used and abused" by the Nazis. The Church's pinnacle of vicarious victimhood was of course the canonization of Edith Stein, the converted nun who died at Auschwitz. Since many Catholics couldn't understand what all the uproar was about, let me say that I had no problem with canonizing Edith Stein. Spiritual qualities aside, she by all accounts was a remarkable woman (she was considered a more promising grad student than Martin Heidegger, which perhaps contributed to Heidegger's later support for Hitler).

No, what I object to is fast-tracking Edith Stein for sainthood by claiming that she was a martyr to the faith. That is, that she died because she was a Catholic-- and therefore the Church, too, was a victim of Hitler. I can't for the life of me see how that is true. If Stein had renounced her Catholicism, if she had spat on a crucifix and recited the Lord's Prayer backwards, would that have saved her life? Hardly. Edith Stein didn't die because she was a Catholic. She died because she was... that other thing.

The next time Jews need some moral outrage from the Church, I hope they have the good sense to be fetuses.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Debunking the Brown Peril

Last Thursday's New York Times had a pop-eyed, but basically accurate, article on how, with even moderate net immigration, the Census Bureau projects that non-Hispanic whites will cease to be a majority in the U.S. by 2050. That sounded like a good spot for some clarity, so I took a look.

Result: It's hard to see much of a bright side for, say, the Aryan Brotherhood. (By their standard, of course, I myself, like Fleischman in "Northern Exposure," am not really white.) But for the Lou Dobbs fans, who are worried that soon it won't be their country anymore, it's too early to start packing for Australia.

First of all, in 2050 whites will be, if not a majority, at least a strong plurality-- by far the largest group in the country. Non-Hispanic whites, even in the version of the model with high net immigration, make up 45% of the population, compared to 31% for Hispanics of all races. (In the low-immigration version, the figures are 48% and 29%.) And some of the decrease in the white share is caused by a dramatic increase in the share of non-Hispanic Asians and multiracials. (Again, not much consolation to the Aryan Brotherhood.)

But perhaps most importantly, what is the basic fear of the Lou Dobbs crowd? It is that America will end up with a substantial undigested lump of immigrants who don't speak English, with various pernicious effects. They should read, among other things, this paper by some well-known demographers, which estimates that even among Mexican-Americans in Southern California (where pressures for assimilation are about as low as anywhere), only 17% of third-generation immigrants, and 5% of fourth-generation immigrants, will be fluent in Spanish. Among the third generation, 96% prefer to speak English at home.

In short, as some Spanish-speakers enter, others turn into English-speakers named Martinez. The melting pot is still hot.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Things I Don't Understand

Today, by which I mean today, Friday, December 18, there are two great unsolved mysteries on the political scene: What on earth does Joe Lieberman think he's doing? and What on earth does China think it's doing? There are also subsidiary mysteries that someone may understand, but I don't.

Much ink has already (or many electrons have already) been spilled over Lieberman, and how he's now willing to sink the health bill if it includes something that was part of his platform in 2006. I have no new insight on this, but if I find out that he's being blackmailed by someone with a photo of him eating pork gyoza off a prostitute's stomach, I promise to post the information here (and, if possible, the photo as well). In the realm of things Obama probably knows but I don't, what's going on with Olympia Snowe? She said she wouldn't vote for the bill with a public option, but now any semblance of a public option is gone, and Ben Nelson is threatening to stop the bill over abortion. Snowe was one of the two Republicans who voted against the language that Nelson wanted. Time to step up, Olympia (does she have a nickname?), unless you think that people in Maine are doing just fine on health care. If you think that, you know different people in Maine than I do.

As for China at Copenhagen, well, they say it's a matter of principle. The principle here, evidently, is that international treaties should not include mechanisms for monitoring or enforcement. One thing to be said for this is that it will make it very easy to negotiate international treaties, since anyone can agree to anything. What makes the situation  even more bizarre is that China made a big show of being angry at Europe for not living up to its obligations under the Kyoto treaty, obligations that China was exempted from. Hmm, perhaps Europe would have done better if Kyoto had included monitoring and enforcement provisions, don't you think? The question that I don't understand, but some people may, is why this is playing in the papers as a big confrontation between China and the U.S. Where's Europe? Don't they have an opinion on this? Don't they have a poodle/dachshund/corgi in this fight?

By the way, here are my personal opinions on these two issues: Health care with new abortion restrictions? Kill it. Climate treaty with no monitoring? Kill it. I say this believing health care reform and a climate treaty to be extremely important.

Addendum: Silly me. I should have realized that, however deep and sincere Senator Nelson's beliefs about abortion are, what he's mainly after is more bucks for Nebraska. (I think that "are" in that last clause would be wrong, don't you?)  Hope that turns out to be his true goal. This is no time to be straining at gnats. And by the way, what on earth does think it's doing? Saying the Senate bill should be voted down because there's no public option? I mean, please. Leave the irrational ideological rigidity to the other side.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

When Spooks Get MBAs

Just when I thought things couldn't get any weirder, it turns out that Blackwater employees were accompanying  CIA operatives on clandestine missions to grab and transport suspected insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Seem odd? Not to the agency; according the the December 10 New York Times, a spokesman said,“Contractors give you flexibility in shaping and managing your talent mix — especially in the short term — but the accountability’s still yours."

I'm looking forward to seeing the newest uses of contractors to flexibly shape and manage the talent mix. Will municipalities start hiring Brink's guards to help out with SWAT team chores? In the short term, of course.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Worst Science Journalism Paragraph of the Year

Particle colliders get their magic from Einstein’s equation of mass and energy. The more energy that these machines can pack into their little fireballs, in effect the farther back in time they can go, and the smaller and smaller things they can see.
 New York Times, 12/9/09

Got that? It's magic! Mass equals energy equals, um, time equals... size...

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

It's probably nothing,but...

For a variety of statistical reasons, please don't overinterpret the following fact, but all the same it's striking: In the recent Senate vote on drastically tightening abortion restrictions in the health-care bill, seven Democrats voted in favor. All were men. Two Republicans voted against. Both were women.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Th_ee mo_e obse_vations on the missing __

1. Contrary to what I implied in my posting of August 20 ("The R in English Literature"), dialects that drop the R in words like "hard" or "father"--such dialects, I have recently learned, are called "non-rhotic"--are apparently not universal in Britain. There are still some rhotic speakers in the west of England and in Scotland. Of course, many features of American speech, and culture in general, that we think of as differentiating us from the British can be traced back to particular regions in Britain whence the settlers of America came.

Rhotic dialects in England are disappearing under the pressure of the higher social status of standard pronunciation, just as non-rhotic dialects are in the U.S. There's an interesting research question here: In the U.S., a strong non-rhotic Boston or New York accent marks one as being of lower social or intellectual status, but a non-rhotic British accent is a mark of higher status, and is often even considered affected. This presumably goes back to an American sense of cultural inferiority. What I wonder is how most people in Britain now perceive an American accent, and how that's changed over time.

2. People who listen to non-rhotic speakers in the U.S. often believe that these speakers overcompensate, as it were, by adding an R to words ending in a vowel. Thus, my brother-in-law jokes that his relatives refer to his cousin Marla as "Mahler." As far as I can tell, though, this is generally not true; the R is inserted only between two vowels. There is a startlingly clear demonstration on Geoff and Maria Muldaur's Pottery Pie album, when Maria, a native of New York, sings "Georgia On My Mind":

Georgia, Georgia,
The whole day through
Just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgeron my mind, Georgeron my mind...

Oddly, or not, this is where non-rhotic speakers usually preserve a real R. Incidentally, Gregg Allman used to listen to a continuous tape loop of Amos Garrett's guitar solo on this track. Just thought I'd mention that.

3. A non-rhotic children's joke:

What did the chick say when the hen laid an orange?
 "Hey! Look at the orange marmalade!"