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shared items feature to your right

Just wanted to include a brief explanation of the recent addition to the blog — shared items. Basically, Google Reader allows me to centralize the posts from all the blogs I read, as well as magazine articles, etc. It also allows me to “share” posts/articles I find of particular interest, which I do, and often include a brief note on what I take from the post. It’s quick and easy, and fun for the whole family!

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Filed under: Misc

you thought the miracle fruit was cool…

Man, two articles in one week that completely change what I thought was possible. There was an ‘Uncontacted tribe’ sighted in Amazon, one of the “few remaining peoples on Earth who have had no contact with the outside world.”

A small airplane flew over overhead of the tribe and managed to take some pictures which you can see by clicking the link. In one of the shots, some of the tribesmen aim their bows at the large alien object overhead — truly surreal.

Even looking at the pictures, I am struck that most of the qualities we consider to be “human,” are actually social, and it makes sense that those with the least social interaction/exposure would appear the least human, or most primal; I don’t think we quite recognize how much “civilization” depends not on the work of man, but on the collaboration of men. Without that exchange, there is no growth, and you’re still hoping that there’s not a flood, drought, or disease that season to wipe out you and your family.

According to Survival International, there are more than 100 uncontacted tribes worldwide, most of them in Brazil and Peru. There a few groups like Survival that are fighting to preserve a space (really more like a wildlife preserve than they would care to admit) for these indigeneous people to live without every coming into contact in the world.

Filed under: Misc

ammo for liberals

No, I don’t mean some juicy rumor about a McCain/Bush romantic romp through Saudi Arabia paid for by stolen welfare funds. This post aims at providing the left with some rational material to work off for criticizing the right and their insistence on market-driven everything. I’ve come across a blog post that provides some (surprising) insights into health care, which I don’t think the people to the right of me would necessarily accept, but I find very interesting and worthy of discussion.

I stumbled across the treatise on health care, via Bryan Caplan over at EconLog, who offered his comments on this supremely interesting recent article on health care in Singapore. Caplan characterizes the Singaporean system as “not laissez-faire, but it is state intervention with the hands of a surgeon.”

Caplan then quotes from the piece:

What’s the reason for Singapore’s success? It’s not government spending. The state, using taxes, funds only about one-fourth of Singapore’s total health costs. Individuals and their employers pay for the rest. In fact, the latest figures show that Singapore’s government spends only $381 (all dollars in this article are U.S.) per capita on health—or one-seventh what the U.S. government spends.

Singapore’s system requires individuals to take responsibility for their own health, and for much of their own spending on medical care. As the Health Ministry puts it, “Patients are expected to co-pay part of their medical expenses and to pay more when they demand a higher level of service. At the same time, government subsidies help to keep basic healthcare affordable.”

The reason the system works so well is that it puts decisions in the hands of patients and doctors rather than of government bureaucrats and insurers. The state’s role is to provide a safety net for the few people unable to save enough to pay their way, to subsidize public hospitals, and to fund preventative health campaigns.

In Singapore’s system, the primary role of government is to require people to save in order to meet medical expenses they don’t expect. While the Singaporean government does regulate prices and services, its hand is nowhere near as heavy as that of governments with extensive nationalized healthcare, such as the United Kingdom or Germany.”

Unlike the United States, Singapore features four related, but distinct entities to provide health care. By dividing the health care responsibilities to distinct bodies, Singapore avoids the problem that plagues the American health care market — trying to accomplish fundamentally different tasks within the same entities: (a) provide everyday care, b) provide insurance for catastrophic unplanned care, c) subsidize care of those who can’t afford it, d) subsidized the disabled elderly.

In the US, we try to do it all within the same program, and we do it poorly. Singapore specializes, and is unsurprisingly much better at each task.

1) Medisave: “covers about 85 percent of all Singaporeans, is a component of a mandatory pension program… accounts can be used to pay directly for hospital expenses incurred by an individual or his immediate family.”

2) Medishield: “a national insurance plan that covers the higher cost of especially serious illness or accident, which in Singapore’s system is described as “catastrophic.” Singaporeans can choose Medishield or several private alternatives, some offered by firms listed on the Singaporean stock exchange. Premiums for the insurance plans, including Medishield, can be paid using Medisave accounts. “

3) Medifund: “for the roughly 10 percent of Singaporeans who don’t have the means to pay for their medical needs, despite the government’s subsidy of hospital and outpatient costs. The fund was set up in 1993 with $150 million, with the budget surplus providing additional contributions since then. Only interest income, not capital, may be disbursed.” (A self-perpetuating financial assistance program, WHAAAAAAAA?!?!?!?)

4) Eldershield: “private insurance for disability as a result of old age. It pays a monthly cash allowance to those unable to perform three or more basic activities of daily living.”

It’s important to note that patients aren’t isolated from price in this system, unlike in the US and Europe:

“Nearly all Singaporeans contribute directly toward each treatment, including prescription drugs, through patient co-payments of 20 percent for amounts above deductible levels. The money to meet deductibles and co-payments can come out of a person’s Medisave account.”

A Singaporean health policy professor cites these principles as the source of Singaporean success:

The creation of incentives for responsible behavior and the efficient delivery of services; the discouragement of overconsumption through cost-sharing; the regulation of hospital beds, doctors, and the use of high-cost medical technology; the promotion of personal responsibility; targeted government subsidies; and the injection of competition through a mix of public- and private-sector providers.”

Does Singapore have all the answers? Definitely not. Check out the article yourself to see Singapore deal with the same issues we are struggling with in the US.

I certainly would prefer a more market-based approach, but if you are more market-averse, Singapore is a much stronger example than France, Cuba, or anything else you’ll find in SiCKO. Advocates of the single-payer system should be a bit more discerning in the examples they seek to emulate. I think even most single-payer advocates would admit that the single-payer strategy depends absolutely on intelligent design to work (at all), and simply pointing to the most politically-convenient or recognizable is not a recipe for reform, but simply more of the same.

Filed under: Health

tripping on miracle fruits

No, miracle fruit isn’t slang for some new street drug, though it should be. The Miracle Fruit, or Synsepalum dulcificum as its known to those in the know, was recently featured in the NY Times. Suffice to say, this fruit blows my mind.

The Miracle Fruit works because of an aptly named protein, Miraculin, which binds to your taste receptors and turns all those sour tastes sweet. This isn’t some minor transformation. For one to two hours, you could theoretically drink down battery acid like syrup (though that doesn’t sound great either).

More practically, one person interviewed drank Tabasco sauce and said it tasted like donut glaze, and lemons like candy — mind-blowing.

It works for about 2 hours it seems. You can order them online, though they are pricy.

Given the proliferation of diabetes and other sugar-induced disease, this would seem to indeed be a miracle drug. Unfortunately, the FDA killed that idea about 30 years ago. Why exactly? Haven’t looked to see. There are no safety issues I’ve come across — it may not be good enough for the FDA, but it’s good enough for me.

Filed under: Misc

one point for social cripples

While searching the internets for results-driven philanthropic efforts, I came across a Wired magazine article by Clive Thompson on “why we can count on geeks to rescue the earth.” Thompson is interested in why Gates, “practically a social cripple, and at times he has seemed to lack human empathy” is the “first major humanitarian to take action” against malaria, diarrhea, and parasitic infections, all of which “flew under the radar of philanthropists in the West.”

The answer? Gates has been the first to target the world’s biggest and most preventable killers not in spite of his social backwardness, but because of it — “He’s also a geek, and geeks are incredibly good at thinking concretely about giant numbers.

Thompson argues that this analytical ability is a particular advantage in philanthropy because of a cognitive failing ingrained in most human beings — “We are very good at processing the plight of tiny groups of people but horrible at conceptualizing the suffering of large ones.

We’ll usually race to help a single stranger in dire straits, while ignoring huge numbers of people in precisely the same plight. … We’ll break the bank to save Baby Jessica, but when half of Africa is dying, we’re buying iPhones.

This isn’t idle speculation. Psychologist Paul Slovic has explored this cognitive failing, including one experiment in which “people were asked to donate money to help a dying child. When a second set of subjects was asked to donate to a group of eight children dying of the same cause, the average donation was 50 percent lower.

Gates’ ability to think concretely about big numbers enables him to “truly understand mass disease in Africa. We look at the huge numbers and go numb. Gates looks at them and runs the moral algorithm: Preventable death = bad; preventable death x 1 million people = 1 million times as bad.

Thompson concludes his piece:

We tend to think that the way to address disease and death is to have more empathy. But maybe that’s precisely wrong. Perhaps we should avoid leaders who “feel your pain,” because their feelings will crap out at, you know, eight people.

What we need are more Bill Gateses — people with Aspergian focus, with a direct sensual ability to understand what a million means.”

That is a terrific advantage if you actually can “understand what a million means” — I can’t — but I think Thompson is ignoring the power of being aware of that cognitive failing. Your instinct is likely to turn out of a skid, but once you are aware of that instinct and its negative repercussions, you can alter your behavior through purposeful thinking to create a better end.

Overall, I am happy to find an article exploring the negative effect of cognitive bias on philanthropy. I am researching the world of philanthropy in hopes of identifying low-hanging fruit (such as malaria, diarrhea, infectious disease) that take only a little investment for a large payoff.

What is interesting is that early results would suggest the problem isn’t necessarily a lack of available philanthropic capital, but a fragmented market of NGOs with unclear objectives, little accountability, and varying visibility.

The answer might not be more money, but structural changes to the way NGOs execute the business of doing good. We’ll see.

Filed under: Cognition, General Welfare

poor and huddled masses

Kevin Mawae is sick and tired of being confined to the lower class. He’s worked for 15 years in a gritty industry and is tired of watching flashy prodigies get huge salaries that he could only dream of, despite being among the best at his job. Like most people in that situation, he wants to do something about it. He wants to limit the salaries and bonuses of that higher strata of workers. As it is, the current system of financial reward simply isn’t fair in the mind of Mr. Mawae.

The catch?

Mawae is an offensive lineman for the New York Jets, and in 2002 made more than $9 million as the highest paid offensive lineman in the league. Yet the aforementioned sentiments are very real — Mawae is upset with the contracts first-round picks are getting nowadays, specifically BC alum Matt Ryan’s six-year, $72 million deal.

“I know there is sentiment around the league amongst the players like, ‘Let’s do something to control these salaries and control these signing bonuses’ and things like that,” said Mawae.

I’m reminded of a quote from P.J. O’Rourke that Greg Mankiw recently cited:

“I have a 10 year old at home, and she is always saying, “That’s not fair.” When she says that, I say, “Honey, you’re cute; that’s not fair. Your family is pretty well off; that’s not fair. You were born in America; that’s not fair. Honey, you had better pray to God that things don’t start getting fair for you.

I think there is something telling in Mawae’s reaction to the Ryan contract. He wants fairness, but his conception of fairness extends only so far as he would benefit. You don’t see Mawae admitting that his salary should be controlled to better serve fairness.

The consultant who’s watching the Jets in the stands feels the same way about rookie contracts as Mawae, but not simply about rookie contracts, but Mawae’s contract as well.

The low-skilled worker feels the same way as the consultant, but not simply about football contracts, but about the prosperity enjoyed by college graduates as well.

Of course, like Mawae, the low-skilled worker may be treated “unfairly” relative to some, but if he were to be treated fairly along with low-skilled people all over the world, he would not like the result.

I think this story is helpful for the greater discussion of poverty. Liberals still stick to their guns with “relative poverty” indicators, so that a person in the US with a car and a microwave is labeled “poor,” the same as if he had malnutrition and a life expectancy of 40 years in a developing country living on less than a dollar a day.

The Mawae story is relevant because it demonstrates that there is no magic dollar figure when an individual ceases to believe he is not being rewarded fairly; pursuing the end of relative poverty is chasing a ghost. If we could somehow snap our fingers and the world’s citizens were paid like NFL players, people would still think there were significant “relative poverty” wrongs that must be righted.

In this worldview, lowering the well-being of others, the redistribution of poverty, is a victory. When Mawae goes to the bargaining table with the owners, he has stated he will look to stop these high rookie salaries. Will he benefit at all? Likely not, it will simply mean more money for the owners.

When it comes to millionaire football players, who cares if they screw the pooch. The problem is when this same attitude leads individuals to throw away large pieces of the general economic pie because of petty jealousy and envy. The socially just shouldn’t be trying to turn princes into paupers in the name of relative-poverty justice. Justice isn’t relative.

Update: How does this relative poverty argument play out in the real world? Consider this article, Has Ireland’s Rising Tide Benefited Its Poor? Within, Lane Kenworthy explains how poverty is “on the rise” in Ireland according to standard indicators, despite the fact that the poorest Irish are better off now than they have ever been. Kenworthy offers a worthy substitute for the current relative poverty indicators — income at the tenth percentile of income distribution; in other words, how much better or worse off are the lowest 10% of income-earners in a given area. Given this indicator, Mawae, the low-skilled worker, and the Irish would all see that their well-being has improved greatly over the past 10-20 years, even as “relative poverty” has grown, allowing us to focus our attention on the genuinely poor and huddled masses.

Filed under: Philosophy

learning from jane jacobs: the poverty trap

Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, and Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, are both careful to differentiate between slums and low-income areas. While Collier and Jacobs’ focuses of study differ (far-away nation-states vs. local ghettos) , they both arrive at the same conclusion — certain geographic areas are caught in poverty traps that prevent the people therein from enjoying any improvement in well-being or opportunity without moving out. Unfortunately, I have only sparse, disjointed notes from the Collier book at the moment (a mistake I must rectify…), so this post will focus on Jacobs. And while I probably should ignore the easy Thomas Friedman diss, I can’t help myself — once again, the world is not flat, geography is still very important to billions of people.

Jacobs describes the American slum as “a human catch-pool … that breeds social ills and requires endless outside assistance.” Slums are notable by their “stagnation and dullness” and “[failure] to draw newcomers by choice.”

Jacobs defines a slum as “an area which ‘because of the nature of its social environment can be proved to create problems and pathologies,'” which is different than “‘a stable, low-rent area.'” The difference is that citizens are able to “make and carry out their own plans right there” in low-rent areas, but not slums. Low-rent areas help their denizens improve their lot in life, and generally eventually become higher-rent areas, not so in slums.

In slums, high-achieving families are driven out (perhaps because of the unsafe streets, lack of available financing for low-income areas, etc.), acting to reverse natural selection for slums. Herein lies the poverty trap at work — a negative feedback loop that prevents the area from enjoying the positive externalities of economic development.

I’m reminded of a shallow pool of standing water, breeding disease and poisoning those who drink from it. Except most pools evaporate or are washed away; in the slum, the forces that would purify the water source through dilution or some other manner simply leave — the pool persists.

Part of this negative feedback loop is the lack of social fabric, which only gets worse over time as more and more people act without accountability. Normal state policing can never reproduce the social control a community needs, the community itself must (and indeed the non-slum does) provide a check on illicit behavior, generally without anyone noticing they are a part of this self-policing effort. No such internal check exists in slums. In fact, the opposite occurs; the city continues to act as a conduit for its denizens to cooperate, but to destructive, rather than productive ends. The narc, rather than the drug dealer, gets ratted out.

What are the constraints that trap slums? The most glaring is safety. Just as commerce across the seas has depended on safe seas, so does city commerce depend on safe streets. The analogy extends even further; just as sea trade amounts to a competition between productive forces of exchange and destructive forces of extortion for dominance, so does street life.

The productive forces (often taking the form of bodega owners or other local shops) must make the streets “lively enough to be able to enjoy city public life and sidewalk safety.” Jacobs argues the key is to generate productive activity through the stimulation of commerce and cross-use to tip the balance of local power in favor of those who desire peace and commerce. The competition is complex, and the failure of good men and women in slums is a reflection less of their intention or ability than it is of the greater failure to comprehend the specific constraints that are preventing a community from concentrating productive individuals (e.g., is it isolated from the productive outsiders needed for development, does low-income housing push individuals out of the community who reach a certain level of success, is the entry barrier so high that it precludes entrepreneurial citizens or outsiders from establishing themselves?)

Tangentially, I’ve come to think that ‘trap,’ while a useful term, may be less so than ‘constraint’ for economic development discussion. Collier’s book categorizes constraints under: conflict trap, natural resource trap, the trap of being landlocked with bad neighbors, and the bad governance trap. While these terms are proper descriptors, they are not as actionable as, say, the market access constraint. We can’t do much about a nation-state being landlocked, but we can enhance market access. Or take the natural resource trap; sure it exists, but wouldn’t it be more worthwhile to deal more explicitly with the specific constraints produced by these natural resources?

Filed under: General Welfare

helpin out in Burma


I recently received an update from the Buddhist Relief Mission, which is working with the Young Buddhist Student Literacy Mission, in Kolkata, West Bengal, India, a non-profit organization carrying out educational and social welfare activities, including a school and a micro-finance program aimed at women’s empowerment, to supply local volunteer aid workers inside Burma:

We purchased $6000 worth of water purification tablets, essential medicines, and canvas (at wholesale prices), translated all the instructions for the medicine into Burmese, packed everything, and sent it with two groups of travelers returning to Burma. Because of our close relationship with airport and airline officials, we were able to have all of these relief supplies transported without paying any overweight charges.

The supplies and funds have been directed to the worst-hit areas of the Irrawaddy Delta. Clearly, there is more to be done. They’ve said they will provide photos from the area of the volunteers in action. Please consider a quick and easy donation via Paypal through the Buddhist Relief Mission. Makes a great gift.

Words not enough to get that emotional pull of the homeless mother and son on the corner? Click here for some graphic images…

Filed under: World

chris matthews sounding sensible?

I certainly have my share of conservative tendencies, and often find myself agreeing with Republican policies, but I simply cannot join them (though to be fair, I often feel the same after hearing Michael Moore, et. al sound off).

Media loser Chris Matthews proves that if you give a monkey 100,000,000 hours of cable news broadcast time you’ll get one Colbert-esque “nailing” moment when he takes it to a partisan hack — in this instance, Kevin James. You see, James wanted to defend Bush’s recent comments criticizing “someone’s” interest in negotiating with bad guys, which Bush equated with appeasement of Hitler.

Unfortunately, while Mr. James is keen on defending on Bush’s criticism of Allied appeasement in WWII and appeasement in general, Mr. James has no idea what Neville Chamberlain did , or what appeasement even means. Though to be fair, Mr. James is correct in his rebuttal that he didn’t bring up the Hitler analogy (Bush did); still that isn’t a very convincing argument when you remember that James has just spent the past three minutes on the broadcast yelling about the evils of appeasement, while blissfully unaware of the primary justification for dismissing appeasement as dangerous and self-defeating. This is up there with Colbert nailing the Congressman who wanted to put the 10 Commandments on public property when he couldn’t even name them.

Negative points to Matthews for having this joke of a radio host on his show. Positive points to karma for nailing that annoying know-it-all moron who somehow made it “big” while being as dumb as a log. Man I hated that kid. (If I could, I’d make this post “fair and balanced” with a similar critique of the pompous ass hippie liberal, but those guys simply don’t dominate the air waves in the same fashion; suffice to say, I’ll be ordering an Ingrid Newkirk sandwich in a few years).

Filed under: Misc

workers are consumers, too

As the Democratic primary enters its fourth year, it’s as good as time as any to pay heed to the potential pitfalls of government intervention. Sure, it’s easy to see the appeal of the small local grocer and pharmacy over the Wal-mart behemoth. In addition, frustration with the destruction of local jobs, which has accompanied the gale of globalization and technological development, is understandable. But let us not ignore the benefits – and no, I don’t mean benefits that disproportionately benefit the most well-endowed with money and/or brains. Quite the contrary, some benefits concentrate in the lower economic strata, especially lower prices.

A recent article in the Economist documents the increasingly high cost of living in France, even when compared to (21st century) ally Germany: “A basket of identical items costs 30% more in France [than in Germany], says a study by La Tribune, a daily.” Efforts to inject greater competition into the marketplace have been stymied as “voters see competition through the eyes of producers—as a menace to jobs and factories—rather than consumers.”

Would you rather have the ~30 million Americans below the poverty line paying 30%+ for groceries to preserve the inefficient employment of a small subset of that population? The (il)logical conclusion of ‘producer preservation’ can be found in a story (lifted from Bryan Caplan article) about an economist who visits China under Mao Zedong. He sees hundreds of workers building a dam with shovels. He asks: “Why don’t they use a mechanical digger?” “That would put people out of work,” replies the foreman. “Oh,” says the economist, “I thought you were making a dam. If it’s jobs you want, take away their shovels and give them spoons.”

One of my favorites.

Filed under: Economic Policy