Friday, February 26, 2010

Reconciliation is Wrong

President Obama and Congressional leaders are talking about passing their unpopular health care reform through the process known as reconciliation. This would only require a simple majority vote instead of a super majority of 60 votes.

This is a mistake for several reasons.

First, the bill itself is deeply and fundamentally flawed. It is an example of the worst sort of deal making. It will raise taxes and costs. The main beneficiaries will be insurance companies and government bureaucrats.

Second, the bill is deeply unpopular. Polls show that more people are in favor of keeping things the way that they are than passing this bill. Using parliamentary tricks to pass unpopular legislation will hurt the Democrats in the long-run.

Third, it sets a terrible precedent. When they controlled Congress, the Republicans sometimes talked about bypassing the filibuster and doing things (in this case, approving appointments) through simple majority. They were stopped by a bipartisan group. This needs to happen again. The Democrats will not control the Senate forever. They may not control it next year. If they set this precedent now, the Republicans will use it against them later and partisanship will only get worse.

Failure to pass this bill will hurt the Obama administration which will only last for another 3-7 years. Setting a bad president will hurt the nation for decades to come.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Insurance as a Utility

Yesterday the White House released it's version of health care which the President expects Congress to pass as is. This is largely based on the Senate version and probably on what was being written in the secret reconciliation meetings in January. One notable section would regulate insurance rate increases.

Strengthen Oversight of Insurance Premium Increases. Both the House and Senate bills include significant reforms to make insurance fair, accessible, and affordable to all people, regardless of pre-existing conditions. One essential policy is "rate review" meaning that health insurers must submit their proposed premium increases to the State authority or Secretary for review. The President's Proposal strengthens this policy by ensuring that, if a rate increase is unreasonable and unjustified, health insurers must lower premiums, provide rebates, or take other actions to make premiums affordable. A new Health Insurance Rate Authority will be created to provide needed oversight at the Federal level and help States determine how rate review will be enforced and monitor insurance market behavior.

This continues the movement to turn medical coverage into a regulated utility. Is this a good thing? The justification was the recent announcement that insurance companies in four states are planning sharp increases in their rates with one company raising their rates 39%. Will the White House plan stop such increases?

History says no. Regulated utilities are allowed to charge rates that cover their expenses and make a prescribed profit. If the insurance companies are being honest about their rising costs then they will be allowed to raise their rates.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Wierding of Thomas Friedman

First, the recent snowstorms that hit DC were a product of an el Nino event. These have been documented going back centuries and are known to cause heavy snowfall. Things were made worse by a stagnant air mass over Canada which is causing storms to track further north than usual and which has caused a snow-less Winter Olympics. That said, warming skeptics should still be allowed a victory lap since just a year and a half ago, RFK Jr was writing about how DC will never know another Winter.

Enter Thomas Friedman, a true believer of global warming. In a recent column, he threw a hissy fit. In Friedman's world, a handful of brave climate scientists are fighting a losing battle against a sea of crazy skeptics who are awash in funding from oil and coal companies and the Chamber of Commerce.

In my view, the climate-science community should convene its top experts — from places like NASA, America's national laboratories, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, the California Institute of Technology and the U.K. Met Office Hadley Centre — and produce a simple 50-page report. They could call it "What We Know," summarizing everything we already know about climate change in language that a sixth grader could understand, with unimpeachable peer-reviewed footnotes.

That was supposed to be the job of the IPCC. Unfortunately, its sources turned out to be impeachable. The actual science says that warming to date has been mild and beneficial. All talk of uncontrollable warming in the future are based on computer models which are unverifiable and are coded to assume that the worst outcome is also the most likely. An honest discussion about the climate would have ten pages of "What we know" and forty pages of "What we don't know."

At the same time, they should add a summary of all the errors and wild exaggerations made by the climate skeptics — and where they get their funding. It is time the climate scientists stopped just playing defense.

This works both ways. I would like to see a summary of all of the errors and wild exagerations made by the warmists and where they get their funding. Twenty years ago James Hansen predicted that the sea level would have risen enough by now that part of Manhattan would be flooded. Al Gore believes that the IPCC is too conservative and has his set of preferred scientists whose predictions are scarier. The head of the IPCC knew that predictions about Himalayan glaciers were wrong but did not admit it because he had grants to study these glaciers based on this false prediction. Is Friedman willing to disown these wild exaggerations?

Among Friedman's points:

1) Start calling it "global weirding" instead of "global warming".

That makes it easier to implicate any unusual weather.

2) What the current debate is about is whether humans — by emitting so much carbon and thickening the greenhouse-gas blanket around the earth so that it traps more heat — are now rapidly exacerbating nature's natural warming cycles to a degree that could lead to dangerous disruptions.

I agree with Friedman. This is a matter for debate. The thing is, he doesn't want a debate. He wants the other side to shut up and go home.

3) Those who favor taking action are saying: "Because the warming that humans are doing is irreversible and potentially catastrophic, let's buy some insurance — by investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency and mass transit — because this insurance will also actually make us richer and more secure." We will import less oil, invent and export more clean-tech products, send fewer dollars overseas to buy oil and, most importantly, diminish the dollars that are sustaining the worst petro-dictators in the world who indirectly fund terrorists and the schools that nurture them.

We could import less oil if we were more aggressive about exploiting our own oil and coal reserves and if we used more nuclear power. Most of these options are off the table because of the pipe dream of renewable energy.

4) Even if climate change proves less catastrophic than some fear, in a world that is forecast to grow from 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion people between now and 2050, more and more of whom will live like Americans, demand for renewable energy and clean water is going to soar. It is obviously going to be the next great global industry.

Friedman is hedging his bet. If you want to do something because of population growth then make your case but don't throw that into a discussion about global warming (excuse me, "weirding".

Friedman closes with one of his many comparisons with China and how much better they are than us.

China, of course, understands that, which is why it is investing heavily in clean-tech, efficiency and high-speed rail. It sees the future trends and is betting on them. Indeed, I suspect China is quietly laughing at us right now.

Friedman is a big believer in an elite government that sees what needs to be done and does it without all of the messiness that democracy entails.

Another aspect of China that he probably approves of - the intelligentsia don't have to live by the same rules as the rest of us. Friedman preaches green living but he lives in a huge mansion and jets all over the world. His carbon emission is many times that of regular people.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The new polarities

For most of my life the political polls have been between liberals and conservatives. In the last few years the traditional political axis has shifted. Liberals are gone, replaced by progressives. The opposition to the progressives is still in flux but it is lead by the Tea Party movement and the Reagan Republicans.

It is easier to define the progressive movement since it has a defined leader, Barrack Obama, as well as a set of historic goals. The core belief of the progressives is that they can solve all of humanity's problems through government intervention. I have described them previously as thinking of themselves as the smartest people who ever lived. They are not anti-business but they want business strictly controlled. If you examine the relationship between the Obama administration and Wall Street, this becomes obvious. Their planned expansion of health care also follows this model. They will not replace big business in the form of the insurance companies but they will make them into a public utility under heavy regulation.

Progressives are not in favor of general expansion of government, just the executive portion. Obama is no believer in the separation of powers. The Supreme Court issued a ruling he disagreed with so he misrepresented it in his State of the Union speech and called on Congress to overturn the Supreme Court. When Congress failed to pass his commission on balancing the budget he simply created it anyway as an executive order. There was no legislation enabling him to take over GM and Chrysler. He simply did it. The law that created the TARP said that money returned will be used to repay the Treasury. Obama has proposed alternate uses for this without going to Congress.

This is in keeping with the progressive movement. They have always been in favor of taking government out of the hands of amateurs and turning it over to the professionals. On the local level this consisted of taking power away from mayors and city councils and giving it to city managers. On the state and federal levels it involved creating sprawling departments that turn out reams of regulations that have the force of law. Obama has proposed expanding the reach of these departments.

Even that is not enough for some progressives. Columnist Thomas Friedman has written about how much better the Chinese government works since it only has a single party with no checks and balances. If the Chinese government decides to do something, it does it.

The movement opposing the progressives is disorganized but it has some important central issues. The biggest one is that government has already grown too big and expensive. They would like to see the government live within its means. They see Obama's stimulus as nothing but patronage on an unprecedented scale and they worry about Obama's talk of redistributing wealth.

Glenn Beck has had a great influence on this movement as has Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism. Beck used this a starting point and started researching the progressive movement from the early 20th century. To Beck's surprise, the progressive movement had the same roots as communism and fascism.

This should come as no surprise. The goal of progressives is to centralize power into the government. Communism and fascism are what happen when the government has unlimited power. I do not believe that the Obama administration intends anything like this but remember the old maxim about power corrupting. Also, keep in mind how much corruption exists in the government today. Neither party has distinguished itself as paragons of virtue in the last few years. Democrats came to power promising to improve transparency and eliminate the influence of lobbyists. Ask yourself, how much power can these people be trusted with?

The opposition has many problems. Early on the Tea Party organizers decided on a big tent approach. This attracted a variety of anti-government groups. Some of them are hard right. Some of them had been anti-Bush - for example, anti-Patriot Act groups. They share a common distrust of big government but disagree on all sorts of particulars. This also makes it easy for the progressives to criticize the Tea Parties. They can point to the radical fringe and insist that it characterizes the entire movement.

One thing that puzzles progressives is the Tea Party movement's attitude to George W. Bush. They assume that the Tea Partiers are an off-shoot of the Republicans and ask why they object to Obama policies that are continuations of the Bush administration. The answer is subtle. First, Obama promised to be different from Bush. When you disagree with one party you can vote for the other. When you disagree with both parties then you take to the street. Second part of this is that the Tea Party is separate from the Republicans. Republican leaders hope to capitalize on the Tea Parties but it is an uphill battle. The Tea Partiers have not forgotten that John McCain supported CO2 caps and campaign finance reform - both expansions of government.

One paradox is how disunited the opposition to the progressives is. The Libertarians should be the natural allies of the Tea Party. They both promote smaller government and both are heavily inspired by Ayn Rand. This is not enough. The Libertarians look down their noses at the Tea Party. An editor of Reason Magazine, writing about the Tea Party convention, said that he would not vote for Sarah Palin if a gun was at his head.

Regardless, this reflects new political realities. The Netroots are trying to dump Democrats who are not progressives and the Tea Partiers have declared war on big government Republicans.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Captain America Goes to a Tea Party

In Captain America 602, Cap and the Falcon pursue the evil, intolerant, right-wing group the Watchdogs to that hotbed of subversion, Idaho. While there, they find the streets full of Tea Party protesters. The Falcon (who is black) says, “So I guess this whole ‘hate the government’ vibe around here isn’t limited to the Watchdogs.” and “I don’t exactly see a black man from Harlem fitting in with a bunch of angry white folks." See it for yourself here.

Marvel's Editor in Chief, Joe Quesada, apologized for the protest signs that clearly identified the protesters as Tea Party members. He explained that it was a last minute addition. Someone realized that some of the signs were blank and had a letterer fill them in quickly. He stressed that the letterer is apolitical and didn't realize how it would be taken.

That's fine as far as it goes but it completely misses a couple of other points. Since the Tea Party began last year, the left has characterized it as being a racist reaction to a black president. So what did Marvel do? They sent Captain America after some racists and he finds the streets of fly-over country full of anti-government, angry whites (at least they threw some women in). This comes across as an affirmation of everything bad the left has said about the Tea Party and Quesada didn't even realize it. Making the protest more generic would not remove the message that "red" states are full of angry white bigots.

I hate it when a general medium starts preaching or being judgmental, especially when they use someone like Captain America to do it. Steve Englehart did the same thing during Watergate. A master villain turned out to be Nixon (it was only implied but there was no doubt). After being revealed, he ran into the White House and killed himself. Steve Rogers gave up being Captain America for some time after that. It was a poor storyline.

After the Iran/Contra scandal, some operatives in the basement of the White House tried to force Captain America to take his orders. Steve Rogers refused and stopped being Captain America again. This plot was more balanced. Rogers got to be Cap again after President Reagan stumbled on the operation and ordered them to end it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Blizzards and Global Warming

Washington DC is covered in snow. A new record has been set. Does this mean that global warming has stopped? Or is the unusual snowfall actually caused by global warming?

I'll take the second question first - did global warming cause the massive snowstorm?

But as far as winter storms go, shouldn't climate change make it too warm for snow to fall? Eventually that is likely to happen - but probably not for a while. In the meantime, warmer air could be supercharged with moisture and, as long as the temperature remains below 32°F, it will result in blizzards rather than drenching winter rainstorms. And while the mid-Atlantic has borne the brunt of the snowfall so far this winter, areas near lakes may get hit even worse. As global temperatures have risen, the winter ice cover over the Great Lakes has shrunk, which has led to even more moisture in the atmosphere and more snow in the already hard-hit Great Lakes region, according to a 2003 study in the Journal of Climate. (Read "Climate Accord Suggests a Global Will, if Not a Way.")

Is that what happened here? No. A 2003 study has little to do with actual conditions in 2010. Remember, the northern hemisphere spent January in a cold wave unseen since the 1970s. But that isn't where these storms came from, anyway. They came from the south.

But there have been hints that it was coming. The 2009 U.S. Climate Impacts Report found that large-scale cold-weather storm systems have gradually tracked to the north in the U.S. over the past 50 years. While the frequency of storms in the middle latitudes has decreased as the climate has warmed, the intensity of those storms has increased. That's in part because of global warming - hotter air can hold more moisture, so when a storm gathers it can unleash massive amounts of snow. Colder air, by contrast, is drier; if we were in a truly vicious cold snap, like the one that occurred over much of the East Coast during parts of January, we would be unlikely to see heavy snowfall.

There are some problems in this statement, also. It conflated storms tracking further north than previously with warming air without bothering to establish any connection between the two. What we are left with is that these storms would ordinarily have tracked further south where they would have dumped their moisture as rain instead of snow. Was this caused by global warming or by natural, cyclical changed like the multi-decadal oscillations? You aren't going to even hear this as a possibility.

So what does this mean for global warming? Nothing. Its a weather event, not a climate. To quote RFK jr:

...If you sit on a beach for a few minutes and watch the waves come in, you'll see lots of waves of different sizes. If you sit there for six hours, you'll see the tides going in and out. ...

There is a very real possibility that we have been watching the tide come in and assuming that the land is sinking when it is just the tide. Kennedy will not admit it but there is some evidence that the tide peaked a few years ago and is on the way out. In the meantime, global warming alarmists are trying to have it both ways. A lack of snow in Canada and a surplus of snow in DC are both given as signs of global warming. They are not. Weather happens and records are broken.

Obama, the Campaign Worker and the T Shirt

This was part of a recent speech given by President Obama:

I got a letter -- I got a note today from one of my staff -- they forwarded it to me -- from a woman in St. Louis who had been part of our campaign, very active, who had passed away from breast cancer. She didn't have insurance. She couldn't afford it, so she had put off having the kind of exams that she needed. And she had fought a tough battle for four years. All through the campaign she was fighting it, but finally she succumbed to it. And she insisted she's going to be buried in an Obama t-shirt.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Pro-Choice and the Superbowl Ad

This year's Superbowl will include an ad concerning abortion. The ad has not been shown yet but here is a description of it:

The ad shows Tebow and his mother Pam discussing her decision not to end a difficult pregnancy in 1987. Pam carried the baby to term against her doctors' recommendations, and her child grew up to be the Heisman-trophy winning University of Florida quarterback, who many consider the best college football player in a generation.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Who Is Rich?

Who is rich? This topic comes up regularly, mainly when Democrats draw a lower limit on who is wealthy and therefore whould be punished for it through higher taxes. Democrats have set the limit as low as $100,000 per year but President Obama has consistently set it at $250,000 per year. Daniel Gross of Newsweek and Slate recently chimed in that, yes indeed, $250,000 per year makes you rich. His case is in two parts. The first one is a numbers game - if you are making five times the median income and more than 98% of the population then you must be rich. The second is that someone with this income level can afford to live in the most expensive communities although he admits that it would be a stretch.

I've written about this before, also and I have two rebuttals.

First, annual income is a poor indicator of wealth. Total assets is a much better indicator. Who is richer - someone who makes $250,000 per year but has a mortgage on his $4,000,000 house or someone who makes $250,000 per year and owns his $4,000,000 house outright? Or someone who makes $200,000 per year but owns a $5,000,0000 house outright? Obama and Gross count the first two as being identically rich and the third one as being middle-class.

Second, even if you make more than 98% of the population, you still can't live like someone who is rich. You might be able to afford a McMansion (with a mortgage) but you cann't afford a palatial spread like Al Gore or John Edwards. You might be able to afford an illegal immigrant cleaning woman but you aren't going to have a full-time staff. You can afford a private plane as long as it's a Cesna and you fly it yourself but you are not going to be collecting jets like John Travolta.

The truly rich are not the upper 2% of the population, they are the upper 0.1% of the population. They make many times $250,000.

Clearly, Obama, the Democrats, and Gross are playing with statistics in order to inflate the number of rich. Why? Because there are not enough truly rich to fill their coffers. This is all class warfare games. Obama needs more taxes so he is trying to hit a sweet spot where he gets enough taxes to be useful without causing a tax revolt.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The IPCC and the WWF

A couple of weeks ago it came out that part of the IPCC's 2007 report was exaggerated. The report claimed that Himalayan glaciers would melt completely by 2035 and it claimed a 90% confidence in that claim. It turned out that this claim started as an off-the-cuff remark by an activist. It was included in an article and picked up by a position paper put out by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The truth is that it is impossible for the glaciers to melt that fast and only a small subset of the Himalayan glaciers are even being monitored.

The IPCC claimed that this was a last-minute addition to the report which had bypassed the normal review process. That left the hanging question, was this an isolated incident? The answer is that it was not isolated.

The IPCC report claimed that 40% of the world's rain forests will be destroyed by global warming. The basis for this claim? Another paper produced by the WWF. Again, the WWF quoted a paper that was fundamentally flawed. In this case, it used figures from logging and drought and applied them to climate.

When the IPCC report report was released in 2007, there were rumors that the original draft hadn't been scary enough and that they were under pressure to make global warming sound much more dangerous and to assign confidence levels to the findings. I'm going to take the IPCC's word that the glacier claim was a last-minute addition and I'm going to speculate that the rain forest claim was a similar late addition.

The implication is that the original report was not going to force governments to make fundamental and painful changes. The authors of the various chapters were told to go back and include worst-case projections as the most likely. They may have been given a stack of WWF position papers. Regardless, bad information from pressure groups found its way into at least two chapters of the IPCC report.

It should come as no surprise that the WWF cherry-picks its figures to make a stronger case than the evidence supports. What is surprising is that anyone from the IPCC would rely on these papers. This should call into question everything in the IPCC report.

UPDATE: As I expected, there are dozens of places where the IPCC's only cited source is the WWF. See Donna Laframboise's blog for details.

UPDATE 2: Remember Climategate - the leaked emails from the prestigious Climate Research Unit of East Anglia University? The Guardian has poured through them and found that the figures the IPCC used for China were seriously flawed. China doesn't have a lot of weather stations. The question was how man of them were influenced by urban expansion as opposed to climate change. The IPCC relied on a paper that had problems. The words "screwed up" were used. This is the first real link between the leaked emails and the IPCC but, in the tiny world of climatologists, it probably will not be the last one.