Seven Months

It’s been seven months since my last blog post, and the situation of humanity on this earth has only worsened. In March, an 8.9 earthquake followed by a huge tsunami hit Japan, caused complete destruction of many areas on the east coast of the country.  The video that came from the scene was astonishing. The tsunami came as far as 6 miles inland, pushing cars and buildings out of its way as if they were styrofoam cups.

The tsunami also damaged a nuclear power complex and three reactors suffered partial meltdowns, producing large regions of dangerous radiation. This is a problem still affecting the country, because the area was partially agricultural, and all their food products are radioactive to some degree. One of the worst contaminated products is milk.

The Missouri, Mississippi, and other rivers had passed far beyond flood stage this year. In a controversial move, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened a spillway in Louisiana that allowed waters to flood areas of Central LA all the way to the coast. This decision was made because the central areas are much less populated, and if the spillway had not been opened, flooding in the cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans would have been worse, affecting a large number of people.

Forest fires have been raging, due to extreme drought in the southwest. The drought is worst, in magnitude and in area affected, in Texas. A heat wave has been breaking records since May, not just in the South but also in the Midwest and Northeast. Currently DFW stands at 36 consecutive days at 100 or above and is approaching the all time record of 42 consecutive days which occurred in 1980. Given the forecast for the upcoming week, we should have no problem topping that record.

Fortunately (as far as comfort is concerned), it is a very dry heat. That also makes it easier for fires to occur. I receive e-mails from FEMA about disaster areas and have frequently seen Texas counties on the list because of fires.

Notice the fire between Longview and Marshall!

Tornadoes rampaged in the spring, with the most famous one destroying parts of Joplin, Missouri.

Most recently there has been difficulty with Congress, i.e. the stubbornness of the Republicans, especially the Tea Party, with regard to raising the debt ceiling. They spent at least a month arguing, digging in their heels, threatening each other (Democrats too!) and engaging in other non-productive activities, while citizens worried more and more (and felt disgusted), and who knows what the rest of the world was thinking.

Earlier this week, on the last day (8-2), a compromise was finally reached and signed into law. Not a good compromise, of course. I don’t even want to think about it right now. Tomorrow I’ll post an op-ed I did for Associated Content.

And in spite of the compromise, Standard & Poor’s lowered the U.S. from its triple-A credit rating to double-A.

At the moment, I’m too depressed about all this to write anything more.

Another number trick

As reported at American Prospect blog, the Republicans have found a new way to massage the numbers concerning health care reform: simply choose another source, specifically, themselves. The apparent reason for this choice is the fact that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported that the health care bill (ACA) will produce a surplus, rather than increased debt. Naturally they can’t allow that, because it doesn’t fit into their viewpoint. Thus they have decided to select the answer that they want, even though it isn’t connected to reality.

Meanwhile, the world keeps turning and people get poorer and the environment becomes poisoned and we may all die next year. Well, c’est la vie.

Health Care Reform: Another Look at the Numbers

Discussion of most political matters involves numbers, but the debate over the health care reform bill has presented us with a huge discrepancy in numbers such as “how many people support repealing the bill?” and “how much will the bill cost or save?” as presented by different sides. Some numbers result from polling, others from government agencies, and still others from demographics and other statistics.

How is the average American to know which numbers are more accurate than the others? Which ones can be computed exactly and which ones can never be more than estimates? How are the statistics computed and what potential errors exist? Does everyone need courses in statistics, political polling, and accounting to truly understand?

Naturally, a person who has background in one or more of those areas has an advantage over someone who does not, but the rest of us can improve our interpretations of all these numbers with knowledge of a few basic concepts.

Numbers that result from polls, such as the percentage of the population that wants to repeal health care, can be determined in more ways than one. For example, a person could ask all of his/her friends what they think. Most Americans know that is not a valid way of polling, since the result is biased in favor of the individual’s own beliefs. Similarly, a poll that is restricted to a certain group will be affected by the self-selection of group membership (think about asking the health care repeal question at a rally held by the Tea Party). That is why the phone-in or text-in polls created by news networks do not really mean much. The sample consists only of people who watch a certain news show.

In order to give truly valid results, a poll must be conducted with a randomized sample. For instance, a computer program can be designed to select phone numbers at random from all the phone numbers in Texas, or even in the entire United States. Then pollsters call these numbers and ask the questions of interest. Sometimes even this method can result in misleading results, since respondents must agree to answer the questions, but it is one of the best methods available to those who seriously want to find the truth.

In the course of discussion about the health care bill, numbers regarding the financial effects of the bill were bandied about. Some said the bill would result in extra costs which would then be transferred to taxpayers, while others said the bill would actually save the government money. Most of the time numbers like this are meaningless since there is just no way of predicting them, considering the many factors that are involved. One might as well attempt to predict the value of the S&P six months from now. Any stock trader will tell you it’s impossible. An estimated value can be determined, but there are huge margins of error because we just don’t know what will happen between now and then.

The best prediction that can be made about a new government program is that it will cost more money – possibly just a little more, possibly a lot – because very few programs have been known to actually decrease costs.

When demographics are used only in a descriptive fashion, the information obtained can be very accurate. The Census conducted every decade produces an excellent resource for many scientific studies. In between, smaller studies are carried out with the same purpose of describing the characteristics of a certain population. Although demographics always fall behind reality (during the time in which the data are collected and interpreted, the population has already changed), they represent a valid way of presenting facts about a population as a whole.

Problems may occur, however, when data about smaller groups is extracted from the larger census or from a randomized polling study. At the highest level (the population or the random selections), the study may be sufficiently randomized, but lower levels such as “all blacks” or “all Christians” may not be randomized. It is a good idea to check the source of the numbers, regardless of whether they are demographics, polls, or financial predictions. This is particularly true in the health care debate, which still rages on despite having been signed into law. Legislators and their constituents should take a long look at the numbers associated with health care reform to find out where, when, and how they were obtained. With that information, one can make a determination of which side to support.

Modern poorhouse, anyone?

It appears that the Tea Party (Republican) candidate for governor of New York has a surprising-but-not-new idea for dealing with poverty.

Carl Paladino’s plan includes consolidating inmates and possibly privatizing prisons, then opening the empty prisons for the poor to enter “voluntarily.” He compares his program to the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps.

There are several differences, however.

Paladino has previously said that his state’s social services programs encourage poor and illegal immigrants to move there.  He also states that his “poor prison” plan will teach needed skills and “personal hygiene” to those who enter, and that they will need to do work for the government as needed in return for their keep.

Requiring work from those helped in this way is similar to the CCC and to current social programs like welfare. According to Jessica Pieklo at Care2.com, however, Paladino does not comprehend the causes of poverty in the US.

While I appreciate the irony in Paladino giving credit to the CCC for his idea, I’m more than a little disturbed by his overall misunderstanding of poverty in this country.  For a large percentage of the population, poverty is not simply a function of a lack of skills or poor hygiene.  Those who do receive some kind of public assistance already work in exchange for those benefits.  They have to.

I perceive that Paladino does not miss any meals or wonder where he will sleep each night. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean he can’t empathize… except that he doesn’t, quite.

The Huffington Post also covered this story, emphasizing Paladino’s plan to have the poor work in various types of service including military service. He has not specified whether they would get pay or not, nor from where the money for this program will come. However, he promises a 20% reduction in New York’s budget and a 10% reduction in income tax.

I believe that Paladino’s plan could work, with certain caveats.

  1. Moving into the former prison wards would be strictly voluntary.
  2. Families would be able to live together.
  3. Children would go to school as usual.
  4. Workers would receive payment, at least minimum wage, but hopefully more since the minimum wage is below poverty level.
  5. Every person living in the dorms would receive medical, dental, optical, and mental health treatment free of charge. The reason for this is that a healthy individual is better able to take his/her place in society as a functioning, contributing member.

IMHO, this plan is good, IFF (if and ONLY if) the above characteristics are met. If done properly, it could totally change the economy and crime level of a state.