31 October 2013

Sunday Assemblies

A Sunday Assembly is a civic-social gathering on Sunday by non-religious people akin to a church service that has caught on as a movement in England and is spreading to the U.S.  I explored the concept with a group in Denver not long after I "came out" as an atheist, but ultimately wasn't convinced it was serving a useful purpose.  But, it would be interesting to see how the implementation is working in these groups.

I didn't cease to be a Christian because I had a problem with weekly gathering involving singing and story telling and sharing coffee cake and sometimes community organizing.

A Magic Spell For Halloween

If any man's wife commits adultery with another man, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and there are no witnesses against her, or if a husband is jealous of his wife, and she had indeed committed adultery, or if a husband is jealous of his wife, and she did not commit adultery, then shall the man bring his wife to the shaman, and he shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of a measure of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor shall he put frankincense on it; for it is an offering of jealousy, a memorial offering, recalling sin.

The shaman shall bring her near, and set her before the altar and shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and the shaman shall take the dust that is in the floor of the shrine and put it into the water, and the shaman shall set the woman before the altar, and uncover the woman's head, and put the memorial offering in her hands, which is the jealousy offering and the shaman shall have in his hand the bitter water that causes the curse and the shaman place the woman under oath and say to the woman: 
If you have not committed adultery, you will be immune to this bitter water that causes the curse. But if you have committed adultery then the spirits curse you, and this water that causes the curse shall go into your bowels, and make you miscarry or have a stillbirth.
And the woman shall say, "Let it be so."   
And the shaman shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water. And he shall cause the woman to drink the bitter water that causes the curse and it shall enter into her, and become bitter.

Then the shaman shall take the jealousy offering out of the woman's hand, and shall wave the offering before the altar, and offer it upon the altar and the priest shall take an handful of the offering, even the memorial of it, and burn it upon the altar, and then shall have the woman to drink the water. And when he has made her drink the water, then if she had committed adultery, the water that causes the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and shall will miscarry or have a stillbirth, and the woman shall be a curse among her people. And if the woman has not committed adultery, then she will be free, and shall carry her pregnancy to term and give birth to a healthy child.

This is the law of jealousies.  Then shall the man be guiltless from sin, and this woman shall bear her sin.

30 October 2013

Connect For Health Colorado Still Broken

Marketplace officials have delayed the opening of the online subsidies application and calculator until Nov. 4 — meaning that until then customers can't finish the process without phoning customer service. . . . Susan Birch, a board member who oversees Medicaid as director of state Health Care Policy and Finance, said Medicaid is working internally and with federal officials to streamline the application and get instant decisions to 90 percent of cases. Currently, many applicants are required to fill out questions on assets that are not required for Medicaid decisions.
From here.

A month after being launched, Colorado's health care exchange is still broken. The instant response rates on applications for subsidies is more like 50% than 90% and if it isn't handled instantly, it takes many days to process (mine has been in limbo for eight days). The critical functions of the system like the online subsidies application won't work until Monday, not that the website well tell you that fact.

Honestly, if the website could at least tell you to come back later when it actually works, it would dramatically reduce frustration levels.

The basic plan of Obamacare is sound, and honestly, not all that terribly complicated.  How the relatively straightforward task of setting up these websites with years of advanced warning is so FUBAR is honestly baffling.  This really shouldn't have been that hard and certainly shouldn't have taken more than a month to bring to remotely functional level, although shutting down the government for more than two weeks at the same time certainly didn't help.

29 October 2013

Quote of the Day

The United States had become “the Microsoft of nations”: outdated and obsolescent.
- Stanford University lecturer and entrepreneur named Balaji S. Srinivasan, a computer scientist and co-founder of the genomics company Counsyl, speaking to a group of young entrepreneurs.

Paternity Court

In reality, paternity court proceedings are dry as dust.  DNA samples are taken.  They are sent to labs.  A conclusion is almost always clear and is rarely made in person.  Judgment enters.  How they can make a reality TV show about it defies me.

In a related note, over the last several centuries in modern Western Europe, the long term, per generation cuckoldry rate has been estimated to be on the order of 0.91% to 2.0% per generation, using genetic tests and very long genealogy records available in the European region of Flanders.

The Universal Coverage Provisions Of Obamacare In A Nutshell

The universal coverage provisions of Obamacare mostly take effect in 2014 and between now and December is the time to sign up for health insurance through the new system if you don't have "affordable employer provided health insurance".  Basically, the uninsured and self-employed are most heavily impacted by the law.

A brief summary of core provisions of the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare, via the Kaiser Family Foundation's FAQ, follows:
How do premium subsidies work? 
People purchasing coverage on their own will be eligible for government subsidies (through a tax credit) towards their health insurance premiums based on income. Subsidies will be provided to people with family income between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level. The most that these families buying subsidized coverage in an exchange will pay towards a health insurance premium will range from 2.0% of income at 100% of poverty to 9.5% of income at 400% of poverty, with amounts at specific income levels specified in a table in the law. [The percentage of the premium that is subsidized is much greater for less comprehensive plans.]
Subsidies are tied to a benchmark level of coverage based on actuarial value. And, subsidies will only be available to those purchasing coverage through the exchanges, which includes people who do not have access to alternative insurance (such as Medicaid and affordable employer coverage). When an exchange determines that a person is eligible for a tax credit based on expected income, and that person enrolls in coverage, subsidies will be paid directly to insurers to lower the cost of premiums (and in some cases cost sharing).  . . .  
What is included in household income? How do I know what to enter for my income? 
. . . Household income includes incomes of the taxpayer, spouse, and dependents. In determining eligibility for exchange subsidies, income will be based on your attestation of your expected income in 2014 and will be verified by the exchange with documentation from your most recent tax return, with consideration of reasonable changes you expect. Exchanges will calculate enrollees’ household incomes using Modified Adjusted Gross Income, or MAGI.  The MAGI calculation includes such income sources as wages, salary, foreign income, interest, dividends, and Social Security. MAGI calculation does not include income from gifts, inheritance and some other income sources are partially excluded. . . . 
What is the poverty level? 
The federal poverty level varies by family size. In 2013, it is $11,490 for a single adult and $23,550 for a family of 4.   
How does Medicaid relate to exchange subsidies? 
Currently, Medicaid eligibility varies substantially by state, and is generally limited to certain categories of people (e.g., children, parents, people who are disabled, and people age 65 or older). Under health reform, states have the option to expand Medicaid eligibility to all people with incomes below 138% of the poverty level. . . . More information on state decisions regarding Medicaid expansion is available here. In other cases, people may be Medicaid-eligible based on their state’s eligibility requirements.  . . . 
How do premiums vary by age and health status? 
Before the health law goes into effect in 2014, people buying coverage on their own generally face medical underwriting, meaning that they can be turned down for coverage or charged a higher premium based on their health status. Under the reform law, insurers are prohibited from denying coverage or charging higher premiums based on health status. Beginning in 2014, the reform law also limits the degree to which premiums  may vary by age, with the premium for a 64 year old being no more than three times that of a 21 year old. This means that premiums for older people may be lower than under the status quo while premiums for younger people may be higher.  Under proposed regulations by Health and Human Services (HHS), children under age 21 have slightly lower premiums and families with more than three children under the age of 21 will only be charged premiums for three children.   
How do premiums vary by location? 
As under the status quo, the health reform law permits premiums to vary by geographic area, reflecting the fact that the cost of living and health care expenses vary significantly by location. As shown here, average health insurance premiums vary quite a bit by state, with the lowest family premium in a state at about 17% below the national average and the highest at about 11% above the average. Premiums also vary by location within states, so the range across communities nationwide is larger than the statewide averages suggest.  . . . 
How do premiums vary by tobacco usage? 
Currently, insurers in many states charge higher premiums (in the form of a surcharge) for enrollees who use tobacco. The health reform law allows insurers to charge people who use tobacco up to 50% more in premiums than people who do not use tobacco. Furthermore, the law specifies that exchange subsidies cannot be used to cover the portion of the premium that is due to a tobacco surcharge. . . . Under the status quo, insurers typically charge an average of 20%. Residents of states that do not permit tobacco surcharges (listed here) may arrive at a more accurate premium estimate by selecting that they do not use tobacco. 
What are Bronze and Silver plans? 
When purchasing subsidized exchange coverage, you can choose between four levels of coverage: Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum (in order of least to most comprehensive). In general, more comprehensive plans have higher premiums, but also have lower out-of-pocket costs. Bronze level coverage is the lowest level of coverage most people are required to have under health reform; on average bronze plans cover 60 percent of enrollees’ total costs. Silver level coverage is more comprehensive, covering on average 70 percent of enrollees’ total costs. The most comprehensive plans are Gold and Platinum plans, which on average cover 80 and 90 percent of enrollees’ total costs, respectively. . . . 
What is actuarial value and how does it affect premiums? 
The actuarial value of a health insurance policy is the percentage of the total covered expenses that the plan covers, on average for a typical population. For example, a plan with a 70% actuarial value means that consumers would on average pay 30% of the cost of health care expenses through features like deductibles and coinsurance. The amount that each enrollee pays will vary substantially by the amount of services they use. The health reform law specifies a benchmark level of coverage for the purposes of premium subsidies using actuarial values. Premium subsidies will be tied to Silver plans, which have an actuarial value of 70%. Additional subsidies for people making between 100 and 250% of the poverty level limit cost sharing and raise the actuarial value of Silver plans. . . . Bronze plans represent the minimum level of coverage most people are required to maintain under health reform, and these plans will have higher cost sharing on average. Regardless of the level of actuarial value, insurers will have to cover a defined set of health care services and cap the total amount of cost sharing required of consumers at defined levels, but can generally otherwise vary the structure and degree of cost sharing so long as minimum actuarial value thresholds are met.
Why do the websites suck?

The Obamacare official healthcare marketplace websites suck mostly because of a key design chioce: they front load applications for Medicaid when it is inappropriate to do so and more efficient screening questions would have eliminated the need for the entire intrusive application process.

24 October 2013

I'm Not As Prolific As I Seem

FYI, while I've made half a dozen posts today, five of those involved going through my archive of draft posts over the last couple of years (often ending up there due to interruptions a few minutes before I could finish them on busy work days after which I didn't find time to return to them), making the very minor touchups they needed to be ready to publish, and publishing them.  Only my first post today about Computer Malfunctions, was actually written today.

How do superheros pay their bills?

One of the areas where there is considerable diversity in genre fiction is how superheros and people who are, or are waging war with supernatural or alien forces come up with money to fund their operations and support themselves.

Some heros, like Superman (reporter), Spiderman (photojournalist) and Daredevil (small firm lawyer), are middle class guys who work day jobs and fight crime as a hobby, sometimes assisted a little in their day jobs by their superpowers, but not inordinately so. Most of the leading characters in the TV series "Heroes" likewise have ordinary day jobs from waitress, to Japanese salaryman, to cop, to professor, to carnie, to support themselves, or are kids supported by their parents.

Some heros, like Batman (CEO of the corporate empire his parents built), have ample inherited wealth.  Tony Stark aka Iron Man, in contrast, is a self-made millionaire, or at least, at any rate, has earned much of his wealth regardless of what he has inherited.

In the Japanese manga Tiger and Bunny, and a recent American animated superhero television series whose name escapes me, the government funds a league of superheros.  The Avengers seem to operate on this model as well.

Some have modest income jobs subsidized by modest family money. The witches in the TV series "Charmed" (museum curator, restaurant manager and odd job worker) have day jobs, but wouldn't have been able to afford to live in San Francisco had they not inherited their house from their grandmother.

Younger heros, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the heroine of Meg Cabot's Mediator series, live with their reasonably affluent parents who pay their bills.

At the bottom of the supernatural social class scale are the ghost busting, demon slaying pair of brothers from the TV series "Supernatural" secure much of their funding through various fraudulent cons. Also scraping the bottom are the grim reapers in the TV series "Dead Like Me", who live off property pilphered from people whom authorities have not yet discovered are dead, work days jobs as office temps and meter maids, for example, and eat at a nasty diner.

Some supernaturals are openly paid for using their powers. The warlock of the Dresden files is a self-employed consultant who is paid for using his powers. The supernaturals in the Japanese manga series Raetsu work for an exorcism agency. One of the witches in the "True Blood" series does exorcisms for cash. A woman with the power to speak with the dead in one of Kelly Armstrong's books does a traveling show in which she claims to be able to speak to the dead for members of the audience although most of those encounters are fake.

Professor Xavier of the X-Men appears to finance his operations with wealth derived from use of the powers that he and his students have at their disposal.

In Kelly Armstong's contemporary supernatural world, most supernaturals are employed by propserous Prussian style big business welfare states called Cabals, run by ruthless sorcerers who bridge the gap between ruthless executives and organized criminals. Another few run a law firm and private investigator's office specializing in supernatural matters. One of the werewolves is an anthropology professor, one of the half-demons is a tabaloid reporter.

Vampires seem to have a knack for accumulating wealth. The Twilight Vampires live off trust funds that have grown for centuries with the powers of compound interest, in addition to one income as an ER doctor, although the nomadic vampires tend to be less affluent. The Vampires of the TV series "True Blood" and the "Vampire Diaries" TV series seem to favor small and medium sized businesses and tend to own property, although typically only residences. The vampires of Anne Rice's novels also tend to have rather more luxurious lives.

Wrong Data, Misleading Results

Wonkblog argues (i.e. Ezra Klein) that the U.S. record of peaceful democratic transition of power isn't that exception because other countries have had large numbers of them.  Even though, by his account, the United States is number two in the world, and has thirteen times as many peaceful democratic transitions than about 80% of the countries in the world.
It’s probably fair to say that the U.S. has had an unusually long run, in both number of transitions and length of time those transitions have spanned. But between Robert Walpole and David Cameron, the United Kingdom has gone through 74 changes of prime minister, all without bloodshed. How democratic UK elections were in the early 18th century is a matter of legitimate debate, but they weren’t that much less democratic than early American elections, restricted as they were to white, property-owning free men.
And this isn’t even including countries with a history of successful, peaceful transition without democratic procedures.
I would argue strenuously, however, that Ezra Klein is looking at the wrong numbers, and that these numbers suggest inappropriate inferences. 

Key tipoff are the high numbers of peaceful Democratic transitions in Israel and Italy.  Both have had lots of democratic transitions mostly because their very pure proportional representation systems have led to unstable parliamentary coalitions among the many resulting political parties, and as a result, frequent parliamentary elections.

Israel's current regime has a continuous track record of peaceful democratic transitions goes back only to the year when its second prime minister, Sharett, took office in 1954.

Italy's current run of peaceful democratic transitions goes back to 1948 when its second prime minister took office. The regimes in Germany is similar in age (but only for part of the country), while France has had at least one unconstitutional regime change since then, and both Spain and Portugal have shorter histories of democratic regime changes.

Democracies with a history of peaceful democratic transitions shorter than their oldest living citizens sound rather less impressive.

A Better Measure

As the examples above illustrate, the right measure is the number of years during which there has been a continuous history of peaceful democratic transitions.  The raw number of transitions themselves matter only for the first two or three of them in most cases and an excessive frequency of peaceful democratic transitions (e.g. in Russia in 1917 or Weimar Germany) is actually a bad thing.

By that measure, the U.S track record of peaceful democratic transitions dates back only to 1865 (the aftermath of the 1860 election was anything but peaceful), and really not until Andrew Johnson took office, since a re-election of a national leader isn't really a democratic transition (nor is a re-election of the same majorities in Congress), merely a constitutional succession within a democratic system.  The trouble with tracking mere number of constitutional successions (and in the U.S. case, really constitutional "elections" rather than successions of national leaders) is that it forces you to reach conclusions about how democratic the process was which are often problematic to evaluate.

The United Kingdom's record is older, although it did skip a constitutionally mandated election cycle during World War II, something that has never happened in the United States.

Japan's democratically elected parliamentary regime likewise post-dates World War II and many of its democratic elections since then have no led to changes in prime ministers - it was a dominant party system in which the LDP was dominant for most of the post-War time period.

Sweden is the only non-Anglo-American country in the chart Klein uses that is anywhere close to the Anglo-American nations listed, because it was able to continue to keep its democratic institutions in place during World War II. 

Two of the real champions of peaceful democratic transitions, Switzerland and Iceland, are omitted from the list.

About Non-Democratic Regimes

A related, but not identical measure of political stability is the age of the current political regime.  Many non-democratic regimes are quite stable (e.g. Saudi Arabia's monarchy).  And, it is often a fair question to ask if a stable, not unduly tyrannical non-democratic regime is really worse than a turbulent democratic regime run by inexperienced amateurs.

Economic Inequality In The 19th Century South

It is cliche to think about the Antebellum South as the epitome of extreme class based inequality.  A number of sources I've looked at recently, however, cast doubt on these stereotypes.  While local castes were firmly entrenched, the oligarchy at the top of several thousand people in a region with a population smaller than Ohio alone has today, was large and had far fewer dominant players than it does in the modern big business economy.

While it had a well entrenched upper middle class aristocracy of large and medium sized plantation owners, it had almost no one in an economic stratum above this level.

In a recent post at this blog, I summarized some of the key statistics, but didn't focus on it from an economic inequality perspective.

Economic Inequality In The South Before The Civil War

Key Facts
In 1860, there were about 22,100,000 people living in the Union states (400,000 of whom were slaves, about 2% of its overall population, of whom 340,000 were in Kentucky and Missouri) and 9,100,00 living in states that would become a part of the Confederate States of America (about 3,500,000 of whom were slaves, about 38% of its overall population). In the lowlands deep South including the Mississippi River valley, the percentage of the population that consisted of slaves was much greater.
There were about 394,000 slave holders in the United States in 1860. Only 8% of all US families owned slaves in 1860, but in the South, 33% of families owned slaves.
The distribution of slaves among holders was very unequal: holders of 200 or more slaves, constituting less than 1% of all US slaveholders (fewer than 4,000 persons, 1 in 7,000 free persons, or 0.015% of the population) held an estimated 20–30% of all slaves (800,000 to 1,200,000 slaves). Nineteen holders of 500 or more slaves have been identified. The largest slaveholder was Joshua John Ward, of Georgetown, South Carolina, who in 1850 held 1,092 slaves, and whose heirs in 1860 held 1,130 or 1,131 slaves
Only about 10% of the manufacturing capacity of the United States was in the South before the war.  The Antebellum South was overwhelmingly an agrarian economy.


These facts do not tell the story of a highly economically unequal society. 

Plantations Were Not The Big

Let's start at the top.

Consider Joshua John Ward, the owner of the single largest plantation in the entire American South as measured by number of slaves owned.  His plantation was in just one county.  The total size of his operation was big, but not that big.  He had about as many people working under him as:

* the general manager of a single location of a decent sized big city department store or Home Depot or grocery store;
* the CEO of Colorado's Broadmoor hotel;
* a modern U.S. Army Major (O-4) or Lieutenant Colonel (O-5) leading a battalion;
* the Ships Captain of a large cruise ship or Harrier Carrier small aircraft carrier;
* the chief of police in a city like Denver;
* the President of a medium sized U.S. university campus;
* the CEO of a medium sized, one location hospital;
* the owner of a small manufacturing company with a single plant (e.g. Boulder's Celestial Seasonings company that makes specialty teas) or general manager of a single factory in a larger manufacturing company;
* a superintendent of a medium sized school district;
* the City Manager or Mayor of a medium sized suburban city;
* the owner of a large construction company operating in just one city;
* the President of a small community bank or local credit union;
* the general manager of a single large hard rock mine at one location; or
* the owner of a cab company in a Denver sized city.

Was Joshua John Ward an economically successful man?  Surely.  But, his plantation would not have been a turnkey investment; he would have had to devote considerable time to actively managing it and by 21st century standards someone who actively runs an enterprise of that scale is right on the threshold between rich and merely upper middle class.  Yet, he was the very epitome of the plantation owning aristocracy of the Antebellum South. 

Only 19 families owning collectively 0.5% of the slaves in the American South, had enterprises even half the scale of Mr. Ward's plantation.  Only a handful of plantation were in more than two  or three counties and the vast majority were entirely within a single state.  Not a single firm in the entire South had even 0.1% share of the entire cotton producing market in the American South.

The mean number of slaves per slaveholder in the American South was just under ten.  About 70%-80% of slaves were at plantations with fewer than 200 slaves.  The median slave was at a plantation with something on the order of 150 slaves give or take - an enterprise with a scale about 1/7th that size of Mr. Ward's plantation.  One of the owners of one of the thousands of plantations of this size, again in a single county were comparable to:

* the general manager of a single location of a medium sized Big Box store like a Best Buy;
* the owner of a a handful of fast food franchises;
* a modern U.S. Army Captain (O-3) or Major (O-4) leading a company and some supporting units;
* the Ships Captain of a U.S. Navy Frigate;
* the head of the Parks and Recreation Department in a city like Denver;
* the President of a small liberal arts college;
* the CEO of a small community hospital;
* the owner of a dry cleaning chain in a single metropolitan area;
* a principal at a large urban high school;
* the City Manager or Mayor of a small city;
* the owner of a medium sized general contracting firm;

In short, firmly in the middle of the modern upper middle class, and not actually "rich."

The proportion of families that owned any slaves in the American South was similar to the proportion of families in modern American that have a college graduate.

Economic Inequality In The South After The Civil War
The . . . Confederacy fielded about 1,064,000 soldiers (about 19% of its free population and about 38% of its free male population of all ages). About half of the Confederate Army in Virginia in 1861 came from slave holding families and (per Wikipedia on Slavery in the United States) and more "enlistees rented land from, sold crops to, or worked for slaveholders." . . . Based on 1860 census figures, 8% of all white males aged 13 to 43 died in the war, including 6% in the North and 18% in the South. . . .
The war destroyed much of the wealth that had existed in the South. All accumulated investment in Confederate bonds was forfeit. Income per person in the South dropped to less than 40% than that of the North, a condition which lasted until well into the 20th century. Southern influence in the US federal government, previously considerable, was greatly diminished until the latter half of the 20th century.
An effective Union naval blockade captured about 95% of the exports from the Confederate states during the war. . . .  
In the short run, the war destroyed almost all 8,800 miles of Confederate railroads while the Union added about 7,300 miles to its existing 21,800 miles of railroad. The war also destroyed almost all of the South's manufacturing plants, and almost all of its cotton production, and almost all of its exports (70% of the total for the nation before the war).
The uncompensated loss of slaves due to the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, was in many cases (probably most) promptly followed by the loss of plantation land to carpet bagger lenders during Reconstruction.

Thus, in the Reconstruction and immediately post-Reconstruction South, the South saw a decline in economic inequality from what had already been a highly Jeffersonian economy, despite its stratification into quite rigid castes.  The wealth of the South's historic upper middle class largely collapsed in favor of a new and far more complexly organized modern economic elite with a strong component of Northern financial and commercial interests.

Education As The Art Of The Possible

The dominant view of the purpose of education today is that schools should improve the absolute level of performance of children on well crafted tests of their academic ability in various subject areas like reading, writing, mathematics, and science, and to maximize the percentage of students who go to college.

The trouble is that to a great extent these kinds of tests are basically proxies for IQ.  Yet, one of the most thoroughly replicated results in academic and institutional studies of K-12 education is that there is very little, particularly at higher grade levels, that educators can do that have a meaningful impact on any outcome closely related to IQ.

The worst of the worst schools, like West High School in the Denver Public Schools in recent years, can prevent even gifted and talented children from reaching their potential by leaving them unprepared to go to college and causing them to fail to go to college.  But, by and large, merely mediocre high schools don't do much harm, and even quite good high schools don't help much.

Furthermore, it is a cold hard fact of life that many high school students should not be on a college prepatory track.  IQ is sometimes overrated.  But, the one thing that IQ is an excellent predictor of is academic success in schools and colleges.  One can quibble over where one should draw the line, but a child with a below average IQ, and that includes 50% of all high school students, is unlikely to be able to start college without remedial work, is unlikely to graduate from college, and is unlikely to benefit much from attending college classes.

Maybe, instead of scouring the educational landscape for the magic bullet that will allow high school teachers to raise the IQs of their students, a more realistic mission for public schools is in order.  Education does socialize students into a culture.  We can teach kids to cooperate with each other, to develop ways of responding to authority, to function in bureaucracies, and to self-organize and be self-reliant.

It is also a situation where societal resources could be more closely matched to realistic life and career prospects for students, giving students skills and training that will be relevant to their lives.

But, as a way to get more students to achieve in formal academic tasks at some specific level - say, ready to perform academically at the level of a 1980 college freshman at a four year flagship public college - there are real limits to what it can accomplish.  One can prevent the curriculum from being unduly watered down for students who are capable of achieving at that kind of level, but can't necessary do all that much to increase the size of that pool of students.

It is possible to greatly increase college attendance for academically able high school students, but the primary barrier there is lack of financial resources, not a lack of academic preparation for college among students who have a realistic shot at completing a college education.  If higher education funds are targeted at this sweet spot, we can get far greater results than expecting the K-12 system to do something that we know it is ill equipped to do.

How Big Is The Drone War?

The United States has been fighting at least two CIA managed, covert wars that have been conducted with armed drones and possibly also with airstrikes from manned aircraft with guided munitions.  One has taken place principally in Northern Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan and has been targeted at both Taliban organizations and terrorist organizations there.  There other has taken place in Yemen and has been directed at terrorist organizations there.

There have been CIA led covert operations to capture and kill suspected terrorists elsewhere, but these operations are believed to have been comparatively small in scale.  Probably fewer than a thousand people have been captured and probably far fewer have been killed outside Northern Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.  With only a handful of exceptions, these other anti-terrorist covert operations do not seem to have involved armed drone strikes or airstrikes.

The Data

A recent post at the Lawfare blog summarizes what is known from open media sources about the militant and non-combatant civilian casualties that have been inflicted by U.S. armed drones and airstrikes in Pakistan and Yemen. The key conclusions reached are as follows:
In his widely discussed May 23 speech at the National Defense University, President Obama acknowledged that “much of the criticism about drone strikes—at home and abroad—understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties. There is a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties, and non-governmental reports.” This gap is wide indeed. The range of public estimates of civilian deaths from drone strikes, at the low end, includes the June 2011 statement by then-White House Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan that there had not been “a single collateral death” in a year as a result of American drones. At the other extreme, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based non-profit organization, puts the number of civilian casualties between 84 and 193 in 2010, and between 52 and 146 in 2011—the years that together encapsulate the period in which Brennan said there had been none. . . .
Number of Deaths from U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan in 2011
303 – 502
330 – 575
57 – 65
52 – 146
72 – 155
32 – 37
392 – 604
447 – 660
456 – 661
Civilian Casualty Death Rate
9% – 17%
8% – 33%
11% – 34%
. . . 
Number of Deaths from U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan from 2004-Present 
1,585 – 2,733
258 – 307
411 – 890
196 – 330
2,039 – 3,370
2,566 – 3,570
Civilian Casualty Death Rate
8% – 15%
12% – 35%
[In Yemen, from 2002 to the present the] NAF reports between 557 and 760 militant deaths and a total of 596 and 832 total casualties. LWJ puts AQAP deaths at 349 and civilian deaths at 82. And BIJ’s estimates are between 15 and 52 civilians killed and 239 and 349 total deaths as a result of “confirmed” drone strikes—and between 23 and 48 civilian casualties and 283 and 456 total casualties as a result of “possible” US drone strikes. 

John Brennan's public statement that there was not a single collateral death from U.S. drones is nothing less than a bald faced intentional lie.  It isn't true.  And, given his position, he knew that it wasn't true at the time he said it and made a false statement regarding this fact with an intent to deceive the American and the global public.  It is so completely unbelievable and contrary to facts that are well established from multiple sources that it does not deserve to be taken seriously and undermines the credibility of the entire United States government on the issue.

The number of deaths from drone strikes is not insignificant.  The number of U.S. drone caused deaths in 2011 are similar in number, for example, to the number of justified homicides by law enforcement in the entire United States in any given year, and the percentage of "collateral damage" deaths from U.S. drone strikes far exceed those associated with justified homicides by law enforcement.  Far more "innocent" people are killed each year in drone strikes than in criminal justice based anti-terrorism activities, and the U.S. government provides no remedy to the families of these bystanders who are killed merely because they were in the vicinity of the drone strike target.

We have no good way to determine if there were any U.S. drone strikes or airstrikes in which no militants were killed due to bad intelligence, although this was consistent with the historical record in a small number of cases of overt military operations in Afghanistan by the United States involving similar kinds of strikes.  The CIA is not forthcoming on this issue and there is nothing that a member of the general public or journalist could do to determine who the CIA intended as a target in a particular strike - sometimes the target is obvious, but sometimes there may be a bona fide target who is not obvious, especially years into the campaign that has made it clear to people in the region that open affiliation with terrorist groups or the Taliban is likely to result in your death.  It is the answer to this question that Brennan may have used to deceive himself into thinking he was providing when he lied about collateral damage deaths.

On the other hand, the overall scale and pace of operations in the drone wars is not huge.  In Pakistan we are probably talking about no more than one or two drone strikes a day, or less.  In Yemen, the average pace of operations appears to be about one or two drone strikes a week, or less.  The volume of strikes is no so great that it is inconceivable that someone as senior as the President's National Security Advisor or a designated chief deputy in that office might review a dossier on every single proposed drone strike in advance and flag proposals at the highest level for approval or denial.  It isn't clear that this actually happens, although leaked White Papers from the Executive Office of the President suggest that something fairly similar does happen.  But, it could.  And, the number of people who are known by the U.S. government to be U.S. citizens who are at risk in these drone strikes is clearly so small that you could count them on your fingers, and these cases probably are reviewed by the President with his advisors in every single instance because of their rarity and political importance.

Footnote: Historical Background on the War on Terror

Afghanistan's monarchy unified the country in the 1700s and reigned until 1973 when a military coup established a Republic.  Pro-Soviet communists replaced the Republic in a 1978 coup and another Soviet backed coup with a leader more loyal to the Soviets was carried out in 1979.  A succession of civil wars ravaged Afghanistan almost continuously from then until 2001, leading to more than two million deaths and leading to the exile of more than six million refugees.  But, eventually the balance in this never ending, but ever mutating civil war had tipped decisively in favor of the strict Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime.  The Taliban controlled 90% of the territory of the country from 1998 to 2001, with an opposition group of remaining warlords called the "Northern Alliance" on the verge of total defeat in the country's remaining territory.

The drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen are basically a spin off from the overt war U.S. has fought an overt war against the Taliban and terrorist groups in Afghanistan since shortly after 9-11 in 2001.  When the Taliban was unable or unwilling to deliver up the 9-11 terrorists to the United States, Congress included the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had been just about to win a long civil war in Afghanistan as an enemy upon which it declared war in the Authorization For Use of Military Force (AUMF) that it adopted in the fall of 2001.

The term "war on terror" has sometimes been used to refer to all military activity and covert operations in support of the AUMF, although it is sometimes used instead to refer to AUMF operations other than the Afghan War itself (also called Operation Enduring Freedom), and to non-AUMF authorized anti-terrorism efforts domestic and foreign as well.  By any reasonable definition, however, the "drone wars" in Pakistan and Yemen clearly count as part of the war on terror.

The Northern Alliance, once they secured the post-9-11 assistance of the U.S. military and CIA, routed the Taliban in about two months, and the U.S. and an international coalition of military forces recruited by George W. Bush's administration to join them then assisted them in the process of reconstituting a civilian government for Afghanistan and providing military support for it from insurgent forces.

In the almost twelve years since then (the longest war in U.S. history other than the "Indian Wars" which is itself really a series of smaller domestic counterinsurgency campaigns over almost a century), the U.S., as part of an international coalition of military forces which has dwindled over time, has helped the new civilian regime's security forces fight a counterinsurgency operation against the remnants of the Taliban regime.

Many remnants of the Taliban regime and the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups that had operated in the territory it had once controlled sought greener pastures from a base of operations in Northern Pakistan.  For example, Osama bin Laden, the leader of the group that conducted the 9-11 attack, was killed in Pakistan by U.S. Special Forces during President Obama's first term of office.

President Obama has firmly declared that U.S. combat units and the bulk of other U.S. military forces will leave Afghan forces to fight the ongoing counterinsurgency operation in Afghanistan by itself and will withdraw its forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 (apart from an embassy guard and perhaps also some U.S. troops training Afghan security forces and/or operating a small U.S. military base or two in the country).  The administration has indicated that this withdrawal may happen sooner in 2014 than year end.

At first, the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was quite modest in terms of number of troops, number of casualties, and funds expended despite its fairly great successes, and the CIA component of the action was significant.  In more recent years, CIA involvement in Afghanistan targeted operations has dwindled (although drone strike and airstrike operations in Pakistan have apparently been based in Afghanistan).  Meanwhile, Taliban activity and the number of coalition troops (increasingly predominantly American) have both surged, and developed into a more conventional counterinsurgency operation focused on the more restive Afghan provinces.  Some of this surge was made possible by a contemporaneous draw down of U.S. troop levels in Iraq (from which all U.S. troops except the Marine guard at the U.S. embassy there were withdraw early in President Obama's first term).  At the peak of U.S. involvement in this counterinsurgency action in Afghanistan there were more than 100,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country.

On balance the Afghan insurgents have been less effective militarily than those in Iraq.  U.S. casualties in Afghanistan (which is about the same size in population and geographically as Iraq and like Iraq has large swaths of territory that are virtually uninhabitable) have been lower, as have civilian casualties caused by all sides in the conflict.  Afghan suicide bombings and ambushes have been less effectual than in Iraq, and the civilian government has been more cohesive (which is not to say that it is not without serious internal conflicts).  Improvised explosive devices called IEDs (basically crude bombs often activated with cell phones or based upon weight) have been the characteristic means by which casualties have been inflicted on U.S. and coalition forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  The Afghan IEDs have been less potent, but have also inflicted a larger share of insurgent caused casualties.  In the last couple of years, Afghan insurgents have also used deadly attacks by insurgents who have infiltrated the Afghan security forces and gains the trust of the coalition partners and loyal to the regime colleagues as an effective tactic.

The insurgents in Afghanistan are often young, ill equipped and ill trained.  Coalition forces have killed large numbers of them for each coalition soldier who has been killed in the campaign.  The insurgents have targeted their efforts on foreign military forces and Afghan security forces and key senior Afghan government regime targets.  The Coalition forces have tried to kill only Taliban militants and terrorist group members.  Both have killed civilians in the course of the campaign, sometimes by accident, sometimes due to lack of discipline on the part of coalition and/or insurgent fighters, and at least in the case of insurgents, sometimes by design to punish people who arguably have violated Islamic law or betrayed the Taliban by supporting the Coalition or the new Afghan government in some way or being associated with someone who has done so.
The share of conflict caused deaths which involve civilians is a much larger share of the people killed by the insurgents than of the people killed by Coalition and Afghan security forces.  But, Coalition forces have paid a much higher reputational cost for the civilian casualties that it has inflicted than the insurgents.

In Pakistan, the U.S. covert operation's relationship with Pakistani security and intelligence agencies has been tenuous.  There is an insurgency in Northern Pakistan that is completely separate from the one in Afghanistan.  In the Pakistani insurgency, the Taliban groups that fled Afghanistan have been enemies of the principal insurgent groups that the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies are trying to put down, so these Pakistani government agencies have been reluctant to give more than lip service to high level agreements between the U.S. and Pakistan to allow the U.S. to carry out its war on terror with CIA operatives and armed drones in Pakistan.  Rare instances in which Pakistani security forces have been killed by U.S. forces, often after being fired upon themselves, have exacerbated the tensions between Pakistani security forces and U.S. forces.

While the CIA led operation in Pakistan is officially "covert" and the operational details of the operation generally remain secret, its existence and the broad outlines of the campaign are an open secret and a major leak of secret communications related to the operation by a U.S. soldier have shed further light on what is going on there.  U.S. and foreign media sources have also been able to determine a great deal about the operation by turning to non-U.S. government sources for information on airstrikes or armed drone strikes and aggregating the information.  Several non-governmental organizations have made organized efforts to aggregate the available information to provide a coherent overall story of the drone war in Pakistan and the parallel conflict in Yemen.

Computer Malfunctions

One of the disconcerting things about computers is that they fail to work with some regularity.  I can't think of a year in recent memory when I haven't had a serious IT problem at least a few times over the course of the year.

For example, today, for no apparent reason, my computer decided it wasn't going to connect to my office suite's server or the Internet.  This was very odd.  In the end, it turned out that my network card had to be reconfigured.  But, how it got improperly configured between today and yesterday is an utter mystery to me.  This is a problem I wouldn't even begin to know how to create in the first place.

How can we change the structure of the industry to place a greater premium on reliability and just having things work?

16 October 2013

Does our terrifying and crazy system work?

There have been eighteen or nineteen shutdowns of the federal government since the 1970s when the current budget process was adopted.  This one lasted sixteen days.  The longest lasted three weeks and came on the heels of another seven day shutdown.

But, every time, despite the fact that there was no change in the political players involved, a deal was ultimately reached to reopen the government in fairly short order before really serious harm was done, with the help of the notion that "essential" federal government workers could stay on the job (uncompensated in the short run) in the meantime.

Unlike the rules of parliamentary procedure in a unicameral parliament with the executive power vested in a prime minister elected by a majority of that body, where deterministic rules force a majority decision inevitably, nothing in our political system with separated powers structurally and institutionally insures that the President, a majority of the House, and a majority of the Senate, will always be capable of reaching consensus on "must pass" legislation needed to prevent the collapse of the federal government.  And, yet, time and time again, always, eventually a mutual written agreement committed to the exact wording of a specific written piece of legislation by at least 269 out of 536 people is ultimately secured.

The miracle that such a consensus always seems to be reached before too much damage is done is absolute necessary for the ongoing survival of the Republic, despite the absence of any formal process for forcing these people to agree.

Even more miraculously, the winners and losers in these standoffs, in which any participant has the power to derail an agreement, very reliably tends to track public opinion and the views of the median representative, just as it would in a more deterministic parliamentary process.  This is so despite the fact that intuition would suggest that the participants who hold veto power that have the most intense views usually win these games of chicken, this isn't what usually happens.  In the recent budget standoff, the Tea Party Republicans who forced the crisis had very intense views and showed every sign of a willingness to stand tough, but their party's leadership in the House ultimately sold them out even though they had accomplished none of their real goals.

Similarly, despite the fact that juries hearing court cases must be unanimous, their verdicts overwhelmingly track the views of the median juror and not the extreme juror who theoretically has the power to prevent a verdict that he or she initially disagreed with from being reached.

One must go much deeper than the formal legal rules of the game and plumb into the "quantum mechanics" of human psychology to understand why this miracle comes through and works again and again.  But, ultimately, this miracle does seem to deliver the goods and bring about action from deadlock extremely reliably.

The business world works much the same way - the parties to a deal reach consensus or nothing happens, and usually when a business deal makes sense, that consensus is indeed reached.

In our bicameral system with separated powers and a Presidential veto power, consensus reached by parties with mutual agreement rather than a deterministic parliamentary process is the norm rather than the exception when it comes to passing legislation of all kinds.

I'm not terribly fond of a system that depends upon this miracle, which uses artificially created deadlines and games of chicken routinely to force consensus.

Yet, if it works, who can call it fundamentally flawed or conclude correctly that reform is really and truly necessary?

Are Stupid Voters Good Enough?

Ilya’s [Somin's] basic argument, at least as I interpret it, runs like this: The American public is deeply ignorant about politics; this is problematic for a functioning democracy; this is unlikely to change in the future; the best and fairest way to address this is to decrease the number of functions that government performs and to encourage people to “vote with their feet.”
From here.

Sean Trende at the Cato Institute, however, argues in the article linked above that while this argument makes sense, that experience has shown that voters are pretty good in practice at choosing that candidate whose position best matches their own worldviews despite ignorance of all sorts of policy and political minutiae. 

Voters turn out to be good in practice at voting the right way on the issues most salient to them, in part because our two party system provides labels that are usually sufficient to root out for most voters the correct answer to what, in the ballot box, is a simple, multiple choice question and not an open ended political trivia test.

Political ignorance might be too great for direct democracy, for example, via the citizen's initiative process, to be a good idea.  But, it isn't so great that a workable representative democracy is unattainable.

Modern India Compared To The New South Of The Late 19th Century

Measured by the percentage of the population that has toilets and the percentage of the population engaged in agriculture, India is at a stage of development roughly equivalent to that of the American South around 135 years ago.
Around 47% of households across India reported having a toilet in the 2011 census, up from 36% of households in 2001. . . . the regions where a majority of households have a toilet are only a few – North and North-East India, Kerala and the Western Coastal region and parts of Gujarat. In addition, coastal Andhra and Nagpur are also significant. In the rest of the country, the larger urban centres form little ‘islands’ of privilege (in this regard) as compared with the areas around them.
From Data Stories (interactive map available in source).

Access to toilets in India is roughly where it was in the American South sometime around the 1870s and 1880s.  Northern cities had widespread access to toilets decades earlier, and certainly by the early decades of the 19th century.  (Access to toilets was only a bit worse in the Roman empire than it is in India today and displayed a similar urban-rural divide.)

A passage in my daughter's AP Human Geography textbook also pointed out that a very large percentage of the population of India (if I recall correctly, 48%) are employed in agriculture (compared to 2% in the United States today).  

The American South had a similar work force composition around the 1870s and 1880s.  Historical statistics of the United States show that 55.8% of the workforce was engaged in agriculture in 1850 and 30.7% of the workforce was engaged in agriculture in 1900.  Interpolating the data points on a linear basis, the work force would have been 48% agricultural in 1861, but the Civil War and regional variation cast doubt on the accuracy of a simple linear interpolation to describe the American South.  The more heavily agricultural American South would have hit the 48% mark later and it hardly even makes sense to talk about what percentage of the population in the Confederacy was engaged in agriculture in the period from 1861-1865.

Like the American South of that time period, low speed passenger rail is still a highly important means of transportation and low level laborers have considerable geographic mobility although one place may offer little improvement relative to another in their line of work.

Like the American South of that time period, India has a substantial share of its population (Dalits former known as "untouchables" in the case of India, and newly freed slaves in the post-Civil War South), with a legacy of subhuman legal status who have recently gained legal rights that are not always secure in practice - in both cases, populations in which Christian religious affiliations are becoming more common and are becoming a vital part of this strata of society's culture.

In India today, as in the post-war American South, many formerly dominant land holders are through a variety of processes in the modernizing economy struggling to hold onto their dominant position, as much through the ordinary workings of the capitalist economy transitioning from a neo-feudal system as from formal land reforms.  "Maoist" revolutionary movements in India today are to a great extent anti-feudalists whose core demand, like that of the 40 acres and a mule freedman's movement in the post-war American South, is land reform (the American effort failed and the parallel Maoist movement in India doesn't have much greater prospects of success).

An important issue in India today, just as it was in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction American South is the struggle of the state to restrain private violence, particularly when carried out in support of traditional cultural values that are at odds with the modern statutory laws and criminal justice system formally adopted by the state.  Violence organized by local religious leaders today has similarities to Southern lynchings in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction eras in the American South which were often condoned by local white religious leaders in the South.  In both cases, that formal legal system is obviously descended from the English common law legal and political system, and a dialect of English is the language of the elites.

There are even similarities in climate.  Most of the American South, like most of India (particularly its less developed regions), is rarely freezing, is not marked by steep mountain ranges, is mostly arable, is not arid, and has seasons extreme storms that are similar in character (hurricanes in the American South, cyclones in India).

Like the United States of the late 19th century and early 20th century, modernization shows strong regional divisions.

Obviously, the analogy is a crude one that goes only so far.  The post-civil war American South didn't have jet plane service, cell phones, televisions, motor vehicles, or a sophisticated IT industry, as India does today.  India's last civil war was sixty years ago, while the New South was in the throes of recovering from the ravages of war.  But, the similarities are striking enough to suggest that the experience of the post-Civil War American South may offer some insights in to sensible development economics paths for India to choose today.

Shutdown Will Probably End Today

A day before the deadline to increase the debt limit of the United States and prevent a default on the national debt, Congress appears to have reached a deal to end a sixteen day old government shutdown, the longest since the twenty-one days shutdown of 1995-1996, and one of the longest of all time.

According to the Denver Post: "The proposal called for the Treasury to have authority to continue borrowing through Feb. 7, and the government would reopen through Jan. 15." The only concession in the plan relative to "clean bills" is that "It requires individuals and families seeking subsidies to purchase coverage to verify their incomes before qualifying."

The deal will easily clear the U.S. Senate but will likely pass in the U.S. House with the support of almost all Democrats and only a minority of Republicans in the House.

The deal represents a near total defeat for Republicans in their bid to win concessions from the White House postponing implementation of Obamacare and the public has blamed the shutdown primarily on Republicans whose popularity in opinion polls has plummeted to all time lows as a result of the tactic.

The move puts the ability of Republicans to retain control of the House in the 2014 elections, which had previously been very likely, in real doubt. Ironically, however, the Republicans in Congress most likely to pay the political price for this tactic are those in moderate districts who were least supportive of it, as their seats are most vulnerable to shifts in public opinion. Thus, the Congressional Republican party in 2015 (i.e. the 115th Congress) is likely to be even more conservative than it already is, despite the fact that it has already moved to the right since 2011 and has lurched dramatically to the right since the shutdown in 1995-1996 (the 104th Congress) - which also would move the GOP further from the political center.

Meanwhile, Krugman notes that GOP political tactics and policy stances in Congress have been very bad for the U.S. economy:
Macroeconomic Advisers has a new report out about the effects of bad fiscal policy since 2010 — that is, since the GOP takeover of the House. . . . They say that combined effects of uncertainty in the bond market and cuts in discretionary spending have subtracted . . . around $700 billion of wasted economic potential. . . . they also estimate that the current unemployment rate is 1.4 points higher than it would have been without those policies . . . we’d have unemployment below 6% if not for these people.

15 October 2013

Still Shut Down

Fifteen days into a government shutdown, Republicans still can't agree among themselves what to do with a default on the national debt just days away, although they are leaning towards a complete concession on the issue.

In recent history, only a 21 day shutdown at the end of 1995 and beginning of 1996 was longer.  The Republican caucus in the House has grown dramatically more conservative in the interim (and even since 2011), while the Democratic caucus has changed very little ideologically in the same time period.

School Administrators Still Stupid

Once again a school administrator has used a "zero tolerance" policy as an excuse for doing something stupid, in this case seriously punishing a volleyball team captain (loss of position and five forfeited games) for the "offense" of going sober to a party to drive a drunk friend home when the police arrived (even though the cops would vouch for her sobriety and didn't charge her with anything). The most recent case involves a teen at North Andover High near Boston.

11 October 2013

Public Says Shutdown Is GOP's Fault

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released Thursday night — and no doubt reflecting what both White House and Republican pollsters already knew — showed the public approval rating for Republicans at 24 percent, an all-time low in the history of the survey. Seventy percent of respondents said the congressional GOP was putting politics before the good of the country, and, worst for the GOP, the numbers for Obamacare have actually risen during the shutdown.
Via Politico.