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Friday, January 30, 2009

A Lesson from China

China's One-Child policy is often cited as an example of an effective, wide-ranging government policy based on hard-nosed pragmatism. Its origin however, is an interesting tale in its own right.

When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, Mao (who would later take several wives) encouraged large families to replace those lost by decades of war. The program was successful in increasing China's population, which rose from 583 million in 1953 to over 1.3 billion today. However, the population became too large, and so the One-Child policy was phased in during the 1970s. If the original policy had never been enacted, the second policy would not have been necessary.

What is the relevance of this to the US? Well, for decade the US government subsidized (and to this day continues to subsidize) the coal and oil industries and set-up utility monopolies in order to provide cheap energy. This program was successful in keeping prices low, but at a cost of greater pollution, inefficiency, and stifling of innovation. Now, the government is trying to go the other way: using tax breaks and subsidies to promote alternative energy. I wonder what would have happened if the government had not gotten involved in the first place. The price of energy would probably have beeen higher, but that would have encouraged conservation and innovation- the very things the environmentalists are pushing for now. All the technology has been around for a long time (electric cars have been around since the mid 1800s) but because of the subsidies and tax breaks, the market was distorted and these technologies never took off. And the government's largest alternative energy program, ethanol from corn, is pretty much universally acknowledged as a giant boondoggle by the experts.

I say get the government out of the energy business entirely.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Islam

"Islam is a religion of peace."

Actually, no, it's not.

Here's what the Quran says about non-Muslims: "Kill the unbelievers wherever you find them"
The Quran gives fairly explicit instructions about how Muslims should deal with non-Muslims:

First, you should try to convert them.
If that fails, enslave them.
If that fails, kill them.
If that fails, drive them from your lands.
If that fails, force them to pay protection money.

In many Islamic countries, conversion from Islam is punishable by death (as the Quran teaches). In 2006, Abdul Rahman was sentenced to death for converting from Islam, but sentence was commuted after international pressure mounted.

And who can forget poor Salman Rushdie? He's been in hiding ever since being sentenced to death for making fun of Islam (the Quran teaches that those who mock Islam should be killed).

Sam Harris sums it up well:

"As a matter of doctrine, the Muslim conception of tolerance is one in which non-Muslims have been politically and economically subdued, converted, or put to sword."

The small number of Muslims I have known seemed like nice folks, but I think this is because (fortunately) they do not follow the Quran very closely.



Addendum: This is so good, I just had to make room for it. It's a quote from Mahavira, the founder of Jainism.

"Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being."

Beats the pants of the 10 Commandments or anything in the Quran.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Government vs. Corporations

I have heard many times that without the government to protect us, we'd all be at the mercy of those evil corporations. I disagree. I think on the whole, governments are capable of inflicting much more harm than any corporation. I don't like everything Wal-Mart or Microsoft does, but at least I am not forced to support their activities the way I am forced to support the government's activities through taxes.

Besides, the US government is heavily influenced by corporations anyway. Do you really expect politicians to create laws that are unfavorable to the people that got them elected?

Most corporations pay no income taxes, but they do have access to public money to carry out their schemes because of the government. if you really wanted to throw a wrench in their plans, the best way to do that would be to take away their muscle.

Corporations can be cruel and greedy, but they are mostly interested in making money. A corporation wouldn't set off nuclear bombs to intimidate people in other countries. They'd probably set them off if they could make money from it (charge admission to watch- nuclear carnival?). They'll throw poison in a river if it's cheaper than paying the fine or disposing of it properly, but they wouldn't spray poison to kill other people's crops or dump thousands of tons of chemical weapons in the sea.

A government is force- prisons, police, soldiers. The government doesn't protect anyone's freedom. If anything, the single greatest threat to a person's freedom is whatever government holds sway where that person lives.

I agree that there will probably always be a government of some kind around and that there are a handful of legitimate functions of a government. The presence of police for example probably deters some crime (although it would be difficult to do a cost-benefit analysis to find the ideal amount). However, most of what the government does, in my opinion, is stupid and/or unethical.
If you want to help homeless people, pay for someone's education, contribute to scientific research, or whatever, you're better off using your own time and resources to accomplish that goal than handing money over to the government and hoping they do what you want.

I can't avoid hypocrisy in this. After all, here I am in the Peace Corps benefiting from a government program. I like Peace Corps a lot and I'm glad it's around, but if it wasn't, it would not stop me from pursuing my goals. I found an opportunity that seemed like a good fit for me so I took it, which as far as I can tell is what everyone else on Earth does.

Rebuild the World Trade Center Already

It's been over 7 years. What is the hold-up? Did they lose the plans? Just rebuild it the way it was. The original towers only took about 7 years to build. Go to youtube and watch for Penn & Teller's take on the subject.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Healthcare Reform

There has been much debate as to whether the US should switch (completely) to government-run universal healthcare. Supporters of such a system often cite that many countries (actually all of them) with socialized medicine spend less per capita for
healthcare than the US.

Per Capita Healthcare Spending in US$ (Public + Private)

#1 United States:4,271
#2 Switzerland:3,857
#3 Norway:3,182
#4 Denmark:2,785
#5 Luxembourg:2,731
#6 Iceland:2,701
#7 Germany:2,697
#8 France:2,288
#9 Japan:2,243
#10 Netherlands:2,173
#11 Sweden:2,145
#12 Belgium:2,137
#13 Austria:2,121
#14 Canada:1,939
#15 Australia:1,714
#16 Finland:1,704
#17 Italy:1,676
#18 United Kingdom:1,675
#19 Israel:1,607
#20 Ireland:1,569

At the same time, the US lags behind many other countries in terms of infant mortality and other indicators. These facts are presented as an open-and-shut case for socialized medicine. Let's dig a little deeper to see if there isn't more to the story.

In 2000, the World Health Organization gave this list as ranking of all countries in terms of healthcare quality. The US took 37th place. However, if you check, you'll see that Canada is 30th and Germany is 25th. And there are many nations with socialized medicine such as China that have a much lower ranking. If we look at the top-ranking nations, we see that they are also among the world's wealthiest. This leads to a rather unsurprising conclusion: wealthy nations have better healthcare than poor ones. Well, derrr, they have more money to spend on it. It is true though that the US is near the bottom in healthcare quality when compared to other wealthy nations.

OK, so why is the US's ranking so low when so much money is being spent on it? Well, part of it might have to do with the high cost of medical lawsuits. With this many lawyers involved, you can be sure there are armies of math geeks doing their damndest to spin the numbers, but here is a factsheet from the docs that says basically the same thing. Well, looky here: Harvard says 40% of medical lawsuits are hot air. According to this article, the legal cost of medicine is actually quite small, and the higher costs are attributable to doctor's salaries and the price of drugs.

So, the US system could use some tweaking. Are the people who want universal healthcare be willing to pay $8.62/gal for gas? OK, only part of that tax money goes to healthcare, but to pay for it, many other commodities must be taxed. And let's not forget that the insurance industry is not going to agree quickly to shut down and give up billions of dollars in profit.

In brief, the US healthcare system is a giant clusterfuck, so take care of yourself and buy good insurance.