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Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Yacht Tax & Why Government-Run Healthcare is a Bad Idea

In 1990, in a fit of populism, the US passed a special tax on the purchase of yachts. These were the results:

1) The Government collected very little revenue from the tax.

2) The people who wanted yachts bought them anyway, although usually overseas to avoid the tax.

3) Many US yacht comapanies went bankrupt and were forced to lay off thousands of skilled craftsmen and other workers with good-paying jobs.

In attempting to punish the wealthy, the Government ended up screwing the middle class instead. This sort of backfire happens fairly frequently, which brings me to my next point.

I wrote a short essay about healthcare reform before, but after reading it again, it seems disorganized and weak. So here goes again.

Suppose you want to buy some potato chips. If you live in a country with a free market, you can go into a supermarket and find a whole aisle with dozens a varieties of potato chips to suit all tastes and pockets, and if you don't like potato chips, there's a whole aisle of cookies right next to it. Did the government plan any of this? No, it's the power of free-markets to provide variety and low costs. But suppose the government decided to get involved. Perhaps a pressure group would persuade them to pass a special law to provide low-priced or free snacks to poor people.
The government would probably do this by issuing special food stamps to poor people to get the snacks for free. But someone must still bear the cost. The government might reimburse the supermarket (with money raised by taxing something else more), or it might require the supermarket to bear the cost. In that case, the supermarket would increase the prices of the other products to offset the money lost from the free snacks. Either way, in order to provide free or low-cost services to some people, everyone else has to pay a higher price.

This basically what is going in the US healthcare system. The government requires hospitals to perform services at a cost dictated by the government. To make up for the loss, the hospitals and insurance companies pass the costs onto the insurance-holders, AKA the people actually honest enough to try and pay for healthcare themselves. The middle class gets shafted twice: they pay higher prices for healthcare plus taxes to pay for services for other people.

The argument that healthcare costs are lower in countries with socialized medicine (such as the UK, France, etc) is misleading because the healthcare programs in those countries are funded by higher taxes on other commodities (usually alcohol and tobacco). Gasoline costs over twice as much in the UK and France than it does in the US because of higher taxes. To look at it another way, the cost looks low only because the price has been added onto something else. These countries also keep healthcare costs low by rationing treatment (bad idea) and allowing easy access to preventative care (good idea).

The high cost of healthcare in the US is not the result of too little government intervention; it is the inevitable result of trying to control the market. The free market works great for snacks, movies, books, cars, clothes, and just about everything else. So why not healthcare? A free market for healthcare would cost less, be more efficient, offer a greater range of choice, and treat people like responsible adults.

Seems like an obvious choice to me, but then again, I'm a heartless, money-grubbing libertarian.

Bah, humbug!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Stupidest Debate

Whenever a killing spree occurs, various conservative dolts fall over each other to be the first to denounce video games and heavy metal as the cause.

But wait a minute. Homicide is as old as the human race. Even such cherished texts as the Bible and American History are loaded with violence. The Bible begins with a murder (c'mon people, Cain and Abel) and ends with the destruction of all life on earth. The Old Testament, which comprises about 3/4 of the Bible, is page after page of massacres, battles, and divine retribution.
Indeed, there are many things in the Old Testament that make Resevoir Dogs look like Mary Poppins.

American History is loaded with violence too. Most American History books describe at least ten wars in detail and mention numerous other skirmishes, rebellions, and murders. Oddly, however, while the books contain many written descriptions of violence (e.g. date and bodycount), they have very few images of violence. I will return to this point shortly.

So, it seems to me that you could just as well blame the Bible and US History books for violent behavior, since they both glorify it. Strangely, however, the blame is pinned elsewhere. Why?

I think the answer can be found from a favorite conservative past-time: Professional "Wrestling". For me, the most irritating thing about it is not that it is violent, but that they try to obscure it. It's "fighting" where no one gets hurt, which is complete nonsense. At least in video games, when you shoot someone, there's splay of blood and they fall down. Hell, even Looney Tunes is more truthful- there are bullet holes, black eyes, and head bumps. Many people, particularly conservatives, have the notion that violence is OK, but showing the consequences of it is not. When you show pictures of dead people, it tends to shatter the illusion that what is going on is just good, clean fun.

The only hope for a more peaceful world lies not with censoring violence, but by showing it truthfully. So long as journalists are forbidden (or choose not) to photograph coffins bearing slain soldiers, or broadcast grisly images, I fear it is only a matter of time before the US public is roused into a new lynch-mob frenzy by a rollicking country music anthem.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Does Religion Make People Nicer?

This article of the same title gives a qualified "yes," with the main catch being that religion makes believers nicer to members of the same religion. Also worthy of note is the experiment where they had volunteers take a test in classroom which they said was haunted by the ghost of a past student. The researchers found that the ghost story helped cut down on cheating. Brilliant! I should try using that the next time I supervise a test.

For my own part, I think most religions create and prevent suffering in about equal amounts. I think the best counter-example to the idea that religion makes people nicer is the religion of the Aztecs.

The Aztecs were not a fortunate people in terms of land. It was poor in resources and only supported a few basic crops. As they had nothing to trade, the only way they could acquire other things was to raid or conquer neighboring tribes. I imagine they felt some guilt about this, which helps explain the nature of the Aztec religion.

The Aztecs had a grim view of the world. The purpose of life was to fight and die for the glory of the gods. They also believe the sun required regular human sacrifices or it would fall out of the sky and the world would collapse into chaos. These beliefs, I guess, helped them rationalize their constant warfare. However vicious these beliefs were, it appears they helped maintain order in their society through several centuries.

Bronislaw Malinowski once observed that there are no people, however primitive, without beliefs in religion and magic. I think the oppostie is true as well. Build all the flying cars you want, there will still be people who read their horoscopes.

If there can be any great religious teaching, I think the best was elucidated by Bill and Ted of San Dimas: Go Forth and Be Excellent to Each Other.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A New Pro-Atheist Slogan & Talking to North Korea

This week, I have a double feature. Apologies for the weird formatting- Blogger is being a jerk today.

In London, a bunch of atheists got the phrase "There's probably no god, now stop worrying and enjoy your life" painted on the side of a few buses. I feel this slogan is sort of lame so I've been trying to think of a better one. Here's my suggestion:

Welcome to Earth.
Please refrain from theft, rape, and murder.
The other guests will appreciate your courtesy.
Enjoy your visit.
Now for North Korea. By all accounts of the handful of people who have managed to escape from it, North Korea is miserable shit-hole ruled by the closest thing there is in real life to a comic book supervillian. Still, their actions have some rational basis. As of this moment, there are over 30,000 US combat troops plus another 20,000 or so South Korean troops poised on the other side of the DMZ, ready to invade at a moment's notice. They also perform regular exercises to practice for it. Keep in mind that this force is within 100 miles of North Korea's capital. People who see enemies at the gates tend to be jumpy. Imagine the US reaction if the Russians stationed 30,000 troops in Toronto. People would be very, very nervous, and probably fall in behind hardline politicians promising protection from "them."
I think the Waco stand-off provides a good small-scale analogy for this. A bunch of nuts had a compound in Texas, which is not itself a crime, but word leaked out that weapons were being stockpiled and children were being abused. Given the events at Jonestown, it 's not surprising that there was wide public support to defuse the situation. Unfortunately, The ATF and FBI did a pretty piss-poor job of scaling things down. I'm no hostage-negotiator, but if your goal is to calm down the leader of a doomsday cult, surrounding his compound with military vehicles and heavily-armed police might not be the best way to go about doing it. In the ensuing shootout and fire, about 90 people were killed.
I think the best way to deal with the North Koreans is to ignore them completely. First, cut-off the aid, then remove the troops. With no more outside help or enemy to focus their hatred on it, perhaps they will begin wondering why all there is to eat is sawdust soup.