Saturday, December 30, 2006

COLUMN -- Science, certainly, but leave space for the liberal arts

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:05 PM |  

Thursday, December 28, 2006

In his opinion piece ("As discoveries multiply, popular understanding of science must deepen," Dec. 22), science teacher Peter Pitman argues that policymakers ought to better understand fundamental principles of science and math on which policy is based; specifically, that judges and lawmakers should understand the science of global climate change.

I've made much the same argument relative to policymakers who unscientifically exaggerate the dangers of secondhand smoke and bureaucrats who ignore scientific evidence about the dangers of universal vaccination.

This is, however, not a column on global warming, secondhand smoke or childhood vaccines. It is not a column questioning Pitman's premise of the need to deepen our understanding of scientific principles, which I wholeheartedly agree with. It is a caution that in the popular rush to promote science and math we don't automatically assume a "clockwork universe" where physical laws are waiting to be discovered and acted upon.

Science can always teach us how we might do something; it can never determine for us whether that "something" is something we ought to do. That is the realm of the liberal arts education, without which science loses most of its humanity and much of its usefulness.

Pitman cites three historical examples, from the scientist's perspective, of the dangers of the "I was never very good at science" rationale too often heard from policymakers. In his words:

• "Hey, Galileo, I was never very good at science, so recant everything you've said about Earth revolving around the sun and we will spare your life."

• "Sacre bleu, Monsieur Pasteur, I was never very good at science but your claim that invisible microbes can kill me is absurd."

• "Say, Charlie Darwin. I was never very good at science, but you'll never make a monkey out of me."

Common to each of Pitman's conflicts is more than dispute over the truth or falsity of a scientific fact. Each of these scientific theories radically challenged man's concept of his place in the universe and his humanity.

• Galileo did not simply draw a new chart of the solar system; he said, "Man, you are no longer at the center of God's creation."

• Pasteur did not simply discover a cause of disease; he said, "Man, your suffering is not a punishment or a test from God — virtue and righteousness cannot spare you."

• Darwin did not simply provide man a view of his past; he said, "Man, you are not a unique creation among the birds of the air or the beasts of the field."

In a "clockwork universe" governed by self-evident physical laws, such distinctions would not matter. But do we really live in a clockwork universe when even physicists tell us, however unbiased our observation might be, by observing we affect what we observe in ways we can never know? In our quest for security have we cast off the pseudo-certainty of our ancestors' superstitions or merely traded up to a more sophisticated mythology?

"A Clockwork Orange," a book by British author Anthony Burgess and a film by Stanley Kubrick, tells the story of Alex, a teenage gang leader into gratuitous violence and Beethoven. He's caught, imprisoned and "rehabilitated" using modern scientific conditioning — he's given a drug that nauseates him and forced to watch violent films scored (unintentionally) with Beethoven's symphonic music. Science triumphs over nature — Alex cannot even think violent thoughts without becoming nauseated. Beethoven also makes him ill.

Science does not immunize man from trade-offs. The "clockwork" Alex was nonviolent, but he also lost his love of Beethoven; eventually he attempts suicide. Galileo, Pasteur and Darwin created more knowledgeable human beings, but what did mankind give up? If we put our faith exclusively in scientific certainty, is there room for Beethoven?

Science can teach us the dangers of secondhand smoke; it cannot teach us the value of liberty and freedom. Science can provide pro and con arguments for national immunization; it cannot tell us whether ignoring evidence of harm to some children is better than jeopardizing a program that is doing much good for many children. Science can indicate the world is getting warmer; it cannot value the human consequences of the myriad policy trade-offs doing "something" might entail.

Education that helps us sort through the values that make good trade-offs is as important, if not more so, as the scientific training that provides data to support our decisions. A scientist may convince us the polar ice caps are melting, but it will be a poet who makes us weep for the polar bear.

Update: PZ Myers, a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris, rapes this column here. In his first sentence he reflects his intellectual bent by using the objective term “conservative nutjob,” so I would guess I’m on safe ground deducing Mr. Myers viewed the column not as a scientist or a thinker, but as a liberal; that is, not objectively, but as a personal insult, the way a feminist views someone with the audacity to hold open a door.

It’s an interesting critique, and I’d really like to read the article it is based on, because it is not this one. Mr. Myers finds much to criticize me for, most of which is not what I said or implied. However, I do not object to his reference of me as a “kook,” a term that in the vernacular of many eras was often applied to the greatest scientific minds by those whose ideology neutered their minds, robbing them of the cajones to think for themselves.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

COLUMN -- DFL fought off same-sex marriage amendment, but what about that law?

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:43 AM |  

Friday, December 20, 2006

Once upon a time, nearly every high school student read Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" and probably memorized at least the opening lines of Marc Antony's funeral oration ("I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him"). In his speech, Antony subtly sways the crowd against Caesar's assassins ("all honorable men"), by reflecting their charges of political ambition against Caesar back on their own obvious ambition for power.

Would that an orator of Antony's skill might speak at burial of the debate over same-sex marriage.

Given its druthers, the DFL-controlled Legislature would prefer to bury the debate along with the proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage, which the DFL buried in Senate committee last session. I oppose the amendment. But for the DFL to kill the debate without questioning the wisdom of the current Minnesota law banning same-sex marriage may be, for same-sex couples, "the unkindest cut of all."

It was the DFL that decried an ambitious Republican for divisive rhetoric portending the downfall of Western civilization if Adam married Steve or Anna married Eve. The DFL criticized a "national-ambition-denyin' " governor for a rant that included criticism of "gay-marriage-supportin' " liberals. It criticized the ambition of a Republican Party that would exploit same-sex marriage as a get-out-the-vote wedge issue.

It was the DFL that proclaimed it fought the good fight to keep the Minnesota Constitution free from what it alternately described as discrimination and homophobia. A ban on same-sex marriage, said the DFL, is embedded in Minnesota law, which protects us from same-sex couples. The DFL told us that, and as a Marc Antony might point out, the DFL is an honorable party.

It was Republicans, said the DFL, who played the discrimination card. It was Republicans who said an amendment was necessary to deny the protections of marriage to same-sex couples. It was Republicans and their anti-gay amendment who said children raised by same-sex couples don't deserve the same stability and security marriage provides other children. It was Republicans who wanted an amendment marginalizing same-sex couples; so said the DFL.

The DFL that would have no part of any such amendment. The DFL said Minnesota law was good enough. And one of its leaders alleged he had it on good authority that the state Supreme Court would not touch the law, so the law was safe.

Now, the DFL believes, the issue of same-sex marriage should be dropped. But if an amendment banning same-sex marriage is wrong, is the law the amendment would strengthen wrong as well? The DFL apparently questions whether that distinction is important enough to keep open a debate few want to have.

With polling figures showing significant public opposition to same-sex marriage, it is probably unfair to expect a DFL-controlled Legislature to face unpopular political repercussions simply because it might be the right thing to do. I am probably wrong to infer that, short of an amendment banning same-sex marriage, the DFL holds a similarly discriminatory view of homosexuality as amendment supporters. It's probably partisan and cynical of me to say that the DFL supports homosexuals just enough to get their campaign contributions and no more.

As a matter of law, there is a degree of difference between an amendment banning same-sex marriage and a law banning same-sex marriage — although it may not seem that way to same-sex couples that can't marry in either case. Remember, it is the DFL making that distinction, and the DFL is an honorable party.

Some might remember a DFL Party that really did give voice to the voiceless, but that was a different time. Even Hubert Humphrey, who before it was popular stood in defense of civil rights against the tide of prejudice, would understand today's DFL reluctance to buck public opinion. The DFL can't take that risk, what with ambitious Republicans lurking in the shadows, itching to get back in power. The DFL must keep its priorities straight … so to speak.

Same-sex marriage is a messy issue. The DFL has repelled the effort to ban same-sex marriage by constitutional amendment in favor of banning same-sex marriage in law. If that be cowardice, then I guess same-sex couples should make the most of it. If same-sex marriage were more popular, the DFL would certainly support it. It's not popular, so for now, same-sex couples should be thankful that they don't have Republicans walking all over them — just Democrats walking around them.

After all, our hypothetical orator might say, the DFL is an honorable party.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Walz co-sponsors minimum wage bill -- Who'd a thunk it?

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:45 AM |  

Okay, the guy’s a rookie, so I’ll cut him some slack for drinking the kool-aid and trying to sound like a congressman, but not for foolishness he espouses. From a press release –
Congressman-elect Tim Walz announced today that legislation to raise the federal minimum wage will be the first bill he co-sponsors as a member of Congress. The minimum wage has remained stagnant at $5.15 per hour since 1997. Walz will co-sponsor legislation that increases the minimum wage to $7.25 over a period of approximately two years.
His first misconception, he's making a difference that matters.
“People who work eight hours a day, 52 weeks a year to make less than $11,000 have been ignored for nearly a decade,” Walz said. “These Americans need a raise—and all Americans need to know that new US Representatives they elected don’t just talk about making a difference—we ARE making a difference.”
The same people making minimum wage a decade ago are not making minimum wage today. The bottom quarter of wage earners is a fluid group – people move in an out. Granted, some people don’t, but wouldn’t it be better to identify and target those people are help them rather than some universal program with unintended consequences? Of course, that kind of targeting is better done by civil society and private charity than government, and giving up the vote buying potential of largess is something politicians are not apt to do. Witness:
“I received a great deal of support during my campaign from Minnesota’s working families,” said Walz, whose candidacy was endorsed by nearly twenty unions ranging from the AFL-CIO to the United Transportation Union. “I am proud to co-sponsor this legislation, but I will be even more proud to see it signed into law. America’s working families know this raise is long overdue.”

“Tim Walz stood up for working families throughout his campaign,” said Minnesota AFL-CIO President Ray Waldron. “The people of the First District elected him because he knows what working people need--affordable healthcare, retirement security, freedom to choose a union and most urgently, an increase in the federal minimum wage.”
(Just an additional note – if freedom to choose a union is important, why isn’t freedom to choose not to join a union as a condition of employment in a union shop?)
Raising the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour would directly benefit 6.6 million workers nationally, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Since the last time the minimum wage was increased, Congress has raised its own pay by $31,600. During his campaign, Walz vowed not to accept a congressional pay raise until the minimum wage was increased.
Well, I guess that points up the urgency of raising the minimum wage.
Walz, who will take the oath of office January, 4, 2007 said, “I expect to pass this legislation within the first 100 hours of voting in the 110th Congress. I’m humbled by the enormity of the impact this legislation will have on Americans and I’m honored to co-sponsor this legislation on behalf of the people of Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District.
Actually, I kinda like Tim Walz as far as Democrats go. But this is the kind of voting with the party nonsense that Mark Kennedy was accused of. Walz hasn’t proven himself good enough yet to be humble, especially over something with the trivial impact of the minimum wage.

Have we done enough for a family making $11,000 to raise its annual income to around $15,000? Seems like Democrats are declaring, “mission accomplished” a little early. For people that really need a boost in income, the minimum wage does very little. For young people (already with the highest unemployment rate) needing entry-level job opportunities, the minimum wage reduces those opportunities as employers cut back to compensate for higher cost (but not nearly as dramaticly as conservatives worry).

So what should we do? I heard an interesting proposal the other day from a dismal scientist that makes sense. Politically, the minimum wage is a big deal -- one of those arguments that takes on great significance because the consequences are so insignificant. Economically, the minimum wage is much ado about little. It has more negative effects than positive, but in the grand scheme of bureaucratic incompetence, not enough to get worked up about. If $7.25 is the right number today, let’s index it for inflation for the next 10 years and be done with it. My bet – Democrats won’t do that; they won’t be willing to give up the political clout that goes with dispensing government largess.

COLUMN -- Consensus is useful, but not for the sake of consensus

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:50 AM |  

Friday, December 15, 2006

Washington Post writer David Broder, whose column "Dealing with urgent problem, grown-up group worked it out" appeared on this page last week, quotes former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson gushing over the process that produced the Iraq Study Group report.

"This could be an example, not only of how to handle Iraq, but it could apply to immigration, Social Security and all those other things that have been hung up for so long," said Simpson. "That's what this last election said: Get serious and get your work done."

Avoiding commentary on the content of the ISG report, Broder declares the process that created it a success. He hopes Washington heeds Simpson's observation. Many would offer the same advice to our governor and legislators — reach consensus, get things done. That's disturbing in its simplicity.

"A fatuous process yields, necessarily, fatuous results," writes Eliot A. Cohen in the Wall Street Journal. Professor Cohen criticizes the ISG report in detail, but his underlying theme is this: An overwhelming mandate to produce a consensus document is no way to run a war, much less win one.

A mandate to produce consensus for its own sake is also no way to solve problems, much less run a state.

Gov. Pawlenty has said that perhaps the reason Republicans took an election drubbing is they didn't get the job done. More than a little truth there, but Pawlenty, a disciple of Maharishi McCain (Sen. John) and a pilgrim on the path of transcending politics, seems to be seeking Nirvana in a mantra of consensus. What is consented seems to be of secondary importance.

The serpent in Pawlenty's garden of good and evil, Senate majority leader Larry Pogemiller, provided an interesting take on consensus on "Taxpayer's League Live with David Strom" (AM 1280 "The Patriot"). He said that with the significant DFL majority in the Senate, he anticipated more bipartisan consensus than in the past. Well, duh! Flogging will continue until morale improves, senator?

If achieving consensus is just the more powerful proposing and the less powerful conceding, heck, we're well on the way. Mere days after the election, Pawlenty was touting universal health care coverage, a health insurance mandate, a statewide smoking ban, banning prescription-drug ads and state monitoring of physician quality. Coming from a conservative Republican governor that's not consensus — that's surrender.

I'm not making an argument for the perfect at the expense of the good or for "stay the course" partisanship. The perfect doesn't exist (although ardent supporters of utopian universal health care and government-run retirement might differ), but everything less than perfect is not necessarily good. Although the perfect might be unattainable, we still ought to shoot for the good, not just the agreeable. And that's where Cohen has problems with the ISG report, and I have problems with the Kumbaya consensus attitude going into the legislative session.

"Consensus" is a means, not an end. Consensus is not a knee-jerk rush to some agreeable middle ground. The end, the objective, is figuring out the best possible way for the state to attack a specific problem. Sometimes that means, without sacrificing principle, the two parties reach beyond their established positions (hint, governor: they "transcend" not surrender) and create a third alternative that both can enthusiastically support.

A compromise that requires one party or the other to abandon its principles for the sake of "getting the job done" leaves that party bitter, dissatisfied and itching to re-fight the battle when it is stronger. That's exactly what happened to the DFL, which even the governor admits was bullied into submission in 2003. The 2003 budget fight left the DFL bitter, dissatisfied and now it's back, proposing to "fix" all the unfairness in the 2003 and subsequent Pawlenty budgets.

Instead of real reform in 2003, the governor and the Legislature compromised on budget cuts and financial gimmicks, but, God bless 'em, they got the job done and balanced the budget. Now it's 2007, and I'll bet my paycheck against pocket change that instead of reform from the DFL, we'll simply see the budget restored to "where it should be." This time Republicans will slink away, mutter and plot for the time when they again get to dictate "consensus."

That's no way to solve problems and no way to run a government. Consensus as the means to a beneficial end is a good thing. Mandating consensus as an end in itself is not. The latter accomplishes nothing good and likely something bad — a fatuous process yields, necessarily, fatuous results.

Now, about that ISG report …

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Yes, I think I'll sue . . . .

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:41 AM |  

Mistaken for Michael Jordan, so he sues
Allen Heckard of Portland, Ore. "says he’s been mistaken as Michael Jordan nearly every day over the past 15 years and he’s tired of it." So he's suing the basketball star and Nike founder Phil Knight for $832 million in all.

“'I'm constantly being accused of looking like Michael and it makes it very uncomfortable for me,' said Heckard.

Heckard is suing Jordan for defamation and permanent injury and emotional pain and suffering. He’s suing Knight for defamation and permanent injury for promoting Jordan and making him one of the most recognized men in the world."

Why $832 million, exactly? "Well, you figure with my age and you multiply that times seven and ah, then I turn around and ah I figure that's what it all boils down to." That's no more arbitrary as a calculation than some damage assertions we can think of that have done very well in court.
Watch out, Gorton's!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

This is funny . . . .

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:01 AM |  

Via Vox Day . . .

Warning, liberals at "work" and . . . .

another argument against "one size fits all" government standards

Friday, December 08, 2006

John Kerry -- How not to apologize

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:55 AM |  

This letter from John Kerry to the father of a serviceman in Iraq is, well, reminiscent of the hooker that charges extra for sincerity. The Dad’s response comments better than I can or have a right to.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Modest Proposals for state surplus

Posted by Craig Westover | 4:36 PM |  

Use the whole surplus to purchase lottery tickets. Randomly distribute the tickets to all Minnesotans. The state’s big buy creates a huge jackpot that is splashed on state-purchased billboards, enticing people to toss in their own dollars. As the state-sponsored commercial says, “Nature will love us for it.” Plus, the state gets to tax the winner. The state encourages Minnesotans, so it must be a good investment. With a little luck, the state recoups its investment and then some. It could happen.

Pay cash for the new Twins Stadium. Gov. Pawlenty dons his Twins jersey from last summer’s bill signing and in a ceremony this April at the Dome, surrounded by $390,000,000 in cash (heck, $500,000,000 and throw in a roof), he repeals the Hennepin county tax. Pawlenty pushes the pile of money to Carl Pohlad and Pohlad gives Pawlenty a $10 strip of Dome Dollars and a Twins autographed ball, thereby demonstrating the power of public-private partnerships.

Buyout statewide bar, restaurant and mom and pop coffee shop owners that complain a statewide smoking ban will hurt their businesses -- at market rates before the ban passes. Because there is no economic impact on business from smoking bans and people flock to smoke-free bars and restaurants, after passing a statewide smoking ban the state can unload the establishments for a considerable profit. It, too, could happen.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

COLUMN -- Trade-offs, always trade-offs, but who will control them?

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:19 AM |  

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Trade-offs, always trade-offs, but who will control them?

Regions Hospital is discontinuing bariatric surgery — reducing the size of the stomach or bypassing parts of it — as a treatment for obesity. According to an article in the Pioneer Press, a key factor in its decision was a decreasing number of patients eligible for the surgery — "eligible" as defined by tighter insurance restrictions.

Regions' action is a Ghost of Christmas Future vision of health care under the managed care model. We ought heed the warning: Managed care necessarily trades off access to health care and quality of service for low cost, but not necessarily in ways beneficial to individual patients or society. Whether it's private interests or government managing health care doesn't matter. The problem is managed care.

Unlike managed care, an individually directed health care system puts purchasing power in the hands of individuals, who make their own health care decisions. "Purchasing power" might be individual funds, insurance proceeds or even government subsidies. The point is that the market adjusts access and price to patient demands, not the financial imperatives of a third party.

From 775 in 1999, bariatric procedures performed in Minnesota rose to 4,778 in 2004. Last year, the number declined and will drop again this year. The increase should not be a surprise. Bariatric surgery appears a (relatively) quick fix for obese patients, profitable for hospitals — and a third party pays the bill. But when it became unsustainable to pay for this "free" procedure, health plans had no choice but to limit the demand by initiating criteria that made bariatric surgery a "last resort" rather than an option for patients. Health plans effectively limited the procedure to those who "really need it."

OK, but that's a good thing, right?

In aggregate, the answer is, "yes," which means it's a good thing if you're healthy and your premiums or taxes are paying the bill. But if you're sick, get in line. Health care must be rationed by access to maintain low-cost premiums or (in a single-payer, government-run system) to avoid tax increases.
When care is rationed by price, the mechanism of individually directed systems, at some point people seek alternatives, and providers compete to offer lower-cost, higher-quality care.

Another financial factor that led Regions to discontinue bariatric surgery was increased use of new, less-invasive techniques that both reduce hospital stays and patient trauma but require a large upfront investment in surgical technology and equipment. Regions couldn't justify the investment.

Given the choice between a paying a lot for painful surgery and a long hospital stay or paying less for a less painful and quicker recovery, most candidates facing bariatric surgery would certainly select the latter. In an individually directed model, hospitals are motivated to use new technology to lower cost, improve service and attract more patients. Even in that situation, Regions might have chosen to get out of the bariatric surgery business for any number of competitive and economic reasons, but in the cost-driven model, it had no choice. Offering better service at lower cost has less market influence when a third party, not patients, determines demand.

When a third party pays the bills and discourages the number of surgeries, hospitals, such as Regions, discontinue that procedure. That reduces competition and lessens the incentive to invest in new technology. Payback for investment in expensive new technology may take longer than in a competitive situation — where price and quality increase demand. The investment may not be made.

It's ironic, but the best way for a managed health plan to appear cost-efficient is to sustain a higher per-patient cost in the long run with the illusion of lower aggregate costs in the present. That is the crux of problem with managed health care — it really doesn't drive any substantial reform.

Ultimately, regardless of the type of health care system, there are always trade-offs between access, cost and quality. The only real question is who gets to make the trade-offs.

In a managed care system, a health plan or government bureaucracy makes decisions for everyone. Regions' decision gives us a vision of that future — reduced cost at the expense of less personalized care, reduced access to some procedures and slower adoption of new medical technology. That's a nightmare but need not be a reality. We need to wake up to the realization that the first imperative of health care reform is putting health care dollars from whatever source under control of patients, the people actually receiving service.

We need to create a system in which individuals have control of the trade-offs.

Note: Thanks to Dr. Robert Geist, Dr. Lee Kurisko, Twila Brase of Citizens Council on Health Care (CCHC), and King Banaian, chairman of the Department of Economics at St. Cloud State, for vetting some of the ideas in this column.