Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Jason Chaffetz is an inspiration

Well, he's an inspiration to me. He's constantly inspiring me to blog, and that counts for something.

Here's his speech from the floor of the House yesterday:

Mr. Speaker, I rise with deep concern about families of United States of America. The economics of this credit card congress are not working. Where are the jobs?
You cannot tax and spend our way out of our challenges. I fervently believe that President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, and the Democrats in Congress are taxing, spending, and borrowing too much money.

This credit card congress has now put us nearly twelve trillion dollars in debt. We're spending nearly 600 [million? billion? it sounds like he said "billion", though that makes no sense] dollars per day, just in interest on that debt. Bailouts, stimulus money by the billions it is not helping the average person at home.

And now we have a proposal to slam through a government run, Chinese-financed health care system, that puts a Washington D.C. politician between our doctor and my wife.

The tax and spend, credit card driven, Chinese-financed economics driven by the Democrats don't work. We need fiscal discipline, limited government, accountability, and a strong national defense.

We need to restore liberty to the American people and small business men and women. That's where you'll find the jobs. Stand up, America, let your voice be heard, put a stop to this credit card congress.

He was proud enough of this performance that he pointed to it on Twitter. He really shouldn't have been, because the whole speech sounds like he's attempting some sort of Republican Buzzword Bingo record, a bunch of half-baked ideas delivered auctioneer-style.

But let's focus on the substance of his comments.

First up, his deep concern for the families of the United States. Where is the concern for the families without health insurance? Or for those who have seen their premiums skyrocket? Does Chaffetz have any ideas for dealing with these?

We need fiscal discipline, limited government, accountability, and a strong national defense.

It's the only idea he's got.

The accusation that the bank bailout hasn't helped ordinary Americans seems fairly accurate to me. If the goal was to keep credit available, I think there were better ways to do it. But despite the fact that lots of fat, rich bastards got fatter, richer, and bastardier from the bailout, it did keep us from plunging off an economic abyss of George Bush's making, which was good for everybody.

But the stimulus bill is a completely different and far superior animal, and by lumping the two together, Chaffetz shows either his ideological myopia, or an actual intent to deceive. You can't talk about the stimulus package solely as money spent, or money added to the national debt. You have to go line by line, project by project, and ask if the thing we're spending the money on is a good investment. By and large, Republican attempts to show the waste and pork in these projects have left me unconvinced.

But even if the stimulus spending was wasted, it has still created jobs, and will continue to create more. Elsewhere, Chaffetz has argued that the price per job is too high. Well, we could have slashed those numbers by just giving people $30K a year, plus $30 for a shovel to lean on. But in order for those jobs to actually be investments in the future, those workers need equipment to run, material to move, concrete to pour, etc. Those things tend to drive the cost up.

The Republicans in general have been very dishonest in their handling of the stimulus jobs numbers, and Chaffetz has happily cited these arguments. Their argument essentially boils down to, "The stimulus is supposed to create jobs, yet unemployment keeps rising. The stimulus is therefore a failure." Which is akin to tapping lightly on the brakes (the stimulus was, by Paul Krugman's estimation, far too small), then saying that your brakes are out because you're still moving forward. Things would look much bleaker right now without the stimulus bill.

The "Chinese-financed" meme is making a mountain out of a molehill. China owns about $1T in U.S. debt, which isn't exactly a good thing, but that's only 1/12th of the outstanding debt. The Chinese are just a useful bogeyman for Chaffetz to invoke. Boo!

The debt presents a serious long-term problem. But Chaffetz wants to tackle it in the middle of a recession, which is a horrible idea for the same reason that raising taxes in a recession is a horrible idea. Government spending -- whether Chaffetz likes it or not -- is an important part of the economy. If that sector contracts suddenly, people lose their jobs, businesses with government contracts scale back or go out of business, and suffering ensues. Whereas if government increases its spending, these businesses flourish, which provides a buffer against economic downturns. That's Keynesian economics in a nutshell.

Government should be ratcheting up the debt right now, and tackling the debt problem when the economy is good. Clinton did that, lowering the deficit during good years. Bush did the opposite, piling up a mountain of debt when the economy was doing okay, mostly to pay for tax cuts for the rich and a war that should never have been fought.

Health care is an investment, just like the stimulus package was an investment. We should have been making these investments when the economy was doing okay. But we're stuck with the present. The investments we make in health care now are going to reap long term rewards. The bill isn't perfect by any means, but it will give us a healthier, more productive population, lower health care costs, more competition in the insurance market, and hopefully a greater focus on preventative care. Plus, when everyone has insurance, fewer people will rely on expensive emergency room visits for their health insurance needs, driving down costs for everybody.

This plan is characterized as a government takeover of health care, but it should really be talked about as a takeover of the health insurance industry. Lots of people like their doctors (Chaffetz doesn't seem to want anyone standing between his doctor and his wife, so he must be really fond of his doctor). But who has nostalgic feelings about their family HMO?

Health insurance is a market that cries out for government takeover like no other. Insurance companies compete not just on price and services, but on selecting the healthiest populations, by excluding the people who need it most, and by denying claims, regardless of whether the procedures were medically justified. In short, the free market demands that health insurance companies be very bad at what they are supposed to do: spread risk.*

Chaffetz believes -- ignoring the evidence of the last eight years -- that the government is invariably worse at choosing wise investments than the private sector. Chaffetz also fears that a "D.C. politician" will stand between his family and health care, even though his plan probably wouldn't change. Yet he cares not a whit that, for forty-five million Americans, what stands between them and the health care they need is a hospital security officer with a tazer.

He's a bit of a tool, is what I'm saying.

* Note: This is one reason why the public option shouldn't have to compete on an equal footing with private sector plans. I want a public plan that would be required to take all comers, and that would pay for medically justifiable procedures without trying to weasel out of its obligations. That puts it at a huge disadvantage in competition with private insurers.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

More hand-waving on the energy bill

Jason Chaffitz tweeted our attention to an overlooked detail of the energy bill that just passed the House. The measure would give money to utility companies and non-profit tree planting organizations money to plant trees around homes, as a way to promote energy efficiency.

Chaffetz didn't explicitly state his disapproval, but he did link to an outraged condemnation of the provision:

What this means for Americans: Almost half a million people lost their jobs in June alone and Democrats want taxpayers to subsidize retail power providers and their tree planting programs. Runaway reckless spending is not going to get America back to work. Because of the Democrats’ national energy tax millions more jobs will be lost as American manufacturers relocate overseas, but at least homes and empty warehouses will have shade.

Which makes it sound as pointless as anything can be. Bill? Justify your existence!
(1) the utility sector is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States today, producing approximately one-third of the country’s emissions;

(2) heating and cooling homes accounts for nearly 60 percent of residential electricity usage in the United States;

(3) shade trees planted in strategic locations can reduce residential cooling costs by as much as 30 percent;

(4) shade trees have significant clean-air benefits associated with them;

(5) every 100 healthy large trees removes about 300 pounds of air pollution (including particulate matter and ozone) and about 15 tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year;

(6) tree cover on private property and on newly-developed land has declined since the 1970s, even while emissions from transportation and industry have been rising;

(7) in over a dozen test cities across the United States, increasing urban tree cover has generated between two and five dollars in savings for every dollar invested in such tree planting.

(H.R. 2454, American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, Sec. 205)

The bill takes no official position on whether Republicans are being slimy and dishonest in touting this tiny line item as a waste of money. But sources close to the bill -- speaking under conditions of anonymity -- report that the bill once asked Senator Inhofe (R-OK) if he wanted to "take it outside."

The Republicans won't argue this portion of the bill on its merits. I pointed out to Chaffetz that it was actually a very reasonable thing to spend money on, and he sent me a PM saying, "The taxpayers shouldn't be paying for it." That's consistent with Chaffetz' overall political philosophy, but that's not what he was implying to his followers. The message that came across wasn't just that it was a misuse of government power, but that the whole idea was patently stupid, and that the bill could just as well be ordering the creation of a giant ball of aluminum foil.

If you're going to point to something as a laughable waste of money, it generally helps if the thing being pointed at doesn't create jobs, increase property values, beautify neighborhoods, clean our air, and reduce energy bills.

This is such a common sense measure, I suspect that the Republicans are only drawing attention to it because they think they can spin it as "your hard-earned dollars spent on tree-hugging hippie crap." But trees aren't just fun to hug; trees -- especially the ones planted by this program -- are infrastructure, just like roads, houses, factories, and casinos. They serve human needs, and they do so in a way that will touch your heart and make that little brat look like a total user.

More important to the Republicans' political futures, people like trees. Coming out against trees is like coming out against puppies, ice cream, and "the troops." Outside of a small fringe who hate every sliver of the environmental movement, planting a tree is an act of hope for the future and generosity towards those who follow. When I see Republicans taking a stand against planting trees, I wonder at the smallness of their souls.

Given that their stance against green energy is already hurting them, I think the Republicans would do well to let this one drop. Thanks to @david_h_roberts for that last link.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Rep. Boehner on the cap and trade bill

House Minority Leader John Boenher, who not surprisingly hails from the landlocked state of Ohio, recently released his Top 10 Facts on Why Speaker Pelosi's National Energy Tax Is a Bad "Deal" for America.

1) Speaker Pelosi’s National Energy Tax Will Impose a National Energy Tax on Every Single American

"The national energy tax will impose a national energy tax." Look, I know you paid a small fortune to have Frank Lunz focus test this "Pelosi Energy Tax" verbiage, and it would be a waste not to use it to the hilt. But come on! Pay attention to what you're writing!

It certainly won't apply to Every Single American, as there are a handful of people who are already living off the grid, but that's quibbling. The more important thing to remember is that some of the money collected by the cap and trade auctions will be returned to taxpayers as tax refunds. So if you're poor, or if you take the time to cut your personal energy consumption, you'll actually be better off overall.

Sidenote: Every one of the ten "facts" starts with "Speaker Pelosi's National Energy Tax." I realize that Pelosi isn't at her most popular right now, but I think only the Limbaugh/Hannity/Beck crowd considers her name an actual cuss word.

"Boenher," however, comes pretty close.

2. Speaker Pelosi’s National Energy Tax Will Cost American Jobs, Shipping Them Overseas to China & India

Via some study by some chamber of commerce (sorry, I've never seen a chamber of commerce ever support the sane side of any issue) Boenher claims that we'll lose over 2M jobs every single year.

Now, back in the nineties when NAFTA was passed, Republicans were all over the idea that, despite the lower labor costs in Mexico, we wouldn't lose a significant number of jobs, because the quality and ingenuity of The American Worker was second to none. I wonder what happened to that confidence?

My guess? That confidence only manifests when exhibiting such confidence leads to wage cuts for workers and extra profits for businesses.

Business interests have a tendency to publish studies vastly inflating the costs of any new legislation, while underestimating their ability to adapt to it, and demonstrating that under such assumptions, they would go out of business. That's how the American auto industry blocked fuel efficiency standards (though historically, they adapted to previous rises in those standards quite easily). That's how they tried to block the sulfur dioxide permit sales, a program that reduced sulfur emissions by 70%, at a price that was about 1/10th of what the doomsayers predicted.

Listening to studies like these, you get the impression that businesses are fragile hothouse flowers, not the dynamic, adaptive, and innovative institutions that are supposed to drive our economy.

3. Speaker Pelosi’s National Energy Tax Will Cause Electricity Bills to “Skyrocket.”

As evidence, Boenher points out that a major utility has already requested a rate increase, despite getting their permits for free for the next several years. Hell, despite the legislation not even being signed into law. That's some powerful legislation right there.

Googling for "duke energy rate increase" brought up several reports on Duke's request. All of them mentioned that the company had put a lot of money into upgrading their plants recently. Not one of them claims that the hike has anything to do with the climate change bill. Boenher isn't being honest with his facts.

4. Speaker Pelosi’s National Energy Tax Will Hurt Family Farmers & Rural America

This one basically boils down to "the people who use the most energy will be hit hardest," a not unexpected result. I'd be all for a program that helps the rural poor buy more fuel efficient cars and energy efficient appliances, or even low-interest loans for home solar/wind installations. But Boenher expects us to never do anything about climate change because some people will be hit harder than others. Bah!

5. Speaker Pelosi’s National Energy Tax Will Not Improve the Environment

Basically a rehash of the old "China and India won't do anything" argument, which is a very weak one. Despite finding a couple of out-of-context quotes that indicate their stubbornness on the issue, I think China and India will come along. There are a couple of reasons for this.

China and India have long been using our refusal to curb our own emissions as a talking point for their own delay. If we show that we're serious about cutting our own emissions, and if we're developing technology that makes such cuts easier and less costly, they'll start moving in the same direction. The Chinese don't like breathing dirty air any more than we do.

We also have to accept the fact that a large fraction of the Chinese and Indian populations live under impoverishment that Americans cannot understand unless they've seen it firsthand. It's not fair for us to say that they cannot increase their emissions, when our per-capita emissions are about for times what theirs are.

6. Speaker Pelosi’s National Energy Tax Will Cause Gasoline and Diesel Prices to Spike Further

This talking point is brought to you by the Heritage Foundation, motto: "Actually, we are entitled to our own facts." The figure they publish -- 58% increase in gasoline prices -- makes no sense to me. Europe has already implemented the market we're trying to implement, and their prices for CO2 are about $20/ton. You have to burn about 83 gallons of gas to emit a ton of CO2, so the cost should be closer to $0.25 per gallon, rather than the $1 or $2 that Heritage is predicting.

It should be noted that a lot of the volatility in gas prices comes from the fact that we're producing as fast as we can, and still not keeping up with demand. Dropping demand should decrease volatility a little.

7. Speaker Pelosi’s National Energy Tax Will Be A Bureaucratic Nightmare

There isn't much to be said on this. But when Boehner says that the plan involves "a long and confusing web of government agencies," I have to say two things. First, lists are long. Webs are generally described as tangled, sticky, dense, invisible, etc. Hire. Better. Writers.

Second, I'm not convinced that "long and confusing" and "long and confusing (to John Boehner)" bear much resemblance to each other.

8. Speaker Pelosi’s National Energy Tax Will Send Billions of US Taxpayer Dollars Overseas

The criticism here is that the plan allows American companies to purchase international offsets. So, rather than paying $1m to install a more energy efficient boiler at home, a business could pay $200K to someone in Nicaragua to protect a forest, resulting in similar carbon savings. Boenher, in what can only be described as "a flat out lie" describes this as "forcing [American taxpayers] to bankroll another global bailout."

Boenher, nobody will be forcing anybody to purchase international offsets. Businesses will buy them when it makes sense for them to do so. Nor will this money be given away for nothing. You see, in a "free market," people often pay others to do things that they'd rather not do themselves. We would be sending them money in exchange for a service that they provided. This is exactly the sort of behavior you'd expect from a carbon market, and there is nothing nefarious about it.

9. Speaker Pelosi’s National Energy Tax Will Raise Food Prices

First, I don't think that "small businesses and middle class families" aren't spending much time worrying about what will happen to food prices in 2035. I think they should be doubly indifferent to the Heritage Foundation's wild-assed guesses, since their studies invariably have a finger on the scales. After all, their cost estimates for this plan come in at around ten times the Congressional Budget Office's projections.

I think that The Heritage Foundation would predict that by 2035, the world would be a nuke-charred hellscape where a handful of survivors are hunted by killer robots, if they thought such a prediction could help keep this bill from passing.

Our current food system is too reliant on economies of scale and cheap energy. A more decentralized, localized system will be more expensive, but would also give us more nutritious food, be less susceptible to terrorist attacks, give more farmers a better living, and be more resilient in the face of an uncertain energy future. That's the direction this bill would be pushing the agricultural industry, and a direction I'd like to see it headed.

10. Speaker Pelosi’s National Energy Tax Will Set the Stage for Another Market Meltdown

At this point, Boenher shows some real Marxist cred. He cites an article from Mother Jones, and implies that capitalism necessarily contains the seeds of its own destruction.

The prediction here is that -- wait for it -- the legislation will create a market for carbon emissions. Maybe I should just agree with Boehner on this one. If you don't have a market, then that market cannot fail. This line of reasoning should be expanded. Comrade Boehner, your brothers and sisters in the People's Revolution welcome you!


Well, despite all his hemming and hawing, the bill narrowly passed the House. It now goes on to the Senate, where it will fail because the Democrats are too chicken to actually force Republicans to filibuster.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sen. Coburn lies about the "waste" in the stimulus bill (Part II)

Coburn cites two other stimulus projects as especially onerous. From his website:
2. $1 billion for FutureGen in Mattoon, Illinois is the “biggest earmark of all time” for a power plant that may never work.


5. $3.4 million for a wildlife “eco-passage” in Florida to take animals safely under a busy roadway.

FutureGen is a "clean coal" project. Personally, I'm against clean coal. I think we need to be pursuing other technologies instead. But a billion or so to find out if it can work doesn't seem like a lot, in the $3 trillion scheme of things.

The whole plant is supposed to be a proving ground for new technologies, so describing it as "a power plant that may never work" seems either flagrantly dishonest or just plain stupid. In his report, Coburn focuses heavily on former Energy Secretary Sam Bodman's criticism of the project, while ignoring current Energy Secretary Steven Chu's support for the project.

After poring over thousands upon thousands of projects, the #2 project on his list isn't nearly as dubious as Coburn portrays.

Regarding the "eco-passage", the latest research is indicating that fragmentation of habitat is dangerous to an ecosystem. Dividing a habitat in two (as a big highway does) can sometimes be as destructive as simply wiping out half of it. Wildlife corridors can help protect species.

If you are Republican enough, then any money spent protecting animals or preserving habitat is wasted by definition. That's probably the primary reason for putting this on the list. Either that, or Tom Coburn really likes the sound turtles make when they crunch under his wheels. But that's getting pretty damned Republican.

Sen. Coburn lies about the "waste" in the stimulus bill

Senator Tom Coburn, M.D., junior Republican senator from the unpopulated wasteland of Oklahoma, hasn't been practicing medicine for quite some time. Clearly, he hasn't seen a patient in a while, so you can understand why he might mistake a national economy for a human being, and attempt to perform an examination. From his report, entitled 100 Stimulus Projects: A Second Opinion*:

By offering 100 examples of questionable stimulus projects, worth $5.5 billion, this report does not attempt to prove that the stimulus is not working. Rather, the intent is to educate taxpayers, policymakers and the media on lessons that can be learned from some of the early missteps and prevent other questionable projects from moving forward.

So he says. I have trouble imagining a senator over the age of 60 as an Internet wiz. But he's clearly mastered the art of playing the Concern Troll. He doesn't want to help the stimulus succeed. He wants to manufacture outrage, in the hope of tilting the 2010 midterms in the Republicans favor.

If his goal was to start an honest debate about which projects were succeeding and which were failing, he would be a bit more honest about how he portrays the projects on his list. He selectively quotes this article to imply that the ARRA money actually cost the people of Perkins, Oklahoma.

Two points: the money did come with strings. But the strings are ones that support the aims of ARRA. The "strings" include better pay for workers (putting money in American pockets), a "buy American" stipulation for construction materials (again, putting money in American pockets), and increased reporting requirements, presumably to prevent all the fraud, waste, and abuse that Senator Coburn decries.

The other point: the $1.4M was just the grant portion of the funds. There was also a loan for $5.8M, at an interest rate of 2.9%, a steep discount from the 8% loans Perkins had been pursuing.

It's not clear that ARRA was a finanical windfall for this project. But it's not clear that it was supposed to be. Yes, sewer fees went up, which is counterintuitive when the government hands you a wad of free money. But the point was to get shovels moving on a shovel-ready project, and in that it succeeded. Where there used to be a set of diagrams, now something is being built, people are being put to work, and residents are getting the infrastructure they need.

In short, Sen. Coburn's #1 project -- his poster child for mismanagement and unintended consequences, is doing pretty much what it's supposed to.

One down, 99 to go.

* Cuz, you see, he used to be a doctor, and it's called "a second opinion." Har!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The $4300 energy tax: my response

In case Herigate declines to publish my comment:

The $1500 in direct costs are passed on to consumers, because the government took in revenue from CO2 intensive industries, correct? And most of that money will go back into consumers pockets, through direct rebates or lowering other taxes. So won’t that money also “ripple through the economy, hitting consumer’s pockets again and again?

In the end, it should mostly balance out. The money taken from energy companies will go back into the economy, either directly, through lowered taxes, or after being spent on research into alternative energies. Once the scales are balanced, there’s very little change other than stronger incentives for energy efficiency.

It’s positively brilliant. So of course Heritage would be against it.

You might not be a Republican if...

I just read this little missive from Randall Hoven over at I've never heard of him, but he and I seem to hold the shared goal of driving moderates out of the Republican party. I hope he appreciates my assistance:

If you think global warming is more than a socialist plot to control our lives, or if you suspect that the vast majority of climate scientists should be given more credit than a handful of oil-funded skeptics, you might not be a Republican.

If you think that the person who rings you up at Wal-Mart deserves to be paid well enough that she can hope to someday send her kid to college, you might not be a Republican.

If you think that government has a role in protecting us from pollution and unsafe working conditions, you might not be a Republican.

If you think government has a role in preparing for and responding to natural disasters, you might not be a Republican.

If you think that health care is something everyone should be able to access, rather than a reward for not being unemployed or impoverished, you might not be a Republican.

If you think that not all of the twelve million illegal aliens in America have come here to flaunt our laws, steal our jobs, and defile our women; if you think many of them came here to work hard and make better lives for themselves, you might not be a Republican.

If you didn't like the way the Bush administration engaged in wars of choice, undermined the government's ability to enforce its own regulations, handed out no-bid contracts to politically favored cronies, fired talented and dedicated civil servants to replace them with party loyalists, and labeled critics of these actions "traitors", you might not be a Republican.

If you heard Rush Limbaugh say that Colin Powell only endorsed Barack Obama "because he's black", and your stomach lurched a bit, you might not be a Republican.

If you think the rich should shoulder more of the tax burden, you might not be a Republican.

If you don't find the comedic stylings of Ann "We Should Invade Islamic Countries, Kill Their Leaders, and Convert Them to Christianity" Coulter hilarious, you might not be a Republican. Or you might just be a sane Republican, which is cool with me.

If you think that every person deserves society's support in making the most of their lives, you might not be a Republican.

If you think giving the next generation a clean environment and healthy bodies is more important than passing on ever bigger houses and ever wider flatscreen TVs, you might not be a Republican.

If it worries you that the United States incarcerates proportionally more of its citizens than any other country in the world, you might not be a Republican.

If you look at the military budget of the United States -- which is roughly equivalent to the military budget of the rest of the world combined -- and think that some of that money could be better spent elsewhere, you might not be a Republican.

If you think President Obama is a decent human being, an inspiring orator, and (despite some mistakes) is doing his best to fix the mess he inherited, you might not be a Republican.

If you think life ought to be a joyous journey of discovery, rather than a red-toothed battle against enemies real and imagined, you might not be a Republican.

If you think teaching children to share their toys is good parenting, rather than preparation for a life of subservience to a socialist dictatorship, you might not be a Republican.

Monday, April 27, 2009

i tweetz mah statsuses

I have a twitter feed. Nobody but Barack Obama wants to follow me, though.

I've reposted the feed in the sidebar, because, hey, free RSS. Dad always taught me never to turn down free.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

As seen on!

Is education being rationed?

Clearly, education is being rationed. But I don't think it needs to be. We're doing something to vastly inflate the costs of education.

Consider: what resources are required to successfully pursue an education? People in this discussion are talking about throwing out the luxurious dorm rooms and recreation centers, then dumping the multi-millionaire coaches. But we can think bigger.

Drop the library. Drop the computer lab. Drop the buildings, drop the campus, drop the frat houses, drop every damned thing until you're left with nothing but the exchange of information itself.

All you need to pursue an excellent education are materials to master, projects to practice your knowledge, and expertise to guide your study. The cost of the materials should rapidly be approaching zero. Laugh if you want, but a growing mind could do worse than a steady diet of Wikipedia articles. MIT's OpenCourseWare is putting vast quantities of course material online for free. is a warehouse of thousands of course lectures, the same lectures being given at our most prestigious universities. (Google Tech Talks) let you peek in on what happens when the brainiest company in the world brings in outside experts to fill those brains. Open source books are rapidly approaching -- hell, often exceeding -- the quality of books currently being used in the classroom.

That's a lot of material. Thousands of hours of stuff to wander aimlessly through. There is no better time to be a modern-day Abraham Lincoln, someone who hungers to improve his or her mind. But it's easy to get lost, to be left in the middle of a dark forest without a map or compass.

So we need paths. We need a sophisticated, branching curriculum that guides students through entire disciplines, at least as far as a bachelor-level understanding. You want to be a computer scientist? Fine. We'll need to introduce you to the concepts of data structures and algorithms. We'll also need you to understand some basics of programming. Finally, here's the first set of math concepts you'll need. Go to it.

We also need to be able to evaluate where a student stands in regard to those concepts and materials. In short, we need tests. Exams could be very brief and very discriminating. It should be relatively easy to create software that can quickly gauge a student's understanding of a set of concepts, with nothing but a set of multiple-choice questions. Given the student's responses, it should be able to say exactly which concepts the student isn't grasping, and recommend further study materials that address the concepts.

Teachers aren't going to lose their preeminent positions, but their roles would change somewhat. They would still be defining curricula, but there would be a lot less of that. Rather than teaching an entire course to the same set of students, and figuring out how to lead one group along the entire path, they would master the art of nudging students out of their unique ruts, answering questions, suggesting projects, etc. The students would be learning at their own pace, the software would be doing the day-to-day guidance and evaluation, and the teacher would be troubleshooting from the sidelines. I would hope that there would also be much more time for research.

Once the foundational work is done -- the materials collected and organized, the curricula defined, the software written -- all that's left is for a group of people to have the huevos rancheros to step up and accredit the process, to make the bold claim that their college can give your child a quality education for a couple grand a year (plus tips).

Your children can participate from anywhere. Still living at home? Backpacking through Europe? On work release? It hardly matters. Wherever you and your Kindle are, you have the materials you need, and know what to study next.

The current model is broken as hell. Like the health care industry, we pay too much into it, and get too little out. The difference is, the process of maintaining the vast complexities of the human body is far more difficult -- and necessarily more resource intensive -- than the process of putting knowledge into a human skull. Ninety percent of it is just getting out of the brain's way and letting it work.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The WTBI trends upward

Today, in my efforts to singlehandedly salvage the economy, I have devised an indicator of our overall economic health. It's called the WTBI, the We're Totally Boned Indicator. It multiplies the seasonally adjusted GDP of the United States by the consumer confidence index, then divides by the percentage of Americans with health insurance (not including Blue Cross, because it's crap), then adds the expected number of years until either The Singularity or the Zombpocalypse renders the economy moot multiplied by the eighth root of the national debt, divided by the number of times Glenn Beck used the word "socialism" on his last show. The sum is then multiplied by the Krugman inconstant, which is whatever value it needs to be so that the overall answer is 7.3 (pretty boned).

The bonededness indicated by the WTBI could spring from a variety of sources. But I think it's reacting to early evidence that the government's "bad bank" plan will be a singularly high-bonosity event. Here's the deal: You know all that money we gave to Citibank and Bank of America, so that they would be able to survive despite despite having all those "troubled assets" on their balance sheets? So that they could keep lending out money, so that the economy wouldn't go down like a submarine piloted by rabid chihuahuas?

Well, they're not loaning out the money. We knew that already, both because it's been on the news and because I'm still unable to get financing for the Samuel T. Swartwout Memorial Water Slide and Killer Robot Thunderdome.* We already knew that they were instead using some of that money to buy out their smaller, more responsible competitors. What we've just learned is that they're also using the money to buy up more troubled assets!

Why does this make sense? Three reasons:

1) The banks are gambling with taxpayer money, so hey, why not?
2) When the government starts buying the assets -- correction, starts buying the risks associated with these assets, while letting our corporate masters buy up the rewards -- the troubled assets will be selling for quite a bit more than they can be sold for now.
3) Buying new junk inflates the prices currently being paid in the market, which makes the junk already piled in your backyard look more valuable.**

That fuzzy line between "saving vital parts of our financial infrastructure" and "raining taxpayer money down on the fine Americans who smashed the machine in the first place" just got a whole lot fuzzier.

When Russia collapsed, it was because the entire country was looted from the inside by corrupt oligarchs. Fortunately, we're not Russia. Unfortunately, the main difference is that they knew how to live on vodka and borscht, and were therefore more prepared for the decline. Barack, you promised hope and change? You see what's going on here? Change that!

I'm not hopeful.

* Opens Spring 2017. Closed by health department, Fall 2018.

** Thought experiment. Say that two guys, Bill and Phil, both have a pile of rusty carburetor parts in their backyard. They both have wives, who want the crap gone. They both put up some ads on Craigslist, they each sell the other $300 worth of parts, and then point to the ads and to the successful sales as evidence that the parts are nothing short of rusty gold.

Wait a minute. I think I've found the way to revive our economy. Timmy, get Geitner on the phone!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Arrogance, Irresponsibility, Greed. AIG.

Now that even the crappiest mortgages could be sold to conservative investors, the CDOs spurred a massive explosion of irresponsible and predatory lending. In fact, there was such a crush to underwrite CDOs that it became hard to find enough subprime mortgages — read: enough unemployed meth dealers willing to buy million-dollar homes for no money down — to fill them all.

-- Matt Taibbi, The Big Takeover

You mean, it wasn't poor, innocent banks being forced to hand out bad loans by an evil, socialist government? You, sir, have crossed the line.

If you want to know how we got into this mess, and which people don't deserve to be pulled out of it, read the article.

Recycling coal plants?

So I was doing some research concentrating solar power (read: wandering around Wikipedia), when I clicked on a link to a supposed solar project using a fresnel collector. Huh. Looks like a coal plant. Read read read... it is a coal plant.

Why is this coal plant on Wikipedia's list of solar thermal projects? It seems so obvious in retrospect. Coal fired plants burn coal, which heats water, which drives a turbine. Solar thermal arrays heat oil, which heats water, which drives a turbine. So the plant simply set up a solar collector next to the plant, hooked pipe A up to pipe B,* and turned it into a combined-cycle coal-solar plant with 35MW of solar capacity.

Very clever. I approve.

If we can find existing coal plants in the western states that are also in particularly sunny areas, this would be a fast, cheap way to ramp up our existing solar capacity. Concentrating solar is already cheap, but this would make it even cheaper, by eliminating the need to build the actual generators. The coal plant already has them. It also eliminates the (somewhat overhyped) argument that solar is too intermittent, because the plant can always burn more coal when the solar isn't producing.

True, solar contributes less than 2% of the Liddell plant's energy production. While that's going to double soon, it still seems like a pretty small gesture. Perhaps I should wait until I hear of a coal plant switching over to 50% solar before getting excited.

But it seems like a way forward.

To kill time, I started looking for coal plants in Utah that might be suited for such an upgrade. Most of Utah's coal plants are located in Central Utah, which may limit their utility in the winter, but it's still interesting to contemplate. Thanks to the ever-helpful Sourcewatch, I found The Intermountain Power Station, a plant in Delta. Just going by the Google Maps satellite picture, it looks promising. It's in a flat area, and surrounded by empty space.

Best of all, the plant is owned by the City of Los Angeles, so it may be unusually responsive to political pressures. I think a lot of Los Angelinos would be surprised to find out that their city even owned a coal plant.

But as I said, it's a little outside the sunbelt. Arizona would probably be a more likely target.

* I believe I may be oversimplifying here.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Clay Shirky's cognitive surplus

Clay Shirky's Gin, Television, and Social Surplus was written back in the dark ages of the Internet (early 2008), but I still get a kick out of it. Like me, Shirky is fascinated by online collaboration, and how it's remaking society from the ground up. Unlike me, people listen to him.

Highlights: Wikipedia was built with fewer man-hours than America collectively squanders on watching commercials on a given weekend. As infrastructure develops for capturing societal knowledge in useful ways, this sort of useful, consciously creative activity will supplant much of our TV watching time, and the results will make for a much more intricate and interesting society.

Right now, Shirky says most of the examples we're seeing are special cases: a Wikipedia here, a Facebook there. But we'll develop more general-purpose systems that can capture more of our thinking in useful forms.

Also, four year olds demand that their TVs have mice, and even Warcraft is more fulfilling than trying to decide whether Ginger or Maryann is cuter.

Afterword: Writing this, I've just realized that I'm in phase three of the road to personal technological obsolescence*. I believe the road was first described by Scott Adams (the Dilbert guy). It goes, roughly:

1) Age 0-15: this is just the way the world works. It would be unnatural for it to be any other way.
2) Age 16-22: This thing I'm doing is nifty.
3) Age 23-35: This thing other people are doing is nifty, and I think we can make use of it.
4) Age 36-100000: Bah! Why can't kids these days just do it the old way?

* Note: This is a very hard word to spell.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

So, who's been president this last week?

Thanks to Stephen Colbert for first asking the question.

The stock market is way up this week, on news that Obama is canceling his original agenda in favor of an "all tax cuts, all the time" program. He's dumped health care reform, kicked carbon dioxide caps to the curb, and brought Grover Norquist in as a special adviser.

In the right's wildest dreams. In fact, the only thing true about that paragraph is that the market is way up.

The Republicans have been piling on since Obama took office, saying that every new slip of the Dow was a vote of no confidence by the economy and -- by extension -- the American people. Forget that it started sliding nearly eighteen months before Obama took office. Forget that we're still uncovering new ways in which our financial institutions screwed us this last decade. Forget that it took Reagan -- the Right's exemplar of how to run an economy -- two years to get the Dow back up to where it was when he took office. No, Obama must immediately turn back the landslide, or be branded a failure.

Hell, that guy who wrote Dow 36,000 at the absolute peak of the tech bubble was even shoveling it out, calling Obama a "Manchurian candidate" sent to assassinate the economy. In the author bio after the article, it touts the fact that that John McCain was taking economic advice from him during the 2008 campaign. That explains a lot.

But I ask you, now that the stock market is rising, in the absence of any indication of a presidential rightward turn, will they start singing the praises of Barack Obama, Economic Wizard? Will they even admit that it might have been simplistic to link the fortunes of the Dow too closely to every presidential utterance?

I doubt it. I think that, for the duration of the Dow's recovery, those arguments will be quietly put into storage, in the hopes of keeping them sharp and free of rust for the next downturn. In the meantime, expect Sean Hannity to take to the airwaves and explain that the market isn't recovering, it's "crashing upwards."


Dow 36,000 guy made some interesting -- and by "interesting", I mean the opposite -- claims about how Obama's agenda would destroy entrepreneurship and innovation. He seem especially disturbed about the idea that some people might start getting free health care. I'll cut and paste my response from Dan Gillmor over at boingboing:

America's health-care system makes it all but impossible for an older worker to try something new.

Even younger startup owners who are relatively healthy and have insurance are just a half-step from disaster. The insurance industry is in the business of not paying claims whenever possible, after all, and health insurers are working hardest to find ways not to cover people who might get sick even as they deny as many claims as possible from people who've been paying premiums.

The day we have national health care is the day that we unleash a wave of entrepreneurship the likes of which we've never seen before. That's one of the best reasons for moving toward such a system.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

wherein I point out that Rush Limbaugh is Fat

I'm always the last to the party, but here's my take on the Obama/Limbaugh kerfuffle, with some asides on why Oprah exceeds Rush.

Also from Salon:

On Monday, at 8:30 a.m., I turned on CNBC and started watching the business channel for the first time in my life. Twelve hours later, a long stare through the peacock-colored looking glass had shaken me. I was huddled in the corner of my living room couch, arms hugging my knees, wondering why the angry faces on-screen were yelling at me. [src]

Monday, March 2, 2009

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Big Black Book o' Crazy Doom

Gratuitous haiku of the day:

Exponential minds
singing to the infinite
kill squishy humans

I've recently attempted, with my puny and unenhanced human brain, to read Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near. It's one of those books that walks straight up to the line between brilliance and madness, and hits it with a sandblaster until it's rubbed out.

Premise: the rate of technological change is accelerating. Kurzweil believes this, and he has a ton of graphs and charts to back him up. Because the rate of change is accelerating, and because most of us make predictions as though the rate were constant, our entire society has greatly underestimated how very different the future is going to be.

Kurzweil paints an alternate future: by 2045 (give or take a few years), artificial intelligence will no longer need us. It will be good enough. It will be smart enough. And doggone it, people will like it. Like other lines mentioned earlier, the line between artificial and natural intelligence will be blurred out of existence. Some of us will have our intellects augmented, some of us will be pure software, and the Amish will have their own cyborg armies.

Our bodies -- or at least the bodies of those of us who choose to keep them -- will be full of nanomachines which will provide the same services to our bodies, only better. They'll also repair our cells faster than living damages them, effectively rendering us immortal.

Most important, the brainpower available to society will have exploded exponentially. Hundreds of billions of artificial brains, working much faster than normal brains, and not having to waste their time with sleep and bathroom breaks, will drive ever faster acceleration. Technological barriers will crumble instantly, and the gap between what humankind can do and the limits of the physically possible will slam shut.

Then we will be gods, the living music which infuses the cosmos with understanding and meaning. It will be nifty.

But I'd just settle for the robotized blood cells that allow me to hold my breath for hours.

It's a compelling vision, and very coherently argued. He seems to have glossed over a few of the difficulties, but I think he nailed the two biggest ones. I think the bulk of his vision hinges on two factors: Moore's Law* has to hold for about forty more years, and we have to invent the ability to simulate the human mind in an effective way. The first one may be tricky. Using light to burn silicon paths on a chip can only get us so far. I've seen predictions that it will run its course by 2019, 26 years too soon. Unless something supersedes it, we'd be left with computers about 1/8000th as powerful as they would need to be.

The author, of course, thinks that a better technology is inevitable. He's probably right.

The second feat -- simulating a human brain -- may turn out to be the easier half of the equation. Our tools for observing and understanding the brain have been undergoing the same sort of exponential improvements that our computers have. By the 2030s, Kurzweil figures that the tiny machines in our brains will be able to record our brains in arbitrarily complex detail, down to the structure and firings of each synapse. This will allow us to copy brains and simulate them in software. The nanobots will also be able to cause and suppress brain activity, allowing our brains to experience anything, from virtual reality to the recording and playback of sensory and emotional experiences, to a form of telepathy with other brain-hacked people.

But most important is the ability to simulate brain activity in software. If I had to guess, I would say that Kurzweil is actually being conservative about how much processing power that would take. We could very well figure out how to simulate some of the brain's substructures in a greatly simplified way. But that's the thing about Moore's Law: regardless of whether the brain simulation is a thousand times simpler than Kurzweil estimates or a thousand times more complicated, it barely alters the timeline.

If we assume that Moore's Law continues to double the amount of computational power available every two years, a thousand-fold increase in the complexity of the simulation only pushes the result about twenty years (ten doublings) into the future. A thousand-fold simplification of the problem only pushes it twenty years closer.

The amazing thing is that Kurzweil can make such fanciful predictions without striking me as a kook. That is either a tribute to his insight and rhetorical skills, or evidence that I myself am also a kook, and that we kooks often sound quite sane to each other. His conclusions also fulfill some unmet emotional needs for people who don't believe in an afterlife. When faced with an idea that I would clearly want to believe, my second instinct is to temper my enthusiasm for it.

My first instinct, of course, is to believe it. I have no idea why Kurzweil hasn't used this as the basis for a new religion. He'd make a boatload.

I'm going to make my own, much more humble prediction: someday, your cell phone will double as a universal remote. It will be a golden age of humanity.

Update: Leon says the iPhone already does this.

* I mean the soft, fuzzy, bastardized version of Moore's Law, which says that computers keep getting exponentially faster. Look upon my misuse, ye pedants, and weep.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Tim O'Reilly - Pascal's Wager and Climate Change

Tim O'Reilly -- after succinctly laying out excellent arguments for responding to global warming, even if it turns out to be a hoax -- writes:

Climate critics like Bjorn Lomborg like to cite the cost of dealing with global warming. But the costs are similar to the "costs" incurred by record companies in the switch to digital music distribution, or the costs to newspapers implicit in the rise of the web. That is, they are costs to existing industries, but ignore the opportunities for new industries that exploit the new technology. I have yet to see a convincing case made that the costs of dealing with climate change aren't principally the costs of protecting old industries.

The full post is worthwhile.

Update: Welcome, new reader!