Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Linkism

WSJ declares war on hypertension (and that we’re winning too).

Esquire profiles John Lasseter, whose company—it’s called Pixar—you might know well.

What Netflix and Amazon might be able to tell us about fighting poverty.

Ancient Roman ship may have had fish tank.

First quantum computer sold?

The intolerable choices of the Eurozone.

Fascinating reading about the changes coming to the air fleet of the Department of Defense (doubling the number of drones).

How other countries teach the teachers.

Islands for sale!: in Greece and Scotland.

Driverless cars and American decline.

Ariel Levy of New Yorker crushes a profile of Silvio Berluconi.

GOP Governors and the exchanges. Also:

Health Care Fatalism

The New Republic has posted an article that argues for fatalism in American health care—rather than fighting an unwinnable war against disease (like, say, a war against drugs or terrorism), the health care system should become more modest about what it can achieve:
In 1959, the great biologist René Dubos wrote a book called Mirage of Health, in which he pointed out that “complete and lasting freedom from disease is but a dream remembered from imaginings of a Garden of Eden.” But, in the intervening decades, his admonition has largely been ignored by both doctors and society as a whole. For nearly a century, but especially since the end of World War II, the medical profession has been waging an unrelenting war against disease—most notably cancer, heart disease, and stroke. The ongoing campaign has led to a steady and rarely questioned increase in the disease-research budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It has also led to a sea change in the way Americans think about medicine in their own lives: We now view all diseases as things to be conquered. Underlying these changes have been several assumptions: that medical advances are essentially unlimited; that none of the major lethal diseases is in theory incurable; and that progress is economically affordable if well managed.

But what if all this turns out not to be true? What if there are no imminent, much less foreseeable cures to some of the most common and most lethal diseases? What if, in individual cases, not all diseases should be fought? What if we are refusing to confront the painful likelihood that our biological nature is not nearly as resilient or open to endless improvement as we have long believed?

The argumentation and examples used are very tight, so I’ll refrain from excerpting deeper in the piece at all—it just wouldn’t be fair to the writers. The general idea is familiar to people who’ve read a fair bit about health care—that the American health care system is drastically inefficient—but the conclusion is not (essentially, that we should surrender to fate and make our accommodations.)

This kind of attitude makes some sense in some occasions. Cancer, for example, is an area you have to wonder about the appropriateness of the heavy artillery brought against it: we have complex, expensive drugs that are used to prolong life often for a matter of weeks, which are often unpleasantly spent in a hospital bed, drugged and insensate. Atul Gawande has argued convincingly for the virtues of hospice care in instances such as these.

Overall, however, I take a radical approach. Some reformers (including the authors) would be happy with restricting the growth of health care to the growth of GDP; I actively believe in cuts: that is, we should be able to spend less in real terms and realize more in gains than we are at the current moment. Part of this is an incentive problem—that is, incentivizing doctors to provide good care rather than high-volume care. But part of this is, interestingly, a technology problem. As the authors note, technology is a funny thing in health care: like the health care system in general, it delivers results of uncertain value for a very high price. But it’s possible to imagine breakthroughs that would be more like computer-industry breakthroughs—things like artificial organs (as they note, the cost of dialysis is highly expensive, without getting into the quality of life issues) are an excellent example. And that’s the sort of thing that requires research dollars and developmental effort—it requires, in essence, the sort of sacrifice and dead-end straining that the authors seem to be critical of in the article. And that is a truly interesting problem. I’ll break my little rule earlier and excerpt something:
Vannevar Bush, ascientific advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, famously said that science is an “endless frontier.” He was right then and that is still true now. But scientific progress to extend that frontier is not an endlessly affordable venture. Health care, like the exploration of outer space, will always be open to progress, but we understand that putting humans on Mars is not at present economically sensible. We have settled for a space station and the Hubble telescope. We must now comparably scale down our ambitions for medicine, setting new priorities in light of the obstacles we have encountered.

But of course science research and the allocated dollars don’t quite work the way that Mars does. Uncertainty is the relevant factor: we often discover things we weren’t thinking we’d discover (say, penicillin), or discover things after a long, seemingly-futile effort. If we were to give up now, we’d be accepting what we have for a long time. Is that acceptable? I don’t think so. On the other hand, the endless fealty to the newest intervention available gives you the cancer drug that gives you three more weeks of life. Maybe someday, if we cure a significant type of cancer, we look back on one of those horribly expensive, ineffective cures as a prerequisite for that total cure, but maybe we don’t. We just don’t know. I do think that there is a lot of waste and expense in the system—particularly administrative costs—that can be wrung out. Maybe that’s a good way of bypassing both sides of a difficult debate.

Budget Cutting

Ah, deficit reduction:
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed the state legislature’s appropriations for the Kansas Arts Commission, enforcing an executive order he signed in February eliminating the commission—and all five commission members’ jobs. Brownback plans to replace the commission with a private foundation, but his actions, taken over the legislature’s objections, make Kansas the only state without an arts agency. As the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies noted, that $689,000 targeted in the veto was a whopping 0.005 percent of the state’s budget, and it’s not as if it’s trading off with other programs. The budget the legislature approved would have created a $50 million budget surplus next year before Brownback’s additional cuts.

This is a very obvious example of a common mindset of deficit hawks, which is that they’re often more interested in cutting stuff they don’t like than deficits per se. That’s fine, obviously—there’s a bunch of stuff in budgets at all levels of government that I’d like to cut irrespective of its budgetary impact—but you’d hope deficit hawks would be more forthright about their goals, aspirations and desires in this.

(The other easy example is the budget-cutting debate in Washington: a balanced budget-cutting debate would target the Department of Defense, the tax code, farm subsidies, etc., etc. rather than the single-minded focus on Medicare that we see today.)

Monday, May 30, 2011

Linkism

Can managed care save Medicaid?

Wonderful: the Facebook comments of people who take The Onion articles seriously.

The early history of HIV/AIDS. (what a remarkable picture at the top of the article, too.)

Are physicians moving left politically (as a consequence of selling their practices and becoming hospital employees)?

Examining skyrocketing executive pay.

More on the possibilities of driverless cars.

China’s food inflation culprits.

Russia’s nanotechnology plans.

The writers of Groupon.

Can Spain stand the shock to its economy from the European cucumber crisis?

Take The Ball And Go Home

It’s good when the right people are angry:
The administration plans to establish “Medicare spending per beneficiary” as a new measure of hospital performance, just like the mortality rate for heart attack patients and the infection rate for surgery patients.

Hospitals could be held accountable not only for the cost of the care they provide, but also for the cost of services performed by doctors and other health care providers in the 90 days after a Medicare patient leaves the hospital.

This plan has drawn fire from hospitals, which say they have little control over services provided after a patient’s discharge — and, in many cases, do not even know about them.

Well, uh, why not find out?

The article goes on to cite a pretty archetypal example of an older woman getting hip replacement surgery and later developing an infection and having to be readmitted to the hospital. A certain amount of this is probably inevitable, but on the other hand shoddy practices are fairly rampant in hospitals nationwide. That’s what hospitals have control over, what they’ll have to cut down on if these penalties have any force, and what might eventually deliver better, cheaper care. (Unfortunately, the Times article contrasts efficiency vs. quality of care, which is such a tired and false dichotomy I’m very tired of seeing in print: I mean, are they thinking about their own example? Stipulate that, on average, better care could prevent readmissions. That means that higher quality care would lead to lower costs for the system, fairly directly. Everyone wins—well, except the hospitals. Which is why the article quotes so many angry hospital people. Which is a good thing—they should be angry.)

I did, however, find it interesting which hospital people were angry and which were not. The pacific hospital person hails from an Iowa association of hospitals. Now I’m not positively sure in this instance, but the Upper Midwest—particularly Minnesota—has a great reputation for lower cost, higher-quality care as a consequence of their medical culture, and so I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Iowa scores highly on the administration’s rubric and might therefore expect to see some monetary gains from the scheme.

But for all the winners there will be losers, and all of the losers will squeal, at least at first. Making sure the losers don’t change the rules of the game to turn themselves into winners is a critical political duty for the Obama administration bureaucrats. Good luck.

Blindness

Francis Fukuyama, in discussing his apparently epic book on the evolution of political order through the millennia, makes this remark:
”… But one thing that's always struck me is that there is no high level of abstraction in the Chinese religion or Chinese thought. The idea that there are hidden forces, which are universal, like gravity, which apply throughout the universe, is very Western. Chinese religion is particularistic. And I think to this day, if you think about high-level theory, it's still not coming from Asia."

Don’t want to be flippant here, but: Buddhism. (Also The Information has an informative section on Asian philosophy vis-à-vis abstraction.)

This all sounds rather stereotypical—akin to the idea that Asians aren’t creative but rather rote thinkers—but maybe it’s not (Fukuyama is, after all, Asian). At any rate, it is a case of the strange blindness people, even well-informed ones, can have about other cultures.

(Or maybe he considers Buddhism a particularistic religion? I’d disagree—some of the stuff looks positively postmodern to me—but, uh, I suppose there might be an argument?)

Dilemmas

Perhaps a bit late, but worth thinking about—an argument as to why the Celtics were right to trade Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green:
To the loudest critics, matchups, stats, health, contracts...these were all secondary considerations. The real tragedy was the loss of Chemistry, which, like Clutch and Cledgie Cliller, are C-words that make rational sports fans cringe. It's not that they don't exist, it's that proving their actual worth is a helluva challenge. No Celtics fan could accurately explain why Boston rolled to a 33-10 start without Captain Chemistry in the lineup (presumably his scowling from the bench inspired the team?). That didn't stop trade haters from pointing to Rondo's wild inconsistency in the second half and in the playoffs, presumably because his good buddy Perk was gone. Even if we grant that this is true, it also means that the Celtics had bigger problems than a defense-first plodder could have fixed, starting with a point guard who's both mercurial and a massive late-game liability thanks to his inability to shoot straight.

It’s kind of unfortunate that Keri, the author, considers the loudest critics’ arguments over the smartest critics’ arguments. The smart critics—well, even the vaguely informed critics—know that Jeff Green is not a very good player. Jeff Green is, in fact, an actively mediocre player. The Jeff Green trick is that, unlike most mediocre players whose mediocrity is prominent in one or two attributes, Green is actively mediocre in many different areas: not many players are below-average-to-average in shooting, rebounding, defense, versatility and ball handling as Green is. That particular set of skills will usually deceive: there will be games where Green’s shot is falling, the passes are connecting, etc., and Green will look like a potential All-Star. Your average average player—say, DeShawn Stevenson or someone like that—rarely hits the top end on so many skills at once and so his good games don’t look nearly so good.

Perkins when healthy is a much better player than Green—he’s one of the best post players in the league and one of the best illegal-screen setters in the league—and so the trade was highly defensible from the Thunder’s perspective.

Keri claims that the Celtics trade was justifiable because it valued process over results, and to the analytical mind judging the process is always more important than judging results. But obviously some processes are better than others, and just because you claim to be working off of a process doesn’t mean yours is right. The Celtics probably weren’t thinking their process through.

On the other hand, the counterfactual is hardly appealing either: the Celtics with Kendrick Perkins are no closer to the title than the Celtics with Jeff Green. In truth, there was probably not much the Celtics could do to sustain those kinds of aspirations year after year—a team like the Spurs is freakish, and at least partially due to their discovering a trick the NBA hadn’t mastered at the time (i.e. the art and science of drafting and integrating foreign players). The competition always catches up in sports, and sooner or later you run out of distinctive tricks. That’s one of the management secrets they don’t teach you in real life, but the NBA shows it better than most: sometimes all you can do is pick the way you’d rather lose.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Linkism

Japan disposable as a supplier in the supply chain?

The jet that ate the Pentagon’s budget.

The downward spiral and looming bankruptcy of the US Postal Service.

Carbon emissions reach critically bad level:
Greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, to the highest carbon output in history, putting hopes of holding global warming to safe levels all but out of reach, according to unpublished estimates from the International Energy Agency.

The shock rise means the goal of preventing a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius – which scientists say is the threshold for potentially "dangerous climate change" – is likely to be just "a nice Utopia", according to Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA. It also shows the most serious global recession for 80 years has had only a minimal effect on emissions, contrary to some predictions.

Tyler Cowen on driverless cars and the regulation thereof (with some additional thoughts here).

China’s escalating crime rate.

Insuring against economic collapse.

Brazil’s behind schedule and over budget on its World Cup stadia aspirations.

No Way!

Today in unsurprising facts:
Has the 3-D boom already gone bust? It’s starting to look that way — at least for American moviegoers — even as Hollywood prepares to release a glut of the gimmicky pictures.

Ripples of fear spread across Hollywood last week after “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” which cost Walt Disney Studios an estimated $400 million to make and market, did poor 3-D business in North America. While event movies have typically done 60 percent of their business in 3-D, “Stranger Tides” sold just 47 percent in 3-D. “The American consumer is rejecting 3-D,” Richard Greenfield, an analyst at the financial services company BTIG, wrote of the “Stranger Tides” results.

You mean, audiences might not respond to a tactic that seems designed solely to extract their money from their pockets without necessarily enhancing the viewing experience? (Though, to be fair, sometimes it does: I thought the 3-D in Up was tastefully done.) No way!

(Only in Hollywood? No, of course not. But it was touching that Hollywood was able to talk itself into the idea that this time really was different.)

Excuses, Excuses

It’s by now stuck in everyone’s minds that there’s a huge budget problem that must be solved right now. This isn’t true, but as long as enough people think it’s true it doesn’t really matter any more, does it? Unfortunately now that we’re in the mental state that we must cut the budget—yesterday—we’re also trapped inside the idea that nothing new at all can be done; instead, it’s all about preserving the status quo. Like, for example:
In advance of a major United Nations meeting on the global AIDS epidemic, public-health leaders face a paradox: New evidence suggests the epidemic can finally be controlled, but that would demand increased spending at a time of severe global budget restraints.

Preliminary estimates show that funding from donor nations to fight AIDS in developing nations actually fell in 2010, the first decline ever in the battle against HIV, which currently afflicts 33 million people world-wide.

At the end of 2009, about 5.2 million people were on treatment, and the world spent about $15.9 billion that year, with a little less than half coming from donor nations, according to UNAIDS and Kaiser estimates. But another 10 million patients needed treatment, and the funding gap exceeded $7.5 billion.

Let’s stipulate for the moment that there is an urgent budget problem, and stipulate also that the problem with AIDS antiretroviral drugs is just a funding problem, i.e. were we to fill the $7.5 billion all of the 10 million people who needed the drugs would get it. It is just, basically, a problem of not finding the money. The problem here is that, for the U.S., $7.5 billion is an absolutely trivial amount of money. $7.5 billion is, like, six F-35 jets (or so). $7.5 billion is like a week in Libya. $7.5 billion is the slightest of adjustments to the tax code. The money can be found, and trivially easily. And—assuming again that this is just a funding problem—it would have huge effects in preventing human suffering for those patients who already have HIV and AIDS, and those people who would be infected by HIV in the absence of delivering the antiretroviral drugs (a new study found patients being treated with antiretrovirals were 96% less likely to pass on the virus). It would be huge.

So this is really just a lack of will or empathy on the part of donors and governments. Partially will, but mostly empathy: their attention is fixed on the things that are very close and very immediate—for a sort of narcissistic effect—and ignoring the people they don’t know and can’t see. Budgets are just an excuse.

Disguising



This song sounds happy, but if you listen to the lyrics it seems considerably sadder. This doesn't seem uncommon, sad songs pretending to be happy. Yet you never hear happy songs pretend to be sad. Why?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Linkism

Duh science—why is it researchers spend so much time on obvious questions? (NEW STUDY: Cigarettes bad for you!)

Americans in Paris.

Oil shale boom in Texas?

Why violent crime is down (crack, lead, and prisons?)

What Latin America can do to improve economic performance; also, Latin American inflation is getting high.

Three days inside the tech bubble.

Japan and EU for free trade pact?

The definitive Lionel Messi profile in the Financial Times.

Polling

This shouldn’t be particularly surprising:
… what does the public think about the Patriot Act?

It’s hard to say, according to a 2007 study by Samuel J. Best and Monika L. McDermott of the University of Connecticut. In their paper, “Measuring Opinions vs. Non-Opinions—The Case of the USA Patriot Act,” they found that question wording could drastically swing the response in polls about the Patriot Act, with anywhere from 33 percent to 69 percent of respondents indicating support for the legislation. Experimenting with their own survey questions, Best and McDermott concluded that many people did not know much about the legislation, but instead tailored their responses to however the question was worded. When given a general description of the Patriot Act—“The USA Patriot Act makes it easier for the federal government to collect information on suspicious Americans in order to reduce the threat of terrorism”—62 percent of respondents supported the legislation. But when given specific information about the act’s provisions for home and library searches, support dropped to 40 percent and 53 percent, respectively. (Alternatively, when only given information about financial searches, support rose to 66 percent.) Tellingly, when not given an explicit option to answer “no opinion,” only 24 percent of respondents volunteered that they had no opinion. But when explicitly given the choice to answer “no opinion,” that number jumped to 41 percent, and support dropped from 62 percent to 46 percent, indicating that when respondents didn’t know, they erred on the side of supporting the legislation. While Best and McDormott worry that polling the uniformed only “manufactures information” about public opinion, they note that the only alternative may be to avoid polling the uninformed altogether—or at least to rethink the way we read public opinion surveys.

I hope people don’t use public opinion surveys for anything more complicated than looking at which candidates they support; other than that I regard public opinion polling with much skepticism, particularly when it’s focused on specific issues or policies, subjects about which most members of the public spend very little time actually contemplating and are therefore liable to agree with whatever sounds the most reasonable when I happen to hear it.

But I suspect public opinion surveys aren’t used this way, at least for elites who actually influence policy, despite the popular perception that politicians and their advisors are obsessive in their use and abuse of polling. (I’ve always found one particular twist on this amusing: when politicians on the stump promise, to much applause, that they won’t look at the polls like those other politicians. The literal translation of this line is: “I can’t be bothered to know what you think,” which is an interesting attitude to take in a democracy in which our elected politicians are, at least some of the time, supposed to care what we think.) It’s a little too absurd to assume, then, that politicians actually care/are obsessive about the subject of polling. There’s a simpler hypothesis: “the polling” is a catchall excuse used by politicians/powerful people to justify a result they’d already decided on anyway.

Unforced Errors

Micah Schwartzman of Slate argues about the failed Goodwin Liu judicial nomination that it was really the Obama administration’s fault—their fault for not nominating a sufficient number of youthful faces along with Liu (Liu was rejected by Republicans for being too young. The charitable reasoning is that they were worried about his lack of experience; the cynical reasoning that they were worried Liu would sit in the judiciary for decades and eventually be an experienced, young Supreme Court candidate for President Chelsea Clinton in 2030 or whenever.) Here’s Schwartzman’s game theory type reasoning:
Republicans long ago recognized the fact that younger judges can be intellectual path-breakers and aggressive leaders, which is why they tap them by the handful. If the president is going to nominate younger judges—who are certain to be targeted for filibusters—it makes sense to nominate more of them at the same time. As the Senate Republicans just demonstrated last week, it is not all that difficult to filibuster a single, relatively inexperienced and controversial candidate. But it is much more difficult to filibuster a dozen of them.

Recall the judges filibustered by the Democrats in George W. Bush's second term, leading up to the compromise reached by the Gang of 14 in 2005. Democrats considered these nominees to be extremely controversial, but they were unable to filibuster all of them. For example, had they been isolated cases, it is doubtful that Janice Rogers Brown, William Pryor, or Priscilla Owen would have been confirmed. But there was safety in numbers. With a large group of controversial nominees, some of them were bound to make it.

I’m not sure Schwartzman is entirely correct here—you can never give enough credit to Republican intransigence, in my opinion—but it’s possible he’s correct. At any rate, it does seem as if the Obama administration is leaving potential gains in executive appointments unrealized—for one, there’s the judiciary; for two, there’s the Federal Reserve board, which if I’m not mistaken, still has seats unfilled. (Peter Diamond, one of Obama’s nominees for the board, has been held up for being inexperienced. Apparently Senate Republicans would like Diamond to win multiple Noble Prizes before they become satisfied with his economic know-how.)

Is it just a question of priorities for the Obama administration? Or actual unforced errors? Hard to tell, but a definite pattern.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Linkism

A new look at the companies-hoarding-cash phenomenon. Relatedly, The Economist on the still-persistent savings glut.

Iran to create “national internet” that reaches alleged halal status, mostly by censoring all of the evil stuff on the internet.

The Economist has an article on big data with some interesting tidbits, the most interesting of which is here: “You can now buy a device that will store all the world’s recorded music for just $600.”

Private investors a solution to airport gridlock?

Expanding Chicago from just a global city.

Are members of Congress engaged in insider trading?

The Federal Reserve’s crisis-era giveaway to big European banks.

What happened to all the funky tennis players?

Remembering Hubert H. Humphrey.

The Nation has a superb article on Monterrey and the Mexican drug war.

The costly war on cancer—why are new cancer-fighting drugs so expensive?

Indonesia: so hot right now.

Danger

Apparently aid workers are under more danger than ever before, and one of the reasons is that aid workers are no longer assumed to be neutral; instead they are seen, apparently, as tools of Western foreign policy:
…the current "integrated mission" focus of the UN that has done for the once assumed neutrality of western aid. It piles aid and political goals into the same interventionary pot so as to shape development more directly around the foreign policy interests of donor nations.

Perhaps I’m not thinking this issue through well enough, but I’m not sure this is an entirely bad thing. The goal of aid grants is to reduce poverty and human suffering; the best hope of doing this is to use aid to boost the recipients to a permanently better standard of living rather than subsisting on aid forever. Teach a man to fish instead of giving him fish, goes the old saw.

Getting people to be able to fish—i.e. to be able to do productive work on their own—requires great capabilities on the part of society, which means the requisite government, culture, infrastructure, etc. It means, in essence, a comprehensive building of civil society. That is, essentially, a political goal and therefore these sorts of aid projects while well-intentioned seem to me to run into the risk of being washed away when the aid goes away.

Obviously the overall foreign policy interests of donor nations can be capricious, but at the same time nations are the ones with the sort of scale to confront what are essentially interlocking problems.

Playoffs: The Superstar Burden

Being an NBA superstar or aspiring to the status means signing an irrevocable contract to subject yourself to high, often unreasonable standards. I don’t think there’s a position in American sports quite like it—maybe quarterback in football, but even then, people are capable of understanding that quarterbacks, even great ones, aren’t necessarily all-controlling, omnipotent beings even at their best.

So probably it shouldn’t have been surprising to hear Derrick Rose subjected to high criticism and LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki praised and built up to high heights. It shouldn’t have been surprising if you remember these players’ respective status only a year ago: why, James was a stagnant failure who didn’t deserve to even think of himself as one of the great players in the game; Nowitzki was, when thought about, a choker. Of course neither of these guys were exactly that, just as they aren’t quite as good as the praise right now, and just as Rose isn’t as bad as the criticism makes him seem, especially when you factor in the context.

It was always tough to swallow the LeBron criticism from last year, but it’s especially difficult to take at this precise moment, when James performed in a style we’ve never seen before: he was a basketball-playing mutant out there, so completely dominating the game at both ends in all aspects of the game that we’ll never see it again. You’ll never see a 6’8” player smother a point guard, let alone an ordinarily dominant one, like that while dominating the boards and while handling the ball and setting up teammates and scoring, at least for a very long time. It’s inappropriate to compare him to anyone else who’s played basketball; he’s his own man for sure, and easily the best player in the game.

Knowing how the evolution of a great player can go, it’s easy to see the potential transformation of Derrick Rose. There’s no reason why Rose can’t be a great defender, for instance; no reason besides having to carry the offense, of course. Rose has moments in which he demonstrates a fluency if not eloquence in the point guard language, but no more than moments—the team, as presently constructed, is not built to express the full range of Rose’s talents, potential or actual. Two of the positions on the floor are outright liabilities: shooting guard, in which Keith Bogans, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer play like early drafts of a finished product, all lacking something; and power forward, where Carlos Boozer’s particular brand of poor help defense and so-so offense make him one of the most overpaid players in the NBA. It’s easy to see how an upgrade might be made at shooting guard: leverage a little bit of the depth plus a first round pick and you might get a serviceable shooting guard (say, an OJ Mayo, who might become very good under the motivating tutelage of Thibodeau). It’s not so easy to see how an upgrade might be made at power forward; yes, you could bench Boozer in favor of Gibson or Asik, but neither of these players offer the offensive ability necessary to keep the offense from totally sputtering. So you’d want to trade Boozer, but surely no team would be foolish to give up significant assets for Boozer, right? I mean, this is the NBA, but some foolishness cannot be relied upon…

***

So: the NBA finals matchup. I see the Heat beating the Mavericks in six. The Dirk matchup is threatening for the Heat, but it’s hard to see how the Mavericks counteract the Heat’s best players—on either end. And two is definitely better than one. Especially when Dirk will be guarded, in crunch time, by LeBron James. Will this tactic be totally successful? Not to the same degree as Dirk-on-Rose, because Dirk’s teammates are much better than Rose’s on the offensive end, but it’ll work well enough. And when James isn’t guarding Dirk, you suspect Udonis Haslem will get the call. The Heat have more obvious Dirk defenders than the Mavs have Wade or James defenders (besides Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson, but, you know, really?)

Like I said, Heat in six.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Linkism

India’s talent crunch. Also, Delhi’s getting richer.

Striking study result:
Lowering bad cholesterol levels reduces heart attack risks, and researchers have long hoped that raising good cholesterol would help, too. Surprising results from a large government study announced on Thursday suggest that this hope may be misplaced.

A black kid from a lower-class family is apparently 37% less likely to make the NBA (than a middle-class or upper-class black kid). Unsurprising (for me at least).

BusinessWeek profiles Tyler Cowen.

Foreign Policy on how Khamenei beat Ahmadinejad for control of Iran.

Shockingly shocking result that shocks: low-tech stroke rehabilitation more effective than high-tech stroke rehab (ignore the headline—the results aren’t equal. For people who complete the program, the effectiveness is equal. But more people actually complete the low-tech program and it’s cheaper. How headline writer gets “equally effective!” from that is really beyond me.)

James Surowiecki on the Billion Prices Project and the power of new data tools to replace old economic measures.

Convenient: the New Yorker on the history of smallpox and forced vaccination to combat it, with this being especially interesting:
Today, Americans expect the federal government to respond to (and contain) any serious contagion. That wasn’t true in the late nineteenth century, the period of Willrich’s focus. The idea of calling for federal aid was unusual, and in the Deep South it was unthinkable. Then, in the mid-eighteen-nineties, after decades of relative quiescence, smallpox began to spread through the communities of Kentucky and other Southern states. Panic kept pace. As a member of the Kentucky Board of Health put it, “One case of small-pox in a tramp will create far more alarm in any community in Kentucky than a hundred cases of typhoid fever and a dozen deaths in the leading families.” Finding themselves defenseless against the virus, communities sought help from the United States Marine Hospital Service—the precursor to the U.S. Public Health Service.

The service dispatched doctors who rode from town to town like U.S. Marshals, brandishing masks and needles instead of badges and guns. They vaccinated the healthy and quarantined the sick. Once an epidemic was under way, those doctors were granted broad police-like powers, and they established the first foothold of federal authority in the South since the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Also, the financial impact of measles outbreaks (caused by anti-vaccination activists).

Why are spy researchers creating a metaphor program?

Britain’s restrictive IP laws.

How did the phrase “love child” become mainstream?

Lemons

You can see this banner at the top of certain pages of The New York Times:


That's malware, and it's common enough that Apple is specifically rolling out an update to combat it. This particular banner ad isn't the most malicious method it uses to attack your computer--that would be how it (apparently) uses some JavaScript to redirect you from an otherwise-safe page to an automatic download of an anti-malware malware application--but it's nevertheless bad and I'm guessing there's at least one person who's been suckered into clicking a banner ad for this malware, downloading the malware, giving it your credit card information, and experiencing the typical problems that result from this particular chain of events.

The question that should be asked here is how did this particular ad end up on the Times' webpage anyway? The NYT isn't alone at all--I believe I've seen this banner ad on the LA Times and the WSJ, though I didn't think to capture any evidence of it. So it's pretty common, and I'm guessing the people behind this particular attack went through the remnant advertisement-buying route. (Remnant, for those who might not know, are the leftover ad space that gets sold to various organizations which do the ad selling for pennies per thousand page views. It is not particularly profitable.) Moving aside from the ethical question of whether newspapers or other outlets should be allowing a scam product to appear on their pages and hence acquire the vaguest sense of endorsements--most ads are selling you lies to one degree or another, though the "malware" extreme is quite another thing than the "causing anxiety about your imperfect life" extreme--it seems like bad business to have to be selling your ad space for such low prices to such terrible products. I'd imagine the people who pay the big bucks to try to seduce you into the most unrealistic fantasies for your loyalty to big brands are not too fond of appearing alongside the people who pay pennies for the chance at the unrealistic fantasy to trick you out of your money.

Team Building Exercise!

I do love it when I read two pieces that converge. Let’s start with a conceptual one. Atul Gawande apparently makes it a habit to deliver deep commencement speeches to graduating doctors every year, and even more happily makes it a habit to post on the internet where we can all think about it with him. Gawande’s effort this year is about how doctors work: before you might think of them as cowboys, individual and free; now you ought to think of them as pit crews:
The core structure of medicine—how health care is organized and practiced—emerged in an era when doctors could hold all the key information patients needed in their heads and manage everything required themselves. One needed only an ethic of hard work, a prescription pad, a secretary, and a hospital willing to serve as one’s workshop, loaning a bed and nurses for a patient’s convalescence, maybe an operating room with a few basic tools. We were craftsmen. We could set the fracture, spin the blood, plate the cultures, administer the antiserum. The nature of the knowledge lent itself to prizing autonomy, independence, and self-sufficiency among our highest values, and to designing medicine accordingly. But you can’t hold all the information in your head any longer, and you can’t master all the skills. No one person can work up a patient’s back pain, run the immunoassay, do the physical therapy, protocol the MRI, and direct the treatment of the unexpected cancer found growing in the spine. I don’t even know what it means to “protocol” the MRI.

Before Elias Zerhouni became director of the National Institutes of Health, he was a senior hospital leader at Johns Hopkins, and he calculated how many clinical staff were involved in the care of their typical hospital patient—how many doctors, nurses, and so on. In 1970, he found, it was 2.5 full-time equivalents. By the end of the nineteen-nineties, it was more than fifteen. The number must be even larger today. Everyone has just a piece of patient care. We’re all specialists now—even primary-care doctors. A structure that prioritizes the independence of all those specialists will have enormous difficulty achieving great care.

And he goes on to recite all of the depressing statistics and facts of which I’m sure you’re familiar by this point.

So if doctors need to work more closely together and coordinate more closely, why don’t they? Gawande focuses on culture, which is a good beginning of the answer. Culture has a way of inculcating a bias towards one action or another, and bias is awfully powerful in determining what the default action is. I don’t think this is a complete answer, however. Culture is informal, but formal institutions and the formal incentives they have are nearly as important.

Let’s consider the other piece I was talking about—a post in “The Incidental Economist” asking whether single-payer health care was good for your health. It turns out it might be, but the post probably should be asking a different question. (It kind of does—the paper it’s describing is called “Is fragmented financing bad for your health?”) Basically:
We examined a population of veterans who had access to care from the VA and from Medicare, choosing between the two systems based on differences in cost and convenience. Because the VA has its own hospitals and clinics, patients using both systems may have difficulty coordinating care between the non-overlapping networks of providers. This is a variant of a common problem in our multi-payer health system: having to change doctors when we change jobs, get divorced, retire, or enroll in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program.[1] Our hypothesis was that coordination failures between networks might lead to reduced quality of outpatient care and increase the likelihood of hospitalization for certain conditions known to be sensitive to ambulatory care quality.

We found effects that were larger than we expected. A typical (one-standard deviation) decrease in financial fragmentation led to a 20% decline in the rate of preventable hospitalization. This alone would be enough to cut Medicare’s hospital spending by 3%.

The two paragraphs describe some of the problems of a fragmented financing system, but they aren’t awful. The logistics of, say, passing around care from a clinic to a hospital, or from a primary care physician to a specialist, are pretty difficult in most care settings, particularly when they are located in entirely different buildings or locations. An urbanist will tell you that interactions between people are much less in sprawl-type environments, and that’s a good insight to keep in mind for the health care system: it’s much harder for a team of doctors, nurses, and technicians to coordinate care if they’re separated by a great physical distance. It’s certainly much harder for that team if technology is not as advanced or as convenient as it could be, in order to facilitate communication. Here I’m thinking particularly of electronic medical records, but that’s probably not all.

The point here is that the financing structure and physical orientation of our health care system is not particularly conducive to doctors, nurses, technicians, payors etc. working as a team and coordinating their care. Many of the better health care systems in the U.S.—whether it’s Medicare, Geisinger, or Kaiser Permanente—integrate the insurance and the healthcare arms of their operations in order to align the incentives in favor of building a team for health care. Usually the end result is to figure out how to treat people so they use the health care system less.

The Scandal About The Scandals

Well, here’s a provocative question:
One of the least remarked upon aspects of the Obama presidency has been the lack of scandals. Since Watergate, presidential and executive branch scandal has been an inescapable feature of the American presidency, but the current administration has not yet suffered a major scandal, which I define as a widespread elite perception of wrongdoing. What happened, and what are the odds that the administration’s streak will continue?

Obama has been extremely fortunate: My research (PDF) on presidential scandals shows that few presidents avoid scandal for as long as he has. In the 1977-2008 period, the longest that a president has gone without having a scandal featured in a front-page Washington Post article is 34 months – the period between when President Bush took office in January 2001 and the Valerie Plame scandal in October 2003. Obama has already made it almost as long despite the lack of a comparable event to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Why?

Nyhan, the author of the piece, argues that there’s one major factor contributing to the administration’s long winning streak, that is the lack of slow news days—the news cycle have been consumed, nearly continuously, by some huge event or another that leaves little time for the scandal cycle buildup that’s necessary for a scandal to really make it big. Obama, in Nyhan’s telling, should be vulnerable to scandal due to his persistent high disapproval ratings from Republicans—Presidents are vulnerable to scandal when the opposite party disapproves highly, which creates a demand for scandal news, which the media and opposition party figures do their best to fill.

This all sounds well and good, and there’s something to the idea that the vagaries of the news cycle during the Obama administration have prevented a scandal narrative from taking hold, but I think Nyhan is overthinking the matter a bit: the reason there haven’t really been any big scandals is because elites don’t want there to be any scandals. Both the partisan left and right have been trying their hardest to get a scandal going—Matt Taibbi is muck-raking so furiously that I think the smell must follow him everywhere, and Jane Mayer’s reporting on the spy state should be outrageous (and that’s just the left!)—but elites have not been particularly receptive to these narratives. In Mayer’s and Taibbi’s case, elites have decided that the financial crisis and associated wrongdoing and the spy state and associated wrongdoing are no big deal, but I suspect the public would find much of the material interesting and outrageous were it pushed a bit more consistently, heavily, and simply.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Linkism

Frugal innovation—innovation learned from India.

Two open government websites scrapped because of budget cuts.

On when to hold post-revolutionary elections.

Oncologists look at ways to bend the cost curve in cancer care.

The projected fleet of F-35s will cost $1 trillion over their lifetime merely to maintain (it’s $385 billion to purchase).

The potential benefits of smart grids:
Deployment of smart grid technology from U.S. utility control centers and power networks to consumers' homes could cost between $338 billion and $476 billion over the next 20 years, but will deliver $1.3 trillion to $2 trillion in benefits over that period. The benefits will include greater grid reliability, integration of solar rooftop generation and plug-in vehicles, reductions in electricity demand, and stronger cybersecurity, according to a new study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI).

Is single payer health care better for your health?

Chinese labor camps: labor in the morning, World of Warcraft gold mining at night.

Will 10 billion people use up the Earth’s resources?

Are diaspora bonds a promising method of capital-raising for the developing world?

The roots of the Arab Spring? Will the Saudis kill the Arab Spring?

More details on the Pakistani link to the Mumbai attacks

Democratic Matters

The New Republic has a really fantastic article arguing that, in fact, freedom has been retreating of late; one think tank thinks it’s been in retreat since 2005 and another speaks of a “qualitative” decline in democracy. The worst part just might be:
… it wasn’t just leaders who were driving these changes. In some cases, the people themselves seemed to acquiesce in their countries’ slide away from free and open government. In one study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, only 16 percent of Russians said it was “very important” that their nation be governed democratically. The regular Afrobarometer survey of the African continent has found declining levels of support for democracy in many key countries. And in Guatemala, Paraguay, Colombia, Peru, Honduras, and Nicaragua, either a minority or only a small majority of people think democracy is preferable to any other type of government. Even in East Asia, one of the most democratic regions of the world, polls show rising dissatisfaction with democracy. In fact, several countries in the region have developed what Yu-tzung Chang, Yunhan Zhu, and Chong-min Park, who studied data from the regular Asian Barometer surveys, have termed “authoritarian nostalgia.” “Few of the region’s former authoritarian regimes have been thoroughly discredited,” they write, noting that the region’s average score for commitment to democracy, judged by a range of responses to surveys, has recently fallen.

I’m not sure that the picture is quite as clouded as the article would like us to believe, however.

For one, the article focuses mostly on political freedom in context of talking about democracy. And as a limited observation about freedom, the article may be correct. But when we talk about freedom in an everyday sense, that’s not what we mean—or, rather, that’s not what we mean after reflecting about freedom. Freedom is about petitioning your government, but it’s also about being able to fulfill your life’s desires. So there’s an economic or prosperity angle to freedom. At the end of it all these two things converge—that is, freedom of speech and the positive ability to do what you want are self-reinforcing principles—but for many there’s a divergence. So while, say, China might be experiencing economically better times than ever before and thereby getting the freedom that comes from not starving, they also still don’t have that political freedom. How can a system reconcile this? I’m not entirely sure. Skeptics will argue that a democratic movement in countries like China hasn’t happened yet and will therefore disbelieve the point that prosperity and freedom synergize, but I do wonder whether the time frame is simply too compressed. Economically speaking China has only been enjoying rapid growth since, what, twenty years ago? Is that a realistic time frame to expect democracy to spring forth?

For two, the article doesn’t consider the rather extraordinary economic times we’re going through. While many emerging markets are enjoying an extended boom, other places aren’t feeling as prosperous, and recessions and fragile democracies do not tend to coexist well.

For three, the article considers the number of countries, but it doesn’t consider the number of people within each country. You could argue that India and Brazil are more democratic than ever before, and if that argument is true, approximately 1.5 billion people are enjoying more democracy than ever before. How does that compare to the people whose democratic experience has dimmed?

Things are too complex, essentially.

Skin in the game

Peter Orszag has a great column on the faultiness of the Ryan plan for Medicare, but it’s worth burrowing into this one point:
…let’s take a quick detour into why consumer-directed health-care reform -– though useful to some degree -– may not be the panacea it’s often held out to be. The core problem is that health-care costs are concentrated among expensive treatments for chronic diseases and end-of-life care -– and even consumer-directed approaches retain deep third-party insurance against such cases (which is, after all, the whole point of insurance). Consider that, if you rank Medicare beneficiaries by cost, one-quarter of patients account for more than 85 percent of total costs. So even if the other 75 percent spend less on doctors and medicine, they can’t take a significant bite out of the total.

This is fair and unfair. Let’s say of the 15% of remaining health care costs in Orszag’s scheme, 50% are needless. That’s 7.5% of all health care costs, which is a pretty big number. If you took that out you’d have somewhat lower premiums, etc. So it’s not unfair to wonder whether you could achieve greater efficiency in the area of that 15% of health care costs, particularly since the services covered with the 15% represent the vast majority of interactions with the health care system.

The problem is that the 75% making decisions on their health care in a skin-in-the-game world might not make the right decisions about the best way to cut costs: instead of, say, going to the ER because your right toe itches (or insisting on a scan for that bruise or something), many skin-in-the-game patients forgo actual needed care. That’s not the cost-savings we want, and ultimately they’re not cost savings at all—if you wait on urgent health care, eventually the urgent health care will get even more urgent and demand treatment, at which point your problem has metastasized into a really serious problem. Everyone loses in this scenario.

Basically, people who promote skin in the game are looking at the wrong incentives.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Linkism

Pakistani militants launch daring raid into Pakistani naval base and put it under siege.

Latin America heading to economic trouble?

Does pollution decrease worker productivity?

David Leonhardt on the lack of the children of poorer folk in elite colleges:
The truth is that many of the most capable low- and middle-income students attend community colleges or less selective four-year colleges close to their home. Doing so makes them less likely to graduate from college at all, research has shown. Incredibly, only 44 percent of low-income high school seniors with high standardized test scores enroll in a four-year college, according to a Century Foundation report — compared with about 50 percent of high-income seniors who have average test scores.

“The extent of wasted human capital,” wrote the report’s authors, Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, “is phenomenal.”

This comparison understates the problem, too, because SAT scores are hardly a pure measure of merit. Well-off students often receive SAT coaching and take the test more than once, Mr. Marx notes, and top colleges reward them for doing both. Colleges also reward students for overseas travel and elaborate community service projects. “Colleges don’t recognize, in the same way, if you work at the neighborhood 7-Eleven to support your family,” he adds.
Even the 50% of high-income seniors sounds low to me.

Roger Ailes’s Fox News circus failing (a look at Fox News in decline).

Chinese utilities vs. Chinese government.

What we know about cost shifting in health care.

Mobile payments craze: Google and Square.

Creating New Intractable Problems By Solving Old Ones

This is good news:
Crime -- both property crime and violent crime -- is down to its lowest level in 40 years, especially in America's biggest cities, according to newly released data from the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report. The data was collected from January through December 2010 and breaks out metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas as well as cities of various sizes. For the fourth year in a row, there has been yet another substantial decline in crime: 5.5 percent fewer murders, forcible rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults were reported in 2010 than in 2009; property crimes fell by 2.8 percent over the same period and reported arsons dropped by 8.3 percent. "In all regions, the country appears to be safer," reports the New York Times. "The odds of being murdered or robbed are now less than half of what they were in the early 1990s, when violent crime peaked in the United States."

It was thought at the peak of the crime wave that crime was one of those socially intractable problems that we’d all have to suffer through and couldn’t do much about. A good portion of the decrease in crime isn’t of anyone’s direct doing—demographics looks like a positive for falling crime rates—but then again a lot of the lower crime rate is the result of deliberate efforts.

So we should keep this in mind when people argue that seemingly-intractable problem X is actually intractable and we shouldn’t try to do anything about it. Chances are if you try hard enough and pay a high enough price, the problem can be solved. The question is always whether the burden is too heavy and the price too high, and in this case you ought to have serious reservations. The problem is our overcrowded prison population (about which it’s worth reading Dahlia Lithwick on the Supreme Court’s decision, and also this Los Angeles Magazine feature from 2009 on the prison population of LA for demonstrations of exactly how bad the situation is for convicts). The result is inhumane conditions for prisoners, who as a consequence of prison become unemployable and often acquire debilitating health conditions, particularly mental health conditions. This is bad for them and it’s bad for the country, to have a huge semi-permanent population of violent sufferers. And as with so much, we lead the world—by far—in prisoners. Solve a problem and you get a new one.

Aggressive Medicine

Via Robin Hanson, we find that cancer screening doesn’t really have an effect on decreasing mortality. It does lead to more detection and more treatment, but all this doesn’t apparently decrease mortality.

Coincidentally, the WSJ has a report on whether a fancy new heart scan (like, really fancy—the picture they have of a heart with this scan is vividly beautiful):
CT angiography is a rapidly growing technology. Michael Lauer, director of the cardiovascular-sciences division at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, wrote in a commentary accompanying the CCTA study, "We cannot simply assume that just because a screening test predicts clinical outcomes, interventions necessarily will prevent them."

Like with cancer screening, you have a lot of medical interventions thrown at the problem—statins, etc.—but with no effect on mortality or other health measures. Now, to be fair the study was pretty limited, but still, Voltaire’s line on medicine—“The art of medicine consists in amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.”—still seems to have quite a bit of truth.

When to be greedy

The WSJ might bore you with the abstruse details of a pension fund suing a bank over the exchange rates it offered said pension fund (to shorten a long story: basically said bank, BNY Mellon, bought the pension fund’s euros low and sold them high in dollars), but this little parenthetical remark was interesting:
A BNY Mellon spokesman confirmed the accuracy of the data and said the bank's employees "tend" to price foreign-exchange trades at one end of each day's "interbank" trading range—the rates at which major banks like BNY Mellon buy and sell foreign currencies. But the bank said there was nothing improper about the practice. It said clients like the Los Angeles pension fund knew—or should have known—that the bank doesn't act in their interests when pricing the trades.

That’s something of a habitual claim on the part of big financial firms: well, duh, you should’ve known, whether it’s Goldman Sachs shorting its own product or whomever, they’re just taking a caveat emptor attitude towards the entire enterprise.

This might do in certain circumstances other than these. But historically bankers, like the doctors and lawyers that make up the big archetypal professions, have thought of themselves as basically fiduciary, public-spirited gentlemen who were trying to do fair business just as much as good business. A market-maker would frequently take a loss on a trade just to keep a good relationship up, to take one example.

The culture shifted, which is fine if this is obvious for just about everyone and the incentives are well-aligned. Neither appear to be true as of this moment.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Linkism

New York profiles Saif Qaddafi and his attempt to reform Libya.

Central America’s reliance on renewable energy.

Iran’s geopolitical battle for the Arab street.

If Republicans knew the Ryan budget was politically toxic, why did they support it anyway?

The life of a hotel housekeeper:
Beyond their physical safety and the possibility of nude Frenchmen unexpectedly popping out of bathrooms, the time they spend in those rooms inevitably leads to problems. Housekeepers are routinely accused by guests of stealing money from nightstands, making international calls from the room phones, rifling through luggage and pocketing jewelry. I’ve heard every one of these charges leveled at colleagues. Rarely, I’ve found, do they turn out to be true.

The Kafkaesque world of loan servicing.

DSK and the elite world.

Investigating a massacre in Guatemala in 1974.

Cities as software.

Toyota and ascending from disaster.

Chicago’s preparations for global warming:
Climate scientists have told city planners that based on current trends, Chicago will feel more like Baton Rouge than a Northern metropolis before the end of this century.

So, Chicago is getting ready for a wetter, steamier future. Public alleyways are being repaved with materials that are permeable to water. The white oak, the state tree of Illinois, has been banned from city planting lists, and swamp oaks and sweet gum trees from the South have been given new priority. Thermal radar is being used to map the city’s hottest spots, which are then targets for pavement removal and the addition of vegetation to roofs. And air-conditioners are being considered for all 750 public schools, which until now have been heated but rarely cooled.

An anonymous NBA player attacks (Insider):
Let me tell you American basketball's dirty little secret: Our coaches are terrible. And not just in the NBA. Coaches across the whole game stink -- high school, AAU, college. They've grown fat on our natural athletic abilities, and they've gotten lazy. Nobody coaches fundamentals anymore. We might as well rename the NBA the AABA: African-American Basketball Association. (I'm black, by the way.) It's basically a very talented street-ball league. Americans simply can't dribble, pass, work the post or shoot the rock as well as our foreign counterparts, like Dirk Nowitzki. And their coaches get the credit for that.

Overseas, coaches still drill their players in the fundamentals and teach them how to play the game. A guy like the Pistons' Chris Wilcox -- who can barely dribble or shoot after all these years -- simply wouldn't slip through the cracks over there. Had he grown up in Europe, Wilcox, with his size and athleticism, would be a serious force. Players are beginning to realize that if they go overseas, even for a season, they'll come back with more skills, and that translates into greater success and better contracts back here.
It’s simple: coaches from high school to college have no financial incentive to develop players well, particularly as the results of their development will be captured by someone else down the line. NBA coaches just don’t have the time, though NBA players often end up developing themselves from sheer ambition—watching Kevin Durant pass is an example of how a determined player can add to his skillset. (Though the NBA doesn’t do anywhere well enough with development. You look at a player like Serge Ibaka as an example; he would’ve been entirely useless anywhere else because teams have no concept on how to add to someone’s game.)

You Can't Fight The Courts

The Supreme Court revealed an unusual decision today:
The Supreme Court ordered California on Monday to release tens of thousands of its prisoners to relieve overcrowding, saying that "needless suffering and death" had resulted from putting too many inmates into facilities that cannot hold them in decent conditions.

It is one of the largest prison-release orders in the nation's history, and it sharply split the high court.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, speaking for the majority, said the state might have to release 38,000 to 46,000 prisoners in total. But at least 9,000 inmates have already been released or transferred to county jails by the state.

It’s unsurprising that Anthony Kennedy is the tipping point here—law in this country is law by Anthony Kennedy’s whims—so focus instead on the substantive content of the decision. Some will call the decision judicial activism and imply that this is a new turn for the court; ignore it—the Roberts Court is just as activist as any other, but it prefers to be activist on behalf of the people who really need the protection of the courts: those poor marginalized rich people. It’s instead a finer-grained distinction: the court here is acting as a policymaker rather than the more general category of “court doing stuff actively”, and that’s the sort of decision we haven’t seen since the days of court-ordered busing. That’s what this decision is reminiscent of.

I hope liberals don’t get too full of the warm-and-fuzzies, though. The courts, like any other institution, tend to favor rich interests over poor ones and conservative interests over progressive ones. The courts, unlike the popular parts of government, are insulated from the people (and justly so). All of these things make the courts a somewhat inherently conservative institution, and indeed the history of the courts in the U.S. is more conservative than not.

Success

You can typically rely on the New Yorker for solid profiles; this edition’s solid profile is on Mets owner Fred Wilpon, that has a number of subterranean issues the profile’s author doesn’t specifically comment on. There’s one big theme in there, but let’s comment on one small issue, first: the article indulges in the typical exaggerations of the New York fan—if something’s good, it must be the greatest thing ever (“the Derek Jeter effect”), and, more relevantly for this article, if something’s bad, it must be the worst thing in all of existence.

That is, the author proposes that the Mets are cursed, and you hear a number of Mets fans complaining as if they were Cubs fans or something. (An advertisement: “New York is home to several professional teams—and the Mets.”) This is ridiculous. The Mets have won two World Series and participated in two more. Given that the Mets have only been around for fifty years or so, this is not a bad level of success—a title every twenty-five years and a World Series every ten, on average. Yes, the Mets have been comically spendthrift on bad players or players who subsequently became unlucky. This is not a curse, it’s just ordinary bad management. You aren’t the Cubs. You aren’t even the Clippers, Royals, or Pirates. You’re not special. You might not even be bad, relatively speaking. Stop whining.

****

The mistaken perception of the lack of success of the Mets is maybe the right place to enter the other interesting theme of the profile, which is that of success. Success is about two things: skill and luck, with varying proportions of the two. Paris Hilton is really lucky and not as skilled, for example. The rest of successful people typically have more skill, but luck is always there. Like, let’s take Wilpon’s childhood as an example:
The Wilpons lived in Bensonhurst, and Fred grew up on the baseball fields at the Parade Grounds and in Dyker Park. He pitched for Lafayette High School and for sandlot teams, and quickly drew notice as a professional prospect. Wilpon was so well regarded that he was invited to pitch batting practice to the major leaguers. When he threw at Ebbets, he would get an extra ticket to the games, and he often brought along a friend from high school, Sandy Koufax. “Sandy was one of the best basketball players in Brooklyn,” Wilpon said. “The only reason he joined the baseball team was so we could hang around together. Sandy played first base.”

“I really didn’t play much baseball at all,” Koufax told me. “I didn’t go out for the baseball team until my senior year, when basketball was over and I didn’t have anything better to do. Fred was the baseball player.” Koufax won a basketball scholarship to the University of Cincinnati. There he took up baseball more seriously and stopped playing the infield.

Koufax, considered by some to be the greatest pitcher ever, appears to have picked up pitching as a coincidence, which is crazy on many levels to contemplate. This sort of thing would never happen today, you’d think, not in a world where parents send eighth graders to be tutored by private quarterback coaches.

More Wilpon-directly:
The two men founded Sterling Equities in 1972. “Great time to start a business,” Katz said. “Economy falling apart, then the oil embargo. Our first project was town houses in Tarrytown”—the Westchester suburb. “No one thought they could be built. We were too stupid to know that we couldn’t do it.” In fact, the project was a great success, which presented the two men with a problem of sorts. “Because we had built condos, the money we were making was taxed as ordinary income, so, in order to protect against paying the tax, we started travelling all over the country buying what we thought were tax shelters,” Katz said. More or less unwittingly, Sterling was buying real estate at the bottom of the market. “The ‘tax shelters’ turned into cash cows,” Katz said.

That gives them the money to invest in the Mets (which they only find out about through social connections, when they find out that the owner’s husband is uninterested in running a baseball team after the owner’s death, which subsequently gives them social entrée into more moneyed circles, which boosts their real estate business, etc.) Success often snowballs, by leveraging one advantage into another, until you have some people who are incredibly successful. “Leveraging one advantage into another” is a pretty good description for human progress generally, but focus on individuals here—there’s not necessarily a huge difference between many hugely successful people and many modestly successful people. The libertarian claim is often that the super-successful are Atlases holding up the world, which is much more rare than they’d think. Steve Jobs (or Larry Page/Sergei Brin, say) is uncommon even among wealthy folk. Fred Wilpon is more ordinary. With no disrespect for the gentleman, but I suspect there are many people who could approximate his achievements with a good initial break. The political point at the end of this is to be suspicious of claims that constraining income inequality will be overly injurious to society generally, as I suspect the Jobs, Pages and Brins of the world are motivated by more than money; the broader philosophical point is to play less of the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses games with your peers. They’re your peers for a reason, despite it all.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Linkism

WSJ has a report on the future of transportation.

Apparently China will agree to operate a Pakistani port for Pakistan’s navy, and this paragraph sounds disturbing (though, perhaps biased):
"China is trying to undercut the U.S.'s numerous interests in Pakistan," said Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. "Gwadar was the linchpin of [the] 'string of pearls' strategy and the latest news adds to that. India faces a unique challenge that no other country does. Its two nuclear armed neighbors are closely aligned and are stepping up joint military programs. India will have to step up its deterrent capabilities."

Why doesn’t Britain teach its students about its imperial history?

Steven Pearlstein has a good column summarizing the state of play in health care reform.

Eating cheese in China.

Discarding the strong-dollar/weak-dollar orthodoxy.

Sports Illustrated profiles Novak Djokovic and his absurd dominance…and general absurdity.

The need for new cities.

Japan, China and South Korea consider free trade pact.

Is a Texan drought worse than the Dust Bowl?

Is Jon Huntsman really just preparing for a 2016 Presidential run?

Playoffs: Conference Finals

It’s hard to win when you’re a worse team. Shocking conclusion, there, but certainly true—and something the Bulls can definitely reflect on, and perhaps the Thunder too.

As has been said many times, the Bulls just don’t have the offense necessary, particularly at the SG position. Well, they kind of do—if you could get away with playing Kyle Korver 40 minutes, you would, but of course you cannot get away with playing Kyle Korver 40 minutes because asking Kyle Korver to guard competent NBA players for 40 minutes is liking an unarmed human to beat a shark (in the water). So the Bulls are left to switch between two players who only contribute half the time they’re out there—either Bogans on defense (or Brewer) or Korver on offense. This is awkward. Finding the right kind of shooting guard—someone who can create but is more of a shooter, and who is at least an adequate defender. One high-risk possibility is J.R. Smith, who is available because J.R. Smith is always available (which is why it’s high-risk.) If J.R. works out he’s a top-5 shooting guard in the league; if not he’ll sabotage the entire team. I don’t think this is the type of guy the Bulls would go for, which leaves bargain basement free agent acquisitions, etc. Perhaps Arron Afflalo? Always liked him from UCLA. Then again, “10% better than Keith Bogans!” is hardly the most inspiring justification for your signing.

Carlos Boozer had nice game, keeping the Bulls in it, but he’s still behind where he needs to be, if the Bulls are to be a championship contender. Unfortunately, Boozer is aging and his deal is long. This was pretty predictable, but nevertheless disappointing. The best course for the team might be framing Boozer for a major felony and voiding his contract. Or having some NBA superstar demand to play for the Bulls. (A lonely nation turns its eyes to Dwight Howard?)

****

The Thunder have a higher ceiling, if only because they fit the NBA champion archetype much more readily. With the ongoing Russell Westbrook personality issues (the common analogy is The Wire one: i.e. Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell. First of all, I’m not sure who’s supposed to be who here: personality-wise Kevin Durant is much more a Stringer Bell but he’s the senior guy, which theoretically should make him Avon Barksdale. So the analogy doesn’t work that way. The other thing is that I’m not sure we’re dealing with a full-fledged ego insurrection with Westbrook; Westbrook strikes me as someone who’s genuinely at war with his own personality), it makes you wonder: why isn’t Westbrook further along? Why do the Thunder seem to lose focus at inopportune times?

The natural question to start asking for the team is this: have we reached our Doug Collins/Phil Jackson point? The Bulls back in the day used Doug Collins to get themselves up most of the mountain but relied on Jackson to get them to the summit. That just made sense: it was the best fit for their respective skills. I wonder whether Scott Brooks has young team skills but not championship-winning team skills. It seems possible with some of the weird stuff going around Oklahoma City. Unfortunately for the Thunder, that’s a bad problem to have: it’s easy to find a serviceable veteran; moderately difficult to find someone better than that. But at least in each instance you have a track record to go on. If you’re looking for someone with championship-winning coach skills, you have to extrapolate wildly, because only a few people have those skills at any time, and they are either too old or firmly ensconced. Otherwise it’s that old paradox for young job hunters of: “I can’t get hired without experience. But how can I get experience unless I get hired?”

Because all of the pieces seem to be in the right positions.

The Newer War

There hasn’t been a lot of hype about this, but it seems American prosecutors are about to call a witness, David Headley, who will accuse the Pakistani intelligence agency—the ISI—of helping to plot the Mumbai terror attacks (the main trial is against an alleged direct conspirator for the attacks.) A minor point of Headley’s story is one worth looking at:
After a 1997 arrest for heroin smuggling, Headley became a prized DEA informant who targeted Pakistani traffickers.

Immediately after the 11 September 2001 attacks, the DEA directed him to collect intelligence on terrorists as well as drugs. That December, the US government ended his probation early and rushed him to Pakistan, where he began training in Lashkar terror camps weeks later, according to court documents and his associates.

There’s a scene early in The Wire in which an FBI agent predicts all the energy the FBI is using on drugs will switch en masse to dealing with terrorism and that drugs will be left aside, ignored. That’s consonant with the larger themes of the show—just as drugs are ignored so too is Baltimore—but is worth considering from the system-wide perspective.

With the story above we have an informant switched easily from drugs to terrorism. Is this particularly plausible? It’s certainly possible that the same informant could be used against both terror-type targets and drug targets (see: Afghanistan opium), but it does seem to speak for an apparatus that seeks to justify its own existence by switching to whatever task seems to engage public passion at the moment.

By switching so quickly, public agencies will inevitably have a knowledge deficit and become entangled with unsavory figures who know more than the public agency and therefore take advantage of that situation for personal ends.

To take another line from The Wire: “This isn’t a war. Wars end.” It’s striking that we allow these struggles to go on so long, with the corresponding misery. Apparently, rather than contemplate solutions that were previously verboten, a miserable quagmire that keeps matters in the acceptable and conceivable is preferable. It’s a strange part of human psychological.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Linkism

Can we go from tweaks to leaps in changing human life to cope with climate change?

What happens to doomsday cults after their predictions turn out wrong?

The successes of foreign aid (by Bill Gates):
Fifty years ago, more than half the world's population struggled with getting enough daily calories. By the 1990s, this figure was below 10%. Famine affected less than three-tenths of 1% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa from 1990 to 2005. As Mr. Kenny suggests, the record has thoroughly disproved Malthusian prophecies of food shortages caused by spiraling population growth. Family sizes have fallen for many decades now in every region, including Africa.

And there's more good news. Virtually everywhere, infant mortality is down and life expectancy is up. In Africa, life expectancy has increased by 10 years since 1960, despite the continent's HIV pandemic. Nearly 90% of the world's children are now enrolled in primary schools, compared with less than half in 1950. Literacy rates in the sub-Saharan region have more than doubled since 1970. Political and civil rights also have gained ground.

Is there a corporate crime wave?

Tyler Cowen and other economists debate technological stagnation.