I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Be careful what you wish for

The big development this week in the health care debate is that it looks like the senate will move ahead with a public option, i.e, a plan via which the federal government will offer medicaid or medicare like insurance to anyone willing to pay the premiums. Presumably, these premiums will be priced well below premiums of private insurers, since the government doesn't need to worry about running a profit or deficit spending. If a private insurance company ran a deficit of a trillion bucks, it would be shut down. If the government chooses to run such a deficit, there doesn't seem to be any realistic opposition to this. Both political parties are dominated by people willing to spend without raising revenue. Republicans didn't say a word about deficit spending as they voted to fund two wars. To hear them now profess concern for deficits feels a bit disingenuous. They seem stuck on the notion that tax cuts are the key to balancing the budget. Since Ronald Reagan first championed this idea, we've had three decades of deficits. Even the "surpluses" of the Clinton years were actually deficits, since we were only ahead if the social security "trust funds" were counted as revenues (which they are, obviously, but the theory is they are to be saved, not spent as quickly as they come in, which is what actually happens).

But, I'm getting sidetracked onto a deficit rant, when I really want to discuss health care. For a long time, the public option has run very high in the polls. It's been a very strange paradox in this health care debate: Polls show rather thin support for government reform of health care, but usually show very strong support, well over sixty percent, of a public option. Why? I think the answer is fairly obvious: most people who support a public option do so because it's a vaguely defined term that they are free to pour any meaning they wish into. It would be very interesting to see a poll that asked people what they believed their monthly premium would be under a public option. My suspicion is, most people equate a public option with "free." Again, I have no polling data to actually back this up. I just sense from talking to supporters that they imagine that the public option will work like health care in Canada or the UK. You'll just go to whatever doctor you want, get whatever services you need, and won't pay a dime for it (or maybe a small co-pay).

But what if the public option comes with a premium of $100 a month, per person in your family? Would support still be as high? This is certainly cheaper than almost any private insurance. Still, my gut instinct is that a lot of people who support a public option would change to opposing it if they found they would actually have to pay for it. And, I could be way wrong as to what a public option would cost. Maybe it would be set at a flat ten percent of income. Maybe five percent. Maybe you'll pay $9.99 once a year, and it comes with a free pony! Right now, there's no way of knowing. The bills creating a public option don't talk about actual premium costs; these will be figured out down the road. But, if people are willing to support it thinking it will be free, then I guess I'm free to oppose it thinking it's going to come with a non-trivial price tag.

The price tag is going to be important because the bills are also going to include a second element: a personal mandate to purchase health insurance. Right now, this is turning out to be a toothless mandate. Early versions of the bills were discussing sizable fines for people who didn't buy health insurance. Now, the fines have been reduced and loopholes are being added for millions of people who won't get fined at all. But, of course, these people will also be uninsured. The personal mandate is the only cost saving measure currently being proposed. Currently, a significant chunk of people who don't have health insurance are young, healthy people. If we force these people into the insurance pool, presumably that will help control costs, since you'll have a large population of people who are paying premiums but not using much in the way of services. Very few twenty-five-year-olds have heart attacks or cancer. (Obviously, yes, some do, but compared to people who are sixty-five who develop these problems, the numbers are tiny.)

But, I look back on my own life, and wonder about the different choices I might have made if I'd had a mandate to buy health insurance. I used to work for a company that I just hated. I really wanted to quit my job and make a living writing. This was about fifteen years ago; I was only thirty. I scrimped and saved for a few years in my late twenties to get debt free and build up a little buffer of savings. Then, I quit. I made it almost year without taking another job, even though my writing income that year turned out to be nothing. But, I had carefully designed my life to cost as little as possible. My car was paid for, I was renting a space not much larger than a shoe box, and I ate a steady diet of Sam's Club frozen chicken breasts, which were something like 30 cents a pound back then. I still look back fondly on that time. But, if I'd been forced to spend a few hundred buck a month on health insurance, I don't think I could have made it as long as I did. It's true, if I'd developed cancer or been in a car wreck during these months, I would have wound up saddled with far worse bills than the insurance would have cost. But, I knew this; I had the freedom to choose to take that gamble. I still have that freedom; I just think that, at 45 (and thirty pounds heavier), my odds have changed.

To me, it feels fundamentally unfair to impose a personal mandate to buy health insurance. Some people argue that it's no different than the personal mandate to have car insurance. But, if I wanted to skip car insurance, I could just not own a car. I don't have any realistic option to not have a body.

I also have to admit, I'm thinking about this from the perspective of a man who doesn't have children. If I had kids, I think that a mandate requiring that I insure them would be perfectly sensible, no different than a mandate that I make sure they get an education.

Still, right now, I'm nervous about both the public option and a personal mandate. This doesn't mean that I don't want to see health insurance reform. I'd love to see a "catastrophic option" at least discussed, where people are responsible for their own health care for most services, but the government would step to pay for medical bills that fall beyond a certain lifetime limit: Say, $200,000. In other words, the government wouldn't pay a dime for me to have my appendix removed or to mend my broken leg, but they would step in for a long term, chronic cancer or heart disease. I'd also love the very common sense reform of making privately purchased health insurance tax deductible, the way it is when businesses purchase it. And, of course, I'd love to see the government doing more to facilitate medical research. One way to reduce the breathtaking cost of cancer would be to cure it.

Since I opened this post complaining about deficit spending, I feel like a hypocrite to end it calling for more government spending. So, let me propose some ways to pay for them. First, there have been trial balloons from the Obama administration about taxing soft drinks. There seems to be very little support for this, but you can count me among the enthusiastic proponents of this. No one needs a Coke or a Pepsi. And few people bat an eye at paying $1 for a two liter in a grocery store, but paying $2 for a glass of soda in a restaurant. We could raise billions by charging a quarter a quart. If you want to avoid the tax, don't drink soda. It seems to me no more onerous than a tax on cigarettes or booze. I'd also be fine with taxes on most fat foods and snack items. A potato chip tax, maybe. And, finally, obesity is a real risk factor for all sorts of disease. I say this as someone who is, no big surprise, obese. So, though it goes against every libertarian instinct I may have, why not have a fat tax? Every year on tax day, you go get weighed. For every pound you are overweight, you pay a dollar. This offsets some of the additional cost and risk that carrying around an extra fifty pounds adds to society, but isn't going to bankrupt anyone. There may be one or two circus freaks who see their tax approach a thousand bucks, but most people would be paying under $100. And, maybe the thought of saving ten bucks a year would be the push some people would need to lose ten pounds. I'm not proposing this as a punishment for obese people, just as a way of some reflecting that, long term, all of society pays for me weighing more, so why not chip in a little now to offset the costs of my eventual health care expenses?

Of course, I should be careful what I wish for. Five years from now, when I'm shelling out $5 for a coke, I'll be the one grumbling loudest. But, people who are supporting the health care reform bills now before the house and senate should be careful too. Our current health care system is, no question, a real frying pan. I just worry that any government intervention is going to be a fire.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Early morning thoughts on money

I just got back from Washington, DC, where I stayed with my friend Mr. Cavin and his lovely bride Sunshine. They were courteous hosts for me and Cheryl, and we definitely saw parts of DC with them that we wouldn't have found on our own, like ass-kicking Ethiopian food, a trapeze school, and the Red Bull art exhibit at Union Station. (I think it was Union station... everything is a blur at this point.)

We came back from DC the long way, veering westward to drive down the Skyline Drive. It was amazing; I'll link to Cheryl's photos as soon as she posts them on Flickr. We were close enough to a large buck deer at one point that we could have reached out and touched it. We also nearly ran over a black bear. And, we finished the day by watching the sun set over the Shenandoah Valley. Absolutely brilliant.

Of course, after sun set, we still had a five hour drive back to Hillsborough. "Amazing" isn't the word to describe this part of the journey. "Death march" is closer, though not appropriate since we were sitting down, and both survived. I only made it the last 80 miles by drinking a monster-sized cup of convenience store coffee that is probably going to leave me awake until five in the morning. Cheryl also had the coffee... she still zonked out and slept her way back home after we crossed the North Carolina line, leaving me alone to think about monetary policy. It would have been nice to think about something interesting, perhaps, but what can I do? I blame the caffeine.

Anyway, there was a point in a discussion of the post-consumer economy last week at CapClave where one of the panelist was discussing the disparity of wealth, pointing out how vastly wealthier the rich are today in comparison with the poor. I had pointed out that I wasn't disturbed by Bill Gates or Warren Buffett being in possession of tens of billions of dollars, because it wasn't like they convert it all into gold bars and store it in their basement. In theory, money is seldom a static thing. When someone has a billion dollars, they don't actually have a billion dollars. They'll have bought stock, providing money for companies to expand. Maybe, like Bill Gates, they've built a hyperfuturistic mansion that cost eye-popping sums of money. But, this money has gone to architects and construction workers; it's gone to seamstresses who sew couches and curtains, to burly men who lay brick and mow yards, and to god knows how many electricians it takes to wire the house of tomorrow. I know this gets the bad name of "trickle-down economics," but any fair minded person has to admit that the money does indeed keep circulating in the economy.

There was once a Doonesbury cartoon that parodied this, with a rich person placed on the spot about what area of the economy he'd stimulated with his tax cut. The punchline was that the rich guy had spent the dough on antiques, as if this was a wasteful thing. But, why is it wasteful? Why shouldn't an antique dealer earn a living? And, again, it's not like he's putting the money into a vault. He's going to be buying new inventory. With the profits, he'll be shopping at Walmart and McDonald's next to the rest of us. The money circulates. Even if it gets put in a savings account in a bank, the bank circulates it by making investments of its own. Money in our modern economy is almost never stagnant (not counting the pennies in your couch).

But, here's the flip side of this argument: Money spent by the government is never really wasted either. I will hear conservative talk show hosts rail against wasteful spending for, say, a trolley museum in Wastebuck, Virginia. The folks at the trolley museum are going to get hundred grand; how on earth is this going to do the larger economy any good? Well, by the same principal that it's good for a wealthy man to pay $100,000 to an antique dealer. The government money is going to keep moving. If the trolley museum gives all ten of its employees a $10,000 bonus this year, they are all going to go out and spend it on pizza, blue jeans, or maybe a new car. As long as the money isn't gathered into a large pile and set on fire, any dollar spent, whether by government or private industry, is a dollar flowing from one person to another. A dollar spent is a dollar earned... by someone else.

The big, big difference between Bill Gates spending a billion dollars on a house, and the US government spending a billion dollars on the cash for clunkers program, is that Bill presumably has the dough, while the US is borrowing half the money it spends now. Thus, all stimulus spending we currently undertake is effectively borrowing from the potential prosperity of our children and grandchildren. A child born today is in hock for many tens of thousands of dollars before the doctor even slaps him. But, maybe his father kept a job at the trolley museum he would have lost otherwise. Anyone who tells you they know with absolute certainty where the greater good lies is probably able to arrive at this certainty only by ignoring all parts of the larger reality that don't fit into their vision of How Things Are.

I'm not sure I'm going anywhere with this. Just random, coffee driven thoughts after a week of overstimulation. If I do have a point, I guess it would be to be kind to children. With the help of our elected officials, we are mugging them daily, and they aren't even aware of it. The least they should get in return are some cool birthday presents.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Actually, this might increase the peace in the world...

After my anti-Obama peace prize rant of two weeks ago, this morning I wake up to discover that Obama is issuing a directive telling federal law officials not to pursue prosecutions of pot-smoking patients in states that have legalized medical marijuana. (Details are here.)

This isn't quite the first thing I've agreed on with Obama. I thought he was correct to raise the federal restrictions on funding of stem-cell research. (Though, I always was bothered that the Bush policy was misrepresented, since it was referred to as a ban, when, in fact, the research was still legal with private or state money.) I also think that pulling back on deploying a missile defense shield makes sense. We are out of money; the Soviet Union was, according to some interpretations of history, bankrupted by an arms race with the US. We are now being bankrupted by much smaller, weaker states, or even non-states. Osama bin Laden spent a few thousand dollars to engineer 9-11. The cost of us launching a war against terrorism in response is arguably over a trillion dollars by now, all of it funded by debt. Some pundits say that we need to build the missile shield to guard against Iranian missiles. But, again, it's asymmetric; we're spending tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars of borrowed money to defend against weapons that, like Saddam's mythical nukes and bio-weapons, may not even exist. (The missiles exist, yes, but a nuclear warhead is highly debatable.)

If we were a nation running a budget surplus, I might feel generous about spending ten billion here or ten billion there to defend Poland or Hungary. But we're a nation $10 trillion in the red. We are far more vulnerable to economic warfare at this point than we are to missile strikes.

Anyway back to pot: I will again be critical of Obama in saying that I wish he'd gone further. I would have liked to see him declare the 80 year old war against pot over entirely and just go ahead and legalize it all. It would save money, and maybe even earn some dough if we taxed it like cigarettes and booze. I have never smoked pot. Never even been interested. But, the pot smokers I've known have been pretty ordinary people, holding down full-time jobs, raising kids, even attending churches. The drug remains illegal only because no serious politician has the courage to come out and say what everyone knows: it's just not that dangerous. As for the argument that it's a gateway drug, I would argue that if it is a gateway, it's solely because it's illegal. Right now, if you want to buy pot, you have to do so on the black market, where other, more harmful drugs, are also going to be available. Make it legal, and you could buy it in grocery stores along with beer and cigarettes--it would mainly be a gateway drug to potato chips, which really are dangerous to your health, but that's a whole different blog post.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Myth of Darwin as a Prophet

This weekend at Capclave, I'll be on a panel discussing Darwin. The panel description reads:

Darwin was born 200 years ago. Why are his ideas still controversial? Is the voyage of the Beagle the prototype for sf missions of scientific discovery? Why aren't there more books about Darwinism?

It's been a while since I've had a science post, so I'm going to do a little warm up for the panel with a gut reactions to these questions.

Working backwards, when I search Amazon for books mentioning Darwin, I come up with 100,000 hits. So, for the last question, I guess my reaction is, just how many books do you need? By comparison, Jesus has 400,000 hits on Amazon. Of course, this is also the same number of hits returned if you search for the word "diet." In any case, I hardly think that Darwin, natural selection, or evolution are suffering from a lack of exposure.

As for the Beagle being the prototype for SF missions, I think that, if there ever are going to be extra-solar explorations of other planets, they will almost certainly be carried out by the machines that eventually replace mankind. These machines will be able to claim that they were intelligently designed, and that their improvements are the result of deliberate actions. Perhaps they will regard evolution as a mere momentary blip in the natural order of things, the way it was once thought that capitalism was just a blip on the way to socialism. It's an interesting thought, but I'm not sure that I, personally, would be able to milk an entire book out of it.

Which brings us to the last question: Why are his ideas still controversial? And I suppose my answer is, what controversy? It's true that not everyone believes in evolution, and that a lot of people work hard to keep children from being exposed to these ideas. But, in the places where it really matters, I don't think that evolution or natural selection are controversial at all. Where does it really matter? How about hospitals, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and, of course, universities where the various aspects of biology are studied?

I'm not certain that it matters that half of all American's don't believe in evolution. It is, of course, the central narrative of biology; you can't really understand the natural world without understanding natural selection. But, relativity is a pillar of physics; I'm guessing maybe one person in a hundred has a firm grasp on relativity. Quantum mechanics is the other unreconciled pillar of physics, and I'd be shocked if one person in a thousand really understands the world on a quantum scale. Somehow, the world muddles through; people manage to become bankers and doctors and movie stars and rodeo clowns without understanding the difference between a photon and a proton. If you're an electrical engineer, you need to understand electrons. If you're a house painter... not so much.

I guess the major thing about Darwin, natural selection, and evolution, is that they aren't and shouldn't be and can't be major things in an average person's daily life. Natural selection has surprisingly little day to day impact on a person's behavior. Let's see... I suppose that understanding evolution can help you understand why it's important to finish off your full course of anti-biotics. But, it doesn't help you know how to invest your money. It doesn't guide you in how to deal with your friends and family. It won't tell you what to eat for dinner or what toothpaste will make your teeth their whitest.

Some people treat Darwin as a new prophet, pointing the way to a new religion. But if you really understand natural selection and evolution, you understand that it's actually a rather precise tool for understanding one specific aspect of biology. Some people attempt to misuse it, and say that Darwinism applies to economics. Other's will point to examples from the natural world and draw moral guidance from it. For instance, I've heard serious people argue that homosexuality either is or isn't moral based on things like whether or not there are gay penguins. If homosexuality evolved in flightless sea birds, it must not be a choice for humans. But, of course, if you promote this argument, what are you to make of bonobos, who are always promiscous? Or some insects, where the females devour the males? Turning to the guidance of animals for your moral choices is a dangerous slippery slope.

The one shocking aspect of Darwin--the thing that generates the most opposition--is that natural selection doesn't require a god to explain the existence of man. It doesn't rule out a god, but the theory doesn't have any major holes in it requiring divine intervention to explain our presence. But, I have to wonder how important the creation myth is to most religions. Is it really, really important, if you are a Christian, that the world was created in six days? How important is that fact to your day to day life? It seems far more likely that the parts of your religion that matter on a daily basis are the moral guidance to love your neighbors, treat the poor and the sick as if they might be Jesus himself, and to stop coveting your neighbor's ass? In all these matters, Darwin offers no guidance whatsoever. Carry on as you were before; science really just doesn't have a lot to tell you about whether or not it's moral to steal.

Darwin wasn't a prophet. He was a scientist. His theory is science, not religious philosophy. Any controversy that exists is built upon the myth of what he said, rather than his actual contributions to our understanding of the world. I don't really expect his opponents to grasp this, but I still hold out hope that, one day, his proponents might.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Jumping on the Obama bashing bandwagon

I hurt my hand at work yesterday, pulling one of my flexor tendons in my left hand. I was told to try to lay off using the hand until it heals, including no (or very little) typing. Obviously, I was worried about not being able to work on my latest novel, Greatshadow, and I also thought about not being able to blog. How is the world ever going to get by without my banal, scatter-brained ramblings about the issues of the day?

Then, I wake up this morning and find out the Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. It's enough to send me back to the keyboard despite feeling like I've got a knife stabbing my left palm. Because, what the hell? I mean, what the bleeping hell?

I really don't think I've engaged in much Obama-bashing here. I didn't do much Bush-bashing either. In general, I respect the fact that nobody with my libertarian leanings is ever going to be allowed near the White House, and that most of my political gripes aren't with my president, or even really with politicians. My most fundamental gripe is with my fellow citizens who have turned American politics into a giant superbowl game. Only two teams are allowed to play; it really doesn't much matter what goes on in the actual game. The republican roots for their team, the democrats root for their team, and the "independents" root for whoever seems popular at the moment. Issues get divided up arbitrarily. In a logical world, you might think that one party would be "pro-life," and oppose abortion, the death penalty, and war. Or maybe one party would be "pro-liberty" and support free markets, open immigration policies, reproductive rights for women, and fiercely defend freedom of speech. Instead, issues get chopped up by the parties in ways that seem to defy logic, because the American public defies logic. We have the government we deserve; the things I dislike about my government aren't Obama's fault or Bush's fault. They're the citizens' fault.

But, this morning, hearing that Obama had won the peace prize, I suddenly discovered that I hate him. I started trying to think of anything he'd done to earn this award, and the more I thought about his accomplishments, the more I started thinking he's pretty much on track toward being the worst president of my lifetime. Bush was frequently mocked for being an idiot, but he was at least a decisive idiot who knew how to accomplish his agenda, even if I loathed that agenda.

Obama has his party in control of both the house and the senate. You might think that, nine months into his first term, he might have seen a few laws he supported get passed. The only major bill I can think of that has actually been signed into law was the stimulus plan, and I really use the word "plan" in a very loose sense. I don't think there was any unifying narrative or goal to the $700 billion allocated in that bill. It was a collection of mostly random pork projects; I'm sorry, but asking congressmen to pass an all-pork bill doesn't earn him high marks for leadership. A dead gerbil could have lobbied for a bill like this and seen it passed. In everything else that has been debated over the last year, I've felt like Obama has been willing to talk about "principles" of things he might like to see passed by congress, but as far as drawing a line in the sand and saying, "You will pass a public option," or "You will pass cap and trade," or "You will pass financial regulations that prevent the creation of banks too big to fail," I haven't seen it. His governing style seems to be, "Hey, it would be nice if you guys passed some laws or something, but, you know, whatever." He seems willing to accept whatever is handed to him and claim it as a win, rather than fighting for something and possibly losing. I can respect someone who tries and fails. Obama seems to be so adverse to failure he's not even trying.

There was a headline in the paper this week that made my brain hurt. I don't have the paper in front of me, but the gist of the headline was, "Obama consults with advisors to form Afghanistan strategy." It makes my brain hurt. The war in Afghanistan isn't a surprise. He's known for a year now he'd be commander in chief. This war is his war. And he's just now getting around to figuring out a strategy? He sent twenty thousand troops in earlier this year... apparently without a strategy?

It makes me ill.

Suppose you believe that Bush sent 200,000 troops into Iraq solely to steal their oil. You look at the bodies piling up and ask, "What are they dying for?" and, while you hate the answer, at least, in your mind, you saw the flashing word, "OIL."

For the 20,000 troops Obama sent in earlier this year, sans strategy: What are they dying for? In my mind, I see the flashing words, "You know, whatever."

Giving Obama a peace prize is just a joke. Anyone who sends troops to die without some actual goal in mind deserves scorn, not awards.* If anyone can justify what he's done to earn this, please, please, please jump in and let me know.

*Note: Sending troops to die with an actual goal in mind may deserve scorn as well, depending on the goal. And, I'm NOT DEFENDING BUSH by bashing Obama, so don't jump in with posts about how bad a president Bush was. I feel like I can't hate both men equally. Now I'm going to shut up and go ice up my hand. Ow.

Monday, October 05, 2009

A grim vision of the future

Since the relaunch of Bitterwood.net, the boards have been plagued with adbots. Browsing the board this morning, I was struck this morning with a grim vision of the future. All technology eventually becomes a tool of advertising. My dragon age books assume that we will be able to genehack our way into creating dragons and unicorns and other fancifal beasts for our amusement. This morning, however, I realized that the most likely use of gene hacking will be advertising. The day will come when the butterflies that lights upon a flower will have have tiny billboards for wings, advertising Sherwin Williams brand paints. The flowers it lands on will be purple, blue, orange, and green--resembling the FedexOffice logo. Cows in the field will have hides with golden arches on the sides. Apples will grow that pefectly resemble the logo on an iPod. The birds outside your window in the morning will chirp out the jingle for Folger's crystals. And, all insurance salesmen in the world will lose their jobs, replaced by tiny talking geckos.

You have been warned.