Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Skype: The final frontier

My dad, on nearly the other side of the planet (10 hrs difference) has discovered Skype, and found me today.

He had it half working. I could see him, and he me; he could hear me, but I couldn't hear him. But wild gesticulation and a broken IM conversation let me know my info was getting through.

I'm impressed. As I've gotten older, come to know myself a bit better and found myself in a position to observe my dad with new eyes, I've recognized that I got some of the things I like best about myself from my dad. And I'm realizing my dad's got some things I'd still like to emulate.

Dad's not afraid of the new and different. He's genuinely curious. And he may not be the first kid on the block to try or do a new thing, but his trying it has nothing to do with how many have or have not come before. Dad's curious, excited, and willing to jump in with both feet, in earnest. He'd rather try and fail than not try. He's better at that than I am. I like to know my odds of success are higher than my odds of making a fool of myself. But we're both curious, and both not afraid to figure something out on our own. I think I get my scientist's curiosity and fair mindedness from him.

So there's dad, doing his first web video chat in the year 2009, and the sound's not working, but he's happy that it's 75% working, and thrilled to see me. I'm sure he'll sort it out. I'd have been frustrated it didn't work perfectly. He seemed happy it worked at all, which is a much better perspective.

The world gets even smaller. Fine with me.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Trying to have an opinion

Seems we're going to solve health care in the US, now. Or at least the federal government is about to pass a whole bunch of laws (or at least wants to) that will impact how we collectively experience health care in this country.

And as a citizen, I'm trying to form an opinion on what, if anything, should be done.

Not easy.

The issue isn't simple. There's the market forces vs. public subsidy debate, which Nobel winning economists are fighting about. I'm normally on the side of market forces to sort things out, but recognize Krugman's point: If you leave market forces to sort this out, some people go uninsured.

In case the reasons for this aren't transparent, think of it from the insurer's point of view: Whom would you select for customers? Put another way, for whom would you volunteer to pick up the health care tab for the next year, assuming you like holding on to your money: 25 year old male triathletes, or 67 year old obese lifelong smoking women? Under what circumstances would you agree to cover the expenses of the fat smokers? If they have a 10% chance of needing $500,000 in lung cancer care, and you charge them enough to cover their expected costs, few will be able to afford $50,000 per year. And so they remain uninsured. You're not being a dick, you're just not being a chump.

So the insurance market, when left alone, is like the credit market: some people don't get any.

I'm not bothered by this in the credit market. I'm really not sure how I feel about it in the health insurance market.

Part of the current problem is the government picks up some of the worst segments of the market, the poor and the old, through Medicare and Medicaid. So if you're not poor, but you're not rich, and you're not well, you're screwed. Private firms, rightfully, do not want you as a customer at prices you can afford.

I suppose that, if we as a society decide everyone gets health care, then we all end up paying for it one way or another, either through public funding and higher taxes, or higher premiums on private insurance once government mandates all must be accepted and rates must be capped. If you can't charge Fatty McSmokerpants what she really costs, you charge Bobby O'Triathalon the difference.

Which doesn't seem to provide any market based financial incentive not to be a burden on the system. Yeah, jack the tobacco tax through the roof, and that'll start. But hard to tax couch sitting and TV watching and half-gallon-of-double-fudge-brownie-in-one-sitting eating. Hard to subsidize interval training. So I'm troubled by the lack of market-created incentives that seem to materialize once those truly burdensome to insure no longer feel the pain they create for everyone else. If you have all you can eat health care for "free" (you don't directly detect the incremental cost of your incremental consumption), why wouldn't you see the doctor every time you had a sniffle, unless you had to wait 8 weeks for an appointment?

If I think about it another way, there will always be a private option. Those with means will always have access to a higher level of service. If I have a bajillion dollars and I want to hire an endocrinologist to adjust the iodine in my table salt every morning, after giving me a full body MRI, I can do that, if I'm willing to pay for it. The question becomes, what is the public option, how is it paid for, and who is likely to have that be their only option? And there are legit concerns that a subsidized public option will cause Bobby O'Triathalon to pull out of the private pool, into the lower cost public pool (tax payer wins, private firm loses) causing private firm to have to raise rates to cover the remaining folks, forcing more into the public system, etc.

And maybe that's not bad. Or maybe it is. I don't know.

Not simple.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Courage from the French

Sarkozy has some big brass ones. Calling out Islam on its barbaric policies towards women, calling out the burka as a symbol of submission to patriarchy, not to "god". And he's holding the line on secularism rather well. If religion is "private" the burka is surely public, and if religion in public assaults secularism, then he's doing the right thing.

Of course the muslims will cry out "help help, we're being repressed". The truth is Islam isn't compatible, in many ways, with a pluralistic secular society. Any culture or religion that has failed to adapt since the time communities were culturally and philosophically homogeneous is incompatible. Can't be Amish and live in Manhattan. And you can't live in modern Europe if you hide your face in public, and can't interact with an entire gender unless they're in your family.

I wish secularism were so ardently defended here.