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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

2007 D.C. Idiotarod

Well, I know what I'm doing this Saturday. Or I may just go and watch.

Kids Today

A 19-year-old freshman from St. John's College, my alma mater, has started an international affairs magazine. And he uses Skype to conduct actual interviews with people around the globe and produce radio programs. Back when I was in college, just having a blog was considered cutting edge. And now they're producing indie versions of Foreign Affairs and CNN? God, I'm getting old.


Consumer-Directed Death


Twelve-year-old Deamonte Driver died of a toothache Sunday.

A routine, $80 tooth extraction might have saved him.

If his mother had been insured.

If his family had not lost its Medicaid.

If Medicaid dentists weren't so hard to find.

If his mother hadn't been focused on getting a dentist for his brother, who had six rotted teeth.

By the time Deamonte's own aching tooth got any attention, the bacteria from the abscess had spread to his brain, doctors said. After two operations and more than six weeks of hospital care, the Prince George's County boy died.

Deamonte's death and the ultimate cost of his care, which could total more than $250,000, underscore an often-overlooked concern in the debate over universal health coverage: dental care.

I have no idea what to say. I guess it would be crass to point out that it's avoiding outcomes like these that are the reason to adopt universal health insurance; but then I suppose it was crass to use the Love Canal disaster to enact regulations for toxic waste sites, or to use the Enron scandal to pass new regulations for corporate governance. There was absolutely no reason this boy had to die like this, and if we had a rational health care system that didn't put even basic care out of the reach of millions of Americans, it would not have happened.

This reminds me of an article Malcolm Gladwell wrote a while back on why the American health insurance system, with its "thicket of co-payments and deductibles and utilization reviews," is such a failure. Among health economists, the theory goes that, if you have to pay a substantial portion of your health care costs, you will use health care more efficiently. But:
...when you have to pay for your own health care, does your consumption really become more efficient? In the late nineteen-seventies, the RAND Corporation did an extensive study on the question, randomly assigning families to health plans with co-payment levels at zero per cent, twenty-five per cent, fifty per cent, or ninety-five per cent, up to six thousand dollars. As you might expect, the more that people were asked to chip in for their health care the less care they used. The problem was that they cut back equally on both frivolous care and useful care. Poor people in the high-deductible group with hypertension, for instance, didn't do nearly as good a job of controlling their blood pressure as those in other groups, resulting in a ten-per-cent increase in the likelihood of death. As a recent Commonwealth Fund study concluded, cost sharing is "a blunt instrument." Of course it is: how should the average consumer be expected to know beforehand what care is frivolous and what care is useful? I just went to the dermatologist to get moles checked for skin cancer. If I had had to pay a hundred per cent, or even fifty per cent, of the cost of the visit, I might not have gone. Would that have been a wise decision? I have no idea. But if one of those moles really is cancerous, that simple, inexpensive visit could save the health-care system tens of thousands of dollars (not to mention saving me a great deal of heartbreak). The focus on moral hazard suggests that the changes we make in our behavior when we have insurance are nearly always wasteful. Yet, when it comes to health care, many of the things we do only because we have insurance—like getting our moles checked, or getting our teeth cleaned regularly, or getting a mammogram or engaging in other routine preventive care—are anything but wasteful and inefficient. In fact, they are behaviors that could end up saving the health-care system a good deal of money. (Emphases added.)
This is why Health Savings Accounts, so favored by the Bush administration, are so wrongheaded: having a high-deductible plan doesn't necessarily make you more cost-effective in your health care decisions, and the people who run up the highest health care bills -- usually people with chronic illnesses -- are going to bust through that deductible anyway. As much as some on the Right would like to make the health care system more like a "free market," the evidence suggests that it causes more problems than it solves.


Look Out Ahead, See Danger Come

When did the D.C. area start to turn into L.A.:

A routine attempt to pull a car over in Baltimore County early this morning turned into a bizarre televised police chase across suburban Maryland, into the District and back into Prince George's County, according to law enforcement officials and news reports.

The chase lasted one hour and 10 minutes, and ended in Prince George's County with the fleeing car hitting at last two Maryland State police vehicles, a pickup truck and a light pole before driving onto a sidewalk and coming to a stop.

The hood of the car was crumpled and had been pushed open, obscuring the windshield. The car was belching steam from the radiator and sparks from the undercarriage.

Police with their guns drawn surrounded the driver as he stepped out of the vehicle, while a traffic helicopter that had tracked the chase from Baltimore continued to shoot video that was broadcast live on local television stations. The officers slammed the driver against the side of his car, and took him into custody.

This happened just one day after another high speed chase occurred in the Tenleytown neighborhood of the District. I'm with Sommer on this one: I hope the local media avoids sensationalizing these events in the future -- i.e., no helicopters.


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Clean Cars Bill Passes State Senate

And the vote was 38-9; Gov. O'Malley will probably sign it into law within the week. Good news, but I want to highlight something one of the few opponents of the bill said:
Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, the Republican whip from Howard County, argued on the Senate floor last night that Maryland is giving up its sovereignty by adopting the California standards. "We would be allowing the mayor of Riverside to be enacting regulations that affect the citizens of Maryland," Kittleman said. "I don't think that's a good idea."
That might be of some concern, if Maryland had much sovereignty to begin with, what with the whole federal supremacy clause of the Constitution and all. Pegging our carbon emissions standards to California's, by comparison, doesn't seem like that big a deal.

I also found this bizarre:
Charles Territo, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said the main effect of the law will be to make it harder for customers to buy the large SUVs and pickup trucks that they want. "We think it will limit vehicle choice for the people of Maryland," he said.
That's certainly true. 'Cause when it comes to choosing between getting an SUV and helping make sure half the state isn't under water in the next 50 years, I'm going with the Canyonero!

Smarter Opponents, Please

David Wissing appears to not be aware of the existence of carbon offsets, or of renewable energy. Either that or he and the right-wing think tank he cites are just parroting Drudge and Sean Hannity without putting any thought into it. This is, after all, the guy who considers James Inhofe to be an expert on environmental issues. Now if conservatives got serious and started to, say, debate the merits of carbon offsets or explain why individual solutions are to be preferred to collective ones on global warming, then we might get somewhere.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Saturday Morning Outrage

Some of you may recall the series of articles in the Baltimore City Paper that described the unsavory behavior of recruiters for the Maryland National Guard. Well, that wasn't the end of it:

The Maryland National Guard's top general has stripped his senior Army recruiter of his command and disciplined 13 additional soldiers after an internal investigation found members of the recruiting battalion misappropriated $40,000 in training funds and, in at least two cases, signed up soldiers who were ineligible to serve.

Officials said yesterday that the accusations of impropriety in recruiting efforts were first raised in December. The Guard launched an internal investigation immediately but found little to substantiate the initial allegations involving the mistreatment of new recruits, according to Guard spokesman 1st Lt. Wayde Minami.

But as more accusations poured in, including fraternization between officers and enlisted personnel, the Guard quickly launched a second investigation. The lieutenant colonel in charge of that probe found merit in some of those claims and discovered additional wrongdoing independently.

If you want to know how unpopular the war in Iraq is, look no further. Most parents are not going to let their children be sent off to near-certain death, dismemberment, or PTSD when the cause is so doubtful and the leadership so incompetent. But with the Army and National Guard under heavy pressure to recruit more bodies, the pressure to hold on to people, even those with personal problems that would otherwise disqualify them, is intense. Of course, this results in people who don't belong in the Army fighting in perhaps the most volatile place on Earth. At least one atrocity can already be attributed to this situation, and I fear it may not be the last.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Net Neutrality in Maryland

This just appeared in my inbox from Save the Internet:

Dear Isaac,

Maryland is on the front line of the fight for Internet freedom.

Verizon and Comcast lobbyists are now descending on the state capitol to kill a bill that would help protect Net Neutrality -- the principle that keeps big companies like these from controlling where you go and what you can do online.

This important bill (HB 1069) was put forward last week by Del. Herman Taylor. He is standing up for the Internet, working to keep it open and free, and making sure that everyone can get high-speed access in their neighborhood.

Verizon and Comcast are sending in dozens of lobbyists to speak against the bill before a legislative committee hearing scheduled for next Tuesday.

It's time the people of Maryland pushed back. Your state legislator needs to hear from you now: Protect Net Neutrality! Support HB 1069!

Here are two things you can do to help:

1. Call now and tell your state representative to vote YES on House Bill 1069.

Your State Representative
Phone: 800-492-7122

Click here for a sample script.

Then, please tell us about your call by clicking here.

2. Attend Tuesday's open hearing in Annapolis to show your support for Net Neutrality in Maryland:

WHAT: Legislative Hearing on Maryland Net Neutrality Bill (HB 1069)
WHEN: Next Tuesday -- February 27, 2007
TIME: 1:00 p.m.
WHERE: Room 230, House Office Building, Annapolis, MD

Anyone who wants to can show up and testify, as long as you are there by 12:00 p.m. (noon).

Without this bill, Verizon and Comcast would be free to gut Net Neutrality, cherry-pick which communities receive high-speed broadband and video services, and ignore consumer protections.

With your help in 2006, we stood up to the phone and cable companies in Washington, D.C. By speaking out today, you send a powerful message to your representatives: Maryland needs an open Internet for everyone.

Thank you,

Timothy Karr
Campaign Director
Free Press

Here's the Taylor bill's official page, and Art Brodsky has a good overview of what the bill would do. As readers will likely be aware, net neutrality has been an abiding concern for me, as it is for most bloggers. I would highly encourage bloggers in Maryland, liberal or conservative, to support it.

Grabbing the Bull by the...

I don't believe you can legislate taste. But if you could, the first thing to go would likely be fake bull testicles on trucks.


State Solutions for Global Warming?

Via Gristmill, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network is making a huge push for Maryland to pass a bill to reduce the state's total greenhouse gas output this year, citing a change in the "political climate." (Ha ha.) This is good news, undoubtedly, but it's important to keep a few things in mind:
  1. There may be significant legal constraints on the ability of states to reduce emissions. As with the Clean Cars bill currently making its way through the General Assembly, a lot hinges on the outcome of the Supreme Court case Massachusetts v. EPA, which will determine whether the EPA can regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. If the EPA can't, it's pretty likely the states can't either, as the Clean Air Act preempts state regulations. However, even if the Court says it can, states (California in particular) still need to obtain a waiver from the EPA to adopt air pollution standards that differ from the federal standards, something that Bush's EPA has not shown much willingness to do.
  2. The method by which CCAN wants to reduce emissions -- cap-and-trade -- is not without its own problems, compared to, say, a direct tax on CO2. Basically, it can be easy for businesses to manipulate a cap-and-trade system so that they don't actually have to reduce their emissions, which would defeat the whole purpose of the scheme. For more info, see these posts on Gristmill -- which is not only one of the best environmental blogs out there, it's one of the best blogs, period.
  3. Let's also remember that Maryland is set to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative this year, which also aims to reduce CO2 emissions through a cap-and-trade system. Moreover, the goal of RGGI is to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, just like CCAN's plan. Of course, it's not clear whether RGGI requires emissions reductions to each state's 1990 levels or just that of the entire Northeast. If it's the latter, then I can see the usefulness of CCAN's plan. Otherwise, wouldn't it be redundant?

Two Cheers for O'Malley

I'm glad to see Gov. O'Malley come out strongly against the death penalty, both before the General Assembly and in the Washington Post. I'm also glad to see him pledge to improve safety conditions for prison guards (link from last week). Now if he really wanted to go all out on prison reform, he could say something about the violent conditions the inmates themselves suffer. Not only is inmate-on-inmate violence more prevalent than inmate-on-guard violence, but the most horrific aspect of modern prison -- prison rape -- is completely off the radar in these debates about prison reform. According to Human Rights Watch, many states don't even have statistics on prison rape, much less make serious attempts to report accurate numbers.

As I've said before, this isn't an issue many people are concerned about -- they either joke about it, or imply that rape is part of the convict's punishment. But this, I think, touches directly on the current death penalty debate. If our reasons for repealing the death penalty are based on its being inhumane, one has to ask whether the alternatives are any better in this regard. On the other hand, the targets of prison rape are often nonviolent or otherwise low-level offenders, so perhaps that's a separate issue from the death penalty. In any case, we're a long way away from a prison system that doesn't bring to mind Abu Ghraib.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I Get Up Early in the Morning and Begin My Mission

Early voting, to no one's surprise, has passed both the state Senate and the House, although it'll be at least 2010 before it will go into effect. Will this actually improve voter turnout? It's hard to say. The Carter-Baker Commission mentioned in the Sun article said early voting doesn't do anything, but the picture presented by Reed College's Early Voting Information Center is a little more complex. It turns out that early voting does increase turnout somewhat, but only when combined with absentee ballots on demand, and then only in a midterm election. The conclusion to its most recent paper, "Early Voting and Turnout," (PDF) is worth quoting here (emphasis added):
In conclusion, we find that early voting reforms have, at best, a modest effect on turnout. We believe, after additional testing, that this will prove to be a robust finding, since it is consistent with prior research as well as with political science theory. We are skeptical of those who continue to advocate in favor of early voting reform primarily on the basis of increased turnout. Our data simply don’t support these claims. There are good reasons to adopt early voting—ballot counting is more accurate, it can save administrative costs and headaches, and voters express a high level of satisfaction with the system. If a jurisdiction adopts early voting in the hopes of boosting turnout, however, it is likely to be disappointed.
So early voting isn't a cure-all, but it does some good. Ultimately, it is enthusiasm for the candidate or cause -- or loathing -- that makes people go out to the polls. This is one reason why Barack Obama's candidacy is so heartening: something about him makes lots of people want to campaign for him, and (one hopes) vote for him. Of course, not every politician can be an Obama...


Monday, February 19, 2007

The Men in the Factory Are Old and Cunning

In the annals of conservative myths, "union intimidation" has to rank somewhere up there with "voter fraud" and the "liberal media." Sure, such phenonema probably exist, though the evidence for them is rather thin. But in terms of perniciousness, they are simply dwarfed by their opposites: conservative-friendly media, voter intimidation, and, of course, suppression of unions and union organizers. With the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would make it easier to join a union, currently winding its way through Congress, the knives have been coming out against it: Dick Cheney has said President Bush will veto EFCA if it ever reaches his desk, and an anti-union diatribe recently graced the pages of the L.A. Times.

Michael Swartz's contribution to this effort comes in the form of raising the specter of "unionistas, who want to have the perfect right to strongarm and intimidate 50 percent plus one of the workers in a place of employment into signing a card guaranteeing that the union collects dues from 100% of the workers." Unlike, say, the virtuous employers who force employees to watch anti-union propaganda, threaten to close down the firm, or actually fire workers to try to form a union. While that's technically illegal, the penalties for doing so are so feeble, and the National Labor Relations Board so tilted in favor of management, that there are really no protections at all. It might be nice to have secret ballot elections, but there's no point to keeping that if the entire process is screwed up. Granted, my sources on this are all from pro-union sites, just as Michael's are from anti-union sites. But intuitively, wouldn't it make more sense that the guy who signs your paychecks has more influence over you than the guy next to you in the employee locker room? I may be strongly in favor of unions, but let's not kid ourselves: they're not demigods.

Speaking of unions, if you're on Facebook, go check out the EFCA group I set up.

President's Day Blogging

So the last week was taken up mostly by a research paper I had to finish, digging out of the snow and ice (or was that concrete?) and some traveling. I couldn't get around to posting, but it had its upside: I upgraded from an old (?) Mac G3 to a MacBook (belated Christmas/birthday gift from my parents), which is already making my life easier. At some point today I'll resume posting. In the meantime, some links:
  • The "Clean Cars" bill is set to be voted on in the General Assembly soon. My paper was actually on the original "Clean Cars" law in California, and I hope to provide some analysis on it soon.
  • Maryland finally gets its hands on George Washington's resignation speech after the Revolutionary War.
  • And if you haven't read the Post's two-part series on the state of injured Iraq War veterans, please do so -- and be ready to curse at the top of your lungs.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Catch-up Post

Let me pull together some stories that I never got around to commenting on recently, before they go down the memory hole:
  • Montgomery County is going forward with a new sex education program that includes the radical and dangerous idea that gays and lesbians are people. Meanwhile, the Astroturf radical right groups that derailed an earlier version of the program are appealing to the state Board of Education (More about them here).
  • The Post has an interesting profile on the D.C. area's various attempts to slow down the rate of growth. Which, by the way, getting more of.
  • How the hell did Johns Hopkins lose personal data on 135,000 people? And why did it take them seven weeks to notify people? If it hadn't been for privacy laws in several states -- not Maryland, incidentally -- they might never have informed people at all.
  • As Blog Arundel notes, the University of Maryland has put out a study showing that the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a consortium to reduce carbon emissions in the Northeast, and which Maryland will be joining this year, won't harm the state's economy, and may even help it.
  • Gov. O'Malley intends to have firms doing business with the state pay its workers a living wage.
  • And yet another Marylander dies in Iraq so that George W. Bush doesn't have to admit his failures.

Ever Fallen in Love -- Buzzcocks

Saturday afternoons and punk rock, they just go together:


Friday, February 09, 2007

Friday Flickr Find

"ode to cat stevens" originally uploaded by steve_gobeil.



Well, this will make me uncomfortable on the UM bus for a while.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Last Cigarettes Are All You Can Get

So a group of Delegates is proposing a new health care bill that expand health insurance coverage in various ways, with funding coming from a hike in the tobacco tax. As health care plans go, it's OK; it expands coverage in some ways, but doesn't make any fundamental changes to the system.

The tobacco tax part is getting a lot of attention because of the budget situation, but I'm skeptical of its use as the basis of a health care proposal. Normally with Pigouvian taxes you isolate the behavior or substance you want to reduce, tax it, and then distribute the money as you see fit. Since the object isn't to raise money, but eliminate some social ill, how much money you do raise isn't that important.

With this plan, however, how much you raise is very important, particularly when health care costs are rising as much as they are. The Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative claims, regarding an earlier version of this plan, that the tax would raise "$211 [million] the first year and conservatively, at least $170 [million] each subsequent year," which sounds a little fudged to me, given the downward trends for smoking. (Although if the CDC is correct, that trend may be flattening out.) I'd be interested to see if this sort of scheme is feasible, but I'd rather see a more comprehensive -- and sustainable -- proposal.

Shelter from the Storm

I appreciate the sentiment behind Del. David Rudolph's plan to force insurers to cover coastal homeowners, but it seems misguided to me. (Background: Some major insurance companies, including Allstate and Nationwide, announced a while back that they would stop writing new policies for certain parts of the mid-Atlantic region, citing the increased probability of hurricanes due to higher ocean temperatures -- i.e., global warming.) Besides undercutting the whole basis of insurance -- you can't mitigate risk, after all, if you have to throw down money on almost-certain losses -- it also strikes me as a denial of the situation we're in. Even if we start aggressively limiting our carbon emissions now, we still have to develop policies for living with the consequences of global warming, stronger and deadlier hurricanes being only one aspect.

Much of the debate on global warming focuses on the supply side -- energy policy, mainly. Just as consequential, I think, will be our land-use policies, which perhaps due to their intensely local nature, don't get as much media exposure. This means not only developing less energy-intensive communities, but also making sure communities are able to cope with a changing climate. It's not exactly Smart Growth, but it's in the same vein.

Electoral College Dropouts

I like the sound of this:
Lawmakers hoping to propel Maryland into a more prominent role in presidential campaigns have introduced bills that would award the state's electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most votes nationwide.

The aim is to prevent a repeat of the 2000 presidential election, in which Democratic nominee Al Gore won the popular vote but lost to Republican George W. Bush in the contest for electoral votes.
According to National Popular Vote, which is spearheading the initiative to have states adopt laws like this, 20 states have introduced the bill this year, but only Colorado's Senate has passed it. California's Assembly passed it last year, but Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger vetoed it.

Of all the things the framers of the Constitution got right, the Electoral College was not one of them, and we're been tryin for the last 200 years to move away from it. These days, its main purpose seems to be to deny half the country the right of actually participating in a presidential campaign (Maryland, for one, falls in that category). And in a time of dysfunctional election machines (and administrators), do we really need yet another means of casting doubt on the legitimacy of our political institutions?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

I Wanna Talk as Much as I Want

I'm ambivalent about the use of the filibuster -- historically (and yesterday) it has been used primarily to block worthy legislation, including civil rights and universal health care; yet like any minority right, it can be useful (see Bush administration, appointments by). That's why I'm not too concerned that the Maryland Senate voted to reduce the number of votes needed to break a filibuster from 2/3, the number from four years ago, to 3/5. I'm also not that concerned that a requirement to have every bill have a committee vote was struck down. Is there any legislature anywhere that has this requirement?

That said, did the Senate need to do this? It's not as if the Republicans have been that good at obstruction in the recent past.

UPDATE: Douglas Tallman of the Gazette says the votes were a proxy, at least in the eyes of the GOP, for debates over restrictions on eminent domain.


Saturday, February 03, 2007

Nothing's Shocking

Let me step into the debate over the BGE rate hike last year and its repercussions. Stephanie leads off, Maryland Conservatarian rebuts, and Bruce follows up.

It's helpful to remember the context in which the Parris Glendening and the General Assembly moved to deregulate the electric utility industry. 1999 was at the height of deregulation mania, when government at all levels was urged to privatize, outsource, or deregulate as many of their functions as possible. So it was not a shock to see even Democrats going along for the ride.

Seen from the point of view of today, of course, the deregulation fad may well be on its way to Macarena status. Whether you're talking about contractors in Iraq or the rushed privatization of social services in Indiana, the idea that substituting private entities for public ones would solve the problems of government now seems rather naive. Deregulation, while not precisely like government outsourcing, shares the same unearned faith in the ability of private enterprise to make government (and other public functions, like electricity) work better.

One could argue that Maryland went about deregulation in the worst way possible, by leaving on the rate caps. Possibly, although I would argue that some kind of cap would have been necessary in order to prevent Enron-style price manipluation (Atrios laid out the rationale for this a while back). Certainly, though, it could have been higher, enough to allow some competition in energy suppliers to emerge.

But that's the thing: every state that has done deregulation is facing higher electricity rates, either now or in the near future. Nor have the various efficiencies promised by deregulation -- more competition, improved infrastructure -- yet emerged. I suppose it may take more time, and more policy tweaking, to get to that point, but in the end I think there's a reason why electricity production is usually classified as a natural monopoly.

UPDATE: If you have the time, go check out the Baltimore Sun's gallery of articles on the BGE rate hike, especially the early ones.


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