The Obamacare Denial Industry

Get Covered AmericaImagine that you were trying to get me to do more exercise for my health. Maybe you argued that walking a mile a day would extend and improve my life. I countered, “There is no evidence that walking a mile a day is going to improve my health!” But one day, a paper appears in The Lancet, “Study shows Frank Moraes will have a longer and healthier life if he walks one mile per day.” My friend shows me the article. I read it and can find no fault with it. It absolutely is the case that walking a mile a day will make me healthier and happier; it’ll even make me a chick magnet. So do I start to walk a mile a day? No! Sure, walking a mile a day would be good for me, but the cost is too great: 20 minutes out of every day when I could be watching television and eating bonbons.

At that point, unless you were a complete idiot, you would know that this issue is not about the health benefits of exercise nor the time required to do that exercise. You would know that I just don’t want to exercise. But of course I wouldn’t want to say that because it makes me look like a lazy guy and all that. Somehow, though, when it comes to the exact same behavior in politics, everyone is expected to assume that anyone, like me in this example who constantly changes his reason for being against a policy, is a good faith actor.

Jonathan CohnThis leads us to yet another great Jonathan Cohn article, Obamacare Critics Now Admit the Law Is Saving Lives, But Say the Price Still Isn’t Worth it. Earlier this month, I reported, Good Obamacare News Is No News to Conservatives. It was about how conservatives were ignoring data that indicated that the uninsured population was going way down and that having insurance was actually saving lives. Well, last week, Cohn found that a number of conservative wonks (and I use the term advisedly) have accepted these findings but have come up with a new reason to be against Obamacare.

You should read Cohn’s whole article (actually, you should read everything Cohn writes because he’s brilliant). Basically, it talks about how some Cato Institute drone figured out that for every life that was saved, we were spending $4 to $5 million. And that, is apparently too much. Cohn doesn’t accept that number, but more important, he goes on to show that this is the wrong way to think about the new law. Healthcare reform is not primarily about saving lives. It is about reducing medical bankruptcies. It is about providing people with peace of mind and allowing them to switch jobs and start business. And it is about trying to reduce healthcare costs which are almost twice as high as they are in other advanced countries that provide better care.

That’s all very important stuff. But do we really need to have this conversation? I mean, let’s suppose that someone does a very thorough analysis of Obamacare and comes to the conclusion that because of increased productivity and fewer emergency room visits that Obamacare actually saves money. Does anyone think that conservative healthcare “wonk” Avik Roy is going to become an Obamacare booster? Of course not! He would come up with yet another reason why Obamacare was terrible. There will always be another reason why Obamacare is unacceptable because the conservative argument against Obamacare is based on two things: it raised taxes on the rich by a tiny amount and it is a Democratic law.

So I go back to my original article, Good Obamacare News Is No News to Conservatives. Because there is no such thing as good Obamacare news for them. It is just an opportunity to nitpick the news and when necessary, to come up with another justification for why they hate the law. But Jonathan Cohn does yeoman’s work to keep these charlatans honest. Because eventually, their arguments are going to sound ridiculously thin. Like, “Obamacare is bad, because it gives an unfair advantage to poor people in the states that didn’t expand Medicaid!” Thanks Obama!

Answering Krugman’s Three Questions

Paul KrugmanThis morning, Paul Krugman posted, Questions About Student Writing. These are questions that I feel confident that I can school the Nobel laureate on. This last term, he has been doing something that I suspect he does not often get a chance to do: teach a great big class. And now he is grading papers at the end of the term. I feel for him (a little): I used to teach classes of a couple hundred physics students and my tests were quite involved and never multiple choice. (Actually, when I first started, I gave multiple choice tests—an act of educational malpractice that I greatly regret.)

Krugman’s first question is, “How can we incentivize students to stop using ‘impact’ as a verb?” Krugman is setting up a joke, but I’ll leave that until he gets to his punchline. It is very easy to get students to stop using “impact” as a verb: don’t allow them to read economic and business books. That’s where this usage comes from. Elizabeth Bennet never tried to impact Mr Darcy’s behavior, even though she had a profound impact on it. But interestingly, “impact” as a verb is actually older than “impact” as a noun. But in the 1960s, its became something of a vogue word in the business world, and stopped meaning “to make contact” and began meaning “to have an effect.” May I humbly submit to Professor Krugman that he is part of the problem. I do, however, have an answer for him: teach them about the word “affect,” which can almost always be used instead without annoying readers.

Krugman’s second question pays off his first in good George Orwell style, “How can we impact their writing in a way that stops them from using the word ‘incentivize’?” Get it? He broke both his rules. But okay, the word is overused. Again though, what does Krugman expect? He’s teaching a bunch of business and economics students. But I don’t have a huge problem with the word “incentivize.” It is a very useful word. There are two reasons people have a problem with it. First, grammar pedants don’t like to change nouns into verbs by adding “ize” to them. Check out this amusing passage from the Grammar Cops blog:

Some words ending in -ize have been widely disapproved in recent years, particularly finalize (first attested in the early 1920s) and prioritize (around 1970). Such words are most often criticized when they become, as did these two, vogue terms, suddenly heard and seen everywhere, especially in the context of advertising, commerce, education, or government—forces claimed by some to have a corrupting influence upon the language. The criticism has fairly effectively suppressed the use of finalize and prioritize in belletristic writing, but the words are fully standard[ized] and occur regularly in all varieties of speech and writing, especially the more formal types.

The second reason is that “incentivize” is a young word—first sliding into our vocabulary in 1970, and from the business community that grammar snobs, like all normal people, hate.

My answer to Krugman is to give it up. There is nothing especially wrong with incentivize. But if we must, we could incentivize the use of the words “encourage” and “motivate.”

Finally, we get to the crux of the matter for Krugman, and his third question, “Can we make it a principal principle of writing that ‘principle’ and ‘principal’ mean different things, and you have to know which is which?” Well, it had to come out sometime: Paul Krugman the pedant. Homophones are just the worst thing about the English language. And in defense of the professor’s students, misspelling one does not necessarily mean that the writer is unclear about about the distinction. Speaking is fairly natural for our brains, but writing is not. My first drafts are not only filled with homophone mistakes, they are filled with assonance and rhyme errors. Words that simply sound similar cause my fingers to type them. It doesn’t mean I don’t know the difference between “fat” and “that.”

As to the issue at hand, it’s very easy. “Principle” is a rule or similar. “Principal” is the main or dominant whatever. And thus, you have a high school principal, because he is the dominant administrator. Apart from Krugman’s cute “principal principle,” I don’t see a situation where anyone is confused by misspelling either of these words. And in fact, if you heard Krugman’s sentence, you wouldn’t be at all confused.

Here I have a very good answer to Krugman: stop the world. Everything happens so fast. Not only are blog posts filled with errors because we are all so determined to get things done fast, the level of copy editing in printed books is abysmal. It takes time to copy edit. And no one feels like they have it to spare. But of course, we are not going to stop the world or even slow it down. So the proper response is to assume that people (Especially students at Princeton!) know the basics of grammar, and stop bitching.

The principal means to incentivize a principle that impacts the error rate in student papers is to relax.

The New “Climate Always Changes” Ruse

Climate Change Is a HoaxLast night, I got involved in a long comment thread on Google+ about global warming. It pretty much summed up why I hate talking about this stuff. I don’t mind people going around spouting their nonsense, but don’t claim just because you read an article on some denier website that you have it all figured out. I spent a decade of my life doing little other than working on this stuff; I have the credentials and I know the science. But let me yield one point: most people who accept global warming are pretty ignorant too. But there is a big difference.

We all depend upon experts. I don’t know that the water I drink is safe. I just assume that the experts at the water works know what their doing and I’m not being poisoned with lead. This is the way that we must live our lives. So being ignorant of global warming but just accepting that climate scientists know what they’re doing is reasonable. Being ignorant of global warming but denying it because Marco Rubio and his oil industry fueled party tells you to is not (Not! Not! Not!) reasonable.

I specifically bring up Marco Rubio because in the thread last night there was a lot of talk about him, although I never heard his name uttered. Suddenly, the global warming deniers are repeating his new argument: the climate is always changing! The implication is that there’s no way we can know if humans are causing climate change because the climate would be changing if we weren’t here. Sigh.

Let me give you a good example of the problem with this way of looking at things. Over the long term, the stock market has an upward trend. The companies traded publicly are worth more on the whole every year. And yet, the stock market is random as anything. It goes up! It goes down! It is so unpredictable that the nightly news tells you how much it went up or down every day, even though in the long run, it doesn’t matter because it is going up!

The climate works exactly the same way. And there have been hundreds, maybe even thousands, of brilliant mathematicians over the centuries who have figured out ways to extract trends from very noisy data. So what this new line of attack is all about is disparaging science. These people might as well be Ken Ham: throw up their hands and say, “We just can’t know!” Unless the temperature is 80° this year and then 81° next year and then 82° the year after, there is nothing we can say. The climate is always changing. Who knows? Maybe it is as Tina Fey parodied Sarah Palin, “It’s just God hugging us closer.”

What most bugs me about all of this is the complete disregard of the Milankovitch cycles, which explain how differences in the tilt of the earth, its precession, and the eccentricity of its orbit explain the ice age cycle. One of the best articles I ever read in graduate school was about this one-dimensional model of the earth using Milankovitch theory. It found four distinct glacial states of the earth. The point was that the earth moved quickly from one state to another. The states are: no major glaciers (the state about 10,000 years ago—the Holocene), glaciers covering Greenland (where we are supposed to be now but won’t be for long), glaciers covering Canada, and glaciers covering the United States (the state about 100,000 years ago—the Tarantian).

All of this is due to radiative forcing. But it’s existence does not mean that thermal forcing from greenhouse gases is not also happening on top of that. By the Marco Rubio theory, Milankovitch must have been wrong. Ice ages just happen. “Tide comes in, tide goes out, you can’t explain it!” The underlying theory here is that the climate changes all the time for no reason whatsoever. Denial of global warming is like cancer denial. “There was a man who lived to be a hundred and he smoked every day of his life!” That may well be true, but the fact remains that pushing red hot nicotine into your lungs for a long period of time hurts your body. And pushing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere hurts the human race, and most likely very much more.

The Erotica of Edouard-Henri Avril

Edouard-Henri Avril - 31It’s quite a day for birthdays. There are people like Alexander Pope (best known for not being Pope Alexander), stride pianist Fats Waller, and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. Google is celebrating fossil collector Mary Anning. But I’m taking a different path today—a very different path.

On this day in 1849, the great illustrator and painter Edouard-Henri Avril was born. (He used the pseudonym Paul Avril.) He is best known as a book illustrator, and more specifically, an erotic book illustrator. If you listen to conservatives, you would think that before 1967, sex was something men did to women who put up with it until it was over. But reading old biographies of people like Cervantes, you see that sex has been a varied and creative activity for a very long time.

Before I get to some of Avril’s erotic masterpieces, I’m going to create a fold. I do this just because I don’t want to upset anyone. I’ve mostly eliminated coarse language from the site. And while I think pictures of sex acts are perfectly charming and not at all akin to coarse language (which I’ve come to think of as lazy and crude), I will tip my hat to social norms.

It may be that I’m just naive, but many of Avril’s illustrations seem sweet to me. The following image is what I imagine happens after the curtain falls at the end of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But I’ll admit, it could just be a man with a random prostitute. I like how clearly the woman’s control is rendered:

Avril - 14

Most of Avril’s illustrations are a bit more adventurous. There are lots of orgies, which include both female and male homoerotica, as in the following:

Avril - 29

Some of the pictures I find kind of creepy, like The Ceremonial of Fanny’s Initiation. It shows Fanny having sex with a man (there are many in this series), while a bunch of Georgian period gentle folk watch. I assume Fanny is some kind of a prostitute, because she is always portrayed as capable but disinterested, unlike the women in his other series. Here is a good example Fanny and the Sailor:

Fanny and the Sailor - Avril

I will just leave you with the illustration that really made me put this below the fold. Bestiality is certainly part of human sexuality. But I’m really glad that Avril illustrates this without romanticizing it. That goat is not happy:

Avril - 28

Happy birthday Edouard-Henri Avril!