Modest Proposal: Mandatory Firearm Liability Insurance?

In the wake of these tragic mass murders, firearm advocates, reacting to calls for gun bans, point out that lots of things kill people. Cars, for example, kill lots of people.

We mandate liability insurance for cars. Why not for firearms? Bring market forces to bear on this issue. More firearms make things safer? Insurance rates will go down (if true).

Anyway, what I envision is a requirement that a firearm owner obtain liability insurance that covers injuries caused by that particular firearm. (Runs with the weapon – provides an incentive for people to secure the weapon in a way that ensures, for example, kids don’t have access to the weapon.) I would also envision a policy surcharge used to subsidize coverage for uninsured losses, treatment of mental illness, enforcement of existing regulations, and safety education efforts.

Firearm advocates promote guns as critical for liberty and personal safety. Seems like the price of an insurance policy is a small price to pay for life and liberty. If, on the other hand, your attachment to your guns is more of a cultural affectation, the cost may make you re-evaluate your priorities.

It won’t happen, but it struck me as a compromise position that avoids confiscating weapons on the one hand or continuing, on the other hand, to sit on our hands while mass murderers with firearms gun down the innocent as we idly wonder why this keeps happening to us.

Happy Harvest Festival!

I’ve blogged about this before – 2007, in particular, but in the recent past, I’ve come to learn that the “First Thanksgiving” has only a nodding acquaintance with the mythology we’re taught in school. At the end of the day, it boils down to our country’s harvest festival and, as such, the literal history probably isn’t that important.

As I recall the version I learned in school, the Pilgrims left England because they hated religious oppression, they arrived a Plymouth Rock, hewed a settlement out of the wilderness, received the help of some friendly Indians; in particular an English speaking one named Squanto; they were taught how to plant corn with the help of fish fertilizer; and then, at harvest time, had a feast to celebrate.

The reality is a little more complicated. The Pilgrims mostly did not think the right kind of religious oppression was underway in England. The Pilgrims had left England and settled in Holland for about 10 years; but, among other things, they thought the environment was a little too permissive for the kids and that the congregation was losing its identity. Their trip was poorly timed, bringing them to New England in November 1620. While on the Mayflower, the Mayflower Compact was created and signed in response to the suggestion of certain passengers that, once in the New World, they would be at liberty to do as they pleased.

Arriving in New England at the beginning of winter was a bad idea. Fortunately for the Pilgrims, the Native Americans along the coast had been decimated by disease – leaving empty villages with at least a little in the way of food and supplies. The eventual site of Plymouth Colony was in an area that had been cleared by the Patuxet before they had been ravaged by smallpox.

The Pilgrims were assisted by Squanto (Tisquantum), a Patuxet who had been kidnapped years earlier and enslaved by Thomas Hunt and taken to Spain to be sold. Some friars intervened, and Squanto was not sold. He made his way to England and worked for some time as a shipbuilder. After about 5 years away from America, he got back to find his tribe had been wiped out by disease. Shortly thereafter, he seems to have been captured by the Wampanoag people and may have still been a captive when he was acting as an intermediary between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims; leading to some tension later on between Squanto and Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader. Squanto may have been playing the two sides against each other to some extent. I even read that the actual Thanksgiving feast was as much a display of arms and strength among the competing sides as a celebration of the harvest. I’m not sure how much to credit that.

Regardless of the beginnings, what I think is important to remember is that the tradition stems from a time where people can and did starve. Survival was uncertain from year to year where a bad harvest could mean famine in the winter. People had an incomplete understanding of the science behind weather and agriculture, so Native Americans and Europeans mixed their gratitude with a fair amount of superstition, believing, perhaps, that angry gods would cause famine in the future and gods who felt well respected would be more beneficent. Even without incorporating the supernatural, gratitude is entirely appropriate. I am thankful to live in a society (if not necessarily a world) with a secure food supply. And, of course, I have a lot of other things for which to be grateful – a loving family, a good job, and a warm place to sleep primary among them.

So, take stock of what you have going for you; and if you’re not cold and hungry tonight, you have it a lot better than a good chunk of the multitudes that have lived over the course of human history. And, if you think your good fortune is attributable to God or the Great Spirit or Ceres or Demeter or being responsible for good harvest; by all means offer thanks to them as well. Gratitude isn’t a limited resource; but should be spent freely.

Mitch Roob Returns to Private Sector. Some Say He Never Left

Mitch Roob, who you might remember from such public sector cautionary tales as “Privatizing Welfare Eligibility Determinations” and “Phantom Economic Development Jobs,” and “Indiana Doesn’t Do Studies, It Does Deals (Just Not Very Well)” is, at long last, leaving Indiana state government for the private sector. His long tenure in the Daniels administration raised questions about what video he might have of live boys or dead girls. Now, the world may never know.

Roob is leaving to cash in (one presumes) with “WoundVision” which is either a healthcare company or a producer of snuff films.

I dreamed I saw Mitch Roob last night,
In private business like you or me
Says I, “But Mitch, you’re seven years in the government,”
“I never was,” says he.
“I never was,” says he.

“In Indianapolis, Mitch,” says I to him,
Him standing by my bed,
“They said you were workin’ for the FSSA,”
Says Mitch, “But I ain’t a public servant,”
Says Mitch, “But I ain’t a public servant.”

“The Indiana Economic Development Corporation, Mitch,
They paid you, Mitch,” says I.
“Takes more than a government paycheck to buy a man,”
Says Mitch, “I didn’t serve,”
Says Mitch, “I didn’t serve.”

And standing there as big as life
And smiling with his eyes
Says Mitch, “What they forgot to buy
Went on to privatize,
Went on to privatize.”

Fractals, Mandelbrot, & God

“Infinite complexity can be described by simple rules.” — Jonathan Coulton, “Mandelbrot Set”

I’ve long been confused by the argument that God must exist because the universe is so beautiful and complex it could not have developed spontaneously. Positing God, a being who is more beautiful and complex still, as an explanation seems like a fancy way of shrugging your shoulders and saying, “Magic!”

Benoit Mandelbrot died on Thursday. This is not entirely unrelated to the previous paragraph. He was a mathematician who gave us some tools to help think about how complex and beautiful things could develop without guidance. He coined the term “fractal.” Among other things, fractals feature simple and recursive definitions.

Because they appear similar at all levels of magnification, fractals are often considered to be infinitely complex (in informal terms). Natural objects that are approximated by fractals to a degree include clouds, mountain ranges, lightning bolts, coastlines, snow flakes, various vegetables (cauliflower and broccoli), and animal coloration patterns.

It makes more sense to me to try to figure out how complicated things can be created through relatively simple processes than to conjure up an anthropomorphic, Rube Goldberg-esque God as your starting point. I think Occam probably had it right, and the simplest explanation is usually right. In my own mind, I haven’t ruled out a “first cause” God – but this is a far cry from the God with a Plan that included an inscrutable need to make sure Abraham was willing to kill his first born son, to piss on Job to win a bet with the Devil, and to have Jesus die in agony on a cross.

I recall a couple years ago feeling compelled to correct my son rather vigorously when he told me that a teacher at preschool had taught him that God creates every snowflake differently. Why the rush to attribute everything to a micromanaging Almighty? Isn’t the universe sufficiently magnificent and beautiful on its own? I’m pretty happy with a universe active enough that an ape (or, going back far enough, a single-celled organism) could evolve into a guy like Mandelbrot clever enough to figure out fractals. And a guy like Jonathan Coulton who can write a song about Mandelbrot sets:

Red States: “Families Form Adults;” Blue States: “Adults Form Families”

Writing for the National Journal Magazine, Jonathan Rauch has an interesting analysis of Naomi Cahn and June Carbone’s book Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture.

The book’s take on the cultural divide between Red States and Blue States is summarized as: “In red America, families form adults; in blue America, adults form families.” The expectation in red states is that people will have children early and the parents will grow into their responsibilities. The expectation in blue states is that people will wait to have families until their education and financial situation is more secure.

You can do a good job of predicting how a state will vote in national elections by looking at its population’s average age at first marriage and childbirth.

Six of the seven states with the lowest divorce rates in 2007, and all seven with the lowest teen birthrates in 2006, voted blue in both elections. Six of the seven states with the highest divorce rates in 2007, and five of the seven with the highest teen birthrates, voted red. It’s as if family strictures undermine family structures.

The suggestion is that the blue state approach split from the red state approach with the advent of birth control and the information economy with its influx of women into the workforce. This short-circuited two major factors that contributed to the red state approach: #1 Sex causes babies; and #2 A man could get a low-skill job that paid sufficiently to support a family.

I don’t know if it’s a cause or merely another symptom, but what came to my mind when reading this analysis was “red” versus “blue” is, at root, a difference in attitude about life’s purpose. (And, yes, these are all generalizations.) Is life about self-realization and maximizing personal happiness or is it about fulfilling duties without much regard for whether doing so brings any particular joy to a person’s life.

My upbringing was a mix, I suppose. There was rarely, if ever, any particular discussion about the morality of premarital sex, but it was abundantly clear that having kids out of wedlock was a Bad Idea and, even more, that having kids at the expense of your education was not recommended. So, in that sense, I had a Blue State upbringing. On the other hand, there was not a lot of indication that a job was something primarily intended to bring you personal joy. You should try to do something you liked, of course, but that was somewhat incidental. The point of a job was to make money, and you need money to meet your obligations. Education was of paramount importance in my house, but not necessarily for its own sake. Rather, a better educated person has more varied and lucrative career options. From the time I was six years old or so, I wanted to be a lawyer, which fit the bill nicely. I’m not sure what sort of reception I would have gotten had I declared a desire to get a master’s degree in order to become a poet. (And, now that I’m writing about it, I realize I could be jumbling things up a bit since different parents might have been emphasizing different things.)

Anyway, I tend to think that red state sensibilities regard the blue state tendency to defer responsibility while getting an education and deciding what you want to do with your life as so much mamby-pamby, child coddling hippy bullshit. You learn real wisdom and values through struggle, hard work, and satisfaction of duties. Blue state sensibilities suggest that the red state approach is authoritarian and backward. And, now I’m really stretching and generalizing, but I wonder if a lot of it hinges on how one views God and the afterlife. If this life is all you get, then the red state approach seems horribly misguided – if you don’t enjoy this life, then you’re pretty much wasting everything you’ll ever have.

On the other hand, if this (relatively short) life is merely a proving ground for the eternal afterlife, seeking instant gratification now at the expense of the hereafter is remarkably stupid.

In any event, it sounds like the authors have taken a credible stab at trying to explain why red states vocally put more emphasis on sexual morality and the family as an institution and, yet, blue states pretty routinely have a lower incidence of divorce and teen childbirth.

Health Insurance is not Auto Insurance

I saw some talking head on the cable teevee news making a specious comparison between health insurance and auto insurance. If we just treated health insurance more like auto insurance, he said, we’d have more competition in the health insurance market. We’d have little lizards on the television marketing insurance to us at low, low prices.

Problem is that our bodies are not cars and our policy goals with health insurance are different than those for auto insurance. By and large, we’re content to let people suck it up and go without a car if they can’t afford one (or if they can’t afford to insure it). It’s less common for us to tell people to suck it up and die if they can’t afford to keep their bodies in working order.

And that leads to the second point. As a policy matter, I don’t think we’ve ever decided whether we want people insured against accidents or the unexpected or for maintenance (or, probably, a little of both.) If the person doesn’t change the oil and the car breaks down, well that’s just what you get dummy. Change the damn oil. If someone has a lemon of a car – and it’s known to be a lemon – an insurance company isn’t going to insure against repairs. The person is expected to repair it at his or her own expense, buy another car that’s not a money pit, or do without.

You can’t do that with your body. We don’t have a lot of sympathy for the folks who don’t change the oil – they don’t exercise, they eat junk, they smoke, and they sit on the couch. Just like a car, you’re body is going to break down. But, even for these folks, we’re not quite willing to just let them die if they can’t afford the inevitable repairs.

We’re more sympathetic to those who bought a lemon – their bodies develop problems through no real fault of the owner. Some defects are unknown and unknowable in advance, but others can probably be calculated with sufficient information, genetic testing perhaps. If an insurer can determine that a potential insured is probably a lemon in advance, can we really expect them to insure against future maintenance that’s not so much unknown risk as strong probability?

With health insurance, we haven’t really decided whether we are spreading the danger of unknown risks (who is going to get hit by a careless driver? We know it’s somebody, we just don’t know who exactly). Or, are we spreading the cost of health care from the unhealthy to the healthy. Or, are we spreading the cost of health care from the poor to the rich?

The spreading and managing of risks, the impact of which can be estimated at the group level but the individual level of which is unknown, is typically what “insurance” is. The other policy choices – having the healthy subsidize the unhealthy or the rich subsidize the poor strike me as different animals even if they are perfectly valid policies. But, I think we have to know exactly what we’re trying to accomplish before we can design a system that is effective in meeting our goals.

U.S. Health Care & Performance Compared to Other Countries

I copied this table from a Wikipedia entry. Hopefully the formatting isn’t too awful. In any case, two things I have heard frequently in the health care debate are “the U.S. has the best health care in the world,” and “Universal health care is too expensive.” Both propositions appear to be demonstrably false. The table compares Australia, France, Germany, Japan, Sweden, the UK, and the U.S. Compared to these other six countries, the U.S. spends far more on health care and fares worse on key indicators of the effectiveness of a country’s health care: infant mortality rates and life expectancy.

Country Life expectancy Infant mortality rate Physicians per 1000 people Nurses per 1000 people Per capita expenditure on health (USD) Healthcare costs as a percent of GDP % of government revenue spent on health % of health costs paid by government
Australia 81.1 4.7 2.8 9.7 2,999 8.8 17.7 67.0
Canada 80.4 5.4 2.1 8.8 3,678 10.1 16.7 70.0
France 80.9 4.0 3.4 7.6 3,449 11.1 14.2 79.7
Germany 79.8 3.8 3.5 9.8 3,371 10.6 17.6 77.0
Japan 82.4 2.8 2.1 9.3 2,474 8.2 16.8 82.7
Sweden 80.8 2.8 3.5 10.7 3,202 9.2 13.6 81.7
UK 79.1 5.0 2.5 11.9 2,760 8.4 15.8 87.0
US 77.8 6.9 2.4 10.5 7,290 16.0 18.5 46.0

The U.S. spends at least 2x per capita what these other countries do on health care. We spend 16% of our considerable GDP on health care. And, despite spending considerably more, we have the highest infant mortality rate of these countries — 6.9 per thousand versus less than half that in Japan & Sweden. We also have the lowest life expectancy of these countries as well — 77.8 years versus 82.4 in Japan and 81.1 in Australia.

We’re Americans. We’re supposed to be the most practical people on earth — not getting too wrapped up in pure theory or ideology; always looking for a way to build a better mouse trap. There is clear evidence that the system we have doesn’t work and that other systems work better. Why are we so attached to ours?

Buyer’s Charity & Lobbyist Generosity

If you can’t drink a lobbyist’s whiskey, take his money, sleep with his women and still vote against him in the morning, you don’t belong in politics.—Jesse Unruh (1922-1987), Speaker of California State Assembly

Steve Buyer (IN-04), however, isn’t notable for voting against them. Then again, I suppose, I haven’t heard much about him drinking their whiskey or sleeping with their women, so maybe it’s a package deal. Buyer figured prominently in a USA Today story about lobbyist largesse when it comes to politicians’ pet foundations.

Amgen, a biotech giant, donated generously to the Frontier Foundation, a non-profit agency whose president is, or at least was, Buyer’s daughter. Its secretary/treasurer is his campaign manager. The charity’s mailing address is the same as Buyer’s campaign office. Frontier’s purpose is ostensibly to provide college scholarships. In a stunning coincidence, Buyer is on the House panel that regulates the drug industry.

Buyer, who has worked on health policy in Congress for years, helped kill a provision in 2007 opposed by drug companies and broadcasters that would have imposed a three-year ban on advertising new drugs, congressional records show. Consumer advocates, including the Consumers Union, pushed the measure, arguing that aggressive drug pitches unduly sway patients to seek treatment from drugs before their safety records have been established.

During debate by a Commerce subcommittee, Buyer co-sponsored an amendment that stripped the advertising ban from a larger bill overhauling the Food and Drug Administration.

In an interview, Buyer said “there is no connection” between his legislative actions and donations to the foundation. “I’m not an officer. I’m not a board director,” he said of his role in the non-profit. “Do I help the foundation? Yes, I do. Do I help other charity groups? Yes, I do.”

Correlation does not equal causation, but when you see one, you start looking for the other. We’re at least up to the “appearance of impropriety” level but probably short of proof of any actual impropriety.

A commenter to the related story in the Lafayette Journal & Courier (I’m not sure how to link directly to the story) suggests that the Frontier Foundation does not, in fact, provide much in the way of scholarship support. The Foundation’s 2007 return is here.

If I’m reading the return correctly, and I hasten to add that I’m no accountant, the Foundation used 16% of its assets ($44,000) for exempt charitable purposes — presumably scholarship(s). I was able to obtain some information about the scholarship at nonprofit expert.com:

Frontier Foundation, Inc.
Contact: Stephanie Mattix, Secy.-Treas.
200 N. Main St.
Monticello, IN 47960-2131
Telephone: (574) 870-4565

Scholarship awards to graduating seniors at Indiana high schools with a
2.75 GPA or better, planning to enter college, university, or vocational
school; some giving for human services.

That mailing address, as I mentioned, is the same mailing address as listed for the Buyer for Congress campaign office. Buyer’s previous rhetorical question and answer should, therefore, be amended:

“Do I help provide office space to the foundation? Yes, I do. Do I help provide office space to other charity groups? Yes, I do. [Indiscernible mumbling]”

A 2003 faxed copy of the scholarship application is attached to the 2007 tax return. It indicates that two scholarships would be given out each year, one to a male and one to a female. The scholarship is worth $10,000 if the recipient pledges “to stay in Indiana for one year” and $20,000 if the recipient pledges to stay for two years.

But, Part XV of the return, where I expected to read information about grants and contributions paid during the year, listed none. I presume without knowing, though, that the foundation went ahead and gave out a couple of scholarships. I don’t suppose anyone has seen any Frontier Foundation press releases?

Pharmaceutical companies (and telecomm companies) however, appear very interested in the well being of Indiana high school seniors with a 2.75 gpa or better (for 2007):

Merck $15,000
Astra Zenica $15,000
Amgen $25,000
Eli Lilly $25,000
Healthnet $25,000
Pharma $75,000

T-Mobile $25,000
AT&T $10,000
Nat’l Association of Broadcasters $25,000

Meanwhile, the Foundation had to spend $25,000 on “travel for fundraising.” Now, I think it would be a crying shame if a politician and/or his friends, family, and well-wishers had to travel to some inconvenient place — preferably warm, sunny, and golf course friendly — just to raise money for some C+ high school students.

Steve Buyer is far from the only politician with captive charities to whom lobbyists donate generously. But, he’s my representative, and he figured prominently in the USA Today story. This highlights how difficult it is to shine a spotlight on the cozy relationships between lobbyists and politicians. And, for the record, I don’t want to demonize lobbyists. They have a shady reputation and, to a large extent, a good number of them have earned it. But, they have a legitimate purpose.

Politicians need information about the things they seek to govern. Representatives from the groups who are directly concerned can provide that information. Ideally, all stakeholders are providing the politician with information so the politician can make an informed decision. The problem comes when the politician comes to value the information from one or a limited number of lobbyists based on criteria other than the quality of their information — say because he likes to talk to you about donations to your favorite foundation while you’re on your favorite golf course. When that happens, ordinary citizens, or even honest but disfavored lobbies, start figuring they can’t get a fair shake. That’s not healthy for our democratic institutions.

And now for something completely different. Rep. Buyer’s rant about smoking lettuce (that’s not a typo) is The Daily Show’s Moment of Zen:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Moment of Zen – Smoking Lettuce
thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Jason Jones in Iran

Indiana and the Chrysler Bankruptcy

Some of my fellow Hoosier bloggers (h/t Abdul and Josh Claybourn) have been following the Chrysler bankruptcy, particularly with respect to Indiana’s unexpectedly prominent role in the matter. Josh, in particular, has strong feelings on the issue, calling the proposed reorganization (presumably with some degree of hyperbole “The End of Capitalism as We Know It.”)

For those who haven’t been following the matter, Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock has been spearheading objections to the reorganization plan because of its affect on approximately $42 million nominally owed to the Indiana State Teachers Retirement Fund, the Indiana State Pension Trust and the Indiana Major Moves Construction Fund for investments these funds made in Chrysler. This represents about 0.6% of the $6.9 billion in first priority liens against Chrysler’s assets. However, despite Indiana’s very minor position among this class of creditors, it is the one raising the biggest stink and trying the hardest to derail the process. Chrysler smells politics. So do I. Under the proposed plan, Indiana will receive a return of about 29%.

This is an issue that journalists and Indiana politicians should probably be familiar with going forward. Maybe I’m wrong, but this has the smell of Mourdock and, potentially, Gov. Daniels trying to set themselves up politically as champions of the marketplace and defenders against Obama’s nefarious economic plots. If the bankruptcy court’s description (pdf) of the evidence presented bears any resemblance to what was actually presented, Indiana’s pursuit of these claims looks like a waste of taxpayer money – first there is no apparent alternative that would yield more money to the Indiana funds than the one being approved by the court; and second Indiana invested in Chrysler subject to an agreement that requires the Indiana funds to go along with the decisions of fellow investors that control a vastly greater share of the funds invested. Those creditors have consented to the deal with Fiat for a New Chrysler.

Much more after the jump.

[Read more…]

On Growing Up

Some fine thoughts about growing up by Harl over at Canthook. (Also, he has a pin-up picture of the recently departed Betty Page; something that’s always welcome in my book.)

I’m not going to make any real sense of them here or now (not sure I could), but I have some thoughts kicking around in my head about choices as we grow up; alternate potential history paths; and the telescoping of our range of potential options as we choose and age. Harl’s post touches on some of that. “As we age, we make choices. We close doors. We eliminate options. It’s called growing up[.]”

I haven’t been thinking about it in a normative sense, really. That is to say, I haven’t been depressed about my choices — in fact, I think I’ve made some good choices in my life that have really done some good things for me — but, rather, I have been watching my kids grow and think about how wide open it all is when we are born. Then we and those around us make choices every step of the way, as we must, and those potential realities become narrower. But, they also become more likely. Initially, the slightest breeze can blow you to one course or another. Later on, it probably takes a gale force wind to knock you off course.

With these sorts of thoughts bouncing around, I read Neal Stephenson’s latest story, “Anathem.” One of the notions considered in the story — and any butchery of this concept should be attributed to my lack of understanding, not the book — is that each potential choice or result where more than one was possible results in a new cosmos where each choice materialized. Our understanding of quantum physics, and the many worlds interpretation, apparently suggests that this is more than just “what if” fantasy.

One interesting (to me) thing that comes out of this sort of thinking is that, even if there is a God, there are certain principles that even He probably could not get around while creating a world — for example that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line or that the pythagorean theorem is going to govern the relative lengths of the legs of a right triangle. In other words, some things are going to be “universal” through all possible worlds.

Like I said, these things are sort of a mish-mash of the kinds of things bouncing around in my head; probably showing how untidy my mind is more than enlightening anyone about anything in particular. But, Harl’s post prompted me into riff mode.