Tag Archives: political policy

The Case for Activism

So I watched the video Innocence of Muslims that supposedly caused the outrage ultimately leading to novel US protests throughout the Middle East.

First of all, it was clearly a satire.  The issue is that of blasphemy, which is illegal in many of the countries with these protests.  Blasphemy is often recognized as unacceptable within the religion itself, versus being illegal in a country that predominantly constitutes of those in said religion.  The latter likely implies the former (i.e. being illegal likely means it is unacceptable in the dominant religion).  Although perhaps ironically, the Quran and hadith do not mention blasphemy, whereas Christianity condemns it.[1,2]  In the case in question, the issue was about the legitimacy of Muhammad’s teachings. Given the laws within the countries and the video, it’s no surprise that the protests have erupted.  What I personally find puzzling however, is why in the 21st century blasphemy is still taken seriously.

Blasphemy essentially involves questioning that which is assumed to be true.  There is an inherent anxiety in this, for if the assumptions are without merit, the whole religion falls apart.  Now of course, if the assumptions are with merit, then questioning them is meaningless, so why punish individuals in this case?  Won’t their absence of finding anything troubling with the religious assumptions and corresponding time wasted in the process be punishment enough?

Now take two other institutions that have assumptions that are questioned: law and mathematics.  In law, the assumptions are the laws themselves.  Yet for ubiquitously accepted reasons, we permit our legislative representatives to amend and refine laws so that they are compatible with the time period.  Similarly in mathematics, one may start with some axioms and prove something from them (or analogously, start with some laws and note an acceptable behavior), then later the mathematician may change the axioms to prove something more general or more specific.

Thus for the same reasons, I’d argue that the questioning of the assumptions within a religion could only be beneficial to it–except perhaps to those who benefit from the doctrine at a given time.  Religion, like law, may particularly benefit some members at a given time, and such members may be reluctant to welcome change.  This is something of which I claim all members of the institution need to be aware.  For if you fail to question the authority and dogma, you simultaneously give permission to sustain what may amount to a select few disproportionately benefiting.

[1] Saeed, Abdullah; Hassan Saeed (2004). Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam. Burlington VT: Ashgate Publishing Company. pp. 38–39. ISBN 978-0-7546-3083-8. (via Wikipedia: “Blasphemy”)

[2] Mark 3:29

What Math Really Is

There is an almost ubiquitous misconception about what mathematics really is, and it’s a misconception that genuinely beckons a correction.  I would take a guess that if the average person was asked “What is mathematics?”, they would respond with something along the lines of “well, it’s a bunch of rules that help you find certain numbers”.  While this may have been a correct answer long ago, it is far from correct today.

Fortunately, what it actually is can be summarized very succinctly.  Mathematics is simply the process of making assumptions and proving what follows.  Hence, we all do math on a daily basis—either when talking to one another, or when thinking to oneself:  “given what I know, I think that…”.  This is math.

This is also why math courses through calculus are terrible—as they are absurdly misleading.  Current curriculum is libelous to the discipline of mathematics and its participants, and action needs to be taken to address this.

At this point, high school language arts and composition courses may teach more math than actual math courses.  Fundamental to mathematics is logic and its application in the context of sets.  Logic was essentially nonexistent when I was in high school.  Yet math and language arts classes implicitly assume that students have a solid understanding of it when they are asked to make arguments.  Granted, as we are logical entities cognitively, we are trivially masters of logic.  But in terms of conveying it communicably, improved training is necessary.  I feel the overlooking of this necessity is a grave miscalculation that has hindered scientific thinking (an ability from which every citizen of the world can drastically benefit) for far longer than it should have.  This needs to change.

Affordable Care Act Debunked

There has been much hype, debate, and confusion over the Affordable Care Act lately.  Let’s try a different approach: let’s look at the facts and see on whom costs or benefits are imposed as a consequence of the upholding of this legislation.  A key list of the provisions in the Act can be found at http://www.healthcare.gov/law/timeline/full.html.  It possesses a series of provisions to take effect beginning in 2010 and extending to 2015.

2010 (consumer protections):  It sets up a website where consumers can view various insurance programs and weigh options.  This will no doubt increase competition in the insurance market.  It will also impose restrictions on how health insurance companies charge:  children under 19 cannot be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition, those who acquire insurance cannot be dropped later due to a clerical error on a customer’s application (this tended to be a strategy used by some insurance companies to drop coverage for customers who acquired a sickness over the course of their coverage), it sets up an external review process that enables consumers to appeal decisions made by their healthcare providers regarding the determination of their pricing, small businesses are eligible for tax credits to help pay for their employees’ coverage, new plans must include preventive care like mammograms and colonoscopies, young adults without a plan (or offered plan) may stay on parents’ plan until they turn 26, and many other features in 2010.

2011-12:  Incentives for improving the quality and lowering the cost of medical care, special features for seniors.  For insurance companies who sell to large employers, at least 85% of their revenue from sold policies must go directly to healthcare providing.  And for insurance companies who sell to small businesses and individuals, at least 80% of their revenue from policies must go directly to healthcare.  This provision is aimed at reducing the consolidation of profits into the form of administrative costs and executive bonuses.

2013 (Medicaid improvements):  bundling costs, subsidizing state Medicaid while sustaining pay for primary care physicians.

2014:  insurance companies with individual and small group programs are no longer allowed to charge different rates based on gender or health, small businesses and those not covered by an employer will be able to buy insurance in an Exchange program (a competitive market for individual and small groups) (members of Congress will purchase it from here as well), more tax credits to small businesses to help cover employees, those at or below 133% of the poverty line will be eligible for Medicaid, most Americans who can afford healthcare will be required to purchase a plan or pay a fee to help cover costs of others, if healthcare is not available to a person then they will be eligible to apply for an exemption, workers who can’t afford their employer’s program will be able to keep their insurance funds that would have otherwise been taken out of their paycheck.

It’s clear that this Act has the intention to benefit anyone who has or wants health insurance (which is essentially everyone).  Who could possibly hurt from this policy?  Well, obviously the insurance companies themselves might hurt–as they have less freedom to charge what they want (although at the same time, the individual mandate provision that requires those who can afford it to buy a health insurance policy for his/herself most certainly will increase demand for insurance companies).  And businesses that have to cover their employees now face a little more regulation.  This is essentially from where the criticism on the right comes.  But let’s be honest, large employers and insurance companies who sell to them are likely to not be dinged by these policies.  Their profits are sufficient.  Small businesses and small insurance providers would be the only ones facing tough changes.  And that’s precisely the purpose of things like the tax credits, Exchange program, and the extra 5% of kept revenue (I’m not sure how beneficial the extra 5% would be).

So still, with all of this, how could there still be such opposition to the Affordable Care Act?  Since the Citizens United ruling, it’s obvious that big companies have more influence in political elections now relative to, say, everyone else.  And where have big companies decided to utilize their “free speech”?  They sent money to super PACs of course.  And is there anything noteworthy about the choice of super PACs to which they donated?  Well consider the 2011 findings by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics [2]:

The centerpiece of how a business becomes very successful (i.e. profitable) is based on the fact that they care very much about profits.  It may therefore be no surprise why a party that receives far more funding from big businesses (including insurance companies) and wealthy individuals than another party tends to advocate policies that benefit those contributors.  The same can be said of liberals and unions (although one key distinction to be made is that unions contribute far less to liberal candidates than businesses do to conservative ones) [3].  And if big businesses now have to purchase policies from insurance companies that have been slightly constrained by new legislation, it’s no wonder why they would oppose the legislation as it could lead to higher policy prices.

An alternative to the Affordable Care Act (which Obama originally advocated), was a single-payer plan (aka universal healthcare), in which each person paid a tax to cover insurance for everyone–provided by the government.  No doubt this would put the health insurance industry out of business.  Correspondingly, it’s also no surprise why a party whose campaign was heavily supported by insurance companies also advocated against a potential government competitor:

Top (Insurance) Contributors, 2011-2012

Contributor Amount
New York Life Insurance $1,648,546
Blue Cross/Blue Shield $1,372,945
AFLAC Inc $1,112,295
Indep Insurance Agents & Brokers/America $877,250
USAA $841,958
Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance $757,178
Natl Assn/Insurance & Financial Advisors $727,000
Northwestern Mutual $698,564
Metlife Inc $600,109
American Financial Group $563,950
Liberty Mutual $555,605
Assn for Advanced Life Underwriting $548,500
National Assn of Health Underwriters $492,850
Property Casualty Insurers Assn/America $488,500
Genworth Financial $488,351
Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers $480,899
Travelers Companies $437,630
Prudential Financial $374,895
Zurich Financial Services $374,815
State Farm Insurance $333,835


As the Center for Responsive Politics articulately explained:

Insurance companies staunchly oppose the idea of a government-provided health insurance option, which President Barack Obama and most congressional Democrats support. These businesses fear that implementing a “public option” will eventually lead to “single-payer” health care, which they say would mean the collapse of their industry. Insurers believe that even if they survive the presence of a government competitor in the market, their profits will decline sharply, as the federal government will be able to negotiate for lower premiums and drug costs. [4]

[1]  http://www.healthcare.gov/law/timeline/full.html

[2]  http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2011/05/citizens-united-decision-profoundly-affects-political-landscape.html

[3]  http://www.opensecrets.org/overview/topcontribs.php

[4]  http://www.opensecrets.org/industries/indus.php?ind=F09

Science in the US

As it is no surprise about the education in the US, science in particular has also been suffering.  Last week in the April meeting of the American Physics Society, a group of physicists made precisely this claim.  The primary data used in the basis of their argument was the decline in degrees in science.  This data is certainly consistent with the argument that the US is falling behind in science.  There is no debate that good performance in science predicates the choice of a degree in science.  That is to say, the decline in degrees in science is mostly a consequence of poor performance in science earlier–rather than the cause of it.  So the natural question is: why are kids less interested in science?

The everyday life of a kid is governed by three structures: school, parents, and other media they encounter (including television, internet, and social structure).  It follows that one should be able to attribute the decline in scientific interest to one or more of these structures.  Suppose we assume two things: (1) that there is a problem at some generation with respect to science advocacy in some of these components, and (2) that the extent to which kids assimilate to the scientific understanding of their mentors (i.e. parents and teachers) is strictly less than complete (that is, in an abstract isolated teacher-student situation, the student can only learn a proper subset of the teacher’s knowledge).  These two assumptions ensure a gradual decline in scientific understanding over the course of future generations.

These assumptions make it no surprise that deficiencies in science can only get worse over time.  This only leaves two more questions:  how did the deficiency begin, and how can it be fixed?  I might take a bold but not entirely unreasonable guess that much of it can be attributed to what I previously called curriculum that is not “readily applicable to everyday situations”.  Who is in charge of deciding this curriculum?  The answer to this is: precisely those who originally learned this curriculum.  So again, it is no surprise why nothing changes.  Many point to issues like parenting, television, and other media as the problem.  But each of these are easily traceable back to the fact that members of each of these components (parents and media affiliates) had a similar education anyway.  This further reinforces the claim that the curriculum itself might need to change.

Now if we change the curriculum, the question of teachers’ ability to implement it arises.  This can be addressed with changes in college curriculum that prepare emerging teachers for a new curriculum in the primary and secondary levels.  This seems like it might be the first promising step to address the issue in the long run.  In an era where governmental budget deficits are high, the appetite for further investment in education (itself a long-term yet critical investment) also seems to be on the decline.  It’s no surprise that a fair amount of politicians’ value placed on scientific investment puts it on the back burner in a budget crisis given that a vast majority of them have no background in science to begin with.  This is yet another reason that a change in curriculum seems more promising in my mind than further monetary investments in education.  And since the payoffs for this will not be immediate, it is all the more reason to begin a change in curriculum now rather than later.  If a scientific curriculum tied closer to reality and pragmatic obstacles implants itself in those who will become the future generations, the hope is that this will in turn resolve the future problems associated to the parents, media, and politicians.

[1]  http://news.yahoo.com/crisis-us-science-looming-physicists-warn-135405711.html

Political Policy and the Wealth Gap

Consider the US income distribution in 2005.

Image by Catherine Mullbrandon (1)

It demonstrates that a clear majority of the population earns an income at the relatively low end of possible incomes in our economy.  This sort of curve isn’t too surprising since those who acquire relatively more resources initially can in turn acquire additional resources easily since they can afford costly investments with large payoff.

This presents a problem of endgame capitalism.  The idea is that if a system has a finite amount of resources and a finite number of people attempting to acquire as many resources as they can such that none have 0 resources, then the instability of socialism (where everyone has the same amount of resources) will force some to have more, and in turn make it easier for them to get more by contracting others (i.e. forming a corporation).  Slowly those with less lose more and more over time until several “corporations” remain.  Then the process repeats, and eventually we are left with a single owner, or at least one person getting arbitrarily close to possessing all of the resources.  To combat this endgame, we are left with political policy.

The highest tax bracket in the US is 35% and applies to households making over $373,000 [2].  That is less than 2% of the population.  There will come a point in our future where we will have to decide between “fairness” and efficiency.  It would be far more efficient for very low incomes to have 0% (or at least very low) tax rates and for the upper echelons pay bigger percentages.  They could still rank far above the rest after taxes.  During previous time periods taxes were raised to combat the costs of the federal government (in particular WWII in 1945).

Image by Greg Hollingsworth (3)

Also of interest (as Greg points out) is the correlation between the decrease in the top tax rate and increase in the national debt.

[1]  http://visualizingeconomics.com/2006/11/05/2005-us-income-distribution/

[2]  http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-drop/rp-09-50.pdf

[3]  http://greghollingsworth.org/blog/2009/8/10/the-high-cost-of-low-taxes.html