Are you a better judge than a college student?

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Given Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s lack of a paper trail, political analysts have been digging deep into her past for any indication of what her views might be.  The search has inevitably led to her college and graduate school writings.

Two historians reviewed her undergraduate thesis and concluded she displayed “remarkable intellectual maturity” and “wrote quite evenhandedly” and “without evident bias.”  In addition, the Wall Street Journal dug up her masters thesis and noted that she criticized the Warren court and “wrote that Supreme Court justices should rest their rulings squarely on a firm legal foundation, such as statutes and court precedents.”

Call me crazy, but it seems pretty ridiculous to judge someone’s views on the basis of something they wrote 30 years ago at the age of 21.  One would hope that as people gain more experience, are exposed to more people and viewpoints, and generally grow wiser, their views on things would evolve.  I, for one, am mortified at the thought of having my nascent intellectual thoughts torn apart by today’s punditry.

So I’ll do it myself.  Soon I will embark on a new series of posts I am entitling “Benevolution.”  I plan to revisit nearly all of the papers I wrote in college and post them along side some self-reflection on how my views have evolved on the subjects.  I’ll be able to reassess the state and the development sector in the context of my current business education. I’ll be able to revisit my thoughts on global government in the aftermath of Bush and the global financial crisis.  I’ll be able to review my past thoughts on the city now that I have actually lived in one for six years.

Bottom line: it will help me to reflect on how I have evolved into the Benevolent Baron.

This is mainly for me, but it’s also an excuse to do something with my old papers.  It has always bothered me that students put all that research and effort into writing papers that are only seen by one professor (or perhaps just one teaching assistant).  It seems that someone with an interest in these topics might find it useful to see someone else’s research, or at least take a peak at a relevant works cited list.  I consider this a service to to some future Google-crazed college student that may want to write a paper about poverty concentration, pan-Africanism, South Africa’s informal settlements, or the effects of narcotics trafficking on the state.

What you’ll get is the papers in their original form, complete with misguided thoughts, typos and all.  This was college, so please be lenient judges of my writing and naivety.

If you care to share your own evolution, shoot me an email.

Posted on May 28th 2010 in Benevolution, news

OrgWatch: WikiLeaks promotes transparency, among other things

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The founding idea of WikiLeaks is beautiful in its simplicity, an anonymous repository for government and corporate officials to leak things of critical importance to the voting public. Like wikipedia, anyone can put forth content into the public dialogue, and the organization goes to great lengths to protect its sources.  The organization has facilitated leaks around the world, including the Climategate emails and the Palin email hack.  As The National is quoted on their website saying, “WikiLeaks has probably produced more scoops in its short life than the Washington Post has in the past 30 years.”

But a recent leak may have gotten them in the hot seat.  The video below, entitled “Collateral Murder” by WikiLeaks, is of a 2007 Apache Helicopter Attack in Bagdhad that resulted in the deaths of civilians, including two Reuters news employees.  The issue was that many observers did not find that this constituted a war crime, and found WikiLeaks’ editorializing to be particularly distasteful and misleading.  You be the judge [Warning: it is tough to watch]:

The official Pentagon story is that there was small gunfire in the area, though the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, disputes that in this interview with Stephen Colbert, who may or may not have stepped out of character to condemn the slant:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Julian Assange

Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Fox News

I am empathetic to the critiques made of WikiLeaks; to call it “Collateral Murder” inserts a deliberate subjective opinion onto a purportedly objective piece of media. But what is funny about the whole thing to me is the fact that we accept this kind of sensationalist editorializing in virtually every other journalistic output. Rarely do the loud, outlandish lower graphics on Cable News channels match the objectivity demanded by the profession, and try picking up the New York Post any day of the week. Why should we begrudge Assange for trying to “achieve the maximum political impact” for what is nothing more than a leaked video in a case where the Pentagon was being particularly secretive?

Colbert gets him on this, because the video is slightly edited, but it is light years away from the chopped up 30-second clips that might squeeze past a TV news editor’s desk, if they actually aren’t too PG to show it. However, the fact that only 1 in 10 watched the whole thing should raise some eyebrows about the powerful impressions made in those first two minutes.

I am reminded of a critique I once read about the use of exclamation points by Lewis Thomas, who noted, “If a sentence really has something of importance to say, something quite remarkable, it doesn’t need a mark to point it out.”

I applaud the effort to make transparent the pain and suffering and collateral damage that comes from wars, especially those fought on false pretenses.  That effort is certainly of importance.  It shouldn’t need any slant to point that out (and we all know cable news will jump right in to fill any voids in that department).

So, do you think WikiLeaks crossed a line?  Would it have hurt their effort if they had simply added a question mark to the title, and let viewers and politicians and lawyers make their own judgments?  Is WikiLeaks really a threat to national security?

[Props: Andrew Sullivan]

Posted on April 16th 2010 in news, OrgWatch

OkCupid: Democrats are bad lovers

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OkTrends, the awesome official blog of OkCupid, drops some cool insights on politics and dating.  Definitely check out the entire post; trends on the popular dating website suggest the Dems are inherently doomed.

According to OkCupid’s compatibility scoring, Republicans are much more compatible with themselves than Democrats are with themselves.  Check out the compatibility scoring across the political plane (green = more compatible, red = less compatible):

They make an interesting point about how this compatibility may explain why Republicans are able to maintain a cohesive opposition front while the Democrats are less adept at buidling consensus.  Either that, or they are suggesting Congressional Republicans should be dating.

Also, check out how people’s political persuasions change as they age:

In a way, this may suggest that the best years for finding compatible matches are our 30s and 40s, when we are, on average, more economically permissive and socially restrictive.

Pretty intersting stuff.  Thoughts?

Posted on March 31st 2010 in news

Health Care Reform and the Cost Question

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It is done.  Yesterday, President Obama signed Healthcare Reform into law, enacting the most significant social legistlation in decades.  As Joe Biden so eloquently put it, “This is a big fucking deal.”

[Image source: The New York Times]

The cornerstone of the bill, extending coverage, was always the goal.  The big questions were how we were going to pay for it and would it bring down costs in the long-run.  On the rollercoaster ride of developing this bill, we mainly heard three answers, since the mainstream media only likes to give us information in small digestible bites we need not chew.

First, the House wanted a surtax on the wealthiest, but that could never fly in the Senate.  Second, there was the infamous public option, based on the hope that competition in the oligopolistic insurance sector would drive down costs.  R.I.P.  Finally, the bill settled on the so-called “Cadillac-Tax,” a surcharge on the most expensive insurance plans out there that aims to discourage their existence.

The effectiveness of the Cadillac-Tax was potentially diminished by the last-minute compromise to delay its effective date until 2018, and critics argue that the cost question still looms large.  But there are other measures in the bill that we’ve heard almost nothing about that will significantly impact the cost burden of this landmark legislation.

The Independent Payment Advisory Board

The bill establishes an independent 15-member advisory board to make concrete recommendations to curb costs without raising taxes or rationing care.  If health care costs continue to rise at an unacceptable rate, Congress cannot reject their recommendations without substituting equivalent savings.

Transparency of Payments and Fees

Often overlooked is the transparency this bill brings to the industry.  Ezra summarizes:

…hospitals will have to post prices. Insurance products will be presented with standardized information, consumer ratings and quality measures. The payments physicians take from drug and device companies will be in a public database. There will be independent funding for research on the relative effectiveness of different treatments. Some of these changes are small and some are big, but put together, the system is going to become a lot more visible in the coming years.

Indeed.  These are not minor.  Can you think of any other good or service you pay for without being told the price?  And drug companies and medical device manufacturers spend tons on direct marketing to doctors.  Pharma alone spends $30 billion annually.  These things go a long way towards making health care look more like any other business.

Improved Translation of Biomedical Research

Recently, I have been obsessed with Lewis Thomas – biologist, writer and one of the most brilliant minds I have ever encountered – who put the value of research spending in perspective for me.  In The Lives of a Cell, his celebrated 1974 collection of essays,  he wrote on what he called “The Technology of Medicine,”  adopting an unconventional use of the term and breaking it into three segments:

  • Nontechnology refers to the supportive therapy doctors provide to patients suffering from chronic disease.  It is essential and costly, but bears no capacity to alter the natural course of disease or its outcome.
  • Halfway technology “represents the efforts to compensate for the incapacitating effects of certain diseases whose outcome one is unable to do very much about.  It is a technology designed to make up for disease, or to postpone death.”
  • High Technology is the “genuinely decisive” technology of medicine, manifested in modern methods for immunization against diphtheria or tuberculosis.  It is that which effectively deals with disease.

Thomas argued that the cost of the high technology of medicine is pennies next to the cost of managing disease during earlier stages of no-technology or halfway technology.  He argues that if one were to manage a case of typhoid fever today using the best technology available in 1935, it would require 50 days of hospitalization, maybe surgery and cost tens of thousands of dollars, compared with today’s cost of a bottle of cloramphenicol and a brief fever.

We spend billions on halfway technology – surgeries, transplants, artificial organs, chemotherapy – and the only way to achieve high technology is to truly understand the mechanisms of disease and translate that into treatment.  The health care bill has something there too.

First, the Cures Acceleration Network is created to speed the translation and application of promising biomedical research into treatment.  Second, it establishes a new center for comparative effectiveness research to assess different drugs and treatments.  Together, these provisions may help get us to the high technology of medicine faster.

The cost question is a serious one.  Despite the criticisms, these measures and other cost containment provisions, are serious attempts to bend the curve.  Do you think it can work?

Posted on March 24th 2010 in news

No way to run…well, anything

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Ezra recently drew my attention to the fact that there have been an obscene amount of legislative “holds” during this administration.  They pretty much do exactly what they say, hold up the legislative process.  David Waldman explains:

In the Senate, the normal mode of bringing something to the floor is by unanimous consent [...] [The hold is] an indication to the Majority Leader, whose job it is to keep the schedule moving, that a Senator will, if necessary, object to a unanimous consent request to bring the bill to the floor.

[...] But if you don’t have such an agreement, then everything’s under the Senate’s very open debate rules, including the possibility of a filibuster. If the Senate agrees to a unanimous consent agreement limiting debate time before bringing a bill to the floor, it can’t be filibustered after that [...] So if one Senator says he’ll object to a unanimous consent agreement, it’s also an implied signal that if the Majority Leader brings the bill to the floor anyway, the objecting Senator may filibuster.

And these are not just minor positions.  The list of appointees that have been or continue to be held up include the commanding officer of Afghan forces, the Ambassador to Iraq, the head of the Office of Legal Counsel, and various treasury and Homeland Security officials.

Can you possibly imagine running any organization whereby any employee could invoke procedural holds on the executive’s ability to hire people?

No.  You can’t, because any reasonable organization respects the executive authority of an appointed leader.  Boards can obviously exhibit some oversight and fire CEOs, but they mostly defer to the leader’s judgement while they are in the process of executing their strategy.  That’s why they call them executives.

But in Congress, senators like Richard Shelby can grind whole sectors of an administration to a halt just to get a little federal pork for their states.  To get around it, Presidents can make recess appointments, or threaten to, but there’s always political ramifications.  To get a glimpse of the dysfunction, check out this Washington Post interactive graphic that lets you track Obama’s federal appointments.

Yes, we truly value our system of checks and balances, but it’s an absurd proposition that the legislature can impede basic government functions on a whim.  Why then would we even bother having an executive branch?

Posted on February 23rd 2010 in news
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