Two Californias

Monday, December 20th, 2010

Three times a week for three weeks, Victor Davis Hanson rode his bike 20 miles on rural roads in southwestern Fresno County, where he saw two Californias:

On the western side of the Central Valley, the effects of arbitrary cutoffs in federal irrigation water have idled tens of thousands of acres of prime agricultural land, leaving thousands unemployed. Manufacturing plants in the towns in these areas — which used to make harvesters, hydraulic lifts, trailers, food-processing equipment — have largely shut down; their production has been shipped off overseas or south of the border. Agriculture itself — from almonds to raisins — has increasingly become corporatized and mechanized, cutting by half the number of farm workers needed. So unemployment runs somewhere between 15 and 20 percent.

Many of the rural trailer-house compounds I saw appear to the naked eye no different from what I have seen in the Third World. There is a Caribbean look to the junked cars, electric wires crisscrossing between various outbuildings, plastic tarps substituting for replacement shingles, lean-tos cobbled together as auxiliary housing, pit bulls unleashed, and geese, goats, and chickens roaming around the yards. The public hears about all sorts of tough California regulations that stymie business — rigid zoning laws, strict building codes, constant inspections — but apparently none of that applies out here.

It is almost as if the more California regulates, the more it does not regulate. Its public employees prefer to go after misdemeanors in the upscale areas to justify our expensive oversight industry, while ignoring the felonies in the downtrodden areas, which are becoming feral and beyond the ability of any inspector to do anything but feel irrelevant. But in the regulators’ defense, where would one get the money to redo an ad hoc trailer park with a spider web of illegal bare wires?

Many of the rented-out rural shacks and stationary Winnebagos are on former small farms — the vineyards overgrown with weeds, or torn out with the ground lying fallow. I pass on the cultural consequences to communities from the loss of thousands of small farming families. I don’t think I can remember another time when so many acres in the eastern part of the valley have gone out of production, even though farm prices have recently rebounded. Apparently it is simply not worth the gamble of investing $7,000 to $10,000 an acre in a new orchard or vineyard. What an anomaly — with suddenly soaring farm prices, still we have thousands of acres in the world’s richest agricultural belt, with available water on the east side of the valley and plentiful labor, gone idle or in disuse. Is credit frozen? Are there simply no more farmers? Are the schools so bad as to scare away potential agricultural entrepreneurs? Or are we all terrified by the national debt and uncertain future?

California coastal elites may worry about the oxygen content of water available to a three-inch smelt in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, but they seem to have no interest in the epidemic dumping of trash, furniture, and often toxic substances throughout California’s rural hinterland. Yesterday, for example, I rode my bike by a stopped van just as the occupants tossed seven plastic bags of raw refuse onto the side of the road. I rode up near their bumper and said in my broken Spanish not to throw garbage onto the public road. But there were three of them, and one of me. So I was lucky to be sworn at only. I note in passing that I would not drive into Mexico and, as a guest, dare to pull over and throw seven bags of trash into the environment of my host.

In fact, trash piles are commonplace out here — composed of everything from half-empty paint cans and children’s plastic toys to diapers and moldy food. I have never seen a rural sheriff cite a litterer, or witnessed state EPA workers cleaning up these unauthorized wastelands. So I would suggest to Bay Area scientists that the environment is taking a much harder beating down here in central California than it is in the Delta. Perhaps before we cut off more irrigation water to the west side of the valley, we might invest some green dollars into cleaning up the unsightly and sometimes dangerous garbage that now litters the outskirts of our rural communities.

We hear about the tough small-business regulations that have driven residents out of the state, at the rate of 2,000 to 3,000 a week. But from my unscientific observations these past weeks, it seems rather easy to open a small business in California without any oversight at all, or at least what I might call a “counter business.” I counted eleven mobile hot-kitchen trucks that simply park by the side of the road, spread about some plastic chairs, pull down a tarp canopy, and, presto, become mini-restaurants. There are no “facilities” such as toilets or washrooms. But I do frequently see lard trails on the isolated roads I bike on, where trucks apparently have simply opened their draining tanks and sped on, leaving a slick of cooking fats and oils. Crows and ground squirrels love them; they can be seen from a distance mysteriously occupied in the middle of the road.

At crossroads, peddlers in a counter-California economy sell almost anything. Here is what I noticed at an intersection on the west side last week: shovels, rakes, hoes, gas pumps, lawnmowers, edgers, blowers, jackets, gloves, and caps. The merchandise was all new. I doubt whether in high-tax California sales taxes or income taxes were paid on any of these stop-and-go transactions.

In two supermarkets 50 miles apart, I was the only one in line who did not pay with a social-service plastic card (gone are the days when “food stamps” were embarrassing bulky coupons). But I did not see any relationship between the use of the card and poverty as we once knew it: The electrical appurtenances owned by the user and the car into which the groceries were loaded were indistinguishable from those of the upper middle class.

By that I mean that most consumers drove late-model Camrys, Accords, or Tauruses, had iPhones, Bluetooths, or BlackBerries, and bought everything in the store with public-assistance credit.

$6 Billion, Per Year

Monday, December 20th, 2010

So, how much will NATO’s “enduring commitment” to Afghanistan cost, once combat troops depart? Oh, $6 billion, per year:

Right now, the plan is to build up a force of 305,000 soldiers and police by next October, up from the 250,000 that NATO’s currently got in uniform. U.S. taxpayers have financed that force, paying $9.2 billion during 2010, and the Obama administration wants Congress to provide another $11.6 billion for them in the spending bill currently before Congress. That money doesn’t just help pay troops’ salaries. It purchases all the gear they need, like the Ford Rangers, armored Humvees, and Russian MI-17 helicopters they use for transport.

Col. John Ferrari, the deputy commander for programs at NATO’s training mission, estimates that “sustainment” for the Afghan forces will cost $6 billion annually — at least. In response to a question from Danger Room on a blogger conference call Thursday, Ferrari said that those costs include “fuel, repair parts, salaries, uniforms, individual solider equipment,” as well as $300 to $400 million per year for “capital equipment.” And that’s if the Obama administration and NATO decides early next year that 300,000 soldiers and cops are enough. If not, then NATO will need more cash from Congress to fund the plus-up — and, presumably, sustainment costs will accordingly rise.

To put that number in context, the CIA estimates Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is around $27 billion. Keeping soldiers and police fed, clothed, billeted, armed and equipped, realistically, will be a job for international donors for the foreseeable future.

I love this undestatement:

It’s worth noting that some security experts believe that injecting large amounts of foreign cash into Afghanistan’s tiny economy contributes to its economic and corruption woes.

The Darker Side of Christmas

Monday, December 20th, 2010

I don’t know anyone who actually received a lump of coal for Christmas. I imagine it would be quite traumatizing — for an American child. Naughty children in Austria and Hungary have something more to fear — the Krampus:

These demonic Christmas cryptids, along with a wide variety of other nefarious aides and companions, have accompanied Saint Nicholas on his gift-giving journeys in the Central and Eastern European Alps for hundreds of years. Cloven feet aside, these monstrous figures (really local youths with a love for tradition, with some casual sadism thrown in) are quite frightening to see, brandishing chains, whips, and switches at the townsfolk.

According to Der Spiegel, “On December 5, the day before St. Nicholas arrives with his sack of gifts, local men dress up in goat and sheep skins, wearing elaborate hand-carved masks. They make the rounds of village houses with children. When the kids open the door, they’re frightened by Krampus-clad men waving switches at them and ringing loud cowbells. In some towns, kids are made to run a Krampus-gauntlet, dodging swats from tree branches.”

Still Gripped by the Ideal of the Princess

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

Virginia Postrel notes that we’re still gripped by the ideal of the princess:

The United States has been a republic for more than two centuries. We aren’t supposed to have princesses. Yet the archetype remains both persistent and profitable.

Princesses are everywhere: under the tree at Christmas and on the sidewalks at Halloween, atop birthday cakes and in videogames, on bedspreads and in perfume ads. They provide themes for baby showers, quinceañeras, even weddings. The phrase “every little girl dreams of being a princess” generates more than 300,000 Google matches, only a few of which concern Kate Middleton’s impending marriage to Britain’s Prince William.

“Princess” is not just a royal title. It’s a powerful, and popular, ideal.

When the Los Angeles Times recently reported that Disney was swearing off new animated princess films, the fan outcry was so great that Pixar Animation chief Ed Catmull quickly issued a retraction on Facebook, vaguely promising great stuff to come. Whether it turns out to be the last or merely the latest Disney princess movie, “Tangled,” which opened Nov. 24, is an indisputable hit. Going into this weekend, the retelling of “Rapunzel” had rung up nearly $194 million in world-wide ticket sales.

Why, in a society without princesses, does this archetype remain so strong?

A princess is pretty, rich, beautifully dressed, loved, happy and, above all, special. She represents escape from the constraints of even the most bountiful childhood. Erstwhile princess Sarah Constantin, now working toward her Ph.D. in mathematics at Yale University (a classic girly pursuit), recalls the joys of imagining a “‘dream dress’ that was every color of the rainbow and had opals in the shape of morning glories” and reigning over Sarahland. There, she says, “I was a benevolent ruler, but here on earth I had to do what I was told, and (worse?) wear overalls.” The princess archetype embodies a feminine version of the appeal Michael Chabon in his novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” ascribes to superheroes. They express the “lust for power and the gaudy sartorial taste of a race of powerless people with no leave to dress themselves.” (Wonder Woman is both superhero and princess.)


Sunday, December 19th, 2010

Until the modern era, courts had little power to enforce their authority, so they instead declared criminals outlaws:

When it was originally imposed in the Middle Ages, a sentence of outlawry was essentially a death sentence that the court did not believe it could immediately enforce, largely because the person was nowhere to be found. An outlaw was a person whom it was illegal to give any food or shelter, and whom it was legal to kill on sight as one might a wild animal. The pronouncement caput gerat lupinum, “Let his be a wolf’s head” (gotta be a lycanthropy storyline in there somewhere) set someone outside the bounds of civilized society. The theory was that a person who failed to show up to answer a felony charge was admitting their guilt.

Still, by the modern period, the definition of outlawry had shifted somewhat. Sir William Blackstone, perhaps the most famous English jurist in history, had already observed by the late-eighteenth century that while outlawry was still a potential sentence for criminals, it no longer permitted an outlaw to be killed at will. Rather, it permitted anyone to arrest them for prosecution and retained the penalties for aiding an outlaw.

The spread of civilization and thus of court authority reduced the need for declaring someone an outlaw, but a world full of supervillains might still see the need:

If the Joker is threatening to drop a bus full of school kids off a bridge, yeah, Batman can do whatever, because deadly force is justified in preventing the deaths of others. But if the Joker is between capers, private actors, like most superheros, can’t go after them without exposing themselves to civil and criminal liability for wrongful death, impersonating an officer, false imprisonment, excessive force, etc. But if the supervillain were declared to be an outlaw, hey, all bets are off. Go nuts.

Of course, the whole notion of outlawry is completely incompatible with modern concepts of due process:

For starters, declaring someone guilty because they failed to show up for trial violates just about every procedural standard it is possible to name, chief of which is the presumption of innocence, an important civil right enshrined in Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432 (1895), which held: “The principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.”

So that’s probably out. But trial in absentia is probably out too, at least without some changes being made to the law. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 43 requires the presence of the criminal defendant, and Crosby v. United States, 506 U.S. 255 (1993) makes it pretty clear that a criminal who is arrested but escapes or absconds before trial cannot be proceeded against until he appears in court. It may be possible that a trial might be permitted to continue if a defendant is there at the beginning and then voluntarily leaves (see United States v. Lawrence, 161 F.3d 250 (4th Cir. 1998)), but simply bringing charges against someone and going to trial without them would probably not be permitted under current law.

Still, if I were the prosecutor, I’d make the argument that a supervillain that law enforcement is unable to apprehend but who damn well knows about the prosecution is a different case than your standard, underprivileged, uneducated, minority offender that the legal system is right to try to protect from being railroaded or lynched inside the courthouse. One might even limit the definition of “supervillain” to “one who possesses powers or abilities so far in excess of ordinary human beings that forcefully apprehending them would either be impossible or almost certainly cause significant loss of innocent life.”* This might constitute a violation of equal protection, but there’s a good case to be made that such an approach would survive strict scrutiny, in that it is 1) directed at a compelling governmental interest, 2) narrowly tailored, and 3) the least restrictive means of accomplishing said interest. Given that a challenge of this sort would probably be first attempted against a notorious villain the cops are unable to apprehend, and that a sentence of outlawry would manifestly assist both superheros and traditional law enforcement in their efforts against said villain, the pressure to find some way of carving out an exception would be pretty significant. Then again, hard cases make bad law, so whether or not this is a good thing remains to be seen.

One cynical commenter notes that slapping the terrorist label of a super-villain should be close enough to declaring them outlaw.

Populism, Factional Interests, and Institutional Expertise

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

The problem with the American healthcare system is entropy, Devin Finbarr says — but he’s talking about much more than health care:

Three forces shape the actions of American government: populism, factional interests, and institutional expertise. Populism is generally Republican: Sarah Palin, talk radio, Ron Paul, mega churches and tea parties. Institutional expertise is generally Democratic: civil servants, universities, NPR, the NY Times, MSM, the Hill staff, and the original Brain Trust. Factional interests are cross-partisian: the AMA, the AARP, nurse unions, big insurance companies, Wall St. banks, etc.

Let’s examine how each force will react to Plan Finbarr.

We’ll start with the institutional experts. The selection process for any official agency ( universities, civil service, NY Times) rewards thinkers who stay close to progressive thinking. People who believe in changing the world via markets do a startup or go into business. People who believe that policy should be managed by a caste of experts go into the official institutions. These people tend to select people who think like themselves as successors. Thus progressive/institutional thinkers rarely generate creative, market oriented solutions as Plan Finbarr. Instead too many official experts busy themselves with proving that the free market cannot work and singing the glories of a European style plan (while somehow leaving out market oriented Singapore).

Plan Finbarr is a simple plan. It has few roles for commissions, agencies, departments, etc. It aims to set a few basic rules that align incentives properly, and then takes a hands off approach. Plan Finbarr wipes out Medicare and Medicaid as they exist. These are deeply rooted Washington programs. Bureaucracies do not commit hari kari. Any simplification or consolidation eliminates both jobs and power for official experts. All the permanent Washington staff operate in a world where these agencies are taken for granted. To abolish them would be unthinkable.

The “populist” forces are either dumb, fickle, impatient, or both. Or at least the people who make noises around election time are both. The populists are the ones uttering phrases like the now famous “I don’t want government involved with my Medicare”. In general, Plan Finbarr will be a huge benefit to the people. The silent majority — not the experts or the interests — are the main constituents and beneficiaries of the program. But the problem is that the wrenching change happens first, and the benefits only come later. Some, especially seniors, will lose out at the beginning (after the payments are cut, but before the costs have fallen). Mishaps will happen in transition. Those mishaps will be exploited by any partisan opponent. The benefits will only be obvious five or ten years later. But by that time, the people who created the plan will have been voted out of office.

Every so often the popular web site dramatically changes its interface. The moment it comes out, people hate it. For weeks they gripe and moan. The management assumes the air of Frederick the Great and says, “They are to say what they please, and I am to do what I please.” With time the users grow used to it, and enjoy it more than ever. Political decision making cannot operate the same way. The Congressman who votes for Plan Finbarr will likely not make it past the next midterm.

Finally, we get to the factional interests. Any successful plan to reform healthcare by definition will reduce costs. But every cost is another person’s income. Plan Finbarr aims to cut healthcare costs by half. The healthcare industry will lose out over $700 billion a year. Obviously, they will not be happy. The insurance companies, doctor’s association, nurses unions, pharmaceuticals, big city hospitals will all join forces to fight the plan to the death. They will spread FUD (“Plan Finbarr allows tax payer money to be spent on witch doctors!”), spam Congressmen with issue papers, and threaten to throw their vote as a block to eject any politician who supports the plan. Some Congressmen will break out of fear. Others will break because the lobbyists convince him. In American politics, the concentrated interest always defeats the general interest. The concentrated always knows what’s at stake. The general interest is disorganized and deceived.

Neither the institutions nor the factions are malevolent or stupid. The experts do not wear hooded black robes and jealously guard their power. Rather there is a selection effect within each agency that rewards people who believe in the mission of that agency. The experts would all sincerely believe that Plan Finbarr would cut essential agencies and lead to ruin. Likewise, the factions do not cackle and laugh as they count the coins they rob from the American people. Rather they simply view it as their job to represent their own constituents in Congress. They believe that if all sides represent themselves, what comes out is a reasonably acceptable balance.

Entropy is the Enemy

There is one commonality among all three forces. All oppose entropy reducing changes. The institutional experts oppose entropy-reduction because it would require cutting jobs and consolidating power. The populists oppose it because the downsides of change hurt more than the upside in the short run. The factions oppose it because it will cost them money.

The Obama plan is all entropy increasing — it adds another commission, more money, and more regulations. Virtually every proposal, from either the right or left, that has ever gotten anywhere in Congress has increased entropy. The key difference between the American system and the European systems is not that the European system is government run and the American system is a “free market”. The difference is that the American system is far older and has more entropy. With every incremental reform, entropy increases, the system becomes more complex, the layer of legislative gray goo grows thicker. The ratchet never turns in reverse.

In 21st century American policy, only one final question matters. How can entropy be reversed?

Little Kal-El in Slumberland

Saturday, December 18th, 2010

In Superman Villains: Secret Files and Origins #1 (1998), Stuart Immonen decided to tell the origin stories of Superman’s rogues gallery by way of Lex Luthor telling fairy tales to his infant daughter Lena — all in the style of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland:

(Hat tip to Boing Boing.)

Supervillain Real Estate

Saturday, December 18th, 2010

The options for supervillain real estate look shockingly similar to the options for a libertarian state:

I. Unclaimed Land

You may be surprised to learn that there are a (very) few places left on Earth that are unclaimed by any sovereign nation. Perhaps the most reasonable is Bir Tawil, a 770 square mile stretch of desert between the borders of Egypt and Sudan. There isn’t a whole lot there, but at least it’s relatively close to more interesting places, and the neighbors are probably too concerned with their own problems to care about a supervillain moving in next door.

The other major possibility is Marie Byrd Land, which is part of Antarctica. At over 620,000 square miles it’s comparable in size to Mongolia or Iran and would be the 19th largest country in the world if it were one. While no countries lay claim to this land, the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 expressly prohibits “any measure of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications.” Although a supervillain, as a private entity, would not be bound by the treaty, that language might provide the basis for joint military action to oust a supervillain operating out of Antarctica. The treaty does state that “Antarctica…shall not become the scene or object of international discord,” but it is doubtful that such language would give the signatory nations much pause before launching the cruise missiles.

A third possibility is purchasing an island from a sovereign nation, but it may be difficult to convince the owner to give up all claim to the island. Ordinarily private islands like Richard Branson’s Necker Island still remain the sovereign territory of a nation (in that case the British Virgin Islands). But there are many impoverished island nations, and an enterprising supervillain may attempt to strike a Faustian bargain for sovereign territory.

Unfortunately, being stuck on land makes a supervillain an easy target, and unless the supervillain can gain international recognition and thus sovereign status, the base is likely to be attacked without legal repercussions. The main benefits here would be isolation and a lack of direct government oversight, not a legal shield against reprisal.
II. The High Seas

If no land is available or if mobility is a concern, then a supervillain can consider the oceans. The primary governing treaty is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This gives some freedoms, including the right to build artificial constructs, but it also prohibits claims of sovereign territory, so a supervillain probably could not create a new floating nation. Still, as long as he avoided making territorial claims, there doesn’t seem to be any legal reason that a sufficiently large floating construct couldn’t just sail around forever.
But there are other problems for a seafaring supervillain, most particularly the lack of a national flag (presuming that a supervillain would not long be able to fly even a flag of convenience). Article 110 provides that a warship may board a foreign ship on the high seas if “there is reasonable ground for suspecting that…the ship is without nationality.”
III. Outer Space

Outer space probably represents the best bet for a supervillain. Although the supervillain and his or her base would not have much in the way of direct legal protections in space or on the Moon, he or she would be protected indirectly by the Outer Space Treaty. The OST bans placing “in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install[ing] such weapons on celestial bodies, or station[ing] such weapons in outer space in any other manner.”

Other options include hiding within a population center, becoming the ruler of a sovereign nation or, as a variant of the high-seas option, building a hidden under-water base.

The Perfect Healthcare Plan

Saturday, December 18th, 2010

Devin Finbarr suggests the perfect healthcare plan:

The easiest solution is to hire the folks managing Singapore’s healthcare system. Give them free rein to redesign the American healthcare system from scratch. Then implement the plan exactly. Singapore’s system is the best in the world, they spend 1/4 what we spend in America yet live 4 years longer and have the same infant mortality. [1]

Well, that’s just the easy solution. The harder solution has a number of elements, but this one jumped out at me:

[Any insurance company] must have a strict, pre-defined separation between profits and reimbursements. So the company must declare up front, “We contractually guarantee that 75% of all premiums are allocated towards reimbursement, while all administration, marketing costs, and profits must come out of the other 25%” This separation eliminates the conflict of interest that exists with most insurance companies. The insurance company does not profit by denying you care, because it must spend the money on reimbursement anyway.

Most Young Children Consume Caffeine Each Day

Friday, December 17th, 2010

Most young children consume caffeine daily:

A new U.S. study finds that 75 percent of children consume caffeine daily, largely through sodas. And the more caffeine they consumed, the less they slept.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center surveyed the parents of more than 200 children, aged 5 to 12, during routine clinical visits at a pediatric clinic. The parents were asked about the types and amounts of snacks consumed by their children each day.

Children between the ages of 8 and 12 took in an average of 109 milligrams of caffeine a day, the equivalent of 3 12-ounce cans of soda. While younger children consumed less caffeine, some as young as 5 had the equivalent of a can of soda a day.

Cringely Hates Homework

Friday, December 17th, 2010

Bob Cringely is shocked and appalled by the amount of homework — busywork, really — assigned to his 8-year-old son, Channing:

When I was Channing’s age, 50 years ago, my parents’ attitude was one of benign neglect. They were busy doing whatever parents did back then (drinking and smoking cigarettes, mainly), but it sure didn’t include helping me with my homework. Somehow my siblings and I survived just fine. Yet today we’re supposedly faced with plummeting test scores and surging dropout rates despite whole generations of parents slaving away every night on homework. What gives?

His point goes beyond education: Public officials don’t like good news:

Well one thing that gives is something I learned during my many years experiencing droughts in California: public officials don’t like good news, seeing it as un-motivating. If we had a dry year it was bad, they’d explain, because there wouldn’t be enough snowmelt, the reservoirs would be down but, most importantly, the forests and grasslands would be tinder-dry, increasing the danger of forest and wild fires. But if we had the occasional rainy year their line changed. Now the reservoirs were full (though that could change in a moment so don’t take any extra showers) but the extra snowmelt meant extra forest and grassland growth creating more combustible material making forest and wild fires even more likely. No matter what happened it was bad according to these guys because they didn’t want to ever give up the chance to preach down to us. They were determined to remove whatever joy there was in life.

Same thing in education. We aren’t as good as we used to be and that’s going to have a major impact on, well, everything. So the answer is always more resources, more testing, more consultants. Oh but no more art or music — those are too expensive.

Frankly I’m not sure any longer exactly what is the truth. Things might be getting better or worse, I don’t know. But I know I don’t generally trust the idiots who are telling me what to worry about.

As an aside, he notes that this is about educating the masses, not keeping Silicon Valley competitive:

The distinction between those two concepts is lost on a lot of folks but I have been pointing out for the last 20 years that most of the top technical work comes from an incredibly small number of people. Xerox PARC changed the world, remember, in 3-4 years with fewer than 100 people, defining back in 1973 pretty much our computing world of today. The Bob Metcalfes and John Warnocks aren’t affected by any of this educational policy BS.

Is Batman a State Actor?

Friday, December 17th, 2010

Is Batman a State Actor?

In Batman’s case, Commissioner Gordon is certainly a person for whom the State is responsible, and Batman often acts together with Gordon and obtains significant aid from Gordon in the form of information and evidence. Batman’s conduct is also otherwise chargeable to the State because the Gotham Police Department has worked with Batman on numerous occasions (and thus knows his methods) and operates the Bat Signal, expressly invoking Batman’s assistance in a traditionally public function. This suggests state action under the public function theory: “when private individuals or groups are endowed by the State with powers or functions governmental in nature, they become agencies or instrumentalities of the State and subject to its constitutional limitations.” Evans v. Newton, 382 U.S. 296, 299 (1966).

In the real world, this would cause significant problems for Batman and Gotham. Batman’s rough and tumble style would lead to a rash of Section 1983 claims for damages and probably also for an injunction against Batman’s future cooperation in police investigations. As discussed earlier, most evidence that Batman collects would be inadmissible, and police use of that evidence might bar the use of additional evidence collected during a subsequent police investigation.

Now, clearly none of this is the case, so there are three possibilities. Either all of the criminals in Gotham have incompetent attorneys, the state action doctrine in the DC universe is weaker than it is in the real world, or Gordon has actually managed to keep his reliance on Batman a secret. I’m going to opt for the second explanation. Superheroes like Batman are simply too effective for a court to shackle them with the Constitutional limitations of the state, especially with supervillains running around. Perhaps the DC universe courts have developed a public emergency or necessity exception to the state action doctrine whereby private individuals pressed into public service in an emergency are not held to the same standards as ordinary state actors.

One Part Socialist, Three Parts Guild and Cartel

Friday, December 17th, 2010

Devin Finbarr reiterates that the United States healthcare system is not a free market:

Those who call it a free market, lie (well, more likely they are just deluded). The American system is one part socialist and three parts guild and cartel. There is no laissez faire to be found this side of homeopathy. Medical companies and associations have government endowed privileges, rights, and monopolies. For example:

  • The AMA has put strict limits on the number of doctors allowed to graduate each year. The American population has grown by ~40% in the last thirty years, yet the number of graduates has remained flat. Doctors have the monopoly privilege of dispensing certain kinds of life saving elixirs and procedures. The supply cap generates a huge transfer of wealth to the doctors and the medical schools. Worse, in America Medical school comes on top of four years of college, which drives the price of creating new doctors far above the cost in other countries.
  • “Certificate of Need” laws prevent hospitals from adding new MRI machines. Big urban hospitals lobby Congress to ban startup specialist hospitals. Hospitals lobby cities to ban low cost, Walmart-style walk-in clinics.
  • A web of regulations grants privileges to existing insurance companies and make it very hard to compete. Laws prevent health insurance companies from competing across state lines. Government tax breaks and approval processes favor incumbents. Hospitals give discounts to big insurers and charge people paying out of pocket multiples more.
  • Many states have mandates that require insurance companies to cover certain treatments. Yet numerous studies have shown that a large amount of healthcare simply has no value-add. A RAND study that compared people who had everything paid for versus people who had to pay for care out of pocket, showed that the people paying out of pocket consumed half as much care, yet had the same health. Cross country comparisons show that Singapore spends one quarter per capita what America spends, yet they live longer. Mandated treatment simply forces higher premiums to cover care people do not need.

The supply restrictions and mandates react negatively when combined with irresponsible government spending. The U.S. Government spends ~7% of GDP on healthcare. This is comparable to many other developed countries with single payer or socialized care. Yet that level of spending only manages to cover 25% of the population. Even if the non-government sector operated with Singapore-like efficiency, that would still push total spending up to 10% of GDP. But when you add the supply caps the large amount of government spending simply drives up the cost of care. The other 75% of the population must then buy care at a price that has been bid up by Medicare, and they must buy more than they want, thanks to mandatory coverage laws.

Air Force to Share Its Info on Planet-Flattening Meteorites

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

Planet-altering meteorites were once thought quite rare:

Then came the Cold War. The U.S. Air Force filled Earth orbit with sophisticated satellites meant to spot nuclear tests and missile launches. The satellites, it turned out, were also quite good at detecting the explosions — the official term is “bolide” — of meteorites like that over Tunguska. We now know they occur as frequently as several times a year. Over the decades, the military has periodically released brief reports on bolides and the other effects of so-called Near-Earth Objects. Today, for the first time, the Air Force is considering openly sharing this vital intel in a systematic way.

There are clear scientific reasons for better data-sharing. “From past experience working with U.S. government satellite data, the information provided is unmatched by any other data source and allows scientific analyses which are otherwise impossible,” Peter Brown told But never mind all that. Planet Earth’s safety is at stake. This isn’t national security. It’s global security. “Data from NEO air-burst events observed by the U.S. Department of Defense satellites should be made available to the scientific community to allow it to improve understanding of the NEO hazards to Earth,” stated a report from the National Research Council.

The Air Force anticipates sharing a range of data on bolides, including: date, time, location and altitude of the explosion, meteorite velocity and total radiated energy of the blast. The trick, from the Air Force’s point of view, is sharing info without giving away the capabilities of its most secret satellites.

Maverick Flying Car

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

Steve Saint of I-TEC drove his street-legal Maverick flying car from Florida to Oshkosh this summer:

(Hat tip à mon père.)