Filibuster Reform

Every day I’m blusterin’

Good post on from the Monkey Cage describing how the Senate will function in the future:

 Short version: A Senate majority banned filibusters of executive and judicial branch (save the Supreme Court) nominees.  Majorities now need a majority– not a supermajority– to bring the Senate to confirmation vote.  Long version: Senate majority set a new precedent (by majority vote) that reinterprets the chamber’s cloture rule to require only a majority to invoke cloture (cut off debate) on nominations rather than requiring 60 votes.  So, what changed? The number of votes required to cut off debate on nominations.  (Confirmation votes have always been by majority vote.)

More on Scientific Realism

My last post ended on a note that deserves more explanation.

Scientific realism is the view that science describes the world as it actually is (or approximately as it is, for weak forms of scientific realism). There are however, some criticisms of this view.

The first is underdetermination. When multiple, conflicting theories are all consistent with the data, there is no evidence for believing one theory over another. And since they conflict, they cannot both be true.

The next is known as “skepticism about inference to the best explanation”. It builds off of a possible realist response to underdetermination: It’s fine if multiple theories are consistent with the data, since one will explain the data better, meaning that it is true.

One problem with that approach is defining what characteristics make one explanation better than the other. Another, is do those characteristics make one theory more true than another?

A third is the pessimistic induction, which takes a different view. Consider all past scientific theories that have been replaced. The past theories must be considered false in the present. So what’s to say that in the future, we won’t be saying the same thing about current theories?

Each of these arguments sheds some doubt on the view that science describes truth. And yet, scientists mostly go ahead under the assumption that it does. In truth, whether or not science describes the universe as it actually is doesn’t matter to the practice of scientists. Whether or not theories are true, they are enormously successful in allowing us to build things that we couldn’t dream of even 100 years ago.



Commutes and Apathy

I am not surprised that commutes increase political apathy . I had a ~40 minute commute to and from work (so around 80 total), and getting home meant spending upwards of an hour sitting there before I could summon up the energy to go to the gym.

Same thing at my previous-previous job (~90 minutes one way), even when I was riding a bus and alternately napping/reading/surfing the web.

Long commutes just suck, in general.

Faith and Truth in Science

These two articles are a pretty interesting juxtaposition. The first, from Slate, takes on the argument that faith is compatible with science:

The conflation of faith as “unevidenced belief” with faith as “justified confidence” is simply a word trick used to buttress religion. In fact, you’ll never hear a scientist saying, “I have faith in evolution” or “I have faith in electrons.” Not only is such language alien to us, but we know full well how those words can be misused in the name of religion.

 It mainly argues on semantic grounds, that the way science uses faith is different from the faith of religion. It’s an argument that should be made, since from my perspective, they address different questions, and attempts to make religion answer questions of “what is” is foolhardy.
But, I do think Coyne glosses over some sticky questions when he says this:
The constant scrutiny of our peers ensures that science is largely self-correcting, so that we really can approach the truth about our universe.
It’s an open question whether science is actually truth seeking or not (second link):
But it is important to guard against the notion, so often merely assumed by working scientists but occasionally trumpeted affirmatively by certain mouthpieces thereof, that the instrumental effectiveness of particular sciences provides prima facie proof that their underlying theories correctly describe the underlying reality of the world they purport to.
Whether science is or isn’t approaching the truth about our universe is an open question. For science to describe the nature of the universe truthfully, it would have to answer questions that are taken for granted in the course of normal scientific work.
But science is not immune to the challenges of representation and interpretation which all human attempts to discover and describe the nature of reality are subject to. Science cannot finesse the influences and distortions which its practice by real human beings in real social contexts impose on it. Science cannot evade the problems of justification raised by choices driven more by aesthetics and intellectual convenience—like the preference for theories which are beautiful or which satisfy Occam’s Razor—rather than any a priori necessity. Science possesses no special defenses against the radical skepticism which calls into question our very relation to the world and each other. Science, in other words, does not hold a privileged position outside the core intellectual puzzles of human cognition and relation to reality.
All of this isn’t to say that science isn’t useful, or unsuccessful. So much of what we can do today is because of science.
But there’s a leap of faith that takes place when you say science describes the truth about the universe.

Radical Center

This is a different take on the Radical Center than I’ve seen before. Basically the idea is that along the two political dimensions (economic, social), people are moderate on one, but extreme on the other, and there’s no way to encompass all of them enough to make a centrist third-party.

Earlier articles I’ve read and posted about were more along the lines of people in the center remaining at some midpoint between the two parties no matter how the parties’ position moved. Not really related at all, other than the label.

Single Payer in the States

With all the news about the healthcare reform implementation on the federal level, I wanted to check up on the couple of states that were going to/had passed single payer implementations.

California: I thought it got passed into law, but it turns out it was passed twice in the legislature and twice vetoed by then Gov. Schwarzenegger. And with Democratic supermajorities and a Democratic governor… nothing. From the article it seems like one of the main reasons is the California Nurses Association isn’t pushing for it now for tactical reasons (they believe it will go through ballots for repeal anyway, so they have to fight it there). So California is leading the states with Obamacare, but no longer with single payer.

That leaves Vermont. Single payer is law in the state, but won’t be implemented until ~2017. Looks like Vermont is focusing on its exchange, and it also needs a waiver from the Federal government and to raise funds.

So it won’t be for a while now, but there’s at least one state that will have single payer. It won’t be “true” single payer, as private insurers can still insure, but it’ll be as close as you can get with that caveat.

Minimum Income

I’m really interested in following what happens with Switzerland’s guaranteed minimum income  initiative. It seems like a really clean way to both shrink government bureaucracy and still keep the welfare state alive, and if set right, flourishing.

I do wonder if something like that will become mandatory in the future. With Labor losing its share of the pie to Capital (robots and computers and AI learning replacing much of the jobs humans have to do, among other things), are we going to hit a point where so many people aren’t getting paid enough that something like this will start to look like really attractive policy?

Ukraine and Russia

Ukraine is strongly considering signing an Association Agreement with the EU, moving it toward Europe and away from Russia. I thought in the latest election that Ukraine elected a more Russia friendly government, but I guess I was mistaken…

Per this story, this is not just a sign of failure in Russian foreign policy, but the Russian national story begins in Kiev, with the Kievan Rus, and having the center of your national story move away from you in a Geopolitical sense has to sting.

I wonder if there’s any thought to Russia somehow doing to Ukraine what it did to Georgia? I don’t know of any separatist movements in Ukraine, so as far as I know, that’s a pretty far-fetched idea.

edit: Just checked Wikipedia, and while Ukraine does have separatists movements, and well:

The Ukrainian nationalist Svoboda Party responded by releasing the following statement: “Zakarpattian separatists led by Moscow Patriarchatepriest Sidor are issuing an ultimatum to the Ukrainian authorities today. Tomorrow, armed with Russian passports and money from the Kremlin, they will implement the ‘Georgian scenario’ in Ukraine.”

So, not a far-fetched idea.

Edit 2:

And, maybe the Association Agreement isn’t happening?

More thoughts on International Libertarianism

So I was brainstorming yesterday, and I came up with the following countries that, much like the US, haven’t been through an event such as World War 2 where the infrastructure was damaged so much that the government should provide more for the common good than it otherwise would have.  The list is:

  • Canada
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • South Africa

There’s probably a lot more I could look at, but that seems like a good list to start from.

Origins of the Modern Welfare State

This, from Ta-Nehisi Coates,  on the origins of the welfare state in Western Europe:

I am coming at this as a total amateur and a total American whose exposure to the post-war narrative was something like—”The Germans learned their lesson and everyone (in the West, because no one talks about the East) resumed their status as upstanding white people.” Somewhere in there I knew something about the Marshall Plan. But whereas the narratives which nations tell themselves so often have a moral component, Judt is giving us something less flattering and more atheistic. Even Europe’s great achievement—a broad strong social safety net—seems inseparable from the barbarism from which it had just been plunged. A safety net (often means-tested) existed in Europe before the War, but there was not the same sense that a state should be a comprehensive guarantor of the health and happiness of its people:

It was the war that changed all this. Just as World War One had precipitated legislation and social provisions in its wake—if only to deal with the widows, orphans, invalids and unemployed of the immediate post-war years—so the Second World War transformed both the role of the modern state and the expectations placed upon it.

The change was most marked in Britain, where Maynard Keynes correctly anticipated a post-war ‘craving for social and personal security’. But everywhere (in the words of the historian Michael Howard) ‘war and welfare went hand in hand’. In some countries nutrition and medical provision actually improved during the war: mobilizing men and women for total war meant finding out more about their condition and doing whatever was necessary to keep them productive…

(He’s quoting from Postwar, by Judt)

This reminds me greatly of Atul Gawande’s piece in the New Yorker about the origins of the healthcare systems in Europe. Like Judt, he finds that much of the system grew out of World War 2.

On Britain:

The program proved successful and lasting, historians say, precisely because it was not the result of an ideologue’s master plan. Instead, the N.H.S. was a pragmatic outgrowth of circumstances peculiar to Britain immediately after the Second World War. The single most important moment that determined what Britain’s health-care system would look like was not any policymaker’s meeting in 1945 but the country’s declaration of war on Germany, on September 3, 1939.

As tensions between the two countries mounted, Britain’s ministers realized that they would have to prepare not only for land and sea combat but also for air attacks on cities on an unprecedented scale. And so, in the days before war was declared, the British government oversaw an immense evacuation; three and a half million people moved out of the cities and into the countryside. The government had to arrange transport and lodging for those in need, along with supervision, food, and schooling for hundreds of thousands of children whose parents had stayed behind to join in the war effort. It also had to insure that medical services were in place—both in the receiving regions, whose populations had exploded, and in the cities, where up to two million war-injured civilians and returning servicemen were anticipated.

As a matter of wartime necessity, the government began a national Emergency Medical Service to supplement the local services. Within a period of months, sometimes weeks, it built or expanded hundreds of hospitals. It conducted a survey of the existing hospitals and discovered that essential services were either missing or severely inadequate—laboratories, X-ray facilities, ambulances, care for fractures and burns and head injuries. The Ministry of Health was forced to upgrade and, ultimately, to operate these services itself.

On France:

n France, in the winter of 1945, President de Gaulle was likewise weighing how to insure that his nation’s population had decent health care after the devastation of war. But the system that he inherited upon liberation had no significant public insurance or hospital sector. Seventy-five per cent of the population paid cash for private medical care, and many people had become too destitute to afford heat, let alone medications or hospital visits.

Long before the war, large manufacturers and unions had organized collective insurance funds for their employees, financed through a self-imposed payroll tax, rather than a set premium. This was virtually the only insurance system in place, and it became the scaffolding for French health care. With an almost impossible range of crises on its hands—food shortages, destroyed power plants, a quarter of the population living as refugees—the de Gaulle government had neither the time nor the capacity to create an entirely new health-care system. So it built on what it had, expanding the existing payroll-tax-funded, private insurance system to cover all wage earners, their families, and retirees. The self-employed were added in the nineteen-sixties. And the remainder of uninsured residents were finally included in 2000.

In Britain, it seems that the NHS was born as a result of the government running a healthcare system for wartime, and in France, the sheer volume of problems the post war government was facing lead to it expanding what was available to a majority of its population.

America hasn’t faced those kind of pressures, and so it seems we don’t have the sense that government should provide. Seems like that accounts for much of the libertarian streak here.

As Coates points out, we probably can change to have an outlook that mirrors that of Western Europe by going through something similar.

Are there other states that haven’t faced much (any?) conflict on the home front in the 20th century? I’d be interested in the outlook on welfare those states have.