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Archive for December, 2009

Self-Triangulation

Reactions to Obama’s first try on the attempted terror attack:

Dan Riehl: “OMG – He’s Sleep Walking It! Obama Saves Self From Tasty Waves, Cool Buds … To Speak! This has to be the most perfunctory speech the orator in chief has ever given. It’s as if he resents being pulled away from his vacation to make it. Where’s the energy? The personal connection? It isn’t there. He’s literally reading a press release and it shows. Where is all that charisma we’ve heard so much about? It’s as if the issue doesn’t even interest him at all.”

Richard Fernandez: “Mutallab wasn’t so isolated. Maybe that’s lesson number one. Lesson number two may be that the President should take the enemy at their word when they say they have declared war on America; that they intend to kill all who stand in the way of their cause. It’s possible they mean it.”

Robert Spencer: “Gitmo recidivism comes back to bite us directly…. ‘American officials agreed to send the two terrorists from Guantanamo to Saudi Arabia where they entered into an “art therapy rehabilitation program” and were set free, according to U.S. and Saudi officials.’ An ‘art therapy rehabilitation program.’ Yes, you read that right.”

So, this afternoon, Obama tries again. Now, the system didn’t work perfectly; now, failures were “systemic” and “disastrous.” But I don’t think this is the kind of situation in which you get a do-over. I can see it now:

“Mr. President? That speech didn’t go over too well. Even members of your own party are upset about it.”

“What? Don’t they appreciate that I interrupted my vacation? That I delayed my tee time for a full 30 minutes?”

“Apparently not, sir.  Several Democratic Senators have called to complain that this confirms the image voters have of the Democratic Party being weak on defense.”

“You mean they want me to pretend to care about American lives?”

“Yes, sir.”

“O, good grief. What do they want me to say? Write it down and I’ll say it.”

(No wonder Neo-Neo-Con notes that Obama has lost his magic touch. If he ever had it; I maintain that it was always hype and nothing but hype.)

That may sound harsh, but the left-wing sites I’ve seen, and the leftist comments I’ve read on Facebook, make me think those people don’t care about American lives. So what? they seem to say. Even if the plane had blown up, the odds of being killed while flying would still be very low, so why get excited? Republicans, they claim, are just scaredy-cats. I honestly don’t know how to respond to comments like that.

I’m especially shocked by them, in view of Iran’s impending acquisition of nuclear weapons. Today’s AP report: “Iran is close to clinching a deal to clandestinely import 1,350 tons of purified uranium ore from Kazakhstan, according to an intelligence report obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday.”

Meanwhile, Charles Krauthammer on Obama on Iran: “The regime is weakening. This is a hinge in history. Everything in the region with change if the regime is changed. Obama ought to be strong out there in saying it’s an illegitimate government; we stand shoulder to shoulder with the people in the street. When he talks about diplomacy he should be urging our Western allies to that have relations to cut them off. He ought to be going into the UN every forum denouncing it. This is a moment in history, and he’s missing it.”

I expect more noise from the President shortly expressing support for the protesters. But he’ll take no action, and even express the support after the tipping point has been reached.

I think there’s a pattern here, and in Obama’s recent pronouncements deploring deficit spending. President Clinton famously triangulated, positioning himself between Republicans and congressional Democrats. Obama positions himself between Republicans and himself. He does A; finds that masses of voters support the Republicans in rejecting A; gives a speech in which he decries the “false choice” between A and not-A, and expresses his own firm position against A.

Clinton, faced with a choice between A and not-A, chose neither. Obama chooses both. Paraconsistent triangulation? I don’t see how that’s supposed to work.

Actually, it’s even worse. He chooses A and not-A while rejecting the choice, i.e., affirming neither A nor not-A. I think even paraconsistent logicians would have trouble making sense of that.

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Moon over Detroit

An al-Qaeda terror attack that could easily have killed hundreds was narrowly averted on Christmas Day, thanks to a malfunctioning detonator and a heroic Dutchman. But, don’t worry; “the system worked perfectly.”

Roey Rosenblith gives his eyewitness account as a passenger on the plane.

Here are some questions worth thinking about:

Richard Fernandez: “One of them was casually revealed by the statement that there are over 500,000 names on an extended terror suspect’s list.  A list with that many records is of limited utility unless it can winnowed down to a tractable set in a given situation.  You really want to be able to use this data to answer specific questions like: is this man related to such and such an event or should this person fly? Simply saying that the terrorist is in the list is like saying the needle is in the haystack. It wasn’t of much use in keeping him off the plane.

So what does the architecture of the data look like? Can you run queries with joins across different agencies or across from the goverment to the private sector? Can you take one of the names on this list of a half million and find out what calls he made on such and such a date or where he’s been? What kind of metadata is in there?”

John Hinderaker: “In pursuit of Obama’s policy of “engagement” with those who hate us, has the administration loosened no-fly restrictions? Has it allowed people like Abdulmutallab to take international flights to the U.S. on the ground they are merely misunderstood ambassadors for a peaceful movement? Is the administration’s soon to be embarked upon review of how the “intelligence community” is “integrating itself” the precursor to a massive transfer of blame from Obama’s radical staffers to intelligence professionals?”

Randy Barnett: “Here is the cold hard fact of the matter that will be evaded and denied but which must never be forgotten in these discussions: Often — whether on an airplane, subway, cruise ship, or in a high school — only self defense by the “unorganized militia” will be available when domestic or foreign terrorists chose their next moment of murder. And here is the public-policy implication of this fact: It would be better if the militia were more prepared to act when it is needed.” Is there a way to offer training to able-bodied adults to help them deal with terror attacks?

Robert Spencer: “Who was the sharply dressed man” who helped Abdulmutallab board the plane in Amsterdam without a passport? “And where is he now?”

Pete Hoekstra (as summarized by Richard Fernandez):

  • Has the al-Qaeda franchise in Yemen made a strategic decision to attack the United States?
  • The Ft Hood shooter was also connected to Yemen, “is there a pattern”?
  • Is US intelligence failing to connect the dots?
  • Is the White House stonewalling on inquiries by the House?
  • Is al-Qaeda evolving techniques to “get [weapons] into other environments where they can do significant damage”?

Here’s one of my own. Has al-Qaeda perceived that Obama is unlikely to respond to a terror attack in any meaningful way, and decided to launch a variety of attacks against the United States using a variety of methods to see which are most effective? There may be a sense that they have little to lose, and much to gain, from such a strategy, since Obama views terrorism as a law-enforcement problem and seems intent primarily on appeasement. The incentive structure encourages greater demands and further attacks.

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Iran Ablaze; President Golfs

Iran has been at war with the United States since 1979. We have only occasionally bothered to notice. Recent events have gone to long way toward strengthening Iran in the Middle East; again, few besides Caroline Glick have been playing attention:

Over the past week Lebanon capitulated to the Iranian axis. Turkey solidified its full membership in the axis. And Egypt began to make its peace with the notion of Iran becoming the strongest state in the region.

Less than five years after former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated by Syria, his son Prime Minister Saad Hariri paid a visit to Damascus to express his fealty to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Days later, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki visited Beirut and began giving the Lebanese government its new marching orders.

On Wednesday, Hizbullah forces deployed openly to the border with Israel under the permissive eye of the US-armed Lebanese army. Lebanon announced that it was no longer bound by binding UN Security Council Resolution 1559 that requires Hizbullah to disarm. And Hariri announced that he will soon visit Teheran.

While Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his media echo chamber insist that Turkey has buried its hatchet with Israel, on Wednesday Prime Minister Recip Erdogan led a delegation with 10 cabinet ministers to Damascus. There, according to the Syrian and Turkish Foreign Ministries, they signed 47 trade agreements.

This Turkish-Syrian rapprochement is not limited to economic issues. It is a strategic realignment. As Assad’s spokeswoman Buthaina Shaaban explained to Iran’s Arabic-language al-Alam television channel, “We are working to establish close ties between Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq so these countries can act as one regional bloc in order to promote peace, security and stability in the Middle East, while keeping the West’s dictates and lust for the region’s natural and oil resources at bay.”

This is dire for Israel, and bad news for the United States. That gives the unrest going on now in Iran critical significance. There are reports of massive protests, widespread clashes with police, and large numbers of arrests. The Bush administration hoped for regime change in Iran, but did little to bring it about; why aren’t those protestors armed with AK-47s, mortars, and rocket launchers? The Obama administration, characteristically, says nothing, and appears to be on the side of the mullahs. (Why support democracy and human rights when there are tyrants with whom to “engage”?) Is there a strategy here? Or does Obama welcome a strengthened, soon-to-be-nuclear Iran? It’s hard to square such a preference with America’s interests or security.

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John Rawls contends that inequalities must be arranged so that they benefit the least advantaged members of society. There are real questions about the identity of the least advantaged; income maps tend to show that the least advantaged, in terms of income, are the residents of state mental hospitals. But put that aside. It’s commonly assumed that Rawls’s difference principle favors a European-style welfare state over an American-style economic system. People thus advance Rawlsian arguments for government-run health care systems, increased welfare benefits, and other expansions of the welfare state.

It’s by no means clear, however, that the difference principle favors European-style economies over that of the United States. (I mean the U.S. pre-Obama; we seem to be headed strongly in the European direction.) Let’s assume that someone who is unemployed is better off in the European system. (That may or may not be true, but, for present purposes, let’s just assume that it is.) Game over? Not at all. Unemployment is after all a temporary condition for most people. We must ask, not about the welfare of those who are unemployed, but about the welfare of those who might be unemployed. It would be most reasonable to think of the unemployment rate as reflecting the expected amount of time someone might spend not being able to work.

The unemployment rate in Europe tends to be in the 8-10% range; in the United States, under conditions promoting free-market policies, in the 4-5% range. If chances of unemployment were evenly distributed across society as a whole, then, we would have to calculate welfare by discounting employed welfare by 10% (for Europe) and 5% (for the U.S.)—that is, by multiplying by factors of .9 and .95, respectively—and then adding back amounts representing welfare while unemployed. Since welfare while employed exceeds welfare while unemployed, and since welfare while employed might tend to be higher in the U.S. (due to greater economic growth, lower taxes, etc.), it remains an open question whether people would be better off in a European-style system.

A calculation of that sort, however, actually understates the case considerably. Chances for unemployment are not evenly distributed across society. Suppose that probabilities of unemployment are concentrated in the bottom 25%. Then the difference between 5% and 10% unemployment rates is a difference in discount factors of .6 and .8, not .9 and .95.

To see how this might work out, say that we have the following values for expected welfare under employed and unemployed conditions:

Employed, U.S.                 40,000

Employed, Europe            30,000

Unemployed, Europe        20,000

Unemployed, U.S.            10,000

Expected welfare in a European-style system for people in this group would be .6(30K) + .4(20K) = 26,000. Expected welfare in a U.S.-style system would be .8(40K) + .2(10K) = 34,000. The difference principle, properly understood, would prefer the U.S. system under these conditions.

Say that I’m wrong about employment in the U.S. being more attractive; say its value is also $30K. Then expected welfare in the U.S.-style system is .8(30K) + .2(10K) = 26,000, exactly the same as in the European-style system, despite the fact that expected welfare while unemployed is only half of what it is in the European-style system.

This example is admittedly artificial. But it illustrates a general point. Even on Rawlsian grounds, one cannot compare sets of institutions simply by looking at welfare systems. One has to consider the comparative likelihood of being unemployed and the comparative benefits of employment as well as unemployment for the least advantaged members of society. A free-market system might do surprisingly well in such a comparison.

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The Climategate revelations and the snowstorm that swept through Europe gave the Copenhagen global warming meetings an air of unreality. The spectacle of politicians gathering in Denmark with the goal of impoverishing their own societies provided that others do the same sets a new historical standard for idiocy. It isn’t just Climategate and snowstorms. Icecap reviews the evidence (HT: PowerLine):

• The most effective greenhouse gas is water vapor, comprising approximately 95 percent of the total greenhouse effect.

• Carbon dioxide concentration has been continually rising for nearly 100 years. It continues to rise, but carbon dioxide concentrations at present are near the lowest in geologic history.

• Temperature change correlation with carbon dioxide levels is not statistically significant.

• There are no data that definitively relate carbon dioxide levels to temperature changes.

• The greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide logarithmically declines with increasing concentration. At present levels, any additional carbon dioxide can have very little effect.

We also know a lot about Earth temperature changes:

• Global temperature changes naturally all of the time, in both directions and at many scales of intensity.

• The warmest year in the U.S. in the last century was 1934, not 1998. The U.S. has the best and most extensive temperature records in the world.

• Global temperature peaked in 1998 on the current 60-80 year cycle, and has been episodically declining ever since. This cooling absolutely falsifies claims that human carbon dioxide emissions are a controlling factor in Earth temperature.

• Voluminous historic records demonstrate the Medieval Climate Optimum (MCO) was real and that the “hockey stick” graphic that attempted to deny that fact was at best bad science. The MCO was considerably warmer than the end of the 20th century.

• During the last 100 years, temperature has both risen and fallen, including the present cooling. All the changes in temperature of the last 100 years are in normal historic ranges, both in absolute value and, most importantly, rate of change.

In short, there is no global warming crisis. There is no health crisis, either. These things are manufactured by politicians, for politicians, with utter disregard for the common good.

Reports of what happened in Copenhagen further increase the sense of unreality. Did the talks succeed? Fail? And what was Obama’s role? Some startling reports have emerged that help to answer the last question, even if they raise further questions. Richard Fernandez reprints the translation of a German article that portrays Obama in an extremely unflattering light (smart diplomacy, indeed!), and reflects:

The fundamental article of faith among the lowlife is that it doesn’t matter if the world runs out of money as long as you don’t run out of it. A grifter’s optimization algorithm is to be the last man to die; the last guy to run out. Economists might argue that it is “more rational” to create an orderly society where the tide lifts all boats. But they forget that it isn’t called the Prisoner’s Dilemma for nothing.

If politicians are fundamentally controlled by the societies to which they are accountable, then they will act as rational agents of that society. Once control is lost, they’ll act like grifters. Copenhagen is a preview of what happens when a lump of money is up for grabs. Every bluebottle on the planet — dictators from Africa, professional mourners, court jesters and fast-buck artists — converged on the Copenhagen because it was, to a large extent, unaccountable. But this also limited its ill-effects. The players were too busy knifing each other to turn against the publics of the world.

The fascination of Copenhagen lies in the juxtaposition of its purported high-mindedness with the brutality in the streets, the lunacy of the public theater and the tawdriness of the proceedings. And at the conclusion everyone leaves by private jet in the middle of the night.

I think this explains a lot of what we’re seeing around us. As Glenn Reynolds repeatedly observes, we have the worst political class in our history. (Maybe the guys in Congress in the years immediately preceding the Civil War beat them out. Maybe. But I doubt it. I think they actually believed in something other than themselves, however wrong it might have been.) Why are our politicians so terrible? They’re acting as grifters. They no longer represent us. We’ve lost control of them. I think Rousseau foresaw this possibility when he worried that mass communication could split the will of the people as expressed in elections from the general will. (As Homer Simpson put it, “The problem is communication.  Too much communication.”) If the people can be massively misled, then politicians can avoid accountability, and the people have no vehicle for expressing their true preferences. This lies behind much of the frustration that has found expression in tea parties. Hence, as well, health care reform, cap-and-trade, Copenhagen, and a seemingly pro-Islamist, pro-Communist foreign policy. Our politicians seek out graft instead of the common good.

Fernandez nevertheless expresses a limited optimism:

We are coming to the end a phase and should be glad of it. The sooner the charade ends the sooner things can be fixed. And since there’s a lot of real wealth and talent in the world, and because technology is powerful, I have no doubt that we have the power not only to put things right but to build an incomparably better world….

If we have a crisis in 2010 it could lead to greater democracy, a world in which we develop real energy sources and build things. The year 2015 could be the finest year on the planet. But to get there a huge almost glacially immovable mass of bureaucracy and faux aristocracy has to be moved out of the way. And I think they will largely do it to themselves. The trick is to harness the discontent which I think is inevitably coming in positive and nonviolent ways. That’s not to say unfortunate things might happen unintentionally here and there. But that’s the friction of history. The important thing is to transition to a better world in democratic and political ways rather than in dysfunctional ones.

The generation of the 1920s and 1930s failed to find an orderly way into the new world and fell prey to demagogues. In any given crisis, new demagogues will rise and many will be tempted to follow them. Let’s hope we’ve learned enough, or read enough about the last 70 years to realize that demagogues often take one from bad to worse.

I think 2010 may be both a good and a bad year. Bad in that it will be full of bad news. Good in that it will give the world a chance to truly fix things. All they really need is faith in common sense and a little bit of common decency. This, plus an extraordinary slug of uncommon daring and extraordinary luck.

I sincerely hope he’s right. But I don’t see the mechanisms by which they’ll do it to themselves. The people may utterly lose faith in Obama and company, the mandarins of the EU, et al. But they have been constructing insulation between themselves and public opinion, and I expect the coming year to witness much more insulation in the form of immigration “reform,” allowing felons to vote, blatant voter fraud, legal challenges to elections (as in Minnesota), and the like. The central political question of our time may be whether and how we can wrest control back from our political class, returning them to accountability. It can be done; but can it be done without violence? Perhaps the tea party movement can formulate a plan for reform that brings our representatives back to the task of representing us. That may require significant Constitutional changes, however, and it is hard to see our current political class permitting it to happen.

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The Senate gave the American people a grim Christmas gift by passing the health care bill.  It appears likely that a bill at least as bad will emerge from conference committee and be passed into law over the opposition of a unified Republican party and a clear majority of the American people.  The result will be disastrous medically as well as financially.  Our only hope, as far as I can see, is to mount legal challenges to the constitutionality of the law.

Richard Epstein makes the case that the Senate health care bill is unconstitutional.  It’s worth reading the entire analysis.  But here are some key points:

In effect, the onerous obligations under the Reid Bill would convert private health insurance companies into virtual public utilities. This action is not only a source of real anxiety but also a decision of constitutional proportions, for it systematically strips the regulated health-insurance issuers of their constitutional entitlement to earn a reasonable rate of return on the massive amounts of capital that they have already invested in building out their businesses….

…the Fifth Amendment affords regulated health-insurance companies protection against the taking of property without compensation and without due process of law….

These constitutional provisions have been subject to extensive interpretation in the Supreme Court in ratemaking cases, which must be taken into account in dealing with the legislation. The Supreme Court’s basic constitutional requirement is that any firm in a regulated market be allowed to recover a risk-adjusted competitive rate of return on its accumulated capital investment….

The Reid Bill emphatically fails this test by imposing sharp limitations on the ability of health-insurance companies to raise fees or exclude coverage. Moreover, the Reid Bill forces on these regulated firms onerous new obligations that they will not be able to fund from their various revenue sources. The squeeze between the constricted revenue sources allowable under the Reid Bill and the extensive new legal obligations it imposes is likely to result in massive cash crunch that could drive the firms that serve the individual and small-group health-insurance markets into bankruptcy….

On the one hand, the Reid Bill depends on a combination of huge general tax increases, which is coupled with special levies on industries such as medical-device and pharmaceutical companies. These tax revenues are then used to fund subsidies for large segments of the population in order to allow them to purchase qualified health-care plans that are sold through a set of State Exchanges that the Reid Bill creates. In order to prevent these subsidies from flowing through to the various health-insurance issuers, the Reid Bill imposes extensive obligations on any health-insurance issuer or health-plan provider that wishes to participate within the system in order to keep them from capturing subsidies meant for others. The effect of the subsidies is to increase the level of health care that will be demanded in the United States. The effect of the regulations is likely to be to impose huge costs on various health-insurance companies as they struggle to meet the influx of demand when they are at the outer limit of their capacity.

There are at this point enormous uncertainties about how this entire scheme will play out. My view is that it will prove ruinous on all three fronts. The general public tax increases will be so sharp that it is unlikely that they will generate additional revenues. The subsidies will be so large that the demand for medical services will be left largely unsatisfied, so two consequences are likely. First, an increased queuing for various health care services is to be expected. Second, there will be increased pressure to exclude large groups of people from the system, on the lines of Massachusetts’s recent decision to cut from its system 31,000 legal immigrant aliens (who pay taxes but do not vote).

Furthermore, on the supply side of the market, all health-insurance companies will find themselves in an impossible dilemma. If they decide to offer their health-insurance plans outside the State Exchanges, they will be unable to compete for the subsidized consumers who are only able to spend their tax dollars within the framework of the State Exchanges. Their position will be worse because they shall continue to be subject to all present mandates and regulations that have an impact on their business. Insurers outside the Exchanges also face the likely prospect that they will still be further taxed and regulated to help finance the intolerable burdens that arise under the subsidized insurance supplied within the State Exchange system.

The Senate bill will drive private insurers out of the health insurance market by making it impossible for them to earn reasonable rates of return on investment.  This is the unconstitutional taking; it is also the left’s primary goal.  The point of the exercise is not providing health insurance to those currently uninsured—that could be accomplished without tampering with health insurance for those already covered—but nationalizing a large portion of the economy.

As Epstein argues, the result will be devastating.  The bill expands demand for medical services while constricting supply, which can only result in price increases and queuing.  Medical costs will soar while the availability of medical treatment declines.  This should be no surprise to those who have observed the results of “reforms” in Massachusetts, Tennessee, and other states.

What makes all this worse is that medical research is on the verge of making significant strides against a variety of diseases and, indeed, against aging itself.  The bill will confiscate the source of funds for research, delaying or eliminating those gains.  The bill’s effects on the elderly and sick will be felt first, but the really significant effects will fall on the young people whose votes elected Obama.  They and their children will lose years, possibly decades, from their life expectancies.

Let’s hope that Epstein is correct in predicting that the bill will face years of legal challenges—and that some of them succeed.

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Another Bad Example

Nicholas Kristof wrote an editorial in the New York Times illustrating the need for Obamacare.  John, from Oregon, faced a devastating illness, lost his job, lost his health coverage, and couldn’t find a doctor who would treat him.  Michelle Malkin and various readers of the Times have taken the story apart.  It turns out that John could have been covered under his wife’s health insurance plan; there’s a law preventing insurers from imposing “pre-existing conditions” limitations on spousal coverage.  John was already covered under Oregon’s Medicaid plan, something Kristof pointed out in the original article, indicating that any problem here, if there is one, is a problem with a government health insurance program.  Doctors have pointed out that public hospitals are required to see patients regardless of their ability to pay.  Finally, it turns out that John has in fact been a patient seeing top surgeons at Oregon State for three weeks– well before the article was published!

This reminds me of the Democrats’ case study on expansion of the SCHIP program—a family where both parents worked, the children went to a private school whose tuition was $20,000 for each child, the father owned his own architectural firm, the family lived in a house worth more than $400,000, and the boy taken as the example was already covered anyway!

If there’s an urgent need for health care reform, why is it that the Democrats can’t come up with even one convincing example that makes their case?

I’ve talked about this phenomenon before.  The elites in Washington, New York, and elsewhere who craft policies, write editorials, write laws, propose regulations, etc., don’t know any people who are actually in the conditions they talk about.  They don’t know anyone who lacks health insurance.  They don’t know anyone who knows anyone who lacks health insurance.  (Except, maybe, their maids—but they never talk to them anyway.) They have no idea that you can go to a public hospital and get treatment, even if you don’t have insurance.

Worse, in this case, they appear not to talk to anyone in the health care industry—doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, specialists, etc.—unless they happen to be political activists as well.  Doctors I know talk a lot about the problems of the health care industry.  The problems they worry about and the fixes they recommend, however, bear almost no relation to the Democrats’ proposed reform.  There are real problems about insurance companies dropping people from coverage, for example, when they are diagnosed with a serious illness.  There are real problems about reimbursement rates, about malpractice lawsuits, about the burdens placed on hospitals, about the inefficiencies of the present system, and about prescription drugs.  But Obamacare addresses none of them in a constructive way; indeed, it would make many of them worse.

Advice to Nicholas Kristol: Hop a train to the unfashionable parts of New York City and talk to some people who don’t have health insurance.  Talk to some doctors, nurses, administrators of clinics.  Don’t tell them your ideas; listen to theirs.  Then, write about that.  Talk about health care as it actually exists in this country, not as you imagine that it must be.

UPDATE: The more I think about this, the more I think that we’ve all been missing the real story.  Where do these examples come from?  Where did Kristof hear about John, anyway?  I’d love to know the genesis of this, the SCHIP story, and other similar bad examples.

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