Saturday, March 15, 2014

Obamacare: A Personal Note

Well, I am now signed up for Obamacare, although I really can't afford it right now.  I must say it has been a frustrating experience.  I delayed a long time between initially starting my account and actually signing up because I did not know what my income would be.  Now I know, and I really can't afford, it but we will see what happens.

The website works better than it did in the beginning (less time staring at the green circle going round and round).  The the @#$%^&!!!! thing is still terribly designed!!  I show up and log in.  Good enough.  I am then presented with a screen that has several links that I can click.  First there is a label saying "View my current applications."  Below it is a box that says "2014 New Mexico application for Individual & Family Coverage," together with a status and application number.  To the right of the label is the option to apply for new coverage.  Below the box is a link allowing me to "Find my application."  "Apply for new coverage" leads me to a link below that says "Apply and shop for coverage for me and/or my family."  Well, I kept clicking on that link and it kept leading me into a closed loop that wouldn't let me @#$%^&! apply!  It got so frustrating that I finally called the help line, only to be told to click on the box that said, "2014 New Mexico application for Individual & Family Coverage," which led to the incomplete application.

Okay, it is a small thing, and easily resolved, and maybe it shows me as dense.  But it was really difficult for me to figure out and blocked my application for days!   How many other people have had similar frustrations just not knowing which link to click, I wonder.

View my current applications
Status: Complete
ID#: 304730958 
Need to find your application? Take the next steps here if you applied with a paper application or the Marketplace Call Center, or you were referred by your appropriate state agency. Find my application. 

If you were referred here by your state agency and something's changed since you applied – like your income or family size – select "Apply for new coverage" instead.

Apply for new coverage
If you believe you have a situation that may qualify you as exempt from the requirement to carry health insurance, you can get more information and download applications here.
NOTE: This application is only for use by small business employers looking to provide coverage to their employees through the SHOP program.
Right-click the link to the PDF document and select “Save As.” After you have downloaded the PDF document to your computer, open it using Adobe Reader to complete the application. Adobe Reader is required to complete the application and is available as a free download.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Julius Caesar, Continued

Julius Caesar readers are now moving on from the first three acts to Acts IV and V, which just aren't very satisfactory and have the feeling of the play falling apart.  (MacBeth has the same fault).  Acts I through III are neat and tightly plotted.  The conspirators conspire, Brutus is brought into the plot, Caesar is killed, Brutus tries to justify the assassination to the crowd, but Mark Antony fires them up with one a the greatest pieces of oratory ever written, and the mob goes on the rampage.  The characters have recognizable personalities. Caesar is the most pompous and arrogant embodiment of hubris and/or ego ever to walk the stage.* Cassius is simply Iago (we read Othello right before Julius Caesar).  Casca is a sneering cynic.  Antony is a rabble-rousing demagogue, who nonetheless seems deeply devoted to Caesar for some undefined reason.  And Brutus -- well Brutus is the perfect demonstration of why the man of flawless character and irreproachable integrity that conspirators want as their figurehead should not be involved in the sordid, squalid business of actually conspiring.  He makes consistently bad decisions while Cassius constantly gives him advice that, although often immoral, makes good tactical sense.

That last trait (Brutus has much worse judgment than Cassius but keeps overruling him) continues in the last two acts.  Otherwise, the play just loses steam.  The rival sides fight a civil war and also quarrel among themselves.  The conspirators lose and kill themselves.  The plot loses its focus, and the characters become less focused, as well.  Antony, whatever his faults, seemed deeply and genuinely devoted to Caesar.  He won over the crowd, in part, by showing that Caesar left his fortune to The People.  He then starts meeting with his allies, Octavius and Lepidus and trying to figure out how to avoid actually having to pay, to say nothing of drawing up hit lists and bartering over who is to be killed as calmly as over a sack of flour. Meanwhile, Brutus and Cassius get into a quarrel with all the emotion maturity of a couple of toddlers, then kiss and make up and decide they need a drink.  And Brutus makes yet another decision so stupid that even his enemies can't believe he was that dumb.  And Cassius keeps going along with it, out of devotion that overrides common sense.  I suppose you could call this character development.  Mark Antony is a cold-blooded cynic who was apparently just putting on an act before.  The noble Brutus is not above childish tantrums.  And Cassius is not, after all, Iago, but has a real devotion to the man he so cynically manipulated in the first act.  (They are brothers-in-law, and address each other as brother).  But as anyone who reads me knows, I make a sharp distinction between character development and character violation.  What Shakespeare does to his characters in the second half of the play borders on character violation, especially for Cassius.  In the early part of the play, Cassius is shown as intensely resentful of Caesar being top dog. That is his real motive for the assassination, plain, pure and simple.  So why is he so submissive to Brutus as top dog, even when Brutus proves time and again that he is completely unqualified for the job?  I think it would be possible to give Cassius better character development, somehow, but Shakespeare signally fails.

*We had a sort of debate what is the difference between these two types of arrogance.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Bitcoins and The Free Banking Era

I do not claim any special expertise on Bitcoin, but because it is in the news, I will weigh in.  As I understand it, Bitcoin is a digital currency that exists only as electronic ledger entries.  It is "mined" by doing complex mathematical equations to qualify for a bitcoin.  The makers of Bitcoin have put a ceiling on the number of bitcoins that will be released.  It is beginning to spawn on-line imitators.  Oh, yes, and its biggest fans tend to be libertarians who hate central banks.

In some ways, this is downright amusing.  After all, one of the big complaints Austrian-style libertarians have about central banks is that they reject the intrinsic value of gold and instead issue fiat money that is just so much designer toilet paper.  But really gold is fiat money too.  You can't eat it, burn it, wear it or build with it, and it is too heavy and too soft to make good tools.  It is useful to plate against corrosion, conduct electricity, and various purposes that call for a highly malleable and ductile metal.  And bitcoins are the ultimate fiat money, not even useful as designer toilet paper.  Granted, bitcoins have two other properties Austrian (or Austrian-esque) libertarians value.  They will be released in a limited supply, which will protect them against inflation.  And they are not controlled by any government.  I suspect that libertarians may be in for a lesson in why these can be problems.

Certainly, Austrian-esque libertarians have an extreme aversion to inflation, which they see as an immoral confiscation of people's savings.  They see opposition to inflation in absolutist terms, not as part of a complex framework of tradeoffs.  (See here for a most amusing discussion of why prioritizing zero inflation above all else makes no sense at all).  And they are not sensitive to the hazards of deflation.  If bitcoin works as it is supposed to, it will constantly increase in value, which sounds like a good thing until one realizes that this means it will experience constant deflation.  And libertarians may learn the nature of a deflationary spiral -- as a currency's value rises, people will be reluctant to spend it and its circulation will decline, causing its value to rise more until it becomes hoarded and ceases to circulate altogether.  Fortunately, there will still be old-fashioned national currencies around, so the deflation of Bitcoin won't actually harm anything.

As for keeping the government out, Bitcoin appears to be going to the opposite end of anti-central bank libertarianism from the one that wants to rely on gold -- the one that wants to return to the free banking era. In the free banking era, there were government issued gold and silver coins, and sometimes even government bank notes.  But these were not the only currencies.  Each bank issued its own.  If your primary goal is keeping government from having a monopoly on money because you think this gives government too much power, then I suppose free banking is an excellent system.  If your goal is much of anything else, then the advantages of free banking are less clear.  It turns out that private banks, if allowed to issue their own currency, are prey to the same temptation as central banks -- to issue too much.  And private banks did, quite regularly, issue too much currency with all the evils that Austrian types warn about -- inflation, speculative bubbles, and a boom-and-bust cycle.  In addition, bank failures were common, so that people who put their money in the wrong bank could lose their entire savings.  People who accepted notes from the wrong bank might see them turn into designer toilet paper if it failed.  Also, exchange rates between the currencies of different banks fluctuated wildly, so people never knew how much the money in their pockets would buy at any given time.  (Financial newspapers posted exchange rates daily).  Oh yes, and the system was rife with fraud.  Otherwise, it worked very well.

My guess is that if Bitcoin succeeds and inspires imitators, we will see something similar happen with digital currencies.  Many will succumb to the temptation to issue too much and see their digital currency endlessly depreciate.  Others will resist the temptation and fall victim to Gresham's law; their currencies will be hoarded instead of circulating.  Weaker currencies will fail and cost people their savings and not even leave them designer toilet paper.  Exchange rates will fluctuate wildly.  (They already do).  And the system will be rife with fraud. A lot of people will learn the hard way why the free banking era wasn't so great.

Monday, March 3, 2014

One Last Question Before I Take a Break

I should make one last comment on my proposed series on how democracies fail before leaving it for the time being.  My preliminary hypothesis that the danger generally lies on the Right.  My point is not to deny the very real horrors of violent revolution from the Left, simply to say that those horrors do not seem to occur in democratic countries; that violent revolution from the Left only occurs against authoritarian regimes.

But in modern times, the leap has not generally been from one to the other.  At least some interim period of democratic rule usually intervenes.  Just how long does it have to be to count?  The case of Russia may seem straightforward.  Revolution against the Czar erupted in the end of February (old calendar; mid-March by the new calendar).  The Bolsheviks took over in late October (old calendar; early November by the new calendar). The interim provisional government was wracked by chaos and turmoil.  Nothing like a functioning government, let along a recognizable democracy existed.  Compare that to Weimar which, however turbulent its birth and and troubled its adolescence, at least drew up a constitution and functioning government and held numerous, regular elections.  Weimar endured only fourteen years and was never a mature or healthy democracy, but it was hardly comparable to Russia during those few chaotic months.

But what of, say, the French Revolution?  It took several years to swing badly out of control and managed to hold elections and write a constitution.  Even if one dismisses the several years of chaos, ultimately France did establish an elective Directory that managed to run a functioning government until Napoleon overthrew it. Why not include it?  I do intend to include the subversion by Communists of nascent democracy in Eastern Europe after WWII, which took about three years.  Why not the French First or Second Republic?  In other words, how long does a democratically elective government have to endure to say that it failed, rather than that it just never succeeded?

My answer has to be, I don't know.  Maybe I will include some of these other examples later one; who knows.  But I do intend at least one rule -- that a failed democracy must last at least long enough to but up and running and then fail in order to count.

And now I mean to drop the subject for a while until I have learned something about the Greeks.