Saturday, November 28, 2015

A guaranteed home in the context of Maslow's Hierarchy of needs

I live in Salt Lake City and have taken note of the homeless since I moved here. I see them mostly in the parks downtown, usually sleeping somewhere in the sun, or covered up on a bench on cold mornings. I've lived here long enough now to notice that this year, something is missing. The homeless. Oh, there are still some who linger, but since the State of Utah instituted their Housing First program in 2005, they have been on track to end chronic homelessness in 2015. Here is a report that documents their findings.

Utah has found that not only do they reduce chronic homelessness, but they save thousands of dollars on each person by giving people a home. I know, it seems counterintuitive. Where they were spending $20,000 a year before on each person, now they spend about $12,000. By giving the homeless a home, they cut the burden on the shelters, the hospitals and the jails. Saving money is something that conservatives love to do in government and they are right to celebrate this success. Everyone wins here.

Now Utah is well known as a conservative state. I see it in the numbers in the legislature, the people who are elected to Congress and the way they run their budget. Utah is a Red State by any measure. But Utah has made an interesting deviation from the usual homeless plan which is to punish the homeless. The articles and reports I've seen so far suggest that Utah has made what might appear to be a radical observation: if people could do better, they would.

Utah is also a Mormon State. The Mormons came to Utah in the 19th century to evade the ostracism they experienced in places like New York, where the Mormon ideology was born. The idea of giving the homeless a home is totally consistent with the radical communitarian origins of Mormon ideology. Indeed, Joseph Smith, one of the founders of the Mormon culture, "... called for Zion to be a classless commune in which Mormons would “hold all things in common." (link to quote paywalled)

We know communitarianism as socialism or communism today, but Mormons tend to downplay this aspect of their ideology, preferring instead to emphasize individual morality. The Wilson Quarterly has some interesting analysis that is summed up well in the following paragraph:
Mormons today tend to “downplay the radically countercultural aspects” of Zion, such as the elimination of poverty, inequality, and war. The Mormon church instead focuses on individual morality and the importance of family.
See, not only did the state give homeless homes, they gave them counseling to help them with their demons and put their life back on track. The Washington Post has an interesting account of the story here. A few searches on Google confirm the findings with consistency between articles on the reporting. The facts of the success of Utah's homeless program are clear: Giving homeless people homes to end homelessness works.

Wikipedia has an interesting entry on the topic called, Housing First. This article has identified a successful method of dealing with the chronic homeless. The article documents how numerous jurisdictions that have tried Housing First have found success for one simple reason. Housing is a basic human need. Solve that problem, and the homeless person now has a foundation to solve all other problems.

Housing First, also confirms the findings of Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. See the chart below for a visual representation of this concept:

The human need for a home is right above the base, physiological needs like air, water and food. Having a home satisfies the basic need for safety. Once that need is satisfied, the foundation is set for meeting other needs.

I am reminded of how women, once married, seek a home rather than an apartment if they can get a home. My wife was like that. She was not content with an apartment - she wanted a home to call our own. Now we live in a home, have a family and recognize the need for a home as a foundation for kids to grow, for adults to work from and to retire in.

Utah has a model program that other cities and states can follow. Instead of punishing the homeless, this program assumes that if people could do better, they would. To help homeless people do better, they give them a home. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs correctly predicts that when basic needs are met, higher order tasks can be accomplished. You know, like getting a job, paying the bills and joining society again.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The tip of the iceberg in election fraud is probably floating in Ohio

There is an interesting story brewing in Ohio. A measure to legalize pot has been defeated. But expert observers say that the election in Ohio was stolen to defeat pot legalization. There is ample evidence of partisanship for and against the measure, and this time the opposition was in a position of power.

There are now accusations of election fraud and there is evidence to support those accusations. How that would hold up in court, I'm not sure. This election could just be the tip of the iceberg in election fraud if the evidence presented so far proves to be right. If the Ohio election was stolen because opponents felt so brazen as to flip the votes, then we have the right to question every election going forward, and perhaps going back to the time we started using computers to count votes.

In the end, the problem of corruption in elections, the actual collection, tabulation and results, will need to be addressed. This is distinct from the problem of voter fraud where voters make fraudulent votes. Voter fraud is such a tiny problem that there is scant if any evidence that voter fraud could tilt an election. Yet, the public debate on election integrity has been consistently steered at the voter, not the people who actually collect and count the votes and the machines they use to do it.

I will offer a solution to the problem of election integrity, but first, let's review what happened in Ohio. Alternet has been covering the story very closely and their first post shortly after the election has documented inconsistencies in the live returns during the election. Alternet shows that in the span of 11 minutes the vote was flipped from a decisive victory in favor of pot legalization to a resounding defeat.

Statistical analysis of the results after the election compared polling with election results and analyzed them with standard measures of deviation. Analysis shows that the chances that polling before the election would correspond to the results shown in the election are statistically remote. Here's the second post covering the analysis after the count was finalized by the secretary of state of Ohio.

Votescam is a small family organization dedicated to cleaning up our votings system. Their documentation of election fraud suggests that at the least, there is evidence of election fraud going back to the 1988 presidential election. According to them, election fraud is non-partisan, so it would seem that both dominant parties have participated.

Votescam has investigated the voting machines and followed researchers in their quest to test the security and integrity of these voting machines. In reading their evidence, I was struck by how one company, Diebold, runs their voting machines on Windows. If I had wanted a secure machine for collecting the votes of the people, I sure as hell would not choose Windows. I'd be using Linux to run the operating system and build my vote collection system on top of it. I believe that the choice of Windows is deliberate for the lack of security and integrity.

Votescam has also noted that voting machine manufacturers have seized upon the use of trade secret protection to avoid disclosure of how their machines work. Why anyone would use trade secrets to shield their voting machines from scrutiny is beyond me. If companies like Diebold truly believed that they were doing a good service for our country, they would welcome such scrutiny and offer their machines for testing just to gain the confidence and trust of the people they serve.

We could solve the election fraud problem by making all of our voting machines open source, from top to bottom, with source code and specifications made public to all. With an open specification, anyone can build a voting machine, but more to the point, anyone with the knowhow can verify the integrity of those machines before and after the election.

We also need to look at the machines that collect and tabulate the votes that are collected into a database. All votes can be collected by machines that run open source operating systems like Linux using open source databases like MySQL or PostgresQL.

Integrity of the voting machines and tabulation machines can be tested by using encryption algorithms against the system images and programs before and after the election to ensure that no tampering has occurred. We can use a process called sha256sum to test each machine, from top to bottom to ensure that what was loaded on each machine is the same after the election. All of the results can be made public so that we can be sure that the machines are working as designed. This is how we can ensure our machines count the votes fair and square.

An open source solution to election integrity can be ours. All that is required is the political will to do the job right. If we can't trust our elections, then we can't really say that we have a democracy. But with enough eyeballs on the problem, and people willing to press our government for a solution that works, we can take our elections back.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Dynasty Politics

The Clinton family, through it's foundation and various other fundraising efforts have raised $3 billion in 41 years. That is an astonishing figure and represents an enormous consolidation of power and cooperation among a single family and the very wealthy. It also represents something else to me: a dynasty.

When I see Hilary running for office these days, I think of the dynasty to come if she were elected to the highest office in the land. While it is true that our economy ran well for a time under Bill Clinton, it was all on a credit card eventually paid for by the middle class as their wages stagnated. It was the best we could do from within the bubble economy we all inherited from Donald Regan, I mean...Ronald Reagan.

Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I would take Hilary over anyone in the GOP clown car. The reason is simple. The GOP has this fantasy that they're going to make government run so horribly that they can sell off everything except the military to their buddies as private monopolies and then call it, "privatization". Whatever the GOP stands for now, I'm against it, so if Hilary wins the Democrat nomination, I will still vote for her. I would be mindful of NAFTA, Larry Summers and Waco, but I'd still vote for her over the GOP.

It would be more unfortunate still because she would be a continuation of what can best be described as dynasty politics in America. A few very rich families are going to run the country, right? We saw how well that worked out with two Bushes, well, one didn't really qualify as a bush. More like a shrub. Still, the results were awful to behold. Now we are witnessing a third Bush who goes by the name of Jeb!, making an attempt to win the GOP nomination. The only thing holding him back is a loose cannon that is financing his own campaign, Donald Trump.

The stagnating wages, the rising inequality, and the tilted playing field, have all given rise to this dynasty politics. Dynasty politics is what I want to avoid. That's just one reason why I'm voting for Bernie Sanders at the next primary.

Bernie is not part of a dynasty, or a family with a member that has already been president. He doesn't have a superPAC and has been vocal about distancing himself from any superPAC. Bernie uses inclusive language in his rhetoric and is seeking to foment a peaceful political revolution where Hilary tends to go with the polls and makes no mention of political revolution. If she has, she hasn't been very consistent or I would have noticed. Where Hilary runs for president, Sanders is spearheading a social movement.

While I take some comfort in the suffering of Jeb! at the hands of Trump, I know that politics can take twists and turns which few outsiders can predict. I am prepared for Trump to pull a Perot and drop from the race, even when he is doing well. I doubt his sincerity since he is to me, more celebrity than candidate. If that were to happen, Jeb! would almost certainly rise up to the nomination with a superPAC warchest swelling beyond $100 million.

There is something else I like about Sanders campaign. It's about a social movement for social and economic justice that is intended to last well beyond this election. I don't see that in Hilary's campaign and I most certainly don't see that in any GOP campaign.

It will take a social movement, a really big one, to finally root out the forces at work that have given us one dynasty, and probably two if we stay at home next for the next primary. We can do better. We must do better. For if we fail, we are looking at choosing between two dynasties next November.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

How the debate with climate change deniers misses the forest for the trees

I had an interesting debate with a climate change denier over the last few weeks. He was strident about the holes he could find in the theory on climate change. He found contradictions with the consensus on climate change. Where 97% of scientists agree that climate change is caused by humans, he found "97 articles" that challenge the consensus. But those articles were written by shills for the various carbon-based energy industries.

Maybe climate change is caused by humans, maybe it's not. There are some who still believe that there is room for debate on the issue. One thing that is not in debate: the climate is changing, and it's getting warmer. We have satellites checking air and water temps and we know that the earth is getting warmer. We know that water levels are rising. We know enough to know that we could be having an impact on the earth.

Long ago, a friend of mine once said that it is grandiosity for humans to think that their actions could have an impact on the earth's climate. We're simply too small a force to have any impact at all. I think he might have had a point 40 or 100 years ago when the there were only a billion or two of us. Now there are 7 billion. All of us are either directly or indirectly generating energy. Most of that work uses carbon as a fuel source. Wood, coal, gas and oil.

Generating energy with carbon is a dirty business. It's messy, smelly and I know I wouldn't want to work at the source myself. I've seen men covered in oil at the wells. I've seen black lung disease from coal mining and seen the miners covered in coal dust. I've seen the mess from fracking for gas. Ok, I like a fireplace in the winter, but honestly, that is one of the most inefficient ways to heat the home.

So, for the sake of argument, lets assume that the climate deniers are right. Humans just can't produce enough CO2 to warm the planet. It's true that a few volcanoes in the last 200 hundred years have burped up more CO2 than all of human history.

It's also quite possible that a super volcano in Wyoming could hurl more than 260 cubic miles of earth into the sky and cover our nation with ash. Probably within our lifetimes, such an event could put enough particulate matter into the air, reflective particulate matter, to cool the earth. And there would be much more CO2 from such an event.

So, yes, there are forces at work or potential forces that await us, that are far more powerful than us that could stop global warming or simply accelerate it. Really, we're powerless over that. But we do have power over what we choose to do.

Even if the deniers are right, I notice that they still do not talk about the dirty business of carbon. There are accidents galore with carbon energy production. Even in normal production, carbon extraction is a very dirty business. All of them foul our air, water and land.

Somehow, they can justify the CO2, but won't touch the desolate land left by fracking, mining and drilling. I've seen the pictures of an area where fracking has depleted everything and there is no life left, at least not what we think of as life. Go to any mining, fracking or drilling site and ask yourself the question: would you live there? Have you noticed that when they're done destroying the land, they all leave? Is there no remediation? Who is going to pay for it?

We do. We all do. But they keep the profits and we pay the taxes that pay for the litigation, the cleanup and the fences that keep people out.

This is the argument that deniers are propping up: we're right about the climate, but silent on the pollution.

That argument is insanity.

Even if they're right, I'd rather use solar, wind, geothermal and nuclear energy. They're all far cleaner than carbon, by a mile. Yes, they all involve mining, but compared to carbon energy production, they're not even close to the ecological devastation inflicted by carbon extraction.

Then there is the pollution from burning carbon. We see it from the refineries when they burn oil at the top of their stacks. We see the soot from the diesel trucks. No matter how hard they try, there is always something black coming out of the exhaust there. The natural gas engines are probably the cleanest on the road, as I see almost nothing from them, but they still produce pollution.

Then there is coal. It's not well known, but coal actually contains traces of radioactive elements like uranium. When we burn coal, we're releasing carbon and radioactivity into the air. There are huge piles of coal ash that we have no idea what to do with.

We're breathing that stuff when we burn carbon. All of it.

This is the argument missing from the debate. While we're focused on warming, we're missing the forest for the trees. When we're engaged in debate, we're not talking about the pollution from the carbon industry. Try talking to the deniers about it. They won't touch it. They'll gloss over it like it doesn't really matter, it's not really relevant. They will ask you to stay on topic.

But if we're going to use carbon for energy, we need to talk about all of it. Not just the global warming, we need to talk about the pollution, because the cost of that pollution is something we all pay for. We pay for it in taxes, our declining health and the beauty of the earth we inherited as a gift to us all.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The hole in the evening news that is financed by drug patents

A few months ago, we bought an HD antenna for our TV. We didn't want cable but wanted to watch a few local channels to stay on top of the weather, some local news and to let our kids watch Sesame Street. Honestly, I hated that cable subscription when we had it. We only watched a few hours of TV a week and I didn't like feeling like I had to watch TV to justify the expense.

So my wife did some research and found a great antenna that works very well indoors. Maybe later we'll spring for a rooftop antenna, too.

Since we got the antenna, we sort of fell into the habit of watching the news again, mostly for the weather. But last night was a real eye-opener. We were watching the national news on CBS with Scott Pelley while we ate dinner. How I miss Walter Cronkite, but it is what it is.

As we watched the news, we saw the commercials. Every other commercial was for some sort of drug. I take interest in the commercials not for any desire to buy what is advertised. I watch them to see what demographic is getting the pitch.

For the evening news, it's baby boomers and beyond. These are the people who sat at the dinner table with their parents to eat dinner in the 50s, 60s and 70s. They watched the evening news with their parents to see stories about segregation, the Vietnam War, Watergate and the Civil Rights marches. They're just one generation behind me.

But they're getting older and they need help as their bodies age. Pick your ailment and there is a drug for you. From heart disease to erectile dysfunction, it's all there.

As I reflected upon my observations later last night, I recalled what I saw in the news during the debates on Obamacare, before it became law. Most of the debate was about how it would socialize medicine and how it would be a government takeover of healthcare.

This thing with drug advertising on TV has been going on for decades. It's really kind of sickening to see so much of it on the evening news. But the thing I notice is what is missing from the news, not just what is said. Now that we have the internet to do research and select our news sources, I don't have to take the news at face value. I can look for holes in the news.

One of them is this: I never saw a newscaster talk about how drug patents cost us at least $300 billion a year. Patents socialize medicine alright, but the money goes up, not down.

Noted economist Dean Baker has done extensive research on the costs of drugs and found that patents provide a markup of up to several thousand percent over the nominal cost of production. One example he cites often is Sovaldi:
"Sovaldi sells in the United States for $84,000 per treatment. A generic version is available in Bangladesh for less than $1,000."
Sovaldi is a Hepatitis C drug that can actually cure one form of Hepatitis. As you can see above, patents have a huge bearing on how much we pay for drugs here. Baker has also pointed out that the motivation for drug research can have a bearing on the efficiency of the research.

In this article, he notes that difference by comparing private drug company research and Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDI). Here, we can clearly see that private drug companies are motivated by the money more than the desire to help people. DNDI, a part of Doctors Without Borders, takes another view. They work out of a genuine concern to help people. The results are startling, and offer a clear contrast in efficiencies (from the article):
"As the figure shows, DNDI was able to develop ASAQ, a combination drug for treating Malaria, for $17 million. More than 250 million dosages have been distributed since 2007. It developed Fexinidazole, a new drug candidate and new chemical entity, intended to treat sleeping sickness, at a cost of $38 million. DNDI developed SSG&PM, a combination therapy for visceral leishmaniasis at a cost of $17 million. DNDI's entire budget for its first 10 years of existence was $242 million, less than one-tenth of what DiMasi estimates it costs the pharmaceutical industry to develop a single new drug."
Of course, there are differences that have a bearing on total costs, and Baker notes them further on. But what we are looking at is cutting the cost of drug research by roughly 90%. Baker has also noted that we are on track to spend $400 billion a year on drugs this year alone. Hmm. 90% of $400 billion is about $360 billion. That is a lot of money, honey.

Oddly, we don't see any conservatives jumping on this story to adopt DNDI methods nationwide for drug research. If another means were found to cut Medicare spending by $360 billion a year, people like Paul Ryan would be on Meet the Press to crow about it. But I don't see any conservatives on this one. Why not?

DNDI isn't after patents and patents are pretended to be part of the free market, so their story doesn't fit the conservative narrative. Patents are government intervention in the free market, not a part of it. I suspect that fact to be irksome to some conservatives in Congress. Not only is DNDI using a free market approach, they are a non-profit supported by donations and some government funding. Yet they are far more efficient than rent-seekers working in the drug industry.

I suspect that fact would be in the news somewhere, but it's not unless you read "Beat the Press". I had to dig around for this one as most anyone else would. And God forbid that an anchorman on nationally televised news should ever cover something like this. We're not going to see it on a nationally televised show like 60 Minutes, either. But you can rest assured that other countries, with governments that are cognizant of this issue, will have citizens that pay less for drugs than we do.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The bees make a comeback in Europe

I note with interest some news about the bee collapse of late. It appears that in Europe 3 neonicotinoid insecticides (neonics) were banned a few years ago. Now the bees appear to be recovering. This didn't just happen once. This has been observed twice.

A ban of these insecticides started in Italy in 2010, following in the footsteps of France and Germany. Following that ban, Italy saw their bee populations resurge. Then in 2013, a Europe-wide ban was instituted, prohibiting the use of clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. Since then, farmers in Europe have seen a resurgence of their bee populations.

Here's something really interesting. "The Genetic Literacy Project" is here to tell us that the ban has done nothing for the bees. They claim that those neonics are safe after all. So I did a little research and found that their domain name is owned by ESG Mediametrics. That company is an environmental consultancy. Here's the dirt on those guys: Monsanto.

So let's connect the dots. All of these insecticides have patents behind them. Patents create nice private monopolies and that means money. This money is then used to lobby for looser regulations and lax enforcement. The same money is also used to sway the media with advertising dollars, discouraging major media from exposing the problems with neonics.

Interestingly, there is much confusion on the subject of neonics here in America. There is no consensus among national government leaders regarding whether or not we should ban neonics. That's probably because Monsanto has managed to find a few well placed seats in the FDA. This is how big money works in politics.

Take the big money out of politics and you tend to get better results. Here's an article at the American Prospect that did a nice survey of campaign finance around the world. The takeaway from the article is this: In America, we have taken the position that free speech is the only thing that matters, regardless of the integrity of the speech or the source. In other words, if you have the money, you have the right to say it to promote your campaign.

To put it differently, when a company finds a way to make money, that just happens to harm the environment, the money tends to cloud judgment. We've seen this with oil, coal and gas, particularly so with fracking. It's no different with pesticides and GMOs. But if you have the money, you can use it to stay in business with help from the government, despite any harm to the environment.

The reason neonics aren't getting clobbered with the banhammer here as they are in Europe is because of the way we finance campaigns. Science has little to do with how the issue is handled in the US. This is what we can expect from a Congress that elects someone like Ted Cruz to oversee NASA. It's all about the money, honey.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A natural experiment in anti-municipal broadband laws

As some of you have probably guessed, I'm a big believer in a free and open internet. I agreed with the FCC when they classified last mile internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon as common carriers. I also agreed with the FCC when they passed an order to preempt certain state laws that prohibit municipal broadband. I was cheering them on to do that. I've written many articles on what is so wrong with our internet service provider market. I have also written a few articles extolling the wonders of municipal broadband.

What exactly is municipal broadband? In a nutshell, it's where residents of a city or small town can't get reliable service, better speeds or customer service from their legacy incumbent service provider. Names like Comcast, Centurylink, ATT and Time-Warner come to mind. I have found many stories about how the largest ISPs simply didn't care enough about their customers, potential customers and captive audiences in small towns. This lack of service is what gives rise to municipal broadband. The people in a small town or city give up, have a lot of meetings, and sell bonds to build their own ISP and make it available to everyone in town.

The ISPs saw this coming and starting working the statehouses to ensure that their scarcity-only business model is not interrupted or disrupted. They simply didn't want to lose their de facto monopoly power to use as a personal ATM. They used the American Legislative Exchange and other proxies to fight their war against their customers, and in more than 20 states, they've won. Fow now.

More than 450 cities and towns across America have rolled their own ISP and have benefited handsomely from it. They got relief from intransigent commercial ISPs. They got much higher speeds, with greater reliability and far better customer service. All from a local service provider that keeps the money local.

Here in Utah, The Utah Taxpayers Association will tell you that building your own network is a risk that should never be imposed upon taxpayers. Let the private ISPs do that work and take that risk. But what they won't tell you is why that risk is greater now than it used to be.

Municipal Broadband Networks has found a natural experiment in municipal broadband. In 2001, Utah made law a requirement that municipal broadband service providers may not sell directly to customers. Instead, they must sell wholesale through retailers. But a few municipal ISPs that were already selling direct before that requirement became law provide a stunning contrast to ISPs created after the requirement was implemented.

Chris Mitchell at Municipal Broadband Networks gives us a study in contrasts. Where Spanish Fork was able to build their own network and sell direct, Provo had to go wholesale and rely upon independent resellers to promote the network. What happened?
The results from Spanish Fork, where the taxpayers were not "protected" by the laws drafted by cable and telephone lobbyists, the city has paid off all of its debt, regularly reinvested net income into local budgets, and is on its way to gigabit fiber. More details on Spanish Fork here.
Provo, saddled with the state restrictions that forced a riskier business model on it, was not financially sustainable. The network generated some benefits but the costs were too great and it eventually became Google Fiber. Many envy the network they now have but the intervening years certainly were part of the plan to improving Internet access.
Provo sold their network to Google for a dollar (really, just one dollar) and is still paying off the debts from their buildout to this day. This is what the incumbents want to do to all of us to ensure that we never, ever bother them again. This is how big money works in politics. Take the money out of politics and suddenly, people start talking about ideas with merit rather than veiled ulterior motives.

If your state has similar restrictions on municipal broadband, check to see if any have been grandfathered in before the restrictions became law and see how they're doing now. You might find that protection that the ISPs seek has nothing to do with taxpayers. You might even want to write to your representatives in the state legislature to set things right. I know my representatives in the statehouse be getting a few tweets from me on the subject at the very least.