Monthly Archives: July 2012

Five Obamacare Myths

Published: July 15, 2012 (original article here.)

ON the subject of the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare, to reclaim the name critics have made into a slur — a number of fallacies seem to be congealing into accepted wisdom. Much of this is the result of unrelenting Republican propaganda and right-wing punditry, but it has gone largely unchallenged by gun-shy Democrats. The result is that voters are confronted with slogans and side issues — “It’s a tax!” “No, it’s a penalty!” — rather than a reality-based discussion. Let’s unpack a few of the most persistent myths.

OBAMACARE IS A JOB-KILLER.The House Republican majority was at it again last week, staging the 33rd theatrical vote to roll back the Affordable Care Act. And once again the cliché of the day was “job-killer.” After years of trying out various alarmist falsehoods the Republicans have found one that seems, judging from the polls, to have connected with the fears of voters.

Some of the job-killer scare stories are based on a deliberate misreading of a Congressional Budget Office report that estimated the law would “reduce the amount of labor used in the economy” by about 800,000 jobs. Sounds like a job-killer, right? Not if you read what the C.B.O. actually wrote. While some low-wage jobs might be lost, the C.B.O. number mainly refers to workers who — being no longer so dependent on employers for their health-care safety net — may choose to retire earlier or work part time. Those jobs would then be open for others who need them.

The impartial truth squad has debunked the job-killer claim so many times that in its latest update you can hear a groan of weary frustration: words like “whopper” and “bogus” and “hooey.” The job-killer claim is also discredited by the experience under the Massachusetts law on which Obamacare was modeled.

Ultimately the Affordable Care Act could be a tonic for the economy. It aims to slow the raging growth of health care costs by, among other things, using the government’s Medicare leverage to move doctors away from exorbitant fee-for-service medicine, with its incentive to pile on unnecessary procedures. Two veteran health economists, David Cutler of Harvard and Karen Davis, president of the Commonwealth Fund, have calculated that over the first decade of Obamacare total spending on health care, in part by employers, will be half a trillion dollars lower than under the status quo.

OBAMACARE IS A FEDERAL TAKEOVER OF HEALTH INSURANCE. Let’s be blunt. The word for that is “lie.” The main thing the law does is deliver 30 million new customers to the private insurance industry. Indeed, a significant portion of the unhappiness with Obamacare comes from liberals who believe it is not nearly federal enough: that the menu of insurance choices should have included a robust public option, or that Medicare should have been expanded into a form of universal coverage.

Under the law, to be sure, insurance will be governed by new regulations, and supported by new subsidies. This is not the law Ayn Rand would have written. But the share of health care spending that comes from the federal government is expected to rise only modestly, to nearly 50 percent in 2021, and much of that is due not to Obamacare but to baby boomers joining Medicare.

This is a “federal takeover” only in the crazy world where Barack Obama is a “socialist.”

THE UNFETTERED MARKETPLACE IS A BETTER SOLUTION. To the extent there is a profound difference of principle anywhere in this debate, it lies here. Conservatives contend that if you give consumers a voucher or a tax credit and set them loose in the marketplace they will do a better job than government at finding the services — schools, retirement portfolios, or in this case health insurance policies — that fit their needs.

I’m a pretty devout capitalist, and I see that in some cases individual responsibility helps contain wasteful spending on health care. If you have to share the cost of that extra M.R.I. or elective surgery, you’ll think hard about whether you really need it. But I’m deeply suspicious of the claim that a health care system dominated by powerful vested interests and mystifying in its complexity can be tamed by consumers who are strapped for time, often poor, sometimes uneducated, confused and afraid.

“Ten percent of the population accounts for 60 percent of the health outlays,” said Davis. “They are the very sick, and they are not really in a position to make cost-conscious choices.”

LEAVE IT TO THE STATES. THEY’LL FIX IT. The Republican alternative to Obamacare consists in large part of letting each state do its own thing. Presumably the best ideas will go viral.

States do have a long history of pioneering new ideas, sometimes enlightened (Oregon’s vote-by-mail comes to mind) and sometimes less benign (see Florida’s loopy gun laws). Obamacare actually underwrites pilot programs to reduce costs, and gives states freedom — some would argue too much freedom — in designing insurance-buying exchanges. But the best ideas don’t spread spontaneously. Some states are too poor to adopt worthwhile reforms. Some are intransigent, or held captive by lobbies.

You’ve heard a lot about the Massachusetts law. You may not have heard about the seven other states that passed laws requiring insurers to offer coverage to all. They were dismal failures because they failed to mandate that everyone, including the young and healthy, buy in. Massachusetts — fairly progressive, relatively affluent, with an abundance of health providers — included a mandate and became the successful exception. To expand that program beyond Massachusetts required … Barack Obama.

OBAMACARE IS A LOSER. RUN AGAINST IT, RUN FROM IT, BUT FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE DON’T RUN ON IT. When Mitt Romney signed that Massachusetts law in 2006, the coverage kicked in almost immediately. Robert Blendon, a Harvard expert on health and public opinion, recalls the profusion of heartwarming stories about people who had depended on emergency rooms and charity but now, at last, had a regular relationship with a doctor. Romneycare was instantly popular in the state, and remains so, though it seems to have been disowned by its creator.

Unfortunately, the benefits of Obamacare do not go wide until 2014, so there are not yet testimonials from enthusiastic, family-next-door beneficiaries. This helps explain why the bill has not won more popular affection. (It also explains why the Republicans are so desperate to kill it now, before Americans feel the abundant rewards.)

Blendon believes that because of the delayed benefits and the general economic anxiety, “It will be very hard for the Democrats to move the needle” on the issue this election year.

He may be right, but shame on the Democrats if they don’t try. There’s no reason except cowardice for failing to mount a full-throated defense of the law. It is not perfect, but it is humane, it is (thanks to the Supreme Court) fiscally viable, and it comes with some reasonable hopes of reforming the cockeyed way we pay health care providers.

Even before the law takes full effect, it has a natural constituency, starting with every cancer victim, every H.I.V. sufferer, everyone with a condition that now would keep them from getting affordable coverage. Any family that has passed through the purgatory of cancer — as mine did this year, with decent insurance — can imagine the hell of doing it without insurance.

Against this, Mitt Romney offers some vague free-market principles and one unambiguous promise: to dash the hopes of 30 million uninsured, and add a few million to their ranks by slashing Medicaid.

If the Obama campaign needs a snappy one-liner, it could borrow this one from David Cutler: “Never before in history has a candidate run for president with the idea that too many people have insurance coverage.”

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on July 16, 2012, on page A17 of the New York edition with the headline: Five Obamacare Myths.
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There’s Something about Harry

I recently finished reading the Harry Potter series again, and so I’ve had horcruxes, deathly hallows, Hogwarts, and magic on my mind for the past several days.  Even though I am a “grown, mature adult,” I still get as excited about the books as I did when I first started reading them (begrudgingly, I might add.  I thought they were “kiddy” books, and didn’t want anything to do with them).  And every time I read them, I catch something that I didn’t quite realize the previous times.  I think I only just this time fully understood what happened when Harry meets Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest at the end of the Deathly Hallows.

I am an unashamed Harry Potter nerd, and I can’t wait to read the books to my kids one day.  I just hope they inherit the ability to imagine wandering portraits, every-flavored beans, Crumple-Horned Snorkacks, and the protective power of love.

Here are some Harry Potter pictures that I’ve found lately:

I wonder how many of these Tom tried out before deciding that “I am Lord Voldermort” would inspire so much fear that people would simply refer to him as “He Who Must Not Be Named”


Because “NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!” was one of the best one-liners of the entire Harry Potter series.


I knew Professor McGonagall was a badass, but I didn’t see Umbridge as a BlackBerry user. Hmm. Who knew.


This is why the Harry Potter series is awesome.


Oh, so true!

Categories: Entertainment | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Physicists Find Elusive Particle Seen as Key to Universe

Scientists in Geneva on Wednesday applauded the discovery of a subatomic particle that looks like the Higgs boson.

By , NY Times, original article here.
Published: July 4, 2012

ASPEN, Colo. — Signaling a likely end to one of the longest, most expensive searches in the history of science, physicists said Wednesday that they had discovered a new subatomic particle that looks for all the world like the Higgs boson, a key to understanding why there is diversity and life in the universe.

Like Omar Sharif materializing out of the shimmering desert as a man on a camel in “Lawrence of Arabia,” the elusive boson has been coming slowly into view since last winter, as the first signals of its existence grew until they practically jumped off the chart.

“I think we have it,” said Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the director general of CERN, the multinational research center headquartered in Geneva. The agency is home to the Large Hadron Collider, the immense particle accelerator that produced the new data by colliding protons. The findings were announced by two separate teams. Dr. Heuer called the discovery “a historic milestone.”

He and others said that it was too soon to know for sure, however, whether the new particle is the one predicted by the Standard Model, the theory that has ruled physics for the last half-century. The particle is predicted to imbue elementary particles with mass. It may be an impostor as yet unknown to physics, perhaps the first of many particles yet to be discovered.

That possibility is particularly exciting to physicists, as it could point the way to new, deeper ideas, beyond the Standard Model, about the nature of reality.

For now, some physicists are simply calling it a “Higgslike” particle.

“It’s something that may, in the end, be one of the biggest observations of any new phenomena in our field in the last 30 or 40 years,” said Joe Incandela, a physicist of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a spokesman for one of the two groups reporting new data on Wednesday.

Here at the Aspen Center for Physics, a retreat for scientists, bleary-eyed physicists drank Champagne in the wee hours as word arrived via Webcast from CERN. It was a scene duplicated in Melbourne, Australia, where physicists had gathered for a major conference, as well as in Los Angeles, Chicago, Princeton, New York, London and beyond — everywhere that members of a curious species have dedicated their lives and fortunes to the search for their origins in a dark universe.

In Geneva, 1,000 people stood in line all night to get into an auditorium at CERN, where some attendees noted a rock-concert ambience. Peter Higgs, the University of Edinburgh theorist for whom the boson is named, entered the meeting to a sustained ovation.

Confirmation of the Higgs boson or something very much like it would constitute a rendezvous with destiny for a generation of physicists who have believed in the boson for half a century without ever seeing it. The finding affirms a grand view of a universe described by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws — but one in which everything interesting, like ourselves, results from flaws or breaks in that symmetry.

According to the Standard Model, the Higgs boson is the only manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass. Particles wading through the field gain heft the way a bill going through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming ever more ponderous.

Without the Higgs field, as it is known, or something like it, all elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight. There would be neither atoms nor life.

Physicists said that they would probably be studying the new particle for years. Any deviations from the simplest version predicted by current theory — and there are hints of some already — could begin to answer questions left hanging by the Standard Model. For example, what is the dark matter that provides the gravitational scaffolding of galaxies?

And why is the universe made of matter instead of antimatter?

“If the boson really is not acting standard, then that will imply that there is more to the story — more particles, maybe more forces around the corner,” Neal Weiner, a theorist at New York University, wrote in an e-mail. “What that would be is anyone’s guess at the moment.”

Wednesday’s announcement was also an impressive opening act for the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest physics machine, which cost $10 billion to build and began operating only two years ago. It is still running at only half-power.

Physicists had been icing the Champagne ever since last December. Two teams of about 3,000 physicists each — one named Atlas, led by Fabiola Gianotti, and the other CMS, led by Dr. Incandela — operate giant detectors in the collider, sorting the debris from the primordial fireballs left after proton collisions.

Last winter, they both reported hints of the same particle. They were not able, however, to rule out the possibility that it was a statistical fluke. Since then, the collider has more than doubled the number of collisions it has recorded.

The results announced Wednesday capped two weeks of feverish speculation and Internet buzz as the physicists, who had been sworn to secrecy, did a breakneck analysis of about 800 trillion proton-proton collisions over the last two years.

Up until last weekend, physicists at the agency were saying that they themselves did not know what the outcome would be. Expectations soared when it was learned that the five surviving originators of the Higgs boson theory had been invited to the CERN news conference.

The December signal was no fluke, the scientists said Wednesday. The new particle has a mass of about 125.3 billion electron volts, as measured by the CMS group, and 126 billion according to Atlas. Both groups said that the likelihood that their signal was a result of a chance fluctuation was less than one chance in 3.5 million, “five sigma,” which is the gold standard in physics for a discovery.

On that basis, Dr. Heuer said that he had decided only on Tuesday afternoon to call the Higgs result a “discovery.”

He said, “I know the science, and as director general I can stick out my neck.”

Dr. Incandela’s and Dr. Gianotti’s presentations were repeatedly interrupted by applause as they showed slide after slide of data presented in graphs with bumps rising like mountains from the sea.

Dr. Gianotti noted that the mass of the putative Higgs, apparently one of the heaviest subatomic particles, made it easy to study its many behaviors. “Thanks, nature,” she said.

Gerald Guralnik, one of the founders of the Higgs theory, said he was glad to be at a physics meeting “where there is applause, like a football game.”

Asked to comment after the announcements, Dr. Higgs seemed overwhelmed. “For me, it’s really an incredible thing that’s happened in my lifetime,” he said.

Dr. Higgs was one of six physicists, working in three independent groups, who in 1964 invented what came to be known as the Higgs field. The others were Tom Kibble of Imperial College, London; Carl Hagen of the University of Rochester; Dr. Guralnik of Brown University; and François Englert and Robert Brout, both of Université Libre de Bruxelles.

One implication of their theory was that this cosmic molasses, normally invisible, would produce its own quantum particle if hit hard enough with the right amount of energy. The particle would be fragile and fall apart within a millionth of a second in a dozen possible ways, depending upon its own mass.

Unfortunately, the theory did not describe how much this particle should weigh, which is what made it so hard to find, eluding researchers at a succession of particle accelerators, including the Large Electron Positron Collider at CERN, which closed down in 2000, and the Tevatron at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, in Batavia, Ill., which shut down last year.

Along the way the Higgs boson achieved a notoriety rare in abstract physics. To the eternal dismay of his colleagues, Leon Lederman, the former director of Fermilab, called it the “God particle,” in his book of the same name, written with Dick Teresi. (He later said that he had wanted to call it the “goddamn particle.”)

Finding the missing boson was one of the main goals of the Large Hadron Collider. Both Dr. Heuer and Dr. Gianotti said they had not expected the search to succeed so quickly.

So far, the physicists admit, they know little about their new boson. The CERN results are mostly based on measurements of two or three of the dozen different ways, or “channels,” by which a Higgs boson could be produced and then decay.

There are hints, but only hints so far, that some of the channels are overproducing the boson while others might be underproducing it, clues that maybe there is more at work here than the Standard Model would predict.

“This could be the first in a ring of discoveries,” said Guido Tonelli of CERN.

In an e-mail, Maria Spiropulu, a professor at the California Institute of Technology who works with the CMS team of physicists, said: “I personally do not want it to be standard model anything — I don’t want it to be simple or symmetric or as predicted. I want us all to have been dealt a complex hand that will send me (and all of us) in a (good) loop for a long time.”

Nima Arkani-Hamed, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, said: “It’s a triumphant day for fundamental physics. Now some fun begins.”

Categories: Science/Technology | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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