Vantage point

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

On Healthcare

The Goebellian “US healthcare = privatised healthcare” pseudo-trusim has been repeated so often that most take it as being true without even questioning. The US healthcare system isnt a free market system. It is government-assited crony capitalism, which is actually worse than socialism.

Free markets have competition which arises because of delicensing and low entry barriers. Firms compete without any handouts from the government, and to compete, they need to focus on their customers. The healthcare system in USA was built on subsidies, regulation and interventionism. Even today, 44% of insurance comes from government entities. When people complain about “evil insurance companies”, they dont realise that half of those are the government. When they ask for the government to provide healthcare, they forget they are asking the perpetrators to take over completely.

The insurance companies and hospitals can be the way they are because they have been coddled over the last 3 decades by the HMO Act of 1973. The fallout of that act has lead to a system which is not free market, but is statist masquerading under the garb of free market. The HMOs were declining until Nixon subsidized them heavily, setting up a system where insurance companies are the King. All the incentives are aligned that way too. A Cato study has shown that regulations lead to a cost of 340 billion to the public.

Healthcare in the US is screwed up, yes. But that is because they had the worst devised state-led program. A state-led program which ended up making insurance companies the biggest decision-makers. Leading to a system where the decision on your surgery is taken by an insurance agent sitting somewhere, with incentives aligned to reject your claim. It came about, not because of free markets, but because of government intervention. French and British state-led programs are certainly better. And they are working well for now. But the question is, are they sustainable? That is a topic for another post on another day.

Anyone who treats the US health care mess as an indictment of the free markets system , either doesnt understand the history and the structure of the US health care system, or doesnt understand what free markets and privatization means. Or both.

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Monday, July 30, 2007

My Most Awaited Movie of the Summer

... releases in fall.


Now He Has REALLY Depressed Me

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Peaking at t = 0

Saw Ratatouille recently. Mildly amusing, but seemed too long. Is it just me, or does everyone feel that every neo-animated movie (i.e the post-Shrek era) is a disappointment? Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc, Ice Age and even the Shrek sequels have all been kinda ani-climactic. They are funny for about half an hour and then the writers have no clue where to take them. It's like the genre peaked at the very beginning. The only little burst of genius post-Shrek in animation movies has been a side-show. I refer of course to Scrat, the squirrel who can't seem to hold on to his acorn. By the way, if you haven't seen them yet, you should check out the 2 Oscar-nominated short films starring him. This is the first one -


Jackson Heights and Edison

I was told Jackson Heights in Queens was the Indians' version of Chinatown. Could not agree more. And nothing says "Indian" more than hilarious signs at shop entrances. You will appreciate me saying this, especially since I am from Pune, a city that has made shop sign composition an art form. Naturally I was tickled all sorts of pink when I saw this -

No foods (sic)... OK. No drinks... fine. But what could have possibly possessed the shopkeeper to write "no kulfi". It is likely that the sign just forbade food and drinks, but a lot of people(named either Narsimha or Dick Cheney) would walk in with kulfi and when stopped, argue that a kulfi is neither a food nor a drink. So our meticulous shopkeeper has now removed all ambiguity.

The other desitown I visited was Edison in New Jersey. Actually it is not so much desitown as it is gujjutown. The gujju experience started right in the NJ Transit train, with the two people seated opposite me talking in Gujarati and munching on gathiya. Edison itself really is Gujju beyond belief. A lot of the shop signs are in Gujarti, and we even saw several posters for a play called "Ba E Maari Boundary".

The visit to Edison (and even Jackson Heights) was not for pleasure but for engagement shopping. Every shop that we went to, my fiancee, who would usually have to be tortured to admit her Gujju origins, would start off in the language in the hope for discounts. And it worked too. What was annoying and amusing for me was that subsequently the shopkeepers would start talking to me in Gujarati too. In one shop I finally told them I was not Gujarati. The shopkeeper says,

"You are not Gujarati?"


"And she is?"


"What are you then?"


"And you are getting engaged?"


"Hmmm".... he said with a barely concealed expression of disapproval and disappointment. I debated whether I should ask him if he would support a decree against aapro dikris marrying non-Gujaratis. But I reckoned the joke would fly right over his head.

After spending a couple of hours in Edison shops... each and every one seemed to be run by a Gujarati... my fiancee and I finally decided to get over the experience by walking into a distinctly Pakistani restaurant and having nothing but cow meat.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Sickest Point in Sicko

One thing I found really disgusting in the film was towards the end. Moore tells us that the guy running the biggest anti-Michael-Moore website was planning to shut it down. The reason was that his wife was sick and he needed the money he usually used for the website, for her medical expenses, since they weren't insured.

Moore then informs us that he sent an "anonymous cheque" worth USD 12,000 to the man for his wife's treatment and that enabled him to keep the site running.

Now that gesture by itself would have been very commendable. It would have shown a very Voltaire-ish fortitude. But by mentioning this in his film, he has cheapened the help. Anonymous donations don't remain anonymous any more after you have used them to make a point in your movie. Not only has Moore, intentionally or intentionally done something which seems to say "Look how generous I am. I donate money even to my enemies." He has also put the guy running the website on a spot. If he knew that the donation was coming from a man he hates, he might not have wanted to accept it. Especially if the man is going to use the fact to support an argument he is making. Needless to say, the guy is pissed off.

The Sicko Saga

The battle between Michael Moore and CNN is quite amusing. A bit bafflingly amusing too. You would expect Moore to lock horns with conservative outlets like Fox. Even on CNN, you would expect him to fight Glenn Beck. But instead he has been fighting tooth and nail with Sanjay Gupta, who is by no means a free market proponent. Gupta is a regular contributor to Democrat candidates and he does want health care reform. Not exactly Sean Hannity.

The funniest part about this fight is that Gupta is not even remotely arguing against the central premise of the film. He is just taking issue with the intellectually dishonest manner in which Moore makes his argument. As someone who is on the same ideological grounds as Moore, Gupta believes that such a wishy washy argument actually weakens the case. I can understand how he feels. That is how I feel whenever I hear someone else opposing caste-based reservations uses the stupid "merit" argument.

You can check out their arguments by just entering their names in google news. Here is a good summary of the arguments followed by updates and follow-ups from both sides.

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Soniaji, Aam Aadmi is in trouble

The Congress came to power promising to help the aam aadmi. The government should do something to help out Ajit Desai.

I am sure he appreciates their help to aam aadmis like him, by managing to get permission for Indian mangoes to be sold in the US. But they are having a tough time competing. What to do?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Pop-Sociology I

Everyone knows and indulged in pop-psychological analysis. But what sort of a PhD student would I be if I didn't indulge in some pop-sociology? No references, no theoretical foundation, no empirical justification. Just conjecture, anecdotal evidence and quasi-hypothesis. Hey, that's what best-sellers are made of!

For my first pop-sociology post, I will pay attention to the Tamilian Brahmins, or the TamBrams. More specifically, their food habits. I have observed that a large number of Brahmins, especially in cities, have given up vegetarianism, most TamBrams are still zealously vegetarian. Why is that, I wonder? Even Gujaratis are largely vegetarian, but that's a topic for another post.

A few decades ago, I am sure most Brahmins from any region in India were vegetarian. A non-vegetarian brahmin was a rarity. Yet, almost everywhere else, Brahmins started eating meat in large numbers. Even specifically in South India, brahmins from Andhra, Karnataka and Kerala are not that zealously vegetarian anymore. Yet TamBrams, even in my generation, cling on to vegetarianism.

My explanation is Periyar. Several decades ago, Periyar lead an anti-Brahmin movement which was very popular, successful, and to this day, dictates politics in Tamil Nadu. This movement lead to large scale migration of Brahmins, and even the ones who stayed behind, couldn't help but feel a bit targeted.

Whenever a community is under attack, it closes itself up, and is less likely to be open to change. Which is why the "non-veg" influence, which is clearly an outsider influence for Brahmins, was avoided with religious zeal. To a community under attack, clinging on to what separates it from the rampaging majority, becomes very important. In other states, kids in Brahmin household eating meat might have been frowned upon, but the act itself didn't raise as many angry eyebrows. Because no one was attacking them too much, their Brahminism wasn't under attack, and hence their protective instincts about their traditions weren't as elevated.

TamBrams however, in a higher state of alert about defending their traditional identity, were more hyper about things. So while a "rebel" brahmin from other states could get away with eating non-Brahmin food with just some annoyed tongue-clucking from the family elders, a "rebel" tambram would have the kitchen sink thrown at him.

And that is the reason why TamBrams are more vegetarian than most other Brams.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Cant Help But Smile

A few weeks back I wrote about the Lal Masjid situation being like Pakistan's version of the Waco siege. Things have finally come to a boil with a couple of dozen killed and hundreds surrendering. But the extremist leaders are apparently still holed up, intent on "martyrdom".

Whether this snowballs into a larger problem remains to be seen. We all know how long the after-effects of Operation Blue Star in Punjab were felt. But as an Indian, especially one who has lived in a city hit by ISI-masterminded terrorism, I can't help but smile at how the Pakistani army's exploitation of religious extremism is now coming back to haunt it.

The real question is, has the Islamic radical movement reached uncontrollable Frankensteinian proportions? Musharraf's administration already has no control over Waziristan and parts of NWFP. Now a situation developed right in the heart of their modern capital. Does the army have enough radicals to disobey Musharraf and lead an Islamic revolution of sorts?

As much as one hates Musharraf, the idea of a bunch of mullahs having access to Pakistan's sizeable nuclear as well as non-nuclear arsenal is deeply disturbing. Not just for India, but also for the United States. If that happens, Iran will seem like Switzerland by comparison.

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

Move in the right direction

The government is planning to test a food coupon system to solve the mess created by the PDS in a country which has excess foodgrains as well as millions starving.

This seems like a move in the right direction. It creates competition, cuts out the middleman, and is likely to be a lot better than the prevailing joke that is PDS. But I don't see the point behind these coupons being used only in "designated" stores. Why not all stores? This "designation" process can lead to more corruption, and limit the competition available.

The government should implement the coupon system such that the coupons can be encashed by anyone.