Monday, August 20, 2012

Hope You Enjoy the Long Waiting Line for Your Doctor!

I was reading the Wall Street Journal today, and I came across an article entitled Why the Doctor Can't See You. In the article, John C. Goodman points out a paramount problem with Obamacare: the health-care system cannot possibly deliver on the huge increase in demand for primary-care services. This means that Obamacare is going to provide such services as birth control, annual checkups, and reported just today in Reuters, there is the probability that Obamacare will also provide HIV testing. Those on the Left think that this is a benefit, but in reality, this is quite unsettling. Why?

It's not because Obamacare is going to provide more universal health insurance coverage. In spite of the fact Obama already promised that no one would lose their insurance under the new or that universal health insurance would be provided, I already know that based on CBO estimations, Obamacare will cause many to lose their insurance.

Thus in this instance, not only will more people be insured, but more services will be provided. More health services are great. What can possibly be wrong with that? When the government subsidizes something (e.g., birth control, college loans), the decisions consumers make are distorted. With regards to covering services under health care, the impression left is that these services are free. To quote Milton Friedman in a cliché-like manner, "there is no such thing as a free lunch." When the mentality is that "I don't have to worry because my insurance will cover it," what results is a price spiral in the health care market due to the increased demand.

When demand outpaces supply, the result is a shortage. It is bad enough that prior to any discussion about Obamacare, there was a shortage in doctors. With the bill in place and the government becoming more and more intrusive in health care decisions, not only are there many physicians who want to pull out of business because the bill stifles their ability to make their own decisions about their own practice, but the Association of American Medical Colleges is predicting a physician shortage of 130,600 by 2025. Even when using the "more simplistic" competitive market model, I'm not at all surprised that the economics matches up with the projected losses. If the New York Times can pick up on this, then you know something is going on.

Regarding the pro-Obamacare mentality, Uwe Reinhardt points out that "it's a strange theory that having no insurance coverage and ability to pay for healthcare is better than having insurance coverage but having to wait for a doctor's appointment to get non-emergency care." As long as proponents are able to sleep at night because "doing something was better than maintaining the status quo," I suppose having longer waiting lines is perfectly acceptable.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Decreased Carbon Emissions & How Capitalism Helped the Environment, Again!

Earlier this month, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) came out with a finding saying that America's carbon emissions haven't been this low since 1992. It might seem as if I'm a bit behind on the news. However, this response is not because of the EIA, but rather because of an article that AP published yesterday evening that I found on NPR. The second paragraph is what particularly caught my eye:

Many of the world's climate scientists didn't see the drop coming, in large part because it happened as a result of market forces rather than government action against carbon dioxide, a greenhouse that traps heat in the atmosphere. 

It'd be a safe bet that reading that would cause a gag reflex for many environmentalists because "government wasn't the solution." The main "culprit" was that the natural gas market opened up through technology and innovation. As the article points out, there are other factors such as methane emission or effects of drilling. Without going into the whole fracking debate, the markets have provided what can be categorized as a short-term solution to the problem. Although environmental policy has to be envisioned on the long-term, there is still reason to be optimistic for two reasons. One is that the trend shows a retardation in carbon emissions. The second is that with this extra time, the private sector can continue to innovate within that time period and come up with more green technology.

This begs a more fundamental question: how is it that the "free market" system succeeded and the government failed on this one? I thought businesses, especially those corporations, were exploitative and whose sole purpose was to maximize profit. That's part of the problem: letting the anti-capitalists on the Left dictate the narrative on capitalism.

Capitalism produces more good than harm because of its conservationist ethos. Choice theory is the idea that people respond based on incentives and maximizing benefits. Although it does not explain all of behavior, especially given the irrationality behind the thought processes of many individuals, it is nevertheless a solid foundation upon which one can explain much of behavior. In this scenario, we can look at both the individual and the business to figure out why from a microeconomic standpoint, individuals are incentivized to conserve resources.

The basic premise behind economics is that there are a limited amount of resources, and thus, we need to figure out the best way to allocate those scarcities. In a capitalist society, there is adequate information to determine the prices via supply and demand. Businesses have an incentive to use as few resources as possible, largely due to the fact that it cost more money. Let's use the Coca Cola company as an example. There was a time where they used glass bottles. However, when the aluminum can came along, the company used those. Why? Although saving the environment ends up being a wonderful by-product in any example I can give, the truth is that it takes less energy to produce, re-use, and recycle aluminum than it does glass. A business is incentivized to be efficient, whereas the government, for a myriad of reasons, does not face the same incentive scheme.

Even with individuals, the idea of providing property rights is better than communal property or some less extreme variant thereof. Again, it boils down to incentives. Some might like wallowing in filth, but a clear majority of individuals like a more pristine place to own. Since it's the individual's property, the incentive to maintain its overall quality is much higher. That means a better use of resources, especially since the individual is bearing the costs. Without that cost-bearing, the individual's incentives are distorted, which more often than not leads to overconsumption and inefficient use of resources. If the goal is environmental preservation, capitalism is a superior option.

I want to conclude my thoughts here because at this time, I only wanted to provide a primary overview of "capitalism and environmentalism." There are many sub-topics that can be addressed separately.

Capitalism is normally not seen as a solution because capitalism is not portrayed positively. By using a different way to conceptualize capitalism, it can be at the forefront in the marketplace of ideas, and thus bring viable solutions to our environmental issues.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Berachot 13b: Yes, Being Too Pious is Possible

I notice that I haven't blogged in a while. Plus, the re-commencement of the Daf Yomi cycle made me want to see how often I can crank out some thoughts on a recently-read Talmudic portion. If it occurs frequently enough, I might have to have a separate blog for Talmudic thoughts. But for now, I'll just shoot for once a week, b'li neder.

Tonight, I was fortunate to be able to have a Skype study session with a good friend on yesterday's Talmud portion of Berachot 13. We're at that point where the rabbis discuss whether to say the Shema with kavannah, in which language, and even the appropriate posture in which to say the Shema. The Talmud is a highly tangential text. Some of the tangents are very close to the initial Mishna's argument; others are way out in left field. There was one tangent of peculiar interest in Gemara 13b. Symmachus (סומכוס בן יוסף) says that one who extends the ד in the word אחד while saying Shema is rewarded where his days and years are extended. This passage is followed by a story of where Rabbi Yemera was seated before Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba:

ר' ירמיה הוה יתיב קמיה דר' [חייא בר אבא] חזייה דהוה מאריך טובא א"ל כיון דאמליכתיה למעלה ולמטה ולארבע רוחות השמים תו לא צריכת

Essentially, R. Chiyya bar Abba was excessively extending the ד. Rabbi Yemera's response was "Once you have crowned Him in your thoughts over everything above, in Heaven, below, on earth, and in the four corners of the heavens, you need not extend any further." In other words, "enough is enough," or as I like to put it, "There is too much of a good thing, even piety." Jews need to serve G-d out of love and should not accept moral passivity. I'm certainly not going to argue that. However, there is a point where one can take noble intentions too far. It's a problem we see in today's Orthodox Judaism, and one of its primary manifestations is replacing chumra (strictures) with din (law). This is not the mindset of every Orthodox Jew, to be sure, but it has become more prevalent over time. When piety is set as the baseline, it becomes virtually impossible to adequately practice Judaism according to the standards set today.

Rabbi Yochanan is later mentioned in the Gemara during the discussion on whether one can lay on one's back while reciting the Shema. The normative ruling is that it is prohibited. However, R. Yochanan was able to recite it while lying down while slightly leaning because he was corpulent (i.e., really, really overweight), and any other posture would have caused him much duress. Based on the aforementioned mentality, I would metaphorically wager that if R. Yochanan were around now, he would have to "toughen up" and get out of bed to say the Shema.

When realizing that there is too much of a good thing, we not only have to remember that there are certain times when leniencies are acceptable (and yes, at times, preferable), but also remember that halacha is the means by which a Jew serves G-d, not an end in itself. In short, a Jew is supposed to do as many mitzvot without going overboard. Given the status quo, I guess that's easier said than done.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Parsha Vaetchanan: The Importance of Saying Shema

This week begins the Daf Yomi cycle, which is a seven-and-a-half year period in which Jews read one folio of Talmud a day. The first tractate, Tractate Berachot, begins with a discussion about saying the Shema (שמע), which consists of Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41. Not only does the שמע begin the Talmud, but they are also ideally the last words a Jew is to utter in life, the שמע is a prayer to be recited twice a day, and the שמע is also written on tefillin scrolls. What makes this prayer so important that many Jews consider it to be one of the most important prayers? A look at the first paragraph of שמע (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), which happens to be in this week's Torah portion, provides some insight.

  1. Centrality of Jewish faith. "שמע ישראל יהוה אלוהינו יהוה אחד." Hear 'O Israel, G-d is our L-rd, G-d is one. These first words of the שמע in Deuteronomy 6:4 are key. The first implication is that G-d exists. In addition to G-d's existence, this verse is monotheistic in nature. There are not multiple deities (polytheism) or a triune deity (Christianity); G-d is Infinite Oneness, even if we perceive Him in multiple ways. There aren't two battling forces of good and evil like that of Zoroastrianism, and we don't pray to multiple, competing idols. G-d is the Ultimate Source. In the Torah scroll, the ע in the word שמע and the ד in the word אחד. If you put the letters together, you get the word עד, which means "witness." The Jews are meant to be witnesses to this concept
  2. Loving G-d. The following verse says that you shall "love G-d with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might." Rabbi Isaac ben Moses Amara asked an important question because it brings up a good point: how can you command an emotion? After all, emotions can be volatile and thus more difficult to control. Also, looking at the Talmud (Berachot 54a, 61b) provides insight of what Deuteronomy 6:5 means. In the mishna, it says that "with all your heart" is in reference to both the good and evil inclinations. "All your might" indicates money, since money is referred to in the Bible as might. Alternatively, it can mean that with every measure that He metes out to you, you still thank Him. Finally, "all your soul" denotes "even if your soul is to be taken from this life," which is why the Gemara subsequently tells the story of Rabbi Akiva's untimely death. With these factors in mind, it is why Judaism is heavily focused on the deeds of an individual, and this verse is no exception. The answer of the Sfat Emet, a Chassidic rabbi of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, was that in order to truly show love to G-d, his actions must speak louder than words, beliefs, or what ever transient emotions might exist at a given time. In our actions, we are supposed to "give it our all," and the focal point is G-d (פונה). 
  3. Torah and its Transmission. The Torah has been likened to water. In a spiritual sense, the Jewish soul is quenched much like water quenches thirst, which is why we speak of the Torah "when we sit it in our homes and on our way (Deuteronomy 6:7)," i.e., Torah study is very important. What's more is that we are to transmit Torah to the next generation (ibid). Although the literal meaning of לבניך is "your sons" or "your children," the Rashi cites the Sifrei in saying that the term can also refer to one's students [regardless of age]. As previously mentioned, our actions have to line up with our words. "Do as I say, not as I do" is not a Jewish value. Merely telling children or students to do something while the teacher or parent does the opposite isn't a good teaching tool. Only by doing what we teach can provide lessons truly learned. The ability to transmit the Torah as such is one of the essentials that has kept Judaism alive for all these years. 
  4. Mezuzah and Tefillin. Aside from being d'oraita rituals that involve scrolls mentioned in this passage (verses 8 and 9), it's hard to see a more spiritual commonality. In his book "Between G-d and Man," R. Abraham Joshua Heschel talks about why we need to recite prayer three times a day, and more pertinently, why we need to recite שמע twice a day. "A scientific theory," he says (p. 43), "once it is announced and accepted, does not have to be repeated twice a day. The insights of wonder must be constantly kept alive. Since there is a need for daily wonder, there is a need for daily worship." What Heschel is pointing out is that we are spiritually fragile creatures. Our ability to remember and internalize that wonder can be rather short-term. We need that reaffirmation constantly. That is why ever time one passes through a doorpost, one kisses the mezuzah. That is why when Jewish men put on tefillin, they not only literally bind themselves, but metaphorically bind themselves to G-d as a reminder of what we are here to do.
This brief passage covers many facets. G-d being Infinite Oneness is not so much a belief as it is a given in Judaism, and based on the more philosophical implications thereof, Jews live their lives accordingly. The actions of a Jew are supposed to not only show the love for G-d, but the willingness to show that constantly and have it be strong enough to make sure that it endures. The שמע also keeps our human fragility in mind because G-d has provided the Jews with ways to remember their mission in life. The שמע, in short, is a condensed statement of what it means to be a Jew.