Dear Democratic Supporters of the health care bills: You do realize you're supporting putting Republicans in charge of health care, right? Oh, sure, not this year or next. But it's only a matter of time until Republicans can pass bills again. Whether 2011, 2013, or 2017 or beyond, sooner or later it's going to be the Republicans in control of at least one house, the Presidency, and in pretty good shape in the other house.

HR 1: Spreadsheet Breakdown of Division A

I got tired of politically-loaded summaries of what is in HR 1, the stimulus bill as it passed in the House. Everyone knows they "ought" to read it, but few seem willing to actually do it. (The best version unfortunately resists permalinking: Go here, select "House Bills 1-100", then the first house bill.)

Let me help you out. I still have not read the whole thing, and at 800+KB of text I don't feel too bad. But I did spend four hours last night on the bill.

I will stay non-political in this post, until ofter the end. I ask that you bear with me through some political observation, because after spending four hours with legalese I feel I'm entitled to a bit of commentary.

The bill is organized into two Divisions. Division A seems to primarily be about appropriations, and consists of approximately one third of the bill by textual volume, and by my unskilled calculation, about one third of the reported cost. Division B appears to be a massive rewrite of the tax code. Both sections of the bill contain significant modifications to other law, and I have not had the time to follow the (numerous) references through, but it is clear just looking at some of them that they are major changes. Nobody is understating how big this bill is; I daresay everybody is understating it, because a straight description sounds hyperbolic.

I have broken the appropriations into a spreadsheet, which is available as an HTML table in the main body of this post, or as an Open Office Calc file or a Comma Separated Values file. (In both cases you may have to right-click and "Save Link As..." to save it.) The table below is in the same order it appears in the bill; with a spreadsheet you can reorder it, of course.

I haven't even begun to analyze the tax code because I am not competent to analyze tax implications. Also, unlike the appropriations which are mostly either new law, or simply increases in funding for old law (though not entirely), the tax section primarily consists of significant rewrites of older law, making the exact implications difficult to tease apart even if you were intimately familiar with existing tax code and who pays what taxes. I've considered trying to write a summary, but I don't think I can even do that, whereas I might be able to pull it off with reasonable accuracy for Division A.

It's worth remembering, as we enter the culmination of a very loud Internet election season, that out there in the real world, only 8% of voters claim to be voting for one because they "dislike" the other (10% say that while voting for McCain, 6% for Obama). (Check that methodology so you know what that means. It's a free form answer question. If the question were asked as "Which of the following statements do you agree with?

Complexity and Society

Vernor Vinge is well known as one of the originators of the concept of the technological singularity, which is well-known to inform his sci-fi writings.

One of the less well known concepts which informs his sci-fi writings is one possible fate of societies that do not or can not end in a "singularity", which is the eventual unavoidable collapse of the society in a cascading failure state brought on by excessive, uncontrollable complexity in the ever-more-sophisticated systems that drive the society. In this case, take "system" in the broad sense, including not just software, but business practices, government, and societal mores. A failure occurs somewhere, which brings down something else, which brings down two other something elses, and perhaps quite literally in the blink of an eye, you are faced with a growing complex of problems beyond the ability of any one human to understand or contain.

We've seen small-scale examples of this before; Part 1 of The Hacker Crackdown goes into some detail about the 1990 AT&T phone network collapse.

I've always been a bit dubious of this theory. It's not intrinsically bad, but the truth is all software and systems must have some fault tolerance in them, because in reality, faults happen all the time. As I write this, my office has just experienced 6 straight days of faulty internet connection, and yet, our world has failed to end. We've got problems, but every bit of software we use already knows it has to be able to deal with problems like that. Only a few things were confused by the exact nature of the network failure, and even those were non-fatal. Deliveries will be late, networks will be down, contracts will be violated, only the truly foolhardy fail to make plans for those eventualities... unless....

More bailout stuff, skip if that makes you unhappy. How did we get here? The economy is fantastically complicated beyond human comprehension, so we are forced to use heuristics to comprehend it. No amount of education can overcome this fact, which is why every economy professor is proposing a different solution; the education doesn't mean you actually understand, it "just" changes the heuristics. My favorite heuristic for understanding the economy (and also a lot of business in general) is that people will do what they believe is best for them, based on their local comprehension of the situation, and that what other people intended for their local situation counts for nothing.

A bailout that does not remove the mandates that banks issue bad loans is worse than no bailout at all. It just guarantees that when this happens again, next time it'll be even bigger. How about repealing the Community Reinvestment Act, at the very least pending an investigation? How about instead of banning corporate parachutes, we ban subprime mortgages entirely? How about phasing in requirements for a 10% down payment, minimum?

Over the past couple of years, I've been turning into a skeptic on the global warming theory, in particular the idea that mankind's actions have effectively doomed us to an uncomfortably hot planet (since the putatively required solutions are all completely unimplementable).

I will grant that my politics would seem to incline me to such skepticism, but I try to decide based on the science, not the politics. If the world truly is heading for disaster, I want to know.

It is very hard to judge a science that you have no experience in, but there is one metric that you can correctly use as an educated outsider to determine whether a scientist is on the right track or the wrong track: the accuracy of predictions. If a prediction is correctly made, it favors a theory, proportionally to the difficulty of the prediction. If the prediction is wrong, it is very solid evidence that the theory or model is wrong. This judgment can be often be made by anybody, especially when it's a question of something simple like temperature.

One of the things I sometimes fiddle with in the back of my head is how to fix school curricula to better serve students and society. One of the stronger ideas I have is that economics (and ideally, game theory) should be taught, replacing a lot of really dumb mathematical holdovers like trigonometric identities for a semester or two.

And over the last few weeks, I've been really wishing that we'd been teaching economics for the past fifty years instead of other silly things, because the blinding stupidity on exhibit in the recent oil debates is really starting to get to me.

It's going to be an interesting Presidential campaign, no matter what. All plausible candidates have glaring flaws in them.

The idea of the Lincoln-Douglas debates are deeply ingrained in the American psyche, but I think it's time to face up to the fact that that era of the debate has passed. Instead, I wish the candidates would do a written debate. I don't just mean "Send them each a bunch of questions and publish both responses", I mean an interactive series of answers and rebuttals. Randomly choose half the questions to send to the one candidate first, half to the other.