Home
Over the past 20 years or so, most of China's leaders have been engineers. I'm embarrassed to say that I was not aware of this until recently. Suddenly, everything makes sense.

For years I have marveled at the fact that the Chinese government could be so practical. They didn't seem bogged down by the superstitions and sideshow passions that you so often see in other governments. China's leaders make decisions like engineers. For example, every time I hear someone yapping about how China harvests organs from executed criminals, all I'm thinking is That's a practical way to get spare parts.

China's leadership isn't big on religion. And apparently they don't see any upside in war. They handle their money wisely. They put a lot of energy into building infrastructure. And they care more about stability than human rights. In other words, they value efficiency over feelings. It's exactly the way you'd expect a bunch of engineers to run a country. Obviously this approach has served China well.

The bad news for China is that their up-and-coming leaders have backgrounds in law, economics, and history. In time, the lawyers will start passing lots of laws that individually make sense while collectively strangling the business sector in red tape. The economists will all disagree with each other, and the historians will be planning for the past. So China is pretty much doomed. But they had a good run.

 

 
Before you complain that I'm a socialist who wants to take away your freedoms and your money, what follows is just a thought experiment. I start with the premise that the government of the United States, against all odds, declares universal healthcare a basic right.

Obviously no one has figured out how to pay for universal healthcare in a way that society can swallow. So today's thought experiment imagines that ALL options are on the table except raising taxes, just to make this interesting.

As President Obama has pointed out, there might be some savings involved with covering everyone. At the moment, two-thirds of all bankruptcies are caused by medical bills. If that problem goes away, society saves a bundle.

If we assume a so-called single payer option goes into effect, which means the government offers an insurance program in competition with private insurers, we could eventually see some drops in prices. If you prefer keeping your private insurance company, the only change you would see is a lower bill.

A big benefit of universal healthcare insurance is job mobility. At the moment, lots of people stay at suboptimal jobs because switching jobs would mean losing healthcare for themselves or their families. That's a huge drag on economic efficiency. I suppose wages might creep up if people feel more freedom to job hop, and there would be some extra training involved for all the fresh meat, but on balance I'm guessing job mobility is a boost to the economy, and potentially a big one.

Another economic benefit from universal healthcare coverage is that doctors can catch problems early, before they become more expensive to treat. That's a winner all around.

A big downside of insuring everyone is that in the short run there wouldn't be enough doctors to go around. One solution is to recruit qualified doctors from overseas. If they can pass the same tests as American doctors, they're in. I have to think we'd have plenty of doctors in that case. Then the shortage becomes the problem of other countries.

Next, we legalize doctor-assisted euthanasia, under strict medical guidelines. A disproportionate amount of healthcare costs go toward the last few months of life, when the patient is getting very little bang for the buck. I don't know anyone who wouldn't want the option for himself.

Then we require junk food to be labeled like cigarettes, and make it a national priority to decrease our exposure to unhealthy food. People still have to eat, so perhaps the fast food outlets could make the same profit from offering convenient food that is healthy, even if it isn't as tasty and addicting. The government could bully or legislate unhealthy foods out of our diets if it needed to.

Next, the government could start to push the benefits of exercise. And I don't mean the hand-waving they do now. I mean a serious push, until couch potatoes start feeling like flag burners. Exercise could become a matter of national pride.

The government could tax cigarettes into the realm of novelty. Remember, this is the imaginary world of the thought experiment. If universal healthcare is mandated, and you don't want to wait ten months to see a doctor like you do in Canada (allegedly), then society has to make some hard choices.

The government could also require your doctor to treat patients by e-mail, as my HMO already does. That probably saves 10% on patient visits right off the top. Once hi def cameras are more ubiquitous, you should be able to e-mail photos of your bruises and suspicious moles to your doctor too. And I have read that there is a lot of progress in various types of home medical monitors that can send info to your doctor. That should help.

Imagine also that employers who offer health insurance have to treat cohabitation just like marriage. If you're shacking up with someone, you have the option of being on their insurance plan, no further questions asked. Employers currently don't discriminate against married employees even though their families cost extra to insure. This simply extends that benefit to non-traditional familes.

I can also imagine a loosening of the rules for what a Nurse Practitioner can do without a doctor's direct supervision. Between the Internet and a Nurse Practitioner, patients can eliminate a lot of doctor visits.

Most of what I mentioned here is thoroughly impractical because of lobbyists, morons, bad leadership, superstition, and our addictions to unhealthy behavior. It's just interesting to imagine what universal healthcare would look like if it were a constitutional right and raising taxes was off the table.

 
I saw an article recently about states that have favorable taxation for retired people. I wonder if buying first-floor condos in those states would be a good investment, since demand will be rising.

And I wonder what other types of investments make sense as the baby boomers retire in numbers. Let's ignore the obvious ones, such as the companies who make rest homes, funeral homes, pharmaceuticals, canes, walkers, and Depend undergarments. I'm looking for the next level of cleverness. That's what I expect from my readers.

For example, I can imagine artificial grass becoming a boom business, both because of water shortages and because it takes mowing out of the equation. The fake grass these days looks convincing, and the prices are coming down. Replacing your lawn when you're about 60 might be a good investment, making it easier to retire in your current home.

Lately I have been hearing a lot of buzz about the game of bocce. The game has been around forever, but suddenly it's hot. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that you can do it at any age, and at any level of sobriety. And it's generally cheap. If there's a pure play in bocce, I'd take that bet. It's like catnip for the over-50 crowd. And the grandkids can play too.

Cruise lines seem like a good gamble. They make it easy to vacation on a budget, especially if you're not too active. And retirees are the ones who can most easily take a 3-week cruise.

Do you have any other non-obvious ways to make money from the boomer retirement bulge?

 
I'm fascinated by the debate over fixing/expanding the healthcare system in the United States. The issue is so complex that people understandably fall back on basic philosophies of the free market system to reach an opinion. For example, if you think the government tends to screw up everything it touches, and the free market does a good job, you might come down on the side of less government involvement in the healthcare system. But that view ignores the confusopoly effect.

A confusopoly - a term I concocted several years ago - is any industry that intentionally makes its products and services too complicated for comparison shopping. The best examples of confusopolies are cell phone carriers and insurance companies. And health insurance companies might be the most confusing confusopoly of all. I suspect that no individual has the knowledge, time, and information necessary to effectively compare two health insurance plans. And in that environment the free market doesn't operate efficiently.

Some people support the so-called Public Option for healthcare, where the government would offer health care in competition with the free market. The idea is that private companies would eventually lower prices to compete with the government's low cost option. That sounds good on paper, but the reality is that the private industry folks would use the uncertainty of the confusopoly to convince people that the government option would somehow end up killing its subscribers, e.g. "Sure, it looks inexpensive until your kidney starts hurting."

I think a better role for government would be shining a light on the existing private healthcare plans in a way that would help consumers choose the most economical option. The government did this successfully with the bank loan industry when it required all loans to have an APR, which is a single number that allows consumers to compare one loan to another. Healthcare can't be boiled down to a single number, but I suspect you could come up with a report card and some sort of average cost per subscriber. That way, consumers could shop wisely, and the free market might work the way it is meant to work.

Here's a concrete example. I have a health care plan that allows me to e-mail my doctor through the plan's website, and I usually get an answer in an hour or two. For 90% of the minor issues that would otherwise require a visit to the doctor, my doctor handles them in about half a minute by e-mail, including sending an electronic prescription to the pharmacy if needed. It is a HUGE time saver for me, and a big money saver for them, which I hope gets translated into keeping my premiums low. So here's my question to you: Which health care insurance do I use?

If you know the answer from something I wrote in the past, don't give it away in the comments. The point is that you can Google all day long and never find a way to compare health insurance plans on price or features. That's a problem that I think the government could fix.

 
Sep 18, 2009 | General Nonsense | Permalink
As regular readers know, I wonder if the economy is being manipulated by a small group of people who make vast fortunes by investing ahead of the swings. And if there isn't any major manipulation happening, the economy certainly acts that way.

You might have noticed that there are times, such as now, when the stock market is marching straight up and there is a suspicious lack of bad news. Oh, don't get me wrong - there is plenty of bad news out there if the media wants to focus on it. But for some reason (conspiracy) there is more emphasis on the good. That means something big and bad is in the pipeline to create the next unnecessary panic. The conspirators are tamping down on the smaller bad news stories to get the biggest bang out of the panic they intend to create. That's what my spider sense is telling me is happening now.

Perhaps the Dow will continue to 10,000, but the next big shock will be in the downward direction. I predict stories about some sort of financial crisis that you never even heard of, before the end of the year. And I predict it will drive the market down 20%.

And then Special Forces will find and kill Bin Laden, driving the market back up to new highs. You and I will find ways to lose money during these swings, by panicking and selling at the wrong times. The manipulators will double their money.

Disclaimer: Don't take investment advice from cartoonists, especially if it includes a reference to spider senses.

 
Traits
Sep 17, 2009 | General Nonsense | Permalink
In the old days you married whoever was nearby and willing. Today you have a greater chance of marrying someone who shares common traits. I wonder how this selective breeding will shape humans of the future.

We're already seeing this to some degree. Athletes often have parents who are both athletes. And geniuses generally have two parents that were inclined in that direction. IQ and athleticism are two obvious categories, but I wonder what other, less heralded traits will get exaggerated in the generations to come.

For example, religious people will continue mating with religious people, and atheists will seek out other atheists. By default, that leaves the agnostics to mate with each other. Will this group create babies who have an unusually hard time making decisions? Or on the positive side, will that group be unusually open-minded?

People who enjoy wine tasting are finding each other, and often mating, in numbers that never would have happened a hundred years ago. I assume this group has a more refined sense of taste and smell than the average person. Will they create babies with super senses?

I started thinking about this after reading an article about one researcher's hypothesis about the increase in autism rates. I stress that I don't think his hypothesis will pan out, but his line of thinking is fascinating. He noted that children of engineers are somewhat more likely to be autistic, and then observed that because there are more women in high tech jobs, you have more kids spawned from techie couples. Again, I don't think this link to autism will hold up to testing, but the line of thinking is interesting.

What other traits do you think will become exaggerated in the future?

 
I had planned to read the reports of inappropriate witticisms that many of you submitted yesterday and put the best one in today's post. It turns out that there is a problem with that plan: I really don't want anyone to know which one of those stories made me laugh hardest.

Somewhere in the darkest part of my mind there's a little dark room. And inside that room is a closet. And inside the closet is a little box, covered with a wool blanket. That's the place I plan to keep some of your stories, so I can laugh about them later without anyone knowing what a sick bastard I am.

The second problem is that picking a winner would be impossible. There are so many side-splitters in the group that I declare you all winners in your own way.

I have a theory that people who enjoy the darkest forms of humor don't subscribe to superstition, or to conformity unless it has a purpose. That probably describes Dilbert Blog readers pretty well.

 
When I was in my mid-twenties I attended a singles mixer in San Francisco, held outdoors on a pier. It was a frightening place for a shy person. One very Dilbert-looking fellow (literally), in a brown leisure suit, went straight to the outdoor bar and started ordering stiff drinks. I watched in awe as he chugged one after another, trying to find some social courage. Unfortunately he reached the blackout point before he reached the witty and charming sweet spot. I happened to be looking in his direction when he started to topple, like a diseased redwood tree. He was probably unconscious before he hit the pavement because he never used his hands to break the fall. It was a full-on face plant in cement. I didn't see him move again, even after the emergency crews arrived, although I assume he recovered.

Anyway, as the emergency crews worked on him, right in front of the outdoor bar, while the assembled crowd watched in horror, I walked up to the bar and said in an overloud voice, "I'll have what he had."

This witticism did not go over as well as I hoped. The bartender went into full legal defense mode, explaining that the fallen gentleman must have had many drinks before he even showed up. And none of the single women came up to me later and said anything like "That was very witty. I must have you." It was one of my more inappropriate moments.

Tell us your most inappropriate witticism. What's the worst thing you ever said out loud?

 
Lately I have been looking at the moon and wondering if it will someday kill me. If I live another 50 years (which is entirely possible) I assume I will eventually be a robot, having shed my old skin and bones body and uploaded a scanned and digitized version of my brain to a machine. My fellow robots and I will live among the meat people for eons until the moon's orbit degrades, either gradually or because a meteor gives it a nudge, and Earth is annihilated in the collision. You might say I worry too much. But I've successfully avoided death so far, so I say I worry just enough.

Because of this impending moon problem I have been planning an exit strategy. By the time the moon starts heading our way I imagine we'll have the technology to send me into space in an escape rocket, searching for a habitable planet. I could power down my robot brain so the trip isn't so boring.

But even if this plan works it will be lonely when I find my new planet. And then there is the issue of the 400 billion meat people and fellow robots I leave behind, including my hot robot wife, Shelly, and the rest of my robot family. I want a solution for them too. Sure, I could reprogram my brain to not care, but that's not how I roll.

Unfortunately, I assume there would be no practical way to build and launch enough rockets for everyone to escape, at least not in time. So sending the entire population of Earth to the new planet isn't going to work.

We need a better plan than that, and it goes like this: Once we have the technology, we begin scanning and digitizing everyone's brain routinely, perhaps once a year during regular physicals. By then I'm sure we'll have universal planetary healthcare. Remember, this is the far, far future.

Once the moon starts coming our way, we launch some of the robot people, including me, as scouts for the new planet. Each of us will carry a huge flash drive filled with all the scanned brains of the meat people and robots that will be left behind. We will also bring enough technology to build more robots on New Earth.

I suppose we'd also want to freeze a few regular humans and take them along in the cargo bin so we can begin breeding them on New Earth, just for old time's sake. Obviously the meat people would be regarded as old technology, and a huge pain in the ass, always complaining about sinus problems and toothaches and whatnot, but we could turn off our robot ears when we visit them in the zoo on New Earth.

I look forward to my new robot planet. You might think that being a robot would be less fun than being human, but I think fun is exactly the sort of subroutine we'd design into the robot system. Or maybe we could just buy it at the iTunes app store.

Perhaps you think you would miss being human, but that's a subroutine we'd leave out of the robot mind. You would be designed for happiness. And I'm not talking about ordinary happiness. I'm talking about the kind that makes you scream and curl your robot toes. It will be a happy robot planet.

Another possible future is that we are so invested in our humanity, with all of its flaws, that we design our future robotic containers to perceive ourselves and other robots as flesh and blood humans. In other words, there's a good chance this plan already happened and you're a robot living on New Earth. You're only programmed to believe you are human.

Yeah, you knew I was going there.
 
In my recent post about bad personality traits, reader Littlepo mentioned The Contradictor. That's the person who disagrees with everything you say, no matter what you say. I used to find that trait maddening until I took a hypnosis class. My hypnosis teacher taught us how to control that type of personality like a puppet. I couldn't believe how effective it was until I saw it in action.

At the time, I was working for the phone company, and a big part of my job was figuring out which new features we should add to our services. This process had one gatekeeper individual who was in charge of deciding where the technical resources would be allocated. His response to all requests was invariably "That can't be done." It didn't matter what the question was. The answer was always no. In time, I realized he was simply a Contradictor. If I said the sky is blue, he'd say color is just an interpretation that happens inside your head. He was genetically incapable of agreeing with anything.

And that was his weakness.

After my tenth unsuccessful encounter with the Contradictor, I started phrasing my requests for his help as statements of impossibility. For example, if I wanted him to implement feature X, I might say, "The market research says people want X, but obviously that would be too expensive to implement, if not completely impossible. So just give me the official ‘no' and I can close the loop on this awful, awful, AWFUL idea."

At this point the Contradictor's need to prove me wrong would spring into overdrive. And feature X would become a reality. Since then I have used the method a number of times to great effect.

The trick is to make sure you don't overdo it. Keep The Contradictor primed by feeding him a steady stream of unimportant topics to disagree with. That makes it easier to get the result you want on the important ones.

You'll be amazed at how well this works.
 
 
 
Showing 731-740 of total 1035 entries
 
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog