Friday, August 31, 2012

These Facts, If True

Al Gore wrote of inconvenient truths. It is true that the truth can be inconvenient. One of the sayings that has guided my philosophical view of my fellow man (and woman) is the  statement, “My mind's made up, don’t confuse me with facts.” I suspect that this is the situation with most of the people you discourse with on a daily basis, including myself.

(By the way, before I go on, I will give my opinion of Gore’s book. A lot of truth in there, but, unfortunately, he tends to exaggerate. Maybe it is the simple dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. In other words, maybe he stretches the truth a lot with the hope that it will snap back, like a rubber band, to a more “truthy” understanding in most people's minds. Yes, the ocean levels are going up. That is a measurable fact using satellite telemetry. No, they are not rising feet, only inches. The truth is serious enough. Sadly, Al seems to gild most of his lilies. But I’ll stop there. I don’t want to debate global warming. There are other inconvenient truths and facts, that if true, would be enough for us to masticate on.)

The term "paradigm" means distinct concepts or thought patterns in any scientific discipline or other epistemological context. The power of paradigms is that it provides the context that all data input is filtered through. We all see life through our own experiences, understanding, and — yes — biases. Paradigms are a tool. Without them we could not comprehend the world. We would have no way to connect the facts into knowledge and wisdom. BUT, and it is a big BUT, paradigms also restrict our ability to change our minds and to view new facts in a new way. It is not a coincidence that most great scientific breakthroughs are made by young people before their minds calcify into the framework of the present thought patterns. I used to teach / preach “learn the rules before you break them” as a warning to understand the current knowledge and wisdom before challenging it. But that may not be true. Of course, ignorance is not the goal and the empty mind would be full of new ideas — most of them wrong. But the current ideas and paradigms filter out both foolish and wise thoughts, and the truly wise will stretch their horizons to include new and opposing views. Visionaries are often revolutionary. That is work for the young, not the old … and I’m on social security and medicare, so you can figure out where I fit in the spectrum!

I read once that reading views that are in opposition to your fundamental beliefs is actually good exercise for the brain, and that reading only ideas you agree with is like being a mental couch potato. That is something new to think about. A lot of current political discussions occur in an "echo chamber" of like thinking people. So I welcome ideas and thoughts, usually of the political nature, that I disagree with. These opposing views make me think harder about my own biases and prejudices. Now I don’t tolerate the politics of personal destruction and ad hominem attacks rankle me, but cogent  arguments that I don’t agree with are good fodder for my own mental gymnastics. Besides, I’ve been wrong so many times in my life that I’m perfectly willing to accept another error of my ways. However I ask the same privilege of those that are so sure of their side of the debate and consider all who disagree to be lesser animals, lacking in any basic intelligence or human kindness.

In plain English, all you people that are so sure of yourselves and so quick to criticize the other side of the discussion lose a lot of validity with me just from your “my way or the highway” attitude. A little humility goes a long way in wining an argument with me.

Truth is subjective. That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality: "tell me the truth.” Facts? Reality? Let me first tell you something based on my experience as a professional statistician. Facts are subjective too, or at least, they can be. Another old saying, “Lies, damn lies, and statistics,” is not far from the truth. You have to be both very careful and very knowledgable in mathematics to really understand statistics and what they are saying. Some times sampling will give a more accurate representation of a statistical fact than counting 100% of the occurrences. I know that seems counter-intuitive, but it is a provable mathematical fact. I know about the "mean," but what about the variance? This a statistician must always ask. It is a true that fifty percent of the doctors graduated in the bottom half of their class. FACT! Learn to live with it.

Further, many ideas and numbers are quoted to us in our daily lives and labeled as “facts.” You must consider both the source and the context and several other parameters before you take these “facts” at face value. Another quote, “These facts, if true, …” You mean some facts are not true? Now you’re starting to understand.

So, with this preamble, let me wade into some facts. Call these things learned on the way to look up other things.

In a recent study by the U.S. Bureau of Standards, the data showed how American consumers spend their money compared with three other nations: Canada, the U.K., and Japan. The study documented the percentage of income spent by each national group on various budget areas. All four nations are rich, but the spending of their citizens varies widely.

(We are all taught in school to document our sources. That is one way to evaluate and confirm facts. The U.S. Bureau of Standards is a known valid and reliable source with minimum political bias, but many are biased against bias and see it everywhere. They are correct. It is more a matter of degree of bias. These are pure numbers, and should be relatively free from bias considering this source.)

Since our recent economic downturn … and has anyone noted just how long this downturn has lasted? It is really an economic disaster in slow motion. Since our recent economic downturn, the current data (from 2010) shows that 29% of US expenditures go toward housing compared with 21.6% in Japan and 24% in Canada and the United Kingdom.

In the US, 2.3% of our expenditures go toward education which is about the same as Canada. However, Japan spends almost twice as much at 4% while the U.K. spends 1.8%. Finally, a subject of great debate, we spend 6.9% on health care compared with 4% in Japan and Canada and 1.4% in the U.K. That’s a combination of government and personal spending for each nation.

Let’s talk about houses first, put the housing expenditures into a context, and see if we can understand the facts behind the numbers. Only then can we approach that philosophical goal of truth and wisdom. Although we spend more of our income on housing than these other nations, we also live in some of the largest homes in the world. According to the BBC (that’s the British Broadcasting Corporation — ABC, NBC, CBS, plus some CNN, MSNBC, and Fox all rolled into one) the average size of home in the U.S. is 2,300 square feet compared with 818 square feet in the U.K. I don’t have the data, but I was a frequent visitor to Japan and suspect the home sizes are even smaller there. Same with Canada, smaller homes than the U.S., at least based on the homes I’ve been in in Toronto and other cities in Canada. (Note, anecdotes don’t equal data. Ignore my personal observations if you truly seek the truth.)

Further, our tax policies which allow the deduction of mortgage interest and property taxes as well as other government subsidies of home loans both help us buy larger properties and push the market value of those home up and up. (Recall that the trigger of this current economic malaise was this market price bubble bursting, leaving many people under water ((that is, owing more than the home is worth.))) In the current discussion of changes in our tax code, people speak of closing loopholes. This mortgage interest and property tax deduction may be the largest loophole that the middle class avails themselves of ... do you want it closed? Most other developed nations have discarded all policies such as these that encourage home ownership. So the comparison of our spending to other rich nations may be, as they say, apples to oranges. Maybe, as a matter of policy, we want large homes, although I’ve heard derogative statements about McMansions, a term that ties together hamburgers and houses, but is meaningful none the less. The point of the term is that is is BAD to own a large house. There is something to debate right there. If it is bad to own a large house, then it must be good to be in Great Britain. Ipso facto. But let’s move on (.org).

Health care spending is very interesting and also very controversial. Most people know that the U.S. spends more on health care per person than other countries, and that we don’t have a government run universal health care system as these other nations do. So, while we pay more for health care out of pocket than any of these other nations, many say we get less.

But this may really surprise you. Ignoring our personal spending on health care for insurance and deductibles and just for direct payment of care, the U.S. government spends more on health care per capita than most developed nations that do offer universal care. And we just pay for the poor (Medicaid), the old (Medicare), the military (VA), and federal employees. Many tout that, if we had single payer government coverage, it would save us money. Yet we spend more now at the government level than other nations that are insuring everyone! Makes you want to ask … we say, in polemics, that begs the question: would the U.S. save money if it had a government run, single payer, universal health system? Since we already spend more per citizen on government paid health care and only take care of part of our population, wouldn't costs go up if the government paid for it all? Would economies of scale, non-profit systems, and simplified processes save money overall, or would it just be a massively over bureaucratic black hole down which our nation’s wealth would pour? Is the high cost of our health care system driven by people with no insurance using emergency rooms for routine doctor visits? Are the profits and administrative costs of our system robbing us of economical health care? I’m not taking sides. I'm just asking questions and quoting the statistics.

It is also argued that we don't get a good outcome for all the money we spend and our health statistics are compared to other countries to show we are not getting our money's worth. Again, there are many other factors to consider such as general wellness as part of our health care outcomes. Let's put things in context. For example, the Washington Post points out in a recent article, "Americans spend more money eating out than their peers, but they spend a significantly smaller portion of their budgets on cooking at home than Canada, Britain, or Japan." Let’s take that little tidbit of a fact to a logical conclusion.

According to the USDA, eating out once a week translates to two extra pounds a year on average. And according to the health care giant, Humana, each overweight pound translates to an extra $19.39 a year in extra health care costs. Funny how these things add up … in more ways than one. Is it our obesity epidemic, more-so than our healthcare system that is driving the relative poor health of Americans. So is our poor general health in the U.S. due to an ineffective health care system or to a lifestyle of big Macs and McMansions?

So, in conclusion, I probably haven’t changed any minds in the debate on home ownership and government policy toward the same, the health care debate, or even global warming. I really was just having some fun on a lazy Sunday morning.

But I hope I did make you think once or twice about the facts that you are basing your personal opinions and “truth” upon. With a presidential election on the horizon, and plenty of spin and sales pitches in the air, now is a good time to think long and hard about what is right and wrong and what are facts and what are just emotional appeals. I hope and pray — mostly pray — that people will put on their thinking caps, try to ignore their biases, stop attacking individuals, and really think about what policies would benefit this great nation. Then vote for the candidate that represents those ideals and will implement those policies.

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