Archive for January, 2010|Monthly archive page

How I came to realize that I’m an atheist.

Really, actually, that’s not technically correct – I’m not totally devoid of religious ideas. I’m actually more accurately an adeist – I don’t believe in the existence of any sort of supernatural supreme being, I don’t believe in the idea of organized religion. That said, I find many of the ideals of Buddhism to be quite to my liking – not because they require any specific belief, but because they make sense. The Buddha – Siddhartha Gautama, a mortal man, is reputed to have described it thusly: “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it [or because it has been] handed down for many generations [or] because it is found written in your religious books [or] merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, accept it and live up to it”.

Buddhism passes that test – or at least, to me, its precepts do. I don’t believe in reincarnation, permanence, or karma, but I do believe in the concept of the Four Noble Truths, because they are logical, reasonable, and don’t require any manner of faith. They solely require a bit of thought.

This epiphany I had this morning

This morning I tweeted an amazing little epiphany I had. Not that in any way I support terrorism or in particular radical Islam, but I think Osama bin Laden has it all wrong.

Lately he stated his goal or ideal is to destroy the US economy and kill Americans. Lately, he’s been not exactly effective at that. Perhaps AQ inspired people in Iraq and Afghanistan have gotten some “success” sadly killing soldiers with IEDs, but that’s not really accomplishing his aim. And when it’s people I know it just makes me more upset.

Instead, the US Supreme Court seems to have provided a better opportunity. Osama should just fund the health insurance lobby and the Republican Party. Delaying meaningful health insurance is killing Americans at a much faster pace than any of Al Qaeda’s pathetic efforts, and America’s conservative movement would likely waste no time getting back to destroying the US economy if they got back into power. It just takes some financial support.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Osama can simply call it a day with the Al Qaeda thing – these cons will need a pretty significant boogieman to justify blowing trillions on another foreign misadventure, whether it’s in Yemen, Sudan, or Somalia. It’ll make the process just work faster that way.

As for me, well, I’ll just keep trying to persuade people that there are some major things America needs to get around to fixing, fast. Maybe last night’s speech will inspire some Dems to get on with their job and make the USA a proud and prosperous nation and an inspiration to all again.

My other Twitter “obsession” – atheism, and fighting creationism.

I never figured I’d get so fascinated by atheism as I have. I think being exposed to some of the nonsenes that comes out of the Christian fundamentalist knobs who use Twitter has forced me more into an extreme position on the matter than I ever normally would have expected to be.

At the end of the day – I don’t have any issue with anyone having personal religious beliefs. If that’s what you need to give your life meaning, than so be it. What I take real issue with is religion in any form influencing public policy. That is to say, when someone else’s religious ideas will impact my life or anyone else’s life, I have a very, very serious problem with that. Mainly this emerged from watching the circus that goes on in the United States with creationism and its various pseudoscientific incarnations. If you’re daft enough to believe the world’s 6500 years old, or that an invisible man created everything in seven days or whatever, then that’s fine. But keep it to yourself. The fact that it’s even an issue whether we should be teaching this kind of nausea-inducing bullshit to children, however, is a different matter. I cannot for the life of me believe that this is even some kind of an issue. It’s ridiculous from soup to nuts.

The thing is, when people present creationist ideas they seem to all bray from the same related talking points, I’ve seen it happen in so many ways. They harp on “transitional fossils”, we point out the many that exist. They shift the discussion to unrelated topics like the origins of the universe. They launch every conceivable logical fallacy, and fail to offer up a shred of science in the first place.

That’s the way the arguments go though. Someone asked me, “If evolution is so obviously correct, than why is it so controversial?” The answer I gave was simple: “It isn’t controversial.” It is only made to sound that way by the people who want to make it so. They create a controversy and then use that manufactured controversy to prove the debate needs to happen, when it wasn’t a debate to begin with. To make matters worse most of those arguing so passionately seem to have no idea what the modern theory of evolution actually entails – and you can’t even direct them to read a decent book on the matter because they’ve got their minds so closed.

If you’re an adult that wants to close up your eyes and accept what Dawkins called “the creation myth of certain group of Bronze Age desert tribesmen” (or something akin to that, anyhow, I haven’t got the book handy), then fine. But let schools teach kids the real science of where we came from over some 3.7 billion years. They deserve to know. And if they want to reject that and adopt some cockamamie ideas on their own later in life, whatever. But don’t expect people who advocate science and rationality to stand idly by. We’ll keep up spreading truth, because the world needs it.

The Quick and Dirty Primer On Canadian Healthcare

Canada’s socialized health insurance system seems to be one of the great boogeymen of the healthcare reform debate next door. A quick sample of the debate shows that a lot of people point at our system as a reason not to dramatically reform the US system. The same sample shows that most of those people seem to have little to know idea how our system even works.

So it’s time I help enlighten you fine folks.

I’m not going to go into depth on the origins of Canada’s universal healthcare. Similarly I won’t go into too much detail about the systems in place to address Canada’s complex fiscal imbalance problems, except when I get into the impact of the efforts to balance the federal government budget in the 1990s.

What I will say is that there was a fight and it seems to parallel the struggle now unfolding in the US. Though without so much propaganda and corporate media influence I think.

So how’s it work? Every Canadian citizen and permanent resident who ordinarily resides in Canada is covered by a health insurance plan run by their provincial government. Each province runs its plans a little differently, but they must all comply with federal legislation called the Canada Health Act which sets out the basic pillars of the system.  They’re pretty straightforward: public administration, comprehensiveness, universality, portability, and accessibility.

Basically – the systems are run publicly by the provinces on a not-for-profit basis, it covers a broad range of services, it treats everyone the same,  covers you in every province, and should provide reasonable access to services.  This is the most contentious aspect of the system, where a lot of the of the noise in US propaganda comes.

The reality of the system is that there are waits for some services. It’s a recognized, well-publicized issue. Most provinces take it seriously enough that they publish a lot of statistics on wait times. Those wait times as published are for routine cases, and there’s a prioritization system. A while back an American conservative tried, gloating, to tell me how bad our system was, which amused me since she clearly had no idea what she was talking about. In fact, she told me about a friend of hers who was diagnosed with breast cancer and about how she was in for surgery within a few weeks. I don’t remember the whole story, but a quick trip to the Ontario Ministry of Health’s wait times site suggested that her friend could actually have been treated faster at Princess Margaret Hospital…

So what’s the story on wait times? Well, the problem seems to have some roots in the 1990s when Jean Chretien was elected Prime Minister. His Liberal Party was determined to slay the dragon of deficit, which was accomplished by massive spending cuts. A major cut was made to the Canada Health and Social Transfer, the money that is transferred to provincial governments to fund social programs and health care.

See, provinces administer their own health insurance systems, but they get money from the federal government to do so – it’s part of the process which allows the federal government to address Canada’s rather significant fiscal imbalance. During the 1990s, each province was left to figure out how to cope with the cuts. Each took different routes. During that time, I lived in Ontario, the most populous province. My mother worked as an RN at that time too, and healthcare was a huge dinner table topic.

Ontario had borne the burden of a left-wing government which was elected more by accident than anything else, which ushered in a strong majority government for the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, led by Mike Harris. Harris’ platform was called the Common Sense Revolution – a dramatic budget balancing act (it was also partly deception, we later learned). Hospitals faced huge budget cuts, nurses were laid off, new doctors weren’t trained, and many left the province for greener pastures. Some of the changes made sense, like amalgamating hospital adminstrations, but the lack of investment meant that there weren’t enough MRI machines being installed or operators being trained. That’s the sort of thing that caused the problems we have now and that are being addressed. New hospitals are being built, medical schools expanded, and programs being added to recognize foreign credentials.

As an aside, one of Harris’ other master strokes was using Paul Martin’s trick of pushing responsibilty down (it was called “downloading”) to a lower level of government. They did this with the highway system… with the wonderful result that maps of Ontario make little sense anymore, because a lot of provincial highways became county/municipal roads. So Ontario Highway 7 stops and starts at random, for example, becoming county road stretches from place to place – and there’s many other roads like that.  I can’t imagine how someone who didn’t live there would figure it out.

How do the systems work? Well, some provinces have a premium system, some have a sliding scale user fee, or some just use their tax system. No one here has any delusion about the system being “free”, we know it’s not – but the thing is that everyone has insurance, period. No one worries about co-pays, deductibles, pre-existing conditions. In fact, I had no idea what a “co-pay” was until I took healthcare economics in university and started to learn about the USA’s bizarre system.

The other thing that people don’t seem to get about Canada’s system is that it’s socialized insurance – not socialized care.  Most people’s main contact with the health care system is their family doctor (or GP). Those doctors generally are self-employed, owning their own clinics (most of which are organized as a special class of corporation). They have a single payer that they bill, so the overhead is substantially lower than an American doctor who has to interact with a variety of insurers. On top of that, the rules on what pays and rates are clear and well set out – so no chasing down non-payers or risking insurers getting out of paying.

The net result is that administrative costs are a much smaller portion of total healthcare expenditure – which is why we suspect that a universal healthcare system will actually be cheaper in the long run for the USA. On top of that, employers have a steady set of costs and don’t have to face spiralling benefit costs or having to consider discontinuing benefits altogether. This is a competitive advantage for universal healthcare nations.

The last ridiculous point – rationing. Basic economics tell you that any scarce resources are rationed in one way or another. In the USA, insurers effect that rationing by making decisions on what to pay for. They will often claim “we don’t deny care, we deny payment”. The implication is that if an insurer denies a claim it doesn’t mean that the patient can’t get the care. This of course is nonsense, because for most people, they simply don’t have the resources to get the care – that’s why they bought insurance! For all the bullshit of “death panels”, to the extent such a thing is possible, it’s insurers doing so.

One of the best illustrations of the propaganda is the case of Shona Holmes, the Canadian who appeared in anti-reform ads bemoaning the horror of the Canadian healthcare system she claimed would have killed her because she had to wait for surgery on a tumour.

The ads left out the fact that tumour was benign and not life-threatening, a fact that was exposed when a Canadian doctor found her story on the Mayo Clinic’s website. She required an extremely specialized procedure that entailed a wait. Amazingly, there is a process by which she could have applied to go abroad for treatment and get it paid for by public insurance anyhow… but that’s a complex issue I can’t really get into.

I guess that’s a start. The thing is it comes down to what I heard Obama saying on a promo clip on the BBC – about how the debate should be a debate about facts and reality, not made up stuff like “death panels” and that kind of nonsense. Debate healthcare all you want to, Americans, but debate the facts, not the crap that you’re fed by lobbyists.

Healthcare – the current passion

Since I started using Twitter I think I’ve gravitated more than anything else to the discussion of healthcare reform in the United States. Why that is I’m not totally sure. Obviously I’m not American so fixing the USA’s baffling healthcare system isn’t really all that important to me personally. My wife is American, and all her family, as distant as most of them are, live there – and the system they suffer with revolts me to the core I guess.

More importantly, though, I think what really galls me is that the much needed debate on how to improve healthcare in the US is anything but a reasonable or productive discussion, because the lobbies who perceive they have so much to lose have put up so much propaganda that it’s difficult to really get anywhere. I’m hoping to do a little to help advance the discussion.

I’m going to start with a simple primer on Canadian healthcare, since it’s what I know. Not everything is going to have references attached at first – understand that I’m undertaking this whole process initially from my iPhone and to build out the links will take time. I’ll get there though. I hope anyone who reads this finds it enlightening.

From humble beginnings

Figure this out. Since I discovered the wonder that is Twitter, I’ve neglected my personal blog rather tragically, insofar as I believe people care about my life. Apparently some people find it interesting.

Since I joined Twitter I’ve started to realize that it’s hard to really exchange some more sophisticated ideas in 140 characters, so it figures that it’s more logical to have a companion blog to flesh out ideas and refer people to when it’s necessary.