The Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio
Brian Gongol

Here's an interesting hypothesis: Because technology is changing our world so quickly, we could be losing our ability to peer into the future. In other words, if you're befuddled by the conversion to digital television and don't know how to set up your own entertainment center, are you going to be able or willing to question the risks of identity theft or the rise of organized crime on the Internet? If you aren't comfortable programming your cellular phone, are you going to be overwhelmed with the risks inherent to nanotechnology? Perhaps, more than anything, that's an argument for finding better storytellers -- people who can explain those complicated issues in understandable language so that we can make more intelligent decisions. There's no doubt that technology-related issues are going to grow rather than diminish with time, and many of them will be affected by what we do in the voting booth, so we can't run from them.

Isn't it pleasant to be done with the political phone calls for at least a little while? That, of course, was one of the big downers to the caucus process -- the incessant phone calls from pollsters and campaigns alike. But perhaps we should be happy to have suffered through them, since Iowa definitely wants to hold onto the first-in-the-nation caucuses in 2012. We're already one of the 20 smallest states, and we're going to lose a seat in Congress by the time the next Presidential election comes around, so any influence we can keep on the national political scene should be treasured.

The problem with laws and mandates is that, too often, they lead to unintended consequences. Like the example of catalytic converters: It turns out one of the key components is palladium, which is refined at one of the worst sites in the world for producing air pollution. That, of course, doesn't mean that we should stop using catalytic converters, but it's a perfect example of how good intentions sometimes go awry, which is why we should always be careful about passing new laws and regulations: Sometimes we can accidentally make things worse. Another good example: A project to protect hospital patients from infection that saved an estimated 1500 lives in just 18 months was cancelled because it was thought that it might have violated certain privacy laws. It sure seems like there should have been a better way to address the problem than to just cancel the program: It sure seems like saving a person's life is of greater value than preserving their privacy at all costs.

Intel, a company that dominates the world's market for computer chips, is pulling out of the One Laptop Per Child initiative because they want to make their own laptops. Funny that we've come so far that laptops, which were extraordinarily expensive brand-new technology just a few years ago, are now cheaper than most television sets (and getting cheaper all the time).

The laptop project raises an interesting question: Since kids have more access than ever to communications (allowing them, for instance, to text-message one another in class while taking tests), do we need to change the way we test kids in school? Are true-false exams on the way out? Are more essays the way of the future? How can you measure a student's creativity in the era of "Google knowledge"? (Google knowledge, by the way, is all that assorted information that we don't have to keep in our own heads since we know we can get it online just about as quickly as we can remember it.) Perhaps there's nothing wrong at all with students learning to stash the data they need online and being trained to find it and develop it quickly into bigger ideas -- just like you don't need to memorize the speed limit on every street in Des Moines; you just need to know how to read the signs and then interpret and manage your reactions.

There probably isn't anyone in the entire country who's happy paying as much as they do for health insurance and Medicare -- and if they are, they probably don't realize just how much they're spending. Here's one of the big problems with the system today: Many of the things you can do to help your health in the long run cost a little bit of money now, but don't really pay off until much later. If a health-insurance plan assumes that you are going to be relying on Medicare (or some other insurance plan) by the time that you'll really benefit from preventative care or overall wellness (like buying an exercise bike or visiting with a nutritionist), then they really don't have a lot of incentive to help you make those good choices. Thus, even if a $200 exercise bike could save you from a $50,000 angioplasty in 30 years, there's no real method for rewarding you (or your health insurer) for making the healthy choice today. More than anything else, what we probably need is portability of health savings. How to accomplish that? Please, if you have any ideas, let me know.

On a related note, taxes on Social Security are capped -- if you earn more than $102,000 in W-2 income in a 2008, you won't pay Social Security taxes on the amount above that cap. Some people have suggested that if we eliminate the cap, we can fix the Social Security funding problem. The Congressional Budget Office has looked into the idea, and they think that eliminating the cap would bring in about $100 billion a year. That would help in the short run, but over the long run, benefit payments are expected to rise by about $30 billion, compounded year after year for the next few years. So in other words, a $100 billion tax increase would cover only about two years' worth of increased costs ($30 billion in the first year, and $60 billion in the second). So as a long-term funding solution, eliminating the caps is hardly the answer.

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