The New England Journal of Medicine was released today, with its first assessment of the fallout of the Supreme Court’s decision not to gut Obamacare. Policy analysts writing in the NEJM have been generally supportive of Obamacare, and so of course they’re happy with the result, declaring that it has removed “the largest remaining cloud of judicial uncertainty hanging over the Affordable Care Act” and advocating that now the legislative agenda focus on real improvements to the established law.

The NEJM article also remarks on the importance of assessing the text of the legislation in its full context, not just the strict text of the specific provision. It argues that this is a well-understood principle of Supreme Court jurisprudence, and gives the following example:

An earlier example of this principle comes from the Court’s 2000 decision in FDA v. Brown and Williamson, which King cites or quotes several times. Brown and Williamson held that (before more recent legislation) the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lacked authority to regulate cigarettes as devices that deliver the drug nicotine. Despite the FDA statute’s broad literal definitions of “drug” and “device,” the Court concluded that “considering the [statute] as a whole, it is clear that Congress intended to exclude tobacco products from the FDA’s jurisdiction.”

This past decision also makes perfect sense to me. While tobacco is clearly a drug, the FDA is not charged with monitoring recreational drugs, and tobacco products should be monitored separately or the FDA’s authority extended to them through an act of Congress.

Interestingly, this is also what the architects and defenders of the King vs. Burwell case thought, back when the FDA v. Brown and Williamson case was decided, and repeatedly since. For example, in a 2007 post the Heritage Foundation cites it as an example of an exception to the trend towards an administrative state. I can’t find any evidence that the legal experts at the Heritage Foundation have decided that this example of the Supreme Court not showing “deference to agencies” must have been wrong due to its willingness to invoke “context,” in which (to quote Scalia) “words have no meaning.” Similarly, the Cato Institute has referred positively to the appeal to context in FDA vs. Brown and Williamson in both its 2006-2007 and 2008-2009 Supreme Court Reviews (see page 201 of the 2006-2007 Review, or a footnote on page 126 of the 2008-2009 Review). The Cato Institute has also issued multiple Amicus Briefs for other court cases where they think that the FDA v. Brown and Williamson case might help to enforce the importance of context. For example, in their Amicus Brief on Texas vs. United States of America (Case 1:14-cv-254) , for example, they argue (citing the case):

The court must “fit, if possible, all parts [of the statute] into an harmonious whole” and use “common sense” to determine the scope of Congress’s delegation to an agency.

Interesting how much their opinion of how the Supreme Court should interpret statutes has changed in just a short time: their amicus brief to that case was submitted in January 2015 but by July 2015 they think that reading the law in its overall context

establishes a precedent that could let any president modify, amend, or suspend any enacted law at his or her whim

What a difference 6 months makes! Apparently now “common sense” is no friend of liberty, and in following the precedent of laws that the Cato Institute relied on heavily (until this year!) the Supreme Court has made it possible for presidents to do anything they want. I guess words really do mean anything these days …

But it’s not just the Cato Institute that appears to have revolutionized its view of the role of context and common sense in the past little while. Four of the majority in King vs. Burwell were dissenters in FDA v Brown and Williamson, the common judge of the two cases being Roberts. Indeed, Scalia agreed fully with Roberts back then that common sense was important, but now appears to think it’s “applesauce” – and the Heritage Institute thinks that “liberals” were shocked then, and applauding now. About, presumably, the same thing.

Where does this leave us? Should there be a common sense test for judges to see if they all agree? Or should we perhaps just roll dice to determine the outcome of Supreme Court decisions where context and common sense are required? Or, perhaps, we could accept that the Supreme Court as it currently works is just an ideological rubber stamp, and the battles in Congress to stack it are way more important than the judges who are on it. It might be of particular value to Republicans to get some bipartisan agreement on this quickly: they’re going to lose the 2016 election after Donald Trump eats a puppy on live TV, and Hilary Clinton is going to get the chance to appoint a couple more judges, which in combination with Obama’s legacy will mean that the nation will be at the mercy of a liberal majority definition of “common sense” for the next 20 years (or 40, if Clinton can find a few young and talented female judges to nominate). Perhaps a move to introduce fixed term limits, and a more objective and less partisan nomination process, might be a good idea. How about 12 year term limits, and nominees for replacement have to be recommended by a consensus of the Supreme Court Bench itself? That would iron out both the kinks in the nomination process and the risk that a single president could dominate the court for years after he or she has gone to the Great Presidential Library in the Sky – a domination, we should note, that will grow over time as life expectancies do.

Of course it’s not going to happen, so Americans will continue to be subject to the tyranny of a system that is clearly broken, invented by a bunch of short-sighted slave-owners a couple of hundred years ago and completely unsuited to the modern world, and now used as a battleground for political retribution rather than solid constitutional decision. Still, at least the USA is on the way to universal health coverage!

 

In recent days there has been a tiny bit of discussion on this blog about whether a group of 9 unelected philosopher-kings should be able to decide social issues for 330 million people, so it seems appropriate that I turn my attention briefly to the chaos rolling over Europe and the threat of a Greek exit from the EU. From the outside looking in it seems like the three main powers involved in this shit-show (the European Central Bank, IMF and European Commission) have refused to give any serious ground on their demands, even though these demands are obviously not going to help Greece out of its crisis, and have instead decided to essentially dictate to Greece the terms of its fiscal, labour, welfare and banking policies. Given that they are well aware of how much their austerity policies have failed, and know full well that Syriza was voted in on the promise of no more austerity, it’s just ridiculous bloody-mindedness that drives them to force their ultimatum on Greece. The ECB even appears to have withdrawn its standard emergency credit line for banks experiencing instability, without any justification. They’ve basically made clear to Greece that they won’t accept any political options except those that suit their ideology. This is not how politics works, and it’s no surprise that under this pressure Syriza have decided to tell the troika to jump. Paul Krugman (who for some reason I never normally read) has a particularly deft explanation of this referendum decision:

until now Syriza has been in an awkward place politically, with voters both furious at ever-greater demands for austerity and unwilling to leave the euro. It has always been hard to see how these desires could be reconciled; it’s even harder now. The referendum will, in effect, ask voters to choose their priority, and give Tsipras a mandate to do what he must if the troika pushes it all the way

This is how politics should work, and giving Greece a week of grace to sort this out and set a clear future path would be a good way to indicate respect for its political autonomy. This is also the reason that David Cameron’s promise of an in-out referendum, though insane for Britain, is politically the right thing to do. Tsipras has taken the chance to make sure that his country’s decision is politically validated, and that he can make his final decision about the euro from a position of democratic legitimacy; the leaders of the EU’s main powers are flabbergasted by this, and the troika are confused. It appears that they don’t understand where their authority ends and the democratic demands of the people of Europe begins, and it looks as if a lot of Greek people are going to have to go through a fair amount of pain in order to teach them. This is disappointing, given the states involved are apparently all democratic, and it gives the lie to what I think is increasingly shaping up as the central fiction of the European project: that it can stop another war in Europe.

The EU is a fairweather friend

This isn’t the first piece of brinksmanship that has been deployed by an EU member in recent time. A few weeks ago Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, threatened to issue Schengen visas to refugees coming from Africa and send them on to other parts of Europe, after it was revealed that not only were other countries doing nothing to help, but German, French and Swiss authorities were turning migrants back at their borders, forcing Italy to manage both the rescue and the housing and welfare of tens of thousands of migrants – even though most of those migrants are hoping to move north to other parts of Europe. Basically Italy had to shoulder this whole burden because the rest of Europe has shown itself unwilling to help its members when they face serious problems. The same could also be said for the UK’s welfare and work problems: it is obvious that the UK is a preferred destination for migrant labour in Europe, because everyone in Europe learns English and the pound is so strong, but the EU has absolutely refused to bend the rules for the UK on welfare and migration issues.

You may not agree with the specific governments on any of these issues (I don’t agree with the UK, for example) but I should hope it’s obvious what the problem here is: the EU member states are fairweather friends. They can carefully hammer out a compromise agreement on a shared issue like the free movement of labour or the role of the ECB that will enable them to handle the normal, stable times, but they are completely unwilling to compromise their own interests for the greater good when extraordinary circumstances roll around. The free movement of labour is fine but sharing the resettlement of refugees is impossible, and will be left for the country that happens to be unlucky enough to get them first; shared work and welfare goals are fine but they absolutely won’t consider an exception for a country that is bearing an unusual proportion of the effects of those rules; stability targets are fine but no one is willing to risk either their ideological purity or their own taxpayers (Germany’s constant petty battle cry) when a shared financial crisis hits one of their weakest members unusually hard. Basically, the countries of Europe are behaving like fairweather friends who pat you on the back and congratulate you when you have a success, and are happy to split the bill at your Friday pizza-and-beer nights, but would rather you didn’t come if you’ve fallen on hard times and might like to skip paying for the odd Friday night. They’re happy to talk about helping you move house, or minding your pets while you visit a sick relative, but strangely they’re all busy when the time comes.

This is funny because the regular refrain we hear from the EU’s main sales merchants is that the EU establishes a bulwark against the risk of a future war in Europe. I’m sorry, but if the countries of the EU can’t come up with a mutually acceptable target for distributing 50,000 refugees among a population of 350 million without being threatened with an ultimatum, it’s unlikely that any one of them are going to pause for even the blink of an eye if war is in their interests. Indeed, while the EU rumbles on with its chaotic and obstinate mismanagement of what should have been a complete non-crisis in Greece, certain countries on the eastern edge are entertaining military antics by a non-EU member (the USA) that threatens to involve them in a war so catastrophic that they’ll all be running to Greece. If this is how you construct an “ever closer union of peoples” that will guarantee peace, then peace must be pretty easy to come by.

The reality is that war isn’t going to happen inside Europe because no one wants it, and the major powers are aging so fast that they are no longer able to field a decent war machine. I think this is great, and one of the many untold benefits of rapid aging, but I don’t think it has much at all to do with the European project, which is looking increasingly like a German/French alternative to colonialism, intended to drive down the competitiveness of the European periphery and ensure the centre gets access to reliable markets and a long-term pool of cheap labour. Students of history might suggest that this is exactly the wrong way to go about ensuring a non-chaotic future: the students of Greece are likely to soon provide an object lesson on the topic.

If the EU wants to retain any kind of democratic legitimacy, its member states need to think about how to rein in their executive, and start giving more credence to the (disparate) complaints of countries like Greece and the UK, about precisely how governance should work in such a confederacy. Because right now it’s looking like a couple of people from primarily northern and western powers think that they can dictate political terms to entire nations on the periphery. That’s empire, not union, and I think people are starting to notice …

Addendum: Joseph Stiglitz also seems to think that the EU is behaving poorly, and Krugman has a couple of pieces pointing out that Greece wasn’t as badly off as we are told, and austerity has really done Greece no favours.

This weekend I read the Turner Diaries, a famous and influential right-wing apocalyptic insurrection fantasy written in 1978. I picked up this nasty little piece of racist literature because of the recent events in the US, thinking to get a bit of background on the white nationalist terror threat in the USA, but I was amazed reading it by the similarities in ideology, vision and practice between US white nationalists terrorists and “Islamic State” (ISIS). In this post I want to review the book and explore some of these similarities.

Background: Don’t try this at home

The Turner Diaries were written in 1978 by William Luther Pierce, founder of a white nationalist organization called the National Alliance, and quickly became an inspiration for many white nationalist terrorists. The most striking influence was on Timothy McVeigh, whose truck bombing of a federal government building in Oklahoma City in 1995 almost exactly mirrors the first major action described in the book, but the Diaries also inspired many other people: the Anti-Defamation League has a page on the Diaries that charts their widespread influence in the white nationalist movement. I first discovered them in my early twenties, when I had a lover who grew up amongst Australia’s neo-Nazis, and although too young at the time to understand their politics was familiar with much of their iconography and inspirations. For many years the book was on sale at a famous alternative bookstore in Melbourne, Polyester, though I imagine it’s unavailable now if the warning on the internet archive version is any guide:

Ownership of this book might be illegal in the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. You must be at least 21 years or older in order to read this book because of the sexual and violent content. Parental Discretion is Advised!

Fortunately it’s not illegal in Japan as far as I know, and really easy to read on a smartphone, so a few hours later here I am better educated and definitely more disgusted. I read this book so you don’t have to, kids.

The book is the literary equivalent of found footage, purporting to be diaries from a revolutionary war in the USA that were found about 100 years later, and cast light on central events of the time through the eyes of an activist who rose to legendary status in the movement through his sacrifice. It is short, and has that property of narrative coherence and good pace that makes it a page turner (or, I guess, in the modern era, swiper) even though its characterization is shallow and its story devices occasionally ridiculous. No one in this story is likable – and trust me, until you read what these people think and are willing to do, you really haven’t plumbed the depths of what unlikable means – but the plot will keep you involved in their horrid schemes and potential successes even while you are mentally urgently in need of serious disinfection. I guess this is why it was popular with the kind of “visionaries” who blow up kindergartens

The diaries describe the actions of members of a racist insurrectionist movement called “the Organization” that starts off small and ultimately takes over the US and then the world, using a mixture of terrorism and then nuclear warfare. To give an idea of the vision that this book describes:

  • Once they win the USA they solve “the Chinese problem” by nuking everything between the Urals and the Pacific Ocean, creating what they call the “Eastern Wasteland”
  • They don’t have a racial model based on heirarchies and slavery, as the Nazis did: anyone not white is killed across the whole planet. There are no untermenschen here, just white people and dead people
  • They “win” their battle with the US government by starting a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, leading to the destruction of most major cities in the USA and the death of upwards of 60 million people, but they consider to be a worthwhile sacrifice

Being found footage, this book has parenthetical notes describing the “past” depicted in the book: this includes a note telling the reader what “negroes” are, since this race has been exterminated from the entire planet. The book also has a couple of chilling asides in which the diarist describes Nazi Germany as good and decries the fact that they were stopped in their project. It also has a vicious scene where every mixed-race, non-black and non-white person in California – i.e. every Asian, every American of southern European descent, every native American and anyone of dubious heritage is marched into a canyon and murdered. This is racial purity of the most extreme form, and make no mistake: this was the visionary novel that America’s white nationalist terrorists were inspired by.

It also has some ridiculous plot devices, such as the silly idea that the white nationalist Californian enclave is able to start a nuclear war with the Soviet Union but doesn’t itself get nuked back to the stone age.  But for analytical purposes, I’m willing to overlook these slips in the interests of understanding exterminationist ideology.

The Diaries’ Similarities with ISIS

The Diaries have certainly stood the test of time, in that some of the scenes described in them have been enacted by various terrorist groups over time. Obviously they have a striking similarity with the Oklahoma bombing, since they inspired it, but that is just the start of their inventiveness. Other similarities include:

  • The Organization detonates a huge bomb on September 11th that kills 4000 people and leaves a part of a city burning for several days
  • They attack a newspaper they dislike, culminating in killing its editorial writer [at his house, not the offices, but I think the similarities should be clear]
  • They deploy a dirty bomb to render a major power station inoperable
  • Beheading is one of their favourite tactics once they become operational in the field

The tactics described in the Diaries also have specific commonalities with ISIS tactics. In addition to the beheadings, they are very fond of filming executions and broadcasting them:

That’s where we were taking the big-shots to be hanged: the well-known politicians, a number of prominent Hollywood actors and actresses, and several TV personalities. If we had strung them up in front of their homes like everyone else, only a few people would have seen them, and we wanted their example to be instructive to a much wider audience. For the same reason many of the priests on our lists were taken to one of three large churches where we had TV crews set up to broadcast their executions.

This is a new, very modern phenomenon in mass murder, which we see from ISIS a lot. Government regimes like to hide their massacres, but terrorists need to broadcast them. Note also the choice of targets: not agents, technical staff and those who are implacably ideologically opposed to the force, but people whose actions and lifestyles represent a moral transgression. States kill people who threaten them materially, or fit into a category of useless people conveniently-scapegoated; modern terrorists murder people who have symbolic value, but who might otherwise be valuable. Their ideology doesn’t care whether you could be converted to the cause and used, because it is far more interested in making a spectacle out of punishing you for your transgressions.

These transgressions, note, are racial, or derive from crimes against race that the “criminals” didn’t even know were illegal until the new order swept over them – just as many of ISIS’s victims didn’t know they were doing anything wrong until ISIS arrived. On Monday you’re a tobacco salesperson, on Tuesday you’re a criminal about to be executed. This is ideological purity at its craziest.

Descriptions of cities “liberated” from racial miscegenation by the Organization also seem eerily similar to what we have heard of ISIS territory. They are depopulated, full of dead bodies, and struggling to find food and basic supplies, often for weeks, as the Organization is tiny, rules by terror and doesn’t have the manpower to maintain security and distribute food. It has also made clear that it isn’t interested in capitalism or markets, and its activities are completely disruptive of any kind of economic activity. At one point – having nuked much of America – the Organization’s enclaves are so desperate for food that they cannot take in even white survivors. Here is their solution:

In Detroit the practice was first established (and it was later adopted elsewhere) of providing any able-bodied White male who sought admittance to the Organization’s enclave with one hot meal and a bayonet or other edged weapon. His forehead was then marked with an indelible dye, and he was turned out and could be readmitted permanently only by bringing back the head of a freshly killed Black or other non-White. This practice assured that precious food would not be wasted on those who would not or could not add to the Organization’s fighting strength, but it took a terrible toll of the weaker and more decadent White elements.

Welcome to your racially-pure wonderland, honky… The similarities between this desperation and the desperation we are told is common in ISIS-held areas is noticeable. These people think they hold the key to the promised land but their millenial rage has so destroyed the world around them that they cannot help their own.

The “terrible toll of the weaker” alluded to in the above passage is another common element of ISIS and Organization tactics, though it points more to a moral than an organizational failing. Both organizations have an ideology of purity so extreme and powerful that they have developed a position of harsh judgment on almost everyone they are supposed to be helping. It is very clear in the Turner Diaries that the Organization considers the majority of white people to be stupid chumps who have brought about their own decay, and they are responsible for their own bad position through a lack of racial awareness. Although salvation of the white race is their aim, they don’t have any sympathy or compassion for individuals. The Diaries’ putative writer and his girlfriend at one point manage to ambush four black men and two “white sluts” with them, and kill all six, even though two are white, because those two have degenerated – no effort is made to explain to them how they have transgressed against a code they didn’t even know existed. This is early in the book; later this scales to the complete destruction of New York, the white population of which is dismissed because it allowed itself to be miscegenated. There are several passages in the book that justify this in terms of both racial survival and moral laxity: only those white people who can show they are able to “wake up” to the sick and insane racial fantasies of the Organization are guaranteed salvation, with the rest only offered salvation where it is convenient. This is very consistent with ISIS’s extreme ideology, which both punishes people for any kind of minor past infractions against a strict religious standard, and treats Sunni adherents as cheap collateral in its war goals: those who didn’t think to get enlightened and join ISIS are expendable, because they don’t have the purity and commitment that would justify any effort to spare them.

Finally, there is a similarity in targets. In addition to newspapers and politicians, the Organization targets actors and actresses, supreme court justices, and conservative politicians. There are multiple passages in the book railing against conservative politicians, who are racist but not willing to make the extreme steps necessary to see in the new world order. This is similar to ISIS, who consider Hamas and the Islamic Brotherhood to be apostates for considering the use of democracy or negotiation to achieve their aims. The Diaries have an early scene where a cell member is revealed to be “merely” a conservative: they execute him because he doesn’t support their nihilistic form of revolutionary activity. Later on, too, they have to fight a military enclave in Washington State that is run by “conservative” military folks, who want to restore the constitution: they deal with such anathema in an appropriately brutal way. All rival political ideologies, no matter how similar to theirs in goals, are judged impure and dealt with in the same vengeful and exterminationist way. The battle between the Organization and “conservatives” (and libertarians!) in the Diaries is similar to that between ISIS and al Qaeda. There is also a striking similarity in attitude towards people who share the Organization’s broad beliefs but were willing to compromise in order to get rich – these men get very short shrift, and strike me as very similar to the way some of the Sunni sheikhs were treated by ISIS.

The eternal terrorist

This would be simply fanciful rhetoric, except that the Diaries have inspired serious terrorists, and are very popular amongst white nationalists: they represent a real and genuine expression of the vision and goals of the white nationalist movement, which is also the oldest terrorist threat in the USA. The KKK, the original white terrorist movement, formed during the reconstruction era and was around until the end of the civil rights movement, only to be replaced by the network of arseholes that produced Timothy McVeigh. Since then the movement has subsided, and seems to have collapsed into just lone wolf idiots, but historically it was the greatest threat to American domestic security for 100 years. Now a similar movement of nihilistic, destructive purity has arisen in the Middle East, with similarly apocalyptic and violently exclusionary goals, and most analyses of this phenomenon are treating it as if it were unique. My reading of the Turner Diaries suggests that it is not unique at all: it is actually a sadly derivative form of terrorism, just terrorism, with the same ideological framework as white nationalism, and remarkably similar targets. Of course it has been more successful than white nationalism in the USA, but that’s because it sprang up in a situation closely resembling chapter 25 of the Turner Diaries rather than chapter 1.

I don’t know what produces this apocalyptic vision of society, and this antagonistic understanding of the causes of society’s problems, but it looks to me like a lot of terrorists hold it in common, and that people as vastly different as Baghdadi and Turner can have a very similar vision of who their enemies are and how to deal with them. It must be something very common to the human condition, and I don’t know what should be done about it, but my reading of the Turner Diaries, and my understanding of their influence, tells me one simple thing: ISIS aren’t new, or alien to western experience, although we might like to think so. They share a lot with the dark heart of our own racist past, and maybe if we look back there we can find ways to stop these movements from happening in future. Maybe the enemy really is us.

 

Today the Supreme Court found in favour of Obamacare, as I had predicted,and the wheels fell off the Republican clowncar. This is great news for America, as it now means that the law has overcome most of its significant Supreme Court challenges and become settled fact, and the 10 million people who are benefiting from it can continue to have some faith that they can get the healthcare they need. But this is a disaster for the Republican presidential campaign, coming as it does before the primaries, because it means that all 10 riders in the clowncar will now have to rampage through the primaries promising to repeal Obamacare. Whoever wins that hilarious circus of stupidity is then going to have to go to the election with a record of promising to repeal the law – which is going to really worry 10 million people who depend on it, and force them all to vote Democrat.

My guess is it’s going to be a Clinton-Bush battle, pitting one of America’s most popular politicians (Clinton), with a record of rational policy-making in healthcare, supported by the best get-out-the-vote campaign team in American history, against a man who has to hide his last name and is starting the election with a possible 10 million vote deficit. Even putting aside the deep, cutting irony of a democracy holding an election campaign between the scions of two dynasties[1], Bush trying to worm and squirm his way out of promises to repeal this law is going to be very entertaining. Furthermore, some of the states where people are benefiting most from the Medicaid expansion and federal exchanges are conservative or swing states like Alabama, and those 10 million voters are likely to be disproportionately clustered in them.

The alternative for Republicans is to – don’t laugh – come up with an alternative health care plan, something they have signally failed to do for the past 8 years, despite repeated complaints about how terrible and ineffective and bad and fascist Obamacare is. Sure, they have a few op-eds on the matter but they haven’t done anything resembling serious policy development and they’re already in the primary stage. Contrary to journalistic silliness in the USA that the Republicans are “tripping over themselves” to make new laws (I kid you not, a journalist from Vox actually wrote that!) the Republicans are not in any way serious about health policy, and no plan they come up with will be anything except terrible, which is why they aren’t trying. Their “plan” for America’s uninsured is to leave them uninsured.

So what are the Republicans going to do? They seriously threaten their election chances with promises of repeal, but they will look like the idiots and fools they are if they release a plan (can you imagine Trump’s healthcare plan!?) If this decision happened after the primaries maybe they’d be okay – refuse to be drawn on the issue during the primaries because “there’s a court case” and then run for election with the promise of a plan (isn’t that what Obama did?) But it’s hard to win with the promise of a plan when you’ve already made it clear that you’re going to tear away the health insurance of 10 million people. Better the devil you know, and all that. And now any plan they do release will be compared with Obamacare – will it insure more people? Will it cost more? Will it cause millions to lose their insurance? Why should we risk it when we have a plan that is covering more and more people every day!?

I think the Republicans were assuming that their pet conservatives on the Supreme Court would deliver them Obamacare chaos, and they could then coast home to win the election on the basis that Obama had messed everything up, with vague promises of a plan that “serious” political journalists would pretend to believe. But Roberts was appointed to the Supreme Court by George W Bush, proponent of “compassionate conservatism,” and is probably out of step with the modern Republican movement (I have already read people at patterico claiming he is a closet homosexual who is being blackmailed by Obama![2]) They probably shouldn’t have bet their entire political strategy on the opinions of a couple of old men who might, actually, take their role in politics seriously. But then maybe the Republican political movement has forgotten what it means to take a political role seriously, since they’re mostly just grifters, failure and con artists, and couldn’t imagine that those old men might see themselves as bigger than their party allegiances.

Two minor side points of this decision are that 1) hopefully US politics will now begin to back away from the ideology of repeal-through-the-courts, which is fundamentally undemocratic (if you don’t like a law, repeal it through politics not the courts!) and 2) I think it’s well past time I retired the use of the word “conservative” when talking about the American right. There’s nothing about their politics, their attitude towards their institutions, or their public behavior that is conservative – they’re radical. The word “conservative” is not very useful in politics generally, but at least in Australia and the UK it refers to two broad streams of political thought that we all understand and (with a few notable exceptions like Tony Abbott) can accept are broadly trying to be responsible and politically rational. It’s no more or less meaningful than “radical” or “liberal” or “left-wing” in those contexts, though all these words are only of limited use. But in the American context it’s just meaningless. The Democrats are the conservatives of American politics and the other side is, broadly speaking, a convocation of clowns and radicals. So what’s an alternative word for the broad spectrum of anti-Democrat politics in the USA that is still meaningful to readers, but not an insult to actual conservatives? I am thinking “right wing” but is there something more evocative? Radical Constitutionalists? Clownsiders? The Idiot Wing? The Grifter Party?

The primary season hasn’t started properly yet and already the clowncar is overcrowded and looking pretty wobbly. The next couple of months are going to be simultaneously hilarious and deeply depressing. Strap yourselves in, folks, it’s going to be a wild ride …

fn1: Will Chelsea Clinton run in future?

fn2: This is interesting, right here. When the High Court of Australia ruled in favour of Aboriginal people in the Mabo dispute, there was a lot of angst but I don’t remember anyone saying that court members were being blackmailed by the government or demanding an armed insurrection (as is happening in comments at Redstate). It really seems to me like the fragmentation of US politics is complete, and there is no more common ground to be found there.

Today Vox had an article about a new study of health insurance in America that annoyed me in a number of ways, and highlighted both Vox’s patronizing know-it-all style, and the simplistic economics-worship of some of its writers (in this case Ezra Klein). It’s one of those Economics-101 “Yes, you think A but really this [insert shallow confounder] means not A! Wow!” arguments that are beloved of pop economists, and it’s really frustrating to see it being trotted out now by Vox at a time when the USA is going through a major ideological battle over universal health coverage.

This post may turn out to be a bit long and kind of technical, depending on how frustrated I get reading further on the topic as I write …

The basic argument

Klein has taken a new working paper by Finkelstein et al and used a few of its apparently central findings to build up a story around a question. Finkelstein et al analyzed the Orgeon Health Insurance Experiment to find out how much money medicaid recipients were willing to give up in exchange for medicaid, and how much utility they get from their health insurance. As part of this they found that the uninsured actually don’t pay for much of their treatments: only 20% of their out-of-pocket expenses are paid by them, the rest being shouldered by someone else. This is a central part of Klein’s discussion and, in my opinion, a terribly uninformative finding. Klein has a whole section of the article about how the uninsured are actually “kinda-insured,” which is kinda-true but also kinda completely misses the point, in a very important way that, in my opinion, says a lot about the reasons Americans are having so much difficulty with this whole universal health coverage (UHC) thing. He then moves on to a discussion of the findings of the original Oregon Health Insurance Experiment paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that medicaid wasn’t actually that good for a lot of its recipients; there is a lot wrong with this paper and a lot of reasons its findings need to not be over-stated, but Klein doesn’t really consider them, and gives the study findings more weight than (in my opinion) they deserve. He then goes on to one of those discussions that only economists have, which I guess they expect the rest of us to take seriously, that are deeply poisonous in their basic assumptions, and often wrong: “is health insurance worth it?” This is like the classic economics paper on why voting is a waste of time: superficially appealing but absolutely and completely wrong. He finishes with an important statement, that health insurance should be assessed in terms of the value it offers people, but then juxtaposes value with cost-control as if the two things are mutually contradictory. Pretty much everything in this Vox article is superficially right but deeply wrong, and I want to talk about why it’s wrong and what this means for the health insurance debate.

The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment

The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment (OHIE) is at the heart of the findings in this Vox article, but it’s probably not something we should put too much faith in. Basically, the Oregon state government expanded medicaid places a few years ago, but it could only expand to 30,000 so it ran a lottery for the 70,000 potentially eligible people. The 30,000 potentially eligible people then applied for medicaid, with many getting rejected, and Finkelstein cunningly convinced the government to let her study the results. This is a joyous opportunity for health insurance research because it offers a randomized controlled trial (RCT) of access to health insurance: the gold standard of medical research, enabling us to eliminate a whole bunch of confounders and explore only the effect of health insurance.

Unfortunately there are many problems with the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment and the original paper which launched it to fame. First and foremost, although 30,000 people won the lottery, winning the lottery only increased the probability of accessing medicaid by “25 percentage points” because many didn’t apply or were ineligible, and many non-winners somehow finnagled their way into medicaid. Thus the “Experiment” suffers from massive contamination of the kind that usually renders an RCT ineligible for publication, because most of the intervention group ended up as controls and some of the control group ended up as interventions. While the process of assignment to these two groups was random, the process of transition between groups and final allocation was not, and in fact is decided by a very clear set of factors with a high risk of confounding, such as age, unemployment, etc. The second big problem with the OHIE is that the follow-up period was only 2 years, but lottery winners went on a waiting list, so the actual follow-up time from starting medicaid to study end was less than 2 years, but many of the outcomes they studied (blood pressure awareness, treatment and control, for example) require long follow-up, and key outcomes such as financial catastrophe (see below) are dependent on much longer follow-up times and/or retrospective analysis. Note that the non-medicaiders received a full 2 years follow-up, another minor source of bias. The third problem is that many lifestyle and consumption variables that are crucial to understanding the home-financing impacts of health insurance were obtained from a mailed survey with 15,500 respondents (out of 70,000 in the original study!), one of the most infamous ways of introducing bias into studies (respondents to mail surveys are even less normal than you, dear reader(s)). In contrast, surveys of health financing issues in developing nations (which in my opinion are the gold standard of health financing surveys) routinely get 95-98% follow-up in detailed, complex door-to-door interviews. I have said before on this blog that I think American health finance researchers could learn a lot from what the developing world is doing, and this is another example. The fourth problem is the choice of outcomes: even in systems that are completely free (such as the NHS), health outcomes that can be analyzed over just two years of follow-up are heavily dependent on health-seeking behaviors and non-financial access barriers (e.g. work and time off), and the best measure of health success in a health insurance plan is in serious but often rare outcomes – all-cause mortality, hospitalization, that sort of thing. Also, the OHIE didn’t do much analysis of financial outcomes, which are the main point of health insurance programs. Finally, the study is only ethical if you squint and tilt your head: randomizing people to receive health care is not ethical, and the only reason this study gets grace on that count is that America’s system is insane, but the general ethical view of the medical establishment is that just because the state does something convenient, that doesn’t mean it’s ethical to participate in studies of that thing (see e.g. debate in the British Medical Journal for the Godwin-level examples). Regardless, most people accept the validity of the OHIE, so let’s run with it for now, bearing in mind its flaws: flawed papers often still have a lot to tell us.

The uninsured are “kinda-insured”

In my view the central flaw of the Vox opinion piece lies with its uncritical acceptance of the working paper’s finding that only 20% of expenses were paid for by people without insurance, and the implications of this. The Vox article states:

It’s perhaps easiest to explain this through example. Imagine John breaks his leg. If John is uninsured, his brother, Mike, pays for his medical care. But if John has Medicaid, then the government pays for his care. John got medical care either way. So in this case, Medicaid’s money actually didn’t go to John so much as it went to his brother, because it was his brother who actually would have ended up paying the tab.

This is the kind of superficial gotcha that economists like Ezra Klein love, and it’s annoying and … superficial. There is a large body of research on the health financing aspects of health insurance, and a key concept used in that literature is distress financing. In developing nations, distress financing is defined variously as using any of the following strategies to pay for medical care: selling assets from the home or family business, using savings, calling on family members for financial support, or withdrawing children from school to work [yes, you read that right: this is what lack of health insurance does]. What John did was distress financing, and one of the goals of universal health coverage is to reduce or eliminate the incidence of distress financing. Sure, Mike is better off if John gets medicaid, but in health financing we don’t care about Mike, Tom, Dick or Harry: we are designing a system that protects John from financial catastrophe and distress financing. This is because it is of no interest to us if Mike spends his money on a plasma-screen tv or his brother’s appendix or indeed his own, the purpose of health insurance is to pool risk, that is to ensure that no person – whether directly afflicted or not – has to spend unexpected amounts of money on health care. No doubt there are people out there whose monthly premiums are paid for by friends, sugar daddies or family. We don’t care. The important point is that we have established a universal risk pool into which everyone pays, and everyone draws. It’s no concern to us whether Mike pays for John or John pays for John or John’s sugar daddy pays for John, and typically health insurance research doesn’t ask about how premiums are paid, so why should we care how out-of-pocket expenses are paid? So Klein’s example completely misrepresents the moral purpose of health insurance, by assuming the wrong things about why we have health insurance, and misunderstanding the tools that are available to understand how health insurance works.

I also think Klein has misunderstood the working paper on this issue, because I don’t think the working paper makes as big an issue of this distribution of costs as he does. Finally, if John and Mike are sharing the cost of their health care, then really what’s happening there is that they are establishing a very inefficient, unregulated risk-pooling mechanism – a private version of medicaid. When John gets medicaid we aren’t seeing a situation where suddenly Mike is better off because John can pay for his own care, we’re seeing a situation where Mike is better off because John has been drawn into a larger, better-managed, better-regulated risk pool.

Estimating the utility of health insurance

The working paper is largely aimed at estimating the utility of health insurance, and it uses techniques from economics that I’m definitely not qualified to critique. I know nothing about utility functions or their optimization, so a lot of the language and techniques are a mystery to me. However, there seem to be a couple of aspects of their analysis that insert strong biases. For starters, their assumption 3 on page 8:

Individuals choose m and c optimally, subject to their budget constraint

which is explained as:

The assumption that the choices [of some functions] are individually optimal is a nontrivial assumption in the context of health care where decisions are often taken jointly with other agents (e.g., doctors) who may have ddifferent objectives and where the complex nature of the decision problem may generate individually sub optimal decisions
This assumption ignores the possibility that individuals choose not to consume health care, a common problem amongst the uninsured. It’s also a particularly dubious assumption about the poor, who are often not able (through resource constraints and e.g. work situations) to make optimal decisions. A good example of this is abortion: the welfare-maximizing decision might be to have a legal abortion, but there are many states in the USA where this is becoming increasingly difficult for poor people to do for non-financial reasons (travel requiring time off work, the risk of humiliation in small towns, etc.), while for the wealthy it remains a simple utility-optimization decision. A poor person might make the extremely risky decision to have an illegal abortion, which has stochastically-varying risks (mostly none, occasionally many). It’s not enough, in my opinion, to talk about this as a limitation: it needs to be carefully modeled.
The working paper also uses an unorthodox method for assessing income, basically dividing household income by family members[1], and doesn’t consider the issue of disposable income. Typically studies of this kind use the family’s disposable income (or some similar measure of available consumption) during analysis, because people have other fixed expenses (most especially, a house) that they can’t fiddle with.
As a result of these assumptions and estimation processes the working paper comes up with a finding that individuals would be indifferent to giving up medicaid or consumption of about $1000 – $1500. This seems to be actually an astounding finding, given that average income in the people receiving medicaid is $3800. Would you give up just under half of your income for health insurance? Is this an indication that the health insurance is of low utility, as Ezra Klein concludes? Note also that there is no assessment here of financial catastrophe, which is important because these people only need to spend about $700 a year on health care to be in the catastrophe zone (usually about 25% of disposable income, which seems to be about $2800 in the assumptions of this study, though I may have misunderstood it). In order to understand the benefits of health insurance properly in this community we need to understand what their risk of financial catastrophe and distress financing is and what proportion of that risk they are protected against by medicaid; but we are instead treated to a completely irrelevant estimate of what amount of money they are “indifferent to”, based on income and expenditure information from a very small sub-sample of the people originally eligible for the trial.
I’m not convinced that the OHIE is capable of answering the questions we need to know about health insurance coverage, or that this study adds anything except to tell us that poor people will use up to nearly half of their income to purchase health insurance.
Vox’s conclusions
Klein concludes that maybe health insurance isn’t that great, and we need to make it more appealing, or something:
That isn’t to say health insurance is useless, or that medical care doesn’t help. But we’re probably paying too much and getting too little, and now that we’re a lot closer to a world where every American who wants health insurance can afford it, we should be focusing on making sure that all that health insurance we’re buying is actually delivering the health we’re expecting.
Much of this paragraph is based on the published NEJM paper from the OHIE, which as I showed above is not very informative about the health benefits of health insurance. The subsequent working paper hasn’t told us much about its health insurance benefits either, because it was misdirected. So how can Klein conclude from this study that we’re probably paying too much and getting too little, and why would anyone conclude that from medicaid, which is a specific system for the very poor in America? The reasons why medicaid is ineffective are probably closely related to social determinants of health; the reason why standard health insurance plans (or the Obamacare bronze plans) are ineffective probably has a lot more to do with access issues, arbitrary payment systems, and high overheads. This seems like really weak sauce to conclude with, and as a remarkable economic finding it also seems kind of empty. If you went out to buy a plasma-screen TV, I’d tell you to find the best one you can for the lowest price you can, and definitely make sure it works. Klein’s conclusion in this article is that … the community should buy the best health insurance it can for the lowest price, and make sure it works.
So somehow Klein has gone from a gotcha based on a flawed study (oooh look! you thought health insurance works but this study showed it doesn’t!) to saying … we need to make sure we spend money on health insurance wisely. While the rest of the world continues with its process of spending less money than the USA on health insurance, and getting better results.
It’s not really a very helpful conclusion is it?
What is the relevance of this to America’s health debate?
Assuming Vox has any relevance America’s health debate, or to anyone anywhere, that is. This whole article seems to me to be a representation of the strange atmosphere of debate about health insurance and health care in America. First of all it is a discussion of a set of studies trying to find out whether health insurance works, something that the rest of the world takes for granted. Secondly, it buys into a strange economists’ logic of who benefits from health insurance that is almost completely ignorant of a large body of research on health insurance outcomes, and also seems to see health insurance as a consumer good rather than a risk-pooling strategy – i.e. it frames the entire health insurance debate in terms of something that people want to buy, rather than something society thinks everyone should have. It’s another example of how America’s intellectual elite seem to be really clueless when it comes to health care, and it’s a real worry that a site that is supposedly informative is publishing articles by a major economic pundit about one of America’s central social reform issues that are largely clueless about the central debates in that issue. How is the general American public meant to understand a fractious, long drawn-out healthcare debate if public intellectuals like Klein are missing the key issues and presenting the framework of that debate in a completely erroneous and misleading way? Healthcare policy is far from simple and there’s no reason to think ordinary people should understand it without help, but here we have a major public intellectual and economist completely misrepresenting the core elements of the debate, running his readers off down the wrong track into a loopy set of conditions on health care (and a really weird definition of who benefits and who we want to benefit) before ending with a completely uninformative and vapid conclusion (we need to buy more for less!) Is this really the standard of public debate on healthcare in the USA?
Let’s hope the Supreme Court don’t read Vox, and be glad it wasn’t around when Obamacare was first developed!
Fn1: The correct method is to scale the household size to consumption equivalents using a power law, the value of the power being estimated from a regression model: for the USA the consumption-equivalents scale as approximately the square root of household size. This is perhaps not a very important flaw in the paper but it points to a bigger flaw: none of the standard experts on health financing from the broader health financing field are referenced and Ke Xu, the world-recognized expert on this, is not included in the reference list. Once again: researchers in the USA could learn a lot about the best methods to study health financing from those who are doing very serious work on UHC in developing nations.

 

 

 

Getting out of that fridge is hard

Getting out of that fridge is hard

Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterpiece of Australian cinema, that makes the rare achievement of building on its predecessors in the series to bring post-apocalyptic film-making to what must, surely, be its apotheosis. Visually stunning, with a brilliant sound-track, incredible pace, and a simple joy in hedonistic old-school road wars violence that is deeply infectious, this movie immerses you in its insane world from the very beginning and doesn’t let you escape until the credits roll. It is thorough in its vision of a grim, wartorn post-apocalyptic wasteland, unrelenting in pursuit of heady, dizzying action and absolutely frantic. But beneath its simple patina of gorgeous landscapes, sweeping chases and exciting stunts, it is also a movie of many layers, combining an uproarious vision of a freakshow post-apocalyptic death cult with a powerful homage to Australia’s alternative and bush culture, and a subtle nod to an eco-feminist critique of the societies that are driving to their own destruction. This is one of those movies that you can appreciate for its visual splendour and action sequences, but also that you can enjoy for its crazed Aussie clowncar humour, and contemplate afterwards in the light of its ecological and feminist politics. This, in my opinion, is the perfect balance of themes for a post-apocalyptic movie. It doesn’t make the mistake of unrelenting hopelessness that characterizes some movies like The Road; it doesn’t dull you to sleep with the empty spaces and silences of an empty world, like The Last Man on Earth or Legend; and it offers something more uplifting than the empty survivalism or post-human cynicism of much of the zombie survival genre. Through the post-apocalyptic setting it offers both excitement, gore and social critique, all couched in such a spirit of over-the-top, raucous and invigorating fun that surely only a zombie couldn’t help but at least slide into the scene and get that rev-head spirit going.

The introductory scenes of the movie leave us with a bewildering array of visions of craziness and freakish people that are confusing and overwhelming, as the scenes of Max’s capture are played through the tunnels and byways of what looks like a massive underground punk/skinhead garage. It will be some time before we figure out what’s happening to him or why, but before we do we’re given a sumptuous feast of the sick, the freakish and the mad as we watch the elite of the citadel lording it over their filthy crazed masses. This 10 minutes is like Peter Greenaway on speed, without purpose or sense, but then we hit the open road and get a few minutes to start putting it all in place – oh, that‘s why the women are being milked, that‘s why the freaks are running the circus, those women are running away from him! Then the trouble starts again and we’re back into chaos, but with a few sentences of expository dialogue (finally!) and the dawning realization of the trouble Max is in, and all of it set against a backdrop of classic 1990s Aussie sub-cultural monuments: the punk styling, the rev-heads worshipping V8 with their elaborate steering wheels, the skinhead warboys who’re whiter than Aryan and go all chrome and shiny to die on the Fury Road … In a couple of minutes of frantic action we’re shown an ecosystem, the skeleton of an apocalyptic death cult, and an entire aesthetic to go with it. Then the chase starts and we’re still absorbing it as Mad Max is roaring (or, more accurately, being roared) onto the Fury Road, which in this world is basically anywhere wheels can turn. But the freakshow doesn’t subside – just when you think you’ve seen it all, come to terms finally with the internally consistent madness of it all, new craziness pops into the scene, and tears up the desert with more chaos, and then makes sense again. What you see on the trailer – some dude in a harness with a flame-throwing guitar, a gigantic dude with oxygen tanks, that scary dude with the mask – that seems so over the top and stupid, it all makes its own brand of crazy sense before you’re even twenty minutes in, and you haven’t even met the object of all this craziness, or even the worst of it all yet. Then when it’s all said and done and you’re reading the credits and seeing who these people were – the Doof Warrior, Rictus Erectus, the Organic Mechanic, Nuks the Warboy – you realize you still didn’t get all of it because nobody told you their full name but every detail of their names is a homage to Aussie subcultures, especially the doof scene but also punk, hardcore and all the tattered, dreadlocked, bullet-studded chaos of the 1980s and 1990s underground. Here it is, flying out of your cinema screen in one last glorious death rattle of insanity, road-rage and revhead joy.

Beneath this infectious ecstasy of the open road the main characters are laying out an ecofeminist thesis. The basis of the story is a group of women – called the Wives – who are apparently genetically perfect (and very beautiful!) fleeing from their tyrannical husband Imortan Joe, with the help  of his best road warrior, a one-armed woman called Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron). Joe hopes to have healthy babies by these women, and keeps them locked up for his use until he can get a male heir to rule after he is gone. But they don’t want to be things, so they leave, and his warboys have to chase them. This is a pretty basic feminist plot, made stronger by a couple of narrative devices. First of all, the alleged hero of the show gets fridged at the very beginning – as in literally, nearly – and only gets drawn into the story by accident. He manages to fight his way to Furiosa’s side but his role in the story is just luck, he was meant to be just another thing back at the citadel and it’s pretty clear first, at least, that Furiosa isn’t particularly comfortable with the idea of bringing him along. He’s the passenger for much of the first quarter of this movie, and the chicks are driving the car. Then, these women are not helpless – they are agents of their own destiny, and act with all the tools, strengths and wiles at their disposal to make their getaway. They don’t know how to fight and they aren’t strong (and one is about to give birth) but they don’t let any of that stop them doing all they can to take charge of their situation. These women are also the expositors of the film’s ecofeminist thesis, using their few moments of dialogue (no one in this movie wastes breath speaking!) to drop a few choice eco-feminist koans. The crux of it all comes when one of the Wives is trying to push Warboy Nuks out of the truck, and they are arguing about whether she is one of the citadel’s folk or not. Nuks says that he is not to blame, but she demurs, and yells “Then who killed the world!?” before tossing him overboard. At another point one of the women is credited with calling bullets “anti-seeds”: you plant one and watch something die. These are classic tropes of eco-feminist thought, being delivered by strong women whose presence on the screen is inextricably tied to their femininity and their fertility, and a war being fought to control their powers of birth, that are so precious on this planet that (the implication is) was blighted by men like Imortan Joe. They don’t stand up to expound on a manifesto or to make demands or philosophical claims but every time these girls speak they say something linked to an eco-feminist creed. Even the first time we meet them, one of them is cutting off a chastity belt with teeth built into it, freeing herself of patriarchal sexual shackles, and the perverse vagina dentata fears that the patriarchy brings with them.

I must confess I love it when a good movie works an ideology into its very bones, but does it so well that even though you know it’s there you just get sucked along with it anyway. I have no care for Mal’s simplistic libertarianism in Serenity but I did love watching him righteously defend it; I can’t stand the authoritarian violent message underlying 300, or the way it elided Spartan slave-holding and paedophilia, but I loved watching those men fighting for their worthless cause. When a movie saturates itself with an ideology but does it so well that you either don’t notice or don’t care, or – best of all – everything makes sense in the context of that ideology, that is when you know a movie is well crafted. And Mad Max: Fury Road has carried this off brilliantly, with the rollicking plot and the rollercoaster of stunts and enemies and explosions and madness carrying you all the way to the eco-feminist oasis – and back again.

With this movie I think George Miller has drawn together a few ideas he was playing with in the first three Mad Max movies, but wasn’t quite able to pull off. We see hints of a feminist agenda in Beyond Thunderdome, with the powerful Aunty Entity running the town and trying to use Max as a pawn in her schemes. We see here too the role of oases and lost places as signs of hope, but in Fury Road Miller has been able to better combine them with the narrative of judgment on those who brought the world down that he played with in Mad Max 2. The whole thing is also carried off with a remarkable creative continuity: the names, the punk styles, the language of speech have a certain similarity to them, as do the baroque car designs and the hard scrabble economics of theft and hyper-violent rent-seeking. Even the actors are in some cases the same: Imortan Joe is Toecutter from Mad Max 1. This is a full campaign world Miller has created over the past 30 years, leavening it over time with better production values and now a much stronger environmental message, and maturing some other themes (like the role of power-mongers), but that campaign world has been remarkably consistent across all that time.

For all of these reasons, Mad Max: Fury Road was a movie well worth waiting 30 years for. Later this year Star Wars 7 will come out, and we have to hope that there, too, we will finally see continuity with the original legend after 30 years of lost chances. I am not holding my breath on that, but I can assure you, dear reader(s), that Mad Max: Fury Road is something special, and will redeem this year of cinema – and possibly this decade – no matter what happens at christmas. Watch it, and ride eternal, shiny and chrome!

 

When last we met our heroes they were in Research 003, trying to decide how to handle negotiations with this strangely cooperative and peaceful arctic society. At first the PCs were unwilling to share too much detail with Connor about the purpose of their mission, but after a few days in the comfort of Research 003 they could find little reason to hold out on him. Their limited exploration of the research base suggested that if they really needed to they could probably take it – most of the resents were clearly incapable of serious combat, and for much of the day mostly outside, and they could relatively easily take on the people who did show any semblance of military skill. However, their hosts seemed remarkably unconcerned by security, which worried our heroes inordinately, and they also realised that, knowing nothing of the harsh environment here, there would be little chance of survival here if they had to flee – or even cross the ice back to the Vladimir Putin – without help from locals. Furthermore, they soon realised that the ice was huge, with many communities scattered across it, and they would never find the Ziggurat if they had to search it all themselves – and why should they when they had such amenable hosts to help them?
So they asked. On the third day they told Connor the situation, and asked if he or his allies knew anything about the Ziggurat. They described it in detail, carefully eliding some of the more salient information about the riches it held, and asked Connor if he knew anything of such a community? He did not, and nor did anyone else in his community. For a few hours he contacted other communities by radio to ask, but none of them knew of such a place. However, the westernmost of the known communities, a frozen-in ship called the Oiler, had experienced occasional raids over the past 30 years by barbarians who came from the west, primarily hunting for people to abduct. They only came in summer, and they must be coming from far away on some kind of reliable conveyance, because it was beyond the Oiler’s resources to track them back to their origins. Most raids were not successful, but on occasion the barbarians had carried off a small number of prisoners, to no one knew what fate. The Oiler lacked the combat experience to take them on effectively, or the resources to adequately pursue them. Perhaps these were the residents of the lost Ziggurat? It seemed likely: the Oiler had itself been trapped in ice some 50 years ago after drifting up from the old Atlantic, and since then the ice pack had expanded, and could have captured the ziggurat further to the west.

The Oiler was west of Research 003, perhaps a week’s travel, and perhaps another couple of hundred kilometres from the western edge of the ice. No group was planning to travel there from Research 003 for at least another week, and from the Oiler it would be impossible to head west over the ice, as the Oiler would not be able to spare equipment and guides for such a task. However, there was another way to find the Ziggurat. If raiders were coming from the west they must be near to the sea at that edge, and so it seemed the simplest way to find them was to travel around the pack ice to its edge directly west of the Oiler, and search for the Ziggurat there. Either the Ziggurat, or some fishing base attached to it, must be there, for there was no possibility a large community could sustain itself in the ice without access to the sea.

The characters decided to head back to the Vladimir Putin and take this course west. Before they left they made a trade agreement with Connor: they would return next summer with a squad of workers from the Gyre, along with supplies for them, and they would work here during the summer, returning to the Gyre when the freeze began. In exchange Research 003 would share some of its bounty with them: soil, glass and batteries from its stores for starters, and seal oil and skins. They took some samples with them when they left, including a polar bear skin to present to Dilver as a rug, and with the rise of the sun the next morning began the return journey to the Vladimir Putin, accompanied by two guides from the research base.

The Outpost

After they returned to the Vladimir Putin they set off west, skirting the worst of the ice pack and heading as fast as they could to the place they thought they might expect to find the Ziggurat or one of its outposts. It took them over a week to reach the area, and another week of careful scouting with airborne drones, but eventually Quark was able to identify what they were looking for: columns of smoke rising above the ice near its edge. They took the Vladimir Putin to a location near but out of sight of the shore, and let slip their submarine. Taking all their marines with them, crammed into the hold, they set off for the ice pack’s edge. When they were close to it they rose to within a safe distance of the surface and Ryan slipped out, rising up to the edge of the ice to investigate the outpost.

It was a typical fishing and seal-hunting base, similar to the outpost Research 003 was maintaining. Two small fishing boats, perhaps converted from the lifeboats of a larger vessel, were resting against the pack ice. Nearby a couple of large drums were being used to render seal fat, and it was the smoke from their fires that Quark had seen from his drone, rising high into the still air of this cold, clear day. A couple of rough igloos had been built further back on the ice, and amongst them sat some rundown snow-mobiles, including a very large one that looked like it was used for transporting goods.

The camp itself seemed to be occupied by three distinct groups of people. There were some people getting into one fishing boat who looked cowed, beaten and exhausted; they were sitting at placements for oars, and as Ryan watched someone standing behind them on the boat started hitting them with a stick. Two more men got in the front of the boat and a few more of the poor, tired-looking folks pushed it away from the shore, obviously heading off on another fishing expedition. On the shore, some men tending to the fires appeared to be in this middle class of weary but unbeaten workers; one broke off from the fires to approach the men who had pushed the boat out and begin beating them with a stick. The whole thing was overlooked by a group of armed men, carrying whalebone crossbows and savage-looking clubs, who might be some sort of guards or soldiers. Everyone looked tired and angry, and everyone was working very hard. Their clothing was rough and savage compared to that of the folk from Research 003, and it appeared to be made of different materials, with more fur and less sealskin. These men were all smaller than the people of Research 003, who had been large muscly – these people, bar one or two soldiers, were short and looked like they must be lean. They also did not look as comfortable either in the cold or with each other, and it certainly appeared as if some of them were slaves of the rest.

Ryan had seen enough. He slipped below the waves and descended to the submarine. This time he had timed it poorly, and by the time he was back inside he was shaking and in shock from the cold. As he recovered, they planned their attack. First they would take the boat, surfacing the submarine beneath it to overturn it and capturing the crew. Once they had the crew and knew what they were facing, they would make a plan as to how to attack the camp.

They found the boat and tipped it. The submarine rose perfectly out of the frozen waters, emerging beneath the converted lifeboat’s keel and tipping it into the water. Ryan was riding the deck of the submarine and was able to slip into the water as the boat tipped, watching as people fell out. One man – the one who had been beating the slaves – sank like a stone, probably wearing iron armour, a trail of bubbles drifting up behind him as he screamed his last, panicked curses to the darkness. The other two were able to swim for the surface, though slowly, but the slaves, Ryan realized, were chained to the seats of the boat and would drown unless freed. He saw that the boat had trapped a pocket of air that the slaves were not aware of, so he rushed up beneath the boat and pushed them, one by one, up into the air pocket. As he did this one of the free-swimming men emerged from the water near the submarine, and Crimson offered him the end of his spear, telling him he could live. The man grabbed the spear and dragged Crimson for the water, so now Crimson was forced to let it go. Leviathan, at the conning tower, fired at this man and killed him. The other man emerged, a marine shot but missed him, and realising he was in trouble he dived and tried to swim under the submarine. Crimson, the marine and Leviathan were shooting the other man in the water like a floundering whale, so Ryan finished saving the slaves and then set off after the remaining man under the submarine. Using his drone he soon caught the man, stabbing him in the leg with a spear and then using the embedded spear to drag the man, struggling, back to the ship. By the time they got him on the deck of the submarine he was nearly dead but they soon revived him and asked him about his fellows.

They turned the boat back over to rescue the slaves, and everyone returned to the Vladimir Putin to make plans. The non-slave they had captured declared that he was “a Freeman” and would not be bullied, but the slaves soon explained everything. Yes, they came from the Ziggurat, yes they were slaves. Their society consists of slaves, freemen, warriors, experts and the leaders, and they were here as slaves to help the freemen with fishing. There were 12 warriors at the fishing base, about 20 freemen and 15 slaves, and the warriors were led by a man called Everard. There were no communication devices, all messages would be taken back to the Ziggurat with the next fish transport, due in a day or two. Attacking the base would be easy – they simply needed to wade in.

They left the slaves with the freeman at the Vladimir Putin, and prepared a two-pronged attack. Quark and Leviathan took a squad of marines in the submarine to land a little distance from the base on the icepack and crossed overland to attack from the rear, while Ryan and Crimson took the fishing boat and four marines directly to the front, assuming that their use of the fishing boat would confuse anyone who saw them.

Their assumption was correct, and the raid passed off without any serious problems. Everard and six warriors were sleeping when they attacked, and although they managed to join battle they were too late and ineffectual, and the fight was soon over with the loss of just one marine to concerted crossbow fire. During the fight Ryan distinguished himself by killing a freeman who was beating the slaves, and by handing Everard over to them for execution – by flensing – when the battle was done. This gift of their greatest oppressor ennobled Ryan in their eyes, and they each presented him with a handful of Everard’s still-warm fat, prostrating themselves before the rider, and declaring him to be the Stormwarden. From this the PCs saw their way into the Ziggurat opened, and they began to make plans …

Taking the Ziggurat

Speaking with the slaves, they soon learnt the layout and structure of the Ziggurat. In summer most of its workers and warriors would be outside, the freemen and slaves labouring over farms dug into the snow and the warriors beating them. A few of the leaders and their guards would remain inside the Ziggurat, but not so many. The slaves would go inside and begin unloading their transport of fish, but if they arrived at night they would be essentially unsupervised. The PCs could leave the transport at the base of the ziggurat and explore the outside, then slip inside at night and come to the slave quarters. From there they would be able to learn the layout of the ziggurat, and take it. By the slaves’ estimate there were about 36 slaves, 120 freemen, 45 warriors, 25 experts (who ran the reactor and other specialist functions) and then the leadership: Old Prime the leader, his warrior chief Gunnard, three warrior captains called Fist, Stone and Salt, and the slave master Rack. These men would all be gathered in the leaders’ area, except Rack who slept near the slave quarters. During daylight 30 or so of the warriors would be outside, but it would be harder to approach.

They also discovered that the entire ziggurat society was held together by a strange religion of the storm, led by a priest called Pyro, which held that the ziggurat was the only bulwark against a worldwide storm, and anything except complete obeisance to the gods of the storm would lead to the destruction of the ziggurat and all of humanity, of which they were the last sane remnant. Anyone who didn’t believe in the storm gods and the ultimate power of pyro over them was doomed to die, and become a slave. It was through these religious teachings that the strict hierarchy was enforced. Unfortunately for the leaders of the ziggurat, Ryan had been pronounced storm warden …

The PCs decided to go in at night and explore before the raid. They left in the snowmobile, the slaves dragging it across the ice as they always did. The journey took two days, and when it was done the slaves were exhausted but jubilant. They rested out of sight of the ziggurat and headed in after the sun sank below the horizon. The slaves dragged the snowmobile through fields of snow and ice that had been cut into big farms. Pits had been dug into the ground in great arc around the ziggurat, and covered in glass. Cables snaked between the pits, carrying warm water from the reactor, and between each set of farms a small igloo had been built to house the freemen who would till the farms in the morning. The slaves who would do most of the hard work had been returned to their quarters, but the freemen would sleep in the igloos until dawn, when they would rouse early and return their digging and tending. The slopes of the ziggurat itself were not covered in snow, like the landscape around it, but steamed with warmth, and seemed to be encrusted with lichen. Scraggly goats hopped over the steps, grazing on the lichen, and bright lamps stood on poles above the slopes, lighting them up with a surprising brilliance. The Ziggurat glowed in the dark plains of ice like a wedge of hospital-lamp sodium brilliance.

You know you want to cast someone down here

You know you want to cast someone down here

 

The snowmobile slide between the farms and up to the ziggurat itself, stopping at the base of a huge ice ramp that had been built on the north face. This ice ramp led up to the ramparts far above, where two guards stood lazily watching over their sleeping landscape. Here the PCs jumped down from the transport crate and slipped into the shadows beneath the ziggurat, to scout the outside. The slaves resumed hauling, dragging their load of fish and seal fat up the ice slope to the waiting guards.

The PCs explored around the base of the ziggurat. They saw old, rusting cranes standing on the north side, and on the south side another ice ramp. In the shadows of the ice ramp were three large boats that had been converted into snowmobiles. They were resting on the snow on huge wooden skis, and had masts that obviously were used to propel them across the ice. Ryan crawled up into one, followed by Leviathan, and found inside three small snowmobiles, a machine gun on the bow and a locked room at the rear. Quark broke the lock and they slipped inside, finding a cabinet filled with ammunition. They couldn’t pick the lock of the cabinet but Crimson was able to force the door, and they pulled out grenades, a grenade launcher, carbines and ammunition for the machine gun. They took the machine gun, slipped back out, and headed off to the slave quarters.

It was easy to slip inside. Guards had only been placed on the ice ramps, because their main purpose was controlling the slaves, not seeking strangers. Anyone approaching the Ziggurat would be seen from kilometres away during the day by guards and pickets, and no one expected anyone to approach with the help of the slaves, so no guards were set on the east or west slopes, away from the ice ramps. The characters climbed the slopes of the ziggurat and slipped into the nearest door once they passed the parapet, taking the direction they knew would take them to the slave quarters. Even the slave quarters were unlocked – where could the slaves go, and what could they hope to achieve? – so the PCs simply slipped inside. Here they made their plans.

The slaves told them that there was a soldiers’ barracks on each corner of the ziggurat, and the experts slept above them, near the top of the ziggurat, unarmed and protected only by a few guards. The leaders were far away, on the opposite side of the ziggurat, but likely one of either Fist, Stone or Salt were awake and on duty. Rack was just down the hall, in his quarters, which were always locked. There were cameras on some hallways but “the spirits of the cameras have left, and the experts cannot bring them back.” This place, clearly, had lost any ability to renew itself.
They decided to pay a visit on the slave master, Rack. They took the slaves with them and gave them simple instructions: once they had dealt with Rack the slaves were to take any weapon they could find, run up the stairs to the experts’ quarters and kill them all. Without his experts, Old Prime would be lost and unable to control the place, and even if they lost in battle the PCs might be able to negotiate on that basis. They dispatched Captain Azel with one team of marines to the furthest corner of the ziggurat to deal with the soldiers there, and another team of four to the other corner. Azel took the machine gun with him, while Quark carried the grenade launcher.

They knocked on Rack’s door, expecting him to answer, but nothing happened. After a moment of waiting, from far away, they heard the sound of a siren, a powerful electronic buzzer, springing to life: obviously Rack had realised what was going on and did not want to open his door. The PCs told the slaves to go to the experts, fast, and cleared away from the door. Quark fired a grenade right at it, blowing the door in, and they charged into the room. Rack was there, but he was unarmoured and couldn’t put up much struggle – he went down almost immediately. In the corner of his room they saw a screen with a cctv camera pointed at his own door. Obviously he still could speak with the spirits of the camera …

The PCs now knew that trouble would be coming to them. They charged down the hall towards the nearest barracks, and before they arrived they could see that the soldiers had gathered outside, and were listening to someone talking. As they ran, Quark fired a grenade from his launcher straight into the assembled ranks, and Leviathan threw another. Crimson and Ryan charged in, and they found Stone there, injured but rallying his troops. Combat was short but brutal, with a few crossbows fired and one bolt hitting Crimson but no serious damage done. During the battle Ryan and Quark both invoked “Storm” when they killed someone, although Ryan isn’t very good at languages and got it wrong, yelling “Slut” instead. They took down Stone, but as they finished him off they heard more soldiers coming. Leviathan and Quark hurled and threw grenades down the hall, killing the first two ranks of men – Quark’s grenade hit one man full in the chest and redecorated a portion of the corridor – and then battle was joined as the remainder hit the room. They prevailed in this battle, but as they were fighting Quark heard the sounds of people coming down stairs from above. Guessing it might be Fist and Salt, he alerted the others and took a position near the stairs. While they fought behind him, he fired a grenade into the stairwell, doing serious damage to both of the warriors as they came down. Ryan slid stealthily up to the stairwell and Crimson charged in, and Leviathan finished off the soldiers behind them. Somewhere far away they could hear the roar of the machine gun in the ziggurat’s corridors. Fist and Salt surged out of the stairway to take on the group, but as they came Ryan stuck a spear in one, and Crimson smashed down the other. They died, and in truth no one amongst the group knew which was which. Nor did they care.

It seemed the battle had been done. After a short while Azel and his marines came running up, to report that all soldiers were dead and no marines lost. The second marine squad had gone up above and pinned down the remains of the leadership – Gunnard was dead and Old Prime was holed up with his priest, Pyro, on the ramparts.

At the ramparts they found Pyro and Old Prime hidden behind some steel cabinets in a room facing off with the four marines. The 36 slaves were gathered behind the marines, holding various precious items belonging to the experts and jeering the leader and his priest. The area around the ziggurat was in uproar, with freemen running around on the ground unable to understand what was going on, and no one coming down to tell them. Old Prime was broadcasting something over the public address system but they didn’t have time to check with their linguist, who had managed to stay out of the way during all the fighting and had conducted herself with all the aplomb they had been warned to expect of her when they had been given her by Dilver. They marched forward, Quark pointing his (empty) grenade launcher at the cabinets, and Pyro the high priest emerged slowly, looking terrified. As he came forward Ryan stepped out amongst the slaves and told him “Bow down before the stormwarden,” translated in a booming voice by their linguist. Pyro looked back briefly at Old Prime, who was shaking his head furiously, but then he looked at that (empty) grenade launcher, and bowed down before Ryan.

As the marines stormed Old Prime’s position, Ryan dragged Pyro to the ramparts of the ziggurat, the slaves following and crowding around him just below the ramparts, in full view of the freemen below. Ryan held Pyro up by his priestly robes and in his biggest voice, he yelled

“I am the stormwarden! See what happens when false prophets go against the will of the storm!”

and threw Pyro to the slaves, while the linguist translated. The slaves tore Pyro apart with their bare hands, throwing pieces of him down the steps of the ziggurat. The marines dragged Old Prime away to a secure spot, and the freemen cowered.

The ziggurat was theirs.

Aftermath

They enlisted the freemen to help them loot the ziggurat, and carried all that they could across the pack ice to the Vladimir Putin. It took time, and they were there for most of the summer, but during this time Ryan cemented his role as the stormwarden, dispensing judgment and wrath amongst the freemen. By the end of summer, when they left, the society of the ziggurat had changed irrevocably: they had formed trade relations with the communities of the ice pack, had given up on their slaving ways, and were terrified of the future. When the PCs left Ryan told them: I will come back in the spring, and if you have survived this winter of wrath I will rule you.

They returned to the Gyre by winter, and Dilver met them at Pier 18, Arashi by his side. He was pleased with all their reports, though disappointed in them for not freeing the ziggurat from the 10m thick ice in which it was held fast. He agreed to the trade mission with the other communities of the ice pack, and also agreed to Ryan’s unusual request to be allowed to return to the ziggurat the following spring as stormwarden. “Has the Gyre not been good to you?” he asked, as he watched Ryan hugging Arashi desperately. “Why would you want this time away?” But he granted the request. “Of course you can take Arashi with you,” he said, “we will arrange a way to carry him there in the Vladimir Putin – why, I even have a big metal tub I don’t need, that you can use!”

For a couple of seasons Ryan spent spring and summer in the arctic, returning with the Vladimir Putin in autumn, but the appeal soon wore off. Not only were the responsibilities of storm warden exhausting, but he could only ride with Arashi in the arctic sea occasionally, and when he did the rides were short due to the cold. He also had to keep a constant eye out for Orcas, which love sea lion fat, and after one particularly vicious encounter he decided the tropics might be better. He abandoned his converts, and returned to the sun. Here he was given his promised home in the Arc, and put in charge of a squad of riders who would play a key role in the raising of the arc that he and his fellows had made possible in their first adventure. Unfortunately Quark, Leviathan and Crimson’s mistakes during a mission to the Himalayan Kingdoms made the raising of the arc a much more complex job than it should have been, and they all had to show exceptional bravery during that breathtakingly chaotic mission. But that is a tale for another day …

Summary of events

For the faint-hearted:

  • The PCs found out about a community of raiders west of Research 003
  • They went there, found a fishing base set up by this community, Ryan spied on them, and they ambushed a boat
  • From the boat they caught some slaves, who told them about a community of slaves, freemen, warriors, experts and leaders
  • They attacked the fishing base and freed more slaves, learnt that this fishing base was the outpost of a community that was definitely their ziggurat
  • The slaves believed that Ryan was some kind of religious redeemer, the stormwarden; the ziggurat community is held together by a religion of storms
  • Using the information from the slaves they infiltrated the ziggurat
  • They ambushed the slave master (kind of) and killed him, then all the ziggurat’s soldiers
  • Ryan used his position as stormwarden to overthrow the ziggurat’s priest and take control
  • They returned to the Gyre in triumph
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