Monday, February 28, 2011

Why Is Congress Trying to Make It Easy for States to Declare Bankruptcy?

According to The New York Times:
Policymakers are working behind the scenes to come up with a way to let states declare bankruptcy and get out from under crushing debts, including the pensions they have promised to retired public workers.
Unlike cities, the states are barred from seeking protection in federal bankruptcy court. Any effort to change that status would have to clear high constitutional hurdles because the states are considered sovereign.
But proponents say some states are so burdened that the only feasible way out may be bankruptcy, giving Illinois, for example, the opportunity to do what General Motors did with the federal government’s aid.
Beyond their short-term budget gaps, some states have deep structural problems, like insolvent pension funds, that are diverting money from essential public services like education and health care. Some members of Congress fear that it is just a matter of time before a state seeks a bailout, say bankruptcy lawyers who have been consulted by Congressional aides.
Bankruptcy could permit a state to alter its contractual promises to retirees, which are often protected by state constitutions, and it could provide an alternative to a no-strings bailout. Along with retirees, however, investors in a state’s bonds could suffer, possibly ending up at the back of the line as unsecured creditors.
Now, that might seem a bit strange, since in 2005, Congress made it much harder for individuals to declare bankruptcy.

So, Congress thinks that consumers should be forced to pay back all the loans they took out from banks and corporations, but that states should be able to default on its obligations to pensioners and bond holders? Smells like hypocrisy to me, and I'm not the only one.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Conflicting Messages in Advertising to Women

Shocking, I know. Via the Society Pages, we have this advertisement:

So women - you can use chocolate to overcome romantic disappointment (or perhaps even as a love substitute) today by "devour[ing] that pan of chocolaty goodness," but just be sure to stay thin - "diet starts tomorrow" - otherwise you could be lonely and single forever.

Got it?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

When Fighting Poverty, It's Better to Give Money to Women Than Men

Let's say that you're a big aid agency and you want to fight poverty. You've attended the Harvard Kennedy School or Columbia or somewhere with a lot of economics courses, so you know that if you want to maximize your positive impact on the lives of the poor, you should just give the poor cash instead of giving them food, services, housing, etc.

In Bangladesh, Nobel Prize-winner Muhammad Yunus, creator of the micro-credit phenomenon, has found that women not only repay loans more often than men, but that when women control the money, their families were more likely to benefit from the income.
And a study in the Philippines reported that when women have control over a couple’s savings accounts, expenditures shift towards the purchase of family-targeted durable goods, such as washing machines or kitchen appliances.
In the traditional view of economists, all money is interchangeable, seamlessly fungible, and “free” from social or cultural influences. All that matters is how much money, not which money or whose money.
But money is far from impersonal. A growing body of research by sociologists and behavioral economists finds a dazzling array of cognitively, culturally and socially distinct ways in which people approach money. Some of the most intriguing differences are in the ways that women and men approach spending–and those studies are already influencing how some policy-makers and organizations around the world allocate their funds.
Last year, for instance, Haitian authorities distributed food vouchers only to women in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake. They said the food would be more likely to be divided equitably within the household this way than if men got the vouchers. And Oportunidades, Mexico’s innovative anti-poverty program, successfully targets its cash transfers to mothers, conditional on their children’s school attendance and health clinic visits by family members. Follow-up studies find that the money usually goes for food, children’s clothes and school supplies.
The pattern seems to transcend generations. A study by MIT economist Esther Duflo finds similar results comparing South African grandmothers’ and grandfathers’ usage of their old-age pension funds. And it’s not just a peculiar feature of developing economies. Sociologist Catherine Kenney reports that in low- to moderate-income two-parent U.S. households, children are less likely to experience food insecurity when their parents’ pooled income is controlled by their mother rather than their father.
I also remember an anecdote from an NPR report - I can't find a link, but let me know if you hunt it down. When Mexican men were asked if Oportunidades should give the cash to men or women, just about every man said something like, "Well, I would spent the money responsibly, but other men would spend it on cigarettes or alcohol, so they should give it to the women."

For some reason, their response reminds me of this old riddle:
A traveler is heading along a nearly deserted country road. He encounters an old man sitting by the roadside and inquires about the way to town. The old man replies, "I don't exactly know, but there's a fork about a mile down the road. At the fork, there's a house; two brothers live in the house. Those guys know the way to town but there's a problem. One brother always lies, and the other brother always tells the truth. 'Course I don't recall which one is which." Then he adds, "There's another problem. It seems these brothers are so cantankerous that they'll only answer one question. After that, you get the door slammed in your face!" Our intrepid traveler continues on down the road, pondering this situation. Reaching the house, he knocks on the door. When a surly, ill kempt man answers the door, the traveler asks him one question. The brother answers gruffly and abruptly slams the door. The traveler confidently proceeds along the correct fork of the road toward town. What question did the traveler ask the brother in order to learn the way to town?
So, I'll ask the age-old question - why will women spend money on their families more willingly and reliably than men?

Friday, February 25, 2011

What If Jared Lee Loughner's Name Were Mujahed Ali El-Oughner?

An interesting question, via Truthout:

  1. U.S. political discourse is stupid.
  2. The mental health system in this country sucks.
  3. As a country, we have decided that citizens should have access to practically unlimited quantities of assault weapons and ammunition.
  4. If you combine #2 and #3, it is not hard to see that massacres like Tucson are inevitable, since there will always be some small percentage of the population that is batsh*t crazy, will buy assault weapons, and will use them to kill lots of people from time to time.
If you give batsh*t crazy people access to assault weapons, this country will occasionally face massacres like that in Tucson - it's a statistical inevitability. So, unless the U.S. wants to completely change its approach to mental health and/or assault weapons in the hands of citizens, we are just going to have to get used to paying the price of the occasional massacre. Since the U.S. is a pretty violent society, I'm guessing that we'll just stick with the status quo and act "shocked, shocked I tell you" when things like this happen, even though a quick analysis demonstrates that massacres like this are a statistical inevitability.

It sucks, I know, that massacres like this are inevitable - but since we know they're inevitable, can we at least stop pretending to be so shocked when they happen?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Come On, People, Learning to Cook Isn't That Hard

One of the few times I disagree with xkcd:

It's just not that hard to learn to cook good, tasty food!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Much To the Chagrin of Libertarians Everywhere, Ayn Rand Was Actually a Welfare Queen

It turns out that Ayn Rand took government assistance while decrying others who did the same (she was not actually a [fictional] welfare queen, but it made a good headline).

Now, I'm not knocking the woman for taking Social Security and Medicare benefits that she was legally entitled to - I'm knocking her for her gross hypocrisy.

I'm reminded of all of those Tea Party people screaming at Congress to "keep your government hands off my Medicare." Americans are confused about everything else that's important; why should they bother to know who's providing their health care?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

When High Deductibles Backfire, Or, Why Everyone Needs Access to Health Care

As Ezra Klein points out:
One of the cost control experiments we've been attempting in recent years has been to increase the amount that individuals pay upfront for medical care in the hopes that this will lead them to make wiser and more judicious decisions when purchasing medical care. The problem, however, is that individuals don't always begin making wiser and more judicious decisions when faced with higher costs. Instead, they just buy less medical care.
Klein points to this piece from the New Yorker, showing how low deductibles backfired and led to suboptimal health outcomes at a higher cost:
 The firm had already raised the employees’ insurance co-payments considerably, hoping to give employees a reason to think twice about unnecessary medical visits, tests, and procedures—make them have some “skin in the game,” as they say. Indeed, almost every category of costly medical care went down: doctor visits, emergency-room and hospital visits, drug prescriptions. Yet employee health costs continued to rise—climbing almost ten per cent each year. The company was baffled.
Gunn’s team took a look at the hot spots. The outliers, it turned out, were predominantly early retirees. Most had multiple chronic conditions—in particular, coronary-artery disease, asthma, and complex mental illness. One had badly worsening heart disease and diabetes, and medical bills over two years in excess of eighty thousand dollars. The man, dealing with higher co-payments on a fixed income, had cut back to filling only half his medication prescriptions for his high cholesterol and diabetes. He made few doctor visits. He avoided the E.R.—until a heart attack necessitated emergency surgery and left him disabled with chronic heart failure.
The higher co-payments had backfired, Gunn said. While medical costs for most employees flattened out, those for early retirees jumped seventeen per cent. The sickest patients became much more expensive because they put off care and prevention until it was too late.
This is why everyone needs access to health care - because a country can only minimize its health care costs by 1) preventing illnesses in the first place and 2) managing chronic illnesses effectively and cheaply. And a country can only do those two things if everyone in that country has access to decent health and preventative care.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Americans are Panglossian Optimists When It Comes to Income Inequality and Mobility

From Sociological Images, we have the figure below, which "contrasts the average U.S. response to various questions measuring perceptions of mobility and inequality with the average response of 27 comparison countries (from the International Social Survey Programme). In other words, how far from the mean are U.S. citizens’ beliefs about life chances and the value of social inequality?"

Click through for the large original picture, if it's hard to read.

The rather incredible results:

  • About 62% of Americans think that “people get rewarded for their effort,” compared to about 35% of citizens in our national comparison group.
  • About 70% of Americans think that “people get rewarded for their intelligence and skills,” compared to about 40% of citizens in our national comparison group.
  • About 19% of Americans think that “coming from a wealthy family is essential/very important to getting ahead,” compared to about 29% of citizens in our national comparison group.
  • About 62% of Americans think that “differences in income in their country are too large,” compared to about 87% of citizens in our national comparison group.
  • And about 33% of Americans think that “it is the responsibility of the government to reduce the differences in income,” compared to about 69% of citizens in our national comparison group.
Again, from Sociological Images:
Americans, then, are much more likely than the average citizen in our comparison countries to believe that individual characteristics determine success, wide gaps in income are acceptable, and the government should let them be.   No wonder Americans tend to vote to cut taxes and services, tolerate unequal educational opportunity, and resist top-down solutions to inequality.  They think inequality is good and that individuals will always get what they deserve.
It's interesting to note that Americans' beliefs are completely contrary to reality - Americans are just plain wrong about income equality and mobility in the U.S. Both the Economist and the Center for American Progress state that economic and social mobility in the U.S. is actually quite low by international standards:
By international standards, the United States has an unusually low level of intergenerational mobility: our parents’ income is highly predictive of our incomes as adults. Intergenerational mobility in the United States is lower than in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark. Among high-income countries for which comparable estimates are available, only the United Kingdom had a lower rate of mobility than the United States.
Yay - at least we're more mobile than a country that has been ruled by a monarchy since 774 A.D.!

But seriously - given that the American people are profoundly misinformed about almost every important issue facing the U.S. today, it's not much of a surprise that they're also profoundly wrong about income inequality and mobility as well.

Check out this cool NYT interactive graphic to see just how non-mobile the U.S. society is.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Public Service Announcement: The U.S. Has Been in a Declared State of Emergency Since September 2001

Color me shocked, but somehow not surprised: the U.S. has been in a declared state of emergency since September 2001 - you know, the same "state of emergency" used the world over by dictators and autocrats as an excuse to repress their citizens (such as all of those dictatorships in the Middle East that are currently teetering).

Technically, by declaring a state of emergency, the President claims the right to seize property; organize and control the means of production; seize commodities; assign military forces abroad; institute martial law; seize and control all transportation and communications; regulate the operation of private enterprise; restrict travel; and, in a plethora of particular ways, control the lives of all American citizens. It's unclear whether the judicial branch would go along with these powers if the President actually tried to exercise them, but the President is claiming them nonetheless.

This declared state of emergency began under Bush, and Obama has elected to continue it. In fact, it seems that there's no end date in sight for this declared state of emergency.

It seems to me that the Executive branch of the U.S. government has been systematically (and probably illegally) overstepping its bounds continuously since at least the Nixon Administration, if not earlier. The Founders created three branches of government so that no one branch could take over - what do you say, Congress and the Judicial Branch? Can you all start reigning in the Executive Branch a bit, please?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Apparently, I Am a Terrible, Pathologically Bad Consumer

Researchers found that using a generic (vs. brand name) product undermines self-esteem. In one experiment, university students were asked to type out a resume, ostensibly for a recruiting event. Students used an Apple iMac to type their resumes and were told that the keyboard and mouse were new. Some students, though, were told that the keyboard and mouse were generic parts — to save money. The students who used the generic keyboard reported expecting a lower salary. A similar effect was found in an experiment on single men. The men were presented with a set of dating profiles for women, one of whom the men could choose to call. The researchers then provided the woman’s phone number and an Apple iPhone to make an introductory call. The phone had a dead battery; the researchers then offered either a generic or brand-name replacement battery. Men who received the generic battery expected women to find them less attractive than men who received the brand-name battery.
Well, I have been told before that I am an uncommon tightwad because I do not enjoy spending money; I guess this just confirms the depth of my perversion when it comes to being a good consumer.

I seriously doubt this would work on me - I don't care about the brand of anything I use. I couldn't tell you the brand of pants or shirt I have on; I just don't care. I can't tell the brand of clothing you're wearing - I just don't care. I don't care about the kind of car I drive, as long as it gets me from point A to point B reliably, cheaply, and in an environmentally friendly way. I don't care about the brand of phone I use, as long as it does what I need it to and is cheap (side note: props to Virgin Mobile for being the only mobile phone carrier I consider reasonably priced; all others are ridiculously expensive). I have no brand or vendor loyalty (except perhaps to Amazon and NewEgg, since their prices are always among the lowest and their customer service is amazingly good).

Whenever I am buying anything, I only care about whether it gets an acceptable job done at the lowest possible cost. I never buy anything bigger, fancier, longer, smaller, stronger, harder, softer, faster, etc. than I need to get the job at hand done. And don't try to sell me something with an ongoing fee - I will find some way around it, I promise.

It's not that I don't care about quality; I certainly do. I expect my clothes, shoes, cars, electronics, and everything else to be well-made and last for a long time; I just don't care what brand those things are. And I'll always work to get the highest quality I can at the lowest possible price.

Perhaps I am an anti-consumer, the marketer's nightmare. Or perhaps the marketers are so good that they manage to manipulate my subconscious without me being aware of it - if so, kudos to them, and they deserve my money.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Rising Food and Gas Prices Hurt the Poor Far More Than Anyone Else

So, this is probably not a big surprise - the poor get hurt the most by rising food and gas prices because they spend a higher proportion of their income on food and gas than other income groups. I was startled to see just how much more the poor spend on food and gas than other income groups, however:

This also helps explain why rising food and/or energy prices sometimes lead to the overthrow of governments (e.g. Egypt), especially when a large percentage of a country's population is poor.

As Ritholz comments:
The chart illustrates how the lower income groups in the U.S. really get squeezed when food and gas prices rise. In the U.S. the average annual income for the consumer units (households) measured is $62,857, where food expenditures consume a little over 10 percent of income.
But averages distort the true picture of what is really going on as only 15 percent of consumer units fit into this income group. Many have drowned in pools of water where the average depth is only 11 inches deep. Almost one third of the households in the U.S. spend close to or more than 20 percent of their annual income on food.
Remember this the next time the market cheerleaders and policymakers tout core CPI and dismiss food and energy inflation. It may also help explain the rise in social angst in U.S. society.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Government Solving Problems Simply and Brilliantly

Ah, this is the kind of stuff I like to see.

Problem: Not enough kids are participating in school breakfast programs.
Bad Outcomes: Hungry kids who have trouble focusing in class; reduced school income because the schools don't receive federal meal subsidies for the uneaten breakfasts.

Solution: Let kids eat breakfast in the classroom rather than requiring them to come early to eat breakfast before school.

Simple, effective, cheap - in a word, brilliant.

Now we just need to find more solutions like this to the problems we face.

Patriotism Is Apparently an Affliction Only Affecting English-Speakers

I found this quite strange - not that the U.S. is the 2nd most patriotic country in the world (behind Venezuela) - I always knew that we were one of the #1 countries at claiming that we are #1, even though we are actually far from #1 in a number of important areas, such as health and health outcomes, K-12 education, and working conditions.

What I found most interesting was that among Western democracies, 4 of the top 5 most patriotic countries are English-speaking:

So, dear readers, I ask you - what is it about English-speakers that make them the most prone to say that they are better than everyone else? And what's wrong with Great Britain and Ireland that they aren't up at the top with the rest of us English-speakers?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Understatement of the Day Goes to Donald Rumsfeld - Congrats!

A jaw-dropping sentence from his new memoir:
In retrospect, there may have been times when more troops could have helped.
Ya think?

Another choice quote:
[Bush] did not always receive, and may not have insisted on, a timely consideration of his options before he made a decision, nor did he always receive effective implementation of the decisions he made.
Well, I don't really think anyone pegged Bush as a deep thinker - he always was more of a shoot-from-the-hip kind of guy.

And finally:
Looking back, I see there are things the administration could have done differently and better with respect to wartime detention.
It's a shame I don't have a Captain Obvious award lying around to bestow on Rumsfeld, and I don't have Photoshop to put Rumsfeld's head on top of a Captain Obvious cartoon:

So, I'll just have to setting for this great picture of Rumsfeld with Spiderman and Captain America:


Markets Everywhere: How Fish, Coffee, and Honey Buns Became Cash in Prisons

This interesting piece from Wired describes how fish and coffee became units of currency in a prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania:
Nothing makes you more powerful inside the joint than a strong grounding in currency arbitrage. Inmates in federal penitentiaries aren’t allowed to have actual money; family members can load up prison commissary accounts, which usually max out at about $300 a month, but the money’s not transferable and can be redeemed only at the commissary. And cigarettes, the former gold standard for securing everything from a bodyguard to starched laundry, have all but disappeared since tobacco was banned at federal pens in 2004. So inmates have to rely on other forms of currency. All of which means the prison economy runs much like a commodities market: Money in a commissary account can’t be traded, but goods sold at the commissary can be. And since the amounts in circulation are tightly regulated, their value can far surpass their price in dollars.
And here are the top currency items in the Lewisburg, PA prison:

That is:
  1. Mackerel (never spoils if unopened)
  2. Instant Coffee (the only way to get buzzed)
  3. Stamps (no email = snail mail only)
  4. Combination lock (keeps stuff safe; lock + sock = decent weapon, in a pinch)
Apparently, the currency of choice varies by prison, however. The currency of choice in Florida prisons? Honey buns.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Why I Refuse to Buy Ebooks

This is an example of the ongoing ridiculousness that is ebook selling and purchasing.

Now, I know lots of people who have a Kindle, Nook, etc. and love it - that's great; I'm glad they're happy.

Not me, however - I am completely uninterested in jumping on the ebook bandwagon, at least at the moment in the current ebook ecosystem. The main reason is incompatibility - if I buy a Kindle and buy a bunch of books for it, I can't then later buy a Nook or a Sony eReader - if they suddenly become better than the Kindle - and take my books with me; I am locked into the Kindle.

If, as a publisher, you want to sell me DRM-free ebooks that I can read on whatever device I find superior at a given point in time, then I might get on your bandwagon. Until then, I'll stick with good old paper books, which, although big, bulky, and a little more expensive, are truly mine - I can take them anywhere, read them anywhere, and resell them if I want. And they have the side benefit of being nearly indestructible, save for water and fire - which is not something that you can say about ebook readers:

The Interesting, the Useless, and the Awful: Food Pyramids from Around the World

The USDA (my employer) and HHS released the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans very recently - I haven't read it so I can't offer much comment, but here are initial takes by one or two of the blogs I try to read regularly.

In celebration of this event, I want to present some of the more striking food pyramids from around the world, as compiled by Good. First, here's the U.S. food pyramid, for comparison:

Though the design is different, I find Canada's food rainbow to be most like the U.S.'s current food pyramid, in that both are probably undermined by their subtlety:

Here's Germany's food pyramid, though it should properly be seen online, where you can rotate it in 3-D:

Though it's an impressive production, it strikes me as too complicated to be of much use to most people.

Next up, we have Britian's food plate - an interesting idea, showing what the British government thinks should be the proportions of food served at a given meal, but I think it might also be too abstract to do much good:

Hungary has a special place in my heart, since I lived there for several years, but their food house is just pathetic - not only does it offer no information whatsoever, it looks like it was created by a 6 year old in Microsoft Paint. I hope they redo this monstrosity sometime soon:

The French opt for steps instead of a pyramid:

I like Haiti's food circle a lot - not only does it clearly show what to eat, but it also shows (in great generality, admitedly) what different foods do for your body - protect (lock), build (house), and give energy (fire):

And now, my two favorites. First up, the Swiss, which I like because it includes a lot of water and emphasizes eating tons of vegetables:

And finally, my favorite, the Greek pyramid, because it features wine, olive oil, and nuts on the food pyramid as separate sections, emphasizes eating lots of fish, and only includes non-refined grains:

Happy cooking/eating to all, and to all a good night.

Monday, February 14, 2011

More Stupidity in the U.S. Political Discourse: "Conservative Media Look At Hosni Mubarak And See Barack Obama"

One of the things that I have found out about myself in writing this blog is that I absolutely cannot tolerate the stupidity that passes for political discourse in this country. I wrote a really long post about it after the Tucson shooting, and stupidity in the U.S. political discourse continues to irk me on a daily basis. Come on, people, we're smarter than this, aren't we? Please tell me we are ....

BECK: Did anybody notice the remarkable statements from the president last week where the president was saying, look, as long as people are peacefully assembling, they have a right to speak and the government should listen to them. All of -- when he's saying that, all I can think of was the speech where he's walking around going, "And they're carrying tea bags," and mocking the American people. And then, while they're pushing for an Internet kill switch for the president, that does not have judicial review -- in fact, it specifically says courts cannot review the decision. While they're pushing for that in our own Congress on Friday, he's telling Mubarak, anybody who tries to control the Internet and television and radio, that's a sign of a dictator. Come on.
LIMBAUGH: How long have Democrats been in charge of Egypt? Well, you'd have to say that Mubarak's closer to being a Democrat than one of us. Sixty years, the Democrat Party has run Egypt -- 60 years. Oh, it's a little precursor of what we're headed to.
COULTER: I won't ... pretend I've been an expert on Egypt all this time ... Sure, of course, changes should have been made. It wasn't a fabulous regime. It was brutally unfair and a dead-end society -- the same sort of society Obama wants to create here.
No, my dear conservatives, you're just wrong, and you're just adding more stupidity to the U.S. political discourse. Unlike Mubarak, Obama was elected through open, democratic processes in a free and fair election. He has never unleashed the police to crack down violently on, imprison, and/or kill his political opponents. In 2013 or 2017, after he is either defeated in an election or finishes his second term in office, he will peacefully relinquish power to his successor without hundreds of thousands of people having to protest in the streets to force him to step down.

So, repeat after me - Obama ≠ Mubarak.

OK, I'm glad we've got that cleared up. Now let's all stop saying stupid things.

Note: Even though I personally think that the political right are responsible for a greater share of the stupidity in U.S. political discourse, I certainly would not say that the political left is stupid free.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why Must My Vote Be Worthless?

As a resident of the District of Columbia, my vote doesn't mean jack sh*t, but I still have to pay federal taxes, even though I get no representation in Congress. This seriously pisses me and everyone else who lives here off. We have 600,000+ U.S. citizens who live here - more than Wyoming, which for some reason gets to be called a state and have 1 Representative and 2 Senators in Congress, but not us.

However, with the new Congress, we don't have a snowball's chance in hell of finally being liberated from our disenfranchisement - the Republicans have already stripped our delegate of the purely symbolic vote she had, so I guess we just have to shove it and get used to God-only-knows-how-more-years of taxation without representation.

I'd like to think that it's not about race, but I can't help but think that race plays a non-trivial part in this - if D.C. became a state, it would be far and away the blackest state in the Union as a percentage of the population, as well as one of the most Democratic. It's probably not coincidence that the deal that D.C. was trying to cut in the last Congress was to get a Representative if Utah, one of the whitest and most Republican states in the Union, got an extra Representative, so that the "balance of power" would not be tipped in favor of the Democrats. But why should our right to political representation be held hostage by some artificial "balance of power" in Congress?

Displaying the Republicans' usual moral purpose and clarity of thought when it comes to disenfranchising their fellow U.S. citizens, Keith Fimian, two-time Republican challenger to Representative Gerry Connolly (D-VA), outlined why I should be taxed without representation:
The Founders were pretty bright people. They chose, for reasons that they had, to not have voting rights in Washington, D.C. The folks who live there know that. They can live there or they can not, and it's their choice to live there. I'm not in favor of tampering with the Constitution unless it absolutely must be done. It's unfortunate that they don't have the right to vote. ... The fact is that the part of Washington, D.C. that is in Virginia is now part of Virginia. Why don't we make the part of Washington, D.C. that's in Maryland part of Maryland?
You can watch the whole disgusting bit here, with Connolly's excellent rebuttal:

Martin Austermuhle over at DCist dissects Fimian's nonsense brilliantly, so I'll quote him wholesale:
Fimian's response just about sums up the worst of the arguments on why District residents remain second-class citizens. First off, it's not "unfortunate" that D.C. residents don't have voting rights -- it's unjust. Unfortunate is when it rains on a day you wanted to have a picnic, or when your morning English muffin has mold on it.
Second, relocating isn't an adequate solution to an ongoing injustice. By that logic, instead of passing historic civil rights legislation in the 1960s, Congress should have rented some U-Haul trucks and helped African Americans in the South move to Canada. "That's ridiculous," you might say. Yes, it is. And so is Fimian's assertion that 600,000 people should start looking for housing in Arlington, Bethesda or Bowie if they want democratic rights.
Third, Fimian hides behind the Founders' intent, while ignoring any of the reasoning that motivated that intent. The District was created after Congress was chased out of Philadelphia by soldiers demanding back pay the best way they knew how -- as a torch-wielding mob. The theory was that since basically no one lived where the District is now located, Congress could legislate without having to worry about a similar mob of locals trying to sway their votes. Times have clearly changed -- and last I checked, District residents weren't lighting torches and marching on the Hill to demand, well, anything. (Then again, if we did, would Congress move to Kansas?)
Then there's the Maryland part. Sure, giving what's left of the District back to Maryland sounds easy and all, but Maryland hasn't indicated that it wants us, much less are many District residents jumping at the chance to become Maryland residents.
On this and other points, Connolly nails it. "They don't want a vote in Maryland," he said in his response. "They're a unique identity. Go there. It's not Maryland, and they're entitled to their own District seat."
Connolly also points out that the former representative whose seat he now occupies was himself a champion of D.C. voting rights: "Well, again, if you'd been paying attention you'd know that the bill to provide the District with a vote and Utah with a matching vote was introduced by my Republican predecessor ... Tom Davis." Exactly. Whether a Republican or a Democrat, you'd imagine that someone seeking to represent a district just down the road from the District would be a little more sympathetic to the plight of its residents. Davis certainly was.
Internal mechanics aside, Connolly just gets it. "Giving D.C. voting rights is the right thing to do. In the 21st century, 600,000 fellow residents have no voting representation in the Congress. They don't want to vote in Maryland. ... It is scandalous that the United States does not allow the District of Columbia to have a voting representation in the Congress, and it doesn't matter what party they are. It doesn't matter. We don't make decisions based on who gets a vote based on what party they might vote for. It's the right thing to do. It's a matter of simple justice and equity, and it's an embarrassment all over the world that the capital of the free world has no voting representation in the House of Representatives."
Damn straight. If you don't want to let me vote, then screw you. If you want to disenfranchise 600,000+ of your fellow citizens and hide behind the Constitution while doing it, then YOU don't deserve to have the right to vote.

For everyone else, if you live anywhere in the U.S. other than in D.C. (they obviously don't give a sh*t about what I have to say), please call your Congressional representatives and tell them to stop disenfranchising D.C. residents.

What's a liberty- and democracy-loving DC-dweller to do .... Reasonable compromise has failed us, it seems, so perhaps it's time to bring out the (slightly) crazy .... Lydia DePillis over at the Washington City Paper has some fun ideas:
  1. Affix "Abandon your vote, all ye who enter here!" to the signs at the edges of the city welcoming people to the District.
  2. Paint "Paid for by the disenfranchised" on prominent streets around the Capitol.
  3. Commission sculptures prominently featuring shackled D.C. residents for placement on District-owned land downtown.
  4. Hang District flags from bridges at rush hour. Maybe even burning. Or create a "Gates"-style installation of D.C. flags in the Arboretum.
  5. During tax season, print D.C. income tax bills with the message, "Hate paying federal income taxes too? At least you can vote on how these are used."
  6. On directional signs downtown that tell people where things are, include an arrow pointing to "Federal Oppressors" at the Capitol building.
  7. Do flower plantings that spell out "Flowers are Beautiful. So is Democracy."

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Zipper Streets!

Zipper streets are awesome and make so much sense - do they make too much sense for us to use in the U.S.? Why don't we have these?

If you make streets out of brick, you can very easily dig the street up and repair it, unlike the utter nightmare associated with digging up and repairing an asphalt street. Just check out these pictures:

And then the work is almost done, little mess, little fuss, little heavy machinery:

Alright, I'm sold - can we get these in my neighborhood, please?

Two Reminders of Our Utter Insignificance

These two videos are either be extremely liberating or extremely depressing, depending on your point of view. They are reminders that in the cosmic scheme of things, we (humans) are just a bunch of little statistical anomalies crawling around on a little mud ball planet floating around in a universe far larger than our ability to comprehend. Enjoy!

A recent creation:

And an old classic (the numbers might have changed since then, with advances in science, but the gist remains the same):

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Dumbest Tax Break of Them All? - [In]Flexible [Health] Spending Accounts

Disclaimer: I have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), and it provides me with a nice tax break. However, based on my own experiences with FSAs, I have concluded that they are among the dumbest tax breaks ever passed into law, and in spite of the benefit I receive from them, FSAs should be abolished.

I'm reminded of a post over at Economix, which lays out the stupidity of FSAs:
  1. They are inequitable and unfair. FSAs exist entirely at the discretion of one's employer - whether or not you can have an FSA and how much money you can tax-shelter in the FSA are completely decided by who you work for. Furthermore, as of 2006, only about 6% of the U.S. workforce participated in FSAs (though probably about 3 times that many had access to an FSA and declined to participate). Most of the workers with access to FSAs are relatively well off, so like many tax breaks (I'm looking at you too, mortgage interest tax deduction), it shovels money to the middle and upper classes, giving the poor no opportunity to participate.
  2. They are administratively burdensome, creating lots of deadweight loss (it certainly decreased my consumer surplus, anyway). I can attest to this personally - the amount of paperwork involved in setting up an FSA and making a claim through an FSA is ridiculous, and like much of private U.S. health care administration, it seems primarily set up to provide jobs for claims processors rather than to maximize patients' health care outcomes.
  3. They are inflationary. If you put money in an FSA, you have to spend it within the year that it's allocated, or you lose it. The Economix post author describes receiving (or "consuming") a colonoscopy on Christmas Eve that he otherwise would not have gotten, just to spend the unused money in his FSA before he lost it. As Economix notes, the use-it-or-lose-it provision "annually unleashes the year-end scramble by Americans to spend down the balances in their accounts, most commonly on eyeglasses and marginal medical supplies, or on sundry elective medical procedures." Also, they let Americans consume health care tax-free, which leads Americans to consume too much health care.
  4. They piss everyone off. Between the administrative burden, the pressure to spend all the money in your account, and the general lunacy surrounding FSAs, they're super annoying to participate in - but if you have an FSA available to you (like I do), I feel a pressure to use it anyway, since otherwise I'm throwing money away (as long as I can calculate my yearly health care spending with relative accuracy a year in advance).
The health care reform did not eliminate FSAs, as advocated by the Economix author, but it did place further restrictions on FSAs and placed a cap on the amount of funds people could contribute to FSAs, and it used the savings from these restrictions to pay for health care coverage for the poor - so, not a good solution, but it's a start, at least. Of course, the Republicans want to undo these restrictions as part of their plan to defund the health care reform law.

As one MIT economist put it:
Is it really so bad to pay for insurance for our lowest-income citizens by removing a tax break for our middle- and upper-income citizens that they use to buy aspirin and glasses?
Let's hope the Republicans fail, and perhaps in the next round of health care reform, we'll be able to get rid of FSAs once and for all.

Free Labor Markets to the Extreme: A Good Idea?

Now, I think there's a lot of good reason to make fun of this old quote from Michelle Bachmann:
Many teenagers that come in should be paying the employer because of broken dishes or whatever occurs during that period of time. But you know what? After six months, that teenager is going to be a fabulous employee and is going to go on a trajectory where he's going to be making so much money, we'll be borrowing money from him.
Putting aside the rather ridiculous idea that a business owner is going to be borrowing money from his teenage employees, this quote got me thinking - if the labor market were completely unregulated and had no minimum wage, would there be negative-wage jobs, in which the employee pays the employer for the privilege of working?

In many ways, this system already exists - I'm guessing most people reading this probably took an unpaid internship somewhere at some time in the future. In real terms, unpaid internships are negative-wage jobs, if you take into account inflation and opportunity costs, even if the employee is not technically paying the employer.

Furthermore, I seriously doubt that you could get many people to pay for the privilege of working most minimum wage jobs of the kinds teenagers get - dish-washing (as Michelle Bachmann notes), burger-flipping, front-line retail, and the like. Most of these jobs are not extremely pleasant and don't offer much opportunity for direct advancement and career development, so what's the incentive for working in them, if not for monetary compensation?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Cost-Benefit Analysis in Government Works Sometimes: "Department of Homeland Security cancels virtual border fence"

The folks over at the Department of Homeland Security might just be getting a little bit smarter. Via Politico, we learn that occasionally, the U.S. government can stop wasting money on an utterly doomed, ill-conceived, and mostly useless project: the virtual fence along the U.S.-Mexico border:

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced on Friday her department is canceling a $3 billion program to erect a problem-plagued, high-tech, virtual fence along the U.S. border with Mexico.
Department officials briefed Congress Friday on its decision to scrap the Secure Border Initiative (SBINet) and its plan to move ahead with commercially available mobile surveillance systems, drones, thermal imaging devices, tower-based surveillance and some elements of the program on the chopping block.
“SBInet cannot meet its original objective of providing a single, integrated border security technology solution,” Napolitano said.
But no fear - I'm sure that the Department of Homeland Security will figure out some other way to spend billions of government dollars to keep out illegal immigrants who don't cost the U.S. very much in the first place. Just like with the virtual fence, I expect a treatment that (in economic terms, anyway) is probably worse than the disease.

A Vivid Reminder That We Are (Still) Losing the War on Drugs

From, which strangely enough has an excellent series of infographics:

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Examples of Total Legal Failure: The U.S. Patent System

The U.S. patent system isn't so irreparably messed up that someone could go and patent something as ubiquitous, public, and historic as a stick (a stick as in the former branch of a tree), is it?

Yes, it seems, the U.S. patent system is so bad and stupid that they let someone patent a stick. The illustration in the patent is particularly mind-boggling. If you currently use or have ever used a stick, you owe these people royalty payments. You can send them to me and I'll make sure they get to the right person ;)

Some other winning U.S. patents (via Reddit):
So, we can add the U.S. patent system to the list of legal frameworks that have become so perverted from their original intent that they probably need to be done away with and rebuilt from the ground up. See this earlier post of mine for a similar analysis of the current, absurd U.S. copyright laws.

Visualizing 100 GB of Google Text Data

Chris Harrison has an amazing series of charts looking at word associations from Google's vast text database. Here's an interesting one:

Apparently, Google associates "women" with "mature" and "men" with "kids" - go figure.

Chris has a whole series of different visualizations - they're gorgeous, but beware, they might eat up your afternoon.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Dinner at the Kwik-E-Mart: Food Deserts in America

Slate has an interactive graphic about a hot-button topic in food policy circles - food deserts. A food desert, loosely defined, is an area where a significant percentage of the population has no car and does not have a supermarket within walking distance (usually considered to be 1 mile). Here's the main graphic, but head over to Slate for the interactive version:

Food deserts are a widespread problem - 2.3 million American households have neither a car nor a supermarket within walking distance, meaning that they often have to rely on unhealthy foods from convenience stores or other unreliable sources, or that getting food from supermarkets is a burden. As the map above makes clear, it's a problem concentrated in central Appalachia and the deep South, with some very isolated pockets in the West. One more food policy problem to add to the agenda ....

Laws of Personal Attraction: Opposites Don't

Slate tries to cover up an interesting sociological observation with a bunch of celebrity gossip: opposites don't attract. You, being a normal, narcissistic human, want to be with someone very much like you:
It's an established tenet of social psychology that similarities rather than differences—whether in attitude, personality, age, income, race, or religion—produce a lasting relationship. "Opposites tend to attract in the short term, but not in the long-term," says Catherine Sanderson, a psychology professor at Amherst College who teaches a class on close relationships. "Over the long haul, one of the bigger predictors of success in relationships and marriages is similarity." (A marriage between people with similar qualities is known as homogamy.) There's less to fight about, for one thing. People from different religious backgrounds might want to raise children in different traditions, or those from disparate economic backgrounds might clash on the importance of education. Agreement, meanwhile—whether on movies, restaurants, religion, or favorite romantic comedies—produces positive emotions and more fruitful relationships. (It's also true that similar people are more likely to meet each other in the first place: If you like sports, you're more likely to be in situations where you'll run into other sports lovers.)
The myth "opposites attract" might make for good romantic comedies, but this myth rarely plays out in real life - in real life, it's more likely to lead to divorce. So, get out there and love yourself - or better yet, find the opposite-sex version of yourself, and have that person love you ;)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Reminder: The U.S. is Actually More Plutocratic than Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, or Pakistan

Undoubtedly, one of the main causes of the current unrest in Egypt and Tunisia is the fact that much of those countries' wealth has been monopolized in the hands of a small elite. Lots of Americans might sympathize with their plight without realizing that income inequality is actually worse (by some measures, significantly worse) in the United States than in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, or Pakistan:

(Note: a higher Gini coefficient means that a society is more unequal. Picture from the Atlantic.)

Brief aside: the U.S. Gini coefficient has been rising steadily over time since the late 1960s, documenting that the U.S. has steadily become more unequal since then. There are a myriad of reasons for this, but one of the central reasons has been U.S. tax policy, which has steadily shifted the tax burden away from corporations and the super wealthy and onto the middle and working classes. This is illustrated starkly by this New York Times graphic:

More on U.S. income inequality in a later post.

So, why aren't Americans taking to the streets like the Egyptians and Tunisians, demanding revolution? Well, the U.S. is, of course, a much nicer place to live than Egypt, Yemen, etc. according to a host of other important measures - average and median income, infant mortality, poverty rate, civil rights, rule of law, etc.

As discussed in this Economix post, it is, for the most part, better to be relatively poor in a rich country like the U.S. than to be relatively rich in a poor country like India:

As Economix explains:
The graph shows inequality within a country, in the context of inequality around the world. It can take a few minutes to get your bearings with this chart, but trust me, it’s worth it.
Here the population of each country is divided into 20 equally-sized income groups, ranked by their household per-capita income. These are called “ventiles,” as you can see on the horizontal axis, and each “ventile” translates to a cluster of five percentiles.
The household income numbers are all converted into international dollars adjusted for equal purchasing power, since the cost of goods varies from country to country. In other words, the chart adjusts for the cost of living in different countries, so we are looking at consistent living standards worldwide.
Now on the vertical axis, you can see where any given ventile from any country falls when compared to the entire population of the world.
Notice how the entire line for the United States resides in the top portion of the graph? That’s because the entire country is relatively rich. In fact, America’s bottom ventile is still richer than most of the world: That is, the typical person in the bottom 5 percent of the American income distribution is still richer than 68 percent of the world’s inhabitants.
In such a world, it is easy to see how much of your lifetime income is determined by the accident of where you were born.

A final note: Even though people aren't rioting in the streets over income inequality in the U.S., income inequality in this country is, in my opinion, a huge and growing problem that has been purposefully ignored (or even championed) by U.S. policymakers for the last 30-40 years. More on this in a later post.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Starbucks' New Trenta Size Will Blow Up Your Stomach

"Blow up" as in expand, not as in explode, but still - Starbucks' new beverage size is larger than the size of the average human stomach:

From The National Post.

Starbucks' Venti White Chocolate Mocha already packs a whopping 580 calories, so by my calculations, a Trenta White Chocolate Mocha will top out at around 899 calories. Bottoms up!

The Truth About the U.S.'s Gun-Loving, Socialized-Health-Care-Mandating Founding Fathers

As a form of protest against the health care reform law, South Dakota state legislators have introduced a bill that would require all S.D. residents to purchase a firearm "sufficient to provide for their ordinary self-defense." One of the sponsors, Rep. Hal Wick, summarizes the logic of their protest bill thusly:
Do I or the other cosponsors believe that the State of South Dakota can require citizens to buy firearms? Of course not. But at the same time, we do not believe the federal government can order every citizen to buy health insurance.
Funnily enough, the Founding Fathers (who, we presume, did not need to debate about the Founding Fathers' intent when it came to passing laws) passed two very interesting laws shortly after establishing the United States as a country:
  1. The Militia Act of 1792: "Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That each and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective States, resident therein, who is or shall be of age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years (except as is herein after excepted) shall severally and respectively be enrolled in the militia, by the Captain or Commanding Officer of the company, within whose bounds such citizen shall reside, and that within twelve months after the passing of this Act. And it shall at all time hereafter be the duty of every such Captain or Commanding Officer of a company, to enroll every such citizen as aforesaid, and also those who shall, from time to time, arrive at the age of 18 years, or being at the age of 18 years, and under the age of 45 years (except as before excepted) shall come to reside within his bounds; and shall without delay notify such citizen of the said enrollment, by the proper non-commissioned Officer of the company, by whom such notice may be proved. That every citizen, so enrolled and notified, shall, within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch, and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder; and shall appear so armed, accoutred and provided, when called out to exercise or into service, except, that when called out on company days to exercise only, he may appear without a knapsack."
  2. An Act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen (1798): "Be it enacted ... that from and after the first day of September next, the master or owner of every ship or vessel of the United States, arriving from a foreign port into any port of the United States, shall, before such ship or vessel shall be admitted to an entry, render to the collector a true account of the number of seamen that shall have been employed on board such vessel since she was last entered at any port in the United States, and shall pay, to the said collector, at the rate of twenty cents per month for every seaman so employed ; which sum he is hereby authorized to retain out of the wages of such seamen ... It shall be the duty of the several collectors to make a quarterly return of the sums collected by them, respectively, by virtue of this act, to the secretary of the treasury ; and the president of the United States is hereby authorized, out of the same, to provide for the temporary relief and maintenance of sick, or disabled seamen, in the hospitals or other proper institutions now established in the several ports of the United States, or in ports where no such institutions exist, then in such other manner as he shall direct: Provided, that the moneys collected in any one district, shall be expended within the same.
So, we see that the Founding Fathers themselves 1) did in fact mandate that Americans buy guns, and 2) passed socialized medicine and mandated health insurance. They wrote the Constitution, and they obviously thought mandatory socialized health care was constitutional, so can we please stop arguing about this and move on, please? Balkanization put it well:
The notion that being asked to either buy health insurance and make health care accessible for one's fellow citizens--or to pay a small tax-- is a form of tyranny akin to George III's regime is simply bizarre: it shows how perverted and twisted public discourse has become in the United States. The assault on the individual mandate is really an assault on the public duty to assist other Americans in need, and in particular, an assault on the legal obligation to pay taxes to contribute to the general welfare. The assault on the health care bill is not a defense of liberty. It is a defense of selfishness.
I'll also point out that the Republicans' characterization of the heath care law as "tyrrany" is a classic example of the pervasive stupidity in U.S. political discourse - never give up the fight against stupidity!

Friday, February 4, 2011

The (Accelerating) Rise and Fall of Gadgets

The Washington Post has an interesting visualization showing the adoption of different gadgets over time, as well as their average real price:

What I'm amazed by is the increasing pace at which gadgets are adopted and then discarded - soon, it seems, entirely new technologies might be adopted and then abandoned in the course of a year.

Via FlowingData.

A New Low? - Republicans Trying to Redefine "Rape"

As reported by Raw Story, and lots and lots and lots of other places:
The broad anti-abortion measure would restrict federally-assisted abortion coverage to cases of "forcible rape," excluding in that definition instances where women are drugged and raped, where women say "no" but do not physically fight off the perpetrator, and various cases of date rape. It also excludes instances of statutory rape in which minors are impregnated by adults. The victim in all cases would be denied abortion coverage under Medicaid and forbidden from seeking health care tax benefits.
 So, Republicans are trying to say that only "forcible" rape = rape, and that rape ≠ rape.

I'm at a loss for words (and so too are Republicans, it seems, even though they're sponsoring the bill), so I'll let Democratic Representative from Florida Debbie Wasserman Schultz speak on my behalf:
It is absolutely outrageous. I consider the proposal of this bill a violent act against women. It really is -- to suggest that there is some kind of rape that would be okay to force a woman to carry the resulting pregnancy to term, and abandon the principle that has been long held, an exception that has been settled for 30 years, is to me a violent act against women in and of itself. Rape is when a woman is forced to have sex against her will, and that is whether she is conscious, unconscious, mentally stable, not mentally stable .... To have H.R. 3, the Republicans' third most important priority, say that rape cannot be an exception to federal funding for abortion...sends an incredibly strong message to women .... Even though Republicans say they want government out of our lives, this is the most intrusive governmental act that we've probably seen to date in the personal lives of women.
H.R. 3 won't pass the Senate, and if by some miracle it did, Obama would never sign it, but still ....

Sigh ... I had hoped that the new Republican House had more important issues to work on than old, tired, boring culture war issues, but I guess not.

Edit: After I wrote the first draft of this post, news came that the Republicans are apparently going to drop the "forcible rape" language from the bill - though there's no word yet on what the final bill will look like.