Thursday, May 19, 2011

Another Blogging Break - Catch You in June! (Unless the Apocalypse Comes on May 21)

(Switch on Dr. Nick Riviera voice)

Hi Everybody!

(End Dr. Nick voice)

So, it's once again time for me to take a brief pause - but never fear, I'll be back again in June, with more posts to inform, amuse, entertain, incite, anger, provoke, confuse, irritate, and placate.

In the meantime, check out the archives (over on the right edge of the page) to catch up on past, excellent (if I do say so myself) posts that you may have missed before. By my count, there are 163 posts to read other than this one, so I hope that's enough to keep you entertained for the next couple of weeks.

If it's not, feel free to browse my always-updated (except for the next two weeks) feed of articles that I find interesting but that I won't have time to write about.

Or, in the event that the apocalypse begins on May 21, as some predict, I hope the readers of this blog are some of the select few that God takes up to Heaven in the rapture, and that this blog provides some comfort to all the tormented souls left behind until God destroys the world on October 21. The pamphlet I got in the mail trying to convince me that the world is ending in a few days left me with more than a few doubts, however - after all, I'm pretty sure the end of the world has been predicted approximately 174,876 times before, and thus far, 0.0000% of the predictions have turned out to be accurate. In fact, this same group predicted that the world would end in 1994, which only makes me more skeptical of their claims. I anticipate similar embarrassment this time, but I suppose anything's possible ....

Anyway, while I'm gone, feel free to browse, post, comment, get into fights with each other, etc. - make yourselves at home. I'll clean up after I get back, if necessary, if the world is still around. Take care of yourselves, and see you in a bit!


Why Your Stitches Cost $1,500, Part Two

Here's the follow-up infographic to the one I posted a few days ago, explaining why U.S. healthcare costs are so high. Spoilers: it's not because of smoking, drinking, or the elderly, or even obesity and malpractice lawsuits:

Why Your Stitches Cost $1,500 - Part Two
Via: Medical Billing And Coding

The main drivers of super-high U.S. health costs are:
  1. Lack of U.S. consumer power over health care costs (i.e. consumers have no bargaining power vis-a-vis health care providers.
  2. Astounding administrative overhead because of our needlessly, irrationally complex system.
  3. Massive outpatient care costs.
  4. Overpaid doctors (relative to other advanced countries, at least).
And in spite of the huge amount of money we spend on health care, we still don't manage to provide health insurance to 40 million people, and we provide only inadequate care to tens of millions more.

What can be done about these problems?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

More About Worry - What Do Americans Worry About, and Should They?

Following up on yesterday's post, here's a summary of what Americans in general worry about nowadays (specifically, what their security concerns are):

So, yes, Americans are quite worried - especially about electronic crime, though I suspect that much of that concern stems from fear of the unknown, as I suspect most Americans don't really understand cyber crime. At least it makes more sense to be afraid of cyber crime than killer scorpions!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What Should You Be More Afraid Of: Scorpions, Snakes, Bees, or Cheese?

The below infographic shows how often people die from animals that lots of people are scared of - polar bears, scorpions, wolves, mountain lions, black bears, alligators, snakes, spiders, and bees.

As you can see, far more people die of cheese (i.e. heart disease, heart failure, high blood pressure, obesity, and stroke) than from these scary animals each year (in fact, these cheese-related diseases kill 28 MILLION TIMES as many people per year as scorpions):

Why are people so much more afraid of scorpions and spiders than cheese? A combination of cognitive biases (the availability heuristic, the attentional bias, the confirmation bias, the ostrich effect, and a few others) leads humans to drastically overestimate the probability of "dramatic" death events (such as dying from a spider bite or plane crash) while dramatically underestimating the probability of "mundane" death events (such as dying from heart disease, second-hand smoke, or car crash).

So, choose your fears wisely - and be more afraid of cheese and your car than going outside!

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Cartoon Guide to How Corporations Avoid Paying Taxes (in Ways You Can't)

As the graphic below states, corporate taxes accounted for 30% of all federal revenue in the 1950s; now it's just 6%, and the difference has been made up almost entirely by increased payroll taxes (i.e. by taxing you more).

How do corporations manage to pay less in taxes than you, even though they theoretically have a 35% marginal tax rate? Here's how:

How Corporations Get Out of Paying Taxes

Maybe, just maybe, one day, the government will close these loopholes (and give unicorns to all children born in the U.S.), but for now, you can be [proud? angry? sad? indifferent? jolly? incensed? perfumed?] that you paid more in taxes last year than GE did.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Reminder that You Shouldn't Worry about Anything in Life

Sound advice, though I could probably never follow it myself, as evidenced by this blog:

Of course, the first thing I think of is this:

Alright, I'm going to go not worry and enjoy my Saturday - I hope you are able to do the same!

Repost: U.S. Military Spending v. Foreign Aid Spending, Illustrated

So, Blogger went down for a day and ate this post along with it, so here's the post again:

From Good, we have a stark illustration of our national priorities (let's remember that budgets are moral documents and illustrate what we REALLY care about, as opposed to what we SAY we care about):

Click on image for huge version.
So, yes, one could look at U.S. budget priorities and say that we care a whole lot more about killing people in other countries than about feeding, clothing, housing, healing, and educating people in other countries. Maybe some generation, that will change.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Despite Housing Market Crash, U.S. Homes Remain Unaffordable

Barry Ritholtz over at the Big Picture has an in-depth rebuttal against a Businessweek article that expresses bafflement at the fact that "Americans Shun Cheapest Homes in 40 Years as Ownership Fades."

Ritholtz's original article is definitely worth reading, but I wanted to highlight a couple of his main points, especially since I would like to buy a house sometime in my life, and given the massive (and ongoing) housing and property bubble in the U.S., I'm seriously doubting whether I'll ever be able to afford to purchase a house.

So, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) is bemoaning the fact that not too many people are buying houses at the moment, even though by their metric, "falling prices have made real estate the best buy in at least four decades." (When reading anything put out by the NAR, one would be wise to remember that the NAR is a group of people who only get paid when houses exchange hands - which is why its chief economist was encouraging people to purchase homes at the peak of the real estate bubble - so one should always take anything NAR says with a huge grain of salt.)

What do the data show? If you look at the ratio of median incomes v. median home prices (and price appreciation v. rent costs) over time, this is what you see:

From 2000-2007, you see a HUGE increase in the cost of houses relative to both income and rent, and the ratio STILL hasn't reverted to the historical average, even after the prolonged crash we've seen. In fact, it looks like the cost of homes is creeping back up again, away from the historical average - meaning that, for the foreseeable future, there's probably no home ownership in my future.

As a contrast, here's NAR's Home Affordability Index, which dips below 100 if homes are considered unaffordable. This only happened for one month, in 2006, during the biggest residential housing bubble in history:

So, I'm sorry to all of you current homeowners, but your houses are probably still overvalued - and I wouldn't consider buying a house from you until prices fall even further.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Dilemmas of Human Existence, Illustrated

From SMBC, one of the few web-comics I never fail to read:

To quote one of the greatest philosophers of all time: d'oh!

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Economics of the Jetsons, Or Why Don't I Work 9 Hours a Week?

Matt Yglesias has an interesting observation about The Jetsons:
George Jetson enjoyed a nine-hour workweek—thee hours a day, three days a week. Mike Konczal rightly connected this to JM Keynes’ essay on “The Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren” (PDF) highlighting the consequences of a super-abundance of material prosperity.

Essentially imagine a world in which productivity grows by an average of 2.5 percent per year for the next fifty years and Mr and Mrs Jetson have chosen to take the cumulative 418 percent increase in income by reducing hours worked to one quarter of present-day standards rather than vastly increased consumption.

That seems like a valid choice. But what happens to income inequality in this kind of world? Imagine another couple, the Hardworkers where both parents put in a 30-hour workweek and their combined household income winds up being 20 times that of the Jetsons. Do we need to redistribute income to George & Jane? Or is the fact that their absolute living standards are high the relevant issue?
He brings up two interesting questions for me.

1) Should anything be done about the fact that the Jetsons choose to work much less than the Hardworkers and therefore wind up with 20 times less income?

I'm going to go with no - the Jetsons obviously have a very high standard of living, and if they want to make the choice to work less rather than consume even more, that's a perfectly valid choice for them to make. (Of course, Yglesias assumes that the Jetsons will reap the benefit of their increased productivity, which is not necessarily true - after all, the lion's share of workers' productivity gains since 1980 haven't gone to the worker, but rather to the super-rich.) This is also why, especially far into the future when people are presumably much richer than we are today, poverty should be measured in absolute terms (like a nominal poverty line, such as we have in the U.S.) rather than in relative terms (e.g. declaring that anyone with less than 60% of the median national disposable income is poor, as in some European countries) makes more sense.

I don't think this holds much relevance today, however, since the Jetsons live in a world where everyone is far richer than we are currently and poverty seems to be a thing of the past. This is obviously not the case right now, exacerbated by the fact that the U.S. poverty line (an absolute measure of poverty) is, in my (and others') opinion, too low. Relative measures of poverty can be useful when comparing the huge income gaps between countries, however, as they point out that rich countries should probably give far more aid to poorer countries, since it is far better to be relatively poor in a rich country like the U.S. than to be poor in a poor country - in fact, it's usually to be better to be relatively poor in a rich country than to be relatively RICH in a poor country. This points to the fact that relatively small transfers of wealth from rich countries to poor countries would drastically improve the quality of life in poor countries without diminishing the quality of life in rich countries much, thanks to the diminishing marginal utility of increased wealth (which, coincidentally, is the economic reason why tax systems should be highly progressive).

So, no, I don't really think we care about inequality in the super-rich world of the Jetsons - everyone seems to be sharing in the wealth (certainly relative to our standard of living nowadays), and people seem to be able to choose how much to work (and therefore how much to earn). Just so long as the super-rich in the Jetsons' world do not subvert the processes of democracy, I'm not sure inequality is a big concern - though I would still believe in a progressive taxation system, however, not a flat tax.

2) Why can't I work 9 hours a week?

OK, so 9 hours a week probably wouldn't be enough - but given that the law of diminishing returns also holds true for labor effort (i.e. the quality and/or speed of work I produce in my 1st hour of working in a day is, on average, just slightly poorer and/or slower than in my 2nd hour of working in a day), why can I not work with my employer to optimize the amount of work I have to do with my level of productivity while working and my desired balance of income v. free time?

For example, if I could do 65% of the work I currently do by working 50% of the time, I would be sorely tempted to take 2/3s of my salary and only work 20 hours per week.

In the U.S., at least, there are several problems with this, and even more problems for me, since I work for the government:
  • Benefits - to get benefits in the U.S., you usually have to work "full time," which is legally defined as 32-40 hours per week, depending on which U.S. state you live in. Healthcare and retirement are important to have, and in the U.S., its far cheaper to purchase insurance and save for retirement through a large employer than being self-employed and having to take care of healthcare and retirement on your own. Many European countries solve this problem with public healthcare and pension systems - since people's healthcare and pensions aren't tied to their current employer or to full-time work, part-time arrangements are more feasible and more popular in Europe than in the U.S.
  • Status Quo Bias - in much of the industrialized world, workers had to fight for decades, or even centuries, for a 40-hour week (60-100 hour work weeks were common). Winning the 40-hour week was a huge victory - but as we have gotten wealthier, we have not gotten more flexible with our working arrangements.
  • Union Contracts - not relevant to everyone, obviously, but relevant to me, since I work under the terms of a union contract. The union contract spells out the relationship between employer and employee, leaving little room for alternative arrangements. This definitely provides workers a number of beneficial protections, but it doesn't leave room for the government to recognize employees who are exceptionally productive and reward them with the opportunity to trade that productivity for more pay or more free time.
  • The Decline of Unions and the Rise of the Exempted (Salaried) Employee - strangely enough, the decline of unions has also decreased workplace flexibility. Nowadays, most employees are salaried, so their employers pay them a set amount of money to work for them, regardless of the number of hours they actually work - therefore, it is in the employers' interest to squeeze as much time (and work) out of the employees as the employees will tolerate, regardless of the law of diminishing returns. Without union protections, an employee can be fired if they refuse to do this and replaced with someone who will.
Maybe one day I'll have the experience and recognized expertise to charge $1,000s an hour for consulting services, and then I'll be able to work just a few hours a week - but for now, I don't have much choice but to keep my nose to the grindstone and wish that I had been born in the time of the Jetsons ....

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Spousonomics "Should You Bring It Up O-Meter"

In honor of Mothers' Day, I thought I'd post a handy chart that will help mothers and fathers be better spouses. From the always excellent Spousonomics, we have a handy flowchart to help sort out those times you should bring it up from those times you shouldn't:

Let's all do our part to preserve marital / domestic partnership-al bliss!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Visually Exploring Food Insecurity in the U.S.

Poverty and Policy has a good summary of a fascinating new tool and dataset that I'm working with as a part of my job, Feeding America's Map the Meal Gap, which charts the level of food insecurity in the U.S. by county. Here's the summary map:

And I'll just borrow Poverty and Policy's summary:
The gap in the title refers to the estimated number of additional meals that people who said they couldn't always afford to eat would have if they did. The methodology used to calculate the gap is somewhat complicated. So I’ll just refer those interested to the executive summary.
The map is online and interactive, with different shades of green indicating different food insecurity rates in counties across the U.S.
Mouse over it and you get statewide food insecurity rates, based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food security report for 2009.
But that’s only the beginning. You also get:
  • The number of food insecure people.
  • The percentages of food insecurity in three different income bands based on eligibility ceilings for food stamps and for some other federal nutrition assistance programs like WIC.
  • The additional funds that would have been needed to provide everyone with enough to eat in 2009.
  • The average cost of a meal, based on USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan — the market basket used to determine food stamp benefits.
And you can get these data in print-out form for every county and food bank service area in the country. Coming soon, I understand, will be the same data for each Congressional district.
All this detail yields some important insights.
  • Food insecurity is everywhere — not just in the states or areas within states that we’re accustomed to thinking of as poor.
  • A large percentage of food insecure people aren’t eligible for federal nutrition assistance programs — a nationwide average of 29% in 2009.
  • People may be food insecure even with food stamps in part because the Thrifty Food Plan market basket costs considerably more in some places than the average nationwide.
  • For somewhere around $22 billion a year we could provide everyone in the country with enough to eat.
Very cool stuff - it will be super useful in my job.

I'll refrain from commenting on the policy implications from this dataset, but head over to Policy and Poverty for their take on what this data should mean for policy.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Cell-Phone-Only Households: A Product of Poverty? Conservatism? Immigration?

According to a new report issued by the CDC:
As of the first half of 2010, more than one in four American households (26.6%) had only wireless telephones— an eightfold increase over just 6 years. The prevalence of such ‘‘wireless-only’’ households now markedly exceeds the prevalence of households with only landline telephones (12.9%), and this difference is expected to grow.
What's most interesting is that the percentage of wireless-only households as a percentage of all households varies wildly by state, from a low of 12.8% in Rhode Island to 35.2% in Arkansas:

And here's a detailed breakdown by state:

What might be the cause of this disparity? Poverty might be a cause, as many of the most wireless-only states are also among the poorest states in the U.S.:

Or it could be that conservatism leads people to cut the wires, as comparing the proportion of wireless-only households to a map of presidential election outcomes from 1996-2008 also seems to imply some kind of correlation:

Of course, I'm not implying causality here, as there are all sorts of confounders that this cursory blog post isn't taking into account. But, it's interesting (and funny) to think about.

My personal guess as to why the pattern of wireless-only households is distributed as it is relates most strongly to poverty and secondly to immigrants coming from countries that never had high wired telephone penetration (i.e. people went from having no phones to having cell phones only). I would also guess that the poorest and most immigrant-infused states are also some of the youngest states, and young households make up much of the wireless-only households - e.g. my own household, which is also wireless-only, even though we live in a relatively wired area.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mac People v. PC People, Illustrated

From Hunch, via Daily Infographic:

Interesting - according to most demographic characteristics, I should be a Mac person, but I remain a staunch PC person, for a few important reasons:
Random statistic from my blog - 74% of my blog readers are PC people, 19% are Mac people, and 7% are "other" - congrats to that 7%!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Lobbying Bubble, Illustrated: Loads of Cash for Finance and Big Pharma

From Time Magazine (via the Big Picture), we have a stark illustration of the extent to which much (most? all?) of Washington politics has become a pay-to-play political system. Nominal spending on lobbying in D.C. has more than doubled in the past decade:

Perhaps not surprisingly, the sectors awash with the most money are 1) Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate and 2) Big Pharma.

Ironically, the push towards smaller government spending might further inflate the lobbying bubble - with a shrinking federal pie, different interest groups will have to fight each other even harder to win larger slices of a shrinking federal government pie, which means lots of money for high-paid K Streeters.

I was also interested to see the sectors in decline - three of the biggest are key conservative social issues. I wonder if this means that social conservatives believe that they have either won those battles or think they are lost causes.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Mapping Stereotypes: Tragicomic Maps of Europe and the World

If you know Europe well, you'll appreciate the tragic truth of the below maps. If you don't ... I don't know what to tell you - get out more? There are also some non-Eurocentric maps (mainly USA-centric maps) at the bottom of the post!

Anyway, enjoy these maps, from alphadesigner (click on images for huge size versions):

Europe According to the USA

Europe According to France

Europe According to Germany

Europe According to (Northern) Italy

Europe According to Bulgaria

Europe According to Britain

Europe According to AlphaDesigner
I had to include this one, since the "Union of Subsidized Farmers" bit made me laugh out loud.

Europe According to Gay Men

Europe According to the Vatican

Europe According to Switzerland

And some bonus, non-European Maps:

The World According to the USA

The World According to the USA, Paranoid Edition

World Dictatorships According to the USA
This map illustrates the problems the U.S. has in the Middle East right now - sure, the U.S. is all for democracy everywhere, but many of those dictators being deposed were good allies of the U.S.

South America According to the USA

Africa According to the USA

Asia According to the USA

I hope you enjoyed the above maps, and I hope you learned something about the stereotypes that color the way you view the world, so you can work to make your vision a little clearer.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Only News Story Today: Osama bin Laden Is Dead

I'll interrupt my normal string of posts to comment briefly on the only news story anyone's going to be talking about today - U.S. Special Forces have killed Osama bin Laden after tracking him to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Read all about it at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, or your own favorite newspaper.

I guess the New York Times' obituary makes it official.

My initial $0.02: I can't say that I feel jubilation at the death of Osama bin Laden, and I'm somewhat put off by the blood-lust I see in the celebrations of some of my fellow Americans, but I feel a satisfaction that justice has been done. The two most likely outcomes for bin Laden were 1) that he would remain hidden but free, or 2) that he would be killed during an attempt to capture him - and given those choices, it's far better for him to be dead than free. I hope this provides closure for the many victims of September 11, 2001, and I hope that this moment provides America with an opportunity to think about and reassess our both national priorities and what we really want to spend our blood and treasure on going forward - on the most needy citizens among us, or on more foreign wars and tax cuts for the rich.

Here's Obama's statement on bin Laden's death:

Finally, I'll share the best of what's come across my Facebook feed in the past 12 hours, with my acknowledgements to my funny, witty, intelligent, and/or insightful friends:

"Once again, the Obama administration shows its desperation to distract attention from his fraudulent birth certificate."

"let's all travel somewhere with full size toiletries to celebrate!"

"Ha ha ha Obama interrupted Celebrity Apprentice. Suck it, Donald!"

"I like to imagine Jack Bauer holding a gun to the head of a sniveling bin Laden, doing his trademark facial wrenching while debating whether to pull the trigger. One of Bauer's men is in the background shouting, "Don't do it, Jack! He's not worth it!" But Jack replies, "You're right. He's not worth it." *BANG* ... *beep beep beep beep*"

"Hitler confirmed dead on May 1, 1945 and Osama Bin Laden confirmed dead on May 1, 2011. ?"

"10 years, 2 wars, 919,967 deaths, and $1,188,263,000,000 later, we managed to kill one person."

"This celebration isn't about the death of one man, which would only be a fleeting victory. This celebration marks justice delivered for the victims of al-Qaeda's terror and those who have fallen in this struggle. This celebration marks the end of an era and demonstrates the United States' indefatigable spirit and tenacity."

Back to regular posting tomorrow, if there's any chance that anyone will want to read anything other than coverage of bin Laden's death.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Reality Check: What Will Happen if Gay Marriage Is Legalized?

My wife and I received a wedding save-the-date this week from a very good friend. As he and his partner would not have been able to get married just a short time ago, I thought I'd bring some perspective on what will happen in this country if gay marriage is legalized nationally.

From Good:
While there's certainly a lot of solid and interesting data out there about gay marriage, in some ways, this pie chart from Prose Before Hos is really the only information worth considering.
What's going to change for heterosexuals if gays are allowed to get married? Absolutely nothing (save for a good boost to the economy):

Yup, that's about it, I'd say.