Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why I Hope Congress Continues to Do Nothing - The Beautiful Double Trigger

As you may recall, last week, just before Thanksgiving, the Super Committee announced that they couldn't reach agreement - which I had predicted as both the most likely and most desirable outcome. So, score one for me and score one for a do-nothing Congress that, at least, is starting to abide by the Hippocratic Oath to Do No Harm.

Well, here's hoping that Congress continues to do nothing, and by doing nothing, will 1) decrease the U.S. deficit by more than the Super Committee ever dreamed of doing and 2) advance a progressive political agenda.

But wait, you say, this is a bizarre occurrence, especially with the Republican-led House - how did this come to pass?

Ezra Klein explains:
In August, Republicans scored what they thought was a big win by persuading Democrats to accept a trigger that consisted only of spending cuts. The price they paid was 1) concentrating the cuts on the Pentagon while exempting Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare beneficiaries, and 2) delaying the cuts until January 1, 2013. That was, they figured, a win, as it eschewed taxes. Grover Norquist's pledge remained unbroken.
But 12 years earlier, George W. Bush had set a trigger of his own. In order to pass his tax cuts using the 51-vote budget reconciliation process, he had agreed to let them sunset in 2010. A last-minute deal extended them until the end of 2012.
So now there are two triggers. One is an extremely progressive spending trigger worth $1.2 trillion that goes off on January 1, 2013. The other is an extremely progressive tax trigger worth $3.8 trillion that goes off on ... January 1, 2013. If you count reduced interest payments, the two policies alone would reduce future deficits by about $6 trillion.
$6 trillion in deficit reduction, and distributed far more progressively than any proposal advanced by either the Democrats or Republicans, since half of the spending cuts come from military spending, and increased revenue outmatches spending cuts by a 3:1 ratio. Just how much more progressive are the dual triggers than anything else proposed thus far? Check out the numbers:

It seems the Republicans have painted themselves into a bit of a corner, eh? The best part is - the Republicans can't stop either of triggers on their own! If either the Senate Democrats or President Obama choose to block an attempt to dismantle these triggers, then triggers go off. Obama has already said that he's not interested in renegotiating the spending cuts. The Bush tax cuts will undoubtedly be a big issue in the 2012 Presidential race, so we'll just have to see how that shakes out.

Admittedly, the triggers aren't ideal, if they come to pass - the 50% of the spending cuts that come from non-military spending are unintelligent, across-the-board cuts, and much of the increased revenue comes from the middle class, in addition to the very wealthy. But still, faced with a Republican party that practically refuses to negotiate in good faith, letting the dual triggers fire is probably the best option - especially if you're a lame duck President Obama or lame duck Congress, both of which are possible in late 2012 / early 2013.

So, let's all call our Congressional Representatives and encourage them to .... do nothing!

The United States of Road Fatalities - It Sucks to Be a Pedestrian in D.C.

We all know that I love maps (I even own this book of strange maps), especially maps that present information in a new and interesting way. Therefore, I am a big fan of this map, just released by ITO World, which maps ALL U.S. traffic fatalities by fatality type from 2001-2009:

Via The Guardian.

I have it centered on D.C. (though you can move the map around to look anywhere in the U.S., or zoom out to see the whole U.S.), where it seems to really suck to be a pedestrian.

WARNING: Look both ways before crossing the road, people, because drivers in their cars WILL mow you down. It looks to be far less dangerous to be a cyclist in D.C., though we can't be sure from this map - we'd need to look at the number of fatalities per pedestrian and per cyclist in order to compare properly.

Not surprisingly, outside of major (walkable) cities, most deaths are those of vehicle occupants, though I was surprised at the number of pedestrians killed along I-40 - what are these people doing, walking along the interstate?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Black Friday Insanity - Video Evidence of the Decline of the United States?

Thanksgiving has come and gone - I hope you had a happy one, as I did.

Unfortunately, Black Friday also came and went, leaving a path of madness and destruction in its wake. It seems to me that the insanity demonstrated by U.S. consumers on Black Friday only gets worse each year - what is going on here? I'm reminded of the gladiators who fought each other in the Colosseum for the amusement of the rich and poor alike as the Roman Empire crumbled. Is something similar happening to America?

Let's review the video evidence from this past weekend.

First, there was a near riot over $2 waffle makers:

Come on, people, I know some of you take your waffles seriously, but is the prospect of a $2 waffle iron really worth rioting over?

Then there was the grandpa roughed up by cops because he was trying to keep his grandson from getting trampled:

Yes, yes, figures of authority - let's beat people up first and ask questions later.

And there was this amazing scene from an Urban Outfitters in California:

OMG indeed, Mr. Whoever's Recording This Video.

And this near-mob at a Wal-Mart in North Carolina:

So much shrieking, violence, and ... laughing? I feel seriously sorry for the poor employees.

Or perhaps Victoria's Secret in Modesto, CA is more to your taste:

"HEY, STOP PUSHING! DO NOT RUN!!!" - good luck with that, Ms. Retail Worker - those girls WILL GET THOSE DISCOUNTED UNDERPANTS AND PANTALOONS. I compliment the video editor on his choice of background music, however.

Back to Wal-Mart:

Just your typical Black Friday Wal-Mart riot. How do those people even know what they're grabbing that they supposedly want so badly (and how much it costs) to decide whether it's actually a good deal? Doesn't seem like a very intelligent shopping strategy to me.

But lest we appear classist here at The Angry Bureaucrat (since a lot of the shopping violence seemed to go down at Wal-Mart), here's the crowd at Abercrombie & Fitch:

Though at A&F, it seems to be more about the massive crowds and less about the rioting - I'll say that much for them.

And back to Wal-Mart, this time with a video of the supposed (and now infamous) pepper spray attack:

"BACK UP, BACK UP!!!" And is that an air horn? Someone mentions a stink bomb - perhaps that's the pepper spray they're smelling.

Yet more Wal-Mart action in California:

I'm running out of original things to say.

Target could also be an exciting place to be at midnight on Thanksgiving:

I would have just kept driving ....

But we've got to end with the king - Wal-Mart, this time in Utah:

I'm just shocked. My jaw is on the floor.

I'm put off my some of the comments heard in some of the above videos - expressions of incredulity or disapproval. I find it amazingly hypocritical - I mean, if you're there, standing in line to get into a store at 12:01AM on Black Friday, aren't you part of the problem?

And why do anyone go to these sales anyway? It's not for the unparalleled bargains - I found better deals sitting at home on my computer, and my sense about Black Friday deals not being all that great have been confirmed by empirical research:
Professor Etzioni, who teaches computer science at the University of Washington, has directed his considerable intellect at the American ritual of shopping for bargains on Black Friday. After examining billions of prices of consumer electronics, he has decided to spend the busiest shopping day of the year scuba-diving in Bali.
Why? It is not until early December, Professor Etzioni’s research shows, that prices are likely to be the lowest for electronics, products that are among the biggest sellers on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
“The bottom line is, Black Friday is for the retailers to go from the red into the black,” he said. “It’s not really for people to get great deals on the most popular products.”
So, what do all of the above videos demonstrate, other than that America is slowly turning into the laughing stock of the world? They seem to show some unfortunate qualities: "a horrible economy, aggressive consumerism, mindless violence, and a complete lack of concern for one's fellow human beings." Hmmm ... it's starting to sound more and more like the decline of the Roman Empire. Surely this isn't the end people want, however - to beat each other up for sport over discounted shiny objects as their jobs, families, country, and lives go to hell - is it? IS IT?!?

The most terrifying prospect, however, is that this is exactly the end that people want.

If you're one of those incomprehensible people who religiously head out to shop every Black Friday, please explain why in the comments, because I seriously don't understand the attraction of this consumerist bloodsport.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Truth Already Under Attack In Mitt Romney's First 2012 Election Ad

For Pete's sake.

If Mitt Romney's first ad is any indication of the level of truth and honesty we can look forward to in the 2012 election, it's going to be a looooooooooong 12 months, and I advise everyone to simply turn off their TVs and do other things for the next year - especially if you live in a swing state.

Here's Mitt's ad:

Did you catch it?

The ad above quotes Obama saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” There's just one small problem - those weren’t Obama’s words. When he said those words, Obama was quoting a John McCain strategist back in 2008.

The Romney campaign answered cries of foul play by claiming that their blatantly dishonest ad tactic is "not out of bounds."

In response, ThinkProgress came up with the following ad featuring Mitt Romney saying things he obviously must believe, since they came out of his mouth:

* Completely and truthfully accurate, according to the Romney standard of accuracy.

That’s right - from Romney's mouth to God's ears:
  • “We should just raise everybody’s taxes!”
  • “There’s nothing unique about the United States.”
  • “Government knows better than a free people how to guide an economy.”
  • “Fiscal responsibility is heartless and immoral.”
  • “Let us just raise your taxes some more. We just need a little bit more.”
  • “America’s just another nation with a flag.”

Mitt's ad is yet another example of stupidity in the American political discourse, which I've discussed before on this blog. To quote myself:

"Why is the U.S. political discourse so stupid?

"One of the reasons is a freedom that we hold most dear - free speech. People are free to say dumb, distorted, inaccurate things, and that's fine. My problem is that we have equated money with free speech and corporations with people, which is a perversion of the First Amendment. I should be free to say whatever I want to say - but ABC or CBS or NBC or Fox should not have the same right to say dumb, distorted, and inaccurate things as I do, because they are news organizations, not people. It also seems that many of the people that these organizations employ as pundits just aren't that intelligent. Furthermore, corporations should not have the same rights to free speech as individuals, because they are not individuals, and money is not free speech. These problems will require a constitutional amendment to fix, as the Supreme Court has for years been hellbent on giving soulless, lifeless, immortal corporations the same rights as living, flesh-and-blood people and on equating money with free speech.

"The other main reason that U.S. political discourse is so stupid is economic efficiency - if I am trying to get elected, it is far easier and cheaper for me to demonize the other guy and convince you to vote against him than for me to make a convincing, nuanced argument of the superiority of my policy positions. Or better yet, some anonymous third-party group can make completely false accusations against you, so I can keep my hands clean while my allies tarnish your reputation with lies. Unfortunately, a constitutional amendment is also the only way to solve this problem - something along the lines of 100% public funding for political campaigns, only candidates are allowed to run campaign ads, and candidates are only allowed to talk about their own positions, not their opponents' - the only time the candidates can attack their opponents' positions is face-to-face, in debates. I don't expect for these things to happen, as they would entail a substantial redefinition of the understanding of free speech and the political process in this country, but it would make U.S. political discourse far less stupid."

Unfortunately, it looks like we're in for a whole lot of stupid in 2012.

The Greatest Internet Post Today - Everything You Want to Know About Money

The always-excellent xkcd is generating a lot of buzz for this graphic today, and justifiably. They call this chart "Money - A chart of all of it, where it is, and what it can do." And they're not lying:

Click on image to go to HUGE, zoom-able version.

To quote Consumerist:
Huge and super-detailed, the graphic maps out where money is being made in the United States, where it goes, who's making it, and anything else you could ever think to investigate on the topic.
A one gallon loose jar of change? That'll usually end up being around $270, says xkcd's Money Chart. How's about the annual cost of rabbit ownership? You'd pay $730 for Peter Rabbit, as opposed to the $35 you'll shell out to own a fish.
Some other figures pulled from the chart include: Bruce Wayne's fictional salary ($6,500,000,000); annual charitable giving in the U.S. ($294,850,000,000); value of an original copy of the 1297 Magna Carta signed by Edward I ($83,710,000) and then there's the overall public debt owed by the U.S. ($10,200,000,000,000).
Other interesting numbers - the estimated cost of attending Hogwart's and the cost of the 1988 Presidential campaign.

The biggest number on the chart is the total estimated economic production of the human race thus far (3/5's of it since 1980) - $2,396,950,000,000,000, or $2.4 quadrillion dollars.

So, click on the image above to go to the HUGE, zoom-able, interactive version, and waste an hour being utterly fascinated. xkcd wins the Internet today; everyone else can go home and try again tomorrow.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Government Is the Only Reason the Poverty Rate Isn't 28.6 Percent

From the always-excellent Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (so excellent that I recently donated to them), we have the following chart, which shows us how high the poverty rate in the U.S. would be, absent any government assistance:

I've discussed in previous posts how badly things are going for the middle class and the poor - and the current news is really bad. For example, the current poverty rate of 15.1-15.5% (depending on how you count) is the highest the poverty rate has been since 1993.

But, the chart (and the accompanying CBPP analysis) show what a critical role the government's safety net programs play in keeping people out of poverty. Without any government safety net programs, the poverty rate would nearly double - to 28.6%. The temporary stimulus increases in the safety net programs have shaved 2.3% off the poverty rate - so when these measures expire (many of which are set to expire next year), we can expect to see the poverty rate rise by 2.3%, all else equal.

This is a successful example of the government working well - keeping people out of poverty. Hip hip hooray! Let's hope these programs aren't gutted in the name of reducing deficits, tossing millions more people into poverty.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

An Epic Oil Infographic - All You Ever Wanted To Know About Black Gold

My apologies for the unintentional blogging break - I took a holiday weekend for Veterans' Day, and then real life got in the way of posting this week. I hope to be able to resume my regularly scheduled posting next week.

In the meantime, here's an epic oil infographic I came across - it's got a ton of interesting facts about oil (such as: Canada has huge oil reserves; we've probably reached peak oil; and this isn't the first energy crisis humanity has faced). It is definitely one of the better infographics out there. Enjoy:

Via Daily Infographic.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Your Beloved McRib Is Actually McDonald's Pork-Price Arbitrage Strategy

For some reason, the Internet has exploded this past week about stories about the McRib, which apparently a huge number of people (or at least a huge number of bloggers) really, really like. Hence, I keep seeing stories posted about the McRib.

If so many people love the McRib, why is it only available for limited times, and at seemingly random intervals?

An amazingly in-depth post about the McRib over at The Awl has an interesting theory, with a graph to back it up:
The McRib’s unique aspects and impermanence, many of us believe, make it seem a likely candidate for being a sort of arbitrage strategy on McDonald’s part….
If you can demonstrate that McDonald’s only introduces the sandwich when pork prices are lower than usual, then you’re but a couple logical steps from concluding that McDonald’s is essentially exploiting a market imbalance between what normal food producers are willing to pay for hog meat at certain times of the year, and what Americans are willing to pay for it once it is processed, molded into illogically anatomical shapes, and slathered in HFCS-rich BBQ sauce.
…The blue line is the price of hogs in America over the last decade, and the black lines represent approximate times when McDonald’s has reintroduced the McRib, nationwide or taken it on an almost-nationwide “Farewell Tour” (McD’s has been promising to get rid of the product for years now).

You can also head over to The Awl for even more theories, though I find this one to be the most compelling (and definitely the most interesting).

So, yes, it looks like the McRib might be a price arbitrage strategy for McDonald's - when the price of pork falls below some kind of threshold, they buy all of the most horrible parts of the pig that Americans would never eat whole, grind them up, mash them together in the shape of something vaguely resembling ribs, slather it in barbeque sauce, and sell it for fun (and profit).

Therefore, McRib lovers, you might be able to get the McRib to appear more often if you can coordinate your pork purchases to cause wild swings in the price of pork. Anyone up for founding I would, but I waste enough time on this blog anyway, and I'm not a McRib fan.

Let me know if you want to try to fix the price of pork in the USA, and I'll be happy to promote your effort on this blog!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The List of the World's 29 "Too Big To Fail" Banks, and What It Means

The secret is out - the WSJ has posted the list of the world's 29 "too big to fail" banks (in the opinion of the G-20, at least):

  • Bank of America (US)
  • Bank of New York Mellon (US)
  • Citigroup (US)
  • Goldman Sachs (US)
  • J.P. Morgan (US)
  • Morgan Stanley (US)
  • State Street (US)
  • Wells Fargo (US)
  • BNP Paribas SA (France)
  • Banque Populaire (France)
  • Crédit Agricole SA (France)
  • Société Générale SA (France)
  • Barclays PLC (UK)
  • HSBC Holdings PLC (UK)
  • Lloyds Banking Group PLC (UK)
  • Royal Bank of Scotland PLC (UK)
  • Mitsubishi UFJ FG (Japan)
  • Mizuho FG (Japan)
  • Sumitomo Mitsui FG (Japan)
  • Commerzbank AG (Germany)
  • Deutsche Bank AG (Germany)
  • UBS AG (Switzerland)
  • Credit Suisse AG (Switzerland)
  • Dexia SA (Belgium)
  • Bank of China (China)
  • Unicredit Group SA (Italy)
  • ING Groep NV (Netherlands)
  • Banco Santander SA (Spain)
  • Nordea AB (Sweden)

Interesting list. The question is, what should we do with this new knowledge? Well, that depends greatly upon what you mean by "we":
  • Since these banks are almost definitely going to get bailed out if something goes wrong, you might want to invest in these banks (or, better yet, buy bonds issued by these banks), because it's an almost guaranteed, safe investment.
  • Or, you might want to put your deposits in these banks, since they're not going anywhere.
  • Alternatively, if you don't think that any bank should be "too big to fail," you should be sure to do no business with these banks - don't invest in them; withdraw your money from them; etc.
  • If you're a government, you might decide to break up these banks into smaller banks that are small enough to fail, as this might increase stability and efficiency in the financial markets.
  • Alternatively, if you're a government, you might not want to anger these banks, as they likely control your (and the world's) economy.

So, what would you do with the "too big to fail" banks?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Democrats Should Probably Let the Supercommittee Fail

For some reason, the Congressional Supercommittee, tasked with agreeing on a $1.5 trillion deficit reduction package by Thanksgiving, has been on my mind this afternoon, and I just want to be clear - the Democrats on the committee should probably let the committee fail. If they don't, I will consider it a Democratic betrayal of everything the Democrats supposedly hold dear.

Here are the latest details, from ThinkProgress:
Republicans on the fiscal super committee — which is tasked with coming up with a $1.5 trillion deficit reduction package by the end of the month — today made an offer that is supposedly a “concession” on their part, agreeing to $300 billion in new revenue, when they had previously ruled any new revenue off the table:
Congressional Republicans have offered to increase tax revenue by nearly $300 billion over the next decade through an overhaul of the tax code, a significant concession aimed at breaking a long-standing impasse in negotiations over the federal debt.
The offer envisions a tax code rewrite that would lower rates for everyone while raising overall tax collections by $250 billion, mainly by limiting the value of itemized deductions such as write-offs for home mortgage interest, state and local taxes and other expenses.
As a symbol of how far this debate has shifted, over the summer Speaker of the House John Boehner proposed a plan that included $800 billion in new revenue. The GOP now wants to raise less than 0.2 percent of GDP in revenue, which is less than the Democrats have offered in Medicaid cuts.
Plus, there is a huge catch: in order to agree to raising revenue, Republicans want to not only make all of the Bush tax cuts permanent, but according to the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, they also want to lower the top income tax rate from its current 35 percent to 28 percent:
The highest tax rate would be reduced from 35 percent to 28 percent under the emerging GOP tax code overhaul proposal, the senior Democratic aide tells me. And the reduction would actually be even bigger than this. After all, if the Bush tax cuts were allowed to expire, as they’re set to do, the high end rate would go up to at least 39 percent. In other words, the aide says, under the proposal Republicans are pushing, the drop down to 28 percent would be at least 10 percentage points from what it would be if the cuts are allowed to expire.
If these are the kinds of "concessions" being offered by the Republicans, the Democrats should simply declare that the Republicans aren't negotiating in good faith and walk away from the table.

I mean, seriously - the Republicans agree to close a few tax loopholes, in exchange for another round of long-term, budget-busting tax cuts for the rich? This just goes to show, once again, that Congressional Republicans don't actually care about deficits - after all, they created most of the debt problem in the first place, and now it's obvious that they only care about cutting taxes on the rich, no matter the cost to the US government or to the country.

After a summer of debt ceiling insanity, it should be obvious to the Democrats by now that it's almost useless to negotiate with Republicans. So, they should stop trying.

After all, it's hard to imagine a deal that's better for the Democrats than the automatic trigger - massive cuts in domestic spending, to be sure, but half of the cuts are in defense, and half the cuts are in payments to Medicare providers - both of which are areas that, moving forward, will probably have to be cut seriously anyway. Then, in a couple of years, they make sure the Bush tax cuts expire, and the top tax rate on the wealthiest Americans goes back up to 39%, solving a big chunk of the long-term budget problem:

See how much of that deficit comes from the
Bush tax cuts? Quite a lot - more than 50%!

Silly optimists like Thomas Friedman continue to call for a Grand Bargain that will reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years, but since the Republicans aren't willing to put any meaningful revenues on the table, the Democrats should probably take the defense cuts, swallow the (not so horrible) Medicare cuts, and be happy that they aren't getting screwed any worse than they already are.

If the Democrats agree to anything that doesn't include big tax increases on the wealthy (which the Republicans would never agree to), they're both dumb and sell-outs, and they should be voted out of office during the next Democratic primaries they face. But, I sincerely hope the Democrats on the committee know when to say, "enough with the bullsh*t - we're taking our ball and going home."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Some US States Value Prisoners More Than College Students

Today, we have an interesting infographic that compares the spending on prisons with spending on higher education by state. Most shocking to me was the fact that there are three times as many African Americans in prison as in college:

Prison vs Princeton
Created by: Public Administration

Currently, seven states spend more on prisons than on higher education, but there are far more states than that in which the spending is almost equal. Then again, this shouldn't be surprising - the USA has the distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world - even higher than such human rights bastions like China, Russia, and Rwanda. It takes serious cash to imprison more of your citizens per capita than any other country - a reality created by the US's love of locking people up for non-violent drug offenses. Think of the children!

This infographic should be a small reminder that the USA needs to revise its public spending priorities and how it approaches drugs, criminality, punishment, and prisoner rehabilitation - why is it that we can always find money to build another prison, but we can't find money for education? There must be a better way to manage our citizenry when it misbehaves, whether that misbehavior is related to Mary Jane or murder.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

It's Nice to Have Your Research Validated by the Dept. of Energy!

The DOE agrees with us! Yay!

Some of you may remember that I couple of months ago, I had a paper published by Harvard that examined the potential for electric vehicle adoption in the US.

Basically, our paper concluded that the prospect for electric vehicles are quite good (from a cost perspective, anyway):
This paper finds that, at 2010 purchase and operating costs, a PHEV-40 [plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, like the Chevy Volt] is $5,377 more expensive than an internal combustion engine or ICE, while a BEV [battery electric vehicle, like the Nissan Leaf] is $4,819 more expensive. In other words, the gasoline costs savings of electric cars over the cars’ lifetimes will not offset their higher purchase prices.
In the future, this cost balance may change. If one assumes that over the next 10 to 20 years battery costs will decrease while gasoline prices increase, BEVs will be significantly less expensive than conventional cars ($1,155 to $7,181 cheaper). Even when the authors use very high consumer discount rates, BEVs will be less expensive, than conventional vehicles although the cost difference decreases. PHEVs, however, will be more expensive than BEVs in almost all comparison scenarios, and only less expensive than conventional cars in a world with very low battery costs and high gasoline prices. BEVs are simpler to build and do not use liquid fuel, while PHEVs have more complicated drive trains and still have gasoline-powered engines.
As our paper discusses, whether people will put up with the relative inconvenience of electric cars (such as a relatively limited range and needing to recharge fairly often) is another matter, and as of yet quite unknown, even if electric cars are a good deal cheaper than gasoline-powered cars.

It appears that the Department of Energy agrees with our findings. The DOE put together a calculator that lets you compare the lifetime ownership costs of owning just about any vehicles - and their model is much more complicated than our model was, allowing you to customize your driving habits, select exact years and models of cars to compare, etc. Using the DOE's base assumptions, $4.50 gasoline (since I'm guessing that gas costs will continue to creep up over the medium-term), and DC's electricity prices, here's what the model comes up with when it compares cars similar to the stylized cars we examined in our paper (a 2011 Nissan Leaf, 2011 Toyota Camry, 2011 Toyota Camry Hybrid, and 2011 Chevy Volt):

One big difference is that our model discounted all costs back to one net present cost, while the DOE model looks at nominal cumulative costs, but the results are similar - the DOE's calculator also finds that electric cars are the cheapest option, while plug-in electric hybrids (like the Volt) will be most expensive, with traditional gas cars and hybrids falling somewhere in the middle.

It's always nice when an outside body validates your research!

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Economics of Coffee (or Why You Should Buy an Espresso Machine), Visualized

I love coffee. I'll admit it - I'm an addict. I have an espresso drink at least every morning, and often in the afternoon.

The infographic below gives us 17 interesting tidbits about coffee - interesting facts such as 1) coffee is the second most heavily traded commodity after oil, 2) coffee addiction was considered a social vice in the 1700s, and 3) coffee is more popular than cola!

But what I found most interesting was the economics of espresso machines that they highlight at the bottom of this post. The only reason that I'm able to have an espresso drink every morning (and many afternoons) is because I own my own espresso machine - and it's one of the best kitchen purchases my wife and I have ever made. Specifically, we have a De'Longhi EC155 - a great espresso machine, especially considering how little it costs. It's currently on sale on Amazon for $60 (which is also what we paid for it). Since we make 3 drinks per day on average (which we'll value at $3 per drink), this machine paid for itself in ONE WEEK - and we can now make espresso drinks in the comfort of our own home.

Seriously, if you like coffee, you should buy an inexpensive espresso machine like this - it will change your life. Of course, you still have to pay for things like coffee (we like this stuff ourselves, but it's been super-expensive as of late, so we've switched to this stuff, which is almost just as good) - but it is so worth it. With a little practice, I now make espresso drinks as good or better than can be found in 98% of coffee shops, and we're saving $3000+ a year in designer coffee costs (granted, if we didn't have an espresso machine, we wouldn't buy 3 coffees every day, but still - you get the idea).

Anyway, here's the infographic that made me want to preach the virtues of owning your own espresso machine:

Via Daily Infographic.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

10 Years On, TSA Embodies Everything Wrong With Government Today

"It's my birthday! Where are all the children?
Come to me, little children!" Image Source: Wonkette.

Happy Birthday, TSA! (Not really.)

Ten years ago this month, in response to some crazy people smashing some planes into some towers on 9/11/2001, Congress created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to ensure that something similar would never happen again - and flying has sucked terribly ever since, though it's gotten far worse in the past couple of years.

I'm writing this blog post to mark the 10th anniversary of one of the absolute worst agencies in the federal government, but my post was inspired by a terrible run-in I had with the TSA just a couple of weekends ago, when I was trying to fly home to DC from Boston.

My own personal TSA-nightmare story - ever since the TSA installed the full body scanners that irradiate you in order to look at you naked (yes, those scanners are really just to make full-body strip searches more convenient for you, the traveling public), I have always opted for a pat-down in lieu of the scanners, if I have to make a choice, since I'd rather not run the risk of having my DNA rearranged any more than it already is by our modern world.

Unfortunately, on this particular day at Logan in Boston, the scanners were in use, and I, as usual, was directed towards the scanner rather than the metal detector. (I'm not sure why, but if the metal detector and scanner are both in use, I am ALWAYS directed towards the scanner, and then have to opt for a pat-down. I think it's the goatee - everyone knows that all terrorists have goatees, right?) So, as usual, I told them I "opt out." Normally when I've done this, it takes anywhere from 5-90 seconds for the TSA to find someone to come give me the old groping, so I can get on the plane and continue on my merry way.

Not this time. I was directed to stand to the side by some poor schmuck who's entire job consisted of pointing people towards the metal detector or scanner, entirely according to his own whim, it appeared. Meanwhile, my luggage (including my tablet computer, removed from my bag, as required) continued on through the x-ray, and then out-of-sight. I changed my standing location to a position where I could watch my luggage to make sure no one walked off with my computer. I was directed by said schmuck to go back to where he'd told me to go in the first place.

I then proceeded to wait for MORE THAN 30 MINUTES just for them to find someone to feel me up, all the while unable to see my luggage, wondering if someone had wandered off with my tablet computer. After a while, I took to pacing back and forth in front of the entrances to both the metal detector and the scanner (the place I was supposed to stand was right in front of the scanner anyway), so I was causing a moderate line pileup, as people were wondering what the hell this guy was doing who refused to go through the security line. Well, I was confused as well, but I continued to wait, and the TSA continued to do absolutely nothing.

After more than 30 minutes (I'm not sure exactly how long, since my phone was also in my bag), a TSA agent finally came to take me away and molest me. I asked him what the hell the problem was, and he shrugged it off and said they were "short staffed." Bullsh*t. That schmuck, for example, could have been doing something, anything, useful.

After I was finally through, I tried to call the TSA Office of Strategic Communications and the TSA Office of Civil Rights to complain about the treatment I'd just received, but since it was a Sunday, of course, no one was there to take my call.

I realize that, in the grand scheme of things, this was just a small hiccup, and that many other people have received far worse treatment from the TSA than I:
  1. A disabled four-year-old required to walk through without his braces;
  2. An elderly business traveler who described the pat-down as "like being raped";
  3. A pregnant diabetic whose insulin was confiscated by the TSA;
  4. An eight-month-old baby subjected to a full pat-down;
  5. A 95-year-old wheelchair-bound woman with late-stage cancer forced to remove her adult diaper;
  6. And lots of other people - thousands, unfortunately.
The TSA - protecting America, one boobie at a time.

It comes down to this: the TSA is perhaps the most glaring example of a bloated, unaccountable government bureaucracy that does almost nothing useful except spend huge sums of money to enrich the few government defense contractors that supply its scanning machines - contractors who might have landed the contracts because of dirty insider dealing. It should be completely scrapped and redesigned from the ground up. Here's why:
  1. The TSA ignored (and continues to ignore) the cancer risks associated with their scanning machines.
  2. What part of the security process you're subjected to isn't random; it's at the whim of the TSA agents facing you at the airport.
  3. If something goes wrong (i.e. you have to wait more than 30 minutes to be screened, the TSA agents break open your urostomy bag, or one of a billion other things), there's no way to hold the TSA accountable, either after the fact or, most importantly, right when the problem is occurring.
  4. The TSA's allocation of resources is woefully inefficient.
  5. Some TSA agents think sexual harassment is funny.
  6. The TSA likes to initiate utterly baseless investigations against its critics (I hope I don't earn an investigation by virtue of this post).
  7. There's no evidence that the TSA is effective, in the least, at stopping terrorist attacks.
  8. On a related note, absolutely no cost-benefit analysis is performed when evaluating whether to implement some new security procedure. To be fair, this isn't just a problem concerning the TSA - this is also a problem in the rest of the post-9/11 U.S. military-industrial complex.
  9. The TSA's mission is already beginning to creep outward, like some kind of evil, tentacled monster - the TSA is now trolling for terrorists on Tennessee highways by randomly pulling people over.
  10. The TSA isn't even that good at finding weapons people bring on planes - they seem to miss loaded handguns with some regularity.
  11. The TSA might also be a corrupt organization - after convincing the TSA to buy the full-body scanners, its former head left the TSA to take a cushy (and lucrative) lobbying job for one of the contractors supplying the scanners - a contractor that won a nice, no-bid contract from the government. I don't know if this was outright corruption, but it sure smells dirty.
  12. Even the guy who created the TSA thinks it's been an unmitigated disaster and should be dismantled and privatized.
As a government employee, I think that the government does a lot of things really well, and most of the government employees I know both personally and professionally are extremely talented, capable people, and they are struggling to do their best while working in various bureaucracies with various levels of soul-crushing-ness.

However, the TSA is so obviously and completely broken that it should simply be scrapped. I don't know whether the solution is a new government agency or to re-privatize airport security, but the current system as implemented by the TSA is beyond ridiculous - a system in which 100% of flyers, 99.999999999% of which are utterly innocent, are harassed, abused, and/or irradiated by an unaccountable government entity in the name of useless security theater. Furthermore, when thinking about how to spend government dollars, is it a better idea to spend an extra dollar on childhood education, research, or bridges, or on paying the TSA to troll Tennessee highways for non-existent threats?

End the TSA. If you work for the TSA, quit. Don't apply for TSA jobs. Don't fly, if you can avoid it. Enough is enough.

Ill-"Conceived" Mississippi Policy Proposal Could Outlaw Birth Control Pills

I don't know what's up with me and the puns in the titles as of late - I swear it will wear off soon.

Anyway, fresh off the presses, ThinkProgress has the details:
Next Tuesday, Mississippians will go to the polls to decide on Initiative 26, a personhood amendment to the state constitution that defines a person as “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.” Personhood amendments represent an extreme reach into a family’s privacy, essentially criminalizing abortion and potentially outlawing common forms of birth control.
Right-wing supporters of Mississippi’s personhood amendment, however, decry the fact that the bill will ban birth control as “scare tactics.” “It’s an outright lie that Initiative 26 would ban birth control pills,” said American Family Association Executive Director Brad Prewitt. “Stopping a pregnancy is not the issue; ending a pregnancy is.” Unfortunately for proponents, the Personhood movement spokesman Walter Hoye stated the opposite on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show. As the Florida Independent reports, when asked if there were any restrictions on birth control in the amendment, Hoye answered “no…well, yes,” adding, “any birth control that ends the life of a human being will be impacted by this measure,” including the pill:
HOYE: Any birth control that ends the life of a human being will be impacted by this measure.
REHM: So that would then include the IUD [intra-uterine device]. What about the birth control pill?
HOYE: If that falls into the same category, yes.
REHM: So you’re saying that the birth control pill could be considered as taking the life of a human being?
HOYE: I’m saying that once the egg and the oocyte come together and you have that single-celled embryo, at that point you have human life, you’ve got a human being and we’re taking the life of a human being with some forms of birth control and if birth control falls into that category, yes I am.
Well, this is obviously one of the worst-thought-out policy proposals ever, then, especially when you add the fact that this would outlaw many forms of in vitro fertilization as well, which usually involves the creation of 50+ embryos and then picking the few fittest embryos and implanting those while discarding the rest - which would count at 45+ murders under this proposed policy.

Though this is a REALLY extreme example, it is just yet another example in bad, unintended consequences of laws. Dear citizens and politicians - we really need to think through the consequences of laws more thoroughly and deeply than we currently do.

Of course, an alternate explanation is that the proponents of this law are aware of this consequence, so it's not actually unintended - and that their real goal is to try to outlaw non-procreative sex under the guise of this supposedly anti-abortion policy. I've read arguments to that effect - i.e. that policies like this are a not-so-subtle attempt by a small group of people to exert extreme control over women's sex lives. That's certainly a possibility.

However, if that's the case, then perhaps they should be trying to require all women to take the pill, as it seems that the pill has negative effects on both women's sex drives and the quality of the sex they have.

But I digress. If this policy is put in place in Mississippi, I predict that the following will happen:
  1. Since pre-sex contraception will be harder to come by, post-sex contraception (i.e. abortion) will become MORE prevalent among Mississippians, not less prevalent, though I don't know whether those abortions will be illegal abortions performed in Mississippi or medial tourism abortions performed in nearby states.
  2. Lots of Mississippians will travel to nearby states to get prescriptions for their birth control pills. The big question is - if they go to their doctors in Mississippi and tell them they're on the pill, will the doctor be required to inform the Mississippi authorities that the woman might be committing "murder"? How far down this rabbit hole are we going to go?
  3. As with many similar policies, the people who will be most hurt by this are the people who are already the most vulnerable - poor women in rural areas.
Some of you out there might say, "but the pill prevents ovulation, so there's no embryo to destroy." Well, that's true, but the pill also thins the wall of the uterus, preventing an embryo from attaching itself, in the event an egg slips out and is found by a sperm cell. If I were a creative Mississippi lawyer and so inclined, I'd use that (together with this new policy) to outlaw the pill in the state.

I hope this referendum fails, but since it's going to be a low-turnout election, the most extreme voters will have a larger say than they normally would. If it passes, I guess that's just one more reason I have for never, ever, ever going anywhere near Mississippi.