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The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

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The paradox of choice has been nagging at me lately: I have now so many razors that, even if I just use those I like most, I end up not using some for a long time. And, of course, making decisions actually does burn energy. (Thus Steve Jobs always wearing the same attire, the president having his clothing laid out for him and his breakfast served to him—both are avoiding using up decision energy on trivial matters.)

Barry Schwartz is the psychologist who (literally) wrote the book on the paradox of choice. Paul Hiebert interviews him for Pacific Standard:

Ten years have passed since the publication of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, a highly influential book written by the psychologist Barry Schwartz. If the title doesn’t sound familiar, the idea behind Schwartz’s argument should: Instead of increasing our sense of well-being, an abundance of choice is increasing our levels of anxiety, depression, and wasted time. Whether you’re deliberating between breakfast cereals, TV shows, career paths, pension plans, or lifetime partners, the amount of options out there can be overwhelming. In modern America, however, the freedom to decide who you are and who you’re going to be is mandatory.

While Schwartz doesn’t claim he discovered the setbacks of excessive choice, The Paradox of Choice is perhaps our best articulation of the overall problem. In the book, for example, he explores the stress people feel when confronted with ample opportunity, and the regret that follows from choosing poorly (whose fault is it other than mine?). He also discusses our loss of presence (why am I doing this when I could be doing that?), our raised expectations (with so many options, why settle for less?), and our tarnished sense of self that comes from comparing our choices with the choices of others (why do I continue to pick the wrong things when Alex always picks the right ones?). In sum, Schwartz’s work poses a serious challenge to the notion that more choice brings about more freedom, and more freedom brings about more happiness. As the book’s subtitle implies, sometimes a lot is simply too much.

Over the past decade, the ideas presented in The Paradox of Choice have not run dry. In 2010, for instance, the New York Timespublished an article titled “Too Many Choices: A Problem That Can Paralyze,” in which Schwartz makes an appearance. Just last August, the New Yorker posted an online piece titled “When It’s Bad to Have Good Choices,” which, again, also mentions Schwartz. If anything, it seems the proliferation and social acceptance of Amazon, smartphones, and online dating has only exacerbated this phenomenon.

To find out more, I recently spoke with Schwartz about his book, his critics, and what has and hasn’t changed since 2004.

Over the past decade, do any particular events, trends, or general changes in the culture stick out to you as suggesting that The Paradox of Choice was right?

Well, it seems to me that the most striking trend is the appearance of social media. My suspicion is that it and dating sites have created just the thing I talk about in connection with consumer goods: Nobody’s good enough and you’re always worried you’re missing out. I see this as an extension of what I wrote about at a time when it wasn’t really going on much.

Are you familiar with the fairly recent term “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out)?

Oh yeah, of course. It seems to me that it’s a perfect description. I wish I had thought of that term 10 years ago.

Now, it’s just commonplace. I bet it’s especially bad in places like New York. Nobody makes plans because something better might turn up, and the result is that nobody ever does anything.

How else does social media encourage the problem of too much choice? Don’t you think it can increase social ties, and therefore help mitigate negative feelings? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 December 2014 at 3:01 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Science

UVA rape story continues to fall apart

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It’s beginning to look as though the Rolling Stone reporter was taken for a ride. Robby Soave writes at Reason.com:

While at this point nothing could redeem Rolling Stone‘s tall tale about a gang rape at the University of Virginia, it’s remarkable that new details further undermining Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s shoddy reporting are still emerging on a daily basis—and each is more revealing than the last.

Since I last wrote on this subject, there have been several major developments, all concerning the three friends of Jackie who purportedly picked her up from the Phi Psi party and urged her not to go to the police. Those three friends—Ryan Duffin, Alex Stock, and Kathryn Hendley—have now given interviews disputing nearly all aspects of Jackie’s story regarding what happened that night.

We now know the “real” given name of Jackie’s date on the evening of her alleged rape, September 28, 2012: Haven Monahan. Jackie claimed that Monahan was an older student who had taken an interest in her. Prior to September 28th, Duffin, Stock, and Hendley had pressed Jackie for details about this mysterious love interest. She gave them several different cell phone numbers for Monahan, and they corresponded with him. He eventually sent a picture of himself. Many of his messages contained not-so-subtle hints that Jackie had (unrequited) feelings for Duffin.

We now know that no one named Haven Monahan attended UVA. The phone numbersaren’t even real—they redirect back to an internet service that allows people to send texts without having actual phone numbers. And the picture is of a former high school acquaintance of Jackie’s who never attended UVA and spent no time in Charlottesville that year.

This strongly implies, of course, that Jackie sent the messages herself. The Daily Caller‘s Chuck Ross has gathered compelling evidence—including an interview with Duffin himself—that Jackie may have been trying to make Duffin sympathetic to her or develop feelings for her.

Most recently, Ross obtained and published a bizarre email that sheds more light on the nature of Jackie’s feelings for Duffin. The email purports to be a message from Jackie to “Monahan” in which she confesses to being totally in love and obsessed with Duffin. “Monahan” forwarded the email to Duffin, claiming that he thought Duffin should read it. If Monahan were a real person, the message would have been oddly timed: it was forwarded to Duffin on October 3, 2012—just a few days after Jackie told Duffin that she was raped by five men during her date with Monahan. But since Monahan almost certainly doesn’t exist and is in all likelihood actually Jackie, the email makes the most sense as a form of elaborate cover for Jackie to indirectly share her feelings with the true object of her affection.

The full thing can be read here. A selection: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 December 2014 at 2:45 pm

Posted in Daily life

Best healthcare system in the world: How Nonprofit Hospitals Are Seizing Patients’ Wages

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Paul Kiel (ProPublica) and Chris Arnold (NPR) have an interesting story on how bad the US healthcare system is, compared to healthcare in most Western countries:

On the eastern edge of St. Joseph, Missouri, lies the small city’s only hospital, a landmark of brick and glass. Music from a player piano greets visitors at the main entrance, and inside, the bright hallways seem endless. Long known as Heartland Regional Medical Center, the nonprofit hospital and its system of clinics recently rebranded. Now they’re called Mosaic Life Care, because, their promotional materials say: “We offer much more than health care. We offer life care.”

Two miles away, at the rear of a low-slung building is a key piece of Mosaic—Heartland’s very own for-profit debt collection agency.

When patients receive care at Heartland and don’t or can’t pay, their bills often end up here at Northwest Financial Services. And if those patients don’t meet Northwest’s demands, their debts can make another, final stop: the Buchanan County Courthouse.

From 2009 through 2013, Northwest filed more than 11,000 lawsuits.  When it secured a judgment, as it typically did, Northwest was entitled to seize a hefty portion of a debtor’s paycheck. During those years, the company garnished the pay of about 6,000 people and seized at least $12 million—an average of about $2,000 each, according to a ProPublica analysis of state court data.

Many were uninsured Heartland patients who were eligible for financial aid that would have eliminated or drastically cut their bills. Instead, they were charged full price for their care, without the deep discounts negotiated by insurers, according to court records, interviews and data provided by Heartland. No other Missouri hospital sued more of its patients.

Blue collar workers, Walmart cashiers, nursing home aides, clerical staffers—these types of patients have long been the most vulnerable to unexpected debt. They can’t afford insurance, yet they’re not poor enough for Medicaid. Even after the 2010 Affordable Care Act, about 30 million Americans remain uninsured, in part because some states, like Missouri, have not expanded Medicaid to cover more of the poor.

Earlier this year, ProPublica and NPR reported that the wages of millions of U.S. workers are diverted to pay off a variety of consumer debts. Most states, like Missouri, allow creditors to take a quarter of after-tax wages—an amount that government surveys show is unaffordable for lower-income families.

Consumer advocates say the laws governing wage garnishment are outdated and overly punitive, regardless of the debt’s source. But the consequences are especially dire when garnishment is used to collect unavoidable health care bills—with interest and legal fees piled on.

No one tracks how many hospitals sue their patients and how frequently, but . . .

Continue reading. And do read the whole thing: it’s an in-depth article.

The US could fix this if it wanted, but it’s easier just to screw over poor people.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 December 2014 at 1:23 pm

The costs of fracking

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Read this post by Faith Gardner at Daily Kos. It begins:

Another day, another toxic spill thanks to fracking:

About 25 families in eastern Ohio have been unable to live in their houses for the past three days because of a natural-gas leak at a fracking well that crews cannot stop.Bethany McCorkle, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the state agency that regulates oil and gas, said crews lost control of the Monroe County well on Saturday. […]

The well is not on fire, but the gas could be explosive.

Ohio has had its share of fracking accidents this year. In May, a blowout resulted in an oil spill into an Ohio river tributary. And then this happened the following month: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 December 2014 at 1:16 pm

Wall Street: A black hole for our best and brightest

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Very interesting longread in the Washington Post by Jim Tankersley:

The thing Deborah Jackson remembers from her first interviews at Goldman Sachs is the slogan. It was stamped on the glass doors of the offices in the investment bank’s headquarters just off Wall Street, the lure of the place in two words, eight syllables: “Uncommon capability.”

Jackson joined Goldman in 1980, fresh from business school and steeped in the workings of government and finance. She found crackerjack colleagues and more business than she could handle. She worked in municipal finance, lending money to local governments, hospitals and nonprofits around the country. She flew first class to scout potential deals — “The issue was, can you really be productive if you’re in a tiny seat in the back?” — and when the time came to seal one, she’d welcome clients and their attorneys to Manhattan’s best restaurants.

The clients would bring their spouses and go to shows. Everyone drank good wine. Her favorite place, in the heyday, was the 21 Club, which felt like an Old World library and went heavy on red meat. More than the perks, Jackson loved the work — the shared struggle of smart people trying to help the country, even as they banked big money. “It was all about solving problems,” she said.

Years later, she would come to see it differently, growing disenchanted with an industry she didn’t think was fixing much anymore.

Economic research suggests she was onto something. Wall Street is bigger and richer than ever, the research shows, and the economy and the middle class are worse off for it.

There’s a prominent theory among some economists and policymakers that says the big problem with the American economy is that a lot of Americans don’t have the talent to compete in today’s global marketplace. While it’s true that the country would be better off if more workers had more training — particularly low-skilled, low-income workers — that theory misses a crucial, damaging development of the past several decades.

It misses how much the economy has suffered at the hands of some of its most skilled, most talented workers, who followed escalating pay onto Wall Street — and away from more economically and socially valuable uses of their talents.

The financial industry has doubled in size as a share of the economy in the past 50 years, but it hasn’t gotten any better at its core job: getting money from investors who have it to companies that will use it to generate growth, profit and jobs. There are many ways to quantify how that financial growth-without-improvement hurts the economy.

In 2012, economists at the International Monetary Fund analyzed data across years and countries and concluded that in some countries, including America, the financial sector had grown so large that it was slowing economic growth. Using a different methodology, the most prominent researcher on the size and economic value of Wall Street, a New York University economist named Thomas Philippon, estimates that the United States is sinking nearly $300 billion too much annually into finance.

In perhaps the starkest illustration, economists from Harvard University and the University of Chicago wrote in a recent paper that every dollar a worker earns in a research field spills over to make the economy $5 better off. Every dollar a similar worker earns in finance comes with a drain, making the economy 60 cents worse off.

It’s not that finance is inherently bad — on the contrary, a well-functioning financial system is critical to a market economy. The problem is, America’s financial system has grown much larger than it should have, based on how well the industry performs.

To understand how and why that is, think of money as water and the financial system as a series of pipes. Ideally, the pipes deliver the water from people who have stockpiled it (investors) to people who want to put it to productive use (entrepreneurs, executives, home buyers, etc.).

Over the past half-century, America’s financial industry built a whole bunch of new pipes. The sector grew six times as fast as the economy overall during the past three decades. Other advanced countries didn’t see anywhere close to that growth in their financial sectors.

Some of America’s growth was driven by Washington. Lawmakers kept encouraging financial innovation, which built a market for smarter investment bankers. They did that by changing the tax code to encourage businesses to hire financial whizzes who could spin ordinary income into certain, preferred types of investment income, and by loosening restrictions on the kinds of financial activities that the titans of Wall Street could engage in.

Extra pipes attracted better plumbers — the more the finance industry grew, the more it tugged at highly educated workers. Philippon is a French economist at NYU’s Stern School of Business. He and a co-author, Ariell Reshef of the University of Virginia, have shown that from the end of World War II until the early 1980s, finance was just like any other desk job: The average Wall Street worker was paid about as much as the average worker in the private sector and was only slightly more educated.

But starting at about the time that Jackson joined Goldman, when Congress began tweaking investment-tax rates, Wall Street started drawing more educated workers. This made the average finance salary go up — from less than $50,000 a year in 1981 (which is about $100,000 in today’s dollars) to more than $350,000 a year in 2012.

Salaries rose even faster in the mid-1990s. The average finance worker began to earn more than a similar non-finance worker who had the same amount of schooling. Wall Street executives began to command salaries several times the rate that non-finance executives could.

In sheer dollar terms, it became irrational for almost any qualified American graduate to pass on a Wall Street job. By the mid-2000s, finance workers earned about 50 percent more than they would have in a similar job anywhere else in the economy. There are almost twice as many financial professionals in the top 1 percent of American income earners today as there were in 1979, according to researchers from Williams College, Indiana University and the Treasury Department. Almost 1 in 5 members of the top 0.1 percent work in finance.

You might think finance workers earned all that money because they were selling new and improved financial products that delivered more value — that helped get money more efficiently from investors who had it to entrepreneurs who could put it to profitable use. Research suggests that’s not the case.

A few years ago, Philippon set out to study 130 years of financial-sector performance. He expected to find that performance improved as the industry grew in recent decades.

Philippon tracked the fees that banks and other asset managers take when they move money between investors and borrowers. In theory, the managers should charge less as their technology improves, because they become more efficient and more competitive with one another. (Or, if they charge the same amount, they should generate better returns for investors.)

That’s how it works with, say, your laptop: As the technology improves, you can either buy a better computer for the same price as your last one or you can buy a clone of your last one for less.

In finance, Philippon found, the opposite is true. Financial firms pocket about 2 percent of the money that passes through their hands. That’s basically unchanged from the price of finance in 1920, and it’s actually an increase from the mid-1960s. “It seems that improvements in information technologies over the past 30 years have not necessarily led to a decrease” in the price of financial intermediation, he concluded in the paper.

What that means is that the growth of complex financial products has served primarily to boost income for the firms themselves, Philippon said. A new paper from researchers in the United Kingdom supports his findings. It analyzes decades of data on individual workers and finds no connection between financial professionals’ specific skill sets and why they make so much more money than similarly skilled workers in other industries. . .

Continue reading.

It’s part of a series:

ABOUT THIS SERIES:  The American middle class is floundering, and it has been for decades. The Post examines the mystery of what’s gone wrong and shows what the country must focus on to get the economy working for everyone again.

Chapter 1: Why America’s middle class is lost

Chapter 2: The devaluation of the American middle class

Chapter 3: The college trap that keeps people poor

Coming Wednesday: What’s killing entrepreneurship?

Written by LeisureGuy

18 December 2014 at 2:28 pm

Why businesses hate drones

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Businesses really like to keep their environmental degradations (for which they have no intention of paying) a secret, since otherwise they would have to acknowledge responsibility for what they’ve done. It’s the same imperative to secrecy that drives criminal enterprises, corruption in politics, CIA criminal behavior, police misconduct, and so on: if the offense is kept secret, then the offender cannot be held to account. (And in fact, we’re seeing more and more of society becoming secret—a very bad sign.)

This interesting article by Brian Merchant in Motherboard shows how people are using drones to look at what industrial farms do:

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Since 2012, Mark Devries has been ​flying drones over A​merica’s largest factory farms. In just-released aerial footage, he reveals the sheer size of the massive, toxic, feces-filled “lagoons” that they create.

Those lagoons you’re looking at belong to Smithfield Foods, which bills itself as is “the largest pork producer and processor in the United States.” They are often hundreds of feet long, and are fetid cesspools of waste—they are the result of pig excrement being sprayed out of the compounds where the animals are packed in like dirt-encrusted, antibiotics-loaded sardines.

“These factory farms make it exceedingly difficult to see the giant, open-air cesspools of toxic waste on their property,” Devries tells me in an email. “They are surrounded by trees, and often barbed-wire fences. With drones, I can bypass the trees and barbed wire, and see close-up what is being hidden.”

What he did end up seeing repulsed him, he said.

“Even though I knew what to expect in the abstract, I was shocked by the sheer size of these open-air pits of toxic waste—they can stretch on for the surface area of several football fields.

​Factory farms are quickly becoming one of the hardest places to photograph in the nation. The sprawling operations—which cram an enormous number of pigs, chickens, and cows into cramped quarters for harvesting—have responded to animal rights critics by pushing for state-level “ag-gag” bills that prevent journalists and activists from photographing their grounds.

It’s brazen, patently absurd, and one of the most egregious free speech violations that hardly anyone is talking about. Devries took care not to film any farms in states that have ag-gag bills, but hopes his footage will offer viewers an idea of the practices of operations of those that do.

“I was also particularly struck by how close they are to the houses of neighbors, who are forced to deal with the dangerous chemicals and stench in their own homes.”

The segment is part of Devries’ full-length documentary Speciesism​learn m​ore about the film here.

Needless to say, big agriculture is lobbying aggressively to make it illegal to take pictures and videos what they are doing because they understand that if people know what they are doing, they’ll have to stop  doing it. And there’s money to be made, so who cares about the environment?

Written by LeisureGuy

18 December 2014 at 9:24 am

Police unions show strong resistance to holding police accountable

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Police unions are taking offense that people are upset when the police gun down innocent people. Here are a number of stories, but note especially the videos below.

In the meantime, police unions are working hard to ensure that police will face no accountability at all for whatever they may do. Read this chilling story about a bill in New York to loosen police discipline. The story, by E.J. McMahon in the NY Post begins:

Who should ultimately control police discipline in New York: elected officials through their appointed police commissioners, or unelected labor arbitrators chosen in part by labor unions?

The question has plainly picked up added resonance in recent days. Gov. Cuomo will soon have a chance to answer it.

Sometime before year’s end, the state Legislature must send Cuomo a bill it passed just weeks before Eric Garner’s fatal July 17 confrontation in Staten Island. The measure would allow unions representing police and other civil-service employees across the state to insist on collective bargaining of disciplinary procedures affecting their members.

The bill represents the latest in a series of attempts by police unions to nullify a unanimous 2006 state Court of Appeals decision, which affirmed the New York City police commissioner’s disciplinary authority.

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association had sued then-Commissioner Ray Kelly for overriding disciplinary provisions in the police contract — including a rule requiring NYPD superiors to wait at least 48 hours before questioning police officers accused of misconduct. . .

Continue reading.

Travis Waldron has a good post in ThinkProgress on how the police union responds to any criticism of police actions:

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins became the latest player to join on-field protests against recent police shootings of black men on Sunday, when he walked onto the field with a t-shirt that read “Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford” over his jersey.

Rice was the 12-year-old who Cleveland police shot in November after they received calls that he was playing with a toy gun in a park near his home; Crawford was killed by police in August in an Ohio Walmart while holding an air gun. Both were black.

Now, the Cleveland police union is demanding an apology from Hawkins and the Browns, saying that players like Hawkins don’t understand the law enough to take a stand.

“It’s pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law,” Jeff Follman, the president of the Police Patrolman Union in Cleveland, said in a statement to Cleveland news station newsnet5. “They should stick to what they know best on the field. The Cleveland Police protect and serve the Browns stadium and the Browns organization owes us an apology.”

“He’s an athlete. He’s someone with no facts of the case whatsoever,” Follmer said later,according to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. “He’s disrespecting the police on a job that we had to do and make a split-second decision.”

The union statement is similar to one issued by the St. Louis police union after five Rams players walked onto the field before a game displaying the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture to protest a grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Mo. police officer who shot and killed black teenager Michael Brown in August. In that instance, the union called on the team and the NFL to discipline the five players. Though neither the Rams nor the NFL did so, the Rams last week made a donation to a local police charity.

The Browns responded to Follmer and the union in a statement, saying: “We have great respect for the Cleveland Police Department and the work that they do to protect and serve our city. We also respect our players’ rights to project their support and bring awareness to issues that are important to them if done so in a responsible manner.”

After the Rams players protested, similar gestures spread across sports, especially after a grand jury in New York declined to bring charges against a police officer in the death of Eric Garner, a black man who was choked to death by police in Staten Island. Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose took the court the next weekend wearing a shirt that read, “I Can’t Breathe,” which were among Garner’s last words and has become a rallying cry in protests across the country. Multiple NFL players, including Hawkins’ teammate Johnson Bademosi, wore similar shirts last weekend as the protests spread across the sports world. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and other players have worn the shirts too.

The protests continued through the week and into this weekend, spreading to the ranks of college basketball. Notre Dame’s women’s basketball team and Georgetown’s men’s team were among those that wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts before a game this weekend. The University of California women’s basketball team took the court Saturday wearing handmade shirts that bore the names of black men and teens killed recently by police.

Jeffrey Follmer basically takes offense that people don’t simply accept all police shootings as justified. (Cenk Uygur in the video below voices my own opinions.) Watch this video:

And do read this Salon article on the same issue.

And Andrew Hawkins explains why he wore the shirt asking for justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford:

Written by LeisureGuy

17 December 2014 at 9:08 am

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