Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for May 25th, 2013

Reflections while (re)watching Green Zone

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It’s quite obvious that our current Congress is unable to function—next, I expect to see fist-fights on the floor of the Senate, and it wouldn’t be the first time: recall the terrible beating that Preston Brooks gave to Charles Sumner in the Senate, using a cane topped with a metal knob, with which he struck Sumner repeatedly. Sumner never really recovered, but—and this is the tie to today—each man was a hero in his own region. If John Boehner struck Nancy Pelosi in the face on the floor of the House, I would bet a large proportion of the GOP would applaud his action: that’s how far we’ve come.

And how did it get this way? How did our elected representatives become so cynical that, as Gail Collins points out in the NY Times:

“When I travel across the state of Texas, men and women stop me all the time, and say: ‘Enough of the games. Go up there, roll up your sleeves, work with each other and fix the problem,’ ” Cruz lectured his colleagues this week, while he was engaged in stopping the budget process dead in its tracks for the ninth straight time.

Paul Krugman has one answer, but I’m pondering also the real hatred of “the government” expressed by the Tea Party, and the GOP’s fervent efforts to slash Federal budgets and jobs (except for the military). It’s almost as if a substantial part of the American public felt that it had been somehow betrayed by the government.

And then I’m watching the opening of Green Zone: 4 weeks after the first night of bombings—the “shock and awe” that immediately started the killing of Iraqi civilians, with no real regard for their safety. Our war was (ostensibly) with Saddam Hussein, but the people we were killing were the very people we were later to claim that we had come to save and provide a nice democracy.

But that was only yet another effort at revisionism in an administration famed for it—remember all the various after-the-fact explanations what “Mission Accomplished” really meant, and who really was responsible, and so on? The reason given at the time for the war was quite straightforward and simple: Saddam Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) (that term today refers to anything like a hand grenade or bigger, but a hand grenade is definitely defined now as a Weapon of Mass Destruction), and we had to go to war right now to stop him before he… did something with them—shot them at Israel or the US.

So here we are, 4 weeks from Day 1 of the war, and a unit is in a frantic hurry to get to a WMD site before looters carry everything away because the US simply let looters go—ransacking the national museums, libraries, laboratories, whatever. Because, as our Secretary of Defense explained, “Shit happens.” (As I write this I feel we’re living in a book by Terry Southern.) (He also said that you go to war with the army you have—and that army did not have appropriate armor to resist IEDs, so apparently DoD determined that, given the Secretary’s statement, there was no particular hurry to get armor to them…

And they break into the warehouse, and: nothing. Empty. This was hard intel, and it was totally wrong. How could that happen? And that’s the question the movie explores, as I recall.

But consider: soldiers were being killed, they were killing people—people they didn’t know, and a lot of civilians—in a part of the country they didn’t understand—and watching their buddies being horribly maimed or killed. And all the time, they now realize, they had been lied to: there were no WMDs and the whole war was based on a lie. And they were the ones suffering, all to see if a little neocon idea would actually work. It should, so telling a lie to bring it about was a worthy and virtuous lie.

But maybe the people being killed, and their families, and their friends would not see it that way. At first, I imagine, there’s a fair amount of denial due to cognitive dissonance: the war must have been worthwhile because look at how many of our young men and women died there, or came home maimed, in body or mind. But inevitably, they cannot deny what they lived through—and they know that there never were any WMDs—well, grenades and RPGs, of course, but I’m talking about the ones that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld and George Tenet and Jerry Bremer and Karl Rove and that whole sorry lot told us were there: nuclear weapons, nerve gas, biological warfare agents, and so on—the real WMDs, not the grenades-and-firecracker sort we have nowadays.

So the mood of that cohort—those in the military, their families, and their friends—turned bitter and angry toward government: thus the desire to slash, cut, and shrink the government—except, oddly, the military. Staunchly loyal to the unit, I suppose.

UPDATE: I just read Maureen Dowd’s column and I see we have some overlap, though looking at different objects.

UPDATE 2: As I think about it, I grow ever more amazed: that president (and his cabinet: I don’t think he could do this on his own, obviously—it was a group effort) took the United States into a war based on a complete fabrication—and it was done knowingly, Cheney demanding the CIA follow his lead, Bush demanding the UN Inspectors leave Iraq, downplaying the “aluminum tubes” that proved Hussein was building nuclear weapons, which, Condoleezza Rice assured us, would soon be making mushroom clouds over the US—because, obviously, the first thing Iraq would do would be to attack the US, right?

I think they knew it was a lie, but thought it a noble lie, and they believed that they would be instantly forgiven as soon as Iraq was a functioning democracy, which was expected to take 10-12 weeks—a “cakewalk.” And then, when that didn’t work out, the rationales started changing and the flop sweat started to build.

But they totally got away with it. Every one of them is wealthy, respected by many, and living in the lap of luxury, sure in his or her own mind that s/he did exactly the right thing, even if it didn’t quite work out. And at least they reduced hell out of taxes, which helps them now.

An entire war, on false premises. 10 years in Iraq. And we don’t get even an “Oops. My bad.”, much less an investigation.

Written by Leisureguy

25 May 2013 at 4:08 pm

Everyday Life in Palestine

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Via Juan Cole’s Informed Comment:

Written by Leisureguy

25 May 2013 at 2:49 pm

How Did Major Hedge Fund Earn 30% Returns for 20 Years Straight? Lots of Cheating.

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Les Leopold reports at Alternet:

How would you like to invest $10,000 and watch it grow over 20 years into $1,461,920? Well that’s what happened at the giant hedge fund, SAC Capital Advisors, which made a 30% return for 20 years in a row.

How is it possible to make such profitable investments again and again and again? The U.S. Attorney for Manhattan, Preet Bharara, believes he has the answer: SAC is cheating … again and again and again. In fact, Bharara suggests [3] that hedge funds that engage in insider trading may be rotten to the core:

“Given the scope of the allegations to date, we are not talking simply about the occasional corrupt individual; we are talking about something verging on a corrupt business model, for the defendants seem to have taken the concept of social networking and turned it into a criminal enterprise. ” [refers to a 2011 hedge fund indictment, not the current case against SAC.]

To date, nine current and former SAC employees face insider trading criminal charges stemming from their work at the firm. Four have pled guilty and two are still fighting their indictments. Now the head of SAC, multi-billionaire Stephen A. Cohen (note the initials), will be subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury. The federal strategy may be to indict the entire hedge fund and shut it down, according to the New York Times. [4]

We do not know as yet to what degree SAC relied on illegally obtained information (or other illicit activities) to amass its extraordinary profits. But we do know this: hedge funds don’t like to gamble. Rather they want to make their billions by betting on sure things. In researching my book, How to Make a Million Dollars an Hour [5], it became clear that that the hedge fund industry as a whole is up to its eyeballs in a series of unethical maneuvers that sometimes are legal, sometimes are borderline and often are outright criminal.

But aren’t there many (some?) honest and ethical people working in America’s 8,000 hedge funds?

Maybe so, but the overwhelming culture within hedge funds makes cheating a way of life, according to Lynn Stout of UCLA Law School. In her article, “How Hedge Funds Create Criminals [6],” Stout claims that hedge funds flash three critical signals that promote unethical behavior:

Signal 1: Authority Doesn’t Care about Ethics. Since the days of Stanley Milgram’s notorious electric shock experiments, science has shown that people do what they are instructed to do. Hedge-fund traders are routinely instructed by their managers and investors to focus on maximizing portfolio returns. Thus, it should come as no surprise that not all hedge-fund traders put obeying federal securities laws at the top of their to-do lists.

Signal 2: . . .

Continue reading. The Department of Justice, the SEC, and other Federal agencies ignore these crimes. At most, perpetrators will get small fines and be allowed to continue.

Written by Leisureguy

25 May 2013 at 11:23 am

When cops become rapists

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Steve Yoder reports in The American Prospect:

When 20-year-old Sarah Smith got into an accident with a motorcyclist in 2008, it was nothing but bad new—she was driving with a suspended license. It got worse. When police showed up, officer Adam Skweres took Smith aside and implied that he could either make it look like the accident was her fault or give the other party a ticket. It depended on whether she’d agree to perform unspecified sexual favors. Skweres also threatened that if she told anyone, he’d “make sure you never walk, talk, or speak again,” and looked at his gun. That scared her enough that she immediately reported what he’d done to the police, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Another four years passed before the department arrested Skweres and suspended him without pay, and then only because he tried to rape a woman while on duty. By that time, Smith had moved out of the city for fear of running into him again. Three other women told stories similar to Smith’s, and on March 11 Skewers pled guilty to bribery, indecent assault, and other charges.

Stories of cops propositioning, harassing, and sexually assaulting women turn up every week around the country. February 18 saw the arrest of Houston officer Victor Chris for allegedly telling two women he would tear up their traffic tickets in exchange for sexual favors, according to the Houston Chronicle. On February 25, police charged Sergio Alvarez, an officer from West Sacramento, California with allegedly kidnapping and raping six women while on duty between October 2011 and September 2012. And March 1, Denver cop Hector Paez got eight years in prison for driving a woman he’d arrested to a secluded spot and forcing her to perform oral sex on him. “Police sexual misconduct is common, and anyone who maintains it isn’t doesn’t get it,” says retired Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, author of the book Breaking Rank.

Since no one is investing resources in learning how many victims are out there, we’re left with estimates and news accounts. As part of a 2008 study, former police officer Tim Maher, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, asked 20 police chiefs whether police sexual misconduct was a problem—18 responded in the affirmative. The 13 chiefs willing to offer estimates thought an average of 19 percent of cops were involved—if correct, that translates to more than 150,000 police officers nationwide. An informal effort by the Cato Institute in 2010 to track the number of police sexual misconduct cases just in news stories counted 618 complaints nationwide that year, 354 of which involved forcible non-consensual sexual activity like sexual assault or sexual battery.

The news steadily filtering in from around the country has forced police leaders nationally to take notice. . .

Continue reading. From later in the article, a possible contributor to the problem: “No one keeps data on the number of police sexual abuse victims.”

Written by Leisureguy

25 May 2013 at 11:17 am

Posted in Daily life, Government, Law

As Need for New Flood Maps Rises, Congress and Obama Cut Funding

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Sometimes—often?—organizations (businesses, governments, and the like) seem positively stupid: with facts staring them in the face, they continue sleepwalking in a stupor. Here’s a good/terrible example from ProPublica by Theodoric Meyer:

As the United States grows warmer and extreme weather more common, the federal government’s flood insurance maps are becoming increasingly important.

The maps, drawn by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, dictate the monthly premiums millions of American households pay for flood insurance. They are also designed to give homeowners and buyers the latest understanding of how likely their communities are to flood.

The government’s response to the rising need for accurate maps? It’s slashed funding for them.

Congress has cut funding for updating flood maps by more than half since 2010, from $221 million down to $100 million this year. And the president’s latest budget request would slash funding for mapping even further to $84 million — a drop of 62 percent over the last four years.

Screen Shot 2013-05-25 at 10.55.21 AMIn a little-noticed written response to questions from a congressional hearing, FEMA estimated the cuts would delay its map program by three to five years. The program “will continue to make progress, but more homeowners will rely on flood hazard maps that are not current,” FEMA wrote.

The cuts have slowed efforts to update flood maps across the country.

In New England, for instance, FEMA is updating coastal maps but has put off updating many flood maps along the region’s rivers, said Kerry Bogdan, a senior engineer with FEMA’s floodplain mapping program in Boston.

“Unfortunately, without the money to do it, we’re limited and our hands are kind of tied,” she said.

Many of the flood maps in Vermont — including areas near Lake Champlain that have recently flooded — are decades out of date. “There are definitely communities that really need that data,” said Ned Swanberg, the flood hazard mapping coordinator with Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

Asked about the cuts, a spokesman for the White House’s Office of Management of Budget directed to us FEMA, which did not respond to our requests for comment.

New maps can guide development toward areas that are less likely to flood. They also tend to be far more accurate. Today’s mapmakers can take advantage of technologies including lidar, or laser radar, and ADCIRC, a computer program that’s used to model hurricane storm surge. They can also incorporate more years of flooding data into their models.

“It is disconcerting to have counties and areas where people still have maps from the 1970s,” said Suzanne Jiwani, a floodplain mapping engineer with Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources. . .

Continue reading.

For comparison: the cost of one (1) F-35 Lightning II fighter plane: $122 million. I think the US could easily get by with one fewer F-35 from our planned acquisition of 2,443. Even dropping two (2) is a reduction in fleet size of but 0.08% — that is, 8/100 of 1%. Especially since we are not currently fighting a war.

Written by Leisureguy

25 May 2013 at 11:02 am

The new crime of eating while homeless

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In an earlier post today, I mentioned how conservatives seemed to actively hate the poor. Perhaps you thought I was joking, but I wasn’t: if you look at their actions, simple hatred explains a lot. For example, consider this report from Jim Hightower at Other Words:

Whenever one of our cities gets a star turn as host of some super-sparkly event, such as a national political gathering or the Super Bowl, its first move is to tidy up — by having the police sweep homeless people into jail, out of town, or under some rug.

But Houston’s tidy-uppers aren’t waiting for a world-class event to rationalize going after homeless down-and-outers. They’ve preemptively outlawed the “crime” of dumpster diving in the Texan city.

In March, James Kelly, a 44-year-old Navy veteran, was passing through Houston on his way to connect with family in California. Homeless, destitute, and hungry, he chose to check out the dining delicacies in a trash bin near City Hall. Spotted by police, Kelly was promptly charged with “disturbing the contents of a garbage can in the [central] business district.” Seriously.“I was just basically looking for something to eat,” he told the Houston Chronicle. But, unbeknownst to both this indigent tourist and the great majority of Houston’s generally generous citizens, an ordinance dating way back to 1942 says that “molesting garbage containers” is illegal.

Also, in 2012, city officials made it a crime for any group to hand out food to the needy in the downtown area without first getting a permit. It’s a cold use of legal authority to chase the homeless away to…well, anywhere else.

Such laws are part of an effort throughout the country to criminalize what some call “homeless behavior.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

25 May 2013 at 10:48 am

America’s Corrupt Justice System: Federal Private Prison Populations Grew by 784% in 10 Year Span

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David Harris-Gershon writes at Tikkun Daily:

From 1999-2010, the total U.S. prison population rose 18 percent, an increase largely reflected by the “drug war” and stringent sentencing guidelines, such as three strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentences.

However, total private prison populations exploded fivefold during this same time period, with federal private prison populations rising by 784 percent (as seen in the chart below complied by The Sentencing Project):

PrisonThis stark rise in private prison populations is partially due to increased contracts granted at the state and federal levels to behemoth prison companies such as Correction Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group. These companies claim – against available data – that they can run corrections facilities at lower costs.

However, whether such companies can save governments money is not the central issue. What’s at issue here is the corrupt, immoral dynamic that fuels such contracts: the concept of treating inmates as commodities that must be grown for profit.

Take, for example, the offer CCA made in 2012 to 48 states:

We’ll purchase and manage your jails, and in return you [the state] must promise to keep the jails at least 90 percent full.

Such contracts provide incentives for local law enforcement to increase incarceration rates, rather than decrease them. In some instances, private prisons are grown not because crime increases, but because police harvest criminals as though they are a crop that must be stocked on the local shelves.

Additionally, for-profit prison companies engage in intense lobbying efforts that have been tied to many of our nation’s most stringent sentencing guidelines, and lobby hard against the decriminalization of things such as marijuana.

The financial motive to engage in such lobbying was clearly detailed in CCA’s 2010 Annual Report (as prepared by The Sentencing Project): . . .

Continue reading. Giving people financial incentive to lock up American citizens is not a good idea—would you pay a Quality Control inspector a piece rate for every item that passes inspection? No: too many items would pass inspection. Paying people to lock up citizens means that many citizens will be imprisoned who could have been dealt with in other ways. People tend to move toward incentives: that’s the idea, after all. Incentivizing imprisonment is the last thing on earth you want in a society that claims to be free.

Written by Leisureguy

25 May 2013 at 10:29 am

Posted in Business, Government, Law

Of course, not all benefit from the Affordable Care Act

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In particular, poor residents of conservative states have to deal with the results of the apparent hatred conservatives have for those who are poor. Robert Pear has a story in the NY Times:

The refusal by about half the states to expand Medicaid will leave millions of poor people ineligible for government-subsidized health insurance under President Obama’s health care law even as many others with higher incomes receive federal subsidies to buy insurance.

Starting next month, the administration and its allies will conduct a nationwide campaign encouraging Americans to take advantage of new high-quality affordable insurance options. But those options will be unavailable to some of the neediest people in states like Texas, Florida, Kansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia, which are refusing to expand Medicaid.

More than half of all people without health insurance live in states that are not planning to expand Medicaid.

People in those states who have incomes from the poverty level up to four times that amount ($11,490 to $45,960 a year for an individual) can get federal tax credits to subsidize the purchase of private health insurance. But many people below the poverty line will be unable to get tax credits, Medicaid or other help with health insurance.

Sandy Praeger, the insurance commissioner of Kansas, said she would help consumers understand their options. She said, however, that many of “the poorest of the poor” would fall into a gap in which no assistance is available.

The Kansas Medicaid program provides no coverage for able-bodied childless adults. And adults with dependent children are generally ineligible if their income exceeds 32 percent of the poverty level, Ms. Praeger said.

In most cases, she said, adults with incomes from 32 percent to 100 percent of the poverty level ($6,250 to $19,530 for a family of three) “will have no assistance.” They will see advertisements promoting new insurance options, but in most cases will not learn that they are ineligible until they apply.

Administration officials said they worried that frustrated consumers might blame President Obama rather than Republicans like Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who have resisted the expansion of Medicaid. . . [I think that’s the idea—the GOP doesn’t care what harm they do to the country in their furious attacks on Obama. – LG]

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

25 May 2013 at 10:16 am

Posted in GOP, Government, Healthcare

Continuous partial attention

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Linda Stone coined the term that describes much of modern daily experience: continuous partial attention. (One reason shaving is so restorative is that it provides an opportunity to focus our full attention for a brief while—or so I believe.) James Fallows interviews her in The Atlantic.

A longtime tech executive, Linda Stone worked on emerging technologies at Apple and then Microsoft Research in the 1980s and ’90s. Fifteen years ago, she coined the term continuous partial attention to describe the modern predicament of being constantly attuned to everything without fully concentrating on anything. Since then, she has frequently written and lectured about the challenges of living in an always-on, hyperconnected world.

Because the magazine has limited space, Fallows included in his blog more of the interview:

Here is the promised extended-play bonus version, beyond what we could work into two pages of the magazine:
JAMES FALLOWS: You’re well known for the idea of continuous partial attention. Why is this a bad thing?

LINDA STONE: Continuous partial attention is neither good nor bad. We need different attention strategies in different contexts. The way you use your attention when you’re writing a story may vary from the way you use your attention when you’re driving a car, serving a meal to dinner guests, making love, or riding a bicycle. The important thing for us as humans is to have the capacity to tap the attention strategy that will best serve us in any given moment.

JF: What do you mean by “attention strategy”?

LS: From the time we’re born, we’re learning and modeling a variety of attention and communication strategies. For example, one parent might put one toy after another in front of the baby until the baby stops crying. Another parent might work with the baby to demonstrate a new way to play with the same toy. These are very different strategies, and they set up a very different way of relating to the world for those children. Adults model attention and communication strategies, and children imitate. In some cases, through sports or crafts or performing arts, children are taught attention strategies. Some of the training might involve managing the breath and emotions—bringing one’s body and mind to the same place at the same time.

Self-directed play allows both children and adults to develop a powerful attention strategy, a strategy that I call “relaxed presence.” How did you play as a child?

JF: I have two younger siblings very close in age, so I spent time with them. I also just did things on my own, reading and building things and throwing balls and so on.

LS: Let’s talk about reading or building things. When you did those things, nobody was giving you an assignment, nobody was telling you what to do–there wasn’t any stress around it. You did these things for your own pleasure and joy. As you played, you developed a capacity for attention and for a type of curiosity and experimentation that can happen when you play. You were in the moment, and the moment was unfolding in a natural way.

You were in a state of relaxed presence as you explored your world. At one point, I interviewed a handful of Nobel laureates about their childhood play patterns. They talked about how they expressed their curiosity through experimentation. They enthusiastically described things they built, and how one play experience naturally led into another. In most cases, by the end of the interview, the scientist would say, “This is exactly what I do in my lab today! I’m still playing!”

An unintended and tragic consequence of our metrics for schools is that what we measure causes us to remove self-directed play from the school day. Children’s lives are completely programmed, filled with homework, lessons, and other activities.. There is less and less space for the kind of self-directed play that can be a fantastically fertile way for us to develop resilience and a broad set of attention strategies, not to mention a sense of who we are, and what questions captivate us. We have narrowed ourselves in service to the gods of productivity, a type of productivity that is about output and not about results.

JF: When people talk about attention problems in modern society, they usually mean the distractive potential of smartphones and so on. Is that connected to what you’re talking about in early-childhood development?

LS: We learn by imitation, from the very start. That’s how we’re wired. Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl, professors at the University of Washington I-LABS, show videos of babies at 42 minutes old, imitating adults. The adult sticks his tongue out. The baby sticks his tongue out, mirroring the adult’s behavior. Children are also cued by where a parent focuses attention. The child’s gaze follows the mother’s gaze. Not long ago, I had brunch with friends who are doctors, and both of them were on call. They were constantly pulling out their smartphones. The focus of their 1-year-old turned to the smartphone: Mommy’s got it, Daddy’s got it. I want it.

We may think that kids have a natural fascination with phones. Really, children have a fascination with what-ever Mom and Dad find fascinating. If they are fascinated by the flowers coming up in the yard, that’s what the children are going to find fascinating. And if Mom and Dad can’t put down the device with the screen, the child is going to think, That’s where it’s all at, that’s where I need to be! I interviewed kids between the ages of 7 and 12 about this. They said things like “My mom should make eye contact with me when she talks to me” and “I used to watch TV with my dad, but now he has his iPad, and I watch by myself.”

Kids learn empathy in part through eye contact and gaze. If kids are learning empathy through eye contact, and our eye contact is with devices, they will miss out on empathy.

JF: What you’re describing sounds like a society-wide autism.

LS: In my opinion, it’s more serious than autism. Many autistic kids are profoundly sensitive, and look away [from people] because full stimulation overwhelms them. What we’re doing now is modeling a primary relationship with screens, and a lack of eye contact with people. It ultimately can feed the development of a kind of sociopathy and psychopathy.

JF: I’m afraid to ask, but is this just going to get worse? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

25 May 2013 at 9:53 am

Posted in Daily life

California health-insurance rates drop with Obamacare

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Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic:

Predictions of an Obamacare apocalypse seem a little less credible today, thanks to California.

On Thursday, officials in that state offered the first detailed glimpse of what consumers buying health benefits on their own can expect to pay next year. And from the looks of things, these consumers will be getting a pretty good deal.

Based on the premiums that insurers have submitted for final regulatory approval, the majority of Californians buying coverage on the state’s new insurance exchange will be paying less—in many cases, far less—than they would pay for equivalent coverage today. And while a minority will still end up writing bigger premium checks than they do now, even they won’t be paying outrageous amounts. Meanwhile, all of these consumers will have access to the kind of comprehensive benefits that are frequently unavaiable today, at any price, because of the way insurers try to avoid the old and the sick.

It’s hard to provide a precise figure on premiums in the new exchange, which is officially called Covered California, because so much depends on individual circumstances, plan selection, and region. But you can get a sense of the prices by looking at what a 40-year-old single person would pay, on average, for the second cheapest “silver” plan on the new market. Such a plan, which would cover about 70 percent of a typical person’s medical expenses, would go for about $300 a month or around $3,600 a year. That compares favorably with what insurance costs today. The typical employer plan, for example, presently costs about $5,500 a year. Employer plans are generally more generous than the silver plans would be, so you’d expect them to be more expensive—but not by such a large margin.

Of course, people who get insurance from an employer may not realize they’re paying so much for insurance. They see only the employee share, which is typically a lot less. Then again, most people paying for insurance on the California exchange will also a pay a lot less, because they will qualify for tax credits that are functionally the same as a discount. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

25 May 2013 at 9:42 am

Everything you know about employers and Obamacare is wrong

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Already insurance rates are dropping due to Obamacare. Ezra Klein takes a good look at what’s happening:

Health Reform Watch, Sarah Kliff’s regular look at how the Affordable Care Act is changing the American health-care system, is being written by Ezra Klein today. Sarah, unfortunately, is doing some firsthand reporting on America’s dental system. You can reach Sarah with questions, comments and suggestions here. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoon for the latest edition, and read previous columns here.

For all the speculating in Washington about how the Affordable Care Act will work — much of it, I admit, from me — there’s been too little attention given to the best evidence we have on the subject: How the extremely similar reforms in Massachusetts have worked.

Take employers. There’s real concern that companies will see the Affordable Care Act as an opportunity to drop health insurance for their employees and let taxpayers pick up the tab. For those with more than 50 full-time workers, that’ll mean paying a $2,000 to $3,000 penalty for each one, but that’s a whole lot cheaper than paying for health insurance.The Massachusetts reforms, if anything, were even friendlier to this sort of dumping. The penalty for employers was a paltry $295 per worker. Compared to the average cost of an employer-provided health plan in the Northeast — $17,099, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2012 Employer Health Benefits Survey — that’s a pittance. It seemed almost irrational for employers to keep offering coverage.

“The benefits we were giving guys who left employer-sponsored insurance were way more generous than what the federal plan gives them,” says MIT’s Jonathan Gruber, a health economist who helped design the Massachusetts reforms. “And we didn’t have much of an employer penalty. I predicted employers would drop coverage.”

But they didn’t. To Gruber — and everyone else’s — surprise, employers expanded coverage. “In the seven years since Massachusetts enacted its law,” says a new reportfrom PricewaterhouseCoopers, “the number of people covered by insurance through the workplace increased by about 1 percentage point, running counter to the rest of the nation, which saw employer-based insurance decline by 5.7 percentage points.”

The report argues that people simply misunderstand why employers offer health-care benefits. They’re not doing it as a favor to employees. And they’re not doing it because anyone is making them. After all, prior to the Massachusetts reforms, employers could stop covering their employees without penalty. That’s true now in every other state in the nation, too. And yet 61 percent of firms offer health-care coverage. If anything, the Massachusetts and national reforms are making it pricier, not cheaper, for them to drop insurance.

Employers offer health insurance because employees demand it. If you’re an employer who doesn’t offer insurance and your competitors do, you’ll lose out on the most talented workers. An employer who stopped offering health benefits would see his best employees immediately start looking for other jobs. That was true before the Massachusetts health reforms. And it turned out to be even truer after them.

PricewaterhouseCoopers found that Massachusetts’s individual mandate had two unexpected effects. First, it led to a lot of employees signing up for employer-based coverage they’d previously rejected. “About a quarter of the uninsured are offered employer-sponsored insurance and don’t take it,” Gruber says. “If the mandate will affect anyone, it will affect those guys.”

Second, it led some workers to march into their boss’s office and ask for insurance. The study notes that “the percentage of small employers offering coverage in Massachusetts rose from 45 percent to 59 percent between 2005–2011,” even though insurance premiums actually rose for small employers.

The Massachusetts experience might not prove an apt guide to the national experience. Though the Massachusetts reforms are architecturally similar to the Affordable Care Act, they didn’t have to contend with a political party working relentlessly to undermine their implementation. Moreover, Massachusetts is a relatively rich and liberal state that already had a fairly high rate of health insurance.

That said, there are a couple other reasons to expect that employers won’t be eager to drop coverage. First, because employer-provided health benefits are not taxed, employers can pay their workers more by paying them partly in health-care benefits. Let’s say an employer decides to stop offering health benefits but, in a bid to keep employees happy, promises to give them the cash value of their coverage. The employer would have to spend more on the wages than it spends on the benefits, as the wages are taxed. For the record, I think this is a very stupid way to construct our tax code, but that’s how it works.

Second, the fraction of employers actually affected by the health law’s mandate is very small. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

25 May 2013 at 9:39 am

Why Tim DeChristopher Went to Prison for His Protest

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From Bill Moyers’s site:

In December 2008, during the closing weeks of the Bush White House, 27-year-old environmental activist Tim DeChristopher went to protest the auction of gas and oil drilling rights to more than 150,000 acres of publicly-owned Utah wilderness. But instead of yelling slogans or waving a sign, DeChristopher disrupted the proceedings by starting to bid. Given an auction paddle designating him “Bidder 70”, DeChristopher won a dozen land leases worth nearly two million dollars. He was arrested for criminal fraud, found guilty, and sentenced to two years in federal prison — even though the new Obama Administration had since declared the oil and gas auction null and void.

DeChristopher — who was released less than a month ago — joins Bill to talk about the necessity of civil disobedience in the fight for justice, how his jury was ordered to place the strict letter of the law over moral conscience, and the future of the environmental movement. Bidder 70, a new documentary chronicling DeChristopher’s legal battle and activism, opened May 17. DeChristopher is co-founder of the grassroots environmental group Peaceful Uprising.

“When I went into this, I was pretty focused on the direct impacts of my actions, keeping that oil under those parcels and stopping this particular auction,” DeChristopher tells Bill. “I think those impacts turned out to be much more important than just keeping that oil in the ground.”

Written by Leisureguy

25 May 2013 at 9:35 am

Survivorship bias

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I have been thinking of survivorship bias recently in the context of war and combat (from watching movies of that sort). The deep bond among men who have fought in combat has been often remarked, along with their sense of joy at being alive. But, of course, we hear that only from the survivors; those who fell may have had a different view. In his blog You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney has a lengthy, interesting, and informative post on this topic—which goes far beyond my limited view—and I highly recommend it. It begins:

The Misconception: You should study the successful if you wish to become successful.

The Truth: When failure becomes invisible, the difference between failure and success may also become invisible.

In New York City, in an apartment a few streets away from the center of Harlem, above trees reaching out over sidewalks and dogs pulling at leashes and conversations cut short to avoid parking tickets, a group of professional thinkers once gathered and completed equations that would both snuff and spare several hundred thousand human lives.

People walking by the apartment at the time had no idea that four stories above them some of the most important work in applied mathematics was tilting the scales of a global conflict as secret agents of the United States armed forces, arithmetical soldiers, engaged in statistical combat. Nor could people today know as they open umbrellas and twist heels on cigarettes, that nearby, in an apartment overlooking Morningside Heights, one of these soldiers once effortlessly prevented the United States military from doing something incredibly stupid, something that could have changed the flags now flying in capitals around the world had he not caught it, something you do every day.

These masters of math moved their families across the country, some across an ocean, so they could work together. As they unpacked, the theaters in their new hometown replaced posters for Citizen Kane with those for Casablanca, and the newspapers they unwrapped from photo frames and plates featured stories still unravelling the events at Pearl Harbor. Many still held positions at universities. Others left those sorts of jobs to think deeply in one of the many groups that worked for the armed forces, free of any other obligations aside from checking in on their families at night and feeding their brains during the day. All paused their careers and rushed to enlist so that they help to crush Hitler, not with guns and brawn, but with integers and exponents.

The official name for the people inside the apartment was the Statistical Research Group, a cabal of geniuses assembled at the request of the White House and made up of people who would go on to compete for and win Nobel Prizes. The SRG was an extension of Columbia University, and they dealt mainly with statistical analysis. Other groups with different specialities were tied to Harvard, Princeton, Brown and others, 11 in all, each a leaf at the end of a new branch of the government created to help defeat the Axis – the Department of War Math.

Actually…no. They were never officially known by such a deliciously sexy title. They were instead called the Applied Mathematics Panel, but they operated as if they were a department of war math.

The Department, ahem, the Panel, was created because the United States needed help. A surge of new technology had flooded into daily life, and the same wonders that years earlier drove ticket sales to the World’s Fair were now cracking open cities. Numbers and variables now massed into scenarios far too complex to solve with maps and binoculars. The military realized it faced problems that no soldier had ever confronted. No best practices yet existed for things like rockets and radar stations and aircraft carriers. The most advanced computational devices available were clunky experiments made of telephone switches or vacuum tubes. A calculator still looked like the mutant child of an old-fashioned cash register and a mechanical typewriter. If you wanted solutions to the newly unfathomable problems of modern combat you needed powerful number crunchers, and in 1941 the world’s most powerful number crunchers ran on toast and coffee and wore ties to breakfast.

Here is how it worked: Somewhere inside the vast machinery of war a commander would stumble into a problem. That commander would then send a request to the head of the Panel who would then assign the task to the group he thought would best be able to resolve the issue. Scientists in that group would then travel to Washington and meet with with top military personnel and advisors and explain to them how they might go about solving the problem. It was like calling technical support, except you called a computational genius who then invented a new way of understanding the world through math in an effort to win a global conflict for control of the planet.

For instance, the Navy desperately needed to know what was the best possible pattern, or spread, of torpedoes to launch against large enemy ships. All they had to go on were a series of hastily taken, blurry, black-and-white photographs of turning Japanese war vessels. The Panel handed over the photos to one of its meat-based mainframes and asked them to report back when it had a solution. The warrior mathematicians solved the problem almost as soon as they saw it. Lord Kelvin, they told the Navy, had already worked out the calculations in 1887. Just look at the patterns in the waves, they explained, see how they fan out in curves like an unfurling fern? The spaces tell you everything; they give it all away. Work out the distance between the cusps of the bow waves and you’ll know how fast the ship is going. Lord Kelvin hadn’t worked out what to do if the ship was turning, but no problem, they said. The mathematicians scribbled on notepads and clacked on blackboards until they had both advanced the field and created a solution. They then measured wavelets on real ships and saw their math was sound. The Navy added a new weapon to its arsenal – the ability to accurately send a barrage of torpedoes into a turning ship based only on what you could divine from the patterns in the waves.

The devotion of the mathematical soldiers grew stronger as the war grew bloodier and they learned the things they etched on hidden blackboards and jotted on guarded scraps of paper determined who would and would not return home to their families once the war was over. Leading brains in every scientific discipline had eagerly joined the fight, and although textbooks would eventually devote chapters to the work of the codebreakers and the creators of the atomic bomb, there were many groups whose stories never made headlines that produced nothing more than weaponized equations. One story in particular was nearly lost forever. In it, a brilliant statistician named Abraham Wald saved countless lives by preventing a group of military commanders from committing a common human error, a mistake that you probably make every single day. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

25 May 2013 at 9:22 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

New brush and the Gillette Rocket

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SOTD 25 May 2013

Some conversation about the redoubtable Rocket, the UK version of the Super Speed, prompted me to haul out that razor. The build quality is extremely high, far beyond the Super Speed: the Rocket feels like a machine, precision fitted parts moving smoothly with that finely machined feel.

The brush is new: a handmade brush from Strop Shoppe. I got a peek at her new offerings and immediately bought one. I used it this morning with Musgo Real’s Lime Basil shaving cream.

The lather was reasonably good: not great, not by a long shot, and the fragrance was severely muted. I have to admit that this morning I’m not so impressed, but I do like the brush. It has a bit longer loft, but still good resilience. I will try it on a soap next. I do like the black-palm handle.

With a Swedish Gillette blade the Rocket delivered a fine shave, but I did somehow get a good nick right at the margin of my lower lip on the WTG pass. A little roll of My Nik Is Sealed took care of that—God, how I wish I had had MNIS when I was in high school!

A good splash of Annik Goutal’s Eau de Sud, and the weekend begins.

I did my Pilates mat exercises at home: just a little, to break the ice.

Written by Leisureguy

25 May 2013 at 8:55 am

Posted in Shaving

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