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Archive for July 22nd, 2015

How the ‘Embarrassing’ Gas Tax Impasse Explains Washington

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Alec MacGillis reports in ProPublica:

In 1993, the Dow Jones industrial average was still well under 4,000, the best-selling car in the country was the Ford Taurus, and the average cost of a Major League Baseball ticket was under $10.

That was also the year that Congress last raised the federal tax on gasoline.

The gas tax pays most of the tab for America’s federal highway program; it’s what we rely on for new highways and for the bridge repairs that keep us safe. Those costs go up every year, but the tax remains stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon. In fact, it’s effectively going down: since it was last raised, those 18.4 cents have lost more than a third of their value to inflation, and at the same time drivers with fuel-efficient vehicles have been buying less gasoline, further reducing the federal take.

As a result, the main U.S. spending account for infrastructure has fallen deep in the red, and the gap gets worse every year. The government, through a series of funding tricks, keeps the Highway Trust Fund on life support with short-term emergency patches. The latest infusion expires at the end of the month, and the argument about how to fix it is coming to a head this week.

The uncertainty has frozen major projects around the country, from the widening of Route 1 in Delaware to the Kalispell bypass in Montana, while maintenance and repairs are long overdue on thousands of roads and bridges dangerously near the end of their expected life spans.

That Congress can’t fulfill such a basic purpose of government stands out as a signal example of Washington dysfunction. Unlike some other stalemates, though, this one can’t be blamed on special interests at loggerheads. Nearly all the lobbies that take an interest are in favor of simply increasing the tax — big business, the road builders, the unions, even the truckers. Lobbies that might oppose an increase, notably the oil industry, have invested relatively little in the debate.

Instead, it’s an example of those big decisions that get trapped in a kind of ideological crevasse. Because it’s a tax, raising it has been decreed out of bounds by a combination of anti-tax orthodoxy among conservative Republicans and a fear of political backlash that spans both parties.

Still, there may be a way out of the trap. A slew of states around the country — including some led by conservative Republicans — have managed to raise their state gas taxes to address the transportation burden without triggering the fury of taxpayers. The contrast is an unflattering one, says former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat and a leading proselytizer for infrastructure spending.

“If the gas tax could be voted up or down on a secret ballot, it would get 285 yes votes in the House and 85 or 90 in the Senate,” says Rendell. “Everyone knows we need new revenue, everyone knows we can’t let the trust fund go broke … Everyone knows this is one of the most embarrassing chapters in the history of the U.S. Congress.”

What’s gone so wrong?


It sounds strange now, but the gas tax was born and built up under Republican presidents. The U.S. government has been picking up a part of the highway tab for nearly a century — since 1916, when, in an era of Model T’s bumping over rutted country lanes, the bluntly named Good Roads Movement gave rise to a law providing federal money for any rural routes used for U.S. mail. Fuel taxes started around the same time, but only at the state level.

When the federal government adopted its own penny-per-gallon one in 1932, under President Hoover, it was intended for deficit reduction, not roads. It was only when the tax was raised to 3 cents under President Eisenhower in 1956 — with an additional cent added on in 1959 — that it was targeted for the new interstate highway system and the Highway Trust Fund that would finance it.

In a country that loves big cars and views cheap energy as a national birthright, the gas tax was never going to be beloved. After several failed attempts to raise the tax in the 1970s as a means to spur fuel conservation and fight inflation, it was left to Ronald Reagan, of all people, to push through the next increase, in late 1982.

With the economy still sluggish after Reagan’s steep income tax cuts in 1981, “they were facing $200 billion deficits as far as the eye could see … and the administration was desperate to find some way to close that gap,” recalls Kenneth Schwartz, a career employee in the Office of Management and Budget.

Just before the 1982 midterm election, Reagan had ruled out a gas tax increase “unless there’s a palace coup and I’m overtaken or overthrown.” But shortly after the election, he and his budget director, David Stockman, settled on a five-cent increase in the gas tax (or “user fee,” as Reagan preferred to call it) proposed by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, the Illinois Democrat. The increase, Reagan said, would be “less than the cost of a couple of shock absorbers.”

The proposal had bipartisan backing from Hill leadership. In the House, well over half of Republicans voted for it. The Senate passed it 54-33.

That political landscape was already shifting when . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 July 2015 at 11:09 am

Posted in Congress, Government

The observer effect on surgeon performance

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The idea of grading surgeons, given lower marks whose work produces more post-surgery complications or results in more deaths, seems simple and, on the face of it, valid. But we are familiar with how the presence of an observer can affect the thing observed and change its behavior. Sandeep Jauhar discusses in the NY Times some adverse effects of ranking surgeons:

ONE summer day 14 years ago, when I was a new cardiology fellow, my colleagues and I were discussing the case of an elderly man with worsening chest pains who had been transferred to our hospital to have coronary bypass surgery. We studied the information in his file: On an angiogram, his coronary arteries looked like sausage links, sectioned off by tight blockages. He had diabetes, high blood pressure and poor kidney function, and in the past he had suffered a heart attack and a stroke. Could the surgeons safely operate?

In most cases, surgeons have to actually see a patient to determine whether the benefits of surgery outweigh the risks. But in this case, a senior surgeon, on the basis of the file alone, said the patient was too “high risk.” The reason he gave was that state agencies monitoring surgical outcomes would penalize him for a bad result. He was referring to surgical “report cards,” a quality-improvement program that began in New York State in the early 1990s and has since spread to many other states.

The purpose of these report cards was to improve cardiac surgery by tracking surgical outcomes, sharing the results with hospitals and the public, and when necessary, placing surgeons or surgical programs on probation. The idea was that surgeons who did not measure up to their colleagues would be forced to improve.

But the report cards backfired. They often penalized surgeons, like the senior surgeon at my hospital, who were aggressive about treating very sick patients and thus incurred higher mortality rates. When the statistics were publicized, some talented surgeons with higher-than-expected mortality statistics lost their operating privileges, while others, whose risk aversion had earned them lower-than-predicted rates, used the report cards to promote their services in advertisements.

This was an insult that the senior surgeon at my hospital could no longer countenance. “The so-called best surgeons are only doing the most straightforward cases,” he said disdainfully.

Research since then has largely supported his claim. . .

Continue reading.

In effect, the operation of a grading/ranking system creates perverse incentives that lead to lower quality medical care.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 July 2015 at 10:21 am

Posted in Healthcare, Medical

How hackers can take control of your car as you drive it

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One inevitably thinks of the totally mysterious single-car crash that killed Michael Hastings, a reporter who aroused the ire of the US national security state (military, CIA, NSA, et al.). He was working a story and when he was alone in his car in LA, the car accelerated to a very high speed and crashed. Even at the time there was speculation that Hastings himself was not responsible but a victim of having his car hacked by some entity with the resources to do such a thing.

Andy Greenberg reports in Wired (and there’s a video at the link):

I WAS DRIVING 70 mph on the edge of downtown St. Louis when the exploit began to take hold.

Though I hadn’t touched the dashboard, the vents in the Jeep Cherokee started blasting cold air at the maximum setting, chilling the sweat on my back through the in-seat climate control system. Next the radio switched to the local hip hop station and began blaring Skee-lo at full volume. I spun the control knob left and hit the power button, to no avail. Then the windshield wipers turned on, and wiper fluid blurred the glass.

As I tried to cope with all this, a picture of the two hackers performing these stunts appeared on the car’s digital display: Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek, wearing their trademark track suits. A nice touch, I thought.

The Jeep’s strange behavior wasn’t entirely unexpected. I’d come to St. Louis to be Miller and Valasek’s digital crash-test dummy, a willing subject on whom they could test the car-hacking research they’d been doing over the past year. The result of their work was a hacking technique—what the security industry calls a zero-day exploit—that can target Jeep Cherokees and give the attacker wireless control, via the Internet, to any of thousands of vehicles. Their code is an automaker’s nightmare: software that lets hackers send commands through the Jeep’s entertainment system to its dashboard functions, steering, brakes, and transmission, all from a laptop that may be across the country.

To better simulate the experience of driving a vehicle while it’s being hijacked by an invisible, virtual force, Miller and Valasek refused to tell me ahead of time what kinds of attacks they planned to launch from Miller’s laptop in his house 10 miles west. Instead, they merely assured me that they wouldn’t do anything life-threatening. Then they told me to drive the Jeep onto the highway. “Remember, Andy,” Miller had said through my iPhone’s speaker just before I pulled onto the Interstate 64 on-ramp, “no matter what happens, don’t panic.”1

As the two hackers remotely toyed with the air-conditioning, radio, and windshield wipers, I mentally congratulated myself on my courage under pressure. That’s when they cut the transmission.

Immediately my accelerator stopped working. As I frantically pressed the pedal and watched the RPMs climb, the Jeep lost half its speed, then slowed to a crawl. This occurred just as I reached a long overpass, with no shoulder to offer an escape. The experiment had ceased to be fun.

At that point, the interstate began to slope upward, so the Jeep lost more momentum and barely crept forward. Cars lined up behind my bumper before passing me, honking. I could see an 18-wheeler approaching in my rearview mirror. I hoped its driver saw me, too, and could tell I was paralyzed on the highway.

“You’re doomed!” Valasek shouted, but I couldn’t make out his heckling over the blast of the radio, now pumping Kanye West. The semi loomed in the mirror, bearing down on my immobilized Jeep.

I followed Miller’s advice: I didn’t panic. I did, however, drop any semblance of bravery, grab my iPhone with a clammy fist, and beg the hackers to make it stop.

This wasn’t the first time Miller and Valasek had put me behind the wheel of a compromised car. . .

Continue reading. It’s a lengthy article and there’s much more detail.

Certainly would explain the Hastings crash. His article in Rolling Stone on Gen. Chrystal really pissed off Special Forces.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 July 2015 at 9:55 am

Posted in Technology

A vintage German slant, Shaver Heaven, and Dark Rose

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SOTD 22 July 2015

An extremely nice shave today, once more using a slant. While some say they cannot tell any difference between a slant and a regular razor, I notice that a slant much more easily produces a BBS result, and today was no exception to that.

But first, the lather: Rooney Style 1, Size 1 brush made a very nice and fragrant lather from Shaver Heaven’s Sweet Almond Milk shaving soap.

I know nothing of the origin of the German slant (other than country), and the design is quite simple, but it does a very fine job indeed: a completely trouble-free shave and a BBS result.

Saint Charles Shave, knowing of my interest in their rose-fragranced aftershaves, particularly those using Bulgarian rose, sent me the sample shown. She calls the fragrance Dark Rose, and comments that it’s “a blend of Bulgarian rose, woods, bergamot, vetiver, moss, myrrh, light florals, frangipani, cassis, and geranium. It opens sharply and dries down to the heart of rose.” I like the name Dark Rose, because although it is quite identifiably rose, it has more depth than the usual rose fragrance.

Altogether a fine shave.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 July 2015 at 9:34 am

Posted in Shaving

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