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Archive for October 4th, 2015

Gun killings fell by 40 percent after Connecticut passed this law

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A Washington Post story by Jeff Guo:

In the early ’90s, gang shootings gripped Connecticut. Bystanders, including a7-year-old girl, were getting gunned down in drive-bys. “The state is becoming a shooting gallery, and the public wants action,” an editorial in theHartford Courant said at the time.

So in the summer of 1994, lawmakers hustled through a gun control bill in a special session. They hoped to curb shootings by requiring people to get a purchasing license before buying a handgun. The state would issue these permits to people who passed a background check and a gun safety training course.

At the time, private citizens could freely buy and sell guns secondhand, even to those with criminal records. Connecticut’s law sought to regulate that market. Even private handgun sales would have to be reported to the state, and buyers would need to have a permit.

Critics scoffed at the plan. They argued that a permit system would hassle lawful citizens, while crooks would still get guns on the black market. If the problem was criminals with guns, why not clean up crime instead of restricting guns?

“This will not take one gun out of the hands of a single criminal,” State Rep. Richard Belden complained to the New York Times in 1994.

Even some supporters of the law, which took effect in 1995, called it a “small step” — a gesture to placate residents alarmed at the gun violence.

Now, two decades later, researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Berkeley, say that Connecticut’s “permit-to-purchase” law was actually a huge success for public safety.

In a study released Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health, they estimate that the law reduced gun homicides by 40 percent between 1996 and 2005. That’s 296 lives saved in 10 years.

How they analyzed the data

Of course, there’s no way to measure the true impact of Connecticut’s “permit-to-purchase” law. We can’t access the alternate universe where Connecticut’s law never existed. But we can compare Connecticut against the 39 states that didn’t have similar legislation at the time.

That’s what the researchers did, using records on gun killings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the control states, homicide rates tumbled in the mid ’90s — but in Connecticut, the gun homicide rate fell faster and farther, even after controlling for demographic changes, incomes and policing levels. This is a sign that Connecticut’s gun policy was having an effect.

To arrive at a more precise estimate, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 October 2015 at 3:19 pm

Posted in Guns

America’s gun problem, explained

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Very interesting article in Vox.com by Germain Lopez. From the article:

gun ownership

The article is quite good. Read the whole thing.

Also from the article:

Written by Leisureguy

4 October 2015 at 2:38 pm

Posted in Guns

Why Free Markets Make Fools of Us

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Cass Sunstein reviews an interesting book in the NY Review of Books:

Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception

by George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller
Princeton University Press, 272 pp., $24.95

Very few economists foresaw the great recession of 2008–2009. Why not? Economists have long assumed that human beings are “rational,” but behavioral findings about human fallibility have put a lot of pressure on that assumption. People tend to be overconfident; they display unrealistic optimism; they often deal poorly with risks; they neglect the long term (“present bias”); and they dislike losses a lot more than they like equivalent gains (“loss aversion”). And until recent years, most economists have not had much to say about the problem of inequality, which seems to be getting worse.

There is a strong argument that within the economics profession, these problems are closely linked, and that they have had unfortunate effects on public policy. Most economists celebrate free markets, invoking the appealing idea of consumer sovereignty. If people are buying potato chips, candy, and beer, or making risky investments, that’s their business; they know their own values and tastes. Outsiders, and especially those who work for the government, have no right to intervene. To be sure, things are different if someone is inflicting harms on third parties. If a company is emitting air pollution, the government can legitimately respond. But otherwise, many economists tend to believe that people should fend for themselves.

It is true that companies might try to take advantage of consumers and investors, perhaps with outright lies, perhaps with subtler forms of deception, perhaps by manipulating their emotions. But from the standpoint of standard economic thinking, that’s nothing to panic about. The first line of defense is competition itself—and the market’s invisible hand. Companies that lie, deceive, and manipulate people are not going to last long. The second line of defense is the law. If a company is really engaging in fraud or deception, government regulators might well get involved, and customers are likely to have a right to compensation. But for economists, competitive markets are generally trustworthy, and so the old Latin phrase retains its relevance: caveat emptor.

By emphasizing human fallibility, the group of scholars known as behavioral economists has raised a lot of doubts about this view. Their catalog of errors on the part of consumers and investors can be taken to identify a series of “behavioral market failures,” each of them calling for some kind of government response (such as information campaigns to promote healthy eating or graphic warnings to discourage smoking). But George Akerlof and Robert Shiller want to go far beyond behavioral economics, at least in its current form. They offer a much more general, and quite damning, account of why free markets and competition cause serious problems.

Both Akerlof and Shiller have won the Nobel Prize; they rank among the most important economists of the last half-century. They are also intellectual renegades. Akerlof has been interested in the persistence of caste systems, involuntary unemployment, rat races, the effects of personal identity, and what happens when sellers know things that buyers don’t. He has long been a proponent of integrating psychology and economics. A specialist in the financial system, Shiller has explored the role of “irrational exuberance” in producing wildly inflated stock, bond, and real estate prices, which are bound to come down. He believes that investors make serious mistakes, and also that they run in herds, which can produce bubbles. Like Akerlof, he is keenly interested in seeing what psychology can add to economic theory.

Akerlof and Shiller believe that once we understand human psychology, we will be a lot less enthusiastic about free markets and a lot more worried about the harmful effects of competition. In their view, companies exploit human weaknesses not necessarily because they are malicious or venal, but because the market makes them do it. Those who fail to exploit people will lose out to those who do. In making that argument, Akerlof and Shiller object that the existing work of behavioral economists and psychologists offers a mere list of human errors, when what is required is a broader account of how and why markets produce systemic harm.

Akerlof and Shiller use the word “phish” to mean a form of angling, by which phishermen (such as banks, drug companies, real estate agents, and cigarette companies) get phools (such as investors, sick people, homeowners, and smokers) to do something that is in the phisherman’s interest, but not in the phools’. There are two kinds of phools: informational and psychological. Informational phools are victimized by factual claims that are intentionally designed to deceive them (“it’s an old house, sure, but it just needs a few easy repairs”). More interesting are psychological phools, led astray either by their emotions (“this investment could make me rich within three months!”) or by cognitive biases (“real estate prices have gone up for the last twenty years, so they’re bound to go up for the next twenty as well”).

Akerlof and Shiller are aware that skeptics will find their depiction of human beings as “phools” to be inaccurate and impossibly condescending. Their response is that people are making a lot of bad decisions, producing outcomes that no one could possibly want. In their view, phishing for phools “is the leading cause of the financial crises that lead to the deepest recessions.” A lot of people run serious health risks from overeating, tobacco, and alcohol, leading to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths annually in the United States alone. Akerlof and Shiller think that it is preposterous to believe that these deaths are a product of rational decisions. Many people face debilitating financial insecurity, largely as a result of their own mistaken decisions, spurred by phishermen. Bad government is itself a product of phishing and phoolishness, for “we are prone to vote for the person who makes us the most comfortable,” even when that person’s decisions are effectively bought by special interests.

In a reversal of Adam Smith, Akerlof and Shiller contend that the invisible hand of the market guarantees phishing. Consider Cinnabon, whose brilliant motto is “Life Needs Frosting,” and which attracts customers with a seductive smell (and which has not made caloric information on its products at all easy to find). Or consider health clubs, a $22 billion industry with over 50 million customers, many of whom choose expensive monthly contracts, even though they would save a lot of money if they paid by the visit. In effect, they are paying not to go to the gym.

With reference to such examples, Akerlof and Shiller suggest that people can be imagined to have two kinds of tastes: . . .

Continue reading.

Consider whether the free market can address the price-gouging on pharmaceuticals, a problem caused by the free market (and competition based solely on profit).

Written by Leisureguy

4 October 2015 at 2:07 pm

Why foreign troops can’t fight our fights

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Phillip Carter, a former Army officer and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, writes in the Washington Post:

In a pair of stunningly candid admissions during the past few weeks, the U.S. Central Command has signaled that a $500 million effort to train and equip Syrian rebel forces has failed. Just four or five fighters of a force planned to number 3,000 to 5,000 by now are active in the battle against the Islamic State; many more of those trained may now be fighting for the other side. A significant chunk of the U.S. military hardware given to the rebels has passed through their hands and into the possession of al-Qaeda. Based on what is publicly known, the United States is worse off now than it was before it started training the rebels.

Seen through a narrow lens, this failure illustrates how difficult progress against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State will be without putting U.S. boots on the ground. Viewed more broadly, however, these Centcom revelations show fundamental defects in the idea that we can graft U.S. capabilities onto foreign forces to achieve our ends.

Train-and-equip missions like the one in Syria fall under the category of “security assistance” programs, which provide money, materiel or advisory support to foreign forces. The most expensive of these have been the massive efforts to build armies and police forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, with mixed success that I saw firsthand as an embedded adviser with Iraq’s security forces at the war’s height. Closely related are the “foreign military sales” programs, overseen by the State and Defense departments, that delivered more than $40 billion last year in U.S. weaponry and assistance to allies and partners. And then there is the State Department’s $2 billion portfolio ofpolice training and assistance, along with various counterterrorism and military aid programs overseen by Defense. These efforts together are sometimes described as “building partner capacity” and currently include 148 countries.

The programs rest on a theory embraced across the U.S. government: Sometimes direct military interventions do more harm than good, andindirect approaches get us further. The theory briefs well as a way to achieve U.S. goals without great expenditure of U.S. blood and treasure. Unfortunately, decades of experience (including the current messes in Iraq and Syria) suggest that the theory works only in incredibly narrow situationsin which states need just a little assistance. In the most unstable places and in the largest conflagrations, where we tend to feel the greatest urge to do something, the strategy crumbles.

It fails first and most basically because it hinges upon an alignment of interests that rarely exists between Washington and its proxies. Most security-assistance situations, as distinct from relationships between the United States and its close allies, tend to be myopic and transactional. The United States has no meaningful long-term ties to the Syrian rebels, nor the Iraqi army and police. Our interests align to the extent that we collectively seek to destroy Islamic State, but even there, we differ as to how badly we want to do so. No wonder that when loyalties are tested among U.S.-trained Syrian rebels, those fighters disappear — and some are tempted to join forces with former enemies whose interests may be closer to theirs.

Second, the security-assistance strategy gives too much weight to the efficacy of U.S. war-fighting systems and capabilities, assuming that they alone are enough to produce desired outcomes for both our foreign proxies and ourselves. In American hands, sophisticated weapons work because they are supported by a complex U.S. military machine, one that includes global supply chains, advanced maintenance systems, and millions of well-educated and trained military, civilian and contractor personnel. That machine is impossible to replicate, especially during a short-term or crisis mission like that in Syria.

For security assistance to have any chance, it must build on existing institutions, adding something that fits within or atop a partner’s forces. That was the case with our support to the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, our counter-drug assistance to Colombia beginning in the 1990s and our more recent financing of the Israeli Iron Dome missile-defense system. In those instances, our help has made a big difference.

But giving night-vision goggles and F-16 aircraft to a third-rate military like the Iraqi army won’t produce a first-rate force, let alone instill the will to fight. Embedded advisers can help stiffen the resolve of local forces, but only to a point. My team in Iraq donated Humvees (painted blue and dubbed “Smurfvees”) to our Iraqi police counterparts, only to see them sit unused and fall into disrepair.

The third problem with security assistance is that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 October 2015 at 12:54 pm

More price-gouging the vulnerable by pharmaceutical companies

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The government really must take action. The goal of profits at any price is undermining care for the sick through extortionate schemes, such as the one run by Martin Shkreli. (It’s extortion rather than simple price gouging because of the threat involved: not taking some of these drugs mean that the patient will die.)

Take a look at how Valeant operates:

Screen Shot 2015-10-04 at 11.49.03 AM

That’s from a NY Times article by Andrew Pollack and Sabrina Tavernise:

J. Michael Pearson has become a billionaire from his tough tactics as the head of the fast-growing Valeant Pharmaceuticals International.

And consumers like Bruce Mannes, a 68-year-old retired carpenter from Grandville, Mich., are facing the consequences.

Mr. Mannes has been taking the same drug, Cuprimine, for 55 years to treat Wilson disease, an inherited disorder that can cause severe liver and nerve damage. This summer, Valeant more than quadrupled its price overnight.

Medicare will now have to cover about $35,000 for the 120 capsules he takes each month, and Mr. Mannes will have to pay about $1,800 a month out of pocket, compared with about $366 he paid in May.

“My husband will die without the medicine,” said his wife, Susan, who is now working a second part-time job to help pay for health care. “We just can’t manage another two, three thousand dollars a month for pills.”

Cuprimine is just one of many Valeant drugs whose prices have spiked as part of the company’s concerted strategy, which has richly rewarded its investors and made it one of Wall Street’s most popular health stocks.

But Valeant’s habit of buying up existing drugs and raising prices aggressively, rather than trying to develop new drugs, has also drawn the ire of lawmakers and helped stoke public outrage against the growing trend of higher and higher drug prices imposed by big drug companies. This year alone, Valeant raised prices on its brand-name drugs an average of 66 percent, according to a Deutsche Bank analysis, about five times as much as its closest industry peers.

Some presidential candidates have also seized on the issue. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, called for efforts to control “price gouging” after a public outcry over the actions of Turing Pharmaceuticals, which abruptly increased the price on a drug to $750 a tablet from $13.50.

And last week, Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform demanded that Valeant be subpoenaed for information about big price increases on two old heart drugs that the company acquired in February. . .

Valeant defended itself, saying in a statement that it “prices its treatments based on a range of factors, including clinical benefits and the value they bring to patients, physicians, payers and society.” It says patients are largely shielded from price increases by insurance and financial assistance programs the company offers, so that virtually no one is denied a drug they need.

But Mr. Pearson, a former McKinsey & Company consultant, has been blunt about saying he has a duty to shareholders to wring the maximum profit out of each drug. And in some cases old neglected drugs sell for far less than newer drugs for the same diseases.

If “products are sort of mispriced and there’s an opportunity, we will act appropriately in terms of doing what I assume our shareholders would like us to do,” he told analysts in a conference call in April.

Valeant is an extreme example of practices that have been around in the pharmaceutical industry for years. The United States, unlike most countries, does not control drug prices, and pharmaceutical manufacturers have relied heavily on steady and sometimes outsize price increases in this country to bolster their revenue and profits.

Valeant is known for buying one company after another, and laying off their employees to achieve savings, while accumulating a debt of about $30 billion. It spends an amount equivalent to only 3 percent of its sales on research and development, which it views as risky and inefficient compared to buying existing drugs. Traditional big drug companies spend 15 to 20 percent of sales on research and development. Valeant also pays extremely low taxes because it is officially based in Canada, although Mr. Pearson operates from New Jersey.

Price increases provide an extra boost to the company’s sales and profits.

For example, after Valeant acquired Salix Pharmaceuticals this year, it raised the price of one Salix drug, the diabetes pill Glumetza, about 800 percent, in two steps. . .

Continue reading.

Read the whole thing. There’s a lot more. It sure doesn’t sound like the best healthcare system in the world. Later in the article:

Ronny Gal, a pharmaceutical analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Company, said smaller price increases on widely used drugs had a much bigger effect on health care spending than the larger increases by Valeant on drugs with small sales.

Dr. Irl B. Hirsch, a diabetes specialist at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, said insulin prices had risen so much in recent years that some patients were scrimping on groceries to pay for it. The price of a package of five Lantus injectable pens from Sanofi has gone from about $179 in 2010 to $372 last year, he said, and insurance will often cover only one package at a time.

“All of this stuff that makes life so inconvenient, this would have been unheard of five or 10 years ago,” he said.

UPDATE: Business Insider has a good story with more charts displaying the effects of greed—for example, this one:

drug-price-increase-in-the-past-two-years_full

Read the whole article. Something should be done.

Written by Leisureguy

4 October 2015 at 11:53 am

More auto company fraud: Fiat Chrysler Concedes Violating Rule on Reporting Death and Injury Claims

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Can automobile companies be trusted? Is the Pope a Muslim? Bill Vlasic reports in the NY Times:

Federal regulators said on Tuesday that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles had significantly underreported to regulators the number of death and injury claims linked to possible defects in its cars.

Fiat Chrysler’s admission of the underreporting, discovered in an internal review tied to the company’s recent $105 million settlement over its handling of recalls, could result in new penalties.

Mark Rosekind, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said that early information pointed to flaws in Fiat Chrysler’s systems for gathering and reporting the claims data, as required under federal law.

“This represents a significant failure to meet a manufacturer’s safety responsibilities,” Mr. Rosekind said. “N.H.T.S.A. will take appropriate action after gathering additional information on the scope and causes of this failure.”

The agency provided no details on the number of deaths and injury claims involved, or the period of time in which they occurred.

Regulators are stepping up oversight of automakers for safety problems as well as environmental issues after Volkswagen’s recent admission that it used illegal devices to cheat on emissions testing of nearly 500,000 diesel vehicles in the United States. . .

Continue reading.

And, of course, once regulators start looking closely, they uncover more instances of fraud. As noted in the article:

The disclosure by Fiat Chrysler was the second time this year that a major automaker had admitted to failing to report claims as required under the federal Early Warning Reporting system. In January, the Japanese automaker Honda agreed to pay $70 million in fines for failing to properly disclose to the government more than 1,700 deaths and injuries over an 11-year period.

Written by Leisureguy

4 October 2015 at 11:38 am

Posted in Business, Government, Law

US military bombs civilian hospital in Afghanistan

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If the USAF is indeed to bomb with “surgical precision,” as they often claim, then the attack on the hospital was deliberate. If the attack was accidental, then the USAF should stay well away from civilian areas. They killed patients and staff in a Doctors Without Borders hospital and in effect closed the hospital altogether. No wonder the US is unloved in countries in which our military is active.

The initial story from yesterday by Alissa Rubin in the NY Times begins:

A United States airstrike appeared to have badly damaged a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in the Afghan city of Kunduz early Saturday, killing at least 16 people, including patients and staff members, and wounding dozens.

The United States military, in a statement, confirmed the 2:15 a.m. airstrike, saying that it had been targeting individuals “who were threatening the force” and that “there may have been collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.”

Accounts differed as to whether there had been fighting around the hospital that might have precipitated the strike. Two hospital employees, an aide who was wounded in the bombing and a nurse who emerged unscathed, said that there had been no active fighting nearby and no Taliban fighters inside the hospital.

A Kunduz police spokesman, Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, insisted that Taliban fighters had entered the hospital and were using it as a firing position.

The hospital treated the wounded from all sides of the conflict, a policy that has long irked the Afghan security forces. . .

Continue reading.

It seems quite possible that the Afghan security forces wanted to take out the hospital because they didn’t like the way Doctors Without Borders worked, and simply gave the USAF wrong information to ensure the hospital was hit. And it worked: Alissa Rubin and Ashley Southall report today in the NY Times:

Doctors Without Borders said Sunday that it was withdrawing from Kunduz, a day after its hospital there was hit by what appeared to be an American airstrike, leaving the remaining residents in the embattled northern Afghan city even more vulnerable.

The aid organization also raised the death toll in Saturday’s airstrike on the hospital, saying that three more patients had died, raising the total fatalities to 22 — 10 patients and 12 staff members. The charity has said that at least three of the dead patients were children, and that 37 people were wounded in the attack.

“No medical activities are possible now in the MSF hospital in Kunduz, at a time when the medical needs are immense,” said Tim Shenk, a spokesman for the organization in New York.

The charity, known internationally as Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF, called on its Twitter feed for an independent investigation, “under the clear presumption that a war crime has been committed.”

“Not a single member of our staff reported any fighting inside the hospital compound prior to the US airstrike on Saturday morning,” it said. “The hospital was repeatedly & precisely hit during each aerial raid, while the rest of the compound was left mostly untouched.”

The Pentagon said in a statement on Sunday that an investigation of the episode under the auspices of the NATO military headquarters in Afghanistan would be completed in a matter of days. The United States military has also opened “a formal investigation to conduct a thorough and comprehensive inquiry,” it said in the statement. The Afghan government has also vowed to investigate the airstrike.

The Pentagon said the strike was targeting insurgents who were firing on American service members advising and assisting Afghan security forces in Kunduz. It acknowledged that the strike was conducted “in the vicinity” of the hospital.

Residents walking around the city and reached by phone said they saw dead bodies from the fighting, lying in the street because there were now no hospitals to pick them up. . .

Continue reading.

I thought the Afghanistan war was over for the US. Sounds like we’re still in the thick of it.

I wouldn’t hold my breath on the military “formal investigation.” The military has a long and inglorious record of lies and coverups when it makes a mistake or does something dishonorable.

Written by Leisureguy

4 October 2015 at 11:32 am

Software tsuris and provisional solutions

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My G2 feed reader simply stopped updating Thursday evening. Others noted the problem as well, and they (and I) sent emails and posted complaints, with no response. And I had paid for a premium edition. 😦

So I started Duck-Duck-Going for reviews of “best feed reader.” I found out about a desktop reader, Reeder, which runs as an app instead of in your browser. I had to buy it from the App Store ($10), and then I discovered that it did not display the URL, which I need if I am blogging an article.

Finally, I came across this review, last updated 28 September 2015. In fact, that’s what led me to Reeder, but then I focused on web-based readers and thus discovered Inoreader:

Inoreader is the RSS reader that I use now. It is clean, simple and powerful, and displays articles in several formats. Like many modern web-apps, Inoreader offers a full suite of social “sharing” options. It also integrates with many other web-apps, e.g., Pocket, Evernote, and Readability. Inoreader provides Android and iOS apps, plus a mobile site for other small format devices. There are also Inoreader extensions for major browsers.

Since I discovered that Chrome, when running Jazz Radio, does not display what’s currently playing, but Safari does. I emailed support to complain, got instant replies, and thus was led to try the site in Safari, where it worked. The support tech noted:

On OS X Safari outperforms pretty much all other browsers including Chrome and in its newest release El Capitan it adds a few nice features, including muting other tabs that were playing all at the same time.

Okay, then. I decided to switch to Safari as my default browser. I was using Chrome as my default browser and Firefox as my blogging browser. I had not considered Safari, but yesterday I finally figured out how to copy a passage included the links in it. (Normally, when I copy text in Safari and paste it into the WordPress editor in Firefox, all links are stripped out and I get only plain text. Yesterday, briefly, I found the right combination—and today again I cannot copy text including links.)

So I started setting up Safari for daily use—importing bookmarks and editing them (since the import was odd and also Safari displays bookmarks quite differently from Chrome (no site icons in Safari, for example). But then as I got deeper into it found some serious lacks in Safari in its suite of extensions. For example, it has nothing like HTTPS Everywhere, for example, or Disconnect, both essential functions I have in Chrome (and Firefox, for that matter). So after some hours of work, I decided (again) that Safari is not really suitable for my purposes, though I’ll continue to use it with Jazz Radio.

Hours spent, just trying to get back to where I was. But Inoreader seems quite nice.

Written by Leisureguy

4 October 2015 at 11:23 am

Posted in Software

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