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Archive for April 18th, 2017

Crowdsourcing detailed investigation of government cost/performance: Steve Ballmer’s USAFacts

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In the NY Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin has a post with interesting possibilities, especially since it’s public:

Guess what Steven A. Ballmer has been up to for the last several years. (No, not just cheering for the basketball team he owns, the Los Angeles Clippers.) It’s a novel project, and he plans to take the wrapping off it Tuesday.

But first the back story, which is a valuable prelude to a description of the project itself.

When Mr. Ballmer retired as chief executive of Microsoft in 2014, he was only 57 and quickly realized “I don’t, quote, ‘have anything to do.’”

As he looked for a new endeavor — before he decided to buy the Clippers — his wife, Connie, encouraged him to help with some of her philanthropic efforts, an idea he initially rejected.

“But come on, doesn’t the government take care of the poor, the sick, the old?” Mr. Ballmer recalled telling her. After all, he pointed out, he happily paid a lot of taxes, and he figured that all that tax money should create a sufficient social safety net.

Continue reading the main story

Her answer: “A, it won’t, because there are things government doesn’t get to, and B, you’re missing it.”

Mr. Ballmer replied, “No, I’m not.”

That conversation led Mr. Ballmer to pursue what may be one of the most ambitious private projects undertaken to answer a question that has long vexed the public and politicians alike. He sought to “figure out what the government really does with the money,” Mr. Ballmer said. “What really happens?”

On Tuesday, Mr. Ballmer plans to make public a database and a report that he and a small army of economists, professors and other professionals have been assembling as part of a stealth start-up over the last three years called USAFacts. The database is perhaps the first nonpartisan effort to create a fully integrated look at revenue and spending across federal, state and local governments.

Want to know how many police officers are employed in various parts of the country and compare that against crime rates? Want to know how much revenue is brought in from parking tickets and the cost to collect? Want to know what percentage of Americans suffer from diagnosed depression and how much the government spends on it? That’s in there. You can slice the numbers in all sorts of ways.

Mr. Ballmer calls it “the equivalent of a 10-K for government,” referring to the kind of annual filing that companies make.

“You know, when I really wanted to understand in depth what a company was doing, Amazon or Apple, I’d get their 10-K and read it,” he told me in a recent interview in New York. “It’s wonky, it’s this, it’s that, but it’s the greatest depth you’re going to get, and it’s accurate.”

In an age of fake news and questions about how politicians and others manipulate data to fit their biases, Mr. Ballmer’s project may serve as a powerful antidote. Using his website, USAFacts.org, a person could look up just about anything: How much revenue do airports take in and spend? What percentage of overall tax revenue is paid by corporations? At the very least, it could settle a lot of bets made during public policy debates at the dinner table.

“I would like citizens to be able to use this to form intelligent opinions,” Mr. Ballmer said. “People can disagree about what to do — I’m not going to tell people what to do.” But, he said, people ought to base their opinions “on common data sets that are believable.”

So how exactly does one go about collecting and ordering the nation’s data?

Before he started, Mr. Ballmer was convinced someone must have already done this. . .

Continue reading. It’s interesting.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2017 at 8:29 pm

Afternoon idiocy watch

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That’s what Kevin Drum calls it, and when you read his post, you’ll know there’s really nothing else to call it.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2017 at 8:13 pm

What Happens When Women Legislate

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Brittany Bronson writes in the NY Times:

Cheaper tampons. Office breaks to pump breast milk. No co-pay on birth control.

These are not the talking points of a ladies’ happy hour. They are among the State Senate and Assembly bills being considered in the Nevada Legislature. Not only were the bills designed solely with women in mind, they each were sponsored by a female lawmaker.

At 39.7 percent, Nevada now ranks near the top for women’s representation in state politics, second only to Vermont. The bills women are bringing to the State Senate floor this session range from the annual ranking of companies by how fairly they pay men and women to arguably the most historic — the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

The state legislature is a testimony to what many who study gender inequity in politics theorize to be true: Increased gender representation directly translates into better consideration of women in the drafting of law and policy.

Although the 2016 presidential election is mourned as a symbolic impasse for women’s progress, it was momentous for female politicians in Nevada, at both the state and the federal level. Many have called President Trump’s election a wake-up call for American women, one that has inspired their increased grass-roots activism and political involvement.

Continue reading the main story

But in Nevada, the ladies were already on the ballot before President Trump’s victory. Now they are getting to work.

What spring-boarded Nevada into a leader for gender equality in statehouses is not entirely clear. A study from the Center for American Women in Politics highlights that the root of gender imparity in political representation does not lie in whether women win races (they do), but in the discrepancy in the amount of men and women who run.

A national organization called Emerge America, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office, is attempting to address this problem. Emerge Nevada had nine of their graduates on state ballots last November.

Eight of them were elected.

Marla Turner, president of Emerge Nevada and secretary for the state Democratic Party, said many women assume they are unqualified to run for office. “When women come to us and say, ‘I don’t know if I’m a good candidate. I don’t have any skills for this,’ we start breaking it down,” she said. “They realize they can apply the skills from their work environments, from their involvement in their children’s schools, to the political process.”

Ms. Turner added that over the past three years, the level of interest from women who have applied to the Emerge Nevada program has nearly tripled.

Emerge does not give its trainees direction on the type of legislation they should pursue — it’s not focused on what are traditionally categorized as women’s issues. It strives to produce well-rounded candidates, albeit Democratic ones.

The expertise of this new wave of women politicians in Nevada certainly extends far beyond the experience of being female. But in celebration of Women’s History Month in March, the women of the Nevada Legislature used the session to highlight issues like the gender wage gap, family-friendly work policies and the “pink tax,” or the extra amount women are charged for items like feminine hygiene products — issues male politicians haven’t historically prioritized.

That effort, however, reveals a contradiction in women’s involvement in politics: Too much focus on gender can decrease the breadth of female candidates’ appeal and their electability, but gender equity has proved impossible to achieve without women’s voices championing it. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2017 at 6:05 pm

Under Trump, Trade Deficits Are Up, Interest Rates Have Doubled, and Car Sales are Plummeting

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Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2017 at 5:53 pm

Volunteer firefighters: underfunded, undermanned – and first line of defense

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The incessant drive to cut taxes more and more means our government does not have the money to do its job. Oliver Morrison reports for the Wichita Eagle:

Kansas has struggled to protect itself from massive wildfires for two years in a row.

On March 6, Englewood, a typically small, underfunded fire department, had only five trucks, two of which broke down, as more than a dozen houses in town burned to the ground.

Now, volunteer firefighters who make up 90 percent of the state’s firefighters say they need additional funding.

Kansas spends less at the state level on firefighting than almost any state, about $300,000. So when the biggest fire in the state was burning through Clark County in March, Kansas didn’t have any resources to send to help local firefighters.

Local departments are in the best position to stop these fires before they get large, said Brian Hind, who has been a volunteer firefighter for more than 25 years in Greenwood County. The Starbuck fire on March 6 burned more than 450,000 acres in Kansas after burning nearly 200,000 acres in Oklahoma. Once the fire got going, “I doubt there was enough firetrucks if all the trucks in the state of Kansas would’ve gotten into it,” Hind said.

It’s up to the local departments, like the one in Greenwood County, which can respond quickly and which have the best chance at preventing wildfires from getting out of hand.

“A grassfire moves fast,” Hind said. “The biggest fire we’ve ever had was 30,000 acres, and it was a six-hour deal. So when do you pull the trigger on when the state is going to help you? You don’t have two or three days; normally, you’re talking hours.”

The ability to fight fires has become increasingly precarious, just as the fire danger in Kansas appears to be worsening.

A presentation last year at the state firefighter’s convention highlighted the two biggest risks to firefighters: heart attacks from overexertion and vehicle accidents. Many of the volunteer firefighters are not in shape and are driving equipment that easily breaks down.

The problem is that local departments don’t have the resources or manpower they need. . .

Continue reading. Striking video at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2017 at 5:45 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government

Native-American cities before Columbus

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Roy Wenzl reports at Kansas.com:

Make note of the name Etzanoa, a long-lost city. Donald Blakeslee says he’s found it.

The discovery could put south-central Kansas on the map as the second-biggest settlement of Native Americans found in the United States, Blakeslee said. And it’s now, finally, the known location of a 1601 battle pitting outnumbered Spaniards firing cannon into waves of attacking Indian warriors.

Etzanoa has remained a mystery for 400 years. Archaeologists could not find it. Historians thought reports of a permanent settlement with 20,000 Native Americans in it were exaggerated.

But here in Arkansas City, at the confluence of the Walnut and Arkansas Rivers, Blakeslee, an anthropologist and archaeologist at Wichita State University, has found evidence of a massive town stretching across thousands of acres of bluffs and rich bottomland along two rivers. What clinched it was the discovery, by a high school kid, of a half-inch iron cannon ball.

He even found a still-functional water shrine, depicting communication with the spirit world, carved into a limestone boulder in Tami and Greg Norwood’s backyard.

It’s a good story, all true, Blakeslee said: A lost city, a forgotten mythology — and the story of the once-great Wichita Nation, decimated by European diseases, then pushed aside by American settlers and the United States Army.

Amazed by the size

With the discovery, Arkansas City leaders are hoping to turn their town into a tourist destination.

“We always knew we once had a whole bunch of Indians living around here, because we had found way too many artifacts to think otherwise,” said Jay Warren, an Arkansas City council member. “But we had no idea until Dr. Blakeslee came along about how big it was.”

Etzanoa might have been comparable in size to Cahokia, Blakeslee said. That alone should bring world attention.

The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in western Illinois, with its pyramid Monk’s Mound, is the biggest Native American urban complex ever built in the United States. It showcases the 14.4-acre mound that was the centerpiece of the ancient city, along with the outlines of the city, enclosed by fortress walls and filled with shrines of a powerful mythology and culture outside St. Louis.

Cahokia — the remnants of the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico — attracts 400,000 visitors a year, a fact that gets the attention of Arkansas Citians. If Etzanoa was bigger, “and it might have been,” that will rewrite American history, Blakeslee said.

“The Spaniards were amazed by the size of Etzanoa,” Blakeslee said. “They counted 2,000 houses that could hold 10 people each. They said it would take two or three days to walk through it all.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2017 at 5:42 pm

Posted in Science

How the Airlines Became Abusive Cartels

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The remedy is obvious: we must regulate the airlines once more. Robert Kuttner reports in the NY Times:

The recent United Airlines bumping debacle has prompted calls for reforms in the system of auctions that reward fliers for voluntarily giving up seats. Delta Airlines has now authorized payments as high as $9,950 to induce passengers to give up seats on overbooked flights.

But no refinement of voluntary market remedies will fix the deeper mess of the airline industry. For air travel is far from a free market.

When the airlines were deregulated in 1978, economists led by Alfred Kahn, then chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board, argued that airlines and airline tickets were really like any other free-market product. He called them “marginal costs with wings.” Nearly 40 years of deregulation have disproved that premise.

Previously, the C.A.B. had ever since the 1930s regulated both fares and routes and guaranteed the airlines a decent but not exorbitant profit. The airlines, in turn, had the predictability to invest in new generations of more fuel-efficient aircraft, which allowed fares to drop over time. Prices actually dropped at a faster rate in the decades before deregulation than afterward.

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Kahn believed that if new competitors could enter markets and charge whatever prices they liked, fares would drop even faster and more people would fly. But airlines do in fact have fixed costs in the form of expensive capital equipment. And one seat is pretty much like another — as economists say, there is little product differentiation — so in a competitive free-for-all, everyone goes broke.

In the first years of deregulation, there was too much competition and the airlines collectively lost a fortune. Their strategy was to consolidate. All 21 of the proposed mergers presented to Reagan administration antitrust officials in the 1980s were approved, and some 20 more have been approved in the years since.

The airlines devised frequent flier programs and “fortress hubs” to maximize their pricing power. Carriers knew to stay out of each other’s hubs. By 1988, 85 percent of airline markets had only two airlines competing, and they closely monitored each other’s fares, so that true price competition was rare.

An industry that is not naturally competitive went from being a regulated cartel, to a brief period of ruinous competition, and then to an unregulated cartel — with predictable effects on the quality of service. This restored profitability, but at awful costs both to customer convenience and to economic efficiency as well.

With the hub-and-spoke system used to defend airlines’ pricing power, there are fewer nonstops. Passengers waste time and often miss connections, while airlines waste fuel.

Flying more miles than necessary to reach a destination is known in the industry as circuity. All of these profit-gouging strategies add up to a false brand of “efficiency” that actually increases the system’s costs at passenger expense.

Today’s auction system on oversold flights, ironically, is the stepchild of a 1976 Supreme Court case, Nader vs. Allegheny, in which the late and little lamented Allegheny Airlines (known to its long suffering passengers as Agony Airlines) picked the wrong passenger to bump. Ralph Nader sued and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The high Court, in a 9-0 ruling, held that if a passenger had a confirmed ticket, the airline was committing a fraudulent act by bumping him. (Allegheny, fittingly, became USAir, which was merged into American.) After a search for remedies, the industry eventually came up with — what else — a wondrous market solution: the auction.

But in an industry that is not naturally competitive, tweaking market incentives will not fix what’s broken. For starters, planes should not be permitted to fly so full. That leaves no room for contingencies. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2017 at 5:38 pm

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