Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wish in One Hand....

Poor John Pistole. He so desperately wants to create a system of airport security that's more focused on actual threats and less on security theater, but for some reason hasn't found a way.
John Pistole, the T.S.A. chief and 26-year veteran of the F.B.I., said he called Tom Sawyer, a 61-year-old bladder cancer survivor who had his urostomy bag dislodged, and urine spilled on him, after a rough T.S.A. search in Detroit last November.

“I asked him to come in and provide some personal perspective that could be used in training to give greater sensitivity,” said Pistole, who flew Sawyer from Lansing, Mich., to Washington.
Great. And after the phone call and obtaining the passenger's perspective TSA changed what policies?
He said they are trying to move past a “one-size-fits-all” program and implement a “risk-based, intelligence-driven process” by the end of the year that would have more refined targeting. If passengers are willing to share the same information they give to airline frequent-flier programs, he said, maybe some day they will be able to “keep their jacket on and their laptop in their briefcase and hang on to that unfinished bottle of water.

“I’d like to get to the point,” he said wistfully, “where most people could leave their shoes on.”
Up until the U.S. insisted that Canada adopt U.S. screening standards, you could wear your shoes through security on a flight into the U.S. For that matter, most of the world does not obsess over whether your laptop computer is in a bag vs. a TSA-approved pouch, or is removed from a non-approved bag or pouch before you go through security. They're not big on requiring medical equipment to be removed from cases and placed directly in the not-so-clean screening bins used at security checkpoints. Heck, sometimes you can even wear a jacket or sweater through a metal detector.

Now I'm sure that this is well-justified by a technocrat with a spreadsheet... "We've found zero devices and prevented zero terrorist incidents through our heightened security, versus the zero incidents that have occurred in other countries as a result of their more relaxed approaches to security and... let's see... zero divided by zero... that means our system is infinitely better!"

Funny thing, I recall giving TSA every piece of ID and every bit of information it has ever asked from me. And it turns out that all it needs to end this security theater and to start focusing on actual threats is my frequent flier number? No problem. All you had to do was ask. Um... John, you are asking, aren't you? This is a plan, right?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Handing the Virtual Credit Card To Your Kid

A parent has sued Apple (or, more correctly, is the named plaintiff in a class action lawsuit directed at Apple) after his daughter acquired "game currency" through an in-App purchase using his Apple account.
Despite the fact that Apple now requires users to enter passwords before making in-app purchases, Garen Meguerian says that minors can still easily make purchases on their parents' accounts....

Since the passwords for in-app purchases are the same as the main Apple passwords, kids who are "aware of such password may purchase Game Currency without authorization from their parents for that purchase," Meguerian argued.
In other words, if parents choose not to implement a PIN to protect their accounts from being used by their children or choose to let their children know their account passwords, their kids will be able to make purchases through their accounts? No kidding.

From a legal standpoint, I'm wondering what's the distinction between this and the controversy from a few decades ago in which kids were calling 976 numbers without parental permission, resulting in significant charges to their parents' phone bills. I don't recall any phone companies being held liable for billing the parents, threatening to cut off phone service if the bills weren't paid, or in fact cutting off phone service over unpaid bills. The issue then, as now, would appear to be one of parental supervision and control over their kids - except it's actually much easier to exercise control over your passwords than it is over general use of your phone and, as previously suggested, it appears that at least since 2009 a concerned parent could have learned how to implement an additional layer of protection by implementing a PIN.
Ever since Apple enabled in-app purchases in 2009, parents have been able to restrict this feature with parental controls, behind a separate PIN.
I am also left wondering whether the children were old enough to read and, if so and even assuming that they didn't have to enter their parent's password to do so, why it's more Apple's fault than the parent's that they chose to make purchases on the parent's account. No, I don't think parents can prevent all forms of misbehavior, but I do think that parents bear more responsibility for a child's deliberate misbehavior than is a remote third party who supposedly failed to prevent that misbehavior.

Calling "Shenanigans" on Charter School Rental Schemes?

Indiana is questioning whether companies that rent school buildings to nonprofit charter schools can claim a tax exemption, bringing to mind some of the dubious rental agreements charters have been shown to have entered.
Statewide, a lot of money is spent. Taxpayers will spend more than $3.2 million in rent this year on just four Indiana charter schools. Most of the dollars are flowing to a Kansas City, Mo., real estate company that earned $84.7 million in profits last year. And while the Allen County board is scrutinizing the property tax exemption sought for the company’s property on North Wells Street, Entertainment Properties Trust can’t lose: Its triple net lease agreement makes the tenant – Indiana taxpayers – responsible for maintenance costs, utilities, insurance and taxes.
It's inevitable that when you bring private businesses into the field of education, some of them will bend and break the rules. Corruption occurs even in public school boards, so why should we not expect the same or worse when we increase the number of players, add a 'right' to extract profits, and reduce the amount of oversight? That said, it is in no small part the advancement of charter schools on ideological grounds that opens the door to this type of looting of the public purse. When legislators care about the quality of education and the responsible use of public funds, they provide checks against windfall profits for those who are supposedly stepping in to help educate children.
In Indiana, the four Imagine charter schools have budgeted $4.3 million for rent and operating costs. At the Imagine Life Sciences Academy West in Indianapolis, those expenses amount to more than 22 percent of the school’s total budget. The common guideline recommended for charter school organizers is 15 percent for facility costs....

Gov. Mitch Daniels has criticized traditional public schools for spending too much on buildings, while bills he supports targeting teacher seniority are clearly aimed at driving down education salaries. But in his zeal to open more charter schools, he appears to give them a pass on education management agreements and real estate deals that collectively shift millions in tax dollars from classrooms to out-of-state interests.
When can we expect Daniels to push legislation capping what charter schools can pay in rent, at least to the level he has already deemed excessive for public schools, and prohibiting the "heads we win, tails you lose" lease arrangements that JERIT CS Fund LLC was able to 'negotiate' with Imagine Schools?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sales Taxes and Interstate Sales

Nathan Newman argues that Internet sales should be taxed, arguing that the right-wing politicians and commentators who argue against taxation are hypocrites on the issue of federalism. Newman suggests,
In an age of databases, calculating the taxes for different jurisdictions is as easy as, well, dealing with the logistics of shipping goods all over the country -- a challenge these online and catalog retailers already have mastered.
It's easy enough for a company like Amazon to deal with tax collection for fifty states, and even for states (or is it just California) that have local sales taxes to collect and distribute. But there are a lot of small businesses that operate online, and it's simply not the case that it's as easy for them. Are small companies expected to obtain sales tax licenses for every state, then calculate and remit sales taxes on a periodic basis to each state? The amount of work involved for a company that has four, five, or even six figure annual sales could be quite onerous, even with a good database of local tax rates.

If states choose to open a national clearinghouse to assist with the collection of sales taxes, such that small vendors could verify tax rates with and forward collected taxes to a single entity, I would not have much concern. But I am not in favor of a proposal that will unduly burden small businesses, and likely cause many to stop selling across state lines, creating yet another barrier to competition between small businesses and start-ups and massive companies like Amazon and Walmart.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Last I Checked, The President Was a Democrat

I can't even begin to count the number of times I've heard a right-wing commentator whine that President Obama was "partisan" in describing why he favors the budget advanced by himself and his political party over the exercise in silliness advanced by the Republicans. I'll grant, the Ryan plan is so absurd and weak that you don't need to approach it from a partisan standpoint to devastate it on its merits; but I doubt that's the type of objectivity the Republicans purport to be demanding from the President.

Apparently the President is supposed to act like the dimwitted host of a TV morning show presenting two guests with divergent viewpoints, one of which is objectively wrong, then pretending to be an objective mediator because she has presented "both sides of the issue" without comment. Seriously, even if this weren't a "Democrats vs. Republicans" issue, the President has a duty, some might say an obligation, to oppose policy positions that are absurd and, in his view, objectively harmful to the nation and its people.

But come on. G.W. Bush didn't shrug his shoulders when Democrats challenged him on his plan to privatize Social Security and say, "They have a good point." He didn't hesitate to push his tax cuts through by reconciliation when he wasn't able to muster sufficient bipartisan support to get them past a potential filibuster. Ronald Reagan, prior to blowing the deficits through the roof, didn't hesitate to attack Jimmy Carter over government spending. Since when is the President supposed to act as a meek and objective arbiter of budget proposals, rather than advocating for himself and his party?

I'm not recalling a similar torrent of crocodile tears from the political left when past Republican Presidents argued in favor of their own budgets or their party's political and budgetary goals. What did I miss?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

If There Were a Wage Gap, Women Would Want it to be Larger?

The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial by Carrie Lukas, executive director of the Independent Women's Forum, an organization seemingly devoted to finding women who are willing to advance anti-feminist viewpoints. There's nothing wrong with that, of itself, as women are entitled to hold a range of views and public debate can help clarify the facts and issues. But if this editorial is reflective of the quality of the organization's advocacy, it seems fair to state that they're not really interested in improving the public debate or understanding of the issues.

The article does include the following, valid point:
Choice of occupation also plays an important role in earnings.
Historically there was a lot of argument about "equal pay for work of equal value," in which two disparate occupations would be declared "equal" and with the women's occupation being noted to offer lower wages. It's classic "apples and oranges", with those on one side of the debate insisting that two jobs had "equal value" and the other arguing that the two jobs are nothing alike. It's not that there isn't a basis for the argument that certain jobs traditionally open to women were undervalued, but you quickly lose your audience when you start making purely subjective parallels between wholly unrelated occupations.

But that's about as charitable as I can be to Ms. Lukas. Her arguments are largely unsupported, illogical, and unrelated to her thesis. "The unemployment rate is consistently higher among men than among women." Well, yes, but the point of discussion is the "Male-Female Wage Gap", and to the extent that the unemployment rate is relevant to the wage gap it's in the opposite direction to what Ms. Lukas would have us infer. If we are to assume that men are drawn to one set of jobs and women are drawn to another, and the reason for men's higher rate of unemployment is that traditional male jobs are comparatively scarce and that they're not qualified for or not interested in applying for "women's work", you would expect that wages for male occupations would drop in the face of an oversupply of workers and that wages for women would rise in the face of relative scarcity. So why isn't that happening?

And about those work choices:
Men have been hit harder by this recession because they tend to work in fields like construction, manufacturing and trucking, which are disproportionately affected by bad economic conditions. Women cluster in more insulated occupations, such as teaching, health care and service industries.
Men "tend" to work in vocations that require little to no formal education and involve various forms of physical labor? In May, 2009, 0.70 percent of private sector employment was in the construction industries. 1.4% was in truck driving. 1.91% was for laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, .95% for maintenance and repair workers, .92 percent for team assemblers.... So this tendency among men is reflected in about 6% of private sector employment? And women... cluster? What an interesting choice of words.

When medical schools were overwhelmingly male-dominated, were men "clustering" in the health care industry, or would such a term be used only in relation to female-dominated nursing schools? Now that more than half of medical school students are women, with men who might otherwise have attended presumably ripping off their shirts and going to truck driving school, we can expand the term "cluster" across the entire health care industry? Does the same apply to law firms, with law practice having once been almost exclusively a male profession but with women now comprising more than half of enrolled law students? Again, if women are "clustering" in fields that require more education and that have lower rates of unemployment, some of which are quite well-paid and most of which are far more resistant to economic downturn than the @6% of jobs to which male workers "tend" to apply, why wouldn't we expect women to out-earn men by a substantial margin?

It would seem obvious that if you are going to take the reasonable position that you can't compare apples and oranges, that it is arbitrary to say "nursing home attendants are equal in value to society to hardscape installers, and thus should earn the same rate of pay," you should be able to understand the implication of your position - that to support your argument on this issue you should be looking at wage differentials within occupations, or between very similar occupations. Lukas wants it both ways - she wants to be able to talk about women voluntarily choosing to "cluster" in lower-paying fields while eschewing the "manly man" fields that attract men, so that there should be no surprise that women earn less. Except she constructs an argument that instead suggests that women should be earning more.

Then there's the reality of what men do. Lukas suggests that "Women gravitate toward jobs with fewer risks, more comfortable conditions, regular hours, more personal fulfillment and greater flexibility." Well, so are men, including those who start out performing manual labor but reach an age when their bodies can't keep up. Lukas suggests,
Men, by contrast, often take on jobs that involve physical labor, outdoor work, overnight shifts and dangerous conditions (which is also why men suffer the overwhelming majority of injuries and deaths at the workplace). They put up with these unpleasant factors so that they can earn more.
As a lawyer, I have had many discussions over the years with other lawyers and law students, often touching on the nature of work and compensation. Within the professional classes you will find no shortage of men who make lots of money but have never held a job that involves demanding physical labor. Sometimes you'll hear a comment from one who has, that "When you say you worked hard today, you have no idea what that means - you barely even got out of your chair." That's not to say that the speaker is inclined to quit legal practice and drive a long-haul truck - contrary to what Lukas suggests, cutting your pay by 2/3 or more in order to work long hours and be away from your family for days or weeks at a time isn't particularly attractive to your average man. Travel may be required, but if you take a look at the higher earning classes you'll discover that their on-the-job travel involves a much different level of comfort than the sleeper cab. It is to say that men and women who have worked physical labor and have found much greater financial reward and stability tend to have moved into the white collar fields and, as much as they appreciate what a hard day's work truly can entail, aren't inclined to go back to the literal trenches.

If you wanted to make a generalization based upon traditional employment, looking at outcome and not opportunity, you might conclude on that partial information "Women tend to work in jobs where they get to be around other women, and where they will have time to take care of their households, husbands and children, even though it means they earn less. Men work with men, and are driven to earn more money and work longer hours." It wouldn't be a particularly meaningful observation, but you can see how an alien visiting our planet might deem it reasonable. But even that alien, I think, would have difficulty with Lukas's willingness to overgeneralize in relation to the types of employment that attract men or women, and to completely ignore how those occupations and the qualifications for those occupations have shifted over time. For example, Lukas argues,
The Department of Labor's Time Use survey shows that full-time working women spend an average of 8.01 hours per day on the job, compared to 8.75 hours for full-time working men. One would expect that someone who works 9% more would also earn more. This one fact alone accounts for more than a third of the wage gap.
The alien might respond, "But you told us that choice of occupation plays an important role in earnings, and now you're completely ignoring both choice of occupation and wages paid. He works 8.75 hours per day as a long-haul trucker, earning $150, she works 8.01 hours per day in a 'health care cluster' as a nurse anesthesiologist, earning $350 - how does that explain anything about a wage gap?"
Given that women are outpacing men in educational attainment, and that our economy is increasingly geared toward knowledge-based jobs, it makes sense that women's earnings are going up compared to men's.
True, but then why did Lukas spend so much time talking about how men earn more money because they "tend" to work in jobs that don't require educational attainment and are not knowledge-based, or involve physical labor, outdoor work, overnight shifts and dangerous conditions, if the path to a stable, well-paying job is in fact to obtain a college education and to work in a knowledge-based occupation or profession?

And now for the crocodile tears:
Should we celebrate the closing of the wage gap? Certainly it's good news that women are increasingly productive workers, but women whose husbands and sons are out of work or under-employed are likely to have a different perspective. After all, many American women wish they could work less, and that they weren't the primary earners for their families.
What woman, after all, wouldn't happily surrender part of her wages or her job stability in order that her husband could once again out-earn her, or that her (adult?) son could support his family with a manly man's vocational job instead of having to go to college. It may be anecdotal, but look at the compelling arguments to that effect from the many women Lukas quotes... Oh, I guess she didn't have room to support that claim with any evidence whatsoever. A hollow man. On the whole, though, that's in keeping with an editorial that supposedly debunks a wage gap but gets confused coming out of the starting blocks over how you would even define such a gap, and argues both that it doesn't exist and that it results from women's occupational choices. Every which way but loose.
Few Americans see the economy as a battle between the sexes. They want opportunity to abound so that men and women can find satisfying work situations that meet their unique needs.
Why am I thinking at this point, "The few, the proud, the Independent Women's Forum".

(Incidentally, where was the argument that women earn less than men because they take time off for birthin' their babies?)

Monday, April 11, 2011

It's Fantastic, It Works, And... You Can't Have It!

People who oppose the Affordable Care Act, and health insurance in general, nonetheless seem apt to praise the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program:
In all the Ryan proposals, enrollees in the new regime would use the government's contribution to shop from a broad array of private insurance plans offered by a Medicare exchange. That system is modeled on the highly successful Federal Employee Health Benefits Program, where government workers choose from a wide variety of offerings, from deluxe fee-for-service plans to basic high-deductible programs.
It's real, it's currently in effect, it's (supposedly) a model for Paul Ryan's privatization of Medicare, it's "highly successful" even by the measure of a Paul Ryan fan. And as you recall, Darrell Issa and Jack Kingston have proposed opening the doors and letting everybody in American join this "highly successful" program.

But do you see even the slightest movement by anybody in the Republican Party to put those words into action? Of course not.

A Weak Defense of Paul Ryan

Before you can understand why Shawn Tully thinks that Paul Ryan's plan to end Medicare is the best plan there is, it may help to have some sense of what Tully believes constitutes fantastic health insurance.1
The best solution is to move to a let-freedom-ring regime of high deductibles, no community rating, no standard benefits, and cross-state shopping for bargains2 (another market-based reform that's strictly taboo in the bills).
In short, the best insurance is "no insurance". To Tully, it would be unfair to limit what insurers could charge the elderly:
The state laws gouging the young are a major reason so many of them have joined the ranks of uninsured.... Under the Senate plan, insurers would be barred from charging any more than twice as much for one patient vs. any other patient with the same coverage. So if a 20-year-old who costs just $800 a year to insure is forced to pay $2,500, a 62-year-old who costs $7,500 would pay no more than $5,000.

Second, the bills would ban insurers from charging differing premiums based on the health of their customers.
How much would the elderly, for whom being "elderly" is in effect a pre-existing condition putting them in a high risk pool for insurance, have to pay in Tully's "free market"? The sky's the limit. Tully shed crocodile tears over the idea that some people might want to keep their existing plans, but that those plans might not be available in the future due to the Affordable Care Act. His heart, it seems, would bleed for seniors who want to stay in a government subsidized "Medicare Plus" plan, but for some reason that concern doesn't extend to those who are happy with Medicare.

Oddly, Tully describes himself as providing a "defense of Paul Ryan's Medicare plan" - the plan that has so many pundits clapping Ryan on the back and talking about how "brave" and "serious" he is needs a defense? Perhaps then, unlike his peers, Tully has read the details and understands what the reaction to this plan would be if the public truly understood it. Tully isn't an ignorant man - he does a good job summarizing the problem we're facing:
If we remain on the current course, [federal health care] spending would jump [from 8% of GDP today] to 14% in that time frame.
Tully tells us that Ryan's "plan" would lower the government's share "to just 5% by 2050". Let's use Tully's figures to evaluate what that might mean for seniors.
On average, the annual cost for its 46 million enrollees is roughly $13,000. The recipients pay total premiums of $1,326 a year for hospital visits and zero for physician services, and can purchase supplementary private Medigap policies that cover virtually all deductibles and co-pays for another $1,500 a year. So the enrollees pay a total of around $3,000, or 23% of the total $13,000 cost. Taxpayers cover the balance of $10,000.
If Ryan's plan were put into effect right now, the government subsidy would drop by approximately 37.5%,3 so that would mean that Medicare enrollees would pay on average $6,250 per year for their health costs. Whoops - plus (let's keep it low) about 10% in additional overhead and profit for the private insurer, so just shy of $7,000 per year. With people age 65 and older earning about $30,000 per year on average, do you think that's an increase the average person would notice? And let's not forget, Ryan also plans to decimate Medicaid - I don't want to think about what your nursing homes might look like under Ryan's plans if you cannot afford a private pay facility. It has been suggested that, on average, seniors retiring this year will need $250,000.00 to cover medical expenses. With immediate implementation of Ryan's ideas can we reasonably say that would easily jump by another $150,000.00?

Here's something else to keep in mind: Even if you believe that seniors could afford to absorb the average annual cost of their care, that's not how things work in real life. Some seniors will have more expensive annual care due to their need for medications, diabetes treatment, dialysis, or other chronic health conditions - and many would obviously struggle with the cost-shift that Ryan proposes. But the real hardship would come at the near-inevitable point when an elderly person suffers a medical crisis and incurs five to six figures in medical costs through a round of hospitalization, surgery and rehabilitation services. Many seniors might scrape by, year after year, paying a 10% deductible and 20% copayment for their routine and recurring services. But the year they incur a $50,000+ medical bill? That could break the bank. Do we expect doctors and hospitals to absorb the unpaid medical costs, or do we push seniors into bankruptcy court so that they can keep their homes? And if the latter, what happens two years later when they or their spouse suffer another medical crisis?

When you see the figures for Medicare costs and inflation the first question you need to ask yourself is, "Do I care if many or most seniors cannot afford the care they need to extend their lives or to live a reasonable quality of life?" If your answer to that is "No," supporting Ryan's plan is easy. You may even find yourself echoing a talking head from the Heritage Foundation who doesn't think it goes far enough. If, on the other hand, your answer is "Yes", there are three basic responses you can offer:
  1. Bend the Cost Curve: Attempt to determine which medications and treatments are effective, which are not effective, and which are not cost-effective as compared to alternative treatments with similar outcomes; attempt to improve preventive care and to lower the cost of care for chronic conditions; attempt to develop less expensive treatments and medications for medical conditions, common or rare, etc.

  2. Rationing: Whatever effort we may make to bend the cost curve, we need to implement (or at least be prepared to implement) benefits caps, cut-off ages for specific procedures, limits on care based upon projected survival rates, and/or similar measures that limit the amount of subsidized care an elderly person can receive.4 If you can afford your own care, you can private pay for additional treatment. If not, sorry, you can have your church hold a bake sale, you can pass the hat, but as far as government subsidies go you're done.

  3. Increase Premiums and Copays: Inadequate in and of itself, but by increasing premiums and copays for wealthier seniors you can continue to provide a larger subsidy to the poor.

Oops, I'm sorry, I forgot "We can wish for a pony":
In effect, Ryan is asking Americans to make a historic leap of faith. He projects that the newly cost-conscious customers, who'll inevitably be spending more of their own money, will shop far more carefully for health care.
More cynically, he's expecting that a senior who needs a hip or knee replacement might drag through another couple of years of excruciating pain before getting the procedure, or may simply "choose" to ride out retirement immobilized in a bed or recliner. He's expecting that a poor senior with COPD will "choose" not to incur the high cost of maintaining lung capacity and instead will continue to lose lung capacity in what amounts to slow suffocation. He's expecting that a senior with diabetes may choose not to test their blood sugar as frequently as they should, and that if they lose a limb they'll have to go out-of-pocket if they want a prosthesis. Seriously - if those aren't the types of "choices" Ryan wants seniors to make, how could he expect to bend the cost curve? Or am I being unfair by suggesting that Ryan truly wants to lower the cost of healthcare as opposed to simply lowering the subsidy?
"It's very speculative how the new system would work," says Robert Moffitt, a health care policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "But we know for sure that the Ryan plan would force private providers to compete ferociously for business, and that would introduce a degree of competition into Medicare that's totally absent today."
Translation: We're going to make seniors the "lab rats" of a reform that, for all we know, has a snowball's chance in H-E-Double-Chopsticks of succeeding, but who knows - we may get a pony! (And did I mention the enormous tax cut for the rich? We rich folks will more than make up for it on the back end.)"

Flashing back to Tully's concern-trolling over the ACA, he lamented that Americans would lose the "Freedom to choose your doctors":
The Senate bill requires that Americans buying through the exchanges -- and as we've seen, that will soon be most Americans -- must get their care through something called "medical home." Medical home is similar to an HMO. You're assigned a primary care doctor, and the doctor controls your access to specialists. The primary care physicians will decide which services, like MRIs and other diagnostic scans, are best for you, and will decide when you really need to see a cardiologists or orthopedists.

Under the proposals, the gatekeepers would theoretically guide patients to tests and treatments that have proved most cost-effective. The danger is that doctors will be financially rewarded for denying care, as were HMO physicians more than a decade ago. It was consumer outrage over despotic gatekeepers that made the HMOs so unpopular, and killed what was billed as the solution to America's health-care cost explosion.
How horrible! What an unthinkable loss of rights and freedoms! No wonder Tully detests the ACA and praises Ryan's plan which "is all about unleashing the market" and lets freedom ring!
The big issue is how fast costs grow for the enrollees. With the inflation and age adjustment, the premium support payments will increase at a rate far below today's relentless escalation of 7% or so a year. The success of the Federal Employees plan is highly encouraging. Its costs are growing at a rate that's 2% lower than medical inflation in the private sector.

Even if the Ryan plan matches that success, Americans will no longer get more than 70% of their Medicare costs paid by the government. Retirees are bound to pay a much bigger share of their own medical costs. More and more seniors will choose high deductible plans, and HMO or PPO-style programs that limit choices of doctors.
Oh... Well then, I'm sure this is different because, um, we're talking about old people and, um.... old people don't care who their doctors are, or if they're denied care by an insurer who is looking at nothing but the bottom line. They don't care if they get to see a rheumatologist, cardiologist or orthopedist. Our misery, to them, is freedom! All hail Ryan the brave, Ryan the bold, Ryan the serious who, by substituting wishful thinking for everything difficult about healthcare reform, offers us "the best choice in a world of poor alternatives."
1. Fantastic for others? I would assume that his own plan is comparatively gold-plated, although I welcome any authoritative correction on that point.

2. The concept of "cross-state shopping for bargains" amounts to his peddling snake oil - did you notice how credit card companies relocated to the states that allowed the highest interest rates and fewest consumer protections? The silent wish of most people who push this idea is for health insurers to do the same thing - to relocate to states that require the fewest benefits and have the least regulation, such that other states are pressured to join the "race to the bottom" and insurance covers as little as possible, allowing insurance companies to maximize their profit by avoiding coverage for any routine or recurring expenses (e.g., birth control) or special needs (e.g., hearing aids - yes, Tully specifically mentions hearing aids; he also appears concerned that insurance companies can be required to cover mental health, substance abuse treatment and even prescription drugs) while minimizing the health conditions they actually cover. Your "bargain" will mean that instead of overpaying for a bad policy from an insurer based in your state you'll overpay for a horrendous policy from an insurer based in another state who is beyond local recourse.

3. Ballpark, of course. But even with that in mind, Tully's piece suggests that the percentage I use might be low - "Even in today's weak economy, the total Medicare bill is waxing at over 7%."

4. Yes, to some degree this happens now - some people are deemed to sick or too old for certain medical procedures - but in the future the Ryan-Tilly death panels, if I may coopt that Republican term, will have to make some very difficult decisions based upon cost alone.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Courageous? Serious? Come On....

Nicholas Kristof gets off to a good start, with a bipartisan excoriation of Congress for the dereliction of duty, opportunistic preening and general disdain for the welfare of the nation (all that counts is getting reelected, even if you harm the country in the process). But then he spouts the standard beltway line of unadulterated bovine excrement about the coward Paul Ryan:
The House Republican budget initiative, prepared by Representative Paul Ryan, would slash spending and end Medicare and Medicaid as we know them — and it justifies all this as essential to confront soaring levels of government debt. Mr. Ryan is courageous to tackle entitlements so boldly, and he has a point: we do have a serious long-term debt problem, and Democrats haven’t had the guts to deal with it seriously.
At this point, given how thoroughly the issue of Ryan's incompetent and absurdly unrealistic "budget" has been dissected within Kristof's own publication, I am left wondering if the man can read. (Perhaps he dictates his columns?) If he were paying even the slightest bit of attention to the Affordable Care Act, Kristof would be aware that it's the first serious measure to address the growth in healthcare spending since... well, perhaps ever. What does Ryan propose to do? Why, of course, to repeal that act and replace it with wishful thinking. How serious. Wow... and Kristof continues,
In other words, the Republican position is that America faces such a desperate debt crisis that we must throw millions under the bus — yet the result is more debt than if we do nothing.
That's what passes for "serious" in Kristof's world? I would ask, "Seriously?", but I'm not sure that he understands what the word means.

Answer me this: What price has Ryan paid for his supposed "courage"? Is he less of a darling with beltway pundits who are, as usual, eager to describe anything that involves the slashing of entitlement benefits as "serious" - in Kristof's case even as he concedes that the result would be to balloon the deficit? Does he have any chance of losing his next election campaign? Of facing a primary challenger? Is he at risk of losing his position in the House? Is he getting fewer invitations to right-wing cocktail parties? No invitations to dinner from Evan Bayh? If you take even a passing glance at the situation, you can see that not only has Ryan offered up one of the least serious budget proposals in the history of our nation, by doing so he has advanced himself personally and politically.

You know what would be courageous for somebody like Ryan? Telling the truth. Standing up to his own party. Proposing a budget that admits the long-term goal of ending Medicare and Medicaid and leaving the poor and elderly largely uninsured and unable to afford insurance. Or, if he prefers to continue to work against the interest of balancing the budget, flat-out admitting that his budget is designed to slash taxes for the wealthy, slash government benefits for everybody else, and will result in a massive increase in the deficit. I'll reiterate: The word for somebody like Ryan is "coward". Kristof is happy to slap that label on all of Ryan's peers - Kristof truly believes that every other Republican is a coward for pushing Ryan and his plan forward as representative of their vision of the future, but that Ryan's being "courageous" for his role as an eager mouthpiece?

Friday, April 08, 2011

What's President Obama Thinking

I'm not asking because I question his judgment on an issue - I'm asking because I literally have no idea what he's thinking. For somebody who can, at any time, capture any amount of national or international media attention he desires, it's amazing how silent he is on the issues of the day. It's not just that the silence leaves us in the dark about policy choices and priorities, it seems that the President is giving up a tremendous opportunity to educate the public about contentious issues and to help shape the public debate.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Proceeding With Military Tribunals is the Politically Safest Approach

I've heard it suggested that, having given up on trying to convince Congress to stop blocking the closing of Camp Delta or the trial of suspected terrorists in federal court, President Obama will pay a political price for trying Khalid Sheik Mohammed before a military tribunal.

No. He won't. He'll get a political benefit.

Seriously, is there even one person in the United States for whom this is the issue that will cause him to... I guess stay home, or vote for a third party candidate? I'm reminded of surveys on the death penalty that show a population roughly split on its application in the abstract, but where you can get @90% consensus in favor of the death penalty when you ask about a specific, notorious criminal (Ted Bundy, Jeff Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, etc.) This is no different. The general public is perfectly content with the idea of giving the detainees at Guantanamo Bay the proverbial "fair trial before they're convicted." A military tribunal? Close enough to fair, and it's the verdict that counts.

If we're honest about it, there is no realistic chance that Khalid Sheik Mohammed would be acquitted in a civilian trial. That was a line of nonsense pushed by the political right to smear the President as being "weak on terror". His chances of acquittal at a military tribunal are less and, although he may have have a better chance on appeal from a conviction at a military tribunal, it's the conviction that counts. A high profile set of convictions going into the election season with the political right unable to do anything but grumble that "the convictions would have happened sooner if he hadn't had so much faith in our nation's system of justice". Criticism from the left? Sure, it will happen, but who is going to be paying attention? Most Democratic politicians and opinion leaders will talk up the convictions, and most Democratic voters won't care about the lack of due process at a military tribunal any more than they cared when Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. Given the likely tone of the media coverage, most will probably think it's a good thing.

Monday, April 04, 2011

So the Strong Republican Contenders Are....

Ross Douthat offers a list of Repubican Presidential contenders he deems to be lightweights. Having told us that the party's "biggest names and brightest lights are mainly competing to offer excuses for why they won’t be running in 2012", by implication the lightweights are:
  • Mitt Romney,
  • Newt Gingrich,
  • Tim Pawlenty,
  • Haley Barbour,
  • Michele Bachmann,
  • Jon Huntsman,
  • Ron and/or Rand Paul,
  • Rick Santorum,
  • Donald Trump, and
  • Sarah Palin.
Douthat doesn't do much to explain his reasoning, save for lamenting that "if Romney is the front-runner and Pawlenty the freshest face, the Republican Party will have let both its own constituents and the country down." (I'll grant, many of the names on the list are self-explanatory; but others seem to be included because they espouse different philosophies of conservatism than that favored by Douthat.)

So who would Douthat have us believe are the heavyweights - those he would like to see enter the race but who lack the courage? He mentions Chris Christie, but it's difficult to tell if he's suggesting that Christie should run or making fun of his false bravado:
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, for instance, is convinced that he could capture the White House. “I already know I could win,” he told National Review earlier this year. But he’s apparently too modest to vindicate his boast: “I’ve got to believe I’m ready to be president, and I don’t.”
He makes a similar reference to Mike Huckabee, a man whom it is difficult to regard as anything but a political lightweight. Who does Douthat appear to be suggesting as serious potential candidates?
Then there’s Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who came to Washington in February and delivered the kind of speech that conservative campaigns are built on: a dense and fluent argument for limited government, rooted in the premise that America’s fiscal liabilities constitute a “survival-level threat.”
That's it? Douthat sees the man's only accomplishment of note to be the presentation of a single speech, a Republican version of Jimmy Carter's "Malaise Speech", and asserts on that basis that he's qualified for the White House? Who else?
Paul Ryan, the House Republicans’ rising star, shares Daniels’s view that the United States faces a pivotal moment in 2012 — a historic choice, as he likes to put it, between the American tradition of limited government and a “European-style social welfare state.” Naturally, he’s already ruled out a run for president. So have lesser lights like Senator John Thune of South Dakota and Representative Mike Pence of Indiana. So has the Republican politician with the most famous name and strongest executive record: former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida.
Lost in all of that is Douthat's tacit admission that he thinks the best person to lead the Republican ticket would be Jeb Bush. The Republican revolution, it seems, has eaten its own children.

Douthat apparently would prefer to live in an alternate universe. He acknowledges a bit of reality:
The public loves to vote for leaner government and then recoil from the reality.
But rests his thesis upon a fiction:
The unpopularity of President Obama’s agenda, the obvious unsustainability of blue-state spending habits (evident in budget battles from California to New York) and the looming entitlement crisis have created a remarkable opportunity for conservatives to reimagine government’s role....
Let's leave aside for a moment the fact that when deeming President Obama's agenda to be "unpopular" people like Douthat lump together those who criticize Obama for having gone too far with those who believe his reforms did not go far enough. This notion that state budget deficits are a "blue state" phenomenon? Transparently false. (Consider also foreclosures and unemployment.)

Paul Ryan is a Coward

Oh, I know, I'm supposed to pat Paul Ryan on the back for being so "brave" and "honest" about our nation's deficit, and of "standing up to special interests" in his proposal to slash and privatize Medicare. But all I see is cowardice.
  1. Ten Years?: Ryan proposes the political coward's timing for his proposal. End Medicare in ten years. If a Republican President is elected in 2012, even if he serves two full terms he'll be out of office by the time the plan hits the fan. For that matter, no matter who succeeds President Obama, the next President will either be out of office or into his second term before the plan takes effect.

  2. Grandfathering Grandparents?: Privatizing Medicare is supposedly an opportunity for the private insurance market to shine. Never mind the history that tells us that private insurers require subsidies in order to compete with Medicare. If Ryan believes this plan will do anything but slash coverage and benefits, why does he grandfather into the system anybody who qualifies for Medicare before 2022? Why not let them enjoy the benefit of the "free market" along with the rest of us?

  3. Procrastination: For that matter, if the cure to the problem comes from the (not particularly) free market for health insurance, why wait ten years? Why not propose that this plan take effect immediately? It's not as if private health insurance companies have no foundation for offering insurance to seniors - they have their experience with the (heavily subsidized) Medicare Advantage program to draw from.

  4. Lots of Time for a Full Retreat: Ryan leaves the door wide open for a full retreat by the Republican Party if his "reform" proves unworkable - and insulates two, and quite possibly three Presidents from having to take responsibility for that retreat. So again, why not put the nation's money where his mouth is?

  5. What About Inflation?: Although it would be a good thing to find ways to make the provision of health care less expensive, the crisis in the making comes from healthcare inflation. Ryan's plan does nothing to influence inflation and, in fact, could worsen inflation by diminishing economies of scale in the healthcare market.

I don't agree with Matt Yglesias that the ten year window is about demographics. Seniors are seniors - they're going to have more money than most of the rest of us, they're going to vote more diligently than most of the rest of us, and thus politicians will listen to them more closely than they do to the rest of us. So again, I have to come back to cowardice. He doesn't have the fortitude to tell today's seniors, "As of next year you're going to get a voucher for free market health insurance", because he knows that the immediate reaction will be, "We'll have to pay how much for how little coverage?" He also knows that if he continues to ignore the elephant in the room, healthcare inflation, the situation will be far worse in ten years - and he's afraid to admit that to the extent that the present system is sustained over the next decade it will be in no small part to reforms put into place by the dreaded "ObamaCare".

E.J. Dionne gives Ryan a certain benefit of the doubt,
But while I am assailing his ideas, let me put in a good word about Ryan himself: He is, from my limited experience, a charming man who truly believes what he believes. I salute him for laying out the actual conservative agenda. Here’s hoping he is transparent in the coming weeks about whom he is taking benefits from and toward whom he wants to be more generous. If he thinks we need an even more unequal society to prosper in the future, may he have the courage to say so.
I have no reason to doubt Ryan's charm, although I don't think we need to wait and see if he'll have the courage to admit his actual agenda. I'll be pleasantly surprised if he proves himself to be honest, and willing to absorb the consequent political price, but... it won't happen. A word from Paul Krugman:
Oh, and for all those older Americans who voted GOP last year because those nasty Democrats were going to cut Medicare, I have just one word: suckers!
The same goes, I think, for anybody who believes that the GOP is sincere about this budget plan - at least in the sense that they won't flee from Ryan's ideas like proverbial rats from a sinking ship if these reforms threaten their chances in future elections.

Update: Michael Grunwald at Swampland takes a look at Paul Ryan's cowardice:
So by all means, let's have an adult conversation about deficits. A good place to start would be the origins of our current predicament. President Clinton left behind a huge budget surplus. As Joe pointed out, it was wiped out by President Bush's tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit.

All of those budget-busters went on the national credit card. And all of them were supported, no doubt courageously, by Congressman Ryan.
Grunwald also reminds us that the Republicans misrepresented and savaged every cost-saving mechanism proposed for or included in the Affordable Care Act, and yet pundits who gush over Ryan never got around to describing the President's or his party's advancement of those policies as "courage".

Patents As Both Sword and Shield

Yesterday I suggested,
Although for many years, large companies often seem to ignore each other's intellectual property rights until one or another sues, followed by either a huge settlement and licensing deal or a mutual settlement that allows the companies to use each other's technology without actually testing the viability of the underlying patents.
That reality is not lost on Google.
The tech world has recently seen an explosion in patent litigation, often involving low-quality software patents, which threatens to stifle innovation. Some of these lawsuits have been filed by people or companies that have never actually created anything; others are motivated by a desire to block competing products or profit from the success of a rival’s new technology.
In some cases, a declining company may find its portfolio of patents to be far more lucrative than what remains of its traditional operations. Given the proliferation of patents it's difficult to produce anything without potentially running afoul of somebody else's (often dubious) patent, but sometimes the patents are known and (under current law) defensible and the infringement is deliberate. Apple knew that it had a game changer with the iPhone and likely viewed the inevitable accusations of patent infringement as a cost of business. With the release of the iPhone, every other handset manufacturer made the same business decision.

Google has advocated for patent reform and against patent trolls,1 but its decision to bid for Nortel's patents is, in a sense, an "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" response to the problem. Yes, Google can leverage its patents to protect open source software, but the success of open source software represents a significant part of Google's long-term business strategy. Although acquiring Nortel's patents potentially gives Google more even footing when it goes head-to-head with companies that accuse it of violating their patents, it will do nothing to stop patent trolls.

It will be interesting to see who, if anybody, attempts to outbid Google.

1. Google provides a reasonable definition of the patent troll, "people or companies that have never actually created anything" - they generate or acquire patents then seek out violators, with the hope of demanding settlements or royalties from companies that are producing actual value. But it's important to remember that the system is stacked against "the little guy" - an inventor who comes up with an idea and obtains a patent, with the idea of marketing it to companies that can put it into productive use, shouldn't be denied a return on his invention by large companies that steal the idea, knowing that patent litigation is extraordinarily expensive and beyond the reach of most inventors, while dismissing the inventor as a "troll who never produced anything" even as they profit from his ideas.

"Hey, Kid - Get Off Your Lawn!"

Talk about your crotchety old people.....

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Innovation, Imitation, and Intellectual Property

Either the era of "cloud storage" is upon us, or it isn't. As you have likely heard, Amazon has announced cloud storage, directly inviting its customer base to upload their music collections and stream them to their mobile devices. For years, Apple has been rumored to be "about to release" a cloud storage product for your iTunes library, video rentals and purchases, etc., but apparently due to strong resistance from the entertainment industry those plans appear to be on indefinite hold. Google has danced around the edges of cloud storage, and you can already store incredible amounts of data on Google's servers for free (or purchase even more for a reasonable price), but having settled its YouTube lawsuits, struggled to settle its dispute with book publishers, and perhaps having concerns about various advertising and licensing contracts, has not offered the type of service announced by Amazon. I have no doubt that Amazon is aware of the risk it is taking in announcing this product under a philosophy of "It's better to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission," but has concluded that (as with YouTube) it's better to be first to market even if it potentially means paying tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to settle lawsuits. Amazon's move could actually help Apple, Google, or any other company that wants to offer a similar product (Facebook?) by testing the legal waters for them and potentially creating a precedent for any necessary licensing deals.

Although for many years, large companies often seem to ignore each other's intellectual property rights until one or another sues, followed by either a huge settlement and licensing deal or a mutual settlement that allows the companies to use each other's technology without actually testing the viability of the underlying patents. Ever since the release of the iPhone, that seems to be the story of cellular phone software. Apple's also having to deal with the fact that although it remains difficult to innovate, imitation is easier and faster than ever. Android devices now have greater market share than iOS products, with Palm and Microsoft struggling to maintain their share.

An interesting blog post suggests that the creation, promotion, funding and distribution of quality, open source software is a big part of Google's strategy to protect its market. I expect that is Google's plan, but there's a serious side-effect to that approach: Google doesn't directly profit from the Android OS, and its store for Android Apps (awkward phrasing, but...) is nowhere near as profitable as Apple's App Store. Although companies making Android phones will customize the software and will offer a variety of phones at a variety of price points, the competition is increasingly seen as "Android vs. Apple" - the brand of the Android phone is marginalized and the value of an Android phone is commoditized.

Apple has been incredibly innovative at various points in its history, including in recent years, but under Steve Jobs it has excelled at producing premium products. In the recent iterations of the iPhone and in its production of the iPad, Apple has also leveraged its volume to produce highly profitable products at price points that, for its competitors, appear to be difficult to match. Yes, some will point to one Android device or another and argue that it's cheaper, has a higher resolution screen, has more memory, is more expandable, and may even be faster than the iPhone, but put one next to the other and you can immediately see why - plastic vs. aluminum case, bulkly vs. compact, etc. Such products highlight another reality: Apple is fully prepared to produce mobile products that will satisfy 90+% of consumers "out of the box" and to leave to others the production of products that can be easily expanded. Yes, Apple is also better at marketing, but that's a small part of the story.

The genius of Steve Jobs is sometimes overstated. Apple has managed to produce premium products within markets that are largely commoditized (cell phones) or to reinvent markets that others viewed as commoditized (portable music players). I don't want to understate Jobs' ability to spot trends in technology and culture, but (as with any computer product) there are aspects to Apple products that anticipate that people will use the product in a specific way and, should you want to do something else... tough. Some of that results from licensing deals. The easiest way to send text messages on an iPhone is through your contract with your cell phone carrier. (Just like GPS features are often expensive add-ons for smart phones.) You don't mess with the profit centers of companies you rely upon for the promotion and distribution of your products. iPods don't play well with computers other than the one you use to sync their libraries, and if you somehow crash the computer with your music library you'll need a third party product to recover your files from the iPod. OSX left Microsoft playing catch-up, but (IMHO) Windows has long offered a better finder. And we shouldn't overlook that Jobs' prognostications have involved attempts to bring technology to market too early, as well as some design innovations that did not attract consumers or introduced problems or complications. As with any strong, innovative company (seriously), Apple has released a lot of products that failed - and continues to introduce products and services that will fail. Google fails a lot as well. If a company bats 1,000, it's not taking chances.

As Apple profits from the tablet market, Microsoft correctly implies that tablets aren't different from any other computer hardware, and will eventually be commoditized. Or at least, that's how I interpret Craig Mundie's comments. But in their estimate of tablets as a potential flash-in-the-pan, Microsoft appears to be overlooking how tablets are much less an entity to themselves as much as they are part of a spectrum from tiny electronic devices to desktop computers, and that there are many contexts in which a tablet could prove valuable. The Hyundai Equus uses an iPad instead of a paper manual. There are increasing numbers of electronic and mechanical devices that can interface with iPads and iPhones (or similar devices) instead of standard remote control. And if you've seen a toddler with an iPad or iPhone you have a sense of how intuitive the interface is - and I expect that a generation that comes of age using touch screens and virtual keyboards is going to have a different perspective on traditional computers and keyboards than us "old folks". The commoditized touchpad screen is, I think, the interface of the future. (Microsoft suggests that the Kinect is the interface of the future - I guess it's more literally a game changer, but I expect that type of body tracking to remain specialized as opposed to ubiquitous.)

Let's assume, though, an era in which computer hardware is commoditized across-the-board. If you look at companies like Facebook (which has nothing to leverage that is not, or cannot be, replicated by others other than its large user base) and Apple, they are intent on creating a future in which they profit from any commercialization of their platforms. Google and Amazon perceive that future, as well, so they both offer apps for sale and Amazon is reportedly automatically placing copies of your digital media purchases into your cloud storage. I think that Apple has an advantage over Android, as with tight control over both the hardware and OS it will be much better able to assure content producers that it has effective DRM (digital rights management) and can quickly patch security holes that allow unauthorized copying or sharing. Google has no similar control over Android, and no control at all over the hardware that runs it. Amazon and Facebook can control things only at their end. Facebook doesn't have to deal with these issues (yet) because you have to connect to a social gaming network in order to participate in the online games that produce so much of its revenue. It's not clear what Amazon's plan is, to protect its cloud service from being abused - I saw somebody quip that you could have one Amazon cloud drive with 1,000,000 authorized users. So far, despite the slow and painful negotiating process that often seems to involve Steve Jobs giving a "Here's the deal, and it's not negotiable" offer to content providers, the long-term advantage seems to be Apple's. (Microsoft? It's only in the picture if you're talking about Xbox Live and, while I don't want to discount that service, it's self-limiting.)

Being a Sober Person at Charlie Sheen's Party

Beyond profits, there's a reason comedy clubs tend to ply the audience with alcohol. A performer is much more likely to be deemed funny if he's the most sober person in the room. Similarly, if you go to a party that is centered around drugs or alcohol and where everybody else is drunk, stoned or both, you're unlikely to have much fun as the only sober person in the room. I don't want to suggest that Charlie Sheen was intoxicated during his performance in Detroit - he seems to be able to pull himself together for work - but really, by all appearances he's an out-of-control addict. You want to see the consequent displays of grandiosity and belligerence? Fine, but as his Detroit audience found out you may instead find that you paid a good chunk of change to see his on-stage decompensation.
WRIF-FM (101.1) host Drew Lane said if the tour continues like this, Sheen's career will be in jeopardy.
No kidding? ("Will be"?)

Another review:
The energy picked up when the actor and his two "goddesses," miniskirt-clad, live-in girlfriends Natalie Kenly and Rachel Oberlin (aka Bree Olson) strolled out to a standing ovation.

This was the charming, elegantly wasted, fast-talking Charlie we wanted to see. He had the goddesses burn his "Two and a Half Men" shirt, and he donned a Tigers jersey (with "Warlock 99" imprinted on the back), to great cheers. Alas, the good time didn't last long.
Wow. Another huge surprise.
During the times Sheen had to speak and hold the audience's attention, things really fell apart. He was the reason the audience was there, they wanted to see their gruff, charming bad boy, the folk hero who never said "sorry," who told his boss to take his cushy job and shove it. Sure, over the years he never grew out of the Beverly Hills, rich brat persona but there was a self-deprecating charm underneath the caustic humor. Wasn't there?
Not that I am ordinarily inclined to answer rhetorical questions, but my guess is that a lot of the charm you see when Sheen is acting comes from his script. I have not followed Sheen's off-screen life at all, save for recent events that have led much of the mainstream media to deem his public self-immolation to be newsworthy, so I'm not the right person to ask. If you have followed him please tell me: in his decades of fame is there an off-screen statement or event I should look at that would indicate that any self-deprecating element to his narcissistic "charm" is anything but superficial, largely if not entirely scripted? Even one? (Public drunkenness, check; domestic violence, check; public displays of charm....)
With a team of writers and some time, Sheen could have pulled together something workable. But the "Violent Torpedo of Truth" show appeared to be thrown together and vetted by a close circle of friends who probably think Sheen is the funniest, most brilliant man alive. In that circle, he probably is.
Here's the thing. When you're a filthy-rich, self-indulgent, out-of-control drug addict, you don't have much room in your life for "Johnny Buzzkill". Sure, you need somebody to get you up in time for work and clean up after your messes, but they're background figures. Front and center, you have your enablers and hangers-on. Sheen didn't need more time to produce a decent show. He needed to involve somebody with the show who was willing to introduce him to some reality. Which wasn't going to happen. You can be pretty confident that, right now, he's being reassured that everything is okay with him and that it wasn't his fault that he had such a lousy audience.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Let's Automate Schools and Privatize Everything

The ever-insightful Stephen Moore offers this gem:
Where are the productivity gains in government? Consider a core function of state and local governments: schools. Over the period 1970-2005, school spending per pupil, adjusted for inflation, doubled, while standardized achievement test scores were flat. Over roughly that same time period, public-school employment doubled per student, according to a study by researchers at the University of Washington. That is what economists call negative productivity.

But education is an industry where we measure performance backwards: We gauge school performance not by outputs, but by inputs. If quality falls, we say we didn't pay teachers enough or we need smaller class sizes or newer schools. If education had undergone the same productivity revolution that manufacturing has, we would have half as many educators, smaller school budgets, and higher graduation rates and test scores.
Brilliant. We'll replace public school students with robots and computers, and train teachers how to program them. The teachers will be able to reach thousands of units through a single interface, with uniform, measurable results. And a properly programmed machine should be really good at taking standardized tests.

What's that, you say? Perhaps the issue is the "human factor"? That while we can automate many of the processes involved in manufacturing motor vehicles, or redesign their parts, components and assembly procedures to increase efficiency, we don't have the same luxury when it comes to children?

You know, I understand that back in the 1960's a newspaper columnist might produce, oh, two columns per week. Now, with increased efficiency and technology a typical columnist produces... is it two columns per week? I see. And as "senior economics writer for The Wall Street Journal editorial page" Moore appears to be far less productive than the typical columnist. But I'm sure Moore will tell us that his own lack of productivity and the fact that he is a "taker" and not a "maker" is somehow different.

Moore's editorial suggests that we've had a massive growth in public sector jobs since 1960, pointing to figures suggesting that about 5 out of 100 Americans worked in government in 1960, rising to about 7 out of 100 in 2010. He doesn't explain the causes of the increase, and devotes absolutely no attention to what parts of government have grown the most (or what parts of government have shrunk). Yet without that type of analysis, the raw figure isn't illuminating. Moore is trying to leverage the concept that "government worker" is a slur - that it's somehow wrong to work for the government, that all government jobs do is "take" from society, and that (forget about the man in Moore's mirror) true nobility comes from "making" things - tangible items such as cars.

Moore's concept of what it means to "make" things is similarly absurd. He complains that the population of government workers exceeds the population of people who "work in construction, farming, fishing, forestry, manufacturing, mining and utilities combined". Because there's nothing like cherry-picking the workforce employed in declining industries during a painlessly protracted "jobless recovery" or industries that have largely automated, and making an "apples and oranges" comparison to government workers. Factory farms have displaced family farms - does Moore believe the nation would be better off if we went back to small family farms and reduced the level of farm automation, crop science, and other factors that have contributed to our nation's having an abundance of food despite a shrinking population of agricultural workers? It would be better to end any automated mining and go back an era in which ore was extracted by men with pickaxes and buckets? Surely not. Yet in insisting that those historic "makers" had some form of moral superiority over today's "takers" he implies that such inefficiency would be a good thing.

Moore asserts, and would have us take it on faith, that "Most reasonable steps to restrain public-sector employment costs are smothered by the unions". (It would have been nice had he provided even one example.) It seems fair to note, in response, that a great deal of inefficiency in our society - and in our government - comes not from trade unions but from Moore's buddies in business associations.

Why are our nation's car dealers saddled with an archaic and costly network of car dealerships and, even when they're at the point of collapse, why does Congress rush in to "save" redundant dealerships from being closed? Why can't I go online to a car dealer website, design a car, finance and pay for it and arrange to have it delivered to a dealership near me or even my house? Because NADA has been very effective at lobbying state governments and Congress to protect car dealerships from, dare I say, market efficiencies. Why are purchases and sales of real estate so costly and cumbersome, involving huge fees to parties that seem to do little work other than performing a "merge" on a stack of standard form contracts and having a nice office for people to sit in when they review and sign those documents? Because real estate agents and brokers, the mortgage industry and title companies have successfully lobbied against modernizing and streamlining that system. Why are the tax code and regulations so complicated - for the benefit of ordinary people, or for the benefit of Moore's wealthy peers and multinational corporations? Yes, every time a powerful interest successfully lobbies for new tax favors the tax code gets more complicated.

Moore suggests,
Study after study has shown that states and cities could shave 20% to 40% off the cost of many services — fire fighting, public transportation, garbage collection, administrative functions, even prison operations—through competitive contracting to private providers.
Study after study, but again not even one "for instance." And, surprise, Moore is (I assume deliberately) oversimplifying the issues and omitting the downside. That is, there are many reasons other than "unions oppose it" to hesitate before drinking Moore's Kool-Aid.

Historically, we had private fire protection. You purchased fire protection services from a private company and hoped that they weren't too busy to put out the fire when you called them for help. And if you hadn't paid a fee... I guess some things never change. Strangely, it does not appear that the best way to save money in firefighting comes from privatization, but is instead through volunteer fire departments. You have to ask yourself, how would a private fire department save money as compared to a volunteer fire department? It couldn't pay its employees less than the volunteers make. The answer would appear to be through cutting standards, training, equipment levels, locations, vehicles, maintenance, etc.

There's something else to consider, which is that private companies typically introduce efficiency into government activities when there's competition. That is, when there are a number of private trash haulers serving surrounding communities, a municipality can put trash collection out for bid. (Or it can adopt the approach of some of the surrounding communities and let people retain their own trash hauling company.) If one company falls down on the job, there are others ready to step in. And although the specter of price fixing or oligopoly pricing may loom, for the most part if one company's prices get out of line it will lose customers to the others.1

The picture changes when there is no competition, or no meaningful competition. If you turn over the full responsibility for fire protection to a private company and that company fails to do its job or declares bankruptcy, where are you going to find on a moment's notice another company that can step in, acquire buildings and equipment, and staff to adequate levels? If Moore is proposing some sort of hybrid - a construct in which the only thing "privatized" are firefighter jobs - he's really talking about breaking unions. That's illustrated by his conceit that the overpaid skimmers of the financial industry are "makers" to be compared to NYC's government employees. I guess they did make the world's economy collapse, but I don't personally see that type of "making" as a good thing.

There's something else to consider in relation to privatization: You lose government control and oversight. You lose responsiveness to the taxpayer. Elected officials have a lot less influence over companies with which they have contracted than they do with government employees. The lack of oversight can create opportunities for corruption. It's difficult to imagine a circumstance in which judges would be bribed by a state-run prison to channel criminal defendants - let alone children - into its cells.

Moore appears to view it as a horror story that government workers are paid decent wages and receive decent benefits. By his own numbers, he's complaining that the average government worker makes about $44,500 per year including benefits.2 Sure, if you go with low bidders who employ minimum wage workers and offer no benefits, you may be able to "save money" (although again, with risk to quality and scope of services provided, to responsiveness and, in some cases, to integrity.) But what sort of community are you creating when you structure government such that there are a handful of managers - who would all be making substantially more than the salary Moore suggests is excessive for government work - who oversee contracts with outside providers whose employees can't even afford to live in the towns in which they work? I suppose Moore would have the teachers, firefighters, and low-level administrators bus into town each day on the newly privatized public transportation system. A real sense of community,3 that guy4 has.

1. At the same time, the private haulers may have up charges for services the city included, such as yard waste removal and recycling - part of the way a private company can make money, after all, is by cutting the level of service or charging additional fees for better or more complete service.

2. He writes, "Today in America there are nearly twice as many people working for the government (22.5 million) than in all of manufacturing (11.5 million).... Nearly half of the $2.2 trillion cost of state and local governments is the $1 trillion-a-year tab for pay and benefits of state and local employees."

3. Gated community.

4. You've probably figured out by now that Moore is something of a hack. Here's an example of some true hackery:
Speaking of the current situation in Libya, Moore says "You know Sean [Hannity] what’s really despicable about this is that for years and decades the left has sort of apologized for Qaddafi." Let's be real for a moment. It was the political right under the leadership of George W. Bush that embraced Qaddafi and legitimized both the man and his government. Bush repeatedly held Qaddafi up as a success story in the "war on terror", a man who had surrendered his evil ways and had redeemed himself. As Rand Paul notes, the political right is tied up in knots about how to respond to Obama's participation in military action against Libya:
They just really can't decide over at Fox News. It's like, what do they love more, bombing the Middle East or bashing the president? It's like, I was over there and there was an anchor going -- they were pleading, they were pleading -- "please, please, please, can't we do both? Can't we bomb the Middle East and bash the president at the same time? How are we going to make this work?"
As usual without presenting a single example, Moore stands history on its head and pretends that Bush's embrace of Qaddafi is somehow attributable to the left?

Constitution Land

Via Randy Barnett, a brilliant idea from the Harlan Institute:
Constitution Land, a planned theme park from the Harlan Institute, will immerse “we the people” in the Constitution of the United States. Through virtual reality simulators, thrill rides, and entertaining shows, visitors will be able to experience our Constitution, and the Supreme Court, unlike ever before.

“Constitution Land will be a one-of-a-kind experience,” said Josh Blackman, President of the Harlan Institute. “Only the Harlan Institute, and its innovative approach to civic education could create a theme park to inspire students of all ages to learn more our great Charter.”
They list a number of the anticipated attractions, but if I may be so bold I would like to suggest a few more:

The Wickard v Filburn Café, in which none of the food offerings are made from locally grown ingredients.

For those who need childcare, the Korematsu play center - be confident that your kids won't be going anywhere while you enjoy the park.

And when you're ready to leave, before you get in your car you can confirm your sobriety by taking one of an array of complicated and often confusing balancing tests, while between four and five judges from a nine judge panel pepper you with questions that suggest that "you're doing it wrong" and the others argue about the degree to which its appropriate to scrutinize your actions.