Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The mommy track

My 10-year [Harvard] law school reunion fell when I was six months into my second pregnancy. I found myself rehearsing in front of a mirror a witty remark about being CEO of my household. I expected a bad-sit-com scene with the other women in my class as legal superstars and me as the lone stay-at-home mom. "They're all going to be saying I just made partner, I just got tenure," I lamented to my husband. But they didn't. At the end of the reunion evening, my classmates and I compared notes and discovered that only one woman (of the 30 or so in attendance) was still a full-time practicing attorney. "Is our whole class on the mommy track?" I wondered, a little relieved.

When I told my mom about the reunion, she had a different question: "I guess we're not the only ones who wasted a hundred thousand dollars in tuition, then?" Although her comment was punctuated by a good-natured chuckle, I couldn't laugh it off. She and my dad had moved to Baltimore from Korea, working 16-hour days in a tiny, vaultlike grocery store protected by bullet-proof glass, skimping and saving for my tuition. Had I squandered my parents' years of sacrifice? ...

Curious about how my classmates were managing this tricky business of work-life balance, I conducted a little homespun survey of the 226 women in my law-school class. More than 90 percent of them responded. ...

According to my survey, the majority of the women of the class of 1993 of Harvard Law School have left the fast track. Thirty percent of the respondents have mommy track jobs, with 21 percent working part-time and 9 percent working full-time with special arrangements like job-sharing and working nonconventional hours. Another 30 percent of the respondents stay at home, most having "off-ramped" with the expectation of going back to work when their children are older.
--Angie Kim, Slate, on the prevalence of opting out among Harvard Law grads

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Stand and deliver

Jaime Escalante, the charismatic former East Los Angeles high school teacher who taught the nation that inner-city students could master subjects as demanding as calculus, died Tuesday. He was 79. ...

Escalante gained national prominence in the aftermath of a 1982 scandal surrounding 14 of his Garfield High School students who passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam only to be accused later of cheating.

The story of their eventual triumph -- and of Escalante's battle to raise standards at a struggling campus of working-class, largely Mexican American students -- became the subject of the movie [Stand and Deliver], which turned the balding, middle-aged Bolivian immigrant into the most famous teacher in America. ...

Escalante was hospitalized twice in the months leading up to the AP exam. He had a heart attack while teaching night school but ignored doctors' orders to rest and was back at Garfield the next day.

Then he disappeared one weekend to have his gallbladder removed. As Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews recounted in his 1988 book, "Escalante: The Best Teacher in America," the hard-driving teacher turned the health problem into another weapon in his bag of tricks. "You burros give me a heart attack," he repeatedly told his students when he returned. "But I come back! I'm still the champ."

The guilt-making mantra was effective. One student said, "If Kimo [Escalante's nickname] can do it, we can do it. If he wants to teach us that bad, we can learn." ...
--Elaine Woo, LA Times, on devotion to teaching

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The ginormous health care subsidies

Even now, I don’t think most people realize the size and scale of the subsidies involved in the new system. Take a typical family of four earning $45,000 a year, which is about twice the poverty line and slightly lower than the median household income. ... Come 2014, such a family will be entitled to buy a health-care policy for just above six per cent of their income, or $2,800, with the government picking up the rest of the cost. ...

By 2014, assuming health-care costs rise by five per cent a year, [the average health-insurance premium for a family of four] will be about $17,000. If insurance companies on the new health exchanges were obligated to offer equivalent coverage, the subsidy per family would be at least $14,300 per family. Put another way, the federal government would be providing the typical lower middle class American family with a new entitlement worth roughly thirty per cent of its pre-tax income. ...

After excluding these pieces of [accounting] trickery and the questionable Medicare cuts, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former head of the C.B.O., has calculated that the reform will actually raise the deficit by $562 billion in the first ten years. “The budget office is required to take written legislation at face value and not second-guess the plausibility of what it is handed,” he wrote in the Times. “So fantasy in, fantasy out.” ...

[M]any businesses, once they realize the size of the handouts being offered for individual coverage, will wind down their group plans, shifting workers (and costs) onto the new government-subsidized plans. ...

Take a medium-sized firm that employs a hundred people earning $40,000 each—a private security firm based in Atlanta, say—and currently offers them health-care insurance worth $10,000 a year, of which the employees pay $2,500. This employer’s annual health-care costs are $750,000 (a hundred times $7,500). ...

Under the new law, firms with more than fifty workers that don’t offer coverage would have to pay an annual fine of $2,000 for every worker they employ, excepting the first thirty. In this case, the security firm would incur a fine of $140,000 (seventy times two), but it would save $610,000 a year on health-care costs. If you owned this firm, what would you do? ...

Over time, the “firewall” between the existing system of employer-provided group insurance and taxpayer-subsidized individual insurance is likely to break down, with more and more workers being shunted over to the public teat.
--John Cassidy, New Yorker, on the fiscal consequences of the new health care bill. HT: Alex Tsai

Friday, March 26, 2010

Getting an EnergyStar label

Does a “gasoline-powered alarm clock” qualify for the EnergyStar label, the government stamp of approval for an energy-saving product?

Like more than a dozen other bogus products submitted for approval since last June by Congressional auditors posing as companies, it easily secured the label, according to a Congressional report to be issued Friday. So did an “air purifier” that was essentially an electric space heater with a feather duster pasted on top, the Government Accountability Office said.

In a nine-month study, four fictitious companies invented by the accountability office also sought EnergyStar status for some conventional devices like dehumidifiers and heat pump models that existed only on paper. The fake companies submitted data indicating that the models consumed 20 percent less energy than even the most efficient ones on the market. Yet those applications were mostly approved without a challenge or even questions, the report said. ...

Maria Vargas, an official with the Environmental Protection Agency, which runs the program with the Energy Department, said the approvals did not pose a problem for consumers because the products never existed. There was “no fraud,” Ms. Vargas emphasized.
--Matthes Wald, NYT, on a novel way to downplay an audit failure

Thursday, March 25, 2010

In defense of Boston drivers

[Michael] Sivak examined traffic fatalities in the 50 states plus DC. There is a surprisingly wide gap in accident rates between states. Hard as it may be to believe for those of us who have braved the roads of Boston, the safest state is Massachusetts. Its residents experience about one third the number of fatalities per mile driven as residents of Montana, the most dangerous state.

Sivak tested a number of factors that might cause a place to have more or fewer road fatalities. Three variables came up as statistically significant. The first was the share of the population of drivers who are under age 25. ...

The other significant variables were homicide rates and accidental death rates; when all else is held equal, both are generally higher in states with lots of deadly traffic accidents. (In fairness to the good people of Montana, their state, with a low murder rate, is an exception.) So our suspected link between aggression (murders), thrill-seeking (non-auto accidental deaths) and fatal crashes appears to be confirmed.
--Eric Morris, Freakonomics blog, on the drivers that never struck me as particularly crazy. Connecticut drivers, on the other hand...

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Beware subway seat hogging

One recent night, Ryan David LaMont settled into the wary peace of a post-midnight journey on the No. 2 train. He was not quite alone, since a few other people were on board, but he had rows and rows of seats to choose from. ...

“An N.Y.P.D. officer stepped into the car, pointed at me and another guy who was sitting on the other end of the train,” Mr. LaMont said. “He told us, ‘Get off the train.’ ”

Both men were being issued summonses for seat hoggery, a violation of part of Section 1050.7 of the Rules of Conduct, which says that no one shall “occupy more than one seat on a station, platform or conveyance when to do so would interfere or tend to interfere with the operation of the Authority’s transit system or the comfort of other passengers.”

You might think seat hogs were on a rampage. Although fewer summonses were issued last year for all transit offenses, the number of tickets for glomming two seats actually increased by 16 percent, rising to 9,490 in 2009. ...

“I had my legs up on the seat,” Mr. LaMont said. “My feet were draped over the edge. For one thing, it’s courtesy not to put your feet on the seat. Also, I’d heard someone else getting yelled at a few weeks earlier for having their feet on the seat.”

In any case, he was charged with occupying more than one seat, not with having his feet up. It came with a $50 fine.
--Jim Dwyer, NYT, on things not to do in New York City

The CBO doubts its own forecast

The reconciliation proposal and H.R. 3590 would maintain and put into effect a number of policies that might be difficult to sustain over a long period of time. Under current law, payment rates for physicians’ services in Medicare would be reduced by about 21 percent in 2010 and then decline further in subsequent years; the proposal makes no changes to those provisions. ...

The projected longer-term savings for the legislation also reflect an assumption that the Independent Payment Advisory Board established by H.R. 3590 would be fairly effective in reducing costs beyond the reductions that would be achieved by other aspects of the legislation.

Under the legislation, CBO expects that Medicare spending would increase significantly more slowly during the next two decades than it has increased during the past two decades (per beneficiary, after adjusting for inflation). It is unclear whether such a reduction in the growth rate of spending could be achieved, and if so, whether it would be accomplished through greater efficiencies in the delivery of health care or through reductions in access to care or the quality of care. The long-term budgetary impact could be quite different if key provisions of the legislation were ultimately changed or not fully implemented.
--The Congressional Budget Office's latest letter on the health care bill. HT: Greg Mankiw

The hard part of managing

My thinking was: I’m a natural leader, so I’m going to study what’s hard and mathematical like finance and operations research, not the touchy-feely stuff that would be easy.

When I finally got a management position, I found out how hard it is to lead and manage people. The warm, fuzzy stuff is hard. The quantitative stuff is easy — you either don’t do much of this as a manager or you have people working for you to do it. ...

The issue with consulting is that if you go straight [out of college] to work for a consultant, you develop this perspective that the hard part is the analysis and the decision. In reality, that’s not the hard part. The hard part is implementing the decision, not making it.

So the problem with consulting is you get paid $400 an hour, you do your beautiful charts, you make your PowerPoint presentation, you tell the client what they should do, and you go on to the next project. Meanwhile, you’re building up this belief that you’re a genius: you know how to analyze; you know how to make a decision; and, worst of all, you know how to implement — but all without implementing.

You can develop an absolutely incorrect perception of yourself as a great manager when, in fact, you haven’t implemented anything. You haven’t fired anybody. You haven’t introduced a product. You haven’t supported a customer. All you’ve done is make spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations.

You can also throw venture capital into this pile. Going into venture capital straight out of school is a big mistake because entrepreneurs start sucking up to you and ask you stuff you know nothing about — like how to run a company.

Jobs for college graduates should make them gain knowledge in at least one of these three areas: how to make something, how to sell something or how to support something.
--Guy Kawasaki on the difference between recommending and doing. HT: Alex Tsai

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Marathoner vs. car

I decided to see if I could drive the [Los Angeles] marathon course in my car — street for street, turn for turn — during weekday morning rush hour, in a time faster than elite runners could run it on race day. Abraham told me those runners will finish the course in about 2 hours 8 minutes and that he thought I didn't stand a chance, adding that organizers had considered minting a T-shirt that read: "It's faster to run it than drive it." ...

"Two hours … two minutes 19 seconds."

Yes, the good news is that I did the 26.2-mile course in 2:02:19, a good six minutes faster than the probable winner Sunday (though probably half an hour or so slower than the wheelchair winner).

The bad news is that it took two hours and two minutes to go 26 miles in L.A.
--Steve Lowery, L.A. Times, on the "speed" of L.A. traffic. HT: Alex Tsai

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Texting etiquette

Your mission, as I outlined it, was to come up with a concise, easy-to-remember rule that we could all consult when deciding whether to reach for our phones. ...

So, did we manage to come up with such a rule? Yes! It's simple, too. The idea, which I'll call the Bathroom Rule, came from a reader named Marie LaFerriere, and it was seconded by many others. Here's my concise version of LaFerriere's rule:

If you're in a situation where you'd excuse yourself to go to the bathroom, you should also excuse yourself before reaching for your phone. Otherwise, go ahead without asking. Either way, don't play with your phone longer than you'd stay in the bathroom.

What I like about this rule is that it recognizes both the social costs and benefits of our digital devices. Looking at your phone, like going to the bathroom, is sometimes unavoidable: We've all got to do it sometime, and depending on life circumstances, some of us need to do it a lot more than others. But the rule also recognizes that the phone, like going to the bathroom, pulls you away from others people. If you're looking at a screen, you're not paying attention to me.
--Farhad Manjoo, Slate, on making texting less rude

Monday, March 15, 2010

The other Hitchens

I set fire to my Bible on the playing fields of my Cambridge boarding school one bright, windy spring afternoon in 1967. I was 15 years old. The book did not, as I had hoped, blaze fiercely and swiftly. ...

My own, slow return to faith began when I was 30, in 1981. ...

While I was making my gradual, hesitant way back to the altar-rail, my brother Christopher's passion against God grew more virulent and confident. ...

[Christopher] often assumes that moral truths are self-evident, attributing purpose to the universe and swerving dangerously round the problem of conscience - which surely cannot be conscience if he is right since the idea of conscience depends on it being implanted by God. If there is no God then your moral qualms might just as easily be the result of indigestion.

One of the problems atheists have is the unbelievers' assertion that it is possible to determine what is right and what is wrong without God. They have a fundamental inability to concede that to be effectively absolute a moral code needs to be beyond human power to alter.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Betrayal at Microsoft

Nearly 10,000 iPhone users were accessing the Microsoft employee email system last year, say two people who heard the estimates from senior Microsoft executives. That figure equals about 10% of the company's global work force. ...

For many top Microsoft executives, seeing so many iPhones around the office is a bit like how a Coca-Cola Co. manager might feel seeing underlings drink Pepsi—especially since Microsoft makes its own operating system, Windows Phone, that powers handsets. ...

At a retreat last March for dozens of senior Microsoft executives at its corporate campus, someone asked about employee use of iPhones in a question-and-answer period.

According to several people present, Andy Lees, a Microsoft senior vice president who oversees development of the mobile-phone software business, and his boss, Robbie Bach, explained that Microsoft workers often use rival products to better understand the competition. ...

In what some employees interpreted as a sign that Microsoft was clamping down on the iPhone, the company in early 2009 modified its corporate cellphone policy to only reimburse service fees for employees using phones that run on Windows Phone software.

Microsoft has said it made the change as part of a broader cost-cutting plan.
--Nick Wingfield, WSJ, on mealy-mouth rationalizations. Kind of like John Edwards's public rationale for working at a hedge fund. HT: Gizmodo

Why I would not want to be a UC regent

Dozens of custodians, gardeners, bus drivers and cooks from the University of California snooped around picturesque Fort Baker in Sausalito the other day, trying to figure out where investors from Blum Capital Partners were holding an annual meeting.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Suburban state of mind

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Alicia Keys - Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorHealth Care reform

The brilliance of Jay-Z

Speaking of songs, I spent the past few days in New York City and decided that Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" was one of the five most brilliant songs ever made. It's like Jay made the decision: "It's 2009 … I've made enough money, I've cemented my legacy, I married Beyonce … really, I guess the only thing left would be to supplant Sinatra with the No. 1 New York-centric go-to song that (A) goes through someone's head every time they walk around Manhattan, and (B) gets played before and after every New York sporting event for the next 25 years, and if that's not enough, becomes a mortal lock to get played at Manhattan clubs once an hour for the rest of eternity. Tough task, but I think I can pull it off. I'm Jay-Z."
--Bill Simmons, ESPN.com, on the grip "Empire State of Mind" has on me

Go to your 25th reunion

Reunions are things that Jim [Auran, Harvard class of 1979] feels very strongly about, especially the 25th, the crowning anniversary of them all. “For 25 years I’ve had people tell me that the best week of their lives was their 25th reunion. I thought, well, you know, I guess I’m going to be let down.” Jim is exuberant and he starts talking quickly. “It was like going to Disney World!”

The reunions force roommates to get together. Everyone looks better, he says, more professional: the girls more mature, guys not bald yet and without paunches. You drop your car off and the football team comes and carries your bag. There is a gazebo in the Yard. The weather, of course, is always nice. ...

Ed [Harris ’79] came back too. One of the things that he says surprised him about the reunion was how little everybody had changed, how they had the same basic personalities.

But when asked if he’s kept in touch with his roommates he answers, “No.” He pauses. “We really haven’t kept in touch very well.” It was different in those days, he says, without e-mail or cell phones, and people spread out across the continent. “I’m very sorry we didn’t because, like I said, we were very good friends. Except for my wife, they were the best friends I’ve ever had.”
--Mark Chiusano, Harvard Crimson, on the best reunion of them all

More on James Sikes's Prius

Over a 23-minute period the 911 dispatcher repeatedly pleaded with Sikes to shift into neutral. He simply refused and then essentially stopped talking to her except to say that he thought he could smell his brakes burning. ...

He told CNN, "I was afraid to try to [reach] over there and put it in neutral. I was holding onto the steering wheel with both hands--94 miles an hour in a Toyota Prius is fast." Yet for much of the ride he had a phone in one hand. And this is especially interesting: Most gear shifts are on the console, requiring the hand to drop to shift. But, as this image shows, in the 2008 Prius it's located on the dash within inches of the steering wheel precisely to allow shifting without the hand leaving the wheel. I sat in one and did it easily.  ...

Sikes said his brakes had just been checked out a few weeks earlier, but during the incident he "was laying on the brakes. It was not slowing down." ...

Others have made similar claims, so Car & Driver magazine recently put them to the test. They found a V-6 Camry at full throttle could be stopped at 435 feet. But to really test the claim, they used a powerful 540-horsepower supercharged Roush Stage 3 Mustang. It took 903 feet, but stop it did. ... A video on the Web also demonstrates a 2008 Prius easily slowed to a stop with the accelerator fully depressed. ...

Now here's the potential smoking gun: Sikes told the reporters that "I was reaching down and trying to pull up on the gas pedal. It didn't move at all; it was stationary." That's awfully daring for somebody who insisted he didn't even want to take a hand off his steering wheel, notwithstanding that he did so to hold his phone. ...

I tried to imitate Sikes' alleged effort in a 2008 Prius. ... Only the tallest men could physically do what Sikes claimed he did and no press accounts refer his being exceptionally tall. ...

So why did he do it? Sleuth work at the Web sites Jalopnik.com and Gawker.com reveals that Sikes and his wife Patty in 2008 filed for bankruptcy and are over $700,000 in debt. Among their creditors is Toyota Financial Services for a lease on a 2008 Toyota Prius, with value at time of bankruptcy of $20,494. ...

Sikes also has a history of filing insurance claims for allegedly stolen items that are slowly coming to light.
--Michael Fumento, Forbes, on some smoking guns

A revisionist take on Prius acceleration problems

James Sikes, who made a dramatic 911 call from his Prius on Interstate 8 in San Diego earlier this week, is effectively claiming he had an electrical problem that affected his throttle, his brake, and his power system, because it took him over 20 minutes to stop his car.

Somehow no one in the press has asked Sikes how it is he could stop the car once it had slowed to 50 mph, but not when it was going 90 mph.  Have Balloon Boy and the finger-in-the-chili taught us nothing? ...

We went through this a generation ago with the Audi 5000 and other autos accused of sudden acceleration, and, again, mysterious unknowable car components were supposedly at fault. ...

Back then, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) spent millions studying the issue.  They found that sudden acceleration was several times more likely among elderly drivers than young drivers, and much more frequent among the very short or someone who had just gotten into a vehicle.

Electromagnetic rays don’t discriminate by age and height, which suggests very much that human factors were at play: in other words, pedal misapplication.  A driver would step on the wrong pedal, panic when the car did not perform as expected, continue to mistake the accelerator for the brake, and press down on the accelerator even harder. ...

The Los Angeles Times recently did a story detailing all of the NHTSA reports of Toyota “sudden acceleration” fatalities, and, though the Times did not mention it, the ages of the drivers involved were striking.

In the 24 cases where driver age was reported or readily inferred, the drivers included those of the ages 60, 61, 63, 66, 68, 71, 72, 72, 77, 79, 83, 85, 89—and I’m leaving out the son whose age wasn’t identified, but whose 94-year-old father died as a passenger.

These “electronic defects” apparently discriminate against the elderly, just as the sudden acceleration of Audis and GM autos did before them.  (If computers are going to discriminate against anyone, they should be picking on the young, who are more likely to take up arms against the rise of the machines and future Terminators).
--Theodore Frank, Washington Post, on why the Toyota problems may be bioelectrical malfunctions. HT: Marginal Revolution

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Jobs you didn't know are dangerous

Vasia Veremi may be only 28, but as a hairdresser in Athens, she is keenly aware that, under a current law that treats her job as hazardous to her health, she has the right to retire with a full pension at age 50. ...

[T]he Greek government has identified at least 580 job categories that are deemed to be hazardous enough to merit retiring early — at age 50 for women and 55 for men.

The law includes some predictably dangerous jobs like coal mining and bomb disposal. But it also covers positions like radio and television presenters who are thought to be at risk from the bacteria on their microphones and musicians playing wind instruments who must contend with gastric reflux as they puff and blow. 

As a consequence of decades of bargains struck between strong unions and weak governments, Greece has promised early retirement to about 700,000 employees, or 14 percent of its work force, giving it one the lowest average retirement ages in Europe at 61.
--Landon Thomas Jr., NYT, on why the Greek economy is at the abyss 

Damning with faint praise

I used to enjoy being mentioned with him.
--Derek Jeter on Nomar Garciaparra

Explosive debt path? Pshaw.

By the end of 2011 Greece’s debt will be around 150 percent of its gross domestic product. ...

Imagine if Greek interest rates rise to, say, 10 percent. This would be a modest premium for a country with the highest external public debt/G.D.P. ratio in the world, a country that continues (under the so-called austerity program) to refinance even the interest on that debt without actually paying a centime out of its own pocket... At such interest rates, Greece would need to send at total of 12 percent of G.D.P. abroad per year, once it rolls over the existing stock of debt to these new rates (nearly half of Greek debt will roll over within three years).

This is simply impossible and unheard of for any long period of history.

German reparation payments were 2.4 percent of gross national product from 1925 to 1932, and in the years immediately after 1982 the net transfer of resources from Latin America was 3.5 percent of G.D.P. (a fifth of its export earnings).  Neither of these were good experiences.

On top of all this, Greece’s debt, even under the International Monetary Fund’s mild assumptions, is on a non-convergent path even with the perceived “austerity” measures.  Bubble math is easy.  Hide all the names and just look at the numbers.  If debt looks as if it will explode as a percent of G.D.P., then a spectacular collapse is in the cards.
--Peter Boone and Simon Johnson, NYT, on impending Greek tragedy


Most international travel was halted, and public services thrown into disarray on Thursday as thousands of Greek workers protesting austerity measures staged a general strike.

All scheduled flights into and out of the country were canceled, international trains were not operating, bus and subway service was suspended, and ferries remained in their ports. Tax offices and courts shut down, and hospitals were operating with emergency staff. The streets, eerily empty early in the morning ahead of three scheduled protest rallies, were littered with mounds of trash as a strike at the city’s main landfill entered its sixth day. Hundreds of demonstrators clashed with police Thursday afternoon in central Athens and at least nine were detained, The Associated Press reported.
--Niki Kitsantonis, NYT, on the difficulty of rolling back spending even in the face of disaster


Students staged raucous rallies to protest education funding cuts on college campuses nationwide Thursday, but some demonstrations got out of hand as protesters threw punches and ice chunks in Wisconsin and shut down a major freeway in California during rush-hour traffic. ...

In Northern California, rowdy protesters blocked major gates at two universities and smashed the windows of a car.
--Terence Chea, Associated Press, on an example closer to home. U.S. federal government deficit as % of GDP: 10.6%. Greek government deficit as % of GDP: 12.7%.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Why the Chinese should work out

China must urgently address the physical fitness of the nation's youth or run the risk of raising a generation incapable of fighting the Japanese in a future war, the head of the country's top sports university said Thursday. ...

"It is time for the Chinese nation to improve the physical fitness of our next generation," said [Beijing Sports University president Yang Hua]. "If we miss the next three to five years a whole generation will be next to useless.

"If there was another war against Japan, would the younger Chinese be able to fight the Japanese one-on-one?"
--Reuters on motivation for the treadmill

How to game the CBO

[The Democrats are] going through the motions. They’ve stuffed the [health care] legislation with gimmicks and dodges designed to get a good score from the Congressional Budget Office but don’t genuinely control runaway spending.

There is the doc fix dodge. The legislation pretends that Congress is about to cut Medicare reimbursements by 21 percent. Everyone knows that will never happen, so over the next decade actual spending will be $300 billion higher than paper projections.

There is the long-term care dodge. The bill creates a $72 billion trust fund to pay for a new long-term care program. The sponsors count that money as cost-saving, even though it will eventually be paid back out when the program comes on line.

There is the subsidy dodge. Workers making $60,000 and in the health exchanges would receive $4,500 more in subsidies in 2016 than workers making $60,000 and not in the exchanges. There is no way future Congresses will allow that disparity to persist. Soon, everybody will get the subsidy.

There is the excise tax dodge. The primary cost-control mechanism and long-term revenue source for the program is the tax on high-cost plans. But Democrats aren’t willing to levy this tax for eight years. The fiscal sustainability of the whole bill rests on the na├»ve hope that a future Congress will have the guts to accept a trillion-dollar tax when the current Congress wouldn’t accept an increase of a few billion.

There is the 10-6 dodge. One of the reasons the bill appears deficit-neutral in the first decade is that it begins collecting revenue right away but doesn’t have to pay for most benefits until 2014. That’s 10 years of revenues to pay for 6 years of benefits, something unlikely to happen again unless the country agrees to go without health care for four years every decade.

There is the Social Security dodge. The bill uses $52 billion in higher Social Security taxes to pay for health care expansion. But if Social Security taxes pay for health care, what pays for Social Security?

There is the pilot program dodge. Admirably, the bill includes pilot programs designed to help find ways to control costs. But it’s not clear that the bill includes mechanisms to actually implement the results. This is exactly what happened to undermine previous pilot program efforts.
--David Brooks, NYT, on looking deficit neutral without being deficit neutral

The Ottoman refugee special interest group strikes in California

Ottoman Turkish Empire settlement payments. If you received settlement payments as a person persecuted by the regime that was in control of the Ottoman Turkish Empire from 1915 until 1923 your gross income does not include those excludable settlement payments, or interest, received by you, your heirs, or your estate for payments received on or after January 1, 2005. If you reported settlement payments on line 21, column A, enter the amount of settlement payments in column B.
--An actual paragraph in the California income tax form, Schedule CA (540). See other bizarre state tax provisos here. HT: Marginal Revolution.

Don't blame the ER

At the center of this discussion [of wasteful health care spending] are "unnecessary" ER visits for minor conditions—colds, headaches, and feverish babies—that could be handled more cheaply in doctors' offices. If we could only convince patients to take their stubbed toes to urgent-care clinics or primary-care offices instead of ERs, the thinking goes, we could save a load and help fix this whole health care fiasco.

But there are a few problems with this logic. While the past decade has seen dramatic increases in the use of emergency care and ER crowding, ER care is but a tiny portion of the U.S. health care pie: less than 3 percent. The claim that unnecessary visits are clogging the emergency care system is also untrue: Just 12 percent of ER visits are not urgent. People also tend to think ER visits cost far more than primary care, but even this is disputable. In fact, the marginal cost of treating less acute patients in the ER is lower than paying off-hours primary care doctors, as ERs are already open 24/7 to handle life-threatening emergencies. And while we're at it, let's dispel one other myth: Despite the belief that the uninsured and undocumented flood ERs, most emergency room patients are insured U.S. citizens.
--Zachary Meisel and Jesse Pines, Slate, on where the big health care savings ain't

Monday, March 8, 2010

Sleep by race

About one in every four Americans married or living with someone say they are so sleep-deprived that they are often too tired to have sex, according to a new study by the National Sleep Foundation. Lack of sleep also keeps many people from work and family functions, the report said. ...

Whites were the most likely — at a rate of about 1 in 10 — to have received a diagnosis of insomnia. Blacks were the most likely to have sleep apnea, about one in seven. 

Hispanics were most likely to be kept up at night worrying about work, money, relationships and health problems, with about three in every eight losing sleep over such concerns.

Asian-Americans slept the best of all, with five of every six saying they got a good night’s sleep at least a few nights a week. They were also less likely than members of other groups to watch television or drink alcohol before going to bed, and less likely to share a bed with a spouse or partner.
--New York Times on the upside of being Asian-American

Sunday, March 7, 2010

In defense of General Tso

But [Todd Kliman's] piece (and [Calvin] Trillin's) invokes some received foodie wisdom about Chinese cooking: That the stuff they make for themselves is better than the stuff they make for us. Chowhound types often fill message boards with their scorn for the ignorant diners who think "Chinese food" means General Tso and his sham, mongrel army.

Interestingly, this isn't really a question of high versus low cuisine, nor is it a question of native versus non-native chefs. The foodie line on the supremacy of authentic Chinese cooking pits one perceived "folk" consensus (everyday Chinese food, cooked by Chinese people, as Chinese people like it) against another (everyday Chinese food, cooked by Chinese people, as Americans like it). But it's important to note that what we understand as authentic Chinese cooking is often itself a hybridized beast to begin with: Dishes from Qingdao, for instance, feature pine nuts, creamed corn, and, according to the critic Robert Sietsema, a pervasive German influence. Qingdao-based Chinese food has an impure bloodline, in other words-and it can still be fantastic. Are we participating in a sort of knee-jerk exoticism if we decide that impure, American-based Chinese food is of a lesser order, by definition?
--Jonah Weiner, Slate, on appreciating American Chinese food

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Misplaced reality priorities

A South Korean couple addicted to an Internet game about raising a virtual child were arrested for neglecting their real 3-month-old daughter and letting her starve to death, news reports said.

The couple spent between four and six hours every day at Internet cafes in Suwon, a city just south of Seoul, and bottle-fed their baby only once a day, the Yonhap news agency and other South Korean media reported, citing police.

The couple found their baby dead on Sept. 24 when they returned home after playing online games at a nearby Internet cafe all night, Yonhap reported. ...

The couple, who met each other through an Internet chat site, was reportedly obsessed with a role-playing game called "Prius Online" in which they nurtured a virtual girl dubbed "Anima."
--Associated Press on virtual reality tragically trumping reality

Helicopter parenting to adults

[Lesley] Mitler is offering a high-end service that hopes to find a thriving market in unemployed 20-somethings. For $400 an hour, she is coaching recent college graduates in how to land their first job. Her business, Priority Candidates, has teamed up with Greenberg Educational Group, a tutoring company in New York that already specializes in SAT prep and college advising.

If Ms. Mitler’s model works, it will be because of those young people’s anxious parents, the ones who already have jobs, presumably good ones, and are tearing their nails out as their children move back in indefinitely. ...

Wealthy New York parents’ appetite for paying to provide an edge over the competition now kicks in earlier than ever, with prep services for preschool admissions a growing field. So perhaps it’s inevitable that private tutoring extend into adulthood as well.
--Susan Dominus, NYT, on the lucrative business of preying on parental anxieties

Friday, March 5, 2010

Behind the Facebook fortune lies great scumminess

Unfortunately, since the contents of [Mark Zuckerberg's] hard drive had not been made public, no one had the answers.

But now we have some. ...

In the fall of 2003, Harvard seniors Cameron Winklevoss, Tyler Winklevoss, and Divya Narendra were on the lookout for a web developer who could bring to life an idea the three say Divya first had in 2002: a social network for Harvard students and alumni. The site was to be called HarvardConnections.com.

The three had been paying Victor Gao, another Harvard student, to do coding for the site, but at the beginning of the fall term Victor begged off the project. Victor suggested his own replacement: Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard sophomore from Dobbs Ferry, New York. ...

Mark reportedly showed enthusiastic interest in the project.

Later that night, Mark wrote an email to the Winklevoss brothers and Divya: "I read over all the stuff you sent and it seems like it shouldn't take too long to implement, so we can talk about that after I get all the basic functionality up tomorrow night." ...

In December, 2003, a week after Mark's first meeting with the HarvardConnection team, when he was telling the Winklevosses that he was too busy with schoolwork to work on or even think about HarvardConnection.com, Mark was telling [Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin] a different story.  On December 7, 2003, we believe Mark sent Eduardo the following IM:
Check this site out: www.harvardconnection.com and then go to harvardconnection.com/datehome.php. Someone is already trying to make a dating site. But they made a mistake haha. They asked me to make it for them. So I'm like delaying it so it won't be ready until after the facebook thing comes out.
--Nicholas Carlson, Business Insider, on Facebook's double-crossing origins


Sometime during the 14 days leading up to May 28 -- the editors at Harvard's student newspaper, the Crimson, received an email in the their "tips" inbox from Cameron Winklevoss, one of the founders of ConnectU.

This email presented the argument Cameron Winklevoss, Tyler Winklevoss, and Divvya Narenda had already brought to Harvard's Administration Board and to Mark Zuckerberg -- that TheFacebook.com was the product of Mark Zuckerberg's fraud against the ConnectU team. ...

[P]erhaps a day or so later, the Winklevoss brothers reached out to Tim McGinn again, this time to tell him that another Harvard rower -- one named John Thomson -- had told them that Mark had stolen something for TheFacebook from him, too. ...
 
Mark Zuckerberg was not content to wait until the morning to find out if the Crimson would include John's accusations in its story.

Instead, he decided to access the email accounts of Crimson editors and review their emails.  How did he do this?  Here's how Mark described his hack to a friend:

Mark used his site, TheFacebook.com, to look up members of the site who identified themselves as members of the Crimson.  Then he examined a log of failed logins to see if any of the Crimson members had ever entered an incorrect password into TheFacebook.com.  If the cases in which they had entered failed logins, Mark tried to use them to access the Crimson members' Harvard email accounts.  He successfully accessed two of them.

In other words, Mark appears to have used private login data from TheFacebook to hack into the separate email accounts of some TheFacebook users.
--Nicholas Carlson, Business Insider, on Mark Zuckerberg's questionable online ethics

The passion between the sexes, 18th century edition

[T]he best arguments for the perfectibility of man are drawn from a contemplation of the great progress that he has already made from the savage state, and the difficulty of saying where he is to stop. But towards the extinction of the passion between the sexes, no progress whatever has hitherto been made. It appears to exist in as much force at present as it did two thousand, or four thousand years ago.
--Thomas Malthus, 1787, An Essay on the Principle of Population

Why Polaroid went bankrupt

We knew we needed to change the fan belt, but we couldn't stop the engine.
--Former Polaroid CEO Gary DiCamillo using an apt metaphor for being locked into your old business model

Your average six-figure federal government employee

Overall, federal workers earned an average salary of $67,691 in 2008 for occupations that exist both in government and the private sector, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The average pay for the same mix of jobs in the private sector was $60,046 in 2008, the most recent data available.

These salary figures do not include the value of health, pension and other benefits, which averaged $40,785 per federal employee in 2008 vs. $9,882 per private worker, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
--Dennis Cauchon, USA Today, on getting compensated 44% more *and* having lifetime job security. HT: Marginal Revolution

The meager returns from cash for gold

As the price of gold hovers near historic highs of more than $1,000 an ounce, consumers have faced a barrage of flashy billboards, glaring electronic signs, and high-octane television advertisements promising they can make a mint by trading in unwanted jewelry. ...

To find out just how much gold jewelry might fetch, the Globe purchased three pairs of identical 14-karat gold hoop earrings at a local department store; each pair had a retail price of $160, and a sale price of $62.

First, an independent gold coin dealer - Miles Coggan, a rare coin and precious metals specialist who co-owns JJ Teaparty in Downtown Crossing - was asked to estimate the actual value of the gold in the earrings. His finding: $14.65 a pair.

The Globe then sent a pair of earrings to each of two mail-in cash-for-gold companies, and awaited a check for their value. The third pair was taken to a jewelry shop and, later, to a mall kiosk that buys jewelry.

So what did the earrings fetch on the gold buying market? Between $3 and $7. ...

When the Globe attempted to sell its gold earrings, it was a challenge to find out how much each company would pay per gram or ounce. None advertised rates or answered direct questions about pricing structures. ...

On the day of the earrings transaction last month, Cash4Gold was paying $6.51 per pennyweight, according to a supervisor, which the Globe calculated to be about $9.75 a gram. For most of February, the fair market value of 24-karat gold - its purest form - was about $36 a gram.
--Megan Woolhouse, Boston Globe, on the steep bid-ask spread of retail gold sales