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February 19, 2011

Yet all this is penny-ante stuff. The real money is in entitlements. And the real scandal of this budget is that Obama doesn’t touch them. Not Social Security. Not Medicaid. Not Medicare.

Charles Krauthammer, National Review Online

I don’t expect Democratic presidents to touch this stuff, though they should.  But it’s not like Republicans helped by explicitly campaigning against Democrats for cutting Medicare payments in the Affordable Care Act.

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A Funny Definition of “Unusual”

January 10, 2011

As horrible as what happened this weekend is, the fact of the matter is that political assassinations are extremely rare and it’s simply not the case that the country faces some kind of systematic assassination problem. What’s we do have in the United States is an unusually high level of violent crime across the board, but pulling police resources off their day-to-day work and onto personal security for politicians is going to make that worse.

Matt Yglesias

I am interested to find out what Matt Yglesias means by the word “unusual,” or “high” for that matter. In 1992, roughly 1.93 million violent crimes occurred among 252 million Americans. In 2009, roughly 1.32 violent crimes occurred among 307 million Americans—the lowest total since 1984, when the population was 30% less than it was today.

Matt Yglesias falls prey to the exact availability bias he fears will cause Americans to overreact to the assassination attempt this weekend. But despite anecdotal, “No Country For Old Men”-esque nostalgia for an America where you didn’t have to lock the doors, America is a far safer place across the board than it has been for decades, the culmination of a trend that has continued since the beginning of the Clinton Administration.  So color me unimpressed with any arguments that adding personal security to a few skittish representatives will do anything to stem this tide.

Plan Z

December 25, 2010

Reading about Hawaii Gov. Abercrombie’s efforts to release more evidence that Barack Obama was in fact born in this country gave me a new idea to resolve these tricky budget deficits: allow only birthers to serve as jurors.  These proud patriots will by their skeptical nature redefine the “reasonable” in reasonable doubt, leading to less convictions and smaller prison populations.

pReconceived, decADe-long genIus, Or HappEnsAtnce misinterpreteD?

December 15, 2010

My buddy Joe turned me on to this:

There’s a way to combine the tracks from OK Computer (hereinafter referred to as 01) and In Rainbows (hereinafter referred to as 10), to form one huge mega-album. As Puddlegum explains, “To create the 01 and 10 playlist, begin with OK Computer’s track one, “Airbag,” and follow this with In Rainbow’s track one, “15 Step.” Alternate the albums, track by track, until you reach “Karma Police” on OK Computer, making “All I Need” the tenth track on the 01 and 10 playlist.” It’s not that they sound nice together; it’s that these songs were definitely meant to make us shit our pants when played like this. In the way that “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight” and “The End” all flow into each other on The Beatles’ Abbey Road, these songs all flow into one another as well, as if they were all recorded in one big session.

From Cracked: 10 Mind-Blowing Easter Eggs Hidden in Famous Albums

Honestly… I don’t know. The tracks certainly play together like a great roadtrip mix, or at the very least a good greatest hits compilation. But as someone who moonlighted as a college radio DJ, I can say that the transitions aren’t as clean as you would expect if the mix was intentional.

Mastered records for one thing are meant to maintain a consistent feel between tracks. To the extent that is true feels like happenstance. Many of the tracks in both of these records end without ambient noise at the end. That certainly helps.

But even where that is true, some of the sequencing just doesn’t feel quite right.  Electioneering ends with a downward crescendo and a long string sound at the end, and Reckoning abruptly cuts in with a breakbeat as if divorced from the transition of its intended context.  Hmm, but the transition in the original isn’t actually that much better.  But if Radiohead intended these to be played together (at least in this order), wouldn’t they have used samples from OK Computer at the beginning and ends of each In Rainbows track to produce continuity?  Right?

For another, where ambient noise ends a track as in Exit Music, it does not always flow well into the corresponding song (Weird Fishes).  The Cracked folks suggest cross-fading tracks 10 seconds to maximize the effect, but as my bud Kurt says, “couldn’t you make that argument for any songs by the same band?”

One critical way of viewing this project is that it exposes Radiohead as a band that sequences its tracks similarly across records. The feel might be similar in these records because they’ve just decided to take us on the same emotional trip again.

It also reminds me of the time in high school I had a dispute with my friends about whether Pink Floyd really did intend to match Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz.  I couldn’t believe that pure coincidence could explain so many synchronicities.

So we decided to put it to a test: we’d match an equally seminal children’s movie with another fantastic classic rock album and see if they matched.  If they did, well . . . Occam’s Razor.

It didn’t take long for Occam to rear his ugly, efficient head as we started the White Album on Bugs Bunny’s second carrot bite in the prelude to Gene Wilder’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  The beats of Back in the U.S.S.R. matched perfectly with the chocolate drops in the opening scene, Veruca Salt whined for a golden goose over “Cry Baby Cry”, and Revolution 9 was pretty damn trippy with that crazy, smoking locomotive contraption near the end of the movie.  “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” mocked Charlie as he snuck away an Everlasting Gobstopper.  It was perfect.  Better than the Oz/Pink Floyd connection.

But hey, maybe it’s the versions of the songs I’m using.  Maybe the cross-fade trick really was intended by Yorke & Co.  Maybe keeping exclusive company with Learned Hand has dulled my imagination.  On the bright side, the idea has encouraged me to revisit two truly great records in an interesting way.  Try to listen to it for yourself with this handy Grooveshark playlist.

Mo’ Mandates, Mo’ Problems

December 15, 2010

Nick asks in the comments:

Why do you think the penalties in this mandate were so toothless to begin with? Do you think it would have been substantially more difficult to get this component of the healthcare package through congress if the included penalties were more severe?

I think that’s an interesting question.  My instinct is:

1. The Obama Administration is heavily influenced by behavioral economists such as Larry Summers and Cass Sunstein, who both hold prominent roles in the cabinet.  They believe the nudging effect of the mandate is really what is at issue, not the deterrence.

2.  It is a Pigouvian tax.  The point is not to get people to buy insurance if they don’t want it.  It is to force people to internalize the externalities they impose on the country when they go around without health insurance.  The penalty allows the government to capture some of these costs while forcing people to indirectly take them into account in their cost-benefit analysis.  Perhaps some people value insurance coverage at $9000 a year for their family, and $11,000 a year isn’t worth it.  The penalty might push them over the edge.  Or not.  Unlike most crimes, the efficient level of coverage might not be zero, as it might be best for some folks not to purchase health insurance.  It’s unlike that my decision not to buy insurance for $11,000 actually costs society $11,000; it may be something like $2000.  This policy might encourage a socially optimal result.  Of course it’s really hard to set taxes like this precisely because we have little information about people’s internal preferences.

3.  It was done for political reasons.  The Obama administration knew it had to produce a budget-neutral bill and this provides extra funding.  Or it was a compromise to satisfy the Hillary Clinton/Tom Daschle camps, and Obama really could care less philosophically about mandates or no.  Or, like Nick suggests, they wanted the mandates higher but Congress couldn’t stomach it.  I doubt this last scenario because of Obama’s opposition to the idea during his campaign, and I believe, his philosophy that doing so would amount to punishing people for being unable to afford insurance.  Shit happens to people’s budgets and it would be unfair for the government to efficiently deter folks just because money gets stretched thin and insurance has to go.

Why the death of the insurance mandate doesn’t matter that much

December 14, 2010

The idea for this post came, from of all places, an interesting and lengthy Facebook discussion. I thought it would be better to expound upon my views on my blog for posterity instead of studying for my impending Copyrights exam.

My argument is that the insurance mandate in its current form would not have been effective at stopping those who want to game the system. It should be obvious that many people who currently do not have insurance don’t buy it because of a lack of means, not will. In other words, they simply can’t afford it. Hence the Affordable Care Act.

The primary impetus for a mandate arises out of the general fear that people will not buy insurance because they a) are too lazy to bother filling out forms, or b) will wait until the moment before they need insurance to purchase it, passing on the costs to everyone else in the form of higher premiums. Optimistic technocrats like Cass Sunstein favor the mandate for the first reason—it nudges them into acting in their self-interest. More pessimistic (though arguably less paternalistic) folks favor it for the second—it deters them from acting in their self-interest. I am not sure how many folks fall into category a, and for those I am willing to concede that some would sign up for insurance.  It is a bigger hassle to deal with the IRS than it is to deal with an insurance company. This is the brave new world of libertarian paternalism, and it frightens me. I digress.

I am wholly unconvinced that the mandate has any effect on category b. First, I doubt the fear is justified. Certainly people who think that they can call up an insurance company on the way to the ambulance vastly over-estimate the efficiency and service of America’s private bureaucracies. Insurance companies have no incentive to speed up their client sign-up process to facilitate “on-the-way” purchases. They still need to run their actuarial models to determine premium prices and such. A larger problem results from those who would purchase insurance a few weeks ahead of elective surgery, such as to fix a bum knee. Employer-based health insurance is typically integrated into compensation, so presumably only those who are not afforded these benefits through their job would be candidates to try something like this.

However, the mandate in its current form does not have a harsh enough punishment to actually deter anyone who would try to take advantage of the Act’s prohibition on discriminating against those who have preexisting conditions. Right now, the individual penalty is a minimum of $95 per annum—up to 1% of income—and a maximum penalty of roughly $2000 for families. The current penalty simply would not provide the needed deterrence.

Any punishment is geared towards those who must be deterred, not those who are naturally law abiding, whether out of self-interest or risk aversion. Let’s take the example of bank robbery. There are three types of people: a) those who wouldn’t rob a bank regardless of illegality, b) those who wouldn’t rob one because of the fact of illegality, but not fear of punishment, and c) those who are only deterred by the punishment. The penalty for bank robbery is aimed only at category c, otherwise we wouldn’t punish at all. So among category c folks, any effective punishment must exceed the expected value of the crime. If a bank robbery nets you, say, $11,000 on average, and the punishment is $700, the expected value of robbery is positive. The punishment thus does not deter me from robbing banks.

Similarly, let’s say I derive no or minimal benefit from the security of year-round health insurance, and would just pay premiums at the moment I need coverage if I could. Insurance imposes a cost of $11,000 a year to me on average, while the penalty is somewhere between $95 and $2000. The expected value of not purchasing insurance is positive, hence it cannot deter me from failing to buy it.

The mandate in its current form is clearly effective as a deterrent only to the degree that it affects those who refrain from doing illegal activities merely because they are illegal, and not from fear of the punishment. If you think this number is substantial, fair enough. But I point to marijuana possession, speeding, copyright infringement and jaywalking as pretty strong counter-examples. The mandate imposes no criminal sanctions, and you can’t go to jail for willfully flaunting it. Thus, unless we substantially raise the penalties for noncompliance well above the cost of insurance to account for probability of detection, a more effective strategy is not to make it illegal, but to establish social norms. Norms like “continuous insurance is in each person’s self-interest,” or “purchasing it is a public duty akin to refraining from burglary” would work.  I’m sure Cass Sunstein is working on some method of mass inception to plant these ideas in our collective subconscious as we speak.

While it is regrettable that the “nudge” effect will be lost, there are plenty of other constitutional ways to get lazy folks to buy insurance, such as opt-out policies, tax incentives for the chronically part-time employed (above and beyond the substantial subsidies already provided by the Act), and requiring purchase as a pre-condition to receiving other federal benefits such as unemployment insurance.

And finally, even if the mandate in its current form is essential to the cost-cutting function of the bill, it does nothing to affect its primary moral purpose—to end rescission and expand coverage for those who currently can’t afford it. The budget concern was mostly a conservative one. So long as the Senate remains at least 40% Democratic and Obama has veto powers, the law will at worst be more expensive but roughly intact come 2014.  In fact, President Obama himself opposed mandates while he was a candidate.  Justice Kennedy may do him a favor if he ends up siding with the other conservative justices who would likely strike down the mandate.

Sports and Intellectual Honesty

July 9, 2010

It’s actually kind of funny that I came back to blogging after a 6 month hiatus to excoriate the King James Decision when my previous post rationalized the Lane Kiffin Debacle.  Just to be clear on how the two positions reconcile:

  • The problem with LeBron leaving isn’t that he is leaving.  If he wanted to win, it would probably have been insane to stay in Cleveland.  That’s fine.  It’s that the way he’s gone about it is disrespectful, and clearly calculated to get the city’s hopes up.
  • Lane Kiffin is still a dirtbag.  I’m just saying the Vols deserved it. Anyways, its fitting that USC got slapped with crippling sanctions as soon as he got there.
  • Thus it is ok for me to criticize one player for the way he leaves while feeling no sympathy for the fans being left in similar fashion due to the way the previous coach was fired.

I probably would have taken the Kiffin approach to Cleveland if Cavs fans were ever anything but grateful and supportive when they came up short in the playoffs for so many years.  But my understanding is that Cleveland fans were not known for calling LeBron a choke artist or questioning his lack of heart.  So while the distinction is probably unsatisfactory on a superficial level, I think the relationship between the player/coach and the city/team is important in determining how said player/coach should move on to other opportunities.