Tuesday, December 3, 2013

December Donations: Deworm The World

Over this month, I plan to give away over $10,000 to the best charitable and political causes I can find.

First off is $2,000 to Deworm the World. Medicine to cure children's parasitic worm infections costs about 35 cents per child. DtW has been working with local governments in India to administer school deworming programs, particularly in the state of Bihar where about 2/3 of children have some kind of worm infection. I've given DtW a lot of money before, and I'm happy to do so again, as GiveWell has recently named them one of the 3 most cost-effective ways to help people.

You can see the thing I wrote previously about Deworm the World here. Since then, a couple things have changed. On the downside, it looks like the "two cents for an extra day of school" thing applied only in one situation where flooding had gotten so many kids so sick with worms that you could actually buy an extra day of school for every two cents donated. That doesn't usually happen. But on the upside, Deworm the World has come under new management that has made a lot more information about what they're doing available, leading to the GiveWell recommendation. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Most Americans Don't Remember JFK's Assassination, Because They Weren't Alive

The median age of Americans is 36.8 years, and from the graph at right it looks like about a third of us are over age 50. So 50 years later, the country is mostly populated by people who don't remember where they were when Kennedy was assassinated, because they weren't anywhere.

I don't really know how significantly the assassination changed history. Lyndon Johnson was probably the most significant president after FDR, with impressive achievements on civil rights, Medicare, and the War on Poverty, and a disaster in Vietnam. How do all those things go in the counterfactual scenario where Kennedy becomes president? My impression is that his approach wouldn't be too different from Johnson's, but I'm not at all confident about this. If it's true that it would've all gone more or less the same way, the assassination becomes more a moment of Baby Boomer cultural memory than a turning point in the history of anything that matters. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Reid Goes Nuclear

Harry Reid has just carried out the "nuclear option", eliminating the filibuster for executive branch and non-Supreme judicial nominations. All Democrats in the Senate supported the effort, except for red-staters Mark Pryor and Joe Manchin, who have an excuse, and general opponent of change Carl Levin, whose impending retirement will end his time as the Least Valuable Player in the Democratic caucus.

The timing is pretty good. It would've been especially good to fill executive branch vacancies faster, but at least the judicial vacancies can now be filled by the end of Obama's second term, letting Democrats refresh the bench with lots of smart young judges. Some of them will be appellate and Supreme Court nominees someday.

I see that Scott Lemieux is saying this is probably the most important vote of Obama's second term. Sounds right to me. Scott's been saying good things about Harry Reid, and I agree with that too. I wish we'd gotten here sooner, but the delay is probably more the fault of the Carl Levin types than anything Reid could control. Reid has been an excellent Senate Majority (and briefly Minority) Leader. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Bailouts For The 99%

As Yglesias writes, it's hard to write legislation separating the socially beneficial side of the finance industry (like airlines using derivatives to hedge against unpredictable changes in fuel costs, without which they'd go bankrupt whenever fuel costs jump) from the speculative side where people are just gambling and can be bailed out if their bad bets wreck the economy. He's responding to John Quiggin's piece here

I thought I'd say a bit more about bailouts. Mere promises never to support more bailouts aren't worth the paper they aren't written on. Once a big enough financial crisis looms, policymakers will have to do something to prevent economic catastrophe. If bailing out banks is the only feasible way to do that, that's the policy we'll get. Quiggin's proposal to shrink the financial sector would solve this problem by eliminating the problem of financial institutions being too big to fail by just preventing the from being too big. The problem is how to implement it, eliminating the gambling while preserving the hedging. 

Setting up policies for stabilizing the economy in the face of financial crisis, but which don't involve bailing out banks, would be a good way to go. For example, you could allow the Federal Reserve, in times of crisis, to simply print enough money and distribute it evenly among all residents of the USA. Then if the financial crisis led to people losing their jobs and incomes, free money from the Fed would provide a cushion. It'd probably do a lot to prevent the job losses in the first place, as the anticipated introduction of new money would counteract the forecasted economic gloom that leads to layoffs and recessions. And it'd prevent banks from gambling with the expectation that they'll be bailed out, because the bailouts wouldn't go to the gamblers. If that's a major factor in the growth of the financial sector (I don't know if it is, but to whatever extent it is, it should stop) it'd be a way of implementing Quiggin's financial sector shrinking agenda. 

Obviously there are massive political obstacles here and we might never get circumstances where we'd be able to pass such a thing. But if we're talking about a legislative proposal that would actually have the right effects, this seems to be one. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Medicaid Expansion Needs to Happen Sooner Rather Than Later

The New York Times had a big piece this weekend on the pinch felt by community hospitals in states that are not expanding Medicaid to cover everyone -- mostly the working poor -- who have incomes under 133% of the Federal Poverty Line.

To review, in the pre-ACA world, the federal government funneled extra money to hospitals that served an unusually large number of Medicaid & uninsured patients. This helps these hospitals make up for the fact that Medicaid and uninsured patients tend to pay a lot less. The ACA includes a significant boost in Medicaid reimbursements, and should lead to a decline in the number of uninsured patients between the individual mandate and Medicaid expansion. In theory these changes should help safety-net hospitals become less reliant on DSH payments. In practice, however,  twenty-four states run by troglodytes have rejected Medicaid expansion, and will thus voluntarily decimate their safety-net hospitals.

Illinois should thank Republican governor of Wisconsin and state legislature of Missouri for any new hospitals
that are built in the next five years.
The impact of this decision on states' economies and political economies is likely to be significant. Some estimates suggest that Medicaid expansion may increase a city's economic output by as much as 2-3%. Medical professionals and for-profit hospital managers will have significant incentives to gravitate towards states that have accepted the Medicaid expansion. If Jay Nixon (D-MO) manages to hammer out a Medicaid expansion compromise with his Republican legislature while Sam Brownback (R-KS) sits on his hands, the Kansas side of Kansas City will suffer relative to the Missouri side. State-level Medical Associations and especially Hospital Associations will have tremendous incentive to become 100% Democratic donors at least at the federal level, and to back any Democratic candidates for governor or state legislature that appear viable.

The White House blog notes that the number of states accepting the original expansion of Medicaid under LBJ exactly matches the expansion under Obama, and that over the next four years, all but two states decided the expansion was worthwhile. Thus the current state of Medicaid expansion is not without precedent, even if it's completely immoral.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Foreign Aid, Perception and Reality

I like Dylan Matthews' argument that we should actually give a really huge chunk of money to foreign aid -- maybe the 28% of the budget that Americans think we're giving. It looks like you can save the life of someone in another country with health interventions against AIDS, insecticide-treated bednets to prevent malaria, or deworming pills for under $5000 a year.  Devoting a big chunk of the federal budget to causes like this would be of enormous benefit to humanity, and that's what utilitarians like me care about.

I was thinking about why Americans think 28% of the budget is going to foreign aid when it's only 1%. I wonder if most Americans are categorizing foreign aid in the same way that pundits talking about the budget usually do. A huge portion of the federal budget is directed overseas -- in particular, to military spending. And a lot of military spending has gone to endeavors that could be confused with some kind of foreign aid, on a broad definition of the term -- nation-building endeavors alongside military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance. Maybe that's part of why so many Americans think such a huge percentage goes to foreign aid.

Obviously this isn't anything like the aid Dylan supports. It'd be a real misfortune if opposition to excessive "foreign aid" was to expensive nation-building projects that operated alongside military operations, and it frightened politicians away from doing genuinely beneficial humanitarian work. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Meat Substitute Branding Thoughts (I Want To Eat Dragon)

If you invent a tasty new fake meat, but it isn't really like any particular real meat like beef or pork or chicken, I'd suggest giving it the name of a mythical creature. I'd like to eat unicorn or hydra or phoenix or dragon.

The image is from these folks.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

National Standardization Of Voting Laws

It was fairly obvious to everyone that Republican voter ID laws were attempts to stop Democrats from winning elections by preventing black people from voting. After the Buncombe County GOP chairman said it in so many words to a Daily Show reporter, it's out there in public. 

If Democrats somehow win back the House of Representatives in 2014, some sort of national standardization of voting laws should be on the agenda, to stop local authorities from erecting frivolous barriers to voting. As always has been the case, federal action is the way to defeat a racist majority in state government that is determined to prevent black people from voting. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Assorted Thoughts on the Seattle/Tacoma UFCW non-strike

Unionized workers at several grocery store chains--Safeway, Albertson's, and the Kroger-owned Fred Meyer and QFC--will stay on the job after negotiators reached a tentative agreement last night. The main sticking point seems to have been health insurance coverage for part time workers. The current contract provides some level of insurance to part-time employees working 16 hours per weekweek. Management sought to limit insurance coverage to employees who 30 hours per week, those who meet the definition of "full-time" under the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare.
  • Management's position here is similar to, though less generous than, Trader Joe's. TJ's decided to give its part-time employees $500/year to purchase insurance on the exchange while dropping their employer-sponsored insurance coverage. They claim that for part-time workers for whom the job at TJ's is their only job, this is a much better deal. It's quite possible they're correct.
  • Simply dropping employer-sponsored coverage in exchange for nothing is a raw deal. It's just a reduction in compensation. If management had been offering a raise, that would be different, but instead they were trying to cut entry-level wages and eliminate paid sick leave.
  • Economists like to say that benefits are "compensation", and that any cut in benefits should  result in higher cash wages for workers. While that may be true in the long term, it's not always going to be true in the short term.
  • If the we want some or all of surplus generated by insurance cuts to flow to workers, we need to think about how to boost employee bargaining power, which has drastically deteriorated in man job sectors over the last fifty years.
  • Unions whose employees are likely to qualify for subsidized insurance ought to think about fighting for higher cash wages, or defined-benefit pensions, rather than non-cash compensation.
  • Employers who can easily rely on part-time workers, such as retailers, can engage in all sorts of scheduling games to prevent employees from qualifying for benefits. Requiring employers to provide benefits for part-time workers prevents them from wasting managerial time and effort playing these games.
  • This whole episode could be avoided, or at least mitigated, by replacing the 30-hour cliff with some measurement of full-time equivalents and require a certain level of insurance per FTE.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Medical Device Tax Is Good Political Economy

One of the odd pieces of shutdown/debt ceiling negotiations has been an obsession in Washington with a 2.3% tax on medical devices included as part of the Affordable Care Act. Ezra Klein says "there's no obvious justification for the medical device tax", which, in pure policy terms I suppose is "mostly true". There's some deadweight loss, there will be slightly fewer jobs and slightly less innovation in the field. Whether or not that's a good price to pay for the revenue gained by the tax is an empirical and phisophical question. Note that there is some concern among health care wonks that medical devices are overutilized, particularly the subcategory of durable medical equipment.

But at the level of political economy, the medical device tax is a good tax. Most health care industry trade groups—insurers, drug manufacturers, hospital associations, etc.—decided that they would rather be at least a reluctant partner in the ACA's passage and negotiate some sort of industry-wide fee, tax, or federal spending cut in exchange for a tremendous expansion of their customer base. This lead to some unseemly results such as the White House opposing Democratic efforts to bring down the cost of prescription drugs as the price of PhrMA's cooperation.  The trade group for medical device manufacturers—the Advance Medical Technology Association—refused to play ball. The tax is thus a combination of (1) a way to gain revenue, (2) an attempt to compensate for perceived overuse & mispricing of medical devices, and (3) a penalty for the trade group's intransigence. The trade group is now trying to wriggle out from their previous mistakes.

This is the big leagues. In 2009, the AMTA played the lobbying game and lost. Now in 2013, they're trying again and losing. If device manufacturers want the tax repealed while Barack Obama is in the White House, they should try tying to something Democrats might actually care about. Fix the "family glitch". Replace the 30-hour "full time employee" cliff with some sort of full-time equivalency measurement. But attaching repeal or delay to reopening the government at sequestration levels of spending? That's not a ransom note that the Obama Administration should sign.

Monday, October 14, 2013

How To Negotiate Your Party Into Extremism, In Three Easy Steps

1) Congressional Republicans threaten to do something extreme in negotiations with Democrats. For example, "We're not going to raise the debt ceiling unless you accept the repeal of Obamacare." It's just a negotiating ploy -- they really think the debt ceiling should be raised, but they're trying to extract concessions by making threats.

2) So that they don't look like hostage-takers, they want to seem like they're making principled demands rather extreme threats. So they argue that the threatened scenarios really fit their principles. For example, "Not raising the debt ceiling is necessary to keep us from going broke."

3) The Republican base believes them. After all, the opposing views are coming from Democrats and the mainstream media, whom they don't trust. So many Republicans think not raising the debt ceiling is necessary to keep America from going broke -- even though it triggers debt default, which actually constitutes going broke!

Do this over and over again, and people in your party start to have views on major issues that weren't even believed by the people who initially expressed them. I don't know whether Ted Yoho is a cruder example of the politicians in (2) or one of the base voters in (3) who managed to win a primary. Probably he's an amalgam of both. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Republican Extremism Is Bottom-Up

As Dave Weigel points out, it's not really a few dozen crazy Republicans provoking the government shutdown. It's Republican primary voters all across America. They hate Obamacare and they're willing to defeat anybody who doesn't take a sufficiently hard line against it, just like they've been defeating a long line of electable Republicans in Senate primaries.

Ted Cruz may be the star of the movement, but his role was to bring a particular extreme political option within the scope of Tea Party hopes and dreams so that the Republican base would pressure their legislators to pursue it, not to build a coalition of legislators by himself on Capitol Hill. That's what I'm liking about him -- he strengthened the force that's tearing the Republican Party apart, and it should help Democrats win more legislative races next year, as it did in the last two cycles. One hopes that these forces don't tear apart the country, but assuming that we can pass budgets and debt ceiling increases, the majoritarian structures of democracy provide protection against that.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Photography is probably non-essential, so here's the last photo on the Whitehouse Flickr feed. Original caption: "President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden listen as they are updated on the federal government shutdown and the approaching debt ceiling deadline, in the Oval Office, Oct. 1, 2013. From left, Kathryn Ruemmler, Counsel to the President, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Director of OMB, and Alyssa Mastromonaco, Deputy Chief of Staff"

Today's Kitsch Cover is the Watson Twins performing The Cure's "Just Like Heaven":

Thursday, October 3, 2013

More on the Troglodytes running Southern States, Wisconsin, and parts of the Interior West

21 year-old Chad Henderson is getting lots of calls from reporters. I wanted to highlight this snippet from WaPo's Sarah Kliff:
Henderson is a part-time worker at a day-care center. He did not qualify for tax credits to purchase health coverage because his income is below the poverty line. Since Georgia is not expanding the Medicaid program, that meant Henderson was essentially responsible for his entire premium.
...
Henderson purchased a health insurance plan with a $175 monthly premium. While that price does fit in his budget, he was also hoping for a better deal.
100% of FPL is $957 a month. Chad Henderson earns less than that, and he's going to spend $175 of it on health insurance.

This is the flesh-and-blood consequence of state-level Republican lawmakers—and let us not mince words here, Republicans control at least one of the branches of government in the only states that have not expanded Medicaid— choosing not to expand Medicaid to cover the poorest of the poor. For merely the cost of administering the expansion, states had the opportunity to cover all their citizens earning less than 133% of the Federal Poverty Line. Instead people like Chad Henderson will fork over a hefty chunk of their paycheck every month in insurance premiums.

And Henderson's situation isn't even that bad. A 62-year old retiree—someone who might have lived a life full of physically taxing low-wage jobs—might have retirement benefits that are still below the poverty line. But their premiums would run in the $550-650 range. Remember, for one in five retirees, Social Security is their only form of income. If someone fitting this description lives in the Deep South, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas, etc., they will have to send half their paycheck to their health insurance company to get coverage. All because their Governor or State House Speaker or State Senate President didn't want to participate in a nationwide Medicaid expansion.

I don't understand how anyone can call this behavior anything other than immoral.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

For Obamacare Purposes, Your Income May Be Lower Than Your Salary

As people are beginning to navigate the five-question Obamacare flowchart, it's important to remember that the Affordable Care Act defines "income" as "Modified Adjusted Gross Income". Many line items on form 1040 that people commonly refer to as "deductions" are technically "adjustments to income", meaning that they will not count as income for purposes of determining Medicaid or subsidy eligibility. Most importantly, tax-favored retirement contributions (401k, deductible IRA, SEP, SIMPLE), student loan interest for low-income & middle-class households, and alimony do not count as income for Medicaid/subsidy eligibility. Other pre-tax employer deductions, such as commuter expenses, daycare FSAs, and the like, also don't count as income.

Another important note is that Social Security income, which is non-taxable for many people, does count as income under the ACA.

The Berkley Labor Center put together list of what counts as income under Obamacare, which you might find handy.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Your Five-Step Guide to Obamacare Week

While the Republican House GOP clown show continues, the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, frequently called "Obamacare" will press on, at least in those states that have state-based exchanges.

The basic structure of the Affordable Care Act is fairly simple. To understand how Obamacare will affect you, you need to know the answers to five questions:
  • Are you insured by the government today? If so, then nothing will change. You can stop reading this post and do something more interesting with your life.
  • Does your employer provide insurance? If so, you need to know the answer to a follow-up question: is your employer's insurance good insurance? If it's decent insurance -- no annual or lifetime caps on coverage; reasonable co-pays, deductibles, and coinsurance -- then nothing changes.

    If your employer only offers crappy insurance, they will  need to start providing real insurance. If they don't, you'll go buy your own policy on the exchange. Most employees -- about nine out of every ten -- get decent insurance through their employer. Only one in ten employees will need to lobby their HR department for better insurance coverage.
  • How much does your family earn?

    The handful of middle-to-high income earners -- those making more than 400% of the Federal Poverty Line --  that don't have employer-sponsored insurance will need to go buy it at full price. Thankfully there are not many households like this -- good-paying jobs tend to have good benefits -- and these folks will mostly be able to afford their insurance without too much of a pinch.

    Working-class and middle-income households -- those between 133% and 400% of FPL -- make up the largest group of the uninsured. They'll get some subsidies to purchase insurance at a discount. There are lots of online calculators. My two favorites are Kaiser's Affordable Care Act premium calculator and the state of Vermont's maximum monthly premium table.

    Where the States Stand
    Low-income households need to know the answer to one more question: is your state governed by troglodytes, or by human beings? States governed by human beings (colored teal or blue on this map) will expand Medicaid to cover anyone earning less than 133% of FPL. States governed by troglodytes (colored red or pink) will not cover anyone earning this little money. As a silver lining, subsidies will be available to those earning 100-133% of FPL. So the trick in these states is to be poor, but not too poor.

    Okay, I guess you need to know the answer to one more question. What is 400% of the poverty line? Or perhaps what is 133% of the poverty line? According to Medicaid.gov, here are the income thresholds for 133% and 400% of FPL:

    Single person: 133% of FPL = $15,281.70 ($1273.48/month); 400% = $45,960 ($3830/month)
    Family of 3: 133% of FPL = $25,974.90 ($2164.58/month); 400% = $77,410 ($6510/month)
    Family of 4: 133% of FPL = $31,321.50 ($2610.13/month); 400% = $94,210 ($7850/month)
I put this together in a handy flowchart, showing what percentage of Americans are currently covered by the government, their employer, buy insurance on the individual market, or go uncovered. The percentages here are approximate, but give you a rough idea of how many people will be helped by Obamacare (click for full-size version)



Good luck!

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Republican Debt Ceiling Bluff Is Self-Refuting

Suppose somebody tells you that he really wants your suit of armor. Why? Because he's terrified of getting stabbed. And you don't want to give it to him. So he makes a threat. If you don't give him the armor, he'll get a knife and stab himself!

Now you're in a nice position to call his bluff, because carrying out his threat is inconsistent with what he's told you about his interests. If he's really so terrified of being stabbed, he's not going to stab himself.

And that's the situation Obama is in with regard to Republicans who refuse to raise the debt ceiling. They claim to be concerned with big deficits caused by federal overspending. (They're actually demanding everything in return for debt ceiling increases, including the Keystone Pipeline, barriers to malpractice lawsuits, and partial repeal of the Clean Air Act and banking reform. But they're also asking for cuts in antipoverty programs and Medicare, which are part of the anti-spending agenda.) And the worst-case scenario with overspending is eventual default. But they're threatening to bring default immediately, which nobody actually concerned with overspending would do! There's simply no reason to pay attention to threats like this. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

The End of "End Welfare as We Know It"

Via Kevin Drum, Rich Lowry printed this golden nugget from a House GOP aide on the House's attempt to decimate the Food Stamp program [emphasis mine]:
... Yesterday the House passed a major reform to our food stamp program that reinstates the workfare programs that we know are good policy, get people off the welfare rolls and would reduce discretionary spending. ...
Those who are old enough to remember the Clinton years will be surprised at this quote, since one of Bill Clinton's signature campaign issues and legislative achievements was to "end welfare as we know it". But when Clinton said "welfare", he was speaking narrowly of modifications to Aid for Families with Dependent Children, an open-ended transfer to poor single mothers so that they could afford to feed and raise their children. In 1996 Clinton signed a bill replacing AFDC with TANF, a program that limits benefits to five years, encourages welfare recipients to search for work, and provides support to poor families via increased social spending on education, transportation, and child care. Using this definition of welfare, "welfare rolls" have continued to declined. No one has attempted to revive AFDC

So what gives? Why is this random house GOP aide going off about reinstating workfare requirements that were never attached to Food Stamps in the first place? Because modern day conservatives, however, have come to consider "welfare" to mean "any transfer of resources to the poor". During the 2009 stimulus debate, conservatives derided the expansion of low-income tax credits as welfare. Today, food stamps fall into the welfare bucket. Who knows what will be rebranded as welfare next week.

In the short run, there were some real tactical benefits to Clinton's approach. Ending AFDC allowed Democrats to refocus the economic justice debate on a broader set of issues affecting the impoverished, working poor, and working class alike. But in the long run Atrios is right. There is no permanent grand bargain. Someone in power has to be willing to persistently advocate for transfers to the poor, or structure programs so that they attract enough middle-class support that they remain sticky.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What Democrats Taught Themselves In The 2008 Primary

While it's a little embarrassing these days to have been a big John Edwards supporter, I'm quite proud of how the Democratic Party taught itself about health care policy in the 2008 primary. We learned that individual mandates were necessary to prevent adverse selection from making insurance unaffordable after you prevent insurance companies from charging people with pre-existing conditions more. It wasn't just a thing a few health policy wonks knew. I heard it from friends of mine at Drinking Liberally and at the philosophy department. They were smart people, but it's not like they had a deep knowledge of health care policy in general. But a grasp on the issues had penetrated so deeply into the party rank-and-file that we generally understood the point of mandates. Obama won the primary, but Hillary (and Edwards) won the debate. So even though mandates look kind of weird at first, Democrats understood them and supported them in Obamacare.

Republicans haven't taught themselves about this, and now the architect of the Congressional Republican health care plan that's supposed to replace Obamacare is promising to regulate against discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, without mandates. Maybe looking into the issue has led Steve Scalise to understand the problem. But even if he understands it, his fellow Republicans certainly don't. That's a bad place to start when you're trying to think up your party's counterproposal.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Don't Blame Generation Y For The Horrible Economy

Some of my friends in academia like this blog post explaining the unhappiness of Generation Y kids in terms of how they think they're special and they're so entitled and they use social media. Who knows? That might be part of the story. But kids with an excessive sense of entitlement have been around since the Joffrey Lannisters of our world were claiming the divine right of kings. And I'm suspicious of explanations in terms of the special properties of social media -- mostly it gives you a new way to do kinds of social interaction that have been around forever. I'm sure explanations involving overly entitled kids resonate with my fellow teachers who are frustrated with students who complain about the bad grades they earned through their own laziness. But I'd like to see some real evidence that this generation is different.

The provable difference between this generation's situation and previous ones is that today's kids are looking for jobs in a terrible economy. Here's the US unemployment rate:
Unemployment got higher in the early 1980s when the Federal Reserve basically created a recession to crush inflation, but it turned around much more sharply when the Fed declared victory and relented. So which recession is worse is sort of a judgment call. The upshot of the chart is that right now we're in one of the two worst recessions since the Great Depression.

If this is bad for people with jobs, who risk being laid off, it's horrible for people trying to enter the job market. Even when unemployment is at 9%, people with jobs mostly get to keep their jobs. But new jobs are really hard to come by, because employers aren't looking to hire. New hiring is much more volatile than retention of old employees. If you're dependent on new hiring (as people coming into the job market are), unemployment over 7% puts you in a dire situation. People of most age groups didn't have to deal with anything like that when they came out.

If you want to make Generation Y cheer up, there's something you can do about it. Well, you can if you're Ben Bernanke or the next chair of the Federal Reserve. Enact monetary policy that creates jobs. Inflation is currently unusually low, at 2%. Getting the Fed to stop worrying about inflation and worry more about the unemployment crisis for new job seekers would be exactly what they need. If this involves printing some new money and giving it to people until they start spending it and creating jobs, I'm for that. Bernanke once said that "The U.S. government has a technology, called a printing press (or today, its electronic equivalent), that allows it to produce as many U.S. dollars as it wishes at no cost." He should turn it on, and keep it on, until unemployment falls back to typical levels.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Putin And The UN

Vladimir Putin makes a variety of sensible points in his NYT op-ed. Two of the big motivations behind it are (1) to strengthen the UN as an international body through which America operates and (2) to impress Americans. Russia would much rather see the US go through the UN than use other international venues (NATO, for instance) to coordinate foreign policy. Russia has a permanent UN Security Council seat, so its power rises as the UN's power rises. Meanwhile, NATO is an alliance originally set up against the Soviet Union, even if that's become less of a focus in recent years. Putin also wants to look like a reasonable person in front of Americans, so we'll be less likely to oppose him in the future.

I think the op-ed accomplishes both purposes fairly well, though this should do nothing to reduce our opposition to Putin's authoritarianism within Russia, particularly on issues like free speech and gay rights.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Syria Wouldn't Use Chemical Weapons Again And Betray Russia

Hillary Bok, as hilzoy, was one of the best bloggers in the history of blogging. I like her analysis of why we should accept Russia's proposal to take away Syria's chemical weapons:
Suppose that Syria does not turn over all its chemical weapons. Suppose that Russia knows this. Russia has still staked its credibility, such as it is, on this lie. If Syria uses CW afterwards, it is basically burning its major ally and arms supplier.  
I do not think that Assad would do this. And my reasons for thinking this have nothing at all to do with trusting him.
Here's to hoping the deal works out, and Obama accepts it. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Australia's Upside-Down Election

Australians are headed to the polls today, and from an American perspective, the expected results are completely bizarre. For one, the Labor government has delivered growth 8% real GDP per capita and yet appears headed for a clear defeat. For two, this is the centerpiece of the center-right party's campaign:
His [center-right PM candidate Tony Abbott's] biggest election promise is a more generous paid parental leave scheme, offering mothers up to $75,000 for six months' leave at an annual cost of $5.5bn – a policy deeply unpopular with his party and the business community but which Abbott cites as evidence that he and his party "get" the lives and needs of modern women, despite Gillard's now-famous speech labelling him a misogynist.
Australia has about 1/15th the population, and the Australian dollar is slightly weaker than the US dollar, so this would equate to a $70-76 billion expansion in the US economy. By comparison, Medicare part D cost the government $62 billion. Obviously conservative American politicians can be convinced to enact large expansions of the welfare state, but paid family leave doesn't seem to be on the political agenda at all in this country. This leaves us on a short list with Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland of countries that don't offer family leave.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Could We Intervene In Syria Without Killing Any Civilians?

I think there's a way to intervene in Syria that enforces the norm against chemical weapons, and doesn't cause any direct civilian casualties. Moreover, it's the sort of mission that Obama seems to want.

Obama's focus seems to be simply on enforcing the international norm against using chemical weapons. He's not calling for regime change, or trying to win the war for the rebels, or anything like that. All you need to do to sufficiently enforce the norm against chemical weapons is make Assad wish he hadn't let his troops use them. And all you need to do to make him regret that is destroy enough of his high-tech military equipment, like his aircraft.

We could see where airplanes land with military satellites and hit them with bombs or Tomahawk missiles. Or we could find them when they're in the air and shoot them down. Assad can't just hide all his military hardware all the time -- he's in a civil war and he wants to win. So he'll have to expose his military equipment, and then we destroy enough of it to make him wish he hadn't used nerve gas. Alternatively, maybe we announce publicly that we're going to destroy some Syrian military building or the presidential palace, give people time to clear out, and then hit it with long-range missiles.

With that done, we can go home. If destroying a few planes and/or structures isn't enough to topple Assad, that's just fine. That wasn't the mission. Since the objective is so narrow, we can pick our targets as we like, and not attack anything that is likely to cause civilian casualties. The mission is just "Make Assad regret using chemical weapons." Unlike setting up a government we like in Iraq or doing counterinsurgency warfare, that's something the US military is suited to accomplishing.

If I were a Senator, this is the structure of the mission that I'd be interested in supporting. I don't know what shape the mission will eventually take, or whether it'll happen, so I definitely wouldn't commit myself to supporting what we end up doing. But this is a structure with more good consequences than bad, as far as I can see, and it's one that political leaders are now in position to push for.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Scope Of The Mission In Syria

When I want to know what to think about some conflict in the Middle East that America might be getting into, I turn to Juan Cole. I found these speculations about what America might do in Syria particularly interesting:
It is not clear what an American intervention would achieve. It is likely that Washington will conduct a limited punitive operation, perhaps hitting regime buildings with Tomahawk missiles. The latter would avoid the regime’s sophisticated anti-aircraft systems, which might be able to fell an F-18 fighter jet. 
It should be obvious, however, that any such strike would be a form of retaliation for President al-Assad’s flouting of international law. It would not actually protect Syrians from their government, and it would be unlikely to alter the course of the civil war.
Fred Kaplan's excellent article in Slate suggests something similar, though it also considers the possibility that Obama is considering a larger mission to destabilize the Syrian regime. Kaplan emphasizes that Obama wants to defend one of the few international norms that there seems to be a real consensus around: don't use chemical weapons. I don't know if there's a good reason for having that particular norm. (Gas is a horrific weapon in many ways, but is it really worse to be killed with nerve gas than to be shot by a helicopter gunship or a drone? Gas is probably not as bad as land mines, which stick around to kill noncombatants long afterwards.) But I am a believer in a rule-governed international framework that curtails violence, and defending such a framework requires punishing violators. Doing just enough to make Assad regret using chemical weapons may be the goal here.

In any event, what we should think of war with Syria depends a whole lot on the scope of the mission. What we're looking at here is modeled off of Libya and Kosovo a lot more than Iraq, as it doesn't seem that we're sending in ground troops to occupy the country. That's no guarantee that it'll have results like Libya and Kosovo, which I mostly see as successes of American military policy. But if it doesn't, that'll be because of logistic and tactical differences that involve the specifics of the situation in Libya, Kosovo, and Syria, rather than broad and general considerations about the nature of the war. I don't have an opinion yet on what should be done in Syria, because I don't have a good handle on the specifics of the situation.

Of course, the point that we'd do a lot better to devote money to buying insecticide-treated bednets to protect people from malaria than bomb Syrian government installations in the name of humanitarianism is exactly right. That's an argument for defunding American war-fighting capacity in general in favor of giving more money to humanitarian causes, which I think is exactly the right thing to do. I don't know how to bring that fact to bear on the situation at hand, though. It's not like America is going to buy the bednets with the money if we don't go to war.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Important Comments Announcements

Starting this Friday, we are going to turn on Google+ comment integration. This means that when this blog post is shared public via Google+, comments on those sharings will appear on the blog. I'm not sure what will happen with future Blogger comments, but we shall see.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Bradley Manning 2016

Policy over the last several years has given civil libertarians a lot to be unhappy about. I don't know how many of them are willing to trust presidential candidates' promises at this point, but it looks like there's going to be a lot of support in the Democratic primary for anyone who can make credible promises to them on these issues. (What makes someone credible here? I guess if they've meaningfully contributed to better outcomes on these issues, or if they've been speaking out on them for a long time.) I could see some candidate pledging to pardon Bradley Manning. While I don't understand the dynamics over there quite as well, it's also possible that you'd see some kind of similar action on the Republican side too, perhaps from Rand Paul or someone trying to absorb the Ron Paul constituency. I don't see it taking a Bradley Manning-related shape, though, since Rand doesn't seem to like him very much.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Richard Arenberg's Confused And Pessimistic Defense Of The Filibuster

Yglesias is right about how Richard Arenberg's Politico article defending the filibuster is thoroughly confused. The minority rights worth protecting are the rights of minorities among the people. Nobody should care about defending the rights of a minority of Senators to determine policy. Assuming that democracy is operating properly in their elections, there's a very good reason why those Senators are in the minority -- most people opposed their ideas. As happened in the Civil Rights era, a minority of Senators may keep filibustering legislation that would support equal rights for a minority of the people. Then we should support the minority among the people (who likely have backing from a majority of people, which is why they have majority backing in the Senate (setting aside issues about Senate overrepresentation of unpopulated states, which Arenberg isn't interested in fixing)) and against the Senators. 

Here I think Arenberg is even more wrong than Yglesias suggests. One great thing about America that should give us optimism is our history of overturning race, class, gender, and sexual orientation-related prejudices. It's not just true of America, but of societies around the world over the last few centuries. Things were worse long ago than they are now, and I'm willing to extrapolate towards their getting even better. If you think this is what's going to happen, you want it to be easier to change the status quo. If you think things are going to get worse for minority rights, so we'd better defend the status quo against change, you might support the filibuster. But I think the last few centuries of history support more optimistic bets. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Gay Sex With Eye Contact For Congresswoman Jiménez Ortiz

Mexican congresswoman Ana María Jiménez Ortiz has come up with a novel reason for restricting marriage only to heterosexuals. On her view, "marriage should only be considered in those relationships in which the members have sex while facing each other." As she explains, "A marriage should only be considered amongst people that can look at each other in the eye while having sexual intercourse... Something that does not happen in homosexual couples."

We can debate the merits of restricting marriage based on whether face-to-face sexual positions are possible. But we can also debate whether gay people can have sex facing each other. My impression, confirmed by online research, is that a variety of sexual positions permit them to do this. Even if we can't convince Jiménez Ortiz that her proposed restriction was mistaken, we might be able to convince her that homosexuals can satisfy her restriction, with the help of enough photographic evidence. Mailing her enough proof of this might be a helpful way to align public policy with the empirical data.

Amazon's Value Had Better Not Be Its Capital Equipment

Yglesias suggests that Amazon.com can be an valuable enterprise not by actually becoming profitable on a cash-flow basis, but as an ever-growing stockpile of valuable capital equipment. That's what they're spending a whole lot of their money on, and it's not like that stuff disappears at the end of the year. They still have it, and its value is part of the value of their business. So can Amazon live up to its valuation ($130 billion in market cap at present) as a whole lot of capital equipment?

No. Not even close. Amazon's price to book value ratio is about 15:1. In other words, their total assets minus their liabilities are one fifteenth of their stock price. If Amazon were liquidated tomorrow, shareholders would lose about 93% of their money. And if you look at the balance sheet, "Property, Plant, and Equipment" is about $7 billion -- a bit over one twentieth of what the company is worth. Amazon's cash on hand actually exceeds that. (For what it's worth, I don't know whether Amazon's warehouses and offices and such are company-owned -- my guess would've been that a lot of the property is rented, and you don't get to sell that.) So the proceeds from liquidating Amazon's capital equipment don't play any significant role in justifying the value of the company.

Which is as you'd expect. Capital equipment is illiquid -- you can't buy it, use it a bit, and turn around and sell it for near the purchase price. Especially bad in Amazon's case is that it's a one-of-a-kind business. If it had, say, two competitors who were trying to grow fast and become the dominant online retail juggernaut, maybe they'd bid against each other for Amazon's stuff and drive the price up to pretty close to the price of buying stuff new. But actually zero other companies are doing that, and if Amazon couldn't make a profit and had to liquidate, that'd strike people as a bad sign for the whole idea. Maybe some other companies could retool some of Amazon's stuff to their smaller mission, but they wouldn't be inclined to pay full price. So a lot of value would just be lost. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Original Caption: "President Barack Obama meets with Secretary of State John Kerry in the Oval Office, July 29, 2013."

Today's Kitsch Cover is Adele performing The Cure's "Lovesong"

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Google's Litigation Defense Highlights The Need For Legislative Solutions to Privacy Questions

According to Google, we should figure out how to put wax seals
on our email correspondence to ensure that couriers such as
Google don't read them during transit.

Some Pennsylvania residents who are not Gmail users have tried to bring a class-action lawsuit against Google for inspecting their email when sent to Gmail users. The premise of this particular suit is a little silly, but Google's recent defense points to the problem with the lack of clarity in American privacy law:
Just as a sender of a letter to a business colleague cannot be surprised that the recipient's assistant opens the letter, people who use Web-based email today cannot be surprised if their emails are processed by the recipient's [email provider] in the course of delivery. Indeed, 'a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties'
Taken to the extreme, Google's defense would lead to some absurd results. It would imply that letters sent via Pony Express in the 1870s are not private because the riders could open them at any time. It would imply that those sending telegraphs in the 1890s would have no expectation that Western Union would keep its customers' telegrams private. But neither of those implications pass the smell test. We generally expect person-to-person communication to involve some level of privacy, regardless of the technical means by which we engage in that communication.

With rare exception, legislators have allowed communications privacy law to develop through the courts. But we now live in a very different era than even the 1980s. A huge number of citizens engage in electronic communication on a day-to-day basis. The government and private enterprises now have the capability of capturing, monitoring, and querying some or all of that communication. But we have very few laws on the books that set any rules of the road for how law enforcement, advertisers, retailers, and social can use this data. It's time for that to change.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Could Some Olympic Events Leave Russia?

A lot of people are rightly upset that the Olympics will be held in Russia, even as it institutes draconian antigay laws. At the same time, one can understand how Olympic athletes who have spent their entire lives training for these events are unwilling to boycott them in protest.

I wonder if the athletes could agree to not go to Russia, and instead meet up somewhere else and hold para-Olympic (but not, uh, Paralympic) competitions. The body of athletes as a whole is probably too unwieldy for such coordination, but doing it sport-by-sport might be more feasible. And since a fair number of the countries that are prominent in the Winter Olympics are socially liberal, athletes might have institutional support from their national Olympic committees. Obviously the Russians are going to stay in Russia, but all the A-list stars from some non-Russian-dominated events might be able to entirely move elsewhere. There would probably be plenty of media coverage and support for these alternate-venue events, since they had the top athletes, and that's what people really want to see. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Original caption: "President Barack Obama jokes with members of the Chilean delegation as President Sebastián Piñera of Chile sits at the Resolute Desk following a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, June 4, 2013."

Today's Kitsch Cover is violinist Lindsey Stirling and a capella group Pentatonix performing Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive":

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Tomorrow's Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory Today

Given all the debate about government mandated broccoli purchases, I would have thought that some talk radio host in Scottsdale or Pensacola or West Texas would have raised the profile of the USDA Supertracker. Government encouragement to engage in healthy eating habits combined with widespread tracking of citizen behavior seems tailor-made for a mixture of Obamacare and surveillance-state paranoia.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

How The Netflix Original Series Got Its Credits

The opening credits to Netflix's latest original series Orange is the New Black are an impressive marriage of the technical limitations of the medium (web video) with artistic considerations. If you've been watching the show, you might have wondered why the creators wasted 62 seconds on an opening credit sequence that consists mostly of still images.



You might ask yourself, "why on earth would Netflix do this?" For the most part, credit sequences have been getting shorter over time, and one of the other main functions of the title sequence—to give the editors a few seconds slack if an episode runs too long or too short—doesn't apply in this situation.

One potential reason is that Netflix now needs your video stream to "warm up". You may have noticed that lately videos served by Netflix begins very blurry and sharpen over the first few minutes. If this occurs, do not adjust your television. The first few bits of video that Netflix sends are intentionally of lower bandwidth. Generally speaking, lower bandwidth means lower quality, so why do this? Because they can deliver lower-bandwidth video to your laptop/Xbox/Roku faster. And speed kills; even when watching videos from a TV, forcing viewers to wait as little as two seconds for video to start can decrease engagement.

Which leads into the next part—the decision to use all of these still or nearly-still images. This lets Netflix keep the visual quality of the credits relatively high despite the lower level of bandwidth, by (essentially) repeating the same frame of video over and over again.

It's not clear that the exact structure of the credits are intentionally mitigating the limitations of Netflix's delivery platform, but it's at least awfully convenient.

Innovations in Intra-Firm Corporate Communication

In the furious search for Bezos-related content pegged to his purchase of the Washington Post, a 2012 piece from CNN Money contains a notable nuggets on Amazon internal culture around the "six-pager" (emphasis mine):
More revealing is that the Amazon CEO's fondness for the written word drives one of his primary, and peculiar, tools for managing his company: Meetings of his "S-team" of senior executives begin with participants quietly absorbing the written word. Specifically, before any discussion begins, members of the team -- including Bezos -- consume six-page printed memos in total silence for as long as 30 minutes. (Yes, the e-ink purveyor prefers paper. Ironic, no?) They scribble notes in the margins while the authors of the memos wait for Bezos and his minions to finish reading.

Amazon (AMZN) executives call these documents "narratives," and even Bezos realizes that for the uninitiated -- and fans of the PowerPoint presentation -- the process is a bit odd. "For new employees, it's a strange initial experience," he tells Fortune. "They're just not accustomed to sitting silently in a room and doing study hall with a bunch of executives." Bezos says the act of communal reading guarantees the group's undivided attention. Writing a memo is an even more important skill to master. "Full sentences are harder to write," he says. "They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking."
When I mentioned the awesomeness of this idea on my Twitter feed, it sparked a remarkable level of interest, which is to say more than zero. A number of folks seem genuinely surprised by the concept. On the one hand, some suggested that mandatory reading periods are a waste of senior leadership's time. Others were transfixed by Bezos's radical new technology for improving corporate communication called getting people to read documents that are sent to them. As you can see from that phrasing, the second group provides the answer to the first. Yes, at first blush it looks like bit of a time sink to have senior executives sit around a table reading memos. But if the most likely alternative is that staff spend hours writing carefully crafted memos only to have senior executives (a) largely ignore them, and then (b) spend an hour pontificating in a semi-informed or ill-informed manner on topics addressed by the memos, that's an even bigger waste of company resources. Obviously if there were some technological means of ensuring that everyone carefully considered all meeting-related documents before the meeting takes place, that might be superior, but I'm unaware of such a magical device. It also might not be much of an improvement, since the reading session puts the memo in the front of everyone's mind. Reading the memo the night before means that you're trying to recall what you thought about it instead of hearing what others have to say.

I'm an occasional defender of PowerPoint, but it should not be the default
form of business communication.
It should be noted that the "six-pager" and subsequent reading session serve a useful forcing function both for a memo's author and its intended audience. For one, it ensures that upper management is actually doing their job, which is examining the advice of their underlings and making decisions, rather than feeling so busy because they're waving their arms really really fast. For two, it ensures that authors must think their message through to the point where they can write about it using coherent English sentences (or perhaps even in paragraphs!) rather than PowerPoint-ready sentence fragments. The specifics of the six-pager format might not be perfect, but it does at least ensure that technology workers are taking enough time to think about issues in a cohesive fashion.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Tom Stocky & American Dads


I've spent several weeks trying to figure out just what it is I wanted to add to Tom Stocky's Facebook post on why dads should do their part and take advantage of family leave, which has been floating around Facebook & Twitter for a while at this point. First things first. If you haven't taken twenty minutes to read Stocky's full post, you should do so now.



Now that you've had a chance to read it, I think the biggest things to observe here are that Stocky's ability to take significant paid paternity leave with only a modest career impact is highly unusual by American standards; that public policy changes are necessary to give more fathers the same opportunity Stocky had; and that while formal workplace and family leave equality is nice, if we want to achieve something closer to equity in housework we have to upend the social expectations that say to dads over and over again that parenting isn't really their job.

The U.S. has the stingiest family leave policy in the industrialized world. While some of the countries with
extremely generous leave rules have poor levels of gender equality in the workforce, increasing leave to the levels
seen in the Netherlands, Belgium, or Finland is totally compatible with high levels of gender equality
The first two points are well covered in liberal politics and policy circles. America is the only industrialized country without some form of universal paid parental leave (PDF, the report from 2008 shows Australia as offering only unpaid leave, but that changed in 2011). The fact that as a country we can't bring ourselves to adopt even Dutch or Belgian levels of family leave is a tremendous drag on both women's ability to advance their careers and men's ability to take a more active role in their children's lives. This is wrong and we can surely do much better.

'70s-era Swedish PR campaigns featured a famous weightlifter
encouraging fathers to do the job of "maternity dad", or something
that probably makes more sense in Swedish.
The third point is much more subtle. Stocky's experience as a stay-at-home-dad showed him just how low our expectations are for fathers' role in their children's lives. Paid family leave won't change those expectations. Nor will passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act. Nor will a broader ability for workers to bring employment discrimination claims. If not just formal legal equality but practical equity in the workplace and the home, it's going to take a change in culture. And changing the culture is ... hard. Some of the European countries with the most generous family leave policies (France, Germany, Spain) have the lowest level of employment among married women. But while making a cultural shift is difficult, it's not impossible! The Scandinavian countries have had the most success promoting a more active role for fathers. These campaigns have included both policy changes and significant PR geared towards getting dads to do their part. I tend to be a skeptic of public awareness campaigns, but something has to be done to push the boundary of what's culturally acceptable.

So, two cheers to Mr. Stocky for broadening his horizons by spending a good chunk of time with his daughter during her first year of life. We have a long way to go before every dad has the chance do what he did.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Original caption: "President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom talk during the G8 Summit at the Lough Erne Resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, June 17, 2013."

Today's Kitsch Cover is Horse Feathers performing Nirvana's "Drain You"

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Scandalous Levels of Waste, Fraud, and Abuse in Private Sector T&E Budgets

Via Ezra Klein's Wonkblog, The U.S. Travel Association's latest report shows that private businesses overspend on meetings by 90% compared to the U.S. Government. What's more, greedy private-sector employees are depriving you, the consumer, of lower prices and instead are abusing their expense accounts, spending over 20% more than government employees.


The US Travel Association's spin on these charts is that the government should spend more on meetings, but I prefer to think of this an another reason why you should be skeptical of applying "private sector" fairy dust to government agencies in order to wring out efficiencies. There's plenty of private-sector spending that doesn't make the maximum effort to find the lowest price. It may seem silly to teach a bunch of mid-level IRS managers the Cupid Shuffle as an ice breaker or morale event, but it's not like it makes good fiscal sense to have Metallica headline a conference for CRM software developers or for Microsoft to bring in Macklemore and deadmau5 to do a private show for their interns.

Remember this the next time Darrell Issa goes on a witch hunt because a hotel failed to itemize an invoice properly, making it look like the agency paid $16 for a blueberry muffin when it really paid that much for full continental breakfast service and meeting space. Government agencies are actually quite careful with their travel and expenses policies compared to the private sector.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Charitable Giving, And How To Do Better

There are a lot of useful criticisms one could make of the way wealthy people make charitable contributions, so it's kind of a shame that Peter Buffett had to write this instead. I'm sure he's right that there are all sorts of problems with the motivations and strategies of wealthy philanthropists, and that some of them made their money by contributing to the problems that charities need to deal with. A good article would suggest concrete better options, or profile people who were doing things a better way. Instead, Buffett's positive proposals are a mess of hazy metaphors and tech startup buzzwords: "It’s time for a new operating system. Not a 2.0 or a 3.0, but something built from the ground up. New code." Ah, I see you had lunch with Thomas Friedman.

People are figuring out how to do this better. On the straightforward charitable giving level, there are awesome health interventions like giving Africans mosquito nets so they don't get malaria. This works really well -- $40,000 worth of nets led to many thousands fewer malaria cases per month. This chart is kind of messy, but it displays an awesome effect:

















Maybe you think you can get even better results through political advocacy. This is plausible. For instance, you could lobby the US Congress for federal funds for mosquito nets. If you got the leverage ratios that corporate lobbyists do in their best-case scenarios (as Giving What We Can describes, $220 for $1!) you'd be making absolutely godlike improvements in people's lives. I use the mosquito nets thing just as an illustration here -- if you think that advocating for a solution to climate change is a bigger deal, by all means go forward and give money to people who will push that.

It's a shame that Buffett doesn't talk up groups like RESULTS, which lobby Congress to help the global poor. Presumably the reason that rich people and corporations engage in lobbying is that it's a cost-effective way to achieve their political ends. The good guys can play that game too. (I gave RESULTS $2000, in part because a US Senator I donated to told me that they'd gotten him interested in various global poverty issues.)

From a smart donor's perspective, the distinction between charity and political advocacy isn't really significant -- they're both ways of helping people, and doing some kind of bang-for-your-buck calculation is how you decide which one to put your money into. It's harder to quantify the effects of political action, so I can understand if people want to be cautious and just give money to charities of proven cost-effectiveness (check out GiveWell for more information on what they are, and the mosquito nets are their #1 pick). Personally, I'm optimistic about using the corruption of the US political system to help the global poor, but all of this definitely deserves more study.

As a sidenote, this anecdote from Buffett describes a good result, as far as I can tell:
Often the results of our decisions had unintended consequences; distributing condoms to stop the spread of AIDS in a brothel area ended up creating a higher price for unprotected sex.
If the explanation is that most prostitutes preferred to use the condoms, so they'd have to be paid extra to do without them, there probably was less unprotected sex going on. That's a change for the better. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Listen All Y'All, It's An (Obamacare) Sabotage

Apparently GOP-linked operatives are gearing up to encourage the public not to get health insurance because, I don't know, they might like it and therefore might not think Obamacare is the worst thing ever.

This is sort of broad-based attempt to engage in mass non-participation and undermine government policy is not unprecedented in the history of Western Democracy. The official Labour Party platform of the late '80s and early '90s supported a non-payment campaign against the Tory-imposed poll tax. Individual MPs—though not the leadership—spent time in jail for their refusal to pay.

Still, it doesn't get much more punk than this.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Aimee Mann & Thom Yorke Show Why You Should Still Buy MP3s and Blu-Rays

k-pop girl band f(x) is hard enough to search for already because of their name,
but the fact that their music keeps disappearing from Spotify's catalog
for legal reasons makes them even harder to find.
If you're a Spotify listener, you may have noticed that some vintage Aimee Mann tracks are no longer available on the service. Likewise, Radiohead and Thom Yorke's solo work keeps dropping in and out of their catalog. There's certainly no Led Zeppelin. If PSY's "Gangnam Style" inspired you to get into K-pop, you'll notice lots of tracks phasing in and out of your playlists and radio stations.

The reason things like this keep happening is that the legal rights to stream music are a total mess. Some tracks are licensed through what the Copyright Office calls a compulsory license. Others are licensed through a third parties that act as a licensing clearinghouse. Big players like Spotify can cut deals directly with record labels. It's possible that in the future we could have online music providers going straight to the artists themselves, perhaps to get exclusive content. At any given in point in time, someone can fuck up the copyright licensing and inspire an artist or label to sue, the streaming provider could decide not to renew a license deal, and so forth.

This is a long-winded of saying that even with the advance of streaming services for music (Spotify) and video (Netflix), there are still good reasons to buy MP3s and physical media such as CDs and Blu-rays. A Blu-ray disk sitting in your closet has a much longer shelf life than Netflix's current contract with Disney, and if you think that five years down the road you might want to dig The Avengers five years from now and watch it while on staycation, you'll be better off owning the movie in some way than relying on to keep their licensing agreements up to date.

Friday, July 19, 2013

How The Judge Who Ended NYC's Stop-And-Frisk Policing Got A Federal Appointment

Victories for civil liberties have been few and far between over the last decade, but here's a happy story with a strange cast of heroes. It begins with a federal judgeship opening up in the Southern District of New York, and Senator Chuck Schumer suggesting a replacement:
Schumer recommended Nelson Román, a New York State judge with a bio seemingly copied from The West Wing's Justice Mendoza—a Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx who served for seven years as an NYPD officer before obtaining a JD from Brooklyn Law School, clerking, and then working his way up the state judicial hierarchy. By the time Schumer recommended his appointment, he was a member of the First Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court.  
Schumer recommended Roman in April of 2012. Then in July of 2012, Roman issued a judicial ruling that brought a halt to stop-and-frisk policing in New York City. That led the NY Daily News editorial page to pronounce Roman's federal judicial aspirations dead. But Schumer did not back down, and Obama tapped Roman for the job for which both he and Schumer got another Daily News scolding. But of course this was the fall of an election year, so Senate Republicans refused to hold a vote in late September or in October or in early November. Then Obama got reelected, but Roman didn't get a vote during the lame-duck session. That killed Roman's nomination, but come January Obama once again appointed him to the vacancy. On May 9, 2013 he finally got his vote on the floor of the Senate and he was confirmed 97-0. And thus thanks in part to the hard work and political guts of Chuck Schumer did a civil libertarian hero get a seat on the federal bench, despite the best efforts of the local populist news media and the Republican Party.
 I'd offer my own analysis here, but I can't really improve on what Matt Yglesias says:
Does that make Schumer a civil liberties hero? No... If you actually know much about Schumer you'd know he really distinguishes himself as one of the least civil libertarian major figures in the Democratic Party...To be maximally ungenerous to Schumer, he did it because he is embedded in a New York State political coalition that heavily depends on the votes of people of Puerto Rican origin so he needs to do something or other to promote the careers of prominent Puerto Rican Democrats and it just so happens that you can't find any well-qualified Puerto Rican jurists who endorse systematic racial discrimination. Maybe if you could have found a judge like that, Schumer would have picked him instead. But of course it's not a coincidence that well-qualified Puerto Rican jurists are unlikely to endorse systematic racial discrimination. What we see here is an example of how when you empower the political coalition that includes racial and ethnic minority groups, you end up promoting the interests of racial and ethnic minority groups even in cases when the leaders of the coalition don't share their priorities because politics is complicated.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Electoral Benefits Of Obamacare

Paul Krugman and Matt Yglesias think Obamacare will help Democrats politically. Ezra Klein disagrees. I'm mostly with Paul and Matt. 

Ezra is right that the beneficiaries of the Affordable Care Act won't be aware that legislation passed in 2010 by House and Senate Democrats, and signed into law by Barack Obama, is the source of those benefits. Rather, they'll just think of it as "Medicaid" or a state exchange program called "Covered California" or some such. But even if their allegiance is to those programs rather than Barack Obama or Democrats, they'll oppose anybody who wants to take those programs away. People don't have to know anything about Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt to love Medicare or Social Security, and to oppose candidates who want to defund those programs. 

And that gets us to the core of the disagreement:
Insofar as the coverage Obamacare offers is popular, and it probably will be, the core program will become untouchable. We’ll go from “repeal-and-replace” — though Republicans never did come up with the “replace” part — to “tweak-and-improve”. But I doubt it’ll ever move the needle much for Democrats. By the time a frontal repeal assault would be bad national politics for Republicans, they’ll probably have abandoned it.
A Republican Party this sensitive to national politics is a very different animal from the elephant of today. Over the last two election cycles, the GOP base (use the words 'Tea Party' if you like) has cost the party between four and seven Senate seats by picking extreme candidates when electable moderates were available. A big portion of their base hates Obamacare because of what Fox News and Rush Limbaugh told them about it. They're going to hate it as long as they live, and vote in primaries for Republicans who oppose it in the strongest possible way. As a result, voters will be presented with a Republican Party that wants to defund Covered California and a Democratic Party that supports it. That's a situation that Democrats can be very happy about. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

France's Experience Tells Us Little or Nothing About American Family Leave Policy

I see Ross Douthat has discovered that French employers end up treating working women in a somewhat retrograde fashion, and tries to pin this on the country's overly generous family leave policies. While the country's family leave policies may play a role, it's hard to see what that tells us about American family leave policy. Whenever someone tries to compare country X to the United States, it's helpful to consider we stack up against Y, Z, and W. So I looked up a report on Parental Leave published by Center for Economic Policy Research, and lo and behold I found this chart:



That's France, all the way on the left, where mothers are guaranteed 5 months of paid leave and over three years of unpaid leave. French fathers are guaranteed zero paid leave but up to three years of unpaid leave. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the United States, where female workers get a whopping three months unpaid leave and zero paid leave. In the middle you have one other country that offers less than six months of leave; ten countries that offer between 6 and 12 months of leave; and five countries that offer between a year and two year; and three other countries that offer over 2 years of leave. With the exception of Australia, the remaining OECD countries average about 20-24 weeks of pad leave.

Raising the specter of France in the context of a discussion on American family leave is absurd. If generous leave policies result in employment discrimination against women of child-bearing age, we we should look at the Netherlands or Dernmark or Australia or the UK. Or we should compare the experiences of states like California and Washington that guarantee a month or two of fully-paid or partially-paid family leave under the rubric of "short-term disability" with the experience of Idaho and Nevada and Arizona. There's just no path for the US to reach at a guarantee of three years' job-protected leave, whether that's a wise policy or not.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Nuclear Option Compromise: A Good Jeff Merkley Day

I think it's important to eliminate the filibuster on everything for general progressive purposes, turning the Senate into a basically House-like body with six year terms. (For the big-picture argument, see here.) From that standpoint, the substantive outcome of the Reid-McConnell "Nuclear Option" showdown is far from optimal. It would've been nicer to push ourselves further down the slippery slope than we went. But really, the compromise we got (no permanent changes, but Obama's nominations mostly go forward fine, and there are quick replacements for the two withdrawn nominees) was as good as we could get. Some Democrats don't actually want big changes, and McConnell is smart enough to know how bad his cards are and when he has to fold. 

This is one of the many days when I'm happy about contributing to Jeff Merkley's Leadership PAC. He's an aggressive advocate of filibuster reform, and I don't know if Reid would've been so aggressive against McConnell without the knowledge that some people in his caucus were willing to go all the way. The more influential Jeff gets, the harder a line you can expect Democrats to take in favor of filibuster reform. Even if it didn't pay off in terms of long-term policy changes this time, it strengthened our bargaining position so that the compromises came out better.