Tuesday, April 30, 2013

More on Sacramento Basketball & Municipal Policy

It appears that the attempt to build a new Arena to keep the Sacramento Kings is a microcosm for all sorts of consequential policy decisions at the state & local level.

On the "possibly a plus" side, the new arena may be a catalyst for state legislation that restructures the California Environmental Quality Act. The CEQA is often cited as a deterrent to construction in California,  especially in coastal areas, which has helped push up housing costs and contributed to sprawl. Now, it's possible that Proposition 13 is the larger culprit, but there's strong evidence that environmental regulations play a substantial role.

However, in the "total minus" side, Sacramento is going finance a portion of the arena construction costs by borrowing against future parking garage & parking meter revenues. Because the city is still paying off loans associate with those garages, the bond payments will be interest-only payments for almost ten years before the city can begin paying off principal. How this can possibly be a good deal for taxpayers is beyond me.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Overly Honest News Updates

Maybe the next time, the Seattle ownership group should get
Shawn Kemp to be a spokesperson.
"The Committee agreed to force current Kings' ownership to accept a smaller sale price in order to preserve the fiction that professional sports require the construction of stadiums at general taxpayer expense, rather than through raising private funds and revenues stemming directly from the stadium itself."

I'm not a huge basketball fan but I was really looking forward to proof that the NBA could join the MLB and NFL as sports leagues capable of financing stadium construction with substantial contributions from private funding sources. I guess we'll have to wait until the NBA thinks it's politically viable to move the Hornets Pelicans out of New Orleans.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Even Through Rose Colored Glasses, George W. Bush was Terrible

I don't see why we need to say nice things about George W. Bush these days. He presided over a decade of stagnant middle class incomes, the death of 3,000 citizens on US soil, led the United States into two wars which lasted a decade at a combined cost measuring $4 trillion, and left the financial service sector so deregulated that the entire world economy nearly imploded. About the best thing you can say is that in most of these decisions he was within the political Washington's political mainstream at the time. But that's an indictment of Washington, not a sensible rationalization of anything Bush did.

I keep trying to complete the sentence "Bush was the worst President since __________" and finding ways to claim that terrible presidents were better. Richard Nixon flouted the law, but so did Bush (the FISA act pretty clearly states that the entire warrantless wiretapping program is an impeachable offense), and Nixon ceded big chunks of domestic policy to the prevailing center-left mainstream. Warren Harding didn't have much going on, though he at least didn't totally suck on civil rights issues. A number of 19th century Presidents were awful on the issues of slavery, preserving the Union, and Reconstruction (Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Rutherford Hayes), so they might give Bush a run for his money. Lately people have been pouring haterade on John Adams, but pre-industrial America is just such a different place and time that I have a hard time evaluating how much good or bad an administration could do at the time.

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Not many updates to the Whitehouse Flickr account this week.

Original Caption: "President Barack Obama holds a meeting in Situation Room of the White House on the ongoing investigation in the Boston Marathon bombings, April 20, 2013. From left at the table, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Attorney General Eric Holder, FBI Director Robert Mueller, CIA Director John Brennan, and Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President of Homeland Security and Counterterrorism."

 Today's Kitsch Cover is Anya Marina performing T.I.'s "whatever you like"

Thursday, April 25, 2013

I Can Walk for Miles And Miles And Miles

I'm not surprised that best way to get diners to cut down on calorie consumption is to express menu calories in the number of miles it would take to "walk it off". Without using a pedometer, it's very hard to gauge how much you walk in a day.

I had a Fitbit for a few months until I inevitably lost it, which is enough time to get a good sense for what constitutes a halfway "active" lifestyle by fitbit standards. Fitbit's default goal is to get you to walk 10,000 steps in a day, which is roughly five miles. When I started I thought it would take an serious long-distance run to hit that target. But just a walk from the office to the gym plus 20 minutes of cardio was enough to get to 10,000 step goal. Alternatively, an hour's worth of lighter exercise--something like swing dancing--combined with plus the steps you take walking around a grocery store and the 4000 or so you take in day-to-day-life will get you close to the five mile mark.

Now, it's true that if you drive everywhere and do nothing but watch TV all day, you'll end up with 2500-4000 steps in a day, which is pretty sedentary. But it's very easy to introduce modest levels of activity into your life.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Demographics Won't Help Bush

To Jonathan Bernstein's list of reasons why George W. Bush's reputation won't improve in the next few decades, I think we might add demographics. The historians who will be judging him then are young right now, and they're in a strongly Democratic age group. So as time passes, you'll get a larger and larger share of influential historians whose formative political memories are of Bush's disastrous invasion of Iraq and other terrible things he did (the response to Katrina, civil liberties violations). I'd be surprised if his reputation rose as that age group started getting full professorships.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Original caption: "President Barack Obama talks with Vice President Joe Biden in the Oval Office, March 5, 2013."

Today's Kitsch Cover is Flogging Molly performing Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a'Changing"

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Comparing Public & Private Spending in Health Care & Child Care

Since our household is about to grow in size by fifty percent, my wife and I have had an awful lot of interaction with both the health care and child care sectors of the American economy. Which provides a nice news peg for another piece of Dylan Matthews' interview with Jonathan Cohn. It's this bit here about public versus private spending:
I talked to some experts about what a true universal child-care program would cost. Nobody felt comfortable giving me a solid estimate. But you can extrapolate from the Center for American Progress proposal on universal pre-kindergarten, which they expected would be about $100 billion over the first 10 years. The assumption is that states would match that (ed. note -- given this spending structure, the total increase in government spending on child care would be $20B/year, which is roughly 20% of the cost of Obamacare, or about 40% of current child care spending-NB). That gets you a big chunk of the way there, but there’d be another big chunk to go. So I guess – and let me stress the word “guess” here – we’re talking hundreds of billions of dollars, across all levels of government, if it’s mostly financed by the public. But, as always, remember that a lot of that would displace existing private spending.
One thing worth considering when trying to figure out how the private sector would respond to a new, massive government expenditure on child care is the difference in consumer psychology when it comes to spending money on child care versus the other large piece of the welfare state, health care.

For those with insurance, health care spending is primarily after the fact. By the time you're spending money, you've already received the service, so there's no anticipation of things getting better. The amount you're billed is either what you expected, and you pay it; or it's in error in some way and you have to argue with your insurer and your provider. Errors are way more common than anyone wants -- we're up to five errors or ambiguities in eight visits, each requiring at least two phone calls to resolve the situation, if we can resolve it at all -- and it's incredibly frustrating. I'd much rather the government raise my damn taxes, figure out what to pay to providers, and just let me get on with living my life.

Dr. Hodgins may be panicking about being a dad, but
he has a better chance at picking a good child care
provider than he does a good doctor for Michael Vincent.
Spending money on child care is a little different. You get your choice of providers, which most people don't get with health insurers. Second, there are no unexpected bills to argue about*. Third, it's much easier for a lay person to understand the tradeoffs between high-quality, high-price care and low-quality, low-price care in the daycare market. Yes, the observable signals of quality in daycare are imperfect -- adult-to-child ratios, staff tenure & education levels can help, but they still only tell you so much. But these markers are much less imperfect than the observable signals of "quality" in health care. Proton therapy is expensive and sounds awesome, but there's very little evidence that it's doing any good. Last but not least, while the monthly tuition payment for child care is large enough that no one feels good about paying it, there's a real sense in which parents can say to themselves that they're doing what's best for their children. There's no such emotional reward for after-the-fact medical bills for semi-routine health care (though perhaps there is a reward for care that's truly life- or limb-saving).

I'm all for an expansion of child care and direct financial support to stay-at-home parents. But the  straightforward case for more government spending on child care isn't that it would displace private spending, but that it would supplement it. It seems likely that the result of new spending would be that poor and middle-class families would have access to higher quality child care options, while the upper-middle class would continue to pour money into extremely high-cost private daycare, bilingual nannies, etc.

*In fact, the largest after-the-fact hidden "fee" in child care isn't money but time. Lots of daycare facilities (and schools!) now expect parents to commit to a certain amount of volunteer effort per month or quarter, just to keep the place moving. This is something new parents should remember to ask about when they go on daycare tours.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Would the Frenchification of American Child Care Save Money? Some, But Not Enough On Its Own.

There's lots to read about today in child care news. Dylan Matthews, rhythm guitarist for Ezra and the Kleinettes, interviewed TNR's Jonathan Cohn on the state of American child care. There's lots of meaty stuff in there, so be sure to read both the interview and Cohn's reporting in TNR. Elsewhere, Jessica Gross of Slate looks at France's child care and spots their higher adult-to-child ratios as an opportunity to either make care affordable or increase caregiver quality by raising salaries:
Writing in the American Prospect in 2000 (which shows how little progress we’ve made on this front in the past decade plus), Victor Fuchs outlines a proposal to make American childcare more French—one that would not cost parents any more money. He recommends increasing the child-to-worker ratio. The French ratio of children to workers is nearly twice that of their American day care counterparts, which means that a French day care program with the same number of children as an American one pays each of its workers more.
Fuchs' data appears to be out of date. It's true that the adult-to-child ratio for pre-schoolers is much higher in France than in the US. But the ratio for infants & toddlers is not much higher. Here's the data from the OECD for infants & toddlers:

And here's the same thing for preschoolers:

Relaxing these ratios might produce substantial savings at the preschool level, but it's not clear that moving from a 4-to-1 ratio to 5-to-1 would suddenly lead to drastically cheaper infant care. Other factors are likely in play. After all, as Cohn points out, France spends has almost twice the per-child spending on child care as the United States, and most of that spending is public there, but private here.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Original Caption: "President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama host a Passover Seder Dinner for family, staff and friends, in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House, March 25, 2013."

Today's covers is Sia performing The Church's "Under the Milky Way":

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

More Techno-skepticism from the Technophile

Laura McKenna flags a piece in the NYT on rising inequality in college faculty pay and adds her own two cents (see also here). As she says, for all the talk about Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) the real paradigm shift in academia today "is that a whole lot of house elves are doing the teaching work, and some day, they are going to get really pissed off". Replacing adjunct faculty with MOOCs just isn't going to save a large amount of money.

McKenna's Atlantic piece points out that given the production values of most online video lectures today, online education is more complementary than supplementary. The typical professor at a research university is not necessarily the greatest public speaker, and making an online lecture engaging is so far a fairly laborious task. We may eventually reach the point where self-starters can complete their entire freshman year of college online, and that would be genuinely useful, but we have a long, long way to go before we get there.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Exceedingly Stale Commentary on Bitcoin

If some libertarian-tinged, anti-government separatists with crackpot views on monetary policy decided they would set up an alternate currency backed by ... I dunno, rare seeds ... and start using it in the Interior West (Eastern Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Western South Dakota & North Dakota, etc.) to engage in anonymous, untraceable financial transactions, including illegal activity and semi-organized crime, and the total size of the market were a few hundred million or maybe $1 billion, we would either not notice or not care.

However, because the motherfuckers who came up with Bitcoin are "technologists" who are trying to "disrupt the status quo", people take them seriously.

The extent to which this lesson applies in other fields (education, transportation, etc.) is left as an exercise for the reader.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

More on Whether You Should Stop Using Twitter

Since being picked up by Ezra Klein, I've seen several responses to my piece on giving up Twitter from around the web, and in reply on Twitter (direct twitter replies have a high enough signal/noise ratio that they're worth reading). Some assorted followups:

  • Several Tweeps pointed out that, ironically, while I was busy giving up Twitter for Lent, Tweetdeck went and added the filtering features I really need. Maybe someday I will give this a try. This is a bit surprising since I thought I had read that Twitter was about to end-of-life Tweetdeck, but I guess only mobile Tweetdeck is being mothballed. Good job, Tweetdeck! Others recommended services such as paper.li to extract the links from your Twitter feed.
  • There were lots of replies of the form "You're doing it wrong". The problem isn't Twitter per se, the problem is having the wrong people in your timeline. Snark isn't the problem, lazy & uninteresting snark is the problem. But this is something of a "guns don't kill people" argument. The format lends itself all to easily to lazy & uninteresting snark. It's basically open mic night at the comedy club, except that everyone in the audience is on the mic. Every once in a while, someone who's not a regular comedian hits one out of the park, and those are genuinely great moments, but it's a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence. It's just not worth wading through the less great moments to see those.

    Similarly, there's no avoiding the personal preferences of your followers. If I want to follow a lot of DC journalists than my feed fills up with #nerdprom minutae for almost a week each year. But of course a robust timeline is diverse enough that there's always a White House Correspondence Dinner, or a Consumer Electronics Show, or a this or a that. Getting twitter to turn the volume down on these non-recurring events is ... hard.
  • Matt Yglesias makes a bold defense of faffing about on Twitter.

    His argument is, roughly, hey, Twitter is both useful and fun, and having fun is an important part of life, so if you're in a position where you can combine something that's useful and something that's fun, you'd be a fool not to. I think this is where the kids these days say YOLO, but neither of us count as the kids these days anymore.

    This is a fair point, but again I'd bring up the signal-to-noise ratio. I rather get higher quality faff, perhaps from something like Cracked, Buzzfeed, or certain sites that are part of the Cheezburger empire (comixed, memebase, etc.)
When I can get Twitter to look less like this:

And more like this:
then I might come back. But until then I'll seek out other forms of information.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Great Internet Fast of 2013: The End (Not Really)

More: On this blog, More on Whether You Should Give Up Twitter
Ed Morrissey, Back from my self-imposed Lenten Twitter exile
Kevin Drum, Twitter, Addiction, and Changing Social Norms

Now that Lent is over, I can go back to my regular daily consumption of approximately 200 blog posts (more when there is big news or some sort of gizmo/video game convention) and lord knows how many tweets, right?


I'm not going back to Twitter. Or rather, I'm not going back to Twitter until I find a way to separate the wheat from the chaff. And on twitter there is a lot of chaff. This extremely accurate chart* suggests that up to 90% of a typical twitter feed is basically a waste of everyone's time. If I could write a filter that only showed me tweets that contained links, that might improve the signal-to-noise ratio to the point where twitter were useful.

After two days without Twitter, I barely missed it; by the second week, I was downright happy not to be thinking about "staying on top" of my feed. I've uninstalled Tweetdeck from my phone, and going forward will only use Twitter to post links to my own blog posts. So my first piece of advice is that you should just stop using Twitter altogether, or find a way to show only those tweets that contain links.

I was much worse when it came to phone noodling or other social media. Moving app usage off of a phone and onto a tablet is generally a good idea, since the temptation to fiddle with a tablet is smaller, and using it is a more pleasant experience all the way around. I suppose the thing to do would be to move my Facebook & forum usage onto the tablet. That leaves only the bus ride as suddenly dull, and for now I'm trying out this new fad called reading printed books as a replacement for checking RSS feeds and doing crossword puzzles.

Note: despite the fact that this is being published on April Fool's Day, I mean it. No more tweeting. I'm out.

* to a first approximation, at least