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 Rom├ín, 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. 

"It's Always Best To Kill The Other Person"

Among the many frightening messages of the Zimmerman trial is the way that Florida criminal law puts gun owners in a favorable position over non-gun-owners. If Martin had been armed and Zimmerman wasn't, and Martin had shot Zimmerman, he could present a legal defense basically similar to Zimmerman's. Of course, the jury would probably take a black man's self-defense claims against a white man a lot less seriously than a white man's claims against a black man. But as far as I can tell, the letter of Florida law supports the shooter's self-defense claim either way. From Josh Marshall's correspondent:
if you’re ever in a heated argument with anyone, and you’re pretty sure there aren’t any witnesses, it’s always best to kill the other person. They can’t testify, you don’t have to testify, no one else has any idea what happened; how can the state ever prove beyond a doubt is wasn’t self-defense? Holy crap! What kind of system is that?
Apparently that's the way it is in most states. You can imagine how things might be different. People with guns could be given additional responsibility for the safety of unarmed people, so that they'd have to either prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they were defending themselves against serious bodily harm instigated by the other person, or at least prove that it's more likely than not that they were doing so. That's a responsibility that can fairly be assigned to the person who has a lethal weapon, especially when the other person has iced tea and Skittles. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Friday Obama Caption Contest and Kitsch Cover

Original caption: "Barack Obama talks with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on the patio outside the Oval Office, May 1, 2013."

Today's Kitsch Cover is Bon Iver covering Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me"

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Will Janet Yellen Save Obama's Legacy?

Like many people, I'm dissatisfied with the Fed's weak statements of support for economic recovery. I hope this is just a temporary phenomenon, though, as Ben Bernanke's term ends in February 2014.

The front-runner to replace him seems to be Janet Yellen, the current Vice Chair at the Fed, who's widely rumored to be supportive of expansionary monetary policy. While it's possible that Republicans could block her like they've kept blocking Peter Diamond and lots of other appointments, they don't stand in the way of Fed Chair sized appointments. Moving a #2 Fed person to the #1 spot makes it extra hard to get in the way, too, as there's some sense in which nobody is more formally qualified. So it's just up to who Obama wants to nominate, and Dylan's 33% is a fairly cautious estimate of the probabilities.

This may end up being the final legacy-defining decision of the Obama Admininstration, depending on how things go with Supreme Court vacancies and unexpected domestic and foreign crises. The next Fed Chair will serve for nearly the final 3 years of Obama's term, and will have the opportunity to lift the economy to a full recovery. It's very possible that Obama will leave office under continued high unemployment if we have only timid support from the Fed. But if Obama's second term ends with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars finished, and the economy good again, he'll have fixed the greatest disasters of the Bush Administration -- perhaps too slowly, but successfully. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Dictator Street Journal

People reading this blog know better than to trust the Wall Street Journal editorial page about anything, but my goodness:
Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile's Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy. If General Sisi merely tries to restore the old Mubarak order, he will eventually suffer Mr. Morsi's fate.
Wikipedia: "Following Allende's deposement, army General Augusto Pinochet declined to return authority to the civilian government; and Chile became ruled by a military junta that was in power from 1973 to 1990, ending almost 48 years of Chilean democratic rule." And again: "Some political scientists have ascribed the relative bloodiness of the coup to the stability of the existing democratic system, which required extreme action to overturn."

If you want the body count, "According to a government commission report that included testimony from more than 30,000 people, Pinochet's government killed at least 3,197 people and tortured about 29,000." Hundreds of thousands of people went into exile to escape the horrors, and hundreds of thousands more left in the 1980s due to economic failures.

"Midwifed a transition to democracy"? The midwife's job isn't to eat the baby. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Public Doesn't Care How Gay Marriage Is Legalized

Naturally, after the Supreme Court's momentous rulings on DOMA and Prop 8, USA Today sponsored a poll gauging the country's opinion on the subject. The results show that public support for gay marriage post-Windsor is almost exactly where it was before the Supreme Court ruled parts of DOMA unconstitutional. The fact that nine unelected old people dressed in robes made this decision made no discernible difference. Heck, given that the Presidency has been polarized for decades and Congress is slightly more popular than an intrusion of cockroaches, having a fairly popular institution arrive at the "final" outcome is probably a plus, not a minus.

Readers of Lawyers, Guns, and Money will not be surprised at this outcome. Conservatives have tried to make hay out of judicial lawlessness, but most people don't think of court decisions as any more or less legitimate than Congressional votes or ballot referenda. The public is largely outcome-oriented, not process-oriented.