Monday, August 10, 2015

Murderous weekend in North Carolina

Melbourne, Australia has been my beautiful and peaceful home for just over a year now, but I've continued to follow the news from North Carolina and the U.S. closely. And too much of that news from my old home has been unfathomably tragic.

This Sunday's news stories from the tar heel state would give any caring person pause.
  • A Statesboro father guns down his two preschool sons and tries, but fails, to gun down himself.
  • A teenager in Raleigh is randomly and inexplicably gunned down
  • A retired law officer in Gastonia is gunned down, another Gastonia resident wounded, and other law officers and an innocent bystander are subsequently wounded in a gun battle.
  • A Winston-Salem man is gunned down and another man is wounded at a party.
During this awful, gory, bloody weekend, the state of North Carolina with its population of 9.9 million people--and its millions of guns--murdered more people with those guns than the nation of Australia with its population of 23.1 million people murders with guns, knives, hands, pipes, pills, and whatever in a typical week (source).

While this weekend's gun victim body count in North Carolina is higher than usual (thankfully there are more peaceful weekends), the average number of murders in NC on a given day (1.4) is twice the average number in Australia (0.7). Adjusted for the differences in population size, North Carolina's murder rate is almost five times Australia's.

One of the things my wife and I have come to appreciate in our new home town is the ability to walk out of our urban apartment (flats here), walk down streets and alleys (laneways here), and hang out in crowded, noisy bars (pubs here and the laneway pubs are the absolute best) with no worries about gun-toting idiots (idiots here too!).

North Carolinians don't have to live (and die) the way that they do, and maybe someday they will escape the thrall of the NRA and its lies about more guns and more guns and more guns making people safer.

In the meantime, if you want a drink in a dodgy but safe laneway pub, look us up. We'll shout you a round.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Farewell Greensboro, Hello Melbourne

Well, it's done.

After eight years blessed with the opportunities to work for the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, work with many students and good colleagues, and make many great friends, I've left to pursue a new opportunity in a new country at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne. My first day was Monday.

Moves involve some disruption, but this one comes at a good time. My two sons completed great educations in Greensboro's public schools. The oldest has gone on to graduate from UNC Chapel Hill, and the youngest is pursuing a joint degree that will take him to Scotland for the next two years. Neither is home, and so the disruption is mostly limited to my wife and me.

And it's for a tremendous opportunity at a top university in a fantastic city. My research (my actual job) focuses on quantitative analyses of household outcomes, and the Melbourne Institute is home to a tremendous survey that has followed each member of about 7,000 Australian families yearly since 2001 as well as a newer survey that has followed about 2,000 people who were either homeless or at high risk of homelessness semi-annually for three years. These are data resources that just can't be beat, and the chance to work with them and the 40-odd researchers who are part of Institute is exciting. Over the past few years, I've been lucky to be able to collaborate with researchers in the Institute, and now I'll be able to work with them full time.

Melbourne itself is also gorgeous, with wonderful restaurants, theaters, and museums. It's also right up against several great Australian wine regions. When I get a break from work, there is a lot to explore.

I'll miss Greensboro but hope to visit.


Monday, July 28, 2014

Licenses to kill

The gun apologists argue that lawful concealed carry gun holders pose no risk to the general public. However, 644 people (at least) would likely disagree if they were around to tell their side of the story.

The Violence Policy Center reports that since May 2007, 644 people have been killed by private citizens authorized to carry concealed handguns. These include 28 incidents of mass shootings and 14 deaths of law enforcement officers. About five out of six of the incidents were murder-suicides.

And none of the incidents involved self-defense.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

NC tax fairness RIP

Remember all those very serious explanations from Gov. Pat McCrory and the radical Raleigh Republicans regarding how their massive tax shifts and tax cuts were intended to make taxes fairer and flatter and to broaden the tax base.

Part of the deal, such as it was, was that in exchange for lower and flatten marginal personal income tax rates that would provide an enormous windfall for the wealthy, the state would also eliminate and cap a few tax loopholes.

Oh sure, those changes had the effect of erasing hundreds of millions of dollars of tax liabilities for the Governor's wealthy contributors and raising taxes on the poor and elderly, but hey, you have to break a few modest nest eggs to make a fairer, flatter, and broader tax omelet.

How long did Gov. McCrory's fidelity to fairer, flatter, and broader taxes last? Less than a year.

One of set of tax credits that was going to expire was the personal income tax credits on rehabilitating historic buildings and mills. The NC Department of Revenue estimates that the credits, which largely go to the wealthiest tax filers, depleted state coffers to the tune of $34 million in FY 2012 and will cost about $25 million per year in the next two years before their scheduled expiration.

Gov. McCrory announced yesterday that he wants to replace those expiring tax breaks with new ones.

Besides being a give-away to the rich (currently you need to pony up at least $3 million in repairs to claim the mill rehabilitation credit), the breaks re-introduce complications into the tax code and reduce state revenues.

To be fair, the credits have some worthwhile features. However, the Governor's rote response when asked about other worthy expenditures, like the Earned Income Tax Credit for the poor or raises for teachers and state employees, is that the state can't afford them.

Similarly, there don't appear to be any plans to repeal the new tax hikes the Governor and Republicans imposed on trailer homes and modular homes. Historic homes owned by the rich get some nice tax candy; modest shelters for struggling, working families, not so much.

As this latest episode shows, fairness was never really part of the Governor's tax plans. However, his fidelity to tax cuts for the rich at the explicit expense of the poor remains intact.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

ACA succeeding despite Republicans' scorched-earth tactics

A number of reports this week document notable successes of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) despite Republicans' scorched-earth attempts at nullification.

On Monday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) forecast that government expenditures for the ACA would be $5 billion lower than anticipated this year and $109 billion lower than anticipated for the next decade.

The budgetary news is good in and of itself, but the principal reason behind it--that private health insurance premiums would be much lower than expected (thus requiring fewer subsidies)--was even better. The lower expenditures also come despite other good but potentially costly news--higher than expected enrollments in the health insurance exchanges.

The CBO now forecasts that 12 million more Americans will have health insurance coverage in 2014 (and 19 million more in 2015) than they would have in the absence of the ACA.

Health insurance coverage would be higher still were it not for Republicans' cynical strategy to undermine the ACA for purely partisan purposes. Indeed, Gallup estimates that between 2013 and the first quarter of 2014 the proportion of uninsured non-elderly adults dropped three times faster in states that set up their own health insurance exchanges and accepted the federal government's fully-paid offer to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income working families than in states that rejected these policies.

The truly despicable aspect of Republicans' nullification strategy is its cynical use of low- and moderate-income workers. These are Americans who "play by the rules" by working, even though their wages are incredibly low. They are also the Americans that Republicans say that the non-working poor should emulate.

Unfortunately, they are also the Americans that Republicans have thrown under the bus, by denying many access to Medicaid.

How perverse are these policies? Consider North Carolina, where a working single mother with one child loses eligibility for Medicaid once her countable income reaches $434 per month. A single mother in a minimum-wage ($7.25/hour) job would lose her eligibility after working 83 hours per month (20 hours per week). Talk about cruel incentives and a horrible choice--work more than part-time or have health insurance!

In other Republican-led states, governors and legislators have undermined the ACA (and their own constituents) by going after organizations that helped to sign low- and moderate-income families up for federally-subsidized insurance.

And these actions have been compounded by Republican actions to underfund the ACA's implementation and to sow as much uncertainty and confusion as possible.

In all of this, who gets hurt? Low- and moderate-income working families without insurance.

And despite this, the law is working.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Aussies laughing all the way to the Ex-Im Bank

U.S. taxpayers just turned over a whole bunch of loot to Australia's richest person.

The Age reports
How Australia's richest person, mining heiress Gina Rinehart, secured a $US694 million ($764 million) loan from American taxpayers is surely one of the great ironies of the capitalist system, reports The Australian Financial Review.

The case is the latest example of a flaw in the United States political economy: what some see as crony capitalism.

...The Ex-Im Bank's loan to an Australian billionaire, who is worth $22 billion according to the 2013 BRW Rich 200 list, is symptomatic of a broader malaise in the US system. American policymakers and lawmakers appear captured by big business rent seekers, lobbyists and political donations.

Hancock Prospecting is not the only Australian company to benefit from America's, at times, peculiar capitalism.

QBE Insurance, the second-largest crop insurer in the US, has been a big recipient of federal crop insurance subsidies, which have tripled to about $US9 billion a year for the industry over the past decade.
The rich, as they say, get richer.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Disarming logic

A biology professor at Boise State University asks for some practical advice and pens one of the best op-ed columns of the year.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

How to make the health system worse

Republicans' crocodile tears over people losing their health insurance coverage appear to have dried.

The House is preparing to take up H.R. 2575, which would alter portions of the Affordable Care Act to allow more businesses to avoid providing providing health insurance to their employees.

The legislation is co-sponsored by Rep. Howard Coble and other members of the Republican NC delegation.

An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office gives the easily predictable result--lots of people (about 1 million by the CBO's estimate) will lose their employer-based insurance each year.

On top of that, the CBO estimates that the legislation would
  • swell Medicaid and State Children's Health Insurance Program rolls by 500,000 to 1,000,000 people,
  • increase the number of uninsured people by up to 500,000, and
  • add to the federal debt by $73.7 billion over the next ten years.
Because costs of Medicaid and SCHIP are shared by the federal and state governments, the changes would add to state government costs as well.

Less private insurance, more public insurance, bigger deficits, and more costs for states--that's the Republican recipe for "reform."

Monday, February 24, 2014

Casting blame far and wide

When something goes wrong, do we need to blame someone?

Yes, according to an article in the Journal of Political Economy by researchers from Boğaziçi University, Bocconi University, and the University.

The researchers ran experiments that paired subjects. One subject had to make decisions about how money would be split between a risky and safe investment in an uncertain environment. After the uncertainty was resolved and the payout was determined, the second subject decided how much to reward (or punish) the first.

There were four possible outcomes from the first subject's decision:
  1. The person chose the risky outcome and the risky outcome made money (also more than the safe outcome),
  2. The person chose the risky outcome and the risky outcome lost money,
  3. The person chose the safe outcome and the risky outcome made money (and would have paid more than the safe outcome), and
  4. The person chose the safe outcome and the risky outcome lost money.
Although the first subject chose the investment, s/he did not have any influence over how the uncertainty would be resolved.

The researchers set things up so that under some circumstances
  1. the risky investment was the better bet (even though there was still a small possibility of a loss),
  2. neither the risky investment nor the safe investment was a better bet, and
  3. the safe investment was the better bet (even though there was still a small possibility that the risky investment would pay more).
In this set up, there was some scope for blame-worthy decisions. For example, choosing the safe investment when the risky investment had a higher expected pay-off or choosing the risky investment when the safe investment had a higher expected pay-off would each be "bad" decisions a priori.

What was interesting, however, was that the second subjects paid the first subjects less (punished the first subjects) even when they made the appropriate decisions a priori but the luck of the draw led to bad outcomes. For instance, subjects were often punished when they chose the risky investment, even though it had a higher expected pay-off, but the realized pay-off was a loss. That is, the second subjects appeared to shift blame for bad outcomes that were beyond anyone's control onto the first subjects.

Need someone to blame? Chances are you'll find someone.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

What Sheila Salter isn't telling you

Today's News & Record includes an op-ed by Sheila Salter, a 61-year-old self-employed marketing consultant from Chapel Hill, describing the cancellation (later rescinded) of her NC Blue Cross Blue Shield policy. provider (Blue Cross Blue Shield) suggested a new policy that would roughly replace my canceled one. They recommended a "bronze" plan--the cheapest plan I could buy. It cost a whopping $584 per month. My current plan, by comparison, cost me only $202 per month.

I could hardly contain my shock. My new Obamacare-compliant plan would cost me 189 percent more. It also increased my deductible from $3,500 to $5,000 and increased my co-pays from $25 to $45.
Ms. Salter made similar claims in testimony to the House of Representatives in November and in ads produced by the Koch-funded American's for Prosperity.

The (eventual) cancellation of Ms. Salter's insurance may be costly. However, Ms. Salter misrepresents some parts of her story and omits some others. The cancellation, regrettable as it is, is not nearly as costly as she makes it out to be.

The most important misrepresentation is that a $584 per month "bronze" plan is the cheapest she could buy. In fact, the $584 plan is the most expensive "bronze" plan she could buy. There are seven other "bronze" plans in Chapel Hill; the least expensive costs $150 less per month.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Good for thee but not for me

ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson's affection for fracking is a sometimes thing.

ThinkProgress explains.
As ExxonMobil’s CEO, it’s Rex Tillerson’s job to promote the hydraulic fracturing enabling the recent oil and gas boom, and fight regulatory oversight. The oil company is the biggest natural gas producer in the U.S., relying on the controversial drilling technology to extract it.

The exception is when Tillerson’s $5 million property value might be harmed. Tillerson has joined a lawsuit that cites fracking’s consequences in order to block the construction of a 160-foot water tower next to his and his wife’s Texas home.
Maybe this experience will give Mr. Tillerson some appreciation of how fracking and its infrastructure affect surrounding properties.

But probably not.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

160,000 NC residents enrolled thru health exchange--so far

There's good news to report about the new individual health insurance exchanges that are now operating under the Affordable Care Act.

Nationally, just under 3.3 million people enrolled in individual insurance plans through the state- and federally-run exchanges during their first four months of operation, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In North Carolina, just over 160,000 people had selected an individual plan.

Although NC is 10th among states in population, it was 5th among states in private, individual health insurance enrollments during the first four months of the insurance exchanges. An additional 48,000 people were assessed as being eligible public insurance for Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

To put the figures in context, approximately 1.7 million North Carolinians lacked health insurance prior to the exchanges opening.

The high levels of enrollments aren't the only good news.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Gov. McCrory--job destroyer

"Petty" and "thin-skinned" already appeared prominently on Gov. Pat McCrory's resume.

To those, you can now add "job-destroyer."

The Charlotte Observer explains
An employee at a Myers Park gourmet food store was fired after Gov. Pat McCrory’s security detail complained Sunday about a comment the worker made to the governor.

On Sunday afternoon, McCrory was shopping at Reid’s Fine Foods when Drew Swope, a 45-year-old cook, said he asked if he could help McCrory.

After realizing he was speaking with the governor, whom he disagrees with politically, Swope said he told McCrory, “Thanks for nothing,” and walked away.

Swope said the governor was upset at his comment and began “yelling” at him. He said McCrory said he was a customer and shouldn’t be treated that way.

He said the governor and his security team complained to the food store owner, who then fired him.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Locke Foundation's "Massachusetts Miracle"

Last month, the John Locke Foundation released a report, "Tax Cuts for All," that purported that the tax reform that North Carolina enacted in 2013 would result in lower average net taxes for every income group in the state by 2015. For the report, the JLF relied on numbers computed by the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University in Massachusetts.

The numbers look miraculous.

Contrary to some other analyses, the JLF and its Massachusetts partner find that total taxes paid by every income group will be lower in 2015 than they would have without the reform. Specifically, they estimate that 
  • households with incomes below $25,000 will save a total of $79 million,
  • households with incomes of $25,000 to $50,000 will save $68 million,
  • households with incomes of $50,000 to $75,000 will save $58 million,
  • households with incomes of $75,000 to $100,000 will save $78 million,
  • households with incomes of $100,000 to $200,000 will save $201 million, and
  • households with incomes above $200,000 will save $369 million.
The enormous tax savings for the small number of households in the top income category would be great news for them, but the more modest projected savings for other households would also be good news (just not as much good news as the very, very rich).

The miraculous part is that numbers suggest that the NC tax changes provide average tax savings across the income distribution.

However, there's just a teensy, weensy problem with the analysis--the numbers don't add up. Or rather, the estimated $853 million in total JLF savings across income groups in 2015 adds to far more than the anticipated savings from NC's official budget analysis.

The report claims to rely on many figures and estimates provided by the Fiscal Research Division of the NC General Assembly. But the FRD calculated that the tax package would only reduce revenues by $501 million in fiscal year that runs July 2014-June 2015 and $760 million in the fiscal year that runs from July 2015-June 2016. Thus, the 2015 calendar year savings would be somewhere between $501 and $760 million.

Yet the JLF and its Massachusetts partner find $853 million in savings.

Talk about your Massachusetts miracles!

Update (2/12/14, 2:15 p.m.): The JLF/Beacon Hill numbers have become more miraculous.

The FRD estimates that state revenues will drop $501-$760 million in 2015. However, the funds coming from taxpayers' pockets will only fall $434 to $706 million because the expansion of the sales tax also increases local government tax receipts.

Also, the JLF/Beacon Hill estimates don't treat the elimination of the state Earned Income Tax Credit as tax reform (low-income families are likely to see things differently). The elimination of the state EITC will cost low-income households at least $100 million per year.

These changes add more than $150 million to the discrepancy between the JLF/Beacon Hill numbers and the official state projections.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

McCrory administration and NC General Assembly team up to punch $10-$40 million hole in Medicaid budget

They all can't be this incompetent. Can they?

What do you get when you combine the incompetent micro-managers in the North Carolina General Assembly with the incompetent bumblers in the NC Department of Health and Human Services?

A new $10 million to $40 million hole in the state's Medicaid budget.

The News & Observer picks up the story.
In August, the state’s Medicaid director asked the federal government for permission to postpone for three months the process for renewing Medicaid recipients’ coverage.

The federal government gave its approval, but the N.C. General Assembly didn’t. When lawmakers passed the state budget in July, they required the Department of Health and Human Services to get legislative approval for federal waivers.
The story indicates that the cost addressing the waiver that really isn't a waiver is somewhere between $10 million and $40 million.

Expect Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos to be along shortly with some explanation of how this is either President Obama's or former Gov. Bev Perdue's fault.

In the meantime, beginning teachers might not want to spend those promised raises.

Stop playing with other people's money

As the three regular readers of this blog will recognize, I'm rarely in league with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) or Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), but I'm completely on board with their proposals to revoke the tax-exempt status of the NFL and NHL.

Through a special-interest provision inserted in legislation nearly 50 years ago, both leagues are treated as 501(c)(6) non-profit, commercial organizations--organizations like Chambers of Commerce, local boards of trade, and local real estate boards. Other 501(c)(6) organizations are supposed to promote general business or commercial interests, improve general business conditions, but not engage in business activities themselves.

Unlike other 501(c)(6) organizations, the NFL and NHL directly engage in business activities, such as merchandizing and negotiating broadcasting deals, that benefit their members. Absent the special provision, they would not qualify as tax-exempt. Indeed, other organizations that have specifically promoted their members' business interests rather than general business interests have had to forfeit their tax-exempt status.
Although the individual teams within the leagues are subject to taxation, the revenue that the league offices receive is not. Last year, the NFL--as an organization--received a more than a quarter of a billion dollars in revenue from its member teams. About a tenth of that revenue went directly into the pocket of league commissioner Roger Goodell.

The tax-exempt status amounts to a multi-million dollar annual subsidy to some of the wealthiest people and organizations in the country. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that ending the subsidy would return $109 million to the Treasury over the next ten years.

Struggling taxpayers simply can't afford multi-million dollar subsidies to billionaires. Stop the charity to the NFL and NHL.

Monday, February 10, 2014


Yet again, Gov. McCrory's state government fails to reassure.
N.C. environmental officials now confirm arsenic levels in the Dan River exceeded state standards for at least two days following the coal ash spill a week ago from a shuttered Duke Energy plant.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources says it made an error when it indicated Thursday that the arsenic levels in the Dan River downstream from the spill were within state standards on Monday and Tuesday.
Was the NC DENR trying to bury the news? Consider the lead sentence from its Friday press release, announcing the failed tests.
All but four of the 34 water quality parameters analyzed as part of water testing near this week’s coal ash spill in the Dan River meet regulated levels for protection of human health and aquatic life, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources reported Friday evening. 
 And, as they say, four out of 34 ain't so bad.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Hey UNCG sports fans

North Carolina offers its residents some great sports bargains. This year NC fans could buy Carolina Panthers football season tickets for as little as $390, Charlotte Bobcats basketball season tickets for as little as $344, or Carolina Hurricanes hockey season tickets for as little as $516. Granted, these bargain prices only cover the teams' nose-bleed seats, but a bargain is a bargain--and nobody is forced to buy a pro sports ticket.

The same can't be said of NC's collegiate sports, including at my own institution, where students are offered quite a different bargain.

As part of the cost of attending the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, each full-time undergraduate and graduate student is compelled to pay an annual athletic fee of $622. For in-state undergrads, the mandatory athletic fee accounts for 10 percent of the total tuition and fees charged by UNCG. Students have no choice in the matter--if they want to pursue an education at UNCG, the $622 annual athletics charge is added to the price of admission.

UNCG's mandatory athletic fee has grown at a brisk clip of 7.1% per year over the last six years--a rate that's nearly four times the growth of inflation. The University has jacked up the fee despite a recession that has hurt students' ability to pay for college, even faster growth in tuition and other fees that have raised the cost of schooling, and crushing loads of student debt that leave graduates struggling to make ends meet long after they've left the campus.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Statistical error in your favor: collect 600,000 jobs

A remarkable increase in U.S. jobs is buried in an otherwise unremarkable monthly jobs report.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that the country added a seasonally-adjusted 113,000 non-farm payroll jobs in January, a solid but by no means brisk growth figure.

However, the estimated number of jobs in January of 137.5 million was 600,000 higher that last month's estimate of 136.9 million in December.

The additional 500,000 jobs come from revisions that the government makes annually to its jobs figures.

The payroll employment figures are based on surveys of firms. The rosters for those surveys are drawn from records of existing firms and have trouble accounting for new firms that are created after the roster is drawn as well as existing firms that close. The government makes adjustments for these changes, but these adjustments tend to lag the actual changes, understating job growth in good years and job declines in bad years.

Each February the government compares previous years' survey numbers to other administrative records and readjusts the survey numbers. These adjustments added about 400,000 jobs to its estimates early in 2013 and about 500,000 to its estimates near the end of 2013.

On a percentage basis, the estimates don't change much--the revised December figure is only 0.37% higher than the original estimate. But even small percentages work out to big numbers when they are applied to large populations.

Overall, the Department of Labor estimates that annual job growth was 2.3 million last year instead of 2.2 million--about 10,000 extra jobs per month.

Sometimes mistakes can be good news.

Imagine what today's headline could have been

Two immediately pressing pieces of legislation are currently in front of the Congress: extension of jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed and extension of the country's borrowing authority.

Both pieces of legislation are worthy. One of the pieces of legislation--expanding the debt ceiling--is absolutely necessary. Both have enjoyed bipartisan support in the past (Republicans were happy to provide more jobless benefits and to raise the debt ceiling when their guy occupied the White House; in fairness, both were also happy to demagog these issues when the other guy occupied the White House). Both would almost surely pass if given up or down votes.

Imagine the headlines--and the increased respect for Congress--if both had received those votes yesterday.

Instead, a minority of Republican senators, including North Carolina's Richard Burr, blocked consideration of jobless benefits--even though a key Republican demand, that the cost of the benefits be offset, had been met.

And, the Republican House, which can't decide exactly which hostage to take (and eventually release), left town without a debt ceiling vote.

In the meantime, the rest of us are left to shake our heads and just imagine positive headlines.