Friday, February 26, 2010

Sen. Shelby unapologetic about the holds

Dana Bash from CNN has an eye-opening interview with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL). You will recall that Sen. Shelby recently held up Senate consideration of nearly all of President Obama's nominees in a snit over an Air Force tanker contract for Shelby's home state.

When asked why he brought the nomination process to a halt, Sen. Shelby responded, "Well, I did it to get the attention of the administration."

That's right. There was no larger principle involved and nothing wrong with the nominees themselves. The CNN story explains
When asked about the qualifications of nominees he held up, Shelby replied, "Oh, I don't have any idea."

He openly concedes he is blocking them for one reason: leverage. "That's part of the life up here," he said.
Sen. Shelby continues to hold up consideration of three Air Force appointees, this at a time when U.S. forces are actively fighting in Afghanistan and at risk elsewhere.

You can watch the whole sordid thing in the clip below.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

More on the rise and fall of house prices

Here we go again, Bloomberg and CNNMoney still can't agree whether home prices are rising or falling.

Bloomberg's article is titled "Home Prices in 20 U.S. Cities Rose for Seventh Month" and leads
Home prices in 20 U.S. cities rose in December for a seventh consecutive month, indicating the industry at the heart of the worst recession since the 1930s is stabilizing.
CNNMoney's article is titled "Home prices fall another 2.5%" and leads
Home prices fell just 2.5% during the last three month of 2009 compared with the fourth quarter of 2008, according to a closely watched gauge of home price movement. That was a big improvement over the past three years.
The different takes on the same housing price report are consistent with what each group reported in December, with Bloomberg emphasizing the positive and CNNMoney emphasizing the negative.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A kooky, misguided grudge

It turns out that yesterday's suicide attack that involved crashing a fully gassed up airplane into a government building was not, not I repeat, a terrorist attack. According to the print version of the local paper, it was a "grudge" that "became deadly."

The paper goes on to explain that the pilot was "angry" and that
in place of the typical portrait of a terrorist driven by ideology. Stack was described as generally easygoing, a talented amateur musician with marital troubles, and a maddening grudge against the tax authorities.
In the same story, a relative of the pilot adds that "a hang-up" was "undoubtedly the reason he flew the airplane against that building. Not to kill people, but just to damage the IRS."

Nope, crashing a bomb into an occupied building in the middle of the business day shows no murderous intent at all, and of course, the target was the IRS, not actual people. No hatred either, just a grudge and a hang-up.

No terrorism to see here folks, move along.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Birthers are just the tip of the know-nothing iceberg

There are days where my belief in rationality is really put to the test.

My very sensible brother-in-law, who has adopted Texas as his home state, sent the following along.
Nearly a third of Texans believe humans and dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time, and more than half disagree with the theory that humans developed from earlier species of animals, according to the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

...Most of the Texans in the survey — 51 percent — disagree with the statement, "human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals." Thirty-five percent agreed with that statement, and 15 percent said they don't know.

Did humans live at the same time as the dinosaurs? Three in ten Texas voters agree with that statement; 41 percent disagree, and 30 percent don't know.
This would be just an interesting cultural note were it not for the influence that Texans have in the national textbook market.

One wonders how many of these folks were in the audience yippin' and yawin' at Tom Tancredo's recent plea for higher voting standards.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Good week in Afghanistan

The fight against the Taliban appears to be bearing some significant fruit. First, there was this week's successful offensive against the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in Helmud province.

Now comes word, that Pakistani and U.S. forces also captured the Afghan Taliban's military leader last week.
The Afghan Taliban's second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was captured last week in Karachi during a joint operation by Pakistan's intelligence service and the CIA, according to U.S. and Pakistani sources.

Deputy to Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, Baradar has been considered by many to be in de facto control of the insurgent organization in recent years. His capture is by far the most important detention since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 2001 and the first known capture of a top-ranking insurgent during the Obama administration.
The capture should provide a treasure trove of information, especially since the administration managed to keep the capture under wraps for several days.

The administration has had several notable successes killing Al Qaeda and Taliban militants, including high-ranking militants in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan. However, this represents it's first capture of a top leader.

It also represents the first important test of whether the U.S. can successfully extract intelligence from a top and immediately dangerous captive under the administration's new interrogation policies.

It will also be interesting to see how Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin and the rest of the Party of No spin the last week's events as failures (give credit to Glenn Beck for boldly jumping right to the front of the idiot line and saying that we should have immediately shot Baradar in the head "before we what release him into primary schools in New York City").

Friday, February 12, 2010

How's that free market-y insurance thing working out for ya

Economics teaches us to always consider the opportunity costs of alternatives--that is, not to just evaluate the costs and benefits of one outcome but also to consider the costs and benefits of alternatives. The health insurance reform debate could benefit from an opportunity cost approach.

Critics of health insurance reform rail against the potential harms and shortcomings of the Democrats' reform plans. However, they seldom mention the actual problems caused by the exisitng health insurance system.

A number of stories this week remind us that the status quo in the health insurance market has significant problems. In an earlier post, I linked to the story about the 39 percent rate hike that Anthem Blue Cross of California is imposing on its customers. At Slate, Timothy Noah relates how BlueCross BlueShield of Texas systematically rejects and discriminates against applicants with health issues. And yesterday, the advocacy group, Health Care for America Now, reported that profits for the five largest U.S. health insurers rose in 2009 by 56 percent (not bad for the worst recession in half a century), while the companies reduced private coverage by 2.7 million customers.

Collectively, the stories show that the critics' health care horror stories already apply to the current system.

Rationing. Critics of health insurance reform warn that the Democrats' proposals will lead to rationing. At the hysterical end of the scare-mongering spectrum are Sarah Palin's (and others') claims that reform would lead to "death panels."

Anthem's actions and the Health Care for America Now report remind us, however, that rationing already happens in the existing insurance system and more generally in health care markets. In insurance markets, rationing happens through movements in the price of insurance. As prices go up, insurance purchases go down, either through people buying less coverage or by people dropping insurance coverage altogether. The Anthem premium hike is an outrageous example; nevertheless, it is rationing.

Timothy Noah's story reminds us that rationing also happens in other ways, such as when insurance companies limit the payments that they will make, the customers they will enroll, or the services that they will cover.

Rationing also occurs when certain services simply aren't offered because a provider can't make a living or a profit offering them.

Critics (and proponents) of health insurance need to be upfront in stating that rationing will and must happen. Health care is costly, and its supply is not limitless. It's not feasible to provide as much health care as everyone might possibly want. Rationing isn't a matter of whether but rather a matter of how.

Somebody's hands are already probably on your health care. The critics' mantra throughout the insurance reform debate has been for the government to keep its "hands off our health care." The critics neglect to tell you, however, that many hands are already all over most people's health care.

For market-based insurance, the supply, conditions, and price of insurance policies are set by a few business executives whose primarily goal isn't to provide as much service as possible but to obtain the highest profit possible. If increased service and increased profit coincide, consumers win; however, if service and profits don't coincide, consumers' interests will be thrown overboard. All of three stories that are referenced about show how firms can actually increase profits while serving fewer people.

And this assumes that firms act in a rational way. Business owners are actually free to do as they want. Competitive markets act as a disciplining device, but they are a very harsh and imperfect device. If an owner does something and persists in something that the market won't support, the business fails. That provides a strong incentive to make profit-maximizing business decisions, but it doesn't prevent owners from making bone-headed decisions. If a bad decision results in a business failure, a lot of people can be hurt in the process. Thus, it's important to remember that one of the "hands" on private insurance policies is the "invisible hand."

You could lose your private insurance. In a market system, companies are free to offer insurance if they want to and mostly under the terms they want to. However, they are also free not to do these things. In addition, a company isn't compelled to offer insurance next year just because it offered insurance this year. If companies stop offering certain types of policies or go out of business, customers are left to fend for themselves.

Private markets provide lots of incentives for companies to supply products and services. When there are many potential suppliers and customers and when all of the potential market participants have adequate information about the goods being transacted, markets provide socially efficient outcomes on the whole.

Many insurance markets, however, have few competitors (are concentrated), which allows the existing monopoly or oligopoly suppliers to reduce the services that they offer and still enjoy a profit.

Also, insurance markets are characterized by asymmetric information. Customers have more information about their health needs than insurers. This can lead to certain types of insurance just not being offered at all.

Finally, as mentioned, competition, when it is applicable, often works through business failures.

Where does that leave us? The health insurance status quo is great for corporate profits. However, it leads our country to spend nearly twice as much per capita on health care than the next most expensive country. At the same time, it produces inferior health outcomes while still leaving approximately 46 million people in America uninsured and exposing many people to financial risk and bankruptcy.

The status quo redistributes income to the wealthy, costs too much, provides too little, and exposes people to unnecessary risk. To paraphrase Sarah Palin, that's how that free market-y insurance thing is working out for ya.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Memories (sort of)

This video brings back so many fond memories. Mostly they're memories of people saying, "Dave, last night you ..." and me not remembering. But they're cherished memories all the same.

Hat tip to David T. who has heard his dad's college stories, first and second apartment stories, grad school stories, assistant professor stories, and last week stories (all from other people).

Party of No exposed as the Party of No

Rachel Maddow rips the childish antics Party of No.

Maddow first points out how prominent Republicans are rejecting the very ideas that they themselves initially proposed--that is, if Democrats have the temerity to include those ideas in actual legislation. Following somewhat in the style of Sen. John Kerry, Republicans said "yes" before they voted "no" (or more typically, said "no you can't vote").

Maddow then shows Republican after Republican speechifying in Washington against the waste and ineffectiveness of last year's stimulus bill, only to go home to their districts, distribute big checks drawn on stimulus money, and claim how much that spending will contribute to jobs and the local economy in their home districts. Republicans want to have it both ways--the same stimulus legislation fails to create jobs in one context but creates jobs in another.

Maybe in a future show, Maddow's staffers could tally up all the jobs that Republicans have claimed have been created in their home districts and compare them to the national job creation claims that Republicans criticize.

Better still, maybe Republicans could just own up to their nihilistic obstructionism.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sometimes the free market isn't such a wonderful thing

While Republicans and Tea Partiers vilify health insurance reform, the bad practices of insurers continue. It's important to remember that this is the status quo that they are fighting for tooth and nail.
President Obama's secretary of health and human services fired off a sharply worded letter to a California insurer Monday, demanding to know why it is raising rates for individual policyholders by as much as 39 percent.

The unusual salvo offers a reminder that, even as health-care legislation lies in limbo in Washington, the battle over surging health care costs continues in other venues.

Anthem Blue Cross of California sent out notices earlier this month to many of its roughly 800,000 holders of individual policies, informing them that the costs of their plans would sharply increase to cover rising health-care costs. The increases do not affect employer-provided plans in the state.
Hands off our healthcare so that insurance companies can jack up our premiums by a third doesn't seem like such great rallying cry.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

I wonder what Dr. J will think of this

The New York Times reports on nurses fired for doing the right thing
It occurred to Anne Mitchell as she was writing the letter that she might lose her job, which is why she chose not to sign it. But it was beyond her conception that she would be indicted and threatened with 10 years in prison for doing what she knew a nurse must: inform state regulators that a doctor at her rural hospital was practicing bad medicine.

...But in what may be an unprecedented prosecution, Mrs. Mitchell is scheduled to stand trial in state court on Monday for “misuse of official information,” a third-degree felony in Texas.

The prosecutor said he would show that Mrs. Mitchell had a history of making "inflammatory" statements about Dr. Rolando G. Arafiles Jr. and intended to damage his reputation when she reported him last April to the Texas Medical Board, which licenses and disciplines doctors.

Mrs. Mitchell counters that as an administrative nurse, she had a professional obligation to protect patients from what she saw as a pattern of improper prescribing and surgical procedures — including a failed skin graft that Dr. Arafiles performed in the emergency room, without surgical privileges. He also sutured a rubber tip to a patient’s crushed finger for protection, an unconventional remedy that was later flagged as inappropriate by the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Commentary on this case seems like something tailor-made for North Carolina's Dr. J.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Two-tiered parking fees at the Coliseum?

Tony Wilkins blogs about a proposal he made to the Coliseum Commission to study discounting parking fees for local residents. The proposal was turned down, and we should be grateful that it was. While lower parking fees sound great, they actually cause a number of problems.

The first problem is that lower parking fees are likely to lead to a loss in revenue to the Coliseum. Clearly, revenue per car (at least revenue per local car) will go down. Tony correctly argues that the lower prices would likely induce some additional local residents to attend Coliseum events, which would mitigate some of these losses. However, we have to ask how large this response will be. Unless demand for Coliseum parking by local residents was unusually responsive, the losses associated with lower per-unit revenues would offset the gains associated with increased demand. In economic terms the demand for parking by local residents would have to be price elastic; there is no reason to believe that this is the case.

Even if demand were elastic (and again there isn't any reason to think that it is), parking capacity at many events is limited. Revenues from local attendees can't increase unless there are empty spots for them to fill. If the Coliseum's parking lots are already full (i.e., if demand already exceeds supply), there's no scope for increased parking utilization. Along the same lines, there would also be losses to the extent that lower-paying local attendees crowded out any higher paying non-local attendees. There may be other behavior on the margin that leads to losses (if a local and non-local person are going to a Coliseum event together, they now have an incentive to go in the local person's car--the term "designated driver" takes on a whole new meaning). For a variety of reasons, the plan will likely hurt revenues.

The second problem is that checking an attendee's "local" status complicates the process of collecting a parking fee. Let's assume that parking attendants will determine a driver's status by checking his or her license. This interaction will add a small amount (no more than a minute) to each parking entry. Although the time cost to a single parking entry is minuscule, the large number of such transactions would cumulate into a tremendous time loss. If there were no adjustments in the number of parking attendants, congestion entering the parking lots and backing out onto the roads would increase. The extra time spent waiting and the congestion on the roads present real costs in terms of convenience and safety. Alternatively, more parking lot attendants could be hired, but that would raise money costs. Either way, Coliseum parking, which is already a frustrating and time-consuming process, would become even less efficient.

A third issue is that the scheme is likely to shift the incidence of paying for Coliseum events away from those who actually use the facility and toward other local residents. As mentioned, the scheme is likely to cause revenues to drop. The Coliseum already operates at a loss and requires subsidization from local residents. Lower revenues mean that a greater subsidy will be needed. The incidence of the subsidy is distributed across all local taxpayers; the incidence of parking fees is not. Tony describes his proposal as a major "thank you" for taxpayers; the non-attending taxpayers who would have to pony up more money are not likely to say "you're welcome" to this.

To sum up, Tony's proposal would likely reduce parking revenues; add to congestion, waiting times, and traffic problems (or alternatively increase parking attendant costs); and result in greater transfers of wealth from residents who don't attend Coliseum to residents who do. Put another way, it's costly and socially inefficient.

Sen. Shelby's parochialism holding up 70 nominees

The Party of No is at it again.

A single Republican senator, Richard Shelby (R-AL), has placed a blanket hold on 70 nominees made by the Obama administration (that's a seven followed by a zero). The hold applies to every nominee on the Senate's executive calendar.
Roberts Gibbs, the White House press secretary, sharply criticized Mr. Shelby’s actions, calling it the best instance yet for how Washington is broken. “I guess if you needed one example of what’s wrong with this town, it might be that one senator can hold up 70 qualified individuals to make government work better because he didn’t get his earmarks,” Mr. Gibbs told reporters today. “If that’s not the poster child for how this town needs to change the way it works, I fear there won’t be a greater example of silliness throughout the entire year of 2010.”

He added: “It boggles the mind to hold up qualified nominees for positions that are needed to perform functions in a government because you didn’t get two earmarks.”
Sen. Shelby's abuse of the system is all in a day's lack of work for the GOP.

Update (2/5/10 2:30 p.m.): Josh Marshall has more on the grubby hold up aspects of Sen. Shelby's extortion.
In this case, we're not dealing with a stand on partisanship or ideology or simple political shiv play which I guess can each be respected in their own place. This is more like just a stick up. Gimme my money and I'll give you your Senate back! Worse than a squeegee man and not much better than a bank robber, Shelby is shutting down the president's ability to appoint anyone to anything until he gets his way. In a sense Shelby's gambit is little different from what countless other senators of both parties have done in the past, using the senate rules to get the White House's attention to pry some money free from the federal government. But the scale is unheard and the moment is different. The only mystery about this one is which is more outrageous -- Shelby's hold or the fact that the rest of the senators of both parties allow it.

Tea party convention--opening night

The Tea Partiers' xenophobia was in full flower last night as Tom Tancredo called for civics and literacy tests for voters but only after conjuring up some Harry Potter imagery.

(Note to Tom, naturalized citizens have to pass such tests; you and the natural-born citizens that you were addressing don't; these are facts you would you would understand if you had taken a civics test).

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Republican mantra--be afraid, be very afraid

Dahlia Lithwick on Republicans' Terror Derangement Syndrome
Policies and practices that were perfectly acceptable just after 9/11, or when deployed by the Bush administration, are now decried as dangerous and reckless. The same prominent Republicans who once celebrated open civilian trials for Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid, the so-called "shoe bomber," now claim that open civilian trials endanger Americans (some Republicans have now even gone so far as to try to defund such trials). Republicans who once supported closing Guantanamo are now fighting to keep it open. And one GOP senator, who like all members of Congress must take an oath to uphold the Constitution, has voiced his concern that the Christmas bomber really needed to be "properly interrogated" instead of being allowed to ask for a lawyer.

In short, what was once tough on terror is now soft on terror. And each time the Republicans move their own crazy-place goal posts, the Obama administration moves right along with them.

It's hard to explain why this keeps happening. There hasn't been a successful terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. The terrorists who were tried in criminal proceedings since 9/11 are rotting in jail. The Christmas Day terror attack was both amateurish and unsuccessful. The Christmas bomber is evidently cooperating with intelligence officials without the need to resort to thumbscrews. In a rational universe, one might conclude that all this is actually good news. But in the Republican crazy-place, there is no good news. There's only good luck. Tick tock. And the longer they are lucky, the more terrified Americans have become.

This week Glenn Greenwald summarized how far the goal posts of normal have moved when he pointed out that "merely advocating what Ronald Reagan explicitly adopted as his policy—'to use democracy's most potent tool, the rule of law against' terrorists—is now the exclusive province of civil liberties extremists."
Republican scare-mongering is nothing new. The same Republicans were falling all over themselves in the last election arguing who could torture the most (to the least effect). The same crowd scare-mongered the country into an unnecessary and costly war in Iraq and away from the actual perpetrators of terror. And the same crowd scare-mongered the country away from our basic civil liberties.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has been in U.S. custody since 2003. Other al Qaeda terrorists have been held longer. It's long past time that final justice was served. It's in the country's interest that the trials take place.

The Republicans saw fit to delay justice through nearly six years of the Bush administration. Their scare-mongering led to a series of cockamamie procedures that couldn't pass muster with the military or even the Republicans' own activist, hand-picked Supreme Court ("sure we'll throw you the odd election, but even we have to drawn the line somewhere"). Now the Republicans want to delay justice longer. All the better to scare you with.

With a shaky economy, a resurgent al Qaeda and Taliban, climate challenges, 46 million uninsured people, and a looming structural deficit, there are enough problems to command our attention. Is it too much to ask for Republicans to stop gumming up the works and to allow the Obama administration to finally dispense with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?

To borrow a popular phrase, "we've got an app for that"--it's called the remarkable U.S. justice system.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The hermaphrodites are coming; the hermaphodites are coming

Freedom of speech is a great thing.

Just listen to Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter explain his enlighted opposition to ending discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the military.
Rep. Hunter: The military is not civilian life. And I think the folks that have been in the military that have been in these very close situations with each other. There has to be a special bond there, and I think that that bond is broken if you open up the military to transgenders, to hermaphrodites, to gays and lesbians.

Interviewer: Transgenders and hermaphrodites?

Rep. Hunter: Yeah, that's, that's going to be part of this whole thing if.. It's not just gays and lesbians, it's a whole gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual community. If you are going to let anybody in no matter what preference, what sexual preference they have, that means that the military is going to probably let everybody in. It's going to be like civilian life, and I think that would be detrimental for the military.
As the interview goes on, Rep. Hunter digs himself in deeper and deeper.

With this interview, Rep. Hunter becomes the best spokesman that opponents of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy have.

The former best spokesman, though, is still pretty good.

Intolerance isn't mavericky

When Sen. John McCain was asked in 2007 about gays serving openly in the miltary, he said,
The day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, 'Senator, we ought to change the policy,' then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it because those leaders in the military are the ones we give the responsibility to. (see full transcript)
Fast forward to February 2010. The Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, who were both originally appointed by the last Republican President testify before Congress.

Adm. Mullen said
It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do...We have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, personally, it comes down to integrity — theirs as individuals and ours as institutions.
Sec. Gates stated that he "fully support(s)" the President's policy of ending sexual discrimination in the military.

Sen. McCain's response is that he is "deeply disappointed" in their testimony.

Sen. McCain's political cowardice and prejudice are what are deeply disappointing.

Hitchens on North Korea

Christopher Hitchens' abrasiveness is put to good use castigating North Korea (and Western leaders' kowtowing towards it).
Here are the two most shattering facts about North Korea. First, when viewed by satellite photography at night, it is an area of unrelieved darkness. Barely a scintilla of light is visible even in the capital city... Second, a North Korean is on average six inches shorter than a South Korean. You may care to imagine how much surplus value has been wrung out of such a slave, and for how long, in order to feed and sustain the militarized crime family that completely owns both the country and its people.

But this is what proves Myers right. Unlike previous racist dictatorships, the North Korean one has actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult: This horror show is in our future, and is so ghastly that our own darling leaders dare not face it and can only peep through their fingers at what is coming.

Monday, February 1, 2010

NY Times reviews new museum

The New York Times has a positive review of the new International Civil Rights Center and Museum of the achievements of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, which is opening Monday in that former Woolworth building, is that you begin to understand how such a place became a pivot in the greatest political movement of the 20th century.

In the museum’s 30,000 square feet of exhibition space, the mundane luncheonette reminds us that a cataclysmic social transformation took place over the right to be ordinary. For that was what was at stake — not subtle and arcane matters of law or obscure practices that challenged eccentric codes of behavior, but the basic acts of daily life: eating, drinking, sleeping, working, playing. It was here, at this luncheonette counter, that four 17-year-old freshmen at the all-black Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina — Joseph A. McNeil, Franklin E. McCain, David L. Richmond and Ezell A. Blair Jr. — arrived on Feb. 1, 1960, sat down and ordered some food.
How refreshing to read an article that doesn't describe one or the other of our local politicians as venial clowns.