Saturday, January 30, 2010

Strange Bedfellows

I'm still trying to wrap my head around the idea that Osama bin Laden has denounced the U.S., and urged a boycott of American goods, over global warming. Things I am wondering:

  • Is there a big group of young Muslim environmentalists who are the intended target for this message?
  • If we pass cap-and-trade legislation, is that a surrender to terrorism? Will Republicans say that it is?
  • Will he go after China next? (Hard to see how that could be a good idea for him--he's already tapped into the Uighur market.)
  • What's with this boycott business? Has he decided to emulate Gandhi?
Bet you didn't know this: the AP story on this reports that he also mentioned global warming in a tape released in 2007. My mind is pretty boggled.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

My State-of-the-Union Edit: The 90-Second Game Changer

It's now the day after the State-of-the-Union address, and everyone with an opinion about politics or public policy is offering a list of things Obama should have said. I'll limit myself to one, with the note that I was surprised by how many of the right things he said:

"Most people have part of the cost of their health insurance paid by their employer or by the Social Security trust fund, so it's hard to get a sense of how much it actually costs. But make no mistake: we're all paying those costs, whether we can see them or not, in lower wages, higher prices, reduced employment, and reduced international competitiveness.

"Here's a startling fact. Look at the other advanced industrialized countries, and take the most expensive health-care system among them. This is a system that, like most of them, has universal coverage, in a country that, like most of them, has better statistics on life expectancy and infant mortality than we do. And by the way, it has private-sector provision.

"If our costs were proportional to theirs, we would be paying roughly $8,000 per household less than we pay for our current system that leaves tens of millions uncovered and doesn't provide very good health. That's a very rough estimate of the waste in our system: $8,000 per household . That's how much better off we could be, without sacrificing health, with a country where no one goes bankrupt from health costs or loses their coverage when they need it most, if we had a more efficient system."

Note: This is a quickie back-of-the-envelope calculation, based on Switzerland's per-capita health-care costs being two-thirds of ours, and our total being $2.4 trillion.

Like it? I call it a "ninety-second game-changer." Instead of the discussion being about whether we can afford a new system, it's about whether we can afford the present one.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Conspiracy Conspiracy

Bear with me while I struggle with some cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, the Internet is awash in conspiracy theories--about the real culprits of 9/11, the truth about the Federal Reserve, Obama's socialist agenda, and on and on. It would be fair, I think, to characterize these theories as completely wacko, although I suppose if you weren't familiar with the subject they could seem plausible. As usual, Hollywood both caters to and reinforces our fantasies; an action movie or TV show that doesn't at least hint darkly at a trail that leads all the way to the top (of something) is pretty weak beer these days.

But the other day (Thursday) in an hour or two on the Internet, I came up with some results that startled me: that the top one percent of households get almost one-quarter of national income, and that with a modest increase in the tax of the top 15,000 households you could pay more or less the entire cost of the House or Senate health reform plan. These results are not original, aside from some long division. But have you heard anyone talk about them on either the msm (Internet-speak for mainstream media) or the conspiracy blogs and websites?

Or take the Tea Party people. (Someone should tell them, by the way, that the motto of the Boston Tea Party of 1773 was not "No taxation.") They're indignant about the deficit, intrusive government and the bank bailout. Yet who are they lining up with? The Republicans, the very people that created all those things. The Democrats represent "government."

I don't believe in conspiracies. But suppose, hypothetically, that there were a conspiracy by the rich and powerful to hold onto their wealth and power. You could do a lot worse than channeling disgruntled people into worrying about how the Twin Towers fell and what happened at Roswell.

First, it distracts people from the huge inequalities of income in this country. Whoever that shadowy cabal was who brought down the World Trade Center, it's unlikely that the super-rich will be accused of being  members, unless at some point they spent time in the CIA. Second, it undercuts people's faith in government, and indeed increases their fear and suspicion of government, making it easier for you to defeat any attempts at burdensome taxation or regulation. All in all, a nice deal. Hypothetically.

The next time someone tries to convince you of one of these cockamamie theories, just smile and say, "That's what they want you to think."

The truth is out there.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Ad Martha Coakley Should Be Doing

I don't view myself as having any extraordinary political savvy, so when I see professional politicians screwing up, there's always the possibility that I'm wrong. But sometimes I'm right. One general mistake I see politicians, or their campaign experts, make a lot is thinking that TV commercials have to have great visuals, and therefore must be at least a week behind the curve and miss the hot issue.

I, on the other hand, think that if John Kerry had done an ad of himself sitting behind a desk refuting the Swift Boat allegations, instead of pictures of adorable children, he would have been elected. (Which probably would have meant that the Democrats wouldn't have taken back Congress two years later, but that's another issue.) So here's what I think is the winning Martha Coakley ad, with her sitting behind a desk,or standing in her backyard, or wherever:

"Our country is going through some difficult times right now. We face a lot of problems coming at once, most as a result of their having been ignored for a long time: the banking crisis, failing schools, Afghanistan, our overpriced health care system.

"Solving those problems will take action, not more twiddling our thumbs. But instead of coming up with constructive plans, the Republicans are content to do their best to obstruct, delay or kill whatever the Democrats come up with. They've made the calculation that that's their best shot at getting back into power. Can you think of anything constructive that Republicans have done in the last year? I can't.

"Now they're running Scott Brown for Ted Kennedy's old seat. They're looking for him to join their disciplined army in filibustering any effort to deal with our country's problems. And if he's elected, he will.

"We can't afford more years of delay. Our problems won't wait. We can solve them, but not by ignoring them. If I'm elected Senator, I will go to Washington and fight for you, just as I did as Attorney General.

"Let's get this country moving again. My name is Martha Coakley, and I approved this ad."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Soak the Rich

When I was in grad school, the professor in my microeconomics class commented one day, in the course of a class discussion, that one couldn't really produce all that much revenue just by raising taxes on the rich, because there wasn't all that much money there. The idea was that if you multiply a high annual income by a small number of people, you get a number that's not very big. Therefore, any serious revenue-raising had to come from hoi polloi, the multitude of the middle class.

Was he right? It depends on what you consider a lot of money, and what you consider rich. In 1981 (approximately when my professor made his comment), the top ten percent of the population had about 35% of the total income in the U.S. (My figures come from here, an updated version of what is generally considered to be the best source. They may not be exact, because I'm reading them off a graph.) This is a reasonably large chunk of money, but it extends well down into what would normally be considered the upper middle class. If you look at the top one percent (still around a million households) the total was only 10% of total income. And if you want to go after the super-rich, the top 0.01%, the total was only about 1.5%.

That was then. What about now? Times, it turns out, have changed. There has been a substantial growth in the share of the top ten percent; that segment now gets some 50 percent of the total income. (By "now" I mean 2007.) What is much more interesting is that practically all of that growth (13 out of 15 percentage points) is accounted for by the top 1% of the population. The share of the top 1% has gone from 10% in 1981 to a startling 23% in 2007. That's a little over $3 trillion. The super-rich have gone from 1.5% to 6% of the total, or about $830 billion. That strikes me as serious money. Roughly speaking, if we took another ten percent of the income of the top hundredth of one percent of the U.S. population, about fifteen thousand households, it would pay for health care reform.

Sorry, I'm so stunned that I'm going to repeat that. Take the 15,000 highest-income households in the U.S. Take another 10% of their income. That's enough money to pay for health care reform.

Addendum: The 2006-2008 American Community Survey estimates an average household size of 2.61 and household population of 293 million, for 112 million households. So 11,200 seems a reasonable estimate of the top 0.01%.  But the reference above gives a figure of 14,988, so I've used that number. I can only conclude that the IRS is using a very different definition of household than the Census is. A bit under 3% of the population lives in "group residences" (for example, prisons, nursing homes, military barracks, college dorms), but that doesn't come  close to accounting for the difference.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

More on Cadillacs

The rumor today is the Congressional conferees will go with the tax on "Cadillac" plans. Presumably some Senate "moderates" (I guess it's all relative) object to the idea of taxing families with incomes over $1,000,000. Remember when a millionaire was someone with a million dollars in net worth? Even today, having a net worth of a million dollars puts you somewhere in the top 10% of American families (according to the Fed's Survey of Consumer Finances). But we've become so jaded that when people in Congress talk about a "tax on millionaires," they're talking about families with annual income above a million dollars. And taxing even those people is apparently too much for some Democrats.

Meanwhile, I'm still (see December 28, 2009) trying to figure out what these wasteful plans are. I've hunted around the Internet trying to find some evidence that patient choices are a big contributor to waste in health care, and so far I haven't been able to find it. If you know, please tell me. There's a lot about doctor choices, but...

My concern (speculative at this point), is that a lot of the higher-priced plans are ones whose "extras" include dental and vision coverage. But, as I said before, that's clearly a part of basic health care. Being able to go to the dentist or get glasses is not a big deal to the middle class, but for some people it's a very big deal.

For those of you who like true-life stories, take a look at this article by the AP. [Note 3/13/10: The article, "Lessons of a weekend of free health care," by Adam Geller, 1/3/10, has been archived by the AP. If you don't want to pay $1.50, try this instead.] It describes people in Tennessee who drive for hours (and sometimes arrive the night before to get a good place in line) to get into a one-day free medical clinic. The most telling point in the story is that, although almost all of them have medical problems, many don't mention them for fear of losing their chance to get dental or vision care.

Those of you who are more statistically inclined might want to take a look at this information from the CDC. Here are some statistics for people age 45-54 (I chose one age cohort because there were no totals).

Untreated tooth decay: Poor 45%, Near-poor 40% Non-poor 17%
Loss of all natural teeth: Poor 12%, Near-poor 11%, Non-poor 4%

For the woman who was the protagonist of the AP story, having all her teeth pulled was the happy ending. That meant she no longer had to live with constant throbbing pain. (What's even more maddening about this story is that she probably votes Republican.)

Addendum: The Times health blog reports on January 14 that as of 2015 (why 2015?) dental and vision costs will not count toward the threshold for the tax. That's good news, but leaves me more mystified than ever about what's in the high-priced plans. So far, no stampede to include vision and dental as part of what's required for all plans. That's intended humorously--we won't see that in the near future.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

On Public Forgiveness

Fox News anchor Brit Hume has gotten considerable criticism for telling Tiger Woods that he should drop Buddhism and become a Christian, so that he can get forgiveness and redemption for his misdeeds. But in fairness, possibly Hume was misinterpreted. Maybe what he meant was, "You should become an evangelical Christian so that you can be forgiven by evangelical Christians."

For example, after it was revealed that Sen. John Ensign had an affair with the wife of one of his aides, and that his parents had made a "gift" of $96,000 to the couple and two of their children, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said, "If you look at it in the light of everybody makes errors, at least he fessed up and resolved the problem with his family, so I think it speaks well of his corrective force.” It turned out a few days later that Coburn knew about the affair and may have been involved in the payoff negotiations, which to my mind is taking forgiveness too far.

Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, was sterner about Sen. David Vitter being on the client list of the "D.C. Madam":

"... I cannot defend David’s behavior. Adultery is a serious matter that affects not only the individuals involved but families and the well being of the entire community. Voters have the right to consider issues like this when they assess the character of an elected official.

"Having said that, the American people have shown themselves to be very forgiving toward a public official who admits their [sic] failures and takes redemptive steps. And despite what some [who?] have said since he released his statement, so does God. Proverbs 24:16 reads 'For a righteous man may fall seven times and rise again, but the wicked shall fall by calamity.' I hope to see David back on his feet again."

So you can see Hume's point. If Tiger had been part of the family (or better yet, a member of The Family, like Ensign and Coburn), he would have been forgiven, at least by prominent evangelicals. Of course, Tiger is a sports figure and a role model, so perhaps we should hold him to a higher standard than U.S. Senators.

By the way, I'm pretty sure that's a misinterpretation of Proverbs 24:16. So thanks for telling us how God thinks, Mr. Perkins, but....

Addendum: Mencken should have said that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of American journalists. Journalists scratched their heads about whether Buddhism truly offers forgiveness, and whether Hume was entitled to proselytize, and what karma is, anyway, and completely overlooked the core of Hume's point: "So my message to Tiger would be, 'Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.'" Now, is there any empirical reason to think that's more true of Christianity than Buddhism? Are Vitter and Ensign now a great example to the world? How about Mark "Appalachian Fall" Sanford and Larry "Wide Stance" Craig?

Addendum: I can't claim credit for noticing this, but the odd amount of $96,000 was the maximum that two people could give to four people without being required to file a form with the IRS. Also, a third child, who was over 18, received nothing, suggesting that Ensign's parents were not primarily motivated by a concern for the children's welfare.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Why They Didn't Call the Sears Tower "the Tower of Sears"

You've probably heard about the opening of the Burj Dubai Khalifa, the half-mile-high tower ("burj" means "tower") that looks like something from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. It has the world's highest swimming pool, which should give Dubai an edge if there's ever a Lima Olympics.

Dubai is now broke and had to be bailed out by the emir of Abu Dhabi, leading to the name change. Personally, I'm wondering if Arab newspapers have resisted the temptation to make comparisons to a tower mentioned in the Koran: the Burj Babil. I'd have to say using "burj" in the name was tempting fate. Or something.

Things I Don't Get (International Law Division)

Tell me if this makes sense: My country borders your country, where an insurgency is going on. The insurgents have bases in my country. Periodically they cross the border and kill people in your country, then flee back into my country. I know this. It's been going on for some time. But I do nothing about it, either because I can't or because I don't want to.

Yet this is not a violation of your sovereignty. On the contrary, if anyone attacks the insurgents in my country, that's a violation of my sovereignty. This can't be what international law says, can it?