Posts tagged ‘media’

Courts Have Become the Temple of Junk Science

If the Left is really as passionate as they say they are about taking on people and institutions who are anti-science, then they should be dedicating themselves to rethinking the current tort system.  Toyota may be facing $5 billion in settlements due to a defect that government reports and independent studies say is not there.

And recall NHTSA's performance during the furor almost four years ago over alleged runaway Toyotas. Its then-overseer, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, happily participated in congressional hearings designed to flog for the benefit of trial lawyers the idea of a hidden bug in Toyota's electronic throttle control.

When the agency much more quietly came out with a report a year later debunking the idea of an electronic defect, notice how little good it did Toyota. The car maker still found it necessary to cough up $1.2 billion to satisfy owners who claimed their cars lost value in the media frenzy over a non-defect. Toyota has also seen the tide turning against it lately as it resists a deluge of accident claims.

At first, opposing lawyers were hesitant to emphasize an invisible defect that government research suggested didn't exist. That was a tactical error on their part. In an Oklahoma trial last month involving an 82-year-old woman driver, jurors awarded $3 million in compensatory damages and were ready to assign punitive damages in a complaint focused on a hypothetical bug when Toyota abruptly settled on undisclosed terms.

In another closely-watched trial set to begin in California in March, an 83-year-old female driver (who has since died from unrelated causes) testified in a deposition that she stepped on the brake instead of the gas. The judge has already ruled that if the jury decides to believe her testimony, it is entitled to infer the existence of a defect that nobody can find.

These cases, out of some 300 pending, were chosen for a reason. Study after study, including one last year by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, finds that elderly female drivers are inordinately prone to "pedal misapplication." If Toyota can't prevail in these cases, the company might be wise to run up the white flag and seek a global settlement that some estimate at upwards of $5 billion—quite a sum for a non-defect.

Business Model Ripped From the Pages of My Book BMOC

Apparently, a company named "Sumpto" has adopted a business model right out of my novel BMOC (written about 7 years ago).  This is a scene where entrepreneur Preston Marsh is interviewing and trying to recruit the protagonist Susan out of business school.  They are discussing the business model of his company called BMOC.  Half of its business model was that companies paid BMOC to place their products in the hands of influential high school students.

[Marsh:] The real innovation, though is… do you know what a product placement is?”

[Susan:] “Sure. It’s when a company pays to get their product into a TV show or movie – like when Reese’s pieces were used in the movie ET or I guess if you showed Seabiscuit eating Purina Horse Chow.”

“Exactly! And product placements are particularly effective. They act like an ad but they can’t be ignored like an ad. Anyway, we have taken product placements one step further: We get paid by major manufacturers to place their products not in movies but in the hands of the most popular kids in high school, the ones who really lead opinion as to what’s cool and not cool who we…”

“Who you happen to have on retainer anyway.”

“Exactly. But be careful how you think about ‘on retainer.’ The natural reaction is to assume this means money, but in our case it’s not. We keep the most popular people on retainer merely by …”

“Giving them free products,” Susan interrupted again, with growing excitement, “that manufacturers are already paying you to put in their hands.”

This is from Sumpto's web site.  (You will have to click through, for some reason even copying it as text is crashing my site, not sure why).

A big hat tip to reader Don, who not only found the site but paid me the indirect complement of having remembered my book.  Thanks!

Yet another case when I was 7-10 years too early (at Mercata were were about 10 years too early to cash in on social media as Groupon did with a similar model to ours).  But honestly, I was trying to make up quasi-outrageous business models.  For god sakes the other two major business ventures in the book were building fountains to harvest the coins thrown in them and selling musical tones for elevators.  I had no idea I should have been getting venture funding.

By the way, for the dozens of my literary fans, I am almost done with my next book, which is  really going to be good.   This novel writing thing really is about practice.  Teasers to follow...

The Real Health Insurance Shock Is Coming Next Fall

Obviously, the whole Obamacare implementation is in disarray.  Some of this I expected -- the policy cancellations -- and some of it I did not -- the horrendous systems implementation.  But I actually thought that most of this would be swept under the rug by a willing media.

What I really expected was for the true shock to come next fall.  And I think it is still coming.  I believe that despite rate increases, insurers are likely being overly optimistic about how much adverse selection and cost control issues they are going to have.  As a result, I expected, and still expect, huge premium increases in the fall of 2014.

Why?  The main benefit of Obamacare is for people who cannot afford health insurance but want it, and for people who are very sick and have lost their insurance.   Obamacare is a terrible plan as implemented because it futzes with virtually everything in the health care system when a more limited plan could have achieved the same humanitarian coverage goals.

Anyway, one reason Obamacare is so comprehensive is that it is based on a goal of cost control for the whole system.  Unfortunately, most all of its cost control goals are faulty.  From Megan McArdle, in an amazing article covering a huge range of Obamacare issues:

But I think it’s also clearly true that the majority of the public did not understand this. In 2008, the Barack Obama campaign told them that their premiums would go down under the new health-care law. And the law’s supporters believed it.

Q. Obama says his plan will save $2,500 annually for my family. How?

A. Through a combination of developing efficiencies in the system, expanding coverage to all Americans, and picking up the cost of some high-cost cases. Specifically:

-- Health IT investment, which will reduce unnecessary and wasteful spending in the health care system. Examples include extra hospital stays because of preventable medical errors and duplicative diagnostic tests;

-- Improving prevention and management of chronic conditions;

-- Increasing insurance industry competition and reining in the abusive practices of monopoly insurance and drug companies;

-- Providing reinsurance for catastrophic cases, which will reduce insurance premiums; and

-- Ensuring every American has health coverage, which will reduce spending on the “uncompensated” care of uninsured people who end up in emergency rooms and whose care is picked up by institutions and then passed through higher charges to insured individuals.

The part about reinsurance was always nonsense; unless it’s subsidized, reinsurance doesn’t save money for the system, though it may reduce the risk that an individual company will go broke. But the rest of it all sounded entirely plausible; I heard many smart wonks make most of these arguments in 2008 and 2009. However, it’s fair to say that by the time the law passed, the debate had pretty well established that few to none of them were true. “We all knew” that preventive care doesn’t save money, electronic medical records don’t save money, reducing uncompensated care saves very little money, and “reining in the abusive practices” of insurance companies was likely to raise premiums, not lower them, because those “abuses” mostly consist of refusing to cover very sick people.

The result?  Many of these things that supposedly reduced costs actually increase them.  So if you think the shock is high now, wait until next fall.  We will see:

  • Rates going up
  • Less choice, as insurers pull out of many local markets
  • Narrowing of doctors networks, and reduced choice in doctors
  • Companies dropping health care and dumping workers (and retirees if they can get away with it) into the exchanges and Medicare.

The Arrogance of Obama, and Obamacare

So I guess the Left has hit on its favored meme in response to the millions of insurance cancellations.  From Obama to Valerie Jarrett to any number of bloggers, the explanation is that the cancelled policies were "sub-standard".  We may have thought we liked them, but it turns out we were wrong.  Deluded in fact.

These folks -- despite not knowing my income, my net worth, my health situation, my age, my family size, my number and age of kids, my risk adversity, my degree of hypochondria, my preventative care habits, my diet, my lifestyle, my personal preferences and priorities, or any details about my insurance policy that I spend many hours analyzing and cross-comparing -- have decided they know better than I what health insurance I should want.

My plan was not substandard.  I graduated magna cum laude in engineering from Princeton and was first in my class at Harvard Business School.  I spent hours shopping for my coverage and was fully satisfied with my resulting policy.  Many of the aspects of my policy that cause Obama to call it "sub-standard" -- lack of mental health care, lack of pediatric dental care, lack of maternity care, lack of free contraception, a higher than average deductible -- were my preferences.  I got what I wanted.

More expensive, more highly featured products are not necessarily "better".  A Mercedes is not necessarily the best car choice for a middle class buyer just because it has more features than his Taurus.  Would Obama tell that person his Taurus is "sub-standard" and force him to pay for a Mercedes? If not, why the hell is doing the exact same thing but with health insurance OK?

From his speech today, via Bryan Preston

When Obama came to that section of his speech when the line usually falls, he went with a new spin. If you’ve lost your healthcare thanks to his law, he wants you to know that you were just “under-insured.” Because he says so.

“One of the things health reform was designed to do was to help not only the uninsured but also the under-insured,” he said.

“If you had one of these substandard plans before the Affordable Care Act became law, and our really liked that plan, you are able to keep it. That’s what I said when I was running for office.”

“But ever since the law was passed, if insurers decided to cancel or downgrade these substandard plans, what we said, under the law, is you have got to replace them with quality, comprehensive coverage,” he said, “because, that, too, was a central premise of the Affordable Care Act from the very beginning.”

Update:  ugh

Screen shot 2013-10-30 at 9.12.14 AM

Update #2:  Yesterday I said the time seemed right for the Left to pick a meme to explain the insurance cancellations and then give the media its marching orders.  David Firestone of the NYT has gotten the memo

The so-called cancellation letters waved around at yesterday’s hearing were simply notices that policies would have to be upgraded or changed. Some of those old policies were so full of holes that they didn’t include hospitalization, or maternity care, or coverage of other serious conditions.

Republicans were apparently furious that government would dare intrude on an insurance company’s freedom to offer a terrible product to desperate people.

“Some people like to drive a Ford, not a Ferrari,” said Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. “And some people like to drink out of a red Solo cup, not a crystal stem. You’re taking away their choice.”

Luckily, a comprehensive and affordable insurance policy is no longer a Ferrari; it is now a basic right. In the face of absurd comments and analogies like this one, Ms. Sebelius never lost her cool in three-and-a-half hours of testimony, perhaps because she knows that once the computer problems and the bellowing die down, the country will be far better off.

So you see the talking points as the media gets their orders.  1.  All policies that were cancelled were sub-standard.  2.  People will be better off with more expensive policies, even if they are too dumb to konw it.

My policy was perfectly fine.  I was not tricked.  I am willing to bet I am at least as smart as David Firestone.  I am positive I am smarter than Barrack Obama.  And yet my policy was cancelled.

Blood Test Check Points

I was in Houston the other day and they were talking about "no-refusal" weekends on the radio.  I had no idea what this was so I had to look it up.  Apparently, the police are setting up the usual extra-Constitutional DWI checkpoints.  If at these checkpoints you refuse the breathalyzer tests, they now are set up on site with a nurse, a notary, and a fax to a judge's office to obtain a warrant right in the field to take your blood.

I found this astounding but the local media seems to treat it as unexceptional, and it was almost impossible to find any real news stories about it that were not just rah rah support your local police.  The best resource seems to be attorney web sites.

Why The Administration Could Not Delay the Exchanges, Even When They Clearly Did Not Work

I think it is now clear why the Administration could not delay the exchanges, even when Republicans essentially cast them a lifeline during the budget debate by trying to delay the mandate by a year:  I think the Administration knew that a massive wave of insurance policy cancellations were already in the mail, and that the recipients of these letters would be facing huge price increases for their policies.

It is telling that the one thing you are NOT hearing from Administration officials in response to the policy cancellations is surprise.  If they were surprised, they would be yelling stuff like, "what the hell are those insurance companies doing?"  They knew this was coming, and you get the sense they were grimly bracing for it to be made public, hoping that perhaps their friends in the media would not make a big deal about it.

The minimum requirements on health plans that is driving these cancellations cannot at this point be cancelled.  Or, put more precisely, they could be cancelled but the act would be meaningless, because insurance companies have no way to suddenly go back to the old policies and pricing.  It takes too much planning to work out their product line and they can't just switch back on a dime.

So the huge wave of cancellations and price increases in the individual market was unstoppable.  That being said, the Administration has to be able to offer an alternative, and the only one they have is the hope one might get his or her new policy subsidized by other taxpayers.  But that is only possible through the exchanges.  So that had to be allowed to go forward and made to work, somehow.

There is no fix to this mess.  This is an avalanche that was loosed three years ago and cannot be stopped.

And the Insurance-Loss Spin Will Be....

I try to read a couple of team-politics blogs from both the red and blue side, to stay in touch with what they are saying and stay out of an echo chamber.  Also, of course, libertarians make common cause with both parties on various issues.  But the mindless team politics angle can really be a bore.

One of the reasons I like to read Kevin Drum on the left is that his initial reactions to things often seems pretty honest.  When his side really screws up, like the IRS scandal or failing Obamacare exchanges, his initial reaction will generally be to honestly critique a bad situation.  And then about 3-5 days into the scandal or crisis or discussion of an issue, he will catch on to and adopt the party line on an issue and then become incredibly tedious (for example, on the IRS scandal, he was honestly critical for a while and then adopted the silly "leftish groups were equally targeted meme" and has stuck to it by rote since).  But at least there are those few days of honesty, which separates him from a lot of the left and right team politics blogs.

So the timing is just about right for the Left to pick a meme to explain away the millions of people who are getting their policies cancelled despite being told that they could keep their health insurance.  Mainstream outlets like CBS and NBC are pushing the story, not just right-wing and libertarian blogs, so the Ezra Klein's of the world must be working diligently to pick a meme and then enforce it.  It will be interesting to see what they choose.

Update:  Well, here is an early entrant from Valerie Jarrett:

FACT: Nothing in forces people out of their health plans. No change is required unless insurance companies change existing plans.

This is hilarious.  Technically true, since my cancellation came from Blue Cross and not the government, but obviously the Blue Cross decision to cancel me was forced by the terms of the law.  This is obviously absurd, but is it too absurd for the media?  I don't know, and of course it gets extra lefty bonus points for blaming government-caused problems on private businesses.  Next up, Exxon to blame for gasoline taxes!

Apparently, Rental Homes Are Not Like Bonds

It is always hard to tell if the media is really offering a balanced sample of customer experiences when they pile on some company, but the Huffpo makes a pretty good case that large Wall Street home rental companies are doing a terrible job at customer service.

If so, I am unsurprised for three reasons:

  • I run what is essentially a property management company.  One thing I have learned is that everyone outside of the business systematically underestimates basic maintenance and operating costs, and few if any ever factor in the costs of longer-term capital maintenance.  Further, and perhaps more critically, outsiders frequently underestimate the detailed, even minute focus on process and organization that is necessary to make sure everything is getting maintained satisfactorily  particularly when the portfolio gets larger than the executive group can personally oversee.
  • I have rented out a second home for a few years.  It is difficult and expensive to stay on top of basic maintenance, and this is with one property that one is intimately familiar with.  I challenge you to find many people who will say they made money renting their second homes, particularly given the high cost of property management.  They may have made money on the appreciation of the real estate value, or reduced the net costs of owning a vacation home, but I seldom run into anyone making money on a annual basis (as long as the real cost of capital is being considered in the equation).
  • Wall Street has a long history of treating operational assets as financial assets.  There is a huge mindset difference between the two.  The book Barbarians at the Gate included some early history of LBO firms like KKR, and it is interesting the culture clashes they faced as they tried to explain the need to be operationally involved in their investments to the financial guys who wanted to treat them as Deals.

Trend That Is Not A Trend: Crumbling Infrastructure

How many articles have you read on "American's Crumbling Infrastructure"?  If you are like me, you are frequently left with the impression that deferred maintenance on infrastructure is increasing over time.  As is often the case in the media, a trend is implied but no actual trend data is presented.  Instead you will get scary single data points (e.g. 66,749 of the nation’s 607,380 bridges were structurally deficient).

It turns out, according to Chris Edwards at Cato, this is yet another implied trend that is not actually a trend.  The data is easily available, but never makes it into the article


In the Budget Battle, Only Face-Saving Still Drives Republicans

I generally take the Republican side in budget battles.  I have no problem shutting down the government as part of a fight to reduce the size of government.

But the Republicans are lost and without a goal of any sort.  I follow the budget battle closely and even I can't tell you what the Republicans are trying to get any more.  They never got their messaging in place, and have leaped almost at random from issue to issue trying to get something out of the shutdown.  First it was defunding Obamacare, which was never going to fly, and then it was an Obamacare delay, and then it was.... whatever it is now.  I have no idea.

The Republicans are just hanging on trying to save face.  Time to cut bait and move on.  In fact it was time to do this last week.  Take your lumps, let the Left and the media count coup and dance on your grave for a few days, and move the hell on.  Gear up to start highlighting the failures in Obamacare.   These are so bad they could have people forgetting the budget fight within days.

Index to All My Park Shutdown Posts (Sticky, New Posts Below This One)

I know regular readers my have had enough of the park shutdown posts but this blog gives me a good spot to post updated information for the media and the public.

To that end, all of my park shutdown posts are here.

What Is Wrong With Health Care, Though My Diagnosis is Opposite of the Left's

Note:  I did not like the way I first wrote this post so I have re-written it extensively.  

Progressives are passing around this chart from Brookings as an indicator of "what is wrong" with the US healthcare system.


This is how Kevin Drum interprets the chart:

In other words, the supposed advantage of PRT—that it targets cancers more precisely and has fewer toxic side effects—doesn't seem to be true. It might be better in certain very specialized cases, but not for garden variety prostate cancer.

And yet, new facilities are being constructed at a breakneck pace. Why? Because if they build them, patients will come. "They're simply done to generate profits," says health care advisor Ezekiel Emanuel. Roger that.

This is an analysis that may be true, but let's take a moment to consider how strange it is.  Forget health care for a minute.  Think about any other industry.  Here is what they are effectively saying:

  1. Industry competitors are making huge investments in a technology that has no consumer value
  2. The competitors in this industry are all making investments in this technology so rapidly that the industry is exponentially over-saturating with capacity.

And from these two facts they conclude that the profits of industry competitors will increase??

Let's for a moment say this is true -- an enormous investment that has no customer utility and that is made by so many players that the market is quickly over-saturated actually increases industry profits.  Let's take a moment to recognize that this is BIZARRE.  We have to be suspicious of some structural issue for something so bizarre to happen.  As is typical of progressives, their diagnosis seems to be that private actors are somehow at fault for being bad people to make these investments.  But these same private actors, even if they wanted to, could never make this work in any other industry, and besides there is no evidence that hospital managers are any worse people than, say, cookie company managers.  The problem is that we have fashioned a bizarre system through heavy government intervention that apparently makes these pointless investments sensible to otherwise rational actors.

One problem is that in any normal industry, consumers would simply refuse to buy, or at least refuse to pay a very high price, for services that have little or no value.  But in health care, we have completely eliminated any consumer visibility to prices.  Worse, we have eliminated any incentive for them to care about prices or really even the utility of a given procedure.  This proton beam thingie might improve my outcomes 1%?   Why not, it's not costing me anything.  Perhaps the biggest problem in health care is that the consumer has no incentive to shop.  Obamacare does nothing to fix this issue, and in fact if anything is taking us further away from consumer shopping and price transparency by working to kill high deductible health insurance and HSA's.

There is only one other industry I can think of where capital investment, even stupid capital investment, automatically translates to more profits, and that is the regulated utility business.  And that is what hospitals have become -- regulated utilities that get nearly automatic returns on investment.

In a truly free market, if these investments made no sense, one would expect very soon a reckoning as those who made these nutty investments go bankrupt.  But they obviously don't expect this.  They expect that even if it turns out to be a bad investment, they will use their political ties to get these costs built into their rate base (essentially built into reimbursement rates).  If any private or public entity refuses to pay, you just run around screaming to the media that they want to deny old people care and let sick people die.  Further, the government can't let large hospitals go bankrupt because it has already artificially limited their supply through certificate of need processes in most parts of the country.

The Left has proposed to fix this by creating the IPAB, a group so divorced from accountability that it can theoretically make unpopular care rationing decisions and survive the political fallout.  But the cost of this approach is enormous, as it essentially creates an un-elected dictatorship for 1/7 of the economy.  Which tends to be awesome if your interests and preferences line up with those of the dictator, but sucks for everyone else.  Which category do you expect to be in?  (Oh, and let's not forget how many examples we have from history of benevolent technocratic dictatorships - zero.)

The much more reasonable solution, of course, is to handle these issues the same way we do in cookies and virtually every other product -- let consumers make price-value tradeoffs with their own money.

Republican Incompetence

I am just floored at the political incompetence of the Republicans in Congress.  Conservatives are arguing that it is all about how the media unfairly  makes Republicans the bad guys in all budget fights, and I think there is some truth in that.  But this was something that was known in advance, and which could be planned for.  I am not a political expert, but if the press really creates a messaging headwind for Republicans, then that means that they need to begin early and push often on a consistent message.

I thought the attempt to roll back Obamacare altogether was an absurd overreach that was merely attempted to help Congressmen head off primary challenges from the Right.  But even so, the GOP only settled on this approach to the budget battle at the absolute last minute.  What they really needed to do was pick a realistic item they were going to fight for, all agree to it 3-4 weeks ago, and then press like hell at every opportunity on the message for that one thing.

Now even political insiders can't name what is in the mish mash bill the House sent yesterday to the Senate.  I know it has a one year individual mandate delay (just in time to bail the Administration out of dire implementation issues) and a few other random things.  Of COURSE Republicans are going to lose the messaging war when they have not even bothered to message at all, even to those of us who could be convinced to start cutting government almost anywhere.

After Criticizing Capitalism For Using Advertising to Trick Consumers into Bad Deals, Progressives Try to Use the Same Tactic for Obamacare

From our favorite politically-blinkered economist who used to be smart:

Chait stresses the youth aspect:

Fortunately for Obama, this field of battle favors his side. To pass the law, he needed to win over skeptical senators. To defend it in court, he needed conservative jurists. But identifying and persuading young people is a battle Obama does not expect to lose to Republicans, and in place of the federal outreach funds, the administration is deploying a campaignlike array of weapons: microtargeting, including door-to-door outreach, and all forms of media. (A few weeks ago, Katy Perry tweeted out a link informing her 42 million followers that health care was available beginning October 1.)

Yep, when it comes to reaching hipsters, or young people in general — I know, Katy Perry — Dems have big advantages; all that coastal cultural elite hatred suddenly turns into a big disadvantage for the right.

A couple of thoughts:

  • Katy Perry is part of the cultural elite?  We have sure dumbed down that concept.
  • As to Ms. Perry, whose music is actually a guilty pleasure of mine, health care has been available to your twitter followers all their lives, not just beginning October 1.  A better way to put this is that, as of October 1 you will be forced to buy some amount of health care whether you want it or not.  
  • The whole campaign aimed at young people is simply obscene.  I understand that folks like Ms. Perry honestly believe that young people are getting a better deal, and that she is doing them a service.  Fine, millionaires can be low information voters too.  But people in the Administration have a much more cynical purpose, which explains the magnitude of the campaign described by Chait:  For Obamacare to work and not be a fiscal disaster, it depends on young people overpaying for health insurance.  The Administration knows that young people are overpaying -- the whole system depends on it -- and yet they are telling them it is in their interest to sign up.   A private company that did this would be in jail.
  • I think this whole campaign is going to fail due to a basic fallacy of Progressive thinking.  Progressives are convinced that consumers are helpless dupes of advertising.  They in fact criticized health care advertising expenses in the private world for years for this reason, making this whole campaign incredibly ironic.  Obama and company are convinced that with enough advertising, average consumers will buy anything, even if it is a bad deal, because they are convinced that this is how consumer capitalism works (it got him elected, didn't it?)  I think they are going to be disappointed.

Republican Fail on Obamacare

I find Republican strategy in the recent Obamacare and budget fight to have been insanely aggravating, and that is coming from someone who hates Obamacare.

Yes, I understand why things are happening as they are.  From a re-election strategy, their approach makes total sense.  A lot of these House guys come from majority Republic districts where their biggest re-election fear comes from a primary challenge to the right of them.  I live in one of these districts, so I see what perhaps coastal media does not.  In everyday conversation Republicans are always criticizing their Congressmen for not rolling back Obamacare.  Republicans need to be able to say in a primary, "I voted to defund Obamacare".  Otherwise I guarantee every one of them will be facing a primary opponent who will hammer them every day.

But from the perspective of someone who just wants the worst aspects of this thing to go away, this was a terrible approach.  Defunding Obamacare entirely was never, ever, ever going to succeed.  Obama and Democrats would be happy to have a shutdown last months before they would roll back his one and only signature piece of legislation.  They may have caved in the past on other issues but he is not going to cave on this one (and needs to be seen not caving given his recent foreign policy mis-steps that has him perceived as weak even in his own party).  And, because all the focus is on Obamacare, we are going to end up with a budget deal that makes no further progress on containing other spending.

The Republicans should have taken the opportunity to seek targeted changes that would more likely have been accepted.  The most obvious one is to trade a continuing resolution for an elimination of the IPAB, one of the most undemocratic bits of legislation since the National Industrial Recovery Act.  Another strategy would have been to trade a CR for a 1-year delay in the individual mandate, a riskier strategy but one the Administration might leap at given that implementation problems in exchanges are giving them a black eye.  Finally, an even riskier strategy would have been to tie a CR to a legislative acknowledgement that the PPACA does not allow subsidies in Federally-run exchanges.  This latter might not have been achievable (and they might get it in the courts some day anyway) but if one argues that any of these is unrealistic, then certainly defunding Obamacare as a whole was unrealistic.

I think as a minimum they could have killed the IPAB, but now they will get nothing.

Update:  This line from All the President's Men seems relevant:

You've done worse than let Haldeman slip away: you've got people feeling sorry for him. I didn't think that was possible. In a conspiracy like this, you build from the outer edges and go step by step. If you shoot too high and miss, everybody feels more secure. You've put the investigation back months.

Other Views on Teach for America

Since I have posted positively about Teach for America, it is only fair I post this article from the Atlantic of a Teach for America alum who felt she was unprepared for what she faced in the classroom.

Over the years, I have met many TFA teachers and have been in their classrooms, and have never gotten this vibe from them, but perhaps one of our samples (mine or the author's) are flawed**.

I guess my reaction to the article is this:  TFA is the best program I have encountered to try to improve education within the framework of our deeply flawed public education system***.  However, understanding the flaws of public education, and being someone who would much rather see competition introduced into the k-12 education system, I suppose I am not surprised that putting really talented people in a bad system can only do so much.

The education establishment, which is implicitly backed by most of the media, really wants to kill TFA, which just goes to show, perhaps, the impossibility of making change happen within the system.  Think of it this way:  TFA is everything liberals have wanted in teaching reform.  It brings the brightest of the bright from America's colleges and diverts them from Wall Street and Harvard Law to teaching schoolkids.  It is modeled roughly on the Peace Corps.  It is the most establishment-friendly way I can think of to try to make public schools better and still the public school system immune system rejects it.  If TFA cannot work, then we should take that as proof that it is time for a radically new system that eliminates the government monopoly on education.


** I confess it may be my sample.  When we pay to sponsor a teacher, we specify that we will only sponsor one in a charter school.  Consistent with my comments in the rest of the article, I despair of throwing even really good people into typical public schools, and want to send them where they might have a chance.  The school where we have sponsored a teacher the last couple of years is doing great, with a population of kids nearly 100% eligible for the Federal school lunch program and most of whose parents do not speak English as a first language (or at all) significantly outperforming their peers.

*** I also think it is a great program for the young adults in it.  I have seen many of the not-for-profit and NGO jobs smart kids go into out of college, and they are awful.  They teach bad organizational lessons that will make these folks less employable in the future by productive enterprises and they at best do nothing (at worst spend their time lobbying to make my life harder and more expensive).  Against this backdrop, it is a much better experience for folks who want a service type of job out of college - the life skills taught are more relevant and the work has a higher impact.

Appeals to Authority

A reader sends me a story of global warming activist who clearly doesn't know even the most basic facts about global warming.  Since this article is about avoiding appeals to authority, so I hate to ask you to take my word for it, but it is simply impossible to immerse oneself in the science of global warming for any amount of time without being able to immediately rattle off the four major global temperature data bases (or at least one of them!)

I don't typically find it very compelling to knock a particular point of view just because one of its defenders is a moron, unless that defender has been set up as a quasi-official representative of that point of view (e.g. Al Gore).  After all, there are plenty of folks on my side of issues, including those who are voicing opinions skeptical of catastrophic global warming, who are making screwed up arguments.

However, I have found over time this to be an absolutely typical situation in the global warming advocacy world.  Every single time I have publicly debated this issue, I have understood the opposing argument, ie the argument for catastrophic global warming, better than my opponent.   In fact, I finally had to write a first chapter to my usual presentation.  In this preamble, I outline the case and evidence for manmade global warming so the audience could understand it before I then set out to refute it.

The problem is that the global warming alarm movement has come to rely very heavily on appeals to authority and ad hominem attacks in making their case.  What headlines do you see? 97% of scientists agree, the IPCC is 95% sure, etc.  These "studies", which Lord Monkton (with whom I often disagree but who can be very clever) calls "no better than a show of hands", dominate the news.  When have you ever seen a story in the media about the core issue of global warming, which is diagnosing whether positive feedbacks truly multiply small bits of manmade warming to catastrophic levels.  The answer is never.

Global warming advocates thus have failed to learn how to really argue the science of their theory.  In their echo chambers, they have all agreed that saying "the science is settled" over and over and then responding to criticism by saying "skeptics are just like tobacco lawyers and holocaust deniers and are paid off by oil companies" represents a sufficient argument.**  Which means that in an actual debate, they can be surprisingly easy to rip to pieces.  Which may be why most, taking Al Gore's lead, refuse to debate.

All of this is particularly ironic since it is the global warming alarmists who try to wrap themselves in the mantle of the defenders of science.  Ironic because the scientific revolution began only when men and women were willing to reject appeals to authority and try to understand things for themselves.


** Another very typical tactic:  They will present whole presentations without a single citation.   But make one statement in your rebuttal as a skeptic that is not backed with a named, peer-reviewed study, and they will call you out on it.  I remember in one presentation, I was presenting some material that was based on my own analysis.  "But this is not peer-reviewed" said one participant, implying that it should therefore be ignored.  I retorted that it was basic math, that the data sources were all cited, and they were my peers -- review it.  Use you brains.  Does it make sense?  Is there a flaw?  But they don't want to do that.  Increasingly, oddly, science is about having officially licensed scientists delivery findings to them on a platter.

IPCC: We Count on Lazy Reporters

We will see the final version of the IPCC's Fifth climate assessment soon.  But here is something interesting from the last draft circulated.  First, here is there chart comparing actual temperatures to model forecasts.  As you can see, all the actuals fall outside the published ranges from all previous reports (with a couple of the most recent data points added by Steve McIntyre in red).

click to enlarge


A problem, though not necessarily a fatal problem if the divergence can be explained.  And the IPCC is throwing out a lot of last minute explanations, though none of them are backed with any actual science.  I discussed one of these explanations here.  Anyway, you see their data above.  This is what they actually write in the text:

the globally-averaged surface temperatures are well within the uncertainty range of all previous IPCC projections, and generally are in the middle of the scenario ranges”.

This is completely absurd, of course, given their own data, but it has lasted through several drafts, so we will see if it makes it into the final draft.  My guess is that they will leave this issue out entirely in the summary for policy makers (the only part the media reads).  Steve McIntyre discusses the whole history of this divergence issue, along with a series of studies highlighting this divergence that have been consistently kept out of publication by climate gatekeepers.

The frustrating part is that the IPCC is running around saying they can't have a complete answer on this critical issue because it is so new.  By "new" they mean a frequent skeptics' observation and criticism of climate models for over a decade that they have only recently been forced under duress to finally consider.

Some Responsible Press Coverage of Record Temperatures

The Phoenix New Times blog had a fairly remarkable story on a record-hot Phoenix summer.  The core of the article is a chart from the NOAA.  There are three things to notice in it:

  • The article actually acknowledges that higher temperatures were due to higher night-time lows rather than higher daytime highs  Any mention of this is exceedingly rare in media stories on temperatures, perhaps because the idea of a higher low is confusing to communicate
  • It actually attributes urban warming to the urban heat island effect
  • It makes no mention of global warming

Here is the graphic:



This puts me in the odd role of switching sides, so to speak, and observing that greenhouse warming could very likely manifest itself as rising nighttime lows (rather than rising daytime highs).  I can only assume the surrounding area of Arizona did not see the same sort of records, which would support the theory that this is a UHI effect.

Phoenix has a huge urban heat island effect, which my son actually measured.  At 9-10 in the evening, we measured a temperature differential of 8-12F from city center to rural areas outside the city.  By the way, this is a fabulous science fair project if you know a junior high or high school student trying to do something different than growing bean plants under different color lights.

This Was My Take As Well: Cut Farm Subsidies, Not Food Stamps

First, as many of you may have guessed, the "massive cuts" in food stamps over the next 10 years proposed by House Republicans are basically just a modest reduction in their rate of growth.  All attempts to slow the spending growth in any government program will always be treated by the media as Armageddon, which is why government spending seldom slows (see: Sequester).

But I have been amazed through this whole deal that Republicans want to extract a pound (actually probably just an ounce or so) of flesh out of the Food Stamp program but explicitly left the rest of the farm bill with all of its bloated subsidies alone.  Henry Olson asks the same question at NRO.

I will add one other observation about food stamps that is sure to have just about everyone disagreeing with me.  Of late, Republicans have released a number of reports on food stamp fraud, showing people converting food stamps to cash, presumably so they can buy things with the money that food stamps are allowed to be used for.

Once upon a time, maybe 30 years ago in my more Conservative days, I would get all worked up by the same things.  Look at those guys, we give them money for food and they buy booze with it!  It must be stopped.  Since that time, I suppose I never really revisited this point of view until I was watching the recent stories on food stamp fraud.

But what I began thinking about was this:  As a libertarian, I always say that the government needs to respect and keep its hands off the decision-making of individuals.  If people make bad choices, paraphrasing from the HBO show Deadwood, then let them go to hell however they choose.  And, more often than not, it turns out that when you really look, people are not necessarily making what from the outside looks like a bad choice -- they have information, incentives, pressures, and preferences we folks sitting in our tidy Washington offices, chauffeured to work every day, may not understand.

So if we are going to give people charity - money to survive on when poor and out of work - shouldn't we respect them and their choices?  Why attach a myriad of conditions and surveillance to the use of the funds?  Of course, this is an opinion that puts me way out of the mainstream.  Liberals will treat these folks as potential victims that must be guided paternally, and Conservatives will treat them as potential fraudsters who must be watched carefully.  I think either of these attitudes are insidious, and it is better to treat these folks as adults who need help.

Corleone-Style Government

This is pretty amazing -- a FOIA and a subsequent string of emails between a USA Today reporter and the Department of Justice.  Like any email string, you need to go to the end and then read up.  Essentially, the DOJ tells the reporter that they have information that undermines the reporter's story but won't tell him what it is.  Instead, they threaten to hold it until after the reporter has published, and then give the information to another media outlet in order to embarrass the reporter, all because the reporter is "biased" which in Obama Administration speak means that he is an outlier that does not dutifully fall in line with the Administration's talking points.

My guess is that this is a cheap bluff to prevent a story from being published that the DOJ does not want to see in the public domain.  Even if it is not a bluff, this is a horrendous approach to releasing information to the public.

Let's Not Forget Martha Coakley's Crimes

Martha Coakley, former Massachusetts Attorney General, is apparently running for Governor of that state after her failed bid to be Senator.

Walter Olson has a round-up of Coakley's various abuses of power, which start with her shameful hounding of the Amirault family against all reason and facts, apparently for the sole purpose of self-aggrandizement.  Unfortunately, all too frequently AG's are rewarded for prosecutorial abuse in the form of media attention and often election to higher offices (Janet Reno rode witch hunts of day care operators very similar to Coakley's into the White House).

The day care worker witch hunt was one of the more bizarre events to occur in my lifetime.  I even sat on a jury of such a case, the only jury I have ever been on.  You have heard of copycat murders?  This turned out to be a copycat false accusation.  It eventually became clear that the teenage babysitter who made the main accusations really wanted to be on the Oprah show, and saw how other day care and child abuse whistle blowers had been interviewed by Oprah.   I kid you not.   By the time of this case, defense lawyers had become wise to the prosecutors' game of using brainwashing techniques to try to get small children to make bizarre sexual allegations against adults in the case.  So the defense was able to highlight the extremes that a couple of state psychologists had gone through to effectively break one poor 6 year old girl.  It was sickening, and it took us about 15 minutes to acquit.   But this is the type of behavior Ms. Coakley and her staff were engaging in.

The Problem With Affirmative Action

Janet Yellen may soon be a victim of affirmative action.  I know that sounds odd, but I think it is true.

To preface, I have no preferences in the competition to become the next head of the Federal Reserve, and assume that Janet Yellen and Larry Summers are equally qualified.   I don't think the immense power the Fed has to screw with the economy can be wielded rationally by any individual, so it almost does not matter who sits in the chair.  Perhaps someone with a bit less hubris and a little more self-awareness would be better with such power, which would certainly mitigate against Summers.

But Yellen has a problem.  When this horse race first emerged in the press, many in the media suggested that Yellen would be a great choice because she was a woman, and qualified.  Most of the press coverage centered (probably unfairly given that she does seem to be quite qualified) on her woman-ness.  This leaves Yellen with a problem because many people were left with a first impression that the reason to choose her was primarily due to her having a womb, rather than her economic chops.

This is the downside of affirmative action.

New Feature Here: Trend That Is Not A Trend

Some have asked me why I have not updated my climate blog in a while.  Frankly, the climate debate has become like the movie Groundhog Day, with the same handful of scientists releasing the same flawed studies making the same mistakes.  What used to be exciting is frankly boring.  I still blog here on updated climate news, and perhaps the IPCC will give us new things to write about soon, but for now most of my climate work will just be making appearances and presentations  (let me know if you have a large group, I don't charge any sort of fee).

For a while now I have been contemplating a new focus area, perhaps even a new blog.  I call this new focus "trend that is not a trend."  It refers to the tendency I find in the media to cite a trend without any supporting data, sometimes even when the actual trend in the data turns out to have the opposite sign.  Sometimes the reporter is motivated by conventional wisdom, sometimes by passion in advocating for a certain issue, and sometimes they are fooled by their own coverage, mistaking increases in coverage of a phenomenon for increases in the phenomenon itself (for example, this year everyone believes wildfires are up, when in fact this is a very low year).  We get a lot of this type of thing in climate, so it will give me a chance to continue to blog on climate but from a slightly different angle.

The best way to explain the phenomenon is with an example, and the Arizona Republic presented me with a great one today, in the form of an article by Joan Lowy of the Associated Press.  This in an article that reads more like an editorial than a news story.  It is about the Federal requirement for railroads to put safety electronics called Positive Train Control (PTC) on trains by a certain date.  The author has a pretty clear narrative that this is an absolutely critical piece of equipment for the public good, and that railroads are using scheming and lobbying to unfairly delay and dilute this critical mandate (seriously, I am not exaggerating the tone, you can read it for yourself.)

My point, however, is not to challenge the basic premise of the article, but to address this statement in her opening paragraph (emphasis added).

Despite a rash of deadly train crashes, the railroad industry’s allies in Congress are trying to push back the deadline for installing technology to prevent the most catastrophic types of collisions until at least 2020, half a century after accident investigators first called for such safety measures.

The reporter is claiming a "rash of deadly train crashes"  -- in other words, she is saying, or at least implying, that there is an upward trend in deadly train crashes.  So let's ask ourselves if this claimed trend actually exists.  She says it so baldly, right there in the first seven words, that surely it must be true, right?

Here is the only data she cites:

The National Transportation Safety Board has investigated 27 train crashes that took 63 lives, injured nearly 1,200 and caused millions of dollars in damage over the past decade that officials say could have been prevented had the safety system been in place.

Astute readers will note that this is not a trend, it is one data point.   Has the number increased or decreased over the decade?  For comparable decades, are 27 crashes and 63 deaths a lot or a little?  Is it a "rash", or a tapering off?  We have no idea.   As we get further into this series, readers will be surprised at how often the media uses single data points to "prove" a trend.

The only other evidence we get of a "rash" are three examples:

  • The July high speed rail accident in Spain, which killed scores of people.  Of course, readers may note that she actually had to go to another country for her first example, an example involving high-speed passenger rail which has very little in common with private railroads in the US.
  • A 2008 crash blamed on inattention of a Metrolink driver -- a government employee on a government train, which sort of undermines the basic thrust of the story that this is about evil private railroads using lobbying to endanger the public.  Few readers are likely to consider a 2008 crash to constitute a recent "rash."
  • A 2005 crash at a private freight railroad that killed 9 people from a chlorine gas leak.  Fewer readers are likely to consider a 2005 crash to constitute a recent "rash".

So let's go to the data.  It is actually very easy to find, and I would be surprised if Ms. Lowy did not actually have this data in her hands.  It is at the Federal Railway Administration Office of Safety Analysis.  2013 data is only current through June and seems to be set up on an October -September fiscal year.  So I ran the data only for October-June of every year to make sure the results were comparable to 2013.  Each year in the data below is actually 9 months of data.

By the way, when one is looking at railroad fatalities, one needs to understand that railroads do kill a lot of people every year, but the vast, vast majority of these -- 99% or more -- are killed at grade crossings.  People still do not understand that a freight train takes miles to stop.  (see postscript below, but as an aside, I would be willing to make a bet: Since deaths at grade crossings outnumber deaths from collisions by about 100:1, I would be willing to bet any amount of money that I could take the capital the author wants railroads to invest in PTC and save far more lives by investing it in grade crossing protection.  People like Ms. Lowy who advocate for these regulations never, ever seem to consider prioritization and tradeoffs.)

Anyway, looking at the data, here is the data for people killed each year in US railroad accidents (as usual click to enlarge any of the charts):

click to enlarge

So, rather than a "rash", we have just the opposite -- the lowest number of deaths in a decade.  One.  I will admit that technically she said rash of "fatal accidents" and this is data on fatalities, but I'm going to make a reasonable assumption that one death means one fatal accident -- which certainly cannot be higher than the number of fatal accidents in previous years and is likely lower.

Most of you will agree that this makes the author's opening statement a joke.  Believe it or not -- and this happens a surprising number of times -- this journalist is claiming a trend that not only does not exist, but is of the opposite sign.  But let's go further with a few other charts.  Maybe we just got lucky and there is a rash of accidents but just not fatal ones:

click to enlarge

Not only is there not a "rash" but the number of accidents have actually been cut in half.   But let's give the author one last try at a benefit of the doubt.  She says the technology she is advocating reduces human error caused accidents.  The FRA actually tracks these separately.  I wonder what that trend is?

click to enlarge

LOL, if anything it declines more.    The only thing I can possibly find in her favor is that number of train accident injuries spiked in 2013 after 10 years of declining, but since fatalities and accidents went down, the odds are this is a statistical anomaly and not part of any trend.

Postscript:  To my point above, 1 person died from train accidents in the last 9 months or so.  We don't know why or how they died, but let's just say it was preventable by PTC.  The author is therefore castigating railroads for not racing ahead with hundreds of millions to prevent one death, when the railroads know their chief focus for reducing preventable deaths should be on the 588 other people who died on the railroad in the same period, mainly from grade crossing and trespasser/pedestrian accidents.

Thinking About Risk

Kevin Drum preahces against the evils of teen tanning, which he follows with a conclusion that obviously Republicans are evil for opposing a tanning tax

Indoor tanning, on the other hand, is just plain horrifically bad. Aaron Carroll provides the basics:indoor tanning before age 25 increases the risk of skin cancer by 50-100 percent, and melanoma risk (the worst kind of skin cancer) increases by 1.8 percent with each additional tanning session per year. Despite this, the chart on the right shows the prevalence of indoor tanning among teenagers. It's high! Aaron is appalled:

This is so, so, so, so, so, so, so bad for you. Why don’t I see rage against this in my inbox like I do for diet soda? Why can’t people differentiate risk appropriately?

And who would fight a tax on this?

I am not going to get into the argument here (much) about individual choice and Pigovian taxes (by the way, check out the comments for a great example of what I call the Health Care Trojan Horse, the justifying of micro-regulation of our behavior because it might increase government health care costs).

I want to write about risk.  Drum and Carroll are taking the high ground here, claiming they are truly the ones who understand risk and all use poor benighted folks do not.  But Drum and Carroll repeat the mistake in this post which is the main reason no one can parse risk.

A key reason people don't understand risk is that the media talks about large percent changes to a small risk, without ever telling us the underlying unadjusted base risk.   A 100% increase in a risk may be trivial, or it might be bad.  A 100% increase in risk of death in a car accident would be very bad.  A 100% increase in the risk of getting hit by lightning would be trivial.

In this case, it's probably somewhere in between.  The overall lifetime risk of melanoma is about 2%.  This presumably includes those with bad behavior so the non-tanning number is likely lower, but we will use 2% as our base risk understanding that it is likely high.  The 5-year survival rate from these cancers (which by the way tend to show up after the age 60) is 90+% if you are white -- if you are black it is much lower (I don't know if that is a socio-economic problem or some aspect of the biology of darker skin).

So a teenager has a lifetime chance of dying early from melanoma of about 0.2%.  A 50% increase to this would raise this to 0.3%.  An extra one in one thousand chance of dying early from something likely to show up in old age -- is that "so, so, so, so, so, so, so bad"?  For some yes, for some no.  That is what individual choice is all about.

But note the different impacts on perception.

  • Statement 1:  "Teen tanning increases dangerous melanoma skin cancer risk by 50".
  • Statement 2:  "Teen tanning adds an additional 1 in 1000 chance of dying of skin cancer in old age."

Both are true.  Both should likely be in any article on the topic.  Only the first ever is included, though.