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An evening with Steven Levitt, the “Freakonomics” guy

September 17, 2009 Comments off

Illinois State University had a talk with Steven Levitt this evening.

Levitt is a microeconomics guy, hugely popular and controversial.  The Wall Street Journal describes him as “the Indiana Jones of economics”.  It’s not necessarily a compliment: Indy’s a lousy scientist, and Levitt spent the first ten minutes trying to impress us with how bad he is at math. 

But he is a very funny guy.  His tales of crack-gang and prostitute research make for excellent stand-up comedy.  And you just had to be there for the part about the Chicago police.  Humor may be the best approach to questions of human microeconomics anyway.

While I’m laughing, though, I also feel uncomfortable that such comedy derives from crack dealers who have a 7% fatality rate per year, while making less than they would make at McDonalds.  Human life is capable of getting caught in tragedy with no apparent escape.

I also take issue with his apparent conviction that the his altruism experiments say anything about human nature.  Possibly they say something about college students’ willingness to donate to other college students who are no worse off than they are, and who surely know the IRB committee wouldn’t really let any participants get ripped off even if they did “steal” the other participants’ money.  We have, after all, heard of the infamous Stanford prison experiment, and of Stanley Milgram at Yale.

In the Q&A period, many people asked macroeconomic questions like “How likely is it that the recession is over?”  Did they just not understand that he doesn’t study questions like that?  His answer consisted of first disclaiming any authority to speak on such large-scale issues, and then disagreeing strongly with Ben Bernanke on the recession.

He also felt that “Cash for clunkers” was a stupid program and a waste of money, which is certainly an arguable point of view.

We’ve heard some really interesting people at ISU, some of them also very insightful. 

Categories: Economics, Politics

National health care insurance option NOW

June 8, 2009 Comments off

President Obama is pushing health care reform, because it’s gotten to the level of a major economic problem in addition to the humanitarian one it’s been all along.  I’ve had more exposure to our health care system lately than I ever thought possible, but thanks to excellent health insurance it isn’t likely to ruin me financially.  I’m in an extremely fortunate category in that respect. 

Many people have health insurance that isn’t worth a damn.  A recent Harvard study concluded that more than half of the bankruptcies in this country are caused by medical debt of people who have health insurance.  Seriously!  The big companies have entire divisions full of people in rooms without windows, pushing around data forms with your name on them, whose only job is to deny care wherever they can.

Another terrible scenario: no health insurance at all, which is truly walking a high wire without a net.  It’s easy to criticize the foolhardiness of the tightrope walker as long as you keep yourself from knowing how they were pushed out onto the wire in the first place.  Which leads to a very telling comment that MrsDoF received at her mammogram appointment today:

“I’m glad you’re here!” said the technician.  “I’ve been bored out of my tree.  People are losing their health insurance and canceling their mammograms.”

Stop right there: I don’t want to hear one damn word from anyone about “health care rationing” in those eeeevil Socialist countries with single-payer insurance.  I personally know plenty of people who are walking-wounded because they can’t afford health insurance that actually works. In previous years, I’ve been there myself.  If someone insists on living in a Ryandian bubble, that is their privilege but the rest of us would prefer that policies be informed by experimental results.  For example, if you need health care, what IS it really like in those other countries?  The Denialism blog has been doing a nifty series on it: What’s it like in Canada, the UK, and New Zealand?  Or France or GermanyAustralia or The Netherlands?

What does Obama’s plan look like? What should a national health care system look likeWhat’s the cause of excess cost in US health care? Are patients in universal health care countries less satisfied? 

Taken together these posts paint a picture of several ways it can be done, by pretty much any modern industrialized country except, apparently, ours.  They’re spending less per person than we do and getting better results.  Maybe it’s because people go to the doctor when they’re sick, instead of holding out until it becomes an emergency room visit.  Maybe it’s because companies in those countries aren’t crippled by health insurance costs; the society as a whole bears it more gracefully.  Maybe their medical communities are less concerned with defensive medicine and covering their asses.  But the point is, even if their systems aren’t perfect, they work, for a much wider swath of society.

It’s painfully clear to me that the Republicans are going to dig in their heels on health care reform, and preserve every inch of the status quo that they possibly can.  There’s no bipartisanship to it.  So we’re not going to get single-payer in this country, at least not as long as the really big money is against it.  But we need a government insurance option for the uninsured, and we need it NOW.  It’s been a darned sweet ride for the private health insurance companies, and that’ll continue on some level for sure.  But let’s try to get this one thing right, while the issue is on the table.


UPDATES:

Categories: Economics, Politics

Trouble! with a capital T and that rhymes with B and that stands for Blagojevich… UPDATE

January 29, 2009 3 comments

Our state senate impeached Blagojevich today, and he testified nonsensically in his own defense for 47 interminable minutes.  He invoked the elderly and the children, and freedom and all the reasons why it would just be a cryin’ shame to boot him out.

And he reminded me of… something, some con-artist I’d heard somewhere.  Then it hit me:

Well, Blago is no Robert Preston.  But it was pretty entertaining all the same.

BONUS UPDATE! I noticed this newspaper box on the way back from lunch today.  Take a look at the teaser image on the bottom of the box… newspapers can only be this blatant when they know the guy hasn’t a friend left in the world.

(Click the pic to download high-res.)  And I think Dana saw this one coming..  Also you might enjoy Ed Brayton’s description of Blago’s incredibly ridiculous defense.  Sounds like the title of a children’s book, doesn’t it?

Categories: Politics

Actual journalism, for a change

September 7, 2008 Comments off

It must be a game with “journalists” -  a politician tells a flat-out lie, and they say “brilliant speech” but admit the speaker “stretched the truth a bit”.  Maybe they’re all dazzled by Sarah Palin’s undergraduate degree in “journalism”.

Update: remember Rick Santorum?  Still out there, telling lies.  Since he’s mister super-Christian, let’s call it “bearing false witness against his neighbor(s).”

Categories: Politics

McCain picks Sarah Palin as veep

August 29, 2008 8 comments

I’m genuinely worried by McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as Veep, and I’ll tell you why in a minute.  But most of the reactions to this choice seem more confident:

Sarah Palin’s story doesn’t seem too complicated.  She’s a former beauty queen (remember our current decider-in-chief is a former cheerleader).  She has a bachelor of arts degree in journalism.  She was mayor of a small town for a while, and has been governor of Alaska for two years.  She’s anti-choice, anti-gay, and a young-Earth Creationist.  And she isn’t difficult to look at, although one of my friends heard her speak and said listening to her is another matter; apparently her rhetorical skills rival those of McCain.

I’ve noticed this about the right wing – they’re really into identity politics.  If you are black, then any black man at all should have your vote.  How else explain the raving lunatic they ran against Barack Obama for Illinois Senator?  And now it appears that they think anyone with private plumbing similar to Palin’s will march right in and vote for her, disappointed Hillary supporters included.  It’s an insulting way to look at voters, and hopefully also an untrue one.

On the one hand, we have Obama.  This is a guy who started from poverty and wound up as first black president of the Harvard Law Review.  Unlike certain plutocrat politicians, he has lived in dangerous neighborhoods, and had to sweat (both metaphorically and literally) to pay the bills.  He married – and stayed married to – an equally tough and smart woman who is an inspiration to work hard and win the day.  Even the conservative magazine The Economist likes him, and calls him a ‘meritocrat’.  And Biden!  massive amounts of experience and one tough cookie.  By any measure, that’s a solid ticket.

On the other hand, we have McCain.  He’s 4th generation military royalty and a celebrity in his own right.  His years as a POW in Vietnam were until recently (that is, until he took to mentioning them to explain everything about himself) an asset.  He met the wealthy, beautiful, 17-years-younger woman to whom he is now married, while vacationing in Hawaii as his previous wife recovered from an auto accident.  His campaign has been one misstep after another.  For all his talk of foreign policy expertise, he makes very basic geography mistakes.  He has a tenuous grasp of economics and an explosive temper.  He has voted 95% of the time with an administration that has turned everything it touched to garbage.  And now he has chosen a clearly unqualified person for a running mate.  By any measure, a shaky ticket.

So why would I be worried about his choice of veep?  Shouldn’t I be rejoicing?  Probably not, for the reasons mentioned above.  And The New Republic is right – it is an ‘astonishingly arrogant’ pick.  It’s almost as if he knows the results of the election before it happens.  And before you start measuring me for a tinfoil hat, consider this: there are one hell of a lot of Diebold machines out there. 


Updates:

  • Palin is not exactly on the side of the angels on environmental, health, and energy issues.

  • Her first lie as VP pick.  Yep, Alaska – the rugged individualist state, as long as massive federal dollars keep flowing in.
  • And do I even need to mention she’s an AGW* denier? Not exactly a shock given her affection for the oil industry.  This link is full of interesting stuff, including “You’re an Alaskan, and energy costs are too high?  Here’s $1,200 to help, courtesy Sarah Palin.”
  • But at least she’ll ‘shake up the status quo’, right?  Not really so much.
  • McCain is offering an important salve to Battered Base Syndrome.
  • All the important stuff about her… may not matter:
    Does she have disadvantages, like lack of experience? Absolutely. Do those disadvantages outweigh the above? Not a chance. We have to face the facts: everyone who cares about issues and qualifications has already made up their minds one way or another. VP picks are about pulling in the rest, and Palin will do that in spades.

     

  • Could a college sophomore be responsible for her nomination?  Just in case anyone doubts the importance of web leverage.
  • Could Karl Rove, of all people, have the best explanation for why Palin is a good political choice at the expense of being bad for America?

*(Anthropogenic Global Warming)

Categories: Politics

A couple thoughts about the race

August 27, 2008 6 comments

HuffPost: If You Really Want to Understand What This Race is About, Look at the Two Candidates’ Fathers

How dare that elitist Obama have a poor and troubled upbringing, and lord it over the humble and not-at-all psychologically damaged McCain?

Slate: If Obama Loses… Racism is the only reason McCain might beat him.

What’s it take to swing a close election; two, three percent?  There’s way more than that who wouldn’t vote for Obama (or any other black man) if he were Jesus Christ carrying the cure for the common cold in a suitcase full of diamonds.

Categories: Politics

Sound familiar?

August 26, 2008 1 comment

Link if embedded video doesn’t work

Categories: Politics

Let’s keep an eye on this come election day

August 23, 2008 3 comments

Big surprise, Diebold admits their election machines might drop votes.  But the flaw “probably didn’t ruin any elections”.  (Does anyone else remember the former CEO of Diebold, also chairman of the Indiana Republican Party, vowing to “do whatever it takes to make sure George W. Bush wins Indiana”?  Or that Diebold, now “Premier Election Solutions”, is a major Republican donor?)

Election: it isn’t rocket surgery.  You mark your vote on a piece of paper.  Keep them safe, with people from both sides watching.  Then they’re counted, with people from both sides watching.  Tally the results.  Winner drinks champagne from a glass, loser from bottle.

Categories: Politics

Political funnies for Saturday

August 23, 2008 1 comment

An oldie but goodie comedy routine from ‘down under’ – the front of the ship fell off!  But rest assured that’s very unusual. 

Certainly would bear on the question of drilling in fragile ecosystems. Hat-tip to Revere.

Regular-guy John McCain spends every year more on gardeners and servants than your house is worth, if you are an ‘average American’.  So who does the word “we” refer to when he says; “Celebrities don’t have to worry about family budgets. But we sure do.”?  Maybe that elitist Obama can explain it to us. 

By the way, Obama picked Biden.  I’m OK with that.

The right-windbag blogosphere is buzzing over Obama’s comment the other day praising China’s infrastructure improvements.  But the quote they use sort of cuts off in mid-thought. (Big surprise, right?  But that’s GOPSOP).  Anybody know where I can find a transcript of the whole speech, or even a longer video clip?

Categories: Politics

Struggling to survive

August 14, 2008 4 comments

BBC Photographer Jake Price spent a day at the tracks in Lecheria, Mexico, learning about the lives of those passing through.  He produced an excellent slideshow with audio narration.  Something’s got to be done about conditions in Mexico, but I’m damned if I know what.

Before anyone thinks getting tougher on illegals will stop the inflow to our country, consider that even China has an illegal immigration problem, from North Korea. They’re even building a wall to try and stop it. 

Categories: Economics, Politics