Archive for June, 2011

Twin Cities Pride Photos

On Sunday, Julia and I went to the Twin Cities Pride Parade, where I took a bunch of pictures. Some samples are below the jump.

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Health care for the discerning shopper

Over and over we are hearing that health care has to become more of a market like retail, or maybe dining: educated consumers would comparison shop for the cheapest quality care, thus keeping prices down. This is the logic behind high-deductible insurance plans, which are on the upswing: “These plans give employees some ‘skin in the game’ and an incentive to not only better manage their health but also to be a more educated consumer” one CEO says. Funny thing, though: if health care is supposed to be more like coupon-clipping and waiting for sales, it appears that somebody forgot to tell the doctors.

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Simple Answers

When the mortgage bubble exploded, and the economy was sent into a tailspin, the more intelligent commentators had a plan for hastening the recovery: a big stimulus program, preferably aimed at fixing some of our country’s ancient infrastructure, and mortgage cramdown to take the sting out of the bubble collapse for homeowners. What we got was a stimulus that was too small to affect the economy much, and an incredibly ineffective program known as HAMP. As a result, the economy is stalling, and the Fed is essentially giving up: growth will be lackluster, and perhaps the unemployment rate will drift back down to normal levels by 2014, 2015, 2016…

In Greece, which is also in full meltdown mode, the sanest, most humane outcome for the Greek people would be a default on Greek bonds. Painful in the short term, but better overall in the long term. Instead, we get round after round of austerity that is supposed to improve the economy, but instead is leading to a potential death spiral. The latest idea is selling off state assets, which I guess makes sense in a perverse way: if your house is on fire and you manage to sell off the bedroom and kitchen, you can say that you now have fewer things on fire, and so you’re improving!

In both instances, the rational choices were not taken, both for ideological reasons and because it meant that the banksters would have to lose some money (the fact that at least in the U.S. there were no strong voices actively pushing for things like cramdown was also a huge problem). What’s good for the people in general isn’t what’s important; what’s important is what is best for those who already have most of the money.

As for the current deal-making on the federal deficit, the easy thing to do would be to let the Bush tax cuts expire (and winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq won’t hurt either). Thus, we will end up doing anything but that. It’s only reasonable!

The Fraud/Waste Panacea

I understand the sentiment behind these government fraud/waste stunts, but they do really annoy me for several reasons. First, they reinforce the notion that waste and fraud are rampant, thus making people even less confident about government and playing right into the right-wing narrative that government is useless. Second, and more importantly, it completely obscures the magnitude of the budget and the problem. It’s a joke. Congratulations, you’ve stopped paying $125 a year for a website! That amount would also pay for the war in Afghanistan for a fraction of a second. We’re talking an orders of magnitude difference here in terms of real budgetary impact.

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Delinking Health Care

You’d be pretty annoyed if your cell phone contract followed your job, or if your employer dictated which brand of car you could drive. Yet when it comes to health insurance, the notion that your employer gets to decide for you, and that if you switch jobs there is no guarantee you can keep your coverage, is pretty ingrained into the minds of Americans. Is there a good reason to keep doing things this way? I don’t see one.

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Consumer Financial Protection

Unfettered competition is the lifeblood of the free market. So you would expect that those businesses that love the free market would love as much competition as possible, right? Not always. Competition is certainly good for consumers, but more competition is often the last thing that businesses want, precisely because it is good for consumers. Most of the time, despite what businesses may desire, the market is full of competition and the free exchange of information. Take fast food: all prices clearly spelled out, all products clearly described and manufactured, no gotchas. Or most retail. It’s easy to compare products based on price, quality, and preference, and then decide what you want to get. Consumer surplus galore, and we all win!

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Pawlenty’s content-free campaign

So far, the campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination has been hilarious to watch. You have Donald Trump shooting for the stars, and then plummeting back to Earth. You have Newt bumbling all over the place, with enough personal baggage to give cost a small fortune when boarding a commercial airplane. You have Rick Santorum trying to run while haunted by the ghost of Google. Michelle Bachmann is around to apparently stage a real campaign, much to the delight of Democrats and the media alike. Then you have Tim Pawlenty, losing to Herman Cain (who must be an anti-speed reader) in the South Carolina debate. Nevertheless, TPaw seems to keep on running.

If Minnesotans have had their fill of Pawlenty, and we have, why does he think the rest of the country will want what he’s selling? Who knows? But he seems to be running under the assumption that the best way to win the Republican nomination is to appear “saner” than the rest of the candidates, all while running a completely content-free campaign, full of slogans and absurd assumptions, but quite short on facts. His ridiculous economic plan, to grow at 5% a year for a decade (which hasn’t happened since the Great Depression, even under his hero Ronald Reagan), has been panned by all rational economists, even Republicans. His just-as-laughable “Google test” for government services has been mock just as much (as many commenters have pointed out, since Pawlenty himself exists on Google, doesn’t that mean we don’t need him in government?). His tax plan would balloon the deficit by cutting taxes lower than they are now, even though federal taxes are already at historical lows. But still he clings to these ideas like a bit of flotsam in a storm, hoping that his competitors will drown before him.

It would be nice if he were challenged on some of these things. Why can’t somebody in the media put this graphic (courtesy of Paul Krugman) in front of him and ask him what it means for health care and what he will do about it if President:

Pawlenty had eight years as governor of Minnesota to do something about health care. He didn’t. No bending the cost curve, no successful pilot programs, no real effort to provide health insurance to under-served populations other than what was already in effect. Health care spending rising out of control is one of those serious issues that demands reality-based solutions. Even saying, “I don’t care that people can’t afford health insurance and I will not have the government step into the health care market” would be more honest that some of his current campaign proposals.

I used to think TPaw was Minnesota’s Don Quixote, tilting at windmills without a chance of getting the nomination. Given the terrible field for the Republicans so far, however, it’s not as impossible as I once thought, and that’s a bit frightening. I’ve lived through eight years of Pawlenty in Minnesota, kicking the can down the road, raising taxes without admitting it, and doing little to grow jobs or improve the human and physical capital of the state. I would prefer not to see that happen to the rest of the country. But he’ll try, sloganeering and flip-flopping his way towards a hoped-for nomination.

U.S. Bank and customer choice

Predictions of the end of free checking seem to have come true, at least for U.S. Bank: I recently received notice that my free checking account, which I’ve had for over a decade, will now have a monthly fee attached if I don’t carry a minimum balance or do enough in direct deposits. Since my main account is with ING Direct, I use my U.S. Bank account for two things: the odd check that I have to deposit at an ATM (ING doesn’t do ATM deposits), and the one check I write a month that I can’t send electronically (thanks, bus pass!). So I will not be maintaining those accounts balances, and since I don’t feel like paying anything, U.S. Bank will lose a customer.

What I don’t get, though, is why banks aren’t coming up with more flexible options. Pretty much every bank that is getting rid of free checking is doing the “maintain a minimum balance or pay a set fee each month” approach. Why not have a variety of options? How about a fee per ATM use, or a fee per check? I’d be much happier to select an option like that. Seems like it wouldn’t be that hard for banks to put together a cafeteria-style menu of account options and let customers choose what they would prefer (with limitations, of course, on how often you can change things, so you can’t game the system too much). A flat fee for unlimited ATM use and checking doesn’t appeal to me because I don’t need those things.

So now, the question is where to go. I could go to a credit union, or just use my wife’s account. But for lack of account options and flexibility, U.S. Bank will be losing a customer.

The DREAM Act explained

So apparently somebody pretending to run for president slammed the DREAM Act today while visiting Ellis Island. For those not in the know, the DREAM Act allows children of undocumented immigrants to conditionally receive permanent residency for going to college or serving in the U.S. military. This would reduce the deficit by about $1.4 billion over ten years.

Leave aside the fact that it’s pretty immoral to punish children for the sins of their parents. Leave aside the fact that sending some kid back to countries they may not have been to since infancy is traumatizing. What I don’t get is this: in what world does it make sense to kick this human capital, which represents an investment of tens of thousands of dollars in education funding from taxpayers, out of this country before there is a return on the investment? How is that fiscally sane?