Sunday, October 7, 2012

Twisting Obama's words

As the political campaign heats up, we see both sides doing their best to twist the words of the opposition while apologizing for their own side.  I found a recent case in point in a recent post by Roger L. Simon in PJ Media entitled Barack Obama, Segregationist.

Calling Mr. Obama is rather a strong statement.  So what is the basis of this statement?  Mr. Simon says its a recently released 2007 speech to a black audience by Mr. Obama.  And what is the damning statement?

How else do you explain a statement like “We don’t need to build more highways out in the suburbs. We should be investing in minority-owned business, in our neighborhoods”?
What can we conclude from this statement?  First, after listening to the full speech, Mr. Simon edited the quote - it isn't even accurate.  And in the context, Mr. Obama is saying that the poor (largely minority) have trouble holding jobs because they have trouble getting to and from those jobs.  People without a car can end up spending 2 hours walking or taking busses to a job because there are too few jobs in the places the poor live.

I've been hearing politicians of both parties making statements in favor of neighborhood jobs for decades and none of them have been called segregationist.  Mr. Simon seems to think that by acknowledging that inner city neighborhoods are largely minority and thus wanting to increase the number of jobs there, plus encourage the minorities who live in those neighborhoods to start businesses, Mr. Obama is encouraging segregation.

I certainly didn't agree with all of Mr. Obama's speech, and I'm sure I'd disagree with the methods he proposed to encourage minority owned businesses, but arguing that this statement is somehow meant to encourage or sanction segregation is too much of a stretch.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The presidential debate transcripts and media bias?

Looking for a transcript of the first presidential debate, I've discovered that the transcript changes depending on the source.  So far I've found three versions, and the variations appear to support claims of media bias.  The transccript versions are:

  1. An apparent full transcript.  I found these at CNN, the New York Times, and labeled as from NPR.
  2. A transcript minus portions of President Obama's remarks from Fox News.
  3. A transcript missing Mr. Romney's initial remarks from the Washington Post and CBS.
The other odd thing is that the Washington Post link above (to a "running transcript" of the debate) itself contains a link to the full transcript on a different Washington Post web page.

What struck me is that the conservative news outlet (Fox) omitted portions of President Obama's remarks while two more liberal sites (Washington Post and CBS) omitted portions of Mr. Romney's remarks.  These seem to be ammunition for bloggers on both sides trying to argue bias by the opposing side.

Note:  I only checked the first portion of each transcript (initial remarks by both candidates) so it's possible that the "full" transcripts I found differ in later portions of the debate.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Don't trust headlines about the Supreme Court

A news story today shows the problem with summarizing Supreme Court decisions based on the surface facts.  The headline reads:  "Court won't hear anti-gay marriage group appeal".  However, on reading the article, the court didn't decide anything about gay marriage.  Instead it rejected the appeal of a campaign finance law in Maine.  The proper headline should have read "Court won't hear appeal of Maine campaign donor disclosure law".

The case involves a Maine law requires "groups that raise or spend more than $5000 to influence elections to register and disclose donors."  The anti-gay marriage group did not want to disclose its donor list.  So this is a campaign finance decision, not a marriage decision.

This type of deceptive headline shows up several times a year.  The Supreme Court decides a case on some technicality unrelated to the primary issue, but the news media looks at it as a decision based on the primary issue rather than the technicality.

I'm sure justices are sometimes swayed by the issue behind some technicality they are deciding, but having spent over 15 years following the court's decisions, this is not normally the case.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Why the Post Office is going broke

The financial woes of the United States Post Office have been in the news lately.  Many explanations have been given for the Post Office's problems, from having to pay unfairly high amounts for future pensions to reduced mail volume due to the Internet.  Yet I see another cause.

Take a look at postal rates.  Not the amount of the postal rate, but how postage is calculated.  There used to be a simple set of rates for letters by weight, and packages by weight and service (first class or parcel post). Priority Mail was added, which was essentially a renamed first class package service.

Today, it's not so simple.  A simple letter still takes one stamp, but anything more is subject to numerous rules.  The size, thickness, and flexibility of an envelope is factored in along with the weight in an increasingly complex formula of surcharges to determine postage.  Packages are just as bad.  The only reliable way to send a package is using flat rate envelopes or boxes.  With these the rate is fixed.  But anything which won't fit into a flat rate box, especially a larger box, is subject to surcharges for the size or shape.

Last Christmas I sent a gift to my brother.  The packages wasn't heavy -- under 10 pounds, but it was larger than the Post Office's opinion of what a 10 pound package should weigh.  Given the size of the package, I was quoted $35.00 postage.  Instead I went to Fed Ex and sent it ground service for about $8.00.  Last week I sold something through Amazon.  The buyer got the package and asked for reimbursement because the post office charged him $2.10 extra postage.  Since I know I had the weight and package dimensions correct, I don't know where the extra charge came from.  I refunded the money and have to chalk it up to the cost of selling something that won't fit into a flat rate box.

I recently looked at international rates.  I wanted the cost of sending a letter outside the US.  In the past there has been a simple rate sheet which gave the cost of letters to Canada and Mexico (one rate) or the rest of the world (a slightly higher rate).  I finally found this cost after jumping through a half dozen links.  There are literally pages and pages of regulations about the nature of the letter being sent, extras that can be purchased, etc. (spelled out separately for each country of the world) with the actual rates buried almost as a footnote.

So chalk up another reason the Post Office is going broke -- more bureaucracy creating more and more new rules and regulations ensuring that it will soon be impossible to determine the postage of anything other than a 1 page letter without the help of an expert.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Random annoyances

My daughter has had two Hollister gift cards she was given as birthday presents several years ago.  Since she doesn't shop at Hollister (and there isn't a store nearby), I said I'd sell them on eBay.

I setup the listing to discover that eBay's policy is that one can only sell a single gift card per listing, and only one listing at a time.  I'm can guess at the types of abuse which may have prompted this, but it would have been much easier to sell two $10.00 gift cards as a single $20.00 item rather than having to sell them separately.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Fact checking the fact check -- James O'Keefe's latest and Think Progress

James O'Keefe of Acorn fame has come out with a new video showing voter fraud in North Carolina.  In the video he claims non-citizens and the dead are allowed to vote.  Of course, immediately after the release of the video the counter claims began, showing that the non-citizens were actually citizens and that in the case of the dead person the ballot was actually given out for his son (who has the same name and address).  There are not the usual rounds of partisan name calling in the blogs.

Part of the rebuttal of Mr. O'Keefe's video was a "fact check" from Think Progress, which claims that one of the "non-citizens",  Zbigniew Gorzkowski, was featured in a news article in 2008 which called him a citizen:
Customers flock through the red door of Zbigniew “Ziggy” and wife Halina Gorzkowski’s European grocery and flower shop to buy one of the 12 varieties they sell. The pierogis and 400 eastern European food items and flowers are also punching the naturalized citizen couple’s ticket for their version of the American Dream.
Think Progress said that they found the article by doing a simple Nexis search.  Note having a Nexis account, I went straight to the web site of the newspaper in question (the News and Observer).  On the News and Observer web site, the portion of the story about Mr. Gorzkowski is:
Or maybe you were thinking of taking Mom some flowers? Consider Halgo Flowers & European Grocery (4520 S. Alston Ave.; 321-2014;, which opened recently near RTP in Durham. Granted, the floral selection is modest compared to what you'll find in established florists. But Halina Gorzkowski, who owns the shop with her husband, Zbigniew, should be able to make up a nice arrangement with a little advance notice.
And besides, what other florist offers the chance to satisfy the foodie in you when you pick up your order? At Halgo, you'll find a broad assortment edible wares from the owners' native Poland and Eastern Europe. Explore shelves and refrigerated cases laden with more than a dozen varieties of pierogi, authentic kielbasa, Polish hams, Hungarian salami and other imported cold cuts, as well as hard-to-find Polish cheeses, imported canned goods, coffees and teas, and an assortment of sweets. Come to think of it, Mom might like a box of those chocolate cherry cordials to go with her flowers.
ad more here:
So what should we conclude?  Perhaps Nexis's version of the article matches Think Progress?  Since Nexis says "call our sale representative if you want an account, I assume I can't afford to check that way.  My library has access to Nexis, and I couldn't find the article searching there, but I'm not sure if they had the same type of subscription as Think Progress.  So perhaps Think Progress published the honest result of their search.

On the other hand, perhaps Think Progress found the version on the News Observer site and didn't find the story convincing.  So they created their version and wrapped it around a Nexis search, knowing that most people don't have access to Nexis.

As an aside, it was about 150 comments into the over 400 to the posting when somebody finally asked about the News Observer web site article.  No response to this from Think Progress that I'm aware of.

Unfortunately, I don't know any way to determine the truth of this little "fact check" episode.  Of course, whichever version of the news article is true it doesn't answer the question of Mr. Gorzkowski's citizenship (and I'm not expressing an opinion either way).

In terms of Mr. O'Keefe's claims about non-citizens, it appears that O'Keefe got ahold of jury duty records and extracted a list of those excused for being non-citizens.  He then compared this to voting records.  Both his "non-citizens" were excused from jury duty for not being citizens, and both were registered to vote.  The first person, William Romero, claims to have become a citizen after the jury summons and before this election (and a copy of his naturalization record is online, though again it's from Think Progress.

The second was Mr. Gorzkowski, who says he was naturalized in the 1980's and has voted at least since 2004.  So most likely Mr. Gorzkowski is guilty of lying to avoid jury duty, not the right thing to do but getting out of jury duty is a longstanding tradition in this country.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Supreme Court and Obamacare

A prediction as the Supreme Court hears arguments on the Obamacare cases.  While each case may be decided differently, my guess is a 5-4 decision upholding Obamacare.  I base this on a small, unscientific bit of reading (the briefs for the "individual mandate") and some knowledge of what the justices might base their decision on.

In terms of the briefs, I read the briefs on the individual mandate only (the total of all of the briefs submitted, including amicus briefs, totals in the tends of thousands of pages).  From these two I noticed:

  1. The government seems to have thought out their strategy.  Much of their brief is on the social need for the individual mandate and phrasing it as the "right thing" to do, which is more likely to appeal to the "liberal" justices (Breyer, Ginsberg, Sotomayor, and Kagan).  The government also argues strongly for a very broad interpretation of the commerce clause of the Constitution.  When they quote previous Supreme Court decisions favoring broad commerce powers, they appear to have made a point of quoting Justice Scalia quoting some other case, thus pointing out past broad interpretations of the "conservative" justices.
  2. The opponents of the individual mandate focus on the broadening of Congressional power into a new realm, emphasizing Congress's own doubts about constitutionality, the lack of a precedent for the individual mandate, and pointing out how Congress would now have the power to add new mandates (such as instead of bailing out GM, require all citizens to buy a new GM car or pay a tax penalty).  However, the opponents didn't give a convincing case for an alternative to the mandate other than listing a few alternatives Congress didn't have the will to pass, including a government run single payer system. Thus, the opponents didn't really give an argument for the "liberal" justices.
  3. The swing vote in the case is likely Justice Kennedy.  From what I have seen following court decisions for many years, I don't think he will be swayed by a strict constructionist argument, more likely accepting the practical need for the mandate.
  4. Another factor may be whether the court can come up with some new constitutional interpretation to allow the mandate for health insurance without obviously opening the door to Congress adding more mandates.  This implies something like the "right to privacy" which was found in sex and contraceptive cases or some variation on equal protection (that clause of the 14th amendment applies to the states, but could as easily be expanded to the Federal Government).
So I'll predict the court upholds the new health care law, perhaps striking down pieces or giving the government some hoops to jump through to make it "proper".

If, on the other hand, the government strikes down the law, what will happen?  If a few key pieces (e.g. the individual mandate) are struck down and the rest is left intact, we're likely to see a government run single payer system much faster than we would have under the current law.  There is already a good argument that Obamacare is designed to destroy the private insurance industry.  It combines a tight limit on allowed administrative costs, explicit or implicit limits on how high premiums and co-insurance payments can be, and a general vilification of profits in medicine or health insurance.  Regulations holding health insurance premiums down while costs continue to rise will result in current insurers going bankrupt or leaving the market, leaving things open for the government to take over.  The lack of an individual mandate will allow people to move in and out of health insurance as they need it, with the ban on preexisting conditions and limits on premiums ensuring that private insurance will die out all the earlier.

Unfortunately, I don't see a long term alternative to government universal health coverage.  The debate about health care has been focused on "health insurance" as the panacea which will allow everybody to get care.  It does not look at the costs of health care or the reasons for the high costs.  These costs primarily boil down to the problem of the "third party payer", meaning that the customer (the patient) does not pay directly for the product (health care).  Instead, patients rarely know what health care will cost, and are encouraged to believe that there is no way they could afford the cost without health insurance.  This is exacerbated by a system which charges the highest price to uninsured patients, while insurance companies have negotiated discounts of anywhere from 10-20% up to 80-90% depending on the procedure (I recently saw a $93,000 hospital bill, the insurance contract paid about $15,000).  Medicare pays on average less than private insurers, with Medicaid paying on average less than that.  Thus, the more it costs a doctor to be paid (in billing, forms, regulations, etc) the less the doctor is paid.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Government funding for politics

I just found the US House Oversight committee.  I saw a comment about a minority (Democratic party) report about ATF's Fast and Furious investigation which the Republicans have been complaining about.  After finding the report, I looked at the other things the oversight committee does.  The list of committee reports shows a bunch of partisan bickering, primarily House Republicans (in particular Rep. Issa of California) producing one sided reports showing the evils of the Obama Administration.

The politics goes both ways.  The Democratic report on Fast and Furious attempts to show that this is just the latest of a series of ATF investigations which allowed guns to "walk" into Mexico (search for Fast and Furious for more details, I don't feel like trying too give the details at the moment).  But the Democratic report ignores the fact that the pre-Fast and Furious investigations all attempted to confiscate the guns once they reached Mexico.  If anything, it seems to show the degree of corruption in Mexican law enforcement (I haven't finished reading the report, but the pre-Obama administration investigations are definitely presented in a biased manner).

On the other side, the Republican majority produced a report about "Government Motors" and the Chevy Volt, questioning whether the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) delayed investigating and announcing problems in the Volt's battery to protect government supported GM.  However, the report doesn't compare NHTSA's response to the Volt with NHTSA's response to other automotive safety issues.  Instead it just complains about the amount of time it took to respond.  Perhaps NHTSA was slow investigating the Volt.  On the other hand, announcing a possible safety issue before it's properly investigated can seriously damage a company's reputation.

What really bothers me about the Republican "report" on the Volt is the comparison of NHTSA's reponse to responses by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to battery problems.  They do not look at how NHTSA responds to problems with other automobiles (which would show whether the Chevy Volt got special treatment compared with other car makers), instead they compare how a different agency deals with different types of products.

So what does this show?  Through the House Oversight committee politicians of both parties get the government (in the form of Congressional staff salaries) to publish partisan attacks on the other side.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

I am Obamacare! But not for the reason you think.

A photograph has recently appeared on Facebook and other web sites.  Using the format popularized during the Occupy movement, a woman reports how her life was saved by Obamacare:

Oddly enough, this woman truly is a poster child for Obamacare.  It turns out she has written a blog for many years, so it's possible to expand beyond this hand written poster to see the real situation.  See the blog at

Let's look at her situation prior to her illness based on her blog:
  • She is a 34 year old individual who does not have health insurance through her employer.
  • She never purchased health insurance as an individual.
  • She lives with her boyfriend (now fiance), who has health insurance but did not add her to his coverage (most companies will allow an unmarried partner to be on health insurance, I even know one person who has her sister on her company insurance).
  • She has a number of health issues, but it isn't if / when she last went to a doctor.
  • From her own descriptions of various activities and expenses, she is not high income, but not poor.  She willingly takes her cat to the vet, and probably pays for auto insurance.
  • From her description of looking for insurance, I'd guess she never tried to purchase health insurance.
So here is an individual without insurance.  For around $200 a month she could have had health insurance (most cheaply through her boyfriend's employer), but she did not choose to do so.

So in May, 2011 she goes to the emergency room in pain and is diagnosed with tumors requiring surgery.  Suddenly she's looking for health insurance.  She finds it in the PCIP (preexisting condition insurance program) that the government has setup.  Interestingly, in her blog post when she's gotten the insurance she details her pre-insurance bills and computes the cost of her surgery including an assumption of 4 months of insurance premiums.

So here is an individual who will not purchase health insurance, can probably afford it (with difficulty, but it's a matter of proirity).  When she has high medical bills she finds a way to get insurance (so somebody else pays most of her costs) and apparently plans to drop the insurance after a few months when she's recovered.

How is this Obamacare?  Over the last 50 years people have been told to do things for their own good, not done the smart thing, and then had the government force them to do so.  Thus automobile insurance is mandatory in (almost?) all states because people would drive without insurance, hoping they won't be in an accident.  People have been told for years they need health insurance, however many people won't purchase health insurance, assuming they will be healthy.

So here is the real reason for Obamacare -- to force the people who won't buy insurance to do so.

Yes, I know there are lot of things messed up in the US health care system and that the new health law does a lot of other things, but the essential change boils down to the government deciding that all people need health insurance and forcing them to buy it.

And while the woman in the picture above might be thinking of dropping her health insurance again, we can rest assured that in a couple years she will be forced to buy insurance again whether she wants to or not.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Tax Increase? What Tax Increase? Or, the No Accountant Left Behind act

Congress reached a compromise over extending the Social Security tax reduction and unemployment insurance.  In the process, Republicans did the thing they vowed never to do (raise taxes on the rich), President Obama broke his promise (raised taxes on those making under $250,00 per year), and it appears to have been done it in one of the worst ways possible.

Included in the two month extension of the reduced Social Security payroll tax is a tax increase.  For those making more than the Social Security limit ($110,100 in 2012), all income over that limit is subject to a 2% surtax.  This surtax is on the gross income, not reduced by deductions, exemptions, etc.  As written, it is on income over $18,350 received in January and February.

I'm writing this over a week after the bill passed.  I thought that by this time the tax increase would be all over the news, yet I've heard very little about it.  This is unfortunate, because the surtax is likely to have a much more significant effect than the other provisions of the law.

As far as I can tell, this bill raises the marginal tax rate of high earners between two and four percent for earnings above $18,350 over two months (those making over the social Security limit averaged over the year).  After all of the Republican rhetoric about the harm of higher tax rates, we have a higher tax rate.  After all of President Obama's rhetoric about only increasing taxes on those making over $250,000 per year, we have a tax increase for which also affects those making between $110,100 and $250,000.

What are the problems with this tax increase?
  1. The change isn't clear.  The IRS notice, IR-2011-124, was confusing when I received it.  I looked at the bill itself, and the IRS notice doesn't accurately reflect the new law.  I think the IRS is going to need some time to digest the implications of this law, then the rest of us get to figure it out.
  2. The tax reduction is only for income up to $18,350.  As best I can tell (the IRS gets to try to figure out for sure), Social Security tax is 4.2% up to $18,350 in January and February, then 6.2% for any income above that.  Companies will have to track income for the first two months of the year, something they don't do today.
  3. The 2% surtax is for income over $18,350 in January and February.
  4. As written, employers will have to provide employees with income over $18,350 in January and February with a report of income received during those months in addition to the usual W-2 statement of income for the year (so they can compute the 2% surtax).
  5. If the lower, 4.2% Social Security payroll tax is extended for the full year, will those making over $18,350 for the first two months will have paid at a 6.2% rate for part of their income.  Will companies have to reduce Social Security withholding later in the year so it balances out to 4.2% overall, will taxpayers have to figure out a couple new lines on their tax form, or will the extra withholding just be left as-is?
  6. Because the surtax is on "wages and compensation", it will be computed based on raw W-2 income.  I can think of several ways this might be interpreted (does it include income normally not subject to Social Security tax or not?), and it will be assessed on at best a line of the tax form which is currently not used in tax computations (W-2 income) and at worst on only part of the income on that line (since it can include various miscellaneous income).  Thus, the tax form will become more complex.
I will state up front, my concerns above may be completely unfounded.  The actual law will depend on how the IRS interprets it, and I am probably wrong.  But I think this shows the confusion and complexity around this simple provision (a few paragraphs in total).

The complexities of this law is why it might be better named the "no accountant left behind act".  Tax accountants, payroll providers, and computer programmers dealing with payroll are going to be in big demand to sort this mess out.

At this point, the question is what Congress does next.  If they extend this bill for the full year, it will eliminate some of the complexities I mention above (though introduce a few others for very highly paid persons).  If (could well happen) they extend the bill in units of a couple months through the year, things could become even more complex.

Regardless, I think a strong buy on companies like ADP (payroll services) and Intuit (Quickbooks software) might be appropriate.  I can see a lot of payroll outsourcing to deal with this latest morass.