Wednesday, December 6, 2017

What should Net Neutrality mean?

Just as the FCC is ready to repeal "net neutrality" Google and Amazon provide us with a dispute which brings up the question of what net neutrality should mean and how far it should go.

The regulatory definition of net neutrality is currently making sure that an Internet Service Provider (ISP) treats all traffic on its network equally. High bandwidth video gets the same priority as low bandwidth email. The FCC has proposed repealing those regulations, meaning that ISPs could give preference to certain services, charge consumers more for certain services, or charge the service providers (e.g. Netflix, Google, Amazon) more to attach to the ISP's network.

There have been recent arguments that we don't truly have net neutrality under the current regulatory regime because big Internet powerhouses (Twitter, Facebook) have been censoring content to fit their own political agendas. However, these arguments haven't gotten too much traction since those censored tend to be considered right wing racist hatemongers by net neutrality proponents (who tend to be more liberal in their politics).

Now we see a dispute which again calls into question the meaning of net neutrality. Amazon and Google have been fighting over Amazon's refusal to allow certain Google products to be sold on their website. So Google has announced it will not allow YouTube access from Amazon devices starting January 1. If this goes through, consumers who want to watch YouTube will need a non-Amazon device such as Google's Chromecast. And those who want to watch Amazon videos are out of luck if they own a Google Chromecast. So consumers who have been assured that their ISP won't block any network traffic discover that they're still out of luck because their devices can't use that traffic.

So where should net neutrality go? It's clear that just allowing equal access to Internet traffic won't provide equal access to the Internet. Internet providers and device makers are doing exactly the things net neutrality proponents are afraid of. So should we now regulate Internet device makers (e.g. Amazon Kindle, Fire TV, Chromecast, etc) to be sure they provide equal access to all content makers? Regulate social media since they have the power to silence some points of view (and who decides which viewpoints should be silenced)?

If the current net neutrality rules remain, will it really mean an open Internet? If they are repealed, will selective content from ISPs be any worse than selective content on either end of the network?

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Why did Michael Flynn Lie?

In the wake of the Michael Flynn indictment and plea bargain several experts have wondered why Mr. Flynn lied to the FBI. His contacts with Russian and other officials were apparently not illegal. They were also over a month after the election, so had nothing to do with Russian interference with the election. So why wasn't he honest about his Russian contacts during the presidential transition?

It seems like the experts are ignoring the obvious. President Obama announced sanctions against the Russians for interfering in the election. There were frequent stories in the press claiming or speculating about collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. In this environment, an admission that Mr. Flynn had talked to the Russians during the transition in December would be transformed by the press into an admission that he had colluded with the Russians during the campaign. With the inctment a few days ago ABC wrongly reported just this and there is media speculation that Flynn will now tell all about campaign collusion.

Mr. Flynn likely also thought his phone calls were private. He wouldn't know the government was listening in on his conversations (though given today's technology, we should probably all assume our conversations are not private). So he may have thought they couldn't prove he had made the calls.

Given the constant calls for Russia investigations from the media and congress, is it any wonder Michael Flynn didn't want to give anti-Trump forces ammunition for their campaign against he new president?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

HOT CARS saves lives

Senator Al Franken, further establishing his role as Giant of the Senate, is co-sponsoring a bill to protect children. Called the HOT CARS act, it requires that cars be equipped with a system to help prevent the driver from accidentally leaving a child in the back seat when leaving the car.

Bill Maher rightly mocked the proposal, arguing the democrats are hurting themselves by further over-regulating society. He is quite right that it shouldn't be the car companies' responsibility to be sure we don't check whether the kid is in the back seat.

Also consider this from the standpoint of cost. There are about 40 deaths per year due to children left in cars in the US. Of these about half are children accidentally left in a car, which the law would in principle prevent. Total US car sales in 2016 were 17.6 million. Assume the prevention system only adds $1.00 to the price of a car. At that small incremental cost consumers would be paying about $800,000 for every life saved. If the prevention is a more likely $10.00 to $50.00, it means consumers would pay $8 million to $80 million per death avoided. I bet if we spent money in additional driver training or fixing a few unsafe intersections in cities we can save far more than one life per $8 million.

And what is this system to protect children? The article about Bill Maher linked above says motion sensors (don't know where the author got that). But motion sensors make no sense, they'll go off when the dog is left in the car (as is also often done, with a window down) but will not go off for the motionless sleeping baby. However, the bill itself doesn't say the car needs to detect that a child is present, only remind the driver. It must be both a visual and auditory alert. So apparently in the future the car's display (not sure what low price cars without displays will do) will say "don't forget any children in the back seat" and a recorded voice will say "don't forget your children". Guess how annoyed consumers are going to get? Hopefully they'll know to blame Congress. Of course, given human nature, people will quickly tune out any reminder and end up forgetting the child anyway.

The bill also shows Congress's habit of drafting sloppy legislation. It is more apparent in the House version of the bill. The House version has the same visual and auditory alert requirement, but says the alert must come from "the rear seating positions". So apparently the rear seat itself must tell you to check for children, not just the car.

All in all, Bill Maher has it right. Every right wing claim about the nanny state and democrats is validated by this bill. If it doesn't die a quiet death in committee, or worse is passed, democrats have only themselves to blame for losing elections.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Lack of Health Coverage, Lack of Planning

I've just seen the same type of story as the "I am Obamacare" woman some years ago. In fact, it's quite similar as this person also has a tumor in her uterus. Unfortunately, I can't give any more details due to privacy.

It is interesting though to hear the complaints about our health care system when the woman found out she can't sign up for insurance (would need to wait a month for open enrollment and it wouldn't take effect until next year). Her local hospital also won't take her as a charity case so she's had to spend part of her savings to pay for doctors. I'm guessing she doesn't have enough savings to pay for her needed surgery.

I haven't gotten into the details of why this woman doesn't already have health coverage and don't intend to (I don't need to trigger a bunch of name calling on social media) but my guess is she doesn't have coverage available through any employer (not sure if she has a job or if her business is full time). Apparently she also didn't see any need to sign up through the Exchanges (Obamacare) and now she finds she doesn't have insurance.

She complains that Obamacare was supposed to get rid of pre-existing condition requirements. This is true, but ONLY if you sign up during open enrollment or some other defined time.

So we get more complaints about our health care system, and again it's somebody who didn't bother to plan ahead.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Political Creativity

Both sides of the political spectrum are playing some interesting politics.

On the left there is a website, combined with Twitter ads, which argued that the latest Obamacare repeal attempt was "pro-abortion" because women would lose insurance and abort their baby to avoid paying for the birth, thus attempting to fool anti-abortion activists into opposing the Republican bill.

On the other side, a House subcommittee has released a report excoriating the CFPB for levying too small a fine on Wells Fargo for their unwanted account scandal. This is Republicans (normally pro business) arguing that the (much disliked by conservatives) CFPB is soft on Wall Street.

They're getting more creative, turning around the other side's arguments.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Will electric vehicles replace the internal combustion engine?

The push for electric vehicles continues, with predictions that they will dominate the market in a short time. Yet will they?

In the long run, electric vehicles will replace internal combustion vehicles. Once battery technology becomes good enough to provide a large enough range, fast charging, etc. at a lower cost than gasoline or diesel they will obviously dominate the market. But will this happen soon?

To answer this I look at two past technological changes and apply them to electric vehicles.

The automobile:

The automobile replaced an existing technology, the horse, over a period of about 20 years (1900 or so until 1920). Automobiles existed before 1900 but were more a curiosity than a real transportation option. While horses were still found in cities into the 1930s they had become relatively uncommon by the 1920s.

Why did the automobile replace the horse? Because of its advantages. Horses were expensive to keep and had to be "maintained" (fed. exercised, stalls cleaned, etc) daily. An automobile, in contrast, could be left unused for days or weeks at a time. Early cars still required a fair amount of maintenance and broke down frequently, but were still an advantage over horses. This was especially true when low priced automobiles like the Ford Model T started to be sold. By the 1920s automobiles also allowed much longer distance travel than horses.

So the automobile replaced the horse as the dominant form of land transportation in a short time based on its clear advantages to the owner.

The Compact Disc

The second product I look at is the compact disc. The CD was introduced around 1982. By 1990 CD sales exceeded vinyl record sales and went on to also replace cassette tapes a few years later.

Why did the CD replace vinyl? Longer play times, more durable, better quality, and smaller size. Price was not a large factor, CD prices continued higher than cassette prices long after CDs dominated the market.

What does this mean for electric cars?

Electric cars differ from both the original automobile and the compact disc. There's no clear economic or product advantage to the electric car. Electric cars have short ranges and long "refueling" times relative to gasoline. They have no price advantage, electric cars are relatively expensive and manufacturers apparently lose money on their sales. Because of the short range, they often need to be a "second car" used only for short local travel.

Instead, electric cars rely on two advantages. One is government subsidies, which can help offset the higher price. The other is the "feel good" factor. Electric cars are supposed to be better for the environment. So electric car sales have largely been limited to urban, wealthy, "environmentally aware" consumers as a second car.

Even so, there are predictions of the demise of the internal combustion engine in 10-20 years. How likely are these predictions to be true? Based on a comparison to other products, not very likely. Most products which rapidly take over markets do so because they have a clear advantage over existing products. This is not true of electric cars. Instead, these predictions all appear to be based on the assumption that governments will make electric cars more desirable than internal combustion engines, or alternately will legislate electric cars.

Legislative mandates are the most likely approach to electric cars taking over the market. Yet will this work? Governments have been mandating increased fuel economy for over 30 years yet fuel economy has not increased anywhere near as fast as the mandates would suggest. Instead, fuel economy standards have distorted the market, with vehicles like station wagons disappearing (because of relatively low mileage), to be replace with minivans (which were originally classed as trucks, and may still be). SUVs have steadily risen in popularity, often growing quite large, even as gas prices increase. Automobile trends lately have (at least in the United States) often gone in the opposite direction of those desired by government.

A Better Analogy

So what is a good analogy for the introduction of electric cars? Organic (and natural) foods. Organic foods have steadily gained market share, starting as a niche market at specialty "natural foods" stores, now spreading to mainstream grocery stores. While organic foods have gained market share, they continue to lag behind non-organic products, being higher priced and at times don't have as good a visual appearance as non-organics.

Why? The selling point for organic foods is they are better for you, they are more environmentally friendly, and you can feel good when you buy them. Compare this to the advantages of electric cards -- they are more environmentally friendly and you feel good buying one. And as with organic foods, so long as they are more expensive and have other disadvantages, electric cars will not replace internal combustion cars.

How electric cars will dominate

Today there is one way electric cars will dominate the market -- government mandate. The question is whether government officials can convince voters to allow the mandate to take effect.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Trump White House Remodel

In the news the last couple days is that Donald Trump is taking a "working vacation" for a few weeks. The media, ever looking to paint Mr. Trump in a negative manner, has brought criticism of President Obama for his vacations, with Mr. Trump tweeting that he didn't take vacations. Now they're saying Mr. Trump is hypocritical.

But it turns out there's a good reason for the vacation. The West Wing of the White House is being remodeled, with everybody moved out for the next few weeks while workers fix water leaks, install new heating and air conditioning, replace carpets, paint, etc. So far the media has reported this as necessary repairs which were begun and authorized under President Obama.

But this is the Trump Presidency, so I'm making a prediction. Likely before the end of Mr. Trump's vacation and definitely within a week or two of the completion of the renovations we'll be seeing news stories describing the remodel in a negative manner and the blame will go to Donald Trump. The remodel will be too extravagant, too expensive, or crass and tasteless.

After all, the press's job lately has been to show us how bad everything has become under Donald Trump.

More on cashless tipping

In my last post I talked about proposals for a cashless society and asked how some traditional cash transactions would be affected, in particular tipping. It's easy to slip the bellhop, parking valet, or skycap a couple dollars cash. How does this work in a cashless society?

We are seeing hints of how a cashless society might handle tips in restaurants today. Restaurants are moving to fully electronic credit card transactions. Rather than print a receipt with a line for tip the restaurant uses a tablet which asks for a tip and then has you sign the charge. The receipt is then emailed or can be printed.

Something like this could be extended to other traditional tipping situations, though they are complicated by not having an open transaction to work off of. But I'll assume the technical issues can be solved.

I still see two issues with electronic tipping:

First, when I tip today I often find the recipient (parking valet, skycap, etc) does not wait for a tip. I've never had the movie scene of the bellhop stopping with a hand out for a tip. Instead, people do their job and you need to have the tip ready to hand to them "on the fly". This isn't going to work if we have to get out phones, credit cards, or other devices to tip. And having the valet or bellhop go back to holding a hand out (or perhaps a hand with a credit card reader in it) for a tip is not going to be popular.

I see the second issue in the way current electronic tip systems are designed. With a paper credit card receipt there are blank spaces for a tip and a total. Suggested tip amounts (often 15, 18, and 20 percent) might be printed at the bottom of the slip for those who can't do percentages in their head.

The electronic tablet systems I've seen instead pop up one or more suggested tip amounts along with an "enter a different amount" button. Giving one of the suggested tips is easiest, just tap the proper button. Giving a different tip is much more difficult. The result is the amount of a tip is now under the control of the person receiving the tip rather than the person giving it. Imagine a tablet / phone system to tip a valet. You might currently tip a couple dollars for a valet. What happens if the valet's tip screen has "$5", "$10", and "other". Do you select "other" to do your usual $2 tip or do you just hit the $5 button?

Fifty years ago I was told that a restaurant tip is 10-15% (more for higher class restaurants). Over time tip amounts seem to have grown, with 15% being a universal norm and many restaurants pushing 20% or even 25%. Precomputed electronic tips will make it easy for the industry to raise the socially acceptable tip amount.

Tipping is, of course, a difficult issue. On the one hand it's supposed to be a gift for good service. But on the other hand many workers depend on tips, only being paid a small wage or even no wage other than tips.

Or perhaps with the $15.00 minimum wage and other "living wage" moves it's time we abolish the idea of tipping and just pay a fixed wage with no tipping allowed.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Is cash such a bad thing?

More and more society is moving away from the use of cash. There are serious proposals to do away with cash and move completely to electronic money. While the emphasis of these proposals tends to be reducing money laundering and other large scale illegal or anonymous uses of cash, I have yet to see an explanation of how we'll eliminate cash for the many everyday small cash transactions many of  us engage in.

I just returned from vacation. While on vacation, I flew, stayed at a nice hotel, and used a special shuttle bus to travel between venues. In each case, following custom, I tipped porters, drivers, valets, bellhops, and similar employees. While easy today with cash, how to tip isn't clear in a cashless society. It takes 1-2 seconds to hand somebody a few dollars as a tip and continue on my way. So far there are no electronic payment methods which are this simple. The best I could guess with today's technology is:

  1. Pull out my phone.
  2. Go to some payment / tipping app.
  3. Hope the other person has a phone with a compatible app.
  4. Do whatever is needed to transfer a few dollars.
This is a 1-2 minute process with any technology I currently own, much more time consuming than the old method. I would love to hear a proposal on how tipping of this sort can work without cash. Note this is tipping independent of any other transaction -- restaurant, taxi, hair stylist, etc. tips are currently handled when paying by credit card, but for porters, valets, etc. there's no transaction to add the tip to.

It appears there are some attempts at solving the tip problem -- an electronic "tip jar" -- but this only appears to solve some fixed location problems (e.g. coffee shop counters). And the tip amount is fixed -- perhaps the really good hotels will be known because the bellhop's tip device will be set in increments of $20.00.

Some might say the new "living" minimum wage means we no longer need to tip, and there is some truth to this -- in the past porters, valets, etc. were often only paid in tips and today probably need to get minimum wage. While a higher minimum wage guarantees a higher income, I imagine many service personnel will end up making less money after being paid the new "living" wage in lieu of tips.

And, of course, there are the really serious issues of cashless society. Like strip clubs. For those who don't want to read the link, there is at least one club which lets you pay for private dances with a credit card (with transaction fees taking 25% of the total, so both the customer and stripper lose money). But nothing about how to replace dollar tips for the girl on stage.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Assumptions about political philosophies

I've been reading Against Empathy by Paul Bloom. Near the middle of the book he talks about politics and makes some comments dividing liberals and conservatives based on their relative levels of empathy. He also makes a couple generalizations about politics and empathy (e.g. more women are liberals because women are more empathic).

While his discussion is interesting, it's clear to me that he never talked to conservatives about the reasons for their beliefs. Thus his reasons why conservatives oppose abortion are in terms of male power over women or following rules. He never mentions that many conservatives feel that the fetus is alive and killing it is wrong (by implication feeling empathy for the fetus). He assumes conservatives lack empathy when they oppose government programs and gives short shrift to the idea that a government program may not be the best way to handle a situation or may be more "empathic."

Obviously there are no absolute views in this area, but the book would have been better if it didn't appear Mr. Bloom was trying to figure out conservatives without finding sources with first hand knowledge. Then again, being at a university, conservatives are often few and in the closet.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Paid Anti-Trump Protesters -- Confusing the Matter

Conservative groups have long claimed that protesters at left wing and anti-Trump events have been paid, with George Soros usually given as the source of the funds. Now a mainstream newspaper is verifying the claim, sort of.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, some people at protesters are being paid. But the claim is that they are being paid by their normal employers, some of which are allowing employees to go to protests on company time.

The protester claims are important because conservatives claim there isn't a huge grass roots left wing protest movement, and the "paid protester" claim implies that a few activists are creating these protests using people off the street who may not agree with the protest's ideas but want a some money.

However, this article doesn't validate the usual protest claim. It says companies are giving employees social-justice or similarly named time off work. But it appears most companies specify a certain number of days per year. This makes social-justice time off another name for personal time off which other companies will provide so employees can deal with things like doctor's appointments without using vacation time.

So it appears some protesters are being paid, but they're just collecting their usual salary or wages. The same as taking a vacation day or calling in sick to go to the protest, just under a different name.

Unfortunately, this confuses future paid protester headlines. It's easy imply protesters are being paid by activists to show up when they're actually just taking paid time off from work. So "paid protester" headlines are still no more meaningful than they were when there was no specific evidence.

Monday, May 8, 2017

How did we ever survive?

One of today's headlines is about studies which find that grandparents, who are increasingly raising children, may be putting the kids at risk because of outdated views on child safety. Yet the most interesting comment is at the end of this article:

Although the study focused on grandparents, Adesman [study author] and Altmann [a pediatrician] both recognize that other groups can make the same mistakes. In a previous study, Adesman surveyed pediatricians (PDF) and found that only 24% answered all 12 questions about basic safety information correctly.
In her practice, Altmann hears many of these health myths from new parents and grandparents alike.
"I'd love to see this study redone and given to the parents; I think people would be surprised," she said.
These comments point out the problems with this study. First, apparently most pediatricians don't know child safety rules. Second, the study wasn't also done on parents. For all we know, parents are just as bad or worse than grandparents when it comes to child safety. After all, grandparents succeeded at least once in raising a child in the past while new parents don't have any sort of track record. But the headline is about grandparents' "out of date" child raising methods.

Another assumption in the linked article is that "more grandparents are taking on child care roles." Is this really true? Grandparents have always helped with parenting and have always taken on the task of raising children when parents are unable to. There may be a larger role for grandparents today because they are in better health on average than in the past, but it isn't clear that a larger proportion of children are being raised by grandparents (and accurate data probably doesn't exist).

All of which brings up the irony of modern child safety rules. If we total up all child safety advice, from car seats and seat belts to plastic caps on electrical outlets, one wonders how any children actually lived to adulthood in the past.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Are the airlines suddenly starting to kick passengers off of planes?

After the incident when United had a passenger physically dragged off a plane we're seeing numerous reports of passengers being taken off planes. The latest involved Delta and a family with a 2 year old.

So have the major airlines suddenly decided to be mean to passengers? Why the sudden rise in incidents?

It seems obvious that there hasn't been any rise in the number of passengers removed from planes. The change is that the national media is now paying attention. In the past a passenger removed from a flight might have made local news and become part of the "insensitive airline"' lore.

But today passengers removed from airplanes are popular news. For the next few weeks or months we'll see a bunch of news stories. Congress gets a chance to hold hearings, introduce "passenger rights" bills, and possibly pass a new law resulting in a new set of unintelligible regulations.

Here is a reason to be careful with news reports. Is there really a new problem or are we just seeing high profile reports of longstanding practices?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

So much for eliminating traditional gender roles

In today's push for equality of the sexes we often hear that boys and girls act they way they do because society treats them differently. Girls play with dolls while boys play with cars because we give dolls to girls and cars to boys.

But it appears there's a complication to this narrative. With the recent emphasis on transgender rights and allowing children to declare their own gender, some appear to be pushing kids toward the gender the act out.

So instead of boys and girls being able to choose the activities they like, with boys able to play with dolls or girls with cars, still remaining boys and girls, their gender identity is being selected based on how they act. So a girl who would have been called a tomboy in the past is now assumed to be a transgender boy.

So a few years ago the effort was to stop pushing girls away from traditionally male occupations (like science and engineering). Now it appears that girls who are interested in traditionally male occupations are at risk of being considered transgender boys instead.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Strange bedfellows

The reactions to President Trump's decision to bomb Syria after the apparent poison gas attack have been interesting. While many have applauded his action, punishing the Syrian regime for crossing President Obama's "red line" (which Mr. Obama wasn't willing to do), more interesting is those denouncing the attack. They appear to be two distinct groups:

  1. The hard left is complaining about the attack. This is to be expected. Anything Donald Trump does will have this group complaining.
  2. The "alt-right". Yup, a number of populist, right wing leaders (Nigel Farrage of the Britain's UKIP party, Marie Le Pen in France, and some US bloggers) are speaking out against the attack, some saying they believe the Russian version of events (that it was a rebel chemical weapons dump that the Syrian attack hit). This is more interesting. Thirty years ago it was the Communist Party in various nations which followed Moscow's line without question. Today it's the hard right which is doing it, though it appears they are just enamored with Vladimir Putin, not under his orders.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Misogyny, misandry, and Clinton's election loss.

Hillary Clinton continues to talk about why she lost the election. In a recent Washington Post story she suggests misogyny may have played a role. And she's correct. There are bound to have been people who didn't vote for Mrs. Clinton because she's a woman.

Not clear is whether gender helped or hurt Mrs. Clinton overall.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Trump's "short attention span"

I just read an interesting article about comments by the Afghan ambassador to the United States. The ambassador says he was told to "keep conversations short" and that President Trump "does not have a long attention span." Mr. Trump then proceeded to engage in relatively long, in depth conversations.

One has to wonder who told the ambassador about the short attention span. I can remember hearing comments of this sort, but they tended to be from Trump opponents who need Donald Trump to be stupid to fit their preconceived notions.

So I have to wonder -- are Trump staffers saying he has a short attention span or are these comments from outsiders without first hand knowledge of the president?

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Always a negative spin

It's struck me for over a year how the press uniformly places a negative spin on any story about Donald Trump. We see another example in the New York Times story about President Trump asking (almost) all US Attorneys to resign.

The Times can't express outrage over the replacement of all US Attorneys. After all, President Clinton did the same thing soon after he took office and other presidents have acted similarly. But we need to provide a negative spin to anything done by President Trump, so the story emphasizes the sudden, unexpected nature of the move. It emphasizes that the former attorneys are being moved out more quickly than happened in the past, and outlines actions by conservatives and the conservative press to make this look like President Trump is bowing to pressure from the extreme right.

I don't know what's really going on in the Trump White House. Even through the filter of a biased media it's apparent that the new administration's actions have been a bit confused. Yet this is true of any new administration. Look at the Obama administration's "reset" with Russia where they couldn't even get the alphabet right on the button.

So I continue to watch the actions of the new administration and the news media which reports them. But, along with much of the country, I've learned to take the media reports with a healthy grain of salt, confident that whatever President Trump did this time it's not as bad as the media reports.

Friday, March 10, 2017

"Decaying infrastructure" -- who decides?

Again there is a news story about America's decaying infrastructure, this time saying instead of Donald Trump's $1 trillion we need to invest $4.6 trillion over 8 years.

This sounds like the country is falling apart around us. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives the nation's infrastructure a grade of D+, not even a passing grade. Yet we seem to survive and some even think we prosper with this abject failure around us.

Before everybody panics, consider the source of these estimates. The D+ grade and $4.6 trillion estimate come from the civil engineering professional group. What do civil engineers do? They design, build, and repair infrastructure. What happens when infrastructure spending increases? More jobs for civil engineers!

We've been hearing about decaying infrastructure in the United States for years and years. The report cards all seem to give a grade of D and tell us how much more money we need to spend. However, while there is certainly infrastructure in need of repair in the United States, relying on a group which has a financial interest in fixing infrastructure seems the wrong way to judge.

Friday, March 3, 2017

A mixed message from Democrats

I finally got around to listening to President Trump's speech to congress along with the Democratic response. The Democratic response struck me for suggesting the parties work together while retaining the standard partisan stereotypes.

The Democratic Party response was given by Steve Beshear, former governor of Kentucky. He starts by talking about how he was governor during the Great Recession and he "put people first and politics second."

Having said this, does Mr. Beshear practice what he preaches in the Democratic response? Of course not.

After criticizing some of President Trump's first actions on taking office (no problem here, he disagrees politically), Mr. Beshear moves on to health care. He criticizes Republican alternatives to Obamacare, which is fair, but then goes back to standard, no-cooperation partisan politics attacking Republicans as insensitive monsters:

"Behind these ideas is the belief that folks at the lower end of the economic ladder just don't deserve health care."
Sorry Mr. Beshear, I don't think you'll find any Republican saying poor people should not have health care. I've only heard Democrats say that about Republicans (the Republican health care plan is this: "Die quickly." -- former Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida).

So partisanship continues.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Electoral College Reform?

Immediately after the last election when it became apparent that Donald Trump had lost the popular vote there were demands that the Electoral College be abolished and the United States switch to direct popular election of the president and vice president. These demands continued through to some extent until the inauguration.

So now that Congress is theoretically getting to work, where is the push for Electoral College reform? Two constitutional amendments have been proposed, each mandating a direct presidential election. Neither amendment gives the franchise to Puerto Rico or US posessions.

They have subtle differences. One (H. J. Res. 19) includes a clause which ends "entitlement to inclusion on the ballot shall be determined by Congress." This clause is rather dangerous -- it might mean Congress determines the qualifications for getting on the ballot (today it's done by the States). In its broadest interpretation Congress alone nominates the presidential candidate(s). Looking at the proposed amendments, they subtly modify the Presidential race in ways other than changing to a system of popular vote.

However, it appears that once again Electoral College reform isn't going to go anywhere. It's been clear all along that an amendment won't make it out of Congress this term given the Republican majority, but it's more telling that I no longer see a popular demand for reform. From my reading of left wing blogs like The Daily Kos and email subscriptions to and The Nation, I see few Electoral College mentions, and these aren't demands to write to Congress demanding the reform.

Instead, all I see is "popular vote loser" added to any reference to President Trump. It appears that the real value of the Electoral College to the left this term is another way to be insulting to the president rather than any real push for reform.

Next time a popular vote loser wins the Electoral College vote remember that it's happened before, but so far the outrage has only been used for temporary partisan arguments. There's no real push to change the Constitution, and those who complain in the future have only themselves to blame for not pushing harder today.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Health Coverage Under Obamacare -- how to not be able to buy insurance

My son recently turned 26 and is sorting out health insurance (made worse because the anticipated health benefit through his job doesn't count as "creditable coverage" under the Affordable Care Act). In researching insurance options I learned something interesting about individual health insurance coverage.

There was a time when you could go out and buy health insurance on the open market. Since this wasn't part of a group plan, you could sign up whenever you wanted. You might have been part of the "uninsured" for a while, for whatever reason, but you could always become part of the "insured."

Now we have the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. The whole point of the law was to reduce the number of uninsured. All well and good, but what happens if you're really uninsured? Instead of being able to buy insurance when you want, you can only buy during the "open enrollment" period in November (give or take). Outside the open enrollment period, you can only buy insurance if some specific event occurs, basically the same events which let you change employer provided insurance during the year.

I can understand part of the reason for open enrollment. Since Obamacare doesn't allow you to be penalized for pre-existing conditions, something needs to be done to prevent people from not signing up for insurance until they get sick. Still, the limited signup periods also have the effect of messing up people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves without coverage during the wrong part of the year without one of the acceptable excuses life events.

In my son's case, if his job had started a few weeks later (90 days until benefits kick in) or his birthday was a bit earlier he could have found himself out of luck because he was anticipating a benefit the job didn't provide.

President Trump vs The Press -- an intentional conflict?

I watched the first few minutes of President Trump's latest press conference. Starting out and emphasizing his disagreements with news media, at least the mainstream news media, struck me as significant. President Trump has spent 45 years in business. In that time he has been largely successful and must obviously know how to work with people. Constantly antagonizing the news media is not the way to get more favorable coverage. Rather, his constant complaints about the media will, if anything, convince the media to find more ways to attack him. So the question arises -- is the Trump vs mainstream media conflict something President Trump is creating and encouraging? Could he want the media against him?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Education under Betsy DeVos, speculation abounds

In an ironic turn, it appears homeschooling may be expanding. With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, combined with extreme rhetoric of Democrats, it appears a number of liberals are talking about homeschooling their kids. Of course, this will probably end up similar to celebrities who promised to leave the United States if Donald Trump was elected president, so few will follow through.

However, it might be interesting if we start seeing the left creating private or charter schools to promote liberal causes which may be downplayed in schools over the next 4 years. Given Secretary DeVos's support for school choice, there might be opportunities for more direct comparisons between different education philosophies.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The fear of Tom Price at HHS

Tom Price as Secretary of HHS has garnered more Democratic opposition than most of President Trump's cabinet picks. While there are certainly policy issues where Democrats will oppose Dr. Price, I think there's a more fundamental reason for the strong opposition to Tom Price.

The big issue revolving around HHS is Obamacare. So it makes sense that Obamacare will be the reason for opposition to Dr. Price. To find this look no further than partisan politics.

Republicans want to repeal Obamacare, while Democrats want to keep it. Politically, the Democrats want to portray Republicans as destroying the health care system and leaving millions uninsured. As a member of the House of Representatives, Tom Price has introduced alternatives to Obamacare ever since the bill was passed (and probably before).

So here is the reason Democrats oppose Tom Price so strongly. He might propose a working alternative to Obamacare and leave them having to defend a system which isn't overly popular to begin with. Democrats either need Obamacare to stay in place or to have it replaced by obviously worse.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

How to get rid of Trump? Let me count the ways.

Donald Trump is now president. The bipartisan "never Trump" movement has tried over and over to keep him from the presidency without success. But they're not finished. They continue to look for ways to get Mr. Trump out of office. These may even intensify as Donald Trump does what he said he would -- he's building a wall, strengthening enforcement against illegal aliens, and not acquiescing to the Washington establishment. Those arrested for violence near the inauguration are being charged with real crimes (felonies), not a slap on the wrist (though it's not clear if Mr. Trump was directly involved in this case).

So now that Donald Trump is the president, speculation continues on how to get rid of him. Least likely is a return of wishful thinking. After Trump won the nomination there was speculation that he'd step down, having achieved his goal. Today, there is speculation that Mr. Trump will lose interest in the presidency or that he doesn't have the attention span to stick it out for four years. I'd say this comes squarely in the "wish fulfillment" department. Donald Trump's business career has included long term construction projects  and ongoing management. It should be clear he knows what he's getting into and will continue to do the job. I'm also seeing stories based on "anonymous inside sources" which say the White House is full of conflict and dysfunctional. I'm sure there's some conflict, any new administration involves a number of people who've never worked together figuring out how to work together. And this certainly involves battles for power, but that's true of every new administration. So the "Trump will resign" speculations are just that, speculation.

The next method for getting rid of Donald Trump is impeachment. While no resolution has been introduced to my knowledge, there is at least one petition (on and multiple people calling for impeachment, largely by arguing that the existence of Trump businesses violates the law. Some arguments are on an ethics basis, others are based on the Constitution's "emoluments" clause, arguing that any time a foreigner stays in a Trump hotel Mr. Trump violates the Constitution. However, this won't get very far unless Republicans can be convinced to sign on. As long as Donald Trump has reasonably good relations with Congress, impeachment won't go anywhere.

There is a similar move in the courts, with a lawsuit filed against President Trump. This is not likely to go far as the courts will most likely rule those filing the lawsuit lack standing.

Finally, we're seeing a lot about the 25th Amendment. This amendment to the Constitution includes a clause where the president can be declared unfit for office by a couple methods involving Congress, the vice president, and the Cabinet. At this point the argument appears to be that Mr. Trump is insane due to his insistence that there was widespread voter fraud and that it be investigated. Again, this is basically a political case and will not go anyplace as long as President Trump doesn't radically alienate Congress.

For either impeachment or the 25th amendment, we can only hope the radicals don't go too far. Removing a president from office because of unpopular (at least to the establishment) policies sets a horrible precedent and could seriously destabilize the government for a long time to come.

Meanwhile, I'm waiting to see what other creative methods people come up with to de-Trump the White House.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

It's all in the spin

The Trump Presidency has begun and we see once again that the way news is presented is much more important than the actual news.

One of Mr. Trump's first actions as President was to rescind a cut in the mortgage insurance rate for FHA mortgage loans. Here is an editorial reporting Mr. Trump's initial actions. The editorial is presented with a proposed narrative (Trump is becoming a "Radical Conservative", which appears to mean pro-business, anti-people).

After reading this editorial, when did this insurance rate cut go into effect? About the 5th paragraph says:
The Obama administration had said last week that the Federal Housing Administration would drop the cost of mortgage insurance it sells by almost a third to 0.60 percent.
This statement is actually a bit clearer than most articles on the rate cut -- from some it sounded like a change in longstanding FHA policy. Instead, this rescinds a rate cut announced January 9 to take effect January 27.

But we see here an emphasis on Mr. Trump taking something away. The exact same action could have instead been headlined "Donald Trump Reverses Last Minute Obama Administration Action." This alternate headline presents exactly the same facts but spins it in more positive manner.

We've been seeing many examples of the press spinning Donald Trump in a negative way. Expect to see a lot more.

NOTE: Whether the FHA insurance rate should be cut is a valid question. On the one hand, the rate cut has been anticipated. On the other hand, FHA insurance rates rose during the 2008 mortgage crisis. One can argue that the insurance rate shouldn't be cut too much because it will then jump up during the next downturn (when foreclosures will increase) making it harder for those FHA is supposed to help to afford a mortgage.

Is this Mr. Trump becoming a "Radical Conservative" or is it the incoming administration wanting to make sure it knows all the facts before taking an action. Or perhaps the new administration restoring the rate cut in a few months so it can take the credit.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Ignoring facts for partisan gain

This time it's the Republicans who are distorting the facts. Perhaps to try to make President Obama's legacy look worse or at least give themselves a (possibly) better starting point.

Senator Ted Cruz has stated that rather than the official unemployment rate around 5%, there are 95 million unemployed. Rick Perry stated 90 million unemployed a couple years ago. Conservative news outlets (e.g. Breitbart) are harping on this number.

Now it's certainly true that the unemployment rate is a deceptive number. Democrats long argued the real rate was higher than the official rate (because of "discouraged workers") during Ronald Reagan's presidency. Discouraged workers or others who would like a job but aren't actively looking for one certainly imply the true unemployment rate is higher than the official number though it's hard to say by how much.

However, the 95 million number is complete hogwash. It includes all adults over age 16, meaning retired senior citizens, high school students, college students, stay at home parents, and as of yesterday even First Lady Melania Trump (I don't think "first lady" is a paid job and I'm sure she's supposed to disassociate herself from any businesses she has been involved in).

This number looks like something which will backfire on Republicans in not too long. After all, the Republicans are the "natural" home of those who feel that children should be raised in two parent households where one parent is home caring for the children. It's conservatives who complain that children of single parents (or households where both parents are working) are more likely to do poorly in school and life. Arguing that these stay at home parents are part of the "unemployed" implies that Republicans instead want them all working. Worse would be if Democrats use this number to start accusing Republicans of wanting to abolish retirement (and by extension Social Security), advocating that we should all work until we die.

So far I don't have a lot of confidence in the Republican establishment or Donald Trump, when they throw purely political numbers around of this sort.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Who is the party of the rich?

We all know that the Republican party in the United States is the party of the rich, while Democrats are the party of the working class. Or so the conventional stereotype goes.

Oxfam, an anti-poverty group, has just released a report which says that tthe richest 8 people have as much wealth as the poorest 50% of the world. So one would expect the 8 people to be staunch Republicans or conservatives, right?

Of the eight people, two are outside the United States -- Amancio Ortega (Spain) and Carlos Slim (Mexico), so they don't fit into the the US political spectrum.

The other six are all US billionaires -- Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, and Michael Bloomberg. Guess what? Five of the 6 are Democrats, or at least donate primarily (exclusively) to the Democratic Party. Michael Bloomberg was a Republican, is now listed as independent, but is by no means a strong conservative.

So which is the party of the rich? It appears the richest favor the Democrats.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Extreme politics

Much has been written about the increasing polarization of politics in the United States. It hasn't always been that way. Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Republican Barry Goldwater were friends, though diametrically opposed politically. More recently, Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were friends though they had very different views of law and politics. In each case people were willing to disagree about political issues but enjoy each other's company and their shared interests (Justices Scalia and Ginsburg both enjoyed Opera, to the extent an opera was written about their friendship).

Today, especially after the election of Donald Trump, this seems a foreign concept to many. Friends have stopped talking to each other after finding out the other one voted the wrong way. People who worked together for years are suddenly enemies.

Now I'm finding this "politics determines who I'm willing to associate with" view going back over 40 years. I'm reading Nancy Pelosi's memoir "Know Your Power", subtitled "A Message to America's Daughters". In this she writes about moving to San Francisco in the late 1960s. After spending months looking for a house to rent, she finally finds one. But she then learns the reason the house is available is that the owner is going to Washington to become part of the Nixon administration. Mrs. Pelosi immediately backs out of the deal, she cannot rent a house which became available by the election of Richard Nixon.

Mrs. Pelosi later talks about some lifelong friends. She makes a point that one is a Republican, the rest being Democrats. Apparently her social life is largely defined by politics.

I have some fairly strong political opinions, but I can't recall any time I've defined my relationship with somebody else by politics. I've certainly had political discussions with friends, and we haven't always agreed, but I can't imagine deciding to form or break a friendship based solely on political views.

The fact that we have "public servants" unwilling to socialize outside their own political ideology goes a long way to explaining the lack of civility, compromise, or collegiality of politics today.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Day one of the new Congress -- ethics

It appears Donald Trump comes out on top in one battle today, at least from the media point of view. Republicans attempted to make changes to a congressional ethics agency. These changes were characterized as "gutting" by opponents, "needed reform" by supporters of the change. Either way they were sending the wrong message (at least from the media's point of view).

Mr. Trump used Twitter to tell Republicans this is the wrong move and gives the wrong priorities, and Republicans backed down, removing the changes to the ethics agency. This leaves Mr. Trump looking good and implying he can exercise control over Congress.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Setting the right goals

As today's partisan political shouting match continues, perhaps it's time that we decide on better goals for our nation.

With Donald Trump about to take office, liberals aren't talking about the nation's problems or how to solve them, it's all about "stop Donald Trump". This is a mirror image of 8 years ago, when the conservative mantra was "stop Barack Obama". In each case the nature of the proposal doesn't matter, just the knee jerk opposition to the other side.

Thus Mr. Trump's has proposed that veterans be able to get care from private providers (doctors or hospitals) instead of only at VA facilities. This is so veterans don't have to drive long distances and endure the long waits for appointments that have been in the news the last few years. The liberal response? "Trump is privatizing the VA". Nothing about helping veterans, just "privatizing", which must be bad.

In health care, we've endured years of concern that people have health insurance regardless of whether they can actually pay for health care afterwards. Since most health insurance is now high deductible plans (a legacy of George W Bush, not Barack Obama) people have to pay a large, unsubsidized deductible before getting any health care. What is today's health care debate about? "Save Obamacare" or "Repeal Obamacare". One side will oppose any change Mr. Trump proposes, the other wants to throw the whole thing out and start over. Health care policy in the United States is still a mess, and it will continue to be a mess so long as partisan sound bites are more important than actual policy.

Similarly, liberals are gearing up to save Medicare and Social Security. No proposal from Mr. Trump. There are some proposals around Congress (there always are), the one I've seen only cuts Social Security for those with high incomes (though in Social Security terms, that isn't always that high). Again, the concern isn't with Social Security of Medicare, it's political advantage. Petitions to "save" programs which aren't yet under attack leave the perception they are being attacked, and I predict that ANY proposed change will be characterized by the left as "abolishing" the program.

The list goes on. The press characterizes Trump as being "soft on Russia", ignoring the whole "reset" exercise the Obama Administration went through. They completely ignore incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's book (very anti-Russia), instead emphasizing that Mr. Flynn was once seated with Vladimir Putin at a dinner and that Mr. Flynn has talked to the Russian news (propaganda) agency Russia Times (RT). Never a mention that Jill Stein is also seen on RT.

So the political posturing goes on. As Donald Trump begins to make changes, remember that both political parties are often more concerned with political power than the good of the nation or its people. All liberals need to know about a policy is that Donald Trump proposed it and they'll know it's bad, even if it was Barack Obama's policy last year. And conservatives will react similarly, supporting policies they might have opposed last year, solely by how they're presented.