~ Archive for Uncategorized ~

Downside of equal rights for women in Florida


Follow-up to “Equal Rights Amendment, Bristol Palin, and Aziz Ansari”

I checked in with some friends last month. The husband’s sister lives in Florida. About 20 years ago she married a man who seemed like a partner with some financial potential. However, he had gradually lost his mojo and hadn’t been earning any money for the past few years. She decided to discard him under Florida’s no-fault divorce law. His defense of the lawsuit, however, included a demand to have a 50/50 shared parenting arrangement of their children, thus entitling him to a stream of tax-free child support payments from her (since his own income is zero). He is also seeking the “permanent alimony” that Florida courts conventionally hand out.

The case hasn’t been resolved yet, but her lawyer tells her that there is a realistic possibility that she will be supporting this unwanted man for the next 50 years and/or until her death. Another example of how anything resembling the Equal Rights Amendment might be bad for women in practice?

On a related note, let’s consider an author popular with American women. “Marie Kondo and the Cult of Tidying Up” (WSJ, February 26, 2015):

At the author’s direction, the girl must pull them all out, pick up each item and pose Ms. Kondo’s signature question: Does it tokimeku—does it spark joy? …

“Keep only the things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest,” [Marie Kondo] advises. “When you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too. As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don’t.”

One of her clients, she notes, even jettisoned her husband.

“Jettison then write checks every month for 50 years” might not tokimeku …

Sony’s latest camera and some disappointing sensor sales results


Sony has a new version of perhaps the world’s best small camera with interchangeable lenses. The best minds of marketing have decided that this will be the “A6300”, a vastly superior name to the “A6000” that it replaces. The dpreview article highlights improved autofocus and high-speed capture as well as 4k video. Sony also has announced three new presumably amazing full-frame lenses (dpreview). Everything is available in March.

What are the financial rewards to being the world’s most innovative camera company in the smartphone age? See “Sony’s Image Sensor Business Hits a Wall, Sees Major Drop in Sales” and “Sony camera and sensor business units report drop in sales in 2015”.

Can we blame Facebook and its low-res image storage for this? The generally overwhelming number of images available 24/7? (Why invest $$ and time in taking a picture of an elk in Yellowstone if you can type “elk in Yellowstone” into a browser and see hundreds of great images?)

Note that the A6300, like the A6000 and NEX-6, should be a great camera for older parents and/or grandparents. The flip-up screen lets you hold the camera at a child’s level and take pictures without bending over. Your back will thank you for buying this camera!

Massachusetts DCF (“child protection services” or “DSS” in other states) makes the New Yorker


New Yorker has published an article by Jill Lepore about the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. It is horrifying when you find out what your neighbors are capable of, especially when they’re under the influence of alcohol and illegal drugs.

Other than trying to build a country with a better class of citizens/residents, there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to stop child abuse. The author implies that the agency suffers from a lack of funding, but the Tax Foundation says that “Massachusetts’s 2011 tax burden of 10.3% ranks 11th highest out of 50 states, and is above the national average of 9.8%.” We’re a comparatively rich state (albeit poor compared to Singapore and other stars) and we’re more thoroughly taxed than other states so presumably DCF is at least as well funded as analogous agencies in other states.

Does Massachusetts DCF have a higher caseload than agencies in other states? Poverty and child abuse are positively correlated (see this paper from Wisconsin and this paper from NBER). Massachusetts has a lower-than-average poverty rate compared to other states (list), which would point toward less work for DCF. On the other hand, Massachusetts has perhaps the most lucrative child support system in the world and it is a standard litigation tactic for a child support plaintiff to report a defendant as a child molester everywhere in the U.S. that child support is substantially profitable. Examples:

“Best case for the mom is when dad is a child molester,” said a Massachusetts attorney, “which is why reports to DCF are so popular. But realistically nearly every guy worth suing could have started his own day care center if he actually had wanted to engage in funny business with children. So it is tough to cut the father back to less than every other weekend.”

So the mother could save herself $24,000 per year as well as enjoy more time with the kids if she could obtain sole custody? “Yes.” What would it take for her to overcome [Alaska’s] statutory 50/50 presumption? “It would have been tough until about 7 years ago. Then a well-meaning legislator added a statutory exception. If a litigant can establish that she has been physically abused or the children have been sexually abused then she can obtain sole custody.” Why does Sullivan say “she”? “I have never seen a man try this.” How about women? “Either there has been an epidemic of abuse in Alaska since this statute was amended or a lot of women are lying. In about 25 percent of the cases now the man is alleged to be a physical or sexual abuser.” What kind of evidence does a woman need to prove that she or her children were abused? “Nothing beyond her word. The judge is able to find that her own testimony is credible. However, there is a trend toward skepticism. Judges can’t help but notice the increase in allegations of physical and sexual abuse.”

All of our [Colorado] interviewees agreed that domestic violence is a common theme when people are trying to get a house, the children, and the cash. “Certainly in contested cases there is almost always an allegation that somebody is abusive,” said Ciancio, “though only very seldom is the abuse provable even to the 51-percent standard.” Are there any penalties for making false allegations? “You can get at least one free abuse allegation if you work through a pediatrician, therapist, or other mandatory reporter,” said Ciancio. “I see some type of abuse or domestic abuse allegation in 3 out of 4 cases that are filed,” said Eckelberry. “Most people alleging abuse back off before trial, but it is an effective tactic. There are attorneys who in every case they file will also file a domestic abuse protection order.” Gushurst pointed out that it is ironic that people file custody lawsuits supposedly because they are so passionate about protecting a child from abuse: “The most damaging aspect of divorce is the litigated conflict. Psychologists have found that it is even more damaging than sexual abuse.”

Regarding the question of whether this is a popular litigation tactic for Massachusetts plaintiffs, a DCF social worker volunteered “Oh, they all do that.” So the greater intensity of custody litigation in Massachusetts compared to other states would tend to increase DCF’s caseload.

It seems hard to argue with Lepore’s statement that “Programs for the poor are poor programs.” DCF has a budget of approximately $827 million per year (source). Lepore’s article says that “the number of children in the care of the sate” is 9200. The funding is thus close to $90,000 per child in state care. I think that includes foster care, for which the state actually pays out approximately $8,500 per year (source; note that the top of the child support guidelines is $40,000/year when suing someone earning $250,000/year and therefore it is more lucrative to take care of one’s own child than a foster child (judges routinely extrapolate beyond the top of the guidelines when a higher-income defendant can be found)). So maybe they are “poor programs” but this doesn’t seem like “poorly funded,” even if DCF is distracted to some extent by the flurry of reports from cash-motivated child support plaintiffs.

What about a radical change to welfare? Currently Massachusetts gives welfare families a private apartment or house in which they can do whatever they want. According to the article, sometimes “whatever they want” for Massachusetts welfare recipients includes consuming heroin and beating children to death. What about a communal living situation instead? Welfare recipients would get private bedrooms but meals could be cooked and consumed communally, like at an old-style Israeli Kibbutz. This way neighbors would have an opportunity to see children several times per day and perhaps to intervene before abuse turned fatal. What do readers think of this idea?

Hillary and Bernie debate


Looking at the transcript of the Hillary/Bernie debate:

Bernie: [Americans] are working longer hours for low wages. They’re worried about the future of their kids, and yet almost all new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent. Not what America is supposed to be about.

Our job, together, is to end a rigged economy, create an economy that works for all, …

Hillary: … there are lots of reasons why Americans today are feeling left out and left behind. Yes, of course, the economy has not been working for most Americans. Yes, of course, we have special interests that are unfortunately doing too much to rig the game.

But there’s also the continuing challenges of racism, of sexism, of discrimination against the LGBT community, of the way that we treat people as opposed to how we want to be treated.

I want to imagine a country where people’s wages reflect their hard work

The candidates can apparently agree that a lack of skills and education, compared to the latest world standards, could not possibly explain the flat wages, nor can the fact that U.S. employers have been loaded up with a lot of higher costs for health insurance and regulatory compliance.

[Separately, if wages are flat for Americans with skills, can someone please find me a plumber to work at 2006 prices?]

Hillary: I also believe in affordable college, but I don’t believe in free college, because every expert that I have talked to says, look, how will you ever control the costs.

Could we possibly have a dumber and more inflationary government college tuition support system than the current one? How can it be tough to control costs for free college at government-run colleges? They can set their budgets, hire the people they want to hire, etc.

Hillary: I believe in raising the minimum wage and equal pay for work. But the numbers just don’t add up, from what Senator Sanders has been proposing.

If the market is the wrong way to set wages and a central planning bureau in D.C. will do it, how can Hillary be sure that Bernie’s central planning ideas are inferior to hers?

Bernie: Every major country on earth, whether it’s the U.K., whether it’s France, whether it’s Canada, has managed to provide healthcare to all people as a right and they are spending significantly less per capita on health care than we are. So I do not accept the belief that the United States of America can’t do that.

Why can’t the American government be less competent than these other governments? We aren’t good at building infrastructure compared to Germany (previous post). What stops us from also being bad at government-planned health care? We agree with the Germans that roads should be provided to all people as a right. It just so happens that when we try to build a road we spend way more than do the Germans and we get less.

Hillary: The Republicans want to repeal the Affordable Care Act, I want to improve it. I want to build on it, get the costs down, get prescription drug costs down.

The people who spent $1 billion on an ecommerce web site with a handful of SKUs are going to show the rest of us how to save money when shopping at CVS. They’ve had six years to work on this since the Affordable Care Act was passed, but in the near future everything is going to get much cheaper.

Bernie: we have 29 million people today who have zero health insurance, we have even more who are underinsured with large deductibles and copayments and prescription drug prices are off the wall.

A glass-is-half-empty kind of guy. He does not highlight that, after spending more than $1 billion, we have a working web site. This is not going to be the grateful-to-programmers President Sanders.

Hillary: I am laying out a specific agenda that will make more progress, get more jobs with rising incomes, get us to universal health care coverage, get us to universal pre-k, paid family leave and the other elements of what I think will build a strong economy

After these changes are implemented, if you have enough kids you might be able to skip out on work for 5-10 years. Once the last one emerges from the womb and the parental leave runs out, the parents can quit their jobs and still get free health care. Working taxpayers will take over responsibility for all of the kids starting at around age 3.

Bernie: The reality is that we have one of lowest voter turnouts of any major country on earth because so many people have given up on the political process.

Most voters don’t have any practical influence. My Massachusetts ballot contains primarily candidates who are running unopposed. Is it fair to blame, as Sanders does, Wall Street?

Bernie: Making public colleges and universities tuition free, that exists in countries all over the world, used to exist in the United States.

Someone needs to explain why the Brits dismantled their free university system recently.

Bernie: creating 13 million jobs by doing away with tax loopholes that large corporations now enjoy by putting their money into the Cayman Islands and other tax havens.

There are 13 million Americans who are currently on their sofas playing Xbox that someone would want to hire? If not, who would take these 13 million new jobs? Syrian immigrants?

Hillary: It certainly didn’t stop me from taking on the drug companies and the insurance companies. Before it was called Hillarycare — I mean, before it was called ObamaCare it was called Hillarycare because we took them on, and we weren’t successful, but we kept fighting and we got the children’s health insurance program.

As in previous debates she claims to have fought insurance companies to the near-death and prevailed, with the result being the government shoveling money over to those companies for providing children’s health insurance. Can Hillary please start a fight with me? I will be happy to let her win as long as I can get paid as much every year as do the health insurance companies. She also took on the drug companies. I would like to take over from Merck as the loser of this fight with Hillary.

Hillary: Senator Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment.

It is true that if a woman had sex with a reasonably high-income guy in New Hampshire she could earn far more, after tax, than the U.S. President (through the state’s unlimited child support formula). But does that make female waged labor, however economically irrational, “anti-establishment”? Was Margaret Thatcher, 37 years ago, “anti-establishment” for identifying as female?

Hillary: I am not going to make promises I can’t keep.

She has secured the agreement of Congress to pass any laws that she suggests? If not, how will she keep any of her promises?

Hillary: I am not going to talk about big ideas like single-payer and then not level with people about how much it will cost. A respected health economist said that these plans would cost a trillion dollars more a year.

Where is this “respected health economist”? And how could anything cost more than what we have now?

Hillary:  you will not find that I ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation that I ever received.

Max Weber was an idiot.

Bernie: in the 1990s, Wall Street got deregulated. Did it have anything to do with the fact that Wall Street provided — spent billions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions?

Max Weber was not an idiot. (See my review of It Takes a Pillage for how Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary ended up at the bank that was the “big winner” from the repeat of Glass-Steagall during the (first) Clinton Administration.)

Hillary: when I took on the drug companies

Again she talks about fighting these folks. Maybe that is why they are all moving to Ireland?

Moderator: Why aren’t you participating in the presidential public financing system …?

Bernie: actually we looked at it, but it turns out to be a disaster.

… but all the new government-run programs that I will administer are going to turn out wonderfully.

Hillary: when I left the secretary of State’s office, like so many former officials, military leaders, journalists, others, I did go on the speaking circuit.

Translation: “Most of our government officials are doing it for the back-end cash.”

Clinton: You know, we now have power under the Dodd-Frank legislation to break up banks. And I’ve said I will use that power if they pose a systemic risk. … And I keep going back to this because part of the reason the Wall Street guys are trying so hard to stop me — the hedge fund guys, the shadow banking guys — is because I’ve got their number on all of that.

Bernie: Six largest financial institutions in America today have assets of roughly $10 trillion; equivalent to 58 percent of the GDP of the United States of America.

Fighting with Hillary is almost as profitable for Wall Street banks as it is for pharma companies and health insurers!

Hillary: I probably described more times than I can remember how stressful it was advising the President about going after Bin Laden.

Maybe if Hillary had fought Osama Bin Laden directly he would be in the same tough shape as the pharma and insurance companies.

Hillary: I also want to reign in the excesses of Johnson Controls … I want to go after the pharmaceutical companies like Valeant, and Turns that are increasing prices…

If she is fighting them, let’s buy stock in these companies!

Bernie: the business model of Wall Street is fraud.

Usually written as “fee” or “commission.”

Bernie: So what I have said with regard to Boeing and GE and other multinationals that pay zero taxes, you know what we’re going to do? We’re going to end that loophole. They are going to pay their fair share of taxes.

… perhaps to the Irish government.

Bernie: there are many corporations who have turned their backs on the American worker, who have said, if I can make another nickel in profit by going to China and shutting down in the United States of America, that’s what I will do. … [I will] take on these corporations who want to invest in low-income countries around the world rather than in the United States of America.

Let’s make sure that our iPhone 7s are fully charged and patched on January 20, 2017 as President Sanders takes the throne! (See also “The Hottest Idea in Finance: Capital Controls Are Good” (WSJ))

Bernie: So our job is to provide them the military equipment that they need; the air support they need; special forces when appropriate.  … The combat on the ground must be done by Muslim troops with our support. We must not get involved in perpetual warfare in the Middle East.

Translation: “My ideas around Syria and ISIS are exactly the same as Hillary’s.”

Bernie: Well, you can’t simply withdraw [troops from Afghanistan] tomorrow. Wish we could, and allow, you know, the Taliban or anybody else to reclaim that country.

Translation: “My ideas about Afghanistan are exactly the same as Hillary’s.”

Bernie: I worry very much about an isolated, paranoid country with atomic bombs.

Perhaps he will emigrate then!

Hillary: “our veterans deserve nothing but the best.”

Will “Fat Leonard” be in charge of Hillary’s new veterans’ lounges? At least supply the suckling pig and the Cuban cigars?

Hillary: I have much more confidence in the federal system, and I do reserve [the death penalty] for particularly heinous crimes in the federal system, like terrorism. … I do for very limited, particularly heinous crimes believe it is an appropriate punishment, but I deeply disagree with the way that too many states are still implementing it. If it were possible to separate the federal from the state system by the Supreme Court, that would, I think, be an appropriate outcome.

The federal government is almost perfect.

Hillary: I absolutely believe that what is being done [about the tap water in Flint, Michigan] is not sufficient.

Well, maybe except for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Bernie: I believe in fair trade which works for the middle class and working families of this country

Translation: “I believe in trade that disadvantages the middle class and working families of other countries”

Bernie: I don’t want American workers to compete against people making 56 cents an hour.

Translation: “I think that there are lot of Americans whose skills and education wouldn’t justify an employer voluntarily paying them more than 56 cents per hour.”

Hillary: I want to have half a billion more solar panels deployed, the first four years.

Too bad Chinese solar panel factory workers can’t vote for Hillary!

Hillary: You know, we didn’t get to talk about the continuing struggles that Americans face with racism, with sexism, with discrimination against the LGBT community, with new Americans, with people with disabilities.

Just north of New Hampshire the government has been referring to immigrants as “new Canadians” for decades. Perhaps Hillary is in the linguistic vanguard here. (And very likely Americans will continue to struggle loudly with the big issues, such as “Which tennis star is better looking?” (nytimes) while the Chinese quietly build solar panels.)

Readers who watched it on TV: What did you think? Which candidate seems more appealing?

The liberal who rejects Bernie Sanders’s “Medicare for all” scheme


A Facebook friend who tirelessly advocates for anything that the Democratic Party tells him is “progressive” has found something he doesn’t like: Bernie Sanders’s single-payer system or “Medicare-for-all.”

  • friend: What Hillary was saying: “The details very quickly get very messy.”
  • me: Why would it be hard to implement? Medicare already has rates that it will pay for every medical service. Medicare and Medicaid are already about half of total health care spending in the U.S. Why couldn’t they double their transaction volume, most of which is handled by computer systems that double in performance every couple of years?
  • friend: … Sanders is proposing to vastly expand the public’s risk margin by creating an untested system. I find that worrisome. I wouldn’t want to wait for weeks because a new system was full of glitches. Would you? What if your private health insurance option were taken away from your family by government fiat. How would you feel about that?
  • me: Medicare/Medicaid is already running half of American health care. If it is unacceptably bad for the people already on it (50+ million on Medicare alone; see kff.org for 2012 data; plus another 72 million on Medicaid and CHIP) then we should probably do something about that. Countries that have single-payer systems don’t “take away” by fiat or otherwise the option to purchase health care or health insurance privately. They just make it unpopular (since most people prefer to use the system that they’ve already paid for via their taxes). Given that the U.S. has the worst of all possible health care systems, I don’t think that there is any chance of a Sanders plan making it worse. As I note in http://philip.greenspun.com/politics/health-care-reform, Americans would probably be better off if we shut down most of our health care system entirely.
  • friend: I have worked fairly extensively in healthcare for going on 25 years, and it is definitely my opinion that there are many worse systems. For example, I worked with a British team not too long ago from a public hospital in a large city. The degree of staff alienation in that institution was truly tragic.


Are we addicted to teaser rates? (health insurance premium increases)


The Collapse of 2008 was caused to some extent by Americans’ fondness for low teaser mortgage rates that, a few years later, rose to unpayable levels. I’m wondering if the same thing has happened with health insurance. Obamacare rates were remarkably reasonable the first time that I checked. They’ve been going up dramatically faster than the official government inflation rate here in Massachusetts. This WSJ article, based on this full table of data, indicates that Massachusetts is not alone:

the Department of Health and Human Services announced that health-insurance premiums on the Affordable Care Act exchanges rose an average of 9% between 2015 and 2016.

The findings [when looking at all exchanges]: Nationally, premiums for individual health plans increased on average between 2015 and 2016 by 14.9%.

I’m wondering if we’ve done the same thing with health insurance that we did with mortgages. We signed up for a deal that we could afford but the numbers were available for only a few initial years.

What you can learn about Ted Cruz from listening to NPR


A voter whose primary source of news is NPR said that, after months of hearing about Ted Cruz on the radio, she had formed an impression of him as an uneducated Bible-thumper. She was shocked to learn from Wikipedia that Cruz attended Princeton and then Harvard Law School and that he had argued cases at the Supreme Court (“Cruz has authored 70 United States Supreme Court briefs and presented 43 oral arguments, including nine before the United States Supreme Court.[41][47][54] Cruz’s record of having argued before the Supreme Court nine times is more than any practicing lawyer in Texas or any current member of Congress.)

[Note that this posting is not about the merits of Cruz per se, especially given that I think that no Republican has a realistic chance of winning, but rather about how the media portrays Cruz.]

What kind of university would you start if PhDs were common as dirt?


Christine Ortiz, an MIT materials science professor and dean, is starting a new university. This article makes it sound as though nearly all of the money will be spent on real estate and administration because there will be a physical campus in the Boston area. What about the teachers? Here’s a great exchange:

Q. Prestige is a very important factor in higher education. Do you worry that you’ll have trouble attracting top scholars and academics because it’s so new and untested?

A. There are so many talented doctoral students and postdocs that are unable to secure jobs in academia. I can name like 100 right now … but there are not just enough jobs at prestigious university. So I know there is a plethora and a pool out there of potential faculty and faculty who would want to be part of a really innovative model and want to be part of a transdisciplinary community. And I’ve gotten hundreds of responses from potential students already saying, When can I apply?

Q. What about tenure? Will your university have that?

A. My thinking at this point is very much moving away from tenure. I’m going to really investigate alternative models, and really there are a number of alternative models that are being used. At this point, tenure seems like a great mismatch with the system that we’re thinking about.

In other words, all adjuncts all the time. I am going to follow this start-up with interest!

[Separately, Professor Ortiz may not realize what a world of hurt she can get into with the state government:

Q. Will it have the word university in it?

A. Unclear at this time.

About 16 years ago we started “ArsDigita University” as a free one-year post-baccalaureate non-degree program in CS. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts assigned a state worker essentially full-time to the job of threatening us with litigation if we did not change the name. It seems that one cannot be a “university” if one does not issue graduate degrees. We responded with “Since we’re not charging money for this we can call it whatever we want, especially give that the first sentence of our home page says that there is no degree at all.” The battle went on for at least 1.5 years before the Commonwealth lost interest in us.]

Is Hillary Clinton’s equal showing with Bernie Sanders in Iowa actually a defeat?


Given that Bernie Sanders only recently joined the Democratic Party (previously identifying as “socialist,” not a popular brand name for most Americans) and that only about half as much money has been spent to promote Mr. Sanders compared to Ms. Clinton, does the more or less equal vote tally actually represent a defeat for Hillary Clinton?

Let’s also consider momentum. Bernie Sanders was not considered a serious candidate a year ago but now he collects roughly the same number of votes as Hillary Clinton. More voters will now take the time to learn about Sanders and some of those will become his supporters? If he adds those to the roughly 50 percent share he has already… he could actually win?

Are the mega-rich controlling the presidential election?


Last weekend, I spent some time in the company of at least 4800 “mega-rich”:

2016-01-31 08.01.58


(The hotel in Chicago has more than 1600 rooms.)

Are the mega-rich controlling the 2016 presidential election?

“Which Presidential Candidates Are Winning the Money Race” (New York Times, February 1, 2016) shows that Hillary Clinton has raised more than twice as much as Bernie Sanders and Jeb Bush is the top choice of rich Republican-oriented donors. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has spent less than nearly all other candidates and raised $0 from “Super PACS.”

Now the results from Iowa are available. The voters were equally fond of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Jeb Bush received less than 3 percent of the vote.

Are the mega-rich controlling the election in some other way that isn’t measured by candidate fundraising and/or PAC spending? Or is it safe to say that Americans are not reliable puppets for the Koch brothers and the Clintons’ Wall Street and Silicon Valley friends?

[Separately, it seems that there is no reason to abandon my policy of (mostly) ignoring Donald Trump. He attracted less than 25 percent of one party’s vote and if any of the professional politicians quit the race their supporters will presumably be most likely to choose another professional politician, e.g., Ted Cruz. Maybe readers can explain why so many Americans, and even a lot of Europeans, wanted to talk about Trump-the-Candidate 24/7.]


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