This is the category archive for "Politics (Outside Austin)".
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April 16, 2009

More teabagging

An IM conversation with my gracious host, just a moment ago:

[12:33] (gracious host): After a lifetime of working, paying taxes and raising three children on her own, Wilder is struggling. She said she retired on disability from M&T Bank three years ago after undergoing knee replacement and back surgeries. She lives on her Social Security and disability benefits. Last year, she petitioned the bankruptcy court for protection from creditors. She said she did not have to pay federal income taxes last year because her income was too low. "I don't want to see this country turn into a welfare, nanny state, where we stand in line for groceries, and we're in welfare lines, and in socialized medicine lines," Wilder said.
[12:33] (gracious host): http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2009/04/antitax_tea_party_could_draw_c.html
[12:33] mdahmus: fuh guh buh
[12:35] (gracious host): with appologies to the Princess Bride.... socialism... You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.
[12:35] mdahmus: my favorite comment so far: http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2009/04/antitax_tea_party_could_draw_c.html#3333987

April 15, 2009

Label help needed from the teabaggers

Please help me fill in the ?????. Thanks in advance.

February 13, 2009

Oh Snap, Mankiw

Newsweek has a decent story with which I only partly agree, but the best parts are bits like this one:

Let's say you're a tenured professor of economics at Harvard. You have—and have earned—a great deal of stability and security. Your job is guaranteed, at pretty much the same salary, until retirement. Your employer, which has been around for more than 350 years, isn't going anywhere.

[...]

If you believe the typical American worker would respond to tax cuts the way a typical tenured Harvard economist would, then it makes all the sense in the world to focus on tax cuts to the exclusion of other types of stimulus. But if you believe the typical American worker might respond to tax cuts the way, say, a typical Cambridge-area worker would, you might be less sure.

I've always been skeptical of economists with tenure telling me how I should think about globalization, for instance. Of course, Dr. Mankiw turned off comments at his blog some time ago, so he'll never get any feedback with which he's uncomfortable - one more way in which he's more like those he served at the Bush administration than he would like you to believe.

November 03, 2008

Waaaaazup?

This is pretty amazing. Thanks to Barry Ritholtz for finding it.

The original:

The update:

True.

October 01, 2008

How you can tell Karl Rove won

In all this talk about the bailout, how many times have you heard anybody serious in political circles say that we ought to be paying the bill for this with a tax hike on high incomes? Zero? Less than zero? Wouldn't a conversation about making sure those who benefitted the most from the runup and will benefit most from the bailout pay most of the bill happen in any adult country?

The guys who made all the money, then crashed the financial system, and will be getting bailed out are, actually, apparently set to get a tax break with the AMT and capital gains tax changes being proposed. That's just seriously regressive no matter how you slice it - we're apparently either going to pay for this via inflation or via general tax hikes on everybody.

My former cow-orker and I still trade predictions every week or two on whether we'll be seeing deflation or inflation as a result of all this, but now the rest of you get to share in my brilliance. I'm probably the last crackplogger in America to talk about the financial collapse. Yay!

September 16, 2008

Republicans Still Heart Hugo

A local radical 'winger has gotten on board my McCain/Chavez ticket suggestion, although like most of them, he doesn't understand it yet. Who's going to tell Palin the bad news?

Meanwhile, my favorite car site covered the issue and I have hope again for the world, after some relatively right-wing guys came up with comments like:

I’m not a particularly smart guy, but what is the value of exploiting a LOCAL resource when the price is going nowhere but up? If “we” have oil under our territory, and “they” have oil under theirs, shouldn’t we BUY THEIRS now while it is still relatively cheap?

Think ahead 25 or 50 years. If all of “theirs” is gone, but we still have “ours” in the ground, won’t we be WAY better off?

If I were a leader, or somebody who has oil under their feet, I’d hold mine and buy theirs, because mine will be worth orders of magnitude MORE when theirs is gone.

Or am I just a far too strategic thinker for the average American?

and

This idea the US can drill itself into control of the price of oil makes the Saudi’s, the Canadian’s and Hugo Chavez laugh.

The USA simply does not have enough oil to meaningfully influence the price from a supply point of view.

This will be remain true at any price of the stuff.

Honestly, you’ll do a hell of a lot better on the demand side.

But I guess nostalgia is an even more powerful force than the laws of the nature when it comes to politics.

Some of them get it, at least.

August 14, 2008

An airline that needs to die, as soon as possible

Makes me angry just reading this. If our country had a saner transportation mix, airlines could focus on the stuff they're objectively better at (long-haul or overseas flights) instead of trying to keep alive this retarded hub/spoke model for domestic flights. Would only have helped this situation indirectly, but still - this kind of thing is precisely why I'm flying Southwest on Monday to Nashville and driving 2 hours to Huntsville instead of flying a 2-leg on one of the legacies (which would save 30-60 minutes).

And, by the way, If we didn't have incredibly stupid landing charges at most US airports that charge by the weight of the plane rather than by the time the plane ties up the runway and/or traffic control, we'd have already killed off most of these stupid legacy nightmares. It's time to make this change now - which would restore a rational air traffic model more like what you see in Europe and Japan (hubs for international travel, not domestic). If it kills United dead as a side-effect, that's just an added bonus, isn't it?

August 05, 2008

Republicans Heart Hugo

So follow me on this one:

  1. Self-identified Republicans like to claim to have a far superior understanding of economics than those they call Democrats.
  2. Same batch of folks are now calling for off-shore drilling on the theory that it would have a non-trivial impact on US oil prices.
  3. We know, of course, that oil is fungible, so the impact of any production here is spread across the entire world market for oil, not just the US market.
  4. Those self-identified Republicans must know that too, because of the superior understanding of economics mentioned in #1.
  5. Shirley those Republicans aren't putting forward all this fuss over a pennies-sized drop in the world price of oil which is what would happen if we drilled the hell out of ourselves (including not only offshore but ANWR as well).
  6. Therefore, those Republicans must have some other means in mind by which US prices will fall more than the prices paid by the rest of the world's oil consumers.
  7. There's only one way I can think of, though: forcing oil companies to sell us "our oil" at a discount (compared to the world price, which would only drop a little bit with the amount of production we can bring to bear). In other words, separating the US price from the world price - like our friends in Saudi Arabia do.
  8. What's another word for that? Nationalization. Or socialization, if you prefer. Either one will do.

I wonder if we know anybody who's an expert at that kind of thing. Perhaps even in our own hemisphere?

hey, how you doin'?

I think we found McCain's running-mate. If you're tired of paying too much to fill up your SUV, it's time to push your party leaders towards the McCain/Chavez ticket in '08. THIS IDEA NOT FOR STEALING.

May 30, 2008

What really happened

Think the media was just helpless - that they did their job the best they could? Think that everybody believed Saddam had WMD?

You're wrong.

One media outlet did their homework. Don't let the apologists tell you nobody knew better.

Even a few of our senators exercised their constitutional responsibilities at the time. Like my old governor, then senator, Bob Graham, who, despite being weird, was consistently right on this issue from day one - and the media never has any time for him on it. Like Barack Obama, who was right from day one, and right for the right reasons (not like the Kucinich idiots who wouldn't have even attacked Afghanistan).

It was possible to avoid this stain on our national honor. Some (Clinton, McCain) should not be allowed to get away with abrogating their responsibilities back when it could have made some difference.

March 12, 2008

Real Americans should read this and call for impeachment

Of course, those of us who were educated enough knew this all along but many right-wingers who knew better still played along because he was on Their Team.

To me, the unforgiveable sin for a president is lying us into an unnecessary war. That's why I hope someday Bush gets to sit around the campfire and smoke the proverbial turd in hell with LBJ. That's also, by the way, why I couldn't vote for Hillary over Obama no matter how much more qualified she supposedly is. She voted for this war; and either was too dumb to know it was based on lies or knew so, and voted for it anyways, prioritizing her own political fortunes over the lives of our servicemen (at the time, people thought they had to go along due to Bush's popularity, hard as it is to believe now).

Meanwhile, the guys who actually supplied almost all the manpower, financial, and ideological support for the actual al Qaeda attack on us have gotten off scot-free. Not only that; they're getting obscenely rich off $110 oil, plowing that money right back into funding the same extremist Islamist crap that managed to build up al Qaeda in the first place.

Good work, Republicans. It's going to take a lot to get me to ever consider voting for you again (yes, readers, I have punched my share of "R" circles in the past). I can take an awful lot of stupid socialist-inspired economic policy if it means we don't spend trillions blowing our kids up for nothing.

October 19, 2007

Why don't progressives get it about panhandling?

From two comments I just made on this posting at Burnt Orange Report:

1. The people who really need (and want) help are getting it, perhaps less than we would like, but not at street corners. The guys at street corners are what we used to call 'bums' - if you actually offer to give them work or food, they will inevitably decline; and if you give them money, you can win on 10-1 odds that their next stop is the liquor store.

2. If you want an economically healthy city, you absolutely cannot tolerate normal citizens being harassed by panhandlers. And a healthy city helps the people who really need the help a lot more than the donut-hole-wasteland that results from an unhealthy city. Try convincing a fence-sitting business' CEO to move downtown when his employees and clients have to dodge panhandlers.

This marriage of self-identified progressives and bums has got to stop. It tempts guys like me to vote Republican.

By healthy city, I mean that if businesses move to Round Rock because Austin is the panhandler-ridden cesspool that some of you seem to prefer, the city of Austin has fewer tax funds to spend on helping the people who really want and need the help. And I guarantee you Round Rock isn't going to pick up the slack.

This kind of wooly-headed thinking by self-identified progressives has bothered me ever since I saw the first (but not the last, by far) local TV expose of what panhandlers really do with your donations of money (or in some cases food) and what they do when you offer them work. Folks, the people who need your help are in shelters and soup kitchens. The guys on the corner are hustlers who can simply make a better living by fleecing unsuspecting drivers than by honestly working.

It's as if these people can't possibly conceive that guys holding up signs at street corners could possibly be dishonest. GMAFB - if Congress can get lied to in order to drag us into an ill-advised war of choice, as I'm sure all of these folks believe (as I do!), then you really think a bum on the corner won't lie to you too, to get some beer without having to work?

There are lots of reasons to vote against Jennifer Kim. But this one is just stupid - Kim is, whether for purposes of getting elected or actually being responsible, doing the right thing this time.

October 17, 2007

I'm with Ellen

NON-TRANSPORTATION!

Ellen DeGeneres is in hot water for a dog-adoption fiasco. Relatively few people are paying attention to the fact that this dog-rescue group will not place any dogs in families with kids younger than 14. Yes, FOURTEEN.

In our case, we badly wanted to get a pound dog, but it had to be small, and a good temperament. Our mighty beast was obtained from a breeder. Why? Because small-dog "animal rescue" groups have a stranglehold over the Austin pound (basically picking up small dogs as soon as they were dropped off, at least back then), and they will not allow adoption by a family with reasonably-aged children. Just like the ridiculous power-hungry idiots who think that a family with girls aged 11 and 12 aren't a good place for a puppy.

GMAFB. Most dogs are far better off with kids than with the typical single female that these dog rescue groups would place with, where the dog will be alone all day. Dogs like to play. Kids have the energy and the time to play with them. More attention on these ridiculous nitwits, please, and less on the fact that DeGeneres technically violated the contract. It was a bad contract to begin with.

October 03, 2007

Best summary of Bjorn Lomborg yet

Hat-tip to The OIl Drum, from The New York Times book review:

Doubtless scientists and economists will spend many hours working their way through Cool It, flagging the distortions and half-truths as they did with Lomborg's earlier book. In fact, though, its real political intent soon becomes clear, which is to try to paint those who wish to control carbon emissions as well-meaning fools who will inadvertently block improvements in the life of the poor.

Just ask yourself this question: Why has Lomborg decided to compare the efficacy of (largely theoretical) funding to stop global warming with his other priorities, like fighting malaria or ensuring clean water? If fighting malaria was his real goal, he could as easily have asked the question: Why don't we divert to it some of the (large and nontheoretical) sums spent on, say, the military? The answer he gave when I asked this question at our dialogue was that he thought military spending was bad and that therefore it made more sense to compare global warming dollars with other "good" spending. But of course this makes less sense. If he thought that money spent for the military was doing damage, then he could kill two birds with one stone by diverting some of it to his other projects. Proposing that, though, would lose him much of the right-wing support that made his earlier book a best seller—he'd no longer be able to count on even The Wall Street Journal editorial page.

August 27, 2007

Prius FUD keeps rolling

I'll write up our Bad Capital Metro Flugtag Experience tomorrow I think. In the meantime, Newsweek joins the parade of Prius FUDders by allowing Honda to reiterate the common assertion that the Prius kicks all other hybrid vehicles' asses because it "looks different". Of course, that's a load of crap; the most iconic hybrid vehicle out there was the Honda Insight. Problem was that the Insight was a nearly useless car - underpowered, uncomfortable, 2 seats, no cargo space. And for all that, you got about 5 mpg more than the Prius, back when the Insight was still being sold.

The reason the Prius sells so much better than the Civic Hybrid is because it's a much better car. The Civic is smaller (different market segment, even), gets a bit less mileage, and has far less cargo space. (The Civic's back seat doesn't even fold down - because Honda stuck the battery there). In other words, Toyota learned from Honda, and developed a better hybrid system that was able to provide small-car Civic-like mileage for a car with more usable space than the Accord. They just out-engineered the Honda boys.

Yes, a few people at the margins bought it because it was more obvious. But the car is now outselling the majority of "regular" cars in this country - and it's not doing so because of the hybrid halo. It's doing so because it's a medium-sized car which gets fuel-sipper mileage and can carry a friggin' rain barrel with the hatch closed.

The Prius is our only car. The Civic Hybrid could never have managed to be. That's basically all you need to know.

April 12, 2007

Another War We're Winning

My favorite band (local) from the early days here in Austin - but in a later incarnation I didn't like as much, explains:

April 06, 2007

A note to my two or three self-identified Republican readers

Isn't this worse than lying about a blowjob? If not, why not?

Speaking as somebody who never voted Democratic for a high-level office until 2000 (passed on Clinton both times), I find myself wondering if I can ever again consider the Republicans until they disavow this current bunch of clowns. I can't be the only one. Do you guys seriously not get this?

March 15, 2007

What We've Learned

Or, Thanks, Nader!

This is a dark chapter in our history. Whatever else happens, our country's international standing has been frittered away by people who don't have the foggiest understanding of how the hell the world works. America has been conducting an experiment for the past six years, trying to validate the proposition that it really doesn't make any difference who you elect president. Now we know the result of that experiment

I promise I'll get back to the boring stuff about transportation and local politics one of these days when my energy isn't sucked away by other forums where I have to refute RG4N talking points about ten times an hour.

February 28, 2007

Worst. President. Ever.

Solving our problems, one at a time.

January 18, 2007

Neil Abercrombie: Hero

When asked about Tony Snow's offhand dismissal of the resolution being pushed in Congress to prevent the Worst President Ever from taking us to war against Iran on false pretenses, he replied:

"I haven't talked to the ASPCA today," [...] "I don't know what's going on with the lapdogs."

I wish I lived in Hawaii so I could vote for this guy. Well, I wish I lived in Hawaii anyways, but still.

December 05, 2006

Why I Crackplog

Probably not a surprise to those few readers of mine who still think I have an intolerably liberal bent, but this nails it (thanks, Adam): the press hasn't done its job against the batch of corrupt so-called Republicans who came in around 1994. I don't think it's all about anti-democratic (not the party) feeling among the media; lazy reliance on he-said she-said reporting has to be a big piece of this as well, as one side has shown themselves a lot more willing than the other to lie their asses off the last decade or two.

As for me, I started this in an attempt to share a few pitiful scraps of "access/insider" knowledge I had, in an attempt to at least chronicle the path to the commuter rail plan that effectively screws Central Austin out of rail transit for a decade or more at the expense of suburbs that don't even pay into Capital Metro. All that access is gone now, of course. But I can see the themes in her essay at play - media who ought to have published some actual analysis of the plan instead just turned into PR arms for Capital Metro (or occasionally against, but only in the Skaggsian "all rail transit bad" mode).

I agree with some of the anti-democratic (not the party; the style of governance) designs of our Founding Fathers. The will of the masses does, quite often, need the restraining influence of republicanism (again, not the party). But the media was supposed to be the means by which the democratic influence could balance with the republican one - and that clearly has fallen apart - and it fell apart in exactly the opposite way that conventional wisdom had it: the media has been tireless advocates for democracy when exposing Democratic party scandals, but has been unwilling to do so until very recently with the Republicans.

October 17, 2006

Health Insurance and Car Insurance, Redux

A quick hit since he's blocking comments, for me at least:

Kling's argument (standard for those pushing HSAs) that health care in this country is broken because it's covering too many 'normal' procedures is highly disingenuous. First, most expenses for health care are simply NOT of the type that maps to 'oil changes' in car insurance, and second, the mapping itself breaks down - car insurance, with its per-incident deductible, is actually far more like traditional HMO/PPO service (with copays; which are essentially also per-incident deductibles) than it is like the HSA plans Kling apparently favors (with large annual deductible).

June 15, 2006

How Far We've Fallen

Today's headline:

759 'anti-Iraqi' elements seized after al-Zarqawi killing

Now, where have I seen language like that before?

May 10, 2006

Health Savings Accounts Suck, Part 28

Just had to deal with the typical problem we've been facing with our "consumer-driven health plan" (i.e. HSA with high-deductible 'insurance') - this is perhaps the fifth or sixth time this has happened.

1. We get bill for $X.
2. I make sure there is $X in our Health Savings Account.
3. I call the place and pay over the phone, using some combination of the HSA "credit" card1 and our normal credit card.
4. They wait too long to post the charge (see #8)
5. In the meantime, we pay for something else.
6. We get a letter in the mail saying that our "credit card was refused".
7. I call them and ask which credit card failed (I usually have to split charges due to #2 above).
8. They can't tell me, but do say that it would have posted within 7 to 10 days of the call. Aha.

This thing causes so much extra work compared to the old FSA, it's just not funny.

Of course, if you don't actually USE medical care, the HSA is a great deal, as long as you're wealthy enough to be paying high marginal income tax rates. But for people who actually have to use medical care, and believe me, our family qualifies, it suuuuuuuuucks.

1: Of course, it's really a debit card, as the rejection shows. But the fact that they run it as a credit card encourages them to wait to post the charges rather than figuring out immediately if there's enough money in there. Big mistake.

March 02, 2006

Austin Rail Politics Thesis

Jeff Wood, in the middle of a thread on lightrail_now where I'm trying to once again prevent Lyndon from wriggling off the hook, just posted a link to his thesis on Austin rail transportation politics in which I'm quoted a few times. A good summary for those still interested in the issue.

February 20, 2006

Fungible doesn't mean you're off the hook

The economists who are gleeful over the Dilbert cartoon on Sunday are missing a very, very, very important point.

War trumps economics, and economics can prevent war. Sometimes that's a good thing (economics preventing war); sometimes not.

In this case, We're (in the US) supposedly prevented from dealing forcefully with the country which paid most of the money and sent most of the people on the planes which killed 3,000 of our own people on our own soil. Why? That country is essentially the only one today which could practically increase or decrease its oil production, and we, unlike the rest of the industrialized world, are critically dependent on not just oil, but CHEAP oil.

In other words, the French and Germans care less about the Saudi royal family being overthrown because they don't need cheap oil as badly as we do. They use oil, sure, but they've taxed it heavily (as a rational response to the costs of delivering it, the associated infrastructure such as roads, and negative externalities such as pollution). We, on the other hand, actually keep gasoline CHEAPER than it would be if we just required drivers to pay for all of the roads and such they use, without even accounting for pollution and other less easily quantifiable externalities.

As a result, we still haven't really struck back at the people who so badly need striking back upon because the ruling party is so critically dependent on the votes of people who 'need' to drive a truck 15,000 miles a year at 12 miles per gallon and were livid at $3/gallon gas, much less the $6 or $7 the Europeans pay.

FDR and Truman would have had the heads of anybody who suggested that we couldn't 'afford' to fight the Germans or Japanese. But, today, that's exactly what people say about the Saudis. We can't 'afford' to even SPEAK toughly with them, because, hey, the oil!

In WWII, we put up posters reminding people that they were sacrificing cheap oil for a bigger cause. War, in other words, trumped economics, as it should have. Now, of course, we can't, because even the Democrats are in the thrall of suburban sprawl, and the Republicans are much worse. Even when 3,000 of our own civilians died on our own soil. It'll be hard to change this even when cheap oil is no longer possible, but Scott Adams is making it even harder by making those who care about the issue seem like fools.

It makes me sick that we still haven't done squat to the Saudis after all this time, but it makes me even sicker that Scott Adams has fallen in with such loathsome, cowardly people. Shameful, Scott. Shameful.

February 17, 2006

Fifty-Fifty Journalistic Balance Sucks

Whether it's in science (usually global warming or evolution) or local politics, journalists addicted to "he-said she-said" should turn in their press pass. If that's all we needed, simple links to a couple of ideological websites would suffice.

With global warming, you effectively have an overwhelming scientific consensus and a couple of skeptics - bought and paid for by oil companies (and, of course, a college dropout Bush appointee trying to censor one of this country's most experienced climatologists). The media usually covers this as "he-said, she-said", which is OK when there truly IS no consensus, but we passed that point ten years ago.

In the Shoal Creek debacle instance, the Chronicle didn't bother to tell you that the TTI, hired by the City Council in an obvious attempt to provide at least some political cover for choosing "Option 3", reported back to them that the peer cities fairly unanimously recommended "Option 2", and that all of them recommended very strongly against "Option 3". Paraphrased, the response was, essentially, "why don't you idiots just restrict parking on one side of the street?".

Did the Chronicle mention this, either at the time or now that the council subcommittee ignored everybody who knows diddly-squat about traffic safety and ordered Option 3? Of course not. It's "car-free bike lane guys say X. On the other hand, neighborhood people say Y". No mention of which position might be more credible. No mention of the fact that the experts the city hired to consult were firmly on one of the two sides.

Fifty-fifty balance sucks. A chimp could collate two press releases together and turn them into an article. Chronicle, have another banana.

February 03, 2006

How Overtaxed Are You, Really?

Note: This article refers to federal tax only. If you want to mix it up about local or state taxes, be my guest, but if you're a suburbanite, you're not gonna win this one, trust me.

Just submitted my federal income tax return. My marginal rate is 25%, and of course we all pay social security + medicare of around 8%. So, if I were one of the 'wingers at my last jorb, I'd be bitching about the feds taking a third of my income.

Yes, really. That's the way they operate. They willfully conflate marginal tax rate with effective tax rate (i.e., ignoring the fact that the first N dollars of their income are taxed at a far lower rate than the last M); AND they ignore the effect of all their various and sundry deductions. Here's a handy calculator showing both rates.

What's worse are the ones who are in the next marginal tax bracket, and then get to claim that THEIR overall tax rate is (28 + 8) = 36%.

Luckily, thanks to TurboTax, I also get an "effective tax rate" number. It's 8.27% this year. (Add social security + medicare, and you get up to about 16.25%).

And I guarantee you that most of those whining 'wingers are in the same boat as me - big mortgages, big property tax bills, multiple dependents, etc. Oh, except for the ones in that 28% marginal bracket. Don't forget that the social security tax ENDS at about $90,000 - so the income over that is NOT subject to the social security part (6.2%) and thus the marginal rate is much lower. So it's actually fairly likely that some of those people in that bracket pay a LOWER effective tax rate than some of the 25%ers.

16.25% (8.25% income tax) just doesn't sound like overtaxed enough to justify cutting taxes more, now, does it? So they complain about a 33% overall burden, and meantime, we continue to move further and further away from a progressive tax system in reality.

February 02, 2006

Even The Ideal Health Insurance Is NOT Like Car Insurance

Continuing my oddball string of non-transportation rants, there's an analogy which has been bugging me for a while now, and I just finally figured out why it's so crappy.

There's a lot of folks out there who argue that old-style health insurance really isn't 'insurance' because it pays first-dollar stuff (i.e. you get coinsured on essentially everything after you meet a small annual deductible). Car insurance and home insurance, these people say, don't pay for oil-changes and gutter-cleaning. They only cover catastrophic conditions. Fair enough. (Google on "health insurance" and "oil changes" to see how widespread this meme has become).

But then you take a look at their proposed solution - HSA's (paired with high deductible plans). You have to meet a large annual deductible, and then most stuff is covered. Sounds like a better match, right?

Except for this little problem: in both car and home insurance, the deductible is per-event, not per-year. By that metric, traditional insurance actually maps better to car and home insurance!. Hint: the 'copay' is sort-of a per-event deductible. If you visit the doctor and it costs a hundred bucks, and your copay is $20, then your insurance covers $80 (although unlike car and home insurance, it probably doesn't cover 100% of that $80). Likewise, if my roof needs a $2000 repair, and my deductible is $1000, you could call that my co-pay.

Maybe a table is a better way to present this. I'm using what I remember of my old PPO, my current HSA, and my automobile insurance as examples here.





PlanPer-event deductibleAnnual deductibleCoinsurance after reached
PPO$25$25080%
HSA / high-deductible planNONE$4000Almost 100%
Auto$1000NONE100%
Home$1000NONE100%

Clearly the high-deductible plan isn't any more like "insurance" if you define it as "how homes and autos are covered", despite the rhetoric you hear. A PPO isn't perfect either, due to coinsurance rarely being 100%, but one could imagine a similar auto/home policy being floated and still being called "insurance". On the other hand, I have yet to see an automobile insurance company ever offer a policy where you had to meet an "annual deductible" in addition to a "per-event deductible".

More on HSA's

from that liberal rag "The Economist", an article on our health care dilemna, including this tidbit on why HSA's won't do squat to control costs:

To an administration that believes the answer to every problem is lower taxes, the appeal of these ideas is obvious. Many health experts, however, are deeply sceptical, both about whether the shift to higher-deductible plans will actually reduce health-care inflation and, even if it does, whether the government should encourage this trend with more tax cuts.

The logic of consumer-driven health care assumes that unnecessary doctor visits and procedures lie at the heart of America's health-care inflation. And it assumes that individual patients can become discerning consumers of health care. Both are questionable. Most American health-care spending is on people with chronic diseases, such as diabetics, whose health care costs many thousands of dollars a year, easily exceeding even high deductibles.

Instead, critics worry that greater cost-consciousness will deter people, particularly poor people, from essential preventive medical care, a trend that could even raise long-term costs. A classic study by the Rand Corporation in the 1970s showed that higher cost-sharing reduced both necessary and unnecessary medical spending in about equal proportion.

In other words, somebody who already has diabetes isn't going to save you any money when you stick him on an HSA, but somebody who might GET diabetes without preventative care will be even less likely to get that care, since now he's got to pay for 100% of the cost himself.

This backs up what I said yesterday - that the people who think HSAs will make people spend less on health care are fooling themselves. People who can get HSAs are primarily the employed, and those with a fair amount of money. None of those people are likely to go get unnecessary medical treatments - most of the money we spend in this country is on heroic interventions and on inefficient health care provided to the poor at emergency rooms. We clearly aren't going to stop spending so much on the elderly, and they clearly still have plenty of time to sit in doctors' offices anyways. The poor who clog up emergency rooms either aren't going to be able to get insurance at all (just like today), or won't be able to afford to contribute anything into the attached HSA anyways. No change, except that the wealthy employed get a bigger tax break.

February 01, 2006

HSA's are another giveaway to the wealthy

I've been on an HSA for about six months now (only choice at current job). Ironically, the primary reason I had to leave the last job, which I liked a lot, was a benefits cut that hit our family very hard, with no accompanying increase in salary. They (previous company) left us with choosing between a "high" plan which was ALMOST as good as the previous-years' plan, except a couple hundred bucks more a month; a "medium" plan for a few bucks more in which all copays were nontrivially hiked and coinsurance cut; and a "low" plan which was basically a HSA, too.

The HSA works pretty much like an FSA (which we were already using), except a bigger pain in the butt, since the years' money isn't all available on day one, like in an FSA. (In fact, I 'bounced' payments-by-mail twice because I mailed in the bill response without double-checking to see how much had flowed in, each time with a delightful $20 charge tacked on). You also get to enjoy looking like a deadbeat to doctors' offices as you quite frequently fall into the "31-60 days overdue" bill categories since they first have to file with insurance, then insurance tells them what they're supposed to charge you, and then you get sent a bill. The tax savings are no greater than with an FSA, which is to say that they depend on your marginal tax rate, which for most of the people who were having trouble with health care before isn't likely to be high enough to be worth the difficulty of setting aside this money in the first place.

Now, for us, it still makes sense (even though unlike most people on HSA's, we actually hit our deductible last year; i.e., we actually use health care). And it makes a hell of a lot of sense for a high-earning person that doesn't use health care. But it doesn't do squat to help out people who are unable to afford insurance today - the benefits disproportionately accrue to those with the highest marginal tax rates, not the poor. The poor, sadly, probably remain better off going to the emergency room than using this thing.

Even libertarians who have been exposed to single-payer or socialized medicine seem to finally get it, as I got it a few years ago. Medicine is not a case where the market works like it does in computers or groceries or whatever else; nor will it ever be. It's more like providing a police force and firefighters.

And no, switching to an HSA has not given us any incentive to reduce our usage of medical care at all, because, like pretty much everybody who works for a living, I only go to the doctor when I need to because it's such a pain in the ass. The theory that we can save money on healthcare with this "ownership society" crap rests on the questionable premise that most money is being spent by people who can use HSAs, when, in fact, most money is spent on the elderly, the premature, and other heroic interventions.

This is really becoming an issue in which the center is ready to move, and only the far, far, far right balks. There's just no sensible reason not to pick the best socialized system (appears to be France or maybe Germany) and just get it over with.

January 27, 2006

Are American Cars Really All That Bad?

The site responsible for a great deal of the anti-hybrid FUD that I respond to has a long and fairly deep comment thread about the recent JD Power results. Like most of my peers, I don't own an American car and haven't in quite some time (I did buy a Saturn SL2 in 1991 and the car treated me well).

To me, though, it's damn simple. All of us who travel on business know that you get to try out American cars every time you go to the car rental place. (Well, I got to rent a Hyundai Sonata last time I was in Virginia on business, but that was the first time I ever got a non-American-brand car for rent). The key here is that many of those who aren't considering purchasing them know what they're like. Fix the cars you dump on the rental agencies and you might have a prayer.

For instance, during our 2002 trip to Hawaii, I rented two cars - a Dodge Neon on Oahu, and a Ford Focus on Maui. The first just suuuuucked - despite being a tiny, tiny, tiny car, I couldn't get it to turn tightly enough to fit in half of the spaces at our timeshare. The Focus, on the other hand, was a pretty good car. When it came time to consider buying our next car, the Focus was at least rattling around in my head (maybe if Ford had made a hybrid version, we would have given it more serious thought; but had we had to back up to a normal gas engine car, it would have certainly been in the running) while the Neon, I'd have a hard time justifying buying for $5000 new.

Likewise, the following cars which I drove or rode in the last couple of years on rental also suuuuucked: Chevrolet Cobalt, Buick Rendezvous (I got 'upgraded' to an SUV since they didn't have our midsize car), Chevrolet Malibu Maxx (2 times!). And our family got to drive a Chevy Tahoe for a day as a loaner car when ours was in for service. It was a piece of junk too.

That Hyundai Sonata? Like a traditional Buick, in all the good ways. That's bad news for the 'real' Buick too.

So, no, getting 'close' is not good enough to win back customers. Hell, any business weasel ought to be able to tell you that. You either get BETTER, or you do what Hyundai did, and get 'as good' and then offer a warranty that shows you're sure of it.

Don't try to mislead me with non-representative bullcrap about how your cars get 30 mpg on the highway when I'm driving one that gets 50 overall. Don't try to tell me how great your trucks are when gas is 3 bucks a gallon. If you ever want to get a guy like me back in your showrooms, you need to make better cars and mean it. Because I'll be driving your cars every so often whether I want to or not; so it won't be possible to fool me with salesman crap.

January 25, 2006

This ought to be on the front page of every newspaper in the damn country

January 19, 2006

New links

Chris Mooney has moved here (a much more palatable host) and I've added Tim Lambert.

Both often cover the distortion of science perpetrated by the current sorry crop of right-wingers. And don't fall for bogus claims of balance by shysters trying to convince you both sides are equally bad. They're just not. This is almost entirely a Republican problem, and it's not going anywhere. The mostly non-religious but very-rabid right-wingers at my last job were, despite being a highly educated and self-described moderate bunch, falling for most of the denial science pushed for profit by the GOP's pseudoscience shills. If those people are unwilling to use their critical thinking skills when their political party tells them not to, I fear for our future. I ain't kidding.

For instance: There isn't really any lack of consensus on global warming, people. The scientists who study climate are overwhelmingly speaking in one voice. The few skeptics who remain are largely shills funded by the oil companies. Yes, for real.

I note in passing that my buddies at Hit and Run are still curiously silent on the global warming news of the day.

Big surprise

These guys have nothing to say about this. Pushing claims of false controversy is obviously the game being played by the current crop of right-wingers (ticking off even moderate Republicans like the ones who used to run the show), but it's been very disappointing to me how much of that has rubbed off on the supposedly non-partisan libertarians.

Hint: Science doesn't care if you don't like the news - and it definitely doesn't care if you don't want to admit climate change is anthropogenic and dangerous just because the only effective solutions require some involvement from the evil State.

January 03, 2006

SUVs are a negative sum game

Most SUV drivers, sad to say, were perfectly happy to drive them when SUVs appeared to be a zero-sum game, i.e., if you drove an SUV, sure you killed more people in cars, but your own passengers were safer at about the same proportion. Because, after all, protecting your own family is the only thing that matters - so it doesn't matter if it happens by making it much more likely that others will die.

And, of course, most people who bother to study the issue always knew they got special treatment allowing them to enjoy more lenient fuel economy, pollution, tax, and safety regulations (pre-1999).

But recently we've found out that they're also more dangerous for pedestrians and finally, the conventional wisdom among those who study the vehicles that they really aren't safer for their own occupants than would be a sedan has been borne out in a recent study involving kids. Yes, the same kids you claim you bought the SUV for.

I guess you still have that high riding position to hang your hat on. Oh, and the donating of all that excess money to Middle Eastern regimes we're all big fans of. Way to go, guys.

December 23, 2005

Choice is never bad

This is pretty much how I feel about what Microsoft's done to the computer software industry. Unfortunately, the site for which Julian writes pretty much takes Microsoft at their word and buys the "statists envious of successful corporation" version of the story.

It's even remarkably timely.

So please imagine a world in which:

  • Meaningful commercial operating system competition existed, thus pushing Windows to actually satisfy customer needs rather than those of its business partners'. IE, what we had from the 80s through the early 90s.
  • Non-trivial commercial office suite competition existed, meaning that Word, Excel, and the lot would have to be GOOD, not just good enough.
  • Commercial browser competition had existed for the last 5 years, meaning IE wouldn't have been able to take half a decade off after Netscape died.

And, no, open source can't save us, with the trivial exception of browsers (which just aren't all that complicated compared to the other things above). I've been using linux, on server and desktop, at my last three jobs. I even prefer it for work. That doesn't make it a competitor serious enough to do much good, even though Microsoft has to say it does so they look good for the media. (In 2005, I couldn't get sound working on a friggin' mass-market HP-Compaq box running Red Hat Linux (and later, same problem with Debian) - and I was far from the only one).

The third-grade libertarians out there replied at the time: "the market will save us" - pointing to the transition to the internet, which would supposedly make operating system monopolies a non-issue. Problem is - Microsoft knew that was a threat and fairly effectively (and obnoxiously) killed it.

December 13, 2005

People are spoiled

A lot of folks, including an attempted commenter from earlier today whose comment got rejected for some reason I have yet to determine, think I'm a liberal. Those folks is wrong most of the time.

For instance, this story bugs me, especially this part:

One 70-year-old Maine LIHEAP recipient, who asked not to be named, says that she gets through the winter by keeping her thermostat at 62 degrees.

I keep our thermostat at 60 at night; 65 during the day; and make sure to open blinds to get as much solar heating as possible when the sun is up. If I lived up north, I'd go colder. 62? Give me a break. How about putting on another sweater? For most of human history, people in cold climates would have thought 62 was heavenly warm.

December 06, 2005

Sprawl isn't the result of the free market

Finally somebody in the mainstream press gets it. From the Atlanta Journal Constitution, 12/5/2005:

There are two kinds of people: Us and them. And where the line falls between the two depends entirely on context.

Sometimes us and them is a matter of gender — "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus," as the book title goes. Or, as columnist Maureen Dowd asks in her new book, "Are Men Necessary?"

At other times, we define us and them by racial or political differences, or even by something as frivolous as the sports team we follow. In fact, a lot of the appeal of sports is the opportunity to root hard for our side against their side; as a lifelong New York Yankee hater, I can personally attest to the pleasures that can bring.

Then there's the line we draw depending on how and where we live. To suburban dwellers, the city is often viewed as a corrupt heart of darkness, in more ways than one. To city dwellers, the suburbs are perceived as rather soulless and pale, again in more ways than one.

Those tensions play out in a lot of ways, even coloring discussions about how booming areas such as Atlanta ought to develop. Too often, what ought to be a straightforward, even technical discussion of various land-use approaches can devolve into just another battleground in the ongoing culture wars, just another example of us against them.

For example, one of the Atlanta region's biggest challenges is controlling sprawl, a development pattern that consumes tax dollars and open land and greatly complicates transportation planning and environmental problems. One of the options available to mitigate sprawl and its impact is an approach called "smart growth" — areas of higher-density development that mix residential, commercial and business uses.

Unfortunately, though, some suburban dwellers hear criticism of sprawl as some sort of a value-laden condemnation of suburban life. They respond by launching a defense of sprawl that can be paraphrased with the following:

"What others deride as sprawl is actually just the free market at work, the result of millions of Americans choosing the lifestyle they prefer. And any effort to control or limit 'sprawl' is a misuse of government power promoted by elitists who want to instruct us common folk how to live."

Well, I've covered enough county commission and zoning board meetings to know that's just romantic mythology.

First of all, the free market, left to its own devices, produces dense development, not sprawl. Developers want to put as many units as possible on their property, because that's how they make the most profit; you don't see them going to court demanding the right to build fewer homes per acre.

Sprawl is possible only through intense government regulation. It is an artificial growth pattern achieved by laws that frustrate the free market's tendency toward density. The free market, left to its own devices, would never produce five-acre minimum lot sizes, or 2,500-square-foot minimum house sizes, or bans and moratoriums on apartments. The free market, left to its own devices, would produce growth patterns more like "smart-growth" policies.

In fact, smart-growth alternatives impose fewer restrictions on developers than does sprawl-inducing zoning, and infringe less dramatically on developers' property rights. Philosophically speaking, it ought to be a conservative's dream.

The claim that critics of sprawl are elitist is equally hard to swallow, given that one of the hallmarks of sprawl is economic segregation. Go to a county commission meeting and you'll see owners of $500,000 homes on five-acre lots protesting the construction of $250,000, one-acre homes nearby, and owners of $250,000 homes fighting against apartments and town houses.

Sprawl is not a rejection of elitism; it is the expression of elitism. It is people using the power of government to protect "us" against the incursion of "them."

That is not, however, an argument in favor of trying to eliminate suburban growth patterns or the suburban lifestyle. Such things are ingrained in metro Atlanta, and are a large part of the region's success. Here in Georgia, only the most zealous of smart-growth advocates want to ban large-lot zoning and other sprawl-inducing mechanisms. Instead, they ask only that zoning laws be relaxed enough to allow smart-growth developments to compete for customers, so that people can be given a real choice.

Given the success of smart-growth projects around metro Atlanta, when people are given that choice, they jump at it.

• Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.

December 02, 2005

Don't Celebrate Bums

Yet more proof from yet another city that panhandlers aren't the ones who need the help, yet it's like pulling teeth around here to get an ordinance that the cops can enforce against the bums that infest the Drag and downtown Austin. The homeless that deserve help are, for the most part, getting it from charities. These bums on street corners, on the other hand, just don't want to work.

The same type of expose ran on one of the stations in Miami about fifteen years ago with similar results - except even more appalling; they GAVE food to one of the "Will Work For Food" guys, and he threw it away. Then they came back and gave him money and watched where he went - which, of course, was the liquor store.

I remember one time when I was walking down 6th Street from my condo to a show and was accosted by a bum for money. I ignored him; and he started following me and yelling at me. At that time, even I was rethinking my decision to be on the sidewalk at night instead of in my car, and those who know me know that doesn't happen easily.

One of the biggest obstacles to restoring downtown Austin into a place where people want to live, work, and play is these obnoxious bums. I can't believe that any executive thinking of moving a company's offices downtown is going to enjoy running the gauntlet of beggars that render certain corridors stinky and barely navigable. This hurts our city's economy as companies stay away from the center-city, where the infrastructure to support them already exists, and stay out in the burbs or leave Austin's city limits entirely. A weak economy means less money available for the groups that really DO help the homeless.

There's nothing noble about begging; and those who try the hardest to help the homeless actually discourage the public from donating at streetcorners; but this doesn't stop professional protestors like Richard Troxell. I don't know how this can be solved until people who want to help the homeless can stand up and distinguish between those who want help, and those who just want a hand-out.

November 11, 2005

Our Credible Media Lets Him Get Away With It Again

Despite conclusive evidence to the contrary, the 'journalists' at the major networks are letting Bush get away with his claim that efforts to investigate pre-war intelligence claims are just 'revisionist history'.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why the Republicans will not lose their grip on power for years to come. Far from being a liberal-loving progressive-propaganda machine, the US major media is actually loath to call BULLSHIT even when it's a life-and-death matter like WAR; instead pushing more of the "some say, others disagree" pablum that has destroyed any concept of objective truth.

Hi Chris.

Meanwhile:

November 07, 2005

Hybrid FUD

The meme "hybrids don't save any money" has been flying fast and furious as of late; originating with people trying desperately to defend GM for having missed this boat entirely. When people of a certain (conservative, usually) bent saw the Prius, they complained that more of the electric power ought to go into performance (even though for a good-mileage car, it accelerates perfectly well, i.e. I've not been frustrated with it when getting on the highway). Toyota complied, and now they get dinged for a less impressive mileage boost in the Highlander Hybrid.

This unidentified individual while generally liking his hybrid SUV, repeated one of the most often heard bits of hybrid FUD. To be more accurate, you can replace his comment:

As I've said before, if you just want to save money, a hybrid isn't the way to go, yet.

with:

As I've said before, if you just want to save money on an SUV, a Highlander hybrid isn't the way to go, yet.

Because when you compare the Prius to the Camry (same size class), it's very easy to save money over the life of the car. Same to a lesser extent with the Civic Hybrid. The worst comparisons out there (Edmund's) find a small savings with (Prius over Camry) and a loss everywhere else due to the questionable claim that the hybrid will have less residual value and require more maintenance, both of which are proving to be false. The Prius won best one-year residual value AND most reliable honors this year. The previous-generation Prius (nowhere near as good of a car), the oldest of which are pushing 6 now, are also very highly priced on the used market.

Hybrid Car Blog and the Prius Owners Group both
cover this FUD frequently.

October 03, 2005

How to Destroy the US Economy

I couldn't agree with Barry Ritholtz's argument more. Unfortunately, most rank-and-file Republicans and other potentially reasonable people think that the pandering to their religious nutcase fringe is essentially harmless. They're wrong, and they're going to drag us all down with them.

September 14, 2005

Economic theory and physical reality

The Peak Oil guys keep trying to tell the economists that there's a drop-off in oil production coming (the 'peak'), and the economists keep saying that the market will solve the problem when it arrives. Left unsaid is that sometimes market solutions involve "demand destruction" in the form of recession, depression, or worse.

Most of the energy optimists though think the market will wave its magic wand and incent the development of alternative technology. This is foolish - economics can't trump physics (especially energy density), but it's hard to sell this to economists. But I just had an idea, after hearing an old Spin Doctors song on my itunes shuffle.

What amount of money would I have to give you right now to develop a technology that would allow me to achieve Superman-like powers of flight, heat vision, super strength, etc? After all, if the power of the market can solve any problem, presumably there is a 'bid' I can make at which it will be able to solve THIS one, right?

(If the answer is "not an infinite amount of money, but considerably more than exists in the entire world economy" then you might as well treat it as an infinite amount of money for all intents and purposes. The same logic applies for oil - how much money will it take to get a portable energy storage mechanism which can achieve goals X, Y, and Z? Answer: money can't beat physics - there are some problems that no amount of money will 'solve' for given acceptable values of 'solution').

September 12, 2005

Frustration with simplistic market analysis

So I spend a lot of time on this blog which is a stunning waste of time, since the commenters are disproportionately the simplistic wing of the libertarian party, with a handful of SwiftBoat types trolling from the Republicans. A brou-ha-ha there completely unrelated to markets (for once) reminded me that I meant to write this article, so here you go.

I've always been interested in, but not really affiliated with, libertarianism. Unlike the leftists that most of the suburban Republicans at my last job think I'm one of, I believe in the market. When things don't work out, I usually look for market distortions first, rather than simply believing that capitalism is evil or that the market doesn't 'work'. The market is a tool, like a really good computer; it produces optimal outcomes if it has very good information, but sometimes doesn't do as well with inaccurate or incomplete data. Most ills in our society, I think, can be fixed by improving those inputs, rather than through more onerous regulation.

Personally, I find looking at the imperfections of markets a very interesting thing, and am disappointed at how often self-identified libertarians fall back into an eighth-grade "market didn't do X therefore no demand for X" philosophy. Essentially, they either don't believe in or haven't even HEARD of externalities, network effects, the "race to the bottom", etc.

This applies especially to the various smoking bans being passed all over the country. (Pretend I'm talking about restaurants here rather than bars; I'm uncomfortable with a total ban on smoking in bars, but was very happy to ban it in restaurants). Short summary: the market didn't provide any non-smoking airlines before the government made them go non-smoking; in most cities non-smoking restaurants were trivial embarassments until smoking bans passed. The simplistic view is to say that people didn't value (non-smoking) more than (eating-out-at-all) or (flying), and this is technically true. But is it useful when you're staring down the barrel of a referendum that you're about to lose? Probably not - which is when it would be helpful, I think, to study the issue and find out WHY so few businesses made the switch before being forced, even given apparent overwhelming customer preference.

And then there's the 'remedy' - again, the simplistic view is to say 'do nothing', but the voters in that referendum are going to 'do something' for you if you keep messing around. For a brief time, Julian Sanchez at least was willing to explore alternative ways to, in DC, provide more non-smoking venues, but he's in the minority among the "Ban the Ban" types. To me, using the government's incentive power to encourage movement towards what appears to be a huge consumer preference anyways is a legitimate use of power - the market is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Why don't more people think of "how can I encourage the market to solve this problem" instead of "oh well, the market doesn't want it"?

In reference to Austin's bar smoking ban, I'd much rather have used the market to gently push a greater portion of live music venues and other bars towards non-smoking and still have some smoking bars available for the portion of the population that wants to smoke and drink; but the ban-the-ban-ers weren't willing to listen to the "hey, a hell of a lot of people want to see music and not breathe smoke; why isn't the market providing any of these kinds of venues" arguments, so they got a full-on ban.

In other words, with reference to the bar ban in Austin, I'd be most satisfied if substantial chunks of real live music venues existed in BOTH smoking and non-smoking camps. I'm not happy that there will be essentially zero smoking bars; this is heavy-handed regulation. But to say that the only other alternative was the status quo, i.e., NO non-smoking music venues or bars, is basically handing the referendum a guaranteed victory.

Economists study this stuff; I would think that libertarians, who believe in the market, would want to do it as well. It remains a mystery to me why so few are interested in figuring this stuff out.

September 04, 2005

The Gas Tax Isn't Regressive, Part Three

(at least, not regressive across the spectrum) - as I've argued here and here, the gas tax doesn't hit the poor that hard; it mostly hits the exurban parts of the middle class and leaves the rich alone. From my original article on the subject:

The supposed regressive nature of the gas tax is a fallacy - in fact, poor people spend far less proportionally on gasoline than do the upper-middle-class.

The gas tax isn't purely progressive; though; the very rich actually spend less proportionally than do the upper-middle-class, due to their tendency to be either in the few healthy downtowns, or less need to drive overall.

Here's another link I found today which asserts the same:

"A subsidy to new vehicles would be regressive. A tax on gasoline is not regressive across the lowest incomes but is regressive from middle to high incomes."

Note that the internet is replete with sites which say that the gas tax is regressive, but the only articles or studies which actually include any supporting arguments are the few that claim that it isn't regressive. This leads me to believe that the gas tax ISN'T regressive, for the reasons previously discussed, and that the 'conventional wisdom' is wrong here.

This is timely because of a current thread on Environmental Economics on this very subject. Amazingly, I've now provided THREE links which are credible and contain supporting evidence for the claim that the gas tax isn't regressive across-the-board; for the most part blind assertion is still the only support for the 'regressive' position. Moral: Conventional Wisdom is hard to fight, even when it's wrong.

September 02, 2005

This Is Why We Need A Federal Government

For all the Grover "drown it in a bathtub" Norquists of the world; for all the self-identified libertarians (except when it comes to paying to drive); for all the suburbanites who think they pay too much in taxes as they itemize their McMansion's mortgage deductions;

These last few days show clearly why we have, and need, a Federal Government. Local and state resources are clearly not enough, and the Feds are failing to do their job. Draw whatever conclusion you will, but Norquist deserves special scorn.

August 27, 2005

Blandburbs and 'choice'

Continuing my recent theme of pointing to other works that explain my thinking, here's a quite good explanation of why suburban sprawl isn't natural; isn't the result of consumer 'choice'; and isn't healthy. Highly recommended. The only thing I'd add is the role of irresponsible inner city neighborhoods in preventing cities from doing responsible things to promote infill.

The idea that suburban sprawl is just a natural 'choice' ignores the reality that without the massive subsidies and regulatory restrictions which prevent anything ELSE from being built, a large minority of current suburbanites would actually live in neighborhoods like mine. All you need to do is see how cities developed before WWII, i.e., before the advent of both zoning and automobile subsidies (when there were plenty of cars, just not massive subsidies for their use by suburbanites).

I promise I'll get to my Pfluger Bridge stuff next week.

The Casbjorksen Has Landed

Steve Casburn is finally online in Portland and is telling a familiar story - the bad bicyclist tale of woe. What I hear on the libertarian sites that I spend an unhealthy amount of time on is that Portland is a hellhole on the verge of collapse. Hopefully Steve, (who somehow got deluded by the liberal media into moving there without even having a job in advance) will survive the post-apocalyptic urban-planning wasteland. At least there's fewer fat people there.

False balance

I can't stress the point of this editorial enough. In issues from global climate change to evolution education, the Republicans are abusing the "report both sides" mentality of the media to present crackpot crap on an equal footing with real science, and it needs to stop. Now.

August 22, 2005

Why I never voted for Clinton

Even though he turned out to be the best possible president for that period in time (he and the Congress restrained each others' worst impulses): drug law hypocrisy.

August 19, 2005

Pastafarians unite!

I've never talked about religion on this blog, and haven't said much about personal matters in general. Today, however, I am filled with the holy impulse to tell you about the real story behind the creation of the Earth. Please share and make sure that this correct version of our origin is discussed in schools alongside the so-called "Intelligent Design".

Other links:

August 16, 2005

The Wrong Direction

I can't believe anybody, including the current batch of Republicans, honestly thinks this is a good idea, but my standard for surprise keeps getting reset.

August 01, 2005

Help for Rick Perry

I know this is late, but the conversation below did really just happen this morning.

(08:27:57) (me): ok I'm going to check this mofo in
(08:28:05) (cow orker): ok
(08:28:06) (me): speak now or forever hold your peas
(08:28:26) (cow orker): if I don't like it, I'll just take it out later, saying "adios, mofo"
(08:28:34) (me): adieu, mofo
(08:28:47) (me): aloha, mofo!
(08:29:01) (cow orker): perhaps the gov can add those to his list
(08:29:22) (me): the aloha is best, obviously, because you can also use it to say HELLO to your friendly neighborhood mofo.

Oh, and I was in DC from Sunday to Thursday last week. My wife got to ride the Metro. I was stuck in far suburban Virginia. Sigh.

July 22, 2005

It's Not Light Rail

Many people, including Lyndon Henry (who of all people ought to know better) are continuing the misleading practice of calling Capital Metro's All Systems Go plan "light rail" or "light rail like" or "light 'commuter' rail", etc. This has done its job - most laypeople continue to call what ASG's building "light rail" even though it couldn't be further from the truth.

So a couple of days ago, a story showed up in Kansas City extolling the virtues of what turns out to be a similar "Rapid Bus" plan to the one being foisted on Central Austin as our reward for rolling over for Mike Krusee. The lightrailnow.org site which is at least somewhat affiliated with Lyndon has often published vigorous attacks on efforts to sell "rapid bus" schemes as "as good as rail" to the public. Lyndon was angry at this Kansas City effort, and I replied with a reminder that the politicking of himself and Dave Dobbs helped get the same exact thing for central Austin by his support of the ASG plan. Lyndon replied with his typical ASG cheerleading, and I just sent this in response:

--- In LightRail_Now@yahoogroups.com, Nawdry wrote: >Instead, it passed, and we have a rail project under way and planning for additional rail transit installations now under way.

What we have underway is a commuter rail line which doesn't and will NEVER go near the major activity centers of the region, doesn't and will NEVER go near the major concentrations of residential density in the region, and doesn't and will NEVER get enough choice commuters out of their cars to provide enough public support for expansions of the system.

What we have underway are some lukewarm half-hearted plans for expanding that rail network if Union Pacific can be convinced to leave their freight line behind, but, of course, it will all be moot, since the original line will be such a debacle that we'll never get to the expansions.

This is a "one and done" line.

It skips the Triangle. It skips West Campus. It skips Hyde Park. It skips North University. It skips the Capitol. It skips the University. It skips most of downtown. It does not provide any service to the neighborhoods in Austin that most WANTED rail in 2000, nor will it EVER do so (even if the entire ASG plan is built).

It is NOT ANYTHING LIKE LIGHT RAIL. I don't know how you can sit there and claim that it is. I know you're not stupid, and had hoped you weren't a liar.

_HOUSTON_ built light rail. _DALLAS_ built light rail. _PORTLAND_ and _DENVER_ and _SALT LAKE_ and _MINNEAPOLIS_ built light rail.

This plan is NOTHING like what they built. For you and Dave Dobbs to continue to call it light rail is dishonest, bordering on maliciously false.

What DOES it do? It goes past suburban park-and-rides (as the light rail plan would have). It allows fairly easy access to stations for the far suburbanites who LEAST wanted rail. It requires that all of those passengers, who are the MOST SKEPTICAL about transit, to transfer to SHUTTLE BUSES at the end of their journey if they want to go anywhere worth going.

There is zero chance that this line will garner substantial ridership, and thus, voting for this plan doomed Austin to no additional rail for a very long time, since it will have been 'proven' that rail 'doesn't work'.

As for your claims that Rapid Bus isn't being sold here, bull. It was featured in the paper just a week or two ago, and is the ONLY service improvement being provided to the parts of Austin that want, and in any other city, would have gotten rail.

Mike Dahmus
Disgusted At Lyndon's Dishonesty

July 01, 2005

Double Taxation Isn't Restricted To Roads

The anti-toll zealots, and in particular, Sal Costello like to whine and moan that tolling freeway expansions which are (mostly) paid for with gas tax money is "double taxation". Left to the reader is the obvious implication that "double taxation" is a bad thing, and is new.

As you might have guessed, I'm here to tell you otherwise. First, a simple example.

Last weekend I drove down to Zilker Park on Sunday morning to play volleyball. (For reasons of time, I wasn't able to bike, although I do that sometimes too). At the entrance to the loop which meanders through the river side of the park, there was a booth (A TOLLBOOTH!) set up, at which I paid 3 big bucks for the privilege of parking my car at the park.

BUT WAIT! Zilker Park was ALREADY PAID FOR by my property and sales tax dollars! How can this be? This is (organ music) DOUBLE TAXATION!

The fact is that suburbanites whining about toll roads have had it pretty good for a long time. They've had their road infrastructure subsidized by the center-city, they pay far less comparatively in property taxes, and they impose most of the negative externalities of driving on us center-city residents. Nobody in Circle C has to worry about an elevated freeway monster wrecking some of their neighbor's houses and ruining everybody else's outdoor activities.

Yes, they (but mostly us center-city folks) paid taxes to build these roads already. So toll roads, as designed in this case, are, in fact, (organ music) double taxation.

True libertarians (which many in this anti-toll coalition claim to be) would recognize toll roads as a baby step towards road pricing, which is the evil capitalist concept that the scarcity in road space ought to be managed by charging people to drive on it. These suburban republicans who like to call themselves libertarians instead advocate taxing everybody who drives (and a healthy chunk from those who don't drive too) to build a freeway where the cost of driving is low, but there's less incentive for each driver to explore alternate options to single-occupant commuting, so the road ends up crowded, just like, I don't know, every single highway we build.

Just as in Zilker Park - if parking were free, every single space would be full, and the ring road would be a nonstop parade of cars futilely seeking space. At $3/car, however, there's at least a small incentive for those whose utility is marginal to seek other solutions to the problem. (I might ride my bike; two of my friends might carpool; a third person might take the bus; somebody else might use the park during the week instead of the weekend; etc.)

So in summary: suburban Republicans like Sal Costello prefer the Soviet economic model - very low prices (subsidies from entire society), scarcity "managed" via long lines.

I hope this helped you understand the concept of double taxation and why we should all be against it.

Your pal,
Mike Dahmus Age 33

June 14, 2005

There is no lie brazen enough for the road warriors

A month or two ago I wrote a letter to the Honolulu Advertiser (we had just come back from there, and I was still reading the paper regularly online) rebutting the claims made by various right-wingers that Honolulu wasn't dense enough to support rail. (As it turns out, if you're measuring residential density, they're the densest city in the country - yes, more so than even New York City!). This is coming up because Honolulu is attempting yet again to start a rail system after a disastrous flirtation with Bus Rapid Transit which ended as almost all such flirtations do - with a scaled back system that doesn't perform any better than city buses, and thus didn't attract any new riders.

Today I was reminded of this again since their their drive-time columnist included this small blurb at the end of his column:

Still think of Honolulu has a small town? Think again.

Emporis.com reports that Honolulu is fourth in the nation when it comes to the number of high-rise buildings (10 stories or more).

The company, which specializes in geography information, says there are 424 high-rise buildings in the urban core from Pearl Harbor to Hawai'i Kai. That's enough to make us 14th in the world.

In America, only New York City (5,454), Chicago, (1,042) and Los Angeles (449) have more high-rises than Honolulu.

And yet, even in Hawaii, there are those (like Cliff Slater) who claim that rail won't work in Honolulu despite the fact that it works in far less-dense cities and the fact that the huge tourist movement from the airport to Waikiki could fill up three or four rail lines in the blink of an eye.

How dense is dense enough? Clearly the only dense things here are the road warriors themselves.

June 02, 2005

Not much room for optimism

Thought I'd copy this here for posterity - this is a comment I made to an excellent entry by Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly blog, in reference to somebody who thought that since we adjusted to the 1970s oil shock (he's right on that one) that we could just as easily adjust to the oncoming (soon or later, depending on your alarmism) peak oil shock.

Adding this comment to my blog has made me recall that I still owe an analysis of "fire stations per capita" back to the Texas Fight guy. I'm sorry, I've been busy at work and at home, and will try to get this done soon.

My comment:

John,

The answer to why this shock will be much worse than the one in the 1970s is two words:

suburban sprawl

One thing Kunstler gets right is his analysis of the complete lack of options in a modern suburban development (really exurb) to the single-occupant vehicle and truck delivery to strip malls. There's no way to carpool. There's no way to use transit. There's no way to ride your bike or walk. There's no way for the store to switch to freight rail deliveries (not even the way it used to be, which was truck for only the last very small N% of the trip, if even that).

The ONLY things modern suburbanites can do are:

1. Trade in their SUV for a compact car - works well if you're one of the early adopters, but what if everybody else is trying to trade down at the same time?

2. Move back to the cities - see above.

We would have had to change our development laws twenty years ago in order to have a prayer of solving this problem, but instead we've been operating on a regime that not only requires urbanites to subsidize wasteful suburbanites, it actually PROHIBITS BY LAW (through zoning codes) the development of additional urban neighborhoods.

For reference, my last two homes have been in two center-city neighborhoods where 80-90% of the dwellings would be impossible to build today due to suburban-influenced zoning code which applies even in these older neighborhoods. Of course, to even get to that point, you'd have to overcome their fanatical opposition to infill, but every bit counts.

May 10, 2005

In case anybody was wondering...

Lomax' comments about Austin not building any roads during the 1980s and 1990s are, in fact, a load of crap. That didn't stop the media from playing them without even bothering to check up on the details, of course. Austin, in fact, built a ton of freeway miles in the 1980s and 1990s - they were overwhelmed by a growth in average miles driven per capita, which was the predictable result of opening up miles and miles of farmland to low-density suburban sprawl. Although a few ill-advised city-destroying freeways were rejected by Austin in the 1960s and 1970s, it's doubtful TXDOT would have had the money or the will to build any more than what eventually got built anyways. Most of the cancellations occurred long before the 1980s; Koenig Lane was the only one to survive even on plans in the modern era which isn't now essentially built or getting built.

The 183 corridor, from I-35 west to Spicewood Springs, was upgraded to freeway in the 1980s and 1990s. So was Ben White Boulevard (290/71) from Congress to past Mopac. Mopac was extended several times during this period as well.

Full coverage at Jeb Boyt's site, and I agree with Keath that the TTI's motivation is to spin things to support big transportation projects like the Trans-Texas Corridor.

April 21, 2005

You'd better be hedging

Some fairly respectable analysts are beginning to join "kooks" like Kunstler, although in a far less inflammatory way, in predicting that high oil prices are not only here to stay, but likely to get quite higher. The latest "Occasional Report" from CIBC World Markets lays out the case. Older "Occasional Reports" are also highly recommended, as they seem to cut through a lot of baloney and show how and where higher energy costs will hurt (without going flat-out lunatic like the idiots who think every N% increase in gas prices means an N% increase n the price of everything delivered by truck, for instance).

I've been hedging higher energy prices for a long time now - we paid a hefty premium for our house in central Austin, and part of the reason was that we could, much more easily than your average suburbanite anyways, drastically reduce our driving and/or switch to jobs better served by public transportation. (my current office is served about as well as any out here in the 'burbs, which is to say that I can take the bus each day by spending only about 40 extra minutes - as sad as that is, it makes me the winner here by far). We also bought a Prius in February of 2004 (after waiting five months) - again, a hedge; if we do end up having to drive a lot, at least it won't kill us. Well, as it turns out, we're only driving about 10,000 miles a year combined anyways, but every little bit helps.

The only problem is that hedges like this are largely a loss-amelioration strategy - they don't gain us anything unless inflation makes wages go up. The same group above thinks it won't this time, unlike in the 1970s, so the best we're really able to do is attempt to be a bit less screwed than the average suburbanite will be.

This hedging logic (whether you believe in local kook Roger Baker's Kunstler-like rants or not) should also apply to public infrastructure spending. I happen to believe that building the toll roads is a way to do this - the 'hedge' being that since the roads are going to be built either way (an assertion the environmentalists disgree with), it's better to have them paid back with tolls rather than with property and gas taxes (even if the tolls come up short, the impact on central-city residents is still less than with the typical free highway payment mechanism - remember, you still pay gas taxes while driving around central Austin, but none of that money goes to those roads - in fact, urban areas all over the country are screwed by the gas tax's bias towards suburban and particularly exurban areas). In other words, paying for the new toll roads with gas taxes simply makes things better for people at the far edges of Leander, and far worse for people living in Central Austin.

A better hedge, of course, would be a gradual overall increase in gasoline taxes with a mandatory minimum payback for major urban areas similar to what the Feds do with 'donor states'. But with the average suburbanite convinced that they're undertaxed rather than subsidized, it's simply never going to happen. Toll roads are, in this sense, the best hedge we can manage at this point in time.

For those interested - ways to hedge on energy costs which are easier if you live in an urban neighborhood than out in one of the soulless sprawlburbs:

  • I can bike to work (up to 5 days a week) - right now I average once a week; mainly due to scheduling difficulties, but we could change this if we had to.
  • I can take the bus to work - at a 40 minute or so penalty per day (which as mentioned above puts me ahead of pretty much anybody else here)
  • I can get a job downtown (easier said than done) and reduce the transit penalty to near-zero
  • We're within a (long) walk of 5 grocery stores - right now this means we have a very short drive; we only occasionally walk, but at least we CAN walk if it becomes expensive enough to drive
  • We can walk to a battery of other shopping and dining choices (we do this quite frequently now)
  • In an era of higher fuel prices, the places we shop are going to be less impacted than the strip-mall businesses, due to efficiencies of scale (cheaper to deliver to 5 grocery stores that are very close together than 5 that are very far apart)
  • Our house is small - less air conditioning and heating costs
  • Our house is old enough that it was designed before air conditioning - meaning we have enough windows for good ventilation most of the year

For these hedge privileges, however, we pay through the nose:

  • The house price is far higher, per square foot, than in the 'burbs -- this is not purely because of location, but also because post-WWII zoning laws have artificially restricted the supply of walkable urban neighborhoods. Most of the homes on our street are illegal under current zoning code for various bogus reasons.
  • Our city, county, and schools tax mainly through property taxes, which are a double whammy - not only are we appraised proportionally higher, but the property tax itself is often used in ways which subsidize suburban development - providing city services is far more expensive per acre in Anderson Mill than it is in Central Austin, but the Central Austinites pay orders of magnitude more property taxes.
  • Those property (and also sales) taxes are often grabbed by the state and spent in ways which not only subsidize the suburbs, but hurt central cities - things like requiring local 'donations' in order to expand freeways. (The 1998 and 2000 bond elections floated tens of millions of dollars in bonds which were used to pay for right-of-way and other costs for roads like the far north extension of Mopac, SH45, SH130, etc - none of which provide any use for central Austin at all, yet central Austin is where most of that tax money comes from - and when a project IS proposed which affects central Austin, it ends up being a destructive force like the ridiculous proposal by TXDOT to double-deck Mopac).

March 07, 2005

These things are connected

It's not a coincidence that now that small cars are rated on how they stand up to crashes with SUVs, that gas is headed up for good, but nobody in the suburbs will understand why this is so, and why it's really going to hurt this country's economic competitiveness.

Meanwhile, Western Europe waits patiently for their turn...

February 16, 2005

Most Major Roads In Cities Don't Get Any Gas Tax

This entry is going to serve as background for a future entry about the gasoline tax, new proposed "miles driven tax", and tolls. It will probably be of little interest in isolation, so you might want to wait for the commentary later.


This map (click for larger version) is from a map of central Austin from the 2025 CAMPO plan. Every road which is colored something other than black is classified as an arterial (major roadway). Note that the axis of Austin's grid is off - north-south in these comments refer to the roads that go diagonally off to the northeast.




The following arterial roadways on the image are part of the state highway system, and thus, eligible for gasoline tax money from the state:


  • Mopac Expressway (north-south thick green line on left)
  • I-35 (north-south thick red line on right - leaves screen)
  • FM 2222 / Koenig Lane (east-west road at north end of image which starts as purple on the west end and switches to blue at Mopac)
  • FM 2244 (small segment in extreme lower left of image colored olive green)

The following arterial roadways on this image are not part of the state highway system and have typically not received any gas tax money, either state or federal, for construction or maintenance:


North-south roads, roughly from left to right:


  • Westlake Drive (pinkish road near Lake Austin on far left)
  • Redbud Trail (small segment of pink crossing Lake Austin)
  • Exposition Blvd (pink and purple road west of Mopac)
  • Burnet Road (blue road starting at 45th St and heading north - at US 183 it turns into FM 1325 which is part of the state system
  • Lamar Blvd (blue then purple then blue then olive green covering entire map segment)
  • Guadalupe St. (purple then blue then purple then joining Lamar Blvd north of 45th St)
  • Lavaca St. (forms one-way couplet with Guadalupe downtown)
  • Congress Ave. (brown street in downtown grid)
  • Colorado St., Brazos St. (two purple streets in downtown grid not otherwise mentioned)
  • Red River St. (purple street just west of I-35)
  • Chicon St. (I think) - pink north-south street on extreme lower right

East-West Streets, roughly from top to bottom

  • Justin Lane (I think) - purple/pink at very top, ending at Lamar
  • Hancock / North Loop - purple road starting at Mopac and heading east
  • 45th St. - purple road starting at Mopac, changing to blue between Lamar and Guadalupe, then back to purple
  • 35th / 38th St. - starts as purple west of Mopac, changes to blue east of Mopac and then pink
  • Dean Keeton / 26th St - starts as blue/purple then changes to green, crosses I-35 and turns blue.
  • Windsor / 24th St - starts as purple at Exposition, crosses Mopac and ends at Guadalupe
  • MLK / 19th St - starts as pink at Lamar, changes to purple and crosses I-35
  • Enfield / 15th St - starts as pink at Lake Austin, changes to purple at Exposition, crosses Mopac and turns into 15th St.
  • 12th St. - starts at Lamar as purple then changes to blue, ends at Capitol, restarts after Capitol as blue, crosses I-35 and heads northwest as purple.
  • 11th St. - starts as purple at Guadalupe, heads east to I-35, turns pink after I-35.
  • Downtown grid: 8th, 7th Sts
  • Lake Austin Blvd - from Enfield Road at lake, turns into 5th and 6th sts.
  • 5th and 6th sts from Mopac to I-35
  • Cesar Chavez / 1st St from Mopac to I-35 (just north of Town Lake)
  • Barton Springs Road (small segment of blue in extreme lower left)


Keep in mind that, by terms laid out in the Constitution of the State of Texas, none of the roadways in the much larger list can receive state gas tax money. And in practice, none of them really receive federal gas tax money either, since the practice at CAMPO (the local board that disburses federal gas tax money returned to the state under various programs)is to disburse pretty much all of the available roadway funds to state highway projects.

In other words, when you drive on Lamar Blvd in central Austin, you're paying gasoline tax to the state, but the city (who has to pay to rebuild the roadway when necessary, as just occurred over the last 2 years) doesn't see one penny of that money. When you see construction on 38th St, the city is paying those bills with your property and sales taxes, not with the gas tax you incur while driving.

(corrected MLK / FM 969 on 2/23 - FM 969 does not start until Airport Blvd, which is off the map)

January 06, 2005

"The Economist" hates America

Those wacky conservative Brits continue to try to make some inroads with the non-reality-based community with little obvious effect. Relevant excerpt:


But the bad news outdoes the good. The Republicans, by getting rid of inheritance tax, seem hell-bent on ignoring Teddy Roosevelt's warnings about the dangers of a hereditary aristocracy. The Democrats are more interested in preferment for minorities than building ladders of opportunity for all.

I couldn't agree more. A couple years ago, an acquaintance in Austin inherited a ton of money from his parent, and as a result doesn't currently hold a job (by choice), and argued very strongly that the inheritance tax (even with its huge exemption which has only gotten huger since then) is unquestionably bad, both practically and idealistically. I can't even imagine somebody who truly believes in the American dream holding those views (i.e. better to tax work than inheritance), but they're all over the place, and they voted W. Far better to idolize somebody who inherited his wealth and all his jobs than somebody like Clinton, who had to work his way out of trailer-trashdom, I suppose.

And the semi-permanent corporate pseudo-aristocracy (once you're an executive, you can kill 20 or 30 companies and still get executive jobs) ain't helping my mood either. The CEO of my last clerking factory single-handedly destroyed the place, and yet I'm sure he won't see even a remote economic hit from it, while the people he callously and frivolously fired when he was in a bad mood had to struggle to get by.

This isn't the America I believe in, and I don't have a lot of optimism that it's coming back anytime soon.

July 22, 2004

Conservatism

This guy put together a great explanation of why I used to call myself conservative.

June 05, 2004

The Reason To Fight Globalization




(the bravest man I've seen in my lifetime, presumed dead).


We shouldn't have opened our trade relationship with these bastards, and they arguably aren't any better now than they were then, putting the lie to the theory that trade inevitably leads to freedom. Much of the Chinese goods sold at places like Wal-Mart is produced by prison labor, not middle-class factory workers.

June 03, 2004

Followup on Our Friends The Saudis

Kevin Drum points out that the media continues to ignore the fact that the Saudis are the only major producer with unused short-term oil pumping capacity. This is the other piece of the story which bugged me for a long time - two years ago, when it was clear that these asswipes were behind a big chunk of the 9/11 attacks, it seems like the mass media in this country bent over backwards to ignore the fact that we were afraid to confront them for it - and the biggest reason for that fear? The Saudis have the only reliable control over world oil prices.

June 01, 2004

What's Buggin' Me About Saudi Arabia Today

So in every article I've read so far on the shootings in the residential complex over the weekend, the mention of higher oil prices is always tempered by comments that the oil infrastructure is well-protected. (example).

Why is it that none of these journalists have the balls to say why these attacks are bad? The fact is that the Saudis can't run their own oil industry. They rely on foreigners (Westerners) for nearly all of the human capital involved - and the Americans and British have advised all their citizens to leave the country.

It just amazes me how pansy our press has become. This is a huge deal; and yet they're focusing on the infrastructure instead of the workers.

Oh, and I just filled up the Civic. 36 mpg on last tank. Had to wait 15 minutes in hot sun at Costco behind megaSUVs. We also filled up the Prius this weekend - averaging upper 40s so far. (It was our fourth fillup since we bought the car in late February).