What's wrong with health insurance companies, Part 1

[UPDATE 6-26-09: BaltoNorth gets results! Carefirst came out with a new card in 2009. Just what I ask for below. Thanks for listening Chet.]

The card that I got from my health insurance company looks like this:

Pretend you're using this card for the first time. Quick, what's your "Membership Number"? What's your "Group Number"? Are you confused? I sure was the first time I used the card.

Why can't Carefirst Blue Cross/Blue Shield* tell us what the numbers mean right on the card? There is an explanation in the Member Handbook, but who brings the handbook with them to the doctor's office?

A message for everyone at Carefirst: Every time I take out my member card I grumble silently to myself. Every time. Every time I look at the card I think "why can''t they live up to their name and care about me by making a few simple changes to their member card? Why can't they design a card that makes things a tiny bit simpler for me? It would be soooo easy."

Chet Burrell, are you listening?

*For all of my gripes about Carefirst (I have plenty more) my sense is that they are not much better or worse than most other health insurance companies.


Books I'd like to read: an Edmund Burke bio by Conor Cruise O'Brien

The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmunde Burke.

via Peggy Noonan, who says it is "great".

Another of her recommendations:
A true delight was “The Blair Years,” Alastair Campbell’s memoir of his service with Tony Blair. No modern American political operative would write, or could write, a book as truthful, half crazy and irreverent as this one. It is a small classic, as is its more magisterial counterpart, “Counselor” by Ted Sorensen


How to use Google to improve your English

Jim Stroud lists five ways at englishcafe.com. I've been using Google as a spelling aid for a long time -- the correct spelling of a word generally gets the most hits.

via Joanne Jacobs


Video data visualization: Flow of immigrants into the US (1820-2007)

Edward Tufte would be proud.

I wish Ian S. had given the source of the data so we'd know how complete and reliable it is.

We need a Department of Food, not a Department of Agriculture

Words matter. Nick Kristof's latest column has a great headline: Obama's 'Secretary of Food'?

Kristof lays out part of the problem:
“We’re subsidizing the least healthy calories in the supermarket — high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soy oil, and we’re doing very little for farmers trying to grow real food,” notes Michael Pollan, author of such books as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food.
The column points to the farm lobby as one cause of the problem:
The Agriculture Department — and the agriculture committees in Congress — have traditionally been handed over to industrial farming interests by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Kristof points to two things Obama can do to begin to fix the problems: (1) hire a reformer as the new Secretary of Agriculture, and (2) change the name to Secretary of Food.

But he misses a big part of the solution -- the column only hints at it:
100 years ago when 35 percent of Americans engaged in farming. But today, fewer than 2 percent are farmers. In contrast, 100 percent of Americans eat.
What Kristof leaves out is this: in recent years we voters in urban-industrial states have shown little interest in "agriculture" policy. After all, what do we know about farming? As a result, our representatives have ceded authority on food legislation to politicians from the rural breadbasket states.

President-elect Obama can be only part of the solution. He will need a lot of help.

Voters in Maryland and other urban-industrial states -- all of us eat -- need to push food issues higher on our priority lists. If we let Kansas, Nebraska and California dominate the discussion, we'll only get more of the same, regardless of what Obama does.

So if you eat food, take a closer look at that hunk of sausage called the Farm Bill. It's not very appetizing.

If you eat food, call or write your congressmen today. Tell them that food policy is too important to be left to the farm states and the agriculture lobby. We need a Secretary of Food, ASAP.


"Forget the jets" -- Big 3 car CEOs still don't get it

Herb Stetzenmeyer wonders why the three didn't carpool:

They all left from the same town in Michigan with precisely the same room in Washington as their common destination. They all drove similar hybrid cars down the same road at precisely the same hour.

His conclusion:
They didn't get it 15 years ago; they didn't get it five years ago; they still don't get it today.

More adulation heaped on Nancy Grasmick

Nobody is as good as the press she gets.

She may have done some excellent work and she may be immune to flattery. But one wonders whether the relentless praise has gone to her head.

Her longevity, combined with media love that she attracts, brings to mind Alan Greenspan.

Tom Glavine -- change-up that breaks like a screwball

When thrown by a lefty, it breaks like away from a right-handed batter. As described here.

It's one of the interesting bits from John Feinstein's book about Glavine and Mike Mussina. The book is good, but I wish there was more about baseball and less about strikes and contract negotiations.

Some other interesting bits:
  • Mike Mussina would hold runners on first base by leaning over before the set and getting a glimpse of the runner between his legs.
  • Glavine got a pain in his arm in the first weeks of his minor league stint, and Atlanta coach Johnny Sain cured it with five straight days of long toss (instead of rest or a visit to the doctor). Sain's thinking was that Glavine's arm just needed some stretching out to help make the adjustment from pitching infrequently in high school to the more-demanding professional routine.


Malcolm Gladwell: Fix "quarterback problem" of public schools with LOWER standards

From the New Yorker:
There are certain jobs [like professional quarterback and teacher] where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired.
Gladwell thinks pushing for "higher standards" is useless because the standards fail to predict teaching ability:
Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications—as much as they appear related to teaching prowess—turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans. . . . we shouldn’t be raising standards. We should be lowering them . . . Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before.
Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: It's interesting to compare this advice with some McKinsey findings from a year ago (The Economist, 10/18/07). McKinsey says there are key three elements of good schools: "[1] get the best teachers; [2] get the best out of teachers; and [3] step in [quickly and aggressively] when pupils start to lag behind."

Here's the part about getting the best teachers:

McKinsey argues that the best performing education systems [outside the U.S.] nevertheless manage to attract the best. . . . [Some] do this in a surprising way. You might think that schools should offer as much money as possible, seek to attract a large pool of applicants into teacher training and then pick the best. Not so, says McKinsey. . . . In practice, the top performers pay no more than average salaries.

Nor do they try to encourage a big pool of trainees and select the most successful. Almost the opposite. Singapore screens candidates with a fine mesh before teacher training and accepts only the number for which there are places. Once in, candidates are employed by the education ministry and more or less guaranteed a job. Finland also limits the supply of teacher-training places to demand. In both countries, teaching is a high-status profession (because it is fiercely competitive) and there are generous funds for each trainee teacher (because there are few of them).

So, it seems there are at least two different ways to recruit consistently good teachers: the Gladwell way or the McKinsey way. At present, I don't think Baltimore County is doing either.


Krista Tippett starts a new series on "The Ethics of Aid"

On her show this morning, Speaking of Faith, she interviewed Binyavanga Wainaina. I'm no expert on foreign aid and economic development, but he made more sense on the subject than anyone else I've ever heard.

Krista is a gem, and this looks to be an excellent series.

There's also an unedited version of the interview here.


The auto bailout: an open letter to my congressman & U.S. senators

To: Representative Ruppersberger, Senator Cardin & Senator Mikulski
Re: Congressional hearings on the auto industry bailout

Dear Dutch, Ben and Barbara,

Please vote against any auto company bailout.

The recent congressional testimony of the GM, Ford and Chrysler CEOs and the UAW president have been unimpressive and uninformative. It's been over 30 years since their wake-up call in the 1970s. They've had plenty of time and been given too many chances -- and they have always fallen short .

I've owned two GM cars in the past 15 years and most recently a Ford. With the Ford, I've dealt with too many major repairs, innumerable fit-and-finish problems, and six or eight recalls. My mechanic tells me (over and over), "Never buy a Ford again."

Management at GM, Ford and Chrysler will not make the necessary changes unless they are forced by bankruptcy. This is clear from the CEOs' choice of transport on their visit to DC two or three weeks ago. The US Congress is the last group of people who should be telling car manufacturers which technologies to choose, how many brands they should have, and so on. Such micro-management of an industry by Congress is a disastrous recipe for market dislocations, waste and environmental problems.

Nor will the United Auto Workers make necessary changes without bankruptcy. This is clear from a recent tidbit form Mickey Kaus: despite President Gettelfinger's vague claims of union concessions, the UAW "did not discuss wage and benefit concessions for active employees".

I trust the bankruptcy process to fix the auto industry most quickly and with the least amount of pain. I do not trust current management or union leadership to make changes other than slow and painful ones. If GM is allowed to go bankrupt, the Warren Buffetts of the world will step up, provide funds, and push for quick sensible changes.

Banks get failing grade on student checking accounts

If you're a new college student -- or the parent of one -- you shouldn't trust the local branch of your bank to point you to the most suitable checking products.

A friend recently related the story of a student who set up a checking account at a Baltimore area branch of Bank of America. The bank rep never mentioned the most appropriate option for a college freshman -- a no-frills ATM card -- and steered the student toward a Visa Check Card.

Unlike a basic ATM card, a check card can be used for point-of-sale (POS) purchases as well as ATM withdrawals. And, unlike the basic ATM card, a check card allows the student to make ATM withdrawals even when there is no money in the account. And each time it happens – ka-ching! – the Bank of America collects $25 to $35 in overdraft penalties.

As for my friend's story, here's the unfortunate result: over Thanksgiving, the student made a $60 ATM withdrawal and six small point-of-sale purchases totalling about $30. Seven transactions totalling about $90 generated $215 in penalty fees.

To be fair, Bank of America is not alone: all of the other banks seem to do the same thing. As a comparison, I just visited branches of Wachovia and Citibank in the BaltoNorth area and asked them what they would recommend for a student checking account. None of the three mentioned basic-ATM cards anywhere in their brochures. None of the three mentioned basic ATM cards in one-on-one conversations, even when asked for alternatives to check cards.

So, be aware that all of the banks seem to steer you to products that generate more penalty fees for themselves. All banks, even when dealing with their least knowledgeable customers, seem to forget to mention the products most likely to lead to responsible money management.

Buyer beware.

UPDATE: Bank of America's single nod to the likelihood that 18 year old students might mismanage their checking account is to sell the student another product -- an overdraft account -- and give them a ridiculous Stuff Happens® card.

Of course the wiser more-ethical path would be for banks to promote the basic ATM card that leaves no possibility of overdrafts. This product brings home very clearly to the student that a zero balance means you can't take any money out.


Is college education the next bubble?

Lately, when I've had occasion to walk around college campuses, I've gotten the sense that a lot of money is being spent. New buildings, luxurious gym facilities and so on.

From the Washington Monthly:
the average price of attending a public university more than doubled over the last two decades, even after adjusting for inflation. The steepest increases came in the last five years.
One of the untold stories in higher education is that the cost of teaching is starting to decline, but virtually none of those savings are being passed along to students and parents in the form of lower prices.
The bottom line:
This is a classic unsustainable trend.
Via Glenn

UPDATE: Lots of other people seem to be thinking the same thing.


"Green Building Impact Report"

This looks interesting. Just came out. It's written by Rob Watson, known as "the father of LEED" and is available online. He also seems to have an Amory Lovins connection.

via Joel Makower


Conor Friedersdorf talks about Culture11, a new online magazine

He's an impressively well-spoken young guy.

Culture11 hopes to cover politics, culture, arts, religion & faith from a broadly center-right perspective. Other's have described Culture11 as a conservative Slate. Friedersdorf likens it to a "demilitarized zone" where people of many different conservative & libertarian subcultures can exchange ideas.

He also sees a need for conservatives to engage the press and make it better rather than "bypass the press and discredit it. His solution: fewer conservative journalists and more journalists-who-happen-to-be-conservative.

Amity Shlaes on the Great Depression: "Government made it worse"

Peter Robinson interviews her for the Uncommon Knowledge series. She talks about her new book The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.

In the interview, she finds fault with both Hoover and Roosevelt, and does it in an engaging and convincing way.


Indian Math Online

Interesting online concept, presumably similar to the Japanese-based Kumon franchise. Co-created by the guy who made the excellent film "Two Million Minutes."

Via Joanne Jacobs


Baltimore Sun would put "significant conditions" on auto aid

Amazingly, today's editorial -- "Conditional auto aid" -- makes no mention of union work rules or executive abuses. Here are the conditions they do mention:
Congress should name an experienced, respected executive to monitor GM's performance, and GM's leaders should move quickly to reshape the company. If they falter or courts interfere, federal aid should end.

Some of the steps that GM should take are obvious, such as reducing their brands to increase efficiency and cut costs. Health benefits for retirees, to be financed from an $80 billion trust fund established by the company and run by the UAW, also should be pared back.
The Sun's editorial board might try reading Ryan Grim of Politico to get some ideas:
"Emergency assistance to the automobile industry would be conditioned on executive compensation restrictions, a prohibition on golden parachutes, rigorous independent oversight, and other taxpayer protections
UPDATE: Congressman Ruppersberger talked yesterday about the bailout/rescue on the Ron Smith show. For audio, of Dutch, see the six links on the side.

UPDATE:Brian Faughnan at RedState intuits another purpose for the bailout: to protect the flow of UAW union dues. And Bill Hobbs thinks Congress should stop trying to run the car companies and start fixing laws that handcuff them:
why not figure out how to reform the tax and regulatory structure so that Ford, for example, could make money producing and selling that 65-mpg car here?


How to get from Point A to Point B in Baltimore using public transit

Now Google Maps can tell you. They cover all MTA modes including bus, light rail, Metro subway, and MARC commuter rail trains. And they explain how it works in this video.

Since Google collected schedules as well as routes, they can also tell you how long your public transit trip will be at specific times of day.

Very nice.

Some Baltimore-related examples here, like how to get from the Security Square Mall to 500 East Joppa Road in Towson at 7:00 PM. It also works for trips between Baltimore and DC.

Via Megan McArdle.

Palin's economic claptrap not unique & Don't trust pundits at election time

Gary Jones at Muck & Mystery points out that Cafe Hayek has a nice take on Sarah Palin that I hadn't seen elsewhere:
Mr. Zakaria is correct that Gov. Palin's recent answer to a question about the economy "is nonsense - a vapid emptying out of every catchphrase about economics that came into her head." ...

But Mr. Zakaria is incorrect to suppose that these traits separate Gov. Palin from other candidates for high political office. Calls by Senators McCain and Obama for cracking down on "speculators" are full of classic and wrongheaded catchphrases, as is Sen. Obama's vocal skepticism about free trade. Gov. Palin is merely less skilled in passing off inanities and claptrap as profundities.
The same post links to Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias:
Before becoming a pundit someone may spend a long career as a trustworthy academic or journalist, giving careful measured evaluations of the small issues before them. As a pundit they may even usually give thoughtful reasoned commentary on issues of moderate importance.

But every four years, when a major election is at stake, or when a big crisis appears, styles change. In their world folks mutter, "pull out all the stops, this is really important." They may retain the outward appearance of keeping to their previous standards, but in fact they start to say whatever it takes to push "their side."

Gary adds in agreement:
People that I've come to depend on for sound analysis and useful insight turn into partisan idiots just when their value as careful thinkers would be greatest. They screw up at the worst possible time and lose all credibility.


Glenn explains why *everyone* with income should pay at least some income tax

He suggests that:

everyone should pay something in income tax, and that the amount they pay should go up or down with total federal spending. Otherwise nobody has any incentive to control spending, and we wind up . . . well, where we are.

This makes so much sense -- it seems sooooo obvious -- that I don't understand why more people don't make a big fuss about it.

He was responding to this question.


10 Insightful Web 2.0 books

Compliments of Ed Cone. Via Glenn.

National "River Rally" comes to Baltimore this spring - May 29, 2009

It's a good conference, put on by a national group called River Network.

Past River Rallies have been held in idyllic spots like the Columbia River and the base of Mt. Washington. But the Baltimore edition will be the first held in an urban setting, so I expect it will tread lots of new ground.

Should be interesting.

When: Friday May 29 - Monday June 1
Where: Baltimore Hyatt Regency (which is next to the Inner Harbor in downtown Baltimore)

Defending Ron Smith

Bruce Winand wrote an excellent letter in the Sun this morning, defending Ron Smith against charges of "sneering":
Mr. Smith thoughtfully cites the failures of past presidents for comprehensive health reform and supports his argument that there are limitations on what the executive branch can do.

In an edition where few criticisms of Mr. Obama could be found, the writer seized upon a headline that was neutral and not praising of Mr. Obama and denigrated Mr. Smith and his talk-show medium.
If you listen to Ron Smith's show for any length of time, it's pretty obvious that he is not the sneering type.

Books I'd like to read: "Stealing Elections" by John Fund

From an Amazon review of Stealing Elections:
I was hooked from page one ...

Fund chronicles a rash of voter scandals from across the country ...

Funds [looks at electoral law through Thomas Sowell's lens of] competing visions of human nature ...

One need not be a member of a particular party to appreciate [the arguments in] the book ...

Fund provide[s] some key insights into what really happened in Florida once the dust settled [after the Bush-Gore election of 2000] ...

Fund discusses [...] recent election reforms prompted by the Help Americans Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA)
Fund is a clear, level-headed thinker. He also wrote a good series of articles a few years ago about the Yale Taliban.


Coleman's lead shrinks in Minnesota Senate race -- before recount has even started

John Lott investigates. He doesn't like what he sees.

No more raking leaves

Instead of raking leaves this weekend, we tried mulch-mowing them. To do it, you just run your regular grass-cutting mower over the leaves to chop them up. It works pretty well and saves a lot of time.

The left part of the photo shows untouched leaves and the middle swath shows the results of two passes of "leaf mowing". The mower shown is the CMM1200, a battery-powered electric model from Baltimore-based Black & Decker.

The benefits:
  • faster and easier (no raking, no bagging, and no lugging bags to the curb)
  • cheaper for you (no bags to buy and the cost of electricity to power the mower was less than 3 cents)
  • cheaper for the county (nothing for trash trucks to pick up & no space taken up in county landfills)
  • provides nutrients for the lawn
What's not to like?

Worn out phrases that politicians should retire

Before the 2012 campaign kicks off next week, I wanted to get something off my chest.

Whenever politicians let loose any of these phrases, my opinion of them nosedives. Presumably the words test well in focus groups. But more and more they are indicators of the speaker's laziness, condescension, and impending double-talk.

Dem favorites:
GOP favorites:
Bi-partisan favorites:
And the premier bi-partisan all-purpose indicator of imminent double-speak:


Election bonanza for triple-dipping Baltimore County employees

Did Baltimore County employees serving as election judges last week get paid 2.5 to 7 times as much as regular folks who did the same work?

It certainly looks that way.

When I asked a county employee why so many of his county government cohorts had signed up as election judges in our precinct, he told me that Jim Smith offered them a sweet deal. Apparently they got the regular poll-worker pay of $162.50 PLUS their regular salary for the day PLUS an extra vacation day.

If you assume county fringe benefits amount to 50% of salary, then an employee making $21k in salary would get the equivalent of $402. That's 2.5 times the amount paid to regular folks. And someone making $85,000 in salary would take in a whopping $1,122 for one day of work at the polls. That's 7 times the amount paid to regular folks.

Somehow, that doesn't sound fair.

Some good points Blair Lee made this morning

During his hour with Kendel and Bob Ehrlich:
*Anyone interested in reforming the redistricting process should be aware that the rules for updating US Congressonal districts in Maryland are controlled at the state level by our state senators and state delegates.

"The media's biggest nightmare..."

"...one victim group voting against another victim group."
Blair Lee on the Kendel and Bob show this morning, talking about the passage of Proposition 8 in California. In a close vote, African-American Obama supporters were the difference as California voted against gay marriage.
UPDATE: Another black-gay connection: the Bradley effect seems to have disappeared, but the gay community has discovered its cousin, the homo effect.

(h/t Mickey Kaus)

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan to Proposition 8 supporters like Melissa Etheridge: "Chill."

My take:

The only responsible way to go about changing an institution like marriage -- an institution that is so fundamental to our culture, so fundamental to human nature even -- is slowly.
The responsible way is to try it at the state level and see if there are any unexpected negative consequences.

Big props to Andrew for his advice to die-hard Prop 8 supporters this week. He has been admirably consistent with the conservative principles that he lays out so well in his book The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get it Back.
I recommend it without reservation, especially to Progressives, so many of whom are so ignorant about what intelligent conservatives really think.

UPDATE: Dan Savage is 100% wrong to assume that votes against Prop 8 (whether by blacks or whites) are fueled by homophobia. Just as it is 100% wrong to assume that votes against Obama are fueled by racism.

Thomas Sowell weighs in. As usual, he gets to the nub of the issue and writes more clearly than everyone else.


"Obama's likely most frequently repeated promise during the past three months"

Mark Tapscott reminds us what it was:
a tax cut for 95 percent of working Americans.
Mark's conclusion:
When [Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid] forget – as they surely will – why their chief executive could not possibly have been elected without speaking in the language of tax cuts, it will again be clear that America remains a center-right nation.
He's also on target with this:
Millions of white Baby Boomers saw in Barack Obama an opportunity to prove once and for all that they were not racists.

NYT: static stretching bad, dynamic stretching good

Little league coaches take note:
The old presumption that holding a stretch for 20 to 30 seconds — known as static stretching — primes muscles for a workout is dead wrong. It actually weakens them.
The new wisdom has two parts. First a warm-up:
A well-designed warm-up starts by increasing body heat and blood flow. Warm muscles and dilated blood vessels pull oxygen from the bloodstream more efficiently and use stored muscle fuel more effectively. They also withstand loads better ... Most experts advise starting your warm-up jog at about 40 percent of your maximum heart rate (a very easy pace) and progressing to about 60 percent.
Second, dynamic stretching tailored to your sport:
Stretching muscles while moving, on the other hand, a technique known as dynamic stretching or dynamic warm-ups, increases power, flexibility and range of motion. ...
Dynamic stretching is at its most effective when it’s relatively sports specific. “You need range-of-motion exercises that activate all of the joints and connective tissue that will be needed for the task ahead,”
Some examples of dynamic stretching include the straight-leg march, the scorpion, and handwalking. This video also shows the Spiderman.


L.A. police chief William Bratton spoke at Hopkins last night

He was very good. The topic was Policing in the 21st Century.

Afterward, I walked out to the parking lot with a few law enforcement types. They were lamenting that the audience was mostly suits, academic types and perky students from the Hopkins public policy program.

They said Bratton's book* was terrific. And they wished that Bratton could have spoken to an auditorium filled with Baltimore police.

Bratton spoke highly of CompStat (the inspiration for Martin O'Malley/Ed Norris's CityStat program). I asked the law enforcement guys whether CityStat was working well. They said it was a good system, but wasn't being used in the right way.

*I'm not sure which book they meant. I thought he had written a memoir a few years ago, but I couldn't find it on the web. He did write the forewords to these books: What Every Chief Executive Should Know: Using Data to Measure Police Performance, and The Compstat Paradigm: Managing Accountability in Policing, Business and the Public Sector.


"Aggressive benificence"

Definition: "[interfering when one] might have more productively left things, or people, alone."

A useful phrase. I ran across it this weekend in a a Jane Smiley novel (p. 208).


Software guy Chris O'Leary "debugs" baseball pitchers & hitters

Have you ever taken out a few books or videos from the library on pitching or hitting, only to find that the advice from each source is wildly contradictory?

Have you ever tried to help your youngster unlock the secrets of baseball, only to find that many coaches simply pass on the same mumbo-jumbo that others passed on to them?

I found that it's awfully hard to tell the good advice from the bad advice. Partly because most coaches (1) don't explain why their advice is sound, (2) don't have much insight on the relevant physics or physiology, (3) haven't tested their own advice much, and (4) don't use tools like slow-motion cameras to see what's really happening.

A few months ago, I found a guy named Chris O'Leary who has covered all four of those bases and more. On his website, he has gone a long way toward exploding many misconceptions that proliferate on Little League fields. For example, the balance point myth in pitching and the myth of the level swing in hitting.

Although he has virtually no baseball background other than playing in elementary school, his website is a treasure-trove of clear thinking and useful insights. The site is well illustrated with videos and stop-action photos.

If you want to start with pitching, go here. For hitting, go here.

The energy industry; what role should government play in it?

Much of Obama and McCain's energy rhetoric is blather. Especially the part about energy independence. As Megan McArdle points out, energy independence from foreign oil is a pipedream.

In contrast to the candidates, John Tierney does a nice job of laying out the proper role of government: it should impose a carbon tax, then promptly step aside*. It should then watch from the sidelines to see which technologies private industry chooses to invest in and build.

In the comments to Tierney's article, Amory Lovins chimes in:
“Nuclear power and all other ways to produce or save energy should be allowed to compete fairly, at honest prices, regardless of their type, technology, size, location, or ownership.”
Glenn Reynolds & Dr. Helen interview interviewed Lovins a few months ago.

* Note: Stepping aside means eliminating energy production subsidies for all types of energy: nuclear, oil, gas, coal, wind, solar, geothermanl, and so on. Note, however, that the federal government should fund basic scientific research and early stage R&D for a variety of energy technologies.


Civility and political epithets

Enough of this "Democrat party" nonsense.

I like -- and vote for -- many Republicans in Maryland. The state would benefit from a Republican resurgence. One of my dreams is to live in an honest-to-goodness two-party state. But hearing Republican politicians talk about the "Democrat party" really grates on the ear.

If I hear a politician use it, my brain automatically slots him in the "nasty & ineffective" pigeonhole. he is likely to lose my vote.

I'm no fan of Hendrik Hertzberg, but in this case, he's right.


Dutch Ruppersberger on the credit crisis & bailout

As of Friday 10-10-08 here's the full text of his statement:

The Financial Rescue Package

Many of my constituents have contacted my office to express their views on this legislation. I reviewed their comments and I respect the fact that they took the time to make me aware of their position.

I voted for this legislation because inaction would seriously threaten the economy for middle-class families in my district. I do not support everything in this bill, but it is necessary because it will allow our local banks to continue lending money to families and small businesses.

Our national economy is experiencing serious financial problems. As demonstrated by the recent dramatic fall in stock prices, the largest one-day point drop in the Dow-Jones Industrial Average in our nation’s history, this situation is an emergency. Congress had to take immediate action.

Let me stress that this is not a "bail out of Wall Street." The bill Congress approved is very different from what the Administration proposed. It is focused on helping American families, the communities we all live in, and the local businesses we all rely upon. Any investment of federal tax dollars in financial assets of these firms will give the taxpayers an equity share and a chance to recover these tax dollars in
future profits. Both the Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional
Budget Office forecast the total cost of this action will be significantly less
than the amounts discussed in the media.

The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act provides $250 billion in initial funds now, with an additional $450 billion available if approved by Congress next year. The EESA protects American taxpayers by: Requiring that the President propose legislation to raise revenue from the financial industry in order to offset any net losses to the taxpayers. This step is to ensure that American taxpayers and future generations are not left with this debt.

Increasing the limit for federal deposit insurance from $100,000 per account to $250,000. FDIC insurance protects Americans’ checking and savings accounts if a bank becomes insolvent, and this provision was vital to give confidence to every family that their savings and their retirement funds are safe.

Permitting the Treasury Department to take an ownership share in any company that participates in the program. The ownership share would allow the government to receive a portion of the future increased value of these assets if they were to become profitable after the government bought troubled assets. This gives taxpayers an equity share in the participating companies with a chance to repay the emergency funding from appreciated assets.

Providing tax relief to over 22 million Americans by fixing the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), keeping it from impacting middle-class families.

Helping Americans keep their homes and to avoid foreclosure. It requires that firms participating in the plan help families who are behind in their mortgage payments renegotiate the terms of their loans to make them more affordable.

Requiring Congress to exercise constant oversight over the bailout funds to make sure that the money is accounted for and spent wisely. This oversight will allow for the development of responsible regulations to prevent this situation from occurring again.

Limiting compensation packages of the executives of these companies. No golden parachutes. The executives that created this problem should not be rewarded with taxpayer dollars.

The initial plan called for billions to secure failing financial institutions, administered at the discretion of the Treasury Secretary without oversight or accountability. That was a bad plan, and we worked to secure tough, real-time oversight of the process. This new package goes beyond just shoring up the economy. It provides a clear path to help homeowners stay in their homes, helps business owners get access to desperately needed capital, unfreeze the credit markets, and it starts much needed reforms of the financial sector so that we are never in this economic situation again.

Unemployment in the United States is at a seven-year high, energy prices are at historic highs, and already burdened Americans are seeing the collapse of major U.S. financial institutions. I have spoken to economists and business managers from across the political system, and they agree that Congress had to act quickly to stabilize our economy.

History gives us guidance about the right approach in a crisis like this. At the start of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover chose to stand aside while the financial system collapsed. We cannot stand aside and allow this crisis to harm Americans' homes, savings accounts, and retirement investments.
I believe the alternative to this bill--to do nothing--would have devastating consequences for our economy that would bring great harm to every community in America. If we let our financial sector fail, all American businesses would suffer greatly. The failure and collapse of these companies would hurt the availability of all lines of credit, so that commercial banks would not be able to lend money for a home, college loan, or small business investment.

We all have the right to know how we got here, why this rescue plan is important, and how we are going to transparently and responsibly move out of this financial crisis. One of the main reasons that we are in the crisis is the lack of proper safeguards and regulations of the financial services industry, regulations which were removed by this Administration over many years. I will fight to make sure that this plan puts the average person first, protects American taxpayers by allowing them to share in the profits and recover assets, and includes strict accountability and oversight. We also need to understand how we got into this situation. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Congress’s investigative body, is already planning hearings in the coming weeks to investigate the root causes of this crisis and hold people responsible.

I certainly hope that we begin to see the economy improve as a result of this action. Please do not hesitate to
contact me in the future if you have any questions or comments.

The difference between Baltimore City paychecks & Baltimore City utility bills

Even though I live in Baltimore County, I've had occasion to receive both bills and paychecks from Baltimore City. The bills are for water & sewer services (which the city provides to surrounding counties) and the paychecks were for serving as chief election judge a year or so ago in the post-O'Malley special election for Mayor of Baltimore.

The printing on the paychecks said they came from the Mayor and the City Council.

The printing on the bills says they go to the City of Baltimore

As JFK said, "Victory has a thousand father, but defeat is an orphan."

UPDATE: Unfortunately I didn't take a picture of my Balto City paycheck. If anyone out there sends me a jpg of one, I'll post it here. Send it to baysense (at) comcast (dot) net. Please cover up the recipient and amount on the check.

LaShawn Barber: "More like him, please!"

She's found a fast-talking, twenty-something, west-coast, black male musician who supports McCain/Palin and presents an entertaining nine-minute case for black conservatism:

I met LaShawn briefly at BlogNashville. She's a sweetheart.


A suggestion for my Congressman, Dutch Ruppersberger

[UPDATE: D'oh! My mistake. Apologies to Dutch. Congressman Ruppersberger did have a statement on his website. I looked on the left side of the website unders "Issues" and didn't see the "Top Issues" section on the right. ]

Dear Dutch,

I've checked your website a few times in the past week and found nothing about the credit crisis or the bailout. I'd like to hear your take on the crisis and an explanation of your vote on the bailout. Your constituents deserve an update from you, pronto.



p.s. Here's your website as of Wed. 10-8-08. The two lead items are (1) the changeover to digital TV and (2) a trip you took four months ago.

"Think" vs. "Know": wordclouds from Obama-McCain debates

Here's Obama from debate #2:

And McCain from debate #2:

I'm not sure what these mean, but they seem to confirm the notions of McCain as an aggressive pilot who makes quick decisions (but has crashed several fighter jets and rubs many people the wrong way) and Obama as a temperate lawyer who digs methodically through the pro's and con's (but hasn't accomplished much other than getting many people to like and elect him).

In any event, I watched only the first half of the 2nd debate last night. It was dull and not very informative.

Then, from 23/6 ("some of the news, most of the time") here's a one-minute video wordcloud of the first debate:


The best explanation of the mortgage mess, bailout & stock market plunge

Jeff Jarvis says he's found it.

UPDATE: He's right. Ira Glass and company did a terrifically excellent job.

They give easy-to-understand explanations of mortgage-backed-securities, commercial paper, tranches, credit-default swaps, and an alternative to the Paulson bailout plan called "stock injection". Apparently this bailout variation is preferred by a majority of professional economists.

Jeff also points to a site that tries to pull together the best thinking about the mortgage/credit/stockmarket crisis. It's called TheMoneyMeltdown.com.

UPDATE: The folks who did the explaining for Ira Glass now have a website with daily podcasts called Planet Money.


Pro-American slapstick at the movies

I saw An American Carol this weekend. It wasn't as good as I had hoped -- the humor was hit-or-miss -- but I got big belly-laughs in a few places, especially when I first saw the "choreography" of the ACLU lawyers.

Although it was heavy handed in places and confusing at times, I'm glad I went. Most Dems won't think much of it, but if you tilt to the center or right, go see it. Kelsey Grammer and Jon Voigt are both good. Dennis Hopper is in it too.

Andrew Sullivan vs. Glenn Reynolds: Vive la difference!

I doodled this list while watching little league baseball on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon this weekend.

These days, Andrew and Glenn don't seem to get along much.

But I like 'em both!

Sullivan ... Reynolds
Believer ... Skeptic
Esthete ... Engineer
Passionate ... Measured
Brit ... Scots-Irish
Torture ... Pork
Pictures (from reader windows) ... Podcasts
Journalist ... Lawyer
Gay ... Straight
Beagles ... Puppies
Butter ... Guns
Semi-numerate ... Tech savvy
Writerly ... Insta(nt)
Harvard ... Yale
Theory ... Practice
Heart on sleeve ... Between the lines
Thinker ... Linker
Knoxville ... P'town
Mental health breaks ... Cookware reviews

Another difference: Instalanches tend to spike for only a day or two while "Dish-a-lanches" have legs. They gather momentum more slowly and tend to last for a week or so.

How not to interview an author

On BloggingHeadsTV, Jim Holt gives a textbook example. As the interviewer, you're supposed to be the showcase, not the show. Holt asks rambling questions, monopolizes the conversation, and steals the author's thunder.

To see author interviews done right, watch anything done by Brian Lamb on C-Span's BookNotes. Or listen to the Glenn & Helen Show.

By the way, the book is Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). The author is Tom Vanderbilt. Hard to tell from the interview, but I'm guessing it's very good.

As for BloggingHeadsTV, check it out. My favorite regulars are Mickey Kaus!/Robert Wright, and John McWhorter/Glenn Loury.

"Fundamental conservative messages" -- Mark Tapscott recites four of them

I like his list a lot:
individual freedom, limited government, a strong national defense and a recognition of the special role of America as the shining city on a hill
I don't self-identify as a conservative however, because the term carries so many stray meanings. Too many people -- on both sides of the aisle -- think conservatism is about taking specific positions on issues like abortion, gay marriage, and religion.

The Reagan quote in Tapscott's post still resonates.

Del. Frank hits Sun for 'selective outrage' on election fraud

Del. Bill Frank (R-42) wonders why a Baltimore Sun editorial on election fraud focuses entirely on Republican tricks and leaves out any mention of ACORN's electoral misconduct.

Well done, Bill.

Give the Sun credit for printing his letter. But the GOP tricks mentioned in the editorial are so ridiculous they probably have little effect anyway. Ironically, such tricks may benefit the left in the long run because loud responses from Democrats tend to get good play in the press.

SNL skit: Pelosi lied about Dems' role in mortgage meltdown

From a "C-Span Bailout" skit on Saturday Night this weekend:
Nancy Pelosi: Let's not forget, Mr. President, that it was the Democrats who first sounded the alarm about the risky mortgage loans that Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac were encouraging. And that your party resisted all our efforts to rein them in.

Pres. Bush: Wait wait wait. Wasn't it my administration that warned about the problem six years ago? And it was the Democrats who refused to listen?

Pelosi: What? No, who told you that? That's crazy. It's completely the other way around.

Bush: Okay.

Barney Frank: Actually, this time, he's sort of right.

Pelosi: Sssh. Don't say anything. He doesn't know.
I was surprised that SNL portrayed Democratic mendacity so clearly and directly.

Here's some real-life video that confirms what the skit was talking about. It juxtaposes Pelosi's recent statements with bits from congressional hearings in 2004. The clips of Maxine Waters ("we do not have a crisis"), Gregory Weeks ("I'm just pissed off at [criticism of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac]" ), Lacy Clay ("political lynching of Franklin Raines") and Barney Frank ("safety and soundness ... shibboleth") are particularly egregious.

The real-life video also shows various Republican congressmen sounding the alarm in 2004 and calling for more regulation. Including: Richard Baker (R-LA), Don Manzullo (R-IL), Ed Royce. (R-CA), and Christopher Shays (R-CT).

If there is comparable video that makes Democrats look good on the mortgage mess, I haven't seen it.

UPDATE: Some related links:

WSJ "What They Said About Fan and Fred"
Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA): I do think I do not want the same kind of focus on safety and soundness that we have in OCC and OTS. I want to roll the dice a little bit more in this situation towards subsidized housing.
Recollections of Paul Gigot.

ANOTHER UPDATE: NBC seems to have taken the bailout skit off its website.

UPDATE: The skit is back up on NBC (with later parts about the Sandlers cut out).


"Googlified health insurance"

Jeff Jarvis makes a rough sketch of the possibilities: finding new ways to align the interests of doctors, patients and insurance companies.

And Jeff thinks doctors don't get it:

At Davos last year, I sat at a table with a bunch of doctors who complained about their patients going to the internet to get what they said was misinformation. They didn’t want the internet to get in the way. They wanted to remain in control. I told them they were looking at this the wrong way. Instead, I said, they should point their patients to what they though were the best resources.

Do you know what your kids' grades mean? Most parents don't

We're a Baltimore County Public Schools family. Last June, toward the end of the school year, I asked a question that I had been wondering about for some time:

What is the actual distribution of letter grades given out by the school?

I was pleased and a little surprised that I got some numbers. All it took was a few months and one followup request. Here's the spring 2008 distribution at our middle school (for all kids, all classes and all grades):

A ]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]] 50%
B ]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]] 31%
C ]]]]]]] 13%
D ]] 4%
E ] 2%

We're not in Lake Wobegon territory yet, but we're getting close. The median grade is at the dividing line between a high B+ and a low A-.

After some conversations with other parents, it became clear to me that very few ask for this information and nearly all underestimate the extent to which grade inflation has taken hold. In other words, they don't know what their kids' grades mean.

So, next time you're looking over your child's report card, send a polite email to each of his teachers and ask for a decoder ring: the percentage distribution of letter grades. If your school is like ours you won't get it unless you ask for it.

UPDATE: Here's a somewhat-related article on some unusual things being done around the country to manipulate GPAs. (h/t Joanne Jacobs)