2011 - %3, May

New Mileage Labels!

| Wed May. 25, 2011 9:00 PM PDT

Me, in 2008, offering a bright idea for getting people to pay more attention to auto mileage:

Require stickers to list the estimated cost of fuel consumption over a five year period. The estimate doesn't have to be perfect, just close enough to make it clear to consumers how much more one car costs than another over its life. Upside: it's free. Downsides: none that I can think of.

From the Los Angeles Times today:

Federal regulators unveiled new fuel economy labels that could make it easier for new-car buyers to compare fuel-efficient vehicles and gas-guzzlers. In addition to the miles per gallon, the labels will show [...] the expected cost of fuel over the next five years compared with the average new vehicle.

Clearly the federal government stole this idea from me and now refuses to give me credit. Bastards.

Oh wait. They actually did this back in 2006. But that label redesign only showed the expected cost of fuel over one year. Clearly the idea to extend this to five years was mine. I think they should name the new sticker after me.

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In Which I Swallow Hard and Defend Mitt Romney

| Wed May. 25, 2011 4:18 PM PDT

(See update below.)

Mitt Romney is getting a lot grief today over his flip-flopping on the Detroit bailout. Talking about the Obama plan to rescue GM and Chrysler, his spokesman said, "Mitt Romney had the idea first. You have to acknowledge that. He was advocating for a course of action that eventually the Obama administration adopted." The only problem? A 2008 New York Times op-ed titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt."

But as much as it pains me to say this, I'm not really sure Romney is all that wrong here. After dismissing the original bailout requests from GM and Chrysler as too charitable, here are the relevant recommendations from Romney's op-ed:

First, [GM and Chrysler's] huge disadvantage in costs relative to foreign brands must be eliminated. That means new labor agreements to align pay and benefits to match those of workers at competitors like BMW, Honda, Nissan and Toyota. Furthermore, retiree benefits must be reduced so that the total burden per auto for domestic makers is not higher than that of foreign producers.

....Second, management as is must go.

....Investments must be made for the future. No more focus on quarterly earnings or the kind of short-term stock appreciation that means quick riches for executives with options. Manage with an eye on cash flow, balance sheets and long-term appreciation. 

....Don’t ask Washington to give shareholders and bondholders a free pass — they bet on management and they lost....A managed bankruptcy may be the only path to the fundamental restructuring the industry needs....The federal government should provide guarantees for post-bankruptcy financing and assure car buyers that their warranties are not at risk.

So what happened? Taking Romney's points in order: First, Obama rejected the automakers' original bailout requests as too charitable and sent them back to the table. Second, his auto task force forced the UAW to accept reductions in both worker compensation and retiree health care. Third, they fired GM CEO Rick Wagoner and handed management of Chrysler to Fiat. Fourth, they fundamentally restructured GM's finances, killed off a bunch of brands, and shut down a thousand dealerships. Fifth, they put both companies through a prepackaged brankruptcy that wiped out shareholders, forced bondholders to take a substantial haircut, and provided guarantees for post-bankruptcy financing. Sixth, Obama put a government guarantee behind GM and Chrysler warranties.

None of this is precisely what Romney called for. He criticized Obama's plan for not being done earlier. He undoubtedly would have preferred more concessions from the UAW. He wanted the government's stake in GM to be immediately distributed to taxpayers instead of being held for later sale. He said the Detroit bailout had "not been well-played" by either Bush or Obama.

Still, his op-ed really isn't all that far off from what eventually happened. As for the two gotcha quotes currently being distributed around the intertubes, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" was the headline the Times put on Romney's op-ed, not something he wrote himself. His piece makes it clear that he favors a managed bankruptcy, which is what eventually happened. And Romney didn't say that Obama’s plans for rescuing the auto industry were “tragic” and “a very sad circumstance for this country.” He said, "This is a very sad circumstance for this country, and it represents bad decisions by management, overreaching by the UAW. It's really tragic in a lot of ways." He was obviously referring to Detroit's troubles in general here, not specifically talking about Obama's plan.

Is Romney trying to take more credit than he deserves here? Sure. But it strikes me as being garden variety political puffery, not third-degree hypocrisy. Unless someone can turn up some other quotes, that is.

UPDATE: Hmmm. On April 29, 2009, after the outlines of the Obama plan were fairly clear and GM produced a proposal meant to address its requirements, Romney trashed it in pretty strong terms. "What is proposed is even worse than bankruptcy," he said. "It would make GM the living dead." And a correspondent says that Romney consistently opposed the infusion of any government money into the bankruptcy process, which is pretty far afield from the "course of action that eventually the Obama administration adopted." If this is true, it makes the flip-flopping case stronger. Still not a killer case, maybe, but a little stronger.

Weather Roulette

| Wed May. 25, 2011 2:04 PM PDT

Tornado costs are rising—in lives, so far, more than 500, in costs, so far... well, Scientific American reports on a different kind of ground-breaking:

Sunday's tornado [in Joplin] also thrusts the insurance industry toward a potential record-breaking year for thunderstorm-related damage. Inland storm claims over the last three years have risen to about $30 billion altogether. That accounts for almost one-third of all the thunderstorm damage going back to 1990, amounting to $97.8 billion, according to the Insurance Information Institute. This year will add billions more onto that tally.

Initial calculations are that Joplin's whopping EF-5 monster will likely be the costliest single tornado in history—at $1 to 3 billion. I wrote yesterday about how warmer sea surface temperatures in the Gulf Of Mexico are helping fire up the atmospheric war producing these tornadoes.

 

 

  

There are a lot of scary tornado videos out there right now. I appreciate the human silence on this one.

  

 

The animation is from NOAA's Environmental Visualization Lab. It gives a continuous satellite view of tornado activity in April—which spawned more tornadoes than any other month in history: 875 reported; 625 confirmed, so far. Next closest contender was May 2003 with 542 tornadoes.

Most of all, this animation gives me a visceral sense of how scary it is right now living under the gun of weather roulette.

NOAA's caption:

The animation shows the GOES-East infrared imagery from April 1-30, along with the locations of each tornado that formed during the time (symbolized as red dots). Though tornadoes cannot actually be seen by GOES, these satellites are instrumental in being able to detect the conditions associated with their formation. As the resolution of GOES has increased with each successive satellite series, so have the warning times for tornadoes... The actual tornado locations are acquired from the Storm Prediction Center, which uses both NEXRAD radar and ground reports to generate a detailed database of tornadoes in the U.S.


Quote of the Day: Paul Ryan's Big Mistake

| Wed May. 25, 2011 1:49 PM PDT

From Paul Ryan, talking backstage to Bill Clinton at the 2011 Fiscal Summit about his Medicare plan:

You know the math. It's just, I mean, we knew we were putting ourselves out there. You gotta start this. You gotta get out there. You gotta get this thing moving.

No. You don't just "gotta get this thing moving." You need to get the policy right. You need to actually care about controlling healthcare costs. You need to actually care about delivery systems. You need to actually care about what works and what doesn't. You need to actually care about the details.

Paul Ryan doesn't. He's a right-wing ideologue with a single right-wing solution for everything. But he's sociable and friendly, not a fire breather, so everyone figures he's not one of the tea party nutjobs. This is a serious mistake.

Why Not Let the Dead Pay for Medicare?

| Wed May. 25, 2011 12:03 PM PDT

So here's an idea: why not reform Medicare by means testing it? Conservatives should love this idea.

Here's how it works. Basically, we leave Medicare alone. Oh, we can still go ahead with some of the obvious reforms. Comparative effectiveness research is a no-brainer for anyone who's not part of the Republican leadership. Ditto for some of the delivery reforms on the table. Or allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prices. It would be great if that stuff works. But if it doesn't, then people will need to pay more for their care. So why not have dead people pay? They don't need the money any more, after all.

So Medicare stays roughly the same, but every time you receive medical care you also get a bill. You don't have to pay it, though. It's just there for accounting purposes. When you die, the bill gets paid out of your estate. If your estate is small or nonexistent, you've gotten lots of free medical care. If it's large, you'll pay for it all. If you're somewhere in between, you'll end up paying for part of the care you've received.

Obviously this gives people incentives to spend all their money before they die. That's fine. I suspect they wouldn't end up spending as much as you'd think. What it does mean, though, is that Medicare has first claim on their estate, not their kids. But that seems fair, doesn't it?

Do you want to make sure to credit estates with all the Medicare taxes that have been paid over the years? Fine. Do you want to exempt a certain smallish amount to account for genuine family heirlooms? Fine. Do you want to pass laws making sure that estates can't be transferred to other people or trusts in order to evade this rule? Or regulate the use of reverse mortgages? Or make special rules for heirs who are minors? Fine, fine, and fine. Whatever.

But I'll bet this would raise a fair amount of money. What's more, that Medicare bill, with its continuously increasing grand total, would give people a pretty good sense of just how much medical care they're really getting. And it wouldn't impoverish the elderly with means testing while they were living. It would come solely from dead people, who have taken advantage of Medicare while they were alive and have no use for their money after they're dead. So what's not to like?

Readers' Weirdest Pregnancy Advice

| Wed May. 25, 2011 11:33 AM PDT

When I wrote a brief blog post about the three weirdest pieces of pregnancy advice I had gotten so far, I didn't realize what a response it would provoke. Our generous (and humorous) readers gave us nuggets of wisdom they'd been offered while pregnant, everything from the merely bizarre to the downright dangerous. My three favorite reader submissions are below. Thanks to all who contributed. It's been illuminating, and I certainly hope someday MythBusters will do an episode devoted to busting the most common falsehoods, like that a cat will "steal a baby's breath." Until then, MythBuster Kari Byron does a great job debunking some of them.

#1: "While pregnant with my first child, my great Aunt Myrtle told me that if I wanted to have 'boy children' I should douche with Tide... yes, Tide—the laundry detergent." [MotherJones.com commenter K Trampus]

#2: "I was told if I crave a certain food and didn't eat it right away I had to touch my butt because the baby would get a birthmark in the place I would touch first.... so better to have a birthmark on the butt than the face." [Facebook commenter Tricia Rudd] The craving/birthmark association was mentioned by more than one reader.

#3: "Don't raise your arms above your head because the umbilical cord will get wrapped around the baby's neck!" This myth was submitted by several readers.

Honorable mention: "My mother was told by her doctor 'Don't drink... because you might fall down and hurt the baby'" [Facebook commenter Carolyn Peace]

 

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The Problem With Medical Testing

| Wed May. 25, 2011 10:29 AM PDT

Ezra Klein responds to a Robin Hanson post suggesting that a lot of cancer screening is basically useless:

I think Hanson goes a bit far in the conclusions he draws, for reasons that some of his readers articulate in the comments. But “a bit far” isn’t the same as “wrong.” So if you’re anything like me, take a moment to think about how much you don’t want to believe that lung-cancer screenings or breast-cancer screenings may not actually work. And then think about trying to convince yourself they don’t work when your doctor is strongly urging you to get screened.

Actually, it's even worse than that. A couple of months ago I got examined by a urologist and he recommended that I get a prostate biopsy to check out a lump he felt. So I made the appointment, and a few weeks ago I went in. But my second appointment was with a different doctor who wanted to check things out for himself. He proceeded to do an extremely thorough DRE1 and concluded that most likely my lump was just a bit of calcification. But he was ready to do the biopsy if I wanted it. Did I?

Well, here's the thing. Even though my PSA test had been negative and I have no family history of cancer whatsoever; even though a prostate biopsy is a fairly unpleasant experience; even though prostate biopsies also have unpleasant lingering side effects; even though I'm philosophically opposed to overuse of medical tests; and even though I had a doctor standing right there telling me I probably didn't need the test

Even still, I almost went ahead and had him do it anyway. I mean, I was right there. It would only take ten minutes. Better safe than sorry, right?

Basically, everything you can think of was in place to turn down this test. But I almost didn't. If even one little thing had suggested I should do it — maybe because the test was quick and painless, or perhaps because I had an uncle who had once had prostate cancer — I would have done it. And if that second doctor had told me to do it, regardless of whether it was in strong terms or not? Then I wouldn't even have hesitated for a moment.

So that's what we're up against.

UPDATE: Aaron Carroll says I'm still underestimating the problem. His take here.

1DRE = digital rectal examination, and yes, this is exactly what you think it is.

The Republican Message

| Wed May. 25, 2011 9:17 AM PDT

David Frum, after surveying the wreckage of the decisive Republican loss in New York's conservative 26th congressional district:

What does the GOP have to say to hard-pressed voters? Thus far the answer is: we offer Medicare cuts, Medicaid cuts, and tighter money aimed at raising the external value of the dollar. No candidate, not even if he or she is born in a log cabin, would be able to sell that message to America’s working class.

Actually, it might be worse than that. Let me rephrase:

What does the GOP have to say to hard-pressed voters? Thus far the answer is: we offer Medicare cuts for you and your children, Medicaid cuts for you and your family, reduced taxes for CEOs and other fat cats, and tighter money aimed at wrecking American industry by making our goods too expensive for anyone overseas to afford. Plus lots of wars and unquestioning support for the Israeli right! Don't forget that.

That is indeed a tough one. Ronald Reagan himself would have a difficult time winning with that message hanging around his neck. But then, Ronald Reagan wouldn't be able to win the Republican nomination these days in the first place. Too liberal by far. So I guess it's a moot point.

Biden Vows to Find $1 Trillion in Budget Cuts

| Wed May. 25, 2011 9:12 AM PDT

Democrats have put Republicans on the defensive by hammering them Medicare, and on Tuesday scored a major win with Democrat Kathy Hochul's victory in New York's special congressional election—a race that became a referendum on Rep. Paul Ryan's controversial proposal. The win is likely to make Medicare even more central to the Democratic message in the 2012 elections.

As such, it's clear that the Dems have ruled out any steep cuts to Medicare as part of a bigger deal over the budget and deficit. But top Democrats are still promising to strike a deal with Republicans that includes major spending reductions, even though there are increasingly fewer places where they could realistically extract the money.

Vice President Joe Biden is leading a bipartisan deficit reduction group on Capitol Hill that is pledging to make $1 trillion in cuts, Bloomberg reports. But where will the money come from? Medicare is unlikely to be part of the equation, and Senate Dems previously vowed against touching Social Security. Likewise, Bloomberg reports, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) reaffirmed the GOP's position on Tuesday that "tax increases cannot pass the House."

What's left? Among other things, reductions in discretionary spending—i.e. funding for federal programs and agencies that Congress must approve each year—as well as other mandatory spending programs for low-income Americans, including Medicaid, food stamps, and welfare. In my latest story, I explain how the House GOP is moving full steam ahead to lay down the goalposts for these cuts. If Congress and the White House manage to move toward any kind of budget deal, these kind of reductions could be inevitable.

Open Wide!

| Wed May. 25, 2011 8:46 AM PDT

The American trend toward forced arbitration is bad for consumers. Basically, most commercial transactions you go through today — buying a house, buying a car, seeing a doctor, etc. — include contracts that demand resolution of all disputes not in a court of law, but via arbitration. And, unsurprisingly, the arbitrator is chosen by the business person, not the consumer. You can, of course, refuse to sign a contract with anyone who insists on arbitration, but there are whole industries where this has become so pervasive that you hardly have a choice. If you refuse to sign, you just don't get your teeth cleaned. See Stephanie Mencimer for chapter and verse on this.

Now, via Matt Yglesias, I see that things are going even further. Here's Tim Lee writing at Ars Technica:

When I walked into the offices of Dr. Ken Cirka, I was looking for cleaner teeth, not material for an Ars Technica story. I needed a new dentist, and Yelp says Dr. Cirka is one of the best in the Philadelphia area. The receptionist handed me a clipboard with forms to fill out. After the usual patient information form, there was a "mutual privacy agreement" that asked me to transfer ownership of any public commentary I might write in the future to Dr. Cirka. Surprised and a little outraged by this, I got into a lengthy discussion with Dr. Cirka's office manager that ended in me refusing to sign and her showing me the door.

....The growing use of censorious copyright assignments recently caught the attention of law professors Jason Schultz and Eric Goldman, who created a site called Doctored Reviews to educate doctors and patients about the phenomenon.

When Ars asked Schultz about medical professionals who ask their patients to sign these agreements, he was scathing. "It's completely unethical for doctors to force their patients to sign away their rights in order to get medical care," he said. He pointed out that patients seeking treatment can be particularly vulnerable to coercion. Patients might be in acute pain or facing a life-threatening illness. Such patients are in no position to haggle over the minutia of copyright law.

We bought a new car this weekend, and the sales contract included the usual arbitration clause. We signed it. What choice did we have? But if the car is a lemon or the dealership screws us over, at least I can write about it without worrying over whether I'm violating some kind of gag clause. The experts Lee interviewed said these clauses are probably unenforceable, but how many ordinary citizens are willing to bet on that if they get a threatening letter on legal letterhead threatening to ruin them? Not too many, probably.

As near as I can tell, businesses in the United States increasingly think that basic constitutional rights are mere annoyances to be swatted away. Before long they're going to demand the right to search your house without your permission anytime they think you've done something they don't like. And why not? The United States government increasingly seems to view the constitution the same way.