Brad DeLong writes today that the standard bargain between Democrats and Wall Street is simple: we might tax you a little more than Republicans, but in return we'll provide you with "competent economic management in striking contrast to that offered by the ideologically-blinded wingnuts who are the Republicans." And President Obama has done just that. So why do the lords of finance almost unanimously hate his guts these days?

A big part of it, I think, is that Obama was not just supposed to make things better: he was supposed to fix things — to bring things back to "normal"....[But] Obama did not fix things: Wall Street bankers today are a lot poorer than they were in mid-2007. And the Wall Street bankers think that Obama disses them. And the Wall Street bankers know that Obama wants to tax them.

I'm not sure I buy this. My sense is that Wall Street financiers, whatever their other blinders, take a pretty intellectual approach to the macroeconomy, and they know that the economy is doing about as well as they could have hoped back in 2008. The stock market is up, corporate profits are up, and bonuses have rebounded. From a purely self-interested financial point of view, I don't think very many of them are really dissatisfied with the Obama/Geithner/Bernanke regime.

So what is it? My guess is two things. First — and there's no point in pulling punches here — they're a bunch of spoiled brats. Over the past three decades they've gotten accustomed to the kind of deference normally offered to grand viziers of the Sublime Porte, and they're simply enraged at the fact that Obama not only doesn't seem very impressed by their accomplishments, but even criticizes them every once in a while. At this point, they have fully convinced themselves that (a) they weren't responsible for the 2008 crash in any way, (b) it's populist demagoguery to suggest otherwise, and (c) the government should stand with them against the rabble-rousers so that they have the freedom to run the world again. Obama doesn't quite agree — not totally, anyway — and that maddens them.

Which brings us to the second thing: regulation. Like a lot of business people, I think they hate regulation more than they hate reduced profits. They'll fight higher taxes, but in the end, that's a pure money thing and they're accustomed to winning and losing money battles. But regulation wounds them far more. It's a signal that they aren't to be trusted. It's a reminder that someone else can tell them what to do. It makes it harder to earn money from purely financial manipulation. Dodd-Frank and Basel III may, in the end, not be very stringent regulatory regimes, but they're still viewed as unfair punishment. And we all know how children react to punishment they view as unfair. They sulk.

In 2008 Wall Street somehow convinced itself that Obama understood them and would protect them from the mob. In reality, he's mostly done that. But he's only done it 80%, not 100%. That missing 20% is the reason they've turned on him like a pack of rabid dogs.

Today brings us a pair of infuriating stories about the cost of healthcare. In the first, Sarah Kliff reports the results of a study of appendectomy costs in California hospitals:

The price of appendectomy ranged from as little as $1,529 to as much as $182,955 depending on where it was performed, according to results published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. These results came after the researchers focused their data on 18- to 59-year-olds whose hospitalization lasted fewer than four days, to make sure they culled out any complications.

....“Price shopping is improbable, if not impossible, because the services are complex, urgently needed, and no definitive diagnosis has yet been made,” the authors conclude. “In our study, even if patients did have the luxury of time and clinical knowledge to ‘shop around,’ we found that California hospitals charge patients inconsistently for what should be similar services as defined by our relatively strict definition of uncomplicated appendicitis.”

Next up is a New York Times piece about a suit against insurers in New York state for consistently understating "usual and customary" rates, which allowed them to make unfairly low reimbursements for out-of-network care. The companies settled the suit by agreeing to set up a new, more reliable database of actual procedure costs:

Though the settlement required the companies to underwrite the new database with $95 million, it did not obligate them to use it. So by the time the database was finally up and running last year, the same companies, across the country, were rapidly shifting to another calculation method, based on Medicare rates, that usually reduces reimbursement substantially.

....Few dispute that [...] the new realpolitik of reimbursement is leaving millions of insured families more vulnerable to catastrophic medical bills, even though they are paying higher premiums, co-payments and deductibles.

“They’re not getting what they think they’re paying for,” said Benjamin M. Lawsky, the superintendent of the Department of Financial Services, whose investigators recently found that under the switch, 4.7 million New York State residents — 76 percent of those with out-of-network coverage — are facing reimbursement reductions of 50 percent or more. The switch “certainly creates the appearance that insurers are trying to end-run the settlement and keep out-of-network payments low,” Mr. Lawsky said.

These two stories highlight one of the biggest problems with American healthcare. Sure, it costs more than it does anywhere else, but that's not all. Thanks to weak price regulation, it's also far more variable than anywhere else, with hospitals and insurance companies constantly looking for ways to gain an edge over those with the least leverage. In the first story, they're taking advantage of people with sudden health problems who really don't have the opportunity to shop around. In the second story, they're taking advantage of people who, for one reason or another, have to seek care outside of their network.

Whose fault is this? Insurance companies for playing coverage games? Hospitals for playing cost games? Medicare for having a lousy and inconsistent payment system? Probably all of the above. And the net economic benefit of all this game playing is zero (at best). But one thing we know for sure is who pays the price for this. All of us.

Ezra Klein asked three political scientists to create a model for forecasting presidential elections:

The final model uses just three pieces of information that have been found to be particularly predictive: economic growth in the year of the election, as measured by the change in gross domestic product during the first three quarters; the president’s approval rating in June; and whether one of the candidates is the incumbent.

That may seem a bit thin. But it calls 12 of the past 16 elections right. The average error in its prediction of the two-party vote share is less than three percentage points.

That sure sounds like a bad model to me. Here's a simpler model that gets 13 of the past 16 elections right: the incumbent party wins if it's been in office for four years, and loses if it's been in office for eight or more years. Even if you insist that Al Gore "won" in 2000 because he won the popular vote, it gets 12 of the past 16 elections right.

So what's the point of adding two more variables if they don't provide any additional accuracy? I don't get it. However, Ezra says the value of the model is that it forces you to think about basic factors without getting distracted by ephemera like Etch A Sketch or Mommygate. So if you want to think about it, you can play with the model here. Have fun!

The AP embarrasses itself today trying to explain why the latest Social Security Trustees report projects that the trust fund will be exhausted sooner than we thought:

Social Security is rushing even faster toward insolvency, driven by retiring baby boomers, a weak economy and politicians’ reluctance to take painful action to fix the huge retirement and disability program.

It's true that all of these things contribute to Social Security's solvency problems, but only the second has anything to do with the fact that Social Security is "rushing even faster toward insolvency." The retirement of the baby boomers and the fecklessness of Congress haven't changed at all since last year.

However, it's true that the Trustees now project that the trust fund will be exhausted in 2033, not 2036. There are some minor demographic and technical issues that contributed to this adjustment, but the biggest reason by far is that the Trustees made several changes in their assumptions about the economy:

The Trustees now assume a decline in average hours worked of 0.05 percent per year, rather than no change as they assumed last year.... Starting values for 2011 resulted in higher benefit levels and lower payroll taxes for 2012 than those projected in last year’s report. Price inflation in 2011 was higher than expected [and] the average level of taxable earnings for covered workers in 2011 was about 1.6 percent lower than estimated in last year’s report....Real interest rates for new investments during 2011 are significantly lower than projected in last year’s report, and these lower real interest rates on new investments continue for several years before reaching their ultimate levels.

Roughly speaking, the economy is weak and the Trustees have updated their models to assume that the economy will remain weak for some time. That means fewer workers paying into the system; a lower level of taxable wages; and lower returns on the treasury bonds in the trust fund as the Fed continues to hold interest rates low until the economy recovers.

Moral of the story: We need to get our economy out of a ditch, and the sooner the better. But you already knew that.

On a related note, I'm going to annoy a few of my fellow lefties and say that we should stop getting bent out of shape when people respond to the Trustees report by saying that Social Security is "going bankrupt" or "running dry" or some similar formulation. There's a hyperlegalistic sense in which this isn't accurate, but honestly, it would be a helluva dramatic event if the trust fund ran out of money and Social Security suddenly had to slash benefits by 25% in 2033 (see chart above). Referring to this as "bankruptcy" isn't all that big a rhetorical stretch, and everyone on both left and right should put away their fainting couches, ditch all the tired excuses, and get to work on a fix that would involve — say it in unison, folks! — a very modest and phased-in cut in benefits combined with a very modest and phased-in increase in taxes. This isn't a hard problem.

Dave Weigel looks at the latest Pew poll asking voters which issues they care about, and concludes that Mitch Daniels was right: Republicans need to declare a truce on social issues and focus instead on the economy.

Republicans won in 2010 because voters focused on economics. Mitt Romney got himself declared "electable" because he focused on economics and auto-penned the social issues pledges when he needed to. And Romney swears that the new social issue/abortion/contraception flare-ups — brought on, typically, by Republican legislators — are distractions. They certainly look that way. They distract from the issues he can win on.

Of course, candidates don't always get to decide which issues the rest of the country is going to focus on. My guess is that Romney wishes all the contraception and related "mommy war" issues had never cropped up in the first place, but that wasn't his call to make. And once the issue was in play, he had little choice but to take the kinds of positions that please the most militant members of his tea party base.

On the bright side for Romney, though, just because voters say they don't care about social issues this year doesn't mean they really don't care. And not every culture war issue will necessarily end up benefiting the Democrats, as the contraception debate seems to have. They won't seem like distractions anymore if the next eruption turns into something that actively helps the Romney campaign.

The decadence of the modern high-tech industry is on full display today:

Microsoft, which just bought patents from AOL for more than $1 billion, is now selling most of them to Facebook for $550 million. The two companies said Monday that Facebook is buying about 650 of the 925 patents and patent applications. Facebook will get a license to use the rest of the patents. Microsoft will also get a license to use the patents that Facebook is buying.

So there you have it. Each patent is worth about a million bucks, or one one-thousandth of an Instagram. This means that these patents are either ridiculously expensive or else ridiculously cheap. I can't quite figure out which.

From Andrew Sullivan:

Fear not. The Dish will not succumb to SEOs. I'm still too enthralled with the immediate unfiltered reader-writer experience that blogging alone allows.

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, the dark art of writing blog posts or news articles that will rise to the top of Google search pages. But although Andrew may not be SEO-ing his own site, he's already succumbed to SEO. After all, the article he links to in the post above is a week-old review by Sean Gallagher of a tool called InboundWriter, which is designed to help you write Google-friendly prose:

To get a feel for what SEO experts think determines a "high-quality" page from the standpoint of a search engine, I used InboundWriter to search-optimize this story. I'll let you be the judge of the outcome; InboundWriter gave it a score of 99 out of a possible 100.

In other words, Andrew may think that he wrote about SEO today of his own free will. But free will is an illusion. In reality, he wrote about it because Gallagher's article had been honed to perfection and thus gotten lots of attention. I blindly followed along. Resistance is futile.

Republicans have been chanting "Repeal and Replace" for a long time now, and there's no question that they're dead serious about repealing Obamacare. But what do they want to replace it with? That's been a wee bit fuzzier. Today, though, Noam Levey writes in the LA Times that Mitt Romney's plan is slowly starting to take shape:

His public statements and interviews with advisors make clear that Romney has embraced a strategy that in crucial ways is more revolutionary — and potentially more disruptive — than the law Obama signed two years ago. The centerpiece of Romney's plan would overhaul the way most Americans get their health coverage: at work. He would do so by giving Americans a tax break to buy their own health plans. That would give consumers more choices, but also more risk.

....Unlike Obama's healthcare law, Romney's plan could fundamentally change the rules for the more than 150 million Americans who get insurance through their employers. These workers get a large tax break because their health benefits are not taxed. Businesses that provide insurance also get a break because their contributions to their employees' health plans aren't taxed.

In place of that system, Romney would give Americans a tax break to buy their own health plans, regardless of whether their employers offered coverage.

As near as I can tell, Team Obama isn't eager to make healthcare a central topic of the upcoming campaign. Given the continued lukewarm approval ratings of Obamacare, I guess that's understandable. And yet, if Romney unveils the kind of plan Levey suggests, it's hard not to think it could be a winning issue. I mean, Romney would be offering a plan that would:

  • Motivate lots of employers to drop health coverage.
  • Give dropped families a tax credit that wouldn't come close to covering the cost of buying health coverage on their own. So most families would end up paying a lot more for health insurance than they do now.
  • Almost certainly increase the federal deficit, probably by a lot.

That's bad enough. But there's more! A plan like this plainly doesn't work unless insurance companies are required to take all comers. After all, you can hardly give employers an incentive to drop group coverage and then just sit back and do nothing while insurance companies refuse to offer policies to half the people who have been dropped. But if you're going to require insurance companies to take all comers, you also have to regulate the price they can charge. Otherwise they'll just jack up the price on anyone they don't want to cover, effectively denying them insurance. But if you do that, then you really need to have some kind of insurance mandate too. Otherwise all the sick people will sign up and the healthy people will remain uninsured, most of them figuring there's always an emergency room that will take care of them if something goes really wrong. This would decimate the insurance industry.

And of course poor people will require subsidies of some kind. We're not barbarians, right?

Is this all sounding familiar? It should. It's not really a whole lot different than Obamacare. If you omit any of it, it really doesn't work. The reason is that there are some fundamental underpinnings of the health insurance market that just don't change no matter how liberal or conservative you are. If your plan is based on insurance, then it has to be based on large, inclusive pools of applicants. One way or another, you have to group together random parts of the population in order to provide insurance companies with big, actuarially predictable pools of customers. There's no way around this unless you're willing to (a) essentially put insurance companies out of business, or (b) allow lots and lots of people to lose health coverage. Trying to do anything else is like trying to square a circle. It just won't work.

Romney will do his best to fudge this, and it might work if the Obama campaign decides not to press the issue. That might not be wise. No matter how clever Romney is, there are going to be cracks in his plan that can be exploited. They should be.

Over at the Observer, Leo Benedictus reviews William Poundstone's Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?

Some way into this book, you realise something, or at least I did. Only the first 136 pages have anything to do with Google's interview technique. The rest, for almost as many pages, is consumed by "answers" to the many questions that we find along the way....Might I have preferred to settle down with a book that didn't bother trying to be a practical, topical and revealing guide to hi-tech job interviews, but instead just called itself "101 Great Maths and Logic Puzzles"?

....You will get to ponder things like this: "You're playing football on a desert island and want to toss a coin to decide the advantage. Unfortunately, the only coin on the island is bent and is seriously biased. How can you use the biased coin to make a fair decision?"....There is quite a lot of sucking up to Google, actually, even though the effectiveness of the company's methods is far from proven.

Indeed. First Microsoft, and then all of Silicon Valley, became famous for subjecting potential hires to questions like the one above, or queries about how many gas stations there are in the United States. But has anybody ever produced even halfway persuasive evidence that this is a great way of hiring brilliant employees? My own suspicion is that it isn't. It rewards a certain kind of shallow cleverness that might well be useful in certain roles at high-tech companies, but I'd be surprised if it were anything more. In fact, putting together an entire company characterized by shallow cleverness might well be sowing the seeds of one's own destruction. It's a mental trait that I suspect is organizationally useful is modest quantities, but might very well be actively harmful in larger quantities. Even in the high-tech world, producing clever coding hacks is only a tiny part of success.

But then, I have no proof of that either. All I know is that I'd probably be reluctant to work for a company that even asked questions like this in the first place. It's a fad, and a lazy way of convincing yourself that you've figured out a shortcut to assembling a world-class staff. But there are no shortcuts. Not even in Silicon Valley.

The New York Times reports this weekend that the state of New York is in a meltdown over a recent piece of alleged standardized test idiocy. Here's the nickel version: It's about a short story on the 8th grade reading test. In the story, a pineapple (yes, a pineapple) challenges a hare to a race. The hare accepts. The pineapple insists it can win. But how? A nearby moose says the pineapple must have something up its sleeve. "Pineapples don't have sleeves," says the owl. Then the race starts, and the pineapple just stands there. A little while later the hare loops around to the finish line and the pineapple is still standing still. So the animals all eat the pineapple. The End.

This is obviously a nonsense story. Is that kosher for an 8th grade reading test, even if the kids all think it's weird? Seems OK to me. But the real issue, apparently, is that two of the questions about the story have been judged too ambiguous. The kids were confused. This is something I'm normally sympathetic to, since I often see answers on standardized tests that strike me as tricky to judge even though I'm a whole lot smarter than your average 8th grader.

But this time I don't see it. The story and the questions are here. The allegedly tricky questions are 7 and 8. But despite the nonsensical nature of the story, the answers seem pretty clear to me.

Nonetheless, "Pineapples don't have sleeves," has apparently taken on iconic stature in New York, and the state education commissioner has decreed that the questions won't be counted in final scores. A victory for common sense!

So your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to read the story (it's very short) and then look at the questions. Do they seem unfair? They don't to me, but maybe I'm missing something.

UPDATE: A couple of specialists have emailed to say that on high-stakes tests like this one, the general rule is to allow very little ambiguity at all. The right answer should be extremely clear. If that's the case, then I agree that this story and these questions should have been ditched. I don't think the answers were all that ambiguous, but there was certainly some ambiguity.

That said, I guess I don't understand why anything like this would have been invented in the first place. Is there really any need for creativity in tests like this? Or even a need to buy passages from published authors? Just construct a short piece, either fiction or nonfiction, and ask some straightforward questions about it. What's so hard?