• The Housing Market Looks … Kinda Normal Right Now

    Home sales fell in December, ending up at their weakest level since 2015, according to the Wall Street Journal. Is that bad news? Sure. But how bad is it? That’s something I keep going back and forth on.

    To get a different kind of handle on this question, here’s the national homeownership rate over the past 50 years:

    If you consider the period from 1970-1995 to be “normal,” then the homeownership rate in 2018 was nearly back to normal. In fact, considering that young people saddled with college debt can barely afford to buy homes and are dragging down the overall number, the rest of the country is probably back above normal rates. Right? Except… it turns out the Census Bureau has homeownership rates by age group too:

    Older cohorts always have a higher homeownership rate than younger cohorts, so there’s no point in looking at the raw numbers. What’s interesting is how much they’ve changed. As you can see, using 1995 as our starting point, millennials are actually doing fine. They’re only 2 percent below their 1995 level, better than any cohort except the 65+ set. Conversely, the middle-aged cohorts are all 5 percent or more below their 1995 levels. So:

    • Overall homeownership rates are roughly normal.
    • Millennials have made up their losses from the housing bubble better than almost anyone.
    • The millennial homeownership rate is currently 36.8 percent, compared to 37.7 percent in 1995.

    This perspective doesn’t make the housing market look all that bad. If it’s slowing down, it’s mostly because we’ve finally rebounded into a fairly normal market.

    Home prices are a lot higher than they were in 1995, though. That’s not great. On the other hand, average household debt service payments are below 1995 levels, which means family finances aren’t especially stressed at the moment.

    In other words, I’m not sure what’s going on with the housing market. There are positive signs and negative signs, and obviously there are a few cities that are outliers. If I had to guess, though, I’d say that on average the housing market nets out to being fairly normal right now.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    Here’s a lovely shot of a dragonfly buzzing around in Prospect Park. I would have preferred a head-on shot, but the little peabrain never turned around. They do that on purpose, don’t they? At least you get a really good view of the double wings on one side.

    September 14, 2018 — Prospect Park, Brooklyn
  • Is Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital Ripping Off Sick People?

    I couldn't find a usable picture of Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, but how about a nice picture of the Golden Gate Bridge instead?Rieger Bertrand/Hemis/ZUMA

    Sarah Kliff has been collecting hospital bills over the past year, and for the past couple of weeks she’s zoomed in on emergency room services at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, which are considerably higher than other hospitals in the area. Why are they so high? No one really seems to have a good answer, but the closest we’ve gotten is that SF General is required to provide lots of indigent and Medicaid services, which don’t pay much, and they have to make up for that with higher prices for people covered by private insurance.

    I guess that sounds reasonable. But it got me curious about how much private patients are charged compared to indigent/Medicaid patients. This is for the entire hospital, not just emergency care, but here it is:

    Kinda weird. Traditional private patients are charged, on average, $3,322 per day while private patients with managed care plans are charged $6,177. You can see the same huge disparity between Medicare and Medicare Advantage. And generally speaking, Medicaid patients are charged more than average, while traditional private patients are charged about the same as both indigent patients and traditional Medicare patients, even though this hospital is out-of-network with all insurers.

    Overall, indigent patients make up less 1 percent of total patients, and private patients make up about 15 percent. These numbers are small enough that they hardly matter. Nearly 85 percent of all patients are either Medicare or Medicaid.

    I can’t really make much sense out of this. The bottom line, however, is that SF General claims to lose money in every department except two: ER and lab tests, which break even. Their net loss for the year was $193 million. It’s all very confusing.

    But I have a question: If SF General is really charging private patients sky-high prices in its ER, are there loads of private patients complaining about this? You’d think there would be. Are insurance companies outraged? You’d think they would be too. So why haven’t we heard many stories from them?

  • Birtherism 2.0 Takes a Run Up the Flagpole

    Oh boy! Birtherism is getting another trial run:

    I hope Kamala has her long-form birth certificate ready. Plus her certificate of being a natural-born homes from Oakland. I am so, so not looking forward to a year of this crap before the snow even starts to fall in Iowa, or wherever we’re having our first primary/caucus this cycle.

  • Rudy Giuliani, Explained

    SMG via ZUMA Wire

    So: Rudy Giuliani. He’s been busy over the past few days doing interviews about Donald Trump’s involvement in building a Trump Tower in Moscow. After each interview he then “clarified” what he meant, ultimately ending with a statement today that nothing he said was based on talking to Trump anyway.

    Many people are asking what the deal is with this. Is Giuliani nuts? Senile? Totally out of control? Or what?

    He may be all or none of the above. But it’s obvious what Giuliani has been doing ever since he started representing Trump last year: tossing out chaff so vigorously that nobody can tell from day to day what the current story is supposed to be. The point of this—and this is the important part—is not just to confuse everyone. It’s to make Giuliani the bearer of bad news so that eventually, when Trump is forced to admit something damaging, it’s “old news” that he’s been “saying all along.” The complete explanation for Giuliani looks something like this:

    • Giuliani is chosen as Trump’s “lawyer” because TV networks love him and will always give him airtime.
    • In times of crisis, Giuliani starts tossing out story after story, creating confusion and making Giuliani, not Trump, the center of attention.
    • All of these stories are deniable by the White House since they come from someone whose actual position is kind of vague. Eventually, though, one of them sticks.
    • Later—which could be days or weeks depending on how long Trump lies low—Trump publicly acknowledges the final story and says it’s already been litigated to death and is old news.
    • By then, (a) everyone really is confused, (b) they don’t remember all the details from a few weeks ago, and (c) there’s some new scandal that’s seized everyone’s attention. So Trump’s confession slides under the radar.

    This isn’t a foolproof hack of the media, but it’s pretty good. It shows a sophisticated understanding of how the modern media works and how to undermine it, and Giuliani is the perfect choice for the main role. He’s well known; TV reporters like him; he’s loud and pushy and Trumplike; and he’s willing to sound like a doofus if that’s what it takes. I think that nearly everyone underestimates just how effective he’s been at keeping the volume turned up on the Wurlitzer.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    This photograph, Untitled 17, is an ironic commentary on the current state of ironic commentary in modern photography. It is, after all, not merely a banal picture of modern human civil engineering captured with a banal example of modern human consumer electronics. It is that, of course, but, ironically, what it represents is the most singular and miraculous condition of the human species throughout history: thirst. But not the quotidian thirst of a lion for its prey or a mosquito for a bare arm in summer. It represents thirst on a grand scale, thirst so essential and so vast that it can never be sated. Not even by 10 million gallons of suburban water treated to meet federal requirements for purity and trace metal content. It is this sort of thirst that distinguishes man from beast; a raging and, for most of us, ultimately unknowable longing for dominion that pushes the unwary to the inky edge of death, but ultimately allows an architect to create the Parthenon, a writer to dare use a semicolon, or Microsoft to produce Excel.

    And yet, in the end, this representation of the most human of all desires is reduced to nothing but pixels, the most evanescent of all man’s creations. It is appropriate, then, that these pixels, in turn, be reduced to money, the most concrete of all man’s creations.

    A 6 x 20-foot gelatin on metal print of this photograph will be auctioned next month at Christie’s with a reserve price of $1 million. Please contact them directly if you wish to be involved in the bidding. You are all my dear friends, but I’m afraid that asking me for a “favor” because this image would look great over your new sofa is quite out of the question. But don’t take it badly. This is business, not personal.

    January 6, 2019 — Lake Forest, California
  • WhatsApp Moves to Rein in Your Crazy Uncle

    I know this is serious, but I can’t help laughing about it:

    WhatsApp users will be blocked from forwarding messages to more than five individuals or groups under new rules the messaging service is rolling out worldwide to fight the spread of misinformation….The five-recipient limit was initially put in place in India last July. A larger limit, of 20 recipients, was put in place globally. WhatsApp said at the time the limits would “help keep WhatsApp the way it was designed to be: a private messaging app”.

    ….The limit was introduced last summer along with another feature to clearly label forwarded messages and the removal of a quick-forward button next to images, video and audio clips. The company says the measures reduced forwarding by 25% globally and more than that in India, which had one of the highest forwarding rates in the world.

    So Uncle Doofus and Aunt Gullible will no longer be able to spam their entire extended family with an endless procession of idiotic tweets and Facebook posts. I suppose the smart ones will just create a few groups and keep spamming away, but how many smart ones do this in the first place?

    Of course, this requires discipline from all of us. When your spamming elders call to ask you how to set up a group on WhatsApp, we all have to agree that the answer is that it’s not possible. Don’t screw this up! We must keep our grandparents and their generation in the dark about this. Remember: loose lips sink ships.

  • Here Is Tonight’s Super Blood Wolf Moon Eclipse

    Really? I have to call it the Super Blood Wolf Moon Eclipse? Fine. Here it is, as seen from the friendly confines of my backyard.

    For the first hour of the eclipse the sky around here was clear and brilliant, so the pictures turned out pretty well. The top picture was taken just past half totality and the bottom picture was taken about five minutes after the start of full totality. As usual, the moon is its usual gray self right until totality, when it turns a fairly brilliant rusty red. However, at that point it’s so dim that I can set the camera to pick up the stars surrounding it, which you usually don’t get in lunar photography. You can see three of them in the bottom picture, but I have no idea which ones they are.

  • Marc Edwards Is a Sad Victim of Our Modern Political Era

    Jeff Malet/NC via ZUMA

    This is very sad: Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who first exposed toxic levels of lead in the water supply of Flint, Michigan, was initially a hero to the Flint community. Thanks to him, Flint became the target of nationwide outrage, and steps were finally taken to reconnect Flint to the (safe) Detroit water supply. In less than a year, lead levels in Flint water had dropped to safe levels.

    So what did Edwards do? Well, he’s a scientist, and just as he had honestly exposed Flint’s problems in the first place, he also continued to honestly report the results of the intervention. When the water was once again safe, he said so—and that turned him from a hero into a pariah. Here’s Perry Stein at the Washington Post:

    By August 2016, both he and Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who is also credited with raising the alarm about lead in Flint’s water, were saying publicly that the situation in Flint was improving.

    But that narrative contradicted the perspective of advocates and groups such as Water Defense, an environmental nonprofit started by actor Mark Ruffalo, which brought in its own expert to sample the water in Flint….Edwards’s tests continued to show that contaminant levels had dropped. In September 2017, his findings were in line with the state’s, showing lead levels within federal regulations….The state had been providing residents with bottled water for drinking, but Edwards maintained they could also drink out of the tap again if they used filters, and that unfiltered water was safe to bathe in.

    ….Some residents, however, heard something else in Edwards’s conclusions. Abel Delgado, a Flint resident and activist who signed the letter criticizing the professor, says that he and others felt betrayed when Edwards seemed to imply the crisis was over. The professor appeared to be “giving in to the narrative of the state, and not the narrative that Flint was facing,” he says….Lawrence Reynolds, a pediatrician in Flint and a member of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s Flint Water Advisory Task Force, says Edwards was “irresponsible” to tell residents that they no longer had to worry about the water.

    ….I asked Edwards if he thought, looking back, that he had been a bit naive not to have anticipated the reaction to his findings that lead levels in Flint’s water had fallen to safe levels. He says he had expected a backlash but not what he views as a concerted effort to destroy his professional reputation. He stands by his actions, which he perceives as truth telling. “It comes down to duty versus self-preservation,” he says. “In a post-truth world, science has become just another weapon of tribal warfare, and rising above that takes courage.”

    Edwards can be a bit of a showman when it suits him, and he’s filed some lawsuits of his own. But his primary sin is simply reporting the truth even though that was inconvenient to activists in Flint. I reported the same thing based on my own analysis of the ongoing testing of Flint water:

    The federal “action level” for lead in public drinking water is 15 ppb. However, the official measurements are done on a six-month basis, so in real time they’re not very useful in showing what progress has been made. By interpolation, they suggest that Flint’s lead levels had declined to 15 ppb by summer and were below that by the end of the year. The chart above, which I produced monthly in real time using simple averages, is more optimistic: it suggests that Flint’s water was already below the action level by the summer of 2016 and was well below it by the end of the year. Either way, Flint’s water was safe during the second half of the year and getting safer every month. When I said so, I got some of the same pushback as Edwards, but it was just a tiny fraction of what he got. After all, I’m not the one who’s famous for exposing Flint’s problem in the first place.

    But this is not just about one guy who’s faced unfair attacks. It’s way more important than that. Here in the progressive community, we like to criticize conservatives for being too anti-science; too tribal; and too subservient to their most extreme wing. But look at what happened here. The science, as you’d expect, told us that Flint’s water got better after mitigation measures were taken—but the activists on the ground were too angry and bitter to accept that. Instead, they turned tribal on the guy reporting the results, and at that point you were either with them or against them.

    So which were we? As near as I could tell, there were very few progressives willing to take Edwards’ side against the Flint community. We all had our reasons. I was hesitant to say anything that would suggest any level of lead was safe. There were criminal prosecutions getting started against Flint and Michigan officials. And there were hundreds of millions of dollars in grant money still to be fought for. Mostly, though, we were just being subservient to our loudest voices because no one wanted to be on the losing end of a more-progressive-than-thou contest.

    Over the course of 2016 I slowly became more outspoken about the safety of Flint’s water, and by 2017 two things were clear. First, Flint’s water was once again safe. Second, the damage done to Flint’s children was probably fairly modest:

    During the worst of the crisis, the number of children with blood lead levels above 10 m/d is minuscule, and even the number with levels above 5 m/d never got very high. For a period of about 18 months they were at the same level they had been at in 2010—which itself was the product of decades of improvement.

    This is not just a matter of respecting the truth for its own sake. It has real consequences:

    • Parents are being kept in a state of stress and panic that they shouldn’t have to put up with.
    • Children are being kept in a state of depression and resignation.
    • A vast amount of money is being spent to replace Flint’s water pipes, even though they’re probably safe. That money could be used for better things.
    • Actually, it’s worse than that. The only reason people are still being told to use filters in Flint is because of the pipe replacement program. When new pipes are installed, lead can start leaching back into the water from the points where pipes are connected to each other.

    So here we are: anti-science, tribal, and subservient to our most extreme wing. Oh, and a guy named Marc Edwards, who exposed this disaster and got it fixed, is now practically an exile. It’s a sad microcosm of our modern political arena.

    UPDATE: The paragraph about federal “action levels” for lead contamination has been changed to provide more detail about different ways of measuring lead levels in tap water. Thanks to Alex Sagady for pointing out that I had included only my own measurements, not the official federal measurements.

  • The Dealmaker-in-Chief Has a New Offer

    President Trump is scheduled to make a “major announcement” about the border this afternoon. According to the Washington Post, he plans to say that he will keep in place two programs (DACA and TPS) that courts have already prohibited him from ending. In return, he wants his wall money.

    This can’t possibly be true, can it? Even a negotiator as bad as Trump wouldn’t think he could dupe Nancy Pelosi into accepting something she already has in return for something she’s categorically said she’ll never give him?

    Actually, I guess he might think that. Who knows? I guess we’ll all have to wait until 4:00 Eastern to find out.