October 23, 2013
The Long Con, or the Administration's approach to marketing Obamacare...
CBS News has uncovered major faults in one of the "new, improved" features of Healthcare.gov. The Administration was concerned that allowing consumers to look at insurance prices before they provided the personal information needed to estimate potential subsidies would be a PR disaster. So they built the kludge that is the front end of Obamacare in 37 states. In an attempt to undo this massive error, they have added the ability to "shop" insurance quotes directly. Unfortunately, the estimates they provide are materially misleading.
"Industry executives CBS News spoke with could not believe the government is providing these estimates, which they said were useless and could easily mislead consumers. They also said that the website repeatedly states the actual prices could be lower, but it makes no mention that they could be higher."
If a private company sold products this way they would at a minimum be sued and quite possibly go to jail.
October 08, 2013
QOTD: "If the American public knew what was going on in our system, half would be outraged and the other half would apply for benefits."
October 02, 2013
QOTD: "I haven't seen morale this bad since the Titanic"Richard Stein, a financial services headhunter at Caldwell Partners, commenting on the spirits of Wall Street execs, as quoted by the WSJ.
September 15, 2013
QOTD: "My irresponsibility in spreading information online was a vent of negative mood, and was a neglect of the social mainstream."Detained Chinese-American venture capitalist and micro-blogger Charles Xue, as quoted by the NYT.
July 24, 2013
Thoughts on Crime, Racial Profiling and Trayvon
During the President's heartfelt and thoughtful comments on the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder case last Friday, he said:
There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me -- at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
I imagine that it is hard not to take this personally. If you had white skin, wearing the same clothes, would you get the same reactions? Probably not: therefore African Americans conclude that most white Americans are, at essence, racist.
But is the driver in the next car a racist, in spite of the Obama/Biden sticker on their bumper? Is that woman clutching her purse? The Rev. Jesse Jackson reportedly once said, “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.... After all we have been through. Just to think we can't walk down our own streets, how humiliating.” Obviously, the Reverend is not a racist. But is there some rational, emperical basis for this common reaction to the sight of young black males?
The President even suggested as much:
Now, this isn't to say that the African American community is naïve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact -- although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.
The question of whether racial profiling can ever be justified is one of the unexamined issues that arise from the recent trial of George Zimmerman for the fatal shooting of 17-year old Trayvon Martin. The prosecution based its case on the claim that Zimmerman unjustly “profiled” Martin as a potential criminal based upon his race, setting off a tragic chain of events that ended in the death of the teenager. Zimmerman may have been a poor choice for a case to highlight racial profiling -- all the evidence suggests that he was not motivated by racial animus and, in spite of the media and his Jewish last name, he is himself multiracial -- the black community has focused upon the apparent fact that Martin was targeted for additional scrutiny because of his race. But while it may be painful for black males to be viewed with suspicion solely because of the color of their skin, is it really "racist?" Or is there hard, objective evidence to justify viewing race (along with age and sex) as an indicator of potential criminality?
Black men and crime
We’ve all seen the sorry statistics (from the NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet):
- African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
- African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
- Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population
- One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.
But none of these facts says anything about black men’s propensity to commit crimes. If our criminal justice system is biased against African Americans, that could account for the disproportionate incarceration of black men.
However, there is data available from the US Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) on the perceived race of violent offenders. This data is collected from a nationally representative sample of about 40,000 households comprising nearly 75,000 persons who are interviewed twice a year on their personal experiences as the victims of crime. One of the questions asked of respondents who report that they have been victimized during the last 6 months is “Was the offender white, black, or some other race?” If these first-hand reports by crime victims show that black offenders account for a larger percentage of the crimes than their share of the overall population, then “profiling” blacks may be entirely rational.
The latest detailed NCVS results available are for 2008, and the following data are taken from Table 40. Personal crimes of violence, 2008: Percent distribution of single-offender victimizations, by type of crime and perceived race of offender.
The table above shows that there were more than a million “acts of completed violence” in the US during 2008. (The DoJ researchers “scaled up” the survey results from their stratified sample to estimate the number of victimizations for the nation as a whole.) The NCVS defines these acts as “the sum of all completed rapes, sexual assaults, robberies and assaults.” According to the victims of these attacks, the attackers were white in 56% of the cases, black in 28%, other race in 6% and unknown or not provided in 9% of the incidents.
Of course, it is possible that the victim’s perceptions of the offender’s race are inaccurate. We all remember the infamous cases where non-existent black men were accused of crimes to deflect attention away from the real guilty parties. But Table 42 of the NCVS shows that most victims of completed acts of violence identify a member of their own race as the offender. This suggests that the data may not be racially biased.
The chart above shows that white crime victims identified their attackers as white in 67.8% of the acts of completed violence. Similarly, black crime victims characterized their attackers as black in 66.5% of the cases.
We also know from the NCVS that more than 80% of completed acts of violence are perpetrated by men. The results from Table 38 are shown below:
If we assume that the share of violent crime between men and woman is the same for blacks and whites, we can calculate the number of victimizations perpetrated by male offenders of each race. Leaving out incidents when the race of the offender is other or unknown, we can calculate the number of single-offender victimizations committed by perpetrators perceived (by their victims) as being black or white males. (The total number of victimizations multiplied by percent committed by males multiplied by the percent committed by black or white offenders.) The results of these calculations are shown below:
During 2008, we see that an estimated 456,542 individual acts of completed violence were conducted by perpetrators identified as white men in the U.S. as a whole. (Note that the NCVS data excludes homocides from its definition of violence because of the impossibility of interviewing the victims.) Based on estimates prepared by the Census Bureau, there were 120.3 million white males living in the U.S. in 2008. During the same year, 229,487 violent attacks were conducted by offenders perceived to be black men while there were a total of 18.6 million black men living in the United States. This same information is presented graphically below:
From this data, we can then calculate the propensity to commit violent offenses for white and black males based upon their proportion of the total population in the U.S. during 2008. These figures are shown in the table below:
We can see that 3.8 acts of completed violence were committed by white males for every 100,000 white males in the U.S. during 2008. For black males, the corresponding figure was 12.3 acts of completed violence for every 100,000 black men in the population. In relative terms, the propensity of black males to commit acts of completed violence was 3.2 times that of white males.
Looking at these numbers, where the relative propensity of black males to commit an act of violence is from 3 to 7 times the rate for white males, perhaps Rev. Jackson can be excused for feeling relieved in seeing white faces in the night behind him.
More seriously, these figures support the conclusion that there is a rational basis for using race as a risk factor in evaluating the threat of potential violent attack. Similarly, men (of either race) should be regarded as 4 times as likely to commit a violent act as females. People living in urban environments where street crime is an unfortunate reality can’t stop themselves from internalizing these indicators of potential threat. Similarly, other factors are used to fine-tune these threat assessments; for example, age (older people commit less crimes), dress, location, posture, etc.
It is unrealistic to expect that black men won’t resent being perceived as a threat when they are peacefully going about their business. Clearly, they are being judged solely on the color of their skin, which is the classic definition of racial prejudice. As a human being, seeing other people react to you in a negative way because of your race has got to hurt.
However, at the same time, it’s unreasonable to expect people not to be aware of the unfortunate fact that black men are several times more likely than other groups to pose a threat to their personal safety. There may be historical and cultural context to explain why this is this case, but it cannot be disputed that it is true. As Reverend Jackson's comments illustrate, whites are not the only people who come to these conclusions and have these fears.
As the late Rodney King once said, in response to another media-fueled racial eruption, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?" Maybe, instead of focusing upon the jury's decision in the Trayvon Martin case or the prevalence of racial profiling, we should think about ways to prevent these types of tragedies from recurring. As President Obama said:
... and this is a long-term project -- we need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys. ...There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?
October 25, 2010
Update on the missing 727
Remember that Boeing 727 stolen from an Angola airport in May 2003? Well, it's still missing.
The Air & Space Smithsonian has an interesting update on this saga in its September 2010 edition.
December 03, 2009
A long, dusty drive to global warming...
Thinking about global warming (with Climate-gate being in the news), I remember visiting the amazing Roman ruins at Ephesus, an ancient city near the Turkish sea-side resort Kuşadası. It always struck me as odd that Ephesus had been a major port city that in 100 AD had a population of nearly half a million people and was second only to Rome in importance. Why odd? Because the ancient port of Ephesus is located more than 3.5 miles from the eastern edge of the present-day Mediterranean Sea. Somehow, over the last 1,900 years, the waters of the Eastern Med have receded and this onetime port is now a long, dusty drive from the nearest water.My conclusion from this? Our planet's climate has changed throughout history, on its own, without human intervention. Is it continuing to change? Absolutely. Is human activity contributing to these changes? Almost certainly. But do we know enough about climate science to understand what course these changes will take and how to influence them to our species' advantage? I sincerely doubt it.
For more great pictures of this incredible archaeological site, visit fotopedia here.
November 06, 2009
Expected News From Unexpected Sources
The UK Guardian and the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that <gasp> Iran has been conducting experiments on highly advanced aspects of nuclear warhead development. (Whocoodanode?)
The UN's nuclear watchdog has asked Iran to explain evidence suggesting that Iranian scientists have experimented with an advanced nuclear warhead design, the Guardian has learned.
The very existence of the technology, known as a "two-point implosion" device, is officially secret in both the US and Britain... The development was today described by nuclear experts as "breathtaking" and has added urgency to the effort to find a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis.
I see an interesting winter in our future (and not interesting in a good way.)
November 03, 2009
Iran to Obama: "Fuck you, strong letter to follow..."
Today's WaPo has an interesting piece reporting on a speech Tuesday by Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"Iran's supreme leader, spurning what he described as several personal overtures from President Obama, warned Tuesday that negotiating with the United States would be "naive and perverted" and that Iranian politicians should not be "deceived" into starting such talks."
So much for diplomacy. . .
March 22, 2009
What the hell IS an investment banker, anyway?
Who are these greedy bastards that have destroyed our financial system and cost the taxpayers billions? What do these Wall Street guys (and girls) do to command such exorbitant bonuses? Well, I'll tell you.
First of all, you need to understand that there are four major functional areas in an investment bank, all with very different jobs and responsibilities:
- Senior management: the top 15 or so executives who run the company and make strategic decisions (like how to allocate capital and resources),
- Sales & Trading: the folks you see sitting in front of rows of screens, yelling into headsets, this group can also include retail brokers and research analysts,
- Investment Bankers: the people in suits who get hired by other corporations to help them raise capital or advise them on acquisitions and other financial matters, and
- Operations: the "back office" people who support the rest of the firm in clearing trades, IT, accounting, facilities management, etc.
When people rail against greedy investment bankers, these are generally the people they are thinking about. These are the CEOs that have been called in to testify before Congress and the heads of divisions who authorize major commitments of the firm's capital. They are also the recipients of big company perks like cars and drivers, use of the corporate aircraft, etc. In publicly held companies, the total compensation of the top five corporate officers is published in the annual proxy statement, which can be found on the SEC's Edgar site. If anyone is "responsible" for having caused this mess, it is these senior managers. However, many of the executives who were in charge during the bubble period have been fired or otherwise lost their jobs.
Sales & Trading
The guys on the trading floor who devised many of the financial products that have become "toxic" assets (CDOs, credit default swaps, etc.) also bear some of the responsibility for the mess we're in. But the number of people involved in these esoteric securities was fairly limited. Most traders, salesmen, and brokers spent most of their time on "plain vanilla" products like stocks, bonds, currencies, futures and options and commodities. And while many of these "Master of the Universe" types were paid multi-million dollar bonuses, they also worked very hard for their money; putting in long, stress-filled days on the trading floor, and hours of research and reading at home.
The banker's job is to call on corporate clients seeking to be retained for financings (debt or equity) or for financial advisory assignments like mergers and acquisitions or restructurings. They bear little responsibility for the current financial crisis. In fact, their job has remained largely the same for the last quarter century; 70 to 90 hour weeks spent building financial models and preparing presentations for senior management at client firms. These folks usually travel extensively (3 to 4 days a week on the road is not uncommon) and spent many (most?) nights and weekends in the office or on a never ending series of conference calls with clients and colleagues. While the level of activity among their clients is down, this business remains highly profitable since it makes only limited use of their firm's risk capital.
These employees had virtually nothing to do with the current problems. They perform jobs similar to their equivalents in non-financial firms, though their compensation levels (and hours worked) tend to be higher than in other large corporations.
*** Bonuses ***
Nothing is less well-understood than Wall Street's compensation system. In most American businesses, workers receive a salary based on hours or weeks worked. In some companies, at the end of the year, some or all employees may be paid a "bonus" based on their individual performance or the firm's level of profitability. In addition, people in sales related jobs are often paid on a commission basis, based on sales volumes. However, on Wall Street, things are completely different.
In virtually all investment banks, only senior management have large annual salaries (with large bonuses often contractually specified as well). Mid and lower-level professionals are paid standard, modest salaries based upon their titles; for example, all Managing Directors might have base salaries of $200k and all VPs might have base salaries of $125k. At the end of the year, based upon their individual performance, the profitability of their group and the profitability of the firm as a whole, they are awarded a bonus which comprises the bulk of their total compensation. These bonuses are typically paid in January or February of the following year. Managing Directors (a title awarded after 7 to 10+ years of increasing responsibility in an "up or out" hierarchy) typically receive total compensation of between $1 and $5mm per year, based upon the net revenues they were able to produce for their firm. MD level compensation in many firms is approximately 10 percent of the net revenue generated by each senior professional.
Of course, especially for senior bankers, a significant portion of their annual bonus is paid in restricted company stock. This stock typically vests over a three or four year period and is forfeit if you leave to join a competitor. For investment bankers who were unfortunate enough to have worked for firms receiving TARP funds, this stock is generally worth a small fraction of its original value.
Finally, most Americans don't understand the cost of living in the NYC area. In most parts of the country, if you are earning $250k per year, you are living in the best part of town in a big beautiful house. In Manhattan, it is hard to buy a 3 bedroom apartment for less than $2mm. In most of the country, the suburban public schools are considered excellent. In Manhattan, most middle class professionals try to send their kids to private schools where annual tuition is $30k. While there are a few excellent public schools, this is not a viable option for most people. Renting a parking space for your car in Manhattan costs $500 a month -- in many parts of the country you can rent an apartment for less. One could go on and on (but I won't.)
This is not to say that we should feel sorry for those poor, misunderstood investment bankers. Most of them are doing quite well. However, if you are an employee of a firm receiving TARP investments from the feds and you had nothing to do with the activities that caused these massive write-downs, you can be forgiven for not understanding why you should have to hand over to the government more than 100% of last year's bonus. (The House bill that passed last week called for taxing bonuses above $250k at big TARP firms at 90% (plus Medicare tax of 1.45% and NYC state and local income taxes of 10.5%), bringing the total for NYC residents to 101.95%.)
January 19, 2009
Dropping a DIME on Hamas
Israel has been accused of dropping Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME) bombs on Hamas positions in Gaza. This new type of munition is designed to limit the shrapnel and blast effects to a very small area, thereby reducing the risk of collateral damage to non-combatants.
Naturally, the usual suspects are complaining about possible war crimes. (I suppose it is better to drop conventional high explosive munitions that will destroy an entire building, civilians and all.)
October 24, 2008
Boycott United Internet AG and 1&1 Hosting
Respected LA blogger and lawyer Patterico has had his domain name stolen by his hosting service "1&1". 1&1 are a subsidiary of the German internet firm United Internet AG, who coincidentally just happen to own sedo who is auctioning off the domain name.
Pretty despicable, if you ask me.
October 22, 2008
Remember John Kennedy O'Hara?
... the Brooklyn Democratic gadfly who was railroaded by Crooklyn DA Charles Hynes? (For some background, see posts here, here and here.) Anyway, he dropped me a note the other day alerting me to a new website seeking to gain him a pardon from Governor Paterson.
It's a colorful, amusing site, and worth a visit. Even Sex and the City's Mr. Big has come out in support of O'Hara. Be sure to sign the online petition asking the Governor to remedy this cruel injustice. Free John O'Hara!
September 02, 2008
It was an exciting night at the Repub's convention. Fred Thompson made a good speech endorsing McCain's character. The last Democratic nominee for Vice President, Joe Lieberman, made a solid speech endorsing McCain as the man to trust with the Presidency.
Yeah, yeah. However, I am underwhelmed by the choice of Sarah Palin as McCain's understudy. Sure she's cute. A bonafide MILF. And a good shot. But a stone cold light weight. The "bridge to nowhere" flip flop. The limited profile in the public eye. Of course, she does have more executive experience than either Obama or McCain. But a heartbeat away from the Presidency? I don't think so.
I'm not an Obama fan. He is an old-school liberal dressed up in post-partisan camouflage. He is also seriously in love with the sound of his own voice, which is not an attractive quality. That said, there may be some advantages to having him in the White House these next four years.
Firstly, the next four years promise to be very difficult from an economic point of view. The fallout from the real estate bubble will take time to work itself out. The impact on financial institution's balance sheets will provide a real drag on any recovery. As will the overstretched state of household balance sheets. In short, the American consumer is hitting up against the limits of debt availability, and our financial institutions are facing massive pressures to reduce their lending exposure.
If you buy this premise, being the next President of the US of A is not going to be a fun gig. Yeah, sure, you will be able to appoint a Supreme or two, as well as sign into law provisions that will make it very hard for large businesses to avoid unionization. But overall, it is likely to be a bummer.
On the plus side, if Obama wins, GWB has nearly two months in office as a legless duck. (Think Lame Duck to the 3rd power.) This is a golden opportunity for Dubya to go medieval on Iran's nuclear program. The US can commit multiple sorties to take out all of the Iranian nuclear enrichment sites, while the incoming Administration wrings its hands and protests ineffectually. After the damage is done, Obama becomes President and apologizes sincerely.
May 25, 2008
Best of the Worst
Funny music videos are an endless source of amusement for some of us. Here are three of the best:
- Tommy Seebach's Apache: Seebach was a Danish pop star who died from alcoholism in 2003. (NB: the link shown at the bottom of the screen in the video is to an unrelated porn site. Definitely NSFW.)
- The Leningrad Cowboys cover of Sweet Home Alabama: with backing from the Red Army Chorus, no less. Simply awesome.
- Mohammad Rafi's Jaan Pehechaan Ho: think Bobby Darin meets Bollywood. (You may have seen this as part of the opening credits in Ghost World.) Very catchy tune.
December 19, 2007
Update on Steven Vincent & Nour Khal
Today's LAT has an excellent feature by Erika Hayasaki following up on the Steven Vincent story. Vincent, as you may remember, was an independent journalist murdered in Iraq by radical Shiite militiamen in Basra during August 2005. He was also the author of In The Red Zone, which chronicled his travels in Iraq. If you haven't already read it, it is worth a look.
The story is accompanied by several great photos by Carolyn Cole of Vincent's widow, Lisa Ramaci, and Nour Khal, his friend and translator who was seriously wounded when Vincent was killed. Khal is now living with Ramaci in the East Village apartment she and Vincent had shared.
October 05, 2007
Viva La France
Proof that elections matter; the French government has volunteered to begin protecting UN ships carrying food aid from pirates off the coast of Somalia.
The United Nations (UN) World Food Programme (WFP) has accepted France's offer to protect its ships from Somali pirates as its vessels carry food aid to needy Somalis. In a WFP press release, Executive Director Josette Sheeran states, "We are grateful to the Government of France for this generous offer, which would reduce the threat of piracy and allow WFP to feed more hungry people in Somalia."
September 21, 2007
Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
Well, Pinch finally woke up and smelled the coffee, pulling the plug on TimesSelect. Like many, I predicted the inevitable, but underestimated (by some eighteen months!) how long it would take the Times management to join the "reality based" community.
As usual, Mickey Kaus (the thinking person's favorite liberal pundit) was all over this story from the beginning.
November 21, 2006
Our Man in Al Queda
Sunday's UK Times featured an excerpt from a book written by a former Al Queda trainee, "Omar Nasiri" (a psuedonym). If the excerpt is representative of the rest of the book, Inside the Jihad: My Life with Al Qaeda: A Spy's Story, looks to be an interesting read. Here is a taste:
Abu Hamza looked at me with his one good eye as we were introduced. “Masha’Allah, brother,” he said. “Can you meet me in the office after prayers?” “Of course,” I told him.
When prayers were finished I stood outside the office on the first floor of the Finsbury Park mosque in north London. Hamza approached with a young boy by his side. He gestured with his hook and the boy opened the door for him. We sat on the floor and Hamza asked the boy to bring us tea.
Hamza asked me which of the camps in Afghanistan I had been in, and I told him. Then I leant forward slightly. “I met someone you know,” I said in a conspiratorial voice. Hamza raised his brow just slightly.
“I trained with Assad Allah,” I told him. “He told me about the nitroglycerine, and how you lost your hands.” Hamza looked away. “Brother,” he whispered, not meeting my gaze, “please don’t share that story with anyone.”
As I was to learn later, Hamza claimed he had lost his hands defusing a landmine on the front lines in Afghanistan. I knew the real story.
October 19, 2006
New Thinking on Iraq
Jonah Goldberg has an excellent column in today's LAT with some new ideas regarding Iraq. Essentially, he suggests holding a referendum in Iraq on whether or not US troops should remain in that country until the Iraqi government decides they are no longer needed or to leave immediately.
It's an interesting idea.