Monday, December 06, 2010

Ten Bucks

Have you ever wondered what $10 can buy? Its fairly likely that youre going to spend much more than $10 just today. Heres a few things that I found that you could buy for $10:

Now, of course, in the US, we have a pretty high standard of living. Most Americans will spend $10 on trivial stuff.


At the same time, that same $10 can make a huge difference in another persons life outside the US. Which is why Im writing this. Id like to give you the opportunity to use $10 to help rewrite the stories that some kids are living.

I am going on a missions trip the Philippines as part of a team from my church. Some of the details of this trip can be seen here

Im going for a couple of reasons.

First, my mom is from the Philippines, and Ive been there twice: once when I was 12 and again about 7-8 years ago. These trips have changed my perspective on things. I was exposed to poverty on a level that Id never seen before. It made me appreciate how incredibly wealthy we are in the US.

Second, I read a book called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller. Ive mentioned this before on my blog, but Ive become convinced that living a good life means doing things that are hard that serve a good purpose. The International Justice Mission is working with My Refuge House to build a facility in Cebu, Philippines that will act as a safe place for women and children to escape from sex trafficking.

Initially, I just assumed that I would fund this entire trip myself. It was something that I thought Id do as a way to share with kids who are in a situation that I can barely imagine. And up to this point, I have funded all of it. But then it struck me that if one of my friends were doing something like this, that I would love to get involved. In fact, Ive done this exact thing before. I couldn't participate by going, but I could participate by helping fund them. So maybe, I should let my friends know that Im doing this. Maybe this is something youd react to like I did. Not like youre obligated to help, but that youd be disappointed if you didnt get the chance to help.

So thats what Im doing. This is your opportunity to join with me on this trip. To help by using a tiny bit of our wealth to change these kids stories.

And let me make this perfectly clear: I will fund this entire trip on my own. But if you feel moved to help, I wont turn you away. Just click on the paypal link below. Im recommending a $10 donation. Of course, if you wish to donate more, youre welcome to do so.

Now, no matter what happens, I am funding the majority of this trip out of my own pocket. If, by some miracle, I find myself with donations in excess of $1000, the excess will go to other members of the team to help them fund their trips. Additionally, I will be creating a facebook group that people who donate will get access to see. I will (apparently) have internet access while in the Philippines, so I can post pictures and video pretty quickly.

For those of you that are moved to help, thank you!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Why I'm Not Voting

I had a discussion with a friend today who is preparing himself to vote in the November midterm elections. I applaud his vote. He’s a smart guy and will inform himself of the candidates and make a vote that makes sense. Even if I might disagree with who he picked. He’s the kind of guy I want voting.

But I won’t vote. Here are my reasons:
  1. I think that being an informed voter is important. I think that being an ignorant voter is destructive. If you're not going to be informed, you can either vote randomly, which seems silly, or you end up voting your biases. Bryan Caplan has written a book called, “The Myth of the Rational Voter”. In it he documents how destructive it is to vote on bias alone.

  2. The benefits of voting are really quite minimal
    1. A sense of having performed a civic duty
    2. An infinitesimally small chance of influencing the results – put another way, odds are *incredibly* high that my vote won’t impact what happens in the election.

  3. The effort to become an informed voter is high. I really don’t know who the candidates are. I *am* an ignorant voter. I could become informed, but at what cost? Studying candidates requires time. Time that I’d rather use for:
    1. Being a better husband & father
    2. Being a better employee
    3. Studying economics – something that sharpens my mind
    4. Time contemplating God and his will for me
    5. Watching my favorite sports teams – something that may be of less social value than voting, but of much more personal value to me.
    6. Hanging out with friends. Ironically, some of whom will discuss politics.
In short, I’m an ignorant voter because I have better uses for my time than to study candidates and wait in line to cast a vote that will have almost no influence on the outcome and give me an “I voted” sticker. Moreover, I believe strongly that voting ignorantly is socially destructive and I won’t do it.

So enjoy your votes everyone… but please only vote if you’re informed.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Magical Machine

Imagine that there was a gigantic machine that sat in Iowa. This machine is somewhat amazing. Magical, in fact. Into it you place things like corn and steel and beef and all the things that we produce in the United States. This machine churns for a little bit and then spits out things like cars and computers and champagne and rice – all kinds of things that are not produced in the US. The machine is really quite useful, because we put into it stuff that we do produce and we get back stuff that we don’t produce. W00t!

Now imagine that the input to that machine or the output from that machine changes. If the input decreases, but the output stays the same, we should be pretty happy. We have to work less to get the same level of stuff from the machine. Perhaps the input stays the same and the output increases. Again, we’re happy. We don’t have to work any harder, but we get more back from this wonderful machine.

On the other hand, maybe the input stays the same, but the output decreases. That’s sad news for us. We have to produce the same amount but we’re getting back less. Maybe the output stays the same, but now to get that output, we have to put more of our stuff in. Again, this is sad news for us. We have to work harder to get the same amount of stuff back from the magical machine.

So for us good news is when the machine is producing more than we are. Bad news is when we are forced to produce more than the machine does.

Now the magic in the machine doesn’t really have anything to do with it being placed in Iowa. The machine continues to work just fine if it’s in San Francisco. It’s a little less convenient for people from the east coast because they have to travel farther to get to it. But it turns out that we can easily put another one of these machines on the east coast, too. And another one in Texas.

And again what we want from these machines is for them to produce more than we do. If the machines produce more and we produce less, we’re better off. We’re richer because we expend less energy & resources while getting back more.

Now, of course these machines don’t exist. They’re fanciful chunks of my imagination. And (hopefully) now yours. But it turns out that I’m lying to you. Because the machines do exist. They’re called ports, and the mechanism by which they operate is trade.  The port in San Francisco deals primarily with trade to and from the far east – primarily China. And the machine is no less magical once it’s called a port. It does exactly what it did when we were calling it a machine. We put stuff into it that we produce and, as if by magic, other stuff that we don’t produce comes out.

But here’s the key: the rules of the port the same as the machine. If we import more than we export, we’re better off. We’re richer. We don’t have to work as hard and we get back the same or more.

Remember this when you hear people bemoan the trade deficit. The trade deficit measures how much work we have to do in order to get back work and products from other people. We are better off when we work less and get more.

The criticism to this view is that “working less” masks what’s really happening – people are losing their jobs. And that’s true. Working less means people losing jobs. But while this is a problem, it’s less of a problem than you might think.

First, people who are unemployed today are dramatically better off than if they were unemployed 100 years ago. Part of this is a result of government unemployment benefits. But those benefits exist only because our society is so wealthy that we can afford to grab some money from the employed and give it to the unemployed. If we were not wealthy enough to afford this, no amount of government imposed rules could make it happen. You simply aren’t going to be able to make the desperately poor better off by taking money from the slightly less poor. To help the unemployed, you need wealth. The point is this: even the unemployed are reaping huge benefits from the trade deficit. Unemployment today is a ton better than it was even just 30 years ago.

Second, while unemployment does cause pain, necessity is the mother of invention. The unemployed are incented to find some niche of production that hasn’t been brought to market yet. So they go searching for something to do. Most will just go looking for another job. But the jobs available to them will have changed. There’s a likelihood that they’ll work in a different industry than they previously had. That different industry is almost certainly newer than the one that they left. It is this mechanism by which entirely new wealth comes into existence. New industry emerges from a new idea that had never existed before. And that new idea, if it’s a good one, makes us all better off.

Don’t be confused: I’m not trying to minimize the difficulty of people losing their jobs. I’ve lost mine before and it sucks. There’s no way around it. But it’s part of a process. And that process is the society of humans re-inventing itself over and over again. Each time slightly better than the last time. And those slight improvements accrue into big changes over time. So much so that, just like today’s unemployed are better off than (probably) everyone from 100 years ago, I would expect that 50 or 100 years from now, the unemployed will likely be better off than most (if not all) of the employed today.

And the key thing at the heart of all this: trade. The more free it is, the more we do, the better off we are. Trying to level the trade deficit will kill the goose that laying the golden eggs.

N.B. I can’t take credit for coming up with the idea of equating a machine with trade. I first read this idea from David Friedman, and more recently read about it from Matt Ridley in “The Rational Optimist”. The purpose of my post here is to solidify the lesson in my head. I’ve discovered that there are a lot of things that I may think I understand conceptually, but that I don’t until I’ve actually written it down. Feel free to point out any errors you find.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

My Moral Defense of Wal-Mart

A friend of mine recently worried on facebook whether or not she could shop at Wal-Mart with a clean conscience. She sees Wal-Mart as evil. This point of view frequently surprises me. It strikes me that those who claim it aren’t looking deeply enough into the total effects of Wal-Mart on the community. Generally, they see that Wal-Mart comes into a community, and then long standing local businesses shut down. Putting people out of jobs. This is, of course, bad news. And they think they can make things better by just preventing Wal-Mart from being there.

But there’s another side to the story. The analysis that Wal-Mart is evil really misses a huge benefit that they bring with them. Specifically lower costs for consumers.

The simple question is this: should local consumers be forced to spend millions more on products in order to save the jobs of local businesses? When Wal-Mart is not allowed into a community, members of that community lose the cost savings that typically accompanies Wal-Mart. And instead are forced to spend more money at existing local business. By what principle should this redistribution of money from consumers to local business be forced on consumers?

Suppose Wal-Mart saves $1000 annually for people who shop there. This is not that difficult a number to imagine. If a person makes a trip to the store weekly, and saves a $20 each week, that adds up more than $1000 annually. Is it worth $1000 per year in extra costs to you to save the jobs of local business? That $1000 is money taken from your pocket and put into the pocket of the local business simply because they’re not as good at getting product to you as Wal-Mart is. If the local business came up to you directly and asked for $1000 every year, do you think you’d just hand them that cash? Well that’s what’s happening when local business demands that you protect their jobs from competition from Wal-Mart.

But maybe you do think that $1000 is worth it. You could be wealthy enough to afford it. Maybe you have friends who work in those local businesses and you can see the harm more directly and the $1000 seems pretty small to you. You’re wealthy enough to afford $1000 per year to help those people keep their jobs. OK, but by what logic do you impose that cost on the poor, who spend even more of their money at Wal-Mart than do the affluent? What makes you think it’s moral to force the poor to buy more expensive products for the benefit of local business?

If you really want to make this into a moral argument, you’d better understand that just about every decision has a tradeoff. When you weigh the decision, it isn’t that there local jobs lost on one side and nothing on the other. Instead you have losing local jobs on one side and higher prices for the poor on the other side.

If you think Wal-Mart is evil for the costs that it imposes on local business, consider what the costs are to the poor when you force Wal-Mart out. Because those are the choices. Choosing in favor of local business is also choosing to further impoverish the poor.

Now maybe your moral compass allows this. But mine does not. I find it incredibly distasteful to force the poor to subsidize local business by removing Wal-Mart as an option for them. So I shop at Wal-Mart with a clean conscience. I’m glad that they help not only me be a little less poor, but also those who are poorer than I am. I want that choice available to all. I am distrustful of local businesses when they demand that it not be allowed.

Perhaps the objection to Wal-Mart is that they hire sweatshop labor in third world countries. It's certainly true that sweatshop labor is horrible and difficult labor. But only compared to the standard of working that we have in the US. For many in the developing world, the alternative to working in a sweatshop isn't working in an office. It's working in a field. It's subsistence living. It's 16 hours of back breaking labor per day earning just enough to get food to survive the day. Compared to that, sweatshops are a step up. Which is why, when a factory in China opens up, the Chinese beg for the work.

There does not appear to be any known way to transition the desperately poor into an industrialized nation capable of producing wealth for its people without going through a phase in which sweatshops exist. The US went through that phase and it appears that others have to go through it, too. But this is only surprising and shocking to us looking back on it. For the desperately poor, stuck in subsistence living, sweatshops are a significant step up.  So, of course you have to go through that phase. In exactly the same way that if someone wants to get to the penthouse, they must first get past the second floor.

For a much better description of how sweatshops are beneficial to third world countries, read this:

Suffice it to say, I'm not convinced that Wal-Mart is evil.

Postscript: I should note that frequently Wal-Mart will come into a community and demand tax incentives from the local government in order to build. No such incentives should ever be granted to just Wal-Mart. If the taxes are too high to get Wal-Mart in, then special exemptions for them are wrong. Lower the taxes for everyone. It’s pretty likely that if lower taxes attract Wal-Mart, they’ll also attract other businesses. And you’ll likely generate at least as much (if not more) tax revenue post tax cut than before. See Laffer Curve.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Publicize my location & location history and somehow I win. Huh?

In late 2008, I opened my facebook account. I had heard friends talking about it and I didn’t understand it. So I cautiously created an account. After almost no time, I had figured out why people were so excited about facebook. It’s a revolution in keeping in contact with people. It makes distant friendships much easier to keep up with than email. Email focuses too much on the immediate message. Everytime you want to update via email, you have to refigure out who should get it. Facebook reverses that. You figure out your connections, and then focus on what you want to say.

Not too long after facebook, I figured that if I don’t understand something, it’s worth trying it and then maybe the experience will help me understand. So I tried twitter because that made no sense to me. I’m kind of wordy. Restricting myself to only 140 characters seemed the equivalent of trying to fit into my children’s clothes. But now I get it. Twitter is my news source. I search for things that interest me, then find the people who seem to have the best news, and follow them. From that point, I can just go to my twitter feed and get news about things that are interesting to me. Also, twitter provides a way for me to contribute to trends. I get to say the tiniest thing that is on my mind, and twitter aggregates it through search for those who are also interested in it. It helps me feel less alone in my thoughts.

Long and short: I now understand the appeal of both twitter and facebook. And a bunch of other things that I didn’t understand until I tried them. Blogs, Podcasts & RSS feeds come to mind.

But I’ve come to a service that I really don’t understand and am hesitant to try: location based check-ins. These services provide a mechanism for telling the internet where you are. Presumably the value in this is that you can figure out where your friends are and meet up with them w/out having to do the coordination thing. You know what I mean. You want to go to lunch with your friends. So you invite a bunch of them. One wants Thai food. Another wants Indian. Someone else wants Japanese. So you hem and haw for 30 minutes trying to figure out where to go. And all you really care about is going somewhere with friends.

Location based services (like Gowalla, Foursquare and Google’s Latitude) allow you to look up where your friends are and just show up, avoiding the whole coordination issue. The location service provider gets to gather interesting information about where people congregate, and then use that information for marketing. Locations want to participate so as to encourage people to congregate at their location, and buy services from them.

So, in one sense I understand location services. The problem that I have with them, and why I haven’t yet tried them, is that I’m not really sure that I want to tell the internet where I am and where I’ve been. I don’t like the idea of telling the world that, for example, I’m not at home at the moment. If I were someone interested in burglary, that’d be useful information. Especially, if (as seems common) people frequently check-in at home.

Location services just seem to provide too much information about me to the wide internet. With twitter and this blog, I am very careful not to post any personally identifying information. So far as I’m aware I have never revealed the name of my employer. Nor the names of my children or family. And I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned where I live. With facebook, it’s a little different. I reveal a lot more information, but I make thorough use of the privacy features of the site, which allows me pretty good control of who gets to see what I post.

But I can’t imagine a way to use gowalla, foursquare or latitude which doesn’t reveal too much. In particular my location.

So my question, dear Internet, is this? Do you use those services? If so, what benefit do you see from using them? Are you at all concerned with revealing your location to the world? What do you think of my concerns?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

I Was Wrong About Immigration

John Maynard Keynes once was getting berated for having changed his mind on a topic. To which he famously responded, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

Well it turns out that I got a pretty important fact wrong in my previous post on Immigration. I wrote this:
“…that illegal immigrants consume taxpayer services without themselves paying taxes is true. But this is an indictment of fiscal policy more than of immigration policy.”
My assumption here was that illegal immigrants were a drain on the welfare system, but that this fact did not justify removing them. My argument was that it justified reducing the benefits of the welfare system in order to not make it so attractive to immigrants.

But it turns out that I was wrong. Illegal immigrants are, in fact, *NOT* a drain on the welfare system, as Reason’s Shikha Dalmia pointed out over 4 years ago:
“…immigrants aren't flocking to the United States to mooch off the government. According to a study by the Urban Institute, the 1996 welfare reform effort dramatically reduced the use of welfare by undocumented immigrant households, exactly as intended. And another vital thing happened in 1996: the Internal Revenue Service began issuing identification numbers to enable illegal immigrants who don't have Social Security numbers to file taxes.… Close to 8 million of the 12 million or so illegal aliens in the country today file personal income taxes using these numbers, contributing billions to federal coffers.

…What's more, aliens who are not self-employed have Social Security and Medicare taxes automatically withheld from their paychecks. Since undocumented workers have only fake numbers, they'll never be able to collect the benefits these taxes are meant to pay for. Last year, the revenues from these fake numbers — that the Social Security administration stashes in the "earnings suspense file" — added up to 10 percent of the Social Security surplus. The file is growing, on average, by more than $50 billion a year.”
Raising taxes, either through income tax or a VAT or any way is a solution to a non-problem, becuase illegal immigrants are not, in fact, a net drain on US taxes.I was mistaken that I thought this was actually a problem that needed to be solved. What I should have said was “*if* illegal immigrants consumed taxpayer services without themselves paying taxes, it *would* be an indictment of fiscal policy more than of immigration policy.”
I regret the error. Hence the correction.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

National Day of Prayer

On my way to work yesterday morning, I heard this story on NPR about a federal judge in Wisconsin who struck down the statute that called for the national day of prayer. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is pretty happy about that. The National Day of Prayer Task Force isn’t.

As a Christian I am, of course, in favor of prayer. But I find that both sides have a very poor understanding of history when it comes to freedom of religion. And I’m appalled at the religious side’s argument.

Sweden has a state church. They are also amongst the most atheist of countries on the planet. Henry VIII created the state church in England. The land from which the Pilgrims fled. He did this in part because he was not enamored of the power that Roman Catholicism had in the world.  And that’s to say nothing of national Islam and the problems that causes in the world. Even the Bible documents what state religion was like for the early Christians in Rome.

The marriage of religion and state is a terrible thing. And the founding fathers knew this despite their being, by in large, Christians. They recalled the reasons that the Pilgrims fled England and settled in the colonies, and knew that the separation of state and church was the best way to allow for religious freedom. And that this was the best way to preserve the Christian church (and all faiths). Separation of church and state prevented politicians from using the power of their office to persecute faiths they disagreed with. Imagine a Catholic got elected to President and made an executive order making Protestant churches illegal! Imagine a Muslim were to get elected and declared Islam the state religion – something that many Muslims believe is the call of all Muslims – to create an Islamic nation.

The separation of church and state is no small thing. And when Christians call for the state to execute its power and call for a national day of prayer, they do a great injustice to the thing that preserves their right to worship as they feel fit. They make it easier for the next guy to come in and take another step towards their own persecution.

Ironically, if I were an atheist, and were interested in converting others to atheism, I’d want to find some religion and install it as the state religion. My goal would be to generate the level of apathy about spiritual issues that exists in Sweden. Of course, I couldn’t go as far as the marriage of state religions like in Iran or Afghanistan. But something timid and boring and irrelevant as the state religion is what I’d install. Then I’d fund it just enough to crowd out private alternatives. And viola, a Swedish style atheist state.

So I find it incredibly ironic that the atheist in the story – the member of the group called Freedom *From* Religion Foundation is doing protecting freedom *of* religion, by insisting that the state have no power to promote any religion. And that it is the person in favor of the national day of prayer who does not see the threat that it imposes on religious freedom.

As a human being and as a Christian, there is very little that I fear more than the power that we’ve given to the government. I do not want them holding power to dictate religious practices, even if that means there’s no national day of prayer.

Michael Calhoun, the spokesman for the National Day of Prayer Task Force, said, “No longer will an atheist in Wisconsin undermine a tradition for millions of Americans who simply want to pray for their nation.” To which I say that those same Americans are free to pray for their nation. But that freedom is eroded, if only a little bit, by having a national day of prayer.

How should this be handled? Church leaders should call on their congregations to pray. Individuals should call on their friends to pray. We do not need or want the state executing this power.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


I was listening to This American Life and their episode on Urban Legends. There were a lot of things in this episode that really irritated me. Mainly because the reporting presented conclusions, but did so by missing pretty important alternative explanations. Explanations that left their conclusions on less solid footing than they presented.  I’m only going to talk about one of them.

If you’re familiar with TAL, you know that they break their show into “Acts”. An act is a single story that revolves around the central theme that they’ve chosen for that week. The theme for this particular week was urban legends that turn out to be true. Act 3 was called “Sleeper Cell”.  And it was about the urban legend that cell phones are dangerous.

At one point, the person being interviewed, Christopher Ketcham, notes that there are lots of studies on each side of this debate. But he notices that if you draw a line around the source of funding of the studies, you discover that of those studies that are funded by industry, 75% show no harm. But those studies that are not funded by industry have 75% of them showing harm.  The implication is that industry is buying the results that they want.

And let me say right now: maybe that’s true. But the big question that came to my mind was this: who’s funding the studies that aren’t funded by industry? There are really only two possibilities: these studies were funded by individuals (extremely rare) or they were funded by the government. And here’s where Ketcham makes an assumption that I think is false: that government is independent, working for our better interests, with no ulterior motives involved, and that their funding of studies is for pure scientific results only, and is not in any way influenced by an agenda.

I don’t believe this assumption. Maybe my friends on the left do. To which I would say to remember that republicans are part of the government, too. It’s pretty easy to see how they’ve got ulterior motives, isn’t it? Sure, you might say, they’re funded by industry. Ok. But some of them lose to democrats. Who funds the democrats campaigns? By people ardently opposed to industry? If you believe that republicans are beholden to the sources of their funding, why do you then not believe the same thing about democrats?

My point is this: if you assume that the source of funding for a study invalidates the results, then don’t you have to call into question the studies that are funded by the government? Aren’t politicians at least as politically motivated to lie and get the results they want as is industry? Why do we automatically assume ill gotten results when industry funds a study, but automatically assume validity when government funds a study?

And none of this even goes to the heart of the problem: it is patently false to say that the source of funding is sufficient as the *only* means to invalidate a study. If you want to correctly invalidate a study, you have to find fault with one of the following:
  • The methodology used to gather the data in the study
  • The data
  • The conclusions drawn from the data
A critique of the funding source is only valid *AFTER* you’ve found some flaw inside the study. At that point, and only at that point, can you claim that the funders bought the results that they wanted. If your only critique of a study is the funding source, what you’re demonstrating is that you were either too lazy to read the study or too ignorant to be able to critique it on its merits.

Watch me now feign surprise that Ketcham, the guy who found the connection between the funding and the results, was a journalist and not a scientist.

And one more thing. Ketcham’s article on this topic says the following: “Interphone researchers reported in 2008 that after a decade of cell-phone use, the chance of getting a brain tumor—specifically on the side of the head where you use the phone—goes up as much as 40 percent for adults.” Two things: first notice the use of weasel words “as much as”, second it provides no context for what 40% means. That looks like a really big number so it must be a really big risk, right?

Let me show you a completely hypothetical example of how numbers can be used to mislead.  Suppose that in any given year, you have a 1 in 1,000,000 chance of dying prematurely. That’s a 0.0001% chance. If you introduce something else and the risk of dying now is 2 in 1,000,000 the percentage is now 0.0002% chance. However since the number of people who died has doubled, you can say that the risk of the thing you introduced increases your chances of death by 100%. And this is not false. But the risk of death is still only 0.0002% after introducing the change. In absolute terms, the new risk is still incredibly small, only slightly larger than the old risk.

Journalists are prone to this type of reporting.  Numbers like this are really big and create a reason for people to read their story. Note that by this logic, a risk that goes from 0.0001% to 0.001% is a 1000% increased risk. But a 0.001% risk is still an incredibly small risk.  So when you read that the risk of some bad thing increases by some percentage, the thing to ask is this: what was the risk before, and what is the risk after? If they’re both really small numbers then you probably shouldn’t worry about it.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010


I've been re-watching one of my favorite TV series of all time, Firefly. It's unfortunate that this series was canceled before even one season could complete. It was absolutely brilliant and Fox did it a great disservice in the way they aired it.

Anyway, I like it mostly because the cast of characters in this 14 episode series are incredibly complex and rich and well thought out. My favorite character is Malcolm Reynolds, the captain. He would be - if he lived here - a libertarian. This quote from him is really quite insightful:
A government is just a group of people, usually notably ungoverned.
And it reminds me of those who put a great deal of trust in government. The government isn't magic. It's just people. People who are given a lot of power. And with almost no accountability. Sure, there are elections... every 4 years!  But in between those elections we have very little power to contain the hubris of those we've elected.

And I'm reminded of this as I contemplate a piece of news that came out today:
Today, both The New York Times and The Washington Post confirm that the Obama White House has now expressly authorized the CIA to kill al-Alwaki no matter where he is found, no matter his distance from a battlefield.
The person in question, Anwar al-Awlaki, is an American-born Islamic cleric. In other words, he's an American citizen. Now one could argue that this doesn't change anything. And I have before. I believe that the rights described by our constitution are rights that all people have - not just US citizens. So it makes no difference that he's an American or not. I believe that his right to due process is a constraint on the behavior of our government regardless of his citizenship. Of course, not everyone agrees with this.

But there is little disagreement that the constitution requires due process as a protection for American citizens, and he is one. And the president has just authorized his execution without due process! This is crossing a line beyond which is a short step to totalitarianism. I was angry when the Bush Administration held what it called "enemy combatants" for years in Guantanamo. That was, in my opinion, an egregious violation of those people's civil rights. But so far as I'm aware, no one was summarily executed. If the people in power can kill this man without due process demanded by the constitution, what else are they willing to do? Is there no line they're unwilling to cross?

My hope for this is that somewhere, something was grossly mis-reported. That there's some fact here not yet known that changes this whole story. The alternative - that it's accurate - is horrifying. It means that we don't just have a government that's fiscally out of control, we have people in power who do not respect the rule of law. And they have the keys to the weapons.

This Bears Repeating

The United States Code -- containing federal statutory law -- is more than 50,000 pages long and comprises 40 volumes. The Code of Federal Regulations, which indexes administrative rules, is 161,117pages long and composes 226 volumes.

No one on Earth understands them all, and the potential interaction among all the different rules would choke a supercomputer. This means, of course, that when Congress changes the law, it not only can't be aware of all the real-world complications it's producing, it can't even understand the legal and regulatory implications of what it's doing.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds

No Tax Refunds

Megan McArdle has a great post on why it’s important to *NOT* get a tax refund. Long and short: you’re giving the government an interest free loan. Don’t do it. If you really like the forced savings, you can do that on your own AND earn interest. Adjust your withholding on your W4 form so that you don’t give them the interest free loan. Unfortunately, she doesn’t address how to adjust your withholding so that you can control how much you pay in taxes. So I’m stepping in to tell you what I do.

I should mention that I am *NOT* a tax attorney, nor an accountant. I’m simply telling you what I do and what works for me. If you decide to use this, and it doesn’t work out, don’t come looking to me for answers. You’ve been warned.

So here’s the deal. You want to withhold enough to cover what you’ll likely owe in taxes, but not too much so that you don’t give too big of a loan to the government. My personal goal is a $100 refund. My real goal would be a $0 refund. But the problem is that if I estimate wrong, I underpay. And our lovely government, who doesn’t pay interest if you overpay, will charge you a penalty if you underpay. !@#$%*^ hypocrites!

But it turns out that it’s pretty easy to adjust my withholding to be pretty darn close to what I want. Here’s what I do:
  1. On last year’s tax return, I look for the amount I owed in total tax. For 2009 (the one I just filed) it this was line 44 on form 1040. I don't know if it's always line 44, but that's what it was this year.
  2. I will use that number as a guess as to how much I will owe next year. Let’s pretend that the number was $2000 and that I get 24 paychecks per year.
  3. Now, if I want to get a $100 refund, I need to pay $2000 (what I estimate I'll owe) + $100 (my intended refund). And I need to divide that into 24 paychecks. Which means that I need to pay $87.50 per paycheck.
Now I know that I want $87.50 withheld from my paycheck to reach my goal of a $100 refund. To set that up, I get a W4 form from my HR department. It’s got a whole bunch of instructions on it. I ignore them & go straight to the form part:
  1. Line 5 on the W4 asks how many allowances I am claiming. Using the instructions, most people get fewer than 10. With 4 kids, I end up with about 10 allowances. But I declare 30. Yes, really. By declaring that large of a number, it effectively puts my federal withholding to $0 per paycheck.
  2. Now, of course, I don’t want to underpay, so on Line 6 it asks me how much additional I’d like withheld. Since I’m already at $0, and I know from above that I want exactly $87.50 withheld, I put $88.00 on Line 6 (the feds like to round to the nearest dollar, and I don't want to guess if they'll round up or down). And that’s the exact amount that my HR department will withhold for Federal taxes each paycheck.
I then do the same thing for the state withholding form, using last year’s state tax paid. It works well.

My point: I give the government a teeny tiny interest fee loan. Sure, I don't get that big refund every year, but I get a bigger paycheck each pay period.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Public Prayer

As a Christian, one of the things that happens frequently is that in a group of people, one of them will, sooner or later, offer to pray for something. If it’s a meal, we’re asking to bless the food and the conversation. If it’s a small group, we might pray for just about anything that is on the minds of the people in the group. If it’s a church service, typically, the pastor will close the service in prayer, asking for help related to the topic of the message that was just delivered.

We pray publically. A lot.

But I’ve always been fairly uncomfortable doing it. I never know what to say. I often feel like what I’m saying is not meant for God, but rather for the people I’m with. Perhaps to share my needs, fears, etc with them so that they know. Perhaps to reinforce something that we’d talked about. But when I pray publically like that, I constantly fumble around what I mean to say – and it almost never comes out quite right. Which isn’t a problem for God, but is if I’m trying to share that information with the people in the room. And, by convention, there’s no chance for those people to stop me and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

This weekend, as I attended a men’s small group that I’ve just recently joined, something odd struck me while we were praying. Every man in that room was a Christian. Which means that every man in that room has the holy spirit with them, guiding them, as a still, small voice. Including me. The problem is that I am very skilled at ignoring that still, small voice. Or I’ve built up habits in my life that serve to muffle the voice. And it struck me that the entire meeting is a public prayer – not just the 5 minutes or so at the end where we close our eyes, bow our heads and start talking. When I meet with those men, what I’m doing is hoping that the issues that I bring, and the questions that I have, that those other men – in aggregate – will listen to the Holy Spirit and help me to un-muffle the voice that is speaking to me.

And as a mechanism for communicating with God, this is LOT more effective than just talking with my eyes closed. Someone talks back. If they don’t understand what I’m saying, they ask for clarity. If they do understand and have a suggestion, they give it. If that suggestion doesn’t match with Biblical teaching, the odds that someone in the group will know that is higher because there are more people listening to the Holy Spirit and thinking about the Word.

I’m think that there is a value in traditional “prayer time” for me privately. When I stop myself, close myself off from distractions, lay the issues in my life in front of God, and still myself to try and hear his response through the Holy Spirit. But I’m beginning to think that my public “prayer time” is quite a bit less useful, especially in comparison to just the conversation that happens with other Christians. That public prayer time allows me to share my stuff with the people I’m with, but in an extremely ineffective way, precluding others from asking questions and giving feedback. Instead, I’m beginning to think of the entire time as an interactive prayer among people each trying to un-muffle the voice of the Holy Spirit. And together being better able to get at His voice than we can alone.

Still, I often find myself listening to someone else who does pray publically very well, and I’m often emotionally moved by the power of what they’re saying. Maybe it’s the humility that they’re expressing. Maybe it’s their awe at God and his world. I think that there is great value in public prayer. I’m just terrible at it, so I tend to avoid it.

My point: traditional public prayer is, I think, more about the people in the room than about communication with God. Deep conversation with a group of Christians seems to me to have a better chance at 2-way communication with God via the Holy Spirit than does group prayer.

But I could be wrong.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Obama vs McCain, The Rematch

President Obama put a smack down on Senatar McCain today during the health care summit. Here’s what happened:
"Both of us during the campaign promised change in Washington," McCain said. "In fact, eight times [as a candidate] you said that negotiations on health care reform would be broadcast on C-SPAN cameras," he said. "I'm glad that more than a year later they are, here. Unfortunately, this product was not produced in that fashion, it was produced behind closed doors."

"Special deals for the special interests and favored few" should be removed from the health care legislation, McCain said.

Obama said in response, "Let me just make this point, John, because we're not campaigning anymore. The election's over."
Wow! Just, wow! McCain holds the President’s feet to the fire for not fulfilling a campaign promise and the President tries to make it look like sour grapes for having lost. Here’s what I wish McCain would have said in response:
Excuse me, Mr. President, perhaps you’ve misunderstood what I was talking about. I was not complaining about having lost an election. You won that election on the strength of your promises. Promises that have been broken. I am not just exercising my duty as a US Senator, but more importantly as a citizen of the United States. You got elected on promises that you’ve since broken. I think the American people are interested in a reconciliation of that discord, much more than using reconciliation to bypass dissent.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Because I said so

A guy I know from church writes a great blog documenting his experience as a stay-at-home dad. He wrote a very entertaining post in which he lamented saying and doing all the things he hears himself saying. Including the classic “because I said so” response. I want to defend the phrase. All 4 of my boys have heard it from me and their mom, and I think it’s a good thing. I have three reasons why I’m not embarrassed using it:
  1. God doesn’t seem to be embarrassed to say it to me. He expects my obedience. He will occasionally explain why to me, but not always. God knows human behavior better than anyone. He knows how we react to explanations and the lack of explanations. And he doesn’t always give explanations. Apparently he seems to think we’ll be ok without always having directions explained. If God thinks I’ll be OK without an explanation then I think my kids will be OK without one, too.

  2. My kids are not smart enough to understand all of the intricacies of decisions that I have to make on their behalf. “Because I said so” is typically a wrong answer to give to a peer. But it’s completely reasonable for someone who understands the bigger picture to give to someone who doesn’t.

    This is the justification for why God doesn’t always explain himself to us. This is the justification for why my manager frequently doesn’t explain her decisions to me. This is the justification for why I frequently don’t explain all of my coding decisions right back to her. And it’s a completely reasonable justification for why my children simply must comply when I say to get shoes on and get in the car right now.

    Do you, dear child, understand what happens when daddy is late for work? Do you understand how it impacts your vacation next summer? Do you understand how this impacts mommy if I have to stay at work later? Do you understand how it impacts a huge variety of things that you are important to you? No, you don’t. And you don’t need to yet. You’re 4. The answer to your question is “because I said so”. It embodies not just that I expect you to comply (which I do), but also that I have your interest in mind. Interests that you can’t even fathom.
  3. My kids may not understand all of the intricacies of human interaction that will stem from their non-compliance with my directions, but they are smart enough to realize that “why” is an effective stall technique. They don’t really want an explanation. They want to delay following my direction in the hopes that a long enough delay will result in not having to comply. And the more complex the answer, the longer the explanation.

    There is a simple one-liner that you can use to acknowledge your child’s curiosity while still expecting compliance. When they say “why”, simply respond with, “I’ll be happy to explain after you’ve done what I said.” And then turn into a broken record. Any time “why” is asked, simply repeat the one-liner, probably followed by, “Now please go do what I said.” This one-liner will distinguish the truly curious from those who are trying to stall. Those who want to know will follow-up afterwards. I’d say that my kids follow-up less than 10% of the time. Some of the 90% non-follow-up can be explained by forgetfulness, but most I attribute to the ulterior motive of trying to stall.
As my children get older, I think it’s very reasonable to explain things to them. As they become adults, I am decreasing my responsibility for their lives in proportion to their taking that responsibility. When they are fully adult, they should have full responsibility for their life. And if I do something that impacts their life, then it’s reasonable for them to demand an explanation. But my pre-teen children are not there yet.

I frequently think that parents are overly influenced by their experience as teenagers. They think, “I’ll never do/say/think that” to some behavior that their parents did when they were in their teens. Teenagers expect to be treated much more like adults than children. And I think that’s correct. I think it’s completely reasonable for most 18 year olds to expect to be treated more like an adult than a child. But my 4 year old is *NOT* remotely close to being an adult. And it is completely unreasonable for me to treat him like one. I think that far too many parents make the mistake of treating their toddlers like they wanted to be treated as a teen. Then the resulting misbehavior that child learns from too much freedom, requires that they treat those same children like toddlers when they’re teenagers. Spurring those children to repeat the whole process all over again when they become parents.

I say, “No.” I will happily not explain myself to a child who can’t possibly understand. But in exchange, I will give that child more freedom (along with the corresponding responsibility) as he approaches adulthood. My hope is that by the time my children are 18 years old, they will be taking most of the responsibility (and receiving most of the corresponding freedom) for their own lives. Hence my challenge (for my 12 year old) is to regularly release my control of his life to him by giving him more freedom, not less.

But this required starting with “because I said so” when he was 4.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My kids and race

Niffer asks asks me to comment on an awkward situation caused by the innocent observation of a child.

And I must confess to being stumped by this one.I don’t really have any confident suggestions for this situation. Maybe the parent could have said something that would have alleviated the tension. But then again, looking at the links in commenter Liana’s post, it is apparently incredibly easy to say exactly the wrong thing and then be judged harshly by the internets.

Frankly, I’d prefer that everyone involved recognize that children often say blunt things. And no amount of parental input has kept my children from saying inconsiderate blunt things to other people. Children do this because they have no idea what impact those things will have. They don’t know that other people often get hurt when we say blunt things. When an adult says something blunt, we naturally think that adult did so intentionally to hurt the other person. Because we expect the adult to know, from experience, how others are likely to react. But we really shouldn’t expect this same thing of kids. And it really shouldn’t reflect poorly on that child’s parents, either. After watching my four children, and scores of their friends, I’m convinced that children just say blunt things, and that no amount of parenting can really prevent that. If you don’t believe this, then why do you know the phrase "Kids say the darndest things"? Because parents everywhere are surprised by (and frequently embarrassed at) the things kids say. This happens so often that we’ve developed shorthand to capture this, and it’s that phrase.

Had the situation happened to me, I’m pretty sure that in the midst of it, I’d have simply apologized and pulled my kid away from the situation. And I can even imagine the conversation I’d have with him in the car about people having lots of different skin colors. I might even stop to show him that hi skin color isn’t as dark as my own. I would then mention that a lot of mean people don’t like the fact that some people have darker skin than others. And as a result, when you notice someone else has darker skin, they don’t know if you’re one of the mean people or the nice people. They might think you’re trying to be mean. So if you’re going to say something about someone else’s skin color, it’s a good idea to say something nice about it. Then that person will know that you’re not a mean person.

But then again, I’m pretty certain that my 4 year old would have lost interest at about the point I was saying, "people have lots of different skin colors." Maybe that’d be enough. Maybe it wouldn’t. I don’t know. As far as I can tell, no parents anywhere have found an effective way to prevent embarrassment from the things their kids say.

The good news is that they will eventually become teenagers, and embarrassment will run much more easily in the other direction. I personally plan on taking advantage of this. Late for school? No problem. I’m going to dress up in the nerdiest outfit I can find, walk you to class, and announce that I’m your proud father. I will introduce myself to every person I meet, especially if they’re pretty girls, and frequently hug you. All under the guise that as your parent, it’s my job to make sure you get to school on time. If you can’t handle that on your own, then this is what I’ll have to do.

I’ve already announced this to all of my children in the hopes that the mere threat will prevent the need to actually do it. My own personal teenage nuclear weapon. I have it. You know I have it. Don’t make me use it. Yes. This is payback for the comments you made to the guy in the wheelchair when you were 4.

Friday, February 12, 2010

In my box

Someone I've never met made a painting. It's a beautiful painting. I like it quite a bit. Although, when I looked at it more carefully, I saw things that I didn't the first time around. I don't know if that was intentional by the artist or not. I don't really care. I like it for my own reasons.

And the reasons are that it reminds me of something that was given to me by my girlfriend in college. She had this drawing that she made on a piece of cardboard. One that she didn't think very highly of, but that I liked. She tried to throw it away but I didn't want her to because I liked it. Eventually, she completed that drawing and wrote a note on the back of it and gave it to me. I was pretty sure that I kept it. So I went to the box that I have where I think I'd have put it.

The box is this wooden foot locker type box. It has my name on it and a padlock - which is now permanantly opened. It was made for me by two of my uncles and my grandfather when I was my oldest son's age. It's turned into the place where I store stuff from days gone by.

I haven't been in the box in a while, and I started looking for this drawing. I didn't find it. It may just be that I need to look more thoroughly becuase I got distracted by a bunch of things that I did find. Letters to and from old girlfriends. Compositions that I made in highschool and college. Letters to and from the girlfriend who eventually became my wife.

Most of what I found I wouldn't share with anyone. It's *FAR* too embarrassing. But I came upon one thing that I really am glad that I found. It's a poem that I wrote as a senior in high school, after I'd had a very unexpected dream.  Here it is:


In my dreams I saw her
It was night
And she was afraid of the lightning
And she came in our room
And she held on to me. Tightly.
And when she let go, it was day.
And we were in the park
By the playground.
She asked if she could
Go on the swings with me
The smile that lit up her face as I nodded
Flooded into me
And all I wanted was for her to smile forever.

Because her smile is just like yours
And her eyes are just like yours
And she's a lot like you
But not exactly.
And that's why loving the both of you
Makes me complete
And for the first time in my life I can appreciate
My parents.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


I'm a fan of google reader. I'm able to read a lot of blogs rather quickly using that tool. One of the blogs that I read is called fingertoe. The author put up a post which included a couple of youtube videos and some commentary. The commentary is when I look at the blog with google reader, but not directly on the site. The author appears to be working on this. Hopefully it will show up there, soon.

But here are the videos.  Below is the quoted commentary.

(Direct link for those reading this on facebook)

(Direct link for those reading this on facebook)

In both of these examples, I think that they hold up an ideal that is correct. Husbands should provide for their families. Parents should actively insure that their children are being descipled under the biblical worldview.

Now the challenge is that many of us fall short. We live in a fallen world, and we are being rescued from a fallen culture – one that doesn’t necessarily prescribe to the same values as Voddie and Mark. The values being espoused should be something that we can aspire to, not something that we need to feel unchristian about because we are not fully sanctified yet. If you are 18 years old, just setting out on your own, don’t go and aspire to find a Doctor wife so you can stay at home and play all day. Aspire to be a primary provider. But if you are a father of 4, and your wife has a long established career, give yourself some slack… Try to conform to the ideal as much as it is practical. Your situation isn’t ideal, but few are.

Many folks tend to say “Oh, he is just too radical on that issue” and throw out the advice altogether. I do not think this is wise. When we are in less than ideal circumstances we need to understand that. We need to try to compensate for that, and when practical we ought to consider making sacrifices to get ourselves into a more ideal situation.
I find both of these videos to be highly disturbing. The first one quotes scripture, but without citations. My question for Mark Driscoll would be this: Scripture says that men must provide for their family. Is financial provision the only possible meaning of that passage? I'm not sure that I can agree with that interpretation. It may very well be that the circumstances of a person's life are such that the husband staying at home, allowing the wife to work, is actually a bigger financial provision than the husband working. This turns out to be happening quite a bit.

When it comes to homeschooling, I'm really at a loss for words. The quote that is mentioned from Luke comes in the middle of a passage about judging others.  Here's the full context. That passage, to me, says this: don't let people teach you to judge. I don't think it says, "don't let your kids go to public school."

Here's a basic fact, that seems indisputable to me, both biblically, and empiracally: we are each given different skills in life. Bibically, these are called gifts or talents. Empiracally, this is called the division of labor. And both theology and economics find that these differentiated gifts are very, very good things. What if our skills are not in giving our children an education in basic skills like math, reading, writing, history, etc? What if they are best served learning those fields from others with gifts and talents in those areas? Yes, we as parents, are to lead them spiritually, but do you really think that the only way to do that is to extract them from public school and provide all of their education at home? Really? I don't.

I would like to take the advice of the blogger above: and not throw out the advice in these two videos. And I think it's wise to be humble. But I am finding myself, more frequently of late, thinking that a lot of pastors have a difficult time differentiating what works for them with what ought to be prescribed for everyone. And I think the above two videos may be doing that. I think they're interpreting scripture in light of their personal circumstances and coming up with what it means they are to do for their family. But I suspect that they're also then saying, and you ought to do this too, without considering the possibility that each family's circumstances are different.

But I'm willing to listen to others who think differently. Please share your thoughts.

Friday, February 05, 2010

To Deduct or Not To Deduct

I’m frustrated with the health insurance that we have.

First I should tell you that we don’t have traditional health insurance. For my family, I have a high deductable health plan (HDHP) which allows me to contribute money to a health savings account (HSA). The money that I put into my HSA goes in before taxes are calculated on my paycheck. I can then take that money out of my HSA tax free as long as it’s used for certain health related expenses that the IRS has decided are acceptable. The list of things that the IRS allows includes the vast majority of things you’d expect to be called health expenses. And several things that most insurance companies don’t cover.

There are a few reasons that I do this:
  1. The cost of an HDHP is a *LOT* less than traditional health insurance. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a better deal. But when I calculate the worst case scenario of HDHP + HSA and compare it to the worst case scenario of traditional health insurance they come out about the same. The worst case scenario costs are the annual sum of all premiums plus the plan’s maximum out of pocket expenses. Add those up, and HDHP+HSA is roughly equal cost to traditional health insurance.

    Where the HDHP+HSA really makes up the difference is in best case scenario. In the best case scenario, I have no out of pocket expenses (e.g. I don’t use health care at all for the year) but I pay only the premium. For traditional health insurance the best case scenario is only a tiny bit less expensive than the worst case scenario. But with the HDHP+HSA plan, the best case scenario is a *LOT* less expensive than the best case scenario of traditional health insurance. Thus, with an HDHP+HSA plan, I get rewarded for consuming wisely.

    Now, IMHO, neither the worst case scenario nor the best case scenario are very likely. More realistically, we’ll spend more than the best case scenario and much less than the worst case scenario. But the worst that can happen is that we’ll spend exactly the same as traditional health insurance. And more than likely, we’ll save a lot of money.

  2. There are some tax advantages to HDHP+HSA that aren’t available with traditional insurance. With traditional insurance, I can only deduct the premium expenses from my taxes, if I get the insurance from my employer. That’s still true with an HDHP. But with the HSA, I get to deduct $6000 per year (in contributions to the HSA) that I can’t deduct if I’m self employed or  not getting insurance through my employer.

  3. If I’m frugal and don’t spend that $6000 contribution this year, I still get the tax deduction. But I also keep that money in the HSA. I’m not left with a “use it or lose it” type scenario like with flexible spending accounts.
All told, I think HDHP+HSA makes a lot of sense. It makes the health insurance market much more like other insurance markets. Encouraging this type of health insurance is the type of reform that would actually drive health care costs down.

I like the plan that I have. My frustration stems from how health care providers have to react in light of it.

So my wife just called me from visiting a chiropractor – an allowed expense. When she went to pay for the we were stuck with a decision. We get the insurance negotiated price, which in this case is $42 per visit. However, the Chiropractor offers a package deal to customers. E.g. buy 5 visits, and the price per visit is $35. That saves $7 per visit compared to the insurance negotiated price. So you’d think, well that’s a good deal, let’s go with that.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Our HDHP has (of course) a high deductible. $4000 for the family. All of our expenses count against that deductible. Prior to meeting the deductible, we pay 100% of those expenses out of our HSA. After meeting the deductible, we pay 20% of those expenses and insurances covers the remaining 80% until we get to our maximum out of pocket. Once we get there we pay 0% and insurance covers 100%. So there are 2 levels to be concerned with:
  1. The deductable - $4000 of expenses
  2. Max out of pocket - $8000 of expenses
And here’s the problem. If we choose that 5pack of coverage – saving $35, the whole cost ($175) won’t count against our deductible nor our max out of pocket. It can’t. If the provider submits this fee to the insurance company, the insurance company will then try to renegotiate his prices. The provider who used to have a $42 rate will now be forced down to a $35 rate, and he’ll get less reimbursement from the insurance company.

So we’re stuck with this decision: is it better to pay $35 per visit (saving $7) but not have it count against our deductible? Or is it better to pay the $42 per visit and have each visit count against our deductible? If we choose the former, we save $7 now, but we might have to pay an additional $175 later if we get close to our deductible. If we choose the latter, then we lose $7 now.

And you’d be surprised how frequently we’re stuck with this type of decision. There are many times when we’re talking to a health care provider who, knowing that we’re paying for a service out of our pocket, is willing to cut us a deal. But in doing so, we forfeit the ability to have those fees count against our deductible and max out of pocket.

And these costs matter. Because they change the worst case scenario calculations that I made above. They increase the worst case scenario cost of having an HDHP+HSA.

I think in the example that we’re talking about. Saving $7 per visit is really not that much savings – only about 16% savings. In this case, the differences are close enough that it probably makes more sense to pay the $7 to have it count against our deductible. But there are other providers for whom the deal that they’re willing to cut us is about 50% savings. That’s a much bigger immediate savings and a much bigger cost as we get closer to the deductible. One example is where the out of pocket cost is $200 and it applies to our deductible. But if we pay it out of pocket directly, it only costs $100. What do you do then? Do I save $100 now, or pay $200 in additional deductible later? I’m tempted to save the $100 now. But it’s not obvious that’s the right plan.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Palm Pre vs HTC Hero Part 3

A while back, I wrote two comparison reviews of my experiences with the Palm Pre and the HTC Hero. They are available here and here.

I track the hits on my blog. If you scroll all the way down to the bottom you'll see a little green square from sitemeter. Go ahead and click on it. You'd be surprised at how much information it contains.(For those of you reading this on facebook, click on "view original post" then scroll to the bottom)

It turns out that those two posts are the most popular posts on my blog... by a *HUUGE* margin. Prior to these posts, I had maybe 200 visits in that little green box. And it took a couple of *years* to get to that.  Since I made those posts in November (a mere 2 months), I have nearly 7000 visits! So, as a follow-up (and also a way to generate more hits) I'm writing my reactions a few months later.

I was never able to convince Sprint to let me swap out my Palm Pre for an HTC Hero. I really wanted to do that. I was tired of the problems that I was having w/the Pre and needed something that was going to work more reliably for me. In retrospect I'm glad that it didn't happen.  In the 2 months since I did that experiment, WebOS has advanced by leaps and bounds.  I was on WebOS 1.2.1 when I wrote those. Since then 1.3.1, 1.3.5 and have been released. Each has come incremental improvements, but most notably:
  1. Battery life is a little bit better overall, but *MUCH* better when using WIFI at home. I can easily get one full day out of a single charge if I stayed on wifi all the time. Easily. Whereas it used to be a struggle to get through a day.
  2. I don't remember which release brought it (I think it was 1.3.1) but the calendar is a lot faster now. It's become usable.
  3. 3D games are available. I have purchased only 2: Asphalt 5 and Let's Golf. Both of which are great fun.
  4. The number of apps in the app catalog has grown rapidly. Back then I think there were around 500 apps. As of right now, the number is 1348. They hit 1000 apps on Dec 31 right before the new year. 348 apps in a month is very encouraging.  And some of the apps that are coming out are very clever.  I'm particularly fond of GeoStrings which has saved me from forgetting a honey-do task on several occasions.
  5. Palm has announced that 2 things will be available in the 1.4 WebOS release in February: video recording and Adobe Flash support. Video recording is a big deal to me. I really miss that feature from my centro. Flash brings things that I've wanted to get on my phone: mostly access to audio & video that I would normally have to use a computer to access.
Those things have made me quite a bit more pleased w/my Pre than I was in November. That said there are still things that I wish this phone could do better:
  • Battery life while not on Wifi is still attrociuos. I carry a spare battery and it's annoying that I have to frequently use it.
  • The OS speed is better but it can still get really really laggy. I hope that they will run all the animations through the GPU to improve performance.
  • The Tasks application is still bad. I have no way to set a recurring task - like (for example) reminding myself to take out the garbage every Monday night. But of course once it's done it should stop reminding me until next week!
  • There are a couple of visual voicemail applications available (here and here). But both are hacks that rely on using a 3rd party voicemail service - which, to Sprint's credit is easy to set up. However, I really want to see direct supported visual voicemail from Sprint on this device similar to the way it works in Android. It's much more reliable than either of the available visual voicemail apps.
  • There are still no voice recording or voice recognition features. Something that I *really* liked on android.
  • I still dislike gestures. Others seem to absolutley love them. But I find them unreliable. When I want to go back, I want to go back immediately. I don't want to swipe at the screen and only convince the phone that I'm going back 9 out of 10 times. This is too basic of a function. 90% is too low of a success rate. The 10% failure rate is like a giant black splotch on a pure white wall. Of course, this is not something that can be fixed in software.
All of that said, at this point, my assessment of Hero vs Pre is not as lopsided as it was 2 months ago. It's a coin flip with a lean towards the Pre due to it's potential.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

CBS, NOW and Tim Tebow

Apparently Tim Tebow's mom, in conjunction with Focus on the Family, wants to run an ad during the superbowl (*). The gist of which is to express Mrs. Tebow's joy at having made the choice she did and it resulting in Tim Tebow - QB extraordinaire for the University of Florida.

But this has angered the National Organization for Women (NOW). They think that the long standing prohibition on advocacy ads during the superbowl should remain in effect, thus disallowing the ad during the superbowl. I have not read what their position is on running the ad at any other time. But I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and presume that they would not object to it running at another time.

Unfortunately, I've listened to NOW defending their complaint. And if they could just stick to the point that advocacy ads are prohibited, I think they'd be ok. But they keep bringing up that they're defending a woman's right to choose. And this seems really inconsistent to me. If that's the case, why are they complaining about an ad which shows one woman's choice? Does NOW only like women's right to choose when it's the choice that NOW supports?

And this isn't the only time that NOW has seemed inconsistent to me. They've explicitly called for a ban on breast implants. Do they want the government interfering with a woman's choices over her body or do they not?

The inconsistency makes it seem like their position is less about changing people's minds and more about enforcing the choices they prefer on others. I could be wrong. But from the outside that's what it looks like. This is why consistency matters. It suggests that there's an underlying principle that your actions are consistent with. But in this case, their actions seem to be more consistent with a power grab rather than a principled position.

And NOW is not the only one that seems inconsistent. Frankly, the behavior of the vocal pro-lifers annoys me. I'd be much more moved by their concern for the children they're trying to save if they were willing to adopt those children. Do they really care about those children or are they more interested in punishing the mothers?

That said, I believe that the best approach to speech you don't like is more speech, not less speech. If you disagree with me, talk to me, I'll listen. Then I'll talk and you listen. But lets' stay far away from trying to force each other to shut up. So I think NOW should come out with their own advocacy ad. But trying to ban someone else's speech? Yeah, that's crossing the line.

(*) As a side note, I'm not going to start calling it "the big game" like so many other people are doing in response to the NFL's threats to sue. This is certainly a risk on my part, but a) I'm not hosting a party and trying to capitalize on the NFL's trademark, and b) I have like 5 people who regularly read this blog. To get in trouble w/the NFL, they have to notice first.  That said, I think the NFL is nuts in their desire to suppress the use of the word "superbowl". Yes it's a trademark. Yes they own it. But, c'mon. You're prohibiting superbowl parties? What's next? Will I be in trouble if I mention that the Packers are my favorite team? Or will I be required to call it, "the pro-football team from Green Bay"? If ever there were an argument for reforming trademark laws, I think this is it.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Lenore Skenazy is my new hero

One of the economics blogs that I really like (econlog) has a blogger that I really like (Bryan Caplan). He's writing a book about parenting that I'm anxious to read. And he recently blogged about another parenting book that he really likes.

You'll notice a lot of "really like"s in that last paragraph. Basically, they all contributed to my desire to read this book. I was pretty close to pulling the trigger on Amazon, when my wife suggested I see if the local public library has it. And it did. But not only that, it turns out that they had it available as an MP3 download. So I've been listening to it on my phone to & from work for the last 2 days.  And it's fantastic.

The book is about how we parents are overly hyper about the safety of our kids. Safety's a good thing. A very good thing. But not when the additional cost brings about minimal safety. My favorite fact from the book (so far) relates to our fears, as parents, of having our children abducted. And that these fears are ridiculously overblown. To prove it she pulls out a statistic: there is a 1 in 1.5 million chance that your child will get abducted. That's pretty small. But because we humans have a hard time with very large numbers, Skenazy quotes another way of looking at these odds. If you were trying to get your child abducted and held overnight, how long would you have to leave them outside, unsupervised before the odds were likely that this happened? 750,000 years! Of course, no one wants their child abducted. It's a thought experiment. And the results: 750,000 years. That's how ridiculously unlikely it is that our children will be abducted.

Now *that* is a useful point of view. I strongly encourage everyone, but especially parents, to read this book. Or listen to it. It's also a useful as an anti-condescension tool for non-parents.

Also, the author has a very good blog.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Haiti and Starvation

On the way to work a few days ago, I listened to an NPR segment on how relief efforts are going in Haiti. The long and short: not good. The most basic of necessities (food) is not getting where it needs to get. When relief trucks show up, the crowds absolutely mob the truck, immediately. And those who are the strongest get all the food. And those who go without on one day are very likely to go without again the next time the truck shows up. There’s too little food and an ineffective way of distributing what’s there.

However, the piece also mentioned that markets (as is their tendency) are emerging, allowing for people to buy food. The problem, however, is that no one is working and as a result everyone is depleting their savings trying to get food.

But this mix strikes me as odd. Because what you’ve got is:
  1. A *LOT* of people not working, and
  2. A *LOT* of work that needs to get done
Why aren’t these two things combining to reward people willing to work by paying them, thus solving the food crisis?

Sure, some people who are idle are incapable of working right now. Let’s assume that for every 2 families, that at least one person could work. And that work would be sufficient to purchase food for those 2 families. Why is this not happening?

One answer could be that no one is hiring. Because, of course, they don’t have any money to hire either. There are two problems with this answer:
  1. Hiring to do a task increases wealth. For example, if you hire someone to help you pick fruit, you have twice as much fruit to sell. Roughly doubling your profit margin. So hiring should generate more money, not less.
  2. Foreign investors, who have money, should be anxious to get access to the labor force that is desperate to get paid so that they can eat.
And I suspect that #2 is the key to solving the conundrum. Haiti started off as a poor country for a reason. That reason being that the institutional structure of the country has been in turmoil since Aristide took office in late 1990. This creates uncertainty for investors. They are not sure what type of government will exist, and what type of rules it will have. Will it have rules favorable to investment or will it behave like Venezuela, where foreign investors spent a lot of money building their oil production capacity only to have the Hugo Chavez’ government come and confiscate it. If you had money to invest into Haiti, but you were completely uncertain as to whether or not you’d lose it, what would you do? Would invest it there or find someplace else that had rules that you understood? Most people do the latter.

The question that investors have for Haiti is this: what type of government will Haiti have? Will it be worth it to invest there and help rebuild Haiti? If investors do this, will they get to keep their investments, or will the Haitians confiscate them? The fact that investors are not doing this in Haiti tells you what they think the answer will be. To solve this, the Haitian government, whatever is left of it, along with the Haitian military, needs to convince investors that stable institutions that encourage investment will remain. That investment brought to Haiti will not be stolen.

Convincing investors that Haitian institutions will be stable is not easy. But that is what is needed in Haiti to solve the starvation problem.

Another solution: let the Haitians become refugees and come here to work. But that has its own set of hurdles.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Why I hate democracy

There was a special election in Massachusetts recently. This was held to replace the seat held by the late Ted Kennedy. Based on the results of the election, and the campaign rhetoric, the people voting seem to be making a statement about President Obama’s healthcare agenda: they don’t like it. If a republican can get elected on this platform in the single most democratic state in the US, then they’re simply no avoiding what is being said by a majority of people. Simply put, they agree with that platform: opposition to the President’s healthcare agenda. Personally, I oppose this agenda as well, so I’m breathing a sigh of relief that it looks like this agenda is going to be defeated.

But while a majority did agree with this, this is *not* a landslide victory like some seem to be suggesting. Brown won 52% to 47%. 5 points. If this were a basketball game, that’d be a pretty close game. If this were measuring market share of two competitors, the leader would be worried. Only in politics is a 5 point victory considered a big win. And what it has me thinking about is the 47% of Massachusetts that lost.

I’m a huge fan of markets. I think markets work better than the political process for the provision of just about everything. And while I think there are a few things that governments probably ought to do (e.g. national defense) it’s only “probably”. I have incredibly little faith in government. I have incredibly little faith in empowering one tiny group of people to make rules for the rest of us.

And when you’re on the losing side of an election, that’s what you worry about. That other people whose ideas you don’t like, will dictate your fate. That you will lose some bit of freedom that you had hoped was coming as a result of your guy winning.

But this problem doesn’t exist when markets provision goods. Over the summer, I bought a car. I chose a Hyundai Elantra Touring. I’m pretty pleased with my choice. Although I have a friend who found this choice troublesome. He’s a Ford mechanic, and believes that the Ford Focus was a much better choice. It certainly has much better market share than the Hyundai I ended up buying. But here’s the thing that makes this experience so different than government. My vote for the Hyundai did not force me to live with a Honda Civic – the car with the biggest market share in that segment. I voted for, and got exactly what I voted for.

In a market, if I vote for the 2nd place option, I don’t worry that I’m going to be forced to live with the 1st place option. Heck, if I vote for the 20th place option in a market, I get the 20th place option.

This is in huge contrast to how it works in government, and democracy in particular. Because it’s not true that only 47% of the population of Massachusetts are the ones who don’t get what they want. None of the rest of America got to vote on this pivotal election. There are a *LOT* more people than those in Massachusetts who are feeling like they’re about to lose something that they thought was coming. They voted for 2nd place, and from it they’re going to get nothing.

Democracy is the illusion that your vote counts for something. But that illusion is only upheld if your guy wins. Markets allow 2nd, 3rd, 4th, … to get what they want even if they don’t get 1st place. Why do I hate democracy? Because it creates a huge number of losers at the expense of the winners. Markets don’t do that. I much prefer markets for providing goods and services. Not even the vaunted democracy comes close to making as many people well off as do markets.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The single most surprising event I've seen as a parent

Today, we had the sad task of taking the child we hosted over Christmas to the airport to send him back home to Latvia. (See this and this.) I haven't blogged much about the experience of having him here, because having 4 boys of our own and adding a 5th to the mix has kept me on my toes. Throw the holidays into the mix, and my uncle's death on Christmas, and our family has been thoroughly busy.

Suffice it to say, that the experience of hosting this child was thoroughly positive.

But that's over now, and my wife & I are now allowed to utter the a-word: adoption. And we are forced to think about if we're going to do it. There are a number of things pulling us towards adopting him:
  1. We really liked him.
  2. As an orphan (2nd lowest social strata in Latvia) and a "gypsy" (lowest social strata in Latvia) he's pretty much got *nothing* to go back to.
  3. We could make this one kid's life better. And not just by a little bit. We could give this kid a future that he simply doesn't have right now.
  4. And probably the biggest factor, one day we're going to stand before God and make an account of our lives. And it's almost impossible to imagine saying that we didn't do whatever we could to change his life because it would be too expensive and too hard.
Of course, there are some things pulling us from adopting him:
  1. It is expensive. And I don't mean a little bit. The cost ranges between $10,000 and $40,000. My company has some adoption credits, and the government offers some tax credits, but added up those don't come anywhere close to the worst case scenario cost. Doing this means, we probably have to stop putting money to our children's college funds for a while.
  2. It will require a huge commitment of time: we will likely have to take at least 2 trips to Latvia, possibly 3.
  3. It will be a lot of work. He has to learn English. We have to figure out some mechanism to driving him towards a productive life. And he's 14 already. Which means that we have a lot of work and not a lot of time.
  4. And the biggest fear is that, after watching him interact with our children for a month, that he won't fit into the mix in our family very well. 
I recently blogged about my 2nd son, and how he struggles to get along with people. And during the month we hosted, #2 and our guest got along about as well as #2 gets along with most other children. He was aggressive and intolerant of differences, and physical. Our guest is cut of a similar cloth to #2. So there were disagreements between the two, that would end with one or the other getting physically hurt.

Which brings me to the single most surprising thing I've ever seen as a parent. I was working from home today so that I could make the trip to the airport. I came downstairs after my children got off the bus to discover that #2 was crying. I figured he'd had a confrontation with someone on the bus or maybe one of his brothers. But the reason was that he missed the boy we'd just taken to the airport.

He was crying on the way to school this morning because he knew he'd just seen our guest for the last time. He was crying on the way home from school because he knew that our guest would not be at home.  And he was crying when he got home because it was all confirmed.

I didn't know what to say, but at the same time as I was sad for my son, my heart almost burst with pride for him, too. At only 8 years old, there are depths to his character that many adults I know have not yet reached.

One thing, though. One of our excuses not to adopt was just blown to bits.