Posts tagged United States

From csmonitor:

Facing Terror: Boston bombing reveals a new American maturity toward insecurity

Graphics by Rich Clabaugh/The Christian Science Monitor

This data underscores that terrorism isn’t “new” to the United States. Rather, we tend to differentiate acts of “terrorism” (mass killings for political purpose) committed by “Others” from killing sprees or other “criminal” acts committed under more “normal” circumstances. This also underscores the power of naming—what we call something has significant repercussions for what kinds of policy solutions we apply.

Inequality and New York’s Subway

From newyorker:

New York City has a problem with income inequality. And it’s getting worse—the top of the spectrum is gaining and the bottom is losing. Along individual subway lines, earnings range from poverty to considerable wealth. The interactive infographic here charts these shifts, using data on median household income, from the U.S. Census Bureau, for census tracts with subway stations: http://nyr.kr/11mEy8m

This is a really great way to map out inequality in an area. I’d love to see it done elsewhere (say, along a major US interstate).

Episode 439: The Mysterious Power Of A Hospital Bill | NPR Planet Money
Catching up on old Planet Money podcasts while driving last night, I caught this great nugget (wish I’d had it last week, when we talked about health care in advanced industrial democracies). It’s an interview with Steve Brill, a journalist who wrote a very, very, very long article for Time magazine ("Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us") where he goes line by line through a number of hospital bills to find out why costs are so high.
Listen to the whole thing. But the key highlights (for me) are: 1) Hospitals charge whatever they want, because insurance companies will negotiate the price down. 2) People without insurance get stuck with the high sticker prices. 3) Medicare/Medicaid is actually much better at negotiating lower prices than insurance companies (because of their buying power).
In other words, those who don’t have insurance but aren’t poor enough or old enough to qualify for Medicaid or Medicare get stuck with high bills and the risk of financial ruin. Those with health insurance get stuck with high insurance premiums (because the hospitals have more leverage than the insurance companies, and get better deals). And those on Medicare/Medicaid pay the least for health care. In other words, despite all the hype: the government pays less for Medicare/Medicaid patients than those in the market do.
Why? Because of what I call the Walmart effect. When one buyer (the government, via Medicare/Medicaid) buys a lot of something (health care) in bulk, it lowers prices for suppliers (just like Walmart does). All the rest of us suckers are buying health care at high end boutiques.
EDIT: I should’ve said that all the rest of us are buying health care at the high end boutique that our employers have told us to buy from. Most of us have little (if any) choice in our health care costs and/or coverage. That choice is mostly made by our employers.

Episode 439: The Mysterious Power Of A Hospital Bill | NPR Planet Money

Catching up on old Planet Money podcasts while driving last night, I caught this great nugget (wish I’d had it last week, when we talked about health care in advanced industrial democracies). It’s an interview with Steve Brill, a journalist who wrote a very, very, very long article for Time magazine ("Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us") where he goes line by line through a number of hospital bills to find out why costs are so high.

Listen to the whole thing. But the key highlights (for me) are: 1) Hospitals charge whatever they want, because insurance companies will negotiate the price down. 2) People without insurance get stuck with the high sticker prices. 3) Medicare/Medicaid is actually much better at negotiating lower prices than insurance companies (because of their buying power).

In other words, those who don’t have insurance but aren’t poor enough or old enough to qualify for Medicaid or Medicare get stuck with high bills and the risk of financial ruin. Those with health insurance get stuck with high insurance premiums (because the hospitals have more leverage than the insurance companies, and get better deals). And those on Medicare/Medicaid pay the least for health care. In other words, despite all the hype: the government pays less for Medicare/Medicaid patients than those in the market do.

Why? Because of what I call the Walmart effect. When one buyer (the government, via Medicare/Medicaid) buys a lot of something (health care) in bulk, it lowers prices for suppliers (just like Walmart does). All the rest of us suckers are buying health care at high end boutiques.

EDIT: I should’ve said that all the rest of us are buying health care at the high end boutique that our employers have told us to buy from. Most of us have little (if any) choice in our health care costs and/or coverage. That choice is mostly made by our employers.

"Drafted To Fight For The Country That Hurt Him" | NPR
This is a fascinating story. And it reminds of a story I wrote nearly 20 years ago, when I was a cub reporter at The Saginaw News. 
I can’t remember his name (which is a shame), but years ago I wrote a story about a WWII veteran who had a similar experience. He had been a young field worker in the United States, and was about to be deported along with ongoing crackdowns on Mexican-American migrant workers. At the detention facility, the men were given a choice: Be deported to Mexico (a place many had never known) or volunteer for the United States Army. He chose the latter.
There was a catch: The men were volunteering for a little unit known as Merrill’s Marauders. You’ve probably never heard of them. You’ve probably also never heard of General Joseph Stillwell and the China Burma India theater.
Well, Merrill’s Marauders was a specialized infantry unit tasked with harassing Japanese forces in South Asia. They were dropped deep behind enemy lines in 1944. The force consisted of 2,750 men. After a few months, the unit had to march through enemy territory and take an enemy-controlled airfield (that was their ticket home). At the end of their mission, they had only 200 or so men left.
The man I interviewed was one of only about 5% of his unit to survive what must have been just an awful ordeal. And yet, there he was, a Mexican-American immigrant in his living room, proud of his Purple Heart and other military commendations. And he was a proud member of the American GI Forum, a national Hispanic veterans association, which had a chapter in Saginaw. I saw him only once again, when he was part of the honor guard at a local event I attended.
Every time I hear about “illegal immigrants” and debates about a “path to citizenship,” I think about him.

"Drafted To Fight For The Country That Hurt Him" | NPR

This is a fascinating story. And it reminds of a story I wrote nearly 20 years ago, when I was a cub reporter at The Saginaw News

I can’t remember his name (which is a shame), but years ago I wrote a story about a WWII veteran who had a similar experience. He had been a young field worker in the United States, and was about to be deported along with ongoing crackdowns on Mexican-American migrant workers. At the detention facility, the men were given a choice: Be deported to Mexico (a place many had never known) or volunteer for the United States Army. He chose the latter.

There was a catch: The men were volunteering for a little unit known as Merrill’s Marauders. You’ve probably never heard of them. You’ve probably also never heard of General Joseph Stillwell and the China Burma India theater.

Well, Merrill’s Marauders was a specialized infantry unit tasked with harassing Japanese forces in South Asia. They were dropped deep behind enemy lines in 1944. The force consisted of 2,750 men. After a few months, the unit had to march through enemy territory and take an enemy-controlled airfield (that was their ticket home). At the end of their mission, they had only 200 or so men left.

The man I interviewed was one of only about 5% of his unit to survive what must have been just an awful ordeal. And yet, there he was, a Mexican-American immigrant in his living room, proud of his Purple Heart and other military commendations. And he was a proud member of the American GI Forum, a national Hispanic veterans association, which had a chapter in Saginaw. I saw him only once again, when he was part of the honor guard at a local event I attended.

Every time I hear about “illegal immigrants” and debates about a “path to citizenship,” I think about him.

"America’s fiscal union: The red and the black" | The Economist
The sequester is here! And this map is probably a good indication of what it means for you. The “redder” your state, the most likely you’ll be negatively affected by the sequester. Why? Because “redder” states get more money from the federal government than they send back in taxes.
I currently live in Mississippi. We’re going to be hit especially hard. Because, as this map shows, Mississippi runs a 254% deficit (as of 2009) in federal transfers. The state gets an estimated $2.47 for every federal dollar sent. 
Basically, think of the “redder” states as on a form of federal-to-state welfare. And since the cuts are going to all kinds of programs and services, they’ll likely hit those state hard. That means states like Mississippi will have two options: 1) Kick in more state revenue to make up for cut programs. 2) Lose the benefits of those programs. Since the many of the “redder” states are poorer than the “bluer” states (e.g. the median household income in Mississippi is $36,656 compared to $69,272 in Maryland), option #2 would simply mean falling further behind in terms of poverty, education, and health. But option #1 means collecting more taxes to make up the differences. And since states collect taxes less efficiently than the federal government, often through less progressive taxes, and will have to negotiate prices for goods and services from a weaker position, the pocketbook impact of taxes would be high. 
So let’s get our sequester on! Let’s find out just how little federal government voters really want. 

"America’s fiscal union: The red and the black" | The Economist

The sequester is here! And this map is probably a good indication of what it means for you. The “redder” your state, the most likely you’ll be negatively affected by the sequester. Why? Because “redder” states get more money from the federal government than they send back in taxes.

I currently live in Mississippi. We’re going to be hit especially hard. Because, as this map shows, Mississippi runs a 254% deficit (as of 2009) in federal transfers. The state gets an estimated $2.47 for every federal dollar sent. 

Basically, think of the “redder” states as on a form of federal-to-state welfare. And since the cuts are going to all kinds of programs and services, they’ll likely hit those state hard. That means states like Mississippi will have two options: 1) Kick in more state revenue to make up for cut programs. 2) Lose the benefits of those programs. Since the many of the “redder” states are poorer than the “bluer” states (e.g. the median household income in Mississippi is $36,656 compared to $69,272 in Maryland), option #2 would simply mean falling further behind in terms of poverty, education, and health. But option #1 means collecting more taxes to make up the differences. And since states collect taxes less efficiently than the federal government, often through less progressive taxes, and will have to negotiate prices for goods and services from a weaker position, the pocketbook impact of taxes would be high. 

So let’s get our sequester on! Let’s find out just how little federal government voters really want. 

Voting Rights Act, in comparative perspective

The oral arguments have started in the Supreme Court on a new challenge to the US Voting Rights Act. In particular, the challenge is to the provision that requires certain jurisdictions (mostly southern states) to get approval from the federal government before making any changes to voter ID laws or redistricting. The New Yorker has an interesting take on this, focusing on some of Justice Scalia’s interesting arguments

Apparently, Scalia wonders whether it’s improper (or even unconstitutional) for the federal government to treat some states differently. I agree with the counter argument that voting rights protections are not an “entitlement” (as Scalia defines them), and that the history of racism and segregation justifies such protections. 

Instead, I’m willing to concede Scalia’s argument to him, but with a (comparative) caveat. And I’m drawing here on the example of Switzerland.

For all of its reputation as a “liberal” country, Switzerland is actually rather conservative. In fact, it was one of the last countries in the world to grant women the right to vote, in 1971 (for comparison, women won the right to vote in Iran in 1963).

But there’s an interesting twist: Because of Swizterland’s unique form of federalism, individual cantons have tremendous political autonomy—even on issues of rights. Some Swiss cantons didn’t give women the right to vote for many years after 1971. In fact, the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden didn’t grant women the right to vote until 1990.

So what happened between 1971 and 1990? Well, fairly simple: Women in Appenzell Innerhoden could vote in federal elections, but not in local elections. Why? Because federal elections in Switzerland (and in most countries) are managed by federal agencies, while local elections are managed by local agencies.

Perhaps you see where I’m going with this. See, in the United States, even federal elections are managed by local bodies (either at the state or country level). That’s why we have so many different ballots (remember Florida 2000?) and types of voting machines across the country on presidential elections. But why should local agencies run federal elections? There’s no real reason for it. Certainly not any spelled out in the US Constitution (at least not that I’m aware of). 

So one solution to the Voting Rights Act (at least for the purposes of federal elections) would be to simply announce that federal offices (elections to the House, the Senate, and the Presidency) will be managed by a single federal agency that would proscribe a single, universal voting system for all the offices (a uniform ballot, etc.). States would be free to elect their local offices with whatever rules they choose (subject to some federal oversight to protect civil liberties, of course). This might also require the federal government (not states) to draw the district lines for House seats. Or, more to my liking, we could move to either a list-PR or SNTV system using multimember districts. 

Either way, it simply doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense (to me) for states to have such a significant impact on how federal elections are handled. If they want autonomy from the federal regulations, then the simplest way is just to hand over those responsibilities to a federal electoral authority. After all, most countries (even federal ones) have one. They seem to prefer professional, impartial election management staff to running things by ad hoc assortments of partisans and amateurs. 

History Matters: Suez Crisis Edition

Last night’s Daily Show, while commenting on Israel’s election, included clips of administration critics suggesting that Obama is the most anti-Israel president, ever. I beg to differ.

Obama certainly has his differences with current Israeli foreign policy under “Bibi” Netanyahu. Then again, what two heads of state wouldn’t? I agree with those who suggest that making blanket statements about unyielding support for Israel comes dangerously close to writing a blank check we might not be ready to cash in (would we support Israel if it attacked vital US interests?).

But do Obama’s public differences in policy with “Bibi” make him the most anti-Israel president, ever? I think that title goes to Dwight Eisenhower during the 1956 Suez Crisis. Let me explain:

In 1956, after Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, Israel, France, and Britain invaded Egypt. The United States was opposed to Israeli intervention and—together with the Soviet Union (although with different ulterior motives, obviously)—pushed Israel to withdraw from the conflict and give up its gains in the Sinai. And this wasn’t just public rhetoric: the US imposed (and encouraged its allies to follow suit) economic sanctions on Israel for its role in the conflict and even threats of expulsion from the UN.

I don’t think Obama has quite gone that far.

Of course, perhaps the award for the most anti-Israeli sentiment by someone at the White House could go to Henry Kissinger (scroll down to the “Middle East” section), Nixon’s Secretary of State. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Kissinger famously told Nixon to “let Israel bleed” (by denying assistance) in order to “soften it up” before negotiations.

I’m pretty sure Obama hasn’t done anything like that, either.

The US and Israel are, today, staunch allies. But that wasn’t always the case. The US cautiously supported Israel’s independence in 1948. And until the 1970s, the US worried that being too closely tied to Israel would weaken its position in the region (where lots of oil was at stake). Since the 1980s, however, our foreign policies have merged. But there’s a reason why we have other very close allies in the region. Like Saudi Arabia. And it’s telling that we never sent troops to back Israel in any of its conflicts, like we did for Kuwait in 1990. US-Israeli relations are much more complicated. As are all foreign relations.

History matters.

There are plenty of arguments that can be made against taxes. But arguing that US tax rates are ammong the “highest in the world” is not one of them.
Via theatlantic:

How Low Are U.S. Taxes Compared to Other Countries?
[Image: Henry Blodget]

There are plenty of arguments that can be made against taxes. But arguing that US tax rates are ammong the “highest in the world” is not one of them.

Via theatlantic:

How Low Are U.S. Taxes Compared to Other Countries?

[Image: Henry Blodget]

From foreignaffairsmagazine:


America the Undertaxed — U.S. Fiscal Policy in Perspective
Compared with other developed countries, the United States has very low taxes, little income redistribution, and an extraordinarily complex tax code. If it wanted to, the government could raise taxes without crippling growth or productivity. Tax reform is ultimately a political choice, not an economic one — a statement about what sort of society Americans want.


I, for one, am a big fan of the value added tax (VAT). Or what you might call a national sales tax. It’s incredibly simple and if you didn’t want to pay taxes, well, you could just buy less crap.

From foreignaffairsmagazine:

America the Undertaxed — U.S. Fiscal Policy in Perspective

Compared with other developed countries, the United States has very low taxes, little income redistribution, and an extraordinarily complex tax code. If it wanted to, the government could raise taxes without crippling growth or productivity. Tax reform is ultimately a political choice, not an economic one — a statement about what sort of society Americans want.

I, for one, am a big fan of the value added tax (VAT). Or what you might call a national sales tax. It’s incredibly simple and if you didn’t want to pay taxes, well, you could just buy less crap.

Independent voters? The term is meaningless.

Independent voters, blah, blah, blah. A perspective from someone who studies countries with multiparty systems:

Here’s my beef with the fascination in the US with “independent” voters: I’ve no idea what they mean. And pundits don’t seem to either. Because there seems to be this idea that there are only two “positions” in US politics: Republican & Democrat. Sure, they sometimes distinguish between “moderate” and “extreme” versions of each. But is that all there is?

Look, here’s what I think of when I hear the term “independent” voter: I think some of them are “centrist” (right between the GOP and Democratic position), which is how pundits seem to discuss them. 

But many (perhaps most?) of the “independents” are probably either to the left or right of both major parties (and that’s only if we assume a unidimensional political spectrum!). A Libertarian is not an “independent” voter; he/she is merely neither a Democrat nor a Republican. The same is true for a socialist (to the left of Democrats) or a religious conservative (to the right, traditionally, of the “mainstream” GOP).

If I treat people to the left and right of and in between of the two major parties as one single voting block with similar preferences I’m going to get a lot of noise in my data and nothing substantive. Period. 

Instead, it would be more useful to actually ask people questions about issues, then track those to candidates (bypassing partisanship). Or ask people to place themselves on a left-to-right spectrum, and then track that to candidates.

But, please. Enough already with the “independent” voter meme. It’s not only bad political science—it’s just absurd on its face value.