moldybluecheesecurds 2

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The cost of things

The first two are Bush tax cuts, the third is the Iraq War.  The last is the recently passed health care reform act.  Guess which one has "deficit hawks" worried...

A greener future with no kids?

I saw a post on Grist touting a new concept, GINKs (green-inclined without kids).  The implication is that every new person is a carbon-emission-creating burden on the planet. 

Good for GINKs, but I prefer to raise a voter to counterbalance birthers, climategaters, etc.  They aren't forgoing children.

Art of the Steal: On the Trail of World’s Most Ingenious Thief | Magazine

"Blanchard pulled off his first heist when he was a 6-year-old living with his single mother in Winnipeg. The family couldn’t afford milk, and one day, after a long stretch of dry cereal, the boy spotted some recently delivered bottles on a neighbor’s porch. “I snuck over there between cars like I was on some kind of mission,” he says. “And no one saw me take it.” His heart was pounding, and the milk was somehow sweeter than usual. “After that,” he says, “I was hooked.”"
A fascinating tale of a high-tech thief who was finally rounded up by a couple Winnepeg cops. Reminds me of Catch Me If You Can.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Case for Teaching Less Math in Schools

Psychology Today: A fascinating article on the dangers of teaching kids math by rote, without the context for using it.

In an article published in 2005, Patricia Clark Kenschaft, a professor of mathematics at Montclair State University, described her experiences of going into elementary schools and talking with teachers about math. In one visit to a K-6 elementary school in New Jersey she discovered that not a single teacher, out of the fifty that she met with, knew how to find the area of a rectangle.[2] They taught multiplication, but none of them knew that multiplication is used to find the area of a rectangle. Their most common guess was that you add the length and the width to get the area. Their excuse for not knowing was that they did not need to teach about areas of rectangles; that came later in the curriculum. But the fact that they couldn't figure out that multiplication is used to find the area was evidence to Kenschaft that they didn't really know what multiplication is or what it is for. She also found that although the teachers knew and taught the algorithm for multiplying one two-digit number by another, none of them could explain why that algorithm works.

The article also describes an earlier experiment with teaching math, where a school deliberately did not give children much math instruction before grade 6. The lesson? Less is more.
"In sum, Benezet showed that kids who received just one year of arithmetic, in sixth grade, performed at least as well on standard calculations and much better on story problems than kids who had received several years of arithmetic training."

Energy Star Wars

Green Inc. Blog

Does this count as an air purifier? It does under Energy Star, and that's the kind of problem the program is having right now.

College to Save Money by Switching Email Font

Slashdot: "The school expects to use 30% less ink by switching from Arial to Century Gothic."

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Republicans and anti-health care LAW tactics

The bill passed and the Party of No lost. But they've already sworn they will repeal the law, and state-based Republicans (legislators, attorneys generals) are threatening to sue on the basis that the health care bill somehow violates the 10th Amendment (powers not reserved for the feds reside with the states).

Unfortunately, the Republicans have uphill sledding in the repeal and legal world.
  • On repealing, Republicans have to either take over the House and get 60 seats in the Senate (mathematically impossible, I'm told) OR wait until 2013 and get control of both houses of Congress and the presidency.  Good luck with that.
  • On the legal appeals, Republicans are working against legal precedent when it comes to mandatory taxes, because the government already collects direct taxes (taxes such as Social Security and unemployment already exist).
  • Republicans are also going to have trouble with the insurance mandate itself, which can be seen as part of the broad reaching "interstate commerce" regulatory powers of the federal government.  And given that most insurance companies operate across state lines, good luck with that.
A nice quote from a story by Eric Black on the legal challenge:
Lucinda Jesson of Hamline Law School, said...“I would be surprised if it was taken seriously by the courts.”
The one thing I found worrying in Black's piece is that the federal government has been using the interstate commerce clause in some ways that seem like overreaching.  In California, for example, the Supreme Court struck down a medical marijuana law even though the law required it to be marijuana grown in California and not crossing state lines.  Even someone who grew there own, the Court said, could be subject to federal drug laws. 

The other interesting issue, he notes, is that states have become largely dependent on federal aid for many areas of spending (transportation, health care, etc) and that state discretion has largely vanished because the courts give broad latitude to the federal government to tie strings to its aid.  (Example // you want federal highway money, raise the legal drinking age...)  In an era of state dependence, the 10th amendment becomes almost meaningless.

I think that the health care bill is a very good thing for society, and I'm glad it's likely to stand against the legal challenges.  But it's interesting to consider how important states rights are in this era...

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Story of Bottled Water

Why pay 2000 times more for water?

Health care reform passes

The House passed the Senate version of health care reform last night 219-212, with every single Republican voting against the measure.  The Senate bill goes to Obama's desk for his signature (a guarantee) and we finally join the ranks of every other industrialized country in providing health care for nearly every citizen.

Here's what's in the bill.

The process isn't completely played out yet, because the House also passed a reconciliation bill that adds a few improvements to the Senate's health care bill.  This reconciliation will have to be approved by the Senate, and then (if amended) go back to the House before hitting Obama's desk.  This bill includes:
  • A smaller price tag
  • More generous subsidies to low-income Americans
  • A new 3.8 percent tax on unearned income (things like interest, dividends and royalties)
  • A higher Medicare tax for families making more than $250,000 (and individuals with incomes over $200,000).
  • The "Cadillac tax" on very good health insurance plans would have a higher cutoff and be implemented later (2018). 
  • Closes the Medicare prescription drug donut hole
  • Several provisions to reduce Medicare fraud and waste

You can also see a 7-page summary of the reconciliation bill here.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Supreme Court and the 2nd Amendment

The Supremes will soon be ruling on a Chicago ban on handguns, but this thoughtful and thorough piece on the issue notes that the big legal test is yet to come:
But the ultimate showdown over gun control in America will be waged in a future legal case not yet on the high court's radar, analysts say. At issue in that case: Are Second Amendment rights as fundamental as freedom of speech and religion, or will gun rights be subject to lesser constitutional protection?

For example, in the 2008 case striking down the DC handgun ban, Justice Scalia noted:
The majority justices addressed this issue briefly in the Washington decision. "Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia.

"Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms," Justice Scalia said. (For Monitor coverage of the Washington decision, click here.)

What may make the difference is how state judges have decided on gun control laws
In assessing the constitutionality of gun-control laws, Mr. Henigan said, state judges have placed significant weight on the government's interest in regulating firearms as a means to protect public safety. The Supreme Court should adopt the same rationale, he said.

It will certainly be an interesting time.

Why Digital Rights Management (copyright protection) Doesn’t Work

The Brads: "Why DRM Doesn’t Work", a sister post to "Why People Pirate Movies" earlier this month.

Click through to see the full size image

Thursday, March 11, 2010

You know you are a liberal when...

...a smackdown from Sen. Harry Reid to Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gets your blood moving:

As you know, the vast majority of bills developed through reconciliation were passed by Republican Congresses and signed into law by Republican Presidents – including President Bush’s massive, budget-busting tax breaks for multi-millionaires. Given this history, one might conclude that Republicans believe a majority vote is sufficient to increase the deficit and benefit the super-rich, but not to reduce the deficit and benefit the middle class. Alternatively, perhaps Republicans believe a majority vote is appropriate only when Republicans are in the majority. Either way, we disagree.
Thanks to Paul Krugman for the link and for passing along the summary: reconcile this!

Monday, March 08, 2010

We Dwell in Darkness

Well, we'd be better off if we did.

I bet the International Dark Sky Association will like this.

Antibiotics are for people, not healthy cows

And if we don't stop using them on healthy animals, we will keep developing diseases for which we have no treatment.

There is a bill in Congress to fix this, but it's stalled in this committee.  If you see your Rep. in this list, time to make a phone call.

I've written on this subject several times since 2006, so get your fill here.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Taxing the bad beats subsidizing the good


In a recent study using food subsidies and taxes to encourage healthier food purchases, researchers at SUNY learned something interesting:
  • If you use subsidies to make healthy food cheaper, people buy more healthy food, but they use the savings to buy junk food.
  • On the other hand, if you tax junk food, people buy healthy food instead.

The funny thing is, this was a psychology study, but an economist could have told you this would happen. When you lower the price of a good (healthy food), it creates an "income effect." People have more money and they will allocate it according to what goods will maximize their happiness. Since they can already afford more healthy food, it's not hard to imagine that the savings from cheaper health food goes to junk.

By solely taxing junk food, however, you don't have an income effect, but instead a substitution effect. People shift from junk food to healthy food because they can get more (and more happiness) per dollar that way.

The same concept applies to energy policy, and is why making renewable energy cheap (with tax credits) will not be sufficient to shift people away from dirty energy (coal, natural gas, fuel oil, etc). Instead, we need ways to increase the price of bad things, such as a carbon tax.

And there's another dilemma. Do you impose a carbon tax or price ALONE which will shift people away from dirty energy AND encourage conservation, or do you give the revenues back? A cap-and-dividend policy, for example, is much more politically palatable because most people get a bigger dividend than they will expend in higher energy consumption, but it also means there's only an incentive to shift consumption to clean energy, and not to reduce it.