Monthly Archives: June 2014


This is a health care law and policy blog, but I really loathe writing about ObamaCare these days: every single post would be some version of I told you so.

Just for the record, a few links about the current state of the O-care debacle: the people signing up for the exchanges are older and sicker than anticipated (hat tip), and five ways in which Charles Balhous was right about the “Affordable” Care Act and its proponents were wrong (hat tip).  Those five issues are not small issues; they are fundamental problems that will cripple this health insurance “reform.”


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Crunching some numbers regarding the IRS’s priorities

As anyone who watched CSPAN’s coverage of the Congressional hearings involving IRS Commissioner John Koskinen knows, the IRS allegedly did not back up its emails because of lack of funds.  It would have cost between $10 million and $30 million (out of a $1.8 billion IT budget) to upgrade their server systems.  (This is, of course, refuted by one Congresscritter who asked why they couldn’t have bought those terabyte hard drives off of for about $80 per employee, total cost: $7 million.) According to a national archivist, the IRS violated the law on preservation of documentation and emails.

It’s not just that the IRS claims it didn’t have enough money to upgrade its IT systems; it has also been mis-allocating the money already budgeted it it.  Via TaxProfBlog, a discussion of how the IRS acted outside of its statutory authority to require licensing of tax preparers, and then, when such a scheme was deemed unlawful, started a voluntary licensing programme in its place.

To state the obvious: if you have the time and money to do stuff outside of your statutory authority, you have the time and money to fulfill your statutory obligations. Why the IRS was spending its time licensing tax preparers, rather than insuring that it met its basic record-keeping requirements, is a mystery.


Filed under Law

Paul the Octopus, the Vampire Squid, and Getting Your Very Own Psychic Sea Pet

Paul the Octopus (may his eight-legged soul rest in peace) was famous for correctly predicting all of the 2010 World Cup matches involving Germany. Now the Vampire Squid, who predicted the medal order of the top four countries at the London Olympics, has “bet” that Brazil will win the World Cup. Goldman Sachs’ team of numbers-crunchers have been left in the dust by sea life that is often eaten at finer Japanese restaurants.

So what’s a non-slimy, non-seafaring statistician to do? Rather than admit defeat, may I suggest crunching a few numbers on the probability of getting sea life to correctly predict the outcome of sporting events?

Neil explains the general idea as it applies to scams, but the same math works for squids and cephalopods, too.  Walk into your local aquarium and collect a few starfish, penguins, seals, sea lions, octopodes, and squid. (The stingrays  might not work well for this experiment.) Devise a way that each animal can “pick” a winner of a match and give all of the animals a chance to predict the first match.

One that match has been played, kick out all of the animals who got it wrong. Send the penguin who picked the loser back to the penguin enclosure, toss the starfish at a sea anemone, and send the octopus down to the Japanese restaurant. Then, with the new match-ups in hand, give all of the remaining animals a chance to pick the next winner.  Repeat procedure – losers go back to the tank, and the winners get more fish. Repeat until you have at least one sea creature that has correctly predicted a nice, long streak of winners. Announce it to the press.

If there are, say, six games, there is a 1 in 64 chance that someone will randomly pick all of the winners. But if there are 100 “someones,” even if that someone likes to hit a pill bottle around its tank, the chance that at least one of those sea creatures will randomly choose the winner is quite high (about 79.3%). Make sure you stock up on penguins and starfish before performing this statistical sleight-of-hand and you’re ready to have your very own psychic sea pet.


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Filed under Nerdiness

McCullen: unanimously for free speech!

The McCullen decision came out this morning (opinion here). It was a unanimous opinion stating that it is not constitutional to establish buffer zones that exclude even consensual, calm speech on public sidewalks in front of abortion clinics. (Typically, the Boston Globe commetariat are very upset about this and blame it on “right wing zealots,” as if that is an apt description of Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Bader Ginsburg.)

I’m reading the decision now and have only a few points to make before more detailed blogging later. The Supreme Court’s pair of unanimous decisions today (the other one being Noel v. NRLB) seem to be driven by a desire by both sides to give up a bit of their wins to ensure that the other side has less power when the other side is in power. The liberals on the court would not want a President Palin making such recess appointments, nor a conservative Congress outlawing labour protests outside of businesses under the rational set forth by the Commonwealth in the buffer zone case (see, AFL-CIO amicus brief).

I also think it’s hugely important that this was a consensual speech case, not a protest case.  You can adequately scream at people from thirty-five feet away (more if you have a megaphone), but you can’t offer literature, solace, a place to live, or financial help. Eleanor McCullen has saved hundreds of babies by offering real, concrete help to women in a crisis pregnancy, and she is not able to do so from shouting distance.


Filed under Feminism, Law

Things I learned this wedding weekend

My older sister got married this weekend.

A few pro tips: if you are leading a conga line, it’s fun to snake back and forth, but don’t turn it into a circle unless you are on the dance floor.  When you turn it into a circle at the bar area, you’re going to lose most of the guests.

Things that make great wedding gifts: china, stuff off the registry, and the track record that the bride holds in perpetuity.  (My sister held a school record in a track event that was recently retired; since she held the record on the last time the event was run, she’ll hold the record forever. Our high school has a big board up on the wall of the field house with all of the events and the record-holders’ names and times on strips of plastic.  Seven weeks before the nuptials, I managed to acquire the strip of plastic from her record.)

Incidentally, when you are making a speech and counting on your sister to recognise something from the ’90s, be prepared for a confused look and “No [I wouldn’t know that if I saw it].”  When in doubt, “Well, that’s awkward, because Mr. Velociraptor has it in his hands and we mounted it on a plaque” will do fine when your MOH speech didn’t go as planned.

When the photographer tells you to photobomb the first dance, happily oblige.  Then convince the best man that you and the other attendants really need to group-hug the couple at the end.

If you’re asked to give the bride her veil for the pictures, always get under the veil with your sister. It makes for great photography – so great, that the entire wedding party will be asked to participate in the fun.

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Filed under Miscellanea

Market forces matter

The latest revelation in the VA scandal again highlights why governments are inherently incapable of doing private-sector jobs as well as the private sector: psychiatric patients received no evaluations for years.  (Hat tip.)  It gets better: “[The Office of Special Counsel} is reviewing even more cases — approximately 60 — of allegations that those who came forward with concerns about scheduling, understaffing, and patient care faced retaliation by their superiors.”

The private sector is not perfect, but this stuff would not last nearly as long in the competitive marketplace.  A competitive industry would take customers away from the one that performed poorly; those companies that retaliate against their employees, treat their patients/clients like dirt, and cook the books will lose people to other businesses.  Falling profits force such companies to either root out the problems or go out of business.

The government can also intervene: when aggrieved clients, patients, and customers can sue the offending company, the government is a neutral arbitrator.  However, when normal citizens attempt to seek redress through the court systems against a government institution, they are either outright barred by suing due to sovereign immunity, or they are seeking justice in a system wherein the defendant is on the same team as the judge. It would be like suing one of the Koch brothers, walking into the courtroom, and finding that the other brother is the presiding judge. See the problem?

See the problem?

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Filed under Law, ObamaCare

Unexpectedly, acting without good sense doesn’t end up in happily-ever-after

Title of article from Business Insider: “A Bunch Of New York Women Paid To Go To Silicon Valley To Find Millionaires And Ended Up In Tears.”  You can read the whole thing if you want, but you can guess from the title – the first clause alone – how it ended up.

I’m a big believer in understanding the fundamental difference between judgement and judgemental. The former is about using reason, experience, and what you know of the world to attempt to make good decisions, understanding that life is hard enough already without a bunch of self-imposed inanity making things even more difficult. The latter has various negative connotations, including run-of-the-mill sanctimony and the like.  In our efforts to not be judgemental, we’ve often abandoned good judgement, that faculty that helps us to help ourselves.

Crass men, not women, are to blame for crass men, but life is easier when crass men do their crass man thing far, far away from you.  Life is easier when you don’t eat pot brownies. Life is easier when you don’t buy a chance to meet a rich man, much less advertise that fact. The confluence of all those mishaps also tends to cause exponential, not linear, harm. I just don’t know who we are helping by declaring those statements to be verboten for being too judgemental – and there are sixteen women from New York with tear-stained faces and bad memories who certainly aren’t happier for the lack of guidance.

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Filed under Feminism

What (not) to do when pulled over by the police has an interesting (read: trite) slide show of how to behave when you are pulled over by the police. Most of the advice falls into the “behave reasonably” category, but I object to one part: the idea that you should leave your registration in the glove compartment until asked for it.

Usually, the police run your license plates before approaching your vehicle.  You can use that time to get your registration out of your glove compartment and your driver’s license out of your tote bag or back pocket. First off, you’re a grown adult and presumably know that you’re going to be asked for those items; having them at the ready is normal. Moreover, that saves you from having to grovel to the police officer that you’re going to be reaching into your glove box (where some people keep their guns) or your back pocket/tote bag (ditt0). Obviously, have your hands in plain sight when the police officer approaches the car, but there’s nothing wrong with having those items at the ready.

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Filed under Law

Starbucks: Educating Employees

Starbucks just announced that it would help its baristas obtain college degrees: those who work for at least twenty hours a week for two years are eligible for tuition subsidies at Arizona State University (online), and those who work for more than two years would be eligible for tuition reimbursement. (Story.)

I’m going to exercise a lot of self-control and not snark about how the higher education bubble has resulted in a lot of baristas already having college degrees. Let’s focus on the meat of this: we’re going back in time to when it was normal for kids to work their way through college.  When college is cheap, it makes sense to spend time working to pay for it: the reduction in time spent studying is more than offset by the fact that you’re paying for all of it by working.  However, when college is expensive, it makes little sense to work full-time and pay only a tenth or a twentieth of the cost.

The next time I order a marble mocha macchiato, I know that some of the exorbitant cost will be helping one of the baristas to get a degree.  That’s really neat.

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Filed under Academia

A note about the Facebook “Ban guns because of these gun deaths” meme

I’m  a lawyer who used to be an engineer, so when I see the Facebook meme that demands that we restrict guns because “24,000 people are murdered every  year!”, my law nerd and stats nerd self almost can’t help but issue a few clarifying remarks.

That statistic relates to homicide, not murder.  Homicide is when you have a dead body from non-natural causes; murder is a deliberate killing without adequate justification. If an 80-year-old wheelchair bound woman shoots an attacker and kills him, that’s homicide but not murder. If a woman who is all of a hundred pounds, soaking wet, shoots her 6’5 bruiser of a husband as he’s coming at her with a baseball bat, that’s homicide and not murder. If someone breaks down your door in the middle of the night and charges at your kids with a knife, it’s not murder when you shoot him dead.

This matters because the “so many gun deaths!!” meme does NOT take into account defensive use of guns: it assumes that everyone who winds up with a bullet between the eyes is an innocent victim. The question is not how many people die from being shot; the question is how many people die who were not the initial aggressors.

Please remember that as you put up that statistic, it includes people who saved their own lives with guns. Many of us understand that your “regulations” will take away the only meaningful avenue of self-defense for the most vulnerable in our society. Little old ladies with fractured hips, abused women, people who live in crime-ridden cities – these people are toast without a gun. Yet when they kill their attackers, opponents of the Second Amendment claim those deaths as a justification to ban firearms.

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Filed under Law, Nerdiness