Quote of the Day

It is a funny thing about life, if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it: if you utterly decline to make due with what you get, then somehow or other you are very likely to get what you want.

–W. Somerset Maugham, The Treasure.

In Memoriam: Paul Sally

I didn’t take Paul Sally’s math class when I was an undergraduate. I wish I did; unlike most professors, Sally was clearly devoted to teaching first and foremost. A rare trait amongst academics (alas). Be sure to read this Q&A as well. The interviewer was Supriya Sinhababu, and the key passage, in my mind, is the following:

SS: You’ve said that people view it as a “badge of honor” to not be good at math.

PS: Yeah, well. Ignorance is bliss.

SS: You’ve also said that they’d never say the same thing about not knowing how to read. I was wondering why you think it’s become socially acceptable to not be good at math, and what can be done about it?

PS: …First of all, to actually be good at math you have to practice, you have to take it seriously, and you have to be willing to spend time working at it. And all of these are very difficult for students and for humans in general. And they don’t understand that you should never confuse activity with achievement. Many people spend a lot of time early in their math careers, early in their math days, in the classroom, working at it extensively, saying, “I worked three hours on math last night.” Well, if they didn’t achieve anything, that’s activity, that’s not achievement…. And if you don’t get it right, you have failed.

…If you’re working on a certain project in a lab, and you set up the protocol correctly, then whatever the results, you can publish them. “I did this in the lab, and this is what happened.” But see, in mathematics you can’t do that. You have to set out to solve a problem or prove a theorem, and by the time you get through, if you don’t have a proof, you cannot actually publish your results, making apologies for your inability to prove the theorem. You simply have to confess that you couldn’t do it….

Requiestcat in pace.

Art of the Day

David Teniers the Younger, The Art Collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in Brussels.

The Art Collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in Brussels

When Monopolists Attack

Yes, this story is from France, which is hardly a bastion of free market economics, but that doesn’t make the story any less outrageous or ridiculous:

At first, it was just an idea, but this bill is now very real — urban transportation services like Uber and LeCab will now have to wait 15 minutes in France before letting a customer in the car. Back in October, the French government mentioned this piece of legislation as these new services would hurt traditional cab drivers. But nothing was set in stone until the AFP spotted the new bill today — and this news comes as a surprise.

In France, you have to pay a hefty price to get your taxi license. As a payback, the taxi industry is very regulated in this country, and drivers can expect to get a healthy influx of clients.

Yet, when the young and fearless startups appeared, many taxi drivers protested against LeCab, Chauffeur-privé, SnapCar, Allocab, Voitures Jaunes and Uber. While the French law calls these companies “VTC” services (car services), taxi drivers think that they are direct competitors — and smartphones certainly make Uber and others act like taxi services. That’s why the government sided with taxi drivers and talked about creating the 15-minute rule.

There is no point whatsoever to this law, of course, save protecting the interests of the taxi drivers’ monopoly. And while we can all laugh at the French over this issue, let’s remember that laws restricting the business opportunities of companies like Uber and of food trucks that compete with restaurant quasi-cartels get passed all the time here in the United States.

The New York Times Owes Scott Irwin and Craig Pirrong an Apology

Details here. And via Felix Salmon, this outstanding response by Pirrong. Any chance whatsoever that the Times will apologize for its shoddy reporting, or should we just assume that they will be happy to move on, having done their best to smear Irwin and Pirrong with no supporting evidence whatsoever?

Once again, leave it to blogs to inject some actual facts in this story.

Can We All Stop Taking MSNBC Seriously?

Truly appalling:

An MSNBC host apologized Tuesday morning after she and panelists on her weekend program faced criticism after poking fun at a photo of Mitt Romney, his wife and their nearly two dozen grandchildren, zeroing in on the Romneys’ recently adopted African-American grandchild, Kieran.

“I am sorry. Without reservation or qualification. I apologize to the Romney family. #MHPapology,” Melissa Harris-Perry wrote on Twitter.

During the segment, which appeared on the show “Melissa Harris-Perry,” the panelists made jokes about the infant standing out.

Two panelists later said their comments weren’t directed at the baby and apologized if the family was offended.

You would think that MSNBC might have learned something after Martin Bashir revealed to the world that his mindscape is a disturbed place. Incidentally, apologizing “if the family was offended” (emphasis mine), as MSNBC’s in-house failed comic, Dean Obeidallah (who was also part of the segment) did, is no apology at all. Indeed, as others have said, when an apology includes the word “if,” it is a wholly inadequate apology.

All of this, of course, is part and parcel of MSNBC’s efforts to politicize just about everything; the racial identity of a baby is now used to talk about racial diversity in the Republican party–never mind the harm and the offense to an entire family. Firings should take place as a consequence of all of this. MSNBC claims to be a credible source of news and information. It is, in fact, nothing more than a purveyor of smug insults that are handed out on a regular basis in order to ensure that the station remains in the good graces of its port-side viewers.

Paul Krugman’s Botched Analysis of the British Economy

Thank goodness I am not Paul Krugman; if I were, I would find myself rather embarrassed by this.

Who Cares Whether al Qaeda Was Involved in the Benghazi Attack?

I am scratching my head, wondering what the point is of arguing over whether al Qaeda was behind the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. I don’t see why the identity of the terrorist group matters when it comes to judging the Obama administration’s awful handling of the issue. We got varying stories regarding the reasons for the attack, we got varying stories regarding the timeline and facts surrounding the attack, and no one in the administration has been held responsible for the debacle–a debacle that cost lives. The terrorists behind the attack could have been al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Irish Republican Army, the Baader-Meinhof gang, the Red Brigades, or the Silly party for all I care. This story doesn’t get any less horrible even if we assume that al Qaeda was not involved.

Art of the Day

Frans Francken, Chamber of Art and Curiosities.


It’s Time for a Big, Giant Health Care Reform Roundup

I have been neglectful in posting about the continuing travails of Obamacare; real life demands mean less time for blogging. There is a lot of news to cover, and the news does remain bad for Obamacare fans.

Let’s start with what might be the next big problem for Obamacare:

Obamacare’s rollout dented the Department of Health and Human Services in just the first month. Up next year: the Internal Revenue Service.

A key piece of the health care law gives Americans making less than 400 percent of the poverty line subsidies to buy insurance. But if buyers don’t alert the insurance exchanges to big life changes throughout the year — like a divorce, promotion or new job for them or a spouse— they could wind up with sticker shock at tax time.

It’s a new responsibility for this group — many of whom are just struggling to sign up.

The IRS, for its part, must make sure consumers don’t get blindsided — or it will face a bunch of angry taxpayers who didn’t realize they would owe Uncle Sam money back, tax experts said.

“If I were the IRS, I would be very concerned that I’m going to be viewed as the villain when people have to pay back money the government gave them for health insurance,” said Chris Condeluci, who was Senate Finance Committee GOP tax counsel during drafting of the Affordable Care Act.

There is time. Potential “repayments” to the government will not come due until 2015, when recipients file next year’s taxes. But the new rule for reporting these life changes begins this January.

I fully expect this to be an issue, especially given the fact that “[r]ight now, the IRS does explain the issue on its website, but consumers would have to be looking for the information to find it.” It’s bad enough that people have been forced to give up insurance plans that they liked, and that they have lost access to doctors and hospitals that they have grown comfortable with–all despite the Obama administration’s assurances and promises that if we liked our health care plans, our doctors and our hospitals, we could keep them “period.” Now, people are likely going to have to face a third nasty surprise–tax penalties. Incidentally, for all those who believe that Democrats have suffered through the worst of the Obamacare implementation debacles, get ready to be proven wrong when taxpayers get eye-popping bills from the Internal Revenue Service.


Here comes the ObamaCare tax bill.

The cost of President Obama’s massive health-care law will hit Americans in 2014 as new taxes pile up on their insurance premiums and on their income-tax bills.

Most insurers aren’t advertising the ObamaCare taxes that are added on to premiums, opting instead to discretely pass them on to customers while quietly lobbying lawmakers for a break.

But one insurance company, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama, laid bare the taxes on its bills with a separate line item for “Affordable Care Act Fees and Taxes.”

The new taxes on one customer’s bill added up to $23.14 a month, or $277.68 annually, according to Kaiser Health News. It boosted the monthly premium from $322.26 to $345.40 for that individual.

The new taxes and fees include a 2 percent levy on every health plan, which is expected to net about $8 billion for the government in 2014 and increase to $14.3 billion in 2018.

There’s also a $2 fee per policy that goes into a new medical-research trust fund called the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute.

Insurers pay a 3.5 percent user fee to sell medical plans on the HealthCare.gov Web site.

Avik Roy reminds us that “fact-checkers” completely fell down on the job when it came to covering Obamacare:

On December 12, the self-appointed guardians of truth and justice at PolitiFact named President Obama’s infamous promise—that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it”—its 2013 “Lie of the Year.” An understandable choice. But in its article detailing why the President’s promise was a lie, PolitiFact neglected to mention an essential detail. In 2008, at a critical point in the presidential campaign, PolitiFact rated the “keep your plan” promise as “True.” The whole episode, and PolitiFact’s misleading behavior throughout, tells us a lot about the troubled state of “fact-checking” journalism.

Indeed it does, and there have hardly been any apologies made to those who predicted the problems that would attend the implementation of Obamacare. Meanwhile, problems with the website continue:

I tried to use the Obamacare exchange in my state, I really did. I probably spent about seven hours on the site in four or five sessions over the past few months.

Theoretically, I’m the sort of person who might benefit from the program. I don’t work for a big company that provides health insurance for its employees. We had been getting our family health insurance by paying for a “cobra” policy that extended the benefits my wife had gotten from her former job, but that has an 18-month time limit. So we need new health insurance for our family effective January 1, 2014. (A modest health reform might extend that 18-month time limit to, say, four years, but the drafters of Obamacare were not interested in modest reforms.)

In the past, I had bought health insurance through the Authors Guild. But because Obamacare outlawed individual policies of the sort that had been available through the Guild, that is no longer an option. (A modest health reform might have encouraged the purchasing or provision of health insurance through voluntary professional associations such as the Authors Guild, but the drafters of Obamacare were not interested in modest reforms.)

I live in Massachusetts, a state that had, under Governor Mitt Romney, pioneered the “individual mandate” and “universal coverage” that are at the center of Obamacare. You’d think they’d have a functioning Web site for health insurance. And they did, a year or so ago when I window-shopped for health insurance. Since then, however, to become compliant with Obamacare, the state scrapped the old RomneyCare web site and replaced it with a non-functioning Obamacare site.

By “non-functioning,” I mean, “non-functioning.” As in, it really doesn’t work.

And more:

A glitch is once again stacking up would-be health insurance shoppers on HealthCare.gov.

The oft-troubled federal Web portal that is supposed to be the front door for millions of Americans to enroll in Obamacare health insurance plans started directing shoppers this morning to a “queue,” notifying them there is a problem with the site and to come back later.

“Right now, hc.gov is queuing consumers,” HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters confirmed in a statement. “This system is in place while the tech team works on fixing an error that happened during routine maintenance last night. This work started at 10 a.m. and we anticipate this could take two to three hours and that the site will be up and running again soon.”

The outage comes at a critical time as people are expected to flock to the site before a Dec. 23 deadline to enroll in order to get coverage that’s effective Jan. 1 under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

And more:

A top HealthCare.gov security officer told Congress there have been two, serious high-risk findings since the website’s launch, including one on Monday of this week, CBS News has learned.

Teresa Fryer, the chief information security officer for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), revealed the findings when she was interviewed Tuesday behind closed doors by House Oversight Committee officials. The security risks were not previously disclosed to members of Congress or the public. Obama administration officials have firmly insisted there’s no reason for any concern regarding the website’s security.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) responded to questions about the security findings in a statement that said, “in one case, what was initially flagged as a high finding was proven to be false. In the other case, we identified a piece of software code that needed to be fixed and that fix is now in place. Since that time, the feature has been fully mitigated and verified by an independent security assessment, per standard practice.”

According to federal standards set by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the potential impact of a high finding is “the loss of confidentiality, integrity, or availability could be expected to have a severe or catastrophic adverse effect on organizational operations, organizational assets, or individuals.”

Details are not being made public for security reasons but Fryer testified that one vulnerability in the system was discovered during testing last week related to an incident reported in November. She says that as a result, the government has shut down functionality in the vulnerable part of the system. Fryer said the other high-risk finding was discovered Monday.

In another security bombshell, Fryer told congressional interviewers that she explicitly recommended denial of the website’s Authority to Operate (ATO), but was overruled by her superiors. The website was rolled out amid warnings Fryer said she gave both verbally and in a briefing that disclosed “high risks” and possible exposure to “attacks”.

There are problems on the state level too:

Nearly 16,000 Iowans who tried to apply for coverage via the trouble-plagued federal health-insurance website are being told to apply separately through the state Department of Human Services.

The Friday afternoon announcement is the latest bout of bad news about the website, which is a key part of the Affordable Care Act.

The announcement affects people who entered their information into healthcare.gov and received a notice that they might qualify for Medicaid. The federal computer system was supposed to transfer their applications to a state computer system, but that transfer has been complicated by technical problems. The timing is critical, because the new insurance coverage is supposed to take effect on New Year’s Day, which is Wednesday.

State officials say they can’t guarantee that people in this situation will have coverage if they need to see a doctor before the mess is untangled.

And more:

While Americans around the country scramble to meet the deadline to sign up for Affordable Health Care coverage to start Jan. 1, Marylanders have until Friday. The insurers in Maryland’s Health Care Exchange agreed to extend the deadline for those who want coverage in January until Dec. 27.

The Maryland Health Connection website has been a source of frustration since the launch on Oct. 1.

“With all its problems, it was like changing tires on a rolling car, but it is working a lot better and it has worked for 42,589 people,” said Governor Martin O’Malley.

Dwayne Henderson is not one of them.

“Saturday about 6 p.m. I tried the local site; the local site was not working. I went to the federal site; the federal site said I was ineligible to apply because Maryland has its own exchange,” he said.

Forty percent of Marylanders enrolled in Affordable Health Care enrolled last week, according to the governor, but many like Henderson couldn’t sign up.

“I reapplied at 11 p.m. on a Sunday, thinking that the volume should not be a problem. Unfortunately, I got the same response asking me to reapply,” he said.

Remember, the implementation of Obamacare is supposed to have “improved” after its initial disastrous start.

I guess that this story ought to surprise no one:

Even as President Obama’s health insurance website limps to recovery, at least two states that used the same contractor and are still plagued with malfunctions — Massachusetts and Vermont — are taking preliminary steps to recoup taxpayer dollars.

Massachusetts officials are reviewing legal options against CGI Group, a Montreal-based information technology company, and will make recommendations on how to seek financial redress at a Jan. 9 meeting.

So far, the state has paid $11 million of its $69 million contract with CGI. It will not pay a penny more until a functioning website has been delivered, said Jason Lefferts, spokesman for the Commonwealth Health Connector, the state’s insurance marketplace.

“CGI has consistently underperformed, which is frustrating and a serious concern,” Lefferts said. “We are holding the vendor accountable for its underperformance and will continue to apply nonstop pressure to work to fix defects and improve performance.”

Expect other states to follow suit by filing suit themselves.

Because of all of the problems associated with the implementation of Obamacare, the administration has been forced to implement a host of rules changes. For those who claimed to be worried about an imperial presidency back when George W. Bush was in the White House, now is the time for all of you to perk up:

It’s hard to come up with new ways to describe the Obama administration’s improvisational approach to the Affordable Care Act’s troubled health insurance exchanges. But last night, the White House made its most consequential announcement yet. The administration will grant a “hardship exemption” from the law’s individual mandate, requiring the purchase of health insurance, to anyone who has had their prior coverage canceled and who “believes” that Obamacare’s offerings “are unaffordable.” These exemptions will substantially alter the architecture of the law’s insurance marketplaces. Insurers are at their wits’ end, trying to make sense of what to do next.

And more:

Deadlines? Who needs ‘em? Not when it comes to Obamacare anyway. [December 23] was set to be the final day to sign up for coverage that begins on January 1 of next year. But the administration has quietly extended that deadline by an additional 24 hours. And by quietly, I mean, with no official announcement at all. News of the delay comes from two unnamed sources who confirmed the move to The Washington Post.

I am sure that this is someone’s idea of “good government,” but you will forgive me if I think otherwise.

I had planned to make this post longer, but it appears to be long enough for the moment. Not to worry; there is much more bad news to pack into a future post, and I should have the time to write one relatively soon.

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