Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Worst Comment of the Day: Not Understanding How Free Markets Work Edition

Consumerist has an article up about the lack of competition in the healthcare markets in various major cities. The commenters at the website are generally liberal, based on the comments that show up whenever politics can be injected into the conversation (which is way more often than one would think). And if there's one thing liberal commenters like to do, it's misunderstand how free markets are supposed to work.

According to the article:

The AMA study looked at commercial health insurance market shares and federal concentration measures for 368 metropolitan markets and 48 states and found the following:

*A significant absence of health insurer competition exists in 83 percent of metropolitan markets studied by the AMA.
Now, if you've ever studied the way insurance regulation works, you most likely would never write the following:
So much for capatalism and free-markets working their magic here.

Running a business so well that you can buy up all your competition is perfectly fine if your business is, say, beer. Not so much when your business is catagorically denying medical care claims to people while still increasing their premiums every year.
Something called crispyduck13 don't need no stinkin' research, however.

What crispyjackass13 doesn't know is that regulation helps to kill competition in the insurance market. Insurance companies aren't allowed to sell policies across state lines. Which means that if a New York insurance company wants to sell policies in North Dakota, it has to incorporate there. Some companies are big enough to do this (mostly the old players -- this is why there is a Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota and a BCBS of Washington, and so on).

Add to that the twisted system we have that ties health insurance coverage to employers, where the large companies can afford to undercut local suppliers' premiums (because they can spread the cost around) and you have a perfect breeding ground for undercompetition (if not outright monopolies).

All regulations are not bad, and no one I know has ever said such a thing. But the converse is also true: all regulations are not good. The word deregulation has taken on mystical properties that somehow make it sound to certain people like no regulations, ever. Regulation is supposed to provide a level playing field where companies can compete on things like services and cost. Current healthcare regulations are designed to throw up roadblocks to competition. Healthcare costs go up as a result.

This is what I wrote back in 2009:

First, end employer-based healthcare as it currently exists. I say this as the recipient of what may be the best employer health plan in America. I don't pay for jack. My daughter was on antibiotics for almost two years as an infant due to a medical condition that couldn't be corrected until she was two. I never paid a dime. Pharmacists used to run my insurance information multiple times because they thought it was a mistake that the amount due kept coming back zero. No co-pay, no deductible. My daughter ended up needing two week-long hospital stays, one of which included the surgery. Out of pocket I paid zero. I tell you this not to brag, but to show you that what I am advocating would cost me some kick-ass coverage.

The downside to this is that I am disconnected from the cost of healthcare. My decision to go to the doctor is not based on whether I really need to go. My employer picks up the tab, so why not go? Maybe I'll score some percodan for my acute back pain! In all seriousness, I don't go to the doctor for every little thing. However, it's more a function of stubborness and having better things to do with my time. The reason I don't go unless I really need to should be that I don't want to waste money or file an insurance claim that could negatively affect my rate for something trivial.

Right now companies use healthcare as a benefit. The coverage comes in lieu of more pay. I advocate companies paying more in direct compensation, allowing the employee to use that money to purchase their own coverage. This has the benefit of letting the individual make decisions about their healthcare based on direct knowledge of the cost. No more going to the emergency room because you have the snifles. Now you would have to decide for yourself if you want to spend the money on elective visits. You'd pay your own premiums and make decisions accordingly. Right now people with coverage like mine go to the doctor for all sorts of minor things that normally would handled through rest and over the counter medicines. Why not? The company's paying for it. When healthcare is "free" for everyone you can expect the same mindset on a national scale.

This would also address another problem. Right now, insurance companies bend over backwards to make companies happy. They work with hospitals to get reduced rates on procedures, office visits, and prescriptions because the company represents huge numbers of insured. Think of it like a bulk discount on health care. Those costs get made up somewhere. In this case, "somewhere" is a town populated by individuals who buy health insurance without the benefit of a corporation negotiating on their behalf. If health insurers were competing for individuals instead of companies, the same forces that exist virtually everywhere else in the marketplace would take hold.

You want cheaper healthcare costs?

Step 1: Decouple healthcare from employers. Let consumers get a feel for how much healthcare actually costs.

Step 2: Let insurance companies compete like any other business; meaning, under regulations that only level the playing field and ensure fair competition.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Marriage Urban Legend Still Persists

I read Dan Savage's column at the Onion AV Club every Wednesday. I do this because I think it's funny. I overlook his complete aversion to all things illiberal and his clear disdain for traditional one-man-one-woman monogamy. He's funny and unserious in a way that someone, like, say, Slate's Dear Prudence is not. Seriously, Slate, tell that woman to stop trying to be funny.

But while I can roll my eyes at Savage's unprovoked attacks on religion, Conservatism and monogamy, I had to refrain from firing off an email when I read his column this week. I'm a bit surprised that someone who considers themself as smart and savvy as Savage is still repeating this fallacy in 2011:

Half of all opposite-sex marriages end in divorce, TSBM, which makes it pretty easy to deflect arguments about a gay divorce somehow proving that same-sexers aren’t worthy. And divorce—access to the courts to divide up joint property, work out custody arrangements, determine spousal support, etc.—is one of the important rights that comes with marriage.
Oh, I should mention that Savage's column is not for the easily offended or those who like their sex vanilla and their gays in Paree in the 1880's. I guess this paragraph should have come earlier. Oops.

Anyway, the idea that half of all marriages end in divorce is an urban legend that grew from a misinterpreted study during the "divorce boom" of the 1970's. That's the time when "no-fault" divorce came into vogue and divorces became much easier to get. The numbers did spike after the rules were eased, but nowhere near the point where "half of all marriages end in divorce".

How did it come about? Well, it turns out that it's another case of schools spending too much time teaching about recycling and self-esteem instead of something useful, like statistics or basic critical thinking.

If you look at the statistics from a given year, there are years where the number of divorces is about half of the number of marriages. That's a 50% divorce rate, right? Wrong. Put the reusable grocery bag down and pay attention for a second.

Warning: made-up statistics for illutrative purposes ahead.

Let's say that in 2010 there were two million marriages. Also in 2010 let's say there were one million divorces granted. Does this mean:

A. half of marriages ended in divorce
B. half of marriages that took place in 2010 ended in divorce
C. neither a nor b is correct, but divorce lawyers probably made out all right.

The answer is C. If you have normal levels of self esteem you probably already see why. But if your sense of self-worth has been inflated to unhealthy levels by your years in the public school system -- time that would have been better spent on math -- I will spell it out for you.

The numbers in any given year do not take into account that there are already tens of millions of married couples in the US. The only way that two million marriages in 2010 + one million divorces in 2010 equals a 50% divorce rate is if the total number of married couples before 2010 was zero.

Furthermore, the only way that two million marriages in 2010 + one million divorces in 2010 equals a 50% divorce rate for marriages that took place in 2010 is if all the divorces were filed by couples married in 2010. In other words, any married couples that existed prior to 2010 all stayed happily married while only those couples married in 2010 were represented by divorce lawyers.

Is that possible? Sure, I guess. It's possible you'll get pinned beneath a meteorite only to be saved when that meteroite gets split by a lightning strike, revealing a winning powerball ticket that was embedded in the meteorite. That's not likely.

Anyway, the next time you read that "half of all marriages end in divorce" point and laugh, but don't believe it.

Update: I got asked on Facebook what I thought the real rate was. I answered the question with some off-the-cuff research, but I thought I'd update this post as well for posterity's sake.

You'd think this would be an easy question to answer, and it sort of was. Not in the "type 'what's the real divorce rate' into a search and engine and be done" sort of way, but I was able to piece together and answer.

From this article I was able to get the latest census claims that 48% of households in the US are married couples.

From here I was able to determine that in 2010 the census says there were 114,825,428 households in the US.

Simple math tells me that ‎48% of 114,825,428 = 55,116,205 married couples.

According to the CDC (apparently taking a break from finding a cure to the zombie apocalypse), there were over 2 million marriages a year each year from 2000 to 2009 and between 800,000 and 955,000 divorces over the same period.

Since we're comparing 2010 households with 2009 (and earlier) marriage and divorce data, I'll use numbers that are both plausible and err to the side of making my case seem worse off: the low end of the marriage scale (2 million marriages) and the upper bound of the divorce scale, plus a little to make it round (1 million divorces).

55,116,205 + 2 million marriages = 57,116,205 married couples. Divide that into the 1 million divorces, and you get roughly 1.8% as a divorce rate, which is a far cry from "50% if all marriages end in divorce".

(Thanks to for some of the background information in this post.)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Dinner And Drinks: Grilled Scallops

I stopped at the local butcher shop early in the week and couldn't help myself when I saw some sea scallops the size of marshmallows. I saved them for Friday night when I could pair it up with some fresh steak. The grocery store where I buy steaks has better meat than the butcher (which I would not have expected but is true nonetheless). Unfortunately, they didn't have my favorite cut -- the bone-in ribeye -- so I picked out a couple of nice New York Strips and called it good.

Then it was time to open a bottle of wine and fire up the grill.

Sea Scallops (with a side of steak)

Sea scallops
lemon juice

chili powder
garlic powder

First, pat the scallops with a paper towel to get rid of any excess moisture.

I mix the dry spices in a small bowl. To be honest, I don't have measurements for this because I eyeball it all the way. Basically, use your best judgement. Dip each end of the scallops in the mix and put on the grill. Press down for a second or so. You want to get a good sear. Drip a few drops of lemon juice on each one. The juice should work its way into the crevices of the scallop.

It doesn't take long to cook a scallop; a minute on a hot grill is enough. Flip them over and give them a quick press with your spatula. After another minute, take them off. That's it.

Garlic mashed potatoes go great with scallops, but since I had just made those a couple nights ago I went with angel hair pasta. Once the pasta is done, toss it with some butter and oregano. Trust me.

While I was doing this I was thoroughly enjoying a 2008 Antigal Uno malbec that was given as part of a wedding gift by my good friends Sunny and Kris. It was a really subtle but powerful wine with a lot of oaky undertones. Really good wine. Thanks, guys!

Fall Soccer Ends Just Before It Gets Really Cold

My fifth grade girls finished the fall season today. Due to a front office snafu, Fargo teams combined 5th and 6th grade while Moorhead did not. This meant that my girls played against girls a year older (and two of the teams had only 6th graders).

I had another good group of girls who were eager to learn and worked hard, which is what makes coaching fun. We don't keep score or track wins and losses, but as always the girls do. We went 2-4 and lost one of the games by a single goal. Not bad for playing against older competition.

Like I said, the girls were great and I hope I see all of them next spring.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

This Week in the Decline of the British Empire: Blowing Up Balloons Is An Adult Activity

Under new rules debated and agreed upon by the British government (in concert with the European Union' toy safety directive) have identified a menace to children everywhere: blowing up balloons
Official guidance notes: "For latex balloons there must be a warning that children under eight years must be supervised and broken balloons should be discarded."
A government official, perhaps realizing that he is wasting his life, admitted, "You might say that small children have been blowing up balloons for generations, but not anymore and they will be safer for it". Right. Everyone knows that more children die each year from choking on balloons than the next three causes combined: coloring outside the lines; wearing shoes on the wrong feet; and removing itchy tags from the back of shirts.

At least some people can point out the absurdity, even if they have no power to change it:
Paul Nuttall, a member of the European Parliament's consumer safety committee, said the "kill joy" world of EU officialdom was being ill-equipped to understand the concept of children having fun.

"I would say that this is crackers but I sure children are banned from using them too. EU party poopers should not be telling families how to blow up balloons," said the Ukip MEP.
In other rules, party favors like whistles are to be banned, those things that unroll and make a little noise when you blow on them are to be labelled as unsafe for anyone under 14 years of age, and teddy bears for kids under three must be fully washable.

I'm not making that last paragraph up. They're actually doing this.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Blogging in the Key of Nerd: Accessing the GAC Through File Explorer

This is an old one, but it's served me well over the years. Have you ever wished you could dive into the GAC and see what was in there, maybe drop in some rebuilt assemblies or even debug with those assemblies?

There's actually as simple way to do this. All you're really doing is mapping a drive to the super-secret bunker that is the assembly cache. From a command line, use the subst command:

subst [drive letter]: %windir%\assembly

I use drive letter G: (for GAC, duh!). Once you run this command you can Run > g: and a file explorer window will open on the wonderful world of the GAC. You get all its greatest hits: GAC; GAC_32; GAC_64; and of course, GAC_MSIL.

I would highly recommend backing up the files that are already there, however.