I was fascinated to read about Mark Hostetter, who runs a large hedge fund and is also a working Presbyterian minister. Here’s a Q&A I did with him that ran in Sunday’s Boston Globe Ideas section.
Archive for December, 2009
This NYT piece went on about why those mean banks aren’t refinancing many loans. The writer finds several people who would like to refinance, and whose home loans seem generally to be higher than the value of their homes. Even with Federal bail-out money earmarked for such a purpose, the loans aren’t happening. Even if people might avoid foreclosure, or even if they have diligently paid their loans and would obviously do so with lower payments, the loans aren’t being refinanced. Unstated is what would seem the real reason for banks reluctance to refinance: to do so will revalue the house. In this market, that will probably lower its value. Making that easy to do will probably create a clamor of other folks wanting to do the same.
Take me. I would certainly like to refinance at historically low rates. But when I looked into it, I found that the value of my home had dropped to the point where I would need to pay for private mortgage insurance. My current fixed-rate mortgage was at the bottom of the market at the time, so when you add in PMI, my savings aren’t worth the hassle.
There are probably a lot of people like me. When you get right down to it, nobody involved in real estate wants to make it easy to mark homes to their actual market value. I’m surprised no one would say this to the reporter.
The Internet would give Karl Marx pause. On the one hand, it obliterates profits by commoditizing any part of the economy we can digitize (music, advertising, newspapers, software development…). Yet as it brings economic justice down upon the bourgeois, it numbs the proletariat mind in ways Marx thought only religion could.
Literary critic and Granta editor John Freeman wrote The Tyranny of E-mail to help us understand — and escape — enslavement by this new machine. My review in the Boston Globe.
I dumped my subscription to The Atlantic earlier this year, fed up with the magazine’s shift away from ideas, literature and occasional whimsy to politics, politicians and those who affect their decisions, and things that, while not politics, matter mostly to political junkies. If I wanted to read the National Journal, I’d subscribe to it.
Despite my discouragement about the magazine, I’m sorry I missed this piece, How American Health Care Killed My Father, from the September 2009 issue. The author, David Goldhill, at least tries to radically rethink health care. He’s passionate, smart and articulates the issues simply and clearly. He doesn’t sugar coat anything, but he makes it clear that the reforms we’re fighting over isn’t really going to help, for reasons beyond the control of the system.
Goldhill starts by noting that despite the data showing that his father was just one of 100,000 Americans a year who die from infections they get at the hospital, many doctors still refuse to wash their hands regularly. That’s outrageous, of course, and he will come back to it in telling fashion.
He also puts the cost of health care in stark context:
already, the federal government spends eight times as much on health care as it does on education, 12 times what it spends on food aid to children and families, 30 times what it spends on law enforcement, 78 times what it spends on land management and conservation, 87 times the spending on water supply, and 830 times the spending on energy conservation. Education, public safety, environment, infrastructure—all other public priorities are being slowly devoured by the health-care beast.
He has sensible discussion like this:
Consider the oft-quoted “statistic” that emergency-room care is the most expensive form of treatment. Has anyone who believes this ever actually been to an emergency room? My sister is an emergency-medicine physician; unlike most other specialists, ER docs usually work on scheduled shifts and are paid fixed salaries that place them in the lower ranks of physician compensation. The doctors and other workers are hardly underemployed: typically, ERs are unbelievably crowded. They have access to the facilities and equipment of the entire hospital, but require very few dedicated resources of their own. They benefit from the group buying power of the entire institution. No expensive art decorates the walls, and the waiting rooms resemble train-station waiting areas. So what exactly makes an ER more expensive than other forms of treatment?
Perhaps it’s the accounting. Since charity care, which is often performed in the ER, is one justification for hospitals’ protected place in law and regulation, it’s in hospitals’ interest to shift costs from overhead and other parts of the hospital to the ER, so that the costs of charity care—the public service that hospitals are providing—will appear to be high. Hospitals certainly lose money on their ERs; after all, many of their customers pay nothing. But to argue that ERs are costly compared with other treatment options, hospitals need to claim expenses well beyond the marginal (or incremental) cost of serving ER patients.
In a recent IRS survey of almost 500 nonprofit hospitals, nearly 60 percent reported providing charity care equal to less than 5 percent of their total revenue, and about 20 percent reported providing less than 2 percent. Analyzing data from the American Hospital Directory, The Wall Street Journal found that the 50 largest nonprofit hospitals or hospital systems made a combined “net income” (that is, profit) of $4.27 billion in 2006, nearly eight times their profits five years earlier.
Maybe I can endure the new Atlantic in small doses. I’m sorry that more of his ideas seem to have faded from discussion already.
Major trauma in the form of a crippling car accident struck my friends Gil and Kim Ahrens while we were still living around the corner from them in San Francisco (though both of us were about to move). Gil’s now published a book, Shattered Shaken and Stirred about his family’s experience and how they got through it. Gil is both a decent and fun guy and I’m looking forward to read his book.
This post, are we better off without religion? delves more deeply into Gregory Paul’s Successful Societies Scale (and its shoddy presentation) than did mine. (Some of the comments are also interesting.)
One thing that surprises me is that Paul ignores or brushes aside other potential correlates. While the U.S. is clearly more racially diverse than the other nations on his scale, with less than 80 percent of the U.S. being white, vs. more than 90 percent of the populations of countries like Britain, or Germany, he chooses to deal with diversity by looking at foreign-born populations. The U.S.’s white population is also far more diverse than that of any of the countries he examines. Paul also brushes aside the U.S.’s status as a nation with significant slave population in its relatively recent history, saying that was one more sign of its dysfunction due to religiosity. For that matter, he doesn’t seem to note that the U.S. is the only nation without nationalized healthcare. Perhaps that, and not religion, is the factor that matters most for many of the well-being statistics he presents.
If racial diversity is not just a correlate but a cause, I expect we’ll see a steady decline over time in performance of European nations. For instance, Andrew Brown’s book Fishing in Utopia argues that Sweden has failed to establish itself as the enlightened socialist democracy it envisioned becoming. The book documents some of the discrimination faced by immigrants to this supposedly enlightened country. Racial upheaval in Germany and France also come to mind. The biggest unanswered question in his paper is why the U.S. is both tops in religious belief and per capita income. That simply shouldn’t happen. I hope his paper drives more studies. And that they avoid some of the needless errors that plague his paper.
The latest installation of the Jail Diary finds our anti-hero hungering.
The Atlantic offers short stories for $3.99 a pop on Kindle. That’s less than some movies on-demand, so maybe it’s the right price. But short stories typically don’t sell well in collection form. Will they sell as singles? We’ll see how this experiment goes (poorly, if the Atlantic continues to make them hard to find).
A fun list of the next little things. I pitched one of these to a magazine back in January, before it was public. The magazine ignored me ignored me ignored me and then punted on the idea. Such is the freelance life.
Future Treasury secretaries? They can live without credit cards, an experience we need. I bet they pay their taxes, too. One of them walked away from his debt, a hardline approach that probably rules him out.
The super stooper. I’m not sure $45k a year would be enough for me to stand in front of a machine 10 hours a day. But I liked reading about this guy.
How reality TV is destroying our society. A fun read, if not exactly an original idea. I will continue to avoid reality TV, the Biggest Loser excepted.
2010 will be a long year for Tigers fans. Sigh. Jill Lepore’s concise look at the century-long effort to create a public health insurance program in the U.S., Preexisting condition, was an excellent reminder that failed healthcare plans are something of a time-honored tradition in this country. One odd note: she says Irving Fisher is best-remembered for helping to found econometrics. That’s what he’d be remembered for in an ideal world. In truth, we remember him for saying, in 1929, stocks had reached a “permanently high plateau.” The US has been a sound-bite nation for a long, long time. Auden’s ode to Christmas in consumerist times, For the Time Being.
…the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.
On Monday, I appeared on public radio’s Word of Mouth program to talk about my article “Satan, the great motivator.” As part of my preparation, I was asked to look at a study arguing that religion actually depresses economic activity in the developed world. Here is a discussion of a counter-argument from an independent researcher, Gregory S. Paul. It boils down to an argument about statistical correlation and actual causation. His actual paper develops what he calls the Successful Societies Scale.
My initial reaction was that Paul’s argument told us what we already expected: religion may catalyze economic growth, but as societies succeed economically, they secularize and become less religious. In fact, Paul thinks religion doesn’t help economies at all.
In writing my piece, I talked with several critics of the statistics used to justify the assertion about afterlife beliefs and economics. None of them thought the underlying premise was wrong, at least for developing countries. Paul does, though he says you can’t apply his scale to developing nations, in part because they don’t keep good statistics.
Perhaps his scale will hold up, but I doubt it. His paper was peer-reviewed yet rife with minor errors, starting with this one in the abstract: “The nonuniversality of strong religious devotion, and the ease with [sic] large populations abandon serious theism when conditions are sufficiently benign….”He repeatedly refers to the sociologist Robert Putnam as “Putman.” At one point, he cites religion as the cause of death for 50 billion children, a statistical impossibility.
Missing words, errors of grammar and blatant typos do not by themselves discredit his scale, though they raise obvious questions about the quality of the journal that published him, Evolutionary Psychology.
My bigger concern stems from his approach. He drops academic phrases ad nauseam, but does not write with academic distance. He often makes loaded comments, like referring to conservative religious practices as pathological. It is no surprise when his Successful Societies Scale shows the U.S. ranks dead last among developed nations in a number of categories. He blames this on America’s status as the only developed nation with significant levels of religious practice. Perhaps he is correct. But he sounds like a man with an ax to grind, which makes his scale look like a whetting stone.
Are freelancers in fact employees? John Sisson, a freelance writer based in Massachusetts, was told by a client that it would no longer hire him to do work for it because of a change in Massachusetts employment law that would open it to being sued. The law was meant to protect workers who were being misclassified as non-employees, denying them benefits. But Sisson’s client, Pearson Educdation, decided to interpret the law more broadly, because of the way it was written. Sisson says freelancers need to check on their own state laws to see if they, too, are in danger of losing work. Sisson writes about the issue in his blog, misclassified.