JPMorgan Chase, “valid” $39 overlimit fees, and humanity

Friday, October 30th, 2009

In addition to running Parse.ly, I also run a small consulting business, Aleph Point, Inc. In the course of working on client jobs, I sometimes have to make business purchases, which I always pay in full at the end of every month. I have never carried a balance on my credit card and I never intend to.

When I signed up for a business checking account at Chase, the branch manager who I worked with (and who now no longer works there) encouraged me to sign up for a business credit card, as well. I thought, hey, why not — I’m just going to use it for small purchases like monthly hosting fees and the like.

Recently, I made a relatively large purchase at Best Buy for a client, which I was going to be reimbursed for. It was about $200. I already had a balance of $350 on my account, and a few days later my account was closing for the month.

When I looked over my account information a few days later, I found a strange charge. $39 OVERLIMIT FEE. What’s that, I thought?

Read the rest of this entry »

Atul Gawande (MD/author) on the cost of health care in this excellent New Yorker piece

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009
Click to read “The Cost Conundrum” @ The New Yorker

Will a new, national insurance plan solve the essential problem of the rising cost of health care?  According to Atul Gawande, it won't.  What is needed is nothing short of a complete cultural shift in the community of practicing medical doctors and the organizations/institutions that provide care.  From the article:

Providing health care is like building a house. The task requires experts, expensive equipment and materials, and a huge amount of coördination. Imagine that, instead of paying a contractor to pull a team together and keep them on track, you paid an electrician for every outlet he recommends, a plumber for every faucet, and a carpenter for every cabinet. Would you be surprised if you got a house with a thousand outlets, faucets, and cabinets, at three times the cost you expected, and the whole thing fell apart a couple of years later? Getting the country’s best electrician on the job (he trained at Harvard, somebody tells you) isn’t going to solve this problem. Nor will changing the person who writes him the check.

Check it out. 

The End of Philosophy?

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

David Brooks has written a column for the NYTimes entitled, “The End of Philosophy”. The basic thrust of the article is that moral reasoning is less about reasoning and more about intuition. In other words, morality is more like aesthetics than logic.

A representative section:

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.

Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it.

The major hole I see in Brooks’ article — and argument — is what he himself recognizes here:

Moral intuitions have primacy, Haidt argues, but they are not dictators. There are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions, and often those reasons — along with new intuitions — come from our friends.

It’s true that moral intuitions may have evolutionary (or other) roots distinct from reason, but that’s why they’re called “intuitions.” Brooks recognizes that at the “most important moments in our lives”, we cast those intuitions aside. Well, doesn’t that suggest that there exists a moral “right answer” outside our intuitions? Perhaps people should use reason to override impulse at more mundane moments of their lives, too. For example, when deciding whether one deserves those alligator skin shoes, or whether the dying children in Africa might be better candidates for that money.

There have been many attempts in recent years to justify the less rational sloppy moral thinking of individuals by pointing to evolution and saying that an individuals’ beliefs are just derived from their primordial roots. I simply disagree with this line of reasoning. The fact that you can override your moral impulses means that at times you must! I much prefer to frame my decisions in terms of Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of “radical” or “unlimited” freedom. And with that freedom comes responsibility.

Brooks quotes Haidt,

The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and … moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.

My analogy is that moral intuitions are more like the inmates in a psychotic ward. In people who don’t think their moral choices through, “the inmates are running the asylum.”

A video interview with John Kenneth Galbraith

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

I wrote about John Kenneth Galbraith earlier, but just recently found this video on YouTube. A reflective 1-hour interview with the man that discusses his long career as a professor, advisor, and economic theorist. Well worth a listen.

A Conversation with John Kenneth Galbraith — April 27, 1986

The media blackout of Ralph Nader

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

I haven’t done a formal analysis of this yet. Just an informal one using a NYTimes.com search for Ralph Nader.

On July 1, 2008, CNN published a poll that put Ralph Nader at 6%. On February 24, 2008, Ralph Nader formally announced his bid for presidency on “Meet the Press.” What happened in the intervening four months?

Not much, according to the ‘liberal’ NYTimes. In the days following Nader’s announcement, the NYTimes had a bit of activity. You can see the full details by looking at the newspaper’s Ralph Nader feed. Two articles were published immediately after the announcement, one merely rehashing the “Meet the Press” discussion. The second one was more interesting, as it appeared as an editorial and was called, “Ralph Nader: Going, Going, not Gone”. In it, Eleanor Randolph repeats the typical diatribe about Ralph Nader ‘spoiling’ the 2000 election, seemingly with detachment, but then points to Bush’s presidency as being a regrettable outcome. Here’s a select piece:

Many Democrats still believe, bitterly but without conclusive evidence, that Mr. Nader siphoned off a lot of Democratic votes in the 2000 presidential election. He argued that the main candidates, George W. Bush and Al Gore, were nothing more than “Tweedledum and Tweedledee,” two peas in a pod, no daylight between them.

The Republican Tweedle won the presidency, and the Bush administration went on to gut, hobble or hamstring many of the safety agencies that Mr. Nader had fought so hard to create. Mr. Gore got a Nobel Peace Prize for raising concern about global warming.

If there is a stronger word for whoops, it certainly applies here. But that does not seem to cast a shadow on the Nader enthusiasms.

Bob Herbert’s Op-Ed, “A Driving Force”, published the same day, seems to recognize Nader’s ‘right to run,’ but also points out, somberly, how Democrats despise and Republicans will encourage his run to force another ‘spoiler’ outcome. This was followed by a couple of narrow-interest pieces, one on Nader supporters (entitled “Trying Times for Remaining Nader Faithful”) and one about Nader’s vice presidential pick, Matt Gonzales. This news activity all occurred at the end of February.

In the intervening 4 months, there hasn’t been a single news article covering Nader’s campaign in The New York Times. Not one. I think it’s fair to say that there hasn’t been a day that has passed since February where there were any fewer than two or three articles on the other presidential candidates.

There have been a couple of Nader mentions buried deep within other articles, but no mention of the fact that Nader has secured access to quite a few state ballots. No background on his campaign or profile of his person. No interviews with him, his vice presidential pick, staffers, or anyone else involved with his campaign. And no mention of this remarkable number — 6% in a national opinion poll by CNN. That’s 6% despite no coverage in the NYTimes, and not much coverage elsewhere in the Mainstream Media.

Is this a media blackout? Well, there is no other way to classify it.

Related to my last post, who determines the content of the news: journalists and editors (and their masters), or we, the people? If the news really reflects our interest, why is it that 6% of the political news coverage of the last four months hasn’t been about Nader? I’m not asking for there to be equal news coverage as Obama or McCain. But why not at least an in-depth article or two? This is a presidential candidate making a serious run. Nader also has better credentials and deeper experience with Washington and politics than Obama or McCain. Why is it that the media continues to ignore him? I know there’s at least one explanation, but the effects still baffle me.

Is media slant determined by the market?

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

In “Lean Left? Lean Right? News media may take cues from customers” by Chicago School professor Austan Goolsbee, we are given yet another argument for market determinism, this time with regard to the slant of the media.

One of the most interesting things coming out of research on the economics of the media industry has been the notion that media slant may simply reflect business rather than politics.

The author then cites a few Chicago School studies that analyze the media in terms of slant of articles vs. readership. They find that readership is a stronger indicator of slant than ownership or big corporate donations. But then the dangerous conclusions begin.

[…] there is certainly good news in the finding. If slant comes from customers, then the views of the owners and the reporters do not matter. We do not need to fear that some partisan billionaire will buy up newspapers and use them for propaganda.”

This is a little presumptuous. Of course there is a fear of a partisan billionaire buying up all the newspapers. In history, we had William Randolph Hearst. In modern times, we have Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. He owned all the media in that country, slanted it, and then maintained control over it while presiding as Prime Minister. The market, for all its virtues, cannot solve these problems.

Let’s take one angle. Partisan billionaires can control the slant of their writing just by controlling the kinds of journalists they hire.

For example, let’s assume Rupert Murdoch would not hire very many bleeding-heart liberals to work as financial reporters in the WSJ. WSJ’s staff becomes more right-leaning, therefore there is a partisan slant. I’m not saying this is actually true, but it’s quite absurd to claim it isn’t likely, or that reporters only choose their slant based upon their readership’s expectations.

So although politicians from both sides tend to accuse the news media of partisanship and negativity, the data suggests that they ought to blame the public. The papers basically reflect what their readers want to hear.

Ick. This is the classic chicken and egg problem. It assumes that the public exists in a vacuum, and that the public’s opinions are not influenced by the media. Of course, this vacuum does not exist. The public may have views in alignment with the newspaper precisely because the newspaper shaped the views of the public. In other words, if I read the WSJ every morning on my way to work, I may very well start voting Republican. It’s not that the WSJ reflects my opinion: it’s that my opinion and the WSJ’s start to converge, since the WSJ is influencing my opinion.

The whole point of propaganda is that you don’t realize it’s propaganda while you’re reading it. Did Pravda just “represent what the worker’s wanted to hear”? According to this analysis, it certainly could have: I’m sure workers would have declared that their personal views were in line with Pravda’s slant.

As much as researchers of the Chicago School of Economics would love to believe the market can explain the media’s slant, I don’t buy it. That said, the market is certainly a factor — just not the only one, and IMO, not the primary one.

Joe Conason thinks Ralph Nader “loves” McCain

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

Conason writes for Salon,

… the evidence suggests another possible motive for Nader to run this year — namely, that he hopes to help his longtime ally John McCain, to whom he owes at least one big favor

I just did a search for Nader on Salon, and found this article in the old “Brilliant Careers” section. It was written in 1999. You know, before the Democrats pathetically lost the 2000 election, and then blamed it all on one of the greatest progressives to ever have lived.

I think we forget that in 2000, Nader’s reputation was essentially flushed down the toilet by the Democratic Party. We should all be outraged that the Democratic Party, and all of its members, blamed the loss of 2000 on Nader, rather than blaming it on itself. If the Democratic Party had blamed 2000 on itself, it might have had a chance at winning 2004, by realizing it wasn’t the party it should have been.

To suggest that Nader, after years of taking nothing short of principled stands on every issue, would run a presidential campaign just to “return a favor” to John McCain. C’mon, Joe, give me a break.

I guess all partisan Democrats — like Eric Alterman in “An Unreasonable Man” — just can’t get over the fact that they lost in 2000 and 2004. Admit it, the Democratic Party has become the spineless, least-worst party of American politics. In many ways, I have more respect for Republicans nowadays, who, despite being wrong on almost every issue, aren’t afraid of radical change, and can get people excited about the radical-ness of deregulation, tax cuts, and wedge issues. Nothing about the Democratic Party excites me nowadays, except that it isn’t the Republican party.

Could a modern “New Democrat” have implemented a progressive policy that was as sweeping/radical as the Republican “hollowing out of government” described in Naomi Klein’s book, “The Shock Doctrine”? At least the Republicans follow through on their ideology. What progressive reform did Bill Clinton get us? NAFTA? DMCA?

Do you think corporations would support Clinton and Obama if they were actually progressive? Take a look at articles like the following:

There you’ll see how it’s “politics as usual”, even for the Democrats. Sure, they rile you up with their health care plans. But do you think they’ll actually implement them, if they are not even considering any cuts to, say, the military budget?

In 2000, Al Gore ran a bland campaign that didn’t even mention global warming, even though it was supposedly the cause of his life. In 2004, Kerry tried to out-commander-in-chief George Bush, instead of pointing out his war crimes and calling the Iraq war a sham.

And, mark my words, it’ll happen again in 2008 if the Democrats don’t get their act together and stop apologizing for being liberal. Obama wants to expand the military by tens of thousands of troops. Clinton thinks she’s the fittest on day one to be commander-in-chief. I’m sorry, but if the Democrats don’t shape up, here is my prediction: McCain is perceived as a better commander-in-chief by average Joe Americans, Conservatives turn out their base against “Barack Hussein Obama,” true progressives stay home, and Democrats lose. Eight more years of Republicans. Are they going to blame 2008 on Nader, too? When will they ever take responsibility? You’re trying to tell me sixteen years of a paucity of progressive politics will be the fault of one man?

Update: A letter from Robert Franklin points out the paradox in “supporting progressive movements” while still voting Democratic:

…I voted Dem for years […] By 2000, I was fed up with the DLC and turned my back on the Democratic Party. It was a fascinating experience […] Once I stepped outside the Dem Party, it became obvious that they are as deeply in hock to big money interests as the Reps are and govern accordingly. All the things that are not part of the public debate but should be became obvious too. When looking at politics in America, don’t just think about what’s going on and ask why, think about what’s not going on and ask why not. When you do that, you realize just how narrow the range is of policies and discourse that are deemed appropriate by political elites. And “political elites” includes Dems.

[…] Look at the elections of 2006. The country overwhelmingly voted Reps out of – and Dems into – office. That was almost universally attributed to popular discontent with the Iraq War. So what did Dems do about that, given their enormous popular support? Not one damned thing. So now it’s two years later and your advice is Vote Democratic!

Your first prescription is to encourage grass roots support for progressive policies. Look at the platform of the Green Party and you’ll see that that’s exactly what that is – grass roots support for progressive policies. But for some reason you deem every sort of support for progressive policies to be appropriate except electoral support. Nader and the Greens are actually progressive, which I believe you think you are as well, but you adamantly refuse to vote that way. I just can’t buy that approach.

Your second prescription is to help the Dems win and then point out your contribution […] That’s naive. If you do that, as liberals have been doing all along, what you get from Dems is “Thank you very much. See you in two years.” You don’t get anyone in office to pay attention to you if they know that you will never penalize them for acting against your interests. It’s Politics 101, and liberals haven’t learned it. Again, the Christian Right is far smarter than liberals on this subject, which is why the Reps give them a lot more stroke than Dems give liberals.

Finally you say what Democrats say every single election year – “not this year!” Here’s another election and Dems are telling liberals that, once again, we can’t vote our principles. I’ve been hearing that from Dems every election year for the past 8 years. You say “for the time being,” we must vote for Dems so that Reps don’t win. The problem is that, by that logic, it’s never time. According to that reasoning, the time is never right for liberals to vote liberal. And if you never vote liberal, what does that make you?

The real solution to this problem has nothing to do with voting your conscious. It’s called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), and is described in 3 minutes by this video.

America’s “first black president”

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

Elizabeth Alexander of Salon writes about the mis-used Toni Morrison quote that Bill Clinton was America’s “first black president.” This quote was repeated during the Democratic Presidential Debates — which was the first time I heard it. You can read Toni Morrison’s original article from the New Yorker, but Alexander’s analysis concisely illuminates the key point. Surprise, surprise: this quote is always used out of context, and never in the way Morrison intended.

Her words have been used frequently and almost always out of their original context, as a way of signaling Bill Clinton’s supposed comfort with and advocacy for black people, to the extent that Hillary Clinton even attempted to joke that she was “in this interracial marriage.” …

[Instead, Morrison] questioned the pitch of Starr-fueled hysteria, and said: “Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime … The always and already guilty ‘perp’ is being hunted down not by a prosecutor’s obsessive application of law but by a different kind of pursuer, one who makes new laws out of the shards of those he breaks.” …

Morrison was not saying that Bill Clinton is America’s first black president in a cute or celebratory way, nor was she calling Clinton an “honorary Negro.” Rather, she was comparing Clinton’s treatment at the hands of Starr and others with that of black men, so often seen as “the always and already guilty ‘perp.'”

I have to ask the obvious question: does our media even do its basic job anymore? Can we rely upon it to do anything right? Or will it continue to take quotations out of context and mis-represent ideas like these?

Sex offenders barred from using the Internet in NJ

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

The latest insanity: New Jersey legislators have decided that sex offenders will be barred from using the Internet. That’s not a joke: barred altogether — there is only a single exception for job searches. This is a major infringement of their civil liberties. Once a sexual offender is let out of jail, he does not get to live a normal life.

Here is a comment from Slashdot that rang true with me:

“Those who want to be soft on sex offenders are most likely not parents, and most definitely not parents of a child who has been abused.”

Wow, watch those strawmen fly!

I’m a parent, and I’m guessing that under your worldview, I want to be `soft on sex offenders’. But I don’t see it that way — instead, I want the punishment to fit the crime. If you’re 17 and have sex with your 15 year old girlfriend, you should be grounded for a week, perhaps have your cell phone taken away. Peeing on the side of a building? $50 fine. Rape a 3 year old girl to within an inch of her life? Life in prison, perhaps even the death penalty.

`Sex offender registration’ is a huge crock. All it really does is let us take some people, found guilty of certain offenses, and make them pariahs for life. I imagine the original premise was to protect society from these dangerous predators, but in many cases they’re not predators at all! And why only sex crimes? I’d be FAR more concerned if the guy next door killed his neighbor in a fight 10 years ago than if he got caught diddling the 16 year old girl next door when he was 19 — but guess which one has to register?

I might be better able to support registration as either further punishment or to protect society if it applied to all crimes of a certain level, not just `sex crimes’. But even then I can’t really support it — when you’ve paid your debt to society, that should be the end of it. And if you’re too dangerous to be let out, then you shouldn’t be let out — the sex offender registry should not be a `last ditch’ sort of thing.

And what good does the sex offender registry do? Sure, it gives people a list of names of people to harass, to run out of town, to lynch, to kill. And you can tell your kids to avoid these houses, but what good does that really do? Has anybody ever shown that knowing where the sex offenders in town were led to children (we’re worried about protecting the children, right?) who were less likely to be the victims of crime (or sex crimes, if you want to be more specific?)

And the whole banning them from the Internet thing, even worse …

“Facile anti-intellectualism is the order of the day”

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

A book review by Thomas Frank, on a biography of John Kenneth Galbraith.

What astonishes the contemporary reader is, first of all, that a genuine, independent intellectual like Galbraith was permitted to serve in government, let alone become the confidant of presidents. Facile anti-intellectualism is the order of the day now, as even Democrats race to embrace the free-market logic of the Chicagoans. The ”New Industrial State” that the great liberal economist described in 1967 is now Public Enemy No. 1 of financiers and rebel C.E.O.’s determined to, as Tom Peters put it in 1992, blast ”the violent winds of the marketplace into every nook and cranny in the firm.”

Yet reading Parker’s comprehensive account of the 20th century’s economic battles, I can’t help thinking that this ought to be Galbraith’s moment. An old-school scoffer like Galbraith would remind us that all our elected officials have done with their heady incantations of the virtues of privatizing Social Security and the glories of deregulation is resurrect the superstitions of our orthodox ancestors, and trade in our affluent society for a faith-based 19th-century model in which the affluence accrues only to the top.

Or, as I sometimes like to put it, “Economics is too important to be left to economists.” Galbraith would have agreed.

Seemed particularly relevant to me as I have just finished reading books by Galbraith and Frank in the last few months.