The difference between pre-tax and post-tax dollars can be significant: If your marginal income tax rate is 24% then, together with FICA tax (15.3% for 2020), taxes cut each additional $1.00 you earn to just over $.60!
As I described last year: “Health insurance” is not just insurance, but also a tax- and price-advantaged way of buying any covered medical services. Hence the incentive for “Cadillac” health plans, which have low deductibles so that they pay virtually all of your healthcare expenses, instead of only expenses that exceed some catastrophic level. A very-low-deductible health plan can provide net savings for employed taxpayers that expect to spend thousands of dollars a year on routine healthcare.
Amusingly: The Affordable Care Act imposed a 40% “Cadillac tax” on the cost of health plans considered excessive. That tax was delayed and finally repealed in 2019.
Apologists for U.S. police often allude to cops having to make “split second decisions,” by which they mean deciding whether to shoot people. This is wrong. In my next post I will explain why if police do their job properly they should never have to fire a gun at anyone or anything. Today I want to dismiss the notion that anybody would reasonably want or ask typical law enforcement officers to make split-second decisions to do anything that could kill someone.
Nobody should be making split-second decisions to use lethal force. Certainly not police! Cops are not trained to military levels of competence with weapons and rules of engagement. They aren’t operating in a designated war zone. Police are mediocre people: prerequisites for the job are only mediocre IQs and mediocre performance at mediocre two- or four-year schools. Police training is mediocre, and the practical use of lethal force is not their primary job.
So have we really handed over half a million full-time cops a badge, a gun, and a license to make split-second decisions to shoot people? And if a cop doesn’t make the right split-second decision? C’est la vie; live and learn. Well, the people cops kill don’t get to live. But what’s the saying,
Better that 20 citizens die than one law enforcement officer not complete his shift?
In March of 2020, there was very little we knew about COVID-19 including its mortality rate and how it can and cannot be spread. We knew it was associated with Acute Respiratory Stress Syndrome and this is generally how COVID becomes lethal. But we knew very little more about it beyond that.
However, based on empiric evidence, we know much more now. Dr. Atlas’s summary of “wholly unscientific rules, restrictions and mandates” include:
Closures of businesses
Closures of in-person schools
Limits on group gatherings
Dr. Atlas summarizes how these either are not based in science or have not prevented the spread of COVID-19:
The WHO prior to Oct 2020 stated that “the widespread use of masks by healthy people in the community setting is not yet supported by high quality or direct scientific evidence and there are potential benefits and harms to consider.”
Skeptical, I talked to him further and emphasized, “You’re not going to succeed here if you can’t meet the minimum performance standards and specifications everyone expects.” I went back and forth a few times explaining and detailing the various standards and levels of performance. He declared that their scopes would meet the most stringent specifications I had described – that they actually test their products to meet those – except he wasn’t sure about how they would hold up on medium cartridge recoil. So I said, “I can run the tests including heavy recoil on medium cartridges. Send me some samples. I’ll test them exactly the way I described, and if they are up to spec I’ll publish my review and introduce you to some distributors that will take a serious look.” Soon I got three scopes in the mail. The very first test was water immersion. (The second test is normally freezing to condense and show any tiny amount of water vapor that might have penetrated during the first test.) I explicitly told him via email that water immersion would be the first test. So I put two of the three scopes in a shallow tub of water and bubbles started coming out of them. I hadn’t even gotten to the standard test depth of 1 meter. We’re talking like 2 inches, and these things were filling with water like a submarine with a screen door. A day later the external fasteners on one of the scopes showed visible rust. I emailed him photos, and noted that I was disappointed that I hadn’t even gotten to the point where I look through the scopes. Now, despite this abysmal product sample failure, he still followed up with me several times over the next year. Each time I said, “I can’t help you if you can’t show me a product that does what you say it will do.” Apparently statements like that don’t translate into Chinese….
The data Briand referenced are undisputed. The analysis is good, and the conclusion is both reasonable and amply supported: In the U.S., the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 appear to be reducing the deaths attributed to other diseases on a virtually 1-to-1 basis. I.e., COVID does not appear to increase death rates.
Put another way: For every person COVID “kills,” it appears to save a person from dying of another deadly disease.
I had a question about how to properly file taxes in an unusual tax situation. Why not go to the source?
Federal law established the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to promulgate the rules and regulations that all taxpayers must follow to certify that they are in compliance with tax law.
The IRS can fine persons for any failure to file and pay taxes in compliance with its rules.
Government bureaucracies may not be fast, but “Surely,” I thought, “the IRS will tell me how to correctly file and pay taxes in my particular situation.” After all, if I don’t do it to their satisfaction they can fine me.
I thought I’d write a letter and wait a few months for an official written response on which I could rely.
All search paths ended with an instruction to call the IRS by phone, so I relented and called its “extremely limited” telephone assistance line: 800-829-1040 … 1 … 2 … 2 … 3 … 4. Five levels into the automated phone tree I got a recorded message telling me to go to IRS.gov and look there for the answer to my as-yet unarticulated question. Then the automated system hung up on me.
(Yes, I already exhausted my web browser searching for an answer to my question on IRS.gov.)
Undaunted, I tried a different path: 800-829-1040 … 1 … 2 … 2 … 3 … 1. After 15 minutes a real live IRS employee answered the phone! He asked me to explain my question and helpfully concluded that I would have to speak to someone in the IRS “tax law area” for an answer. He transferred me to that “area.” Where an automated message said, “Due to high volume, we are unable to assist you at this time. Please call back at a later date.” Then the IRS phone system hung up on me again.
Happy Health Insurance Open Enrollment! This seems like an appropriate time to think about the peculiarities of healthcare markets in the U.S.
Most “health insurance” as presently sold in the U.S. is not entirely insurance. Health “plans” (not “policies”) combine insurance (i.e., protection against unusual or unexpected costs) with a service contract. The service part of the plan can reduce or reimburse at least part of every dollar you spend on healthcare, even before you hit a plan’s “annual out-of-pocket maximum” (which is when the component that meets the traditional definition of “insurance” kicks in).
Normally I recommend against buying bundled financial products. Health plans are an exception for two reasons. The first is that the tax code allows you to pay “health insurance premiums” with pre-tax dollars, but you have to use post-tax dollars for “out-of-pocket” healthcare costs. So it can be more tax-efficient to buy “health insurance” with a low deductible so that more of your medical spending is done with pre-tax dollars. (Yes, if you spend enough out-of-pocket then that’s an itemized deduction, but I’ll explain in a future post why that’s still not as efficient as using pre-tax dollars.)
There’s a bigger reason to buy a health plan together with insurance: An individual consumer can’t easily pay a market rate for healthcare. Medical service providers list and bill outrageous prices that are many multiples of the fair market rate. Large buyers – health insurers and government programs like Medicare – negotiate market (a.k.a. “reasonable and customary”) rates that they will actually pay for covered medical services. If you’re not covered by one of those large buyers you (1) can’t easily learn what the “reasonable & customary” rate is, and (2) could be subject to collection efforts for the full (and absurd) list rate. As an individual you can negotiate a “cash” rate that is close to the reasonable & customary rate, especially if you are shopping in advance. But that’s much harder to do when you need emergency medical care. When you buy a health plan you’re buying access to fair market rates for medical services in addition to insurance against unexpectedly large medical expenses.
What happens when government not only pays people to work as police, but also gives them both authority and discretion to routinely use physical force against others in the course of their work? And what if, further, police are given broad deference – even immunity from serious consequences – for their use of force? What sort of people might that job attract?
United States law enforcement institutions cannot offset the predictable results of handing people a badge, weapons, and license to use whatever force they consider necessary to protect themselves and enforce the law. Rudolf Diels, first head of the Gestapo (German Secret Police, formed in 1933), candidly observed the results in his police institution:
The infliction of physical punishment is not every man’s job, and naturally we were only too glad to recruit men who were prepared to show no squeamishness at their task. Unfortunately, we knew nothing about the Freudian side of the business, and it was only after a number of instances of unnecessary flogging and meaningless cruelty that I tumbled to the fact that my organization had been attracting all the sadists in Germany and Austria without my knowledge for some time past. It had also been attracting unconscious sadists, i.e., men who did not know themselves that they had sadist leanings until they took part in a flogging. And finally it had actually been creating sadists. For it seems that corporal chastisement ultimately arouses sadistic leanings in apparently normal men and women.
U.S. police kill roughly 1,100 people per year but face few consequences.
One in every three people killed by a stranger is killed by a police officer.
As long as there are police, we must reduce their power to inflict harm.
There are explicit laws, policies, and practices that protect police officers from accountability. Our system of policing will continue to produce dead and beaten bodies until the entire system is replaced.
Proposals aimed at reducing police violence are met with denouncements from police unions and police chiefs. They simply do not want to accept a mandate from the people to implement rules that prevent violence and deaths of their fellow citizens
Once we identify the range of responsibilities assigned to the police that they are clearly ill-equipped to handle, we will realize that there is little need left for them.
While recently passing through New York I bought a $3 case of bottled water and was surprised to see an additional $2 “container deposit fee” added to my bill. Sure enough: New York is one of ten states that still collect bottle deposits. Even as manufacturers have managed to shrink the plastic content of a half-liter bottle to less than 10 grams, New York charges a 5-cent-per-bottle “deposit” on each bottle in that case.
Advocates of “Bottle Bills” suggest that the deposit encourages responsible consumption of containers, recycling, and a reduction in litter. They skim over the fact that consumers only get the “deposit” back if they transport their empty bottles to a collection center and feed them one-by-one into a redemption machine. This consumer-end collection mechanism, even when utilized, is almost certainly a net energy loser.
What’s the real-world effect of bottle deposits in this era of curbside recyclable collection? Towns have to pass additional laws to prevent hobos from tearing through curbside trash trying to pick out containers with deposits. States get to feed the increasingly uncollected deposits into their general funds. So almost everyone is hoping that the deposits are not collected by consumers!
I have been researching EMDR, which is a psychotherapy for PTSD. Many advocates and practitioners of EMDR therapy hypothesize that “bilateral stimulation” is an essential component of the therapy’s effectiveness. But recent research on a Working Memory model (“WM”) provide evidence that any sufficiently distracting activity is as effective as directed eye movements or bilateral stimulation. From the best paper I read on this subject:
Traditionally, during EMDR, eyes are moved horizontally. In line with the WM account, but in contrast to original explanations, moving eyes vertically is equally effective. Crucially, the same effects occur if WM is taxed during recall with non-eye-movement secondary tasks, like listening to a series of non-words (auditory shadowing), drawing a complex ﬁgure, or counting. Tasks that are presumably hardly taxing, like simple ﬁnger tapping, do not have beneﬁcial effects, while more complex tapping does. Likewise, activating memories about a previously seen trauma ﬁlm while playing taxing computer game reduced ﬂashbacks in the week afterwards. Whereas EMDR has been advocated as treatment for past trauma, the WM theory implies that negative images about future events (‘ﬂashforwards’) can be treated as well. Experimental evidence conﬁrms this. Finally, WM rightly predicts that individuals who are bad at multi-tasking derive more beneﬁt from eye movements, counting, et cetera during recall of negative memories.
A veteran police chief once said there are three reasons people are drawn to police work:
To help other people
Action and excitement
We don’t want police who take the job for anything other than the first reason. Those are the “good cops.” But we have *a lot* of police who have taken the job for the latter two reasons. These tend not only to be “bad cops,” but also people whose mere presence in the ranks tends to poison and corrupt the police force.
The action junkies unnecessarily escalate situations so that they can get their adrenaline fix. They seek pretexts to speed, chase, draw weapons – their default solution to every problem they encounter on the job is the use of force. Too often these police leave a trail of victimized citizens and property damage. We do not need people like this in the police, and we cannot afford them. Action junkies should not be given a badge and a gun. They should find other jobs, and if they can’t get excitement from their job they should take up exciting hobbies.
The authoritarian police are essentially sociopaths. Police forces shouldn’t be providing a salary and pension for adult bullies. Police exist to protect and to serve the public. The moment an officer shows a hint of entitlement, or of irritation at a perceived lack of deference to his badge, he should be shown the door. Police who think they are above their fellow citizens because of their office are toxic to their colleagues in uniform, to their communities, and to the very foundation of our system of law and order.
Our nation’s police officers put their lives on the line every day to protect those in need—including the ignorant and ungrateful who direct criticism toward the entire profession. – NRA’s #BackOurBlue campaign
The ignorant and ungrateful who direct criticism toward the entire profession? So the salaries, union security, and defined-benefit pensions provided by every taxpayer aren’t thanks enough? (Besides, who maintains the notorious Blue Privilege? Critics, or the members of the profession?)
American police are a mixed bag: There are some exceptional officers who go out of their way to honor their oath of office and to “protect and serve.” And there are incompetent, intemperate, and even psychopathic individuals who hide behind qualified immunity and the institutional “thin blue line” to violate American civil liberties with virtual impunity.
Taken as a whole, the American law enforcement profession is no friend of civil liberties in general, nor of Second Amendment rights in particular. The NRA claims to be, “America’s longest-standing civil rights organization. Together with our more than five million members, we’re proud defenders of history’s patriots and diligent protectors of the Second Amendment.” Until the NRA honors that claim, I will beg to differ.
Years ago I noted that modern gasoline-powered cars operate inefficiently on gasoline with suboptimal octane, and their engine control units even detect when that is occurring. If they simply communicated this fact to their operators, they could be fueled with the right gasoline, saving money, energy, carbon, etc. But there are still no cars that do this! (I hate to invoke government, but if it took a government mandate to get automakers to put tire-pressure monitors on their cars, at a substantial cost, I wouldn’t chafe at government mandating an essentially free “low-octane” notification on the dash.)
Add to the list of things that are already measured, that affect vast amounts of consumer energy, but which are not communicated to users:
HVAC filter pressure
Heat-pump coil cleaning required
Central air handlers in residences have two points of maintenance that are notoriously neglected. The most common is the air filter: If it is allowed to get too clogged with dirt the energy required to run the blower will increase. In all but the most expensive systems (which can sense and adjust for airflow) the efficiency of the heating and cooling exchangers will also begin to drop. Most residents are told to change the filter at regular intervals, without regard to the dirt load on the filter. That’s unnecessarily wasteful too.
An extremely cheap sensor and controller can detect when the filter should be changed. (In fact, modern variable-speed systems already detect this, but don’t communicate it to users. And for any other system a piezo sensor on the filter flange that detects a rise in average filter pressure does the same job.)
The second fix requires the addition of a few electronic thermometers (at a cost of pennies) to the outlet of every heat pump’s heat-exchange coils: If those coils become dirty or damaged, they lose the ability to exchange heat, which again reduces efficiency, increasing energy consumption, carbon, etc. All the thermometers have to check is the temperature difference between the outgoing refrigerant and the ambient air with which it is being exchanged. If that difference begins to rise, the coils need to be cleaned. This is something that may never happen, but if it does it should be fixed right away. Hardly anybody proactively checks for this, but the HVAC systems that don’t have these sensors built-in could be retrofitted with them for a matter of a few dollars.
Furthermore, the NJTA contract allows only one price change per week. A familiar consequence of this has been that during spikes in gas prices people flood the Turnpike to fill up at the old prices during the few days before the Turnpike vendors are allowed to raise their prices to the market level.
Another strange pricing quirk has persisted for years: Sunoco, which has the contract for most of the rest stops, offers four grades of gasoline. A recent offering was:
93 octane: $2.83 (“Ultra”)
91 octane: $2.81 (“Premium”)
89 octane: $2.70 (“Plus”)
87 octane: $2.37 (“Regular”)
The weird thing is that 91 octane is always priced 2 cents per gallon lower than 93 octane. It turns out that this 93-91 price spread is specified in the NJTA contract, because most competitors used in the survey to set prices only sell three grades of gas.
This makes 91 octane the worst deal on the NJ Turnpike. Why? Gasoline octane is a linear function of blending. I.e., you can get a tank of 91 octane gas by mixing two parts 93 octane with one part 87 octane. (In fact, most gas stations only store two grades, and the pumps blend them to produce the mid grades.) At these prices, one could buy a tank of 91 octane by blending 93 and 87 at a cost of just $2.68/gallon – that’s lower even than the listed price for 89 octane!
I suspect Sunoco is exploiting this in two ways. First, NJ still does not allow customers to pump their own fuel. So blending a tank requires explaining the process to the attendant, who rarely seems that attentive. Second is the fact that Sunoco labels the overpriced 91 octane blend as “Premium.” The manuals and stickers in cars designed for high-octane gas typically specify “premium” fuel. Depending on the season and location the highest grade available might be 91, 92, or 93 octane, so drivers are likewise accustomed to asking for “premium.” On the Turnpike, “premium” gets you a tank of 91 octane. You have to explicitly request “Ultra” or “93” to get the highest grade.
Academia has broken new ground in self-satire. After years of hand-wringing, U.S. schools are taking bold action against long-dead individuals who, upon close scrutiny, can be impugned by today’s enlightened standards of thought and behavior.
Two years ago the California government enacted a 4000-word law to essentially ban retail stores from providing single-use plastic bags, and requiring them to charge customers at least $.10/bag should they desire recycled paper bags to carry purchased goods.
Plastic bags “harm or kill wildlife.” Lots of things, natural and artificial, harm and kill wildlife. I’ve never seen a wild animal killed by a plastic bag, and I don’t know how that would happen; nevertheless, I’ll concede it as a possibility. But anecdotal photos of animals with litter don’t make this argument. Where do wildlife management scientists rank plastic bags on the list of threats to animals? E.g., above or below lightning strikes?
Plastic bags are produced from “petroleum” (actually, mostly natural gas) and hence are not “environmentally sustainable.” First of all, bag-grade plastics can be produced from all sorts of “renewable” plant-sourced polymers. Second of all, even if they are all produced from “fossil fuels,” they could still be the most efficient use of those resources. Presumably, people have to carry their groceries in something. What do they use, and what do those things cost to produce and maintain? (Or what are the sanitary costs if they aren’t maintained?)
California is straining at a gnat while swallowing camels on all these matters. If the concern is “wasting” petroleum and creating trash, why not step up enforcement of existing litter laws and build waste-to-energy plants? That would recover vastly larger quantities of litter and energy than this disproportionate focus on one consumer item.
I haven’t made as much time for current events in recent years as I used to. My news on the campaign concluded with yesterday’s election was mostly limited to whatever people would mention during conversation.
I learned this morning that the used car salesman was elected President, and that vociferous supporters of his leading opponent, a politician who should have gone to jail long ago, are in mourning.
When our federal government was smaller, and when it hewed more closely to its Constitutionally proscribed role, the person who held the office of President didn’t matter as much. Good leadership and good ideas can bubble up from anywhere, and the guy behind the desk in the oval office doesn’t want to go down in history as a monster. Recent years have shown us that as government has grown the President has acquired the power to inflict extensive damage through often subtle administrative actions that are quite difficult to check. On that score, the losing candidate, with her long history and proven expertise in abusing such power, seemed to me far more dangerous than the blustery winner. Trump seems more inclined to work in broad strokes in the light of day than in dark rooms through a thousand cuts.
This election was, however, absolutely critical in one regard: The future composition of the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS). SCOTUS is presently evenly split between (liberal) activists and (conservative) constructionists. If a liberal had won control of the presidency the current SCOTUS vacancy would have been filled by a liberal, and that least-accountable branch of the federal government would have resumed its activist practice of “legislating from the bench:” establishing laws by judicial fiat that are nearly impossible to reverse.
Instead, we have a conservative majority in the executive and legislative branches that will allow SCOTUS to be repopulated with judges who respect the role proscribed by the Constitution.1 America may not appreciate how close it came to a long reign of judicial tyranny. But for that everyone should today breathe a sigh of relief.
Dear Microsoft, Apple, Netflix, and all other tech companies that have worked so hard over the years to make decent software worse: Please stop.
Microsoft: Windows 10 told me I should restart my system. I know security updates are important, and I install them when I can afford a restart. But your latest operating system then announced it was going to restart and, even though I clicked Cancel, a few minutes later it just decided to go right ahead and restart anyway. Do you know how long it takes me to login to my VPNs, open all my remote sessions, and start whatever development environments I happen to be working with? Do you know how much unsaved work I have in applications – including many of yours – that don’t gracefully deal with unsolicited closures? Evidently you do not, or you do not care how much time and work an unscheduled restart costs me.
Windows 7 was a decent operating system. I can tell you put a lot of work into Windows 10, and I honestly wish you hadn’t. It’s worse than Windows 7 in a million little ways. And Office 365? The Office suite peaked with your 2003 edition. 2007 was a step backwards. 2010 was like tripping the poor thing on its way down the hill. Office 365 has beaten what’s left into a morass. I’ve been using these newer versions of your software because they came “free” with my latest machine. I guess the only reason I have not yet reverted to Windows 7 and Office 2003 on my primary workstation is the ongoing fascination – maybe it’s the same thing that keeps up the ratings of reality TV – the astonishment that professional software teams have chosen to discard perfectly adequate interfaces and cripple useful features in favor of half-baked new designs that have all of the intuitive grace I’d expect from a first-semester team project in CS 101.
Here’s an idea for you and your fellow misguided software companies: Instead of spending millions of developer hours building out those paradigm-breaking designs your overstaffed teams must come up with after too many open bars at too many off-sites, why not take a look at your ticket systems and just work on bugs and user feature requests?
And yes, Apple, that goes for you. Was it OS10 you just nagged me into installing on my iPhone? “Different?” Yes. Better? Does anyone at Apple ever ask that question? If not before you start work, at least before you decide that Now Everybody Must Accept It, because … I don’t know: you built it, and your testers and fanboys got used to it?
And Netflix: What happened? You could have been the Amazon of media. I used to religiously rate every movie I watched because your recommendations algorithm was worth it. Now I don’t know where you hid all my rating data, or what – if anything – you’re doing with it. These days I’m just relieved when I can find my queue or resume what I was watching most recently. At least there are easy alternatives for you.