Monday, July 21, 2014

Are environmentalists using the wrong strategy about climate change?

You can sympathize with owners of beachfront property for not wanting to face the fact that their homes are doomed, but legislating "head in the sand" policies is just nuts.

This makes me wonder if environmentalists are using the wrong strategy about climate change. Many years ago as a young ad copywriter, I learned the principle that you should never present your product as the solution to a problem that is too horrible to contemplate.

So, for example, filtered cigarettes weren't marketed as a way to prevent lung cancer: the ads talked about preventing those unsightly nicotine stains on your fingers. Or they ignored the issue entirely.

With climate change, we truly have a problem that is too horrible to contemplate. So maybe activists should talk about stopping it so you won't have to worry about getting your shoes damp as you walk on the beach.

It seems it couldn't work any worse than telling us we're all going to die is working.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Tax credits are unfair to poor people

How come nobody ever talks about this?

I'm referring to the common practice of structuring government subsidies in the form of tax credits, meaning amounts that you get to deduct directly from your tax bill (as opposed to tax deductions, which are subtracted from your taxable income). For example, the $7,500 tax credit on electric vehicle purchases.

For a rich person who pays more than $7,500 in income tax, this benefit is worth the full $7,500. In fact, it's worth a good deal more than that because in order to take home $7,500, a person in the top Federal bracket would have to earn about $12,400—even more in states and cities that add their own income tax.

So, for a rich person, that new electric car is quite affordable. But for a poor person, not so much. If you don't pay income taxes, the tax credit is worth precisely zero, and you'll pay full price for that new Leaf.

So why should the government subsidize electric cars for rich people, but not for poor people? In this perverse world, the people who need the subsidy don't get it, and the people who don't need it, get it. It seems to me that a much fairer policy would be for the government to send a $7,500 check to the purchaser, which would be added to their taxable income. This would make the subsidy less valuable for the rich than for the poor, and increase revenue to the Treasury.

I'm not sure if it's still in force, but there once was a program that gave tax credits to people who invested in affordable housing projects. This is a lot more defensible because (a) poor people aren't likely to make these kinds of investments anyway, and (b) the effect of the tax credit is to raise the effective rate of return on the investment, making it more likely that the rich would choose to invest their money in something socially beneficial. I get that. I don't get the electric car thing.

Yet another example of tilting the playing field in favor of the wealthy.

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Monday, April 21, 2014

The Fundamental Theorem of American Politics

Here's the sad truth, folks: our politicians don't really give a damn what you think (unless you happen to be a billionaire who's out slumming in the blogosphere).

How do I know this? Here's how: A recent paper (pdf) by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page at Princeton. 

They analyzed polling data and policy outcomes over the last 30+ years, and found that when the policy preferences of average citizens were different from those of the elites and of organized interest groups, guess who wins?

Maybe this explains why large majorities of the public want a higher minimum wage and background checks for gun purchases, but we still don't have them.

In any event, thinking about this has led me to a breathtaking insight, which I have immodestly christened The Fundamental Theorem of American Politics. Here it is:

To be successful, a politician must serve the interests of the elites while convincingly appearing to care about the interests of the common people. 

OK, maybe you already basically thought this, but looking at it in black & white helps explain a lot. For instance, Mitt Romney failed simply because he wasn't convincing in his attempts to claim he cared about non-rich people. Had he been a better actor (see: Ronald Reagan), he'd probably be sitting in the White House today.

And I don't say this just to dump on politicians; actually, it's quite a skill to be able to simulate caring about popular issues while actually doing nothing concrete to support them, and in many cases doing the opposite.

But it might help if we held their feet to the fire more often.

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Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Matt Miller on Republican dishonesty about Obamacare

Proving yet again that Republicans have retired the concept of hypocrisy:


As I have noted before, Miller has basically built his career on coming up with creative, pragmatic solutions that both liberals and conservatives can support. But it seems he has finally thrown in the towel when it comes to working with today's Republicans. Here's his conclusion: 

I've spent a lot of time over the years arguing that we can solve big problems such as providing insurance coverage in ways that honor both liberal and conservative values. It's entirely doable — John Rawls and Milton Friedman can be reconciled, trust me. Apart from being sound policy, I've assumed such approaches would also be necessary, because with power closely divided in the United States, we'd need to strike big cross-party deals to make progress. The breathtaking intellectual and moral dishonesty of those driving the Obamacare debate in the GOP today makes me feel foolish for having tried.

Amazing. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

More on Cloud Storage: Insync

As a follow-up to my last post on cloud storage, I've been testing a new service called Insync. If you use Google Drive--and there are some very good reasons to--Insync definitely deserves a look.

Like many of these services, it comes in several versions: "Plus", "Pro", and "Business". The Plus version will set you back $10 (once only), and includes these features:

  • Multiple account support and syncing. If you have more than one Google account, you can handle them all with Insync. No logging out of one account to log in with a different one. (You'll have to pay another $10 for each Google account you add.) 
  • Simple sharing. Just right-click on any file in your Insync folder and you can immediately email a link, or create a public link, to the file. 
  • Convert Google docs to Microsoft Office format with offline access. No need to be online to work with your documents. And any changes you make get synced back to your Google drive. 
  • Watch and sync any folder. Unlike Dropbox and standard Google Drive, you aren't limited to syncing a single folder. You can add any folder or file to the list of things to sync to the cloud, including items on external disk drives. 
  • Multi-platform support. Insync is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, plus Android and Windows Phone. An iOS app for iPhone/iPad is under development but no release date has been given (iOS users can access Google Drive files with Google's own iOS app, or third-party apps like FileExplorer.) 

The "Pro" option costs $10 per year for up to three Google accounts, and includes free software upgrades. It adds a "dashboard" for easy account management and storage statistics. The "Business" version is $10 per year per Google account, and adds a package of features designed for organizations with multiple users.

Insync adds a number of useful and convenient features to your Google account. A 15-day free trial is available so you can take it for a spin.

Monday, July 29, 2013

What's all this fuss about Cloud Storage?

Do you use Dropbox? (If not, why not? It's great, and free.) 

For the uninitiated, Dropbox creates a special folder on your computer (or mobile device). Anything you put in this folder is automatically copied to a big server in the sky (AKA "cloud"), where it provides a safety backup. Also, your information is accessible securely from any computer or device with a web browser, and if you install Dropbox on multiple machines, all local copies of your information will automatically be kept in sync, so you always have the latest version of a document no matter which device you're using. Plus, you can share information with other people (for example, a folder of photos that's too big to email).

Dropbox wasn't the first "cloud" service, but it was the first really successful one, because they smartly made it dead simple to use. And your first 5GB of storage are free (beyond that you pay a monthly fee).

Of course, success breeds imitators, and there are now numerous companies offering cloud storage—the most famous probably being Google, with their Google Drive, who recently upped their free storage allotment to 15GB—three times what Dropbox gives you.

Right now there's a market share war going on, with the various companies competing three ways:
  1. How much free storage you get for signing up
  2. How much you have to pay for extra storage
  3. "Bonus" free storage for getting other people to sign up

I've tried several of the services, in fact I have too many now and I'm going to start paring back. It's nice to get free storage from multiple companies, but (unless you're more organized than I am), it's just too hard to keep track of which file is parked on which service. I'd rather pay a little bit and have everything consolidated. Also, each service you have installed eats a chunk of your computer's RAM memory.

A worry I have is that the startup companies trying to get a toehold in this business may not make it, and if they go belly-up, what happens to my data?

Dropbox may be the easiest service to use, but it's not the most flexible, or the cheapest (they have a little trick where, if you share a file, everybody it's shared with gets charged for the storage it uses, even though only one copy exists on their server). Google Drive is, well, Google—with all that implies (their "Don't be Evil" mantra notwithstanding). I could totally see them searching through your files to look for clues on what ads to show you (like Gmail already does with your emails). Amazon also offers Cloud Drive, with 5GB free and some other features. And Apple users have the privilege(?) of using iCloud, which in theory streamlines automatic syncing between Apple devices (bookmarks, contacts, photos, reminders, etc.), but has drawn lots of complaints for being unreliable (It's weird that a company that does so many things right has never managed to produce a fully satisfactory remote data service. iCloud is their third or fourth try, and it's still not there—although in fairness to Apple, the technology they're trying to implement is considerably more sophisticated than Dropbox and the others.)

Dropbox does have one other advantage: as the earliest successful company in the business, they've garnered support from lots of other software companies. For example, a password manager keeps its encrypted files in your Dropbox so they're automatically available on all your devices (and backed up to the cloud in case disaster strikes).

So where does that leave the user? IMO, everyone should have Dropbox, simply because it's become a de facto standard that almost everybody uses and supports. But if their free 5GB aren't enough for you, you don't have to pay their prices for more: sign up for one of the other services that offer more free space and lower prices.

Personally, I'm liking Copy.com. Here's why:
  1. You get 15GB free, matching Google Drive. 
  2. If you share files, you can "split the tab": everybody doesn't have the entire block of shared storage charged against their account (like Dropbox does). 
  3. It runs on Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS and Android. 
  4. Storage over 15GB is cheap. In fact it might even be free (see below). 
  5. They're not some thinly capitalized startup; they're owned by Barracuda which is a large, successful networking company. 
  6. They also offer service plans with features that appeal to businesses. 
They're offering an incentive to get others to sign up (yep, here's the plug). For each person who joins on your recommendation, both you and they get an extra 5GB free beyond the initial 15GB. It's a pretty sweet deal.

So if you're interested, do us both a favor and go here to sign up:
https://copy.com?r=NORLhC

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Why conservatives hate Obamacare, Reason #752

I can't help but think that at least part of the reason conservatives are so apoplectic about the Affordable Care Act is that the derisive name they came up with for it*—the better to mock it—now seems to be lodged in the public consciousness, but not in they way they intended.

Early reports are indicating that the hated "Obamacare" is in danger of actually accomplishing its goal of providing affordable health care for millions of people who currently lack it. This is, of course, a disaster for conservatives: don't forget that it was leading neocon Bill Kristol who famously warned his fellow right-wingers in 1993 that "Hillarycare" had to be defeated because people might like it too much.

The Clinton health care plan was defeated (thanks to the standard conservative tactic of millions of dollars in misleading TV commercials). But now it appears the Beast was only sleeping, not dead, because now it has reared its head with a new name: Obamacare.

What keeps the Right awake at night is that not only will a new government program succeed in improving the lives of many Americans, but it will—thanks to them—carry the name of the president who is anathema to everything they stand for (please draw your own conclusions about any possible racial implications).

Lyndon Johnson's Medicare program was never labeled "Johnsoncare"—back in those Cold War days, Republicans preferred the scary term "socialized medicine" (you have to wonder, when did "care" become a dirty word?). But in attempting to hang the Affordable Care Act around Obama's neck as the millstone that would surely sink him, they appear to have made a major miscalculation. Obamacare it is. And as Obamacare, it will carry the President to a secure spot in the history books. Whether the Right likes it or not.



*Historical note: the first person to have used the term "Obamacare" appears to have been … Mitt Romney, in 2007.