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Why I Love Voting
Published on November 11, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about my love of Florida, my bafflement at apathy, my hatred of Florida and general disgust at all vote-suppressing states. (Yes, Ohio, I mean you!) 

Here's an excerpt:

When I was a kid, I desperately wanted to vote and when I turned 18 I registered.

I was too young to vote in the presidential election of 1992, but I’ve voted in every major election since. I voted absentee in New Hampshire in 1996 while attending college in Ohio, as an Alabama resident in 2000 and as a New Yorker in 2004, 2008 and 2012.

I love voting, and I’ve never understood people who consider it some kind of onerous burden. Nonvoters usually leave me speechless, but this year I attempted to persuade a few of them to go vote, with mixed results. Some of them have reasonable arguments about the futility of voting in a country where everything hinges on the Electoral College; others are simply apathetic, and I find it much more difficult to talk to them, mainly because apathy is something I just do not get.

My voting experiences have always been uneventful, and this year was no different.

I walked up to my polling place around 9:30 a.m., got my ballot, filled it out and scanned it in the fancy new voting machine. The whole process took about five minutes — about 20 minutes less than it took me to contest a parking ticket at Albany City Hall earlier in the week — and I headed to work full of satisfaction. Come what may, I had done my civic duty.

Click here to read the whole thing.


Post-Election Thoughts
Published on November 7, 2012 by Sara Foss

The election marked an important victory for Democrats, and the various constituencies that comprise the party - women, blacks, young adults, Hispanics, gays, etc. - but also for common sense and math.

As an avid reader of statistician Nate Silver, I followed the war on math and common sense with interest. Silver has a reputation for pinpoint accuracy in his analysis of polls and electoral predictions, and he has been projecting an Obama victory for months, in direct contradition to the conventional wisdom that suggested this would be a close election. Not everybody liked Silver's analysis, and as the election grew closer, the attacks on him grew.

These attacks came from two sources: pundit hacks, who find it hard to believe that math is a better predictor of election results than intuition, and Republicans, who decided to invent their own reality in response to Silver's numbers, which they found distasteful.

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Jerry and Tom Get Married
Published on November 4, 2012 by guest author: Keith Ross

When I first meet Jerry I wouldn’t have guessed he was gay. I was new to the island, straight down from northern New Hampshire. He was a redneck from West Virginia, with a thick southern drawl and rotten crooked teeth, emanating Southern masculinity. I thought the other guys at work were messing around with me until I met his “wife,” as everyone put it, Tom.

Jerry and Tom (not their real names) were seemingly polar opposites. Tom was also a southern boy with a thick drawl as well, but no one would doubt which team he batted for. Tom was thin as Jerry was thick. Tom was a lady as Jerry was a man. Tom defiantly was the wife as Jerry was the husband. Tom fit every single stereotype of a gay man in the Florida Keys as Jerry fit into the redneck stereotype. Except Jerry was gay and married to a man. Well, in all our minds they were married, no matter what State or Federal law says. They loved each other, they wore wedding rings, they had committed their lives to each other. They lived as husband and husband.

Jerry and I had become close friends. We would sit at staff parties and talk, a lot about hunting and fishing, and other redneck stuff. I had grown up in the mountains of New Hampshire and had close to the same upbringing as Jerry had in the mountains of West Virginia. The main difference is that my parents and I are college educated, and Jerry had come from a long line of illiterate Appalachians. I would joke with him about the Hatfields and McCoys and he would tease me about "live free or die." We argued politics and religion. No topic was off the table. He talked a lot about his love for Tom, their relationship, and their families.

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Presidential Election Thoughts
Published on November 4, 2012 by guest author: George Costanza's Number One Fan
When George W. Bush won the presidential election in 2000 and then again in 2004, I swore I would do everything in my power to make sure the Democrats won in 2008 and was pretty ecstatic when Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008. I told myself that I would just take the next four years off from worrying about the direction of my country with Obama in office.
 
My only regret is that Obama is not quite as strong a politician as I thought he was going to be. But he did get health care passed. As opposed to previous elections, I find myself more moderate and don't see a Romney presidency as a reason to go live in Canada.

I started out liberal. I went to a very liberal school in Ohio, the most liberal school I knew with a normal class schedule,  i.e., not Evergreen, Antioch or Hampshire. However, pretty much right after college, I got disillusioned with the far left. In the Fall of 2000, I interned for a liberal political magazine based in New York City, which championed the battle of Gore v. W. Bush as Tweedle-Dee vs. Tweedle-Dum, and told voters in non-battleground states to vote for Nader. I even went to a Nader rally in New York with my press pass. I do think of Nader as a hero - he did get us seat belts.
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Mitt Romney, Mormonism and Race
Published on October 31, 2012 by guest author: Steve LeBlanc

In early 1978 Mitt Romney was 31 years old, a recent graduate of Harvard Law/Business School, and the counselor to the president of the Boston stake of the Mormon church. At the time, the Mormon church excluded black men and women from the priesthood, and also refused on theological grounds to teach black people the secret signs, tokens, and passwords the church believes are required to get into heaven.
 
The above paragraph will probably surprise many readers. This is due to the fact that Romney’s Mormonism has for the most part been a non-issue during the general election. Commentators have been reluctant to dig up aspects of Romney’s involvement with the Mormon church that might be viewed as detrimental. The Christian-Right, while not pleased with Romney’s non-traditional Christianity, has nevertheless supported his candidacy and kept themselves fairly mum on the issue of Mormonism. The majority of those remaining seem to agree that religion has no place in politics, and have not brought Romney’s spiritual life into the general discussion.

While I agree that religion has no place in politics, I do think it is vital for voters to learn all they can about the judgment and character of the candidates they are considering for the most powerful position in the world. I believe that the history of Romney’s involvement in the Mormon church, as well as public comments he has made (and refused to make) regarding certain aspects of the church’s past and present policies and dogma, do in fact reflect on his character and judgment.

To sufficiently explain my point, it is necessary to quickly review the history of how the Mormon church has handled the issue of race. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was actually fairly progressive with regard to race relations compared to the standards of his day. While he didn’t exactly consider blacks equal to whites, he did allow a few “exceptional” black men to become members and priests within his church. Unfortunately, strident racism took root in the church when Brigham Young assumed leadership in 1844. Young was clear in his views on race, stating that “you must not think, from what I say, that I am opposed to slavery. No! The negro is damned, and is to serve his master till God chooses to remove the curse of Ham …”

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Please Defriend Me
Published on October 31, 2012 by Sara Foss

A friend of mine passed along this piece in response to my most recent column, about how I never defriend anyone on Facebook, and why, if you belong to the LGBT community, you might see things a little differently.


Listening to What People Think
Published on October 31, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about my ongoing effort to understand why people think the things they do.

Here's an excerpt:

"As we near the election, there’s been a distinct uptick in heated political rhetoric, especially on Facebook.

I didn’t learn about Romney’s 'binders full of women' remark from watching the debates, but from Facebook, where people began posting jokes and comments about the phrase within moments of it leaving the Republican candidate’s mouth. The Democratic and Republican conventions inspired similar observations and commentary. Even on relatively quiet days, my Facebook page is filled with political chatter, and this chatter ranges from the calm and level-headed to the completely unhinged. (Beware of any post that was written with the caps lock button on.)

For the past few months, one of my friends has been writing essays on various issues — health-care reform, the economy, the 47 percent comment controversy, etc. — and posting them on Facebook, along with his thoughts on the candidates and their proposals. And he isn’t just blowing off steam. He actually believes that he can persuade people to vote for Obama if he lays out reasonable, intelligent arguments for doing so. His goal, he told me, is to convince moderate Republicans to vote against their party."

Click here to read more.


Fixing the Debates
Published on October 15, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at Salon, Alex Parenee has some decent ideas for fixing the presidential debates, which are generally pretty lame.

Click here to read them.


Undecided Voters
Published on October 10, 2012 by Sara Foss

Yup, this pretty much sums up how I feel about undecided voters.


Oil and Water: Mixing Sanity With Politics
To Invest or Not Invest: Does Government Research Make Any Sense?
Published on October 4, 2012 by guest author: Cabot Nunlist

Cabot Nunlist is writing about important policy issues in the weeks leading up to the presidential election.

I am writing about this topic because I wanted to articulate the other side of the argument on government investment.  It’s easy to understand the argument for not spending taxpayer money on these projects: They can cost a lot of money, frequently don’t pan out, and private companies are a lot better at allocating capital than the government. These are all good arguments, but there is another side to this argument, one that proponents of government spending on research have trouble articulating. These scientists and policy wonks are a lot smarter than I am, but that is not going to stop me from trying to improve on their work with respect to defending these programs to the public.

The first thing to understand is the difference between governments and companies. Companies don’t like to take on risky research projects, especially in unproven technologies, because the risks are so high. If it doesn’t pan out, people lose their jobs, the shareholders lose their money, and the company possibly goes bankrupt. So the enormous payoff if the research pans out is usually not worth the risk. The one exception to this rule? Biotech companies. Care to wager a guess as to which investment of mine has fared the worst over my investing career? Yep, the promising biotech company I invested in. So as a shareholder of many companies, I am happy that my investments aren’t sinking huge amounts of their capital into projects that might not work out. Governments are insulated from such risk by their sheer size. A few billion dollars for the US Government represents one-tenth of one percent of the tax revenue that the federal government takes in - 2.3 trillion dollars last year.

Let’s look at a simple example to illustrate how financial scale can turn a terrible idea into a great one. Imagine that you had $100,000 to your name and someone offered you a bet: if you rolled a 3 or higher on a 6-sided die, you would win another $100,000 – but if you rolled a 1 or 2 you would lose the $100,000 you had. You are allowed to roll as many times as you want with the same terms. Is this a good bet? Of course not – even though you have a 67 percent chance to double your money, you have a 33 percent chance to lose everything. The risk of total loss is too great to take this chance, even though this is clearly a good bet mathematically. Now imagine that instead of $100,000 you have $10 million. That changes everything – now you have enough margin of safety to ride out a streak of bad luck and are essentially guaranteed success.

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The Bigot's Son
Published on September 25, 2012 by Sara Foss

If you're like me, you view the publicity-seeking Westboro Baptist Church as a hateful band of lunatics. And they are. But a Salon interview with the son of Rev. Fred Phelps, the church's crackpot leader, reveals that there's a little more to the story.

The son, Nate Phelps, is an outspoke advocate for LGBT rights, and is actively speaking out on the hate perpetuated by his father's church (and others like it).

Click here to read the piece.


Oil and Water: Mixing Sanity With Politics
Gerrymandering - Why Should You Care?
Published on September 24, 2012 by guest author: Cabot Nunlist

Cabot Nunlist is writing about important policy issues in the weeks leading up to the presidential election.

For starters, read this excellent Wikipedia entry on the tactic for a refresher:

In case you are allergic to Wikipedia, here is a quick refresher: Gerrymandering is the process of drawing Congressional districts in such a way as to clump voters from the other party into as few districts as possible, in order to increase the total number of seats your party has in Congress. This is typically done using demographic data to make oddly shaped districts that lump voters from a particular party into the district, or including small slices of the other party’s voters in larger districts of your party’s voters.

So okay, this seems a little shady in general, but why should you care if it’s your party that's doing the gerrymandering?  After all, it should lead to more seats for your party in various legislatures, right? It does do that, but as usual there is a catch.

For starters, non-competitive districts that heavily favor one party or the other lead to the party primaries being proxies for the actual election. Whoever wins the Democratic primary in a district that has been drawn to fence in all the democrats is definitely winning the general election, regardless of what a scumbag he/she is and how good the Republican opponent is. Guess who votes in disproportionately large numbers in primary elections? The lunatic fringes of both parties, that’s who. So the candidates that get elected from these districts represent an increasingly polarized political viewpoint that makes it nearly impossible to get anything done in Congress and also in no way represents the actual views of the country at large. 

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Oil and Water: Mixing Sanity With Politics
The 47 Percent Controversy
Published on September 19, 2012 by guest author: Cabot Nunlist

Cabot Nunlist is writing about important policy issues in the weeks leading up to the presidential election.

For those of you who are outraged that Mitt Romney was caught on camera saying that the 47 percent of people who were getting government assistance were never going to vote for him, settle down. It’s not the comment you should be upset with. He was just telling a bunch of rich donors that he wasn’t going to waste campaign resources chasing voters who aren’t going to vote for him anyway. I’m sure Obama has had similar conversations about not spending valuable campaign resources on anyone who voted for Michelle Bachmann, for example.

What should upset you is his remarkable lack of understanding about the demographics of this country, as well as his own family demographic. Let’s start at the national level. According to this research, only 9 percent of entitlement benefits go to non-working, non-disabled households. Even if you assume a large number of fraudulent disability claims, this is still not a large number. Most of the people getting these benefits are elderly people who paid for their benefits via payroll taxes, and so it should not be considered a handout (click here for that data). Most of the rest are the working poor, who also pay payroll taxes and certainly aren’t freeloading off the government.

Further, as you can see from the link here, the majority of the poor people who receive these benefits are in the reddest of red states. And yes, I am aware of the irony that the biggest consumers of government benefits are the ones continually rallying to end them. In this case, far from writing off Obama voters, he appears to be denigrating his most reliable base of support. It certainly demonstrates a near total lack of understanding as to who the citizens are of the country he wants us to think he is capable of competently leading.

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Never Forget?
Published on September 12, 2012 by Sara Foss

I don't have much of anything to say about the anniversary of 9/11. However, I will repost one of my favorite essays on the topic, the 2011 David Rieff piece "After 9/11: The Limits of Remembrance."

Click here to read it.


Oil and Water: Mixing Sanity With Politics
More For Less: How We Can (And Should) Provide Better Healthcare For Everyone
Published on September 9, 2012 by guest author: Cabot Nunlist

Cabot Nunlist is writing about important policy issues in the weeks leading up to the presidential election.

I thought I would tackle healthcare first, because it is a hot-button issue and because it is the major source of our budget deficit and thus ties into many of the other issues that are central to the election.

First, let’s look at why healthcare is so damn expensive. I’m sure most of you have seen statistics that show the cost of healthcare greatly exceeding inflation over the last 20 years. If not, you can see what I am talking about here. So why is this happening?

1.) When the current system went into effect, there were a lot of young, healthy people paying into Medicare and only a (relatively) small number collecting benefits. As the baby boomers retire, the ratio of people paying into the system vs. collecting benefits has lowered significantly.

2.) Amazing advances in medical technology and treatment have made many formerly untreatable conditions treatable.  Things you would definitely have died of 20 years ago are now not even true emergencies. Unfortunately, this adds significantly to costs. It is cheap to die, but expensive to receive the initial care to cure/manage your problem plus all the follow-on care over the rest of your life.

3.) The strain of uninsured patients has caused premiums on the insured to rise at a faster clip than they otherwise would. Uninsured patients typically use the ER, which is the most expensive way to receive care, and don’t seek medical attention at all until minor (cheap) medical problems become major (expensive) ones. Insured patients are the only ones that the hospital can collect money from, so premiums must rise or hospitals would shut down. Sure, hospitals will collect what they can from the uninsured, but frequently they have no steady employment and little to no assets, so while the hospital can bill them whatever they want, they really have no recourse when it comes to actually collecting it except asking nicely. After you back out the money spent on actually trying to collect this money, the amount the hospital is actually reimbursed is very low.

Let me expand upon the third point with a couple examples from my own experiences. I bugged my father-in-law about getting health insurance for years. His answer was always that it was a waste of money because he was healthy and didn’t ever need to go to the doctor. Then on Christmas Day when we were skiing at Lake Tahoe, he suffered a heart attack on the slopes. One helicopter medevac, quintuple bypass, and two week inpatient stay later, he was discharged.  Total bill for this care: $500,000, plus or minus a few thousand. Of course he had no ability to pay even a fraction of that, so he is currently paying $50 a month to a Reno hospital. He received excellent care and is in fine health now (8 years later) all things considered, but it seems unlikely that he will live the 825 additional years it’s going to take to pay the bill.  So, because he decided not to buy insurance, the taxpayers of Nevada and the U.S. as well as everyone who has an insurance plan that the hospital accepts are footing the bill for the other $490,000 that he can’t ever pay. When I worked in hospital finance, I routinely saw half million dollar claims written off like this, so it is not an isolated example.

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