Frontline/Advantix/Seresto for humans?


The snow will soon be melted here in Boston. This means we will soon be able to start pulling ticks out of our skin. Mindy the Crippler is doubly armored against these pests. She has been vaccinated against Lyme disease (the human equivalent of this vaccine was pulled off the market about 10 years ago). She wears a Seresto collar that drips poison into her body.

The various systemic anti-tick chemicals that we have been applying to dogs for 20+ years seem not to have done them any harm. Why can’t we Frontline ourselves? I would happily pay for a human version.

[Separately, whenever anyone in Cambridge asks about Mindy the Crippler’s behavior I say “All of her bad habits started after she was vaccinated.”]

Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins wrap-up


The jury has returned and Kleiner Perkins is not guilty of sex discrimination.

How is it possible to lose a lawsuit like this in one of the most plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions in the world? As noted in my previous postings (first; second), it was hard to explain why the partners of Kleiner Perkins wanted to make themselves poorer by promoting an unqualified man in favor of a qualified woman. Discrimination of any kind might make sense for a manager at a government agency. His or her salary won’t change if less qualified or productive people are hired to fill jobs. His or her customers cannot be wooed away by a more efficient competitor. But almost anyone should be able to understand that for a VC partnership, indulging in discrimination will personally cost the partners. In addition, Pao had the “bad fact” of the affair with the married co-worker, a circumstance that most people can understand might lead to on-the-job problems.

Why did people think that this case was strong? My theory is that American journalists and pundits, nearly all of whom have no technical education or experience with industry that depends on engineering, simply wanted to write about gender discrimination. Here’s an example from Forbes: “Cracking The Boys Club: Jenny Lee On What It Means To Be The Top Woman In Venture Capital” (March 25, 2015). Forbes talks about VC being a “boys club” (headline) and implies that the U.S. VC world is not “open to female venture capitalists”. These statements are directly contradicted by the woman who is supposedly the subject of the piece. The interviewee, who actually some experience with venture capital and engineering, says that VC “is capitalism at its ultimate. To do well you have to understand this point. No one is going to be nice to you because of your age, or where you come from or your gender. The VC industry is about survival of the fittest, and that’s the same mindset we give to our entrepreneurs.” When pressed as to why there are few female VCs she points out that less than 10 percent of her engineering class at Cornell were female.

Plainly Ms. Pao would be close to $200 million richer today if the jury had been 12 journalists from the New York Times and other publications that reported on the case as though the guilt of Kleiner Perkins had been established prior to trial. Denied a place in the jury box, what are these folks writing now? That this lawsuit was somehow useful in “starting a conversation.” None of the articles about how great this is for the nation mention the fact that it had to cost Kleiner Perkins at least $10 million in legal fees and distraction/time. That would have been enough to fully fund 100 women to get engineering bachelor’s degrees and join the STEM workforce that Barack Obama and the New York Times editorial board say is a good place for people other than themselves (previous posting). Which advances the cause of women in engineering more, 100 women with engineering degrees or a conversation that starts “So the flight attendant on the $65 million Gulfstream was pouring Champagne for me but I couldn’t enjoy it because some douchebag on the far end of the cabin was talking about the Playboy Mansion…”?

The story that did not seem to capture the media’s or the public’s attention was “Just how much litigation can one couple generate here in the U.S.?” According to this this summary article and this WSJ piece, Pao and her husband, Buddy Fletcher, have put lawyers to work on at least the following matters:

  • should Buddy Fletcher’s race discrimination case against Kidder Peabody be heard in court or in arbitration?
  • how much cash should Buddy Fletcher get from Kidder Peabody as a result of having been black?
  • how much investor cash did Buddy Fletcher steal from his hedge fund?
  • did fellow co-op owners at The Dakota refuse to approve his acquisition of an apartment because they thought that he was black or thought that he would soon have no money? (2011 lawsuit)
  • should Buddy Fletcher be fined or imprisoned by the government? (taxpayer-funded Justice Department and SEC investigations)
  • should some of Buddy Fletcher’s, uh, “buddies” (affiliated companies/shells/etc.) have to repay various investors, including some state pension funds?
  • how annoying do your fellow passengers on a private jet have to be before you can say that you would rather have flown JetBlue?
  • if you sue your partners do they still have to greet you enthusiastically every morning when you show up to the office? (the retaliation claim of the lawsuit, which I am surprised that Pao did not prevail on)

The New York Post says that the overdue fees in just one of Fletcher’s cases are $2.7 million. Let’s assume that the Dakota case is the simplest, $1 million in total fees. Let’s assume the Kidder Peabody case ran up fees on both sides slightly larger than the ultimate payout to Fletcher: another $2 million. The hedge fund debacle, including what the taxpayers are incurring, maybe $20 million in fees? Then count both sides of the Pao case against Kleiner at $15 million? That’s a total of roughly $40 million in legal fees…. for the cases we actually have heard about. How much litigation is that if you go to a country with a more streamlined legal system? We just finished interviewing a Germany divorce litigator. She told us that fees in a custody lawsuit come from a table published by the court. Each side’s attorney can charge 773.50 euro. That’s $842 per side or $1684 in total to decide a case. So Pao and Fletcher have personally generated as much work for attorneys as 23,753 German couples who fight over custody. Germany has a divorce rate of about 2/1000 and a population of 80 million. That works out to 160,000 divorces per year. If we assume that half of those involve minor children and that a third of the couples with children actually fight over custody. Thus Pao and Fletcher have generated more work for attorneys than the entire divorcing-with-children population of Germany, a country in which it is impossible to get divorced without lawyers and courts (i.e., they don’t have an administrative process as might be used by Danes or Swedes).

[You might ask why it is reasonable to assume that only a third of divorcing German couples with children would have a custody fight. First, the potential cash profit from obtaining custody of a child in Germany is limited to about $6000/year (compare to $72,000/year for the top of the Utah guidelines, for example, or the unlimited amounts available in California, Wisconsin, etc.). The government doesn’t hold out the same financial incentives to fight as most U.S. states. Second, the outcome is pretty easy to predict. The attorney that we interviewed said that she, after practicing for 12 years, has never been involved in a contested custody case in which the father prevailed. Very likely the percentage is smaller, in which case Pao and Fletcher have driven enough legal fees to pay for all of the custody lawsuits in Germany plus a lot more!]

Note that the couple managed to run up all of these legal bills without ever (1) investing money productively for investors, (2) delivering a service to consumers, or (3) designing or engineering a product.

What do readers think? What will be the long-term effect, if any, of this lawsuit? And what happens to Ellen Pao now? Does she (a) pull a Judy Faulkner by starting her own company and getting crazy rich by doing a better job than competitors? (okay, and also getting the federal government to force customers to buy the product; sometimes it is fun to ask “Imagine how much richer and more successful Faulkner would have been if she had been a white man.”), (b) become a reality TV celebrity like Kim Kardashian?, or (c) something else?

Germanwings Tragedy: How to protect against mentally ill pilots?


When friends first asked how the Germanwings plane could have descended out of cruise flight and crashed into a mountain on a clear day, I responded with “EgyptAir 990“. Sadly it seems from the information that has been released this is indeed what happened.

Friends are now inundating me with questions about airliners, cockpit security, and how to protect the plane and passengers against a mentally ill pilot. Here are some examples:

Why don’t airliners transmit flight data recorder (“black box”) and cockpit voice recorder data to ground stations that so we get quicker answers to what went wrong? Partly this is due to a lack of a high-bandwidth worldwide network through which to send the data. The Iridium system is old and slow. The usual suspects of Silicon Valley world-savers are supposed to come through with a 700-satellite constellation by 2019 (OneWeb). Perhaps at that point it would be practical to send a wide stream of data out but airlines would no doubt resist the fees for FAA-certified hardware ($1 million per airplane?) and data charges.

Why does TSA screen pilots so thoroughly before they get on planes? I don’t know. As a regional jet crew of three we used to have to slog our way through security every morning in our airline uniforms with our forgery-proof IDs. TSA would hassle us thoroughly if we had a few extra coins in a forgotten pocket. Yet as soon as I sat down in my seat I could easily reach for a truly nasty weapon: the crash axe. It was required equipment on all of our planes, weighed about 5 lbs., and looked like something a medieval warrior on an HBO show would wield. We had no training regarding how to use this device and I am not sure what it is for (breaking the windows to escape the cockpit? we had an escape hatch on top). However, I am confident that it would make a better weapon than two quarters and a dime, a set of car keys, or a mobile phone (items assiduously sought by TSA).

Could this crash have been prevented if a flight attendant had been in the cockpit? “No,” is the short answer. The EgyptAir 990 captain managed to get back into the cockpit fairly quickly and still could not save the plane. It turns out that things can go bad very quickly in a jet. Pushing one button will cut off the fuel to an engine (i.e., two presses on two buttons and a standard twin-engine plane will no longer have power). Stomping on the rudder can break off the tail of an Airbus (American Airlines 587). Pressing another button will dump the cabin (instant depressurization). Pushing forward on the stick or yoke can put the airplane into a 30-degree nose-down attitude within a few seconds. The airplane can be rolled at 30 degrees per second until it is upside down. Automated systems can be disabled by pulling circuit breakers. Imagine that Pilot 1 gets up to go to the bathroom and the flight attendant has just come into the cockpit and locked the door. Pilot 2 initiates the preceding actions before the flight attendant can get seated and belted in. What chance does Pilot 1 or the flight attendant have to save the airplane at this point?

[Separately, remember that it is also fairly easy to crash a jet at low altitude through simple incompetence. The mentally healthy pilot probably wouldn’t have time to react to things done by a mentally unhealthy pilot if done shortly after take-off (plane is going 180 mph and is full of fuel at that point). You thought Captain Sully was a hero? Remember that the Pilot 2 can create that situation for Pilot 1 by pressing two buttons. The first officer couldn’t fix the captain’s fairly simple mistake in time on Colgan 3407.]

Were you subject to pre-employment mental health screening? “Not really,” is the best answer. Delta mainline pilots are, supposedly, with the MMPI and a psychologist interview. But we just got some tests for “cognitive skills” (ability to multi-task and avoid distractions and/or concentrating too much on one thing) and a decision-making test that was vaguely psychological. Perhaps the company was afraid to see just how crazy pilots had to be to take a 22-day/month, 16-hour/day job for $19,000 per year.

Could a crazy or depressed pilot get released to fly with passengers? Probably not. Training takes three months and a lot of people have an opportunity to interact with you in what can be intimate surroundings. There are a couple of checkrides with FAA-designated examiners (previous posting on the subject of training). There is a stage called “initial operating experience” with “check airmen” (sexist nomenclature but some are women) of 50-120 hours in a real airplane with real passengers and people who are truly unsuited to the job often wash out at this point by failing to be signed off. (Obviously there is some risk of a pilot intentionally crashing the plane during this phase, though the check airmen are presumably on high alert.)

Could a crazy or depressed pilot continue to fly with passengers? Yes. Due to the fact that it is illegal for a foreign airline to come in and put all of the U.S. carriers out of business (Ryanair’s costs are only about 45 percent of Southwest’s (source)), U.S. airlines are fat targets for labor unions (JetBlue pilots unionized recently). It is a lot easier to fire a pilot than a public schoolteacher, but not simply because the pilot doesn’t smile and fails to respond to “How are you doing?” with the standard crew lounge response of “Livin’ the dream!”

Would it help to have annual psychological testing? It would certainly help the psychology industry! One issue is that psychological tests were designed for populations of people with serious mental illnesses. They may be meaningless in a population of more or less sane people. Academic studies have shown that antidepressant drugs may not be more effective than placebos and that therapy may not be any more effective than drugs (example). If psychologists can’t treat depression consistently how do we know that they can recognize it? I flew with some captains who had quirky personalities. For example, while acting as “pilot monitoring” on one flight it was my job to press all of the buttons while the “pilot flying” was hand-flying the aircraft (one hand on yoke, one on the thrust levers). The plane was on autopilot and we were assigned a new altitude by air traffic control (ATC). I started pressing some buttons that now properly belong to the captain, a company check airman. “Who’s fucking this sheep?” he asked. What would a psychologist have done with that? And what would a psychologist do with a population of notorious malingerers who share information on what kinds of questions are asked and what the right answers are? There are entire web sites devoted to the topic of how to game the airline interview process. Due to the industry’s unique characteristics (see “Unions and Airlines”), the consequence of being fired from a $250,000/year job (captain with seniority at Airline A) will likely be starting a $50,000/year job doing the same tasks 2X as many hours (first officer with no seniority at Airline B). So a unionized pilot would have far more incentive to try to beat a psychology evaluation than would an ordinary worker.

How does pilot mental health compare to the average? Pilots need to pass a medical exam every year. If they exhibit serious mental health issues the doctor probably wouldn’t issue a medical certificate. Learning to fly requires a certain amount of mental discipline. Commercial pilots are subject to random drug testing so it is impossible to be on drugs or alcohol much of each month. Thus my layperson’s perspective is that pilots tend to be reliable, patient, and sober/drug-free. There is one big exception, however: divorce, custody, and child support. Pilots are away from home 10-22 days/month. Suppose the stay-at-home spouse decides he or she is bored and needs to have a lover. If the stay-at-home spouse progresses to the plaintiff stage, most U.S. states will reward that spouse with the house, the children, and at least half of the pilot’s income going forward. The cash and the house go with the kids. The pilot is the slam-dunk loser for any custody lawsuit because he or she was away much of the month and therefore cannot meet the “historical primary caregiver” standard that is used when courts allocate children and the child support profits that accompany them. “Suing a pilot is almost as easy as suing someone deployed overseas in the military,” is how one litigator put it. What if it is the pilot who indulges in sexual activities on some of those nights away from home? Here’s an excerpt from our Massachusetts chapter:

“There are a lot of women collecting child support from more than one man,” Nissenbaum noted. “I remember one enterprising young lady who worked as a waitress at Boston’s Logan airport. She targeted three airline pilots, had a child by each of them, and back then was collecting $25,000 in tax-free child support from each pilot. Of course, instead of serving food and beverages, she did have to care for those children.” Using the USDA-estimated actual costs of children and the 2013 Massachusetts child support guidelines, compared to the college/work alternative a woman would have more spending power collecting child support from two men when each had an income of at least $95,000 per year (sufficient to generate $39,264 per year in tax-free income or $377 per week from each defendant).

Pilots get sued often enough that people talk about AIDS: Aviation-Induced Divorce Syndrome. And with our winner-take-all divorce system in the U.S., the loser will tend to be unhappy about it. Here’s an excerpt from our Children, Mothers, and Fathers chapter:

Attorneys we interviewed reported that some of the male defendants that they’d sued had killed themselves. One lawyer noted “The guy never would have signed up to be a secondary parent but now that is his court-ordered role, along with paying all of the bills for a mother who was greedy enough to turn her child into cash. Most of the guys who are worth suing are middle-aged. You might be talking about a 50-year-old defendant with a 1-year-old child. He’ll be paying until he is 70, but the amount that he pays was set when he was at his peak earning capacity. As he gets older he’ll probably be earning less, but judges almost never adjust child support or alimony downward. So gradually he’s paying an increasing share of his income to his plaintiff. I’m actually surprised that more of these guys don’t kill themselves. They really have no reason to exist other than to write checks to someone with whom they were briefly acquainted many years previously.” What do the researchers say? “Divorce and suicide risk” (Kposowa 2003; Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 57:12): “Divorced men were over eight times more likely to commit suicide than divorced women. … After taking into account other factors that have been reported to contribute to suicide … [divorced men] were nearly 9.7 times more likely to kill themselves than comparable divorced women.” For comparison, “Marital Status and the Risk of Suicide” (Smith, et al 1988; American Journal of Public Health 78:1) shows that married men 45-54 kill themselves at about 2.5 times the rate of married women of the same age.

If a pilot is depressed because he (typically) lost a divorce, custody, or child support lawsuit, can’t he simply ground himself for a while? The answer is “yes” from the airline’s point of view. From a practical point of view the answer is “not” unless he wants to go to prison and never work again. Remember that if was worth suing he probably was earning towards the higher end of the pilot pay scale. There aren’t going to be any non-flying jobs with comparable pay. And he is depressed so who would hire him? Thus he has a child support and/or alimony order in place based on his $150,000/year pilot salary. If he can’t earn close to $150,000/year he won’t be able to pay this order, in which case he will join the roughly 1 in 7 child support payors who are imprisoned at some point for nonpayment (for not paying the court-ordered amount, Massachusetts offers the pilot a felony conviction, which means he won’t have an ATP certificate anymore and therefore won’t be able to work again, plus up to 10 years in prison). Thus the pilot is given a powerful incentive by the divorce court, his plaintiff, and all of the lawyers involved to keep flying the American public, regardless of how depressed or suicidal he is feeling.

What about fancy technology fixes? Given that the airliners can be flown by hand and that most of the automation can be turned off by pulling circuit breakers accessible to the pilot, I don’t think that there is a way for current airliners to be made pilot-proof. Only the “big hammer” of a fully automated airliner would protect passengers from pilots intentionally crashing airplanes. Are we ready for complete automation? At the pace of progress that is permitted in our regulatory environment I would say that it will take at least 15 more years. One potentially serious problem is that an airplane flown automatically is by definition being flown on instruments. Yet our air travel system collapses if planes have to make instrument approaches. Things only work at busy airports when pilots can make visual approaches (previous posting) and follow fairly closely behind other planes.

Some ideas

As noted in “Unions and Airlines,” pilots would be in a lot better shape if they all had a reasonable work schedule. So the FAA should require that airlines give all pilots equal schedules, regardless of seniority. A borderline suicidal pilot who hasn’t slept for five nights is worse than a borderline suicidal pilot who is well rested.

Airlines should be able to automatically fire divorce, custody, or child support lawsuit defendants. We have set up a system where the pilot is virtually certain to lose the house, the children, and most of his or her income going forward. After absorbing that kind of loss there is a pretty good chance that the pilot’s mental health will be seriously compromised. Our legal system has decided we no longer want that person as a parent for the children (except for a few days per month). Why then would we want that person having the power of life or death over hundreds of none-the-wiser ticket-buying customers?

TSA should stop hassling pilots. If nothing else, the Germanwings crash proves that a pilot doesn’t need accessories to endanger passengers. Maybe have a simple screening procedure for pilots and flight attendants to prevent them from bringing actual guns into the airport, but otherwise let them be. What would your mood be like if you had to be TSA-screened every working day of your life?

There should be some truly plush crew lounges at every airport where a pilot might have to wait. If I fly a little Cirrus to B. Coleman in Gary, Indiana I can exercise, enjoy a movie in a theater, work in peace and quiet with high-speed Internet, etc. If I’m an airline pilot with a four-hour break in some airport without a crew lounge I am stuck in the public terminal. That’s a depressing way to live even for a person whose mental health was great to begin with.

We should allow Mexican and Central American airlines to operate freely within the U.S. The Mexican suicide rate is much lower than the U.S. average (source). I’ve never met a Latin American crew member who didn’t seem to love his or her job (contrast to the Lufthansa pilots who have been out on strike 13 times in the last year (article)). We’d all be in a better mood if we could fly COPA domestically.

Closing Thoughts

One reason that the Germanwings and EgyptAir crashes are so horrifying to me is that ingrained in pilot culture is the idea that passenger safety and comfort are paramount. If we need to roast up in the cockpit so that they can be comfortable back in the cabin, the temperature knob is set accordingly. This was a sad week for aviation. boycotts Indiana but has offices in India and Singapore?


Marc Benioff of launched a boycott of Indiana due to a recent “religious freedom” law that allows businesses to discriminate against homosexuals (story). My Facebook friends are hailing Mr. Benioff as an example of the highest possible principles. But this Web page shows that maintains multiple offices in countries (e.g., India and Singapore) where homosexuality is illegal (map and list). It doesn’t bother to spend billions of dollars in a country where homosexuals are imprisoned but they won’t fund an overnight trip to a state where a gay wedding might have some different vendors than a straight wedding?

And what about a minority-owned or minority-run business in Indiana? Should the Gulfstream pilots boycott B. Coleman in Gary, Indiana or make an exception for what is arguably the best fuel stop in the Midwest and certainly by far the best FBO in the Chicago region? Does spending the shareholders’ refueling dollars at a white-owned and white-run FBO in another state show one’s commitment to rights for the oppressed?

Should Indiana-based businesses unsubscribe from in favor of a free open-source alternative (list) or SugarCRM (case studies of switchers)? And finally, does this unnecessarily distract American college students and staffers from boycotting Israel?

[Separately, our interviews for the family law book revealed some other areas where Indiana is out of the U.S. mainstream. The state offers no alimony, for example, to divorce plaintiffs. Child support profits are potentially infinite, as in most U.S. states, but an Indiana divorce plaintiff who can’t get custody of a minor child could end up without a recurring revenue stream. (If the couple has assets, acquired pre- or post-marriage, a judge could give the vast majority to a successful plaintiff, however. This makes Indiana potentially one of the most lucrative states for a short-term marriage to a rich person but one of the least lucrative for a long-term marriage in which the money was spent as fast as it was earned.) Should people who think that alimony is an important human right boycott Indiana? Check to see if an Indiana business owner supports changing over to a Florida-style “permanent alimony” system before becoming a customer?]

Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis


I’m halfway through Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis as an audiobook, which is critical to appreciating the English criminal argot. The action occurs in a fictitious blighted section of London:

In dusty Diston (also known as Diston Town or, more simply, Town), nothing— and no one—was over sixty years old. On an international chart for life expectancy , Diston would appear between Benin and Djibouti (fifty-four for men and fifty-seven for women). And that wasn’t all. On an international chart for fertility rates, Diston would appear between Malawi and Yemen (six children per couple —or per single mother). Thus the age structure in Diston was strangely shaped. But still: Town would not be thinning out.

Des is a 15-year-old being taken care of by his 21-year-old uncle:

[Lionel] was served his first Restraining Directive when he was three. Three years and two days: a national record … Lionel’s first Restraining Directive would have been called a BASBO, or Baby ASBO … ASBO, which (as all the kingdom now knew) stood for Anti-Social Behaviour Order.

During one of his periodic stays in prison, Lionel wins the lottery and becomes a rich celebrity. Des graduates from college and becomes a reporter, which does not endear him to Uncle Lionel:

“See, I’m a man in a predicament. I got this nephew. After his mum sadly died, I raised him meself. As best I could. Not a bad lad, I thought. Here and there he let me down. Loose tongue. Such is youth … Then what’s he do? Turns bent on me. Goes to the university, gets his head full of ideas. Studies uh, Criminology. And now he’s finking for a living …”

Lionel’s new wealth and fame gives him access to a broader class of female partners:

“DILFs, Des. All divorcees. The lot of them! You know how they do it? First they— first they get theyselves hitched to some old banker for ten minutes. Then they independent for life! And oh, they in gorgeous nick, Des. Superb. And I said to her, I said to this DILF, How old are you anyway? And guess what she said.” “What.”“Thirty-seven! Which means she’s probably forty-three! Think. She’s almost Gran’s age— and there’s not a mark on her. Pampered all they lives, they are. Beauty treatments . Massage. Yoga.”

Lionel settles on a celebrity/poetess named Threnody. A journalist comes over to do a profile on the couple:

“‘Pop the top off for us, love,’ murmurs Chris. ‘Threnody’ isn’t slow to oblige. And there are the famous boobs (first unveiled last year)— more like pottery than flesh, and pointing upward. “‘They weren’t cheap,’ says Asbo. ‘She told me what they cost. And that’s f*** all,’ he adds, ‘to what she’s blown on her a***.’

Lionel orders Champagne by the pint but has some trouble with a steamed lobster at a fancy restaurant:

then he went back inside to confront the scarlet fortress of the crustacean. … Bending low over the table, he positioned the jagged limb in the instrument’s clench; then he applied maximum force— and caught a jet of hot butter right in the eye! … The key moment came ten minutes later, when he threw down his weapons and reached for the enemy with his bare hands. “I’m sorry you seemed to have such trouble with your entrée, sir.” “… Well, you know how it is, Cuthbert. You win some, you lose some.” “Do take the napkin, sir. Take a clean one. Here … That looks really quite nasty. Might need a stitch or two.” … He swung himself down the steps and out into the alley, his tie half off, his jacket, shirt, and waistcoat colourfully impasted with butter and blood. He felt very hungry.

Amis is a great writer but I don’t think this book works as well on the page as it does being read by someone who can do the correct accents.

[I’m also in the middle of a book in print form: The Redistribution Recession: How Labor Market Distortions Contracted the Economy (seeing if the depth and persistence of the 2008-? recession can be explained simply by the fact that we chose to pay people not to work).]

U.S. Department of Labor spends tax dollars to use Facebook to argue for more tax dollars


A friend linked to a U.S. Department of Labor Facebook page.  Top left is a video decrying the fact that the U.S. does not have a mandated-by-law 14-week maternity leave system like Germany’s. Presumably if we did have a law to force employers to offer paid maternity leave the U.S. Department of Labor would need a larger budget for hiring employees to enforce the regulations. There are already laws preventing employers from discriminating against pregnant women in hiring so presumably this wouldn’t be a simple regulation to draft, review, enact, monitor, and enforce. Otherwise a qualified pregnant woman could show up for her first day of work two days prior to a scheduled C-section, then collect 14 weeks of pay for being at home, then return to work for two days and quit.

Could this be the formula for infinite government spending? We pay taxes so that government workers can lobby us on Facebook for more government programs that require additional taxes?

[Separately, I’m not sure about the merits of adopting one element of German law in isolation. Germany has a completely different legal system, for example, in which lawyers’ fees are limited by a formula according to the amount in dispute. You couldn’t have a lawsuit in Germany that consumed $2 million in legal fees regarding the number of weeks of maternity leave to which a woman was entitled. Marriage has a lower cash value in Germany relative to work, especially since a 2009 change in the alimony law. A marriage in the U.S. that would yield “permanent” or “lifetime” alimony would potentially yield no alimony at all in Germany (that two divorced people will have an unequal spending power is not considered inequitable in Germany and adult dependency is disfavored). Compared to the college+work alternative, children have a lower cash value in Germany as well. A one-night encounter with a high-income German that results in pregnancy yields a tax-free cashflow of about $6,000 per year when the same child might yield $100,000/year or more for a Wisconsin, Massachusetts, or California parent. The victorious parent’s revenue stream is cut off at age 18 (though a child may be able to collect until the first college degree is completed) compared to age 23 in Massachusetts, for example. Thus the economic incentives faced by Germans making life decisions are different.]

The Audacity of Markup: Starbucks and starting conversations


It seems that Starbucks has abandoned its “race together” campaign in which Americans were supposed to talk about race while sipping their $5 coffees. On a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest I found that Starbucks was actually very useful in starting a conversation. A group of us were dining in a high-end restaurant in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. One of us asked for espresso after dinner. The waiter told her that they didn’t have an espresso machine, but only served regular coffee. I asked in my brightest and most hopeful voice: “Do you use Starbucks-brand coffee?” It seemed to set the waiter’s brain on fire.

My personal theory is that America’s museums are best suited to continuing the dialog that Starbucks has abandoned for crass commercial reasons. Next to the coat/bag room in each museum they can post a large sign reading “White men: Check your privilege.”

Sheryl Sandberg sweeps away sex discrimination at Facebook


A friend on Facebook who also happens to work at Facebook posted the following:

‪#‎ellenpao‬ fired despite her results & despite them being credited to less competent men. ‪#‎whendoesitend‬ I am so happy to be at Facebook now where Sheryl Sandberg leads on culture. The stories I could tell about other places.

She linked to a story on Business Insider about the trial in Ellen Pao’s lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins.  Right next to the story that she referenced was a link to “A woman has hired Ellen Pao’s lawyers to sue her former employer Facebook for sex discrimination and harassment.”

Are poor people an economic asset to a U.S. state or a liability?


With the potential for some changes to Obamacare due to a pending U.S. Supreme Court case there has been discussion about what states might do. To keep the system rolling, for example, all that a state would need to do is set up its own exchange (could a state avoid the expense and embarrassment of a debacle by using humans in a call center filling out paper forms and faxing them to insurers? There is at most one transaction per subsidized person per year.). Yet some states have resisted this task and also have resisted the expansion of Medicaid. Journalists often present this as an ideological decision, but I’m wondering if there isn’t a practical angle.

From a politician’s point of view, it could make sense to adjust the number of people collecting various forms of welfare. Given that few welfare recipients vote for Republicans (some numbers), a Republican politician might seek to limit the number of voters getting various forms of welfare, including Obamacare subsidies, in order to have any chance of winning an election. (More than 20 percent of Americans get Medicaid now (Kaiser), which is enough to form a solid base of political support.)

What about the economics? Given that poor people are generally poor it would seem that there is no way for a state’s economy to be boosted by their presence. Unless some politicians want to keep poor people around as reliable voters, New Jersey should therefore seek to cut welfare benefits to the point that its poorest citizens will move to neighboring Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, and Connecticut. Yet generally we observe that states go in the opposite direction. Welfare benefits are enhanced each year in most states. Are Americans becoming ever more generous? Perhaps the answer is, as the City of Ferguson discovered, there is money in poor people. There are a lot of Federal hand-outs that can be obtained only if a state contains poor people. For example, the Feds will pay for most of Medicaid, thus boosting nearly 20 percent of a state’s economy (the health care industry). The Feds also pay enough for public housing that building apartments for poor people is one of the most lucrative corners of the commercial real estate business (very tough to break into, however, and dominated by big companies such as Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway (story)). The Feds give out food stamps, home heating assistance, and general cash assistance, all of which are spent in a state’s local economy.

Poor people are more likely to be convicted of various federal drug offenses, which results in the federal government paying for courthouses and prisons in a state, plus paying salaries and benefits for the government workers who staff those buildings. Poor people are often hit with orders to pay child support that they cannot pay. The presence of deadbeat parents in a state entitles a state to a share of the $6 billion federal child support enforcement budget (video). Arguably a state could become reasonably prosperous without any productive industry if 20 percent of its citizens agreed to become drug dealers with out-of-wedlock children. The remaining 80 percent could be federally paid judges, clerks, district attorneys, court-appointed lawyers, child support enforcement officers, sheriffs, prison guards, etc.

Presumably to boost a state’s economic health it is better to have a rich citizen than a poor citizen, but could it be that a state government will collect more revenue by retaining the poor people that it does have?

What do readers think? Do politicians seek to manipulate the number of welfare-eligible voters in their districts? Do state policy-makers consider poverty in the larger economy when deciding whether to adopt policies that will attract more or fewer poor Americans to their states?


Can California drive infinite global warming through desalination?


A friend pointed me to this article about California’s latest $1 billion seawater desalination plant. I’m wondering if Californians have discovered a method to drive infinite global warming:

  • take all of your freshwater and sell it below cost/value to farmers who will then let it evaporate (in fact, sell it so cheaply that they will grow rice as though they were farming in monsoon-soaked tropical Asia)
  • take an entire African country’s electricity budget and spend it to run desalination plants to replace the water previously wasted

Is there a reason that I have overlooked for why California is now going the same route as Qatar?

[Of course, desalination may make sense for Qataris.  Qatar is much drier than California. Qatar is much richer per-capita than California. Qataris aren’t in the business of hectoring others regarding global warming, environmentalism, politics, etc.]


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