Category Archives: Political Banter

We take a level headed, logical, point of view on the political state of America and abroad. We discuss ideas and a better way forward.

Data Brokers are Selling Your Identity

Do you regularly pay with a credit card at the checkout counter? What about use grocery store loyalty cards? Turns out, all that data is being aggregated and used to track you!

You read right. Statistics gathering companies like Acxiom Corp and LexisNexis, which are called Data Brokers, buy up your personal information from credit card companies and retailers and use it to create a profile on you. Then that data is sold to healthcare providers.

On the surface, this might sound amazing! You doctor can use smart predictive methods to stop you from having a heart attack or developing diabetes before it ever happens.

But wait… doesn’t that also mean that the data could be used against you? Suddenly….

  • Your insurance company can charge you more for being a smoker, drinking more than they are comfortable with, or eating too many Little Debbie cakes.
  • The EPA can decide you consume too much fuel and should be put into a higher tax bracket designated for those who emit too much carbon pollution.
  • When switching insurance companies, you could be charged higher premiums for visiting the doctor too often in the past.
  • A potential employer could buy this data and use your pharmacy loyalty card data to determine that you take too many meds and are prone to taking sick time more than they are comfortable.

Hell, I could speculate all day on the way this data could be used against you. I think the ways it could be used against you easily outnumber the ways it is useful by at least 10 to 1.

It makes one seriously consider going to all cash as much as possible. I’ve always been a tin-foil hat wearing kind of guy in this regard anyway, simply from working in IT and knowing the level of detail that can be surmised about a person based on their web surging and computer usage habits.

For example, I could tell that Jane in HR has gall bladder stones, Mike in accounting feels a burning sensation when he urinates and Michelle in finance just recently got engaged just by the crap they search for in Google. Adding in loyalty card and credit card transaction information simply fills in the pieces of the puzzle. Throw in a little cell phone GPS and metadata and suddenly they know more about us than we do ourselves.

We’re suddenly all under a microscope. Maybe it’s time to go off grid a bit. Switch to cash when possible, leave the cell phone at home or in the car when walking about, start using our browsers in private browsing mode and using browser plugins like Disconnect.

Regain a little bit of ourselves and anonymity.

——

Check out the Bloomberg article on the subject proclaiming HOW GREAT THIS ALL IS!!!!

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-06-26/hospitals-soon-see-donuts-to-cigarette-charges-for-health.html

-Holden

 

IRS Email Scandal – Does Sonasoft reveal what happened?

Today I was reading Sonasoft’s blog post denying that they have the IRS’s email archives and I noticed a few nuances that I wanted to point out. Their main point that is repeated several times is as follows:

“Sonasoft does NOT have IRS email. Sonasoft NEVER had access to IRS email.”

This is interesting because they stress that Sonasoft does not currently have IRS email (which is true) and that they never had ACCESS to IRS email. They do not say that they “never had” IRS email or that the email wasn’t archived – only that they did not have access. Presumably because the IRS was using a Sonasoft product (SonaVault) and not the Sonasoft arching service.

I believe that this is just another instance of performative language that is “legally accurate”, but purposely deceiving. They never deny that data was deleted or archived on their servers.

The “access” language is interesting to me because I believe Sonasoft is attempting to tell everyone what likely happened.

Sonasoft has safeguards and special algorithms to protect the SonaVault Email Archive from mischievous IT administrators who might be tempted to delete or tamper with the archived email. Any attempt to delete or modify the SonaVault email archive will capture the altered text, date stamp the attempt, and send out various alerts to IT personnel and management that an attempted breach occurred; the original email will not be changed in any way. The only way that email can be deleted from the archive is through SonaVault’s expiration policies. The Administrator can set retention policies to purge the archive of emails that have reached an expiration date, which is often set to be a seven-year period.

Basically, as I read it, Sonasoft is saying that they did not have access (i.e., did not have admin access to change the policy settings), but it is probable that an IRS admin did. Which is what I think happened. Someone inside the IRS was probably told to change the configurations to dump email archives.

Sonasoft also gives us the key to finding out who deleted the files right in the blog post:

There are many options to safeguard expired email, and purging the email requires several steps so that email cannot be ‘accidentally’ deleted. In addition, all purge policies are recorded and become part of the permanent log that cannot be tampered with.

They key to understanding who deleted the IRS emails and by extension who ordered the files to be deleted is in the administrative logs. A savvy lawyer should subpoena the administrative logs, determine which administrator changed the configuration settings to delete the archived emails, and determine who made the decision to do so.

Why A One-Size-Fits-All Minimum Wage Doesn’t Work For America

It seems to me that federally enforced on-size-fits-all minimum wage legislation is an ineffective way for policy makers to improve the standard of living for this country’s people.

I completely agree that something needs to be done. There are a thousand different ways we could improve the standard of living for the entire country. Simple and effective ways we could close the income gap between the richest and the poorest among us, but $10.10 an hour isn’t one of them. Frankly, it’s lazy policy making.

$10.10 an hour means different things in different parts of the country:

I think it is difficult for people in different parts of the country to understand what $10.10 an hour means to one another. Someone in New York City probably thinks that $10.10 an hour is slave wages while someone in Jackson, Mississippi (capital of MS) probably considers $10.10 an hour a livable wage. That is because the average cost of living varies wildly from region to region in the United States.

Average Cost of Living

Housing Prices Vary Wildly Across Major Cities: 

We can quickly compare median sales prices for homes across the country (source):

City Median Sale Price
Manhattan, NY $1,175,000
Jackson, MS $184,502
Seattle, WA $435,000
Atlanta, GA $245,000
San Francisco, CA $945,000

Gas Prices Vary Wildly Across Major Cities: 

We can quickly compare gas prices across the country (source)

City Regular Mid Premium Diesel
Manhattan, NY $4.052 $4.216 $4.354 $4.479
Jackson, MS $3.440 $3.642 $3.812 $3.737
Seattle, WA $4.035 $4.152 $4.255 4.109
Atlanta, GA $3.692 $3.871 $4.045 $3.893
San Francisco, CA $4.225 $4.342 $4.440 $4.291

Note: There are similar variances for food and clothing costs.

It is important to realize that these major variances are across major cities. If you compare rural areas to cities the variance is even more dramatic. So why does anyone expect a one-sized-fits-all minimum wage to work across the country?

The Solution: A Livable Wage that Fits

If we want to increase the minimum wage it seems like we need to make an effort to understand what that wage is in each part of country. We should not pick a number that everyone is expected to implement across the board. The country is to diverse for that to be successful.

What may be a fit for Seattle, WA would probably be overly burdensome to businesses in Jackson, MS. What may work in Jackson, MS would probably be insufficient in Manhattan, NY. So why do we treat wages the same when costs across the country are provably and undeniably different? This makes no sense to me.

Instead, it seems like we should empower our communities and local policy makers to actin the best interest of their constituents by providing the people living there with critical data and information to make better decisions for themselves. And if we are going to implement something federally (which I don’t think we should) – shouldn’t we at least make an effort to make it work for everyone?

We are a great country because of our diversity. There is something, somewhere, for everyone. We have always embraced that mantra. I don’t think we should stop now.

The Indoctrination Process

Six children and one women sitting in a circle holding hands. There heads were bowed and the women was mumbling softly. The children paid close attention.  As I jogged by the group one child looked up at me, almost afraid to be caught, with one eye barely squinting open, and immediately returned to the correct posture.

I slowed my jog to a walk so I could see the events unfold in more detail. In the front yard of the old house there was a small television with cartoon characters in the same posture as the women and children. I noticed that the children’s mouths were mumbling at the same cadence and volume as their teacher’s, but I couldn’t make out the words.

It was a vacation bible school camp. One just like the kind I had attended dozens of times as a child too.

In retrospect I remember all of the things I was taught as a child. How I was taught to think and not think. Not to question, to have faith without evidence, and to obey authority. The cost of disobedience was worse than death. Hell. My parents, grandparents, and the rest of my family enforced these ideas too. I believed it all without question.

When I think of it now this seems so unfair. It is such an obvious process of indoctrination that I can barely believe that such an institution, in its present form, exists at all. The use of authority, media, entertainment, and group-think to ingrain a since of loyalty  and respect to an organization and its belief system.

When you think about it, it’s not too different than how any society works. Even here in the land of the free.

“The use of authority, media, entertainment, and group-think to ingrain a since of loyalty  and respect to an organization and its belief system.”

Patriotism enforced by a since of community , unlimited hours of (un)reality TV available for consumption, a media network that pumps ideas into the psyche of the public, and a since that we owe it all to those in charge. We hold our leaders up like infallible idols – as long as they belong to the correct political party. A false since of choice.

This form of indoctrination works. It has been and continues to be used. We just can’t recognize it because we are part of the process. But once you recognize that such a thing exists it’s a lot easier to be yourself. Not what they told you to be.

Proof that our Health and Medical Insurance System is FUCKED!

Today I got a bill in mail for when my wife went to the doctor recently due to having the flu. She didn’t go to the Emergency Room mind you, she went to her primary care physician.

The final cost to me out of pocket was only $25. Not bad if you forget that I pay about $400 every month in insurance premiums then my employer picks up another $800 for a total of approx. $1200 a month to insure my family.

But check out the wonderful itemized bill! It’s for almost $400!!!!!

Look closer and you notice the doctors and insurance companies have some nice deals with each other. The doctor discounted the insurer $177 + $82. Yup- $259 (65% of the bill) was “Wrote Off”.

2014-06-19 20_35_17-Picasa 3

I wonder if I were uninsured and I went in for this visit, would they have wrote off 65% of the medical bill for me, or stuck my poor soul with the whole $400?!

Someone give me a spoon so I can gouge my eyes out! This is maddening!

-Holden

The Economics of Compounded Growth

Our economy slowly grows at around 4% a year. This is a given. An expectation. Anything less is seen as a failure, anything more is an achievement.

I read an article today that did a good job of putting that kind of growth into perspective.

“Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham(1).
The trajectory of compound growth shows that the scouring of the planet has only just begun. We simply can’t go on this way.

Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more? It’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems(2).”

This idea makes me wonder: Where is our breaking point? Where is the point in which we can’t sustain growth any longer? And what is our contingency plan?

I don’t know. Maybe we are already there. Maybe technology will let us keep going further than any of us ever dreamed. I don’t claim to know, but it’s certainly something we should all consider.

Problems and Solutions to the Broken Healthcare System

My wife and I recently had a little girl. Until that moment I had never been exposed to the healthcare and insurance ecosystem. I have been fortunate. I’ve never had an extended stay at the hospital, I’ve never been on prescription medication, and as an adult, I have never been to the doctor outside a checkup. Now I realize that the system is completely convoluted and non-transparent.

From what I can tell there are four major problems with the healthcare and insurance mechanisms.

1. Prices for healthcare services are unavailable, non-existent, or not published.
2. There is no crowd-sourced ratings system for hospitals (think yelp for hospitals).
3. Since everyone is insured no one cares about cost. This has resulted in higher prices.
4. The people have no power to control the quality or cost of the healthcare services.

These four problems ultimately result in a system that is too expensive, low quality, and where the people have no power to do anything about it.

Here are my proposed solutions:

1. Pricing for healthcare services are unavailable, non-existent, or not published.

Require all hospitals post itemized prices for their goods and services. Every procedure should have an itemized “menu” outlining what the procedure may cost. Since any given procedure is highly variable the menu should include “average cost”, “best case”, “most likely”, and “worst case” scenarios.

The menu should also include things like bandages, medication, and anything else a hospital could use to inadvertently pad the bill.  Great hospitals should even consider hiring a “budget specialist” who discusses costs and options with each patient.

These menus should be posted online and available before he procedure. This will allow individuals and insurance companies to shop around for a facility that meets the individuals’ need. This will also drive prices down since hospitals will be forced to compete based on price (or provide superior service to justify higher prices).

I would not eat at a restaurant that didn’t post prices so I should not have to receive healthcare services without prices either.

2. There is no crowd-sourced ratings system for hospitals (think yelp.com for hospitals).

There should be a crowd-sourced ratings system for hospitals. In my opinion this would have been a much better investment than healthcare.gov. When hospitals are forced to compete for business based on price and services the consumer benefits. Prices will ultimately fall and service will rise.

For example, in Atlanta there are several major hospitals in the metro area. For most procedures I have no idea what a service cost or who the best service provider may be. I usually just go to the closest major hospital. I imagine most people do the same thing.

A rating system would enable a consumer to quickly and easily search for a service provider based on thousands of consumer ratings. Ultimately a sick person cannot choose if they want to go to the hospital, but they can choose which hospital they visit. The power of consumer choice based on good information will ultimately force hospitals to compete.

3. Since everyone is insured no one cares about prices. This has resulted in higher prices.

The third major problem I see with the healthcare system are insurance companies.

Healthcare prices are so complex and expensive (for reason listed above) that no one can or wants to deal with it. We defer all responsibility to our insurers. Now, with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) we have no choice anyways. Ultimately this leads to a system where no one cares about prices because they will be paying the same insurance premium regardless. But this is a false premise.

Because no one cares about prices and live under the illusion that their costs are the same there is no incentive to seek more cost effective solutions. People rarely look at their hospital bill and pay whatever the insurer requires. This ultimately leads to higher healthcare costs and higher healthcare insurance premiums.

Healthcare insurers should provide incentives (lower insurance premiums) to individuals who shop around for better prices and value. This would ultimately lower insurance prices and force hospitals to compete again.

4. The people have no power to control the quality or cost of the healthcare services they receive. 

The biggest problem with our healthcare system is that the people receiving the services have no power to control prices or the quality of service they receive. The appropriate infrastructure is not in place. All of the power resides with the insurance companies and healthcare providers.

Insurance companies operate as powerful unions who dictate what they will pay a hospital for a given good or service. Insurance companies have large staff who perform complex pricing studies so they understand what people are paying and how much a product SHOULD cost regardless what a hospital charges.

This results in hospitals charging several times market value for a given good or service because they fully expect the insurance company to pay only a small fraction of that amount. Meanwhile: the consumer is screwed, hospitals charge too much, and insurance companies reek most of the profits.

Obamacare:

Obamacare has only served to strengthen this broken system by further empowering insurance companies and disenfranchising the individual. Since EVERYONE is now forced to have healthcare insurance this eliminates any opportunity for individuals to negotiate or bargain for themselves.

Ultimately, we live in a system where the insurance companies dictate how much they will pay hospitals and how much they will charge consumers. Meanwhile, there has been no progress toward a system that promotes competition, dives prices down, or leads to better services.

Should we be worried about Climate Change?

With all of the media-created controversy about global warming I can’t see past the propaganda to form an opinion.  It seems like every climate change discussion is a prize fight between two entertainers (i.e., not scientist).

I get lost in the entertainment and can’t decipher the facts from the manufactured drama. It makes the whole topic of climate change seem like a farce. If we are really on the verge of death it seems like someone would stand up and say “Stop everything!” That hasn’t happened.

If things are as bad as climate activist would have us believe then why aren’t world leaders like President Obama taking monumental steps toward protecting the nation’s interests? There should be an immediate and mandatory ban on global emissions, all military and civilian resources should be dedicated to building flood barriers, creating alternative energy, and growing food reserves. None of this has happened.

Instead, even the most liberal politicians, have done nothing. We still protect oil pipelines in the middle east, we still have highest GDP on earth, and our economy still functions as the largest producer of pollution making machines (tanks, cars, and airplanes) on earth. That seems pretty anti-environmentalist if you ask me.

There are too many mixed messages and I think that is why so many people do not take climate change seriously. And for the average non-climate-change-scientist it is almost impossible to form an educated opinion.

I honestly do not know what to believe. I do not know if climate change is man-made or just part of the normal life-cycle of mother nature. I don’t even know if there is anything we can do about it.

Why does Education in America suck?

Since having a few kids, I’ve read a few books on education and parenting. A few I made my way through the first few chapters and discarded. But there are two books in particular I found really useful.

One was solely on parenting, a book called Nurture Shock, which discussed education but solely from the view of a parent. But the other- “The Smartest Kids in the World” by Amanda Ripley, really delved into not just what should be happening on a family level, but the national level.

Ms. Ripley dived deep into the education systems of some of the best school systems in the world, including Finland, South Korea and Poland. There is a decent book review on the NY Times website if you’re interested in learning more.

This post is not about reviewing her book though, it’s about cutting to the chase.

What is the #1 reason education in the USA is lacking?

Is it our spending on education? No. The United States spends money on education like we do our military. We practically spend more per student than any other country in the world. We fill our class rooms with fancy technology (which is pretty much proved to do nothing but enrich the vendors who sell the gadgets), our classroom sizes tend to be lower than in many other developed nations, etc.

Is it our culture? Yes! According to Ms. Ripley’s research, students in America don’t take education seriously enough. Families don’t reinforce these values well enough across the board. And sports and athleticism often times take priority over learning.

And this cultural shortfall buttresses into a related, equally large issue…

Is it our teachers! YES!

The reason our education system lacks in the USA is our teachers. Not that our teachers are bad people, but because as a society, we’ve not raised the bar high enough to become a teacher.

After reading “The Smartest Kids in the World” and seeing how teachers are revered and the standards teachers must live up to in the best countries for education in the world, I am convinced, it’s our teachers! They simply aren’t up to snuff.

Consider the following:

  1. How hard is it to become a teacher in the United States?
  2. How hard is it to get admitted to an education degree program at even well recognized Universities in the United States?
  3. How hard it is to earn a Master’s Degree in education in the United States?
  4. If you are a college educated individual with a decent paying job (over $60k for example) would you ever consider quitting your job to become a teacher?

In Finland, getting accepted to one of their top education tract programs at the University level is like being accepted to MIT in the United States! Teachers also earn upwards of $70-80k a year (comparative to US dollars).

Like it or not, we have a teacher problem in the USA. Again, not that our teachers are bad people, but just that ANYONE CAN BECOME A TEACHER! It’s simply too easy and it doesn’t pay well enough.

A lot of other great insights are offered up in the book, and I encourage anyone interested in the subject to check it out.

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way on Amazon

-Holden

The Significance of Bundy Ranch and Gun Rights

2nd Amendment enthusiasts insist their rights to own firearms and obtain them easily are important not only to preserve their God-Given right to protect their life and property but also and to fend off tyrannical government.

Many people in other nations, and many of our own states find these enthusiasts to be too extreme in many cases. I support 2nd Amendment rights just like I do the rest of our Bill of Rights , but feel the gun situation in this country has gone a little nuts as well. I was even joking with a friend earlier this week that in the states most liberal with gun rights, it is easier to buy a firearm than certain brands of cold medicine!

But then there are cases like that of Clive Bundy that make you think, maybe there is a time and place for the extreme advocates of gun rights.

A quick overview of the Bundy Ranch incident

This article over at The Washington Post seems to be a great synopsis of the case. I’ll give you some quick context related to the case.

The USA has a history of homesteaders in the West. The homesteaders were some of the first in the USA to help tame the Wild Wild West. In the case of the Bundy incident, the Bundy family has a history of homesteading. They’re ranchers, running their cattle across the great wide open spaces of the western US that go largely unused for other purposes. This has been going on since American’s began expanding westward and is very much part of American history and culture.

In the late 1980’s the Federal Government declared large sections of western land in the state of Nevada off limits in the spirit of protecting an endangered specie of tortoise. Many ranchers and homesteaders gave up their rights to graze these lands in exchange for a buyout, but the Bundy family refused to sell out.

Over the last few decades, Cliven Bundy has been fighting the federal government encroachment on his way of life. The system has swatted him down time and time again. It has become apparent that the federal government is set on stopping him from grazing on lands seized to protect the desert tortoise.

The slow encroachment of the Federal Government

During our industrial expansion in this country, we ravished our natural resources and laid waste to many species of animals, including our very own iconic symbol of American prosperity- the Bald Eagle.

Over the last 40 years, America has worked hard to turn the tide on environmental degradation through the Endangered Species Act, Environmental Protection Agency and other mechanisms. But in some people’s eyes, these mechanisms are misused and allow the government unquestioned and unchecked authority to seize land.

In the case of the state of Nevada, the federal government now owns a whopping 87% of the state! The federal government owns 28% of the country as a whole. (PDF Source)

America’s Culture of Individualism

America has a strong history of excelling on the back of individualism. Homesteading is a big part of that. Homesteaders headed out west to sink or swim on their own. There was no welfare system, no safety net. You made your riches, fame and fortune all by yourself. A lot of this is exemplified when reading about the history of rail transport in the US.

I think most people from other modern nations fail to understand this. Europe and its long history of monarchs, royal families and rigid social hierarchy are lost on us and a history of extreme individualism and making your own way for better or worse seems to be lost on most Europeans. I do not say this to be critical of either side, but simply as an observation.

So, when the Federal Government comes to a point that it owns 87% of a single state, I completely understand people getting more than a little pissed off that their way of life is being wiped out, and suddenly it becomes glaringly apparent that if they weren’t allowed to pick up their guns and confront the agents of the federal government face to face, what other recourse of action could they possibly have after failing to win the right to their way of life through our legal system?

Gun Ownership is Important

In March of 2014, the federal government moved forward with intentions to seize the cattle of the Bundy family. This equates to his way of supporting and feeding his family being completely seized from him. Federal agents with guns and dogs begin approaching the Bundy family to seize their property.

In a world where the common man isn’t allowed to arm himself, what happens next?

You’re done. There is no fight. There is no recourse. You line up with sticks and rocks, preparing to fight an armed, militarized police force with Tasers, riot gear and semi-automatic rifles.

In both scenarios, the common man will be squashed by the authorities, but in the scenario where the common man has a gun, things get nasty and loud, and there is nothing our modern media loves more than a blood bath.

Guns and the common man’s determination to unite and stand up to the armed federal agents might be the only thing that preserves this family’s way of life.