Robbing Peter to pay Paul

August 6th, 2010

I’ve spent much of this week at work banging my head against the wall that of all the offsets Congress could have found to use to pay for state fiscal relief (FMAP) and education jobs, the one they chose to use was a cut in Food Stamps (SNAP).  And then the Senate decided to cut Food Stamps some more to pay for child nutrition programs.

I get that inflation has been lower than predicted, and so the Food Stamp increase in the recovery act is lasting longer than expected. But, as Dave Obey said, that would have just meant that “some poor bastard is going to get a break for a change.”  (And kudos to @AnnieLowrey for following the story from the start.)

At least with the FMAP/EduJobs bill, I can make the macroeconomic argument that it makes sense to spend more money today, prevent huge layoffs in the states and local governments, and cut spending in 2014.  (If the economy is this bad still 4 years from now, we’re going to have much bigger problems.)  But in the child nutrition bill, the increases would actually come AFTER the cuts.

Matthew Yglesias wrote about the child nutrition bill s today and noted that it really is robbing Peter to pay Paul — taking from dinners to pay for lunches, and from the summer to pay for the school year.  I wanted to highlight one of his commenter’s responses, since it’s rare to hear from people who are directly affected.  JRoth wrote:

I’ve been on SNAP benefits for over a year (family of 4, household income in ‘08 and ‘09 around $20k), and I can tell you that the margin between the old benefits ceiling (somewhere around $500) and the new (well over $600) makes a huge difference in my family’s grocery budget. With the former, I can just about squeeze the entire month’s food into the SNAP budget – a couple months we had to go the last 2-3 days on leftovers and cobbling together whatever was in the freezer. Under the new benefits, I can buy my kids fresh fruit without stressing over the difference between a $2 pint of blueberries and a $2.50 pint.

Point being, insofar as the public health goal of SNAP is enabling more healthful family eating, an extra $25/person/month goes a long way in obviating the (perceived) need to buy the high calorie/low nutrition food products that are implicated in low income obesity.

As for school lunches, the current budget is laughably small (under $2/child/lunch, iirc), and so any improvement in that number will represent an improvement. But school lunches remain a nutritional wasteland, even in places where there’s an awareness (my kid’s school offers whole grain in most meals and healthful-seeming dishes, but the reality is A. they still taste gross and B. the backup options are unconscionable things like Uncrustables.

That sounds right to me.  I was shocked and slightly horrified to read last month that Fairfax schools were selected best in the country for nutritious school lunches.  My kids eat the school lunch about once a week (N thinks it’s a huge treat, and would have it every day if we let him; D only wants to do it on the days that they have grilled cheese or breakfast for lunch.)  If that’s the best, I can’t begin to imagine what the worst looks like.

What nepotism buys

July 26th, 2010

In today’s NY Times, there were a bunch of letters in response to a story from last week about how many interns at City Hall have connections to the rich and powerful.   I’m not shocked or even particularly surprised by the article.   New York is a city where people use their pull to get kids into preschool, after all, and once upon a time my mom was able to use her mid-level city job to get my brother a summer job with the Buildings Department.   But I was bemused by the letter from the former high school teacher of some of the young adults in the article, who defends the practice by noting what “excellent, hard-working and conscientious students” the kids were.

I don’t have any data on this (not sure how you’d go about trying to find it), but my sense is that it’s less and less common for nepotism to be a matter of getting stupid and lazy people into jobs. There are exceptions, of course, but I think business is really more competitive these days, such that it’s harder to hide your dumb nephew for very long.  Nepotism is what lets one excellent, hard-working and conscientious student get ahead of all the excellent, hard-working and conscientious students who don’t have someone opening doors for them.  (Or, as another letter-writer notes, can’t afford to take an unpaid internship.)

The other thing that’s changed, I think, is that it’s harder for blue collar workers and lower level managers to use nepotism.  Kids used to be able to count on following their fathers into factory jobs, and that’s pretty much unheard of now.  Earlier this month, the Times ran a long profile of a young man, a recent college graduate, who was looking for work, but had turned down one job because it wasn’t at the level he was hoping for.  One of the points Uchitelle makes is that his father and grandfather both got their starts through connections:

They said it was connections more than perseverance that got them started — the father in 1976 when a friend who had just opened a factory hired him, and the grandfather in 1946 through an Army buddy whose father-in-law owned a brokerage firm in nearby Worcester and needed another stock broker.

What do you think?  Am I being naive in thinking that there are fewer total incompetents getting jobs because of nepotism now?  And is it any less pernicious if it’s used to decide between two competent people rather than to promote incompetence?

mental accounting

June 21st, 2010

I finally had a chance to listen to the Planet Money podcast from last month about payday loans.  Overall, it mostly covered familiar territory, but I was intrigued by the research suggesting that rate ceilings tend to act as “anchors” for interest rates, and wind up as floors.

I was also struck by one element of the story of the man who kept on coming back to take out high-interest loan after high-interest loan, in order to support his gambling habit.  In passing, they noted that he owned his house free and clear.  I think the implication was that he was making a mistake taking out payday loans, when he could have taken out a much cheaper mortgage.  Alternatively, I could tell a story that he had figured out a mental accounting scheme that let him keep gambling relatively small amounts, without risking losing his house.  The payday loans may not have been as irrational a choice as all that.

In perhaps related news, Jim McDermott and Barney Frank have introduced bills that would legalize — and tax — internet gambling.   In general, I’m vaguely supportive, mostly because I think it’s pretty much impossible to stop people from gambling on the internet anyway.  I like some of the causes that the money is supposed to support — although I’m also very aware that in most of the states where lottery sales are supposed to support education, they just supplant money the state would have spent from general revenues otherwise, with no net increase in spending.

is unemployment insurance the new welfare?

June 16th, 2010

If you listen to the US Congress, unemployment insurance is becoming the new welfare.

Orrin Hatch today dropped an amendment that would require states to test applicants for cash assistance (TANF) and unemployment insurance for illegal drugs before they could be approved for benefits.  We’re used to dealing with this sort of stupidity in the TANF program, but I have to admit that I was surprised to see this applied to unemployment insurance as well.  At least Hatch is honest enough to admit that testing all these people would cost far more than the value of any benefits it might save — when this comes up at the state level, legislators are constantly surprised to learn that it doesn’t save money.

This proposal isn’t likely to go anywhere, but meanwhile the Senate is dropping the COBRA subsidy for health insurance for the unemployed as well as the $25 a week additional federal benefits from the UI extension bill.  And almost no one is talking about continuing benefits for the “99-ers” those who have exhausted 99 weeks of unemployment insurance.

My theory is that people are terrified by the notion that you could do nothing wrong, be  a good worker, lose your job, search hard for another one, and still be unemployed after two years.  They don’t want to believe that they live in a country where it could happen, and they don’t want to believe that it could happen to them, or to their friends or family.  And we’ve got this really weird dynamic of unemployment right now, where unemployment is really high but no longer climbing,  nearly half of the unemployed have been out of work  for more than 27 weeks, but at this point if you’ve got a job, your odds of being laid off are pretty low.

So people are  convincing themselves that the long-term unemployed  must have done something wrong.    They must not really be looking, or they’re too picky, or they’re not willing to move to where the jobs are, or something.  And so it’s ok to cut them off, because they deserve it.

Update: Nancy Folbre just said almost the exact same thing in the New York Times today, except she’s an economist, so she used bigger words.


May 15th, 2010

Via Laura at Apt 11d, I read Henry Farrell’s post on why he’s leaving Facebook.  Of the various things I’ve read lately about Facebook, it comes the closest to capturing my reasons for being unhappy with FB.  I’m not a privacy purist –for one thing, I’m well aware that the corporate databases have far more info about me than I’ve ever posted online.  I’m willing to give up some privacy about my shopping for a few bucks off of groceries (e.g. store loyalty cards), and the ability to stay in loose connection with friends and relatives is worth more to me than a few dollars.  I don’t post anything that I’d be horrified to read repeated in a public forum.  And I’ve never been unhappy with the ads that google shows alongside my gmail account (although I’m not sure I’ve ever clicked through either).

But a couple of weeks ago, a colleague reported to me that Xobni is showing her my facebook profile picture when she gets a work email from me.  Even though 1) my privacy settings on Facebook say it should only be available to friends of friends; 2) I haven’t friended any of my colleagues (I’m happy to connect on LinkedIn); and 3) I don’t have my work email connected to my Facebook account.

So, this pisses me off on general principles (because it appears that Xobni is not honoring the FB privacy settings and each company seems to think it’s the other’s fault).  And also because even though my profile pic is totally innocuous, it’s not “professional” — I’m in casual clothes, and laughing.   If I wanted to associate a picture with my work email (and I don’t), it would be the boring one of me in a suit that’s on my organization’s website.  I reject Zuckerberg’s idea that having different images for work and for personal life is out of date.  I like reading Penelope Trunk, but dear god, I don’t want to be her.


May 6th, 2010

I just idly googled the name of one of my first bosses and learned that she died more than a year ago.  I’m so pissed at myself for not having stayed in better touch with her.

I worked for Shelley when I was an intern with the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union one summer in college.  (The “look for the union label” folks.  They merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union a few years later to form UNITE, which then merged with the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union.) I didn’t know much about unions, but they were offering a stipend for the summer, and I wanted a job that was interesting, but didn’t want to work for free.)

Shelley was with the legislative department (and yes, I did get to meet Evy Dubrow), but there wasn’t that much going on that summer , so she marched me all over the office introducing me to people and asking what they needed done.   I did all sorts of things that summer —  sorted postcards opposing NAFTA and supporting single payer health care by Congressional district, wrote a memo on union policies regarding sexual harassment, cataloged their lending library of VHS tapes, dug through the archives for old photos and made up a display on the history of the union.   Shelley called me “Little Girl” but treated me like a grown-up,  talked me through it when I got caught in some stupid office politics, and convinced me to take David Montgomery’s classes.  The next year she moved to Washington State, but we stayed in touch.  I visited her once — couldn’t believe that she trusted me to borrow her car to go off on my own — and met the dog that I had heard so much about.   Somewhere in there she had a kidney transplant, but she always talked about how well “Nancy Kidney” was doing.

Over the year we lost touch, although we wrote or emailed a few times.  A while back she moved to the Norfolk area, and I meant to go down and visit her some time but I never did.  And now she’s dead, and the obituary says it’s from complications of diabetes.  I guess Nancy wasn’t working any more. Damn.

The obituary says that she was 58 when she died last year.    So she would have more or less my age now when I worked for her.  I can’t decide if that seems older or younger than I’d have guessed.

a day with no deaths

April 19th, 2010

Today is the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.   I can vividly remember walking into the classroom building of my grad school to be met by the television coverage of that eviscerated building.  A quick search of my archives says that I’ve never blogged about it, although I did mention McVeigh in the discussion of who is a terrorist.   I don’t remember the news covering it as much in previous years.  Is it because horrific events get more attention when their anniversaries end in 5 or 0, or because the prospect of home-grown terror seems more likely this year?  Not sure.

And Friday was the third anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting, which still gets a lot of airtime around here, although probably not elsewhere in the country.

I’ve written before that if you go back into history far enough, there’s presumably no date that isn’t soaked in blood.  Fortunately, we do have limited memories and most of the horrors are allowed to fade into obscurity.

I’ve been reading about Lag B’Omer because I agreed to lead a service linked to it.  Lag B’Omer is a truly minor Jewish holiday, the one day break in a 49 day period where otherwise you’re not supposed to get married or get a haircut.  It’s traditionally associated with Rabbi Akiva, and bows and arrows.  Sort of hard for me to get excited about.  But I went to the Velveteen Rabbi, and here’s what she wrote:

Custom has it that no weddings take place during the Counting of the Omer, because of a plague that struck the disciples of Rabbi Akiva during this period. The exception is on Lag B’Omer, when weddings do take place, because on that day during the plague, nobody died.

Jeff explained this on Friday night at services, before we counted the Omer that night. First he joked that only Jews could make a holiday of a day when nobody died. (We laughed.) And then he observed that, in this day and age, when so many of us begin our mornings by turning on the radio or checking news online to see how many casualties the Iraq war has generated overnight, we might find ourselves identifying with the impulse to celebrate such a day. (We weren’t laughing any more.)

Here’s hoping for a day when we turn on the radio, or check our news aggregators, and don’t hear a single thing about Iraq, Israel/Palestine, or anywhere else in the world where conflicts have been brewing — not because the world isn’t paying attention, but because the killing has finally stopped.

SBR: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

April 11th, 2010

The first thing to say about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is that it really is as good as the reviews say it is.  I put it on my library list when I first heard about it, but when I got it last week, I wasn’t sure I was really up for diving into a story about science and race.  But I was concerned if I didn’t start it right away, I wouldn’t finish it within the 3 weeks the library allows, and that I wouldn’t be able to renew it.  So I started reading it Friday evening… and finished less than 24 hours later.  I literally can’t think of the last nonfiction book that I read that way — it’s that good.

Henrietta Lacks developed cervical cancer in 1951, when she was just 30.  She lived in Baltimore, and so went for treatment at Johns Hopkins, which had a ward for black patients.  The doctors there removed her tumor and treated her with the best practice of the day — sewing radium packs into her cervix.  But the cancer recurred and spread rapidly to pretty much every organ in her body, and Lacks died.  But meanwhile, scientists at Hopkins had attempted to grow the cells from her tumor in culture — and discovered that unlike almost every other cells they had tried, these cells reproduced indefinitely.  The cell line was dubbed HeLa, and was freely shared with labs around the world, and has been critical to the biological sciences ever since.

Skloot carefully lays out multiple entwined stories around Henrietta Lacks and HeLa — what is known of her short life, how her children were affected by her early death, and again how they were affected years later when they learned about HeLa, and how Skloot came to win their trust, but also about the doctors who treated Lacks, the scientists who reproduced and shared her cells, the ways they were used, the development of modern medical ethical standards around informed consent, the history of abuse of black patients in the name of science, the discovery that most of the cell lines used in research had been contaminated by HeLa cells, and present day controversies over patenting genes and whether donors have any financial claim on products made from their tissues.  These multiple stories could easily have become too much, or totally confusing, but they don’t.

This story is fascinating in large part because the answers to the ethical questions are far from obvious.  There are some people in the book who were clearly wronged by scientists.  Henrietta’s oldest daughter had epilepsy, and was institutionalized, dying shortly after her mother.  Skloot goes with Henrietta’s younger daughter to that institution, and finds that she was almost certainly mistreated and experimented upon in ways that were harmful to her.   Scientists also injected HeLa cells into patients without informing them in order to see what would happen.  But Henrietta was not harmed by the cloning of her cells, and anyone who has benefited from a drug that has been tested in the past 50 years has benefited from the HeLa line.   The Lacks family has been very poor — and struggled to get health care at some times — and some people have gotten rich off of HeLa, but neither Hopkins nor the scientist who first reproduced the cells appears to be among them.  (Skloot has set up a foundation to benefit Henrietta Lacks’ descendents and you can also give directly to the family through their website.)  Medical ethics rules have gotten a lot stricter since 1951, but even today, it seems likely that something like this could well happen again — except that with more concern for patient privacy, it’s even less likely that the donor would ever know.

When N was born, I had the umbilical cord blood collected and donated to a public bank.  This means that it’s not reserved for our use, but in theory will be available to us if we ever need it and there’s any left.  (It’s not at clear to me that umbilical cord blood is actually useful, but it clearly has potential, so there didn’t seem to be any downside.)  It occurs to me that I have no idea what the conditions of my donation were — whether it’s only available for direct use by a patient, or if a researcher could apply for a portion of it.   I’d be happy to have it used in any way that would be helpful.


March 15th, 2010

So, it’s terribly self-indulgent to be writing about lice when the health care vote is hanging in the balance, but I’ve already contacted my members and signed the MoveOn pledge to support primary challenges to any Dems who vote against health care reform (and that includes you Mr. Kucinich).  So I’m going to be self-indulgent and write about lice.

The good news is that only N appears to have them so far.

The bad news is that I’ve been itching like crazy since I saw the first one.

The good news is that T tells me I don’t have any.

The bad news is that I’m not sure I believe him.  We may have finally found the limit of my faith in my husband’s parenting ability — he can change diapers with the best of them, walk a colicky baby, bake cookies, find a pediatric dentist open for an emergency on a Saturday morning, name at least 50 different Pokemon, make lunches, chaperon a school trip, coach a soccer team, and more, but I’m not sure I believe him when he says I don’t have lice.  I can spot check my kids, but I haven’t figured out how to spot-check myself.

The good news is that none of us have long hair.

The bad news is we now have a garage freezer full of stuffed animals.

The good news is the boys are being brave and going to bed without their doggies without much complaint.

The bad news is that I’ve read Marion Winik’s lice essay, and so have absolutely no faith that we’ve resolved this.  (Actually, I’ve heard her read it, which is even more funny.)

The good news is that our school does not have a “no nit” policy and so N was able to go to school after we reported that we had treated him.

The bad news is that it does seem to have a “chemicals required” policy — T had to bring the box of the shampoo that we used.   The over the counter lice medicines aren’t too terribly toxic (versus the prescription ones, which are seriously vile), but there’s also increasing evidence that the lice are resistant to them.  My guess is that parents who find lice on their own kids and don’t want to use chemical treatments just won’t tell the school, which is somewhat counterproductive.

D watched us freaking out over the lice this morning, and finally asked “so, what do lice do to you if you don’t get rid of them?”  I told him that, mostly, they just itch, and they spread really easily.  He didn’t get why we had to use a toxic chemical (that includes a warning that people with asthma should avoid it) to get rid of something that just makes you itch.  I had to agree that he had a point.  Someday someone is going to file a HIPAA suit over lice policies and win.

Happy International Women’s Day

March 8th, 2010

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