Opinionated @ CFE

Want to drop healthcare costs? Focus on the expensive patients first

Jan
29

The New Yorker has a fascinating look into how one man, Jeffrey Bremmer, has saved hospitals millions of dollars by finding health care “hot spots”. The approach he takes is a lot like what New York did in the 90s to reduce crime: they identified the areas that cost the most and focused resources there. While that’s now becoming a standard practice for police departments nationwide, the same approach just isn’t catching on in the medical world.

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How Socialist Is Your Transportation?

Jan
20

One of the loudest screams you’ll hear from so-called “conservatives” (whatever that label means anymore) is that mass transit is a wasteful hole of socialism and should be first on the chopping block. The complaint is that a mass transit trip often requires twice as much money as is collected in fares, effectively a 50% subsidy. That would hold some water, except that here in Utah, highways are receiving a scant 33% of their maintenance and construction costs from user fees. Even the much-maligned Amtrak is managing to collect 46% of its costs in fares. Nationally, highways are mustering 51% of their costs from user fees.

So apparently the difference between the “proper role of government” and “wasteful socialist boondoggle” is, at best, around 5% of costs. Just so you know.

A Local Example of Bad Polling

Jan
19

Many moons ago, my high school US Government teacher would constantly stress to always check the source of any information. Unsurprisingly, I’ve found that the source matters immensely. In fact, it’s become commonplace to find think tanks and lobbying groups simply parroting the talking points of contributing members. You’ll often find the same thing happening with a poll or research study; the group paying for it almost invariably gets the result they were seeking. It’s almost become expected to immediately look at the source of information for whatever obvious bias exists.

Here in Utah, it’s happened to us yet again with a new study claiming pervasive and widespread discrimination against sexual minorities. Unsurprisingly, the study was commissioned by Equality Utah, a gay rights group. What’s truly surprising, though, it that the group doing the study openly disclosed its own shoddy methods. They admitedly depended exclusively on self-selection for the survey results, a method rife with bias as only those who feel most strongly are likely to respond, skewing the results heavily. What’s also telling is that it depends on those who sought to respond to report if they had personally been on the receiving end of discrimination, but there’s no methodology to verify the actual occurrence of said discrimination. In short, the only thing that the “study” confirms is that sexual minorities feel that they are discriminated against, but it makes no effort to confirm or quantify that perception. Instead, it just gives in to the all-too-human tendency towards victimhood (which, I would stress, no group is immune from).

Look, I’m not saying that the discrimination doesn’t exist, nor am I claiming that nothing ever need be done about it. (I’m personally ambivalent on anti-discrimination ordinances falling slighting in the ‘against’ camp.) What I am saying is that if you’re going to attempt to quantify it, do it right. Making such an obviously biased survey in a ham-fisted attempt to garner sympathy only retrenches the opponents and turns off anyone on the fence with your martyr complex. Reacting to this questioning of the methodology with mocking and hostility also isn’t going to help your case. Being honest will earn you respect and influence, probably more than you would lose if the data is against you.

Local Government Websites Suck (And They Don't Have To!)

Jan
13

Local government is the most important level of government there is. No level has more power to directly impact your day-to-day life with services such as police, fire, garbage pick-up, and plowing. Because of this impact, it’s important to try and keep up with what they’re doing. It can often be really hard, though, to show up to meetings from 2-4 times a month and sit through lengthy discussions about zoning, business permits, and other mundane but necessary minutiae of running a city or county. Because I’m at home every evening with a toddler while my wife goes to school, it’s near-impossible for me to make the trek of almost 90 blocks to keep tabs on the Salt Lake County Council. I thought I could find an easy way to keep up on them via the county website; I thought wrong.

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Is the Utah County Surveyor's Office to blame for Craig Frank's problems?

Jan
11

What a mess this is. Rep. Craig Frank got a nasty surprise over the weekend when he found out that he doesn’t actually live in the district he was elected to represent. Utah County has kept its mouth shut about the bad maps it had been handing out, the legislature is trying to get a special session to get Rep. Frank re-districted back into his seat, and there’s plenty of blame and finger-pointing going around. I feel a little bit bad for everyone.

The voters are the ones really hosed. As many as 3300 are in electoral limbo now, unsure of who represents them in Congress or the legislature. Rep. Frank also got a raw deal because he bought a house based on the bad Utah County maps and ended up on, quite literally, the wrong side of the street. The Utah County Clerk is trying to figure out how it all went wrong.

In all of it though, nobody is asking why it happened. A big part of it is that the area in question was a whole lot of nothing when boundaries were originally drawn in 2001. Then Cedar Hills incorporated, started annexing bits of county land, houses and roads started going up, and before you know it, where exactly those lines used to be starts getting a bit fuzzy. It’s a lot like trying to establish the ownership of a mortgage after it has changed hands a half dozen times in just a few years.

This is all a job of the county surveyor. So how did that ball get dropped? Is the office understaffed? Are they using poor practices? Is it a case of bad leadership? All roads lead there. The surveyor is required by Utah Code 17-23-1 to hash out such details. We should be asking not just how and why it didn’t get done properly, but how it got messed up to the tune of 3300 voters, a not so insignificant number of people. That’s the question not being asked.

While I appreciate that something needs to be done, Speaker Lockhart’s push to change the boundaries to include Rep. Frank again just doesn’t feel right somehow. (The House GOP Caucus apparently feels the same and voted down a special session to address it.) I know, the voters picked him, he thought he had determined he’d still be eligible for the office, and you can’t really blame either of them. We have to ask ourselves, however, if such a remedy would still be employed if the mistake was discovered, but Rep. Frank was still living inside his district. I would guess probably not. It also seems kind of rash to make a quick fix now ahead of a redistricting process that refuses to draw an incumbent outside of their district, even if all other reasons say to do so. Such a change now could drastically alter the boundaries of current districts in both houses.

In all, we have a bad situation and no particularly good fixes. I hope that expediency doesn’t win out here.

On Civility

Jan
10

There’s been a lot of talk about civility, but most of it is so much well-intentioned non-specific background noise. Civility is one of those things like mom, apple pie, and America that you can profess belief in and yet know nothing about. I think only a few steps are needed to truly achieve those lofty and nebulous goals.

First off, you should generally be operating under the assumption that your political opponent on an issue has as much of a deep desire to do what’s best for the country/state/county/city as you do. This isn’t to say that those who seek to use power either for their personal gain or for its own sake do not exist, but they are very much a minority. Most of the people I’ve dealt with on the opposite side of the table truly believe that their way is best; insulting them by ascribing some kind of deep, Machiavellian malice to them is likely to get you nowhere but a screaming match.

Second, name-calling, while sometimes fun, doesn’t help matters at all. Calling someone a “pinko commie bedwetter” or a “fascist goose-stepping thug” might seem like a good idea and be personally satisfying, but it’s the “adult” equivalent of calling someone a doody-head. That might score you points with your own crowd, but you will alienate both those on the other side and many who haven’t made up their mind on the issue with your blatant and obvious childishness.

Third, there is rarely any consensus among coalitions, so don’t assume that someone on the “other” side isn’t willing to work with you. All political parties, even the smaller ones, consist of coalitions and factions. They often have some kind of nebulous agreement on some broader topics, but rarely will they actually concur on specific details. The Republicans often fight between the libertarians, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, neo-conservatives, paleo-conservatives, moderates, and a host of other groups who all want their seat at the table. The Democrats fare no better with progressives, liberals, socialists, Blue Dogs, libertarians, greens, and many others who similarly want to steer the fate of the party. Even small parties like the Constitution Party have warring factions that fight over specific policy positions.

Which brings me to point four. Assuming that any individual has adopted all tenants of their chosen political label is overly simplistic. Any Republican or Democrat can likely cite at least a half-dozen things their party does that boils their blood. Most libertarians and minarchists have their limits as to how little government they are actually willing to accept. Also don’t forget that many independents are that way because both parties likely do things they’d rather not be associated with. It’s really easy to say “you call yourself a libertarian, so you must believe X” or “you believe X, so you’re obviously a Republican”, but it is rarely accurate and often just leads to off-topic shouting matches where people have to try and label themselves.

The fifth and final point is that we often all want the same goals, just with different means to attain it. I don’t know anyone who likes dirty air, unemployment, or people dying in the streets. Grandstanding by saying that your opponent likes and wants those things is flat-out lying any way you slice it. Sure, criticize a policy approach to your heart’s content and point out any flaws you see in it, but don’t forget Hanlon’s Razor while doing it. Also don’t be afraid to point out ideas you like; that small gesture doesn’t cede any ground, but rather gets your opponent to drop their defenses just a small bit and consider your solution.

Is all of this easy to do? Sure, in theory. The practice can sometimes be very, very difficult, especially if you’re the only one doing it. In the long term, I think it’s worth it.

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