Fun With Comcast

Last summer we finally got a big TV. An HDTV actually. It’s great, but the HD part is dissapointing. The image has never looked that great. We use TiVo, which explains it. TiVo doesn’t work with HDTV. (Their new box does, but it’s $650.) So I figured the image wasn’t that great because we watch everything through TiVo. Except… well, when I watched through the direct input, it was better, but still not that great. Not as great as everyone else’s at least. Then my father (who has the same setup) told me that he had the cable guy out, and it turned out it had been wired wrong during installation.

On the first visit, the guy pokes around and doesn’t find anything. He thinks the signal is degraded because of all the weird wiring, and we need to get the outside box looked at. (The last owner of the house was a “Do it Yourself” guy, and often he did it himself wrong. Every freakin’ room in this house has cable jacks, splitters in rooms, cables going in the walls between rooms, up through the basement, it’s crazy.)

I called Comcast to schedule someone to look at the outside box. They say they need to send someone inside first. But, sez I, you already have, that’s what the last guy just came for. But he didn’t write it in his notes. But, sez I, I’m telling you what he said. Sir, we have to send someone to check the inside. We repeat that a few times, until yellz I, you people are a #$@

Understanding Social Security – Part 2

(Click here for Part 1, which sets up this post.)

Take another look at this graph:
Projections

It sure would be nice if we were on Path I, wouldn’t it? How do we know what path we’re on, or how could we make an intelligent guess? Where do these lines come from anyhow?

There is a lot of uncertainty about what the future may hold. So three different sets of assumptions are used, with different estimates of productivity growth, birth rate, immigration, etc. All three estimates are fairly conservative, which is good. We’d rather be surprised with something good than something bad, and we shouldn’t blithely assume that the good times today will continue. It’s worth examining some of these assumptions, since they affect so many political and economic decisions about our country’s future. If it turns out all three projections are overly-optimistic, then we’re all in big trouble. If it turns out that we’re on path I, then there is truly no Social Security issue — we might even be able to reduce payroll taxes a bit.

To see the main assumptions that underly these three curves, scroll to the table at the end of this page. It’s well-worth clicking there to get a feel of the ranges we’re talking about.

According to David Langer, model I has historically proven to be the most accurate. (I can’t find the original research, but this interview speaks to it.) He has also found that the numbers that underly those projections are made by political appointees, not independent actuaries and demographers.

All the numerical assumptions are important, but the most important is probably the productivity growth rate of the US economy. The numbers are 1.4% (pessimistic projection), 1.7% (“medium” projection, that’s the basis of the 2042 date), and 2.0% (optimistic projection).

(The productivity number, among other things, helps to address that the ratio of workers to beneficiaries is shrinking. We’re at 3.3:1 right now, and that number is declining. This sounds very worrisome, but the magic of productivity is that each worker produces more value as time goes on. If you truly feel this is an issue, you have to wonder how it is that we went from a ratio of over 100:1 to today’s number without the world ending. In fact, if you look at the historical trends, we’ve been below 4:1 for over 30 years now.)

Admittedly, I am way out of my depth to even try and forecast the future. But I will anyhow. I am encouraged by this quote:

“The federal government’s own Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that productivity rates in the nonfarm sector improved at a 2.3% average pace from 1947 through 2003. Adjusting for the gap of 0.2 percentage points between the productivity growth of the nonfarm business sector and the economy as a whole still leaves productivity across the economy growing by a healthy 2.1% over the postwar period. That historical record convinces economist Dean Baker, from the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, that a productivity growth rate of 2.0% a year is a “very reasonable” assumption.”

(By the way, Dean Bakers blog is always interesting. Check it out.)

Below are the annual productivity growth numbers for the USA, since 1948, courtesy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Year Annual Productivity Growth Rate
1948 2.8
1949 3.3
1950 6.7
1951 2.7
1952 1.8
1953 2.3
1954 1.9
1955 4.2
1956 -0.8
1957 2.6
1958 2.2
1959 3.8
1960 1.2
1961 3.1
1962 4.5
1963 3.5
1964 3
1965 3.1
1966 3.6
1967 1.7
1968 3.4
1969 0.1
1970 1.5
1971 4
1972 3.3
1973 3.1
1974 -1.5
1975 2.7
1976 3.3
1977 1.6
1978 1.3
1979 -0.3
1980 -0.2
1981 1.4
1982 -1.1
1983 4.5
1984 2
1985 1.6
1986 3.1
1987 0.5
1988 1.7
1989 0.7
1990 1.9
1991 1.6
1992 4.1
1993 0.4
1994 1.1
1995 0.5
1996 2.7
1997 1.6
1998 2.8
1999 2.9
2000 2.8
2001 2.5
2002 4.1
2003 3.7
2004 3
2005 2.3
2006 2.1
Annual Productivity Growth since 1948

This averages 2.27%. The SSA’s optimistic prediction is 2.0%. The historical average is even more optimistic than the optimistic number used by the SSA! I’m not an actuary, there are undoubtedly other factors at work here, they might turn out to be much more right than I. But all else being equal, you would think the historical average of the last 58 years might be a starting point. Or at least not considered “out of bounds” when it comes to projections.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel like there’s a good chance we’re on Path I.

All You Can Eat? That’s Not Enough

We’re big fans of the all-you-can-eat Chinese Buffet. It’s great with young children.

First, hygiene standards aren’t particularly high. Kids getting noodles and such all over the floor is just the price of business, a generous tip is enough.*

Second, there’s no waiting. As soon as you sit down, you get right up again to get your food. With kids, that’s a huge factor, the in-and-out time.

What’s my problem? The drinks. You sit down, and get your food, but someone comes by to get the drink order. That’s a separate charge. Then you have to depend on the service for refills, and of course service is not the focus of these places. We often find ourselves vainly searching around for the one waitress to refill the drinks.

The answer is obvious. The buffet should be all-you-can-eat and all-you-can-drink! It’s easier for patrons, it’s easier for staff, and it fits right in with the unlimited consumption theme. Just throw a Coke machine up near the food and let the customers at it.

*How much should you tip when the staff doesn’t wait on you? I’m doing most of the work here. On the hand, per my tipping theory, I should tip more at the cheap places. I usually do 10% rounded up to the nearest dollar.

Understanding Social Security – Part 1

Most people don’t understand how the Social Security system works. Because of this, it’s easy to believe untrue things about it. As a public service, Muttroxia is providing this Social Security timeline and “FAQ”.

Early 1980s: The Social Security Administration looks ahead (as it constantly does), and due to trends it forsees, notably the retirement of the Baby Boomers, they predict they will need more funding in the future.

1983: Alan Greenspan leads the way to increase payroll taxes to build up the Social Security Trust Fund, building the surplus it will need when the Baby Boomers retire.

Today: Aside from a bunch of alarmist rhetoric, nothing special is going on. We’re about $2 trillion dollars in the black. Let’s look towards the future.

2017 (approximate): We no longer put as much money into the system as we take out. Note that this does not mean there is no money there. We have spent about 34 years building up the reserves to about $2.5 trillion dollars, and now we start drawing down against it.

2042 (approximate): The reserves are gone. There is no longer enough money coming in to cover what’s promised to go out. We then have a shortfall of 27% in payments. That 27% each year causes the gap to grow each year. (In the graph below, the line represents accumulated surplus/deficit, not the surplus/deficit for that particular year.)


Cumulative Surplus/Deficit of SSA over time

So Social Security is fine for the next thirty five years, and then there is a shortfall. Not a lot of government programs are solvent for the next thirty five years, eh? For example, Medicare and Medicaid, which are often lumped into an amorphous “entitlements” category when you’re trying to scare people, are in much worse shape. In fact the picture is even better. The 2042 date is a conservative estimate, as it should be. Other methods of estimation project that Social Security will never run out of money. (More detail on this here.)

SSA Future Projections

Leaving that aside, what does a shortfall of 27% look like? Not much. When you have 35 years to address a problem, it’s pretty simple. Very small changes in the amount going in or going out are enough to eliminate that future shortfall. For instance, right now you pay Social Security taxes on your first $90,000 of income each year, anything after that is a free ride. Eliminating that cap, or raising it marginally, would be enough. Or you could raise the retirement age. Or you could means test. The portion of the Bush tax cuts going to the richest 1% of taxpayers alone will cost 0.6% of GDP—more than the CBO projected shortfall of 0.4% of GDP.

There’s any number of solutions, but what they share is that not much pain is required. If the gap even exists, it isn’t big, and we have plenty of time to close it. We’ve been in this position before. This isn’t the first time that we’ve looked far into the future and taken action. The scale of the problem is smaller than it has ever been.

Let’s change topics. You might wonder what this mysterious fund looks like. Is there a federal bank vault filled to the brim with gold? Is it all just an accounting fiction? It’s a little bit of both. The Social Security Administration takes the money coming in and buys US Government bonds. Then it stores the bonds. When it needs to, it redeems the bonds.

There’s a couple things to note about these bonds. First is that they are the most secure investment in the history of mankind. That’s not an exaggeration, there has literally never been a investment with lower risk. Second is that there is nothing magical about the bonds just because the Social Security Administration owns them. They are the exact same bonds that are owned by China, by Japan, and probably you. If you don’t have them in a drawer somewhere, the odds are good that any investment portfolio you’re part of will have some of them.

SSA Bonds
Above: Treasury Department and Social Security officials examining some of the Treasury bonds purchased by the Social Security Trust Funds in 1968.

There are many who claim that the SSA doesn’t have any real money. “There is no trust ‘fund’ — just IOUs that I saw firsthand,” Bush said.

If those bonds are worthless IOUs, then the US Government is going to intentionally not pay off the bonds, not make good on it debts. That’s known as default, and it’s a big deal. Not only is this unconstitutional (“The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”), terrible economics and likely to set off a world depression, but it couldn’t ever happen politically. As long as those bonds are owned by US citizens, and the more influential citizens at that, they will never let them be defaulted on. So the money is safe, safer than any other monetary vehicle.

But wait, you may say, we still have to have money to pay for those bonds as they come due! Where is all that money going to come from?

And this is a valid problem. The money comes from the general fund of the United States. So we have to come up with it. Now the idea of issuing bonds is that the government gets the money now and pays it back later. It then spends that money in various productive ways, creating a societal return on investment that’s as big or bigger than the return it has promised the bondholders. Suppose the society has not spent the money wisely? Then there is indeed an issue, for one day the bill comes due. (One unwise thing to do would be to count the SSA assets as being part of the general budget. Since that surplus has already been designated for SSA use, it should not be available in the budget to be spent on other things. That would be double-counting. This is what Al Gore meant by a “lockbox”, essentially making sure that the SSA accounting was kept separate from the rest of the government. Gore did not win, and there is no lockbox.)

This issue of how the USA will find the money to make good on it’s debts has nothing to do with Social Security. This issue is a general problem about how the country uses it resources and plans for the future. Remember, there is nothing special about the bonds that the SSA holds. They are the same bonds everyone else has. So to the degree this is an issue (and I certainly believe it is), it is a general issue about the whole country and it’s future, there is nothing in it that ties it to Social Security.

In other words, Social Security is in great shape. It’s the rest of the government that’s in trouble.

Jeff Jacoby Disgraces Himself

Jeff Jacoby is one of the better conservative columnists out there. He’s reality-based, not particularly dogmatic. He also wasn’t afraid to call Yasir Arafat out for what he was, a man of evil and the father of modern terrorism, while others were feting him after his death. (“Arafat the Monster”)

Sadly, his last editorial was so incredibly offensive and wrong, I don’t even know to write about. it. I’ll just quote extensively and see if anything comes to mind.

WHAT DOES IT mean to support the troops but oppose the cause they fight for?

No loyal Colts fan rooted for Indianapolis to lose the Super Bowl. No investor buys 100 shares of Google in the hope that Google’s stock will tank. No one who applauds firefighters for their courage and education wants a four-alarm blaze to burn out of control.

Yet there is no end of Americans who insist they “support” US troops in Iraq but want the war those troops are fighting to end in defeat. The two positions are irreconcilable. You cannot logically or honorably curse the war as an immoral neocon disaster or a Halliburton oil grab or “a fraud . . . cooked up in Texas,” yet bless the troops who are waging it.

Supporting the troops means that you support the individual soldiers, and the job they have to do. It means that you respect the choice they made to fight for their country, and want that choice to be respected by others. It means you respect the sacrifice they have made so that others don’t need to. It means you want them to be well-trained, well-equipped, well-managed. It means you want veterans to receive care, that soliders shouldn’t be preyed on payday lenders, etc.

Mostly, it means that if they must sacrifice their lives, it must be for something worth sacrficing it for.

But logic and honor haven’t stopped members of Congress from trying to square that circle. The nonbinding resolution they debated last week was a flagrant attempt to have it both ways. One of its two clauses professed to “support and protect” the forces serving “bravely and honorably” in Iraq. The other declared that Congress “disapproves” the surge in troops now underway — a surge that General David Petraeus , the new military commander in Iraq, considers essential.

America is a free country, but it is not the Michael Moores or the ROTC-banners or the senatorial loudmouths who keep it free. They merely enjoy the freedom that others are prepared to defend with their lives. It is the men and women who volunteer to wear the uniform to whom we owe our liberty. Surely they deserve better than pious claims of “support” from those who are working for their defeat.

In Jacoby’s world, there are two options.

1) Support the troops, and every military mission there is to the hilt. As long as the mission has been defined somewhere (ferinstance, “Victory in Iraq”, that’s a good one), you can never turn back.

2) Don’t support the mission, and start spitting on the troops.*

Didn’t we do this already in Vietnam? Isn’t that why the whole Support the Troops thing started, to distinguish the times from the Vietnam era? Do we really even need to hash this out again?

* It turns out that spitting on soliders essentially never happened in the Vietnam era, or ever. It was one giant urban myth. For more on this, see here and here. In a different context that seems to apply to this very post, the author “…believes that the “myth” is involved in helping to promote the yellow ribbon campaign; it has led some to think that for one to support troops, one must therefore also support the war, because it ties together the ideas of anti-war sentiment and anti-troop sentiment.” Touche, Mr. Jacoby!

Money on Friends

Two of my favorite episodes of Friends are ones about money, who has it and how it’s going to be used.

“The One With Five Steaks and an Eggplant”:
(Full transcript)

Chandler plans a birthday party for Ross at an expensive restaurant. Phoebe, Joey, and Rachel don’t have very much money, but

they grudgingly go along with the plans. Once there, they order the cheapest things they can find. When the bills comes, and

Ross wants to split it equally, they rebel.

ROSS: So five of us is, $33.50 apiece.

PHOEBE: No, huh uh, no way, I’m sorry, not gonna happen.

CHANDLER: Whoa, whoa, prom night flashback.

PHOEBE: I’m sorry, Monica, I’m really happy you got promoted, but cold cucumber mush for thirty-something bucks? No! Rachel just

had that, that, that salad, and, and Joey with his like teeny pizza! It’s just…

ROSS: Ok, Pheebs! How ’bout we’ll each just pay for what we had. It’s no big deal.

PHOEBE: Not for you.

MONICA: All right, what’s goin’ on?

RACHEL: Ok, look you guys, I really don’t want to get into this right now. I think it’ll just make everyone uncomfortable.

PHOEBE: Fine. All right, fine.

JOEY: Yeah.

CHANDLER: You can tell us.

ROSS: Hello, it’s us, all right? It’ll be fine.

JOEY: Ok, um, uh, we three feel like, that uh, sometimes you guys don’t get that uh, we don’t have as much money as you.

MONICA: Ok.

ROSS: I hear ya.

CHANDLER: We can talk about that.

PHOEBE: Well, then…Let’s.

ROSS: I, I just never think of money as an issue.

RACHEL: That’s ’cause you have it.

ROSS: That’s a good point.

So for the next event, they make sure to include everyone…
Continue reading

Links o’ Interest

“Economics for the Citizen” – A quick simple primer on economics, written in clear layman’s language. I agreed with over 90% of it!

The best way to fold a T-shirt. I’ve tried it, it works.

Lines From Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic,” Modified to Actually Make them Ironic

Web 2.0, “The web is us.” A great presentation on how the web works and will work. About 5 minutes, a fantastic presentation (with catchy music even!)

Funny political comic

In Which We Are Smarter than the Minnesota Lottery

This one was sent in by Mike, a faithful reader. Yes, I have at least one faithful reader!

MAPLEWOOD, Minn. (AP) – An airline pilot from Maplewood won a $25,000 lottery jackpot – two days in a row.

Raymond Snouffer Jr. matched the winning numbers 11-14-23-26-31 to win Saturday’s Northstar Cash drawing with odds of about 170,000 to 1, Minnesota Lottery officials said.

On Sunday, Snouffer stuck with 11 and switched to 3-7-19-28 – and won again.

Lottery officials said such a sequence was so farfetched that the odds against it were “virtually incalculable.”

Virtually incalculable? “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Just square the probabilities!!! The “virtually incalculable” odds are about 1 in 28.9 billion.

(Working backwards, it appears that the structure is 31 numbers, of which you choose 5, which gives odds of 169,911 to 1. Assuming that’s true, the precise odds of winning twice in a row are 28,869,747,921 to 1.

Those are the odds of a particular person winning any two particular drawings in a row. Their odds of ever winning twice in a row ever are greater, since you has many chances to win twice in a row. Another way to look at it is that there is always a winner from last drawing. Assuming they play again, their odds are 170,000 to 1. That is the odds that there will be a repeat winner for a particular drawing.)

Welcome any Wikipedia readers. Note the parenthetical above, the probability of “this” happening depends on what you think “this” is.

Backwards Writing

The other night, in a rare burst of doing something smart, I attended a lecture about health literacy. In it, they gave an example of what being semi-literate feels like. The whole audience was asked to read a passage out loud for one minute. The passage was shown on the screen. It looked a lot like the below examples (it was actually more technical):

ElgooG sah a tnereffid alumrof hcihw oohaY si gniyrt ot etalume tI sknar sda no a xim fo dib secirp dna ycnaveler ot eht resu. Dna ecnis sresitrevda yap ylno nehw a resu skcilc no rieht da elgooG no egareva sekam erom yenom no yreve hcraes naht oohaY seod.

or:

Taht ni eht dne si woh namrebeiL saw elba ot teg eht etov of a raelc ytirojam fo eht tucitcennoC etarotcele. “Ew nar a ngiapmac rof lla sretov dna tuoba lla sretov. Yeht degaw a attednev no flaheb fo eht tseirgna wef.”

By the time I had read through sixth or seventh word aloud, everyone around had stopped and was looking at me. As I continued, I realized I was reading twice as fast as everyone else around me. It turns out I have a freakish ability to read reversed text quickly. This is what Scott Adams call “a mild superpower”. Is there a way I can put this on my resume?

Thoughts on THE LORD OF THE RINGS extended DVDs

When I saw the LORD OF THE RINGS movies in the theaters, I was not ecstatic. I read my oldest brother’s copy of THE LORD OF THE RINGS three or four times during junior high and high school, and the trilogy completely dominated my childhood fantasy life, even more than the X-Men. I spent endless hours daydreaming about elves, rings, spiders, Nazgul, filthy hobbitses, and huge armies of orcs crushing mankind. I even named my D&D character after Aragorn (for the geeks out there, “Eoren” was a Ranger, and I got him up to level 15). Unfortunately, the movies all left me feeling disappointed (except for THE RETURN OF THE KING’s battle of Pelennor Fields sequence). Of course, it’s not fair to judge a film by the masterpiece that plays in the feverish mind of a young adolescent desperate for escapism. And to their credit, the movies did help me to understand things that never clicked for me when I read the books – for the first time, I understood the difference between Sauron and Saruman (as a kid I’d always lose track of which one was which somewhere near the last third of FELLOWSHIP – why on Earth did Tolkien give his two villains such similar names?), and I finally understood the differences between Rohan and Gondor (which also ran together in my young mind, with their similar stories of impotent kings. Kudos to Peter Jackson for making the 2 kingdoms so visually and culturally distinct).

My girlfriend had only ever seen THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS in the theater, and wanted to see the rest, so when I saw all 3 extended DVD box sets on sale for $9.99 each at the video store, I went a little crazy and bought them all. This weekend was our long-awaited viewing party. To my surprise, this time I really liked all 3 movies.

The extended FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is 30 minutes longer. Honestly, the 30 minutes shouldn’t have been cut out in the first place. The longer version is great, and does a much better job of setting everything up. THE TWO TOWERS has added 43 minutes, and RETURN OF THE KING is 50 minutes longer. (thankfully, none of those minutes include a single frame of Tom Bombadil, who should have been cut out of the books too.) In every case, the added material improves, expands, and enhances the existing versions of the films. I don’t think anyone should ever watch the short versions again. Ban them. Watch the extended DVDs – and watch them back-to-back for maximum effect.

While watching, I couldn’t forget one poignant fact from an excellent documentary in the FELLOWSHIP box – that Tolkien, who was already orphaned by age of 12, fought in World War I and witnessed the horrors of trench warfare firsthand. Almost all of his close friends who enlisted with him were killed in battle. He emerged from the war orphaned all over again. The impact of the war on Tolkien is evident throughout the trilogy, which is singularly obsessed with death. All the characters worry about if they’ll die, how they’ll die, or if they’ll die with honor and glory.

As an adult, I get something completely different from the story than I did as a child. As a kid, I was enthralled by the great battle of good versus evil, of massive armies fighting do-or-die battles like that of Helm’s Deep. But I was never able to latch onto the more personal dilemmas of the characters. This time around, I was drawn to the smaller, more human dilemmas, in particular the tragedy of Boromir. Desperate for the ring that he believes will win the war for his dying city Gondor, Boromir is overwhelmed by the ring’s seduction and tries to steal it from Frodo. Frodo flees in terror and the spell is broken. Boromir realizes what he’s done, but it’s too late. As a herd of Uruk-Hai attacks, Boromir fights to his death to defend the two hobbits left in his care, redeeming himself and dying a hero. My heart also broke for Faramir, Boromir’s sad younger brother, who is clearly unwanted by their father Denethor. Denethor wishes Faramir had died instead of Boromir. This storyline gets its due in the extended version of RETURN OF THE KING, which features a long flashback scene between Boromir, Faramir, and Denethor that is one of the best scenes in the trilogy and easily worth the admission price. Suddenly, meaningful human drama that we can all identify with! That’s the secret to good drama, nothing more. Great battles are lots of fun – but when they are reduced to the struggles of individual men, we viewers feel far greater depths of emotion.

A photographer was told by an actor he had photographed, “The more personal my expressions, the more universal they become.” The same principle exists here.

PS – Elijah Wood honestly does suck as Frodo. All gay jokes about Frodo and Sam aside, Wood is wooden – he’s boring and not very expressive. And the last nitpick – why the hell does Théoden lead his Riders of Rohan against Oliphants in a STRAIGHT LINE? The Oliphants have thick barbed wire strung between their tusks – riding straight into that is a bad strategy, o horse king!

Hobbit Regular
The book that started it all…

Hobbit CartoonOr was it this one?