Sunday, January 30, 2011

Do You Trust Your Real Estate Agent?

While running this afternoon, I was once again struck by how many real estate signs were out. It made me wonder if we were in the market to sell our house (we're not), who we'd pick as a real estate agent. We have so many friends and acquaintances who are, it would be difficult.  My guess is that in order not to offend our friends and acquaintances who are agents, we would probably pick someone whom we didn't know.

Of course, this raises other issues, in particular, issues of trust. How do you know your real estate agent is looking out for your best interests? As Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner note in their book Freakanomics ("How is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents?"), they usually aren't. Instead, they are typically (and understandably) looking out for their own interests. In other words, they want to make money.  Now, you might think that their interests always coincide with those of their clients, and while that is often the case because their commission is tied to the sales price of the houses they sell, that is not always true. Real estate agents are also interested in moving (i.e., selling) as many houses as possible, which means that sometimes they will price a house lower than the market will bear just so that they can get it "out the door" (so to speak).

If you're wondering whether your agent is looking out for your interests, you may pay attention to the terms that they use to describe your house. Levitt and Dubner found that certain terms are correlated with higher prices, while others are correlated with lower ones. Terms that they found correlated with higher prices were:
  • Granite
  • State-of-the-Art
  • Corian
  • Maple
  • Gourmet
Terms that they found correlated with lower prices were:
  • Fantastic
  • Spacious
  • !
  • Charming
  • Great Neighborhood
To learn more about Levitt and Dubner's findings, click here ("How is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents?") or purchase their book, Freakanomics.  Seller beware!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Should We Repeal Obamacare?

As most of you know, the U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to repeal President Obama’s health-care overhaul.  The measure passed 245-189. All of the House’s 242 Republicans were joined by three Democrats to support overturning the measure passed by the previous Congress and signed into law by Obama last March. While there is little or no chance that the measure will pass the Senate (or that President Obama would even sign the repeal), it does highlight a debate that has been going on in American society for some time now. My sense is that it shouldn't be repealed, but that it does need a lot of "tweaking."

The question of whether "Obamacare" should be repealed was the subject of a recent debate on Intelligence Squared US (it is also available through iTunes), which I have posted information on before (see e.g., "Should US Airports US Racial and Religious Profiling?"). Intelligence Squared US is affiliated with Intelligence Squared, a UK based organisation that stages debates around the world. The debates are held in the traditional Oxford Style. Those attending vote prior to and after a debate, and the winning debate team is decided by which way the vote swings. So, for instance, if prior to the debate the audience favors the propositions by 55% but after only 51% favor it, then the opposing team is considered to have won the debate.

I suspect that most of us read and listen to media that confirm rather than challenge our positions on various issues. What's great about listening to debates such as these is that it "forces" us to listen to the arguments of the "other side." We may not agree with the other side, but I've found that even if I remain unconvinced, many of my stereotypes of the other side have been called into question.

Those arguing on behalf of the motion that "Obamacare should be repealed" are Douglas Holtz-Eakin and John Shadegg. Those arguing against the motion are Jonathan Cohn and Paul Starr.  Their respective biographies are as follows (from the Intelligence Squared US website):

Douglas Holtz-Eakin has a distinguished record as an academic, policy adviser, and strategist. He is currently the president of the American Action Forum and a commissioner on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. He was the 6th director of the Congressional Budget Office and served as chief economist of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (2001-2002). He recently served as the director of domestic and economic policy for the John McCain 2008 presidential campaign.

John Shadegg is a former Republican representative for the 3rd Congressional District of Arizona. He has introduced legislation to promote patient choice, individual ownership and portability in health insurance. His two bills – the Patients Health Care Reform Act and the Health Care Choice Act – offer comprehensive, free-market solutions to health care by allowing individuals to choose a health care plan that best meets their needs.

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at New Republic, a columnist at Kaiser Health News, and the author of "Sick." He has been called “one of the nation’s leading experts on health care policy” (Washington Post) and “one of the best health care writers out there” (New York Times); he has also won the Sidney Hillman and Harry Chapin media awards. A graduate of Harvard, he is a senior fellow at Demos and member of the National Academy of Social Insurance.

Paul Starr is professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University and co-founder and co-editor of the American Prospect magazine, a quarterly about politics, policy, and ideas. He received the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and Bancroft Prize in American history for "The Social Transformation of American Medicine," which is credited for helping to shape the debate about health care reform. He also received the 2005 Goldsmith Book Prize for "The Creation of the Media." During 1993 he served as a senior advisor at the White House in the formulation of the Clinton health plan.

The debate can be viewed or listened to here ("Repeal Obamacare?"). The transcripts are also available at this website.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Does He or Doesn't He? Stress and the Presidency, Part II

Recently I wrote about how the stress of being President (Stress and the Presidency) often causes President's hair to turn prematurely gray.  To illustrate my point I posted a picture of President Obama. Now, it appears that the President Obama is doing something about it (could it have been my post - yea, right). His hair appears to no longer be gray -- or, at least, less gray. Compare the following two pictures, the one on the left was taken the morning of January 19th; the one on the right was taken in the evening of the same day. Maybe the strategy is working. His approval rating has been increasingly lately...

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Just War and the War in Afghanistan

Last November the National Council of Churches (NCC) sponsored an event to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the 1910 World Mission Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. Four hundred people gathered in New Orleans to mark the event regarded by many as the birth of the modern ecumenical movement. The fact that only 400 people showed up probably reflects the sorry state of the ecumenical movement, at least among mainline Protestant churches in the United States, but that is a topic for another time.

In a meeting before the gathering the NCC's governing board issued "A Call to End the War in Afghanistan," which urged President Obama to "negotiate a withdrawal of U.S. and NATAO forces from Afghanistan to be completed as soon as possible without further endangerment to the lives and welfare" of troops and civilians.

This statement implicitly raises an important question: Just because a war is unjust (and I'm not arguing that that the war in Afghanistan is unjust although I wouldn't be surprised to learn that many on the NCC's governing board believe that it is), does that mean we can leave a war unjustly? Put differently, even if we are engaged in an unjust war in a particular country, can we in good conscience leave before we have secured the safety and livelihood of that country's people?  I think not. As political theorist (and editor of Dissent magazine) Michael Walzer noted about the most recent war in a Iraq (a war that he opposed and considered unjust):
The American debate about whether to fight doesn't seem particularly relevant to the critical issues in the debate about the occupation: how long to stay, how much to spend, when to begin the transfer of power... The positions we took before the war don't determine the positions we take, or should take, on the occupation. Some people who opposed the war demand that we immediately "bring the troops home." But others argue, rightly, it seems to me, that having fought the war, we are now responsible for the well-being of the Iraqi people; we have to provide the resources -- soldiers and dollars -- necessary to guarantee their security and begin the political and economic reconstruction of their country (Arguing About War, pp. 163-164; you can find the entire article as it originally appeared in Dissent magazine before it appeared in book form here: Just and Unjust Occupations).
What Walzer is arguing for here is jus post bellum or "justice after war," a topic I have written about earlier (Christians and War, Part III: Justice After War). As Walzer puts it
[T]he debate... requires an account of postwar justice. Democratic political theory, which plays a relatively small part in our arguments about jus ad bellum and in bello, provides the central principles of this account. They include self-determination, popular legitimacy, civil rights, and the idea of a common good. We want wars to end with governments in power in the defeated states that are chosen by the people they rule-or, at least, recognized by them as legitimate-and that are visibly committed to the welfare of those same people (all of them). We want minorities protected against persecution, neighboring states protected against aggression, the poorest of the people protected against destitution and starvation (Arguing About War, p. 164; you can find the entire article as it originally appeared in Dissent magazine before it appeared in book form here: Just and Unjust Occupations).
And so it must be with Afghanistan. To leave Afghanistan before we have secured the well-being of the Afghan people would be unjust. I think this point may have been lost on the NCC's governing board. Maybe not. But my sense is that they think that withdrawal can happen sooner rather than later without endangering the lives and welfare of the Afghan citizens. Unfortunately, I think they are wrong. I think it could take a very long time before we reach a state where the ordinary Afghans will be able to flourish. I hope I am wrong.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Super Bowl and American Values

VISA is running a series of ads that feature four men who have never missed a Super Bowl. It is part of its Super Bowl Trip for Life sweepstakes, which (as its name implies) is giving away to one grand prize winner (and one guest) round-trip airfare, accommodations and tickets to every Super Bowl, beginning this year, for the rest of their lives.  One of the four men featured in the ads, Larry, makes the following comment regarding his "remarkable" streak:
I have missed weddings. I have missed babies being born. But, I've never missed a Super Bowl.
Now, I'd love to win tickets to every Super Bowl for the rest of my life, and most Super Bowl Sundays will find me watching the game and laughing at the commercials (well, most of the commercials), but are these the kind of values we should be celebrating? Is the Super Bowl really more important than life-course events such as the births and weddings of our loved ones? I would hope not.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Stress and the Presidency

There was a picture this morning in the paper of President Obama consoling the families and friends of the victims of last week's shooting in Arizona. It is amazing how "grey" the President's hair has become in such a short time. The same thing happened to George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In fact, it happens to most Presidents. The stress of the job is obviously overwhelming. I can't understand why anyone would want it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Race to Nowhere: What are We Doing to Our Kids?

I recently saw a screening of the documentary, Race to Nowhere, which I believe should be seen by everyone: parents with young children, parents with older children, parents with grand children. It is that good. Not because it makes you feel good all over. It doesn't. Instead, it challenges the assumptions of a culture that is so focused on "success" (however that may be defined) that we are running our kids into the ground with endless homework and after school activities. Put simply, we aren't allowing them to be kids.  (My mom, who was a elementary school teacher, refused to send me to summer school. Her reason? She thought it important for kids to have the time to be kids.)

The Internet Movie Database provides a nice summary of the film:
Race to Nowhere is a close-up look at the pressures on today's students, offering an intimate view of lives packed with activities, leaving little room for down-time or family time. Parents today are expected to raise high-achieving children, who are good at everything: academics, sports, the arts, community-service. The film tackles the tragic side of our often achievement-obsessed culture, with interviews that explore the hidden world of over-burdened schedules, student suicide, academic cheating, young people who have checked out. Race to Nowhere asks the question: Are the young people of today prepared to step fully and productively into their future? We hear from students who feel they are being pushed to the brink, educators who worry students aren't learning anything substantive, and college professors and business leaders, concerned their incoming employees lack the skills needed to succeed in the business world: passion, creativity, and internal motivation.
Take the issue of homework, for example. It turns out, it doesn't offer a whole lot of benefits. There are what economists refer to as diminishing marginal returns: To wit (for citations see this link):
  • The amount of homework assigned to kids from 6 to 9 almost tripled between 1981 and 1997. Assigned homework increased from about 44 minutes a week to more than 2 hours a week. Homework for kids aged 9 to 11 increased from about 2 hours and 50 minutes to more than 3 and a-half hours per week.
  • A 2006 synthesis of research on the effects of homework found no correlation between amount of time spent on homework and achievement for elementary school students, a moderate correlation in middle school.
  • An international comparison by two Penn State professors concluded that junior high students who scored highest in math tests tended to come from countries where teachers assign relatively little homework - including Denmark, the Czech Republic and Japan. Conversely, the lowest-scoring students came from countries where teachers assign large amounts of homework, such as Iran, Thailand and Greece.
  • A 2006 national Scholastic/Yankelovich study found that reading for pleasure declines sharply after age eight. The number one reason: too much homework.
  • Most teacher education programs do not cover research about homework. Consequently most teachers are unaware of the research-based critique of the way homework is used in the majority of schools in the US.
  • The more important that homework becomes in school, the more a child can fall behind. Etta Kralovec, the director of teacher education at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, and author of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning, worked on a state-financed study there in the early 90's, interviewing dropouts about why they quit school. Every person in her survey mentioned the inability to keep up with homework as a major factor.
Screenings are held all the time, all over the United States. You can find a listing of the screenings here (Race to Nowhere: Screenings). I'm almost certain you will find one in your own area. I'm just as certain that if you go, you'll be glad that you did.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Now That Seniors Are Texting...

Here's something that came across on email. Since Seniors are texting and tweeting more and more, a senior texting code appears to be emerging:

ATD: At The Doctor's
BFF: Best Friend Fainted
BTW: Bring The Wheelchair
BYOT: Bring Your Own Teeth
CBM: Covered By Medicare
CUATSC: See You At The Senior Center
DWI: Driving While Incontinent
FWB: Friend With Beta Blockers
FWIW: Forgot Where I Was
FYI: Found Your Insulin
GGPBL: Gotta Go, Pacemaker Battery Low!
GHA: Got Heartburn Again
HGBM: Had Good Bowel Movement
IMHO: Is My Hearing-Aid On?
LMDO: Laughing My Dentures Out
LOL: Living On Lipitor
LWO: Lawrence Welk's On
OMMR: On My Massage Recliner
OMSG: Oh My! Sorry, Gas.
ROFL... CGU: Rolling On The Floor Laughing... And Can't Get Up
SGGP: Sorry, Gotta Go Poop
TTYL: Talk To You Later
WAITT: Who Am I Talking To?
WTFA: Wet The Furniture Again
WTP: Where's The Prunes?
WWNO: Walker Wheels Need Oil

Friday, January 7, 2011

More Good News on the Economy?

There's more evidence that the U.S. economy is finally starting to generate good news on the job front. Two reports from Wednesday are part of the evidence. One was a monthly report on private-sector jobs by the ADP National Employment Report, which said the economy added 297,000 new private positions in November. (See the MarketWatch story on ADP jobs report). The second came from jobs consultant Challenger, Gray & Christmas that showed that job cuts nationally in 2010 fell to their lowest level since 1997. (See the related MarketWatch story). And then today we learned that the economy added 103,000 jobs in December and that the unemployment rate dropped to 9.4%, its lowest rate in a year and a half. (See the related MarketWatch story).

This isn't all good news. The number of additional jobs added in December is actually lower than predicted and hoped for, and the drop in the unemployment rate is due in part because of a drop in the number of people in the labor force (i.e., the number of people actually looking for employment), which suggests that the current recovery will be a slow one (see the related New York Times story). Nevertheless, it does appear that things are (slowly) looking up on the economic front. Whether the unemployment rate will drop (and the economy will expand) quickly enough in order to save President Obama job is unclear at this point, however.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Has Christmas Made Christians Too Secular?

Over the holidays some of you may have run across the story about two new surveys that "indicate that while most call this a holy day that is primarily religious, their actions say otherwise. Many skip church, omit Jesus and zero in on the egg nog." Most of those surveyed said they planned to give gifts (89%), dine with family or friends (86%), get and decorate a Christmas tree (80%) and play holiday music (79%), but when it comes to religious activities, the percentages were substantially lower: 58% said they planned to "encourage belief in Jesus Christ as savior"; 47% said they planned to attend a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day worship service; 34% planned to watch "biblical Christmas movies"; and 28% planned to read or tell the Christmas story from the Bible.  Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, a Nashville-based Christian research organization finds these results disconcerting:
It's alarming to me that while nine in 10 celebrate Christmas, only six in 10 encourage any belief in the source of Christmas and only three in 10 actually read the story of Christmas.
But are these percentages unreasonably or unexpectedly low? Not when you consider the percentage of Americans who regularly attend worship services. Take, for instance the following two graphics. The first indicates the frequency that all Americans attend religious services, while the second indicates the frequency that Christians attend religious services.

As you can see, approximately 40% of all Americans and 48% of Christians regularly attend religious services (i.e., 2-3 times a month or more). We also know that the percentage of Americans who are members of a faith community is around 60% (not all of these are Christians).  Thus, when 58% of Americans indicate that during the Christmas holidays they intend to encourage belief in Jesus Christ in savior, that is actually quite high, not low. It means that a higher percentage of Americans plan to share the Gospel than those who are members of a church or who attend church regularly. Moreover, the percentage of Americans who said they intended to attend a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day worship service is higher than those who say that they attend church regularly.

In short, Mr. Stetzer should be happy, not alarmed, about these numbers. They suggest that during the holidays Christians are actually witnessing and worshipping at rates higher than they do during the rest of the year. The fact that a higher percentage of Americans planned to give gifts or dine with friends is simply evidence that marginal and non-Christians celebrate the holiday as well. Nothing more.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Do Expensive Wines Really Taste Better?

Some years ago I read about a study conducted at an apartment complex that asked residents to take part in a month-long beer tasting experiment.  Residents could choose between three different types of beer: one costing, say $2.00/six pack, another costing $4.00/six pack and another costing $6.00/six pack (in today's dollars, they'd probably cost $4.00, $8.00 and $12.00 per six pack respectively). At the end of the month, they were asked to rate the three types of beer in terms of taste. Not surprisingly, the most expensive beer was judged to be the best tasting, the middle-priced beer, the next best, and the lowest-priced beer, the least best. The catch, of course, is that there was no difference between the beers. All three were the same. What mattered, in other words, was the price, not the taste.

It turns out that price appear to matter more than taste when it comes to wine as well.  For example, a study by the economist Robin Goldstein that involved more than 6,000 blind tastings found that “individuals who are unaware of the price do not derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine,” and this finding applied to amateur wine tasters as well as the so-called experts. Another study by wine broker Brian DiMarco turned up similar findings. While many of us believe that our palates can distinguish good from bad wine, it appears that for most of us, whether we are amateurs or experts, "price is often a far-too-powerful signal to our taste buds."

In a related study, Goldstein was able to win an Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine for his fictitious restaurant, Osteria L’Intrepido, supposedly located in Milan, Italy. Goldstein's created a website for the restaurant and put together a wine list based on wines that Wine Spectator had previously rated as "terrible." Evidently, all that mattered when it came to winning the award was whether Goldstein paid the requisite $250 fee to be considered for the award. So much for Wine Spectator's objectivity.

All of this is summarized in a recent "Freakanomics" podcast, which you can download from iTunes or listen on-line at: "Freakonomics Radio: Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?" A brief summary of the podcast and the related studies can be found at the same website.