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Buying Your Way into College – Affirmative Action for the Rich

We've written before about why schools continue the practice of favoring legacy admissions - accepting the sons and daughters of wealthy alumni. Now there is some empirical evidence of the economics that drive this practice. Slate Magazine recently ran an article about the puzzle of charitable giving in economics - if markets are driven by individuals rationally pursuing their own best interest, where does charity come from? A new study by Jonathan Meer of Stanford and Harvey S. Rosen of Princeton shows that when it comes to donations to one's alma mater, charity isn't altruism. Alumni with kids are 13 percent more likely to donate, and they are more and more likely to donate as their kid reaches age 14. At that point there's a big split - for those parents who's kids go on to apply to the school, donations continue to increase. The parents whose kids do not apply to the alma mater drop off giving. It seems pretty clear that many parents give to their schools because they think it will influence their kids' chances of getting in. Colleges an universities benefit from this, but the study did not examine whether or not the donations worked. This whole process strikes most people as unfair, mostly because the focus on GPAs, SAT scores, and admissions essays makes it look like it's supposed to be a meritocracy. Americans love democracy (where everyone gets an equal say and an equal chance) and stories about unlikely success stories and self-made men. Allowing external factors to secretly skew admissions is so unpopular that affirmative action has been continuously attacked. Legacy admissions are affirmative action for rich people. So my advice to schools is to either do away with the practice (not very likely), or make it public. Why not set aside a certain number of admissions, and just let parents bid on them in an auction? The regular admissions will be more of a meritocracy, and auctions are pure capitalism, something Americans love. Heck, put the admissions up on eBay, that way you don't have to build your own infrastructure.

Movie Review: SiCKO

SiCKOAs a lefty liberal, I like Michael Moore. As a journalist (I have more creds than just a blog, I swear), not so much. Lucky for me he's making movies for the masses and not writing for The Washington Post. Otherwise, he'd have been shut down years ago. Instead, we can enjoy his films for what they are - films that while maybe not full of "truthiness" will make people talk and think. As Moore state in the film, SiCKO is not actually about people who don't have health care in America. It's more about people who DO have health insurance and get screwed by it. People who pay the premiums and deductibles and still get denied care. In America, we like to get what we pay for, but when it comes to insurance it doesn't seem to work that way. He tells the stories of an older couple who have gone bankrupt paying for medical treatment for heart attacks and cancer, even though they have good jobs with good insurance. The middle-aged woman who's brain tumor was considered not a medical emergency and died. The young woman who's surgery was paid for by her insurance and then payment was revoked when it was revealed that she had not disclosed a previous yeast infection when applying for insurance. Moore reports in the movie that he received over 2500 emails from people with stories about the horrors of health insurance - many of them from people who work in the insurance industry. The most stand-out story was that of Linda Peno, a former medical reviewer (the person in charge of deciding who gets what care) for the Humana HMO. Ms. Peno stated in a congressional review:
I wish to begin by making a public confession. In the spring of 1987, I caused the death of a man. Although this was known to many people, I have not been taken before any court of law or called to account for this in any professional or public forum. In fact, just the opposite occurred. I was rewarded for this. It brought me an improved reputation in my job and contributed to my advancement afterwards. Not only did I demonstrate that I could do what was asked, expected of me, I exemplified the good company employee. I saved a half a million dollars.
It may be no secret that insurance companies are for-profit businesses and saving money is their game. After all, we're a capitalist society. But is this the right way to go? Moore points out our socialized fire and police protection. Our free schools. Free libraries. Why not free, government-controlled health care? Most are quick to point out Canada's socialized medicine and how it's just...bad. Long wait times to see doctors and get procedures done. Sub-par professionals and facilities. In the movie, Moore visits some Canadians and speaks with them about their speed and quality of care. The Canadians he spoke with were happy with both. He also spoke with British and French people about their socialized medicine and American ex-pats in England and France about their care. All of those countries got glowing reviews. Of course, this is the sort of thing one sees in a Moore movie that one might need to take with a grain of salt. Is the Canadian health system really as good as Moore would have us believe? When every review is glowing one has got to assume there were several opinions left on the cutting-room floor. Two examples of rebuttals for this film come from The Associated Press and Kurt Loder of MTV News. The AP article is sort of rubbish - while it points out that Moore inflates numbers a bit in the film (reporting 50 million uninsured in the U.S. as opposed to 44.8 million, for example) when you're dealing in millions of lives the rebuttal is sort of moot. Whether it's 50 million or 44.8 million uninsured, or $800 million given to health insurance companies from a Medicare bill or $729 million...it's all still too much. Moore also points out that American is 37th in the world in terms of health care. The AP points out that Canada is 30th. Loder is quick to point out flaws in the Canadian and French systems. It doesn't matter what rank Canada has or how French is bungling their medicine. When it comes to actual health care resources, America is top-notch. Doctors come here to train and dignitaries come here for procedures. Unlike Ottowa's "one chemo machine," the American health care infrastructure is in place. Moreover, since we're the last modern western country to delve in to socialized medicine we're able to assess all other failed and successful systems and create one to meet our needs. But can we? Will we? Can we afford it? For my small company, it costs roughly $800/mo to insure one family of three and about $200/mo to insure a single person. This is before any out-of-pocket costs, of course (one employee reports having to pay about $5000 out-of-pocket in 2006 when his family of 2 became a family of 3). The auto industry is crumbling largely in part to the increasing cost of health care for current and retired employees. People are paying for health care in one form or another, so why not alleviate those personal and industry costs and put the money towards a more greater and fair use? One of the interviewees (from England) in Moore's movie makes a seriously strong point - if the government can find money to kill people, why can't it find money to help people? If it costs my company an extra $300 per month in taxes instead of $200 a month in premiums to keep me insured under a government plan and I am guaranteed never to be denied any health care, how could I argue with that? We've all got tales of being screwed by health insurance. I was lucky enough to be brought up under one of America's best health insurance plans as the child of a union auto worker. I never had to fight for any sort of care. But, when I was 18 (still under my dad's insurance as I was in college), I was diagnosed with Temporal Mandibular Joint Disorder (TMJD). Before I got treatment, I was to the point where I had to drink my dinner through a straw because I couldn't open my mouth wide enough or have the power to chew. TMJD treatment, which can be long and expensive whether you have it surgically corrected or corrected through orthodontics, is not covered under most health insurance including mine. Lucky for me, my college fund was supplemented with scholarships and my folks were financially well-off to just bite the bullet and pay for treatment. I was extremely lucky to have been diagnosed at the right time in my life. Had it happened today, no matter what my health insurance status, I'd have been in serious, serious debt. As everyone grows and goes through the working world, we are all in fear of losing health care or losing health. This is our future and it seems hopeless. SiCKO points out that in other countries, government fears the people while in America the people fear the government. In America we're strapped by debt and fear of not being able to get or stay healthy. We're apathetic and scared and we don't vote. We don't discuss. We don't rebel. SiCKO will hopefully turn American thought and discussion back from a losing war in the Middle East to the very real and very domestic problem of American health care reform. Moore's ideas and presentations might not serve as a good template for what can or should be done but SiCKO is definitely a movie worth seeing and hopefully starts the ball rolling on discussions about what can be done.

Recycling is Good for the Environment After All.

Does sorting bottles and cans really save the earth? You may have heard the rumor that the whole thing is a big sham - either a misguided to make ourselves feel better about our wasteful lifestyles, or worse a conspiracy of crystal-wearing, tree-hugging hippies. You may have noticed a number of geeky environment-related posts on Unsought Input. Some of our writers like to think of themselves as environmentalists. Now, before you click your back button, I should explain: no one here will ever tell you to stop driving and live in a cave! We are positive, progressive environmentalists who come to our green views through a love of innovation, efficiency, scientific progress, and yes, even market economics. So, is recycling a bunch of bullshit designed to make us all feel better about ourselves? Does putting glass and plastic in a green bin actually damage the environment more than help? Penn and Teller seemed to think so in an episode of their show, Bullshit. Bullshit is a great show, it's very entertaining, and they call out psychics and feng shui practitioners on their unsupportable claims. It's also filled with things that are less objective debunkery and more Penn and Teller opinion. The duo have a number of reasons for disliking recycling. For example, there is no shortage of landfills and believe recycling uses more energy than it saves. They liken it to a dogmatic religious practice. Are they right? should we give up and put throw our used printer paper in with the coffee grounds and litter box tailings? Well, according to The Economist, recycling is worth it in almost every case. For those of you unfamiliar, The Economist is hardly a bastion of feel-good hippyism. In American terms the magazine is notoriously fiscally conservative (which is sometimes called economic liberalism in Europe). In a recent article they report the results of a study by the Technical University of Denmark and the Danish Topic Centre on Waste:
The researchers then looked at more than 200 scenarios, comparing the impact of recycling with that of burying or burning particular types of waste material. They found that in 83% of all scenarios that included recycling, it was indeed better for the environment.
If you live in a community that does single-stream garbage collection, you might wonder if they really do sort out the recyclables. Chances are they do, and single-stream systems can actually be some of the most efficient:
San Francisco, which changed from multi to single-stream collection a few years ago, now boasts a recycling rate of 69%—one of the highest in America. With the exception of garden and food waste, all the city's kerbside recyclables are sorted in a 200,000-square-foot facility that combines machines with the manpower of 155 employees.
The big question about recycling is really a series of separate, somewhat related questions. First, are we really running out of landfills? Of course not, we have several deserts and oceans just waiting to be filled. Now, to ask the actually meaningful question: are we running out of landfills near large population centers that generate the trash? That answer is a lot closer to yes. It turns out most people don't want to live next to a dump, so dumps are getting harder and harder to build. Suburban sprawl only makes it worse. Second, is recycling economically worth it? Recycling is indeed subsidized in most cities. But the answer to this question depends on things like commodity prices, new technologies and innovations, and whether or not you try to count the market externalities. Finally, does recycling have a net environmental benefit? This is actually a huge question, and life cycle analysis is not easy to do. How far back to you go? If you go all the way back to the energy expended on mining raw materials, transportation, etc., then the answer tends to be yes. Now, does this one study prove for all time that recycling is worth doing? Of course not - that would be rather dogmatic. But it is further evidence, with a thorough methodology. This is how science works. For example, here's another paper that examines the significance of assumptions in life cycle assessments like this one. When was the last time a religion or superstition publish a report examining possible issues in their underlying assumptions? Earlier I called Bullshit a great show, and it is. So how did they get it wrong on this issue? Penn and Teller are absolutely brilliant when it comes to debunking flim-flam artists, because they have years of training and experience as flim-flam artists themselves. Magicians and psychics (and the like) use the exact same techniques in their work --the difference is that magicians tell you it's a trick, and not supernatural god power. When the show ventures into other topics, though, the quality varies depending on the experts they rely on. [youtube]9oloM_dSoW4[/youtube] So, to recap:
  1. Recycling? Good.
  2. Dogmatic crystal-wearing, tree-hugging hippies? Bad.
  3. Penn and Teller on flim-flam artists? Good.
  4. Penn and Teller on scientific topics? Not so much.

Hybrid Concept Cars, The Future is Now Conclusion

If you have missed the first two articles on this topic you can read them here and here. In this grand finale, if I may call it that, I will show you the best of the best (in my opinion) of the concept cars recently reported on on yahoo.com. These I thought were either really cool looking and futuristic or had really cool ideas or that I just kind of liked more than the others. Anyway, without further ado, let's start the "Hey, that's cool" category. In third place we have the Toyota Volta: hybridcars_130_toyota.jpg This car looks like it could go very very fast. It also looks like the maximum height you could possibly be to drive in this vehicle is 5'5" and that is pushing the limit. I don't know if this is the fastest electric hybrid on the market but with dual electric engines (one for each front tire) this car boasts that it has a 408 horsepower hybrid engine, the safety of all-wheel drive and can do 0-60 in just four seconds. Look at those desert dunes. This car is ready to climb them, but I am a little worried that the hills are too steep and those don't really look like tires that get the best traction. So, maybe it's not good to drive in the desert, but since no one really off roads their vehicles like they do in the commercials, I think this car might be OK.Second Place goes to GM Saab Aero X: hybridcars_130_saab.jpg How cool is this car? It's totally like a Back to the Future kind of futuristic car. Very nice, looks sleek but the only problem I visibly see with this vehicle is this: what happens when you lock your keys in the car? I really don't think the tow truck operator is going to be able to jimmy this particular vehicle. Well, I guess that is good b/c no one can steal your car that way but think about this, what are you going to do if the "door" stops working? I don't think climbing into the trunk is a viable option, either. This is cool, too: " the Saab Aero X's cockpit completely eliminating conventional dials and buttons. Instead, Saab displays data on glass-like acrylic "clear zones" in graphic 3-D images." Very futuristic. It has a 400 horse powered engine that runs completely off of ethanol. Over all this is the car of the future, as soon as we figure out how to open the door. And in first place in the "cool kids" category goes to the Honda FCX Concept  hybridcars_130_honda.jpg Look how shiny and aerodynamic. Look how many seats it has (prob the most in this category).  It also employs a concept call vertical gas flow, meaning that the car uses gravity to help it conserve energy and make it's fuel cells more productive and helps this vehicle to improve the fuel cell storage space to allow for a much roomier car.  "With these improvements, the FCX fuel-cell car now has a driving range of 354 miles—a 30 percent improvement from the 2005 model—and a maximum speed of 100 miles per hour"  Not too bad, if I do say so myself. Over all, I am very pleased to see that American car companies are taking the right step towards hybrid technology.    Hopefully we see continued competition to create more and more efficient and environmentally happy vehicles for public consumption without detrimental impact on consumer wallets.

Hybrid Concept Cars, The Future Is Now Part 2

So yesterday our cars of the future article was on "Didn't they do this already". I think today's category is "Wouldn't be Caught Dead in This". You can try to persuade me that people buy cars based on power and performance all you want but I am pretty sure that the look and style of the car is pretty important, too. Just like no one will ever want to be seen in the environmentally friendly Hummer, I can imagine the same will be said of most of these vehicles. In third place we have the Ford Mercury Meta One. hybridcars_130_mercury.jpg You may argue that this car isn't necessarily the ugliest car you have ever seen, in fact it's okay. Work with me here for a minute, if you please. Think back to that movie about the cars that try to kill people. You know the one, the really bad Stephen King movie, Maximum Overdrive? This car will eat you. And your children. And then your neighbors and their families until it runs out of gas, which will take a little longer than a normal SUV since this runs on nice and clean " hybrid transmission with a twin-turbocharged V-6 diesel engine calibrated to run on a bio-diesel blend". You can see how I feel this is potentially hazardous to everyone, right? Just look into those headlight "eyes". Those are the headlights of a killer. Second Place in the ugly stick contest goes to the Volvo 3CC: hybridcars_130_volvo.jpg This vehicle is kind of ugly. I mean, it's nice and aerodynamic and boasts that it can run on any type of power system (gas, ethanol, hybrid or electric). But, it looks kind of...lame. Like the vision of the future that they had in the seventies where the high fashion of the times happens to be tunics and tennis skirts. And it only sits three people and quite uncomfortably, if you really look at it. And it also takes 10,000 lithium-ion batteries (like the ones in your lap top) to power. Only 10,000? That's nothing. First place goes hands down to the Nissan Pivo for obvious reasons: hybridcars_130_nissan.jpg It's electric and it swivels. Enough said. Eventually I will get around to posting the best of these concept cars. Thanks for reading!