Obamacared

I was one of the first people to try to sign up for insurance on healthcare.gov. That turns out to have been a mistake. At least, that’s my theory.

With considerable effort, over a period of a couple of days right at the beginning of October, I’d gotten through the first part (where you verify facts about yourself to confirm that you’re you). Then I’d done the part where they ask about your income, etc.

At that point—when I’d entered all the info about my and Jackie’s contact info, race, ethnicity, income, and so on—I clicked the last “submit” button. . . and waited.

After a long time, the submission timed out.

Not wanting to have to go through all that entering again, I just backed up a screen and clicked submit again. . . and waited again. And it timed out again.

I did that over and over again, hoping that eventually I’d get a successful submission. And at some point I did get one. In fact, I got a bunch—many of those failed submissions had apparently gone through before they failed. But (I now believe), something about them had gotten corrupted at some point.

On the first visit after that, I’d gotten through to the point of seeing what policies were available to me and how much they’d cost. I printed the list and reviewed it with Jackie and investigated the networks offered by a few plans and picked a policy (sticking with Health Alliance, but going for one of their new Silver plans). But when I returned, there was a glitch: I could no longer sign up for insurance for Jackie and myself; it offered me a policy only for myself, with no sign as to whether I’d be able to get Jackie signed up after.

Yesterday, I finally gave up on making my way through the signup process, and called the telephone interface.

Turns out, the people on the other end of the phone go through the exact same interface. So, of course, they ran into the exact same problem I did.

After escalating to the senior tech guys, the proposed solution was to reset my account and have me start over. (Something I would have done a long time before, if that interface were available.)

Sadly, I couldn’t make that work either.

Finally, I started over completely. I created a new account (with a new login name, using a new email address), re-verified my identity, and re-entered all the info about me. This time, having already selected a policy, I pressed straight ahead and enrolled.

So, I have successfully signed up for insurance through Obamacare. It took about an hour, once I started over from scratch. I suspect it would have worked pretty smoothly, if I hadn’t tried so persistently to sign up in those first few busy days.

Despite the aggravations of getting signed up, I’m pretty pleased. Obamacare is going to save me hundreds of dollars a month. Our insurance bill had been our largest bill—quite a bit higher than our rent. Now it will be just another monthly expense—bigger than our phone bill, but less than rent or groceries.

And yet, the cost savings is far from the most important thing. Before, I worried constantly that any major medical problem would ruin us—make it impossible to get affordable insurance; trap us in a policy that all the healthy people had fled, with premiums spirally inexorably higher until they consumed all our money. Now, at last, we have some security on that front. Cheap or expensive, at least our insurance is actually insurance. A major medical problem would still be a big deal—one of us would no longer be healthy. But at least it would just be that, and not that and a financial catastrophe too.

What was privacy?

I had the great good fortune to learn early on that anything posted to the internet is there forever. That knowledge has guided my internet activities for twenty-five years now, and keeping it perpetually in mind has stood me good stead so far. My basic rule is simple: I don’t post anything to the internet unless I’m intending to publish it to the world at large.

So, I’m happy to post the articles and stories I write, and happy to post links to them. That information is deliberately made public. I also post about things I do (and share links to things other people write), but only with the knowledge that each such post is part of my permanent public persona.

The exceptions (commercial, banking, credit card, insurance, and medical sites) are carefully considered, minimized as best I can, and monitored so that I have some hope of detecting and limiting the harm from failures. I expect the information that I share with them will remain private—but I use the word “expect” in much the same way an eighth-grade teacher might use it when telling her students “I expect each one of you will be well-behaved during our field trip.”

Because of this perspective, I pay very little attention to the “privacy” settings of social media sites. Whatever I post is intended to be public, so it makes no sense to constrain it. I do try to keep a grip on things that I don’t intend to be public. For example, I only attach location information to my posts on a case-by-case basis.

As I say, this has stood me in good stead up to this point. But, as Bruce Schneier points out, we’re already well past the inflection point between a past when such efforts mattered and a present and future where they do not. I carry my phone with me most of the time, so my location is already known to a third party—which means that, as a practical matter, it can be known to anybody who cares enough to get the information. Cameras are nearly ubiquitous—even before drones make it possible for them to be actually ubiquitous (and social media sites have already gathered ample data to support any facial recognition effort).

Anybody who’s working on the public policy aspects of these issues who’s not familiar with David Brin’s Transparent Society work is making a mistake. Privacy has no future. It hasn’t for a long time. Transparency is our best hope for keeping this fact from making the unequal power relationships in society much worse.

[Update 22 May 2011: I found the post from 2003 where I tell the story of just how I learned this lesson, back in 1990.]

Reducing poverty

I’m big on reducing poverty, both locally and globally. (I do worry that more rich people will use more resources, suggesting that reducing poverty isn’t an unalloyed good thing. On yet another hand, only rich people can afford things like sequestering carbon or preserving habitat. It’s complicated.)

Since I’m interested in reducing poverty, I was interested in Lant Pritchett’s recent talk Everything you think you know about poverty is wrong.

Pritchett and I see pretty much eye-to-eye on how to have a rich country, I think.

These well-off countries have a productive economy, a government that is responsive to the citizens, a capable bureaucracy, and the rule of law.

This has interesting implications for global development, because these are all things where it’s very difficult to improve someone else’s situation. If a country has government by-and-for the elites, or a corrupt bureaucracy, it’s going to be poor—and there’s very little outsiders can do to help. One of Pritchett’s points is that things that seem like they might help, such as improving education, seem to do more harm than good—perhaps because well-educated corrupt bureaucrats are worse than ignorant ones.

His solution is for rich countries to create or expand guest worker programs, which I think is a poor idea.

It’s not that I don’t think it would work. A poor worker who came to a rich country and worked a couple of years could both support relatives back in the poor country and save up enough money to return home and start a business. That would relieve poverty both immediately and going forward. It would also produce another person with first-hand experience of the advantages of a less-corrupt society (as opposed to merely seeing the advantages of getting in on the corruption).

The main reason I think it’s a poor idea is that enforcing a guest worker program eventually requires a police state. Somebody has to check all workers—it’s the only way to identify those who aren’t legally entitled to work. Somebody has to make sure those whose permission to work has expired get fired. Those whose permission to live here has expired, but who don’t go home, become an underclass with all the usual problems of an underclass—crime, violence, oppression, disease. I’ve written about this before (see Missing the point on immigration).

There is also the issue of how guest workers affect salaries, wages, and working conditions of citizen workers (short version: I think it makes them worse).

The ideal solution, of course, would be for every country to be rich enough and free enough that people from all over the world would want to move there. But that just brings us back to where we started.

Interviewed on Navigating Your Money

Mike Tierney of the Navigating Your Money podcast interviewed me last week and has already put the show up. Listen to me natter on about frugal living here:

Episode #19: Live Like You Have More, On Less

I haven’t actually listened to it. I find the idea of doing so fills me with dread. (I’ve heard other people say similar things, but am a little surprised to find myself so strongly affected.)

Wise Bread’s Will Chen has assured me that I sound reasonably articulate:

I especially like the part where you explained that a budget is not a limit but rather a tool for showing you what you CAN have. The part about sharing tools is also a really awesome part. You did great, but the host is also really good. He clearly has read through your material and gets your philosophy.

So there you have it. If you’re interested in what I’ve been saying, but you want to hear it in my voice rather than reading it on the screen, here’s your chance.

Dancing on the edge of the fiscal cliff

The tea-party right was willing to risk the hard stop in spending that would have resulted from running up against the debt limit—a game of chicken that neither the Democrats nor the sane fraction of the Republicans could take the risk of losing.

The fiscal cliff looks a little similar, but it’s much less dangerous. It’s a game that lends itself to playing through to the end, because the risk of losing isn’t nearly so bad.

Suppose we did go over the fiscal cliff. What would happen?

First, tax rates would go up for everybody. That’s bad, but it’s not terrible. Actually, taxes at those rates would produce revenue roughly equal to the amount of government people seem to want.

Second, spending would be cut, with the cuts falling on almost everything except Social Security. A lot of good stuff would be cut, but that might not be such a stiff price to pay, considering that a lot of the things that ought to be cut (such as defense spending far beyond our needs) would otherwise be very hard to cut.

The result would be a rough year or two, hard on everybody from working-class folks to defense contractors, but all those problems would be fixable. In fact, Congress would love to fix those problems! Congress could cut taxes! (Just not as much as Bush did.) Congress could boost spending! (Just not to current levels.) Really, there’s nothing congressmen like better than cutting taxes and spending money on stuff.

The other details are similar. The AMT would strike middle-class folks hard, but that could be fixed, too. In fact, having to fix it would be an opportunity to improve it—turn it back into what it was supposed to be, a minimum tax rate that applies to everyone, no matter how many tax shelters they have or how many special preferences they qualify for. The end of the “doc fix” would hurt health care providers, but that could be pretty easily fixed too. (We’ll no doubt have to make a lot of small changes to healthcare stuff, once health care reform goes into effect and we run into the inevitable glitches.)

It’s always hard to raise taxes and cut spending, so it’s hard to do what needs to be done. But that’s why the fiscal cliff is so perfect. Once we go over the edge, we won’t need to raise taxes and cut spending—we’ll need to cut taxes and raise spending, and that’s dead easy.

Dive over the fiscal cliff, then fix things. It’s not perfect, but it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as what we’ve got now.

Success at the Bike Project!

Jackie and I made good use of the Bike Project last week.

I’m not quite sure how to describe the Bike Project. Let’s try this: It’s a group of people and a collection of tools, using space in the Independent Media Center, serving as a resource for people who want to repair their bikes, or learn how to repair bikes.

We needed to make use of it because I broke Jackie’s front shifter last week, during a test ride after cleaning her chain.

With help from the folks at the Bike Project, we found a similar shifter in a bin of scavenged parts, ran a new cable through it, and swapped that out for the broken shifter and cable on Jackie’s bike. We paid $6 for the parts.

Among the things that I learned:

  1. The front shifter is not supposed to come apart. (Jackie’s had, and I’d assumed it was supposed to—that you were supposed to open it up to thread the cable through. That turns out not to be the case—once it’s opened up, it’s probably done for.)
  2. Getting the cable tension right is pretty easy, at least if your derailleur has previously been adjusted correctly. (All we did was pull the cable snug, cut it off, and crimp on a cable-end, at which point it pretty much just worked. I may have given the barrel adjuster a turn.)
  3. Grip shifters are mostly crappy plastic items that can be expected to fail if you actually use them.

Overall, it was a great experience. The place was full of people fixing their bikes, and there was a lot of positive energy in the shop.

They have a Build-a-Bike program, where you pick out a scavenged frame and then build it out with scavenged components (buying new components where desired). It was a key idea behind the project when it was being founded, and I’m sure you can still do it if you want to, but they also have a bunch of rebuilt bikes available for purchase, and I’ve heard that they tend to guide people interested in Build-a-Bike to those.

There were some downsides. In particular, one of the big advantages is supposed to be that they have stands to use while working on your bike, but the stands were 100% occupied for the whole 90 minutes we were there. Still, we’ll certainly join the Bike Project next time we need to get some work done on our bikes. It was a lot cheaper than going to a bike shop, and despite taking that 90 minutes, it was still a lot quicker than making an appointment at a bike shop to get the work done in a week or two.

I’ll be interviewed on Rudy Maxa’s World tomorrow

I’m going to be interviewed on Rudy Maxa’s World (America’s #1 Travel Radio Show) tomorrow (Saturday, May 19th). I’ll be on at 11:43 Eastern time for five minutes.

If you want to hear me talk, you can:

They want me to talk about my Why I Hate Points Wise Bread post.

I’ve been interviewed before, but usually either by a reporter who’s gathering info for a story, or else by email where I can compose my replies. This’ll be my first live interview.

Accurate but useless

Some years back, I read a financial newsletter article that offered a technique for predicting inflation rates six months in advance. It had charts that compared its predictions to actual results, that showed that it was pretty accurate. Not perfect, but more than close enough to be useful for short-term planning.

Then I read the details. Their “technique” was this:

  1. Take the actual inflation for the previous six months.
  2. Double it.

As I say, their technique was pretty accurate. Partially it was accurate because the economy rarely turns on a dime—recent trends tend to continue. But it was more accurate than that, because half the months they were “predicting” had already happened! Even if the next six months were rather different from the previous six months, that would only produce so much change in the full year results.

I think that was the point when I decided to let my subscription to that newsletter expire.

SLF Older Writers Grant

My first impulse, when I see something like the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Older Writers Grant, is to share it with everybody. Then I immediately have a counter impulse: I should keep it to myself! Why go out of my way to encourage competition? And then I have a counter-counter impulse: I’d rather be a member of a supportive community of writers.

At that point, I usually go ahead and share the opportunity with everyone that I think might be interested, with any slight feeling of foolishness balanced by a slight feeling of virtuousness.

In this case, I got over my selfish impulse extra quickly, because I don’t know that many speculative fiction writers over 50 anyway.

They also do an annual travel grant, so that’s a reason to click on over, even if you’re under 50.

The politics of providing services

In many places with repressive governments, nascent political parties (unable to achieve political power via the ballot box, because elections are rigged or the group is banned from participating) provide public services as an organizing tactic. They provide food for children, health care, mediation services, neighborhood watch, financial aid to victims of government actions, and so on.

This tactic has proven to be effective, so I’ve always been a little surprised that we don’t see more of it in the US. So, I was interested to see a post about the Black Panther’s free breakfast program, and the FBI’s concerns about it.

Upon reflection, I figure that the main reason we see little of this in the US is that in the US we really do have public services. There are government programs to feed hungry children, provide medical care to the sick and injured, police the streets, adjudicate conflicts, and so on. They’re flawed and limited, but they do exist. They’re good enough, that it would take a lot of money to compete—and if you have that much money, there are better ways to seek power, especially since our political system is reasonably open.

But this is becoming less true. With constant pressure on public services, holes are opening up that can be—and are being—filled by private organizations. So far, those organizations are mostly charitable non-profits, but there’s no reason that a political party couldn’t join in.

I think we’ll see it pretty soon, especially at the local level. People who have felt disenfranchised will be very willing to support political parties that directly provide what the government won’t and ask nothing in return except that you consider voting for their candidates.