Refugees: Threat or menace?

Dina Gusovsky is a writer for NBC's Late Night with Seth Meyers who came to the United State with her parents in the 1980s. Like many immigrants today the family was escaping a dangerous situation in their home country. She talks about that here, and about more recent refugees as well:


The quotation from Ronald Reagan that she mentions came from his Statement on United States Immigration and Refugee Policy" issued July 30, 1981, less that six months into his first term. You can click on the title to read the whole thing, but here are three key paragraphs:

Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands. No free and prosperous nation can by itself accommodate all those who seek a better life or flee persecution. We must share this responsibility with other countries.


• At the same time, we must ensure adequate legal authority to establish control over immigration: to enable us, when sudden influxes of foreigners occur, to decide to whom we grant the status of refugee or asylee; to improve our border control; to expedite (consistent with fair procedures and our Constitution) return of those coming here illegally; to strengthen enforcement of our fair labor standards and laws; and to penalize those who would knowingly encourage violation of our laws. The steps we take to further these objectives, however, must also be consistent with our values of individual privacy and freedom.


• Illegal immigrants in considerable numbers have become productive members of our society and are a basic part of our work force. Those who have established equities in the United States should be recognized and accorded legal status. At the same time, in so doing, we must not encourage illegal immigration.

Lots of people I've listened to about this have very strong opinions that are too often based on major misconceptions. Border security and deportations drastically increased under Obama, for example, but a lot of people think otherwise. The number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. is not much different from 20 years ago. It isn't economically feasible to deport everybody who came here against the law. Both the direct costs and the negative practical consequences would be enormous. (Do the math.) So-called "chain migration" doesn't produce a flood of immigrants because only a limited number of immediate family members qualify and even for them the cases generally take years to process. And so on. I agree that we should have secure borders and that some unauthorized immigrants ought to be locked up, but in a lot more cases it makes far more economical and practical sense (not to mention being more just) to use fines (which bring in money) rather than imprisonment (which costs arms and legs).

This is too big a subject for one post, so for now I'll leave it here.

[Updated 2018 August 18 to fix several typos.]

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Economic output per person in the U.S. versus other countries

I just ran across an interesting article published on the conservative American Enterprise Institute's website in 2016. Based on data from 2014, the author, Mark J. Perry, compares gross domestic product per capita of U.S. states and a number of foreign countries. To make the comparison more meaningful, he uses GDP numbers adjusted for price levels in those countries, sometimes called "Purchasing Power Parity," abbreviated "PPP."

A very important point to keep in mind: We're talking here about economic output, not income to individuals. In the middle decades of the 20th century workers took home a significant and reasonably steady fraction of the economic output they produced. That is, incomes rose along with worker productivity, but starting around 1980 their share began to fall and income became more and more concentrated at the top. This is happening all across the developed world, not just in the United States, but our wealth and income are more concentrated than in most developed countries.

The result is quite remarkable. Quoting:

As the chart demonstrates, most European countries (including Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium) if they joined the US, would rank among the poorest one-third of US states on a per-capita GDP basis, and the UK, France, Japan and New Zealand would all rank among America’s very poorest states, below No. 47 West Virginia, and not too far above No. 50 Mississippi. Countries like Italy, S. Korea, Spain, Portugal and Greece would each rank below Mississippi as the poorest states in the country.

Perry points out that this contradicts President Trump's claim that other countries are beating us economically:

When we hear from The Donald about how he wants to “make America great again,” because “we don’t win any more,” and about how “we don’t beat China or Japan in trade” and how those countries “kill us” in trade. When The Donald tells us that Mexico is “beating us economically” and “laughing at us,” maybe we should remind him that Mexico and China, as US states, would both be far below our poorest state — Mississippi — by 51% and 62% respectively for GDP per capita; and Japan would be barely above our poorest state — Mississippi. Using GDP per capita as a measure of both economic output per person and of a country’s standard of living, America is winning quite handsomely.

While Perry makes an interesting point here, it's also worth noting that his analysis has its flaws.

For example, he omits a lot of countries with higher per capita GDP than that of the U.S., including Ireland, Norway, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and several small Arab states. For a more complete list of countries see this Wikipedia article.

He points out in passing that coal, oil, and natural gas production are big factors in the GDPs of some states, but, as one might expect from someone at the American Enterprise Institute, he ignores their negative impacts, which are not just environmental but economic as well.

Also, as noted above, Perry uses per capita GDP as a measure of how well people are doing. That's potentially very misleading, because wealth and income are distributed differently in different countries. If a multibillionaire happens to move in down the street and your neighborhood isn't already full of them, your neighborhood's average wealth is going to take an impressive jump, even if the rest of you are no better off.

So a more meaningful number might be the median income. By definition, half the population make more than the median and half make less. You can find a comparison on that basis here. This is derived from a survey conducted by Gallop in 2013, which isn't a perfect way to estimate median income. But assuming those numbers are roughly right, the U.S. still looks pretty good: We're in sixth place in both income per household and income per resident. However, the comparison takes into account only gross income and ignores both taxes and public benefits. Here in the United States we pay a lot more per person for medical care, for example, though by measured outcomes our medical care is in keeping with that of other developed countries.

Income in the U.S. is of course also more skewed toward the rich than in a lot of other developed countries, and the concentration is also growing relatively faster here. More on that in a later post.

Here, by the way, is another comparison by Mark Perry showing U.S. states matched with foreign countries with similar GDPs in 2017. California's GDP, for example, is similar to, in fact a little bigger than, the United Kingdom's. That's despite the fact that UK the has about 75 percent more workers.

(Updated 2018 August 7 to more clearly emphasize that GDP reflects economic productivity rather than the income of individual workers.)

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Hanlon's razor

A few months ago I quoted the aphorism “never attribute malice to what can adequately be explained by stupidity,” and was asked for its source. I had to confess that I had no idea, but I've since managed to look it up.

The expression turns out to have a name, “Hanlon’s Razor,” and a Wikipedia article under that title. But who was Hanlon?

In 2001 a blogger named Quentin Stafford-Fraser published the following email he’d received from someone named Joseph E Bigler in response to something on his blog. Here's what Bigler had to say:

I did a search for Hanlon’s Razor on the internet and was surprised that no one seems to know the origin. The author was my late friend Robert J. Hanlon of Scranton, Pa.

A number of years ago, the people that wrote the Murphy’s laws book decided to publish a second book and asked the public to contribute their own ‘laws” as part of a contest. My friend sent this in and it was accepted and printed with his name in the credits. The ‘prize’ for winning was 10 copies of the new book, one of which Bob gave me.

Bob was a very literate man with a wry sense of humor and I believe the razor “Never attribute malice to what can adequately be explained by stupidity” is his. If you would change the wording on your site to reflect this, I would appreciate it. Bob was a great man. He had a keen sense of history, but unfortunately, illness and an untimely death prevented him from being further published. I think it would be fitting and appropriate if he got the recognition he deserved for this.

The quotation, with that wording, does indeed on page 52 Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong by Arthur Bloch.

That isn’t the oldest version of the idea, however. Some sources I checked pointed out the similarity to the line “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity,” from Heinlein’s 1941 short story “Logic of Empire.” Goethe wrote something vaguely along the same lines in 1774. A more recent and quite possibly independent expression by British writer Charles Pigden appeared in 1985: “Many journalists have fallen for the conspiracy theory of government. I do assure you that they would produce more accurate work if they adhered to the cock-up theory.”

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The Kansas-California experiment

In 2010 Kansas elected extreme conservative Sam Brownback governor and put Tea Party Republicans in charge of the legislature. Together they passed a program of deep tax cuts and spending restrictions that they promised would quickly lead to a massive economic boom and bigger tax receipts.

At the same time, much more liberal California elected Jerry Brown governor and gave Democrats overwhelming control of the legislature.

We should obviously be wary of inferring too much from the results of this experiment, given the small sample size and how different the states are. But it’s still interesting that since then Kansas has done so much worse economically than have similar neighboring states. Plummeting revenues forced the state to slash education and other spending, and the legislature finally had to raise taxes, over Governor Brownback’s vetoes, to prevent bankruptcy.

(Brownback is no longer in office, having resigned in January to become the Trump administration’s ambassador-at-large on international religious freedom, an appointment criticized by religious freedom groups and one that required Vice President Pence’s tie-breaking vote to confirm.)

California, in contrast, is in excellent financial shape, with moderate taxes, an $8.8 billion state budget surplus, and a gross domestic product that has recently passed even that of the significantly more-populous United Kingdom. If California were an independent country, its economy would be the fifth largest in the world. In first place would be the remainder of the U.S., followed by China, Japan, and Germany. (Russia, by the way, is in 12th place, with an economy smaller than Canada's.) For a list of countries by GDP see this link.

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The Congressional Budget Office projects a soaring national debt

In June the Congressional Budget Office released a report titled The 2018 Long-Term Budget Outlook. It projects a national debt larger than GDP by the late 2020s, just 10 years in the future. That hasn't happened since the 1940s

Worse, they project that it will climb to 152 percent of GDP by 2048, far higher than it has ever been in all of American history.

And worst of all, this is the optimistic scenario, one that assumes last year's tax cuts for very-high-income individuals are allowed to expire. The tax law made big cuts for corporations permanent, but made those on rich individuals temporary in order to get the bill through the Senata under fillibuster-proof "reconciliation" rules.

If the tax cuts are made permanent, as at least some Republicans in Congress advocate, the debt will expand even faster and total more. And obviously the debt would be much lower if the previous tax rates had simply been left alone to start with. Those rates were essentially the same as the ones in force during most of the 1990s, the longest period of economic expansion in American history. They were also the tax rates through most of the economic expansion that began under President Obama and is still continuing.

Last year Republicans rushed through their damaging tax cut bill by ignoring congressional norms for major legislation, without even holding hearings, and in a mad dash before seating the new Democratic senator from Alabama. I hope there are fiscally responsible Republicans left who now realize their mistake in believing the tax cuts would pay for themselves, a perennial claim that has yet to come true.

For a summary of the specific problems with the tax cut bill, see Paul Krugman's December 21 piece from The New York Times. See also this June blog post by Kevin Drum titled "CBO: Republicans Have Blown Up the National Debt Again."

As Drum points out in that post, the national debt grew at a faster rate under Reagan and the two Bushes than under Obama despite the fact that Obama took office with the economy in free fall and resorted to a deficit stimulus to ward off a threatened major depression. Under Clinton, of course, the budget reached record levels of surplus, allowing the dollar value of the national debt (not just the debt-to-GDP ratio) to be reduced for the first time since Lyndon Johnson's final budget. In fact, when Clinton left office, the debt was on track to be paid off in less than a decade. That dream was cut short by George W Bush's two rounds of tax cuts for the well off along with other things financed entirely by borrowing, such as the was in Iraq and a new Medicare drug benefit that was very helpful to seniors but was adopted with no notion of how to pay for it.

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A dental torture device that was new to me

The upper right side of my mouth started bothering me several months ago and I worried it might be the start of gum disease, but when I went to my dentist’s office for an already-scheduled regular cleaning, it turned out my gums were fine. I just had a cracked fillings in two of my teeth. Luckily they were able set up an appointment for me the following week.

That visit was pretty routine up through the drilling phase, but when it came time to put in the actual filling I got to experience something new. To prop my mouth open for comfort and convenience (theirs, not mine) they employed a complicated looking piece of clear plastic, slightly flexible but still firm (al dente and then some), that comprised two distinct sections. The front was a roughly box-shaped “bite block” that was jammed between the upper and lower teeth on my left side, opposite the work zone, to force my jaw open more or less like a python's. Growing out of the back was a sort of flexible vertical beaver tail, but sideways, as if the bite block were a beaver sleeping on his side. The tail crossed over to the right side of my mouth to keep my tongue out of the way. It also had tiny little holes in it so a suction hose plugged into the front of the apparatus could suck out saliva.

Now, this may sound petty unpleasant, but the reality was worse than you might imagine.

I bravely held on through the filling of the back-most remaining tooth on the upper right, which is number 2 as dentists count (clockwise from top left according to their viewpoint; this will be on the exam). When that was done I started gesticulating, first pointing at the evil plastic thing and then up and out, like Ralph Kramden reminding Alice where the Moon was. This proved sufficient to convey my meaning, and to their credit they did remove it pretty quickly. (Btw, the entrance to my dentist’s building has a sign indicating that firearms are not allowed on the premises. This may be why.)

Hero that I am, after some whimpering and moaning and recovering I valiantly let them stuff the vile thing back in, but not so far back, so they could fill number 4. This proved slightly less awful, and I survived. In the end it cost under $600, and my teeth no longer hurt.

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The worsening U.S. budget deficit

As Kevin Drum pointed out in a June 27 blog post, the head of the White House National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow, had just said on Fox Business that economic growth had reduced the budget deficit. In fact, the deficit did decline as the economy improved in the Obama years, but the deficit so far this fiscal year is actually worse than last year.

When Drum wrote his blog post, the Treasury Department had released the data only through April, so I decided to look at updated numbers (now including May) and also check the numbers for the individual months of April and May. It appears that Kudlow may have been talking about just the month of April, which was the latest available in late June when Kudlow made his claim. April tends to be in surplus because that's usually the top month for tax receipts, and April of 2018 had a larger surplus than April of 2017 -- $214 billion, up from $182 billion in 2017.

That's good, and it's possible that economic growth was a contributing factor, but it could also be a matter of when people made their tax payments. The cumulative total amount of the surpluses and deficits from the start of the fiscal year in October through April is less subject to short-term variation, and unfortunately that number looks worse for 2018 than for 2017. (You can find the raw data on the Treasury website here.)

The deficit was also bigger in May of 2018 than the year before, and the cumulative October-through-May deficit is also bigger this year than last.

In the table below the numbers are in billions of dollars. Positive numbers indicate a budget surplus (more coming in than going out) and negative numbers mean a deficit.

Fiscal Year Apr May Oct-Apr Oct-May
2017 +182 -88 -344 -433
2018 +214 -147 -385 -532
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Medical billing is just weird

I've had a fair number of medical bills since my car was read-ended at the start of June last year (2017). Every month my insurance company sends me an Explanation of Benefits (EoB), and I've been reading them. They are weird.

For example, last year I spent a fair amount of time seeing doctors and physical therapists, and over the busiest six months of this, the local medical empire billed a total of $21,779.25. But of that, my insurance company approved only $4,756.59. They paid $3,375.76 and I paid $1505.77. Notice that their share and mine together add up to $4,881.53, which is about $125 more than the approved amount. What was that, a tip?

On the other hand, one of my physical therapy visits was billed at $780.00, but the insurance approved only $121.94, and the total amount actually paid ($40 by me, the rest by insurance) came to $120.30, which is $1.14 short of the approved amount. There's no explanation of this that I can find in the Explanation of Benefits.

The biggest difference, of course, is between the amount billed and the amount approved. I suspect nobody actually pays full list price, even the uninsured. It may be there just to make patients think they're getting a bargain.

One more oddity: Several times recently I've received checks for modest amounts of money from the aforementioned healthcare empire. The accompanying statements indicate they are refunds, but don't say for what. I've have no idea, but that doesn't stop me from depositing them.

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I'm back

I've been sick, fortunately with nothing serious, but that and general business has cut into my time. But I'm going to try to start posting here again more or less regularly, for whatever that's worth.

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