on not buying obamacare

March 31st, 2014

I signed into the website. I looked.

I’m in the odd little demographic of people who were already buying their independent health insurance. Before I quit to go back to school full time, the office-subsidized insurance got REALLY expensive. It was a small office, and a lot of the young and healthy individuals were married to people in the military; when I checked, it turned out that going off on my own, I could get a similar plan through the same company without subsidization for about half the price to me. I hated to make our small pool even worse by leaving it, but I couldn’t afford to stay in it on that salary. The independent plan is a little heavy on teaching assistant salary, but I kept that plan when I dropped the old job since ODU doesn’t offer grad students health insurance.

When I looked at the plans available on the Exchange here, a plan similar to mine — AND AGAIN THROUGH THE SAME COMPANY — slightly higher deductible ($4250 instead of $3500), HMO instead of PPO (so broader choice of doctors) but with a lower coinsurance rate (so 80% after deductible instead of 100% on most things) was $235/month… before subsidies. After, my income’s low enough that it would be $44 a month instead of the $90 that I pay, but that’s a lot to ask the taxpayers to help out for a plan that actually seems a little worse unless I get in a situation where I can’t control where I go. So far, I’ve been profitable to insure — my biggest medical expense the last several years was walking into a glass door and breaking my nose, which earned me a $300 band-aid (tetanus shot included) covered entirely by me. (Add a sinus infection, I think I hit $400 toward the $3500 deductible that year? The insurance is routinely more expensive than the healthcare, but a bike wreck or health issue could easily fix that…)

I do have to compliment the healthcare.gov website. The plan comparison is one of the clearest I’ve seen — I love that each plan has an estimate of what the consumer costs of a pregnancy or managing diabetes would be on the plan… but even with that our system is still so complicated and anticipating healthcare needs is so uncertain that the choices (including tax penalty or shop elsewhere!) are a bit overwhelming.

So I’m not buying into the Exchange because it seems silly to me to let the same insurance company collect more than double the money for no added benefit, even though it’d be cheaper to me until my income goes up. But these systems being what they are and needing the big pools to make them work, I don’t know if staying out on my own is actually better or worse for the American taxpayers as a whole. Would one more heavily subsidized but (usually) healthy sign-up improve or hurt the system’s chances of being viable?

I feel like I have a pretty high level of policy literacy, and I still have no idea. Good luck to the whole crazy endeavor.

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welfare queens

March 24th, 2014

“Welfare queens” are one of the favorite examples any time we mention social construction in a policy context; it makes an easy demonstration of how a group’s perception as deserving can quickly alter, and how that can have big consequences for the target groups involved.

It’s been a while, but lest I lose the story again, Josh Levin’s story of Linda Taylor, the woman behind Ronald Reagan’s original anecdote, is fascinating.

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online learning resources

January 4th, 2014

My friend Anna has a much more extensive list of useful online learning sites. However, I’ve been exploring a few myself in the name of finding out what I like and don’t like; it’s hard to be useful at assisting as my department moves more classes online without much idea about what works. Not because it’s a complete list but because I’m afraid I’ll forget that I’ve been putting the links in one place if I don’t post it somewhere, here is the set of sites that I personally like for free learning. These fit for a range of tasks from “recommend a solid intro text on a topic” (usually MIT Open CourseWare) to “let me learn something new in a way that feels like playing a game” (e.g., Duolingo). If the holiday break were longer, I’d try for a more extensive annotation project, but it’s a start.

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mcdonald’s coffee WAS too hot

October 24th, 2013

“As more signs detach themselves from lifeworld elements they were presumptively designed to denote, they enter a realm that postmodernists call hyperreality. Once a sign takes up permanent residence in hyperreality, any kind of reality which may be called empirical loses influence over it. Better, hyperreality has a life of its own outside and hovering above the experiential reality of day-to-day life. Celebrities, the O.J. Simpson case, sports, and politics exist therein, with only the most tenuous relationship to the phenomenological reality of daily life.”

-Charles J Fox (1996). http://www.jstor.org/stable/976449

The NY Times series Retro Report is fascinating. A couple photos, and a primary symbol for frivolous lawsuits comes spinning apart. Just happened to line up well–even by decade–with some class reading on postmodernity.

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randomized wealth infusions

October 12th, 2013

The Freakonomics podcast recently talked about a really neat paper treating the 1832 Georgia land lottery as a natural experiment to look at the effects of no-strings-attached wealth shocks. Spoiler: they didn’t find significant effects by the lottery winners’ grandchildren’s generation.

The authors were completely appropriate in limiting their meaning-claims (when asked about implications for policy, Bleakley comes back with “If the politician were contemplating, you know, giving wealth to these people in the 1830s”), but it puzzles me that the paper’s alternative explanation for persistence of wealth are couched in individual characteristics: “particular characteristics transmitted to them by their parents” (p. 2), things like teaching children to be ambitious or genetically inheritable natural ability. While this is undoubtedly a factor, there’s no mention of another set of factors: the social structures and extra costs imposed by social resistance against “developing human capital” when it involves jumping social classes, even in the U.S. What would it mean to be nouveau riche by chance then? How many noses would’ve gone in the air when the son of the previously penniless winner showed up for class? Even now? Academic preparedness and the means to afford (whether by cash or borrowing against future labor value) for education remove big barriers for intergenerational outcomes, but they’re by no means the only barriers. Not so long ago, the New York Times profiled a set of first-generation college students’ struggles in a way that gives a richer story about this. In practical terms, adding extra sets of interesting factors and speculating doesn’t at all change their result that wealth infusion alone wasn’t enough to significantly alter outcomes, but talking about characteristics of societies vs. characteristics of households/individuals does make a difference if we’re interested in what we can or can’t do to make our society fairer.

I don’t have solid ideas on how to operationalize social structure rigidity, and I doubt that there are many wild data sets with randomized wealth infusions out there to use to understand the additional factors at play. But thinking about it at all provides a tiny peek at why getting definitive answers from social science is tough, even when you get a fantastic chance to look at something in a way a modern Institutional Review Board would never approve for deliberate experimentation.

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