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AARP to Super Committee: Screw Our Grandkids Or Else!

October 17th, 2011 . by economistmom

I find this AARP ad campaign so offensive.  They threaten policymakers with their 50 million votes if any of them dares to include reforms to Social Security or Medicare as part of longer-term deficit reduction.  AARP’s point?  From their website touting the ad:

AARP’s new national television ad tells lawmakers to cut waste and tax loopholes, not Social Security and Medicare. It urges lawmakers not to treat seniors like line items in a budget and lets them know that 50 million seniors are counting on them to protect their benefits.

Cuts to Medicare and Social Security benefits could:

  • dramatically increase health care costs for seniors and future retirees.
  • threaten seniors’ access to doctors and hospitals.
  • reduce the benefit checks seniors rely on to pay their bills.

Why do I hate this ad?  For the same reasons my entire organization, The Concord Coalition, explained today in this statement:

“This is the kind of tactic and rhetoric AARP has condemned in the past,” said former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, co-chairman of The Concord Coalition’s Board of Directors.  “Since hollowing out the rest of the budget to pay for expanding entitlements would result in more uninsured, undereducated and unemployed Americans, AARP has taken an approach which can only and honestly be described as generational warfare.  By its actions AARP has put at risk the strong inter-generational support for Social Security and Medicare.”

Concord Executive Director Robert L. Bixby added:“With its size and influence, AARP could be a powerful voice for reasonable reforms to establish a more sustainable fiscal path. Instead, it has chosen to be part of the problem by insisting that all sacrifices must be borne by someone else.

“AARP knows full well that benefits have been changed in the past and will have to change in the future. Most of the changes that have been widely discussed would not affect today’s seniors at all. Even worse, the ad perpetuates the false notion that our nation’s unsustainable fiscal outlook is merely a product of ‘waste and loopholes.’ AARP’s intransigent position will make realistic solutions all the more difficult.”

All options must be on the table to solve our nation’s fiscal problems. This includes domestic discretionary programs and defense, both of which have already been slated for cuts, as well as taxes and the major entitlement programs. Concord has long been critical of all attempts to exclude any part of the budget from scrutiny for two main reasons. First, exemptions increase the burden on those parts of the budget that remain on the table. Second, exemptions for some programs or taxes run counter to the concept of shared sacrifice and thus make necessary compromises more difficult to achieve.

Concord agrees that seniors should not be unfairly targeted in deficit reduction efforts. Any benefit changes should be phased in to prevent sudden disruptions for retirees and to give workers time to adjust and prepare for them. That, however, is a far cry from granting a blanket exemption to the nation’s two largest entitlement programs, which together comprise roughly one-third of the federal budget…

As the super committee considers its options, The Concord Coalition urges that all options remain on the table. Just as ignoring the need for more revenues is unrealistic, pretending that we can exempt important and popular programs like Social Security and Medicare from scrutiny is a good way to ensure that our fiscal problems will never be solved.

Oh, I also think it’s an offensive ad because I don’t believe most AARP members would actually agree with the AARP’s position to keep Social Security and Medicare completely “off the table” if they understood it was just insuring that even more of the burden of the debt and its negative effects on economic well-being would be shifted to their kids and grandkids.  We need a counterad to this one.  Instead of angry old, menacing people shaking their fists and threatening to vote against fiscally responsible politicians, let’s see some crying babies who have no political voice but through their parents and grandparents.

I still haven’t joined AARP (got my first invitation at 49 although I thought it wasn’t supposed to start until 50), but this certainly doesn’t endear them to me–discounts or no discounts.

And Now, the Guys’ Turn

October 7th, 2011 . by economistmom

It was nearly two years ago that I wrote this about the controversy over mammogram screenings for breast cancer:

I am one of those women in question–over 40 but under 50–who the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force now says shouldn’t bother with routine breast cancer screening, whether via mammograms or even self exams.  Their judgment is that for the broad group of “women in their 40s” who do not have genetic predisposition for breast cancer (unfortunately I do), the “benefits” of such screening don’t outweigh the “harms” (costs).

To me this is a very curious (and odd) proposition.  As explained in this New York Times article by Gina Kolata, the task force’s new position basically says that more information, even if free via self exams, can be a bad thing–not because the actual gathering of that information is risky, but because of how women might react to that information (with anxiety) or choose to act on that information (with potentially unnecessary surgery, perhaps with the encouragement of their doctors).  My understanding is that the health risks from the (minimal) radiation produced by mammograms is (not coincidentally) very minimal.  And of course there are no health risks from the process of self-examining one’s breasts.  So the task force is not saying that the process of gathering the information is risky; they’re saying that how women might choose to use that information is risky.  It’s a “save me from myself” argument.

But I still don’t get it.  From a pure health perspective, the potential net benefits of early detection of breast cancer–even netting out the risks associated with the various surgical and chemical treatments for the disease–can be quite large.  Not gathering the information increases the likelihood of “false negatives” and disease that goes untreated, the potential cost of which is death.  The argument against gathering the information for those women who have lower risk on average (the under-50 crowd) is that it increases the likelihood of “false positives” and overreacting with treatment that is unnecessary, has potential complications, and which can be drastic–for example, cutting off a breast.  But the decision about whether and how to act on a positive result is a woman’s personal decision, taken under the advisement of her physician who presumably helps her evaluate her own personal physical health risks (and emotional costs as well) of treating versus not treating.  I have heard stories of women with such a strong genetic predisposition to breast cancer that they opt to have double mastectomies to preempt the disease, and I assume that those women have done their own personal cost-benefit calculation and decided that they (personally) were willing to “pay” two breasts in order to guarantee they would live a full life.

I went on to tell a couple of my own stories related to the question “is testing worth it?”  Now we have the same group saying that maybe men shouldn’t have PSA screenings for prostate cancer done.  From the Washington Post’s story:

Most men should not routinely get a widely used blood test to check for prostate cancer because the exam does not save lives and leads to too much unnecessary anxiety, surgery and complications, a federal task force has concluded.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which triggered a firestorm of controversy in 2009 when it raised questions about routine mammography for breast cancer, will propose downgrading its recommendations for prostate-specific antigen (PSA) for prostate cancer onTuesday, wading into what is perhaps the most contentious and important issue in men’s health.

Task force chairwoman Virginia Moyer said the group based its draft recommendations on an exhaustive review of the latest scientific evidence, which concluded that even for younger men, the risks appeared to outweigh the benefits for those who are showing no signs of the disease.

“The harms studies showed that significant numbers of men — on the order of 20 to 30 percent — have very significant harms,” Moyer, a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, said in a telephone interview Thursday.

The “significant harms” in the guys’ case?  Again, from the Post account (emphasis added):

Because it is not clear precisely what PSA level signals the presence of cancer, many men experience stressful false alarms that lead to unnecessary surgical biopsies to make a definitive diagnosis, which can be painful and in rare cases can cause serious complications.

Even when the test picks up a real cancer, doctors are uncertain what, if anything, men should do about it. Many men are simply monitored closely to see whether the tumor shows signs of growing or spreading. Others undergo surgery, radiation and hormone treatments, which often leave them incontinent, impotent and experiencing other complications.

Seems pretty analogous to the case against mammograms for women.  And I think the same issues I raised on the mammograms apply here:  I’m not sure I buy the “save me from myself, as I might freak out” attitude.  The point is that the test does pick up a “real cancer” at least occasionally.  So there has to be an individual weighing of expected benefits from the test versus expected costs.  The PSA test is going to more likely pass the (expected) cost-benefit analysis when factors such as genetic predisposition (higher potential benefit from screening, in avoiding death) and age (lower potential cost from screening if one is younger and otherwise not so vulnerable to complications from surgery) work in its favor.  But that cost-benefit analysis is a very individual thing.  To suggest with blanket recommendations that the test might not be such a good idea because it just has those potential costs (regardless of the potential benefits) to me seems very dangerous.  People don’t need another reason to avoid medical tests, in my opinion.  There’s already a magnifying of the (even psychic) “costs” of getting tested relative to the potential benefits.  And at least some people will surely die from the cancer if they never find out it’s there until it’s too late.

What’s different about the guys’ case?  I find it kind of interesting that the women may overreact by cutting off their breasts, while the men may overreact and get the kinds of treatments that can leave them impotent.  Hmmm…. does this mean people would rather die than (potentially) not have (as much) sex?

Not entirely joking here.  Just wondering out loud.

(UPDATE, 1 pm:  This article, coming out in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, is very good at elaborating on the benefits vs. costs of the PSA test.)

Being Civilized About Taxes

June 13th, 2011 . by economistmom

civilized-on-irs-building

Here’s my inaugural column for Tax Notes, as reprinted on the Concord Coalition’s website today.  Note that the title of the regular column is “Taxes for a Civilized Society,” but the specific title of the inaugural column is (the very slightly different) “Being Civilized About Taxes.”  At any rate, you can find the whole text of the column (originally published on 6/6/11 in Tax Notes) here (on Concord’s site) without a Tax Notes subscription, and here (on the Tax Notes site) with one.  Next week’s column, scheduled to come out in Tax Notes on 6/20, is all about how reducing tax expenditures is like the “tastes great and less filling” approach to cutting the deficit.  (Learn more about Tax Notes here.)

Public Education Not Quite So Publicly Funded These Days

May 26th, 2011 . by economistmom

graduation-cap-with-pricetag

An article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal struck me as related to the overall financial woes facing the public sector more broadly–and not just the state and local level financing of public schools that is the focus of the story by the WSJ’s Stephanie Simon.  She explains:

Budget shortfalls have prompted Medina Senior High [in Medina, OH] to impose fees on students who enroll in many academic classes and extracurricular activities. The Dombis had to pay to register their children for basic courses such as Spanish I and Earth Sciences, to get them into graded electives such as band, and to allow them to run cross-country and track. The family’s total tab for a year of public education: $4,446.50.

“I’m wondering, am I going to be paying for my parking spot at the school? Because you’re making me pay for just about everything else,” says Ms. Dombi, a parent in this middle-class community in northern Ohio.

Public schools across the country, struggling with cuts in state funding, rising personnel costs and lower tax revenues, are shifting costs to students and their parents by imposing or boosting fees for everything from enrolling in honors English to riding the bus.

At high schools in several states, it can cost more than $200 just to walk in the door, thanks to registration fees, technology fees and unspecified “instructional fees.”

Well, I can vouch for that.  At my kids’ public high school in Fairfax County, VA (which I assume is one of the wealthiest public school districts in the nation), I’m paying for the second year in a row of graduating seniors’ fees.  If you want to see your kids donning honors cords atop their graduation gowns, you have to pay for them–just like you have to pay fees for them to join the honor societies in the first place.  And yes, at my kids’ school, we do pay for a parking spot in the school lot.  And I have other strange and seemingly random examples of things I’ve had to pay for this year, which I won’t get into because I don’t want it to come across as my griping about it.

I’m not griping, because it’s still undeniable that my kids’ public educations are still an exceptionally good deal for me.  And I’m willing to help the school district with my private contributions, however they are labeled or to whatever specific purposes they are “earmarked,” to keep my kids in that high quality educational experience.

As the WSJ article continues:

Public-school administrators say the fees—some of which are waived for low-income families—allow them to continue to offer specialty classes and activities that would otherwise fall to the budget ax. Some parents support that approach, saying they’d rather pay for honors physics or drama than see those opportunities eliminated altogether.

Some educators, too, argue that fees are good public policy. In a time of fiscal austerity, they say it’s not fair to ask taxpayers to fund an all-inclusive education that offers Advanced Placement Art History, junior varsity golf and fourth-year German with little regard for the cost…

The concern though is how to get private contributions from those who can afford them without limiting the educational opportunities for those who cannot:

Many states require schools to waive academic, but not extracurricular, fees for the poorest students, generally those with an annual income less than $29,000 a year for a family of four. Those above the cutoff, however, can be sanctioned if they don’t pay in full. Schools may withhold their diplomas or ban them from commencement, which itself often carries a $30 to $60 “graduation fee.”

Even when waivers are available, advocates for the low-income contend that it violates the spirit of a free public education when parents must, in effect, seek charity to pay for their child’s math workbook. In California, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the state for allowing districts to charge a wide array of fees.

Administrators and parents also worry that fees might affect some students’ chances of getting into good colleges. Schools across the country now charge substantial “pay to play” fees not only for sports and arts programs, but also for more modest activities, including community service.

This is how this particular issue of public school funding having to become not quite so publicly funded is not really that distinct from the challenges facing the public sector as a whole.  The debate about what to do about the federal entitlement programs is pretty similar.  If the government cannot afford to continue to subsidize the programs for all households (regardless of income) as generously as they have in the past, then how can we reduce the government’s contribution (and get private contributions to fill in at least part of the gap) without adversely affecting the quality of services provided by these still inherently-publicly-provided programs to those who rely on these services the most?

The public schools are approaching this problem by reconsidering what’s “basic and essential” in a K-12 education–a lot like what federal policymakers will have to contemplate about the services Medicare or Medicaid will pay for in the future (and who will pay for them):

Though the right to free education is now enshrined as an American value, when written into state constitutions, it typically carries a qualifier: Students are entitled to a “suitable” or an “adequate” education on the public dime.

That has long been interpreted expansively. As far back as the 1920s, schools were offering a wide variety of courses designed to serve many aptitudes and interests, [New York University professor Jonathan] Zimmerman said.

Today, however, educators and lawmakers are wondering if that’s sustainable—or necessary. As the population ages and fewer voters have children in the public schools, some communities are questioning whether an “adequate” education really requires the public to fund a full menu of arts courses, or advanced science classes that may draw just a handful of kids, or a debate club or a gymnastics team.

Seeking to define the extent of taxpayers’ obligation, Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal suggests that “what should be required is more than the 3 Rs, but it is decidedly less than everything school districts choose to offer.”

Because ultimately, our budget constraints–at all levels of government (besides within our own households)–are binding tightly these days, forcing us to make tradeoffs that we hope are wise ones.  The WSJ article concludes with a local public school official sounding like a federal budget expert:

While it has pained him to put price tags on so much of the public-school experience, [Medina, OH public schools] Superintendent Randy Stepp said the new cost structure may not be all bad.

“Students have to realize, as our country is realizing, that you can’t have everything,” Mr. Stepp said. “We all have to make tough choices.”

Still a Happy Tax Day

April 18th, 2011 . by economistmom

I wrote the largest check I’ve ever written to the IRS this weekend (I can’t even say how much–it’s so painful), but it was understandable given it was related to my withdrawal of my retirement savings to pay my legal and medical bills over the past year.  So I was devastated to see my bank account wiped out, but on the other hand still believe that my taxes pay for good things–and that what goes around, comes around.

I still believe in the vision of government that President Obama suggested in his speech the other day.  I have been pretty darn lucky in my lifetime so far, even as hard as the past couple years have been as I’ve gone through a divorce.  I got a good, public-school education and went all the way to getting my Ph.D., and I’ve never had a hard time finding work.  I have four beautiful kids who have also benefited from public schools and government-subsidized, employer-provided health care and who are very smart and healthy as a result.  And I know that most families struggle much, much more than I do, and that (as President Obama reminded us) “there but for the grace of God go I.”  I don’t consider the taxes I pay to be none of the government’s business.  I know that I’m paying my dues for government being there for me.  I know that if it turns out I am not so blessed in the future, there will be a safety net there for me and my kids.

So I still feel the way about taxes as I did five years ago when I wrote this piece for the Boston Globe.  There are still lots of good reasons for taxes and why we shouldn’t begrudge paying them today.

Headed to “Admitted Students Day” for Kid #2

April 17th, 2011 . by economistmom

My daughter, Emily, has been accepted into Sarah Lawrence College with a very nice merit scholarship of theirs–their “Presidential Scholarship.” We are headed up there today to check out the campus and the people. I am also going up there with a mission of getting us some need-based aid, because even a scholarship that would cover all the costs at an in-state, public university doesn’t even cover half of the costs of a Sarah Lawrence education. And yes, I really am “needy” now–having been through a divorce that has taken two years and depleted my entire retirement savings with the legal and medical (therapy) bills alone.

But back to the positive focus. My older daughter, Allie, is finishing her first year at Princeton, so my two older daughters’ college paths are likely to be as different as they are from each other. (Look them up in the U.S. News rankings and you’ll see part of what I mean–but don’t jump to simplistic conclusions just yet.)  It’s really wonderful that there are places seemingly “just right” for each of them. I recently wrote a column for the Christian Science Monitor related to these different types of students and the different kind of “human capital accumulation” that best brings out their talents–and how broad the definition of what makes us “valuable humans” really is. I’ll write more on this in a week or so, when I can share my CSM column and more on the David Brooks book that inspired it (as well as my kids who inspired it).

Why Are There No “Excellent Women” Among Economist Bloggers?

March 30th, 2011 . by economistmom

A friend of mine sent me a link to Matthew Kahn’s latest guest blog post on the Christian Science Monitor website; she sent it along with an “I believe in you” sort of note, because as Matthew was implicitly pointing out, I am not on the list of top economists to which he refers–while he is (as he explicitly points out).  He ponders (emphasis added):

REPEC provides an objective measure of who is “Royalty” in the economics profession. The current list of the top 5% is here. I am ranked #681 out of 27,365 economists so that’s not bad (and my 3 books aren’t counted here). But, here is the interesting part. There are 52 women who rank in the top 1000 and 0 of them blog. Contrast that with the men. Consider the top 100 men. In this elite subset; at least 8 of them blog. Consider the men ranked between 101 and 200. At least, six of them blog. So, this isn’t very scientific but we see a 7% participation rate for excellent male economists and a 0% participation rate for excellent women. This differential looks statistically significant to me. I have searched for Nancy Folbre among the top 1369 economists (the 5% cutoff) and she is not counted in the elite subset.

Not being a female economist himself, Matthew then theorizes–as men love to do–about why we women aren’t as able to be both “excellent” economists and blogging economists.

I find it ironic that Matthew’s blog post would appear on the Christian Science Monitor site in the same area that my guest blog posts do, and that the photo that goes with the CSM post is of…an Asian woman!  (Ok, a much younger Asian woman, but Asian nonetheless.)  Huh!  There’s a female economist blogger blogging right “next” to Matthew, right under his nose!

Oh, but I’m not an “excellent” female economist.

I think we female economists have our own empirical (not just theoretical) reasons why those of us who blog aren’t the same people as those of us who are at the top of the REPEC list.  In my case, it’s also closely related to why those of us (even non-excellent female economists) who blog don’t typically blog at the same frequency as the (even most excellent) male economists who blog.  It’s called we have and care about other things and people in our lives, not just our own individual, introspective views about how the supposed world around us supposedly works (in our own opinion)!  And that’s even things and people other than what Matthew counts so endearingly as the “home production” sort of things–you know, “cooking and rearing children.”

But yes, we female economists who happen to have families do typically end up doing most of the home production, as our typical husbands who are typically other economists typically are oblivious to what needs to get done.  You know, because the guys are so busy thinking their own deep, important thoughts about how the world swirling around them works, while in theory the guys are convincing themselves that they are the better, more successful, more “excellent” economists (or whatever they are professionally which they confuse with what defines them personally).

Which is why it should not be too hugely shocking that this particular non-excellent female economist who used to be married to an “excellent” male economist (top 5%, like Matthew!), is no longer married to that economist.

Objective, standardized statistics don’t always very accurately or comprehensively measure the quality (or “human capital”) of an economist–or a college applicant, or an economy as a whole, for that matter.  (I am working on a new column on this point for the Christian Science Monitor right now, actually.)  It’s actually part of a broader question and answer about why there aren’t more women in economics more generally (leaving aside whether they blog or not), or in other very quantitative fields for that matter.  It’s not just because we’re worse at math, by the way, because we’re not.  (Let me mention that my oldest daughter, now at Princeton, got a perfect math SAT score.)  It could be because we women often find disciplines that assume everything can be objectively, precisely, formulaically valued, very limiting at best and maybe downright wrong at worst.

And as to why this particular non-excellent female economist blogs, I’ve written about that before in a newsletter of the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP).  But perhaps this very blog post might make for more entertaining reading for CSWEP members than that column did.  ;)

To all you other “non-excellent” female economist bloggers, let me hear from you here!  Are we really not as “excellent” as our male counterparts?  Really?!

Happy 80th Birthday to the Original Economist Mom!

March 4th, 2011 . by economistmom

rivlina_brookings

Today is Alice Rivlin’s 80th birthday!  Alice has been my role model for as long as I’ve been an economist (nearly 30 years if you define my “birth” in that role as when I graduated with my undergrad econ college degree), which is nearly a decade or so longer than I’ve been a mom (my oldest child turns 20 this year).

Alice is a great role model as both economist and mom.  It turns out our birthdays are just two days apart (I turned 49 on March 2nd, which by the way is exactly the day Jon Bon Jovi–another kind of kindred spirit you might say–also turned 49), that Alice’s dad was an scientist and professor like mine, that she grew up in the Midwest, that she’s had a lot of very important economic policy jobs in DC at places I have worked at and still hope to work at (and maybe even rise to) someday, and that she managed all her professional success while raising three kids (two sons and one daughter, which I think is probably energy-equivalent to my three daughters and one son).

What I only learned yesterday when I was looking for Alice’s specific birthdate and came across this more detailed bio about Alice’s personal life was that Alice, just like me, also went through a divorce after a marriage of 22 years which produced several kids.  I have turned to Alice in the past for her advice on my professional path, knowing she had already traveled a similar path with incredible success.  But it seems there might be much more of her wisdom about life in general that I could tap into.

Oh, and we’re both kind of short.  (She “exceeds” me in this respect, too, though.)  ;)

Anyway, when I started this blog nearly three years ago, I thanked Alice for being a great role model and mentor, pointing out that long before I became an economist and a mom and the penned “Economist Mom,” Alice had been the kind of “Economist Mom” I only aspire to be.  The genuine, original Economist Mom.  I’m just a cheap copy.

So Happy Birthday, Alice!  Here’s to the Original Economist Mom. Today in particular I celebrate your life and all your achievements, but you continue to inspire me in so many ways everyday–and not as much for all you’ve accomplished as for who you are.

UPDATE 3/7:  Here’s a photo of the original and copycat Economist Moms from Alice’s birthday party this past weekend:

alice-80th-birthday-party-march2011

Economics in Plainer English

February 1st, 2011 . by economistmom

On Tuesday I am part of panel for the Urban Institute’s “First Tuesdays” event, “What Policymakers, The Public, The Press, and Parents Need to Know About Economics…In 90 Minutes or Less.” I’m pretty sure I’m unofficially responsible for the “Parents” part of the billing.  My official assignment is the part about “the bottom line on how government uses your dollars.”  I’m planning on bringing out my usual EconomistMom analogies between the federal budget and a family budget.  Hope you’ll “tune in” for the live webcast, accessible via the link on the event page.

I’m happy I’ll be speaking alongside my friends Donald Marron and Gene Steuerle as Bob Reischauer plays “Oprah,” and I’m also looking forward to meeting the Economist magazine’s Greg Ip.

Hi, from 36,000 Feet–Again

January 13th, 2011 . by economistmom

I’m over Missouri now, about to fly into Kansas, on my way to Los Angeles for this Tax Policy Center-Loyola Law School conference on tax expenditures tomorrow.  (I’m flanked by daughters #2 and 3, flying on my favorite way to travel to the west coast:  Virgin America–which I’ve blogged from before, albeit a couple thousand feet lower.)

Here are my presentation slides I’ll be speaking from tomorrow.  I’ll report on the rest of the conference later this weekend.  My daughters and I will be taking a little detour to San Francisco, just for fun, before we head back home.

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