Quantum Meruit

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Month: June, 2012

Obamacare Ruling: Hardly a Dystopian Future

Conservatives are predictably foaming at the mouth over the Supreme Court’s decision today in Nat’l Federation of Indep. Businesses v. Sebelius, the Obamacare case.

“We, the American people, have just been deceived in ways that nobody contemplated. And what we now have is the biggest tax increase in the history of the world,” Rush said. Marco Rubio called it a “middle class tax increase.”

Of course, such a statement is demonstrably false. How many people will the individual mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act affect? Realistically, 7.3 million people. Here’s the breakdown:

  •  8.1 million will be eligible for free/close-to-free insurance through expansion of Medicaid under the law
  • 10.9 million will have to purchase coverage but receive subsidies to help with premiums
  • 7.3 million (2 percent of population) will not be eligible for any assistance and will simply have to buy a plan or pay the penalty

So, assuming the eligible population takes full advantage of Medicaid expansion and premium assistance, 2% of the population will either have to purchase insurance or pay the “tax.” The tax itself amounts to far less than annual insurance premiums: $695 or 2.5% of household income, whichever is greater, but capped at the price of the cheapest insurance plan. Elderly people are already covered by Medicare; poor people are already covered by Medicaid; most employees are covered by employer-provided health insurance plans. After 2016, people for whom the cheapest insurance plan would cost more than 8% of the income would be exempt from the mandate.

The figure touted by conservatives to show that many people outright refuse health insurance coverage when it is offered to them is between 30% and 50% of the uninsured. But as I wrote in 2009, the overwhelming majority of people who decline employer health insurance (63%) do so because they’re already covered in some other way; e.g., by a spouse’s health insurance plan. About 7.5% of people refuse insurance outright for other reasons, including because they think they don’t need it. That severely cuts into the notion that burly-chested James Fenimore Cooper types are refusing health insurance in droves.

So, who makes up this 2% who aren’t eligible for assistance and will either have to buy insurance or pay the penalty? No one really knows, but everyone presumes that this 2% is composed of young, healthy people who feel like they don’t need insurance. The penalty is so low that they may just pay it instead of purchasing insurance.

The current conservative talking point — readily ascertainable as a collective talking point through the quantity of similar results obtained through a Google search — is that the ACA violates Obama’s 2008 pledge not to raise taxes on the poor and middle class. That remains to be seen; most poor and middle-class households would either qualify for an exemption or already have some type of insurance, whether through an employer or through a government program like Medicaid.

The mouth-foaming was predictable, for sure. Also predictable: that it was a whole lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

TED: Ideas Worth Spreading?

Kent Sepkowitz criticizes TED conferences in The Daily Beast today. The TED conferences (Technology, Entertainment, Design), says Sepkowitz, value form over substance:

Nowadays, though, TED spells trouble for several reasons. First, it doesn’t celebrate a love of smart people, really; it celebrates a love of smart-style people. Just as kosher-style food looks and kinda acts like the real thing, but isn’t, so too are the diplomats of TED U kinda full of it. TED provides the Cliffs Notes versions of the talks right there online (TED quotes), little gnomic cyber-samplers (“If we study what is merely average, we will remain merely average” and “I share, therefore I am”) you can sprinkle around without really understanding a drop of the work that stands behind the claim.

Sepkowitz is right — to a point. Much of what goes on at TED doesn’t help anyone. Great, glorious speakers come up to talk about things they’ve already talked about in books or lectures before (see, e.g., Jill Bolt Taylor’s speech about her stroke, which she had already written about in a book, and any number of speeches by Malcolm Gladwell, who’s already said this stuff in his books, articles, or prior speeches). An audience that already agrees with the speaker, and has probably already heard this stuff before, claps approvingly. What has been achieved?

TED does, sometimes, come up with something brand-new. Hans Rosling’s Gapminder comes to mind: Swedish statistician Rosling shows us, through charts, that our conception of the “developing world” is about thirty years out of date. But, more often than not, Sepkowitz’s criticism is well-taken: for the audience that is most likely to go watch a TED talk or attend a TED conference, these speeches and “ideas worth spreading” are already old news.

Delightfully Contrarian

Slate makes its money by being Your Source for Contrarian News. Indeed, Twitter came alive in October 2009 with contrarian Slate-style headlines like “Soccer: It’s Time to Let Players Use Their Hands.” Slate, to its contrarian credit, actually thought some of them were pretty good. Slate is so good at what it does that one of the fake headlines, “You’ve Got Fail: Why Electronic Mail Isn’t Here to Stay,” turned out to be the gist of an actual article from 2007.

Today, Slate’s technology writer, Farhad Manjoo, writes that Apple’s new mobile and desktop operating systems — iOS 6 and Mountain Lion, respectively — combined with the new Retina Display MacBook Pro, herald the end of computers as machines distinct from handheld devices like smartphones or tablets.

Probably not.

Manjoo’s thesis — that the developments from Monday’s WWDC keynote bode doom for the notebook computer — is a delightfully contrarian thing to say, but it’s probably not going to happen. I agree with him that the MacBook Air is the way to go for the foreseeable future. It’s more than adequately powered, reasonably priced, and super-portable. But I don’t agree, as the subheadline says, that “Apple’s new MacBook Pro is the greatest, and perhaps final, version of the personal computer.” (Then again, writers don’t usually pick the headlines for their stories, but at the end of the article, Manjoo says, “[T]hanks to Apple, laptops have never been more clearly destined for obsolescence.” So it’s probably not an exaggeration.)

For one thing, the new MacBook Pro is expensive. The 15-inch low-end machine with Retina Display costs $400 more than the comparable standard-display MacBook Pro. A souped-up MacBook Air now costs $300 less than the low-end MacBook Pro and it’s more portable, with longer battery life. So, in essence, we’re paying $700 more for … a retina display? (It’s got more of both system RAM and video RAM, also.) There are more portable notebooks out there; the 15-inch MacBook Pro doesn’t mean anything other than Apple is transitioning away from mechanical hard drives and optical drives in its MacBook Pro models. Rather than insist that every notebook will one day become an iPad, it’s more likely that every notebook will become a MacBook Air.

Apple is also taking its own steps to ensure that its laptops are not going to be obsolete. An iDevice’s file system is a black box into which no man may go. Applications save documents and preferences into fenced-off areas of the disk, and there’s no native file system browser. This is as much for security as it is for anything else: the phone companies don’t want to open the device’s file system for modification, where a knowledgable hacker might find a way either to get some free phone calls by modifying the phone software or do some damage to the cellular network. (Then again, this hasn’t stopped even more knowledgable hackers from cracking the iOS firmware, but at least those phones are out of warranty.)

Cynical as onlookers might be about Apple’s attempt to rein in the user’s experience, placing it more and more under Apple’s control (for example, in Mac OS 10.7, the Library folders are hidden by default), I seriously doubt there will come a day when Mac OS X becomes a similar black box. Preventing users from moving files around the file system would be bad for business,especially for Apple’s business clients, who are largely graphic-oriented users who need to move things around all the time.

So, the answer to the question “In three years’ time, what will be the difference between a $499 iPad and a $999 MacBook?” is, “A built-in keyboard, holes for peripherals, and a different operating system.” Perhaps as far as Grandma is concerned, there will be no difference; she doesn’t need to browse the file system. But for everyone else who plugs in USB devices, moves things around, and needs a big screen, yes there will be a difference. A look at Mountain Lion’s features shows not that iOS features like Message Center are replacing anything in iOS; they’re augmenting features in Mac OS. Message Center can run across all your devices now, for example. For a company interested in destroying its own desktop operating system, it seems to be sinking a lot more of its resources into adding features to its desktop operating system that integrate it into an Apple digital lifestyle system.

This integration makes business sense. Since the iPod, the Apple business model has been to hook the user on a single Apple product and then draw him into the Apple universe. Want an iPod? Sure, but iTunes works only on Mac OS (this has changed since). That iLife looks pretty nice — but it’s for Macs only. And so on. Apple products play nicely with each other because a user who wants a digital lifestyle that “just works” goes to the Apple Store and comes back with a MacBook Pro, an iPhone, an iPad, a Time Capsule, and an Apple TV. It’s true that Apple currently makes more money from its consumer electronics side than it does its computer side, but one draws in the other. Apple wouldn’t throw away a revenue stream as significant as the notebook computer division. (That’s more of an HP-style decision.)

So no, I don’t think the new Retina Display MacBook Pro heralds the end of the notebook. Nor do I think that adding iOS features to Mac OS means that the two will one day converge, annihilating Mac OS. An iPad is has its uses, and a notebook has its uses. Sometimes they’re the same uses, and sometimes they’re different. The different uses are different enough that trying to synthesize them into one device would result in a transporter accident of a product that no one would want. (See the Samsung Galaxy Note. Too big to be a phone. Too small to be a tablet. Just throw it out the airlock.)