Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

GAO Report finds Rural Postal Service Remains Essential

From time to time, Mark Jamison or myself would feature articles from the Save the Post Office blog as authored by Steve Hutkins, a literature professor who teaches “place studies” at the Gallatin School of New York University. Mark Jamison a retired Postmaster for a small town in North Carolina would often write there also. This particular post was featured in October of 2016. Where FedeEx, UPS, DHL or other services do not go, the US Postman still does play an important role in rural communities.

West Plains Daily Quill: A top watchdog study completed at the request of U.S. Senators Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, found that the Postal Service remains essential to rural communities, regardless of whether those communities have access to rural broadband services.

Senator Clair McCaskill had this to say:

“This study shows what we already know to be true—that the Postal Service remains essential to Missouri’s rural communities, regardless of their access to other technologies,” said McCaskill, a former Missouri State Auditor and senior member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Postal Service.

“There’s simply no substitute for the vital service our post offices provide— even as we continue to make important advances in rural broadband—and we’ve got to preserve and improve that service for the folks who rely on it most.”

Senator Heidi Heitkamp added to McCaskill’s comments:

“For North Dakotans in rural communities—whether they have access to high-speed internet or not —reliable mail service is a key ingredient to a successful business and staying connected,” said Heitkamp. “But too often, that high-quality service is not delivered—and that’s exactly what Senator McCaskill and I are working to improve. Today, we received the results of a Government Accountability Office study we requested which affirmed what folks in rural states have long known—that communities and businesses in rural areas depend on mail service regardless of their internet connection. By providing more clarity, we can make sure dependable mail service is prioritized in the rural communities where it is needed the most.”

The Government Accountability Office report examined the relationship between broadband access and use of the Postal Service in rural and urban communities. The report found that rural households without broadband access continue to rely on the Postal Service for more transaction and correspondence mail—and value this service for a variety of reasons, including fewer retail alternatives and a high level of trust in USPS services. The study also found that when rural households get broadband access, they do not reduce their use of the Postal Service. Read more. The GAO report Information on How Broadband Affects Postal Use and the Communications Options for Rural Residents is attached.

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Republicans and Labor

Interesting development last week, Missouri’s state Legislature decided a minimum wage of $10/hour is a hardship for business and too much for Labor. This comes after the MSC sided with St. Louis and Kansas City in setting a minimum wage of $10.10/hour. The Republican legislature decided differently and passed legislation to prevent local communities from establishing minimum wage above what the state mandates.

Thousands of workers in St. Louis will likely see smaller paychecks starting Monday, when a new Missouri law takes effect barring local government from enacting minimum wages different than the state minimum.

The law is drawing protests in St. Louis and in Kansas City, where a recent vote approving a higher minimum wage is essentially nullified without ever really taking effect.

The impact is direct in St. Louis, where the minimum wage had increased to $10 after the Missouri Supreme Court sided with the city in a two-year legal battle. Days after the Supreme Court ruling, Missouri’s Republican-led Legislature passed a statewide uniform minimum wage requirement. The state minimum wage is $7.70 per hour. Republican Gov. Eric Greitens declined to veto the bill, allowing it to become law.
An estimated 35,000 St. Louis workers saw pay raises after the court ruling, and the city’s plan had called for the minimum wage to increase to $11 per hour in 2018.

Republican State Sen. Dan Hegeman from rural northwest Missouri, said the higher minimum would force some employers to either cut jobs or move. Just like having healthcare insurance at Papa John’s would really impact the cost of pizza . . . 10 cents for a medium pizza.

‘You end up having fewer jobs and you do a disservice to the workers,’ Hegeman said. ‘In my heart of hearts, I really think it hurts people in the long run.'”

Missouri Republican Governor Eric Greitens refused to veto legislation limiting local minimum wage laws, is pushing RTW laws, and is looking to boost pay for some state employees who are “star” performers.

Some more original ideas from the Republican sector on how to improve the economy by riding on the back of the low-income citizens.

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Military Times reports top Pentagon posts vacant

The Military Times reports:

A handful of Pentagon nominees will be waiting for Senate confirmation when the upper chamber returns in September from its summer recess, but the administration still has dozens of Defense Department positions to fill.

Leaving State Department vacancies aside, I thought the Trump readiness rhetoric applied to DOD…not so much I guess.

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How Long Employees Stay at Tech Companies

This shows <a href = “http://www.businessinsider.com/employee-retention-rate-top-tech-companies-2017-8”>how long employees stay at major tech companies</a>:

Not having worked for a tech company, I found these tenures to be pretty short.  I Googled retention at Google (I’m trying to stay on their good side) and found an article suggesting the median tenure at Google is 1.1 years. I imagine this sort of thing is hard to measure from the outside, but it does seem people don’t stay at the big tech firms long.

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Data Scientist Cathy O’Neil: “Algorithms Are Opinions Embedded in Code”

I met Cathy in Cambridge when she spoke at MIT a few years ago. This is  re-posted from Naked Capitalism.  Cathy’s whole TED Talk can be watched after the fold.

Data Scientist Cathy O’Neil: “Algorithms Are Opinions Embedded in Code”

Cathy O’Neil has a PhD in mathematics from Harvard and is the author of the best seller Weapons of Math Destruction. She is also involved in Occupy Wall Street.

In this TED talk, she describes how algorithms routinely institutionalize bias, bad practices, and personal opinion. Worse, the “gee whiz” factor of technology and the difficulty lay people have in forcing the algorithm creators to make their assumptions and processes transparent, and allow for audits of their algorithms, makes them an all-too-easy way to reinforce and legitimate skewed power dynamics.

One part of her talk, on how hiring practices reinforce existing “success” models, which often have embedded biases, is consistent with our 2007 Conference Board Review article, Fit v. Fitness.

Algorithms are everywhere. They sort and separate the winners from the losers. The winners get the job or a good credit card offer. The losers don’t even get an interview or they pay more for insurance. We’re being scored with secret formulas that we don’t understand that often don’t have systems of appeal. That begs the question: What if the algorithms are wrong?

To build an algorithm you need two things: you need data, what happened in the past, and a definition of success, the thing you’re looking for and often hoping for. You train an algorithm by looking, figuring out. The algorithm figures out what is associated with success. What situation leads to success?

Actually, everyone uses algorithms. They just don’t formalize them in written code. Let me give you an example. I use an algorithm every day to make a meal for my family. The data I use is the ingredients in my kitchen, the time I have, the ambition I have, and I curate that data. I don’t count those little packages of ramen noodles as food.

(Laughter)

My definition of success is: a meal is successful if my kids eat vegetables. It’s very different from if my youngest son were in charge. He’d say success is if he gets to eat lots of Nutella. But I get to choose success. I am in charge. My opinion matters. That’s the first rule of algorithms.

Algorithms are opinions embedded in code. It’s really different from what you think most people think of algorithms. They think algorithms are objective and true and scientific. That’s a marketing trick. It’s also a marketing trick to intimidate you with algorithms, to make you trust and fear algorithms because you trust and fear mathematics. A lot can go wrong when we put blind faith in big data.

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An economy on autopilot between Scylla and Charybdis

An economy on autopilot between Scylla and Charybdis

Interest rates are a vital determinant of longer term growth. While the economy has remained on autopilot for the last several years, with almost no political stimulus or disruption — though that may well change next month — the Fed has to steer a course between the Scylla of an interest rate spike and the Charybdis of an inverted yield curve.  The Presidential election spike in long term interest rates has been enough to cause growth in the housing market, whether measured by permits, starts, new or existing home sales, to stall out. Meanwhile the several hikes in the Fed funds rate has cause a slight flattening of the yield curve.

So while it is somewhat welcome that longer term interest rates have fallen back below 2.20%f and mortgage rates below 4%:

that just means that there is less of a spread between longer term and shorter term yields.

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Reports of Obamacare’s death are greatly exaggerated: All counties to be covered for 2018

Reports of Obamacare’s death are greatly exaggerated: All counties to be covered for 2018

Obamacare has now obtained an insurer for every county in the country, defying Republican claims that the program is collapsing. As reported by The Hill, “At one point or another over the past year, more than 80 counties have been at risk of having no ObamaCare insurer on the exchanges in 2018.” On Thursday (Aug. 24), the last “bare” county, in Ohio, was covered by insurer CareSource. Insurance companies have until September 27 to sign contracts, so it is not yet guaranteed there will be no bare counties for 2018.

As you no doubt remember, Chicken Little Republicans have proclaimed the sky to be falling ever since the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010. We were subject to ridiculous predictions about “death panels,” skyrocketing premiums, predictions of no fall in the uninsured, horror stories that weren’t, and of course the ever-popular “job killing” meme.

Instead, three years of the ACA (Q4 2013 to Q4 2016) brought the uninsured rate for adults 18-64 down from 20.8% to 13.1% (but an increase to 14.2% in Q2 2017) while unemployment fell from 6.7% in December 2013 to 4.7% in December 2016 (and 4.3% in July 2017). In addition, personal bankruptcies fell from 1.5 million in 2010 to just 771,000 in 2016, according to Consumer Reports.

As the recent increase in the uninsured rate shows, the ACA is still vulnerable to sabotage by the Republicans. Given that the increase occurred disproportionately among younger adults, Gallup speculates that uncertainty about the consequences for disregarding the individual mandate may explain a large amount of the change. There remain several routes for sabotage to take place. At the same time, there is a bipartisan effort in the Senate to stabilize the individual marketplace, potentially with explicit funding for individual subsidies.

Constant vigilance!

h/t David Ayon

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