Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Moral Hazard Abound

I have been exceedingly frustrated by the information asymmetry in the auto repair business. Certainly this occurs elsewhere, such as computer repair and maintenance, but since computers are a much smaller investment, businesses usually can't get away with charges greater than the value of a new computer (unless you have to get critical files from a damaged hard drive or something).

I have now gone to five different auto repair shops in the area for routine oil change and tire rotation, and ONCE for a repair: my wheels were out of alignment (diagnosed that one myself!). Four out of the five places tried to sell me an extra service, from fluid flushes, serpentine belt, a fix for a water pump leak, even to brakes; one of the four actually succeeded. I found out later it was way too soon for the service. Needless to say, my car is in top condition for its age in spite of not following all of those heavily touted "recommendations."

I've been on the search for automotive courses or a highly knowledgeable friend to teach me how to check all the parts under the hood myself. Like my computer, which I learned how to fix inside and out with help from nerdy friends and self-teaching, it appears I'll have to do the same with my car to save money and my peace of mind. If I can determine not only whether something is wrong, but what is wrong, then I can even out the information imbalance.

Clearly, my time would be better spent doing something more productive than becoming a specialist on my car, but right now the cost of labor at an auto repair shop on bogus services is higher than the value of my time spent specializing. Of course I say 'no' when I smell something fishy, but not really knowing if it's a real or fictitious problem leaves me uneasy.

So lately I've been pondering ways the auto repair business could become more transparent. Frankly I'm stumped. Sites like Yelp and CostHelper haven't been helpful in this area because the people who rate auto shops and post "competitive" cost estimates are usually as auto illiterate as myself. Additionally, being AAA and ASE certified and BBB accredited seem ineffective for this kind of problem. Thoughts on how to address this? Has anyone in the area found a mechanic that doesn't try to push extra, unnecessary services?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Man on Fire

"So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don't even know that fire is hot." --George Orwell

Krugman gets cheeky with analogies of fire departments with financial reform: “…letting banks fail — as opposed to [the government] seizing and restructuring them — is a bad idea for the same reason that it’s a bad idea to stand aside while an urban office building burns.” To extend that analogy, then Krugman’s proposition is to give the arsonists the task of dousing the building they set fire to in the first place.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Tax Man Cometh

As Mark Twain said, "The only difference between a tax man and a taxidermist is that the taxidermist leaves the skin."

Taxes on the "rich" are expected to increase at the national level, and some states have already attempted to tax the "rich," but still find themselves strapped for cash. No matter how much it's argued that the financial crisis was what made the millionaires "disappear" because they fell into lower income brackets, it still has to be acknowledged that there's also been some outmigration. Maybe Edwards & Mitchell will turn out to be right about a global tax revolution. WSJ articles already portend such signs to come. It appears that more U.S. citizens and green card holders are severing ties to the U.S. Doing this at least helps prevent or delay the tax man from finding your stashed cash overseas, whether it be in Switzerland or Hong Kong.

In fact, immigration has fallen in the wake of the recession, including for H1-B visa holders, which typically require a minimum of postsecondary education or an equivalent, so we're not just talking about low-skill labor. On top of that, though the birth rate among older women has increased, the overall birth rate has been declining, and this has also been associated with the recession. Some would argue that this is a good thing since there will be less people (both migrant and natural-born citizen) to compete for jobs. Well, that also means less people are around to provide the jobs.

But this is all just some scaremonger's rhetoric to alarm people about government burden, right?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Platinum Revival: Links Edition

Perhaps I should have waited until April Fool's Day later this week as the perfect day for the end of a long hiatus, but I didn't want to wait:

1. Shocker: The Bigger F'ing Deal for Businesses and more from Horwitz

2. States Push Use Tax Compliance on Tax Returns

3. Manure Bubbles the Size of Small Houses

4. Cursed: The Class of 2009

5. ObamaCare Affects "Menu Costs"

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Top Fives

So given that it's the end of the year, it seems fitting that I should do a few top fives that give an insight into what I will remember/enjoy about this year. We'll start with the obvious and move on to the more interesting.

Top Five Movies (There are many really awesome looking movies that I never got around to seeing, which is why movies like Up and Where the Wild Things Are aren't on this list)
1. The Hurt Locker- best movie about the nature of war and the people involved in it I've seen...well, ever. Band of Brothers is great, but 1) it's not a movie in the same sense of the word, and 2) It gets wrapped up in the sentimentality of the individuals being "brothers" and the righteousness of WWII.
2. Zombieland - My favorite phrase of the year: "It's time to nut up or shut up." I usually hate gory movies, but this was straight up awesome on about six different levels.
3. Up in the Air - Few American movies have enough respect for their audience to not have a neat little ending with clear answers to all of life's most pressing questions. This is one of the few that acknowledges how difficult change can be, both for the person getting fired and the person that gets to keep their job. Sidenote: The film was shot in StL. Big ups!
4. The Hangover - Best Holocaust joke I've heard in quite some time. Nough said.
5. Inglourious Basterds - Every Jew's greatest fantasy revealed in a way that only Tarantino can produce.

Lessons Learned: There are way too many awesome movies that are not on this list because I never got around to going to a movie theater. No. 5 really shouldn't be on this list. I need a Netflix subscription STAT!

Top Five Songs - this list includes songs that may or may not be old, but that I heard for the first time this year.
1. Glee Version-Hate on Me - Jill Scott's original version of this song is good, but Amber from the show is absolutely fantastic.
2. The Sounds - Don't Want to Hurt You - Gotta love those cavemen.
3. Bon Iver - Creature Fear/Skinny Love - Bon Iver is one of those groups that I saw on way too many of my friends' Facebook pages before stumbling across them because of this scene from Chuck. Now I'm hooked and having a hard time not buying their albums.
4. Matt and Kim - Daylight - Damn, that is a catchy song. The video isn't half bad either.
5. Iggy Pop - The Passenger - This song got some extra air play because of Up in the Air, but it was a fricking sweet song to start with. It also describes what it feels like to be 26 pretty accurately.

Lesson Learned: TV Commercials/shows are a great place to find fun random music to listen to.

Top Five TV Shows - below are my favorite scenes from the most recent season.
1. Glee - The scene I wanted to show involved Kurt and his father and is not the one where Kurt comes out. Great scene...that is not online.
2. Chuck- First this one, then this one. This is what diehard fans live for.
3. House - It's hard to find clips, so let's just say I enjoy witty banter.
4. ESPN -Now that's a dunk.
5. 24 - See No. 3.

Lessons Learned: I'm attracted to shows with male anti-heros as the lead. And sports.

Top Five Blog Posts I've Read
1. Rethinking polarizing rhetoric. I find myself fascinated by people who are able to reframe debates beyond what you hear in the news. This post by Tyler Cowen is a great example.
2. Institutions matter, even in dating. These are my favorite kinds of blog posts.
3. It's really hard to explain economic concepts to people who lack the basic tools for examining economic tools. This post by Bryan Caplan was fascinating if only because it was an economists deliberate attempt to give a simple and easy way to explain concepts that I struggle to explain in my head, nonetheless to my family.
4. I just saw this yesterday, but I think it's very interesting. Fun quote:
So that’s the general worry—a populist right animated by ressentiment isn’t going to do a good job of injecting conservative ideas into deliberation in a useful way. This is not, just to be clear, some kind of white-gloved complaint about “tone,” because really, fuck tone. The ascendancy of angry bluster isn’t the problem; it’s a symptom. The problem is what the anger obscures.
5. Although I sometimes disagree with him, I think Kevin Carey shows a pretty deep understanding of markets in education in this post. School choice doesn't guarantee quality, it merely shows the preferences that people have developed over time based on their experiences with the status quo. That's a hard pill to swallow for people who think "choice" is the end-all of education reform.

Honorable Mention: This is one of the funniest videos I've seen in a while. And somehow, it manages to explain the basics of how Google Wave works. Sheer Joy. And here's the idiot's guide to choosing a religion.

Lessons Learned: This is the one list that it was hard to narrow down. A friend of mine was recently blown away by how many blogs I read. I can only say that I find it a far more satisfying way of collecting information and managing my perpetual low-grade ADD than anything else I've been able to think of.

Top Five Mistakes of the Year
1. Trying to fix the lives of friends/family. This is stupid for a variety of reasons. Put simply, you can't fix people, you can only be there for them when they want you to be.
2. Reading blogs too much.
3. Not working out more.
4. Not exploring DC more - bars, restaurants, museums; I want em all!
5. Reading books too little.

Lesson Learned: Shawshank said it best.

Top Five Memorable Experiences
1. Getting two job offers within a 48 hour period - Whodathunkit? I'm qualified for something.
2. Turning down a job offer - I wrote down the exact language I wanted to use before calling. My hands were sweating so bad that I could barely hold onto the phone.
3. Although it seems small, this fall I had the opportunity to lead a small group discussion for my former employer. I forgot how much fun teaching can be, especially when you're in a room full of smart, engaged people. I've lately been having second thoughts about staying in education for the long haul, but that experience not only reinvigorated my interest, but helped me to focus more clearly on what are possible next steps.
4. Per my earlier comments, I'm in a fantasy football league this year. A few weeks back, I was down 42 points to a friend of mine. We each had one player left. I had Drew Brees and he had Jeremy Shockey. New Orleans, who both play for, was playing New England on Monday Night Football. I had decided not to watch the game because I had other things to do and didn't want to be reminded of my impending loss. After a couple of hours, I received an email from my friend exclaiming that he couldn't believe what was happening in the game. I went online and saw that Brees had score 44 points and Shockey had (somehow) scored only one point. I won the match by exactly one point. I was screaming obscenities (in a joyful manner) at my tv for about 5 minutes. I still feel bad for Jstor.
5. Going back to Hawaii for vacation. Which reminds me, congrats to Jake and Courtney on baby Jack!

Lessons Learned: Good times.

And finally,

Top Five Awkward Moments
1. Turning down a job offer that I couldn't believe I was turning down.
2. Explaining to a friend of mine how my compulsiveness when it comes to Fantasy Football is crucial to our affording several habits, including, but not limited to, my penchant for greasy Chinese food.
3. Any of the 50 or so times a year a new liberal acquaintance finds out where I work and has to reconcile that the person whose company they've enjoyed for the past 20 minutes is now "one of them." It's awkward, but I'm glad it happens and wouldn't have it any other way. I've now got my schtick for public situations down pat. Private and more intimate events are a bit trickier, but also offer the opportunity for more interesting conversation. I think my goal is to eventually be like Tyler Cowen.
4. Any time I discuss my love life with family, which appears to be happening with greater frequency. Shit.
5. Being in a permanent state of reflection. This makes it nearly impossible to be in the moment, do impulsive things, and not over analyze situations that I'm in. It also means I can come off like an ass when I talk politics if I don't watch out. I'm doing a better job on that last part, I think.

Lessons Learned: I got nothing. Just keep going.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Platinum Technology Growth

Maybe it's just me, but since I've been on break and done with classes and reading for the time being, I've been increasingly annoyed with cable television. And it's not just the regular holiday season expectations; you know, running 24 hours of a holiday movie on one channel. That's to be expected, perhaps even a welcomed tradition.

Yet since most of the shows I regularly watch (thank goodness for DVR) have taken a hiatus until after the new year, I've found that instead of the usual filler TV shows I enjoy watching when I have time to, I now encounter... very little. Most of our basic cable channels are now running the same handful of non-holiday movies multiple times, multiple days of the week (in the past, this used to be just a channel or two).

Why pay for cable then? It's certainly making the digital converter box more attractive these days, or just waiting for new episodes of your favorite shows to appear online. And these days, a lot of new TVs are coming internet-capable, which can be paired with internet-friendly offerings from Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Hulu, Pandora and even more. I'm sure a number of people have already chosen to just pay for internet access and watch TV in that manner.

Yet again, I'm unsure if this is a newfound intolerance for crappier cable offerings, or just my growing expectation that I have greater control over the content I watch beyond just changing the channel.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Platinum Money Talk

This article was posted a while ago about conversations to have before you get into marriage. In the most basic sense, it's all about communication (big surprise, right?) Relationships tend to live and die by people having a clear idea of what they are getting themselves into and how their interests mesh with their respective partner.

But lately I've been helping a couple of friends from various stripes with finances and I realized that these kinds of conversations are keys for any time we enter into financial relationships with anyone. The difference is that when we get a loan or save money at a bank, there are formal ways to give this information (and the bank requires it, for your and their protection). It's only in the private sphere that we don't have a formal mechanism for finding out this information, mainly because unlike market transactions, there are feelings involved and asking people about money is perceived as impolite.

I'm not saying that it's a bad thing that we don't ask people to fill out a form when we start dating or living together, I just mean that we're constantly looking for data to help us make better decisions. Yet (according to this article and my experiences) in the private sphere we seem to consistently be rationally ignorant when it comes to these kinds of transactions because there is a social cost associated with them that we're unsure how to broach. And while I now know what conversations to have before getting deeply involved monetarily with anyone privately, I'm not exactly looking forward to doing joint tax returns.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Platinum Promos and Programs

So it's getting around that time again to start shopping for holiday gifts. And I have to say, living on a limited budget begets some pretty creative ways to save money. I figured I'd share some of my discoveries with you as leaves turn their colors and thoughts turn to presents.

1) If you have a Bank of America account and you do most of your shopping online, then you're in luck with this tidbit. If you're not familiar already, I introduce the Add It Up program. Unless it's a very obscure website, chances are you'll find the website you want to shop at in their database. You simply pair a credit and/or debit card with the program, click through Bank of America's database to the website you intend to shop at, and go to town. To give you an example, the Add It Up program was advertising 11% cash back for for a limited time, so I purchased my ticket home for Thanksgiving there and will be receiving roughly $20 cash back in the near future.* I hear Discover and CitiBank also offer programs like this as well.

2) Google promo codes when you see the box to enter a promo code on the checkout screen. Usually websites like and the like have some promotional codes for even the most obscure websites. I've saved and additional $5-10 on average from doing this.

3) If Add It Up doesn't have the website you wish to shop from, use your Frequent Flyer Miles for whatever reward program(s) you have. Getting miles like this is the easiest and free way to keep earning miles for travel, or at least to hold onto miles and prevent them from expiring if you're like me and don't fly often enough to actually garner enough frequent flyer miles for a whole round-trip ticket from flying alone.

4) This final one is a more generic tip, and I usually don't have time for it, but if triple coupon-value week at the Teeter gets you excited, then there are blogs out there that have grocery and drugstore coupons for you so that you don't have to invest $14 for a 6-month subscription to the Washington Post in the hope that you'll save more money in the value of coupons than the subscription is worth.

Happy shopping!

*(To make sure the program signature isn't lost while I'm browsing, I usually go through the Add It Up program again after I've added things to my cart, and they're still there after I go through it. This way I haven't had any problems with Bank of America not registering the cash back rewards.)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Elizabeth Lambert

... suddenly a fan of soccer again

Elizabeth Lambert
is the hottest college soccer player ever.
Liz if you're reading this, look me up when you're in DC!!
Elizabeth = martial arts + soccer + platinum platinum rock 'n roll

Liz you let those girls know whats up!!!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Platinum Links: Be Careful Who You Mess With Edition

1. Part of me thinks that Michelle Rhee should be more cognizant of the limits of executive authority and respect the rules set down by the legislative branch. But the other part of me completely agrees with Kevin Carey and thinks that ruffling feathers in the education world is probably the greatest indicator that you are doing the right thing. Great blog post.

2. Awhile back, John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about alternative ideas for health care reform. There was a bit of a response. Anyway, the folks over at Reason produced this video on the whole thing. I'm not sure what's less platinum; the activist calling Mackey racist for not supporting healthcare reform or the other activist assuming he knows more about the healthcare at Whole Foods than he actually does. (HT: D-Rock)

3. Fascinating article about the orthodox Jewish community reporting sexual abuse. Really. Several random thoughts. People tend to think I'm anti-government. I'm not. I like to consider myself more pro-openness. Generally, this means less government, but not always. What's truly interesting about the story is how it demonstrates how cloistered communities develop legal systems. Just because they do not exist as a top down legal authority does not mean they are just and does not mean that they are better than the alternatives. Kudos to the local prosecutors for handling a very difficult situation and encouraging a solution that works within the context of that specific culture.

4. Ummm....can we say, "Net neutrality has tradeoffs."

5. Office gossip is kind of rough. For the record, the article describes the politics of the elementary schools I taught at perfectly. Only I'm not so deft at disrupting it...mostly because for the first year and a quarter of teaching I was participating in it.