UNO Economics RA Talks Personal Finance

McGrathMollyPersonalFinance.jpg   Molly McGrath.  Soure of photo:  online version of the Omaha World-Herald article cited below.


Molly was one of our Research Assistants last year in the UNO economics department: 


(p. 1D)  Miss Nebraska Molly McGrath has driven more than 25,000 miles since being crowned in June, mostly to schools as she talks about personal finance issues like avoiding debt and using money as a tool to realize dreams.

"There is a drastic need for economic and financial education with all people, but especially in low-income communities and especially among our youth," McGrath told about a dozen people at a recent meeting of the Rotary Club of Omaha-North.

McGrath knows about making ends meet. Her parents could not help her pay for college, so she has used more than $20,000 in scholarships won through the Miss America program. She also cleaned toilets, dorm rooms and apartments as she earned her undergraduate degree at New York University in New York.

"I was known right away at NYU as the girl from Nebraska," McGrath said. "And after I started this cleaning business I was known as the girl from Nebraska who cleans toilets."


For the full story, see: 

JOE RUFF.  "Miss Nebraska teaches dollars and sense."  Omaha World-Herald  (Monday, February 26, 2007):  1D & 2D.


For New Orleans “a Dwindling Chance at Redemption”

   Dylan Langlois (facing camera) and his fiancé Kasandra Larsen telling a friend goodbye before they leave New Orleans.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.


NEW ORLEANS, Feb. 15 — After nearly a decade in the city of their dreams, Kasandra Larsen and her fiancé, Dylan Langlois, climbed into a rented moving truck on Marais Street last Sunday, pointed it toward New Hampshire, and said goodbye.

Not because of some great betrayal — they had, after all, come back after losing everything in Hurricane Katrina — but a series of escalating indignities: the attempted carjacking of a pregnant friend; the announced move to Nashville by Ms. Larsen’s employer; the human feces deposited on their roof by, they suspect, the contractors next door; the two burglaries in the space of a week; and, not least, the overnight wait for the police to respond.

A year ago, Ms. Larsen, 36, and Mr. Langlois, 37, were hopeful New Orleanians eager to rebuild and improve the city they adored. But now they have joined hundreds of the city’s best and brightest who, as if finally acknowledging a lover’s destructive impulses, have made the wrenching decision to leave at a time when the population is supposed to be rebounding.

Their reasons include high crime, high rents, soaring insurance premiums and what many call a lack of leadership, competence, money and progress. In other words: yes, it is still bad down here. But more damning is what many of them describe as a dissipating sense of possibility, a dwindling chance at redemption for a great city that, even before the storm, cried out for great improvement.


For the full story, see: 

SHAILA DEWAN.  "Fed-Up New Orleans Residents Are Giving Up."  The New York Times (Fri., February 16, 2007):  A1 & A17.

      Kasandra Larsen cleans up before she and Dylan Langlois depart New Orleans.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited above.


Medical Insurance Battle Wastes $20 Billion a Year

AthenahealthRevenueGraph.gif   Source of graph:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.


(p. A1)  Four years ago, Paluxy Valley Physicians of Glen Rose, Texas, was struggling to recoup more than $500,000 in denied or unpaid claims from insurers. Two of its eight doctors left the practice, while three others had to borrow $100,000 to keep it afloat.

To turn things around, the medical practice turned to Boston-based athenahealth Inc., one of the biggest of hundreds of companies in a lucrative niche: helping doctors wring payments from health plans. Athenahealth’s software flagged and corrected the complex coding for thousands of claims, preventing them from getting hung up in insurers’ Byzantine rules. Today, Paluxy Valley has whittled its claims outstanding to $179,000 and repaid the bank loan. No longer in a revenue crunch, its doctors have stopped moonlighting in the emergency room to make money.

"The insurers outcode us, they outsmart us and they have more manpower," says Shari Reynolds, the administrator at Paluxy Valley, which pays athenahealth a little over 3% of the $2.5 million it collects annually from insurers. "Now at least we have a fighting chance." 

Doctors increasingly complain that the insurance industry uses complex, opaque claims systems to confound their efforts to get paid fairly for their work. Insurers say their systems are designed to counter unnecessary charges and help keep down soaring health-care costs. Like many tug-of-wars over the health-care money pot, the tension has spawned a booming industry of intermediaries.

It’s called "denial management." Doctors, clinics and hospitals are investing in software systems costing them each hundreds of thousands of dollars to help them navigate insurers’ systems and head off denials. They’re also hiring legions of firms that dig through past claims in search of shortchanged payments and tussle with insurers over rejected charges. "Turn denials into dollars," promises one consultant’s online advertisement.

The imbroglio is costing medical providers and insurers around $20 billion — about $10 billion for each side — in unnecessary administrative expenses, according to a 2004 report by the Center for Information Technology Leader-(p. A18)ship, a nonprofit health-technology research group based in Boston.


For the full story, see: 

VANESSA FUHRMANS.  "BILLING BATTLE; Fights Over Health Claims Spawn a New Arms Race; Insurers and Doctors Try for Upper Hand; Firms Help Both Sides."  The Wall Street Journal  (Weds., February 14, 2007):  A1 & A18.

(Note:  I noticed some minor differences between the titles and texts of the print and online versions.  My excerpt gives the online version.) 


“Work Hard at Work Worth Doing”

We went to see "The Bridge to Tarabithia" this afternoon (2/25/07), which I thought was a sad, but good, movie aimed at older children, but with enough plot and enough characters to care about, to be of interest to adults too.

I heard a quote in the movie that I liked and I don’t remember having heard before.  It’s source was given as Teddy Roosevelt, who is not one of my favorite presidents, because of his efforts to increase the size and power of government.  But he wasn’t all bad, and he sometimes spoke well:


Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.


Theodore Roosevelt, Speech in New York, September 7, 1903 [26th president of US (1858 – 1919)]


Source of quote, and information about quote:


Beaver Returns to Bronx: More Evidence of Environmental Improvement

          A beaver whose discoverers call "José" is the first beaver to make a home in the Bronx in 200 years.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. 


(p. A12) A crudely fashioned lodge perched along the snow-covered banks of the Bronx River — no more than a mound of twigs and mud strewn together in the shadow of the Bronx Zoo — sits steps away from an empty parking lot and a busy intersection.

Scientists say that the discovery of this cone-shaped dwelling signifies something remarkable: For the first time in two centuries, the North American beaver, forced out of town by agricultural development and overeager fur traders, has returned to New York City.

The discovery of a beaver setting up camp in the Bronx is a testament to both the animal’s versatility and to an increasingly healthy Bronx River.


For the full story, see:

O’CONNOR, ANAHAD. "After 200 Years, a Beaver Is Back in New York City."   The New York Times  (Fri., February 23, 2007):  A21.


Bush Should Take Lab Coat Off

Decisions about which new technologies to develop should be left to the market, not the government.  One reason is that markets generally make the more efficient choice.  Another reason is that when technological risks are taken in the market, they are taken with voluntary private money; when risks are taken by the government, they are taken with your money that has been coerced from you through taxation.

With all due respect, President Bush should take the lab coat off. 


(p. A16) FRANKLINTON, N.C., Feb. 22 — President Bush put on a white coat and visited a laboratory here Thursday to promote his goals for making alternative fuels from switch grass, woodchips and other plant waste.

After touring the laboratory, which is developing enzymes to make cellulosic ethanol, fuel distilled from plant byproducts, Mr. Bush spoke buoyantly about new technologies that may reduce the nation’s thirst for foreign oil.


For the full story, see: 

EDMUND L. ANDREWS.  "Bush Makes a Pitch for Amber Waves of Homegrown Fuel."  The New York Times  (Fri., February 23, 2007):  A16. 


Instead of Shrugging, Atlas Sometimes Moves to the United States


VenezuelaProfessionalsExitGraph.gif   Source of graphic:  online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A10)  CARACAS, Venezuela — Oil-rich Venezuela has experienced the kind of economic boom in recent years that should be flush with job opportunities. But an increasing number of professionals, many of them from the oil industry, are looking abroad for work, driven away by President Hugo Chávez’s effort to extend state control over the economy, and by inflation verging on 20%.

Since his re-election in December, Mr. Chávez has pursued an agenda of "21st Century Socialism," painting a future of "communal cities" and state-run cooperatives dedicated to production, not profit.

. . .

Still, at the U.S. Embassy call center for visas in Caracas, the lines have been jammed since Mr. Chávez announced in early January the nationalization of the electricity industry and Venezuela’s largest telecommunications firm. "It doubled practically overnight," said a U.S. diplomat.

The number of Venezuelans receiving U.S. legal permanent residence more than doubled from 2000 to 2005, when 10,870 got their green cards. In that period the overall number of green cards increased by a third. During that period the number of Venezuelan-born U.S. residents increased 42%, to 151,743, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

. . .

Any opposition-minded oil workers still left at PdVSA face a difficult environment. During the presidential campaign last year, PdVSA President Rafael Ramirez told company executives to join Mr. Chávez’s political movement or hit the road. In 2003, Mr. Chávez sacked around 20,000 PdVSA staffers — about half the company’s work force — for walking off the job, calling them "terrorists." A majority of them were the managers, accountants and field engineers who turned the state oil venture into a world-class oil company during a period of robust expansion in the 1990s.

Many found work elsewhere, including in Mexico, Canada and Saudi Arabia, at a time of high demand for experienced oil workers.

The lost expertise has taken a toll on PdVSA, the country’s largest single employer. Its share of the global market for crude oil supply is shrinking, and accidents and outages are on the rise. Analysts say the cost to PdVSA of producing a barrel of oil has nearly doubled in the past five years to more than $4.50.


For the full story, see: 

PETER MILLARD.  "Professionals Exit Venezuela; Chávez’s Grip on Power Drives Out Oil Experts; Support Hugo or You Go."  The Wall Street Journal  (Thurs., February 15, 2007):  A10.

(Note:  ellipses added.)


Mugabe Eats Cake As He Ruins Zimbabwe Economy: More on Why Africa is Poor

   Tyrant Mugabe eats cake while his slaves starve.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.


JOHANNESBURG, Feb. 21 — President Robert G. Mugabe of Zimbabwe turned 83 on Wednesday to the strains of the song “God Bless President Mugabe” on state-controlled radio, along with an interview on state television, a 16-page paean to his rule in Harare’s daily newspaper and the prospect of a grand birthday party — costly enough to feed thousands of people for months, his critics argued — on Saturday.

Zimbabwe’s economy is so dire that bread vanished from store shelves across the country on Wednesday after bakeries shut down, saying government price controls were requiring them to sell loaves at a loss. The price controls are supposed to shield consumers from the nation’s rampant inflation, which now averages nearly 1,600 percent annually.

. . .

On Wednesday, The Herald, the state-managed newspaper, included in 16 pages of tributes to Mr. Mugabe an editorial calling him “an unparalleled visionary” and “an international hero among the oppressed and poor.”

. . .

“The guy is insensitive,” John Shiri, 41, a teacher at a primary school, told a local journalist. “There is no bread as we are talking, but he will be feasting and drinking with his family and hangers-on when there is no wheat in the country.”

. . .

Tawanda Mujuru, who runs a vegetable stall on Samora Machel Avenue in downtown Harare, said that she would be working in a factory if not for the failure of Mr. Mugabe’s economic policies.

“He has the guts to eat and drink when we are suffering like this,” she said. “Let him enjoy. Every dog has his day. We shall have our day.”


For the full story, see:

MICHAEL WINES.  "Mugabe Gets Ready to Eat Cake While Fellow Zimbabweans Can’t Find Bread on Shelves."  The New York Times  (Thurs., February 22, 2007):  A6.

(Note:  ellipses added.) 


Would Consumers Be Better Off with No Satellite Radio?

   Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article cited below.


It appears as though the market for satellite radio may not be big enough for two firms to profitably survive, although one merged "monopoly" firm might survive.  But the antitrust government authorities appear to seriously be considering to forbid the merger. 

If they do so, they will be presuming to tell the consumer that she is better off with no satellite radio, than with one merged "monopoly" satellite radio.

Note the secondary issue of whether it’s appropriate to call a merged company a "monopoly."  If the "industry" is defined as "satellite radio," then the merged company would be a monopoly.  If the "industry" is more broadly defined as "broadcast radio," which would include AM, FM, and internet stations, then the merged firm would be a long way from a monopoly.

But either way, the government should stay out of it.


(NYT, A1)  The nation’s two satellite radio services, Sirius and XM, announced plans yesterday to merge, a move that would end their costly competition for radio personalities and subscribers but that is also sure to raise antitrust issues.

The two companies, which report close to 14 million subscribers, hoped to revolutionize the radio industry with a bevy of niche channels offering everything from fishing tips to salsa music, and media personalities like Howard Stern and Oprah Winfrey, with few commercials. But neither has yet turned an annual profit and both have had billions in losses.

. . .

Questioned last month about a possible Sirius-XM merger, the F.C.C. chairman, Kevin J. Martin, initially appeared to be skeptical, but later said that if such a deal were proposed, the agency would consider it.

In a statement yesterday, Mr. Martin acknowledged that the F.C.C. rule could complicate a merger but said the commission would evaluate the proposal. “The hurdle here, however, would be high,” he said.

The proposed merger, first report-(p. C2)ed yesterday by The New York Post, promises to be a test of whether regulators will see a combination of XM and Sirius as a monopoly of satellite radio communications or whether they will consider other audio entertainment, like iPods, Internet radio and HD radio, to be competitors.

“If the only competition to XM is Sirius, then you don’t let the deal through,” said Blair Levin, managing director of Stifel Nicolaus & Company and a former F.C.C. chief of staff. But Mr. Blair said he expected the F.C.C. to approve the merger.


For the full NYT story, see:

RICHARD SIKLOS and ANDREW ROSS SORKIN.  "Merger Would End Satellite Radio’s Rivalry."  The New York Times  (Tues., February 20, 2007):  A1 & C2.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)  


(WSJ, p. A1)  But because XM and Sirius are the only two companies licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to offer satellite radio in the (p. A13) U.S., the deal is likely to face significant regulatory obstacles.

Broadcasters said yesterday that they will fight the proposed merger, and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin released an unusually grim statement saying that the two companies will face a "high" hurdle, since the FCC still has a 1997 rule on its books specifically forbidding such a deal which would need to be tossed. The transaction also requires the Justice Department’s blessing.

Indeed, XM and Sirius may be rushing into a deal because they sense the regulatory terrain will only get tougher. People close to the matter said that the two companies acted because the climate is already changing with the election of a Democratic-controlled Congress. Future developments — such as the possibility of a Democratic president — could make it even harder for the proposed merger to pass muster.

In their strategy, the two companies may be subtly acknowledging the risks before them: By conceiving their deal as a merger of equals and declining to say which company name would emerge ascendant, they minimize the business risks should the deal fall through. If, for example, the combined company were to be dubbed Sirius, XM could be vulnerable to a decline in sales during a regulatory review period that could last a year. A person familiar with the negotiations said the two companies have set March 1, 2008, as their "drop-dead date," after which either side can walk away if approval is not granted.

The coming regulatory battle is likely to focus on the definition of satellite radio’s market. The two companies are expected to argue that the rules established a decade ago, which require two satellite rivals to ensure competition, simply don’t apply in today’s entertainment landscape.

Since 1997, a host of new listening options have emerged, making the issue of choice in satellite radio less important for consumers. Executives cite a new digital technology called HD radio, iPod digital music players, Internet radio and music over mobile phones as competitors that didn’t exist when the satellite licenses were first awarded.


For the full WSJ story, see:

SARAH MCBRIDE, DENNIS K. BERMAN and AMY SCHATZ.  "Sirius and XM Agree to Merge, Despite Hurdles For Regulators, Deal Pits Competition Concerns Against New Technology."  The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., February 20, 2007):  A1 & A13.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)


 SatteliteRadioSubscribersNYT.gif   Source of graphic on left:  online version of the NYT article cited above.  Source of graphic on right:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.


Bush Remembers Steadfast Washington

BushGeorgeWashingtonGeorge.jpg   Bush meets an actor playing the role of Washington at Mount Vernon on President’s Day.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.


“With the advantage of hindsight, it is easy to take George Washington’s successes for granted,” Mr. Bush said after enumerating Washington’s achievements as commander of the Continental Army and later as president. But “America’s path to freedom was long and it was hard,” he continued, “and the outcome was never really certain.”

. . .

“I’m reading about George Washington still,” the president told reporters at a December news conference where he defended his Iraq policy. “My attitude is, if they’re still analyzing No. 1, 43 ought not to worry about it and just do what he thinks is right, and make the tough choices necessary.”

. . .

Mr. Bush spoke of General Washington’s “many challenges,” noting that the Continental Army “stood on the brink of disaster many times.” And he spoke of Washington’s resolute determination: “His will was unbreakable.”

The president spoke as well of a brief retirement at Mount Vernon between Washington’s return from the Revolutionary War and his presidency. Mr. Bush is already laying the groundwork for his own retirement with plans for a presidential library at Southern Methodist University, Laura Bush’s alma mater.

“All he wanted to do was return here to Mount Vernon and to be with his loving wife, Martha,” the 43rd president said of the first. “As he wrote with satisfaction to his friend Lafayette, ‘I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, and under the shadow of my own vine and my own fig tree.’ ”


For the full story, see: 

SHERYL GAY STOLBERG.  "Defending Nation’s Latest War, Bush Recalls Its First."  The New York Times   (Tues., February 20, 2007):  A16.

(Note:  ellipses added.)


Alternative Energy Sources Have Their Costs, Too; And Some of Them Are Environmental

   The location in Highland County, Virginia where 19 wind turbines are planned.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.


MONTEREY, Va. — Wes Maupin says he will move this spring to a 20-acre spread here in remote Highland County, a pastoral place where sheep outnumber people and where little has changed since his boyhood, when he fished the county’s mountain streams with his father.

Mr. Maupin, a 52-year-old former corrections worker, does have one misgiving, though. Like many others in Highland, known for its rustic heights as Virginia’s Switzerland, he finds no joy in the prospect that these blustery Allegheny ridges could soon become home to the state’s first wind farm: 19 wind turbines, each taller than the Statue of Liberty, its pedestal included.

“Any wind farm,” Mr. Maupin said, “would surely change the character of this county forever.”

. . .

. . . Randy Richardson, president of Highlanders for Responsible Development, a group that opposes the project, said people worried about noise pollution from the turbines’ blades and light pollution from the red strobes that would alert aircraft to the 400-foot-tall structures.


For the full story, see: 

PAMELA J. PODGER.  "In a Corner of Virginia’s ‘Switzerland,’ a Division Over a Planned Wind Farm."  The New York Times  (Tues., February 13, 2007):  A17.

(Note:  ellipses added.)


 WindTurbineVirginiaMap.jpg   Source of map:  online version of the NYT article cited above.