Fix by turning it into Turbotax

Go to Look for the File Now button to file your taxes. You’ll find a list of options for filing, including software companies providing tax filing web sites and software. The IRS makes fillable online tax forms, and the instructions for completing them – so why not cut out the middleman and deliver a free tax filing portal? is just the latest answer to that question – the government has a poor track record of delivering technology solutions, with IRS, FBI, and DHS systems as just a few examples of failure [1].

The department (Health & Human Services) managing the Obamacare rollout should take a lesson from the IRS: if you set the rules, and let the private market deliver the software, you can offload the expense and risk of technology development while still receiving the benefits of automation. Turbotax and its competitors receive not one dime from the IRS, and yet have taken a huge share in the multi-billion dollar tax filing preparation market. In addition, these companies have agreed to give their software away for free to low-income individuals, eliminating any criticism on fairness or access grounds. could easily move to the same model, and here’s the crazy part – several companies, including and, already have healthcare exchanges certified to sell ACA plans WITH subsidies! While any licensed insurance agent (including websites) can sell ACA-compliant policies, a handful have built out their technology to work with the federal government and provide access to subsidized ACA insurance. Rather than competing with these firms, could terminate many of its bloated IT contracts and simply list certified private exchanges on its site. These exchanges would provide a free shopping experience for consumers, and earn a commission on policies sold in a manner similar to the financing system for itself [2]. Let HHS & CMS employees set and administer the rules of the ACA, and leave the exchanges themselves to the private sector – leading to benefits for taxpayers and health insurance shoppers alike.

[1] This paper found that 70% of government-run software projects failed to meet stated objectives. Government contract reform has become a hot topic as a result of’s failure, but these problems have been going on for years.

[2] The ACA exchanges will charge insurers 3.5% of each policy premium sold on exchanges to finance the marketplace. While this “user fee” is lower than the commissions many private insurance brokers receive, many would likely still jump at the opportunity given the size of the new market on offer (perhaps 7 million individual policies through 2014).

Gasoline vs Electric ROI: Tesla Model S

The Tesla Model S saves owners roughly 15k over an 8 year ownership period when compared to similar luxury sedans – this analysis excludes government subsidies.

I’ll be taking delivery of a Tesla Model S in a few weeks, making it a great time for me to revisit the cost-benefit of purchasing an electric vehicle. Ignoring externalities [1] (pollution), and range limitations for a moment [2], an electric vehicle is a cost-effective purchase only if the total present value of gasoline savings equals the price premium paid for the technology. A number of factors impact the calculation:

  • Price of gasoline and price of electricity
  • Annual mileage driven
  • Comparable gasoline care MPG and electric vehicle MPGe
  • Risk-free discount rate
  • Projected annual increase in gasoline prices
  • Electric car price premium / discount
  • Length of car ownership
  • Time savings from elimination of gas station stops

Here’s a spreadsheet model analyzing the Tesla versus traditional competitors.

It’s possible to come up with a quick best-case estimate without a whole lot of math. Assume that premium gasoline costs $4 a gallon, that we drive 12,000 miles per year, that a comparable non-electric vehicle gets 20 MPG, and that the risk-free discount rate (currently in the 1-2% range) and gas price inflation roughly cancel out. Driving the non-electric vehicle for a year would require 600 gallons of gas for $2400. If we owned the Tesla for eight years, that makes $19,200 in maximum possible gas savings – if the Model S were to cost nothing to charge! The spreadsheet analysis shows that owning a Tesla for eight years might actually produce $15,000 in savings.

Does this make the Tesla a good deal? It depends on the frame of reference – what conventional vehicles are its competitors? Mid-sized and large sedans from Mercedes, BMW, and similar would seem to be appropriate benchmarks. The average base MSRP across a range of luxury sedans is around $71,000 [3], while the Model S starts at $69,900. When fuel savings are included, this makes the Tesla over $16,000 cheaper than its competitors!

Key Conclusions:

  • If owned for eight years, a Tesla saves owners $15,000 when compared to a comparable ICE-powered luxury car – without counting government tax credits
  • The Model S already has superior ROI when compared to competitors like BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, and Audi
  • The Model S (and all electric vehicles) do not yet possess the rapid refill capability of traditional vehicles, which limits their market appeal for single-car households [2]

[1] Why leave out externalities like pollution from the analysis? True externalities are outside the traditional economic transaction, and so a car buyer doesn’t take them into account when making a purchasing decision. In reality, many Tesla buyers purchase the vehicles in part because they value the environmental benefits of the vehicle. But in order to scale past the early adopters, electric vehicles will have to be cost-effective for the rest of consumers – so it makes sense to leave out environmental benefits here.

[2] Range limitation is the principle downside to electric vehicle ownership at the moment. While Tesla is quickly building a network of high speed charging stations, these stations provide only 150 miles of range per half hour, while a traditional vehicle can add 300+ miles of range in less than five minutes at a gas station. For households with one electric vehicle and one conventional vehicle, this limitation may not be of concern, making this a good target market for electric vehicle makers.

[3] The Tesla seems to compete with a broad range of luxury sedans from mid-level vehicles like the A6 and 5 series to upper-end vehicles like the Mercedes S class. Based on its size and performance characteristics, however, it seems that the larger vehicles are a more appropriate comparison. The average base MSRP of the BMW 5 series, 7 series, Mercedes E class, S class, Audi A8, Porsche Panamera, Lexus LS460, and Jaguar XJ is $71,000. Since this number is quite close to the Tesla’s starting MSRP, and since this calculation varies based on the comparison list, a price premium of $0 was used in all calculations.

Disclosure: The author has a paid reservation for a Tesla Model S

Gun Control And Mass Shootings: Would Lives Be Saved?

An analysis of every US mass shooting over the past 30 years shows that two small policy changes, restricting high-capacity magazines and introducing stringent background checks, might have saved over 500 injuries and deaths, reducing total casualties in mass shootings by 50%.

Various proposals have been set forth since 2012’s numerous mass shootings, ranging from much stricter gun regulations to arming more individuals in public spaces. Starting from Mother Jones’ list of US mass shootings over the past 30 years, I analyzed the potential impact of two proposals in particular: would a ban on high-capacity gun magazines have reduced casualties, and would stringent background checks of gun purchasers have reduced the number of shootings? I researched the incidents surrounding each shooting to determine whether each proposal would have had any impact. The data are summarized in the table below, with the full research spreadsheet available here.

Shooting Deaths Injuries Lives Saved Injuries Prevented Weapon Legally Acquired? Notes
Totals: 459 481 250 324 Legal in 58 of 63 cases 54% of deaths and 67% of injuries might have been prevented with the policies analyzed.
Newtown, CT Sandy Hook Elementary 27 2 17 0 Yes – legal weapons in same household The shooter’s rampage was stopped by a quick police response. If the shooter had to reload 3 times as often, he would hit many less victims, as he fired on each victim multiple times.
Minneapolis, MN Sign Company 6 2 1 0 Yes The shooter reloaded at least once during the shooting, and initially struggled with victims.
Oak Creek, WI Sikh Temple 6 4 3 2 Yes In a public setting with many adults, it’s possible shooter would have been stopped while attempting to reload, or would have retreated outside more quickly if he had less capacity.
Aurora, CO Theater 12 59 12 59 Yes A lucky form of weapon capacity control prevented a larger disaster, as the shooter’s weapon jammed and he was only able to fire roughly 1/3 of the 100 round magazine. A properly integrated background check system might have stopped the incident entirely.
Seattle, WA Cafe 5 1 0 0 Yes It’s not clear that the gunman ever needed to reload, and though he had a history of mental health problems, he was never treated and never convicted of a felony.
Oakland, CA – Oikos University 7 3 7 3 Yes HCM limit would have no impact here, but the shooter was expelled from school for behavioral issues, which might have been caught if this data were submitted to a comprehensive background check system.
Atlanta, GA – Health Spa 4 0 4 0 Yes HCM limit and background check would have no impact here
Seal Beach, CA – Salon 8 1 3 0 Yes The shooter reloaded during the shooting per police reports, so lowering weapon capacity would likely have lowered casualties.
Carson City, NV – IHOP 4 7 2 3 Yes The shooter fired over 30 rounds per eyewitness accounts – lower capacity would have constrained him.
Tucson, AZ – Giffords shooting 6 13 4 9 Yes Shooter was tackled and stopped while he tried to reload – direct evidence that lower capacity would have decreased the toll.
Manchester, CT – Beer Company 8 2 4 1 Yes Shooter used two weapons and fired multiple rounds at many victims – had he been limited, he would have run out of ammunition earlier
Lakewood, WA – police officer shooting 4 0 0 0 No Capacity limits might not have helped, as the shooter fired on four victims seated at one table, and hit all of them with his initial salvo.
Ford Hood, TX – army base 13 29 9 19 Yes Shooter reloaded many times, and 30 round magazines enabled him to fire roughly 170 rounds before being shot himself by military police. Multiple soldiers attempted to charge the shooter – if he had only a 10 round magazine, it’s entirely possible that he would have been tackled and stopped upon initial reload.
Binghamton, NY – civic association 13 4 9 3 Yes Shooter fired 99 rounds in total – this would likelybeen reduced if his weapon capacity were 1/3 as large
Carthage, NC – nursing home 8 3 0 0 Yes Since shooter used multiple weapons and never reloaded, it’s unlikely capacity limits would have mattered.
Henderson, KY – Atlantis Plastics 5 1 0 0 Yes Shooter did not use a high capacity weapon
Dekalb, IL – Northern Illinois University 5 17 5 17 Yes This incident’s casualty count is quite low because the shooter first fired with a very low capacity weapon, his 6-round shotgun – enabling many students to escape the classroom. Shooter also had a long, documented mental health history.
Kirkwood, MO – City Council 6 1 0 0 Yes Shooter used low-capacity revolver initially, and took a higher capacity weapon from a victim (police officer).
Omaha, NE – Westroads Mall 8 4 5 3 No Shooter appears to have emptied one magazine and then taken his own life.
Crandon, WI – sheriff’s rampage 6 1 0 0 Yes Shooter used a service weapon, so proposed rules/limitations would have had no effect.
Blacksburg, VA – Va. Tech 32 23 32 23 Yes Shooter reloaded many times, and used multiple weapons. Mental health check would have prevented weapons acquisition.
Salt Lake City, UT – Trolley Square 5 4 5 4 Yes Shooter did not use high capacity weapons
Nickel Mines, PA – Amish School 5 5 2 2 Yes Once shooter started firing, sheriffs approached – he killed himself as they arrived, and likely would not have had a chance to reload.
Seattle, WA – Capitol Hill 6 2 6 2 Yes Shooter had a weapons-related felony charge, which was reduced to a misdemeanor.
Goleta, CA – postal shooting 6 0 6 0 Yes Shooter had a previous history of mental illness
Red Lake, MN – high school 9 5 3 2 Yes Shooter possessed a gun in his bedroom despite being treated with Prozac. Since he was an adolescent, and his parents/guardians chose to give him a gun, background checks would be ineffective. Shooter shot his grandfather who was a police officer, and took his weapons.
Brookfield, WIChurch group 7 4 2 1 Yes Shooter suffered depression, but had no mental health or criminal records.
Columbus, OH – concert 4 7 0 0 Yes No HCM used, and no medical or criminal record. Nearby police stormed the concert and shot suspect
Meridian, MS – Lockheed Martin 8 7 4 3 Yes Shooter used military-style weapon with high-capacity
Melrose Park, IL – Navistar 4 4 4 4 Yes Shooter used military-style weapon with high-capacity, and was also a convicted felon
Wakefield, MA 7 0 5 0 Yes Shooter used high-capacity weapon and also had a history of mental illness, but with the mental illness far in his past and no criminal record, even stringent checks might not have denied him weapons. Shooter stopped firing at an arbitrary point and sat calmly til arrested. If he had lower capacity weapons, stopping to reload multiple times might have caused him to sit and wait for arrest earlier.
Tampa, FL – hotel 5 3 5 3 Yes Shooter was arrested for assault only a few months earlier, and bought weapon at a gun dealer
Honululu, HI – Xerox 7 0 3 0 Yes Shooter acquired a large number of weapons long before mental issues began.
Fort Worth, TX – Wedgwood Baptist Church 7 7 2 2 Yes Shooter committed suicide after emptying three magazines – but he had six more loaded. Has the magazines been 1/3 smaller, that would have lowered the toll proportionally.
Atlanta, GA – Day trading 9 13 0 0 Yes The shootings happened in multiple separate incidents, making it less likely that HCM limits would have had an impact. Barton was suspected but never charged in earlier murders, so background checks would have had no impact.
Littleton, CO – Columbine High 13 21 6 10 No Shooters used a high capacity Tec-9 and standard capacity 9mm, so avg capacity is used here. Details of the shooting indicate that in many cases shooters fired at the same victim multiple times – if limited in capacity, this would have reduced their ability to fire on additional victims.
Springfield, OR – Thurston High 2 24 1 19 Yes Shooter was tackled and stopped when he first tried to reload – a clear indication that lower capacity would have further limited casualties.
Jonesboro, AR – Westside Middle School 5 10 2 3 Yes Shooters ran away after firing 30 rounds – lower capacity might have reduced total rounds fired.
Newington, CT – Lottery worker 4 0 0 0 Yes Shooter chose specific victims and fired relatively few rounds, so capacity limits make no difference here.
Orange, CA – Caltrans 4 2 3 1 Yes Shooter entered shootout with police shortly after initial incident, lower capacity might have shortened his attack
Aiken, SC – RE Phelon Co 4 3 0 0 No Standard capacity weapon (illegally acquired) used
Fort Lauderdale, FL – city employee 5 1 0 0 Yes Standard capacity weapon used
Corpus Christi, TX – Walter Rossler Co 5 0 0 0 Yes Standard capacity weapon used
Fairchild AFB, WA – hospital 5 22 5 22 Yes Shooter possessed only one 75 round drum magazine – so he would never have to reload. Military police arrived quickly and killed perpetrator.
Aurora, CO – Chuck E Cheese 5 0 0 0 No Shooter fired less than 10 times, executing each victim, usually with a single shot
Garden City, NY – LIRR 6 19 2 6 Yes Shooter emptied two 15 round magazines and was tackled while reloading with a third magazine. Total rounds fired would have been decreased by 1/3 were magazine capacity limits in place.
Fayetteville, NC – Luigi’s Restaurant 4 6 2 3 Yes Shooter used a high capacity rifle, shooting was stopped by nearby police
San Francisco, CA – 101 California St office building 8 6 4 3 Yes Shooter used a 32 round Tec-9 in the shooting, and fired hundreds of rounds
Watkins Glen, NY – office 4 0 0 0 Yes Shooter killed four intentional targets with relatively few shots, and then waited for police to arrive – perhaps less than 10 shots total fired.
Olivehurst, CA – Lindhurst High School 4 10 0 0 Yes Shooter used two weapons and fired relatively few shots, so high capacity weapon limits would have no effect here. Shooter also had no prior criminal or mental history.
Royal Oak, MI – postal 4 6 4 6 Yes Shooter had his concealed weapons permit revoked on concern of mental illness. Shooter also used high-capacity magazines with his rifle and fired scores of rounds according to police.
Iowa City, IA – Univ of Iowa 5 1 0 0 Yes Did not use a high-capacity weapon, and did not display sufficient signs of mental illness prior to shooting to warrant attention
Killeen, TX – Luby’s Cafeteria 20 24 8 10 Yes Used high capacity pistols and reloaded multiple times – capacity limits would have enabled more victims to escape, as many escaped by exiting the restaurant.
Jacksonville, FL – GMAC plant 9 4 9 4 Yes Shooter had a history of violence and convictions, and yet legally purchased multiple weapons. Used a high capacity weapon in shooting
Louisville, KY – Standard Gravure Co 8 12 8 12 Yes Shooter used high capacity weapon, emptying its magazine and committing suicide with his second weapon. Shooter also had a lengthy psychiatric history including hospitalization
Stockton, CA – schoolyard 5 29 5 29 Yes Shooter had a lengthy arrest history and had served time in jail as an accomplice to armed robbery, and yet was allowed to buy weapons.
Sunnyvale, CA – ESL Co shooting 7 4 7 4 Yes Shooter was able to purchase guns while under a court restraining order
Palm Bay, FL – shopping center 6 14 6 14 Yes Shooter used a high capacity .223 caliber rifle, and killed two police officers during the shooting – one of them as the officer was trying to reload. Perhaps if the shooter’s capacity were lower, the officer might have himself fared better. Gunman also had prior assault conviction.
Edmond, OK – USPS 14 6 0 0 Yes Shooter was in National Guard and would have had access to weapons. Though he was referred to as “Crazy Pat”, he had no history of crime or treated mental illness
San Ysidro, CA – McDonalds 21 19 14 13 Yes Shooter used a high capacity weapon, Uzi, pinning down a quick-responding officer with 30 rounds of fire before re-entering restaurant
Dallas, TX – nightclub 6 1 0 0 Yes Shooter used an unknown handgun, emptying it into crowd and then rushing out – unclear that capacity limit would have any impact here.
Miami, FL – welding shop 8 3 8 3 Yes Shooter did not use a high capacity weapon, but purchased his weapons one day after failing a psychiatric exam ordered by his employer, the school district, and after incidents in which he appeared to be a threat to students
Birchwood, WI – hunting altercation 6 2 3 1 Yes Shooter fired 20 rounds at other hunters – if he had a lower capacity, it’s likely that another hunter would have been able to respond with fire

The analysis above attempts to answer the question – what would have happened in these incidents had the proposed laws been in place? Of 459 deaths and 481 injuries in 63 shootings, I estimate that 250 deaths and 324 injuries (54% of deaths and 67% of injuries) might have been prevented with the analyzed proposals. Each proposal, its method of action, and the analysis approach is described further below.

High-Capacity Magazine Ban:

Definition: Sales of high-capacity magazines to and between private citizens would be completely banned, and imports of high-capacity magazines for private use would be banned as well. While many magazines would exist in private hands, a magazine buyback could then be used effectively, as magazines are relatively inexpensive.

Method of Action:

  1. In some instances, the shooter was disarmed by potential victims while trying to reload – smaller magazine size clearly would have limited total impact in these shootings.
  2. In some instances, potential victims fled during breaks in the shooting enabled by reloading – if a shooter has to reload 2 or 3 times as often, this effect is multiplied.
  3. In some instances, law enforcement arrived relatively quickly, and most damage in the shooting was done via the initial magazine – a smaller magazine would have limited impact in the shooting in these instances.
  4. In a few instances, victims attempted to rush the shooter immediately. If a shooter could only fire 10 shots instead of 20-50, it’s possible that he might be tackled quickly rather than be able to continue shooting.
  5. In most instances, the shooter committed suicide after doing a certain amount of shooting, but always before exhausting ammunition. Since each reloading represents a break in the act, some shooters would commit suicide after having fired fewer total rounds if they were capacity constrained.
  6. In a few instances, the shooter appeared to choose a specific weapon because of its high capacity. If high capacity magazines were not available, would the shooter still go forward with the attack?
  7. In 18 of 63 shootings, shooters fired relatively few rounds, chose a small number of specific victims, or used standard capacity weapons. In these instances the high-capacity magazine ban has no impact. 29% of actual mass shootings fell into this category.

Analysis Method: If the shooting fell into the last category above, then zero impact is noted in the analysis. Otherwise, the casualty count is reduced by the ratio of the shooter’s magazine size to standard magazine size – if the shooter used a 30 round magazine, then the casualty count is estimated at 2/3ds lower (rounded up) with a standard capacity magazine. This approach will tend to underestimate the effect of a ban in instances like 1,4, and 6 above, while providing an accurate estimate or an overestimate in instances like 2, 3, and 5 above. In aggregate, I think this approach is unbiased.

Stringent Background Checks:

Definition: Create a mandatory national database of all felons, mentally ill, and others posing threats (anti-terror lists, those who have made threats against schools or other institutions). Mandate that all firearms transactions for new and used weapons, in public and private transactions, be checked against this database, with instant results. This stands in contrast to the current background check system, which is done on paper and via telephone call, not electronically.

Method of Action:

  1. Out of 63 mass shootings over the past 30 years, only 5 have involved illegally purchased weapons. Some of the shooters had a history of mental illness or a criminal record – preventing a sale of firearms to these individuals would reduce the frequency of shootings.
  2. Many of the shooters with a history of mental illness had no criminal record – it’s unlikely that they would know how to obtain an illegal firearm.
  3. Some of the shooters purchased weapons in the days after making threats against a school or other institution – in these cases, a properly implemented stringent background check system would have prevented the weapon sales.

Analysis Method: Shootings were identified in which a shooter had a documented history of mental illness, a criminal record, or had made threats against an institution prior to buying a weapon. In these cases (17 instances total) it’s assumed that the casualty count is reduced to 0, as the shooter would have been unable to obtain a weapon. In reality a certain number of shooters would then try to acquire weapons illegally, and some might succeed. But a certain number of mentally-ill or former felons might never try to obtain a weapon if they knew they had no easy or legal means to do so, providing an offset.

Analysis of Assault Weapons Ban and Armed Civilian Presence

Two other proposals have been mentioned in the last several months – a ban on assault weapons and the placement of more armed guards or civilians in public places. On the question of assault weapons, the data from mass shootings shows that shooters preferred a range of semi-automatic weapons with high-capacity magazines. Weapon capacity makes a difference, but the type of weapon (handgun vs rifle) does not.

With regard to armed bystanders, in 9 of 63 shootings armed individuals (often police officers) were present. In several cases armed individuals became victims in the shooting, and the presence of armed individuals did not prevent the shooting from taking place. However, this analysis is by definition incomplete – this is an analysis of shootings that actually did take place, and doesn’t include data on shootings that were stopped by armed individuals. The evidence here suggests that the element of surprise may render concealed weapons somewhat ineffective, but this is not a conclusive finding.

The Simple Arithmetic of High Capacity Gun Magazines

In the wake of yet another mass shooting tragedy today, let’s examine the costs and benefits of high capacity gun magazines. I previously examined the cost-benefit of private gun ownership in the US, and noted at that time that the extraordinarily negative cost-benefit ratio might eventually become an issue for the pro-gun lobby (the industry generates economy-wide economic losses of over $15B/year) [1].

High capacity magazines [2] seem to have become a feature of virtually every recent mass-shooting in the US [3]. How many lives might have been saved by eliminating high-capacity magazines? Let us conservatively assume 10 deaths per year might be reduced through this policy (a rounding error compared to the roughly 10,000 annual gun homicides in the US). The economic value of 10 lives can be estimated at $80 million, while the annual sales revenue of high-capacity magazines might be less than $20 million (since gun magazine sales are a tiny fraction of gun sales, and magazines can be had for as little as $15) [4].

Measuring tragedy on an economic basis might seem crass, but it helps establish a key point: not only are high capacity magazines empowering individuals in mass shootings – but they are also provably hurting America as a whole, as they subtract value from our nation! An outright ban on possession of high capacity magazines is thus a reasonable step to limit further damage to America’s citizens and economy.

Let me address a number of potential criticisms here:

  • Would-be mass shooters will acquire weapons and high-capacity magazines illegally, so you are only affecting law abiding citizens. Actually, 75% of weapons used in mass shootings were acquired legally, and recent shooters acquired their weapons legally. Most of these shooters had no previous criminal record, so in the event high-capacity magazines were illegal, it’s unlikely that they would even know how to find them illegally.
  • Banning high-capacity magazines would have no effect on death rates, as shooters would simply reload. In the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, the gunman was stopped in his rampage once he stopped to reload. Reducing magazine capacity to 10 rounds reduces total firing capacity – this is simple arithmetic. In both of these shootings and many other incidents, lives would have been saved. For that matter, lives might be saved in incidents like drive-by shootings where the rapid fire of multiple rounds makes victims of innocent bystanders.
  • High capacity magazines are needed for self-defense. Even the police rarely find need to fire large numbers of rounds. Is there even one documented case of self defense where the potential victim needed more than 10 rounds to deter his attackers? There are outliers in everything, but I’d be surprised to hear of such a case.
  • I have a 2nd-Amendment right to whatever capacity magazine I like. The recent Supreme Court case upholding an individual right to a firearm also upheld the right to ban American citizens’ access to fully automatic weapons, grenades, tanks, and all other manner of military weapons. Even Justice Scalia admits that there are restrictions on the 2nd Amendment. Your right to purchase whatever weapon you like has long since been curtailed, and the government retains the right to enact reasonable restrictions on access to arms.


[1] Using more recent numbers on the economic value of human life at $8M per life, the gun industry may actually cause annual economic losses in the US of $200B per year (8M * 30k lives lost – economic value of gun trade). I republished the more conservative estimate above to remain consistent with the original analysis that I referenced.

[2] I am defining high-capacity magazines as those holding more than 10 rounds, as defined in the original assault weapons ban.

[3] Limiting gun capacity would have reduced casualties in a number of recent tragedies:

[4] Gun sales are estimated to have reached an annual rate around 12 million this year. If separate high-capacity magazine sales are in the neighborhood of 10% of all gun sales, and magazines cost around $15, then total annual revenue from this business might be 1.2M * 15 = $18M. This is an imprecise estimate, since gun sales are not tracked, but conveys the order of magnitude, and illustrates the tiny economic benefit supplied by this particular product relative to its cost in human life.

List of Warmest Years on Record Globally

9 of the top 10 hottest years globally have occurred over the past decade, when measured using three different global temperature data sets. The top 20 warmest years have all occurred during the last 24 years.

How do the record high temperatures over the spring and summer in the US compare on a global basis? While numerous articles on global temperature trends exist [1], I decided to go to the primary temperature data sources to find out. Below I have created a list of the 20 warmest years on record globally, using three data sets: NASA GISS, the UK Meteorogical Office, and NOAA / UAH [2]. While the three data sets vary in length from 40 to 150 years, the 20 warmest years turn out to have all occurred in the last 24, making it possible to construct an average temperature for the hottest 20 years.

Rank Year Global Avg Temp (F) [3]
1 2010 58.28
2 1998 58.22
3 2005 58.15
4 2007 58.06
5 2002 58.05
6 2009 58.04
7 2003 58.03
8 2006 58.02
9 2011 57.98
10 2004 57.90
11 2001 57.89
12 2008 57.75
13 1995 57.70
14 1997 57.68
15 1999 57.65
16 1990 57.64
17 1991 57.64
18 2000 57.64
19 1988 57.59
20 1987 57.54

Since this is a divisive topic prone to political obfuscation, it’s worth noting that both the NASA Goddard Institute and the UK Meteorological Office officially support the theory of anthropogenic global-warming, while the research scientist responsible for the University of Alabama-Huntsville data set does not support this theory.

[1] This has been a popular topic: Economist, Live Science, ArsTechnica, Science Daily, and Wikipedia

[2] Here are the original data sets:

GISS Data: and moving and storage

NOAA/UAH: builder online/

Hadley Meteorological Centre UK:

[3] The data in this blog post was constructed by averaging data from the three underlying data series. The NASA GISS estimate of global mean baseline temperature of 14 degrees Celsius was used to adjust the temperature deltas provided by the original data series in order to show global mean temperature in Fahrenheit terms here.

Here is my excel spreadsheet with data and calculations.

How Much Will Insurance Cost Under Obamacare?

May 28, 2013 Update: California’s just-released prices for ACA coverage are close to my 2012 estimates, with an unsubsidized bronze plan (for a 25 year-old) available for $142/month in Los Angeles.

Health insurance premiums for minimum coverage will likely be around $150/month for 27 year-olds under the ACA, since the ACA includes relatively high-deductible plans under the Bronze plan option.

Now that the dust has settled on the Supreme Court ruling, let’s attempt to answer a simpler question – how much will health insurance cost under the ACA (Obamacare)? Individuals purchasing health insurance via the new health insurance exchanges will be able to select from four plan levels: bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. The law dictates that plans falling into these categories must have 60%, 70%, 80%, and 90% “actuarial value”, respectively. The concept of “actuarial value” dictates that the plan must cover the specified percentage of health care costs for enrolled individuals. Individuals enrolled in a bronze plan can expect their insurance to cover 60% of their health costs, for instance [1].

The Kaiser Family Foundation commissioned a study to determine the structure of plans that might meet the 60% actuarial value standard for the Bronze plan.  The study found that the following individual health care plans might qualify (all plans have a cap of around $6350):

  • A plan with a $6350 deductible and 0% coinsurance
  • A $4350 deductible with 20% coinsurance
  • A $2750 deductible with 30% coinsurance

How much would plans like these cost in 2014? We will focus on adults aged 27 in this example, since young adults more frequently go without insurance, and since young adults can now stay on their parents’ plans until 26. We can shop online for similar plans and get some results for comparison [2]:

  • $67.26 for a $2750 deductible / 30% coinsurance plan in Atlanta for a 27 year-old male
  • $98.21 for a $2750 deductible / 30% coinsurance plan in Atlanta for a 27 year-old female [3]
  • $129 for a $2750 deductible / 30% coinsurance plan in Silicon Valley for 27 year-old men and women
  • $73.22 and $95.07 for a $2500 deductible / 20% coinsurance plan in Chicagoland for a 27 year-old man and woman, respectively
  • $95 for a $2750 deductible / 20% coinsurance plan in Houston, TX for a 27 year-old man
  • $132 for a $2500 deductible / 10% coinsurance plan in Houston, TX for a 27 year-old woman
  • $70.75 and $90.46 for $2500 deductible / 20% coinsurance plan in Hartford, CT for a 27 year-old man and woman, respectively

Here are two market quotes for 63-year old females in relatively expensive markets:

  • $302 for $1200 deductible / 10% coinsurance HMO plan in New York, NY for a 63-year old woman
  • $516 for $3500 deductible / 10% coinsurance PPO plan in Santa Clara, CA for a 63-year old woman

The ACA stipulates that the most expensive policies for older individuals can be no more than 3 times the price of policies for younger adults. The data above show that a 27-year old can get a plan similar to the exchange bronze plan for around $100 per month today, but this is less than 1/3 the cost for older Americans. Using 1/3 of the cost of the plans for older women as a price floor, we get an estimate of $150 per month as the lower limit for plan prices [4].

This estimate is lower than the commonly-cited CBO estimate of $4500 per individual for bronze plans via the ACA exchanges. The CBO estimate is for 2016, and so it builds in two additional years of premium inflation (roughly 15%). The CBO number is also an average across all age groups – since young adults’ plans can cost 1/3 as much as the oldest (non Medicare-age) Americans, 27 year-olds’ plans will be much cheaper than the average. While the ACA should have allowed for more high deductible plans, it’s good to know that the bronze plans do provide for some affordable coverage options within the new health insurance exchanges.

[1] The 60% bronze plan threshold and other thresholds are applied to each plan considering the average expenditures for plan members. Given the deductible and copay structure of a particular plan, it’s possible that the plan spends a higher (or lower) percentage on a particular individual’s care. For instance, if you don’t use your plan at all in a given year, then your plan spent 0% on your care. At the other extreme, if you are diagnosed with cancer, and incur $100k in costs in a year, even a bronze plan would cover  perhaps 90% of that amount.

[2] All plans were found on on 8/2/2012.

[3] The wide discrepancy between plan prices for men and women will be eliminated by the ACA. For these purposes, averaging men and women’s prices enables us to get closer to a representative price under the ACA.

[4] Since health insurance is more expensive for women, and more expensive for older Americans, we used a 63 year-old woman as the prototype for an expensive risk in the existing private health insurance market. At age 65 virtually all Americans gain entry into Medicare (or Medicaid for seniors), and so 63 is the oldest age for which insurance quotes can reliably be obtained (some insurers won’t write short-dated policies, and no insurer writes non-Medicare policies for 65+ Americans). The average price from the two expensive quotes thus obtained was $409. After adding in 10% in premium inflation between now and January 2014, we get a premium estimate right around $450 per month. By law, one-third of this is the minimum that the exchanges can charge for any adult – and this equals $150 per month.

How High a Budget Deficit Can We Sustain?

The US can sustain a budget deficit of 5%, not 3% as commonly assumed, because 2.5% inflation and 2.5% real growth combine to keep the total debt/gdp ratio stable.

With both the financial crisis and European debt crisis having a root in excess borrowing, the American political debate has turned toward deficit reduction as well. If current budget deficits (averaging 10% of GDP since the financial crisis) are recognized as unsustainable over the long term, then what level of budget deficit is sustainable? At one extreme, politicians call for a balanced budget, and at the other extreme the budget deficit is considered a distant issue. Meanwhile, many economists set the sustainable deficit threshold at 3% of GDP, and EU rules formally set the budget deficit threshold at 3% as well. What is the basis for the idea of a “sustainable” budget deficit, and is the 3% figure too high or too low?

What is a sustainable budget?

Unlike individuals or families, a nation has an indefinite lifespan, and can therefore continually roll over its debt as long as markets deem it a worthy creditor. As long as a nation’s economy is growing, its capacity for borrowing grows as well. But if the debt grows at a rate faster than the economy, then it will eventually exceed the nation’s ability to repay it. The idea of a sustainable budget deficit is summarized by the chief economist of the Concord Seo Company Coalition, “President Obama’s fiscal commission set a goal of getting deficits down to about 3 percent of GDP within five years – 3 percent being the average annual growth rate of the US economy since World War II.”

The Real Sustainable Deficit Target

There’s just one problem with the 3% target for a sustainable budget deficit – it’s too low! While GDP growth is measured in real terms, inflation also eats away at the value of the US debt over time. For instance, assume that the US has no future economic growth, but continues to have 2% inflation. Assume that we also manage to (magically?) balance the US budget. With no economic growth, does this mean that debt/gdp stays constant? Actually, inflation would cause the numerical value of GDP to continue rising, while the debt stays constant. This would cause the debt/gdp ratio to fall by around 2% per year.

In practical terms, this means that we have to look at the rate of nominal GDP growth to determine a sustainable budget deficit level [1]. To be conservative, let’s assume 2.5% real GDP growth (less than the 3% post-war average) and 2.5% inflation (within Americans’ comfort zone, and less than the 90’s and 2000’s average). Taken together, this means that if nominal GDP grows at 5% per year, a budget deficit of 5% can be sustained long term. The difference between 3% and 5% of GDP is big, over $300 Billion in 2012. As the federal budget and spending again enter serious debate after the November elections, it’s important that politicians understand the government’s true borrowing capacity – and neither the populist “balanced budget” nor the typical economist’s 3% magic number stand up to examination.

[1] Here’s the actual nominal GDP data from the Fed:

Using this data, we see that nominal GDP has grown at a compound annual rate of 6.6% over the post-war period (since 1947, when the data series begins). Over the past 30 years, nominal GDP has grown at a compound annual rate of 5.4% – and this period excludes most of the late 70’s and early 80’s inflation spike. Even over the past 20 years, which are skewed downward due to the financial crisis, the nominal GDP growth rate is 4.7%.