Health Care Reform: A Data Management Problem

By Bruce R. Copeland on September 09, 2009

Tags: actuarial, competition, costs, data management, health care, insurance, market, oversight, privacy, statistics, universal standards

Tonight President Obama will address Congress (and the nation) about health care reform.

I support health care reform. However I have reservations about the current health care reform package slated for vote in the Senate (as well as other health care reform proposals on Capital Hill from both parties). It’s not that I believe the bald-faced lies which reactionary conservative are leveling. Rather my lack of enthusiasm stems from the fact that none of these packages really address the critical underlying problems in our health care system—overly high costs and comparatively poor outcomes. I think many other Americans have the same reservations. So, what is missing?

Our health care problems are fundamentally data management problems. The first problem is that we do not have sufficiently comprehensive data on health conditions and costs. The second problem is that we have not had any MEANINGFUL actuarial oversight of health insurance companies for 25 years. These are data collection and analysis failures, and we MUST fix them if we are to fix our health care system.

We will not understand why our health care is so expensive and our outcomes so relatively poor until we begin collecting and analyzing comprehensive health data. Likewise we cannot expect meaningful competition in health insurance markets until consumers know the cost risks […]

High-Fructose Corn Syrup: Villain or Scapegoat?

By Bruce R. Copeland on August 27, 2009

Tags: autism, blood sugar, cortisol, fructose, glucagon, glucose, glycogen, high fructose corn syrup, honey, insulin, misunderstanding, sucrose

Recently a friend posed the question: “Could a change in carbohydrate source affect protein formation?” The context for this question was a discussion about whether the shift to corn carbohydrate (principally high-fructose corn syrup) over the last 30 years could have somehow produced the apparent rise in autism? [This latter question might just as easily involve any of several other health conditions besides autism that have also shown a steep rise over the past 30 years.] In principle, the answer to both questions is YES, but not in the way you might expect. Both of these questions really center around the effects of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in our diet. Many people have recently become quite concerned about possible adverse effects from fructose consumption. The effects of fructose and glucose consumption are complicated and not completely understood. In the end, however, HFCS is probably more of concern because of its contribution to our overall increased consumption of simple sugars rather than because of any specific fructose effect.


Carbohydrate is an essential part of the human diet. Carbohydrates range from simple sugars (glucose, fructose, galactose) to complex chains of those sugars. The more complex the carbohydrate, the slower its rate of digestion. In fact, some complex carbohydrates are effectively indigestible (fiber). Because carbohydrate is so important […]

Mortgage Crisis, Recession, and Bailout: Reconciling the Numbers

By Bruce R. Copeland on January 21, 2009

Tags: banking, credit, economics, foreclosure, investment, mortgage, payroll, recession, treasury bailout

Four months into a recession spawned by the mortgage investment banking crisis, it is worth doing some basic math on the real costs.

First some background: I supported the original treasury bailout, albeit with two important qualifications. First, I wanted the proposed $750 billion bailout to be authorized by Congress in three chunks of $250 billion instead of two chunks of $375 billion. Second, I noted that the projected actual losses from home foreclosure (at that time ~$200 billion) were a fraction of the total $750 billion requested by Dept. of Treasury for bailout. I suggested it would be safest in the long run to use the bulk of the bailout to buy up troubled mortgages or their underlying properties.

With an intensifying recession, I regret not pushing harder on these two points, or at least I regret that my congressional representatives and their colleagues didn’t listen better. The incoming Obama administration has proposed that as much as $800 billion of stimulus may be necessary to deal with the recession (on top of the $400 billion of TARP that the Bush administration has spent). Other estimates of recessionary losses are as much as $1400 billion (10% of GDP) […]

Estimating Nationwide Recessionary Losses from Mortgage Foreclosure

By Bruce R. Copeland on January 21, 2009

Tags: consumer spending, economics, foreclosure, home equity, housing bubble, job mobility, mortgage, real estate, recession

At the height of the housing bubble, the nationwide value of residential real estate was commonly estimated to be $20 – $25 trillion. The current national foreclosure rate is about 2% (and climbing). The average DECREASE in property value for foreclosed residential real estate is less than 50%. This yields (0.5)*(0.02)*($25 trillion) = $250 billion as a current estimate of the total loss associated with failed mortgages—probably an overestimate!

This number is lower than other loss estimates originally reported for the mortgage meltdown. Early estimates often reported the dollar value of troubled mortgages. This is highly misleading for three reasons: First, not all troubled mortgages end up in foreclosure. Second the value of a mortgage includes the total principal, whereas the average decrease in home value (the possible loss) is less than 50% of the principal. Third, these estimates include the mortgage interest over the life of the loan—more than double the original principal value. Mortgages get paid off all the time when homeowners sell, and no mortgage holder ever gets to treat 10 or 20 years of missed interest opportunity (over the original life of the mortgage) as a “loss” […]

The Economic Reality of the Laws of Thermodynamics

By Bruce R. Copeland on October 15, 2008

Tags: 1st law, 2nd law, 3rd law, economics, engineering, entropy, financial derivative, humpty dumpty, investment scheme, laws of thermodynamics, market, perpetual motion, risk, science, thermodynamics

In previous articles, I’ve written about the importance of the fundamental laws of nature. Paramount among these are the Laws of Thermodynamics. The Laws of Thermodynamics apply to everything, including economic activity!

Early statements of the Laws of Thermodynamics were framed in terms of heat and heat engines. Even today most engineering and science students are introduced to thermodynamics through heat principles. The 1st Law of Thermodynamics (Conservation of Energy) states that total energy (work done by/on a system plus heat transferred to/from a system) is conserved in a closed system. The 2nd Law says that heat is converted incompletely into work (dissipated) or that efficiency is never complete. The 3rd Law says that absolute zero temperature is unattainable.

More popular modern statements of the 2nd Law state that entropy (a measure of disorder) is constantly increasing for any closed system. While the 2nd Law is sometimes difficult for humans to accept, it is interesting that there are well known colloquialisms which incorporate the underlying meaning of the 2nd Law […]

Economic Crisis—We Have an Ego Problem Here

By Bruce R. Copeland on September 30, 2008

Tags: economics, ego, fraud, main street, mortgage, real estate, sound bite, wall street

There is more than enough blame to go around for the current U.S. economic crisis, and we won’t solve the crisis until we face our ego problem.

We have an ego problem in a President of the United States who can’t/won’t go to the American People with a giant Mea Culpa, acknowledging that his administration took its eye off the ball for a long time.

We have an ego problem in a Treasury Secretary who can spend hours and days trying to broker a deal with Congress, but can’t take the time to explain directly to the American People EXACTLY and THOROUGHLY what the problem is with our financial markets.

We have an ego problem in corporate leaders on Wall Street who would rather allow their companies to go bust than […]

Critical Thinking: Sooner or Later, Your Assumptions Will Kill You

By Bruce R. Copeland on September 04, 2008

Tags: assumption, critical thinking, extrapolation, hypothesis, law of nature, science, scientific reasoning, theory, uncertainty principle

This is literally true.

An assumption is something we think is true, but which we have not thoroughly tested or proven. Often it is based on an extrapolation or a parallel. Careful handling of assumptions is essential to critical thinking.

Everyone makes assumptions. It’s pretty much the only way to get anything done, given that it is impossible to have complete knowledge about everything (a law of nature called the Uncertainty Principle) […]

It’s the Law!

By Bruce R. Copeland on September 01, 2008

Tags: 1st law, 2nd law, 3rd law, conservation of energy, conservation of momentum, gravity, law, law of natural selection, law of nature, mechanism, misunderstanding, science, stability, uncertainty principle

Many of you have heard the humorous expression or seen the bumper sticker “Gravity: It’s not just a good idea. It’s the Law!” No one really seems to doubt the Law of Gravity, though more than a few of us occasionally fail to take full account of it. But obscured by the politicization of science and the rancorous public debates over evolution (The Law of Natural Selection, etc.) and climate change is the fact that science recognizes and codifies a number of important laws of nature. Like the Law of Gravity, most of these laws are not even remotely in question. Yet whether from indifference or lack of science education, many people seem to be either unaware of the importance of these laws or else have come to believe that they somehow don’t apply. Nothing could be further from the truth […]