From May, 2020

Superhero

My brother lost his long battle with cancer last week.

Happier Days

I was three years old when my brother Tim was born, and my earliest memories include the excitement about the arrival of a “bicentennial baby” in July 1976. For those who knew him later in life, it might come as a surprise that Tim was a pudgy little kid. He was a playful and loyal younger brother. In 1978 our family moved from New York to Seattle. We settled in the suburb of Renton, and our brother George was born there in 1979. We grew up in a tight-knit suburban neighborhood called Rolling Hills. It was a time when kids spent days playing in the backyard, riding bikes around the neighborhood, playing ball in the cul-de-sac, and wandering through the nearby woods. In most ways, ours was a pretty ordinary 1980s suburban existence. But the hints of the man that Tim would become were there when he was a kid.

Our neighborhood’s signal feature is a competition-length neighborhood pool, and from ages six through eighteen, we were all part of the neighborhood swim team with scores of other kids. George and I were decent swimmers, but Tim outshone us in and out of the pool. Eventually my younger brother broke every one of my records and many others. But far more than a competitor, Tim was a natural leader. Kids of all ages were naturally drawn to his enthusiasm, kindness, and goofy sense of humor. By his teen years, Tim could often be seen at the pool with a half-dozen kids draped all over him in some kind of game. When he became team captain, Tim knew each kid by name and had inside jokes with most. His penchant for industry and enterprise were also evident early on. He rode a paper route on his bicycle every day and socked away the money he earned. So beloved was Tim to the neighborhood kids ​that they’d often line up on curbs and doorsteps to receive their daily papers or ride along with him for fun. One neighborhood parent called Tim the “Pied Piper of Rolling Hills.”

And indeed, teenage Tim’s almost supernatural way with kids reflected something kind of magical about Tim’s entire life. Children were attracted to Tim for the same reason so many others were. He had natural empathy and an instinct for others. He had the politician’s gift of making every person he met feel important and valued.

Tim’s way of winning easy friendships was a kind of super power that amazed and perplexed me as his stern and socially awkward older brother. Later in life I came to understand the secret to Tim’s interpersonal superpower: Tim made people feel valuable because he genuinely valued them, wanted to know them, and wanted to help them.

Kids understood that about Tim intuitively.

Eventually, so did everyone else.

Those qualities carried through Tim’s teen years. He was a standout two-sport athlete in high school, was band president, homecoming king, and general big man on campus. Like his brothers, Tim eventually went to Seattle University where he graduated with a degree in finance in 1999. He was on the swim team and played varsity soccer at Seattle U. He competed in the national championship swim meet, and played on the soccer team that won Seattle U.’s first national championship in 1997. Tim formed deep and lasting friendships with classmates and teammates in those college years. He spent summers working and coaching youth swimming and soccer, which he continued into his early working life. After graduation, Tim worked in insurance and finance in the Seattle area.

Uncle Tim with Tess & Tony.

​I got married in 1997 while Tim was still in college, and when I became an expectant father I was anxious. Although he was my younger brother and still just a college student, I looked to Tim for confidence. Brother Tim became Uncle Tim in 1998 when my daughter Tess was born. Like every child, Tess adored Tim, and Tim adored her right back. My son Antonio was born two years later and soon was just as smitten.

When we moved from Seattle to Michigan in 2001, Tim sent my kids an Advent Calendar. But instead of angels, or shepherds, or stars, or crosses, or the usual Christmas stuff, each day had a picture of Tim’s face on it. Beneath each picture was a piece of chocolate. “I want the kids to associate me with good things,” he said. Tim’s trademark loving attention and goofy humor endeared them for life.

Following the old Alcoholics Anonymous advice to “fake it till you make it,” I learned to be a father by imitating my younger brother. His silly, playful and patient love for my kids helped me gain confidence as a young father—and presaged his own remarkable fatherhood.

 It turns out that making others better was another one of Tim’s superpowers. In the week since his passing, I’ve heard from more and more people stories of how Tim helped them become better human beings.

In 2004 Tim moved to San Diego. When he made the move, he told me that he fell in love with this city years before and felt drawn to it. He learned the joys of fish tacos and took up surfing. He told me once: “The best part of being a surfer is walking up and down the beach looking like a surfer.”

​To support his beach lifestyle, Tim first worked at Nordstrom before moving into mortgage banking. His combination of financial acumen and interpersonal grace made him a successful mortgage banker.

​While working at Nordstrom he​ met Lisa. Having fallen in love with this beautiful city, it should be no surprise that Tim fell in love with one of its most beautiful women.  They struck up a friendship, and then a romance, and then a marriage in 2012.

Falling in love in San Diego

In 2013 Tim finally got the chance to fulfill the role that he was meant for when Audrey Grace was born and Tim became a dad. He got to be a dad for the second time when Hannah Faith joined the fun in 2016.

Everything that made Tim the Pied Piper of Rolling Hills, an inspiring youth soccer coach, and beloved Uncle Tim emerged a thousand fold in Tim the silly daddy. Tim was a hands-on dad: reading stories, down on all fours playing with his girls, bouncing them on his knee, and generally being his attentive, affectionate self. Tim would compose silly songs extemporaneously to lend fun to everyday life. He was utterly devoted to his daughters.

Up to the highest height!

Tim became a father and a cancer patient almost simultaneously; it is impossible to appreciate what an extraordinary father he was without the context of that horrible disease.​

​Tim got his cancer diagnosis at age 36, with his first baby on the way. The cancer was quite advanced by the time it was diagnosed. Physicians gave him little hope after initial treatment, but Tim was determined to find a way to live. For the next seven years, Tim sought every angle and avenue to survive. He read voraciously. He sought second and third and fourth opinions, traveling to specialists in Seattle and Houston to help him fight his disease. At least four times over the past seven years Tim was given grim warnings that he had just months or weeks to live. Each time he defied the odds, seeking out another treatment, another therapy, another surgery, anything to keep himself alive.

​Through it all he kept an almost unbelievably positive, optimistic attitude. Privately, I know my brother was often plagued by fear and doubt, but to his friends, to me, and to my children, he was cheerful and resilient. For his girls, he was still silly daddy: trips to the beach, pool, playground, and zoo filled their days.

Selfie with Silly Daddy!

But that resilience ​carried a terrible cost.

The cancer treatments that Tim received were physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. Discomfort, fatigue, pain, and loss of strength and mobility were his daily reality. These were difficult adjustments for a man who had been vigorously athletic for virtually his entire life. It’s impossible to overstate just how much devotion to family kept Tim fighting cancer. As Tim was struggling to recover from another round of treatment, he told me more than once that if he were alone, or in his seventies or eighties, he would never endure the pain and indignities of cancer treatment. But in his daughters he had a reason to keep at it for the chance at another birthday, another silly song, another moment with the family that he loved so much.

​Watching him these past seven years, I learned that Tim had yet another super power: an inexhaustible reservoir of courage and will to endure where most others would give up. Paternal love was the wellspring of that courage.

Lullabies with Silly Daddy.

Last September I visited my brother in San Diego for a few days. While I was here, he got some bad news from his oncologist. Tim and I had lunch on the last day of my visit and he told me: “I’ve been dodging bullets for six years. I’m just going to have to dodge another.”

​That image stuck with me ever since. Every time someone asked me about how about Tim was doing, I told them he was dodging bullets. Tim was so strong, so resilient, so graceful and athletic—I’d smile as I imagined him dodging, weaving, dancing, almost playfully evading cancer to the squealing delight of his daughters.

​Two weeks ago I came to San Diego when Tim had been hospitalized again.​ This time there were no more therapies, no more surgeries, no more room to dodge or dance.

Among the many cruelties of coronavirus, children were forbidden from visiting the hospital. That made Tim desperate to return home where he could be with Audrey and Hannah, even as he saw the end approaching. Thank God, he was finally given permission to let us care for him at home.

​Only when I began to help care for Tim at home did I come to appreciate the true costs of Tim’s devotion. His strong, athletic frame had been decimated. In his prime, Tim was a strapping 200 pounds; in his last days I held him in my arms and he could not have been more than 130. His body was riddled with more than two dozen scars from seven years of surgeries and treatments. The terrible truth became clear: Tim had not been dodging bullets; he’d been taking them.

​Martial metaphors are cliché when describing people’s struggles with disease, but seeing, touching, and holding Tim in his last days revealed a man who had indeed been fighting in every way he could with everything he had. He wasn’t dodging or dancing, he was standing and fighting desperately for every moment another moment with his family.

​Each scar on Tim’s body was a monument to that devotion.

In his last days, Tim’s only thoughts were for his family. At times he felt like a failure for leaving them behind. In reality, Tim was victorious in creating two precious new lives and building a community, weaving a blanket of love around his family that will care for and sustain them always. In his last hour on this earth, I told him so.

Three days ago we laid my brother Tim to rest in a COVID-era service that gave a strangely sparse sendoff to an intensely social life. He was a son, a brother, a husband, and a friend. He was a leader. He was a courageous father and a silly daddy.

Tim's burial during COVID-19

And he was my hero.

​Rest easy, brother.


Defense Against the Dark Arts

During a public health crisis, getting the research right is paramount

Beware the confundus charm

​It started with a tweet.

A new peer-reviewed Utilities Policy article on water utility ownership, low-income households, and shutoffs? From a pair of professors at major research universities? This was right up my alley!

The paper’s title—Does public ownership of utilities matter for local government water policies?—is intriguing. Water system ownership, regulatory policy, and especially shutoffs are enormously important and notoriously difficult to analyze due to data difficulties. The tweet and top highlight finding were provocative: “Cities and towns with government-owned utilities shutoff customer drinking water less.” These are headline-grabbing claims, sure to draw the attention of water sector leaders and policymakers looking for ways to tackle an ongoing public health crisis. I dove into the paper immediately, excited about what I might find!

Unfortunately, the study is deeply flawed. Few readers—even within the academy—have the appetite to get into the methodological details necessary to understand what the data really show. My deep dive revealed that the article’s authors came to profoundly incorrect conclusions. Last week I emailed them with my concerns. This post is my attempt to clarify what the article obfuscates and to set the record straight.

The claims

From tweet to title to text, Homsy & Warner’s article promises to explore the role that “local government utility ownership play[s] in meeting equity and environmental goals.” The study’s literature review frames its goals as an inquiry on “Publicly owned versus privately owned water supply” (section 2.3), with interest in public/private differences in “equity” (2.1) and “environment: water resource management” (2.2). Specifically, they’re interested in whether publicly owned water systems ​provide more protections against shutoffs for low-income households and greater water conservation. ​The implied comparison is with private water utilities.

The empirical analysis uses a 2015 ICMA survey sent to municipal chief administrative officers. The sample included all municipalities, towns, and counties with populations over 25,000 and a sample of smaller communities of populations between 2,500 and 25,000. The survey yielded 1,897 responses for a 22% response rate.* Respondents were asked whether their governments own water utilities. If the respondent said yes, the community was coded as having a “publicly owned utility” or “Government-owned utility”; if the respondent said no, then it was coded as having a “not publicly owned utility.”

When "Government-owned" does not necessarily mean owned by a government. 

The survey also asked questions about policy, including whether the city or county had taken action to "protect low-income households from water service shutoff.” The answer to this question is Homsy & Warner’s only measure of shutoff protection. They don't actually ​count shutoffs. About 8% responded that their governments provided shutoff protections.

These survey data were analyzed with a series of logistic regressions to predict the likelihood that a community has water shutoff protections as a function of public ownership and a series of other variables. Ownership emerges as a very strong predictor, leading Homsy & Warner to declare that: “if a utility is government-owned, the municipality is about two times more likely to have water shutoff protection policies.”

They conclude that “ownership matters, as communities with publicly owned utilities appear more inclined to protect residents from water service shutoffs.” That would be a big, important finding—if ​the data supported it. The trouble is that the data don’t show anything of the sort.

Where it all goes wrong: misleading measurement

The first hint that something was amiss was that just 55% of Homsey & Warner’s sample were publicly owned utilities, with the authors implying that the other 45% were served by private utilities. That struck me as extremely low, since about 85% of Americans get their drinking water from a local government, with about 15% served by private, investor-owned firms. How could the ICMA sample be so grossly skewed in favor of non-government utilities?**

​The answer is in the way that Homsy & Warner code “public ownership.” Recall that the ICMA survey was sent only to counties and municipalities and that respondents who reported that their governments own water systems were coded as “publicly owned.” What’s missing is special districts.

​​Special districts are local governments with narrow functions and limited powers; there are tens of thousands of such districts across the U.S.. The city and county officials responding to this survey who get their water from special districts would answer "no," and then Homsy & Warner would code the community's water system as "Not Publicly Owned."

Water districts, Potter. Remember the water districts.

Consider, for example, Central Arkansas Water. Headquartered in Little Rock, Central Arkansas Water serves a population of more than 450,000, including the cities of Little Rock, North Little Rock, Alexander, Sherwood, and Wrightsville, along with parts of unincorporated Pulaski County. Survey respondents from Pulaski County and all five of these cities would report that their governments did not own a water system. ​Homsy & Warner would code their water systems as "not publicly owned," even though a government--Central Arkansas Water--supplies their water.

​Around 30% of the local government water systems in the United States are owned and operated by special districts. These special districts are definitely local governments.​ Without accounting for special district utilities, we cannot infer anything about public/private water system ownership from these data.

Sins of inference

But it gets worse. The study’s first highlighted claim is that “cities and towns with government-owned utilities shutoff customer drinking water less.” Thing is, this study doesn’t measure shutoffs. It measures whether a municipal or county government has a policy to protect low-income households from shutoffs. Reliable shutoff data are notoriously hard to find, which is why serious research on the subject is rare. A reader who doesn’t get into the empirical weeds wouldn’t notice that data don’t support this claim.

Apart from problems with coding ownership and counting shutoffs is the question of what this all means for water governance. What should we infer from the fact that a municipality that owns a water system is more likely to have water shutoff protections than a municipality that does not own a water system? Homsy & Warner conclude that “communities with publicly owned utilities appear more inclined to protect residents from water service shutoffs.” That’s a bit like finding that people who own cars are more likely to have jumper cables than people who don’t own cars. ​Would we then infer that car owners care more about their families' transportation than transit riders?

Why it matters

Policymakers, advocates, regulators, and utility managers are looking for answers to a historically tough challenge in the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers everywhere are working hard to find ways to help protect public health. ​

We certainly need to understand water shutoffs and how to prevent them. But the stakes are too high for policy researchers to play fast and loose with data and inferences. This isn’t an abstract, theoretical squabble over the literary interpretation of Hamlet. Real policies to protect real people in a moment of real crisis are on the line, and our communities need valid findings. The urgency of pandemic only heightens the need for ​rigorous, responsible policy research.



*It does not appear that Homsy & Warner adjusted their estimates to account for sample stratification or non-response bias.

**With just a 22% response rate, some of the issue is probably nonresponse bias. But it’s unlikely that nonresponse accounts for a 30% gap in share of publicly owned utilities.

In this sentence and throughout the article, Homsy & Warner are vague about what publicly owned utilities are being compared with.