Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Mastering Politics (updated)

I have a new hero; Democrat Alan Grayson of Florida who said today that,

The Republican health care plan is “Don’t get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly.”

Republicans are aghast, outraged and horrified, and are demanding an apology, which is hilarious given their proclivity for describing Democratic health care plans as having “death panels," “pulling the plug on Grandma” and “having seniors put to death.”

For decades the Democrats have been fighting using Queensbury rules while the Republicans were biting, gouging eyeballs and kicking below the belt. Democrats not only didn’t fight back in kind, they never even so much as complained about the foul methods that Republicans have been using in their campaigns.

Now Alan Grayson steps up and throws a quick knee to the Republican crotch, and quite elegantly so, and Republicans go completely ballistic; getting in the referee’s face and jumping up and down screaming hysterically for a flag to be thrown. Pathetic.

For the six years that Republicans were in control of Congress they were not content with preventing Democratic amendments to bills, but literally locked Democrats out of the committee rooms. Now they are adding 430+ amendments to the health care bills and crying poor mouth because the Democrats are voting those amendments down, claiming that the Democrats are “not letting us participate in the process.”

Republicans today remind me of nothing so much as a couple of preteens in the back seat of a car, whining, “Mom, he’s touching me.”

Update: Thursday, 9:30am
Alan Grayson grows in my esteem by leaps and bounds. He went on CNN's Situation Room and, under attack by both Republicans and the CNN staff, did not back down one single inch, maintaining a highly admirable degree of aplomb and good humor. He stayed with his central point and refused to be diverted. He is smart and has tremendous courage.

Wolf Blitzer asked how this "controversy" affected his chance at reelection, somewhat indirectly by inquiring about the nature of his district, and Grayson replied, "That's not the point." Listen to that; a freshman Representative saying that reelection "is not the point." Wow.

Busy, busy, busy

I have a fire that needs to be put out (figuratively speaking) before the end of the month which is, whoops, today. Later, people.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Rational Health Care

I belong to a homeowners association, an experience which I urge everyone to shun like exposure to bubonic plague. I even made the mistake of deciding to serve on the Board of Directors in a misguided attempt to bring some trace of sanity to the management of the association; a decision promptly regretted and never to be repeated.

The structures are only semi-detached but are nonetheless individually owned, and the association carries a master property insurance policy covering all of the homes. With rising costs for road, pool and landscape maintenance the board was looking for ways to reduce costs, and the insurance policy came under examination.

One board member was convinced that we should drop the master policy and let homeowners buy individual policies to save the association money. It was unbelievably difficult to persuade this person that dumping costs from the association onto individual homeowners was not useful, because the association is the homeowners; that we needed to reduce costs in actuality, not merely dump them onto homeowners, who were already paying them in actuality.

Further, the buying power of the group was beneficial; one large policy was far less expensive than was 145 small policies.

The health care reform debate is being run by that board member that wanted to dump homeowner costs on individual members. Does anyone remember the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people”? Taking costs away from the government and putting them on individuals is an oxymoron; government money is the people’s money.

Leaving aside the moral arguments of whether people “deserve” health care, or whether government has an “obligation” to provide health care. In a purely rational argument, the larger a purchasing group is, the more it can dictate pricing and control costs, and the largest group or association we have available to us is the federal government.

With single payer you don’t have to force people to join, you “let” them join, and all it requires is a US birth certificate, a green card or a valid visitor’s visa. The costs are covered in your “annual dues,” the taxes that everyone pays for all of the things that government can provide so much more effectively than any other agency; national security, fire protection, police protection…

Monday, September 28, 2009

Wrong Change

Somebody noted in a blog comment that while Obama told gays and lesbians that they would have to wait for him to move on their cause, DOMA and DADT, because the need to deal with the economy and healthcare was the pressing need at the moment, but that he had time to go to Denmark and lobby for Chicago to get the Olympics.

That sounds like reasonable criticism, but it’s nothing of the sort. The first is a matter of pressuring Congress to take action and, while the President may be able to deal with multiple matters simultaneously, Congress clearly can not. It’s not clear that they can even deal with one thing at a time. The Olympic deal is a brief stop enroute to other matters one day out of the President's schedule.

On a more important note (than the Olympics), it was noted that acknowledgement has emerged from the White House that Guantanamo will not be closed by the promised date of Jan 22nd. Do not even think of chalking that up to Obama as a broken promise. That failure has to do with fearmongering from others, and with Congress folding like a cheap suit and deciding that prisons that can hold the likes of Charles Manson and Timothy McVeigh are not sufficiently secure to hold “Arabs and Muslims.”

To Congress, putting “Arabs and Muslims” in continental prisons is the equivalent of having a terrorist on every street corner in America, gunning down innocent women and children with machine guns. The police and National Guard wouldn’t be able to do anything about it, because “Arabs and Muslims” are impervious to bullets.

We keep electing new Presidents, and reelecting the same Congress.

Congress is about as useful as a screen door in a submarine. Next time around we need to reverse the trend; we need to keep the President and elect a whole new Congress. Elect unknowns and first-timers. We could hardly do worse than what we have.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Medal of Honor

An article in today’s San Diego Union-Tribune describes the decision of the Marine Corps to award a Navy Cross to Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta after he gave his life by smothering a grenade with his body to save his fellow Marines. I am not going to presume to comment on the value of that act in terms of the medal it deserves, that would be a judgement beyond my experience and expertise. The article is thoughtful, well written, and worth your time to read it.

The writer, Steve Liewer, limits the article to this individual case for the most part, although he does briefly discuss a larger issue of seeming reluctance on the part of the military to award its highest honor in this current war, doing so at a rate stunningly low compared to previous wars. The military says that it is because this war is different in nature, with little of the intense personal combat that typically generated such awards in the past, and I suspect there is some truth in that.

I have thoughts of a somewhat less innocent explanation which might well accompany that seemingly valid reason, though, and that is the military’s desire to “sanitize” this war.

The Medal of Honor is not awarded quietly; being the nation’s highest military award, it draws a great deal of publicity, and creates awareness of the sacrifice and dedication that went into the actions that led to the award. It pretty much never gets awarded to someone who has not been wounded, usually severely so, and many of the awards are posthumous.

I don’t think the military wants the public to be made aware of the nature of the price that is being paid by the men and women who are putting their lives on the line for this nation.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Demise of Print Media

The impending demise of the print media may not be an exaggeration. The San Diego Union-Tribune is running full-page advertisements saying that it has 1.15 million readers per week, which translates to 164,285 readers per day. Given that the San Diego metropolitan area is 3.4 million people, that means that we have here a newspaper in the nation's eighth largest city that gets read by a mere 4.8% of the population. So more than 95% of the city's population does not read the city's only daily newspaper.

Pulling Together

Students and faculty at California universities are having demonstrations and sit-ins to protest higher tuition/fees and class reductions, necessitated by the budget cuts that are being imposed on the state's institutions of higher education.

The Teachers' Union in San Diego, whose members' pay has not been cut and who are not having furloughs imposed on them like the rest of state employees, has filed a lawsuit against the City Schools' move of increasing class size from 28 students to 30 students per class, a move designed to avoid having to close two schools due to budget cuts.

California has a $26 billion deficit and 12% unemployment, caused by a worldwide recession that is not showing signs of improving any time soon in real terms. Do I need to explain that the title of this post is sarcasm?

Friday, September 25, 2009

David Brooks Is An Idiot

Part of his repugnant New York Times op-ed today,

Pakistan has a fragile government with an estimated 50 or more nuclear weapons. A Taliban conquest in Afghanistan would endanger the Pakistani regime at best, create a regional crisis for certain and lead to a nuclear-armed Al Qaeda at worst.

Pakistan also has the world's fifth largest army, and it just recently kicked the crap out of the Taliban, rendering it militarily impotent in Pakistan.

Understanding Afghanistan

The title is an oxymoron, since I certainly don’t understand Afghanistan, and I see no signs that anyone in our government or in the media understands it any better than I do. Obama was right to send 21,000 additional troops over there when he did it, but it would be wrong now because “things have changed so much since then.” Well what precisely has changed?

There is a corrupt government and a stolen election. Oh, really? What do we know about Karzai now that we didn’t know two years ago? The man shanghais and pockets reconstruction money and does deals with drug lords, why is anyone surprised that he would steal an election? In that environment, it would be surprising if the election didn’t get stolen and, in fact, it was largely predicted well in advance that it would be.

The fighting has gotten more intense. Well of course it has; we sent in 21,000 more fighters. What did anyone think all those additional soldiers were going to do, sit around and play patty cake? Did anyone really think that the Taliban would respond to a major influx of additional invaders with flowers and candy? Well, Rumsfeld might have, but...

So the Taliban says that if we’re going to push South in a major offensive then they will go attack our garrison forces in the North. That’s pretty much what the American insurgents did to the British in the late 1700’s, and we all know how that turned out. I’m pretty sure that the British generals were writing letters to King George begging for more troops, too, and probably even threatening that if they didn’t get more troops then these American primitive rude savages were going to kick British ass. They undoubtedly had a pejorative name for us equivalent to “ragheads.”

As for why we’re there… That seems to change with every press conference, and sometimes there are up to half a dozen reasons, which is eerily familiar. I learned when taking care of kids that when someone gives you several reasons for something they are pretty much always lying.

We’re supposedly after the people who planned 9/11, but we actually chased them into Pakistan some eight years ago. So now we’re fighting in Afghanistan so we can try to kill Al Queda in Pakistan with pilotless drones. Since those drones are launched from bases in Pakistan and flown by pilots in Arizona, why do we need the troops in Afghanistan?

We also have to keep the Taliban from overwhelming Pakistan and getting control of their nuclear weapons. Pakistan has the world’s fifth largest army and has fought India to a standstill three times, but we fear it can’t handle a few thousand guys with rifles and RPG’s so we need to fight in a different country to prevent…

For years, Pakistan ignores the Taliban because it doesn’t consider them a threat. Am I the only one who considers it a bit odd that we are afraid of the Taliban, while the nation which actually has Taliban within its borders is not? Anyway, finally the Taliban pisses Pakistan off and so its army swats (pardon the pun) the Taliban down in two weeks, which has no apparent effect on our need to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan to prevent the recently-defeated Taliban in Pakistan from overwhelming Pakistan’s army and getting control of its nuclear weapons.

We need to provide Afghanistan with a workable and functioning central government. Please note that the people most ardent in advocating our presence in Afghanistan do not want a functioning central government in this nation. They have vowed to “drown it in a bathtub” and are fulminating about the current “socialist takeover,” so why are they so hell-bent on installing such a central government anywhere else?

Finally, in a veritable frenzy of panic, we need to occupy Afghanistan to prevent it being used to “plan attacks on our homeland.” This is absurd on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin. For one thing, I fail to see how our occupation accomplishes that goal; the very concept is nonsensical. Even if it did, we would then have to occupy by force every nation that did not have a strong central government; Somalia, Yemen and Indonesia leap to mind, but there are hundreds of places that could be used as sanctuaries and we simply cannot occupy all of them.

But on a more fundamental level, the idea that we can forestall planning by military force is simply insane. If that is the plan, then we need to declare martial law in this nation, because recently featured in the news is that no fewer than three such plots have been planned right here in this country.

The Shampoo Bomber

ABC News paints a “chilling picture” of two incidents where men tried to blow up buildings with fake explosives that they bought from the FBI.

Again we have plots which consist of one guy with a grudge and the IQ of a houseplant, aided and abetted by a bunch of FBI agents egging him on to do some sort of terrorist act with play-dough, ending with some Attorney General standing at a podium prating about having pulled us back from the brink of disaster. I am glad they are getting these fools off of the streets, but all of the chest thumping and braying about it afterward is embarrassing. If I were the FBI agent involved, I would want to wear a bag over my head while I was being awarded the medal for arresting an idiot.

The Zazi plot sounded like the real deal until we started hearing that it was “potentially the biggest attack since 9/11” and where he got his explosives. He was making explosives out of hair care products which he bought, not wholesale, but on a walk-in basis at hair salons. ABC says that they talked to “the salon” where he bought his materials, and that the people remembered him. Well, I guess they would if he was buying enough hair care products to build a bomb (bombs?) big enough to compete with 9/11.

“No, dear boy, I need the Peach Scent, and I must have 465 bottles by tomorrow. I have a lot of relatives visiting.” Walks out muttering under his breath, “Damn fool expects me to make a bomb out of Pine Scent. Nobody makes pine scented bombs any more. That’s so yesterday.”

And the DOJ charges him with "attempting to use weapons of mass destruction." Oh, please. Committing a terrorist act, sure. Maybe even mass murder if you must, but I think that would be stretching it. This "WMD" thing is just nonsensical. Really; weapons of mass destruction made out of hair care products.

I thought we were past this with the end of the Bush Administration.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reforming Workers Comp

One thing that seems to have been left out of the "health care reform" debate is workers’ compensation, which is both a burden and a benefit to employers. A worker injured on the job, that is while performing duties for an employer whether on the employer’s property or not, is provided with medical treatment by the workers compensation insurance provided by the employer, at no cost to the employee. In return, the employee may not sue the employer for that injury, even if the employer was negligent, unless the employer was deliberately trying to inflict the injury.

The system is a hotbed of lawsuits, of course, as malingerers try to con the system and insurers try to downgrade or deny payments, and it’s all exacerbated by the fact that compensation for lost wages is included in addition to medical payments.

If, however, we had universal health care, something that is not even being proposed in any of the reform proposals and which Obama says would be “too disruptive,” then we could eliminate the medical payments portion of workers’ compensation. The plan would still be needed to accommodate the issue of protecting the workers against lost wages in return for protecting the employers against lawsuits.

With universal health care, not only would employers not be burdened with providing health insurance for their workers, but I suspect that workers’ compensation insurance would be significantly less costly.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Curly Bacon

In case anyone doesn't already know this. If you are cooking bacon in a skillet and it wants to curl up on you, weights and such things are not needed. Just drop the slice in the already-hot skillet, wait no more than a second or so, and then turn the bacon over. No more curly bacon.

Insurance Questions

This rabidly intense and exclusive demonization of the insurance industry is getting kind of old. Why is it perfectly okay for a hospital to charge $80 for two Aspirin, but evil for insurance companies to base their premiums on having to pay the hospital that charges that kind of money?

Why is it perfectly okay for Hospital Corporation of America to maintain a 17% profit margin while paying multimillion-dollar fines for Medicare fraud, and it is perfectly delightful for Pfizer to maintain a 30% profit margin while paying more than $2 billion in fines for marketing fraud, but it is evil for United Health Care to maintain a 5% profit margin while, admittedly, committing significant abuses?

Why is it okay to mandate with state laws that insurance companies provide coverage for additional benefits, but evil for insurance companies to raise premiums to pay for those additional benefits?

If insurance companies are going to be required to provide insurance to people with existing conditions, is that coverage going to have to include the condition itself? So if I go to an insurance company and tell them I have a condition that costs $1000/month to treat, are they going to have to cover that treatment? What monthly premium will they be allowed to charge me?

Demonizing insurance companies is a lot of fun and makes us feel good, but what are we actually accomplishing when hospitals and drug companies are left out of the equation? What are we really gaining toward lowering costs, when the industries that are generating the costs are left completely unregulated, and only the industry that is paying those costs is painted as evil incarnate and is regulated into oblivion?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Football Follies, update

Norv Turner says the team is not as good as outsiders think it is. I would say that is self-evident. His point, though, is that they are not going to score every time they get the ball. Okay, fair enough. But maybe doing better than one touchdown out of five times inside the opponent's twenty yard line, or zero out of three with first and goal might be expected.

Balanced Reporting

Balanced reporting these days requires that both sides of any story be given, regardless of how cockamamie one side might be. A story has to include the “he said, she said” business even if “he” is a complete moron and is babbling nonsense.

Consider this excerpt from a piece in Harpers Magazine about Glenn Beck,

In the Von Drehle universe, helium might have two electrons, but then again, consulting the university of what’s it’s name, it might have 14. A more reliable answer probably lies somewhere in between.

No the “reliable answer does not lie somewhere in between,” helium actually does have two electrons. When “he said” disagrees with “she said,” it is by no means inevitable that the truth lies in between them; one of them may simply be an idiot or a liar, and wrong.

When one person says the Earth is round and another that it is flat, the truth does not lie in the Earth being some sort of oval. That the Earth is round, as near as makes no difference, is a thoroughly proven fact. The people who claim flatness for the earth are idiots, their numbers are so small as to be meaningless, and their side of the story does not really need to be presented in a news story about global warming.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Football Follies

The players and coach of the Chargers used much the same arguments as to why they lost to the Ravens yesterday; the loss of nose tackle Jamal Williams, and the fact that the Ravens kept using offensive formations that the Chargers didn’t expect and didn’t know how to deal with.

Well, I have a suggestion for the latter; you watch who gets the ball, and you tackle him. If the play is a pass, get in front of the receiver and don’t let him catch it or, alternatively, knock the quarterback down and don’t let him throw the pass.

Who cares what the damned formation is? Whoever’s in front of you, knock him on his ass and go tackle the ball carrier. And no, my helmet was not leather; but it didn’t have a face mask, so it was quite a few years ago.

Apparently, in today’s NFL football, everything is decided before the ball is snapped, sort of like the magnetic board football I had as a kid. You lined everything up and flipped a switch, at which point the board vibrated like hell and the little players moved around at random until you turned the switch off. Everything depended on how you lined the players up. We played that thing for hours. Need I say, that was before computers?

Of course, real players have things those little magnetic players didn’t have, like eyes and brains. Well, supposedly they do, although at times that seems questionable.

Manipulating Democracy

Karl Rove imagined a Republican Party permanently in control of Washington, and so powerful that it could implement its policies at will. He used some rather foul methods in pursuit of that “utopia,” and corrupted the White House and the office of President in the process. Ultimately he failed, in part because he is just not very smart.

Barack Obama doesn’t have a Karl Rove, at least we know of none and have no reason to suspect David Axelrod of being a Democratic version of one. (Although I consider Axelrod to be a rather slimy person and hit the fast forward key whenever he appears on my television screen. I watch Barack Obama with respect and enjoyment.)

Obama, however, does have his proclivity for meddling in local politics for the furtherance of Democratic Party power purposes. Attywood provides details of Obama telling the New York Governor not to run for reelection, trying to prevent a primary challenge for the newly-appointed New York Senator when she runs for election, and providing a heavy-handed support for Arlen Specter, Republican-turned-Democrat, in his campaign against loyal Democrat Joe Sestak.

None of this is supporting Democrats against Republicans (in one case it’s actually supporting a Republican in Democratic clothing against an actual Democrat), it’s the President working in primary election political machinery to deny primary voters of a choice. He is actually trying to keep Democrats from running in the Democratic primary election. His reason for this is to the effect that “divisive” primary elections weaken the Democratic Party, and that by running the primaries without competition the party will be better able to implement his policies.

Well two things. I seem to recall the Democratic Party Primary for the office you hold as being pretty competitive, and it looks like you still beat John McCain rather handily.

More importantly, as Attywood points out, democracy is an end in itself; not a means to be manipulated in pursuit of implementing the particular policies you favor. That was Karl Rove’s ideal and method of operation. It failed, as it richly deserved to do.

Obama's Military Problem

Obama has a big problem with the military. Even when Bush was still in office I noticed and commented on the proclivity of our generals to be issuing public statements that were less than in perfect agreement with presidential policy, but now under Obama the rift is open and quite hostile. You do not hear the phrase “Commander in Chief” as often as you did when Bush was president, and the military certainly does not act as if that title applied to Barack Obama.

The Obama Administration has made it more than plain that sending more troops to Afghanistan is not in the cards but Admiral Mullen is making statements to Congress that more troops will be required in the immediate future and now the military leaks the McChrystal report, supposedly made in confidence to Obama, in which he says that unless more troops are forthcoming at once the effort in Afghanistan “will likely fail.”

Of course Petraeus is silent. His mode is always to maintain a low profile and let others do the dirty work for him. A friend of mine in the military refers to his type as “high speed, low drag” types.

To me this is disloyalty bordering on treason. After not being reprimanded for his irresponsible statements about combat forces remaining in Iraq beyond the terms of the agreement signed off upon by his Commander in Chief, McChrystal now feels emboldened to make public statements designed to coerce the President into positions desired by the military, regardless of the political and/or diplomatic consequences.

McChrystal, his commander Petraeus, and Mullen need to be reacquainted with the principle that, in this nation's structure of governance, civilian government is in charge of the military. At the risk of sounding alarmist, the more these generals are allowed to speak publicly in terms which are at variance with the stated policy of their civilian authority, the closer we come to military takeover of our government. This needs to be nipped in the bud.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Getting It Right

So, Obama is weakening our ability to wage the “war on terror” with his closing of Guantanamo and his setting limits on torturing and all that, is he?

Under Bush we got wild-eyed groups trying to blow up the Sears tower from Miami by requesting combat boots from the FBI; we got guys trying to flood Manhattan, which is above sea level, by blowing up tunnels which are below sea level; we got some guy planning to blow up La Guardia by setting fire to a pipeline miles away.

My favorite was the two guys who were trying to blow up the Mackinac Bridge, but it turned out they were merely bootlegging cell phones.

Today we have Najibullah Zazi in custody of the FBI, who haven’t laid a finger on him, and he is talking about making a deal. The FBI is telling us enough about him to make it clear his arrest was a good thing, but isn’t doing a tap dance on the podium about how he was on the verge on bringing about the end of the world.

That’s how anti-terrorism should be done.

Obama is also weakening our national defense by not putting anti-missile missiles in Poland, leaving us vulnerable to attack by, well, by somebody who doesn’t actually have any missiles themselves yet but might have them some day. Depending on who you talk to, they might also have a nuclear device for the missiles they don’t yet have, but it’s unclear whether they could fit that device on their wished-for missiles. Nonetheless, Obama is really stupid to leave us vulnerable to that threat.

He’s also stupid to have made a concession to Russia, because no good ever comes of that. Russia always takes what we give it and never returns the favor. There is no evidence that Russia will do anything for us after we cancel the missile shield that they were objecting to.

Oops. Two days after Obama announces the cancellation Russia says words to the effect of, “That was a nice move and we appreciate it, so in return we’re going to cancel deployment of a missile system near Poland ourselves.”

Dick Cheney has returned to his undisclosed location.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Attacking ACORN

Glenn Greenwald has an in-depth and scathing discussion on Congress's cutoff of funding for ACORN at Unclaimed Territory. I'm not going to quote from it, because you should go read it. In short, Congress allows the looting of trillions of dollars by Wall Street for the benefit of the wealthy regardless of huge amounts of illegality and scandal, but cuts off trivial amounts of funding to ACORN for the benefit of the poor based on the trumped up charges of right wing activists. Go read it.

Enlarging The Fringe

Chris Matthews first segment on Hardball yesterday was a useful discussion about the issue of racism in political activism. The clip does not appear on his website, but in the segment he and his two guests do not fling accusations at individuals, but rather discuss what is happening, its import and what should be done about it. I thought it was useful because this ugly issue does need to be discussed.

He started with a clip of Jimmy Carter describing a political sign and a couple of slogans and saying that it was an inescapable conclusion that the basis of them was that Obama is an African-American. I agreed with his conclusion completely. Matthews then asked how we should deal with that issue, but did not specify who he meant by “we.”

One guest made what I thought was an excellent point; that the leadership of both parties has been botching the issue. Republicans are not distancing themselves from those who engage in this kind of rhetoric, and they should be doing so saying words to the effect of, “Those people do not speak for our party and we abhor what they say.” Democratic leadership, led by the White House, is trying to pretend that it does not exist, and they cannot deal with the issue by avoiding it. Their position is that they would rather be speaking about passage of a health care bill, and if they engage it will distract from that. Admittedly this may be a case where they cannot win, but I think they should still stand on principle.

Nancy Pelosi, and I am not normally a fan of hers, has spoken out rather eloquently, and her emotion was rather moving. She’s been there. She has shown some real leadership, and I hope the rest of the Democratic “leadership” will follow her example.

Barney Frank, who has an IQ in three digits the first digit of which may be higher than 1, is part of a discussion worth listening to in this YouTube clip.

What was absent from the discussion was the role played by the media, and my accusation would be that their role is to widen the fringe.

During sporting events, television has a policy not to show people who run out onto the field, whether clothed or not. The reason for this policy is that showing these people gives them the publicity they seek and encourages others to emulate them.

Yet television shows and endlessly repeats showing these protesters with their signs and tee shirts with hate slogans and characitures. They don’t show the people who are there demonstrating in a more normal, albeit angry and energetic, manner; their cameras are drawn to the dramatic and photogenic. In so doing I suspect they do two things; they overemphasize the degree of the fringe and, more perniciously, they normalize that type of display. People see those signs and slogans and it becomes “okay” to display such sentiment, especially when the media provides this coverage as “the opposition,” or as half of their “balanced coverage.”

Thus the fringe is enlarged by attention from the media. They make and carry those signs to get attention, and when the media gives them the attention they seek others come on board. I believe the media should treat them as they do those who intrude on the sporting fields; deny them the attention they seek.

Cover and discuss the issue, but do so with anonymity, and describe it not as opposition but as what it is, “hate speech.”

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Evolution of Unions

I am, generally speaking, pro-union, but there are caveats in that position.
I unreservedly support, in and of itself, collective bargaining. There is a type of union that doesn’t involve collective bargaining, however, a type that was actually formed in the Middle Ages and that I didn’t know still existed. I’m uncertain what I think about this form of union, even when it exists in a wholly uncorrupted form.

In the Middle Ages cathedrals and churches were built by masons who belonged to, wait for it, a union. It was called a “guild” rather than a union, but anyone who wanted a church built called the guild and said, “Send me some masons to build my church.” (Well, they wrote a letter to the guild because there weren’t any phones then.) In between jobs the masons hung around in the “guild hall” and drank mead, telling jokes and having a good time while waiting for the next job.

You know what’s coming next, don’t you. Those masons evolved into the clannish and secret group known for a while as “Freemasons” and today once again as “Masons,” the same group that has author Dan Brown in such a state of anxiety. All of today’s Masons are “suits,” and none of them could stack bricks if their lives depended on it.

Modern trades formed similar unions; pipefitters did, I know, and I believe millwrights. No doubt other trades did as well. That type of union fell out of favor, though, largely because it tended to become corrupted. Membership was supposed to be gained only by means of a test of skill, but people started gaining membership through patronage and graft. The jobs were supposed to be allocated on a “first in first out” basis, but that process also became subject to graft and patronage. Eventually the union movement became one of collective bargaining.

Recently a post at Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis was a letter from a reader describing a union in Canada on the model of the Mason Guild of yore, so apparently that type of union does still exist. The writer makes it sound like a pretty good deal for all involved, so… Read the guy’s letter and let me know what you think of it.

Mish responds by going off on government employee unions, which I think is a little unfair. While I lean strongly pro-union, I am overwhelmingly anti-government employee union. It would be interesting to compare what the writer describes to actual labor unions, but to compare it to the thuggish lobbying groups that call themselves government employee unions is nonsensical. Mish blasts government employees themselves, which is a little farther than I would go, but otherwise I would echo his remarks.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Elected Royalty

It seems I must join the legion of Obama sycophants, praising everything he does and acknowledging that he is perfection in the White House, lest I be accused and convicted of racism by Jimmy Carter, Keith Olbermann and Lawrence O’Donnell. In the previous administration, to criticize the president was to be accused of being un-American, in this one it is to be accused of being a racist. According to O’Donnell, it is incumbent upon anyone criticizing Obama to prove that their motive is not racial.

O’Donnell compared the criticism of the Clinton health care reform to criticism today of Obama’s plan, but he omitted to mention that the Clinton plan was not accompanied by ~10% unemployment, the stock market crashing, a stimulus bill and several trillion in handouts to Wall Street. It didn’t happen after 5000 deaths and billions spent in eight years of endless war, regardless of who started those wars. Context matters.

According to Jimmy Carter, an “overwhelming portion” of the demonstration against the policies advocated by Obama are based on the color of his skin. I have admired Mr. Carter for many years based on the tireless work he has done in pursuit of peace in the Middle East and advocating for fair elections throughout the world, but with this pronouncement I believe he is doing this country both injustice and harm.

Certainly there are people campaigning against Obama for reason of race. They are many and they are a disgrace to this nation, to decency and to humanity. But I do not see evidence that they are an “overwhelming portion.”

Mr. Carter’s statement that racism has raised it’s head is true to the extent that it is being advanced with impunity on right wing radio talk shows. It is incumbent upon people of decency to counter that vile utterance, but not to attempt to stifle it. There is a line from a movie, I have long since forgotten the source, to the effect of, “I despise everything that you have to say, but I will fight to the death to defend your right to say it.”

One defeats evil not by shutting it down, but by advocating good; by making the voice of good so loud that it drowns out the voice of evil.

Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews each spent almost their entire hour yesterday on the subject of racism, labeling virtually every critic of Barack Obama racist, and making every criticism of him a racial slur regardless of the actual content of that criticism. Upon seeing one racial sign in a crowd, they labeled the entire crowd a “racist crowd.”

There was one rifleman at Dealy Plaza in 1963; does that mean that the crowd of people in Dallas that day was a “crowd of shooters?”

Freedom of speech is not just a law that must be followed by government. Freedom of speech means that people must be free to speak without intimidation by authority or power of any stripe; be it government, corporate, media or military.

We do not elect royalty of whom none may speak ill.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Where’s the change?

An excerpt from the President’s speech on health care reform of Sept 9th,

Now, add it all up, and the plan I'm proposing will cost around $900 billion over 10 years -- less than we have spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and less than the tax cuts for the wealthiest few Americans that Congress passed at the beginning of the previous administration.

Notice that he doesn’t propose paying for the plan by ending any wars.

George W. Bush was the first President to start or significantly escalate an overseas war without requiring the American people to be involved in that war by at least paying for it. Not only did he not raise taxes, he cut taxes despite the cost of fighting a foreign war.

Barack Obama is the second President to do that.

Among the most significant things that Obama has done since taking office have been to escalate the war in Afghanistan, maintain the pace of the war in Iraq for a full year, and cut income taxes for 95% of the American people without raising taxes on anyone. He has not, so far, proposed reversing the “tax cuts for the wealthiest few Americans” which he criticized in his health care reform speech.

Where’s the change?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Fundamental Contradiction

A couple of days ago I wrote of some contradictions in President Obama’s health care reform speech. They were relatively minor but weakened what was, to me, an otherwise rather convincing speech advancing the case for insurance reform. The speech did nothing for health care reform, though, because it did not even address that subject.

Last year we had a major financial crisis which, pretty much all agree, was caused by a lack of regulation in the financial industry. Now we have a health care crisis and are proposing regulation to resolve it, but therein lies the fundamental contradiction.

We are proposing to regulate, not the health care provider industry which creates health care costs, but rather to regulate the health insurance industry which pays those costs. To make things even worse, proposed regulation consists of requiring those insurers to pay more and charge less. Those insurance companies will be required to pay out more money to the hospitals and doctors who are creating the bills for health care and, while paying out more money, will be expected to lower the premiums they charge individuals.

Make no mistake, I believe the proposed insurance regulations are morally sound. No person should be denied health care due to a present illness, and that is what our present system does. That must be changed. But these insurance reforms in the absence of regulations inhibiting the predatory behaviors of medical providers and drug companies is unworkable and utterly insane.

I’m with President Obama; reform is needed because a great nation is one which takes care of its people. But the proposals on the table, a demagogic mishmash of demonizing insurance companies and selling a program through a mixture of fear and greed, is just nonsense and unworthy of any nation which pretends to greatness.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Man On A Wire

Man On A WireOut of respect for the families and friends of those lost eight years ago I am deferring political posting today. Rent the video shown here, about the Frenchman who walked between the Towers. It is a charming and fun story, and it is heartwarming to see the Towers not only in their glory, but as they were being built. They had a uniquely stark beauty.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Joe Wilson Idiocy

Hardball was guest hosted by Mike Barnicle today, and his first guest was Sen. Jay Rockefeller. The first thing Barnicle asked him about was Joe Wilson heckling the president, and Senator Rockefeller said that he came on the show to talk about policy, that the Joe Wilson incident was nonsense and that Barnicle needed to ask a sensible question. Barnicle laughed and said, "I'm with you Senator" and then proceeded to spend the rest of the hour talking with other guests about the Joe Wilson nonsense.

Seems Wilson's heckling was more important than Obama's speech itself.

The Finish of the Speech

President Obama can still make my heart go pitty pat; can still make me want to grab a flag and go somewhere and wave it around.

The part of the speech that I was hoping for came at the end where, after speaking movingly of Ted Kennedy, he spoke to the character of a nation.
I liked the part where he said that "big government" isn't about controlling people or limiting business, it's about a "big heart." He challenged the nation to be the kind of great nation that takes care of its own. That's what
I wanted to hear.

I really enjoyed watching Joe Biden during that part.

Slowing the Growth of Costs

Most of the President’s speech was spent talking about the costs of health care, although he has returned to using the terms “health care” and “health insurance” interchangeably and as if they meant the same thing. I’m okay with what was left unsaid; an individual mandate with no explanation of the penalty for failure to comply, for instance. Fine, details still need to be worked out. There were some fairly serious contradictions in what he had to say, though, and those concern me.

We spend one and a half times more per person on health care than any other country, but we aren't any healthier for it.

Indeed we do. In fact, if you limit that comparison to nations of similar size, governance and affluence, we spend almost twice as much per person as the next highest.

United States: $7290
Canada: $3895
France: $3601
Germany: $3588
United Kingdom: $2992

So when the President states the goals of his “comprehensive health care reform” two of the three items concern insurance rather than health care, cost control is the third on the list, and look at how he phrases it,

It will provide more security and stability to those who have health insurance. It will provide insurance for those who don't. And it will slow the growth of health care costs for our families, our businesses, and our government.

A goal of "slowing the growth of cost" is a pretty pitiful goal for a nation that spends nearly twice as much as our nearest comparison. No thought to maybe reducing the cost, bringing that cost down to a reasonable approximation of what everyone else spends? Why must we accept this kind of price gouging by our health care providers?

Stability in insurance and cost reduction to consumers is going to be provided by strict regulation of insurance companies.

Under this plan, it will be against the law for insurance companies to deny you coverage because of a preexisting condition. As soon as I sign this bill, it will be against the law for insurance companies to drop your coverage when you get sick or water it down when you need it the most. Etc.

But the cost savings at the level of medical providers and drug companies seems to involve some sort of magic wand,

Now, because Medicare is such a big part of the health care system, making the program more efficient can help usher in changes in the way we deliver health care that can reduce costs for everybody. We have long known that some places -- like the Intermountain Healthcare in Utah or the Geisinger Health System in rural Pennsylvania -- offer high-quality care at costs below average. So the commission can help encourage the adoption of these common-sense best practices by doctors and medical professionals throughout the system -- everything from reducing hospital infection rates to encouraging better coordination between teams of doctors.

Notice that there is no, “It will be illegal to charge $325 to an insurer with whom you have a contract, and $937 to everybody else.” Or, “It will be illegal to charge $350 to warm a blanket.” The reform is merely going to “encourage” not doing that kind of thing. Good luck with that.

It’s difficult to comprehend how this,

And that is why not a dollar of the Medicare trust fund will be used to pay for this plan.

Is not to at least to some degree contradicted by this,

Reducing the waste and inefficiency in Medicare and Medicaid will pay for most of this plan.

This promise made early in the speech,

First, if you are among the hundreds of millions of Americans who already have health insurance through your job, or Medicare, or Medicaid, or the VA, nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have. Let me repeat this: Nothing in our plan requires you to change what you have.

Is followed by this,

Now, much of the rest would be paid for with revenues from the very same drug and insurance companies that stand to benefit from tens of millions of new customers. And this reform will charge insurance companies a fee for their most expensive policies,

Technically not a contradiction, I guess, because it does not require you to make any change. But if you have one of those “most expensive policies” you are going to see a change in what you have.

He also doesn’t explain how the revenues from drug companies is going to be achieved. The plan will tax charge a fee to insurance companies, but how did drug companies get into the picture, how are they benefiting from tens of millions of new customers, and how is the government obtaining the revenue? Leaving details to be worked out is one thing, but…

Tomorrow I’ll hit on the one really huge contradiction.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Cost of Health Care, cont

I recently had my attention recalled to an article in New Yorker about medical costs, an article that paints a group of doctors and hospitals as the culprits rather than insurance companies. It’s a good article; I recommend it to you. It rather dashes the popular “demonize insurance companies to solve the problem” meme.

The article refers to Mayo Clinic and talks about their philosophy of putting patient care first, then says that lower cost resulted almost as a by-product. It reminded me of a conversation I had with my nephew, who works in the IT field at the Mayo. He said that one of the things he liked about them was that when discussing the implementation of a new system the first question that management would ask was always, always, “How does this affect patient care?” The question of cost sometimes didn’t come up at all, and when it did it was always secondary to the issue of patient care.

I have been a patient at Mayo Clinic; I went there because I was having a medical issue and, after shuffling from one cardiologist to another in San Diego I was not getting any relief. Mayo found the problem and corrected it when doctors in San Diego could not. I absolutely believe what my nephew says about their management. I received a weekly schedule of my appointments and doctors were always on time. They would come into the room and sit down, and after asking me a question would actually listen to my answer. It’s the only time in my life that I didn’t absolutely hate being a patient.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Cost of Health Care

A commenter at another blog told of cutting his finger quite badly and having to go to the emergency room, where he got eight stitches. He paid a copay of $125 for the visit and, later, another $25 to have the stitches removed. The total billing for the episode was $1,800.00 and he paid $150.00 of it.

Note that billing; nearly two thousand dollars to have eight stitches in a finger, a process that took somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 minutes.

My question for those who claim that "America is being held hostage" by the insurance companies, is this; who is creating the cost, the hospital that billed that insane $1800, or the insurance company that had to pay it?

Insurance companies pay costs; they don't create them.

Julie & Julia

I don't usually do movie reviews, but my wife and I saw this movie yesterday and loved it. It was really fun, and Meryl Streep was more Julia Childs than Julia Childs was. I never watched her cooking show all that much because she didn't cook the kinds of things I'm into, but I enjoyed her personality and her love of cooking.

One warning, though, I almost had to leave before the end to head for the nearest restaurant. By the time the movie was over I would have eaten a can of dogfood. We got to where we were going to eat and I pointed to the menu and told the waitstaffer, "I'll have one of each. With extra butter."

Monday, September 07, 2009

Not Just My Chair

Computer CatSeems my computer chair is not the only one Molly has a proclivity for monopolizing. I think she may be a computer geek.

Good Response

From the comments at Balloon Juice, which is frequently even more entertaining in its comments than it is thought provoking in its excellent posts, regarding the "health care reform" debate,

Q: Why don’t we wait to hear what Obama has to say before screaming that all is doomed? And wait for the bills as well?

A: Because it is far more entertaining to have people run around with their hair on fire screaming about the apocalypse?

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Scathing Words

Bill MoyersAs scathing as Bill Moyers is in this denunciation of the current state of the “health care debate” there is a point that he, like everyone else, omits from the discussion of the debate itself.

“This is the fourth time in a decade,” he says, that Pfizer has faced major fines for fraud and malfeasance, and this most recent one is the largest fine ever paid by any corporation. Yet health care reform does not address the practices or the pricing policies of drug companies.

We all know why that is.

College Football Opener

The Georgia quarterback could not hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle. BYU wins over Oklahoma; what's with that? LSU beat Washington, but didn't impress me much in the process. The Oregon player is rightfully suspended for the year, but I don't think the Boise State player who taunted him should get off without disciplinary action.

San Diego State played UCLA... Well, they were on the same field as UCLA. They sort of reminded me of the Polish Army of 1939. I think SDSU fans are going to have to wait for basketball season before they have anything to cheer about.

ESPN is truely a horrible network. Gack.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Dishonesty Abounds

I know that it sounds like I’m defending the insurance companies as if I were some sort of Republican or something, and to some degree I guess I am. I recognize that health insurance is part of the problem, but it’s only part of the problem, and all I’m asking for is a modicum of honesty in this debate on both sides. Democrats decry the Republican lies about “death panels” and “government takeover,” but Democratic arguments are not a great deal more honest themselves when they claim that “keeping health insurance companies honest” is, in and of itself, any kind of solution.

Representative Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois, made that claim on Hardball Thursday evening, adding that, “They may not make such high profits and their CEO’s may have to cut back a few of their millions…” If United Health Care’s CEO Stephen Helmsley gave up his entire salary and worked gratis, UHC could reduce the premium for each of its policies by 4.6¢ per year. If they worked as a non-profit it would accomplish a bit more, reducing each policy premium by $41/year, about a 5% reduction, but that’s still a long way short of what we could reasonably call reform.

Keith Olbermann spent an entire segment based on a report from the California Nurses Association, which Rep. Maxine Waters presents as “a group of 86,000 wonderful caring nurses,” that claims that health insurance companies in that state reject a huge percentage of claims. The “research” was not done by “86,000 wonderful caring nurses,” it was done by a political group paid by the nurses union; a group which has been doing political campaigning for and against California Propositions for several years. Even in the toxic atmosphere of California initiative politics, the CNA group is notably and blatantly dishonest, so I believe absolutely nothing that they have to say.

The cost problem in our health care system lies in the profit motive, and it is not exclusive to the insurance industry. It exists to some degree at the level of physicians, and is rampant within medical service providers and drug companies, as well as in the insurance industry.

What Obama isn’t telling you is that he has already made a deal with the drug companies not to use the purchasing power of the government to negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare in return for them not using their money to advertise against reform. When Republicans determined that Medicare Part D would not negotiate lower drug prices Democrats were horrified; but now Democrats are shaping health care reform and negotiating drug prices in Medicare Part D is not part of that reform.

Democrats, in demonizing insurance companies, are taking the approach of trying to repair a system that is broken from top to bottom by destroying one part of it. A “reform” that simply makes insurance pay out more and charge less for doing so, public option or no public option, is nonsense. Medical providers and drug companies remain free to continue their pillaging and the system as a whole remains utterly unworkable.

Obama is going to make a speech next week to “clarify” this whole mess, but I don’t think he can; not if he is going to keep attacking the insurance industry and maintain the sanctity of medical providers and drug companies.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Make It Up On Volume

You're building a car that seats four, gets 20mpg, goes 70mph and sells for $20,000. You make about $600 profit on it, 3% margin, and you sell 50 of them per year, so you are making a $30,000/yr and feeding your family.

Now the government mandates that it seats six, gets 30mpg, goes 100mph and says that you must sell it for $18,000. The upside of that is it will bring you more business so that now you can sell 80 of them per year. Instead of a $600 profit on each one, though, due to government mandated features and pricing, you are going to take a $1000 loss per unit.

That's okay (insurance companies), you can make it up on volume.

Ready, Fire, Aim

Well, forget the “ready” part, because the Democrats were nowhere near ready to fight for any kind of health care or health insurance reform.

And, in their targeting of the insurance industry with their talk of, “being held hostage by insurance companies” and ranting on insurance company practices and profits, they didn't pick the best target anyway. Consider a bill I got this month for an MRI:
invoiceWhile there is every appearance of a scam being perpetrated here, it doesn’t look like the culprit is the insurance company. It looks like my insurance company told the imaging service, “We’ll put you on our preferred list and send our subscribers to you if you’ll agree not to rip us off.”

Is that same $987.85 charged to everyone, including patients with no insurance who will be paying out of pocket? Evidence suggests that it is, so if the $352 they are charging my insurance company is profitable, then the medical provider is making a great deal of profit.

If you study the income statements of the companies concerned, that turns out to be the case. Income percentages for insurance companies run between 3% and 5%, while percentages for hospitals and corporate clinics are more in the 17-24% range.

And we haven’t even talked about drug companies; their profits are in the range of 30% even after they pay billions in fines for false advertising. And yet Obama has already made a deal with them not to use purchasing power to negotiate lower pricing for Medicare Part D, extending the deal that the Bush Administration made.

So insurance companies make a 3% profit margin, medical providers make 20% profit and drug companies make 30% profit; and it’s the insurance companies that Democrats choose as the enemy of the people. Drug price reform is officially rejected by Obama himself, and reforming the pricing of medical providers is a subject that has not even come up.

It’s the insurance companies who need to change the way they do things, who need to pay out more in benefits and charge less in premiums and reduce their “outrageous” (3%) profits, while medical providers and drug companies are praised as being partners and advocates for reform.

Apparently the insurance companies had the wrong lobbyists.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Socialized Social Services

If your house starts burning the Fire Department comes and puts it out. They do not ask if you have insurance, or how much money you have, and they do not send you a bill afterward; they just put out the damned fire.

It wasn’t all that long ago that such would not have been the case. We didn’t have a public Fire Department, we had a bunch of private fire companies and homeowners purchased coverage from them. If you had not purchased coverage, your house burned down while all of the fire engines sat in the fire houses. How fast your house fire got dealt with depended on how good the fire company was that you had contracted with and how soon they could get to the fire.

So, why did we do away with the private fire companies and go with a central, municipal Fire Department? I’m glad you asked. We did that because the private fire company model wasn’t working very well; houses were burning down needlessly.

Tada! Just like private health insurance isn’t working very well now.

We used to have private police forces, too. That didn’t work very well either, so we went with a central, municipal police force. That also seems to be working quite a bit better.

Are you getting that fire and police protection for free? No, your taxes pay for the Fire Department that puts out fires and the Police Department that responds to burglary calls. If you don’t have a fire then your taxes pay to put out fires that somebody else has.

So why are the conservatives not screaming about socialized fire protection and socialized police forces? Well, because shut up, that’s why.

Obama's Vietnam

Keith Olbermann spent all of one segment and part of two others making snide remarks about those who are beginning to refer to Afghanistan as “Obama’s Vietnam.” He went on at length about how Bush has failed to win that war for seven years and Obama will have had only four years by the end of his term, and implying that the reference is stupid and everyone should shut up about Vietnam.

The part of the reference which Keith seems to have missed is that the stubborn pursuit of the war in Vietnam after it was apparent that there was nothing to be gained by doing so divided the country and dragged down a president’s popularity, and that a similar action in Afghanistan could do so again. Pouring money and resources into and expending lives fighting a war that the people of this nation increasingly do not see as worth fighting can make a president unpopular in a lot less than four years.

It is not reasonable to expect Obama to have won the war in Afghanistan after seven months, but that’s not the point. The point is that it is reasonable to expect that he might have stated some clear and reasonable purpose why we are there and what we are trying to achieve; to provide some reasons that actually relate to our national security and interest. So far all we seem to be doing is fighting and dying to allow rigged elections to be held, in which a very small number of people actually voted, and did so for a slate of crooked politicians.

Obama was against the war in Iraq. That was a courageous and principled stand that he took in 2002 and has never wavered from. He was opposed to the use of military force against Iran, notwithstanding his “all options are on the table” during the campaign. That was stand that he took on principle in 2004. That left him, though, with a problem when he decided to run for President; he had to show “strength on national security” and to demonstrate his willingness to fight wars. You simply cannot become President in this country without that.

And so he chose to promise to “win the war in Afghanistan," and here we are escalating a war which long since ceased to serve our national interest; fighting on merely in order not to be seen as having lost. Once again we are sending in a new commander who promises victory by the use of some new strategy; but the new commander cannot define that victory and his new strategy turns out to be the same old set of tactics with new names.

And already 51% of the nation thinks this “Vietnam” is not worth the price.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Los Angeles Burning

Los AngelesSatellite images frequently sort of blow my mind. NASA brings us this image of Los Angeles yesterday; click on the image for more details. Those are some big, mean fires. Probably only those of us who live in southern California can fully appreciate the significance of the fact that the smoke is blowing away from the sea, and not toward it.

Another Spurious Argument

While reading discussions on health care/insurance reform and the great glee with which advocates of reform demonize insurance companies, I keep seeing the claim that insurance companies make their huge (assuming that a 3.4% margin is huge) profits while they are "contributing absolutely nothing to the health of Americans."

Well, they must contribute something, because the consensus is pretty clear that if you don't have health insurance you don't get health care.