Archive for November 2009

Way Off Base

November 27, 2009

The current rage surrounding a Washington, DC pending legislation is revealing how logic based upon wrong headed assumptions can go astray. The DC legislation will mandate the end to discrimination around sexual orientation. As a consequence, any employer who is funded by the District must provide health care coverage to same sex couples. The Catholic Church is outraged.

They claim they fall under this edict because they are contracted by the District to provide a variety of social services. The Church implies that they are innocent by-standers, just pitching in to help the District. Why should they be forced to adopt something they do not believe in?

The Church has said it will not comply and therefore will end its role in distributing these services. It claims it does this social work because of its long devotion to helping the poor (regardless of any particular belief they may hold). But when it comes to homosexuals who naturally make up about 11% of the population, the Church must draw a line. This seems not unlike the line they draw on women (who give or take make up 50% of the population) and eliminate women from any leadership role in the church hierarchy.

The logic behind this is simple. The Pope said so, and the Pope is never wrong. I think this is Way Off Base.

 

Our Commonwealth

November 26, 2009

Today we pause for Thanksgiving. It is a time when we can, if we choose, reflect upon the bounty that surrounds our lives. Family, good health, a warm and safe home, friends, and a positive outlook for the future are the signs we hope to see. Not everyone, however, can say their lives include these signs. Why?

There are many reasons, I assume.  The question I ask, is did those people have a right to the same bounty as others, or must they have “earned” it? If we were still “hunter-gatherers”, the answer would be simple. No work, no reward. It is the natural law of nature. The fittest survive, reproduce, and get to enjoy, and the rest do not.

We are long past the hunter-gatherer stage of evolution and live in the world’s riches country. Does the same criteria apply today? If so, what happened to our founding father’s notion of the common wealth?

Normally we think of earning our way by working at a job. But what if there are no jobs, or you are temporarily out of work? Is someone’s access to the bounty worthy simply because they inherited wealth and do not actually work? And what if someone is born into poverty, or has the bad luck of dysfunctional parents? Should they be required to “make it” before they can participate in the bounty?

It seems obvious that as our society has grown and prospered, the responsibility of the whole to the parts changes. Survival of the fittest no longer plays the same role of the hunter-gatherer. Much more of the society’s output actually goes for infrastructure and services that serves or supports the many. This effort is called contributing to the “commonwealth”.

The balance I think we are seeking is not an entitlement but rather a right to a piece of the commonwealth. In that commonwealth is health care.

Access to the commonwealth, however, does not come without responsibilities. Citizens must acknowledge their responsibility to add to the commonwealth as best they can. It could be through work or public service. Citizens also have a responsibility to not take more than their fair share of the commonwealth. This implies responsible life styles and taking only what health care as is needed.

I wonder what those who oppose health care reform are thinking this Thanksgiving?

 

Thankstaking Day

November 25, 2009

Washington, DC has wound down, and all the Congress members are hurrying home to be with family and constituents. Oh, and there may be a chance for them to visit a few sugar daddies and receive a campaign contribution or two. That’s why they call this Thankstaking Day.

For most in Congress, everyday is Thankstaking Day. They tell us that the cost of running for office is out of sight. They also tell us that campaign contributions are appreciated, even can get someone a personal hearing (if the contribution is large enough), but money will never influence their vote… because their vote is not for sale. The two Senators from Aetna (actually it is Connecticut), Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman, professed these words this week.

The persistent low opinion ratings of Congress are no accident. Americans may not know or understand everything that goes on there, but they can tell a demagogue when they see one.

While Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving Day and thinking about all they have to be thankful, we can also be sure it is Thankstaking Day for others. In one way or another we are the givers, and special interests and Congress are the takers. This will sink the American ship faster than the unchecked national debt unless we move to change the players or the rules, or both.  To be sure, Sarah Palin is not the answer.

 

Provincialism and Wayout-ism

November 24, 2009

C-SPAN showed last evening a production based upon Sarah Palin’s book signing visit to Cincinnati. The production showed in great detail the range and interests of the many people who attended. All thought that Sarah Palin was the one bright light for the future, and just as assuredly, thought that Barack Obama was the best example of what is wrong with the Country. I was struck by whether I was watching “provincialism”, or “wayout-ism”, or both.

Those seeking book signings were normal looking, normal talking, and otherwise everyday people who spoke calmly and self assured. When you listened carefully to what they were saying, it was as if air passed unmolested from one of their ears to the other.

They spoke of values (undefined), they spoke of integrity (no examples), they spoke of Palin not being like the others (with no reference to how), and they spoke of America’s path being in the wrong direction (without saying how relying only on only yourself would work in our complex society with large cities and for people without work or education).

When most people speak these types of thoughts, I consider them “provincial”, that is they are seeking what they think is most like themselves. It is possible in this respect they are correct. What is a mystery is how they can believe their ideas are good for everyone else. For example, being pro-choice does not mandate that a young woman in Ohio must have an abortion, while being pro-life does mandate that all other women lose their rights to reproductive health.

Demographics tell us that Central Ohio is not representative of all of America despite how good its people may be, or may think they are. More dangerous is that their view of what is right, may in fact be a better state given the assumption that they see as normal everyday life. The problem is that their view of life is not representative of America and does not comprehend the global nature of the world today.

Most dangerous is that the righteous sound of Palin’s rhetoric simply is no proof that it will work in today’s world. No one can be sure unless she has a chance to test her policies in the chief executive’s chair. That is the “wayout-ism” of politics.

 

Silliness of Rhetoric

November 23, 2009

The Sunday talk shows had a field day yesterday eliciting all sorts of sound bites. The conservative side fell prostrated with grief, only to rise and lambast the extreme cost of the proposed health care reform bill, and gratuitously blaming it solely on President Obama. The progressives decried any attempts to limit the so-called public options as well as any infringements on abortion payments like the Stupak amendment to the House bill. Given Sunday’s rhetoric, one is left to believe there is no bridge long enough to span this difference in views.

Republicans who voted as a block against the legislation should be looking in the mirror and asking where they found this new love of fiscal responsibility. Through the George W Bush years, Republican controlled Congress (for six years) voted on spending and tax cuts that resulted in doubling the deficit and handed President Obama a single year (2009) projected deficit of over $1.2 trillion. How can this group say the things they say?

While the public option is favored by a majority of voters, Senator Schumer of New York, knows that both the French and Germany healthcare systems operate very successfully without a government run option. There are simply other ways to reign in costs.

Each side knows the following and is doing a huge disservice to their constituents by talking trash and not facts:

  • The current health care delivery system is destined to double in cost within 10 years, and ultimately bankrupt the Country.
  • The current health care delivery system is most expensive per capita when compared to the rest of the industrialized world.
  • The current health care delivery system is no better than health care systems in other industrialized countries and in terms of life expectancy, is poorer.
  • The current health care system lacks incentives to improve health care delivery and cost reductions necessary to control costs and get in line with what others spend.
  • The public option is being proposed because there is no confidence that insurance companies will voluntarily reform and no confidence that Congress will mandate necessary regulations and controls on the for profit/large campaign contributing insurance industry.

Had the talk shows discussed these points, all Americans could have learned a lot and become much more informed. Instead, we heard silliness and worn out rhetoric.

 

The Prophets

November 22, 2009

Last evening the Senate passed a procedural measure that allows the debate on health care reform to take place. It required all 60 Democratic votes to pass the measure with several, never the less, saying that they would not vote for the bill in its current form. The “public option” seems to be the target of displeasure and unless modified, final passage seems impossible.

Now begins a period where “The Prophets” will hold center stage. Senators Fluster and Bluster will be there as will Joe the Lieberman mournfully worrying about the poor and uninsured while threatening to not vote for the final bill. Senator Mitch McConnell began yesterday as a Prophet, forecasting that if the bill passes, health care insurance will rise in cost. Mitch demonstrated that he can see the future.  He could have said the same outcome even if the bill does not pass. Health care costs are out of control and we should expect them to continue rising at 2 to 3 times the rate of inflation.   It is no one’s (who is part of the delivery/insurance system) interest to change. Fortunately the current system does care about the quality of health care and improving outcomes but why should we expect anything less?

While nothing is assured, it looks like a bill will eventually pass. The reform will end the discriminations due to sex, age, and pre-existing conditions, and mandate that everyone have insurance. This will be a seminal change (for Americans who are ignorant of the world around them) but it will leave cost control still unanswered.

To get at “costs”, Americans will have to wait for the next crisis. Regardless, when that day of reckoning comes, some will have to take a haircut. Insurance companies will need to become non-profits, doctor and hospitals will need to eliminate “fee for service” in favor of outcome payments, and drug companies will need to charge to pricing on the basis of “best world price” (where their drug is available no place else in the world at a lower price). If you think about this, you can see that there will be a lot of economic adjustments necessary, and that will not come easily.

I wonder which brave Prophet will come forward and explain this to Americans?

 

Trusting Big Brother

November 21, 2009

More and more political polls are revealing a growing section of the American electorate that are neither Democrat or Republican, no matter how they are registared. Instead this group is simply “anti-government. They distrust Government to do anything, and tie most of their personal ills to actions by Federal, State, or local government agencies. This is a critical signal and one which both the GOP and the Democratic Party should take notice, do some soul searching, and modify their behaviors quickly to nip this “anti-American spirit quickly.

But, what is the “Government” these people are so set against? It is any and all agencies paid by taxpayers and whose output issues rules, regulations, or mandates that in turn impacts ordinary people’s lives. The target of their anger tends, however, to be politicians, but in fact, what they object to is the actions of agencies manned by fellow Americans, people like them. Most of the objections seem baseless to either the conservatives or the progressives (depending upon the issue) but are extremely real to the anti-government segment. Logic does not enter this equation.

Our political leaders need to look in a mirror and consider what impact their expensive, negative ad structured campaigns might be having on people? They need to consider what their illogical and spin driven rhetoric produces in the minds of voters? They need to look at the hypocrisy their living “high on the hog” style has on others who are struggling to get by.

At the end of the day, most of these anti-government proponents are insecure and worried about their future, and don’t know why things are not as good as they thought they should be. These people latch onto movements and groups that have a clear purpose and promise a brighter future on some subject. Anti-tax groups promise reduction in personal taxes but fail to mention government services that will be absent and the consequences that could follow. The NRA promise unimpeded access to guns without telling the dark side of unlimited access to guns of any type, or any amounts. Pro-life groups layout a moral argument that the unborn must be protected but do not explain the unique rights of a woman to her own reproductive health (since women are the only members of our specie that can become pregnant).

Similarly with the current debates on health care, logic be damned. Instead of debating the efficacy of certain proposals, opponents simply reject the proposal with the message that you cannot trust government. “Government will deny you coverage”, or “Government will get between you and your doctor”, critics rage. How disingenuous can one be? “For profit” insurance companies have brought us both already, and at the highest cost in the world.

Health care is important but dealing with the anti-government illness is a far bigger concern.

 

Getting What You Wish For

November 20, 2009

Yesterday in testimony before Congress, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner received a rough reception. For someone who has been Secretary only 11 months, many of the Congress members have already made the judgement that 11 is too many. They better be careful because they may get their wish.

I am not referring to Geithner’s resignation, although that is always politically possible. The Congressional criticism seems to belong to two arguments. The first is that the TARP money (about $800 billion was authorized) was simply a sweet heart deal to bail out Wall Street, and has done nothing to create jobs. The second is that the country is badly in need of jobs, and Treasury has done nothing to prevent future failures.

There is no doubt there is a sense of fairness being absent in dealing with the leaders of Wall Street banks and investment firms. The suspicion, naturally falls on the relationship between Geithner and Sommers, and the Street. Congress has once more revealed its short term memory, forgetting that the collapse of Wall Street took place during the George W Bush Republican Administration, where not surprisingly the Secretary of Treasury was Henry Paulson, formerly the head of Goldman Sachs.

Congress appears also to be forgetting that the economy was overheated, largely due to an unsustainable housing bubble, when Wall Street collapsed.  There can be no return to jobs’ driven economic growth until banking is stable.  And to return to feast or famine, would really be short sighted.

It is my guess that historians will praise the TARP approach as well as the modest approach to stimulus spending. The return of a healthy economy needs to be built on solid ground. This requires (1) the banking system is stable, and (2) business fundamentals are put back in place without the irrational (but sometimes necessary) stimulus of cheap money chasing anything and everything. History will be unlikely to praise TARP if there is no subsequent improvement in regulatory controls.

If these Congressional whiners were to get their wish, we would have a quick boom followed by an even greater fall and depression. Steady as she goes is sounder advice.

 

The Fog of Rhetoric

November 19, 2009

Senator Joe Lieberman has begun hearings on the Fort Hood tragedy. When asked what was the purpose of the hearings, Lieberman said it was to determine how this “terrorist” act took place and what role Government agencies played (or as Lieberman has signaled, did not play). How can a US Senator start out an investigation with the conclusions already in mind?

“This is how rationing begins. This is the little toe in the edge of the water,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) at a press conference on Capitol Hill. Ms. Blackburn is one of many Republican politicians who jumped on the announcement that yearly mammograms for woman under 50 were statistically unjustified (unless indicated by the woman’s medical history). How can the Country discuss health care reform when a large number of people reject science?

In response to the announcement that, finally after 7 years, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind and planner of 9/11 would be tried in civil court in New York City, some sad and discouraging words were utter by voices reputed to be Senate Republican leaders. Senator Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., challenged Attorney General Eric Holder to say how a civilian trial could be the best idea, since Mohammed had previously sought to plead guilty before a military commission. South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham called the decision “a perversion of justice” by putting wartime enemies into the civilian criminal justice system. “We’re making history, and we’re making bad history,” Graham said. Republicans have also voiced strong beliefs in the “strict constructionists” principle where current law should be governed by the “intent” the founding fathers had. What are these people thinking? Our country was surely founded upon principles like “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed… (6th Amendment).

These public statements sadden me and dampen any hopes I might have had that common sense and Constitutional fairness might again rule the day. In the name of mob hysteria (that is premeditated public official’s use of fear to influence public opinion), Yusuf Islam, was denied entry to the US shortly after 9/11, and has been denied entry since. This seems a clear example of profiling because Yusef was guilty of no crime. He is a convert to Islam and has been critical of US foreign policy. But doesn’t the constitution speak of freedom of speech? Yusef Islam was born Steven Demetre Georgiou, son of a Greek-Cypriot. Most of us know Yusef as Cat Stevens and would like to have tea with the tillerman again.  Doesn’t look like much chance.

 

China, First Try

November 18, 2009

President Obama finished his State visit to China yesterday and flew onto South Korea. The news media has pronounced his visit a qualified success. President Obama did not commit any great faux pars, and did not commit the US to any obligations. He also did not score any huge or noteworthy successes either, they say.

You wonder why the news media would have expected some great announcement. China may be an emerging country but its Government Leaders are no novices. Besides, China is sitting with huge foreign currency reserves (we are not) and its overall economy is chugging along at 8% even in this time of world economic slowness (our is not). The bargaining power seems tilted to one side of the table.

The President is said to have brought up the strength of the RMB which still remains set at a fixed dollar exchange rate. The popular argument goes that a stronger RMB will make US exports priced in dollars more competitive with Chinese manufactured goods. It would also make the huge chunk of America debt China owns worth less too. Sometimes charity stops at home. America needs to look in the mirror if it wants to improve its exports and at the same time decrease its imports. Much of what China is making was once made in America.

The most important part of President Obama’s visit was discussed privately and certainly revolved around Iran and Afghanistan. China needs to understand that events in both of these countries are ultimately not good for China even though in the short term general trade (with Iran) and underground arms sales (to the highest bidder) might prove profitable. A nuclear Islamic world is just as dangerous to China and it economic growth as it is for the West.

The difficulty of this message is that the Chinese are suspicious. Why, in the past, has the US freely support insurgents, including the Taliban, and sold military munitions to any two bit dictator who could afford to pay? President Obama’s message must have been, “wait, there is a new sherif in town, you have to trust me”.

While that is the best I can think of saying too, it is also the advertising tag line of Microsoft new operating system “windows 7”. I think it will take the President a few more trips to China before he (or we) can expect any verbal progress.