Archive for October 2013

When Life Goes Well

October 31, 2013

NBC released a new poll yesterday.  No surprise, releasing a poll is like printing money.  These poll’s message, however, was not a surprise although it gives reason for great concern.  Public confidence in Congress, Republicans, Democrats, and the President have all sunk to new lows.  So tell me something that is a surprise.

How about a new Snowdon revelation that NSA intelligence gatherers penetrated the Australian China Embassy in order to gather information on the Chinese while appearing to be Australians.  Pretty brave.  Pretty unethical and short term in NSA thinking.

Or, would you believe that Linday (yes I’m running for reelection) Graham is putting a Senate hold on all nominees including Janet Yellen for the next Federal Reserve chairwoman.  Why?  It seems Grahams clock is still stuck on Benghazi and until certain people testify before a Senate committee, Graham “holds” will stay in place, he says.

Dysfunction, mean spiritedness, and gross ignorance of what needs to be done, all describe the focus of the news we see and hear everyday.  Bummer.  Does anything go well?

Yes.  Last night in Boston, the Red Sox won baseball’s world series.

For sure it was only baseball but baseball has often been held up as a metaphor for the greatness of American life.  The Red Sox victory (from last to first, through controversy with dedication and hard work), for sure, could be seen as a metaphor what American life has been in the past, and more importantly, what life could be in the future… if America stopped shooting itself in the foot.

These low poll ratings are all deserved and all self inflicted.  The NSA intelligence gathering while necessary (given the world we live in), employed methods devoid of ethical and common sense considerations.  Ends do not justify means.  And, misapplying Senate rules meant to protect minority interests, damages both the nominees put on hold and makes the Senate a much smaller a deliberative body.

The Red Sox season and especially the World Series spoke to a different spirit and making possible what does not seem possible.

Healthcare Principles In Collision

October 30, 2013

There certainly has been heated, and at times, mind numbing disagreement over the Affordable Care Act’s nature and purpose.  To some, ACA represents a magnificent reform and to others, confirmation that the nation is headed towards socialism.  Both of these views miss the more fundamental question, “how can it be, in the riches country in the world with modern technology working everywhere, should basic healthcare be available to only those who can afford it?”

Let’s be clear, the question is not “should healthcare be free for everyone?”  Healthcare cost money and those who provide it must be paid.  How to pay for basic healthcare, is a fair question.  But let’s put that question aside until later and consider just the availability of basic healthcare now and under the Affordable Care Act.

The Affordable Care Act is a legislative attempt to provide basic healthcare coverage to all Americans.  The Act falls short of that goal but does extend the coverage compared to what preceded it.  So why the fuss?

News reports have focused upon the malfunction of the healthcare sign up website.  Reporters are breathless about the situation where some individual insurers who purchased policies since the ACA became law, will have to purchase new (and more expensive) policies because the ones they had purchased are deemed inadequate.

ACA opponents disingenuously are raking Obama Administration officials over the coals because the sign up rate is slow.  These opponents want to use Congressional Committees to investigate these matters.  They huff and they puff and assure the American public they only want the best healthcare for Americans.

Opponents have long put forward the view that basic healthcare coverage was a matter of individual choice.  Americans should be free to pick their coverage, including no coverage, these opponents say.  It’s the American way.

Individual choice allows younger and healthier individuals to say “no thanks” to insurance coverage.  This results in the rest of the insured pool to have higher healthcare costs higher insurance rates.

Individual insurance purchasers get his twice.  The higher costs for the pool (minus the younger and healthier cohort) further compounded because individual rates are higher than multi-person pools.   If an individual does not work for a business they in essence become a pool of one and must pay a higher rates than if they had been part of a larger employment group.  Hmmm.

Taking this a step further, an individual has a “pre-existing” condition, they will find most insurance companies unwilling to insure them, or willing but at an extremely high cost.  The consequence, not surprisingly, is that many who would pay for insurance do not and consequently, if they become ill and need medical services, face either personal bankruptcy or the prospect of using Emergency Rooms.  In both of these cases, the unreimbursed medical expenses are paid by the rest of us in the form of higher hospital, doctor, and drug company charges which ends up mainly in higher across the board insurance costs.  Hmmm

So, why are our political leaders having such a fruitless time debating the Affordable Care Act?

In my opinion, our political leaders fail to acknowledge the impact individual choice (to be insured or not) and the use of employers to provide healthcare insurance access has on everyone else.

Individual choice is present everywhere in America.  Some smoke, others run, and some are Vegans.  Some sky diver, others power walk, and some sit on park benches.  Americans makes thousands upon thousands of decision which in some way can impact their health and as a consequence impact their consumption of healthcare services.  Whether these life style choices offset each other is unclear but these are not the choices we can (or should) be concerned with.

Healthcare is a life long need.  Annual US healthcare costs is the sum total of what all Americans consume, young ones, old ones, and everyone in between.  Today this figure is close to $3 trillion or about $9,000 per capita.  The notion that a young individual could obtain a basic healthcare policy for $200 per month ($2,400 per year) means that someone else must pay more than $9,000 in order to offset the younger person’s lower rate.  There is no free lunch.

Most Americans receive the healthcare coverage through their employer, Medicare, or Medicaid.  Consequently almost no one in these groups can conceive of paying a family of four healthcare coverage at $36,000 per year.  So, to most Americans, there is little direct financial consequence for individual choice.  For those who buy their insurance in the open market, the question is quite different.

So maybe this political fight is just about how politicians see the public’s mindset.  Americans are for individual choice and individual responsibility.  They do not want to pay more because of someone else.  Health and healthcare, however, fall in a different category.  There can be no “individual” in modern society when it comes to healthcare.

Arguing whether the Affordable Care Act is a magnificent accomplishment or a utter failure misses the most important point.  Until the US adopts a “universal” healthcare delivery system, like found in over two dozen other modern countries, we will be arguing over who should receive basic healthcare coverage and who should be left to fend for themselves.   We will miss the most fundamental points that current healthcare costs are the world’s highest and the healthcare outcomes just mediocre.  Worse still, the US will be stuck with the financial outcomes that are slowly bankrupting the country, financially and morally.

Formulating Foreign Policy

October 28, 2013

The Cold War was both the best of times and the worst of times.  Communism versus Capitalism.  Which system would win?  American leaders believed that if American businesses were given the opportunity, they would convince the world that democratic capitalism was a superior form of government.

So, “containment” was the code word for America’s foreign policies. It was easy to understand.   In essence, American foreign policy was based upon the notion that if the Soviet Union and any other country that fell under the Soviet shadow could be contained (not allowed to further expand), that in time Communism would die.  Why?  Because its businesses would be less efficient.

For the most part this was a pragmatic foreign policy.   With US ships, planes, and troops, it allowed American businesses to have free range over most of the world’s population and geography.  To be sure there were plenty of white knuckle times, when America was close to pressing the nuclear weapons button in response to some provocation.  But as history has shown, cooler heads prevailed.

So fast forward.  Try and answer this question, “what is the basis for today’s American foreign policy?”

Consider the major American business successes.   Large traditional manufacturers like GE, DuPont, General Motors, Ford, Boing etc expanded from their US developed markets by exporting to foreign countries.  In time these companies built foreign plants, set up joint ventures and in many cases built their own foreign operations from top to bottom.  Keeping the seas open, access to key raw materials assured, and protecting against foreign appropriation of American assets underlaid US foreign policy.  What was good for these companies was good for America.

Now American business leaders are comprised of different types of companies.  Apple, Google, Facebook, or Microsoft are emblematic of this new group.  While their products have been hugely successful and world demand is high, all have engaged in multi-country strategies whereby they incorporate in dozens of countries primarily for the purposes of limiting liability and avoiding tax payments, not building revenue.  What type of foreign policy can this “tax avoidance” strategy justify?

Or consider, financial institutions whose “business” is manufacturing profits from bizarre derivatives.  In this game played in computers and in cyber space, money knows no boarders.

So what role should US foreign policy play, and how should this policy be formed?  Hmmm.

It should be pretty clear that Syria or Iraq with bombs exploding daily does not represent a challenge to US business (new or old).  It should also be clear that the Israeli-Palestinian issue need never be settled if the concern was how to support healthy US business growth.

And it can be easily argued that military presence in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan or any number of African countries serves no useful purpose if American business (including banking) growth was a justification.  Hmmm.

I do not know whether President Obama (or his advisors) have had thoughts like this.  I am unfamiliar with details of any coherent US foreign policy.  Compounding this problem, how does any government form foreign policy for businesses whose primary goal is to avoid taxes or banks whose loyalty is to a unit of currency and not where the currency is located?

I wonder whether President Obama recognized the true depths of the mess he inherited from former President George W Bush?

I’m Feeling Depressed

October 25, 2013

In fact I’m feeling quite well.  But when I consider the automatic response I make when I meet someone on the street… “hello, how are you?”  and I say, “great, I doing just great.”  Hmmm.  Feeling depressed somehow seems more appropriate.

But why?

It is a lovely October day.  Sun’s out, crisp temperature and looking around, everyday things look full of like and quite good.  Rowers are practicing for tomorrow’s “Head of the Schuylkill Regatta”.  Full of life and grace, what could be more optimistic?

Well let’s contrast this optimism for a dose of alternate reality.

The trails of our National Parks have been hardly disturb with new visitors since their closure due to the senseless and idiotic Government shut down.  How can one logically deal with politics where one party (maybe both) thinks that negotiating is better done by holding a gun to the other side’s head?

Now its time for “immigration reform” to fill prime time.  This issue is destine to go no where, too, due to the same type of “government shutdown” thinking.  The hoot is that House Republicans will show a deaf ear mainly because there can be no reform without a pathway to citizenship.  Citizenship is seen as more votes for Democrats.  Ain’t going to happen.  (And the real hoot is that with no movement on immigration, GOP Presidential chances in 2016 go with it.

Depression also has room for non-partisan issues too.  The Eric Snowdon-NSA scandal is a gift that keeps on giving.  The latest round of revelations involves the NSA listening in on private cell phone conversations of European Government leaders.  Big brother is out of control it appears.

Back in Philadelphia, public schools remain underfunded (like about $300 million).  In addition, those who graduate (only 50-60%) in far too many cases are unemployable due to inadequate verbal and math skills.  State Government has cut support for the Philadelphia School System and called for major changes to the Teacher’s contract as the price for more help.  What about the students?

The government shutdown, immigration reform, the NSA intelligence gathering, and even the Pennsylvania State’s lack of response to the Philadelphia School District pleas have the same themes in common.  Those opposed to the current situation feel licensed to wreak disproportionate damage on innocent standby-ers.  A second common theme is that the damage is done to others and those inflicting the damage suffer nothing.

Isn’t this depressing?

But wait, there’s more.

The Pennsylvania House Education Committee has just reported out a bill which would require all public schools to post a “motto” prominently within each and every school.  The motto is “in God we trust”.  This, of course, makes a mockery of the term “Education Committee” since apparently none have read the Constitution recently.  On a higher plain, forgetting the separation of church and state, doesn’t a “motto” seem irrelevant compared to schools graduating unprepared students?

And lets not forget the Republican controlled House will likely pass this measure as will the Republican controlled Senate.  Then instead of sending more financial assistance to Philadelphia Schools, the State can spend lots of money in a losing court fight defending their ridiculous action.

Hmmm, being depressed might be the appropriate response to “hello, how are you”.

 

Middle East Puzzle

October 24, 2013

There’s an old baseball story about a manager trying to defend one of his decisions.  It seems the game was tied with runners of first and second, one out.  The manager asks the gathered reporters what should the short stop do if the ball was hit to his right?  Should the short stop throw to third base for one out, or to second trying for a double play, or to first base for a sure single out?  About one third of the reporters picked “throw to third”, one third picked “throw to second” and one third picked “throw to first”.  There you have it said the manager, regardless of my choice, two thirds of you will find it wrong.

The story bears a more than slight resemblance to the Middle East.  What course should the Obama Administration being following?  As with this baseball story, what ever course the Administration picks, more than half of the Middle East players will be against the US choice.

Looking at Syria, it should be clear that the insurgents will be as bad a nightmare or worse than the current Assad regime.  They are unfit to rule.

Should Iran agree to certain concessions, and the Western powers accept these concessions and reduce the sanctions, you can be sure Israel and Saudi Arabia will be opposing any reductions in sanctions.

The clearest case for opposing an Iran compromise comes from the Saudis.  While the Saudis are Sunnis, they are first and foremost a regime that demands stability and status quo.  The Saudis are not in favor of popular vote (in the Middle East that exists today).  invading Iraq, aiding the Syrian insurgents, and encouraging the Muslim Brotherhood.  There were all actions the Saudis saw as very dangerous and totally misguided.

To a large extent, this is also how Israel see the Middle East.  Unfortunately, Israel did lobby for Iraq regime change and so its position is a little manufactured.  Also, the Israeli position versus Iran’s nuclear program is compromised.  Were Israel to say, if Iran gives up (and we can verify) its nuclear programs, we will do the same, there might be a basis for a brighter future.  Such a position would for sure put Israel in a less hypocritical position.  Middle East stability, not democracy, is what Israel thinks is in its best interest.

So that’s the lay of the land.  No matter what the Obama Administrations proposes, there will be a number of countries that object.  Hmmm.

Don’t forget, President Obama “leads from behind”.  In other words, the President tries to “react” to world events rather than precipitating them.  So how should he resolve the Syria uprising, the Iranian nuclear issue, the Palestinian-Israeli peace accords, the Iraq unrest, the Egyptian failed democracy, or pick any country in Africa’s lawlessness?

So, who again is worried about the delayed start-up of the Affordable Care Act web site?

 

Prudent, Or Just Being Realistic?

October 23, 2013

In today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, there is an interview with Senator Pat Toomey.  He was one of 18 Senators (along with Ted Cruz) who voted against the compromise legislation which has temporarily reopened Government.  Toomey said he was for reopening but against the pork spending that accompanied the reopening.  Was Toomey’s explanation prudent, or just being realistic?

Toomey faces reelection in 2016 and already Democrats are portraying him as a Ted Cruz disciple.  I suppose Toomey’s explanation is aimed at that sweet spot between Cruz’s “shut down, damn the injuries” and Toomey’s more “principled” stand “shut down, sob, sob, but I had to vote against the bill because it would not have savings to offset the debt increase limit”.  Toomey’s explanation also sits in the context that his former organization, Club For Growth, is full square behind shut down and default on the debt regardless of the consequences.

But Toomey is not the only leading Republican needing to step lightly.  Governor Chris Christy took a less combative stance versus same sex marriage.  Governor Christy originally objected to an appellate court’s decision that New Jersey’s Constitution guaranteed equal treatment under the law to all citizens and therefore same sex couples were being treated differently because they were denied Federal benefits.

The Governor withdrew his objection without comment.  Observers said the Supreme Court would have decided in favor of same sex marriage.  So was Christy’s decision “prudent or just being realistic”?

Hmmm.

If Governor Christy has any designs on the GOP Presidential nomination in 2016, he will have to withstand the evangelical conservative’s wrath because he did not fight harder.

If Senator Toomey wants to be reelected, he will have to overcome those who think government closure and defaulting on the debt are  unwarranted.

Of the two, Governor Christy has made the wiser bet history will reveal.

 

Good Government

October 22, 2013

The role of Government (Federal in this case) is oft debated and seldom agreed upon.  Social Security checks arrive on time and Medicare payments cover most medical costs for those over 65.  The Federal interstate highway system speeds us from place to place.  Federal Parks, Monuments, and Museums are a pleasure to visit.  Why would anyone bad mouth the role of Government?

Some are down on Government because they do not use this Federal Government output or that one, and simply do not want to pay for something they do not use.  You may agree with this point or find it wanting.  What you can’t agree with, however, is the principle of “not wanting to pay for something” determines whether we have good or bad government.

For example, the media reports intense feelings either in support or in opposition to the Affordable Care Act.  ACA is a complicated piece of legislation which attempts  provide medical coverage to all Americans (in conjunction with Medicare, Medicaid, and the VA).  ACA also claims it will get control of the annual Medical cost increases and reign them in to something more like the rate of inflation.  Is this a work of “good government” or not?

Hmmm.

At first one might say yes, especially when one considers the healthcare delivery system that preceded ACA.  If one is listening, however, to the dissenters, one hears that ACA represents the opposite of its goals.  Look for the American healthcare delivery system to produce poorer quality healthcare and more people to go about life without healthcare insurance coverage.

Hmmm.

The roll out of the Federal “insurance exchange” should give enthusiastic supporters reason to pause and consider again what dissenters have been saying.  While there are numerous excuses that could be put forth (like individual States not doing their share), it appears clear that the Federal web site construction management was second class.  Time may reveal causes such as how much “political calculations” versus technical competence played in “going live” with a system which the administrators knew would crash.

And there in lives the problem and opportunity with government.  Politics gets government to work on those problems Americans want fixed.  Politics, also, gets the work on these problems to also support other political goals such as favored group employment, pay back to supporters, or the acceptance of second rate administrators because they are loyal party members.

The Affordable Care Act is not a sign of “good government”.  Rather ACA is the sign of a national political decision.  The ACA web site crash, however, does reveal the potentially ever present weakness in government, execution.

The current problems (which will eventually be fixed… at some unknown cost) are not a sign of good government.   Rather, they are a sign of business as usual.  If President Obama wants to convince Americans that the “political” decision to adopt the Affordable Care Act was a good decision, he best tend to the execution of “good” government.

Bring Back Ear Marks

October 21, 2013

Ear Marks, the time honored procedure where a Congress member writes into legislation some provision that normally brings money to his/her district or often to a specific benefactor.  It makes any reasonable person gag to think that laws can have provisions which hide in the bills verbiage that have nothing to do with bill’s title or intent.  But the ways of Congress are sometimes mysterious.

With the rise of the Tea Party, “ear marks” became a bad word.  For sure many ear marks were ridiculous when isolated and highlighted.  But they served a purpose.

Congress members seek to be reelected.  Reelection usually requires a well off campaign fund as well as local discouragement to other potential challengers.  Bringing home the “pork” was the most proven method.

Ear Marks while sounding awful (and truly were shameful) did not cost a lot when compared to the size of yearly government expenditures or even when considering the annual deficit.  Ear Marks, however, did foster a spirit of “compromise” as well as a focus on must do legislation.  As long as there was an expectation that each Congress member would get their turn to dip into the public trough, Congress members could be kept in line.  Hmmm.  Oh, for the good old days.

Today it is less important to bring pork to the home district (although Defense appropriation still do this).  Today there are PACs which dump huge amounts of special interest money on Congress members desks… providing they are aligned with the ideological bent of their special interest supporters.

There has been much criticism of President Obama.  “He won’t engage with the GOP”, it is said.  These critics predict that there will not be any progress in Washington until the President engages.  Hmmm.

What should the President say?  Should he point out that the US is the only modern country that does not provide health care for all its residents and the health care it does provide is twice as expensive as other countries?  Should the President point out that illegal immigration is in fact a “Mexican” problem and that there are straight forward ways to gain control of new immigrants?  Should he say that undocumented immigrants already living here, say for more than five years and who have no criminal record, ought be allowed to become citizens on both humanitarian and pragmatic grounds (cost to send back and children who are citizens)?  Should the President say (again) the deficit could (and should) be closed with a balanced/shared approach involving government spending cuts (including entitlements) as well as new taxes?  Or, should the President emphasize that those bridges and roads which are crumbling are essential to a healthy economy and we need to find ways to maintain and improve them?

Just saying this again, I agree, is not “engaging”.  There can be no engagement unless others say something back.  In the olden days, the something was “I need this ear mark or that one”.  Today the dialog is written in some special interest’s back room.

The sad part of this is that ear marks are not the answer to the mess President Obama finds himself in.  The President is simply frustrated with the low intellectual level of Congressional discourse.  To his fault, President Obama prefers to say nothing rather than engage in clear demagoguery.  To say, President Obama does not suffer fools well might be an understatement.

I wonder whether Hillary will do better?

 

A Little Man’s Job

October 17, 2013

The “Little Men (and Women)” on Capital Hill high fived last evening as Congress finally passed compromise legislation opening Government and avoiding a debt default.  You would have thought these elected officials had passed Immigration Reform, Gun Control, and Tax Reform all in the same day if you thought about their behavior.  Wow, indeed.

As in most matters, the majority were silent.  The loud mouths from the right declared victory, while both Parties’ leadership praised the bi-partisan effort.  “It was really, really tough,” said Harry Reid.  Hmmm.

In a town where there seems to be little consideration of the consequences of Congressional actions, moving beyond this crisis can only be viewed as very temporary relief.  What earthly good did shutting the Government down and putting thousands of government employees in a cash flow emergency (not to mention the enormous inconveniencing of millions of Americans) do?  And even worse, what purpose did threatening default on the US borrowing power serve?  The GOP strategy was greedy, self serving, and suicidal.

Looking beyond the stupidity (not going anywhere) of trying to hold President Obama hostage by attacking the Affordable Care Act, Republicans did have other issues and concerns they though legitimate.

For example, there still exists no clear bi-partisan path to a balanced budget.  There exists no consensus on just how large a national debt is safe, not in good times like now, but in bad times which could come in the future.  Entitlements and health care in general elicit quite different views from Democrats and Republicans.  What would a reasoned, fact based debate look like?

And what about every politicians’ friend, Defense Spending?  If we can’t afford current deficits, then how can we afford the current levels of Defense Spending?  Would the GOP forego spending on infrastructure, entitlements, and other social safety net policies in order to afford a robust Defense budget?  And would Democrats just say, put it on the charge card?

Sadly, today in Washington we do not have locusts.  Instead we have elected officials acting as if they were little men and women.  The job seems too big for them.

 

The Budget/Debt Lessons

October 16, 2013

At a time of unrelenting frustration with Congressional governance, it is difficult to see any good that will come of this childish behavior.  What must foreign opposition think when weighing their strategic options to circumvent US national interests?  Domestically, what must Americans think when asked to follow laws they do not like but are told it is the “law of the land”?  Is there anything to be learned?

First we must recognize that this current crisis is just a moment in time.  The details of the October 17 debt limit deadline will come and pass.  Regardless of whether there is a technical default or not, the sun will rise and someplace it will rain.  And my guess is there will be another equally senseless crisis to follow.

Shutting down the government and possibly forcing a technical default will carry too much negative baggage to be a useful long term political tactic.  The Tea Party’s inspired political opposition will move on and find some other way to give its minority views air and if possible make them part of the political dialogue.

Remember, Congress members are where they are in order to increase their own personal net worth.  Congressional behavior which inhibits that objective will be rooted out eventually.

But what other lessons can be learned?

  • First, I would suggest we recognize the checks and balances inherent in our government.  While today, a minority are causing great disruption, they are doing their mischief within the frame work of the Constitution and the rules of Congress.  You do not have to look to far to see how other governments solve their irreconcilable difference.
  • Second, elections have consequences.  The Tea Party/Ultra Right are simply following through on what they promised when they ran for office.  One can agree or disagree with their principles, but the tactics they are willing to use should give all sensible people reason to pause.  The choice for Americans will be not just principles (like low taxes or less government) but methods (like stopping government service despite who it hurts).  A “casting studio” appearance couples with bags of campaign financing is no longer sufficient criteria to support the election of candidates.

The greater question is whether Americans will stop and try and learn from this crisis, or just move on to next Saturday’s football game.