Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Healthcare Summit - Smoke But No Fire

      The much ballyhooed healthcare summit between President Obama and the Republicans generated quite a bit of heat, but little fire. Pundits from both the left and the right are claiming their side “won,” but is that what is really important? Is this a war? Both sides scored a few brownie points with their constituents, but what about those members of the American public that have no health insurance? As usual, they lost.
      The Republicans came into the meeting shouting “start over,” and never budged, while the President kept calling for bipartisanship, and he was just a voice calling in the wilderness. To be honest, he didn’t offer any compromises either. The whole meeting was just a “tempest in a teacup, signifying nothing;” an exercise in political posturing.
      So where do we go from here? I may be slightly overstating the standoff; this morning’s news reports that the President has approached Senator Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to submit details of suggestions he made at the summit for rooting out fraud in the medical system. In addition, a pair of retiring Democrats who opposed the legislation when the House approved it in November appear willing to reconsider.
      One very complicated sticking point has been the language banning federal financing for abortions, and some Democratic supporters of the ban have indicated an openness to different language.
      The possibility of getting the 60 votes required to avoid a filibuster in the Senate is about as likely as reelecting George Bush to a third term, so the Democrats are considering the process of “reconciliation,” which requires only a simple majority.
      Under this process, the House would have to pass the Senate’s healthcare bill without change, and then each house would have to pass another bill that would embody any compromises agreed to during negotiations. The Senate would need only 51 votes to enact the bill into law.
      Republicans are, of course, crying foul, deliberately ignoring the fact that since 1981, 17 of 23 reconciliation bills have been signed by Republican presidents. We shall see if the Democrats decide to adopt this procedure in an election year, especially since public opinion polls are running unfavorable for the use of the process.
      Congress should be ashamed that such an important piece of legislation has become mired in a swamp of political bickering. As one writer put it, “Our healthcare system could be fixed by smart public-spirited people in a weekend…” Apparently we have not elected any people like that to Congress.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Future Problem Solved

autostumble      Several days ago a few of us were solving the world’s most serious problems over coffee and dessert, when the subject of obituaries came up. (You can tell what we consider to be serious world problems.)
      I believe the subject arose because someone mentioned an obit two full columns in length, which had appeared in that morning’s newspaper. The writer mentioned everything from the deceased’s having shoveled snow for his neighbors at the age of nine, to his career as a distinguished textbook author and educator. We agreed that it was probably a self-written obit because no one other than the man himself would have known all the intimate details included.
      Someone asked me if I was going to write my obit. I have thought about it since then, and I have decided that it’s a good idea. I will mention everything from the time I read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica at the age of four, through my post-graduate degrees in nuclear physics and rocket science from MIT, and on to my distinguished career as the President of the United States and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Might as well toot my own horn a little bit.
      Hey, it’s my obit, and I can write what I want. (I am sure that many people who know me will be willing to make little corrections here and there.) Besides, I won’t have to listen to what people are saying.
      Since newspapers charge handsomely for obits these days, whoever is handling my affairs at the time can ascertain the price of printing my “novelette,” and make enough deletions to get it down to a reasonable cost. Like, maybe zero.
      Seriously, the paper lists all deaths, but some are asterisked to indicate that no obit appears. I thought perhaps the names were listed before the obit was prepared, but I found out that in many cases the family had just decided not to print one. I could go for that.
      Getting back to our problem solving group, the subject then shifted to the pictures accompanying some obits. Solly Needleman, age 93, passed into rest, yada, yada, yada. The obit photo is Solly’s high school graduation picture! Sometimes another picture portrays Solly at a later, not necessarily recent, time. What’s the use? Neither one looks like Solly. If they printed one that looks like him at the age of 93, he would be mortified.
      I have often thought that a memorial service should be a celebration of the deceased’s life. That’s what I want , complete with wine and cheese. And no pictures, please.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

For the Last Time

      Yesterday I wrote about the first time events occur. These occasions are often easy to recognize, although in some cases considerable time has to pass before we realize that it was indeed a pioneer event.
      But while writing about first times, I recalled something I had written some years ago about last time events. This was written while we were living in California:

      Barbara and I have often passed a very old Asian gentleman who takes daily shuffles around our development. I say shuffles, because he moves the heel of one foot even with the toe of the other when he walks. His progress is very slow – we usually meet him, walk completely around the development, and meet him again about half a block from where he was before.
      We always say “Good morning” to him, and he always smiles and tips his cap to us. Barbara has noticed that he has to shift his cap (which he usually carries) from one hand to the other, and she thinks he may have had a stroke of something so that he cannot raise his one hand.
      A few days ago he seemed to be having a serious problem. He was standing in the street, and an Asian lady and a security policeman were supporting him. I don’t know what happened because we didn’t want to stare at him, but we did see the Asian lady running up the street when we got around the development. We have not seen him since. This got me thinking about things that have happened that we didn’t realize was the last time.
      I used to meet my friend, Harvey, for breakfast at Knott’s Berry Farm about once a month. I knew he had prostate cancer, but he said it was under control. One time we didn’t call each other for a few months, and one day I received a call telling me he had died. I believe I would have treated him differently if I had known that last breakfast was the last time I would see him alive.
      In 1984 we visited Barbara’s parents in September. Her father died in January, 1985. Because of weather problems, the airlines were not able to get us to Pennsylvania in time for the funeral. I am sure we would have felt differently about leaving in 1984 if we had known that was the last time we would ever see him again.
      I don’t get to see my grandchildren very often. I believe the last time I saw Heidi was in 1992, when her mother brought her and her brother to visit me at the office where I was working. In 1994 I received a phone call from her alerting me that the infamous O.J. Simpson slow chase was passing close to my house at that very moment. She was watching it on television.
      I received occasional letters from her, and I answered them very sporadically. On Oct. 2, 1997, the day after her 17th birthday, she was killed in a collision with a truck. How I regretted all the occasions when I could have made more effort to communicate with her. I certainly never dreamed that her visit five years earlier was the last time I would ever see her.
      It doesn’t have to be a death to change the way we would look at the “last time” for some event, if we knew it was the last time. When I lived on the farm, I loved playing in the “woods.” I can’t remember the last time I played there, and I wish I could. I went back for a visit some time ago, and it was so grown up with briars that I couldn’t even get in for a nostalgic look around.
      We never know when we will be seeing someone for the last time, or some event will be for the last time. Perhaps we would look at things much differently if we kept that in mind at goodbyes, movings, etc.
      I am not advocating tears and gnashing of teeth with every goodbye. I only suggest that we attempt always to part with feelings of respect and goodwill.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

There's a First Time for Everything

      Along with most of the world, I have been watching the Winter Olympics. Seeing the athletes, particularly skiers and snowboarders, flipping, twisting and turning through the air has got me to thinking about the first person to do certain things.
      For example, think about the first person to do a flip, a spin or a twist on skis. He was gutsy enough, but how about the first guy to combine them into one jump. What was he thinking? Would you do it? Neither would one person in a thousand.
      The same applies to the first person to navigate the half-pipe in snowboarding. And the snowboarder to do all those flips, spins and twists for the first time.
      I went to Youtube to review Dick Button’s gold medal performance in 1948. It looks a bit anemic today, but the jumps he performed were firsts for a new era in ice skating.
      Getting away from athletes, think about Alan Shepard, the first American in space. And John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth. Or Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin, the first men on the moon.
      More mundane things have firsts too. Many musicians have duplicated Benny Goodman’s clarinet solos, but he was the first.
      Dizzy Gillespie recorded the first bebop solo on Little John Special in 1942.
      And how about Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the forerunner of, for example, the unforgettable Jaws music?
      There are, of course, many firsts closer to home than these public firsts. Remember the first crush you had? How about your first formal dance? Your first kiss? Your first…whatever?
      But you get the idea.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Extremism Doesn't Pay

      On Thursday, February 18th, Joseph Stack deliberately crashed his small plane into a building housing IRS offices in Austin, Texas. Before taking off he set fire to his own home.
      On his web site Stack left a long tirade, in which he managed to blast just about every organization he could think of: the government, the Catholic Church, and of course, the IRS among others.
      He had apparently gotten himself into trouble with the IRS several times in the past, and of course the complexity of the Tax Code came in for particular attack, along with the "political representatives (thieves, liars, and self-serving scumbags is far more accurate)” who “don’t see [simplifying it] as important as bailing out a few of their vile, rich cronies.”
      Stack saves some of his invective to lambast “the incredible stupidity of the American public; that they buy, hook, line, and sinker, the crap about their ‘freedom’… and that they continue to do so with eyes closed in the face of overwhelming evidence and all that keeps happening in front of them.”
      During the course of his harangue he has words to say, none of them complimentary, about both the political left and the political right.
      Because of his inclusion of just about everyone in his manifesto, Stack could hardly be wrong on everything he said, but what was to be gained by his suicidal action? Stack said he is dying for freedom. He hopes that others will follow his lead until the numbers add up to the point where the “American zombies” will wake up and revolt for freedom.
      His explanation was, “I saw it written once that the definition of insanity is repeating the same process over and over and expecting the outcome to suddenly be different. I am finally ready to stop this insanity.” And with his vindictive mission he proceeded to carry the insanity to extremes; as a result any worth while points in his message will be ignored.
      Although working within the system to change it is a Promethean task, it is the only way it can be accomplished. And as long as our representatives vote against the other party instead of for what is right for the country, it is probably an impossible job.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Obama Finally Makes A Move

      President Obama has finally presented a healthcare plan that he would like to see enacted. It’s about time – if he had done this months ago we would have a plan by this time.
      Instead he has been leaving it up to Congress to develop a plan. That’s about as likely to happen as finding a herd of cats forming a straight line. So much for leadership. Anyway, as of February 22nd he has finally decided to take the reins.
      His plan makes a few changes to the Senate plan which was passed a few weeks ago. It would cover 31 million presently uninsured people.
      Almost everyone would need to either have insurance or pay a fine. Exceptions to the fine would be available for certain low income people; they would receive generous subsidies to help them buy insurance.
      Certain reforms would be mandated for the insurance industry, e.g., no one could be excluded because of prior medical conditions, and the government could step in to block unfair rate hikes.
      The “doughnut hole” in Medicare prescriptions would be closed, and the tax on high-cost plans would be delayed until 2018.
      Small businesses, the self-employed and the uninsured could pick a plan offered through new state-based purchasing pools called exchanges. The public option is gone, as are some of the special deals the Senate had allowed to certain of its members in order to get their approval.
      The issue of abortion is left open in the President’s plan. Suffice it to say that neither pro-life nor pro-choice advocates will be happy with the language.
      Well, we wouldn’t want it too easy, would we?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Stimulus101

      I have written before about the fact that the success of a republic is dependant upon having an enlightened electorate (See blog of Jan. 24, 2010). But the more I see of the public reaction to the stimulus bill, the more I realize that the electorate has been kept in the deep shade.
      Most economists agree that the stimulus was the right thing to do, and that it prevented a bad recession from sinking into one much worse. Private sector analyses estimate that ultimately it will preserve or create 2.5 million jobs. Why, then, has it got such a bad rap?
      It’s not that the administration has not tried to get the message across; it’s just that the Beck, Hannity, Limbaugh, Palin crowd (BHLP) has shouted louder to get a skewed version across.
      Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
      I do not mean to imply that the most strident voices of the right are Nazis, far from it, although Limbaugh has not hesitated to apply the epithet to others. (At times the controversy raised by the term “Feminazi” in his 1992 book “The Way Things Ought To Be,” caused him to back away from its use. In 2005, however, Limbaugh defended his use of the term: "I haven't used that term on this program in years. But it still gets to 'em, doesn't it? And you know why? Because it's right. Because it's accurate.") However, I find it hard to believe that these people can be as ignorant, with the possible exception of Palin, of Economics 101 as they appear to be. But I digress.
      The BHLP would have us believe that once a stimulus dollar is spent, it’s gone forever. It’s like throwing diamonds down a dry well. The government has thrown money away, and will eventually be required to print more money in order to recoup it.
      But it’s not like that. Suppose you get a dollar, never mind where from; what do you do? You spend it. If it’s for a product, some manufacturer has to buy raw materials and supplies, and hire employees to produce it. Even if you buy a service which has no redeeming value, say, for a prostitute, that person will spend it for something which someone will have to produce.
      If you just put the dollar in a bank, the bank now has a dollar to lend to a business to produce something, which requires materials, employees, office supplies, fuel, etc. Whether you spend it or save it, the stimulus dollar will multiply to the point where enough tax revenue will be generated to pay off the original outlay.
      Of course, the government wants to spend the stimulus dollars on projects which are highly labor intensive, e.g., education, infrastructure, construction, household tax cuts, etc. (See the blog of February 7, 2010). The more jobs that are created per dollar spent, the quicker this recession will end, and the sooner the money will be available to repay the outlay.
      Now suppose the government did nothing; 2.5 million more people would be out of work. None of the money those people would earn will be buying products or services, which would result in even more job cuts. The economy would spiral down and down to stop…where?
      Which scenario do you prefer?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Medicare On the Block

      President Obama has included an amount of $371 billion over ten years to pay for the cost of preventing the reduction of Medicare payments to doctors. It may well do that, but in essence it freezes those payments for the next decade. I would expect that will not sit too well with the medical profession.
      Not only that, but he has left the details of the freeze up to Congress. Considering the politicians’ penchant for pork, that could be a disaster for MDs who do not live in the district of a powerful Congressman.
      Regardless of any other healthcare reform, it is a foregone conclusion that certain Medicare plans, in particular the so-called Medicare Advantage plans, will see changes in the near future, in the form of cuts in reimbursements to insurance companies and other providers. Undoubtedly MA customers will see substantial increases in cost and decreases in service.
      To give credit where credit is due, the President had to do something; without some action the cost of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will soon reach the breaking point. If the details can be worked out, perhaps they can be managed, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
      So what is happening across the aisle? The Republicans were dragged kicking and screaming into Medicare in the 1960s, and ever since the glory days of Ronald Regan they have been scheming to get rid of it.
      One would think they would enthusiastically endorse plans to reduce spending on Medicare, e.g., the establishment of information-gathering panels (Sarah Palin’s “death panels”) to determine what treatments are most effective for specific medical conditions.
      Yet Mr. Republican, Newt Gingrich himself has said, “Don’t cut Medicare. The reform bills passed by the House and Senate cut Medicare by approximately $500 billion. This is wrong.” (Actually the Obama budget anticipates $400 billion in savings.) Is it hypocrisy, or is something else going on?
      Look no further than Congressman Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap For America’s Future.” Under the plan, if one is presently under the age of 55, forget Medicare. You will get a voucher which you must use to get your own plan. If the cost of the plan goes up in the following years, that’s too bad.
      For those 55 and older, they will be eligible for traditional Medicare, except for the fact that the Roadmap, “strengthens the current program with changes such as income-relating drug benefit premiums to ensure long-term sustainability.” The Congressional Budget Office translates that to, “Some higher-income enrollees would pay higher premiums, and some program payments would be reduced.” In short, there would be Medicare cuts. Within a few years of inauguration of the Roadmap, Medicare would be slashed out of existence.
      So the secret behind the sudden enthusiasm for Medicare is not a change of heart; it’s just the same old Republican desire to kill it. Obama’s plan, although perhaps a little late, would hopefully put Medicare on a healthy diet; the Roadmap For America’s Future is specifically designed to starve the beast to death.
      It’s hypocrisy after all!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Inspiration

      One of my Facebook friends, who happens to be a motivational speaker, contributes a daily inspirational comment on the wall. Her thought for today is, “Winter is on its way out. Shovel what you can to clear the sidewalk of your life. Spring - and new growth - is coming soon...look for the new opportunities budding in your life.” That is a good idea anytime.
      I have proof that she is correct regarding the departure of Old Man Winter. Although there is still a foot of snow on the ground, and it is piled up six feet deep along the highways, there are some places where it is not so deep, e.g., sheltered spots or places where the wind has blown it away. In some of those spots, the daffodils and crocuses are beginning to poke through. I can hardly wait.
      For inspiration, however, one need look no further than the Winter Olympic Games now showing on NBC. Take your cue from the kids – skaters, skiers, snowboarders, etc. – who have worked their butts off for years, only to get to the games and fall down on their first time out. In a split second, their hopes for gold are gone. Heartbroken though they must be, invariably they get up and finish their event.
      And consider the decision of the fellow Olympians of the Georgian Luger, who was accidentally killed during a practice run, to finish the competition.
      I can think of nothing more inspirational.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Always Finish the Sentence (Tacitly)

      A few days ago during a discussion I was having with a correspondent on the internet, I got a bit dogmatic. He politely corrected me; a correction which I accepted and for which I apologized. Then I wrote, “In my belief system one should always tacitly add ‘in my opinion’ to any sentence I utter.”
      He answered, “In my belief system one should always add rolleye smileys to any statement I make.”
      Alfred Korzybski (1879 – 1950), a Polish-American philosopher and scientist, founded the study of general semantics. If you have come across the statement, “The word is not the thing,” or, “The map is not the territory,” you are familiar with two of his favorite sayings.
      It was Korzybski’s contention that no matter what or how much one may say about any thing or event, something will be left out of the description. For example, you can describe the texture of a fabric all day, but it is not the same as picking up the material and holding it in your hand. Also, no matter how detailed a map you prepare, it is not the same as getting out on the highway and driving the route.
      For this reason, he advocated that one should tacitly add “etc.” to any statement, thus indicating that there is more to it than has been said.
      So please feel free to treat anything you read in this blog accordingly [etc., in my opinion, rolleye smileys].

Monday, February 15, 2010

More Ideas From the Right

      I believe that listening to ideas from the right side of the aisle is a good idea, and I certainly hope that the bipartisan healthcare summit to be held on February 25th does not degenerate into political posturing and name-calling by either party. Not all ideas put forth by either Democrats or Republicans are necessarily born without blemish, but almost all deserve some consideration.
     One good idea from the right is to make health insurance available across state lines. Here is a true life example:
      When Barbara retired, she lost the health insurance that came with her job. When she applied for private coverage, it was denied because she was taking two blood pressure medicines; if she had been taking only one, she could have got it. So she opted for the high-risk coverage offered by the state of California, at a cost of almost $900 per month; upon moving to Pennsylvania, the same coverage was $240 per month. Interestingly, the price of the medicines in Pennsylvania was slightly less than it was in California even though they were identical. Go figure.
      The right has also pointed out that if you insure 40 million more people, you are going to need a lot more doctors and nurses. Their solution is to phase in reform gradually; let the presently uninsured wait and wait and... That might work, but I see at least two problems: people would continue to die for lack of insurance, and there is no reason to assume that the training of medical personnel would increase along with the patient load. Nevertheless, the point is well taken, and needs to be addressed.
      I suggest that an incentive is needed; perhaps generous scholarships could be available for student MDs and RNs. It is also worth considering extra allowances for those willing to serve in low density areas for, say, five years after graduation.
      Also the value of nurse practitioners as gateways to the system should not be overlooked, particularly in rural areas. Training NPs is faster and far less expensive than training new MDs. An emphasis on such training would cut years off the readiness of the healthcare system to absorb new patients.
      Also on the Republicans’ agenda is a discussion of cost control for Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. I shall discuss those at a later time. Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

More Healthcare Savings

      In my blog A Good Idea From the Right of 02/13/10, I mentioned the cost of preventive medicine which physicians are almost compelled to perform in order to avoid litigation. Without doing something to mitigate this problem, healthcare costs will continue to rise.
      In a nutshell, what makes this cost difficult to control is that medical suppliers are paid according to the number of procedures they perform. The more procedures they perform, the more they get paid.
       Republicans are concerned that the establishment of information-gathering panels (Sarah Palin’s “death panels”) to determine what treatments are most effective for specific medical conditions would result in government micromanagement of the healthcare system. The fear is that such management would lead to the rationing of treatment by government bureaucrats. In fact, Senate Republicans recently introduced "antirationing" legislation to bar the government from using comparative-effectiveness research, "a common tool used by socialized health-care systems," for cost control.
      My own expectation of this is that in the worst case scenario, treatment might be rationed by the same accountants and actuaries who now perform this function for insurance companies. For those who presently do not have health insurance, rationing is on the basis of how much money one has.
      But this need not be the case. Such panels could simply collect evidence-based information and pass it on to doctors. In discussions of various courses of treatments to follow, patients would be able to compare the effectiveness of the options available. As long as physicians are not required to follow the guidelines, I don’t see why both Democrats and Republicans wouldn’t vote for it, although it is likely that Republicans would raise their passé specter of “spend, spend, spend.” This in spite of the likelihood that huge savings would follow as a result of the elimination of countless unnecessary procedures.
      One hurdle which needs to be overcome is the hodge-podge of information gathering systems presently in use. A standardized electronic network needs to be established in order that the efficacy of various treatments reaches the panels, and is disseminated to doctors in a timely fashion, without compromising patient privacy. To this end, a massive amount of work remains to be done.
      However, without incentives to use it, information alone will not lead to reform. Obama wants to make evidence-based medicine financially attractive so that providers are rewarded rather than punished for reducing readmissions and unnecessary procedures. "We can't just do research and let it sit on a shelf," Budget director Peter Orszag says.
      Incentives suggested are extra reimbursements for providing primary care, prevention and computerization, and discouraging wasteful preventive medicine by limiting malpractice lawsuits when doctors have followed the recommended practices.
      But the biggest savings depend upon changing the way Medicare reimburses providers. For example, reimbursements for following proven treatments could be increased; if patients want alternative treatments they would have to pay for them themselves. If Medicare leads the way, insurers will follow.
      One last thought: The key to changing the system is the mindset of medical providers. No one should be surprised if they fight tooth and nail to keep the current “pay for procedures performed.” It’s part of the capitalist system to fight change, particularly if it is going to have a major effect on one’s pocketbook.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Good Idea From the Right

      It appears that the Pelosi/Reid healthcare reform legislation has gone down in flames. I have not included Obama among the drivers because it doesn’t appear that he had much to say about it, apparently by his own choice. It still seems ridiculous that one can have a 59 to 41 majority in any organization, and still not be able to get anything passed.
      Unfortunately, this is not football; one cannot just drop back and punt. But what can one do? The Republicans have some suggestions, some of which are good ones; others may need further study.
      Tort reform is at the top of the Republicans' list. Insofar as it concerns healthcare, I think it is an idea that needs to be considered. But what is it?
      Without realizing it, most of us are ambivalent in our understanding of tort reform. On the one hand we believe tort reform is the effort to “reform” lawsuits so as to prevent “runaway verdicts” that range into the millions of dollars. Usually large corporations are an exception, particularly those in “harmful” industries such as cigarettes or asbestos, or “greedy” corporations such as Enron, Worldcom et al.
      At the same time, most of us have a concern for the underdog; if a plaintiff shows up wearing bandages and is unable to walk, we want to punish the scalawag who is responsible for his being in that condition.
      There is some question as to how much of an increase in overall medical costs is caused by malpractice claims. Most studies have found it to be less than 2% of the total, however they have not taken into consideration the cost of preventive medicine which physicians are almost compelled to perform in order to avoid litigation. With that thrown into the mix, I believe that capping the jury awards for pain and suffering would be a good idea. An injury does not hurt any less if the injured party has received five million dollars than it does if he has received one million dollars.
      In any event, there is one component of tort law that I think definitely needs to be changed: the awarding of punitive damages to the plaintiff. While I agree that some defendants deserve to be punished, I think it should be in the nature of a fine by the state.
      There is a specific problem with tort reform as it applies to healthcare: Republicans generally think of such legislation as applying to all torts, not just medical malpractice. Do they really think that Enron and Worldcom should have got off with a slap on the wrist?
      Even if the parties can get together on medical tort reform, I doubt that it would pass constitutional muster, at least at the present time. As currently comprised, the Supreme Court considers that corporations are the same as natural persons. Would the court allow Congress to pass a law that says human persons enjoy a privilege that unhuman persons do not have? I doubt it, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be considered.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Let It Snow - As If We Had A Choice

      On average, the Lancaster area receives two snowstorms of 12 inches or more every fifty years. We have had three so far this year, and it’s only the middle of February! It’s already a record year for the most snow.
      The first one at the beginning of January measured just over 12 inches, and by afternoon the highways were clear. No big deal.
      The second, about two feet deep, occurred last Friday night and Saturday; by Sunday the roads were still not in very good condition. We didn’t get out of the house until Monday.
      The double whammy hit Tuesday night – another 12 inches. We are again confined to the house.
      We are going stir crazy. Just to show how much we need a change, we rearranged the furniture this morning – the first rearrangement in three years.
      Of course, it’s really not that bad as long as we don’t have to go out in it – except for the boredom. Fortunately we shopped for groceries on Tuesday afternoon.
      I love it here, and I very seldom miss California. But today – well, maybe a little.
      PS – The deniers are pointing to this weather as proof that climate change is a hoax. But there was a small item in this morning’s paper stating that 32 people have died from the heat in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
      Scientists have been predicting more bad weather for several years. Warm water holds more moisture than cold water; consequently storms become more frequent and more violent. People are so parochial – they forget that Lancaster County’s temperature is not the temperature of the whole earth.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Fixing The Infrastructure

      In my blog “Will The Real Barack Obama Please Stand Up” on February 7, I mentioned that the President does not seem to be very enthusiastic on infrastructure spending, and that he has tended to push that off on the states. I think infrastructure spending is a veritable gold mine for job creation.
      Chicago road crews are scrambling to fix 67,000 potholes a month. Communities in Pennsylvania rely on 100-year-old water pipes made of wood. Squirrels still cause widespread blackouts. The country’s 600,000 bridges, 4 million miles of roads and 30,000 wastewater plants desperately need attention. The solution isn’t patches, it’s an overhaul. [Popular Science, February, 2010.] The article also suggests some of the fixes available - some soon, some not so soon. Here are a few examples:
      A professor at the University of Michigan has developed a concrete that senses the carbon dioxide and water in small cracks, and causes a chemical reaction that repairs the crack.
      When certain toxins, lead, arsenic, anthrax and PCBs are present in water, certain non-toxic bacteria can detect their presence and emanate a phosphorescent glow. A monitoring station can measure the glow and determine precisely how much toxin is present. The system is 2 - 5 years away.
      More electrical wires can be put underground. New cables have been developed which can carry up to a quarter more current without adding any more bulky insulation.
      New flexible fiber-optic cables have been developed which keep the photons in the line no matter how much it is twisted or bent.
      Robots are being developed that use a laser to spot leaks in sewage lines.
      These are just a few of the suggestions offered that would prop up our sagging infrastructure. Even if none of them pan out, there is no question about the need to do something. And even more importantly in the present situation, repairing and updating the infrastructure by any means promises lots of jobs, jobs, jobs.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Deficit Problem

      I need to write about one more situation in my sermon concerning Barack Obama’s handling of the current recession: I realize that continued government spending to create jobs and pull us out of this downturn will entail running up deficits.
      First a little history: During the period 1900 - 2010 the federal government has ended the year with a surplus 33 times and a deficit 78 times. There were five successive surplus years from 1900 to 1904, eleven from 1920 through 1930, and four from 1998 through 2001.
      I believe a fair way to compare the size of the deficits is by ranking them as a percent of Gross Domestic Product. Not surprisingly, of the top 20, seven of them occurred during the war years 1918–1919 and 1942–1946. Five of them occurred during the Reagan years 1982-1986, and three of them occurred during the Bush-41 presidency. Only two occurred during the “runaway spending” years of the Great Depression. One occurred during the Carter presidency, and the other two were in 2009 and 2010.
      I do not mean to suggest that deficits are a good thing – only that they are not unusual. However, no less a person than Dick Cheney has said, “Reagan proved deficits don't matter.”
      As a matter of fact, during the Bush-43 years not much was heard regarding deficit spending. Coincidentally(?), during those years government spending increased an average of 5.3% - the biggest year to year increase since “guns and butter” Lyndon Johnson’s average increase of 4.9%. Even Reagan’s increases averaged only 1.9%; his deficits resulted not so much from spending increases, but more from tax cuts.
      When conservatives favor deficits, it is for one of two reasons:

1.) Tax cuts free up money for investors, which stimulates the economy.
2.) Tax cuts “starve the beast” i.e. eventually the deficit will get so bad that the government will be forced to drastically cut spending.
      Whatever the reason, the bill will eventually come due. However, in all the years of greatest deficits as compared to the GDP, good times managed to pay it off. The longer the recession, the more sacrifice it will take to make it up. The question is not “can we afford a jobs stimulus?” it’s “can we afford not to have one?”
      For this reason, Obama’s number one priority, to which he is now giving lip service, is, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, “It’s the jobs, stupid.” To people who have no income, no amount of tax cuts will enable them to buy anything.
      For those number-oriented readers, the following chart lists the top twenty years in which deficit spending was highest as a percent of Gross Domestic Product:

YearDeficit %Responsibility
194328.05War
194524.06War
194422.35War
191916.86War
194212.04War
191811.88War
201010.64Obama
20099.92Bush-43/Obama
19469.05War
19835.88Reagan
19855.03Reagan
19864.96Reagan
19364.76Depression
19844.71Reagan
19924.58Bush-41
19914.49Bush-41
19354.12Depression
19764.04Carter
19823.93Reagan
19933.83Clinton

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Will The Real Barack Obama Stand Up Please

      Yesterday I wrote that although Barack Obama needs to be prudent about how he spends the federal dollar, attempting to reduce overall spending would be a bad mistake at this time. Today I will attempt to expand that thought.
     It is true that every dollar spent on either goods or services creates a job somewhere along the line, whether it is spent for prostitutes or Air Force tankers. However, not all dollars spent produce the same number of jobs. To the extent possible, the President should spend the money on those items which will produce the most “jobs per buck.” The following is a chart of jobs created by industry per million dollars spent:


      In an interview on CNN days before the election, Mr. Obama explicitly ranked his priorities, starting with an economic recovery package that would include middle-class tax relief. His second priority, he said, would be energy; third, health care; fourth, tax restructuring; and fifth, education. At least from a job creation standpoint he seemed to have things a bit muddled, although his recent actions indicate that he has reworked the order.
      He seems to be bullish on Green Investments, and that’s a good thing. And he has riled Louisiana politicians with his proposal to cut oil and gas subsidies, and that too is a step in the right direction. (Cutting incentives, not riling politicians.)
      He has also pushed for middle class tax cuts from the start, and I can’t find fault with that.
      His biggest and most hopeful switch has been on education; he has signaled that he wants to make the Pell Grant program for college a mandatory program at a cost of $307 billion over the next ten years. He hopes to make a college education as much an entitlement as Social Security. A wise choice, not only from the standpoint of job creation, but also as a counter to the tremendous productive growth of China, India and other third world countries.
      Unfortunately the chart does not show the health care industry, but I suspect that if he manages to get any kind of comprehensive plan passed, the job potential will be huge. However, at this point that “if” is really, really big.
      As for infrastructure, he has tended to push that off on the states, while at the same time cutting back on federal assistance. Realistically he does not seem to be much help there.
      Finally, he has very little choice but to expand military spending. Like it or not, it does create jobs.
      I am confused about one thing he has proposed: a job creation incentive for businesses. Suppose you have a business employing ten people. Because of the recession your sales have decreased to the point where you have to lay off five of them. Now suppose you are offered a tax incentive of $5,000 for every new job you create. Are you going to hire someone for say, $30,000 to get $5,000 off your taxes? And when people start buying your product again, will you not hire what employees you need in order to service your customers?? At that point an incentive would be nice, but the job would be created with or without the incentive. Job creation incentives appear to be political posturing.
      In reality, if Obama is to get any traction on these programs, he needs to remind Congress and the country that both he and a majority of Congress were elected because of the policies he proposed. A small group of small people, John McCain, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, “Fair and Balanced News” et al have managed to create a deep split in the electorate. Obama needs to step up and take charge.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

History Is About To Repeat Itself

     I hate to say this, but Barack Obama is about to blow his last chance to end this recession anytime soon. I say this because history is about to repeat itself.
     One year ago Obama signed a stimulus bill authorizing $787 billion dollars to beef up an economy which was suffering badly because of the credit crisis inherited from the Bush Administration. It was not enough. The President was still in the “honeymoon” stage with Congress, and that was his best chance to make a difference.
     Now he is beginning to get concerned about the federal budget. He should, of course, be careful what he spends money for, but the idea of cutting back the total is a bad one.
     While the number of jobs created by the stimulus is questionable, it has undoubtedly kept people on the payroll who would otherwise have been laid off. But the money will soon run out, and new jobs have not been created fast enough.
     The hardships from this recession have been somewhat mitigated by legislation passed during the Great Depression –unemployment compensation, social security, etc. George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Here are a few statistics that bear remembering. The following timeline shows the order of economic events during the Great Depression. Notice the effect that deficit spending had on economic growth:
Year       Tax ReceiptsFederal SpendingGNP GrowthUnemp. Rate
1929---------3.2< Great Depression Begins
19304.23.4-9.48.7
19313.74.3-8.515.9
19322.97.0-13.423.6
19333.58.1-2.124.9< New Deal begins in March
19344.910.8+7.721.7
19355.39.3+8.120.1
19365.110.6+14.116.9
19376.28.7+5.014.3< Recession begins in May
19387.77.8-4.519.0< Recession ends in June
19397.210.4-7.917.2

     Even though the New Deal had been in place only nine months by the end of 1933, spending increased 10.8% for the year. As a result, GNP went from -2.1% to +10.8%. The unemployment rate dropped over three percentage points. As spending increased in 1935 and 1936, GNP continued to rise, and unemployment fell.
     For the fiscal year 1937 a harassed FDR decided to submit a balanced budget. Notice what happened to the indicators: the increases in GNP dropped and unemployment immediately shot back up.
    In 1938 the government began to borrow money to finance the Lend/Lease program. Because of the tremendous increase in war production, the economy took off and never looked back.
     Over the years of the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s average growth rate of 5.2% was even higher than Reagan’s 3.7% growth during his so-called “Seven Fat Years.”
     Also worth noting is the astonishingly quick recovery experienced by Sweden. In 1932, the Swedish Finance Minister decided to run large deficits in order to offset the effects of the Great Depression. Within two years Sweden had spent itself out of the depression.
    Budget hawks are advocating a quick return to the balanced budgets of the Clinton years. According to Einstein, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Don’t let the inmates run the asylum.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Another Case Where I Am Undecided

      One of the problems with aging is that one can see both sides of many controversies. This is one of those cases.
      In 1969 (it’s hard to believe that was over 40 years ago), at the behest of then Governor Ronald Reagan, radical professor Angela Davis was fired by UCLA Regents because of her membership in the Communist Party. She was later reinstated after legal action was taken.
      At the time she was fired, I was upset because I felt that if someone had radical ideas, those ideas would not survive the court of public opinion. I was, and still am, a believer in the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
      Or am I?
      On January 21st the Supreme Court announced that corporations have the unrestricted right to advertise for or against candidates for public office. Well, not quite unrestricted – along with all such advertisers they must divulge who is behind the ad. Justice Clarence Thomas even disagreed with the restriction – he felt the right should be completely unrestricted. I usually disagree with Justice Thomas, but in this case I am not so sure.
      Are corporations the same type of entities as natural persons? Obviously not – for example, one may love one’s job, but one cannot make love to the corporation. But do they deserve the same considerations as persons?
      In many situations they are treated the same as natural persons, e.g., they can sign contracts, they are subject to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution insofar as they may not abridge the rights and privileges of citizens, nor may their rights be abridged under the same Amendment, etc.
      But I don’t think that a board of directors’ decision to pursue a particular course of action is quite the same thing as a person’s decision to pursue the opposite course. It is David vs. Goliath, except that in this case David is still stuck with a sling while Goliath totes an AK47. Flyweights do not fight heavyweights because it would be an extreme mismatch.
      But I can’t apply that logic in all cases. Suppose Bill Gates or Warren Buffett decided to spend one billion dollars to defeat some particular candidate. Would anyone claim that was unconstitutional? Unfair, yes, but unconstitutional, no. What’s the difference?
      I didn’t have these decision problems when I was younger! But then, this is not the only problem I have now that I didn’t have when I was younger. Ah, youth.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The (Statistical) National Pastime

      If you think baseball is a game of statistics, you haven’t seen anything yet. Sportvision, the folks who brought us the yellow first down line in football, and the pitch locator (the one with the crosshairs) in baseball, are busy in the off season installing their FieldFX camera system in major league ballparks. Up to four cameras will be located on the light standards along the first and third base lines.
      On every play, the cameras will report the position, movement, direction and speed of every player on the field. It will also track the flight of the ball. In fact, not just the flight, but the position, angle, speed and who knows what all at every instant.
      All of these will feed into a computer which will output things like “only 27% of the players in major league baseball could have made that play,” or “Joe seemed a little slow on that play; he was running at 15 miles per hour, but he generally averages 18 to 19 miles per hour on a play like that.”
      Although Golden Gloves will still be issued by a panel of coaches, at least for a few years, the selection will be second-guessed by statistics on the defensive play of every player in the league.
      Baseball statisticians are salivating at the prospects. Those of us who think that baseball commentators already talk too much may want to mute the TV.