Tuesday, May 01, 2012

A word about gas prices. Happily this most recent tick of the right and the media has disappeared a bit from our daily flood of non-information due to more pressing news and non-news and a leveling off of prices. Still, I need to write something about this pointless posturing on the president's responsibility for the current surge of gas prices.

Man, you'd think we have the memory of a goldfish. Anyone remember last year or any of the years of the last decade that WEREN'T during a recession? Gas prices fluctuate based on a wide variety of conditions including world demand (supply and demand anyone) perceived and real threats to supply (war and terrorism, riots etc.) and speculation.

But let's look deeper. It's astounding to me that people are whining about the cost of gas these days. I've got a few charts to back up my suspicion that the price of gas isn't all that it seems and that's not just when comparing to some of the VERY HIGH PRICES OF THE PAST DECADE!

Charts produced by Wolframalpha.com

As you can see clearly from this graph, gas prices have yet to even hit their highs from the same period prior to the previous presidential election back in 2008. That period capped a run up that began not long after the invasion of Iraq. While one could argue cause and effect there, and I would be likely to do so, but the bigger point is that gas prices have been higher, recently, and that was under a president with an oil industry background who was demonstrably in bed with the industry. Despite eight years under Bush, drill baby drill didn't result in lower gas prices.

Another thing to keep in mind, inflation. This chart shows the inflation rate over roughly the same period:

As you can see, though it hasn't been particularly high, there has been inflation over that period as well. In fact, according to Wolfram Alpha, the inflation rate for that period was a total of almost 61%. Starting at a price of $1.05 per gallon that would account for approximately $0.64 of the increase, leading to a price of $1.69. Interestingly, that figure is approximately the low reached during the depths of the recession. The entire increase in gas prices, both from inflation and everything beyond that, was accounted for prior to Obama's election with the drop at the start of his term accounted for by recessionary, deflation pressures.

In fact, despite record production in the US over the past five years, gas prices overall continue to rise. While peak prices may represent speculation the truth is that the rapid growth of China, India and much of the developing world has driven demand for energy of all types and prices have risen as a result.

The only reason prices haven't risen rapidly until now is the recession and resulting slow growth and reduced demand in the US and Europe. As the US has recovered our oil demand has risen again. Conservation has also dampened demand and helped keep prices in check. Still, the long term prognosis is for prices to increase as along with growth. Canada's tar sands aren't going to change that equation. And approved production, wells or other sources, doesn't have an immediate demand on prices as it takes months or years to come online.

Of course, none of this will stop the GOP from proclaiming Obama's anti-energy, anti-jobs socialist war on oil and the American way. It's just one of the many lies propagated against a hated icon the right can flog repeatedly to drive their fundraising efforts.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

To vote or not to vote, that's not the question!

Recently I've been hearing the perennial. Moaning about how Democrats and the Republicans are the same. Mostly this is a reflection of the speakers belief that Obama is, at best, the lesser of two evils. I call BULLSHIT!

Enough with the whining already. Yes, Obama has disappointed. Big deal. What president doesn't disappoint? I'm not even going to go through the litany of reasons why this is so and in Obama's case maybe more so.

For those of you on the sidelines in this election I have only one question:

Do you really think there's no difference between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia? What about Elena Kagen and John Roberts? Need I go on?

Whatever else they may be about, presidential elections are ALWAYS about the supreme court. This has never been more true than now. Citizens United anyone?

Obama has nominated two justices. Imagine that these two justices had been John McCain's nominees for a moment. Do you think anyone would be wondering about how the health care decision will come down? What about Roe V. Wade?

Do you really want to leave a potential supreme court nomination in the hands of Mitt Romney? Imagine a solid 5 justice conservative majority for a moment? I'll spare you the details but understand that the most likely retirement or, sadly, death on the bench is that of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the most liberal justice remaining.

So, swallow hard and get your ass to the polls this year. No whining and no excuses. This election does matter. It matters about many things but it always matters most about the supreme court.

We'll talk about other issues again soon as this election year is heating up but whatever else I write about in these pages is always secondary to the supreme court. That's one thing the president has real power over and it can affect us for decades to come.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

No Defense of the Defense of Marriage Act

Wow, it’s nice to write about some good news on occasion and this is one of those occasions. The Obama administration, after its initial and overly spirited defense, has officially decided to leave DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) to the courts without administration support. In fact, the administration will now argue that DOMA is unconstitutional, effectively siding with claimants in federal court.

This is a great and long overdue day. With no government support for DOMA, it should be a matter of time before the act loses multiple challenges in district courts around the country. Barring other groups being permitted to argue on behalf of DOMA, doubtful due to issues of standing, there would be essentially no arguments on behalf of the act for a judge to hear. It’s certainly conceivable that a conservative judge could simply dismiss arguments against DOMA but that would be unusual and would certainly be appealed.

Most observers seem to believe that the issue would eventually land at the supreme court for a final nationwide decision. The administration is remaining a party to existing lawsuits, permitting them to proceed through the system and providing cover for other petitioners to actively argue on behalf of the act, assuming issues of standing don’t preclude that.

The real issue as I see it is time. Is there enough time remaining in Obama’s term to guarantee that challenges to DOMA wend their way through the courts or could a republican president reverse Obama’s decision and begin supporting the law in court before it is dead in judicial waters?

Either way, this is a welcome step on the long and arduous road to equality for a long suffering minority of our citizens. I have to say that it’s not the ringing endorsement of equality that many of us would hope for from this administration. In fact they are painting it as something they have been forced to do by a court deadline. Regardless, the bottom line is that the administration is stating that the act is unconstitutional on its face and should be overturned by the courts. There won’t be much political cover for that.

So. . . politically? I’m not even going to speculate about 2012. There’s already way too much chatter on that subject in our 24/7, year in year out election coverage. I certainly don’t need any more of that, do you?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Right and Rahm in Chicago

The appellate court in Illinois has handed down a 2 to 1 decision in the case of Rahm Emmanuel’s campaign for Mayor of Chicago, stating that he does not meet the residency requirements to run and his name should be removed from the ballot.

First off, let me say that I don’t give a damn one way or another whether Rahm Emmanuel is elected Mayor of Chicago. I don’t much care who is occupies that office.

Regardless, the court has committed an injustice. The decision was based on plaintiff arguments that Mr. Emmanuel lacked residency because he moved his family to D.C. to serve in the Obama administration and that he had rented out his main residence in the city for that period.

Let’s deconstruct that idea for a moment. It consists of two main arguments:

1) Mr. Emmanuel moved his family to D.C. to serve in the administration.

2) Mr. Emmanuel rented his residence while he was living and working in the administration in D.C.

On the face of it it would seem that Mr. Emmanuel has moved away from Chicago and does not qualify as a resident but let’s look deeper. What is it that Mr. Emmanuel was doing in D.C.? He was working for the President of the United States in a job of national importance and of temporary but unknown duration.

What are some similar positions that might also require one to live away from your main home residence for some unknown period while on service to the country? How about military service? Military personnel are called upon to serve their country in all manner of locations and often bring their families with them even for relatively short periods of time, say 18 months or so. Even so, military families are permitted to state their chosen residence regardless of where they live in fact. This is clearly just and correct. A person serving the country shouldn’t be denied any rights or privileges of residency simply because their duty has taken them away from their stated home.

Would we think it just for a member of the armed services to be denied the right to run in a local election solely because they and their family had lived outside of the jurisdiction while serving? Do I hear a single voice that says yea? Guess not.

Why then would we think it just for a civil servant on similarly temporary assignment outside of said jurisdiction to be similarly deprived of the right to run for office? Clearly we wouldn’t.

And as to the renting of their primary residence while on assignment away from home? That seems to me a completely logical and sound financial decision. In fact, who, other than someone with great wealth, could afford to keep their residence empty while they covered the expenses of their temporary “second” residence?

So, are we to castigate and deny rights solely to those who need or choose to make the prudent financial decision to rent out their home while on temporary assignment?

No President serves indefinitely. The maximum is eight years. No chief of staff that I can recall has lasted through two terms of office with a President. The job is clearly a temporary one.

Prior to serving as white house chief of staff, Mr. Emmanuel served as one of his state’s congressman. If he had similarly established his family in D.C. so as not to be so far away from them during the work week, would that have disqualified him from seeking office? Should wanting your family to be nearby during a lengthly, if temporary, assignment away from home be a disqualifying factor?

To me the answers are clear. Rahm Emmanuel deserves the right to be on the ballot and run for Mayor of Chicago. It’s up to the citizens of that great city to decide if he should have the honor of serving in that capacity.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Our votes come back to haunt us. . .

It appears that Jerry Brown has a new year surprise in store for us.


I have little hope that my fellow Californians will suddenly behave like adults and take their medicine. We either have to pay for the services we want or do without them. For some unknown reason we don’t believe that simple fact and maybe the Governor elect’s ploy is what it will take to shake us awake and make us really pay attention to the facts rather than the fantasy that seems to occupy our thoughts at the moment.

I’m ready to endure a bit of austerity in the form of higher taxes and even some fees for the services I make the greatest use of. I admit I’ll grumble when my yearly tax bill rolls around. But I’ll remind myself, as I do repeatedly, that I enjoy the services I generally take for granted in the interim. In fact, it’s only because those services have become so threadbare in their current, starved state that I grumble as much as I do.

So, do you think that Jerry’s election ultimatum will do the trick? Would you vote for taxes if the alternative is a barebones school system, deferred road maintenance, laid off fire and police protection and mass releases from our overcrowded prison system? Of course, personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing some categories of prisoner released from our prison industrial complex but that’s just me.

Chime in. Let me know if you’re one of the majority in the state who is convinced that eliminating waste fraud and abuse will deal with a deficit that now exceeds 30% of the entire budget.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

California Dreamin, or, Delusions of Solvency

        It seems we Californians have wandered astray during our little jaunt to see the wizard. We left the yellow brick road and fell into a hallucinogenic dream state in the midst of our native flowers or, more likely, an opiate cousin. In this dream state we have, apparently, told pollsters that we believe it unnecessary to either raise taxes or make significant cuts to our common budget in order to bring it into balance.


Instead, we propose that there is sufficient “waste, fraud and abuse” - the mantra of the delusional outside of cleptocracies like that of the Russian republic - to allow for a painless reduction of our deficits that won’t disturb our slumber in the least. Clearly, this can only be due to the stupor induced by all those poppies. What rational person experiencing the financial catastrophe that is the California budget could possibly arrive at such a conclusion? Of course it could be the medical marijuana that’s causing such reality free analysis of our budget woes. Whatever the cause, it is a situation that needs reversing if we are to avoid the ignominy of either default or a drastic and unsustainable reduction in basic and critical services.

Here are some basic facts, dear sirs and madams:

Total Current California Budget - $86.6 Billion

Projected deficit for the next budget year - $25.4 BILLION

Deficit as a percent of the current budget - 29%

So, unless you believe that almost 30% of our current budget is waste, fraud and abuse, then you should reconsider your allergy to taxes or your desire for our current level of government services.

Here is some history directly from the current published budget:

The 2010 Budget Act marks the third year in a row that the Governor and the Legislature have been compelled to take unprecedented steps to bring the state Budget into balance in the midst of the ongoing effects of the worst recession that California has faced since the Great Depression. After having to close a $24.3 billion budget gap in 2008 and a gap of $60 billion in 2009, the 2010 Budget Act closes a budget gap of $19.3 billion—an extraordinary three‐year period in the state’s fiscal history totaling budget solutions of $103.6 billion. The 2010 Budget Act holds General Fund spending essentially flat compared to the prior year—$86.6 billion in 2010‐11 compared to $86.3 billion in 2009‐10. This level of General Fund spending is substantially lower than the level of spending in 2004‐05, adjusted for inflation and population growth. It is also lower than the level that would have been allowed had a spending cap been in place since 1999.

As you can see from the above, our budget has been chopped by approximately $100 Billion over the past few years. Granted, that is a reduction from what it otherwise would have been had automatic increases been permitted to take effect. It’s important to note, however, that most of those increases are due to increases in costs and the population of the state, which inevitably lead to increased costs for everything from education to roads and healthcare, not to mention our extensive prison system, overflowing and under federal mandate.

For reference, our tax revenues for the 2000 - 2001 budget year were $90.4 Billion. That’s four billion dollars more than our current budget, which we are expected to cut by said $25.4 Billion. For more contrast:

CA Population 2000 census - 33.9 million

Projected CA Population 2010 census - 37 million

Per capita budget expenditures 2000 - $2,723

Per capita budget expenditures 2010 - $2,340 (NOT inflation adjusted)

OK, I don’t know about you but there’s no way that my expenses have decreased by 14% over the past decade! Even though inflation has been low, almost all of my costs and my overall budget have increased significantly in that time. That’s in spite of the fact that my house payment including taxes is almost unchanged. Even if we kept spending at the same level as in 2000 and without adjusting for inflation, we would come up with a figure of $100.8 Billion. If we adjust for the cumulative inflation of the past 10 years (29.57%) we get a per capita figure of $3,528. Using that as a basis we arrive at the following budget:

$3,528 X 37 Million = $130.54 Billion

That’s a difference of about $45 Billion right there. Our budget is LESS than it was a decade ago. Even if you believe that government spending was excessive at that time and wanted to reduce it by, say, 14%, the inflation of the past decade would put us well above the figure we are now at. If you want to check the numbers go here:




I’m not making an argument one way or the other for cuts or taxes in this piece. Decide for yourself according to your personal philosophy. There are certainly some who could envisage a California without its universities or even its K-12 school system. I certainly can’t and I’d like to see them remain or achieve first rate status. Unfortunately you can’t have both a first rate public educational system along with the levels of expenditure in keeping with the required cuts to balance the budget. Money isn’t the only thing that matters in education and money poorly spent is clearly unhelpful but money does matter.

The same principle holds true for our aging roads and infrastructure. When I was younger, I knew when I’d crossed from California into Nevada without the help of a sign. I could feel and hear it as the roads worsened. Now, some 30 years on, the situation is reversed.

My personal opinion should come as no surprise. We should cut where possible, avoid crippling cuts to critical infrastructure maintenance and investment, adequately fund our schools while continuing the ongoing process of retooling for the modern world and increase and rejigger our revenue base as needed to provide these funds so that we don’t either mortgage or cut away our future.

One thing we cannot do is stay dreaming in the poppy fields. We’ve got a threat more real and deadly than the wicked witch of the west to deal with.

Take a look at the Los Angeles Times interactive budget balancing tool. The numbers haven’t been updated for the coming budget year but it’s a useful exercise nonetheless. Try your hand at eliminating our budget deficit. See what cuts you’re willing to make.You can find it here:


Thursday, November 04, 2010

California Republican Party Declares Itself Obsolete, Representatives Retire En Masse!

This just in:

For Immediate Release
California Republican Party
Ron Nehring, Chairman
1215 K. Street, Suite 1220
Sacramento, CA 95814
Ron Nehring, Jubilant after the crushing defeat of the Democrat party in the US House of Representatives and the passage of California Proposition 26, calling for a 2/3rds majority to pass any fees that are not directly related to services provided, declared absolute victory today and announced that all Republicans in the California state legislature were retiring immediately.
Mr. Nehring explained that, "with the passage of proposition 26, the death knell has sounded for the Democrats last option for raising more revenue for their socialist makeover of California and our job is done. Now all we have to do is vote no on everything and the democrats are stuck. As a party, we've decided to donate our salaries to state roadworks projects, register our no votes in advance with the President pro tem and retire."
"This is the best sort of planned obsolescence.", said retiring state Senator, Tony Strickland. "We get to declare victory and go home. It's every Republican's dream. Let the Democrats run the government. Who cares? There's no money left so all they can do is cut. That's all we'd do anyway so who needs us?" 
Tom Del Beccaro, Vice Chair of the California Republican party has been in talks with Chairman Steele of the national Republican party. "Chairman Steele is very interested in our strategy here in California. They've copied us effectively in our ""just vote no!"" legislative strategy and want to try an implement something similar to prop 13, 26 and all the other legislative handcuffs we've hobbled those dim witted dems with. California always leads the way!" said Del Beccaro.
Long time state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore said it best, ". . . it's great. I get to sleep in and my auto no vote keeps California right on target for ultimate financial collapse. Once that happens, we can sweep in and rebuild a conservative paradise, having proved once and for all that the Democrats can't run the government without money. It'll be a golden state once more. We'll get every ounce of that gold hiding in those abandoned mines. We've got the mining companies to do it. There's all that oil off the coast too. Imagine, no taxes and fees, just great government with excellent private roads, schools, fire stations and police. Can't wait. It'll be heaven. For now though, I'm going fishing!"
For further information contact
Crystal Feldman
Press Secretary for the California Republican Party.

Unless she's gone fishing too!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Election Wrap Up 2010. . . Handcuffs for California. We're Nuts!

Well, it went about as poorly as expected. . . with some small bright spots. The house is lost to a new majority heavily influenced by an even more stridently reactionary anti-compromise Republican than those who sat on their hands - when not throwing rocks - for the past two years. These red baiting Tea Party adherents see the President and the opposition as the enemy, pure and simple. There is to be no compromise with this enemy and I take them at their word.

The economy, of course, will do more or less what it wants to in this legislative vacuum. Government mostly affects the economy in the realm of spending, everything else is more or less a side show. Aside from draconian regulation, deregulation, massive debt, distorting tax policy or confiscatory taxes. . . oh wait. . . we do have massive debt and distorting tax policy. Anyway, there's not likely to be any real progress on anything substantive until after the next electoral cycle. The Reps will sit on their hands screaming incoherently for another year or so in preparation for the effort to unseat the President and retake the Senate.

Obama's agenda is mostly dead in the water. We've got what we've got and holding it is about the best we can hope for. Even that may be iffy if Obama is given early retirement. Then, conceivably, the Reps can repeal the health care bill. I'm not one of those that thinks this is written in stone. Many of the important provisions don't take place until after the next election and some of those are the truly controversial parts, such as requiring people to purchase private health insurance.

Some small consolation in that we've held the Senate more strongly than predicted. That means there is some chance of getting Obama's list of judicial nominees through in the next couple of years. This is the single most important thing to accomplish during the remainder of his term. It will be his most lasting legacy if he is unseated in 2012. It will, arguably, have a more profound impact on our country than any other action he could take. The judiciary has always been crucial but is even more so now considering the rightward tilt caused by the Bush decade. It's not only our supreme court that's been infected with this self righteous strict constructionist garbage, right wing appointees throughout the judiciary have tilted things horribly. There needs to be a correction and the Republicans are fighting it tooth and nail, which is why they are blocking his nominations left and right:

(AP)  A determined Republican stall campaign in the Senate has sidetracked so many of the men and women nominated by President Barack Obama for judgeships that he has put fewer people on the bench than any U.S. president since Richard Nixon at a similar point in his first term 40 years ago.

The delaying tactics have proved so successful, despite the Democrats' substantial Senate majority, that fewer than half of Obama's nominees have been confirmed and 102 out of 854 judgeships are vacant.

Forty-seven of those vacancies have been labeled emergencies by the judiciary because of heavy caseloads.

Even some Republican senators have complained. Sen. Lamar Alexander took to the Senate floor in July to plead with his own leaders for a vote on an appeals court judge supported by Alexander and fellow Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker. 
Read more on that topic here:

So, that's enough about the nation. It's time for me to whine incessantly about my lovely but deranged home state of California. Boy, we're all OVER the map now, aren't we? Let's take a look:

We managed to stem the Republican tide all across the state in the major races. We went true blue at the state level, Senate, Governor, Lieutenant Gov and pretty much everything else. All well and good. I went to sleep feeling fairly happy about the way things had gone stateside until I woke this morning and took a close look at the propositions. My God, California, what have we done?

Prop 19, well, not much surprise there. It was a flawed measure and despite the overall trend and the goo arguments to be made for ending prohibition and putting a dent in our flailing war on drugs, there wasn't much compelling here. That's particularly true considering the well timed move by Arnold to decriminalize marijuana at the state level.

Prop 20. . . WHAT? Don't get me wrong. I voted for the redistricting commission in the last electoral cycle as a possible part of the fix to our broken system here in California. But people, that's a state issue confined to state politics and doesn't do anything to change the balance of power or California's position on the national stage. Now it's entirely possible that our congressional delegation will look very similar after redistricting under the new commission but I would dearly like to see how well they do on the state redistricting before handing them the states congressional redistricting. Also, I am against making our congressional redistricting non-partisan when the rest of the large states continue with partisan redistricting as usual. I'd have no problem with this if Florida and Texas were to do the same. There's no level playing field here and we've just risked a national political imbalance we can't foresee in the service of a noble principle that isn't yet proven.

Prop 21, well, I have to admit, while I voted for this, I wasn't that enthusiastic. I'm generally against propositions that attempt to create firewalls around budgetary items. If we elect representatives and expect them to create working budgets and fix things then we have to be willing to let them have the flexibility to do that. My rationalization for this measure was that the measure raised new funds for a worthy cause and gave a commensurate benefit directly back to those who paid. I might not have gotten my $18 worth out of the measure but I was willing to pay for it. Obviously, very few others were. Down in flames.

Prop 22, the first of two measures, only one of which is well intentioned, that place further handcuffs on our elected officials. We LOVE TO BITCH about how our legislature can't pass a damn budget, let alone a truly balanced one but we place horrendous restrictions on their ability to do so. This is another measure that I'm philosophically inclined towards. On the face of it, it sounds good to ensure that local funds are available for localities. Unfortunately, partially because of prop 13 - the grandaddy of all propositional handcuffs, that's not how California government finances work. Also, there's my bet noire of "transportation funds", shorthand for road building to the exclusion of all else. It's the same groups that have in the past supported making all funds or fees or taxes that have even tangential connections to "transportation" sacrosanct and safe from "repurposing" or "requisitioning" for other use. What those groups are really after is roads, roads, roads and continued reliance on cars and gasoline. I'll write about this another time in more detail and with the factual sources to back these claims up. For the moment, I'm just having my post election morning rant. Yes, local governments have a legitimate gripe and a fair claim to the funds they need to operate but this is draconian in it's nature and scope and affects far more than local funds. It's also precisely what we shouldn't be doing if we want to make Sacramento work at all. If we want this kind of restriction then we should elect legislators who will make it law rather than hobbling them in this way. Or, if we don't trust state government, we should just devolve into a collection of local duchies with no obligations to each other.

Prop 23, Yay California! No more to say. Well, maybe that it's nice when blatant corporate power grabs fail spectacularly.

Prop 24, my friends, both conservative and liberal, may be surprised to hear that I voted against this one but it really shouldn't surprise. I'm trying to be consistent about the concepts I elucidated, if you can call it that, above. I truly believe that we can't hobble our state government by micromanaging every decision they take or might take. There may be exceptions but this isn't one of them. If you don't like these tax breaks then write your representative about it. Personally, and here's the bigger surprise for those of you who don't know some things about me, I support most of the provisions of this bill, even if I think it might be ill timed considering our financial catastrophe in the state. As a small business person, I do believe that a company, or individual, should be able to average income and losses over multiple years. My only real complaint is that this doesn't apply to individuals. Writers and artists used to be able to average the gains of a good year agains the poor income of other years in which they primarily create, rather than sell. I still don't understand why this provision/loophole was removed from federal and state tax code. But that's just me.

Prop 25, Yay California. . . a step in the direction of budget sanity. . . but wait. . .
Prop 26 . . . um. . . huh? WTF California? How can you pas both of these? I'll leave aside the corporate maneuvering that is represented by this proposition for a moment, or until my next rant, but, again, WTF?? Prop 25 rightly returns us to the land of adults with a simple majority required to pass a budget. Though it doesn't go far enough in that direction, it's an important baby step. So, one might think we'd wait and see what our representatives in Sacramento handle this new found ability to try and solve issues and create a rational budget. It's not a cure all by any means but it would take away some of the minority party's ability to strangle the process and demand all sorts of little quid pro quos just to pass a basic budget. art of that would have involved some small increases of revenue through the leveraging of "fees" and other "non-tax" forms of income but. . . wait. Now we've completely killed that option and further distorted the entire process by adding this last unrestricted form of revenue to the long list of 2/3 majority restrictions that are killing this state as we voted. I'm flabbergasted, truly. I thought one or the other of these might have passed but BOTH? We are truly schizo! So, California, in thanks for placing this latest and most potent set of handcuffs on your elected representatives, you will have the pleasure of watching this S&M show we call California politics present you with a bewildering array of propositions on the next ballot for, say, the .03¢ per gallon surcharge on freon for industrial use to create a cleanup fund for environmental damage and to offset greenhouse gas emissions. No, that doesn't yet exist. It's the product of my feverish imagination. But it could and almost MUST exist now that we morons have asked for our elected officials to make us vote on each and every fee that isn't directly related to a service cost for the specific service rendered. So, you'll get fees passed alright but they'll only be the ones YOU have to pay for directly not for the ones used to regulate industry and their pollution or the costs of cleaning up after it, for example. Exhausted, can't go on.

Prop 27, well. . . at least this is consistent with the prop 20 vote. And, I voted with the majority on it as well. Now I wish it had failed since prop 20 passed.

All in all, another bi-polar year in California politics as we've condemned ourselves to more of the same gridlock on the state budget process where officials now can pass a farcical meaningless budget with a simple majority.


Monday, November 01, 2010

We are two year olds!

This is not a new lament. We are, or have become, a nation of two year olds. We have no impulse control and no patience. We have no long view or sense of anything other than the now. The old refrain, "what have you done for me lately?" has become our daily chant. We wake in the morning, barely coherent, with these words on our lips.

Ok, so what am I ranting about? That's right, it's the election. It seems it's our collective sense, just about 18 months into the Obama administration, that we've been sold a bill of goods, that our president hasn't come through for us.

Let me say that I am in no way satisfied with the state of our economy, our health care system - pending changes included, the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan or of our country as a whole. I wish that the health care reform bill included a public option. I'm upset with the administration's active defense of DOMA and DADT. I'd have hoped for more active pursuit of environmental legislation. I'd like a clearer path through the morass of Iraq and Afghanistan.

You know what? There's a lot I'd like to see in this world and in our country in particular but I also realize that much of what I'd like to see isn't going to happen any time soon and much of it is opposed by large swaths of the populace and their representatives. We aren't a parliamentary democracy where the majority rules until it loses majority. Even in those systems, there are limits to what can be achieved due to differences of opinion within parties themselves. Governing is always going to be a messy thing based on the dreaded compromise. Yes, I was disgusted by the kowtowing on federally funded abortion to a meathead like Ben Nelson for his critical vote to pass healthcare. I have the privilege of disgust and taking the "principled" stand on the issue because I'm not responsible for getting the damn bill through congress.

Truth? There just aren't the votes for what we as progressives want. Not yet. So, do we want it all or nothing or do we want what we can get? I say take what we can get and build a majority for our ideas over time. Let the majority get comfortable with a health care reform so they can see that it actually can give them more choice than they currently have. That they can continue to work with the same doctors they choose. Let them understand the relief that comes when they don't lose their insurance on a whim of the insurance industry or because they lost their job. Let them see how much it means to a family devastated by serious illness that their benefits don't run out and force them into bankruptcy just to pay medical bills. Let them see that this isn't even federally run health care, like their beloved Medicare. No, this isn't my idea of health care reform and I hate the idea of a mandate to buy a poorly regulated private product but I hate the idea of another four or eight or twenty years of no health care reform at all.

I want gay rights and I want them now. It's going to happen. I won't tell a group that is discriminated against that they should wait and be patient. They'll have to be but I'm not going to tell them that. It's their right to shout loudly how they deserve their rights and deserve them now. I have been very active about this issue myself. I probably write more letters and have more discussions on this topic than any other, which is odd to me because it just seems so damn self evident that we shouldn't discriminate against anyone at all anymore. But we all know that's not the case.

What I tell myself and will tell all my friends who support gay rights is that it's not the only thing we care about and that it will come. In the meantime, should we really abandon the President and party that are with us in most things because they are imperfect in this one thing? I don't think so. Just imagine one more conservative justice on the supreme court for a moment before refraining from voting or voting a protest vote. Do you really want a gay rights proof right wing majority in the senate and, therefore, on the supreme court? No, Obama won't nominate an enemy of gay rights to the court but the Republicans in the senate can filibuster his nominees until the 2012 elections in the hopes of a Republican President who WILL!

Do I want us truly out of Iraq and Afghanistan? Yes but I also recognize that even a stridently antiwar president who was philosophically opposed to BOTH of these conflicts wouldn't simply be able to walk away as easily as some might want. Yes, I decry Obama's Orwellian claim to the end of combat operations in Iraq. We all know there are thousands of troops still there and still involved in combat. It's unfair to the men and women serving there  to ignore or misname their real involvement. It's unfair to lie to the American people about the actions they take in our name.

I too worry about the situation in Afghanistan. I fear and think the war was lost many years ago when Bush inevitably turned his focus to his true ambition, the removal of Saddam. He left a rump force to handle a place that has sapped empires many times. By the time our focus returned, I think we had lost almost all good will there. Nothing short of a major recommitment was going to change the tide and there isn't the political will for such a change anymore. The "surge" is most likely too little too late.

Still, I wonder about simply pulling out of such a volatile area and I fear for the women of Afghanistan and those who have allied with us. I have no answers for this sinkhole of American blood and treasure as I have no answers for Pakistan, a place that may make our headaches in Iraq and Afghanistan feel like an ice cream brain freeze in comparison to the migraine that awaits us there.

I could go on and on but I will close here and leave you with this thought.  A historic election just two short years ago gave us a bright and promising presidency in the midst of massive financial wreckage in our economy, wholesale mismanagement of the government, rampant partisanship on a scale none of us have seen in our lifetimes and two wars with other foreign disasters threatening. Since that time, we have seen our economy stabilized to a degree; we have seen stimulus funds flow to actual productive enterprises, successfully preventing mass layoffs and permanent loss of a great chunk of the remaining American manufacturing landscape; a health care reform bill passed against massive opposition from entrenched forces; a rapid reduction of forces in Iraq; an attempt to deal with the wreckage of our justice system that is Guantanamo; two moderate justices to bolster the supreme court against its increasing rightward tilt and an improving picture of the United States in the rest of the world. There are many other actions, large and small that have been undertaken by this administration to undo the damage of eight years of Bush misadministration. I won't bother to list them all here.

If you think none of this matters and that the Republicans are no different from the Democrats then you have unlearned the lessons of the eight years preceding Obama. Go ahead and refrain from voting or cast your vote for a small party that more closely reflects your purist wishes for the country. Then watch closely as the Republicans continue to tear this country apart and push it further from the more perfect union you so stridently hope for. If you really care about the future of this country than don't abandon hope or the party you supported two years ago. Hold your nose, if you must, and hold you head high as you vote for the Democrat and moving forward.

We won't go back. We must move forward.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Health Care Solutions Part 1

So, I’ve listed what I think are the top issues confronting us in our current health care system. Now it’s time to list some of what I believe the possible solutions to be. This is the difficult part and where I’m likely to part company with most of my more conservative brethren. I’ll tell you up front, I think the wimpy public “option” currently under discussion doesn’t go far enough and that’s one of the first things I’ll be addressing as I go forward. So, word to those with a weak stomach for things they regard as socialist: I’ll be treading heavily where our president and the body politic fears to go.

For anyone open to alternatives not being seriously discussed in our pathetic sound and fury public debate, read on. I think you’ll find much of this new ground. For those of you reading these words with amusement from other parts of the globe that are grappling with different problems, you still may find something of interest here. Either way, I’d love to hear from anyone who chances across these pages. Let me know if you think I’m a crank or a reasonably thoughtful individual. More importantly, share your actual beliefs and suggested solutions to the problems we face.

For today, I’ll tackle Access to health care regardless of the ability to pay. I’m sure I’ll lose at least half of the two people reading.

Up front let me say that our current system will not support health care for everyone regardless of ability to pay. . . at least not without massive and distortional taxation. And a big part of the problem is the profit motive. There’s nothing wrong with the profit motive in most areas of life but most of us will agree that we like to remove profit from areas where it may either cause grievous moral problems, or negatively impact life and death issues. Off the top of my head, I can think of two major areas where we generally try to avoid profit as a motive: policing and national defense. Oh wait, we can also quickly extend that to other areas of our mutual safety, fire fighting etc. We pay for these and other services out of our tax dollars and I don’t hear any loud calls for privatization of any of these services. We generally think highly of our men and women in uniform and think they do a splendid job.

We even have some other services that compete directly with the private sector. The post office springs to mind. Yes, some might complain about the post office but it truly is a marvel not easily replaced by the private sector. Fedex and UPS may be marvels but they don’t serve every address in our vast and sometimes sparsely populated land for the price of 44¢! They’ve even improved their customer service and compete well and profitably with UPS and Fedex in the express arena. Yes, they do occasionally need more money or to raise the rates. But wait, what business doesn’t raise rates to cover costs. The post office exists in a monopoly world. They could easily raise rates beyond what they currently charge. There is no alternative for mass distribution of magazines and other printed material. The fact that they go to congress to ask for the right to raise rates doesn’t make it any different from any other concern having management make that decision. Rates are artificially low because we have generally considered this a worthwhile social good. Some will disagree but I would propose that, prior to the advent of email for the masses, the post office was undeniably a positive force for our society and economy. It may very well become obsolete through technology but not by some more efficient private competition. Ask UPS if they really want to carry letters and magazines to every home in the country for a pittance.

So, the government isn’t always terrible at providing certain kinds of unique public services, especially ones that concern important national goals. I would also submit that the government isn’t always significantly less efficient than large private entities. Those of you who work for large corporations, none of which is as large as the defense department, can attest to the waste and even fraud that occurs in your little miracle of modern corporate governance. We need only think of the massive destruction of wealth that has just occurred in the financial sectors to think of how poorly many companies may be managed and how they squander resources. The US automobile industry was once the envy of the world and has been descending into ruin for decades. They can blame their woes on the unions, health insurance costs or whatever they like but the fact remains that most of the European competitors have far more onerous unions to deal with that have seats on their boards and they too must pay a share of the health insurance burden as well as pension contributions and all that while providing 6 paid weeks of vacation a year and more holidays that we can imagine. Do I think our companies should mimic foreign ones in all ways? Of course not. I appreciate the American service ethic, though it’s fallen on some hard days. Still, private doesn’t always mean better and the market doesn’t always pick fairly, honestly or even best. If you want an earful on bad and messy choices, just ask me about the transition to an HD optical disc format!

So, having dismissively trashed the concept of private being innately better than a well managed public entity, you probably believe I want a public health service where all doctors and nurses are public employees and the government manages all aspects of our health care system. I don’t.

Firstly, there is already a large public sector in health care provision and it is likely to grow. I have no problem with that and think that the two can coexist well and may interact even more in the future. There are certain things better handled by a public institution, as I’ve said above, and one of those, for example is infectious disease monitoring and research. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) is just one of many publicly run health care organs that exists and could not be adequately replaced with a privately managed group.

Still, there is no reason why doctors shouldn’t be free to choose their own areas of practice, location and manner and method of service. People are individuals and nowhere are they more individualistic than in their approach to their health and their bodies. It follows that doctors, as individuals will be better able to meet those disparate needs better than large organizations.

The vast majority of doctors working in Germany are in private practice. They do not work for the government and they are just as differentiated as American doctors in the way they approach their practice. There are holistic practitioners, those who focus on nutrition, personal types and mechanical types. There are the renowned “Gods in white” and those who work in partnership with their patients.

So, what’s different in Germany and how does it apply to the US? Germans pay for their health care very much like we do. Employers pay half and the employees pay half. The difference is in how the amount they pay is determined. For the vast majority of Germans, their insurance rates are determined by their income. They pay a percentage of their income, much like a dreaded TAX, to cover all of their health care needs. They do not pay this to the government though. They pay this to a publicly chartered private insurance company. The largest of which is the AOK. These “Gesundheitskassen“ then pay all the claims and manage the money on behalf of their ”clients.“ As you earn more money you pay more money. . . up to a point. Currently, Germany has an income cap that permits you to opt out of the ”public“ system once you exceed it. You are then free to purchase private insurance instead of public. This is somewhat cheaper for high earners because it is no longer based on income. Everyone else is free to buy supplemental insurance and Germany has a booming market for such policies as the Germans LOVE to be insured for everything!

The other big difference is that you do not lose your insurance when you lose your job. You stay with your insurer and it is paid by unemployment insurance. If you exhaust your unemployment insurance than you switch to the social insurance and that pays your health insurance. At no time will you and your family be uninsured.

Other differences? Your insurance pays just about everything at 100% so your insurance expenses are your ONLY medical expenses. You’d think this would result it overuse and abuse of the system and while there is fraud, just as in the US, the German system is vastly more efficient and delivers better results for less money. The Germans do have a fiscal problem with this system but it is not primarily due to fraud or abuse. The problem is the income cap! If, instead of permitting people to opt out of the system after reaching the cap, the government simply capped the amount of income taxed, the system would be more than solvent and its fiscal problems would be, for the most part, solved. Such a system would look more like our social security system, though not in terms of the looming fiscal insolvency, just in terms of the taxation limits.

This is a clearly progressive system that provides solid health care for all citizens at a price they can afford. The costs are also not as negative for employers of the low wage workers because their health care costs are tied to their earnings and, as a result, are very low.

I think this is the only fair way to create a comprehensive health care system and, with the exception of the rates being tied to income, would be relatively simple to implement with our current structures.

Comments? Ideas? I warned you about reading on but I’m glad you did.

Health Care - Part 1-7 Removing the stress from health care provision

7) Removing the stress from health care provision.
What the hell does this have to do with health care reform and won’t any new universal program just be more paperwork and hassle. Let me put it bluntly. Since returning the US from the socialist workers paradise of Germany (that’s a joke, people) I’ve had more stress and heartache dealing with health insurance than at any time in the past. I spend more time on the phone with insurance agents, medical billers and doctors about insurance and payment issues than I ever do in getting and dealing with health care.

Isn’t the point of a health care system to keep you healthy and to return you to health should you suffer an unfortunately illness, disease or accident? How can it possibly help when you are forced to battle your insurance provider to get the benefits you are paying for every month? How can it help to navigate your way through a thicket of rules and regulations that has spawned an entire industry just to manage it. I often deal with customer “service” agents or medical billing staff who seem just as confused as me about the proper billing codes they are to use to ensure that my yearly check up is billed as preventative care and comes out of the right pot of money. God forbid the Dr. perform one test not covered by that rubric, then the entire visit can be reshuffled into the regular office visit category and a long and tedious fight awaits the customer who attempts to have that visit reclassified to avoid paying the deductibles and co-pays that requires.

One of the things that amazed me when I returned to the US after an eight year sojourn in Germany was the size of the office staff required to sort through the paperwork and billing complexities forced upon doctors by the insurance industry. You may be surprised to hear that there is no medical billing industry to speak of in Germany. Dr.’s offices are smaller in Germany because they don’t house legions of personnel handling insurance issues.

Let me describe my typical doctor’s visit in Germany. I walk in, hand the office manager my insurance card, she swipes it through a card reader and hands it back. I wait for my appointment, see the doctor and leave. If I have a prescription to be filled, I take it to any pharmacy and hand it to the pharmacist who also scans my card and, moments later, I leave with my prescription.

In neither instance do I pay anything to either the doctor or the pharmacist nor do I receive a bill for services rendered or a co-pay at a later date. I pay for my insurance and, with few exceptions, everything else is covered by the insurance.

The same is true of my dentist visits and, with the exception of the frame costs, the optometrist. In that case, there is a limit to what the insurance will pay for the frame and, should I wish a more stylish one, it is incumbent upon me to pay the difference, as is only fair.

Once, when my youngest child had a mysterious skin disease, I went from doctor to doctor in search of a cure that worked. In all honesty, it might be argued that the insurance could reasonably have denied my claim since I went to so many doctors for the condition but they did not. In fact, I never heard from the about it at all. Each doctor tried something different and it never went away. Interestingly, it did get somewhat better but worsened during a visit to Los Angeles. There we went to a top dermatologist who recognized the rare condition and prescribed an unusual and, no banned, topical treatment for it. It was finally cured and our insurance, private German insurance at that point, paid it without question. That brings me to another point I will address in the future, public and private systems can live quite comfortably with one another, as they do in Germany. Many people buy supplemental policies for “luxury” features they are willing to pay for, private rooms in hospital etc.

So, for me, the stress of health insurance in this country is a serious issue. Granted, it’s not one that requires a public option, per se, but it does require a different approach and some restrictions and norms applied to the private sector.

One part of the problem is the sheer bewildering diversity of health care insurance in this country. It’s no wonder that an entire industry has grown up around medical billing. With hundreds of companies each with their own codes for each and every procedure, it’s difficult if not impossible for a small doctors office to handle the complexities of billing even a simple office visit. It’s even worse from a consumer’s point of view. Have you ever TRIED to decipher your EOB (explanation of benefits)? I have. . . from a number of companies, as our insurance has changed many times over even while remaining with a single employer. It’s migraine inducing! And when I’ve called to ask why my yearly check up was billed as an office visit and billed in full to me and applied to the deductible rather than paid in full as a preventative care visit, the explanation of the wrong billing code is less than helpful. Call the doctor’s office and they’ll insist it’s the correct billing code. How the hell should I know which code is correct and why should I even be concerned with such issues. With my insurance in Germany I NEVER faced such issues.

Another stressful issue relates back to the freedom to choose your doctor. As I mentioned, our insurance providers changed numerous times during 7 years of employment with a single employer. As the insurance provider changed so did the list of “in network” providers. Often one or more of our previously in network doctors would no be out of network and we had to choose: Find a new doctor or pay money we didn’t have to stay with the old one with significantly reduced benefits? What kind of choice is that and why do we have to make it? I thought we had freedom of choice?

Worse yet, on occasion, a doctor would mysteriously go from in network to out of network without us enduring a provider switch. My wife’s gynecologist went in and out of network so often we had to call just before every appointment to confirm her status. Eventually she simply stopped taking insurance of any kind (other than medicare and medicaid) directly and negotiated her own discounts for her patients who then had to submit the bill for out of network reimbursement.

Sound stressful enough for you? Share your own stories of health insurance stress.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Health Care - Part 1-6 Equitably sharing the costs of health care among all members of society

6) Equitably sharing the costs of health care among all members of society.
OK, here’s where we get into an almost purely ideological debate, though one tied closely to the entire question of providing universal coverage at all. Here’s the rub, when we talk about mandatory coverage and don’t take into account people’s ability to pay, we create a new problem while “solving” the old one. Now we have forced a new group of people into or further into poverty just to pay for health care. Many people without health care will still not be able to afford it just because it’s a “public option” or because some of it is paid for by an employer or even a tax credit. The reality is, sometimes every penny is already spoken for.

What’s the solution? Stay tuned for my truly socialist addition to the mix. Here’s where I share the wealth to. . . aw, that rhyme is just too awful.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Health Care - Part 1-5 Ensuring the freedom to determine your treatment plan in consultation with your doctor without undue restriction

5) Ensuring the freedom to determine your treatment plan in consultation with your doctor without undue restriction.
People are fulminating about “rationing” of health care. Listen up! If you have the money, health care is NEVER RATIONED! You can go anywhere and buy anything you want. You can get yourself a black market kidney and get a transplant. Just pay up. That will never change. If you don’t have that money, health care is ALWAYS RATIONED by what you can afford and what the insurance company is willing to pay. Check your policy, you have a lifetime limit on what the company will pay for your care and, trust me on this one, it can be exhausted pretty quickly with our outrageous medical costs and a series of serious chronic conditions. Just a transplant or two along with the care for life that follows is enough to max out many plans. Think that’s not likely? I personally know two people looking at transplant number two.

No system, public or private, pays for anything and everything for everyone under all conditions. You want “death panels?” You already got ‘em!

The real issue is that reasonable treatment that has a good chance of extending your life and/or improving the quality of your life should never be denied or delayed and the provision of that care should not depend on whether you are currently employed and have enough insurance and money.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Health Care - Part 1-4 Ensuring the freedom to choose your health care providers

4) Ensuring the freedom to choose your health care providers.
What? Isn’t this what the opponents of health care reform are fighting for? I thought the government was going to run health care and choose my doctor for me once “Obamacare” was the law of the land. Let’s examine this for a moment.

First question: Who out there can visit any doctor they want to for any service whatsoever? That’s correct, everyone! Yes, assuming you have unlimited dollars at your disposal, you are free to visit any doctor you like at any time, providing they are accepting new patients and have room in the schedule.

So, let’s ask that question differently: Who out there is free to visit any doctor they want to for any service whatsoever and have it covered by their current insurance? Ah, now we have a different result. I can see very few virtual hands. . . practically none. In fact, the few people who have their hands up seem to be elderly. Why is that? because just about the only system that has anything even close to universal acceptance and coverage in the US is the medicare system, which covers senior citizens and is a single payer government system. Also interesting, the vast majority of seniors are much happier with medicare than most of us are with our expensive private insurance schemes.

No, medicare doesn’t cover EVERYTHING. No insurance does. However, most private insurance is much more restrictive about which doctors you can and cannot see and what you pay to see them. My PPO, for example, allows me to see any doctor I want BUT only if I am willing and able to pay a much higher out of pocket maximum per year as well as a much larger percentage of the cost for each visit or procedure. As a result, my much vaunted freedom of choice is an illusion. I don’t have the resources required to go “out of network” and so I don’t. My network is pretty good but my insurance is outrageously expensive too. The alternatives provided by my wife’s employer, who shall remain nameless, all offer more restrictive options and, though they cost less than the one we have chosen, they are still expensive. If you have an HMO you probably have little, if any, say as to which doctor you see. Only medicare is close to universal, though it too falls short.

The fact that medicare is so pervasive and well thought of while the debate about health care is so dense and full of misinformation leads to people screaming at the top of their lungs to “keep the government out of my medicare!” What fun. Want to see the lengths this gets to? Check out this gem from the supposedly respectable Arthur Laffer:


Laffer knows better and that’s a big part of the problem. Rather than represent their arguments with solid facts and figures, opponents of health care reform would rather scare monger and inflame opinion. It’s an old game plan and one that is all too effective. Of course, proponents are only somewhat better, making weak arguments for their positions and claiming more than they can deliver with half hearted reform plans. Still, that’s a far cry from the government “death panels” garbage people like Sara Palin are spreading about.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Health Care - Part 1-3 Controlling the cost of health care while ensuring adequate standards

3) Controlling the cost of health care while ensuring adequate standards.
This is a technical topic so I’m not going to go into it in any great depth here. I’ll cover that in later arguments on specific areas. For the moment, suffice it to say that our current system accomplishes neither of these tasks. That’s not to say that there aren’t bright spots in the health care landscape. A small number of HMOs and the medicare system seem to have a decent record in this area. I’ll trot out figures to back that up later. Here I just want to state for the record what has been said so many times before: the US has the most expensive health care system in the world! Does this bother you? It wouldn’t necessarily bother me. Hell, we’re also, still, the richest country on the world. So, what’s the problem? Well, the problem is that this is actually a compound sentence. The second part of this statement is: “The US enjoys among the poorest health care outcomes in the OECD.”

Here’s a little taste of international studies on the subject, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“The World Health Organization (WHO), in 2000, ranked the U.S. health care system as the highest in cost, first in responsiveness, 37th in overall performance, and 72nd by overall level of health (among 191 member nations included in the study).[11][12] A 2008 report by the Commonwealth Fund ranked the United States last in the quality of health care among the 19 compared countries.[13] The U.S. has a higher infant mortality rate than all other developed countries.[nb 1][14] According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, the United States is the “only wealthy, industrialized nation that does not ensure that all citizens have coverage” (i.e. some kind of assurance).[15][16]”

For the original article, look here:

No one questions that costs are too high and health professionals are also agreed that the provision of health care is skewed as well.
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