Friday, July 31, 2009

A Government Bonanza Run Like A Clunker

That sucking sound you may have just heard was the government's billion dollar "cash for clunkers" slush fund drained in a week as consumers stampede new car malls for once-in-a-lifetime deals. The highly publicized stimulus program has caught the public's imagination in a fad not seen since the land and gold rush days of the last 150 years.

The House acted quickly today in a 316-109 vote to plunk another $2 billion into the program. The Senate is expected to vote on the additional funding next week. The funds will be taken from the unspent portion of Congress's $787 stimulus bill passed earlier this year.

The concept of the program worked far beyond the imagination of its originators as buyers flock to the dealers seeking up to $4,500 rebates by trading in their gas-guzzling old models for new more energy and environmentally efficient vehicles.

As with occasional government programs, the idea was brilliant. Its administering was overwhelmingly confusing and ill-prepared. And its unintended consequences a death threat to auto scrap dealers. Can't win them all, as we said on our days in the newspaper sports department.

The biggest nightmare at the moment is dealers worrying if they ever will be reimbursed by the government despite clunker authorization by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. If each of the thousands of dealers in America sold 12 new cars on clunker trade-ins the program's coffers would be dried up in days, not last into November as originally forecast by the politicians.

Greg Lewis, sales manager at Fitzgerald Auto Mall in Gaithersburg, Maryland, said Fitzgerald dealerships have suspended clunker sales -- not only because of the funding issue but because of ongoing problems with processing transactions through the Web site of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Fitzgerald dealerships are on the hook for nearly $1 million worth of deals already made with buyers, Lewis said, and company officials believe it would be "a big gamble" to make new deals at this point, "It's just constantly crashing," Lewis said of the computerized system.

U.S. automakers sold 17 million vehicles before the economic meltdown last year and predicted sales of 10 million this year. The Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS) program indicates to many experts consumers were waiting in the wings for a better price.

One stipulation in CARS legislation is that scrap shops must destroy the engine and drive train in the clunker vehicle as part of an effort to remove gas guzzlers from the road. The used engines sell for about $700 to $800 compared to a replacement engine for $4,000 from the dealer manufacturer agency, according to Angela Ingram who owns with her husband B & A Auto Parts, in Staunton, Virginia.

Ingram says the consumer will have less used parts available. She's not sure how the program will effect business in the long run. Ingram and her husband fear this program may put them out of business.

There is a subliminal cause and effect of CARS, some may call diabolical. It folds nicely into the Obama administration's efforts on climate change and diminishing demands on fossil fuel products. With thousands of gas guzzlers off the roads and no replacement parts available, American consumers will have little choice but be forced into buying the higher mileage vehicles whether they like it or not -- not withstanding they can afford them.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Inside Scoop On Cutting 1% In Military Spending

Let's see if I got this right. According to The Washington Post, a $636 billion military spending bill scheduled for vote by the House today or tomorrow contains about $7 billion in new ships, planes, helicopters and armored vehicles Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Pentagon does not need. The waste Gates decried as "business as usual" represents about 1% of the House's version for military spending this coming year.

Gates is trying to reform Defense Department procurement procedures but is meeting stiff resistance from Congress trying to preserve jobs in their districts as well as lucrative campaign contributions from defense contractors. He has the support of President Barack Obama who signaled he will veto the entire bill for items that "duplicate existing programs, or that have outlived their usefulness."A similar veto threat forced the Senate July 21 to end the F-22 fighter-jet program designed during the Cold War but useless for today's military missions.

The plot for a showdown thickens as those crafty congressmen anticipating their pork barrel favorites in jeopardy, passed on Wednesday an unusually restrictive rule for floor debate that allows only amendments that could strip less than half of the spending the administration did not request. A neat trick because it frees up $2.75 billion for their earmarks which include building more C-17 transport planes, F-18 jets and four military jets for the exclusive use of Congressmen and Pentagon brass.

Get this: About half of the $2.75 will be earmarked to private firms whose political action committees donated $789,190 to House appropriations subcommittee members on defense in the past 2 1/2 years, according to Taxpayers For Common Sense.

One of the more notorious earmarkers in Congress is appropriations subcommittee head John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) who is now being probed by the Justice Department and the House ethics committee. The White House targeted Murtha's committee for adding $400 million to finish five presidential helicopters unwanted by Gates and Obama. Murtha countered it was dumb to spend $3.2 billion on a program and "get nothing out of it." He added that the Defense Department really really wanted them but were muzzled by the White House.

This leads me to the most revealing inside look of the culture permeating Washington in this one paragraph in the WaPo story:

Regarding the disputed C-17 transport aircraft, for example, senior defense officials have formally testified that those purchased in previous years, in combination with upgraded C-5 aircraft, will be sufficient to meet any conceivable military needs. But the committee added $674 million for three unwanted planes because "the Air Force will say on the record that they don't support it, but if you ask them off the record if they will actually use the planes, they will say, 'Absolutely,' " said a House staff member who also was not allowed to speak on the record.

There will be a plethora of procedural problems before the House votes on the military spending bill because Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz, plans to submit 540 amendments to demonstrate how fed up he is with Congressional earmarks.

"Simply put, members of Congress should not have the ability to award no-bid contracts" to private firms, Flake said in a statement. "The practice has created an ethical cloud over Congress, and it needs to end." He noted that at least 70 of the earmarks are for former clients of the PMA Group, a lobbying firm close to appropriations subcommittee chairman Murtha.

Having read the Post story and restructured it for this posting, the question I keep asking myself is whether DefSec Gates is right and the estimated $7 billion be cut from the House military budget. What do we do then? Not spend it? After all, the money doesn't really exist now and will have to be borrowed in the future. Or stick the "savings" into the healthcare reform bill? You see, that's the difference between politicians and the rest of us. They take a proposed spending plan, cut it by 10%, and claim they saved you money. When we cut our household budget by 10 percent, we go without.



Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Unintended Collateral Damage Of Racist Comments

I normally don't pay much attention when high-profile conservatives such as Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin label President Obama a racist for sparking the national debate over the black Harvard professor arrested by Cambridge police. That is, until I read a story that made me wonder if there really is a cause and effect between what people as Beck and Malkin propagate and the nuts out there who carry this diatribe to extremes.

The story was written by a friend, San Diego Union-Tribune reporter David Hasemayer, about a La Mesa, Calif., man who was convicted yesterday of making threats against Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. What struck me was the defense offered by Walter Bagdasarian, 47. He said he was drunk on wine at the time of his online rants and shouldn't be taken seriously.

Writes Hasemayer:

In a racially laced diatribe last October, Bagdasarian said the country would fall apart during an Obama presidency and suggested assassination. His Internet bulletin-board postings and e-mails included racial slurs, profanity and references to a high-powered rifle often used by military snipers, court records show.

Now, Beck and Malkin had nothing to do with Bagdasarian's conduct nor did they imply the president ought to be shot. But similar, more inflammatory diatribes were commonly floating throughout the Internet. Such nonsense is sick minds are reinforced by racist comments coming from Mt. Olympus the likes of which are the Becks, Malkins and Rush Limbaughs.

Writes Hasemayer:

On the day Obama won the election, Bagdasarian wrote an e-mail under the heading “And so it begins.”

“Pistol . . . plink plink plink. When you use a 50 cal on a (racial epithet) car, you get this,” the message said. It contained a link to a YouTube video showing a junked car exploding after a propane tank in the vehicle was shot with a .50-caliber rifle.

When agents searched Bagdasarian's home, they found six guns — three pistols and three rifles.

U.S. District Judge Marilyn Huff debunked Bagdasarian's drunken defense, and found him guilty on two counts of making threats against a major candidate for president of the United States. He will be sentenced Oct. 26 where he faces up to 10 years in prison.

Now let's review what Beck said on the Fox morning show Tuesday. In a discussion about Obama claiming Cambridge police "acted stupidly" for arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Beck said Obama exposed himself as a person with "a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture." Later: "I'm not saying he doesn't like white people," Beck said. "He has a problem. This guy is, I believe, a racist."

Meanwhile, Malkin appeared on this morning's Today Show. She called Obama a racial opportunist while promoting her book citing corruption in the Obama administration.

Folks, playing the race card is getting out of hand. That goes for all parties, including Professor Gates who yelled during his confrontation with police: "Is this the way you treat a black man in America?"

It offends law-abiding citizens such as the neighbor, as a gesture of goodwill for her friend, who made the 911 call in the Gates case and later was lambasted in the media for remarks police said she made but she didn't as tapes of the call proved.

Lucia Whalen, at a press conference today, said that the only words she exchanged with Sergeant Crowley in person were, “I was the 911 caller.” She said that he responded, “Stay right there.”

Whalen, 40, her voice cracking, said she was deeply hurt by the reaction to the incident on July 16. She said she and her family had been the target of threats, which led her to speak out.

“When I was called a racist, I was the target of scorn and ridicule because of things I never said,” she told the reporters. She added, “The criticism hurt me as a person but also hurt the community of Cambridge.”

I would hope Whalen's words would weigh heavily on Gates, Obama, Beck, Malkin, Limbaugh, and, yes, even the cops, before they start throwing around words with highly sensitive racial overtones as if they were pieces of confetti tossed from a high-rise during a parade.

Words from people of higher authority have consequences. Just ask Walter Bagdasarian whose only excuse was he was drunk. What's the excuse for those other parties to this farce?


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Keep Abortion Funding Banned From Health Reform

I will come right out and say it. No federal funding for abortion procedures should be stipulated in the healthcare legislation now being deliberated in Congress. It pains me to say that because on principle I am pro-choice. The decision should rest with the doctor and the woman, the father, perhaps the pastor and definitely not the government.

I realize this position is contradictory because it penalizes women who cannot afford abortion. Basically, I'm saying let's keep the status quo under the guidelines of Roe vs. Wade and the Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, that explicitly prevents the federal government from using tax dollars to fund abortion through Medicaid.

Abortion is the most emotional among the numerous obstacles facing Congress in its struggle to pass healthcare reform. The House bill and the Senate drafts both include a government option or at minimum a co-op for health insurance coverage. This is where it gets murky, leading many pro-life legislators to insist provisions of The Hyde Amendment be written into the new legislation.

"Unless you can specifically exclude abortion, it will be part of any federalized healthcare system," said Charmaine Yoest, executive director of Americans United for Life.

Nineteen of the 52 conservative "Blue Dog" House Democrats threaten to scuttle the entire healthcare reform effort unless their demands outlying federal funding for abortion procedures are met. Republicans are using the abortion issue to drive a wedge between the Democrats and the Obama administration.

The White House is trying to remain neutral. "I think that it's appropriate for us to figure out how to just deliver on the cost savings and not get distracted by the abortion debate," President Obama said in an interview with CBS News last week.

When asked about abortion prohibitions in the bill, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said last week that "a benefit package is better left to experts in the medical field to determine how best and what procedures to cover."

I'm trying to be pragmatic. It would be a crime if the entire healthcare reform package is killed because of the abortion issue. It would change nothing if the liberal Democrats went along with the Blue Dogs and possibly even win support of a few moderate Republican senators.

Legislation of this sort never pleases everyone. And for those pregnant women on Medicaid, their options would be the same as they have been for the past 33 years. It isn't fair to them. Never has been. But, politics and reality don't always go hand in hand.



Saturday, July 25, 2009

Rush On Limbaugh

It's no secret I am not a fan of conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. That does not mean I don't respect the guy for the millions he has earned milking the political juices from his loyal following. Hell, I don't even own a radio so I obviously don't listen much. The "listening" comes from snippets of video clips mostly his enemies play on MSNBC-TV. Usually they are unflattering and outrageous.

As a result of being an open-minded guy, I downloaded the transcripts of his interviews with Greta Van Sustern aired on the Fox network this past week. Greta did a good job, journalistically speaking. For the most part Limbaugh was candid and spoke on current issues with a point of view of which I disagree. But, that's OK. I would have preferred he offer an alternative to improve the health care system other than we can't afford it. Not OK, but, that's Rush. In fact, I was willing to cut this guy a lot of slack, trying to take his conservatism seriously.

But, it was the last several minutes of the final segment that totally blew my mind and realized this guy can't be taken seriously. Van Sustern asked Rush how he maintained his radio popularity for so many years, a record almost unheard of in the industry. Amazing in that he survived charges in connection with his addiction to prescription drugs and fired from a network sports television show for racial remarks slurring black quarterback Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles. Here's the transcript on the segment that rattled my mind:

And I was -- you know, I made a deep connection with the audience. I mean, there was a whole bunch of Americans who were conservatives and never saw their viewpoint reflected in mainstream media news coverage. So here comes me. And I -- you know, I'm not a Svengali. I'm not creating (INAUDIBLE) robots. I'm simply validating what people already believe. And they're going, Yes, yes, I like this guy! He says what I think.

So I got a head start, so I've got this deep font of loyalty with this audience. And I -- you know, it's been 21 years on August 1st. But I -- when I sit down at that microphone, my expectations of myself are -- well, I do everything for the audience. Everything I do is for the show. And I will never phone it in because I've got too much respect for the audience. I will always give it my best shot every day.

What happened yesterday doesn't count or 10 years ago doesn't count. I don't remember -- if you had asked what I talked about yesterday, I could give you a broad paintbrush health care. Specifics, I don't know because I'm thinking about tomorrow. And it's -- I think it's a respect for the audience, respect for their intelligence, and a deep appreciation for what they have meant to my life.

My parents wouldn't understand my life. They didn't think it would be possible for some guy who refused to go to college to have this kind of success. They came out of the Great Depression. This just wasn't possible.

And I owe all of this to a devoted and loyal audience who stuck with me through all these years. Why they do it? It's a good show. It's a fun show. It's positive. People don't want to be beat up every day with, This caffeine product is going to kill you, or, The seas are rising and New York's going to get flooded. They want to hear about greatness.

They want -- people want to be inspired! People want to be motivated. They want their positive thoughts validated. They don't want to hear every day how everything's going to hell in a handbasket and there's a shortage of handbaskets. They don't want to hear this. That's what gets ratings on television.

I have shown you get ratings on radio being positive, respecting the audience, being inspiring and motivational at times, when it's necessary. I just try to share as much of my life experience with everybody because I -- it turned out pretty well. I'm very proud of it.

Positive? Until portions of the transcript printed above, he spent all his time trashing the Obama administration and calling the president and his political agenda everything short of traitorous. He said the Democrats are destroying America and he puts his love for his country above politics. He even would vote for a Democratic presidential candidate if he believed the person was a true conservative. He wants Obama to fail because it would save America.

Limbaugh should check his inflated ego at the door and listen to himself. It would validate his gig. A showman. Plain and simple. Playing to the masses. A funny guy in a macabre fashion.

But, positive? I don't think so.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Three Stupid Acts

Screw health care. The national discussion is our racial divide. So let's discuss the match which ignited the latest fire. Keep in mind not all the facts are in. I'm extremely curious to hear the 911 and police recordings of the Cambridge, Mass., incident.

The scene is a quiet residential neighborhood in which renowned Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. returned from a trip and found himself locked out of his house. Someone called police reporting a burglary in progress. The cops arrived, claimed the man was verbally abusive, and even though determining he was the rightful owner, arrested Gates in connection with obstructing a police officer's commands and public disturbance. The charges were dropped.

Stupid Act No. One

Gates is black, a serious scholar on race relations. That doesn't give him license to verbally challenge a police officer and call police headquarters to talk to the chief because he is a person of equal status. Especially, before the cops said they had an opportunity to determine the 911 call was unfounded. And double especially when that same house had been reported burglarized weeks earlier while Gates was out of the country. It was Gates who initiated the race comment by both his admission and the police reports.

Stupid Act No. Two

While Gates' attorney said much of the police report were lies and misrepresentations of his client, police still screwed up on procedural matters. For one, the responding cops on the beat did not know the people on the streets they were protecting. Second, the sergeant who had Gates arrested failed to adequately size up the situation and allow time for people, especially Gates, to cool down. I must say the cops showed mercy on the older man who walks with a cane to handcuff his hands in front of his waist rather than behind his back. If you ever been cuffed, you know what I mean, but it is usually against police procedures.

Stupid Act No. Three.

Of course, it's President Obama's answer to a press conference question Wednesday calling the arrest of his old friend a "stupid act" by the cops. Obama backed off that comment today, saying it was a poor choice of words. Not stupid, but dumb on the president's part, was to jump into a racially sensitive situation without knowing all the facts. But, he is a politician at heart, and not answering the question directly would have pissed off his black and strongest constituency.

No question Gates, Cambridge police and Obama would like to put this whole rhubarb to rest, toast a beer to one another and sing Kumbaya. No one is about to lose face and apologize. It ain't gonna happen because this story has too many legs to stop running through the mass media and blogosphere.

The subject has hit a raw nerve and picked a scab off a thin veneer that has plagued our nation for centuries. This case is slightly unusual since the President of The United States, the first African-American, stubbed his big toe on it and the black victim who raised the race card is not some young bandana-bound-head-with- trousers- drooped- below- his- crotch punk.

Being the focus of racism no matter how slight or unintended is painful. As a white person, it is easy to sit back and pontificate that blacks and latinos too often complain about racism when stopped by a white cop.

And, that leads us to the heart of the problem cops must deal with and that is so-called racial profiling, a subject dear to Obama's heart when he was an Illinois state senator.

My years as a police reporter and following my son's 15-year career in law enforcement tells me profiling is an essential tool in crime prevention. All it is is a bunch of statistical details indicating the incident rate of ethnic groups committing particular crimes in a given area. If 75% of the crimes are being committed by blacks, the cop on the beat naturally will prioritize black perps.

My son will be the first to admit profiling can be abused by, you guessed it, stupid cops.

A Sequel -- Happy Times Are Here Again

It pays not to always believe health care providers when they say "no" to paying for services. On Tuesday I lamented my case in which California's MediCal system because of budget cutbacks no longer paid for my test strips used to monitor my blood glucose which for a diabetic is essential as breathing.

Today I struck gold. After 45 minutes plowing through the automated phone tree of Health Net and being placed on hold while the call was transferred to three different departments, I was promised a shipment of test strips and lancets dispatched immediately to arrive at my doorstep no later than Tuesday. At no cost. I was given an 888 number to call for refills.

First off, I want to again thank The Moderate Voice contributors for their outpouring of sympathy, warmth, understanding and outrage at one tiny aspect of our health care system that involved me. Some even volunteered to take up a collection to pay for the test strips. Wow!

My frustration reached incredulity when a Health Net insurance representative told me all supplies and replacement parts for my insulin pump were covered -- except the test strips and lancets. That conversation occurred about a month ago. No problem, I imagined, because MediCal picked up that share of cost. I was unaware at that time that MediCal stopped paying because of the budget cuts. Health Net at that point stepped in and took over the coverage.

Now, Health Net is not the largest health insurance carrier in the country. But it is big enough in which sometimes the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. As is the case with large bureaucracies, it takes not weeks but months for changes to reach all the parties involved so they are working on the same page.

It also is incumbent on the consumer to plow through the automated phone trees the bureaucracies provide nowadays and have the time and patience not to buckle under the system.

The reason I went public is that it was stupid health care practice to provide coverage for all diabetic-related medical problems but not pay a measly $40 (retail) for a box of test strips that provide the information a diabetic requires to avoid all those medical costs which amounts to tens of thousands of dollars in a patient's lifetime.

I was wrong. I wasn't looking in the right places. But, it was up to me to find them. Years in the newspaper business trained me to keep plugging away to find the truth.

One wonders how many folks simply would have given up. The health care providers could care less for that's one less bill to pay.

By the way, some of the comments to my post questioned why Medicare Part D did not cover the cost of the test strips. They don't because strips are not a drug.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Capping Bankers Compensation Is Bad Policy

This just in.

Wall Street banks which have paid back federal bailout funds are stockpiling billions of dollars to pay employee bonuses that at the present rate would exceed compensation levels before risky trading plunged the industry into a meltdown last year.

It's business as usual, President Barack Obama said mockingly at his Wednesday night press conference. "With respect to compensation, I'd like to think that people would feel a little remorse and feel embarrassed and would not get million-dollar or multimillion-dollar bonuses," he said.

My question. What else would one expect?

"It strengthens our commitment to getting legislation passed," Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said in a Washington Post interview Wednesday, adding that a committee vote on a bill to increase oversight of Wall Street pay has been scheduled for Tuesday. "The amounts are troubling," Frank said.

Bailout funds administered by The Treasury under the Toxic Asset Recovery Plan (TARP) limits compensation but are removed once the money is repaid.

It has always been my contention that it is dangerous precedent for the federal government to cap salary and bonus compensation in the private sector. It is worse policy when the major banking institutions, freed from TARP regulations, offer greater compensation and rewards when other banks still struggling to pay off the loans are handcuffed and competing with a different set of rules. It is only natural that the best and brightest -- and, yes, even the greedy -- seek the best paying jobs in the market place.

That's the culture the financial institutions work. No matter what the rules are, those sneaky corporate lawyers will find a way around restrictions Congress may impose. Always have. Always will.

Having said that, I also believe Congress can lay down safeguards protecting stock holders and investors from unscrupulous practices which ran crazy leading up to the 2008 financial market collapse. That is part of the legislation and rules drawn by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner that are under consideration. Some banks already have enacted self-imposed rules that reduce or eliminate compensation for brokers whose activity results in losses for the company. One proposal is requiring transparency to inform stock holders exactly what the compensation rewards entail and allowing them to squelch what is known as rainbow umbrella retirement or severance packages.

What Barney Frank means as "troubling" is the $74 billion six Wall Street banks have set aside for employees so far this year, up from $60 billion at this time last year.

On the one hand is Goldman Sachs, which reported $3.4 billion second quarter profits, earmarking $11.4 billion so far this year at a pace that its employees will earn an average of $773,000 which is double from last year but still more than the $700,000 paid in 2007.

But, as the Post story pointed out, rival Morgan Stanley, which reported a $1.26 billion second quarter loss, has set aside $3.9 billion in compensation expenses that represent 72% of its entire second quarter revenue. Says the Post:

Traditionally, Wall Street banks have set aside about 50 percent of revenue to pay their workers, though that ratio is lower at firms with larger commercial banking operations, like Citigroup and Bank of America, which have a sizable number of lower-paid employees handling consumer business.

Morgan Stanley's compensation figures raised eyebrows among some analysts, who peppered Chief Financial Officer Colm Kelleher with questions about employee pay during a conference call.

"Clearly, we have to pay competitively," Kelleher said during the call. "We are a preeminent investment banking franchise. Obviously, we really would like to have far more revenue to make the compensation issue easy."

... In an interview, analyst Brad Hintz with Sanford C. Bernstein challenged that explanation, saying Morgan Stanley's compensation ratio has remained high throughout the financial crisis. "Unfortunately, this means that Q2 was a pretty good quarter for the employees, but not so for the shareholders," Hintz said.

Congress is barking up the wrong tree by capping compensation. Rather, the high-rollers should be more closely monitored to avoid high risks and institutions should be required to keep reserves at a minimum level and pay into a fund for default insurance such as the banks are required through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. A similar system has been installed by the oil commodities market that quickly detects unlawful oil speculation among its brokers.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I Can't Believe I Said This

Conspiracy theories know no political boundaries. The assassinations of President Lincoln and Kennedy and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are replete with theories still being debated today. But, the current so-called "birther" flap over President Obama boggles rationality. And, therein rests the problem with all conspiracy theorists: They won't accept factual documentation.

In Obama's case, the wingnuts from the right led by its more vociferous superstars in G. Gordon Liddy, Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh maintain Obama is a foreigner and his Hawaiian birth certificate he posted on his website during the presidential campaign is a fraud.

All I know is that reputable news reporters and the Hawaii public health officials say his birth certificate is legit. Any number of law suits filed in our court system to produce an Obama birth certificate have been dismissed as frivolous.

At issue in Obama's case is the constitutional requirement a president must be native born and age 35. The birthers failed to gain much traction during the presidential campaign but have raised their heads in recent weeks.

Dobbs, for one, on his radio show cited the case of reserve Army Maj. Stefan Cook refusing to be voluntarily deployed to Afghanistan because the commander in chief wasn't born in the U.S. Overlooked was the suspicion Cook was duped by his attorney, Orly Taitz, an Orange County (Calif.) attorney whose mission in life is to prove Obama isn't one of us.

Then, there is the ever-popular YouTube video showing Republican Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware at a town hall meeting this month interrupted as a woman, rooted on by a boisterous crowd, angrily demanded to know why nothing was being done to oust the "citizen of Kenya" pretending to be president.

But, my call to action on this subject came while watching MSNBC's Chris Matthews Show Tuesday while interviewing Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.), co-sponsor of a bill now in the House that would require presidential candidates to produce valid birth certificates before taking office. The bill was introduced by Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) who now boasts nine co-sponsors, all Republicans.

Matthews claimed the bill was nothing more than an enabler for the right-wing conspiracy theorists. Campbell remained a good sport during the interview and despite shouts and interruptions by Matthews did manage to explain his position. I listened and found Campbell's logic compelling.

It reminded me of an email exchange I had with my brother and his wife during the presidential campaign. They are the only conservatives in my family and sent me all sorts of stories culled from the Internet that claimed Obama was a foreigner, most likely born in either Indonesia or Kenya, with no documentation to support their claims. I said not to worry. He constitutionally must submit a birth certificate, most likely to officials before he is sworn into office.

I was wrong. I think. No where in the process can I find for certain it was required. If so, someone certainly is remaining quiet.

At any rate, I started thinking. The state and federal bureaucracies demand I show a birth certificate to qualify for public school, Little League, Pop Warner Football, all of the military services, Medicare, Medicaid and federal housing assistance among a few. No where in the U.S. Constitution does it say that's mandatory as it does for a President of the United States.

Go figure. For that reason, I believe Rep. Posey's bill is not a crackpot measure and I would support it. I can't believe I'm saying this. Strange, but true.

Uh, one caveat. I would add an amendment to the bill. Those who still claim the birth certificate provided by a president is fraudulent would face a firing squad at sunrise.

First Person Account of California Budget Cuts

I am shocked to discover this morning I am a victim of the on-going budget cuts in California's MediCal system. It seems so simple on the surface but in reality is a life-threatening disaster.

I am a diabetic low-income senior. My health is dependent on testing my blood glucose levels to determine the dosages of insulin I require to maintain a normal life. This is achieved by pricking blood from a finger tip and applied to a test strip attached to an electronic monitoring devise.

As I discovered today, MediCal no longer offers a copay of $3.10 for the test strips. In stead, I must pay $40 retail for a box of 25 strips directly to the pharmacy. It is mandatory to test four to five times a day. I did the math. It amounts to an average of $240 a month.

But, here's the big picture. Between Medicare Part D, Health Net's HMO Seniority Plus insurance and MediCal, all other medical drugs are covered with a minimal or no copay and almost all medical costs are covered with no copay. In fact, after paying my share of an initial cost of $787 for an insulin pump, all supplies and replacement parts are covered in full by Health Net -- except test strips and lancets.

In my case, the test strips are the fuel which drives the engine to a healthy life which I indeed cherish. Since acquiring the insulin pump the diabetes-related symptoms of heart, lung and kidney problems have diminished. My blood pressure is normal as is the lipid panel detecting cholesterol and triglycerides. In fact, the only concern my primary physician has is my tendency to become dehydrated.

In short, this approach to preventive medicine is saving the state, feds and private insurers thousands of dollars. Now that is questionable because some faceless bureaucrat in Sacramento drew the line in the sand over a measly box of test strips.

In the interest of clarity, MediCal stopped paying for test strips some weeks ago but I was never notified until I learned the hard way from the pharmacist when I ordered a refill today.

Paying full price for the test strips represents about 21% of my monthly income, pushing all medical costs to almost a quarter of my income. Perhaps on a national average that's not so bad for an old man with diabetes. But it robs other areas that contribute to a quality of life.

They say health care reform involves a series of tough decisions. I fear in my case it was a stupid decision. It defies logic. It reminds me of my grandmother's admonition of "being penny wise and pound foolish."

I confess we low-income seniors in California may have been coddled by our state and federal governments in terms of casting safety nets in our direction. Oh, I will find a way to pay for the test strips in my meager budget. I'm old enough to go with the flow.

But it would be easier to reconcile this dilemma if it made any sense.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

California Budget Not A Done Deal

Tens of thousands of California's poor children, welfare recipients and elderly will lose most of not all healthcare benefits as a result of a budget deal to close a $26.3 billion deficit brokered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state legislative leaders. Prisoners will go free, property taxes collected by county governments will be snatched by the state and oil drilling will resume off the Santa Barbara coastline.

The good news, Schwarzenegger glowed, is no new taxes.

The entire legislature is scheduled to vote on the budget package as early as Thursday, a two-thirds majority required for passage. They will be bombarded by constituents and special interest groups right up to the minute they cast their votes.

Details of the plan are sketchy and incomplete. Here's a list provided by The Los Angeles Times:

CUTS

  • K-12 and community college education -- $4.3 billion
  • Higher education -- $3 billion
  • Medi-Cal -- $1.3 billion
  • State worker pay -- $1.3 billion
  • Corrections -- $1.2 billion
  • CalWorks/welfare -- $528 million
  • Home health aides -- $226 million*
  • Healthy Families children’s insurance -- $124 million
  • Local transportation -- $1 billion*
  • Redevelopment agencies -- $1.7 billion*
  • (*) Incomplete totals

REVENUES

  • Accelerate income tax withholding -- $1.7 billion
  • Increase estimated tax payments for businesses and the self-employed -- $610 million

OTHER NEW FUNDS

  • Sale of State Compensation Insurance Fund -- $1 billion
  • Assumed federal funds for Medi-Cal program -- $1 billion

ACCOUNTING SHIFTS/BORROWING

  • Local government borrowing -- $2 billion
  • Education deferrals -- $1.7 billion
  • June 2010 state worker paycheck deferral -- $1.2 billion
"We've accomplished a lot in this budget," said Schwarzenegger, as he emerged from his office with legislative leaders Monday evening to announce the deal, after an all-day negotiating session of the "big five" -- the Republican governor and legislative leaders.

"It was like a suspense movie, but . . . we have accomplished a lot," Schwarzenegger said. "This is a budget that will have no tax increases, a budget that is cutting spending. . . . We're also very happy that in this budget we make government more efficient."

Senate Democratic leader Darrell Steinberg said "We have cut in many areas that matter to real people, but I think we have done so responsibly."

“I would characterize this budget as shared pain and shared sacrifice,” Karen Bass, the Democratic Speaker of the California Assembly, said.

The proposal to borrow $4.6 billion from the cities, counties and their redevelopment projects is "bad public policy and it is going to hurt a lot of people," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.

Law enforcement advocacy groups said the $1.2 billion cut from the state prison system would require the release of 20,000 prisoners.

One of the revenue proposals is to privatize the state Compensation Insurance Fund to generate $1 billion but analysts say such a sale is unlikely, at least this year.

The education cuts are expected to lay off thousands joined by the 230,000 state workers who already are forced to take off three unpaid days per month. The furloughs amount to a 14% pay cut and now are scheduled to last through June 2010.

"Millions of Californians will live sicker and die younger as a result of these cuts (in the state's safety net programs)," said Anthony Wright, executive director of the nonprofit Health Access California. He called the plan a cause for "embarrassment and shame for California."

Older residents of Santa Barbara still have memories of the gigantic oil spill in 1969 off its coastline and the horrors of that disaster will be fought again as the state negotiates new drilling permits.

Since July 1 the insolvent state has issued 153,711 IOUs, worth a total of $682 million. The office of Controller John Chiang said it would need to evaluate the budget proposal before determining when it could stop issuing the warrants. The Wall Street Journal in its report wrote:

Economists said the spending cuts will bruise a California economy already slammed by rising unemployment and foreclosure rates. "It will certainly offset a fraction of the federal-stimulus effect this fall," said Roger Noll, a professor emeritus of economics at Stanford University. "That will mean the depth and duration of the recession [in California] will both be bigger than otherwise would've been the case," he said.

Some positive signs are emerging, such as a resurgence in housing sales in most of the state's markets. But most analysts predict California's recovery will be slow, and that state coffers will remain under pressure because they are highly dependent on personal income taxes, which are now down.

Believe it or not, the governor, known best for his movie roles as "The Terminator," announced a fire sale to help raise money. On his Twitter feed: “We’ll actually be having a CA Garage Sale at the end of Aug to auction cars and office supplies.” He will sign some of the items to increase their value.

Only in California ...

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Sausage Factory Road To Health Reform

News flash: Anyone who says the health care bills now in Congress are doomed to failure. Or those who proclaim health reform is on the horizon. I say bunk. I have read portions of the versions of the House and Senate bills until the words became blurred as if viewing the world through cataracts.

Frankly, I gave up in despair. I came to the only sane conclusion possible: Wait until the House and Senate bills are voted and sent to conference for reconciliation. Then and only then can they be dissected with some order of coherence. Actually, that is precisely the method the White House gurus seem to be taking unless they panic and give away the store before the August recess.

The health care reform bills are a text book case of the messy process making legislation much like the making of sausage, something you don't want to see done but bound to eat it in its final product.

As a result, President Barack Obama is taking the lead ramrod role of cheerleader encouraging Congress to get it done. “We’ve talked this problem to death — year after year,” Obama said Monday to a group of doctors and nurses. “Unless we act and act now, nothing will change. The need for reform is urgent and indisputable.”

The president said that the “status quo” in the nation’s health-care system would only get worse and coverage costs would continue to soar. He said he would not sign a bill that did not reflect a commitment to slow costs over the long run -- and "deficit neutral" to coin a Washington phrase.

Democrats are weakening their resolve by urging a 70-day delay in the Senate for health reform passage, in order to gain Republican support. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said her chamber's version is on schedule for a vote before the August recess.

So far, Obama has been reluctant to be specific, preferring to paint with broad brush what he wants. On the few occasions he has targeted congressional proposals, it has antagonized Democratic leaders. One specific was his displeasure with a tax on health insurance premiums of employers providing coverage for workers. He has been mum on the House proposal to provide federal funding for abortions for poor people. Nor has he addressed the nation's governors' concern of proposals to mandate more benefit coverage through Medicaid without additional federal funding.

The National Governors Association, meeting last weekend in Biloxi, Miss., said the recession is draining their budgets of revenues and cannot afford additional Medicaid costs when they face an aggregate deficit of $200 billion over the next three years.

In the House bill, Medicaid would be expanded to cover all nonelderly people with incomes at or below $29,300 for a family of four. The federal government would pay all the costs for those who were newly eligible. Medicaid would also cover newborns, for up to 60 days after birth, if they did not have insurance from other sources.

The Congressional Budget Office projects that 11 million more people would receive coverage through Medicaid under the House bill, and that it would increase federal Medicaid spending by $438 billion over 10 years. Medicaid thus accounts for about 40 percent of the cost and 30 percent of those who gain coverage.

Many governors expressed frustration. “There’s a concern about whether they have fully figured out a revenue stream that would cover the costs, and that if they don’t have all the dollars accounted for it will fall on the states,” said Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. of Colorado, a Democrat.

In a draft of the bill in the Senate Finance Committee, the federal government would pick up the extra costs for perhaps five years, but states would eventually have to pay their normal share. On average, the federal government pays 57 percent.

As I said, the legislative process is a meat grinder. I have touched on only a few of the proposals and, believe me, there are dozens. On the whole, the scheme favored by Congress is taxing those with earnings of $300,000 and more to pay the brunt of the additional costs that will come with universal health care coverage. Less prevalent is actual reforms other than a national patients' data base and reimbursement of doctors for quality rather than quantity of procedures. Stay tuned.


Saturday, July 18, 2009

Our Troops In Iraq Becoming Sitting Ducks

The withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from within Iraqi cities is not going too well. Whether it's a language translation of the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement or grandstanding by the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is unclear. U.S. commanders are complaining their hands are tied defending themselves from attacks by Shiite militias or Sunni insurgents.

Skeptics of both those who opposed the war and those who warned the phased pullout would backfire are both right, it appears. Either way, the safety of American troops is at stake because of a political agreement brokered late in the Bush administration. Included in that agreement is for our commanders to wait until the Iraqis issue warrants to pursue terrorists, a delay guaranteed for successful escapes.

This latest analysis comes from The Washington Post in which it quotes an email from Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, commander of the Baghdad division.

"Maybe something was 'lost in translation,' " Bolger wrote. "We are not going to hide our support role in the city. I'm sorry the Iraqi politicians lied/dissembled/spun, but we are not invisible nor should we be." He said U.S. troops intend to engage in combat operations in urban areas to avert or respond to threats, with or without help from the Iraqis.

"This is a broad right and it demands that we patrol, raid and secure routes as necessary to keep our forces safe," he wrote. "We'll do that, preferably partnered."

Later in the Post article:

"Our [Iraqi] partners burn our fuel, drive roads cleared by our Engineers, live in bases built with our money, operate vehicles fixed with our parts, eat food paid for by our contracts, watch our [surveillance] video feeds, serve citizens with our [funds], and benefit from our air cover," Bolger noted in the e-mail.

Bolger's exasperation stems from a July 2 missive by the Baghdad Operations Command, the day after Iraqi's celebrated the troop withdrawal to outside the cities. Iraq's top commanders told their U.S. counterparts to "stop all joint patrols" in Baghdad. It said U.S. resupply convoys could travel only at night and ordered the Americans to "notify us immediately of any violations of the agreement." The June 30 deadline for moving U.S. troops out of Iraqi towns and cities was the first of three milestones under the agreement. The U.S. military is to decrease its troop levels from 130,000 to 50,000 by August of next year.

U.S. military officials believe many of the direct attacks on our troops come from militias closely aligned with the Maliki government. The Post identified the extremist groups:

The three primary groups -- Asaib al-Haq, Khataib Hezbollah and the Promised Day Brigades -- emerged from the "special groups" of the Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) militia of radical Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which terrorized Baghdad and southern Iraq beginning in 2006. All receive training, funding and direction from Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force.

The latest attack killed three U.S. soldiers Thursday in a compound near Basra.

But the security agreement remains a stumbling block. Reports The Post:

One U.S. military official said both Iraqi and American leaders on the ground remain confused about the guidelines. The official said he worries that the lack of clarity could trigger stalemates and confrontations between Iraqis and Americans.

"We still lack a common understanding and way forward at all levels regarding those types of situations," he said, referring to self-defense protocols and the type of missions that Americans cannot conduct unilaterally.

In recent days, he said, senior U.S. commanders have lowered their expectations.

"I think our commanders are starting to back off the notion that we will continue to execute combined operations whether the Iraqi army welcomes us with open arms or not," the U.S. commander said. "However, we are still very interested in and concerned about our ability to quickly and effectively act in response to terrorist threats" against U.S. forces.

Great. Our troops are now sitting ducks. It reminds me of those god awful rules of engagement during the Korean and Vietnamese wars. August 2010 can't come soon enough.

Friday, July 17, 2009

With All That's On His Table, A Shot Of Booze Is OK

As President Obama's personal popularity sinks to the 50-yard line, his landmark climate change and healthcare bills in deep doo doo, the stimulus bill tied up in bureaucratic knots and his continual flummoxing over Bush Administration torture and secret CIA operations, one thing remains certain.

The public has an insatiable thirst for the guy. It ranges from the fanatical extreme right fringe which went ballistic over his elder daughter wearing a T-shirt sporting a 1960s peace symbol that elicited threats from readers a bullet short of assassination. To empathy (a la Sonia Sotomayor) for his penchant of smoking an occasional cigarette and downing a glass of liquor.

As a smoker and retired drinker, I prefer to dwell on the latter. It tells us a lot about the man. After all that messiah and parting of the Red Sea talk during the last presidential campaign, it makes him appear human.

One of the guys. Which reminds me, and sorry for the digression, but wasn't it during the 2004 presidential campaign that Republicans asked who you would prefer to have a drink with, George Bush or John Kerry? That was always a disconnect with me. By that time we knew Bush didn't drink because of bouts with alcoholism earlier in his life.

At any rate, Amie Parnes of Politico explores Obama's drinking preferences in a remarkable straight-forward post that reports first and foremost he is not a lush but does enjoy a toot of wine, beer, margarita or martini on appropriate occasions. Actually, she reports, he'll drink a sip or glass of about any liquor. He can't be pigeon-holed on his preference for booze.

In my drinking days, Obama would be considered an amateur. I suppose nerd would be more in tune to today's lexicon. My drink of choice was scotch on the rocks no matter what the occasion. Come to think of it, I didn't need an occasion.

Parnes related what I consider the perils of presidential parameters when seen drinking a beer at a National Basketball Association game in Washington D.C.

After Obama was seen with beer in hand at the Wizards game, callers lit up the lines at WWL, a sports radio station in Louisiana, according to the station’s website.

“People are losing 5, 10, 20,000 dollars a day in the stock market, and he’s sitting there drinking a beer,” one caller said. “It’s insulting. There’s a lot of people suffering.”

Another caller complained, “The president is the president 24 hours a day. I don’t think he should drink on the job.”

Let's be honest. Obama is the 44th president and at least 10 of his predecessors were either drunks, philanderers or both. Politico's Parnes is more polite:

Drinking is not an uncommon thing for presidents, historians say. Franklin D. Roosevelt had a thing for martinis. Richard Nixon loved Ch√Ęteau Margaux. Lyndon Johnson preferred scotch.

“Drinking was part of the Washington culture,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “It was pretty common, and it didn’t raise any eyebrows.”

Zelizer says drinking became less accepted during President Jimmy Carter’s administration in the 1970s. “Carter brought a piety to the White House,” he says. “He emphasized his personal morality.”

Bush was the same way, Zelizer says, in that he explained his struggles with drinking and why he had given up alcohol years before.

Obama himself admitted to having “made some bad decisions” in his youth when it came to drinking.

Speaking to high school students in New Hampshire during the presidential campaign, Obama said he “got into drinking and experimenting with drugs. ... There was a whole stretch of time where I didn’t apply myself.”

Now, as an adult, a sip now and then only humanizes him, says Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. “It certainly plays in his favor,” Thompson says. “It gives people the sense that he’s a regular guy. He’s doing what one does at a basketball game. He’s having a beer. It adds to the notion that he’s kind of a cool guy, and it might be nice to have a drink with him.”

Thursday, July 16, 2009

CIA's Kill Al-Quada Plan No More Than A Turf War

If we are to believe U.S. intelligence officials that a plan to train assassination teams to strike al-Quada leaders overseas including allied countries -- a plan rejected for the most part and never operational -- then I say more power to them. Keep in mind these plans work terrific in movies and Tom Clancy novels but rarely in the real world.

The wrinkle is Central Intelligence Agency officials never briefed Congressional leaders at the direction of Vice President Dick Cheney, another allegation we are told to believe. As a result, we have a political see-saw battle that impugns the integrity of our intelligence operators who have enough problems of their own.

In my mind, the law is clear that the Gang of 8, Congress' intelligence committee chairpersons, are to be briefed with the classified activities both operational and in the planning stages. It is one of those Washington turf wars passionately protected by Congress and considered a necessary evil for every executive branch since the law was enacted. But the game is played on an uneven field: Briefers brief only what they want and Congressional leaders cannot take notes and are sworn to secrecy, meaning they are limited to do anything about the programs whether they approve or not. I could be wrong but revealing classified material is a crime but there are no sanctions for failing to brief Congress on the part of the executive branch. As it so happens in many of these cases, perjury and obstruction of justice crimes are the penalties -- and not the original crime being pursued -- should investigations by the Attorney General or special prosecutor take place. Just ask I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

The on-going current turf battle is unusual because the vice president who has only two constitutional powers -- president of the Senate and succeeding the president -- is said to have suggested the gag order. It is unknown whether Cheney was delegated that authority by President Bush and even that may have exceeded the president's authority.

It is further compounded politically because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has accused intelligence officials of failing to brief her if not other committee chairpersons about the CIA's enhanced interrogation methods that included waterboarding which the Obama administration's attorney general considers torture. I have always wondered if the CIA did brief Congress on enhanced interrogation methods, why didn't any Democrat cry foul during the Bush administration. In stead, we have the Pelosi flap that they didn't.

If that's not enough, the scenario really gets screwy as the Democrats consider an amendment to the disclosure law that would extend briefing privileges to all members of the House and Senate intelligence committees. It becomes hilarious that Karl Rove -- who leaked classified information to reporters in the Valerie Plame case -- says that would open the door for even more sensitive activities being leaked by Congress. Obama has vowed to veto such legislation, according to some unattributed reports I have seen.

There is nothing more than liberal and civil liberties Democrats would love to do is to nail Cheney and Bush for their alleged misdeeds. I would support an inquiry if for no other reason than to get Cheney and Bush under oath in what probably amount to no more than a witch hunt. But, at least, it would clear the record. At the same time, it would be disastrous to set a merry-g0-round in motion for one administration to prosecute a previous one simply because they disagree on policies, a charge we have heard from Republican apologists.

Meanwhile, the plan to kill top al-Qaeda leaders, which had been on the CIA's back burner for much of the past eight years, was thrust into the spotlight because of proposals to initiate what one intelligence official called a "somewhat more operational phase." Shortly after learning of the plan, CIA director Leon Panetta terminated the program and then went to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers, who had been kept in the dark since 2001.

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair defended Panetta's decision to cancel the program, which he said had raised serious questions among intelligence officials about its "effectiveness, maturity and the level of control."

He said that the CIA did not violate the law when it failed to inform lawmakers about the secret program until last month. Blair said agency officials may not have been required to notify Congress about the program, though he believes they should have done so. "It was a judgment call," Blair said. According to The Washington Post:

The program was active in fits and starts, and it was essentially killed in 2004 because it was deemed ineffective, former and current intelligence officials said. It reemerged briefly in 2005 but remained largely dormant until this year. Two U.S. officials with detailed knowledge of current CIA operations said the agency presented Panetta last month with new plans for moving forward with training for potential members of the assassination teams -- activities that would have involved "crossing international boundaries," in the words of a former counterterrorism official briefed on the matter.

There were also reports the assassination plans were taken over by the Pentagon under former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. What happened there also is unclear. What is unsettling is that if the plans never became anywhere near operational, why would the CIA spend at least $1 million on them, a disclosure made by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich.

That's the trouble discussing covert operations under the umbrella of our 16 intelligence agencies. Someone who perceives a wrong or has a political ax to grind leaks it to the media. We seldom learn all the facts which we probably shouldn't because of national security reasons. So we constantly bicker over a loaf of bread when only several slices are agreed upon as facts.

That's why I believe the clandestine program to kill al-Quada leaders is no more than a turf war between Congress and the executive office. That is not to be confused with the torture issue which defines our nation's moral integrity.



Monday, July 13, 2009

Part II -- Sarah, We Hardly Knew Ya

This is without a doubt, swear on a stack of Bibles, the last article I will post on the announced soon-to-be resignation of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- until she actually contributes something of value to national politics. This is not a political obituary for she shall return as certainly as Gen. MacArthur promised, a chap she fondly quoted recently.

I take Sarah Palin for what she is. A former beauty queen, mother of five children, an ambitious politician in the tiny confines of Wasilla and Alaska, a passionate defender of limited government with a strong military -- but hopelessly ill-prepared and thin-skinned to a higher calling of national office at this period in her remarkable life. In short, she's not ready for prime time.

Think what you may of Sarah Palin, but her charisma and energy translates to the "it" girl of the 1920s and high "Q" factor of instant name recognition in today's society. That's why she has attracted a loyal conservative base and constant media attention, if, for no other reason, she's a fresh new face in politics and definitely different.

As far as lack of depth of wonkish national issues, the same was said by detractors of Ronald Reagan's early career in politics. In many respects, she's her own worst enemy. It is insulting to hear her refer to the president's legal counsel as the "Department of Law." I'm sorry to sound snobbish but a fifth grader should know that.

Name any former unsuccessful candidate for vice president in which seven months after the election people were still talking about, let alone remember their names. Not Palin. In the past several weeks, Vanity Fair wrote 10,000 words which depicted her as a narcissistic, one-woman demolition derby. On Monday's websites, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times followed with essentially unflattering accounts. I would be the first to admit that all three publications can be considered liberal organs but in all fairness they articulated many truths about the woman her passionate followers would reject or ignore.

The lede in the NYT article was telling. It said the Republican Governors Association sent an emissary to Alaska to counsel Palin and advised her to get her family life in order and focus on her gubernatorial duties. She happily took the advise, the article said, and then tossed it in the trash can on her route to quit after serving only 2 1/2 years in her first term. The article did not mention that in her resignation announcement she said she was saving Alaskans $2 million in legal costs caused by the filing of at least 16 ethics complaints against her. Within days of the announcement, The Anchorage Daily News reported less than $300,000 was budgeted in anticipation of processing the complaints of which all but one was found baseless.

The LAT article was more devastating. Among Republicans:

"I am of the strong opinion that, at present day, she is not ready to be the leading voice of the GOP," said Todd Harris, a party strategist who likened Palin to the hopelessly dated "Miami Vice" -- something once cool that people regard years later with puzzlement and laughter. "It's not even that she hasn't paid her dues. I personally don't think she's ready to be commander in chief."

And,

"I can't tell you one thing she brought to the ticket," said Stuart K. Spencer, who has been advising GOP candidates for more than 40 years. "McCain wanted to shock and surprise people, and he did -- in a bad way."

Plus,

"People at the grass roots see a charismatic personality who is popular with other people at the grass roots. But their horizon only goes so far as people who think like them," said Mike Murphy. The veteran GOP ad man eviscerated Palin -- a "political train wreck," "an awful choice" for vice president, her resignation an "astonishing self-immolation" -- in a column published Thursday in the New York Daily News.

But, here's the enigma. The recent USA Today/Gallup poll found seven in 10 Republicans said they would likely vote for Palin if she ran for president. It begs the question: Are the people right and the pundits wrong?

"Professional operatives keep their eye on a broader horizon and understand, without independents and swing voters, she can't win," Murphy said. "She's a stone-cold loser in a general election."

Murphy gets really nasty, again quoting the LAT article:

Some blame sexism, though again there is sharp disagreement between Palin's supporters and detractors. Some think the former beauty queen has always been hurt by her looks, whereas others think her appearance has helped her considerably. "If Sarah Palin looked like Golda Meir, would we even be talking about her today?" Murphy asked.

For balance, the LAT offers:

"The fact that she is a woman who's extremely attractive and dynamic and charismatic throws them for a loop," said Bay Buchanan, who strategized for her brother's two insurgent presidential campaigns. "Once they sense the first little sign of weakness, that's when they go in for the kill."

They say a cat has nine lives. Sarah Palin might be the symbolic Cat Woman who may return to the national stage with a vengenace.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Have Patience, My Friends

Americans are an impatient lot. They demand instant gratification. That is why sodium-saturated frozen meals are microwaved in minutes and cholesterol-rich fast food restaurants so popular. When Americans apply this mentally imbalanced approach to solving our nation's economic ills, they demonstrate a side of themselves that is at best naive and worst ignorant.

So it comes as no surprise that President Barack Obama or his ghost writers offered The Washington Post an op-ed article the paper published asking Americans for patience as they suffer through the depths of this recession soon entering its second year of economic turmoil.

Writes Obama:

The swift and aggressive action we took in those first few months has helped pull our financial system and our economy back from the brink. We took steps to restart lending to families and businesses, stabilize our major financial institutions, and help homeowners stay in their homes and pay their mortgages. We also passed the most sweeping economic recovery plan in our nation's history.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was not expected to restore the economy to full health on its own but to provide the boost necessary to stop the free fall. So far, it has done that. It was, from the start, a two-year program, and it will steadily save and create jobs as it ramps up over this summer and fall. We must let it work the way it's supposed to, with the understanding that in any recession, unemployment tends to recover more slowly than other measures of economic activity.

The president is correct. Only 10% of the $787 billion Stimulus II signed into law in early February has been spent with most of the states using it to fill shortfalls in their budgets and extend unemployment benefits. Along with the billions used to bailout banks and two of America's largest automobile manufacturers, it is rather amazing the downhill slide has slowed if not bottomed out, if you believe the extent of the recession was worse than Vice President Joe Biden said the administration learned upon taking office.

Anyone who claims the Obama administration's approach to economic recovery at this stage is a failure is an ideological zealot. The economists and political pundits are all over the map in regards to this question.

I don't know if it will work. It's too soon to tell. There's many aspects to it I don't like such as government takeover of General Motors and Chrysler, AIG, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and capping salaries in financial institutions that receive bailout funds.

But the fundamental question is not whether we like it. It is whether it will work. The bottom line seems to be an ambitious program in a Houdini act that requires finding revenue in which the president and Congress lacks the fortitude. By that, I mean a progressive tax on health premiums or regressive value added taxes on energy. If anyone believes they can live in this age without paying more in some form of tax revenue, they're living in a fantasy world.

It doesn't bother me that Obama campaigned on no tax increases for those earning less than $250,000. I interpreted that to mean federal income taxes which leaves the door open for other revenue-producing goodies.

There are several liberal and conservative columnists that drive me nuts. On the left, Paul Krugman essentially argues spending money at drunken-sailor speed despite long-term effects of inflation and deficits. On the right, Bill Kristol calls Obama the "nanny administration" for its safety nets at the expense of time-proven market conditions that will self-correct and stabilize the economy.

When I can understand him, columnist George Will has a filtered conservative perspective that oftentimes drives home a salient argument. In Sunday's Washington Post column, he says our unemployment rate of 9.2% equals that of the government-regulated economies of the Euro nations. Although he fails to mention mild successes of Medicare and Medicaid, he does recognize this American government failure that far predates the Obama reign:

The administration guesses that these government projects will do better than the Postal Service (its second-quarter loss, $1.9 billion, was 68 percent of its losses for all of 2008) and the government's railroad (Amtrak has had 38 money-losing years, and this year's losses are on pace to set a record).

Let's guess: Will a person or institution looking for a place to invest $1 billion seek opportunities in the United States, where policy decisions are deliberately increasing taxes, debt, regulations and the cost of energy, and soon will increase the cost of borrowing and hiring? Or will the investor look at, say, India. It is the least urbanized major country -- 70 percent of Indians live in rural areas, 50 percent on farms -- so the modernizing and productivity-enhancing movement from the countryside to the city is in its infancy. This nation of 1.2 billion people has a savings rate of 25 to 30 percent, and fewer than 20 million credit cards. Which nation, India or the United States, is apt to have the higher economic growth over the next decade?

But I digress. My point is this: Everything -- the domestic economy to foreign policy -- is now owned by Obama. If he fails, I will jump off the bandwagon and admit defeat. His moment of judgment is not today or even next year. It is November 2012. Have patience, my friends.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Two Doctors' Promising Views On Health Reform

House committees are expected to introduce their versions of healthcare reform measures Monday. A public option of government-pooled coverage competing with private carriers is included in the consoldated bill that would extend insurance to the estimated 45 million uninsured and underinsured. That in itself will not reduce the spiraling increase of health costs now reaching $2 trillion annually.

Avoiding serious discussion, as far as I can tell, is an industry peer review aimed at lowering costs of unnecessary diagnostic tests and surgeries authorized by physicians more interested in their private income than their patients' needs. Such a review system is tantamount at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, N.Y., and its satellite branches and a medical cooperative in Grand Junction, Colo. In both cases, the medical costs per patient is among the lowest in the United States while simultaneously providing the best health care possible. Not coincidentally, physicians employed by these two medical facilities are paid by salary or have no financial incentive to order redundant tests.

No question the American Medical Association if not its associated groups oppose a public option or single-payer system because the government reimburses physicians' even less than private insurance carriers.

The latest and most typically-stated opposition comes from Wellpoint, Inc., the nation's largest publicly-traded healthcare benefits company. “The Health Action Network supports building a strong, sustainable private-sector health care system -- and opposes creating a government-run plan,” Wellpoint says on its website. “Many in Congress believe that creating a government-run health plan is better than working to improve the current system. However, a government-run plan will impose new costs and ultimately limit choices and access... Nonetheless, there are proposals in Washington that would threaten our ability to continue serving individuals, families and employers. We cannot allow that to happen.” WellPoint, which merged with Anthem in 2004, serves about 35 million members.

One measure, focusing on how to pay for reform, will come out of the House Ways and Means Committee headed by Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y. He said the bill included a tax on Americans earning more than $350,000 per year that would raise $540 billion over 10 years. The tax would begin in 2011 and have higher rates at the $500,000 and $1 million income levels.

About 40 moderate and conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats as are most Republicans are skeptical that reform costs are unsustainable as they apply to universal coverage . It prompted a statement by President Obama issued this week at the G8 conference in Italy: "There are going to be some tough negotiations in the days and weeks to come, but I am confident that we're going to get it done." Obama also has said he has identified nearly $950 billion in potential savings within the budget to help pay for reform.

More liberal Democrats such as Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia said the public plan is part of the bill and would save about $140 billion over 10 years.

Here's the problem: With all these numbers floating around and fear mongering about health coverage many now enjoy but could lose and private carriers crumbling in competition with the feds -- How do we know these politicians and special interests are not blowing smoke?

We don't.

For example, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, writing an op-ed article in The New York Times, estimates $1 trillion in savings if rigid procedures to prevent new and the spreading of diseases would only be imposed by hospitals themselves. He cited infections acquired in hospitals, 300 million medication errors, pneumonia caused by ventilators and patient accidental falls.

"If we could capture all of it, the savings over 10 years would be five times what President Obama has said he will extract from insurance companies over the same period," O'Neill writes. "The president’s vision of bringing down health care inflation by 1.5 percent a year over the next decade would not be a victory, but a capitulation to the enormous waste in the delivery of medical care." He said such procedures are enacted and work, demonstrated by Doctors Brent James at Intermountain Health in Utah, Gary Kaplan at Virginia Mason Clinic in Seattle and Richard Shannon at the University of Pennsylvania -- who have helped bring infection rates down drastically at their own hospitals and at others.

One thing I managed to learn in 26 years in the newspaper business was to attack an issue by going to a credible source within the system. I found essays written by a Long Island cardiologist and a New York surgeon making more sense than anything I have read from a politician or television commentator (specifically Ed Shultz of The Ed Show on MSNBC-TV, perhaps the most passionate proponent of a government option reform plan).

Dr. Sandeep Jauhar, the cardiologist, writing in The New York Times, said it is doubtful that doctors and other medical professionals would voluntarily cut their own income. "Few people believe the recent pledge by leaders of the hospital, insurance and drug and device industries to cut billions of dollars in wasteful spending," he writes. "Most doctors I know say they are not paid enough."

Business is not taught in med schools, Jauhar writes. He adds:

The rising commercialism, driven in part by increasing expenses and decreasing reimbursement, has obvious consequences for the public: ballooning costs, fraying of the traditional doctor-patient relationship. What is not so obvious is the harmful effects on doctors themselves. We were trained to think like caregivers, not business people... Of course, there has always been a profit motive in medicine. Doctors who own their own imaging machines order more imaging tests; (he knows) a doctor who owns a scanner is seven times as likely as other doctors to refer a patient for a scan...But financial considerations have never been as prominent as they are today, probably because so many hospitals and doctors, especially in large metropolitan areas, are in financial trouble.

In McAllen, Tex., a large group of physicians have expanded medical business enterprises to make Hidalgo County one of the most expensive health-care markets in the country. Only Miami—which has much higher labor and living costs—spends more per person on health care. In 2006, Medicare spent $15,000 per enrollee, almost twice the national average. The income per capita is $12,000. In other words, Medicare spends $3,000 more per person in the Mexican border county than the average person earns.

Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon, writing in The New Yorker Magazine, visited McAllen and found out why.

What he learned was McAllen's healthcare system did not offer better treatment results despite the high cost of delivery. Its hospitals are ranked in the lower echelon by Medicare metrics despite being up to date in medical technological equipment.

Doctors, he said, were racking up charges with extra tests, services, and procedures.

To determine whether overuse of medical care was really the problem in McAllen, I turned to Jonathan Skinner, an economist at Dartmouth’s Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, which has three decades of expertise in examining regional patterns in Medicare payment data. I also turned to two private firms—D2Hawkeye, an independent company, and Ingenix, UnitedHealthcare’s data-analysis company—to analyze commercial insurance data for McAllen. The answer was yes. Compared with patients in El Paso and nationwide, patients in McAllen got more of pretty much everything—more diagnostic testing, more hospital treatment, more surgery, more home care.

The Medicare payment data provided the most detail. Between 2001 and 2005, critically ill Medicare patients received almost 50% more specialist visits in McAllen than in El Paso, and were two-thirds more likely to see 10 or more specialists in a six-month period. In 2005 and 2006, patients in McAllen received 27% more abdominal ultrasounds, 30% more bone-density studies, 60% more stress tests with echocardiography, 200% more nerve-conduction studies to diagnose carpal-tunnel syndrome, and 555% more urine-flow studies to diagnose prostate troubles. They received one-fifth to two-thirds more gallbladder operations, knee replacements, breast biopsies, and bladder scopes. They also received two to three times as many pacemakers, implantable defibrillators, cardiac-bypass operations, carotid endarterectomies, and coronary-artery stents. And Medicare paid for five times as many home-nurse visits. The primary cause of McAllen’s extreme costs was, very simply, the across-the-board overuse of medicine.

Compounding the problem is that high-risk patients received little, if any, preventive care and those that did failed to follow the advise, Gawande said.

He reviewed protocol at the Mayo Clinic where patient costs are among Medicare"s lowest, $6,688 per enrollee in 2006, which is $8,000 less than the figure for McAllen.

The core tenet of the Mayo Clinic is “The needs of the patient come first”—not the convenience of the doctors, not their revenues. Decades ago Mayo recognized that the first thing it needed to do was eliminate the financial barriers. It pooled all the money the doctors and the hospital system received and began paying everyone a salary, so that the doctors’ goal in patient care couldn’t be increasing their income. Mayo promoted leaders who focused first on what was best for patients, and then on how to make this financially possible.

The Mayo Clinic is not an aberration.

One of the lowest-cost markets in the country is Grand Junction, a community of 120,000 that nonetheless has achieved some of Medicare’s highest quality-of-care scores. Michael Pramenko is a family physician and a local medical leader there. Unlike doctors at the Mayo Clinic, he told me, those in Grand Junction get piecework fees from insurers. But years ago the doctors agreed among themselves to a system that paid them a similar fee whether they saw Medicare, Medicaid, or private-insurance patients, so that there would be little incentive to cherry-pick patients. They also agreed, at the behest of the main health plan in town, an H.M.O., to meet regularly on small peer-review committees to go over their patient charts together. They focussed on rooting out problems like poor prevention practices, unnecessary back operations, and unusual hospital-complication rates. Problems went down. Quality went up. Then, in 2004, the doctors’ group and the local H.M.O. jointly created a regional information network—a community-wide electronic-record system that shared office notes, test results, and hospital data for patients across the area. Again, problems went down. Quality went up. And costs ended up lower than just about anywhere else in the United States.

Concludes Gawande:

Advocates of a public option say government financing would save the most money by having leaner administrative costs and forcing doctors and hospitals to take lower payments than they get from private insurance. Opponents say doctors would skimp, quit, or game the system, and make us wait in line for our care; they maintain that private insurers are better at policing doctors. No, the skeptics say: all insurance companies do is reject applicants who need health care and stall on paying their bills. Then we have the economists who say that the people who should pay the doctors are the ones who use them. Have consumers pay with their own dollars, make sure that they have some “skin in the game,” and then they’ll get the care they deserve. These arguments miss the main issue. When it comes to making care better and cheaper, changing who pays the doctor will make no difference.... The lesson of the high-quality, low-cost communities is that someone has to be accountable for the totality of care. Otherwise, you get a system that has no brakes. You get McAllen...

Dramatic improvements and savings will take at least a decade. But a choice must be made. Whom do we want in charge of managing the full complexity of medical care? We can turn to insurers (whether public or private), which have proved repeatedly that they can’t do it. Or we can turn to the local medical communities, which have proved that they can. But we have to choose someone—because, in much of the country, no one is in charge. And the result is the most wasteful and the least sustainable health-care system in the world.

I highly recommend readers click on the New Yorker link and read the entire article.