Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Something very bad, and something very ugly

Something very bad and something very ugly is happening in Washington. I will state it in its simplest terms: Without the "public option" of a government-run health insurer, the "health care reform" package that's moving peristaltically through the bowels of Congress is nothing but one giant massive slab of pork placed on the plates of the private health insurance companies, underwritten by the government, paid for by taxes on existing health insurance premiums, and mandating that uninsured people obtain health insurance, all of whom will be required to sign up with a private insurer or lose their income tax returns. And they're still calling it "health care reform"!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Why I don't care about conservative rage

In today's New York Times, Frank Rich presents an insightful analysis of Glenn Beck, the tea-baggers, the "You Lie" representatives in Washington, and the dishonesty of the conservative movement they're fronting. Rich makes a key mistake, however, when he equates a higher volume, and increased nastiness, emanating from the pages and screens of the media with a "growing" movement on the ground.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Media blitz on Healthcare

It's obvious there's a lot of PR activity going on regarding the Healthcare reform being worked on in Congress. Recently several thought-provoking stories have popped their heads up out of the major (and even some minor) media outlets.

The first one I heard was a study released by some quasi-governmental group (possible the CDC, or at least someone using their data) that said a 50 year old with no health insurance is 40% more likely to die before he turns 80 than his co-peer who does have health insurance. Lack of insurance kills! The study cited allows proponents of healthcare reform to quantify their allegation that people are dying for lack of insurance coverage-- and the magic number is roughly one in a thousand (don't ask me where that number came from, but it's at least plausible). This puts the conservative claim that health reform will bring about government rationing into perspective. There's already fatality-causing rationing going on, it's just tilted somewhat in favor of the wealthy now. I find it interesting that most conservatives are aware that insurance companies make arbitrary decisions about their care every day, but would rather trust (or negotiate with) a private insurance company than with a governmental entity. There may be some wisdom in that.

Another recent story tells how the cost of health insurance for a family of four has doubled since 2001, from somewhere near $4,000 to closer to $8,000 today (I believe those are the numbers... again, I haven't looked at the studies, and I heard the numbers on the radio as I drove to lunch, and can't vouch for either the quality of the numbers or the accuracy of my memory). Those numbers may actually be low.

Another story making the rounds is that "administrative overhead" in the health industry-- including everything from insurance claims processing and billing systems to corporate profits-- is estimated to be $300 billion dollars per year. This number seems a bit low, in fact. But be that as it may, that's a sizeable chunk of change.

Oh, and another report I've heard is that the number of uninsured continues to balloon. Numbers through last year indicated the number of uninsured people grew by over 1 million in the previous year, to near 40 million people, and that number doesn't include all the (4-5?) millions who have lost their jobs more recently because of the recession.

There's a funny contradiction that's surfaced in the opposition, and that's how they've been forced to embrace their former shibboleth Medicare. For the 40+ years since it was signed into being during the Nixon (or maybe Johnson) administration, Medicare has been a constant target for Republicans complaining about big government and wasteful out-of-control spending. Now the self-same program, with no internal changes whatsoever, has emerged as a shining example of all that's good in traditional conservative apple-pie American healthcare, and the new administration's attempts at healthcare reform are perceived as just a vicious attempt to mess it up. There was a photo published somewhere, taken I believe outside one of the town hall meetings on the subject, with a woman holding a sign that said "Keep government out of my Medicare!," which, if you think about it is pretty damned humorous in a shrill, hysterical Glenn Beck-Foxnews kind of way.

Another interesting story was published in the Wall Street Journal this week, about the many "fixed price" contracts, for everything from routine surgical procedures to medications, that have been negotiated between insurance companies (and other private entities, apparently) various health care providers. The article explored the prices around the country for a colonoscopy, which varied from as low as $250-300 in some places, to a national average 10 times that, and to some localities (I believe they cited Arizona or New Mexico) where the price soared to $4,000 and above. For the same procedure, with the same personnel, using the same equipment, and the same patients! The article also linked those "private pricing" practices with the issue of people going to Canada to buy the same drugs there for as much as 50% less than they pay at home. Conservatives who assure us the free market will solve any cost problems are deluding themselves when the industry is rife with privately negotiated loss-leader contracts for routine procedures and medications which pervert the free market.

Another story that's been mentioned in passing, but should be emphasized more, is the number of medical bankruptcies (medical expenses are the cause of well over 60% of all bankruptcies in this country) among people who already have health insurance. This is shocking because it's non-intuitive.

Finally, there's another "pseudo-story" -- more of a meme, really-- making the rounds, that highlights the insurance industry's penchant for cancelling health insurance coverage on people after they become ill. One recent court decision in particular I heard about, awarded $10 million in damages to a young man whose coverage was cancelled after a test showed he was HIV positive. The judge in that case said the insurance company showed reckless disregard for the health of the young man. The reason it's a meme is I'm hearing the practice referenced more and more, with little or no reference to specific stories. Maybe that's because it happens so often people don't need documentation any more. That makes it a meme.

Overall there are many good reasons for Congress to pass health care reform immediately. The question is whether they're able to stay on task in the face of unprecedented lobbying on the part of the health insurance (and health industry in general). They've already caved on single-payer, which is what the majority of Americans wants. They're working on a "public option" (hence the "keep government out of my Medicare" idiocy), where some subset of people will be covered by a government program. Medicare has become the darling of the right and left. "Co-ops" (smaller, local non-profit insurance providers) have been proposed as a way to "un-Medicare" the public option. Republicans are holding their hands very close to the vest, and the Democrats are trying to make sure the Blue Dog (mostly southern, conservative, pro-business, quasi-Republican) Democrats will vote correctly, and are weighing the wisdom of enacting something by themselves, using their hard-won majority in both houses of Congress, or trying to achieve a bi-partisan bill in this time of harsh rhetoric and extreme partisanship.

Stay tuned. This is big-money, big-power politics. There's a lot at stake-- the health care industry, which is in a way America's last smokestack industry-- is set to consume fully 20% of America's GDP over the next few years. That's trillions of dollars. A lot of capital is being positioned to cash in on that money, whatever our medical industry turns out to look like. There will be blood.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Lunatics taking over asylum

Remember the SEC? That's the Securities and Exchange Commission that was set up after the last great depression in the 1930's to protect American markets from shysters and shenannigans in financial markets. Over time they've gotten quite cozy with those they're supposed to regulate. They completely missed the run up to the S&L crisis in the 70's, and even specific, direct, and repeated warnings to the agency about irregularities at Bernie Madoff's investment company were looked into and dropped. Bernie had the gaul to tell them he was on the short list to be new head of the SEC. I'll bet that got them tip-toeing around! The agency had become useless, decadent, and moribund. They're either too easily intimidated by the boardrooms, cufflinks and tassel loafers worn by those they are supposed to regulate, or they just don't care. Either way, the SEC has become an embarrassment and should be quietly dismantled.

Well, guess what! The SEC is now issuing new regulations affecting, of all industries, the major credit rating agencies-- Standard & Poor's, Moody's, Fitch. Those are the companies that supposedly carefully audit and rate the creditworthiness of companies and publish their findings, either for free, by subscription, or for a fee, for others to use in asessing the risk of doing business with them. The idea is if a company is well run, has stable prospects, and plays by the rules, they'll be rated as such-- getting a "Moody's Triple-A" rating-- and more success will ensue. One way their ratings are used is by other companies assessing the quality of their debt.

Some people noticed, though it never became a public issue of any newsworthiness, that all of the major ratings agencies had applied very high ratings to several large, successful, well-heeled companies back in 2007 and previously. Those companies with gilt-edge, super high ratings from all the agencies, included Lehman Brothers, Bear-Stearns, AIG Insurance, Washington Mutual, and others, which have subsequently failed in a dramatic way. Obviously the credit rating agencies got it wrong with them! But there's another problem, which is that many companies, heeding the ill-got good ratings, lent these companies money by buying their commercial paper, and those companies were, in turn, being rated by the ratings companies.

Now picture a scenario, when the Moody's auditors come to assess your company, and they find you have a significant portion of your assets in the form of commercial notes from Lehman Brothers. They look up their rating (never lower than double-A), and assign your company thereby a double-A rating as well. Now add to that the fact that all of these rating agencies also buy and sell commercial paper for others, whose value hinges on their rating. They're also paid all around-- by the companies they rate, and by the companies who use their ratings. It's in everyone's interest to make sure the rating of the notes being bought and sold stays high! Keeping Bear-Stearns paper at AAA means everyone who holds their debt is also rated highly. Everyone is stuffing piles of money into their own and each others pockets as fast as they can! Triple-A means it's pay day!

Then comes the end of 2007, and all of these artificially high credit ratings came unmasked as it were. Bear Stearns fell. Lehman brothers fell. AIG was bailed out by the taxpayers so they could pay losses that would otherwise be incurred by Goldman-Sachs. Hundreds of billions of dollars in commercial equity value evaporated overnight. Overseas banks and even whole economies teetered. Your 401K and your stock portfolio (or those of your employer) lost tremendous value-- basically the difference between their artificially inflated market value as assigned and propped up by Moody's and S&P, and their actual value.

An interesting note is how little backlash there was for the ratings industry. Ho, hum. They're still rating companies (AIG is back down a bit below AA). Well now the SEC, that loyal and effective federal watchdog has decided something needs to be done to make the ratings more effective and trustworthy. So they've issued some new rules, requiring among other things that the agencies show the history of their ratings. I assume this is so people can compare their ratings over time to what actually transpired. That may be a good idea, but it does seem a bit too little too late. Let's close the SEC which has repeatedly failed to carry out their mandate, and allow the corrupt and incestuous Ratings Companies twist in the wind of the financial tornado to which they contributed. No one should attach any value to the opinion of a company who rated Lehman Brothers AAA the day before they disappeared. They failed it, spectacularly. Let's move on.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

New York Times website compromised


Last night my fiance complained a pop-up had appeared on her newly updated Apple MacBook while she browsed the NY Times website. It had gone away (she restarted Firefox) before I could see it. Then last night I updated my Linux computer with the newest version of Firefox, and this morning, lo' and behold, I got the same pop-up while browsing the NY Times. I did some Googling and found this appears to be caused by a problem on a page of the NY Times, or one of their advertising partners. It's a good idea NOT to download, because the site is associated with a known malware source. When I clicked cancel the browser maximized in such a way that it was difficult to make it smaller, and then another pop-up appeared asking me a second time. I've written to the Times to let them know, though the Googling I did revealed many people have experienced the problem in the last couple of days. Freaking scumbag hackers!

Here's a close-up of just the popup:

Friday, September 11, 2009

Texas governor puts on clown show

Rick Perry (does that make his nickname Dicky?), the governor of Texas-- who may be pining for the "simpler" days of G.W. Bush when it wasn't necessary to have a brain to govern the largest state in the lower-48-- has declared a state of ersatz martial law and resolved to send the Texas Rangers to the border to "secure" it from invasion by radical drug-crazed Mexican hordes-- and he's chosen September 11th as the date to accomplish this. And the Texas Rangers wear cowboy hats! Dayum! I'll bet the 110 million bucks he's spending on this "operation" will entitle him to to wear one of those snappy white Stetsons too. though he seems a bit vague on the numbers of Rangers he'll send, and on the timetable.

Apparently the whole brou-ha-ha is a reaction to Kay Bailey Hutchinson announcing she was going to run against him for governor. Little Dicky is throwing down the glove and callin' out big-bad ol' Kay Bailey for a showdown on Main Street.

The lovely thing is the language he's using to shape the debate. I do believe Mr. Perry thinks he's living somewhere on the Afghan frontier, and does believe we're at war with our neighbors across the border, who are in some unholy alliance with those proto-socialists who are running Washington, DC nowadays. Believe me, when panty-waisted bureaucrats start mouthing military speak to talk about the situation in their state, they're feeling desperate, they don't have the imagination to talk about the situation in any other way, and there are still a vanishingly few voters who will be stirred and convinced by that vacuous and empty militaristic national security rhetoric. Let's just look forward to that day when those last jingoist voters realize they're being exploited and patronized by what's left of the no-brain right, and democracy prevails.

Bye, bye Dicky. Go buy a house in G.W.Bush's neighborhood (I'll bet it's pretty "secure") and try and stay out of trouble. I'm sure you'll find many native English-speaking Texans to take care of your yard work, watch the kids, cook your meals, and repair your gutters and your car. And wear that white Stetson proudly. You bought it with taxpayer money! Fair and square.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A cowardly little man

South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson needs to be seen as the cowardly little man he is, who can't take the floor and address issues like a responsible legislator (the one his constituency thought they had elected), and instead sits in the middle of the crowd and heckles. The entire Republican conservative machine has found themselves reduced to this kind of eighth grade antics, because their message and their beliefs have been so roundly defeated, again and again, by the American people. Fox News talking heads can get away with it, because they're paid to be clowns and entertainers and no one expects better of them. Not so a member of Congress.

Cowardly and disruptive is the only way to describe Mr. Wilson's behavior, even with his prompt apology. I would be embarrassed to have him as my Representative. For shame!