Friday, March 05, 2010

Nobody Asked Me, But...

1) Um, oops! This is definitely not good news.

2) Clearly not a terrorist attack, cuz, you know, he was white.

3) I presume from the coverage I've seen, his body language and uncombative postures, that David Paterson will resign shortly.

4) The Oscars are this weekend. Yet another wasted Sunday night. I get the sense that George C. Scott was right to ignore them.

5) More than you wanted to know about touchscreen technology.

6) Why your next diet might include a glass of Lysol every day.

7) Bill O'Reilly: burrrrrrrrrrrnt!

8) Y'know, you think this is a "nanny state" issue, but read more closely: the kid had been warned on several occasions to stop pointing his finger and making *bang* noises. That the parents didn't tell the kid to quit it before he gets into trouble is abusive parenting.

9) Oh, so it WASN'T the urine that killed him? PRO-TIP to my younger, less-experienced-at-being-drunk readers: never pee near wires, even if they're insulated.

10) No, the man's name was not Jean Valjean.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Would Health Care Reform Help You?

(ed. note: I'm turning the blog over to my friend, Barbara O'Brien, for an important discussion)

Many obstacles and stumbling blocks remain in the way of health care reform. The House and Senate bills will have to be merged, and then the House and Senate both will vote on the final bill. We don’t yet know what will be in the final bill, or if the final bill will be passed into law. Passage will be especially difficult in the Senate, where it will need 60 votes to pass. It is still possible that after all this angst, just one grandstanding senator could kill the whole thing.

But just for fun, let’s look at what conventional wisdom says will be in the final bill and see if there is anything in it that will be an immediate benefit to people with peritoneal mesothelioma and other asbestos-related disease.

It is likely that the final bill will provide additional funding for state high-risk insurance pools. Currently more than 30 states run such pools, which are nonprofit, state-sponsored health insurance plans for people who can’t buy insurance because of pre-existing conditions. The biggest problem with such pools is that, often, the insurance they offer is too expensive for many who might need it. Both the Senate and House bills provide $5 billion in subsidies for state high-risk pools to make the insurance more affordable.

Under the Senate bill, beginning in 2014, private companies would no longer be able to deny coverage to adults with pre-existing conditions, nor could they charge higher premiums for people with pre-existing conditions. Until then, the state high-risk pools could provide some help.

Closing the Medicare Part D coverage gap — also called the “doughnut hole” — is another potential provision that could help some patients with asbestos-related disease. The “doughnut hole” is the gap between the coverage for yearly out-of-pocket expenses provided by Medicare Part D and Medicare’s “catastrophic coverage” threshold.

For example, in 2009 Medicare Part D paid at least 75 percent of what patients paid for prescription drugs up to $2,700. After that, patients must pay for all of their prescription medications until what they have paid exceeds $6,154. At that point, the catastrophic coverage takes over, and Medicare pays for all but 5 percent of the patient’s drug bills. The final health care reform bill probably will provide for paying at least 50 percent of out-of-pocket costs in the doughnut hole.

You may have heard the bills include budget cuts to the Medicare program, and this has been a big concern to many people. Proponents of the bill insist that savings can be found to pay for the cuts, and that people who depend on Medicare won’t face reduced services. But this is a complex issue that I want to address in a later post.

The long-term provisions probably will include many other provisions that would benefit patients with asbestos-related disease, including increased funding for medical research. Although there are many complaints about the bill coming from all parts of the political spectrum, on the whole it would be a huge benefit to many people.

— Barbara O’Brien
March 4, 2010

Truly Irked

Erik Erickson, or as I like to call him, Irked Irksome, is a doosh.
You know, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the states that pay the least amount of unemployment benefits over time have the lowest unemployment and when we keep subsidizing the behavior, the behavior continues.
Irk needed to do more work.
For example, here's an analysis of unemployment by population density, most unemployment versus state ranking in density:
Michigan - $362     14.6%     16
Nevada - $362     13.0%     42
Rhode Island - $641     12.9%     2
South Carolina - $326     12.6%     21
California - $450     12.4%     11
Florida - $275     11.8%     8
North Carolina - $476     11.2%     15
Illinois - $511     11.1%     12
Alabama - $235     11.0%     27
Oregon - $463     11.0%     39

You'll note that of the top ten states in unemployment percentage (as of 2009) only two rank in the bottom half in population density (which also correlates to cost of living, which directly correlates with the amount in unemployment insurance.)
Of the last ten states in population density, only one has a rate over ten percent (roughly the national average)
Alaska - $320     8.8%     50
Wyoming - $387     7.5%     49
Montana - $386     6.7%     48
North Dakota - $385     4.4%     47
South Dakota - $285     4.7%     46
New Mexico - $455     8.3%     45
Idaho - $364     9.1%     44
Nebraska - $298     4.7%     43
Nevada - $362     13.0%     42
Utah - $427     6.7%     41
It gets better.
Of the top ten states in terms of unemployment benefits paid, only one ranks in the bottom half of population density
Rhode Island - $641  2
Massachusetts - $628  3
Connecticut - $576  4
New Jersey - $560  1
Pennsylvania - $547  10
Minnesota - $538  31
Hawaii - $523  13
Washington - $515  25
Illinois - $511  12
Maine - $496  38
But here's the kicker: the ten states with the lowest unemployment benefits, and their ranking by unemployment percentage (10% being roughly the national average)
Michigan         1
Nevada                    2
DC                         6
Wisconsin             30
Delaware             25
South Carolina         4
Alaska                 29
Georgia         16
Missouri         19
Nebraska         49
South Dakota         50
Florida         7
So Irk's little benefits = unemployment is absolute and utter bullshit.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Godspeed Jon Swift

The problem with posting on the fly as I have to is that I can't really say what I want to say.

Jon Swift, or as we now know, Al Weisel, was a writer to envy, and I often did. His talent and dedication to both entertain while informing was unparalleled in Blogtopia (© Skippy, The Bush Kangaroo). He was always willing to lend a hand to a C-List blogger like me, and would sometimes comment here or email me if he thought a piece I had up was particularly interesting.

I envy him his ability to remain in character while writing words that thoroughly skewer that character's outlook. I wondered sometimes if he cringed at some of the things he was forced to say in order to get to his point.

He was Stephen Colbert, only funny without being a cardboard cutout. Clearly, he thought his way through positions he abhorred and found the comedy inherent in the ignorance it took to hold ludicrous thoughts.

He was a humourist's humourist. His ability to mine irony and poignance did not end with him. He died on the way to his father's funeral of a broken heart, literally. Not only that, but the last post he left us, almost a year ago, was acknowledging a friend's terrible tragic loss.

Its title? "Sometimes There Are No Words". It was on that thread that his mother notified us of his loss. I like to think that he looked down, cringed at first, then got the joke.

Here's to you, Mr. Swift, Mr. Weisel! A scotch in your honor, with a glass turned upside down.

Unless, you know, you'd like to return and share it with me...

We Used To Call It "Trust Busting"

Finally, some rational thought from the Federal Reserve:

"I think the disagreeable but sound thing to do regarding institutions that are TBTF (ed. note. Too Big To Fail) is to dismantle them over time into institutions that can be prudently managed and regulated across borders," he said. "And this should be done before the next financial crisis, because it surely cannot be done in the middle of a crisis."

Adam Smith would roll over in his grave to understand how perverted his elegant economic system, for all its initial flaws, has become, corrupted by the aggregation of money, power, and influence. He intended for small businesses to compete against each other to provide goods and services to consumers.

Indeed, our Founding Fathers had a great and long debate about even opening up a national bank which would serve as a 800 lb gorilla in the banking system to provide leverage against large business combinations attempting to wrest control of the national money supply. Inevitably, businesses of all sizes fail. It's just a question of time.

If a major multinational bank fails, it doesn't just hurt its employees and shareholders as we've seen. It threatens the entire nation, from its financial security right down to its physical security.

And that's not good.

"Too Big To Fail" is, quite simply, too big. Full stop.

We've discussed on this blog the marvels of distributed power generation. Money is power. Banks should be hacked down to manageable sizes that service the communities they are located in, with no direct entanglements in regions where they have no business being in, and I don't just mean geographic. I mean economic sectors, business sectors, even political sectors.

Will this harm the banking system? I don't think so. I think the system will evolve, perhaps parent corporations that can hold smaller banks under an umbrella, with governmental oversight to make sure there isn't as much crossover as there is now will be established.

One thing is certain: the banking system we have now is on the road to yet another collapse. Businesses fail. Industries fail. Banking will fail again unless we address the inherent flaws immediately.


Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Postage Due

One of the more idiotic things about conservatives is this crying need to privatize everything, as if somehow private companies could do a far better job than the government in everything.
Case in point: The US Postal Service. The USPS is mandated to deliver mail to every single household in America, and to do it for a flat rate. A letter costs 44 cents, whether it travels one mile, ten, or three thousand.
Conservatives would have us privatize that service, somehow ensuring that the statutory service provisions would survive privatization. They wouldn't, as anyone who's waited for the UPS man to come can tell you.
Now, however, we've reached a point where we may have to make changes to the Postal Service:

WASHINGTON—U.S. Postmaster General John Potter expects to deliver more bad news Tuesday to postal customers, employees and Congress, revealing forecasts for continued losses that can be stanched only with higher prices and reduced service.

Faced with mounting red ink, the Postal Service will seek to cut back mail delivery to five days a week starting next year, to raise rates on some postal services beyond what it's currently allowed to charge, and to impose emergency rate increases.

A plan the Postal Service will file with the U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission later this month aims to scale back delivery in 2011 from the current six-days-a-week schedule. Discussions with postal regulators over rate increases are under way as well; increases being sought could result in sharp increases in some postal rates, including for newspapers and magazines.

The US Postal Service operates as a not-for-profit agency. This is a good thing. It keeps our mailing costs down.

The problem, to me, seems to come in the form of the admixture of a not-for-profit agency saddled with the burden of providing service to for-profit companies. Now, toss in the Internet, meaning e-mail, online bill payment, and online reading materials that used to be delivered by the USPS, and you begin to understand the problem.

There's enormous waste in the system that needs to be accounted for before we talk about cutting back services to five days a week. This wouldn't be the first service cuts imposed. Believe it or not, when I was a lad, the postman dropped off mail twice a day!

I know! Astounding, isn't it?

First thing we need to do is to reduce the volume of junk mail that clogs our mailboxes. Direct marketers, catalog operations, and other "snail spammers" ought to pay for the luxury of jamming my mailbox so full that sometimes I don't get urgent mail because it's been crushed into the bottom of my box.

A dual service, then, would be served by upping the bulk mail rate on non-periodicals. It would slow the tide of junk while providing a needed boost of cash. Trust me, catalog providers won't stop sending catalogs if we doubled the rate. Too, so many catalogs are now online that a smart marketer would send out fliers instead with a representative sample, directing people to a website.

Second, the USPS ought to get into tighter competition with the private carriers like Fedex. Fedex funnels their package services through central hubs like Memphis, TN, even if you're shipping across town. Crosstown packages could get a guarantee of overnight deliveries at prices deeply discounted from Fedex's. Hell, match Fedex pricing and promise same-day service, and the volume will jump (courier services charge a lot more, so the USPS would find itself in a mid-price point).

Third, encourage people to visit the post office more often. Open non-mail related kiosks, for one thing. How about a selection of greeting cards? Or newspapers, the same ones people get delivered? Give people a reason to go to the post office, and then give them a reason to buy there.

Those are just off the top of my head. Do you guys have any other ideas?


Monday, March 01, 2010

Payback Is A Bitch!

If only you had been a good soldier on healthcare, Mrs Lincoln.

An Admission Of Failure

By now, you've heard about the kerfuffle over the recent request by WellPoint Insurance in California for a whopping 40% increase in rates. Not being the CEO or CFO of WellPoint and not having studied their financial position carefully, I can't judge the fairness of this request.

However, little noticed in this request is an admission that insurers have failed to keep up, despite the bushels of money they've extracted from the pockets of the American working public.

Her testimony, and other statements she and other WellPoint executives have made, suggests that insurers can't profitably manage through periods of high unemployment. They can't price policies in a way that keeps healthy young people in the same pool as older people, producing a mockery of the very point of indemnity insurance. Despite a decade of unobstructed consolidation, which was sold to regulators as a way to control healthcare costs by creating mega-insurers like hers, her industry can't control healthcare costs.

In other words, the only way an insurance company can effectively make profits on private health insurance is to sell policies to enough healthy people to cover the costs of the older and sicker.

To put it analogously, the only way a car insurer could make money is to issue car insurance to people who don't drive.

Insurance of any kind is a bet: enough people will feel uncomfortable without it that they'll purchase peace of mind to cover those who really need help with their bills. As an insurer, if you keep up, and you'll make money. Don't keep up, and you'll lose.

So here's the thing: if insurance companies are losing customers as people lose their jobs and can't keep up, why aren't the costs of medical care coming down proportionately?

It's true, we as a nation are getting older, and sicker. We have an obesity crisis across the land that's had reverberations in diabetes, colon cancer, strokes and heart disease, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. A sicker nation means more spent on healthcare, and as we've learned in Econ 101, a higher demand forces prices higher.

But a higher demand does not force costs higher and there's the rub. It's no coincidence that the AMA has opposed a public option because the government would be the 800 pound gorilla in the room that would force everyone, from insurers to patients to doctors, to take account of its actions.

There's only one way to lower prices on a supply-and-demand basis. If you can't lower demand, then obviously the thing to do is to raise supply: bring more availability to the market place to increase competition, which will lower prices across the board and will create a market force that will dampen down the costs of medical care.

Add to that the influence (or spectre, depending on how paranoid you get) of the Department of Justice subpoenaing your billing records or the IRS auditing your tax returns to ensure compliance with cost-cutting programs, and medical costs will quickly come down.

In truth, classic economic theory practically demands a public option, with a mandatory buy-in, which will create market forces to bring prices down. This is not unheard of in American society: we did it with our power utilities until they were deregulated, and we were fine with putting together an infrastructure that could be privatized eventually, even if the privatization became a mess after Republican greed got its mitts on it.