Monday, December 21, 2009

A President shouldn't be too pretty ...

You may remember my description of the Tsongas/Tootsie effect. If not, you can go search for it on this blog. Obama is not suffering through that. Rather he seems to have a different problem I think I might call the attractive person effect (bear with me, I am making this up as I go). I was going to call this the romantic girl effect, but guys are just as vulnerable to the effect. I was going to call it romantic girl because I have been checking out online personals (the ones written by women), and many seem to be calling for a man who knows how a woman wants to be treated, and plaintively asking whether such a man still exists. The inference I draw from that is that the writer of the personal ad has not encountered too many men with this quality, at least not in reality (TV and romance novels tell a different story, I believe).

The thing is, when you see an attractive guy or girl, even if you are already involved with someone, you often attribute certain qualities to them, even if there is no particular evidence for that. So if attractive person you see does not immediately kiss someone else, you may think they might be available. I believe I have read that attractive people are assumed to be smart until proven otherwise (studies have shown) and I suspect attractive people would also be assumed to be nice. Particularly if you pair an attractive man with a woman looking for a man who knows how to treat a woman... wait, what I meant to say is if you pair an attractive politician with a needy voter, someone who hasn't had a compatible President for eight (long) years, and before that had a President who fooled around with ... conservative ideas (well what did you think I was going to say), well ... let's just say I think a lot of voters and pundits imbued Obama was their own ideas of who he should (and could) be.

I know I have mentioned at least once that during the campaign Politico ran an article about Obama's Law Review Presidency. While it did not say Obama favored conservatives over liberals then, it did have remarks from a conservative professor who said that Obama made suggestions even from the conservative point of view. I am not saying Obama is some sort of closet conservative, rather that he has always been aware that a black man is assumed to be liberal, and if he wants to work with conservatives must start the relationship making concessions. Of course that is unfair, but it reflects the reality of the US in 2009. And of course it has worked about as well as the stimulus. Despite concessions like a high percentage of tax cuts in the stimulus, putting a surge into Afghanistan and be willing to make major concessions into health care, Republicans have moved in (almost) lock step on every major piece of legislation and they continue to make accusations ("you lie") and insinuations. But Obama has given them no big lever, no way for the Republicans to say "aha, told you he was a Socialist".

But progressives are upset that Obama has not turned out to be the white kni-... black knight(?) .... savior(?)...well, that Obama has not turned out to be the advocate for the poor and downtrodden they thought he would be. I can understand that, I am a little surprised myself. I mean, I can understand being nice to the banks and Wall Street, our financial markets are part of what makes us a great country. At the same time, c'mon (I am tihnking of those Playstation commercials).

During the campaign, a liberal (or at least moderate) pundit raised the idea of the "magic negro". Conservative pundits like Rush Limbqaugh seized on the idea within hours of it have been broached, rendering it immediately off limits. Too bad, here was a good topic for discussion. Are we thinking Obama will fix all our problems? First black President and a Democrat to boot, he would have the opportunity to put everything right. I am fairly well convinced Obama thinks to himself, here I am, first black President and a Democrat to boot, if I don't tread carefully these white folks won't let another black man into the White House for 50 years.

I am willing to give Obama a lot of latitude on things, his policies, the stimulus, the economy, Afghanistan, healthcare and other things. Really, would Hillary (or McCain) have done any better? Hillary might well have been more confrontational than Obama has been. I suspect that does not mean she would have been successful, rather it is more likely she would have been called shrill and a bitch several times by now, and burned some bridges that Obama has so far left intact.

Make I am just projecting my wishes onto Obama, but I am waiting for his second term. By then, having not pushed as hard against the Republicans as he could have, Obama will have the luxury of not having to worry about being re-elected and he can start to do the things we thought(/feared?) the "magic negro" can use the opportunity to try to more agressive legislation for the poor and the environment.

And after his second term, in some time-span (ten, maybe twenty years), during a Democratic administration, Obama can be nominated to the Supreme Court.

Friday, December 18, 2009

personal stuff and air conditioning

When I was writing about the Mayor's marital situation, weighing heavily on my mind was my own situation. I don't believe I have written about this here, but my wife asked me for a divorce over four months ago (and we have been going through the process ever since). Any random divorce does not have anything to do with politics, except if I am getting one and also talking about a public official's marital state. Of course we are not allowed to talk about the Mayor's situation on pain of legal action. The public should not be allowed to bad things about a (this) politician's character, only the good things he wants you to know. Because even though any random male politician might lie to his wife, he would never lie to the public.

But now you could be wondering what caused my divorce. Did I lie to my wife? Do I lie to my blog readers? How can my blog readers ever trust me again, and after they have given me the best minutes of their days ... they need a minute ...

Well, my short answer is that my wife and I fell into a sort of passive aggressive communication trap, sorta like I go for days without posting here. And the short answer is all I am prepared to give here for now.

One of the spinoff effects of my situation was the unlikely prospect I might date again. My brother helped me move many of my possessions one weekend, and he commented that he thought I would need a car with air conditioning. This, I thought, was good cover for looking for a different car (no midlife crisis me).

My old Hyundai Accent was, perhaps, the very definition of a perfectly adequate car. Using an aftermarket device called a scan gauge, I was able to get 33 mpg overall over the life of the car. Since I got the scan gauge a few months after I bought the car, it might have been really 33.5 mpg or 34 with the toy.

But it did not have air conditioning (the better to save gas with) and in fact the fan blew warm air towards the passenger side during summer (maybe that was just my car, or maybe a design flaw). Plus, it was, you know, a Hyundai. Fine for me, but even the most enlightened, non-materialistic woman might think "a Hyundai?"

So I took the excuse to look for a different car. I looked online for TDI's, for recent vintage Cobalt XFE's, for stick shifts. I might have bought a Metro, if I could have found a three cylinder stick with air and less than a 150,000 miles. And I looked for the legendary hybrid stick shift, the Insight (generation one up until 2006) that got 60 mpg according to the EPA (some drivers get 99 mpg) and the line of Civic hybrids that had a stick up until the 2006 model year.

Of course, you can buy a used hybrid, although I think it is largely a seller's market. The CVT (continuous variable transmission) hybrids like the Prius, the new Insight and the Ford Escape (and most Civic hybrids) are smarter than the driver, shifting at optimal intervals to regenerate the battery and protect the environment from the driver (whom the intelligent car suspects is insincere about his professed concern for the environment, after all, he must have lied to his wife, otherwise why would she have ... excuse me, bit of a tangent). But with a manual transmission, the driver might be able to control some things that the car doesn't know about, like down shifting as you go up a hill or approach traffic.

So anyway I found and bought a 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid (manual transmission). It has air conditioning and is supposed to get good mileage, so it meets some minimum requirements of mine. Of course, a Civic is the uninspired choice of so many University and/or progressive types, so at least I will fit in.

But it is an interesting car to drive. Before I describe why, let me say a thing or two about driving a stick. When you want to slow down, you can either put in the clutch and coast (and perhaps brake) or you can let up on the gas while in gear and even downshift. On automatics that is the equivalent of shifting into the two or the one setting on your shifter. That is effective for slowing the car (essential if your brakes aren't working) but uses more gas and is hard on your engine. Part of what got me good mileage in the Accent was coasting up to stop lights and stop signs.

With the hybrid, I thought that when I was driving, and approached a traffic light or maybe just went downhill, I would put in the clutch, apply the brake and the battery would charge a bit as the car slowed to a stop. The whole regenerative braking thing. What I have discovered is that this hybrid is more sophisticated. If, when I want to slow down, I leave the clutch up (leave the car in gear), it will I believe disengage the gas motor on its own on the fly, engage the electric motor in charge mode and use the resistance of charging the electric motor batteries to slow the car. This has the effect of pushing the little gas mileage bar way up, by the way, I guess because the engine is either in neutral or perhaps even off. If the car is warmed up, as you slow to a stop still in gear, the car will go into "auto stop" mode and turn the engine off. We used to call that stalling out. But if I put the car into first in this auto stop mode (which is indicated by a little light on the dash board), it starts right up again. By the way, I have actually stalled the car as well. If you apply brake, while the car is in gear but your foot is off the gas, it charges the batteries more.

So this car wants me to do things I always thought were bad for stick shift cars, like using the motor to slow that car and leaving it a higher gear as you get to a traffic light. But so far, even with Pittsburgh's punishing hills, I am keeping the electric motor battery charged. I haven't programmed the scan gauge yet for the hybrid (I think there are some tricks to it to get accurate readings) so I don't have a feel for the actual gas mileage so far. And it is interesting that this car does not have much in the way of power, the electric assist merely makes a car with a tiny engine seem more like a car with an adequate engine. But damn if it isn't a hybrid. That's like air conditioning plus.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Skewed parallels

There are reasons why people compare Iraq and Afghanistan with Vietnam. The whole business of saying that Iraq and Afghanistan are different than Vietnam because one is a jungle is essentially the bureaucrat’s way of saying that the ordinary people are too stupid to understand these complicated situations.

Still, a lot of the parallels are inescapable. We went into all three countries for ideological reasons Yes, Al Qaeda had attacked us, but my memory of events in late 2001 is that the Taliban government knew trouble was coming and was grudgingly willing to help us by turning over Osama Bin Laden. I note that Bush never suggested that setting up democracy in Afghanistan would be an example to anyone.

Anyway, once we went into all three countries, we found that the civilian population might not like the ideology we opposed, but the local civilians quickly realized that first, we were just as or more brutal in our clumsy but oblivious way and second, that at least the Vietcong/Taliban/AL Qaeda are from their respective countries. So inevitably we end up supporting a local leader who tells us what we want to hear even as the local leader advances his own agenda. And because that agenda is not popular with at least some of the population, the local leader turns into a brutal dictator. The difference is, of course, that the guys we support are “democratic” dictators, not communist or Islamic extremist dictators.

Meanwhile, civilian casualties mount as ordinary people stubbornly refuse to become western style voters (of the sort Washington insiders have contempt for anyway). It becomes clear that except among some fringe factions that were oppressed before we came in (Montagnards, Kurds) that we are making no real progress. We may be killing Viet Cong, Taliban or Al Qaeda and even winning most or all of the battles. But the collateral damage we do and our ham-fisted efforts at helping people we don’t want to understand are the best recruiting posters in the world for our enemies. As is the insistence of some in Washington on making the case for American exceptionalism.

As I understand it, American exceptionalsim is the notion that since we invented the best democracy in the world/history, we should and can do whatever we want where ever we want and everybody else should thank us for bombing them since it was obviously the right thing to do. I don’t believe there was American exceptionalism back in the Vietnam era, but only because we figured it was already understood.

We had and have smart leaders. As students of history they know all this and a lot more. They claim to be thinking about, to want ot learn form our past mistakes. But our own ideological rhetoric drives us to make weird and bad choices. We refuse to give our legal rights to human beings born outside our borders, yet we feel we can tell them what political system to live under (or we will kill them, although we might do that accidentally anyway). We did it in the 1960’s and we are still doing it. But there’s no parallel.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


Jack Kelly’s column on Sunday was about words, how Obama does not sound bellicose enough to suit Kelly’s tastes. Frank Herbert today writes about consequences of actions, specifically the toll taken on those individuals (and their children) who are actually fighting the war in Afghanistan. Fewer than one percent of Americans are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, for tour after tour. It is wrecking the military we have, and yet the vast majority of us are home, grousing about the price of gas and the Stillers if we are lucky, worrying about our jobs or healthcare if we are not (although we are still luckier than the troops).

I have a bumper sticker, it says “Support the Troops” and has the numerals “55” inside a green circle (in smaller letters below it says If you haven’t guessed, it is advocating that we support the troops by driving at fifty five miles per hour, coincidentally the speed limit on most of the highways I drive. I got it as a smart ass semi-subversive kind of thing, a sort of you can’t honk at me because I am blocking you, I am being patriotic thing. But after reading Herbert’s column, I am thinking that in fact we ought to be serious about making some sacrifice(s) as a nation for the troops, beyond allowing the government to borrow from the Chinese to pay for the war.

Jack Kelly actually had the gall to compare Obama negatively to George W Bush in terms of expressing resolve for fighting in Afghanistan. We have seen the actual limits and effects of George W Bush’s resolve. We largely failed to win in either Iraq or Afghanistan, but we did manage to wreck both countries (which granted were not in great shape to start with), squandered the goodwill of the rest of the world after 9/11 and threw away a trillion dollars. Even if you link only Obama and not Congress (both parties and their roles in shaping it) to the stimulus and the automaker bailout, even if you ignore the Wall Street bailout, even if you say the stimulus has failed, do we say we owe nothing to the soldiers still fighting on our behalf in Afghanistan and Iraq? Is it only a magnetic plastic ribbon we owe them? Could we find it in our hearts to slow down, to save oil (domestic and foreign) and save lives (our own) and just make sure we leave a little earlier? Especially (especially) if you just had to buy that pickup or SUV, by slowing down to 55 you save much more gas, percentagewise, than that environmentally conscious lawyer yuppie type in his or her Prius.

Or we could demand our Congress-persons support a draft, and we could all take the risk or (in the case of people my age, risk all our children). Or, if we were really serious, we could do both.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

A thought...

Something that occurred to me: if you have oil or natural gas sitting in the ground and sun hitting the earth today or wind blowing, you can decide to use one for energy. If you take the oil/natural gas out of the ground and use it, you have power today. You can of course do the same thing with solar or wind. The thing is, if you burn the oil/gas, it is gone and can not be used tomorrow. The wind and solar, on the other hand ...

So maybe before we drill more oil/gas drills, we should max out our solar/wind capacity. Then, after that, we can judge how much more oil/gas we need.
I haven’t posted for a while, I know, and I do have a thing I want to say. But it will have to wait a bit longer, just because it will.

Meanwhile, they say consistency is a virtue, and if it is true then Jack Kelly is a most virtuous man. You always know what you will get with him, conservative clichés, and this week’s column does not disappoint. Kelly acknowledges that Obama is listening to his generals and sending more troops, but since Obama is clearly doing that only to provide himself some cover with real Americans, Kelly does us the favor of deciphering what Kelly says is the worst speech of Obama’s career (until Obama’s next speech). According to Kelly, the business of setting an end date is at best pandering to the left, and at worst helping an enemy that (although to be fair Kelly does not say this) Obama might secretly support. Certainly Obama has told the enemy that they just have to sit tight and wait and can take over in eighteen months. Kelly blasts Obama for not mentioning winning or victory, and in fact compares Obama to Presidents who showed resolve and backbone, like FDR after Pearl Harbor or George Bush after 9/11.

But maybe we should talk about Bush after 9/11. Then there was tough talk about getting Osama Bin Laden and facing the terrorist threat to the US head on. How’d that work out? We invade Afghanistan, but Bin Laden escaped US forces at a battle in a place called Tora Bora, evidently because we did not bring in enough troops to that battle. That decision was made at apparently a high level. Then we invaded Iraq, and seemed to largely forget about Afghanistan. We have been in Afghanistan for eight years, including nine months under Obama. The place is now Obama’s to mess up, but for the previous seven years George Bush was busy doing very little, certainly almost nothing to catch Bin Laden. US contractors were there and in Iraq, taking taxpayer money hand over fist. Yet when Obama mentions the billion dollars spent in those places fruitlessly, Kelly brings up the money spent on stimulus and saving the Auto industry and calls that spending a failure and a waste (I notice he doesn’t calling bailing out Wall Street a waste).

Plenty of other people have criticized Obama for sending more troops to Afghanistan, and for waiting to get out. Plenty of people have criticized Obama for announcing he is going to decide, based on conditions on the ground, about how many troops to remove in 18 months. I think that given Afghanistan's history, it is really difficult to say if there is a magic bullet or maybe a magic shovel for this current conflict. Even if there is, afterwords for at least a couple of generations tensions there would be high, ready to explode on little provocation, and in any event the country would be vulnerable to invasion for some time to come. Afghanistan is a complicated situation and no one should say they know *the* answer. And in particular I think injecting clichés into the dialogue like saying the President should talk tough is not helpful. Except perhaps to people who want to damage the President.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Mayor and his wife

I am not, in any sense, a Pittsburgh insider. All the stuff I know is public knowledge, unless I happen to be in the wrong place at the right time and find something out inadvertently. So along with the rest of us I heard that the Mayor and his wife have separated.

First let me express my sympathy. Every member of my family has gone through divorce in one form or another, most in multiple contexts. It is a fact of modern life but no less painful for that, maybe a bit more so. I feel particularly bad for Mrs. Ravenstahl, who will be facing at least a period of being a single mother, which is always difficult.

But second, although I have (as I said above) no special knowledge, I can’t help but feel there is more to this. When Marty Griffin asked Mayor Ravenstahl about infidelity, the Mayor’s answer gave me a sense of déjà vu. “Erin and I have made a decision ... we're not going to sit here and answer questions and rumors ... Those things have been out there for some time. We have agreed to deal with this in a very personal way and will continue to do that”. Obviously that statement was edited for the PG, but it still brought up my memory of the very first time I saw the Mayor caught in a lie. That was when the Mayor was asked about the 2005 Halloween Steelers game, when he denied there having been an incident, using the same sorts of phrasing as this recent quote. John McIntire subsequently broke the story of the handcuffing on his blog, and it was clear the Mayor had essentially lied to us.

The line the Ravenstahl’s are taking about their separation is that Erin is uncomfortable with being in the public eye. Mayor Ravenstahl says he considered not running for re-election, which might well piss off Pat Dowd. Now, I don’t know anything about the Ravenstahl’s private lifem or their personalities. Either he or she could be saints or hellions, wonderful or intolerable to live with. I can’t really assume anything, and yet, I suspect that Erin Ravenstahl has kicked Luke out. And I have trouble believing that her primary motivation was because she was tired or unhappy about being in the public eye. If the statements of the Chief of Police a couple of summers ago about how the Mayor works from six in the morning to after two in the morning are to be believed, the Mayor might be working too hard (although frankly I doubt it). Past that, I won’t speculate about what the Mayor’s particular misdeeds might be. But if Erin Ravenstahl is anywhere near as sweet as she has appeared in the rare interviews I have seen, and considering their one year old, I would have to say I am disappointed that the Mayor could let things get to this point. Presumably there have been discussions between the two of them. Assuming the Mayor is the one making mistakes here, assuming that he has failed to do something(s) that she wanted him to, what does it say to us about how we can trust the Mayor that he was unable to make his marriage work? If what he said to Erin was unable to convince her to continue their marriage, what should we think about Luke Ravenstahl as Mayor?

Monday, November 23, 2009

So I read Jack Kelly's column yesterday, and I think to myself, he's sort of got a point, but he really does miss the big picture, doesn't he. On the sort of got a point, if a public trial of (and I am going to mess up this name) Khalid Sheik Mohammed does reveal classified intelligence of our on going pursuit of terrorists, that would be a bad thing. Mind you, that bad thing is weighed against our having an open trial of one the major people in the 9/11 plot, the most major one we have since we couldn’t get Osama bin Laden. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Of course, revealing the intelligence would only be bad in the sense of tipping our hand to a criminal organization. After all, what sort of threat is Al Qaeda? Is it a threat to our very existence? It is a terrorist organization, not a foreign state. They have committed horrible acts, yet it seems difficult to say we are at war with them. And in fact the Bush administration really kind of exploited that point, saying the people we captured had neither the rights afforded prisoners of war nor the rights we extend to criminals. There is the messy issue of extending US rights to foreign nationals, which I don’t have the time to discuss in full. Let me just say that I think the only reason not to extend rights to prisoners is if those prisoners will exploit those right to do great harm to the US. Which brings us back to the question of what sort of threat Al Qaeda is.

There was recently a piece in an English newspaper about how when American’s protested the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Islamic radicals reconsidered their radicalism. If American citizens believed in American principles, and acted accordingly, maybe hurting the US was not such a good idea (Glenn Greenwald addressed this). Which brings me back to the public trial. Kelly wants to tell us that Obama’s motivation for having the trial is to punish George Bush, to put him in a bad light. I can understand that statement, but I think that Obama’s real motivation is to bring some law and order into the picture. I’m not saying that Obama is doing this to make Islamic radicals reconsider, although I sure he will not mind if they do. I think Obama wants the trials for the same reasons that make the radicals reconsider, to adhere to American principles.

Kelly occasionally goes on about how Obama doesn’t believe in American Exceptionalism. I am not sure what that means exactly, I think Kelly and other conservatives think it means we can throw our weight around (the world), I guess because we are “good guys” or maybe just the biggest kid on the block (or both). But what makes us the good guys is that we do try to protect rights and be fair. This public trial is a way to do both.

Our history is full of instances where we were less than fair, and often pretty bad. We have had no gas chambers, but we did have slavery, internment camps, at least one instance of a government run medical experiment on African Americans (involving I believe syphilis). We have to admit those mistakes, especially if we want to claim to advocate for democracy, freedom and rights of people. We have been drifting, at least, away from those ideas (even as we loudly push them on others), and a public trial will be a good symbol of our adherence to them. If it makes George Bush look bad, well, he did that to himself.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


So, are we foe or agin taxing college students to help cover the City’s budget? I mean, if Ravenstahl proposed it …

No, seriously, I think everyone would agree that the universities are one of the three groups of big not for profits in town. The other two groups would be hospitals like UPMC and West Penn Allegheny, and health insurance companies like UPMC and Highmark. Now, I know that historically Universities are these sort of shabby institutions chronically short of money, making do and getting by on a shoestring. Sort of.

In fact Pitt is a big, big research institution, with lots of Federal and some private money. CMU is also pretty big on research, allow not having such a direct connection to a medical school and medical center, CMU doesn’t have the bioscience thing going as much. Plus Pitt has picked up a billion in donations, and has nationally ranked sports teams (CMU has not mastered the art of fully tapping rich nerds apparently, nor does Ultimate Frisbee get the TV time it so richly deserves). So we can all agree there is money there, but some ask, what is fair? Bram asks whether it is fair to ask CMU students for $400 when commuters are only asked for $52? Chris Potter suggests that students are easy to tax because they don’t vote, except for Obama (at least once). And keg night (NO, I MADE THAT UP).

There is another question of whether we can levy taxes ourselves. Apparently there is an act that says we can (522? Or is that a State route?), although others say no. I think the prudent thing to do while we are still in Act 47 status is not to poke the State Legislature in the eye.

So what is fair with regard to students, and what about the other not for profits? I think we should charge students a fee, not a tax. No one says the City can't impose fees, it is only limited to taxes. Since fee implies a flat amount, I would suggest $52 a year, just like those commuters (and us City residents who work in the City). Maybe those institutions who charge less than $12,000 a year tuition should be exempt (even as people who make less than $12,000 a year are exempt from the municipal services tax). I’m looking at you, CCAC.

Since that won’t get Ravenstahl his 15 mil a year extra, we should also levy a $52 a year fee on health insurance policies written. That should help UPMC and Highmark to decide what to do with tens of millions in “excess revenue”. And finally let us levy a $1 a night fee on hospital beds occupied. The logic there: the $52 a year commuter fee is one dollar a week. for a year. Charging by the week for hospital beds is not really practical, so I suggest by the night. Perhaps for long term care facilities (nursing homes or rehab facilities) the $1 per week of occupancy would be more appropriate. Altogether it might get close to the 15 mil.

That’s my suggestion. What’s your stance? (flashing on Allstate)

Institutional memory

So my first blog post was in June of 2006. I wanted to write about foreign relations and maybe a bit of economics. I didn't really start paying attention to local politics until January of '07, when the story about the Mayor, as a councilman, having been handcuffed at a Steelers game came out (thank you, John McIntire).

So I think I have a fair grasp of the history of the last forty years of foreign relations, a decent grasp of the last forty years of economics, and I have been following Pittsburgh politics for almost four years. Before that, I caught the big stuff but little else (Sophie Masloff! Tom Murphy!). I don’t know much more than the broad outline of the history of County property assessments. I know the values are used for a few different tax types, although I don’t know which little municipalities use which taxes. Well, I know all the school districts use property taxes, and Pittsburgh (and of course the County) for sure also taxes property. Past that, I know what I see when people bring in their tax forms to be prepared (most of the people I prepare taxes for don’t own, or if they do own they are no longer paying a mortgage, so they are not going to itemize … don’t worry if you don’t understand that).

So I don’t fully grasp the historical implications of Judge Wettick’s ruling on County assessments. There was some sort of three part division of the County tried back in the Seventies, which Judge Pappadakis overturned? Nor do I grasp the full tax implications here. There is some sort of different treatments of municipal and school district taxes as opposed to the County property tax? Not knowing, I can’t comment intelligently on other people’s criticism of Wettick’s ruling, except perhaps to ask what else we should do.

I will say I stand by my statements of what I see as the wisdom in Wettick’s ruling. It accomplishes two things, it gives the County a little time to get better at this as it goes, and it allows the County to devise subdivisions that could group the richest properties into one group (and they have to group Pittsburgh in one group). So the County could wait until the third year to assess the richest properties, and the fourth to assess massive Pittsburgh. I still think of Chris Briem’s suggestion that some properties in some City neighborhoods should be negatively valued (you would have to pay people to live there), implying the current residents are largely trapped. I will venture to say there are suburban municipalities which have at least neighborhoods where this is true also (Braddock perhaps, and/or Rankin?).

The County will never assess properties as having negative value, but their assessments may be quite low. With that Homestead exemption thingie (which I also don’t understand terribly well), there is a tax floor (which might be $15,000) for County tax purposes under which people pay no County property tax. So the County has an incentive to assess no property under $16,000, no matter how small, rundown or lousy the neighborhood is. The City would be perfectly happy with that, although the residents in poor neighborhoods might not.

Of course that won’t happen. What is likely to happen is the County will appeal the Judge’s ruling, and possibly some of the homeowners who brought the original suit will too. I don’t see higher courts overturning the Judge’s ruling, though. Whatever the flaws of Wettick’s ruling, historical or in terms of fairness, the County was prepared to put off doing anything about assessments indefinitely. And that is truly unfair.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Mayor's budget

I have sort of mastered Twitter, in terms of being able to send tweets from my phone, and far more important to me, being able to receive tweets on my phone. I am following Bill Peduto's Reform Pittsburgh Now, Pat Dowd and Bob Mayo (I guess I should follow Jon Delano as well).

Bob Mayo was at today’s Council session where the Mayor presented his budget for next year (funny how it follows the election, instead of coming before it). Mayo tweeted furiously from this session. He wondered right away about the money being raised from local universities. Is it a fee or a tax (and he asked us if we know why that matters)? The Mayor is using the word tax, which brings up the question whether we are permitted to levy this tax (the legislature strictly controls what cities are allowed to tax). So there is the possibility of a lawsuit or an act of the State Legislature in our future. The Mayor also talked about the $200 from parking garage, lot and meter leases. I don’t know if he acknowledged existing parking authority debt, or what. Finally, he said if the budget goes through, he will ask the Governor to lift our Act 47 status.

(grunt noise)

It never fails, the Mayor wins a victory and feels he can take dangerous new steps. Now, I happen to work for a University, but I don’t think we will be too hurt by this. However, I do wonder where charges for UPMC and Highmark are in this. I think that they should share the pain (and personally I would leave the rest of the non-profits alone, I think they are struggling enough particularly right now).

If we drop out of Act 47, the public safety unions will again be able to use arbitration, which may hurt the City majorly down the road. Now, I will wait and see the analysis of others before I push the panic button over balloon debt payments or increased health care costs. But keep those in mind.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

This election

I swear this is my first stop on the internet, after cruising past my homepage (the NYTimes, traitor that I am to Pittsburgh). I haven’t looked at Null Space yet this morning, but I can guess what Chris Briem is saying: lower than even expected turnout. Last night I commented on 2PJ’s how the Mayor is vulnerable because of how close the race was. And it was closer than in 2007, but the real story is those voters who either a) really wanted Acklin or Harris to win and voted, b) were discouraged by Acklin/Harris’s prospects and stayed home, c) wanted Ravenstahl and/or the straight Democratic/Republican ticket to win and voted, d) thought Ravenstahl was a shoe in and stayed home or e) didn’t care and stayed home

We have little or no way of finding out why the vast majority of registered voters stayed home. Occam’s Razor suggests that voters either didn’t think the Mayor was going to lose, or that they don’t like the Mayor but not so much as to bother to vote when they think it won’t matter. Either way bodes ill for Pittsburgh, especially for a town that has as many older citizens as we do, percentage-wise. They are supposed to have higher participation rates.

So once again local political bloggers and other interested parties can grumble that if Pittsburghers really knew how Ravenstahl behaves, at least a bare majority would vote against him. In other words, politics as usual.

Now to go read Null Space.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The persistance of memory: the coffins and the salute

The 2 Political Junkies (Dayvoe in particular) had a post on the President’s traveling to Dover Air Force base to greet the coffins of fallen soldiers and DEA agents coming from Afghanistan. The post primarily covered Liz Cheney’s reaction. She suggested that President Bush had done the same thing “without the cameras”. There is, of course, a photograph of President Obama saluting as a coffin is brought off the plane.

A conservative commenter of that post expressed (in a most sardonic manner) the view that the President was simply using the image of a slain soldier as a campaign tool. Now, I will pause here to say that conservatives have, since the inauguration of President Obama, engaged in the worst kind of political opportunism. They have suddenly become the defenders of Medicare after Reagan predicted it would be the lever to lead us into socialism and after the years of Republicans holding up Medicare as the quintessential example of big government that Democrats are supposed to be so enamored of. And now for a conservative to say it is self-serving and distasteful for President Obama to honor the men and women who have died serving their country on his watch, and to be disrespectful as he says it is a clear sign that some Republicans will not be happy until the United States is a dictatorship.

But I wanted to look at a couple of other issues. First, the President did take reporters, who had cameras, with him. How should we feel about that? Second, it turns out that for the last eighteen years there has been a Pentagon ban on photographing the arrival of fallen soldiers back to the United States. I know the ban has been broken occasionally, but there it was. Now, I guess conservatives are re-writing history and saying Bush did go to some, or even one, of these flights to greet the caskets. I don’t believe that’s true. But we can also point out that the first President Bush must have consented to or at least failed to over turn this ban, that then Clinton and later George W also did not overturn this ban. Given Clinton’s interesting relationship with foreign policy, failure in Somalia, failure to act in Rwanda, some success in Croatia and Kosovo and also in the Middle East, I am not surprised that the consummate politician did not want the American people to see negative images. I am not surprised by George W either.

Only one of the families of the eighteen slain consented to allow photographs of the coffin of their loved one. This is being spun as reflecting decisions made long ago, before the families knew the President would be in attendance (indeed, since as far as I know George W was never in attendance, I don’t believe the families would have been told this was a possibility). But one photograph is all you need, to demonstrate this President is affected by the impact of his decisions or to show this President is a self serving weasel. I think it is impossible to say which, but it is, as far as most of know, something different than what George W did.

Obama is pictured saluting. I remember hearing that President Reagan asked, as his first inauguration parade, whether it was appropriate for a President to salute troops as they passed. Apparently then he was told it was not, that a person not in uniform particularly without a uniform cap, should place their hand on the chest; and that was what Reagan did.

But the NYTimes carried an essay by a former marine, who related a different Reagan story, that the Marine commandant told the President (evidently later) that he could salute anyone he wished. Since then President’s have saluted people at will. The writer did note that Obama’s salute had absolutely correct form.

I am still a bit ambivalent about a President who does not follow the military convention, and chooses to salute. I am a bit ambivalent about a President who has never served who is saluting, and I don’t like the implication that he ought to get a pass for not knowing the rules because he has never served. I think that a President who is a lawyer, whose credentials for his job are partly based on what an educated lawyer he is, ought to know better.

But even for all the shit Obama is getting now for having gone to Dover Air Force base (no doubt partly caused by conservatives own embarrassment that George W never went), I suspect it would have been more if Obama had stood next to soldiers saluting and Obama had merely put his hand on his heart. Sometimes you need to do the corny and incorrect thing.

In all, I am proud that Obama went to Dover Air Force base, and saluted the soldiers who died on his watch. I have come to think our Afghanistan occupation is as futile the invasion and occupation of Iraq was, and the best we can hope for is to leave Afghanistan with some stability, but I think having some symbolic moments along the way is not a bad thing. After all, those soldiers volunteered with the best of intentions, even if the politicians who they worked for did have them.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Acklin and Freakonomics

Over at the Pittsburgh Comet, Bram has had a series of posts on Kevin Acklin’s accusations that John Verbanac has wielded undue influence over the Ravenstahl administration, and Our Mayor’s denials. A glance at the PG indicates some attention is being paid, but even as they notice Verbanac’s connection to Rick Santorum (!) they dismiss the seriousness of the accusations. Apparently what Acklin has released includes, and is possibly limited to, a portion of emails Verbanac has sent to Ravenstahl. Acklin alleges this indicates the degree of influence Verbanac has.

As a general geek, and a geek familiar with Star Wars, I want to see the email from Verbanac that reads: “Luke, I am your father” and Our Mayor’s reply:

There is another thing I have been thinking about in the last week or so (well, several things, but I am only going to talk about one for now). The authors of Freakonomics (Levitt and Dubner) have written a sequel, Superfreakonomics. As far as I am concerned, they might just as well have borrowed a line from Mel Brooks, and subtitled it “The quest for more money” (or at least “The quest to maintain the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed”). Now, I thoroughly enjoyed the first Freakonomics, although even I had trouble slogging through all of it. I am looking forward to the new one, but I gather in their last chapter they cross some lines that may have been ill considered.

Before I discuss what I know about that, a brief tangent. I knew a guy who was interested in bicycles, and in fact wavered between what would have been a good career in classical music and running a bike shop (I believe the shop may have won). One time, I praised Consumer Reports, the magazine that won’t take advertising to be able to produce unquestionable objective reports to my friend/acquaintance. He responded that the bicycle community did not like Consumer Reports because while they might employ very smart scientists, they only knew a little about a lot of things. As far as he was concerned, the CU guys did not know enough about bikes to produce good recommendations.

The reason I told that story is the last chapter of Superfreakonomics, on how to address climate change. Smart guys Levitt and Dubner reference a scientist named Ken Caldeira, who has suggested injecting sulphate into the atmosphere for the purposes of blocking some of the sun rays. An apparently very smart guy Nathan Myhrvold also weighed in in the book, pointing out that because solar panels are (often) black and also take energy to manufacture, rather like hybrids they take some time to become carbon neutral and then carbon positive. Also Myhrvold calls for at least research into this sulphate injection thing.

And for what it is worth I agree. But apparently Levitt and Dubner suggested people suggesting we need carbon taxes and sacrifice are ignoring, deliberately or otherwise, this sulphate thing. Myhrvold has been taken to task by a climate change person (even though even Myhrvold does advocate using solar power, he just disputes the timing of the payoff), this Calderia says he was mischaracterized (he in fact thinks our carbon footprint needs to be near zero even for his idea to work), and Levitt and Dubner must be delighted by all his publicity.

But someone, I think a conservative, suggested that Levitt in particular is an economist that makes his living by punching holes in conventional wisdom; rather like Consumer Reports makes a living by deflating industry claims. However, sometimes when you try to skewer an accepted wisdom, like the accepted wisdom in climate change that reduction in burning fossil fuels with taxes and switching to new methods of power like solar and wind will have a positive effect on climate, you end up stretching the claims of another person, in this case Calderia, past where that person intended they go.

I am suspicious of any panacea for climate change. I think that a more measured and retrained use of our natural resources (burning carbon more frugally) by driving smaller cars, driving less than we do now, driving slower on the highway than we do now and gradually switching over to electric power provided by solar and wind (perhaps with supplemental nuclear until wind and solar get efficient enough) is a good idea. Future generations will appreciate both having oil, coal and natural gas available, and a cleaner, temperate planet to live on. Now, sulphate injection into the air may be necessary at some point. But I would like to give the reduction thing a chance, even while scientists look at a variety of ideas (sulphate injections, biodiesel using non-food parts of plants like corn, etc) as either factors in reduction or supplements to it. And shame on Levitt and Myhrvold for belittling the efforts of mainstream climate change scientists, and giving aid and comfort to entities like that American Petroleum Institute.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A complicated world ...

One of the problems I have always had with Democrats is their willingness to embrace ideas that have economic consequences while not wanting to discuss those economic consequences. Probably my favorite example is the minimum wage. An economist will tell you that the minimum wage is pad to any and all types of workers, not only bread winners for a family of four make the minimum, but also teenagers at a summer job. You hope that not many bread winners do make the minimum, but you know some do (and there are things to say about that, that I don’t have space for). Now, if you raise the minimum, the bread winners get that raise, but it is also possible that the summer job teenagers will be put out of work (by their employer instead of him/her paying the teenager the higher wage). How do we evaluate that result? Well, when I try to talk about that with many liberals, they think I am trying to find an excuse not to raise the minimum wage, when in fact I think I am just trying to find a way to help the bread winners without harming the summer job teenagers (an increase in the earned income tax credit perhaps, for example).

My point is that the Democrats have seemed to lack a single, coherent, thought out sort of plan to alleviate poverty for quite some time, so the battles over programs have to be fought internally (before being fought externally) time after time. I think that the reason for that is the Democrats attempt’s to lure Reagan (conservative) Democrats to vote for actual Democrats can’t include a fixed message of helping the poor.

By contrast, Republicans have had it easy, they can use a simple message of lower taxes, fiscal discipline and less government intrusion to reassure their base and lure conservative, rural white voters who in the past might have voted Democratic (as well as luring corporate donors). But there are some problems with that. First of all, the Republicans demonstrated during the last Presidency, especially from 2002 to the end of 2005 (when they controlled Congress as well), that they were unable to actually restrain themselves from spending at least as much or more than Democrats do. A related problem is that Republicans want to reward their districts for voting them into office just like Democrats do, and Republicans also want to reward corporate sponsors. Republicans can reward big business in two ways, by giving them taxpayer money for contracts, and by loosening regulations. Of course, we just had a lesson in what happens when you loosen regulations (in this case on financial markets). Their willingness to indulge their philosophy when it came to regulations and ignore their philosophy when it came to spending brought this country to the brink of disaster.

The thing is, we found out that the Republicans' famous discipline carries the price of tolerating no dissent, which in this case meant there were no ideological purists criticizing the party or Congress or the President for violating their ideology. Glenn Greenwald talks about this in his Wednesday column in Salon, in the context of why Democrats need to not be afraid to criticize Obama. Now, some criticism might have the problem of what I described in the first paragraph, of not at least considering all factors. I think, for example, we probably do have to send more troops to Afghanistan (because I think we do need to try to bring at least temporary stability to the country), although I also think we need to carefully distance ourselves from Karzai, who seems incapable of dealing with the corruption in his administration. And I think advocating simply withdrawing is reckless, although a discussion of those positions would be a good thing. Greenwald’s point, and I would agree, is that the Republicans would not and did not criticize Bush on that or any issue, and simply criticize Obama on all his policies and everything he doesn’t do as well.

So while the Democrats are all over the map, the Republicans pay lip service to their core ideals without trying to actually work towards them, and criticize nothing when they are in charge and everything when they aren’t. It’s hard to defend the current political situation when people say they are tired of it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

How free a market?

There are a bunch of elements in the health care/insurance reform story. Just the latest piece from a health insurance company association, a report prepared by Price Waterhouse Coopers that says that health insurance premiums will go up by more than they would have anyway if reform is passed. I saw the woman who is the association spokesman or maybe a/the boss on the PBS News Hour last night, and she was claiming that reform did not go far enough, so the health insurance companies that are members of her organization would be forced to raise rates (for example, not everyone would be forced to join, so the health insurance companies wouldn’t have access to young health people to gouge for insurance). Apparently there are holes in the report, which were reported on by the White House and admitted by Price Waterhouse.

Meanwhile, though, just to be clear, health insurance companies right now are benefitting from the current situation. So are pharmaceutical companies and to a lesser extent some doctors, but I am not going to address their situations right now. Health insurance companies are reported to only return 80% of premiums paid in as claims, on average. In Europe/Japan, in those places where they have private health insurance the rates are more like 95%.I don’t know what the levels are here in Pittsburgh, where the two biggest health insurance companies are “not for profit” (UPMC and Highmaek). But I assume we have all heard of “excess revenue”, the money beyond pay outs in claims that both these companies have. Some of that money likely goes into reserves (insurance companies are inventive at creating reasons to have larger reserves), some likely goes into additional purchases of land, buildings and quite frankly probably more lavish of offices. And some probably goes into executive compensation, bonuses for creating the very excess revenues used to pay the bonuses (a nice sort of symmetry).

Now given this sort of situation, Republicans are saying that our problems would be over if people and companies could buy health insurance across state lines. Currently there are state rules that prevent or at least limit that sort of thing. I know that there are other health insurance companies in the Pittsburgh area besides Highmark and UPMC; Aetna provides insurance for Rite Aid employees here. I don’t know if Aetna provides insurance for individuals, but given the lousy service they seem to provide Rite Aid employees, no one might want it. Still, from the point of view of the health insurance companies, right now everything is pretty hunky dory. I assume if the Republicans did mange to tear down state rules for health insurance companies, they might oblige by slowing the rate of increase of the growth in health insurance premiums, to show their gratitude.

Now, there may be some Blue Cross/Blue Shields or other health insurance companies dotted around the landscape that do hold to their original mission of providing health insurance without taking a substantial profit. Everyone might flock to them across state lines for individual and/or corporate health insurance, if permitted. But I have two, really three concerns about that.

First of all, they are not going to know all the physicians all over the country. Health insurance companies work now by negotiating with some physicians to be part of a network, and giving those doctors a lower but guaranteed payment. Maybe that won’t matter because my mythical BC/BS has a lower profit rate, but it makes me wonder.

Second, someone will have a problem sometime with a claim (it is inevitable), and when they go to complain, how difficult will it be to reach across state lines and contact this mythical BC/BS. Often, when you are dealing with a health insurance problem, you are yourself not 100% and may have trouble pursuing this. Of course, with UPMC or Highmark, you can visit offices, and talk to a person. Plus you can contact the state insurance commissioner and/or KDKA, WTAE or WIIC to put pressure on the insurance company. That will be more difficult if the BC/BS is out of state.

Finally, I wonder if lower cost health insurance companies taking business from all across the country might become victims of their own success. First, they would have to hire more staff and expand operations. There is always a danger of finding excuses to increase rates because of that expansion. And also there is a danger the health insurance company might go from being a local oligopy to being a regional or national oligopy, and find it attractive to raise rates in different parts of the country to levels just below the local health insurance companies.

I can’t say for sure these things would happen. But I will say that by capitalist standards health insurance companies are very successful now. They should be able to maintain that level of success even if deregulated, although it is possible that we might see health insurance firms trying to push other firms out of business, and an emergence of only a few national firms (a la oil companies). I am not sure that would be an improvement in our situation.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The big story ...

Not the stillers defense. In fact, being at Podcamp this weekend, I missed the game. Speaking of Podcamp (more on that perhaps in the future), one presenter (the person who does “burghbaby”, accessible through “That’s Church”) said never to post just to apologize for not posting. I don’t believe I do that, but I do try to apologize whenever I get back to posting when I haven’t done it in a while. Like now. There are other things going on in my life, and I have been distracted.

Still, how could anyone fail to hear about Obama getting the peace prize? Ross Douthat has a column today that hits all the high notes of the conservative reaction to the news. The title of the column is actually “Heckuva job, Barack”. While he lands the slap in the face, the title is also a reminder of how bankrupt the Republican party is in terms of leadership. I won’t go through the whole column except to say that Douthat hits many of anti-Obama themes of the Republican opposition, without necessarily endorsing them (walking that thin line so as to seem a “reasonable” and “thoughtful” conservative). He managed to inject religion and Marxism into his narrative while seeming to take Obama’s side: “Here was a place to draw a clean line between himself and all the overzealous Obamaphiles, at home and abroad, who poured their post-Christian, post-Marxist yearnings into the vessel of his 2008 campaign.” Douthat calls for Obama to decline the award after Obama has agreed to accept it. Actually, it doesn’t matter whether Obama accepts or declines, this “unearned” award will find its way into statements of most Republican for at least the next three years.

And by the way, I don’t think Obama really does deserve the award myself. I think the Nobel people (apparently there are five Norwegians on the this committee) could have given it to someone else, and waited to see what Obama does for the next three years. But it is a fait accompli, and at least Obama has been humble in talking about it. He is very good at knowing what to say.

I think a more interesting question is why did the five Norwegians give Obama the peace prize? Douthat suggests that world leaders are snickering at Obama for not deserving the award, and no doubt some are. Lech Walesa (remember him?) was particularly ungracious in his reaction. But I suspect the Norwegians were trying themselves to do their part to promote peace, to be the change they want to see (as apparently Gandhi said). I think they were trying to bolster Obama’s support at home by giving him this international accolade. I think the world (by which I mean Europe, which most of us probably think as guys speaking English with funny accents, unlike our clear, unaccented English) is aware of the opposition Obama has faced, and desperately wants Obama to be successful. I believe the rest of the world that was aware of the second President Bush was afraid of him. I mean, Bush invaded countries that had nothing to do with 9/11, we tortured and imprisoned people indefinitely and we let our economy get so bad that it dragged down the rest of the world (again). I think at least the five Norwegians think that by giving Obama the Nobel peace prize, they might persuade us the rest of the world thinks highly of Obama, and we should too.

I can’t see it as a negative that at least five Norwegians, and probably quite a few more Europeans and others, think Obama is pretty important. Who am I to argue?

By the way, Saturday Night had a cute on paper but painful to watch bit with their Obama impersonator. He not only won the Peace Prize, but the Powerball as well. He commented that the staffer carrying the giant novelty check plays the lottery every day (as she went from frozen smile to glower).

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Socialist or conservative

From the September 20th issue of the English newspaper the telegraph, a quote from Obama: “"I can't tell you how many foreign leaders, who are heads of centre-right governments, say to me 'I don't understand why people would call you socialist, in my country you would be considered a conservative'," Mr Obama told CNN.” Of course, consider the source. Obama lies constantly, or so Jack Kelly would (likely) maintain.

Interestingly, for today’s column, Kelly chose not to write about the G20 or the revelation that Iran is building a facility that might make nuclear weapons. Instead Kelly decides to comment on Obama’s support of Manuel Zelaya, who Kelly says the administration “wants to install as president of Honduras over the objections of the overwhelming majority of its people”.

Before examining that statement, lets look at the history of Zelaya. He was elected President in 2005, so I guess the overwhelming majority did not object to him at the time. He apparently decided he wanted to serve another term, but apparently Honduran law or the constitution allow Presidents to serve only one term. Zelaya apparently petitioned the Honduran Congress to hold a referendum to change the law/constitution, the Congress refused and Zelaya apparently had some ballots printed up anyway. If all that is true, and I am wiling to take Kelly’s word for it until/unless I read otherwise (from a reputable source), then Zelaya is an idiot. However, assuming Kelly’s argument that the people don’t support Zelaya is also true, then a referendum would be harmless, and in fact provide support for the system. Now, I will say I don’t know how constitutional change is supposed to work in Honduras, so what Zelaya is trying to do might be underminig the system.

In any event, what happened next is the real issue. The Attorney General petitions the Supreme Court to issue an arrest warrant for Zelaya, which they do, and the President is sent into exile by the army. Now, if Zelaya is not supported by the people (as Kelly says), then why bother? Kelly would have preferred Zelaya be imprisoned and put on trial, but even then, why bother? But from the Obama administration’s point of view, taking these steps is a pretty serious shortcut of political process. I can see the point of issuing sanctions (or having Congress vote on them) and insisting Zelaya be reinstated. If we are serious about democracy, we can’t just support democratically elected leaders we like.

Now, I write all this not knowing the detail of situation in Honduras. Most of what I am writing is based on what Kelly wrote. I am willing to admit that if what Kelly wrote is all the detail of the situation for Zelaya, then Zelaya does sound like an idiot. Still our reaction to a Democratically elected leader being deposed is not surprising. Especially since Kelly makes it sound like if the Honduran opposition to Zelaya had waited a couple of months it would have all been over anyway.

As I said above, the fact that Kelly wrote about this and not Iran or the G20 speaks volumes about Kelly’s attitude towards Obama. Kelly makes a relatively incoherent attack on a minor foreign policy situation while ignoring what is happening in Iran with nuclear weapons and what is happening on the world economic stage. Kelly simply wants to find any mistake, no matter how far fetched, he can pin on Obama. The PG needs to think about that.

Friday, September 25, 2009

So far ...

Just one observation from the G-20 protests. You tell people that they are the people you are protesting and fighting for – Americans of color, working class people, students. You go to their neighborhoods, you talk to them, spend time with them. Then the marches start, the confrontations with police, and then you are breaking windows. In the neighborhood where the march started, the working class neighborhood. The neighborhood where the people you are supposedly fighting for live. You are smashing the windows of their restaurants. And you wonder why Americans of color and/or working class people don’t appreciate your efforts.

On the other hand, P&W Motors, Mercedes of Shadyside (Bobby Raihal), whichever, good job.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Just a wee note on health care/insurance reform ...

Well, I plan to write about the G-20 (apparently now after the fact) and I plan to look at local politics, but I am still somewhat consumed by healthcare/insurance. I want to challenge any opponent of healthcare/insurance reform to read what I have written below and then tell me why we shouldn’t reform the system. When people say the system is broken, I think they are understating the issue.

As I understand it, health insurance came about in World War II, when there was a government imposed wage freeze. Now, lots of people were working, and companies still wanted to produce more … I guess tanks and uniforms, mostly, so they wanted to lure better workers to their plants. Health insurance allowed them to differentiate themselves. I believe early health insurance simply paid the doctor bills. I believe at some point in the next forty years doctors discovered if they raised their prices insurance companies would grumble but still pay.

Fast forward to the 1980’s, where the increase in health care costs and the corresponding increase in health care premiums has caused a crisis. See, the way employer based health insurance worked was that at first, the company paid it all. As premiums increased, companies started tinkering with their employee’s plans, creating and then increasing co-pays and having employees contribute to the premiums of their plan. But by the 1990’s health insurance is becoming a crisis, and Bill Clinton tried to implement universal health care. It was defeated, partially because of tactical errors on Clinton’s part, but also because of the alliance of the health insurance giants and the Republicans. For practical reasons the health insurance industry did try to reform itself (it was in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden eggs) through mechanisms like HMO’s and preferred provider options. In particular, at some point probably in the late seventies, health insurance companies started saying they would 80% of the usual, customary and reasonable costs charged by doctors in that particular geographic area. The doctors would receive less money but be guaranteed payment, and agree not to charge the patient the twenty percent. The insurance companies could enforce this by creating networks (where the doctors agreed to these rules) and only paying out of network doctors fifty percent of their charge (this is usually called blackmail). Now, as I suggested at some point I think doctors (and hospitals) started at some point milking the system when they had previously found insurance companies would pay the whole bill, and this new system reinforced the notion that it made sense for all doctors to find excuses to raise their rates every year, if only to increase that 80%. But you can imagine the effect on the uninsured. Every year, it becomes more and more dangerous financially to go to a doctor or the emergency room. Doctors desperate to maintain their life style and hospitals that want to remain profitable are raising their prices to astronomical levels (one night in the hospital for me according to insurance: 11 grand).

Another piece of this puzzle is that companies are still largely shielding their employees from the bulk of the cost of health insurance premiums. Apparently health insurance can cost 12 grand a year for an employee with a family of four, of which I believe companies might charge the employee three grand (I don’t know for sure, I never priced the family plans at work). To some extent, this used to work out ok because companies take a tax deduction on that part of the employees wages, as do the employees on the part they pay (look at your W2). This gave companies an incentive to offer health insurance (the health insurance companies had to agree not to deny or drop coverage based on pre-existing conditions). But I think the costs are now outstripping the tax advantages and in fact have been for a while. Where does the balance of them money come from? The price of everything. It is a hidden tax, administered by everyone and controlled by no one. So the tuition at CMU is higher than it would be if there was a government paid plan. And make no mistake, yes, with a government run single payer plan your taxes would be higher, but your wages ought to go up and prices for products ought to go down. Plus there would be fewer bankruptcies caused by people with no or inferior health insurance going to the hospital. In fact, many low wage employees would be more productive than before because they would have no fear of going to the doctor and would get health problems treated and would have other problems averted with preventative care. Say what you want about preventative care, if you have a sore throat and go to the doctor and find out it is a staph infection, get it treated and get better, that is a better result than going to the emergency room and still dying, and sticking your family with outrageous bills.

A third piece of this puzzle is that health insurance companies in the US return a smaller amount of their premiums to claims people make than health insurance companies in other countries. Which is to say for every premium dollar US health insurance companies take in, they pay out about 80 cents. In other countries the amount is about 95 cents paid out. The US pay out rate is looked upon favorably by Wall Street, it means the companies are being that much more profitable, and can give that much more to investors (and higher level executives in the company as well). This level of profitability is only sustainable if the insurance companies can continue to deny and drop coverage on people with pre-existing conditions (those not in employer offered health plans).

I didn’t address medical malpractice. I was chatting with a lawyer the other day (a whole ‘nother story I will have to say something about soon) and he was saying that two groups that do a lousy job of “policing” themselves are cops and doctors. I think that malpractice needs to be treated carefully. I think that people who are harmed by doctors through negligence should be recompensed. I think we also need to take steps to make sure that doctors who make more than one serious mistake are dealt with in some manner, whether it is being given the option of giving up their license or taking some huge amount of remedial training or something else, I don’t know. But something does need to happen, and if Republicans want to make a big stink about that, that is one area were I will cheer them on.

There are probably issues I have omitted (pharmaceuticals come to mind), but surely you are getting tired (I am).

So I talked about three of the five participants in the US health care system: health care providers, health insurance companies and private employers. The other two participants are the customers (us the US) and the government. Of those first three, providers and insurance companies have perverse incentives, and private employers are unwilling co-conspirators in making everything more expensive than it really needs to be. Healthcare/insurance reform needs to address the first two issues at the very least, and if we adopted a single payer plan that would address the issue of how much employers are spending on health insurance for their employees.

Meanwhile, we, the customers of health care (all of us) and customers of health insurance (85% of us) are being influenced in interesting ways. I would think that if most people see the issue the way I stated it above, they would be in favor of healthcare reform. In fact, I can see no arguments for maintaining the status quo. Even if you are a well compensated health insurance executive, unless you can pull off living in another country you are still paying more for ordinary goods and services than you should have to.

Yet conservative entertainers have given us outright lies to try to frighten us into thinking that health care/insurance reform is some sort of plot to destroy the country. The effect may be that of the legislative branch of the fifth participant in health snafu, the government, just enough Democrats and all Republicans save maybe one or two will vote against all but the weakest plan for reform (basically a giveaway to health insurance plans) in the Senate. We have the power to do something about that, but we have to act. Anytime anyone says that healthcare/insurance reform is a plot to overthrow democracy, ask them how that is, specifically.

I don’t want to pretend that health care/insurance reform will be easy. It would be difficult to address the current salaries of doctors, for example, they will protest they should have to give anything up. Even if they don’t have to pay as much in malpractice insurance, even if prices come down, doctors will want to make at least as much next year as they did this year. But we do need to do something, and probably more than what is in Max Baucus’ bill.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday unfunnies ...

Jack Kelly wrote a mean little column today, where his main point is that Joe Wilson was right when he yelled “You lie” at Obama during his health care speech to Congress. Forget whether it was rude or unprecedented, it was apparently justified. Although one of the bills working its way through the House does have explicit language saying that illegal aliens are not supposed to benefit from government sponsored health insurance, another part of this bill says that administrators signing people up for health insurance are not supposed to be Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents; they are not supposed to ask for citizenship documents.

I don’t know, I realize Kelly is some sort of former marine, and feels that people who work for the government should be enforcing its laws. But if I apply for a job to sign people up for health insurance, I don’t expect to be arresting people and detaining them so they can be deported. And what kind of society do we want to live in?

Meanwhile, it is not exactly like people will get much just by signing up with government provided health care. It is supposed to be cheaper than private insurance, but it is also supposed to pay for itself. This is not where the tax dollars are supposed to go. There are supposed to be subsidies for low income people, and maybe that is where some attention should be paid.

As for whether your employer could drop your coverage when the government expands healthcare (which Joe Wilson neglected to yell about, guess Republicans don’t care about millions of working Americans), that could happen at any time, for any reason. And sometimes that’s a good thing, if, for example your employer finds a more cost effective plan. Now I think the President or someone said that at lest some of the bills prevent the public option being offered to people who have health insurance already. But I don’t know how that will work out in practice. And actually, it could be a good thing if employers shed them selves of the burden of providing health insurance, if there is a fair alternative available, and if the employees get a ten thousand dollar raise (after all, Europe is coming, Europe is coming).

Meanwhile, I don’t think illegal aliens lead all that nice a life. Many without health insurance doing jobs like working on roofs and ladders, or working all night cleaning offices. They can be mistreated almost at will, because calling the labor department would get them fired, and possibly deported. We need to address the issue of undocumented workers in an adult way. But meanwhile worrying about them in a healthcare bill is simply a distraction, one that the Republicans are shoving down our throat.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

New word

I thought of two funny things yesterday (well, I thought they were funny), but right now I can only remember one. I think we can coin a new word: “Obama’d”. That’s when a Democrat reaches out to Republican legislators by gutting a piece of legislation and trying to give them what they want, and the Republicans, who had previously listed all these things they wanted, refuse to sign on to the bill. And for the first instance of someone being Obama’d: Senator Max Baucus.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Color me bad

Color me particularly stupid, in what is now becoming a bad pun. I had failed to make the connection between Color of Change (the organization that started an advertiser boycott of Glenn Beck’s program after he called President Obama a racist) and Van Jones (a co-founder of Color of Change, now not affiliated with it).

The parenthetical remarks covered it all.

The NYTimes Opinionator had an interesting compilation of various points of view entitled “Is it because he’s black?”, on an obvious topic. The last entry, a comment made by a reader of Andrew Sullivan’s Atlantic column, was, to me, the most interesting. He suggests that the Republican/conservative hatred of Obama is deeper than mere racism. This commenter called it "shadow projection", and he started with one of my favorite themes, that no one thinks of themselves as a bad person. But the US, under the Republicans for the last eight years (yeah, yeah, Congress for four) has done bad things to itself and others. Two wars, at least one justified with lies, the patriot act (wiretapping ourselves), spending, rolling back regulation with predictable results of an economic meltdown… In the past, these sorts of things would have been projected (essentially blamed or at least justified by) on an external opponent, such at the Soviet Union or maybe Iran. But now we have no credible external opponent (China can only threaten us economically, and instead they are buying our T-bills). Instead, the threat has been chosen from within: Obama. So now Obama is accused of financial irresponsibility with the stimulus package despite the spending during the Bush years, Obama is accused of trying to indoctrinate our children with his speech despite the indoctrination during the Bush years of a particular sort of Bush-worshiping patriotism, Obama is accused of trying to destroy the economy with new regulation when the deregulation of the Bush years nearly caused a depression. As Obama tries to move forward with new proposals (that try to address past failings of government), they are cast by Republicans/conservatives as some new evil having some negative consequence As the commenter puts it “The more evil revealed about the right’s excesses on torture, or wars of choice, or nearly destroying the economy, the more evil Obama will look in their eyes, as they cannot tolerate owning responsibility, because in their own minds they are only good.” And the commenter ends with “This will not end well. Now that Obama is carrying their shadow, only a dramatic event from outside could change it. . . . The more those on the right deny their own failings, the more their internal unease will increase, the more the hatred to Obama will grow, and the more the need to do something will increase.”

Monday, September 14, 2009

Their own public reality ... second point

An addendum to today’s post; Congresspersons who are Democrats are likely to be hesitant to comment negatively on the lies perpetrated by conservative media figures which are picked up by Republican/conservative politicians and party officials. The Democrats are hesitant to push back because they don’t want to be in the position of insulting the beliefs of some of their constituents. Which is too bad, since otherwise people walk around believing these stupid myths and conspiracy theories.

I should mention Glenn Beck’s 9/12 rally in DC, on Friday or Saturday. Apparently one of the organizers simply lied and said that 2 million people were present. I have heard 70,000 from a few (possibly charitable) people like Nate Silver, or as low as 60,000. That’s a lot of people, but for a supposedly nationwide effort? That speaks for itself.

Their own public reality ...

Color me stupid, and maybe (probably, I hope) what I am seeing is more like a marriage of convenience than a conspiracy, but Ross Douthet’s column today in the NYTimes pushed me further toward thinking that Republicans/conservatives really are manufacturing their own reality. Douthet’s column is about how similar this time is to 1994, when the Republicans overturned a Democratic majority in Congress. Then, of course, the Democrats had controlled the Congress for decades, now its been three years, and of those three years the Republicans have done their best to be obstructionist and set records in the Senate for these phantom filibusters (make ‘em actually do it, and pee their pants). Douthet includes lines like “The health care push has opened up arguments about abortion, euthanasia and illegal immigration that the Democrats would rather avoid.” Except that those arguments are flat out Republican lies, spread by the likes of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. Douthet doesn’t mention that. Yes, health care bills in Congress have end of life counseling, something Senior citizens want and until recently, so did Republicans. And the only way health care bill in Congress have anything to do with abortion or illegal Aliens is in describing how they will not be covered.

But the fact that Ross Douthet is talking about this that way in the New York Times made me realize that this is the way things are, at least during Democratic Presidencies. A Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin starts a lie, like abortion, euthanasia or illegal immigration in the “health care bill” (as if there was only one). These lies are aimed at their most gullible followers, the religious right or rural conservatives. These followers go to town hall meetings or protest rallies, and some get their faces on TV for ten seconds. Others want that, and the ranks swell (not by really that much, but enough). Polls are affected negatively for the Democratic President, not by a surprising amount, but in Obama’s case the depth of the support for his candidacy was imagined by the press, so any slide is seen as a major revolt. And so the “legitimate” and “reasonable” conservatives pundits step in and say that a majority of the country now opposes the President’s plan, whatever it is. They would say that while the bill doesn’t have euthanasia in it, the end of life counseling seems like you are pushing grandma towards the light, and anyway there are other signs there is Medicare rationing in “the bill”. I have heard David Brooks accuse the President of telling “whoppers” (lies), without spending one minute discussing the President’s accusers.

So there is a dynamic, where the fringe talk radio (and TV) wackos whip up an uneducated base, who complain loudly and publicly, and in turn the “thoughtful” conservatives identify an important movement in America, and describe it as a majority. The problem is this is having a real impact on policy. The public option is now in real trouble, which of course is what the insurance companies want. In fact, meaningful health care insurance/reform is in real trouble. Of course, some liberals aren’t helping either. Obama gives a tough speech, and Bill Maher acts like he wants Obama to physically beat conservatives. STOP TRYING TO HELP, Mr. Maher. The last thing Obama wants to do is hand the Republicans the gift of becoming “the angry negro”. Or did you miss what happened to Van Jones, and more importantly, why?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

One way to be political

“From each according to his (or her) ability, to each according to his (or her) need”. A big idea in Marxism, not to say communism. I have always considered Marxism to be an impressive philosophy, particularly in the way it approaches work. It says that we define ourselves by our work, and trading our work for currency (particularly a small amount of currency) degrades us. I guess though if we see our work as directly helping others (in the mythical workers paradise), even as they direct help us, it is more rewarding to our souls.

Of course, anyone who was willing to look with open eyes could see the that the Soviet Union and China were not worker’s paradises. The closest one might come to that would likely be in western Europe, and even in those countries there are plenty of disgruntled workers.

It was maybe a different story in the 1920’s and 1930’s, where the people likely to become communists in the US, the workers, couldn’t really travel to the Soviet Union (and the People’s Republic did not exist yet). Especially during the thirties, Communism must have seemed like an attractive alternative to Capitalism.

I am thinking about this because of Jack Kelly’s column today. My first thought reading it was, so there is only one way to be political in this country. We are the land of the free, yet Kelly suggested that only a few years ago Jones would not have been allowed in the White House (and then you have to say it, does Kelly mean because Jones was briefly a communist, or because Jones is black).

Kelly wants to say (I am extrapolating here) Jones never stopped being a communist, and that automatically should exclude him from any kind of government service, certainly from service in the White House. But I have to say the Van Jones did not behave like a prototypical communist, certainly not one that wanted the workers to rise up and seize the means of production. At this point, in fact, I am not sure what that means (I think the “workers” might need to look like nerds, since I guess they would be seizing netbooks and servers).

But Van Jones was the wussiest Marxist/Communist I have ever seen. He was part of a radical group called STORM (STANDING TOGETHER TO ORGANIZE A REVOLUTIONARY MOVEMENT), which protested the Rodney King verdict and the anniversary of Christopher Columbus “discovering” America. Jones himself is credited with joining and/or starting groups in the nineties that monitored police brutality, obtained books for convicts and protested the first gulf war. One of these efforts succeeded in getting a policeman accused of brutality fired. Hardly the sort of stuff to topple the US government.

Around the turn of the millennium, Jones figured out that if poor people got better jobs, they would gain more economic and therefore political power, which inspired Jones to look at “green” jobs for poor people. Kelly makes it all sound so sordid, but if you consider the context, Jones has simply pointed out the situation of poor people of color, and worked to change it, or at least keep it from becoming worse, always working within the system, legally. And his reward for doing so was to be hounded from the white House, with unelected “pundits” responsible to no one (like Glenn Beck and Jack Kelly) leading the charge. I guess, despite our “freedoms”, there is only one way to be political in this country.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Ironic times

As I wait at work, waiting to hear from my brother who missed a flight waiting in line at security, I think about today as anniversary, and irony. I remember well where I was 9/11/01, working in the Cathedral of Learning on the 30th floor. Our receptionist told us (me) a plane had crashed near by, and that something seemed to be going on in New York. I was skeptical about all that, but I tried the New York Times website and found it wasn’t loading (which rarely seemed to happen, even in those days). People grew panicky as we realized what had happened. Would the cathedral be the next target, a tall building standing alone in Oakland? No one said, but I assume several people were thinking of Pitt’s considerable foreign student population. Around noon we got word from Nordenberg’ office that we should go home. I waited until most people were off the floor to leave, not willing to trust the Cathedral’s notoriously unreliable elevators would handle one more person crowding on. I bicycled home through the traffic, proving to myself once again the wisdom of that choice of transportation.

But here we are, eight years later, still involved in two wars that were started because of that event, or at least that is what we are told. And just recently, Van Jones, the President’s green jobs advisor (or czar, as some people like to say), resigned in part because it was revealed he was one of the people who signed a petition that called for an investigation into whether the government deliberately allowed 9/11 to happen so it could have an excuse to go to war in Afghanistan and/or Iraq.

Now I have mentioned before and elsewhere that I remember Paul O’Neill had divulged in his book (The Price of Loyalty, I think) that there had been memos in early 2001 talking about a post-Saddam Iraq. By itself that’s not a smoking gun, but it ought to be strong enough evidence to support a call for an investigation. And O’Neill was saying this in 2004, when this petition came out. The petition Jones signed publically was actually circulated to a weird variety of 100 prominent Americans, such as Ed Asner and various types of professors and businessmen. The names have been posted on a website since, for all to see. And apparently Jones has since decided maybe he doesn’t agree with the idea that the Bush administration might have deliberately not acted when it learned of the possible terrorist danger. But when Glenn Beck started foaming at the mouth about this and other things Jones has done (like deciding he was a communist for a while), Jones resigned rather than be a distraction for the Obama administration.

An African American resigns from the administration of the first African American President in part because he called for an impartial investigation into the actions of the government before the terrorists attacks of 9/11. He resigns because calling for this investigation offends a white male television personality. This television personality answers only to his network, he has essentially zero accountability with the American public, yet he is able to twist what should be a free speech issue into a liability. The very freedoms that conservatives claim the terrorists hate us for are the ones conservatives want to take away from us, starting with a minority group that spent the first hundred or so years of this country’s existence in chains.

Then, when the President is speaking to a joint session of Congress about health care and the lack of a civil debate, a Congressman interrupts him to tell the President he is lying (concerning whether undocumented workers will receive subsidized healthcare). Americans, in the form of organizations or individuals, well known or ordinary, line up in public forums to either say the Congressman’s behavior was wrong and/or he was wrong on the facts, or to say the Congressman was bravely standing up to a dangerous President.

That division is emblematic of the state of the country, before and soon after 9/11. I personally blame the conservatives who seemed to develop a standard for being a good American, that started with agreeing with and supporting the President in a time of war. They also used broad stereotypes and misinformation to advance their agendas. Although President Bush has left office, those who in the past disagreed with him are still being judged by this standard. Those who support Barack Obama are being judged by a new standard, that of worshiping a false god. Liberals, incensed and infuriated by these standards and other behaviors of conservatives, have hardened their own positions and condemn those who still wish to work with conservatives, including, ironically, our current President.

It’s possible the Chinese should add a new curse besides “May you live in interesting times”. The new one would be “May you live in ironic times”.

Brooks and the plan ...

When I graduated from college and came back to Pittsburgh, I registered as a Republican. At the time, I thought I might try to do something in politics, and I had two reasons for choosing the Republicans. First is the small pond thing (I thought I might become a big fish, if I wasn’t one to start with) and then there is the popular stereotype that Republicans know a lot about economics. Now, I had read an academic article in college which said that politicians and staffers of both parties knew the words used by economists, but didn’t understand the concepts. But here I was, with majors in political science and economics, so I could change all that. Except I quickly realized the Republicans are largely a joke in Pittsburgh (particularly in the mid 80’s), and I never looked too hard for meetings or events.

Now I am registered Democrat but I feel they are closer (although not the same as) to my social views. But one reason I read David Brooks in the NYTimes is that he seems to want to embody the stereotype of Republicans/conservatives as smart on economics (the “party of ideas”). So I was interested in his take on Obama’s health care speech. And it did not disappoint.

Before I go on, I think that while Brooks writes as if he is thoughtful and concerned with facts and ideas, he is a conservative. I don’t know exactly what his agenda is, but on healthcare I see him as part of the problem, in a subtle way. I think around mid summer he picked up the theme that a majority of Americans oppose the leading House bill (which Brooks likes to link to the President). I think the truth is much more complicated than that, and not helped by the shallow coverage of those in the media, including Brooks.

So I was interested to see Brooks say that Wednesday’s speech was “the finest speech of his presidency”. However, Brooks quickly made it clear that he thought Obama’s speech was so good because Brooks thought Obama had moved to the center, and, dare I say it, is not following Brooks’ advice. So Brooks praised Obama saying he would not sign a bill that raises the deficit by even one dime. In Brooks mind, that means the House bill is dead, and whatever Max Baucas (sp?) lobs at us is what is likely to be signed. Brooks thought Obama dropped the Public Option (not what I took away at all), and praised Obama arguing for tort reform (which I agree Obama did).

I have to say on the public option I have seen at least a couple of people say that they thought Obama indicated he was willing to drop it. I personally got the sense that Obama was willing to drop it only if the droppers proposed something that would achieve a minimum result equivalent to what the public option would achieve. In other words, Obama doesn’t care so much how it is done, but he wants that credible competition to private insurers. And I believe he indicated he won’t sign a bill without it.

But I dare say that I think Brooks, while wrong in my opinion in several parts of his column, was quite right in calling Obama’s speech the finest of his Presidency. Overtly it had some things for almost every one, between the strong call for reform but also identifying part of that as tort reform, he was like a piñata of treats for both parties. But on a more subtle level, I think Obama succeeded in convincing his audience that no matter who they are, Obama respects their opinion. It certainly seemed to work on David Brooks. Brooks may be in for a nasty shock in a few weeks, but for now he is a big, if unlikely, Obama supporter.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

So the President spoke ...

And before I read anybody else's analysis, I thought I would venture my own. First I will say I realize that Chad Hermann (and his minions) will pick apart the President’s speech line by line, finding it wanting piece meal and as a whole. And any one who says anything positive about the President’s speech is a dupe in thrall to the mystique of Obama the messiah. But anyone who criticizes him is part of a persecuted minority (of people with common sense), who are being accused of racism by the actual racists, the liberals (actually closet communists) whose arguments are so weak they have to resort to name calling and twisting the facts.

And so you should ignore anything I say here, because it will all be useless drivel.

Anyhoo, I thought the President gave a good speech. He continues to walk a fine line, between reinforcing his base, trying to include the Republicans in on things and actually do something to achieve health care reform. He started by introducing the problem, citing the costs in lives and dollars. He then stated he is going to give Congress a bill (that’s the way I understood it) and he outlined what will be in it, including an insurance exchange for the uninsured. Then he spent some time correcting (attacking?) the misinformation we have had forced on us in the last month. Only then did he mention the public option. He waited so long I thought he had dropped the public option. He did specify the limitation that only people who don’t have insurance now will be able to use it. He said that only 5% of Americans might sign up for it (according to the CBO). But I will say the public option could, in fact, be a powerhouse in health insurance. The private companies keep as much as 20% of premiums for overhead (mostly for profit). The public option might only keep 3%. So they might be able to pay somewhat more for medical claims and still have lower premiums. This cold affect the bottom line of private insurers, and cause them to either keep less of premiums and lower costs to consumers, or to lobby the Republicans hard to block the plan. On the other hand, if the public option really is only for the currently uninsured, well, they weren’t buying private insurance before anyway, so how much have the private companies lost?

Back to the President’s speech, it went on. And on. He said finally at least three times, I think, yet it kept on not being finally. He said we wouldn’t insure illegal aliens, which yielded a yelled “lie” from the Republican side (Nancy Pelosi glared for some time over that way), and some other dubious noises, some I think from Democrats. He pointedly did not mention a tax on those making over $250,000, although Obama did mention the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, as well as the two wars Obama inherited, as adding to the deficit Obama inherited (to enthusiastic Democratic only applause). And Obama did pointedly reassure senior citizens that he was not going to make them suffer any hardship.

He finished with an extended discussion that started with a letter Teddy Kennedy wrote in May but somehow was delivered to Obama only recently (that’s the way I understood what Obama said). He focused on a phrase Kennedy used, the American character. And Obama drew out his analysis, talking about the tension between individual liberty and having government step in when either the free market has failed or maybe when some problem, natural disaster or man made, has occurred. Obama stressed the importance of individual liberty, but came down particularly in this situation on a greater role for government.

Now, if you think about it, bringing up the issue of individual liberty with reference to health insurance is entirely silly. Most of us experience health insurance through our employer, where we are either offered one plan, period, or perhaps a cafeteria of plans. My employer has six or maybe seven or eight plans, each with different costs depending on family size. Despite that fairly impressive variety, I don’t thing there is a true High Deductible/Health Savings Account plan in there (the plan has to meet certain deductible levels to qualify for the tax benefits, which are key). By the way, I have decided now that HD/HAS plans are only good for young people (preferably just out of college) who plan to never have children. That’s means pushing HD/HSA’s means having your country shrink.

Anyway, my point is that even for me, my choices are pretty limited. But I am steered toward those limited choices because my employer will pay some 70% of my premiums. Even if I were to buy my own health insurance, my choices would be pretty limited to what is available around here. And if I try to shop around for doctors, I quickly find I am pushed toward health insurance options where I choose from a limited pool of doctors, ones heavily affiliated with my health insurance company. Plus, for shopping either for health insurance companies or doctors, the rates they charge are largely concealed. So any shopping will be made that much more difficult, and if you (and you spouse if you are married) work, it will be even more difficult since your work would have to tolerate your calling health insurance companies and/or doctors during work hours, and staying on the phone for a pretty long time.

So any sense that the free market of health insurance and health care actually gives you choices is in practice simply wrong. Despite that, Obama is trying to maintain part of the status quo (despite what he says) because it works for a majority of Americans. The majority doesn’t have to think too hard about their health insurance, and doesn’t want to.

I think Obama is taking a wise approach, and I think he made that clear in his (long) speech tonight (clearer than in my long post here). But I think the day is coming when we will decide to take the single payer route. And the longer we delay, the more suffering that will occur along the way.