Archive for April, 2011

Magic Beans

Friday, April 29th, 2011

There is something interesting going on right now in our polarized country.

We have Paul Ryan saying that we have an unmanageable debt crisis and so we have to cut taxes, cut spending, repeal healthcare reform, and privatize Social Security and Medicare.  Only one of those four (cut spending) has any direct relationship to the deficit at least for the next ten years.

We also have President Obama agreeing that we have an unmanageable debt crisis and so we have to raise taxes, cut spending, expand healthcare reform, and keep Medicare and Social Security largely unchanged.  The President is doing a little better here.  Two of his proposals will have a direct impact on the deficit over the next ten years (taxes and spending).

When you look at the polling data, it’s clear that the American people want both lower taxes AND continued government spending.

That’s why fringe candidates like Donald Trump are doing so well.  He claims to have a pocket full of magic beans.  These are the same beans that helped Trump amass his personal fortune.  He is now offering to use his beans for the benefit of the American people.  Those beans will bring business savvy to government.  Those beans will allow the American people to continue to enjoy the government services, entitlement programs, and low taxes that the American people want AND magically bring down that nasty deficit too.

The reality that we all know from that Jack and the beanstalk story is that there are unanticipated consequences to planting those magic beans.

The same thing is true here.

Donald Trump’s real appeal is that he may know something we don’t and be able to get us out of this financial mess.  The reality is that Donald Trump knows nothing about how to run a government, much less represent the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world.   What he does know, however, is how to use influence and celebrity to make money and that’s just what he is doing here.  He doesn’t honestly believe that he can be elected President.  He is just taking advantage of an obvious opportunity to get lots of free TV and press coverage by pandering to the worst instincts in the American electorate.  All it took was a lot of ego, media smarts, and the promise of a few magic beans.

The truth is that only people who can get us out of this mess are us.

That’s only right too because we were the people who got us into this mess because we believed the last “magic bean” story that markets could regulate themselves and that Dick Cheney was telling the truth when he said “Deficits don’t matter”.

We have to raise taxes on everyone to increase government revenue.

We have to cut big ag, big oil, and all other big business subsidies that represent the worst of pork barrel lobbyist politics.

We have to cut defense spending in a major way and wind down our occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

We have to raise the salary cap on Social Security to cover the baby boomer retirement bulge.

We have to add a means test to Medicare so that it remains available to those who can’t afford other care, and is not abused by those who can.

We have to continue to invest in healthcare reform.  We’ve taken the first step in universal coverage to reduce the cost of we all share now for care for the uninsured.  We need to take the next step which is to transform the re-imbursement system from one based on transactions on to one based on outcomes.

We have to reward those people who take responsibility for their own health with lower insurance rates.  We do that by forcing those who abdicate responsibility for their own health to bear more of the burden for their own care.  This would introduce a financial penalty for those who engage in behaviors that damage their health (drug abuse, alcoholism, smoking, obesity).   Hopefully we’ll also have the compassion to offer services and support to help those who want to overcome their addictions.

The Medicare and Medicaid problem is not a spending problem.  It is a demographic problem and a business model problem.

There is little we can do about the demographic problem of aging baby boomers.  It is just a reality.  But part of the end of life expense (where roughly 80% of a lifetime’s medical cost is spent) CAN be mitigated through healthier lifestyles and support for end of life options like DNR’s, durable medical directives, healthcare surrogates, living wills, and access to hospice care.  The right viciously attacked provisions of the healthcare reform act which funded educational efforts around end of life choices, but it is the right of every person to be aware of their choices and how the medical establishment will respond if there are no expressed preferences.

The business model problem will continue to be a problem until we are able to change the re-imbursement method from transactions to outcomes.

Fortunately there is at least one budget alternative to what has already been proposed by Democrats and Republicans which embraces many of these options.

In the meantime, if we can at least stop believing that a handful of magic beans in the pocket of a Prince Charming will solve our problems and start believing that we have to do this ourselves, we will have taken a significant step in the right direction.

Resurrection of Global Warming

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

A couple of weeks ago the Republican-controlled house Science and Technology committee put together a “blue-ribbon” panel to demonstrate their side of the now highly politicized climate change debate.  Their intent was to continue to introduce fear, uncertainty, and doubt into the scientific claim that the earth is warming at an alarming rate and humans are the cause of that warming.  This was part of the larger Republican efforts to block EPA efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The panel was stuffed with anti-regulatory advocates.  One called for called for the end of all government funding for climate change research, as well as support for all “global organizations” working toward agreements on reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.  Another said the US should not rely on the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and needs a second opinion from a “non-activist” scientific team.

Richard Muller was supposed to be the lynch pin of this orchestrated attack on the EPA and the Obama administration’s support for restricting greenhouse gases.  He is a UC Berkeley physicist and long time critic of government-led climate studies.  He created The Berkeley Earth Science Project to challenge the scientific consensus on global warming.  His project’s largest private backer is the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation.   This foundation is one of the charitable funds set up by oil billionaires and tea-party funders, Charles and David Koch.

A funny thing happened on the way to forum.

Professor Muller took a statistical approach to analyzing the scientific data that has already been published on global warming.  He was the first to speak and dropped a bombshell on the panel.

Instead of finding some variance in the results which would suggest that the data as well as the interpretations of the data suggesting global warming was suspect, he told the hearing that the work of the three principal groups that have analyzed the temperature trends underlying climate science is “excellent…. We see a global warming trend that is very similar to that previously reported by the other groups.”

Other members of the scientific community applauded Muller’s courage in recanting his previous views.  Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, which contributed some funding to the Berkeley effort, said Muller’s statement to Congress was “honorable” in recognizing that “previous temperature reconstructions basically got it right…. Willingness to revise views in the face of empirical data is the hallmark of the good scientific process.”

Unfortunately, some global warming skeptics reacted differently to Muller’s conclusions.

Anthony Watts, a former TV weatherman who runs the skeptic blog WattsUpWithThat.com, made a name for himself through his efforts to show that weather station data in official studies are untrustworthy because of the urban heat island effect, which boosts temperature readings in areas that have been encroached on by cities and suburbs.  Muller has praised Watts for his work in the past, but leading climatologists said the previous studies accounted for the effect.  The Berkeley analysis confirmed that. “Did such poor station quality exaggerate the estimates of global warming?” Muller asked in his written testimony. “We’ve studied this issue, and our preliminary answer is no.”

Watts responded that the Berkeley group is releasing results that are not “fully working and debugged yet…. But, post normal science political theater is like that.”

The realities are that this particular scientific issue has become so politicized that researchers are faced with the very real challenge that the result of their work may affect their future access to research funds.  If we really DO want unbiased scientific research, we have to insulate researchers from the political effects of their findings.  Professor Muller represents the best of what we should expect from our scientific community.  When the data did not agree with his previous public position, he changed his position rather than continue to question the data.

Unfortunately we don’t seem willing or able to hold our politicians to the same high ethical standards as we expect from our scientists.  The reality is that our politicians often represent what is best for their largest donors.  Here are a couple of examples.

Sen. Jim Inhoffe is famous for saying,  “man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”   Inhofe has accepted $1.2 million from oil and gas interests over the course of his career, making the industry far and away his most generous contributor.  He voted to preserve $35 billion in oil and gas subsidies last year.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) is a strenuous opponent of the Endangered Species Act because the economic consequences “would be utterly devastating”.  Over the past few years, oil and gas companies have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Wyoming Republican.

This really comes down to a question of trust.  If we trust our scientists, we have to force our politicians to respond to the guidance we are receiving from them.  If we would prefer to trust our politicians, we leave ourselves vulnerable to those special interests who clearly are attempting to influence the political agenda for their own gain.  Three quarters of the American people want to eliminate oil and gas subsidiesMore than half call global warming a “major problem” and feel that the government is “doing too little”. It will be interesting in this next election cycle to see how long conservative Republicans can continue to hold out against both science and popular opinion.

American Idiots

Monday, April 4th, 2011

This is a post for those people who weren’t persuaded to re-examine their conservative beliefs and how they square with their Christianity and the teachings of Jesus.

Let’s examine political positions strictly from a position of self-interest.

If you are making more than $380K a year, your political positions are working for you.  Just keep voting for the people you have been voting for.

For everyone else, let’s use the old Reagan standard.  Are you better off now than you were a decade ago?  If you look at the statistics the answer is no.  Your standard of living has actually decreased while millionaires increased their net wealth 30%.

There are basically two reasons.

First the politicians you voted for did nothing to prevent the migration of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs out of this country.

What have you done about it?

Did you demand your leaders address our growing trade balance and stem the wave of outsourcing?

No!

Did you demand your leaders require foreign countries to buy a dollar’s worth of American goods for every dollar of goods that they sell here?

No!

What did you do?

You believed your leaders when they talked about the power of free trade and how that would create new and better jobs here.

When that didn’t happen, you believed them when they told you that we needed to give the companies who had been happily outsourcing our future, more tax breaks to bribe them to do business here.

When that didn’t happen, you started getting worried about your own job.  You agreed to wage and benefits cuts with your employer, crossed your fingers and prayed, “I hope my job’s not next.”  If you kept your job, you discovered that your employer expected you to take up the slack for the people that they laid off.  What did you get in return?

Did you get even a promise of a raise?

No!

Did you get any compensation for the overtime?

No!

All you got was the attitude that you should be grateful to be working at all, and if you didn’t like it, you were welcome leave too.  That’s what happens when companies know that your choices are limited.  That’s also why less than a third of workers in this country are happy with their jobs.

That brings us to the second reason why you are doing so much worse than millionaires.

Those same politicians who have been eviscerating the middle class and adding wealth to the wealthy also convinced you that unions were the reason why corporations outsourced jobs.

You forgot that America became a world power when one of every three Americans was a union member.  You forgot that union benefits provide the standard that all companies have to compete with to hire workers.  Companies are able to force you to pay a higher percentage of your healthcare costs and eliminate things like 401(k) matches because those politicians convinced you that it was a good idea to take those things away from unions.

It’s time to wake up.  You are being played for a chump.

Rather than protect American jobs, the same folks who did nothing while your standard of living eroded are now trying to portray yet another union as the cause of the problem.  You fell for this before, so why not try it again?

“Cut the pay of government workers,” they cry. “Increase their health premiums. Decrease their pensions. Break their unions. After all, you’ve suffered so they should suffer too.” And in your misery, you buy their argument while more jobs head oversees.

If their antics weren’t so pathetic, if the consequences weren’t so dire, if they didn’t prey on your stupidity, and if you didn’t buy into their convoluted reasoning, this whole situation would be laughable. But of course it’s not.

The rest of it doesn’t matter.  Liberal, conservative, Gay marriage, abortion, prayer in school, healthcare, government spending, immigration reform, etc. – these are all distractions that smart politicians have used to steal your vote and your money.  As long as you continue to allow smart politicians to mislead you, they will.  It’s your job to look at your pocketbook and demand that your elected representatives focus on the one and only issue that really matters – JOBS.

If they do things that cause layoffs, vote for the other guy.  If they reward companies with tax breaks who are reducing their domestic labor force, vote for the other guy.  Finally, if they try to tell you that organized labor is the problem, definitely vote for the other guy.

If you aren’t part of union, your vote is the only weapon you have to affect change.  Unions are the only other organized political force whose mission is to protect the well being of the working man.

Or

You can remain in denial and keep doing what you’ve been doing.