Archive for September, 2009

Propoganda: A Love Story

September 30, 2009

I’ve tried to watch Michael Moore movies, but I can’t quite make it through the entire film. I like documentary films about our government, society and our economic systems. Good documentaries, like “The Secret History of the Credit Card” that aired on Frontline a few years ago, don’t go in with any agenda other than to educate their audience. A good film has a sense of balance that includes points-of-view from a variety of perspectives. Michael Moore is releasing “Capitalism: A Love Story” and is hitting the media circuit. From those interviews, it’s clear that balance is not the agenda of Michael Moore.

The first interview that I saw was with Keith Olbermann. It was a tug-of-war interview, but instead of a point-counterpoint interview striving for balance, Olbermann and Moore were both on the same side of the rope, both pulling farther to the left and farther from anything that looks like reality. Olbermann set up the interview with a mention of the Supreme Court ruling in the case of “Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railway” that imbued corporations with some of the same rights as individuals and, as Olbermann states, “Gave us the hell on earth that is the legally-sanctioned greedy vampires.” Before I switch from Olbermann to Moore, I have to point out that Olbermann did a series of expose pieces on Fox News doing “ambush journalism” and how awful that was. It seems to me that Olbermann’s hero, Michael Moore, is a pioneer in the technique. Moore, like those Fox News pieces, tries to corner people to get the sensational quote. Consistency is important, Keith, you pompous ass.

It’s hard to argue with some of the points that Moore tried to make in the interview. Not because they are good arguments, but just the opposite. The farther one gets from a rational center, the harder it is to reign the discussion back in. One clip from the movie claims there was a “scam to swindle people out of the homes they already owned.” No one is forced to re-mortgage their home. I have a friend who is a mortgage broker and he has several stories where he tried to talk people into the loan that was better for them – and, quite honestly, worse for him. They wanted the worse loan to get their “cash back” so they could buy something.  That illustrates two points. First, many of the consumers did it to themselves.

It also illustrates that capitalism isn’t evil as the movie purports. My friend’s corporation was altruistic, because he is altruistic. Making money is not in conflict with providing value and service. In my personal experience as CEO of a corporation, honesty, customer service and value have served to garner loyalty in my customers and ultimately make me money over the long haul.

When all you have is an ideology, like Moore, it’s all but impossible to find solutions to the real problems that exist. As a capitalist myself, I tend to start with an ideological center for free-market capitalism. The realities of our history suggest that some pragmatism is in order. Not all corporate leaders are altruistic. Not all people have an intrinsic sense of fairness in their business dealings. As a result, there is a need for government regulation. Ideally, the policy goal should be minimum, effective regulation.

I certainly don’t agree with Michael Moore’s point-of-view, but it took some introspection for me to figure out why I am so irritated by his films and interviews with him. I get the sense that he isn’t intellectually curious. I don’t think Moore is interested in finding out the differing point-of-view with a reasonable and rational person and having a discussion about issues. I don’t think Moore has an abiding respect for the truth. He takes the half-truth that supports his position and discards the rest. While it is valid to point out problems in our country, the complaints carry much more weight if they are matched with potential solutions.  I’ve seen no practical solutions from Moore.

A lack of intellectual curiosity, a lack of respect for the truth, ideology over pragmatism, no solutions to existing problems…. Wow, those are the same criticisms that I have of Sarah Palin.

A Republican on Health Care

September 12, 2009

Sarah Palin wrote an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal on September 8, 2009. Compared to her Facebook entries and Twitter tweets, it’s a fairly well-reasoned article that tries to get to the substance of the healthcare debate[1]. She advocates what is essentially the Republican position or at least what passes as a policy position.  She starts by quoting none other than Barack Obama and his desire to “talk with one another, and not over one another.”

Ms. Palin and I agree with the President.

She also quotes Ronald Reagan’s 1964 “A Time for Choosing” speech[2]. Reagan states “no one in this country should be denied medical care because of a lack of funds.” Ms. Palin goes on to state “Each of us knows that we have an obligation to care for the old, the young and the sick. We stand strongest when we stand with the weakest among us.”

Ms. Palin and I agree with the former President.

At that point our opinions diverge.

I encourage you to read her article[1] to get the full sense of her argument. In summary, she makes the following key points against the current health care reforms:

  • “A top-down, one-size-fits-all plan” for health care won’t improve the health care system.
  • There is waste and inefficiency in the current Medicare and Medicaid systems, which are government programs, so it’s unlikely that the government can improve these things.
  • Reform will result in increased deficit spending.
  • “Consumer protection” sounds like a good idea, but insurance companies can be unresponsive and unaccountable like the federal government, so consumer protection is just there to deflect attention away from the rest of the proposal
  • “Death panels” are bad.

Let me take these points against reform one by one.

There is nothing inherently wrong with top-down solutions with a broad reach. For example, the military is a top-down government organization with a broad reach. The military is adaptable and so can any legislation written today. Medicare and Medicaid are more of a one-size-fits all approach. These are successful and popular programs, albeit ones with some fiscal problems. The real failure in her assertion is that the current plan isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach at all. The current plan, and I assume she means the public option part of the plan, is optional. If you choose, you can purchase insurance from a private provider. She is arguing against a straw man that doesn’t exist with logic that’s flawed, even if the straw man of one-size-fits-all were true.

President Obama argues that this plan will recover considerable dollars from reducing waste and inefficiency from within a government program. Palin’s assertion is that this won’t work because the government can’t fix problems inherent in government programs. This is pretty absurd on the surface. If law makers see a problem with law, they can resolve it. If stewards of government programs see an issue with the implementation of policy they can act to change it. I am currently working on a Department of Defense contract that does exactly that. It is an initiative to increase collaboration among those in the science and intelligence communities in response to the intelligence failures prior to 9/11 and the changes in the nature of threats since the Cold War. I think her absurd “logic” on this point comes from an unrealistic ideology that is part of Republican thinking. They believe that the government can not solve problems. While I don’t think that government intervention is the solution to all or even most problems, there is a few problems for which only government intervention is required to resolve the issue.

Certainly, the cost of any solution is a real issue. The mathematics of the problem expose a difficult challenge. Health care costs are rising well above inflation. We have an aging demographic. I am not convinced that this reform can be funded on its own revenue stream and on curbing fraud and waste. This is a mathematical problem that exists regardless of whether there is health care reform or not. The question is whether people bear the total brunt of the shifting economics as individuals or whether the government can intervene and ameliorate the problem through regulation and a social safety net. I am a deficit hawk, but I would prefer increased taxes (gasp!) over “pre-existing conditions” and denial of claims in the current system. Fiscal policy is certainly her strongest point, but it’s only valid if she can either offer an effective alternative or admit that the status quo – and more important, its trajectory – is acceptable.

Her argument against “consumer protections” is so lacking in reason, I don’t know how to respond. First, she doesn’t define what “protections” she is talking about, but I assume it is regulation against pre-existing conditions. I think what is really going on here is that she knows that a regulation against pre-existing conditions is universally popular and necessary, but she doesn’t have the intellectual honesty to admit it, so she is simply dismissive of it.

The majority of health care costs occur at end-of-life.  Fiscal issues are a certainly a bipartisan concern. The goal is to reduce expenses in a way that doesn’t impose decisions on the family or medical professionals. One technique is to first ensure that people are making informed decisions about the efficacy of end-of-life treatments.  Second, encourage people to define how their own end-of-life care should progress while they are healthy.  In short, write a living will. To further encourage that, if you want to talk with a medical professional, the consultation should be paid for my Medicare. As for the efficacy of certain end-of-life treatments, there should be good data so that doctors have access to the most effective treatments and their success rates.  You know, that whole “science” thing. They can share that with family in order to make an informed decision on how to proceed with care. The thinking is that if people have a living will to take some emotion out of end-of-life decisions by the family, and the family understands the likelihood of success vs. prolonged discomfort, they will make not only better decisions, but they will make more cost-effective decisions. Guess what? That’s what the current legislation advocates. Guess what else? The medical professionals analyzing the efficacy of certain care are the “death panels.”

So if this Democratic reform is what Palin and her like-minded Republicans are against, what are they for? Well, it’s a lot harder to solve problems than to criticize, so she doesn’t go into any substantive detail on the hard part. She defers to the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, that feels that government vouchers would be given to Medicare recipients to be spent on private health insurance. Of course, vouchers and tax credits – the Republican mantra to solve all problems – creates a revenue shortfall for the government and thus drives us toward deficit spending.

Republicans are creating concerns that government bureaucrats will make health care decisions, while ignoring the reality that industry bureaucrats are doing exactly that now. I have personal experience with insurance denial of claims. The procedure we, the family, wanted was deemed “experimental” although it had been used in common practice for over 15 years. Fortunately it was not a life or death issue and it wasn’t particularly expensive but the insurance companies have the power to deny coverage capriciously. Personally, I will take the bureaucrat without the financial incentive over the one whose motivations are for profit-taking.

Before I close, I have to address the big elephant in the room.  Ronald Reagan asserted a shared ideal that people should not be denied medical care, but 45 years after his speech, that’s exactly what we have now. It is time for real health care reform of the type proposed by the current administration.

References:

[1] http://tinyurl.com/lzwnz7

[2] http://www.nationalcenter.org/ReaganChoosing1964.html

Efficacy of Nuttiness

September 7, 2009

In the late 1970s, Illinois Nazis attempted a rally in Skokie, Illinois. Given the presence of Holocaust survivors living there, the local government denied them the right to march. The debate at the time was whether the hateful speech of the Nazis was protected under the free speech and assembly clauses of the First Amendment. The argument against allowing the march was that the presence of the Nazis would foment violence. My thoughts as a high school kid at the time is the same as it is now. Let them try to make their point and refute their ideas on their lack of merit.

Sadly, political discourse these days isn’t quite as intelligent as evidenced by the Facebook poll I received, “Should the United States President be allowed to do a nationwide address to our children at school, without prior parental consent?” (My friend voted no).

It wasn’t controversial when Ronald Reagan addressed school children on November 14, 1988. [2] When George H.W. Bush addressed school children on October 1, 1991,[3] Democrats pushed back, claiming that it was taxpayer-paid political advertising[4], but the speech was just a motherhood and apple pie speech about staying in school and staying off drugs and the Democrats were misguided in their criticism.

Now that President Obama plans to address school children on September 8th, the conservative pundits are all up in arms. The Republican Party of Florida took the rhetoric to the next level. Chairman Jim Greer issued a press release [5], stating “As the father of four children, I am absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology… while bypassing American parents through an invasive abuse of power.” That’s pretty strong language.

There are a couple of problems with Jim Greer’s assertions. The first problem is that I suspect Obama’s speech is going to be a motherhood and apple-pie speech much like the one the George H.W. Bush gave in 1991, not about political ideology. In Reagan’s 1988 speech, he did advocate a political ideology for tax cuts. If Obama strays into political territory as Reagan did, parents have the opportunity to talk with their kids about political beliefs. It’s an opportunity to have a discussion and to make a case. Conservatives would have a tough time of that, though. Based on what I am seeing in the world of political discourse, those like Jim Greer haven’t bothered to look up the definition of socialism.

Instead of having that discussion with their kids, some conservative parents are over-reacting by keeping their kids out of school. Other parents are approaching the school administration. Given that school administrators are perhaps the only demographic group of people more cowardly than Democratic congressmen, they are having some success at keeping Obama’s speech away from children.

It seems that conservatives are having some success at these manufactured issues and at media manipulation. The teabagger rallys this summer seemed to reveal themselves as mostly hype, but they got national coverage. This Obama “indoctrinating the children” angst is hitting the blogosphere and the mainstream press and getting more credibility than it deserves. The town hall disruptions over health care also got national coverage and successfully created an illusion in the sphere of media that Americans don’t want health care reform. (So where’s that “liberal media” we keep hearing about?) In spite of the thrashing the Democrats got over health care reform over the congressional recess, 69% of Americans still think that health reform is somewhat or very important.[6].

We know that the Republicans will always have the true-believers that comprise the Fox News audience. The reality is that about half of Americans are neither self-identified Republicans or Democrats. The real test of the efficacy of this conservative nuttiness is the effect on the Independents.

References:

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skokie,_Illinois

[2] http://mediamatters.org/blog/200909030020

[3] http://bushlibrary.tamu.edu/research/public_papers.php?id=3450&year=1991&month=10

[4] http://tinyurl.com/nyvxdn

[5] http://www.rpof.org/article.php?id=754

[6] http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1913426,00.html

GOP Healthcare Reform

September 4, 2009

I was wrong. All this time, I thought that the Republicans were not aware that the current health care system is unsustainable. I thought they were just being obstructionist and trying to block all that President Obama is trying to accomplish for political gain. I was set straight with an e-mail from Michael Steele, Chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC). The “Senior’s Health Care Bill of Rights” being promoted by Republicans calls for (quoting from the e-mail):

  • Protecting Medicare and not cutting it in the name of “health care reform.”
  • Outlawing any effort to ration health care based on age;
  • Preventing government from interfering with end-of-life care discussions;
  • Ensuring seniors can keep their current coverage; and,
  • Protecting veterans by preserving Tricare and other benefit programs for military families.

Still quoting here, “contrary to what the Obama Democrats and liberal mainstream media say, Republicans want cost-effective, common sense, incremental health care reform — not the rush-job Democrats are pushing that will hurt American families, small businesses and health care providers.” See?  I was wrong.

Michael Steele’s assertion has a few issues, though. First, the current legislation under consideration already complies with all that Michael Steele is advocating. Since this is aimed at seniors, one would expect the AARP to have an opinion about what the Republicans are offering to seniors. It turns out that they do[1].  In a press release, AARP Executive Vice President John Rother, stated “AARP agrees with Chairman Michael Steele’s goals for reforming our health care system, and we are pleased nothing in the bills that have been proposed would bring about the scenarios the RNC is concerned about.” Apparently Chairman Steele doesn’t understand the difference between being a leader and jumping in front of the parade.

Of course, those with only a smattering of critical thinking skills can see what is going on here. He is making an inference that the Democrats are in favor of cutting Medicare, rationing health care, etc. It is a strawman rhetorical fallacy. It’s demagoguery. If it wasn’t demagoguery, congressional Republicans would be offering alternatives in the form of legislative proposals, and those proposals would be marketed by the RNC as an honest alternative.

In his e-mail, Michael Steele also accuses the “liberal mainstream media” of parroting the Democrats “lies in an endless loop.” So let’s take a look at some not-so-liberal media and see what they have to say. The Wall Street Journal is owned by News Corporation – the same folks that own Fox News.  The WSJ reports in 1981, Ronald Reagan proposed cutting $1 billion from the then-$40 billion dollar Medicare program. As part of the “Contract With America”, congressional Republicans proposed deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid to pay for tax cuts.[2] If anything, the core of the Republican party has moved to the right since the 1980s. Do you really trust Republicans to preserve Medicare with a track record like that?

Health care spending accounted for 14.1% of GDP in 2001 and is growing.[3] I think the numbers being tossed around put it at about 16% now. It is a serious fiscal issue and a serious social issue. Many consider it a moral issue as well. I share the concerns of Republicans and blue dog Democrats about how to pay for the program. This is a hard problem. We need serious people to discuss it – and the more, the better.

Unfortunately, it appears there are no longer any serious folks left in the Republican party.

References:

[1] http://www.aarp.org/aarp/presscenter/pressrelease/articles/gop_steele_reaction.html
[2] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125112553661853921.html
[3] http://www.karlloren.com/healthinsurance/p1.htm