Friday, February 25, 2011

Shut It Down

My wife absolutely hates this joke, but I'm going to tell it anyway:
A guy is trying unsuccessfully to get a stubborn mule to move. He tries coaxing it with a carrot, he tries kicking it, he even lights a fire under it, but the stubborn mule doesn’t budge.

However the man’s friend comes by convincing the mule her can get the mule to move. “Okay, go head and try” the mule owner says. The friend picks up a 2 x 4 and smacks the mule in the head right between the eyes, stunning the mule.

“You didn’t get him to move", the mule owner decries. But his friend says, “Maybe not... but I got his attention.”
House speaker John Boehner often touts what he believes is the will of “The American People”. In Conservative minds this translates into the ideology of less government, specifically less government spending. So after the tax status for the richest 2% of the wealthiest Americans was secured, we set about the business of cutting back on those expensive “entitlement” programs… you know, the ones that represent about 14% of our national budget. (The hugely expensive wars in the Middle-east oddly appear nowhere in the equatinon.)

Now many of us laughed at the dolt in the town hall meeting back during the 2008 campaign who yelled he wanted the Government to keep your Government hands off his Medicare. Most just thought he was just an eccentric nut - but it turns out that there are huge percentages of Americans who have NO CLUE that they benefit DIRECTLY from their government!
Recently discovered: 44% of Social Security recipients don't think they are receiving any "Government" help. Likewise, 39% of Medicare recipients, 43% of Unemployment benefit recipients, 42% of Veterans… the list goes on.1
There is an old Chinese curse that goes something like “I hope you get what you wish for”. So I am personally rooting for Congress to pull off the government shut down! I want millions of Tea Baggers and less-government morons to NOT get their Social Security checks, disability payments, VA benefits...2

Maybe... just MAYBE, it will get their attention.
1. “Keep Your Government Hands Off My Government Programs!” - NY Times, Febuary 11, 2011

2. Sadly, in actuality, the government we love-to-hate will nevertheless refrain from smacking our most intellectually limited citizens in the face with a 2 x 4 and send out SS and other benefit checks anyway, thereby further cementing their mental disconnect. See, ya just can't depend on that gol-dang gov-n-ment to do anything right.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Going Postal

We were discussing movies with a friend of ours when she mentioned off-hand that odd thing recently happened regarding her Netflix DVD rental account. She watches a lot of movies so lots of DVD’s flow regularly through her mailbox.

She noted, when reviewing her online queue status, that when Netflix sent a DVD to her from their distribution center, it usually arrived in a day. However, oddly, when she return-mailed the DVD back to Netflix, it often took a week or so to arrive.

This went on for some time until one day she happened to meet her postal carrier on the front porch as he was delivering her mail. Being the inquisitive person that she is, she asked the carrier what, in his opinion, might cause this odd delivery discrepancy: one day to receive a DVD but often a week for it to transit the return mail?

“Oh, it shouldn’t take that long.” he explained. “They are very distinctive red envelopes; they get sorted immediately and go into a big bin that is delivered directly to Netflix.” She and the carrier briefly exchanged a few pleasantries then he continued on his route.

However, following that conversation, when she checked her Netflix queue online, ALL her return DVDs now began arriving back at the Netflix distribution in one day!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone?

So the stock market is booming, corporate profits are zooming but jobs are still looming and the outlook for the middle class is glooming. The reasons behind the stagnant unemployment outlook has not gone without thorough analysis by we bloggers who, for some reason, seem to have a lot of free time on our hands:

Don’t bother us, we’re busy...
The current theory is that the rich people should not be inconvenienced by the demands of comity because they're the ones who are providing jobs for the rest of us. Those jobs should be kicking in any time now, because we lowered the taxes on the rich people several years ago. There should be so many jobs by now that they're just loitering in gangs, making nuisances of them selves.

Murr Brewster - Murrconomics
... hedging our bets ...
Where are the jobs? Honestly, boards and business owners are holding back because they feel that the current administration chooses winners and losers in the marketplace. Without fully understanding their future costs, or if they will draw the ire of Obama, they find it safer to sit on their cash.

Comments from the Heathen Republican who provided the link: Why Business Isn't Getting In the Game.
... and besides, there's no jobs because there's no customers...
Big American companies are sitting on almost $2 trillion of cash because there aren't enough customers to buy additional goods and services. The only people with money are the richest 10 percent whose stock portfolios have been roaring back to life, but their spending isn't enough to spur much additional hiring.

Robert Reich: The Obama Budget: And Why the Coming Debate Over Spending Cuts Has Nothing to Do With Reviving the Economy
…and, come to think of it, we don’t need any workers anymore either.
…our most admired corporations -- GE, Apple, Hewlett Packard, Intel -- are creating ever more jobs overseas and relatively fewer at home. This has the double benefit of taking advantage of cheap labor abroad and disciplining workers to accept low wages at home. Along with the high unemployment rates have come declining earnings… In 2001, 32 percent of the income of the firms on Standard & Poor's index of the 500 largest publicly traded U.S. companies came from abroad. By 2008, that figure had grown to 48 percent.

Robert Kuttner - Business Doesn't Need American Workers
So even though corporate profits are soaring, that does not translate into jobs for Americans because corporations don’t need Americans any more to either buy their products or even make them any longer and anyway middle and lower class Americans are really nothing more than poker chips for the wealthy to play with.

My own diverging theory is that the Republicans will do anything to prevent the jobs numbers from going up anytime during the Obama administration least he end up getting credit in the public eye for improving the economy prior to the 2012 elections.

Ok, so sometimes I am a cynic when I should be a skeptic. I’m calling your bluff.
I highly recommend following these blogs:

Murmers – a very well-written humorous blog with topics ranging from the latest poop on the economy to the latest poop on, well, poop.

The Heathen Republican – in a more serious vein; a thoughtful, rational and well-documented perspective of the Republican policy stance.

Robert Reich's Blog - A totally brilliant man, Berkeley professor and Clinton's former Secretary of Labor.

Or if you still perfer the low-brow approach, you certainly can continue to read this blog.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Medical Insurance Legislation - A Job-Killer?

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney spoke to his (anything but) like-minded Republican stalwarts and assorted Tea Party rabble at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) meeting in Washington this week. The consistent theme appeared to be get rid of President Obama who, as Romney claimed “… wants to look toward Europe” for solutions to the country’s ills – primarily medical insurance reform. [Room fills with laughter].

I’m thinking, Yeah – A European plan sounds OK to me! Let’s look at some simple statistics (Conservatives prefer things “simple”): The number of Europeans who suffer from lack of access to affordable medical care – Europe: 0, USA: 57,000,000. The number of Europeans forced to declare bankruptcy due to excessive medical bills – Europe: 0, USA, well medical bills are the second leading cause of bankruptcy in the country.

Fortunately the numbers of bankruptcies are down though, but not for reasons you might think. Yielding to lobbying efforts of the credit card industry, the Bush Administration and Republican congress changed the laws making it much more difficult for individuals (not companies, of course) to declare bankruptcy.

Recently House Speaker, John Boehner, rallied his minions to attempt to repeal the “Job Killing” medical reforms passed last year under the disgusting term, Obamacare. I am puzzled about what exactly in this bill, which expands medical access to millions of Americans, makes it a “job killer”? I can cite personal examples were I find instead, the LACK of affordable medical coverage is the real Job Killer.

Take, for example, my very bright son-in-law; an electrical engineer with several invention patents to his name, was mulling the possibly jumping from his current employer (in perpetual downsizing mode for most of the last decade), to a new technology start-up. This small tech start-up company is an example of one of these breed of “American Innovators” that this nation so prides itself on. In a country were we have been hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs, the bright hope for our future has always been our near mythical reputation as the innovator of the Next Big Thing. So here is a young bright mind poised to step in and be part of America’s big innovator comeback dream.

Well, no. You see this jewel of American daring-do apparently does not offer any employee medical benefits – none, zero, zilch! This bright young engineer is also smart enough to know not to risk the his health and that of his his wife and children by abandoning an employer who currently offers medical benefits.

Now let this point sink in – the LACK of available health care was the Job Killer here, and I can assume, in countless other cases. Innovation is stifled by the inability of this country to provide support for American innovation because we value the profit motive of for-profit medical insurance companies instead – our “innovative spirit” is stuck in the muck of the status-quo.

But the “job killing” examples from our lack of available medical insurance doesn’t stop there. In a country where highly qualified and motivated citizens are clamoring for work; millions of others who would like to retire, instead continue to work, thereby locking up those jobs which could be taken by younger and unemployed workers. These older workers hold onto their jobs because they would lose their paid or subsidized employee medical care if they retired. I can name several personal friends who are holding onto their jobs in State service because they cannot afford to pick up the $1,200 cost of their medical premium on a reduced pension income.

The “job killing” effects from the lack of a national health care system don’t even end there. Conservatives are always touting how Small Business is the backbone of the American economy. My daughter runs a small retail and internet business. But she cannot afford to provide medical insurance to her three employees; one of whom just quit to take a job that does offer employee medical her family needs.

The economic downturn has driven a lot of small businesses out of existence. Here in my own town, each month I see yet another empty building where a business has closed. Restaurants and stores that have been in this town for decades are now gone.

My wife and I no longer go out to dinner or shop to the extent we used to – we can no longer afford it. With paying a medical insurance premium of $1,200 a month, $14,400 a year, most of my disposable income is paid to an out-of-town medical insurance company. Multiply that figure by the thousands of other people in town in my situation and you can imagine the amount of lost consumer dollars that could instead support the local economy.

True, European style medical systems are not free, and their citizens are taxed to pay for these and other benefits. But I have a very strong suspicion that Europeans don’t pay $1,200 a month in taxes for their state medical care alone.

Our lack of a coherent, universal and cost-effective public medical system is what is stifling or innovative spirit and economic revival - THIS is the true Job Killer. Not Obamacare.
My personal retiree factoid:
Just to give an example of how medical premium increases have outstripped income, in 2006 our group medical plan premium was $894 – in six years it has risen just under
30% to where now in 2011 our premium is $1,160. In that same time our retirement income has increased only 6.6%. The growth in cost of our insurance has outstripped our income by 4.5 times. After deducting the insurance premium, my wife's remaining net retirement check is less than $600.

Actually our premium this year would have been $100 higher had we not opted for the lower cost plan version. Unfortunately under the new plan, we have to change doctors; the physicians we’ve used for those past decades are not on this plan. Government private insurance company bureaucrats have now come between us and our physicians.

In six years of group insurance coverage we have been forced to accept four different medical insurance carriers. We had no practical choice in selecting other insurance plans.

Our medical insurance premium is now higher than was the mortgage payment on our house.

Further Reading: Experts doubt claims that health care law is a 'job killer', Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 13, 2011.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

I'm Washing My Hands of Technology

We went out to dinner with our friends Kate and Will a while back as we often do. Having finished our meal at our favorite Mexican restaurant, Will and I went to the men’s room to wash up. After using the lav, Will was waving his hands back and forth in front of the paper towel dispenser; “I can’t get this thing to work”, he exclaimed in frustration! Finding humor in his dilemma, I reached in front of him and pushed the lever a couple of times, ejecting a couple of sheets of paper towel.

I must confess, though, I have had my own frustrating bouts with bathroom technology. One time having deplaned from a long flight, I needed to use the airport restroom badly. Upon completing my needed relief, I thrust my hands under the motion-detector faucet and… nothing, no water. However, the instant I removed my hands, the water flowed freely. So I quickly again tried plunging my hands under the stream of water to wash, only to have the flow immediately stop. Again I thrust my dry hands under the faucet waving back and forth to activate the flow – again, nothing, no water… until I again took my hands away wherein the water flowed tauntingly.

After several ties with the same result (the definition of insanity, by the way), I sidestepped to the next lav figuring the first one was defective. Nope, same thing; each time I put my hands under the faucet, nothing came out… each time I withdrew them the water freely flowed.

So now I am suspecting that I am the brunt of some elaborate practical joke. There must be a hidden camera somewhere in the bathroom – that mirror, it looks suspiciously like one-way glass? I press my face to the mirror and squint. Deciding to improvise, I exited, rinsing my hands in the drinking fountain outside the restroom in the airport concourse.

I guess the strategic idea behind motion-activated plumbing fixtures is that they aid sanitation in that one does not need to touch anything to activate them, thereby not passing on harmful pathogens. But it seems to me that the more technology involved in a system, the more likely it is to break down. I’ve had no problem all these years retrieving a paper towel by pushing the lever with my elbow – then turning off the lav faucet, paper towel in hand.

As far as motion-detector flush toilets; I won’t even get started on that issue.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Thank God for Luck

I have been reading Stephen Hawkings latest book. “The Grand Design”. The take-away theme from the book: the latest understandings science has accumulated in the recent decade point strongly to the case that god is not necessary to have created the universe.

Last year I had attended a debate between theologian Dr. William Lane Craig (philosopher) and Dr. Victor Stenger (physicist) where the existence of God was debated. One of several “proofs” Craig offered for the existence of a god (from a philosophical standpoint) was the argument that even within the overwhelming life-hostile conditions, our universe is so “finely tuned” that it could not possibly be due to “luck” that we exist. Therefore our existence in this universe is thus proof of a creator god.

This position, that the vast number of variables of constants, physical properties and conditions are so statistically overwhelming against the existence of life in our universe, is called the Anthropic Principle. The recent physics should indeed bear this out – as Hawkings and others have suggested – if the number of dimensions in our universe varied only slightly, as they likely do in other universes [Multiverses 1], atoms could not combine to form molecules, stars could not form, matter would not coalesce into planets and life could not evolve. How is it we ended up so incredibly lucky?

I got to thinking about this recently one evening as I tried to sleep. I suffer from horrible insomnia and pondering the origins of the universe or mentally balancing my checkbook do not serve me well in my pursuit of sleep. Nevertheless I got to thinking about a post I had written last month about the odds of winning the lottery.

The odds of holding the winning lottery ticket are 1 in 5,000,000,000. Actually those odds are substantially better than the postulated number of Multiverses which is calculated to be 10500. (I don’t have enough space here to post all the required “zeros”). But, the fact remains that occasionally people DO actually win the lottery and become multi-millionaires.

Now if you happen to be one of those lucky lottery millionaire winners, you have two distinct options from which to conclude regarding your goof fortune: you were either simply the recipient of luck or god smiled down upon you and intentionally chose to make you a millionaire. It’s one or the other; it can’t be both.

Then in this larger sense, all of us are “cosmic millionaires” – we can either conclude that we are the lucky recipient holders of the winning Universe Lottery Ticket, -OR- that we were intentionally placed here by a benevolent god.

I have seen interviews of lottery winners who seem more than eager to profess their fortune to a benevolent deity. But is there another explanation; does one need a god to win the lottery, or does one simply need to happen to be holding the winning ticket?

1. The concept of multiverses -- an ensemble of universes -- the outcome of the originating process that generated our own universe, and as an explanation for why our universe appears to be fine-tuned for life and consciousness.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Power of the Testimonial

A while back a story was related to me about a someone a friend of ours knew who was in the market for a new car. It seems her old Ford van had been giving her nothing but trouble; always in the shop for expensive repairs. This woman perused Consumer Reports discovering that the Toyota van received high ratings for safety, fuel economy and dependability. But before making her decision, she asked a friend who, unexpectedly, strongly discouraged her, saying: “Oh my, I’ve heard the Toyota’s are nothing but trouble; I know someone who owns one and they hate it”.

So, even after all the trouble she had experienced with her Ford, purchased another Ford van instead of the Toyota.

This is the power of the testimonial and it influences our decision making both above and below the conscious level. We see it in every aspect of our lives, from deciding whether to purchase a lottery ticket to selecting a life partner. Though often mountains of objective data may be available to us, we quite often come to our decisions by emotional reasons – and often, based heavily on the power of testimonials.

We like to think of ourselves as informed, astute consumers; that our choices are rational and well thought out. But even after balancing pros and cons, the fact remains that we generally adhere closely to products or concepts that are familiar to us. For example, marketing research substantiates that customers overwhelmingly prefer Tylenol brand pain reliever over its exact chemical equivalent, generic Acetaminophen. Even in accepting the fact that the generic costs significantly less, the Tylenol brand is more often perceived as “better”.

As I pointed out in my review of Barry Schwartz's book, “The Paradox of Choice”, decision making can create stress for us. We struggle on various levels with the possibility of making an incorrect decision. Psychologists even have a term for how we deal with the conflicts of decision making: Cognitive Dissonance. Even after we have decided, a whole set of psychological processes come into play which we use to justify in our minds that the decision we have come to was the right one. Our motivation to quell the dissonance wherever possible can be very strong.

Because testimonials are so powerful in our decision making process, we frequently seek out the opinions of people we like and trust. An entire industry, advertising and sales, has been developed to prod our decision making and making us feel good about parting with our hard earned money. More often than not, emotions, not rationality, are what carry the decision.

The power of testimonials often comes to the forefront during our elections process. We tend to associate with people who act and think similarly to us. In recalling the most recent elections, how little political advertising contained any comparative statistics to support the assertions of one view over another. Where scant statistical comparisons provided, did we discount the “facts” from the candidate or position we opposed yet accept them from the candidate we already supported? It is more likely the case that political advertising serves to support the decision we had already made than change our view dramatically.

I recently attended another debate between a theologian and an Atheist; the topic of question; whether or not there exist life after death. From the theologian’s standpoint, the accounts of people who have experienced visions and feelings from Near Death Experiences (NDE) formed the basis of his position that there must be life after death. Many of these testimonials are quite compelling when viewed individually. But they remain personal anecdotes, experiences beyond our own and which likely have other origins that can be explained through medical and scientific causes. In decisions such as these, often the only basis on which we are able to decided relies entirely on faith alone.

The fact remains that our brains often are not very adept at separating objective analytical data from our perceptions, our expectations from the broader ramifications we hope will come from those decisions – specifically, how we will “feel” about the choices we make. Whether we notice or not, we rely on testimonials which are abundantly available to us.

After all, can 20,697 physicians be wrong?