Tuesday, March 31, 2009

New York State and GM

Just another week in Uniontown. New York State, whose government is now solely in the hands of democrats and their union buddies, just announced a 9% budget increase in the midst of a semi-depression. Meanwhile, in Michigan, Rick Waggoner gets canned by Obama when he can't bring GM's unions into a state of sanity about their predicament.

New York's governor asked the state employee unions to forgo their 3% increase because state revenues have been hammered by the Wall Street collapse - not a chance! How could anyone possibly expect those who have guaranteed retirements and medical coverage to have mercy on the citizens who don't?

Michigan's governor doesn't dare mention the sad truth of GM; that its unions screwed the company 50 ways on the road to near-bankruptcy. No auto company with a brain would go anywhere near Michigan, the state of "entitlement". There are way too many people there who spent a career playing cards on the shop floor after completing their daily quota in two hours.

You'd conclude from the above rant that I detest unions. Not so. I think workers should band together to negotiate with management for fair wages, benefits, and work rules. However, I also think that unions share, with management, responsiblity for keeping companies competitive. That means they must stay competitive with whatever competition comes along, so they can stay in the game a long, long time.

Sadly, neither New York's nor GM's unions paid attention to the handwriting on the wall; they wanted their money now, and in retirement. So GM's employees and retirees will soon pay the price for their greed, and New York's unions will not be far behind. "New York in Bankruptcy" sounds OK to me; we've got lots of contracts to fix. But this didn't have to happen. Or, did it?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Confirmation Sunday

This morning at Christ Clarion Presbyterian Church, three young people "confirmed" the baptismal vows their parents made when they were infants. They stated their faith and became adult members of our church. Our interim pastor, Lynn, and I had mentored them (and a fourth young lady who decided to wait) through eight weeks of classes. Actually, I enjoyed it so much that I'm somewhat sorry the experience is over.

I think we helped these really thoughtful kids further understand what Christianity and and its formal aspect (organized religion) are about. We also taught them to respect the faith stories of others who are not Christians, and to remember that all creation is God's.

Our church is fairly liberal - not too dogmatic. Presbyterians believe each person is an individual who meets God out of their own experience. We also believe that God is the beginning and the end of all things, a being to be honored, trusted, and served to the best of our ability. These young people have now started their own quests to make that vision a reality.

As is typical for teachers, I got at least as much out of the confirmation class as did the students. I believe God is mysterious on purpose, so that we might have free will. Said another way, God is "hiding in plain sight" - we each choose to see God, or not. The class forced me to review my own religious history and understand what I believe at this time in my life. To be honest, my faith has become simpler and simpler as I have learned more about religion and experienced more of life. The world is a complicated place, and life is filled with conundrums which make it difficult to perceive and do what is truly "right". Outcomes are less important than the act of trying, I'm hoping.

Faith is a choice. There are no certainties. Am I more content because I trust God to make everything right in the end? Yep! There's my own confirmation.

Friday, March 27, 2009

It's Time to Legalize Marijuana

Good Witch and I watched a fascinating TV program several weeks ago. It was a news-like show (Dateline, perhaps) where a pretty, rather sexily-dressed lady took us on a tour of several Northern California counties where marijuana is the primary agricultural output. We learned a lot.

We learned that county administrators believe their counties would be out of business without marijuana profits to drive the local economy. We learned that seemingly typical American housewives grow these plants quite successfully in their back yards or basements, or perhaps even in the rooms they don't need to live in. We learned that legal businesses can make a fortune dispensing "medical marijuana" in California. And, we learned that law enforcement is employing lots of guys to root out (apparently only the competitors of) these normal American marijuana growers. Very interesting. This war on drugs is really working!

This comes only weeks after I learned that, in Phoenix, a 50-ish middle school teacher was arrested, with her husband, when police found a duffel bag containing $60 thousand (street value) of marijuana in the trunk of their auto. They apparently had some property out in the country. What they were doing out there?

It's time to legalize marijuana, for a start. Let people grow their own, if they want to. Let them sell it. Whatever... It's time to deal with reality and reject the fantasy that a "war on drugs" makes sense. The general availability of drugs, especially marijuana, proves that there is no stopping the trade.

I don't have a personal dog in this fight, having not touched marijuana for 30 years or so. I was never a regular user, but I did try it a few times. My sources were a decorated Marine who survived the terrible Viet Nam battle at Khe Sanh, and a sister who taught blind and disabled people at the school Stevie Wonder attended - bad people, these "dealers"!

Four things really bother me about the current situation. First, drug money is corrupting law enforcement in the U.S. and around the world. Second, the drug trade causes turf wars that result in many deaths. Third, law enforcement, from "prevention" to investigation to courts, to prison, costs America a fortune and accomplishes little in terms of stopping the trade. Fourth, many citizens, otherwise law-abiding, are in jeopardy of life-changing prosecution even if they are only caught possessing small quantities of the weed.

Recently, someone who may know something about marijuana told me that the current "stuff" is much more potent that the drug I tried long ago. OK. As an EMT, I can tell you that in 2,000 calls over ten years I never transported anyone for a marijuana-related problem. And, I'm in favor of drug testing for jobs where any drug use may be inappropriate.

So, it's time to legalize marijuana and divert the saved money to drug education and rehab programs. Who opposes this common sense measure? Mostly, the crooks who live off the trade and the "good guys" who live off the failed "war on drugs". Time for change!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Health Care Reform

There's lots of talk about health care reform. It's a money conversation. There are calls for reducing administrative costs, eliminating unnecessary "defensive medicine" testing, stopping Medicare/Medicaid fraud, enforcing patent expirations for expensive drugs, and many other good ideas. But what's lacking is conversation about "choices", and about the relative value of life. We're afraid to discuss some of the most important topics that affect health care and the allocation of health care funding.

Americans take particular pride in trumpeting our "personal independence" and "freedom". "Socialism" is a swear word to many of the more affluent Americans who espouse the free market. But, even those on the bottom of the economic ladder are often found crying out for autonomy in many aspects of their lives (while they wait for their free lunch or government check). Unfortunately, we park these concepts when it comes to our own health care concerns.

I like the "free market" idea of pricing health insurance like we price most other insurance - those who choose to take higher risks pay more or get less care. Right now America is beset with numerous "epidemics of choice" - chronic diseases caused largely by voluntary behaviors such as smoking, drug addiction, over-eating, driving too fast or recklessly, etc. These epidemics are responsible for a large part of our nation's overall health care burden, yet we (mostly) allow those who make poor choices to rely on those who act wisely to fund the resulting health care burden. This is not fair - it's not "American".

So, what would I recommend with respect to insurance? Change the rules and establish a grace period for behavior change, that's what. Maybe we won't be able to identify or quantify all the areas of adverse choices, but we certainly can identify some of the big ones, and start there. Tough love - that's what we're talking about. For example, if you are obese you pay a lot more for your insurance (even on group plans) and your deductible for treating weight-related symptoms is increased. If you have DUI or multiple traffic convictions, your health insurance goes up. If you smoke, your deductibles for cancer and heart disease treatment go way up. And, what about AIDS, another preventable disease? When families start to recognize that certain behaviors can be very expensive, those behaviors will be largely curtailed. Overall health care needs will decrease, the overall quality of life will improve, and the system will be perceived as being more "fair". That, at the cost of real pain for those who flaunt the rules and exert their independence in negative ways.

"End of life" care is the second major component of overall health care costs that need to be discussed. So far, all humans have been found to be terminal. The lucky ones age gracefully and go quickly; the unlucky ones age painfully and die slowly. At what point does medical care to extend life become inappropriate? We need to make some decisions as a society, because the time is coming when end of life care could consume a huge and unsustainable part of America's income.

This morning I heard a medical professional say that, by 2050, five million elderly Americans per year will require treatment for Alzheimers, a progressive brain disease. Currently, many millions of Americans are being "warehoused" with chronic physical or mental conditions that make their quality of life problematical at best. I've seen numerous instances where people who wished to die, or elderly people who had no capacity to accept or decline health care interventions, were given expensive medical treatment that may or may not have extended their lives. And, do you remember Terry Shaivo? We all paid the giant hospital bill for care that her husband was not allowed to decline. We need some clear standards that define circumstances where further medical intervention is not appropriate. I'll abide by them - in fact, I'll choose them in advance.

Yes, we need health care reform that focuses on better administration, more effective medicine, and fraud control, but we also need to reform how we treat negative behavioral choices and how we allocate health care resources to end of life situations. It would be nice if our resources were unlimited, but, in fact, choices are necessary. At present, America is paying the bill for illnesses and injuries caused by a multitude of voluntary individual choices. America is also paying to extend the lives of many who, by some definitions, have no life. If we really, as a culture, value freedom and independence, we need to address these matters sooner rather than later - before our country is bankrupted by health care costs run amuck.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Technology for Technology's Sake

Yesterday morning I read a newspaper article headlined "Dr.: Lack of copter cost Richardson". It referred to the incident where Natasha Richardson was transported to the hospital by ambulance after she hit her head in a skiing fall.

Typical for today's newspapers, the headline was not supported by the article's detail, where the doctor actually said, "It's impossible for me to comment specifically on her case, but...driving is a 2.5 hour trip...and we don't have helicopters like other places..." (roughly summarized). The doc wants a helicopter, that's for sure.

Yet there's not much evidence that helicopters are that great an idea. In Germany, where helicopters have been used for rescue and ambulance services since the 1970's, the official conclusion is: "research shows that using helicopters to transport patients does not influence greatly their probability of survival, they are costly (between around 0.5 million – 1.5 million euro annually to operate) and not without significant crash risk".

Richardson, unfortunately, initially declined medical treatment and thereby delayed her ambulance transport by two hours. You might think this "denial" issue would get more attention than the helicopter issue, since many people die because they deny their heart attack or other serious symptoms until it's too late to save them. Apparently this "many people" standard does not apply to the assessment of helicopter purchases: pushing technology is much sexier than helping people not to be stupid.

In my experience as an EMT, I've seen firsthand the huge cost of excessive technology use. Time after time, rare occurrances like Richardson's are used to justify purchasing large quantities of technology and technology-related workers. For example, for the annual cost of a paramedic and his/her monitoring equipment, a thousand elderly people could get home visits that identify and deal with early disease symptoms or potential causes of trauma. But trumpeting "prevention" is far less sexy than trumpeting the rare case where a paramedic actually saves a person whose heart has stopped.

Don't get me wrong - I'm no Luddite. Technology is wonderful. I'm typing on a great piece of technology at this very moment! But, cost/benefit analysis is essential when major chunks of public funds are to be allocated. Helicopters may be nice, but are they really worth the trade-off? Not likely.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Spring in Pittsford

It's almost Spring on my street, Mill Road. We're ready, after 101 inches of snow! The first crocuses are poking their little heads up, but chances are the deer will eat them within a day or two. Our deer herds are large and hungry!

My neighbor down the street, Mr. Lehman, harnessed up two of his 19 work horses and drove this cart around a two mile circle of streets here in suburbia. The horses are "Haflingers", an Australian breed of smaller but very sturdy equines. They were anxious for the exercise! The last time I saw those horses, Mr. Lehman was driving a large sleigh in big circles around a snow-covered field. But his time for fun is limited; he has many sheep and he runs a farm market during the growing season.

How is it that we have a farm so close by? Pittsford is an upscale community of 27,000, less than seven miles from downtown Rochester, that dates to the late 1700's. Both our high schools are in the top 100, we've hosted the Ryder Cup, the U.S. Open, and the PGA, and real estate is pretty expensive for this area (cheap for many of you, though). Yet there are quite a few working farms in our town of 23 square miles, because the town government has been active in purchasing "development rights".

"Development rights" give the town control over what can be done with the land. In Pittsford's case, the land can stay in the hands of its owners or their successors as long as it remains farmland. If it's not farmed, it will stay natural. Consequently, we have quite a bit of open country in the midst of typical suburban development. Pittsford is mostly rolling countryside with many hardwood forests and wetlands, so the open space is lovely. Animals abound! If I'm not mistaken, the town has spent about $9 million to purchase development rights - a wonderful investment.

OK, I've got to admit that New York has high taxes, long winters, and unions that are far too controlling of our politics. But, our countryside is gorgeous and we have an extremely diversified ethnicity. Golf is outstanding, in season. And, once in awhile one can have the pleasure of watching a pair of Haflingers prance past your home, pulling a rather common farm cart. It's Spring, after all!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Obama Can Do It

I watched Obama's opening remarks in Costa Mesa tonight. Remarkable! He may end up being the president I was hoping for.

He takes responsibility. He explains complex issues in simple terms. He talks to average people like he's one of them. He doesn't spend much time blaming others for problems; instead, he focuses on solutions. He doesn't prey on people's fears. He conveys strength. And, no, he is not God. But he is very, very good.

He says he's got to do it all. Fix the economy, short term and long term. Modernize health care and make it available to all. Rationalize entitlements. Convert to clean, renewable energy. Et cetera. Some say you can't do all this at once. He says we have to do all this at once. I agree.

Today there was speculation that Obama may do a legislative end run around the republicans who talk about "working together" but spit on him every chance they get. Somebody called his tactic "Chicago politics". Well, maybe it's time somebody turned the tables. Play nice or get lost, republicans! That's fine with me.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Power and Greed, #4 - AIG

What did I tell you yesterday? The wall street insiders make the rules, and under their rules they can't lose. Only society loses. Larry Summers calls it "outrageous", but where has Larry Summers been for the past 10 years, a period where this kind of stuff has been "par for the course". (A golf-related phrase seems appropriate, don't you think?) I'm talking about the $165 million in bonuses that AIG will be paying, or has paid, under its "contractual obligations".

This stinks! AIG executives should be paying back, not being paid! I don't care whether or not these individuals had anything to do with the divisions that lost all the money by taking crazy risks. I once worked for a large corporation that paid bonuses. If we, as an organization, lost money, nobody got paid. The survival of the organization takes precedence over the enrichment of the individual. This management practice makes everyone sensitive to the risks being taken anywhere in the organization, and it's a good idea. Unfortunately, it's just another good idea that the "financial wizards" at AIG didn't have in mind when they wrote their own contracts.

I told you yesterday that wall street is an insider's game. Got the picture? And, if the U.S. government can't find a way to stop this outrage, something is dead wrong. If nothing else, the congress should pass a special tax law applicable to AIG executives only - a 100% tax on any bonuses paid to them in 2009. That should do the trick. Anybody else like this idea?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Power and Greed, #3

Madoff comes clean...what a guy! After 20 or so years of running a major criminal enterprise, he's remorseful. And, he did it all himself. Not a single one of his family members, including a son who was his firm's "compliance officer", had a clue he wasn't on the up and up. Right. Madoff was a creep, is a creep, and always will be a creep. And it's likely the entire clan is complicit in the largest financial fraud in modern history. I want to see a large wing of a starkly-decorated federal prison prepared for their near-term occupancy, and I bet a whole bunch of investigators are working on putting them there as I write.

The Madoff episode is not an anomaly. It's simply the most visible aspect of the gluttonous financial culture in the Big Apple and environs. It's an insider's game. Insiders run the financial show, they make the rules, they pay the white shoe attorneys, and they can often intimidate or bribe employees of the federal government. Their ridiculous pay and bonuses are "earned" by their ability to keep all the firms and their customers feeding at the same trough. It's a culture that rewards failures with "golden parachutes". How can you lose?

I like capitalism. I think that people who work hard and create value should reap greater rewards than those who don't. What I don't like are "capitalists" who rig the game. And what I hate are the crooks. It's time for tougher regulations, greater scrutiny, harsher penalties for white collar crime, and higher tax rates on the "earned income" of millionaire managers. If these actions could be retroactive for ten years, I'd be a really happy camper.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

We Don't Need More of Us

I was just enjoying an RWorld posting about updating our education process. Ron called for increased use of computerized learning tools, more individual attention for students who need specific help, and a new concern for linking education with life opportunities. I couldn't agree more. However, Ron concluded that we might end up with as many teachers as we now have. I don't think so. In fact, I don't think the world needs anywhere near as many of us humans as now exist.

The U. N. just concluded that by 2050 the world will have 9 billion people, up 2.5 billion from the 6.5 billion of us now alive. Can we really let this happen? I hope not.

If you watch such programs as "How It's Made", you know that mass production techniques have eliminated the great majority of jobs that humans once performed. The world will never again be able to provide employment for most humans unless "employment" is redefined. Moreover, the world will need to devise new paradigms for social politics, energy conservation and housing if we are to avoid ruining the environment by overuse. Moving forward on population control makes sense until, and unless, these new paradigms are established.

I predict we will not have 9 million humans on earth until at least the year 2100, if ever. If our population continues to grow at the predicted rate, a combination of catastrophic climate change, disease, and war will take perform the population control we were unwilling to do on our own. That will be very messy.

Thursday, March 05, 2009


Isn't it great that one can slowly shuffle into a big jet in Buffalo, NY, where it's 9 degrees, snowy, and windy, and just a few hours later shuffle off a big jet in Phoenix, AZ, where it's 80 degrees, sunny, and breezy!

I've been reading Jack Finney's classic novel "Time and Again", and its sequel, "From Time to Time". You'd never guess that time travel is involved in these stories. It seems appropriate, then, that going from Buffalo to Phoenix in early March almost seems like time travel; the scenes are radically different. One leaves hooded coats and lined jeans, arrives at shorts and t-shirts.

This morning I drove to Camelback Mountain and climbed it again. It's a hike! The climb is only 1.2 miles, but the elevation gain is over 1,200 feet. Many of the sections are very steep ravines filled with boulders that one must scramble up or down. Each time I go there I meet folks who try it, only to get part way up and realize it's time to turn around before they get hurt. Some silly people slowly make their way up to the top, only to find that coming down is harder and they are all tired out. But the view from the top is worth the climb, and it's a great workout. Take a look for yourself: http://phoenix.gov/PARKS/hikecmlb.html

The economy is not doing well in Phoenix. With the state budget in shambles, there are cutbacks in social services, schools, and even library hours. I understand the number of illegals in Arizona is way down because there isn't much work. Last night, on the news, they said that 35% of mortgages in Phoenix are "upside down", and that 40% will be that way before long. Home prices are down more than 30%. Although there are many well-off people in Phoenix, there are also many working poor. At the middle school where my son teaches eight grade math, almost all students get free breakfast and lunch; he hears there is often no food at home. This is not good.

This afternoon we toured a beautiful Japanese garden in the downtown area. It was perhaps two acres or more, with wonderfully-groomed trees and a large pond filled with large, multi-colored koi fish. A 12-foot waterfall filled the pond. The garden resulted from a "sister cities" project between Phoenix and a Japanese city.

After seeing the garden, we went not far to visit the modern downtown public library. Five stories of luxurious learning! It was open and welcoming, with high ceilings and many comfortable carels. The Good Witch, who is a first class library customer, was amazed by the scale of it all. And, of course, it is free. Learning is priceless!

"Gettting away from it all" is a luxury to be appreciated. It's especially nice to enjoy new surroundings and re-establish family relationships at the same time. Tomorrow we leave #2 son's home to go an hour southeast where we'll invade #3 son's space for a few days. The grandchildren will definitely be spoiled!

And that's all for today.