Friday, March 26, 2010

Entitlements Gone Amuck!

Our country's political process has been broken for a long time, but I'm not talking about the partisanship that seems to be tearing us apart right now. I'm talking about the decades-long loss of political will to to say "no" to unaffordable spending. We are now on the verge of a massive upheaval that will be required to get us out of the giant hole we have put ourselves in.

Governments at all levels are swimming in debt, saddled by huge unfunded pension and medical liabilities, and trapped by gold-plated labor contracts that seem ironclad. There is no easy way for many of these public entities to escape bankruptcy, and that's why I predict a massive upheaval over the next few years. It's going to be interesting.

Under-taxing and over-spending got us into this mess, and correcting the problem will require over-taxing and under-spending for quite a while. In addition, the fix may also require the "managed bankruptcy" of many governments. This unavoidable medicine will certainly cause a massive upheaval in our society as we rebalance our governments.

It's almost funny that addressing the entitlements problem has taken so long, since it's been as obvious as the noses on our faces for a long time. In the private sector, we saw GM slowly die as its untenable labor contracts killed off its competitiveness - and then we paid to fund its bankruptcy and backstop the outrageous deals it had made with its workers. But who can save all these bankrupt governments? Only us, by forcing change that will be hard for all of us to take. Or, will the politicians demogogue this issue until our country collapses under the weight of its incredible debts and unfunded entitlements?

The stock market is currently jumping up and down in reaction to the problems Greece's insolvency is causing the EU. Greece is a tiny player, but its unraveling finances are creating great uncertainty. What would the world's reaction be when its largest economy can no longer pay its bills? Massive upheaval, that's what, and perhaps of the worst kind that one cannot even speculate about without praying hard. That's why we need to engineer our own mini-massive upheaval, starting this year. A stitch in time saves nine, as they say.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Roman Catholic Problem

Organizations with a strong hierarchical structure have it for one primary reason: they want a lot of control. Sometimes this can be good, but it often goes bad over time. In the case of the Roman Catholic church, having strong central control was probably pretty good for a long time, but now the hierarchy is in trouble for covering up a lot of sexual misconduct by priests.

As a protestant outsider, I have no strong sense of why the Roman Catholic church has been so lax with respect to policing its own. A cynic would say that this church has so long been a haven for so many pedophiles at all levels that it regarded pedophilia as one of its privileges. A more pragmatic person would say that the church regarded guarding its reputation as being more important than holding a few of its priests to account for sins and crimes. A kind person would say that the church's labyrinthine structure and extreme conservatism made it time-consuming to pursue questions of priestly misbehavior. My guess is that all three points of view have some truth in them.

Whatever the truth regarding the "why", there's no question that, for the younger generation, the Roman Catholic church has been greatly tarnished by the ongoing scandals about pedophilia in its ranks. Older Catholic's who were raised in the church and were virtually brainwashed about the status and rights of priests seem to be immune to outrage about the current situation. It's not at all the same for younger Catholics who see the church as managed by a bunch of old men who seem dedicated to running a church as it always was - an inside game characterized by arcane rituals and obeisance to the rulers. These young people see what the inside game has produced, just like us outsiders have seen. Who would want to be part of that?

Where does the Catholic Church go from here? Well, it's hard to say. They are excellent at stonewalling, and that seems to be the plan at the moment despite the fact that it doesn't seem to be working very well. An alternative would be to decentralize priestly discipline and let the bishops or archbishops take quick action to cleanse the ranks - no doubt there are still more than a few known pedophiles out there. Given the shortage of priests, that's a tough call. Can that church restore its honor for the next generation? The jury is out, for sure.

My guess is that the Roman Catholic church needs to change a lot if it is to survive in North America and Europe. The old guard's time is over, and with it a lot of the historical organizational concepts they held. Women need a lot more power, celibacy needs to become optional, and power needs to be decentralized. The Roman Catholic church's strengths have always been concern for the poor and unwavering belief in a loving god who forgives those who repent. It's time to return to those roots and shed its over-riding concern for its own "inside game".

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

An Alternative History of Health Care Reform

President Obama this week failed to get enough support to pass healthcare reform, one component of which was to require almost all Americans to get health insurance, with those less financially capable getting a subsidy to cover part of the insurance cost. This failure was cheered by those who felt being required to have insurance was an intrustion on their rights.

Many of those who rejoiced in Obama's defeat were healthy young and middle aged people who didn't have much money and saw the insurance requirement as a budget problem. Their view was that they'd rather keep their money and take their chances. Now they were able to do that.

What was the outcome of this health reform failure? Well, even though most of these basically healthy people would stay that way, quite a few did not. Some of these younger people were severely injured in auto accidents or incurred serious sports-related injuries. Even more of the middle aged people had these same issues, but some also had heart problems, became diabetic, were diagnosed with cancer, or required a joint replacement. Every one of these unlucky people was very expensive to treat, but they had not purchased health insurance. What became of them?

Thankfully, none of these people were denied health care for serious conditions due to a lack of insurance. These uninsured folks went to emergency rooms, were admitted to the hospital, and got the care they needed. After their meager financial resources were exhausted, they went on public programs that paid for their ongoing medical procedures and medications. Their huge unpaid hospital bills were uncollectable, and they went bankrupt. However, since their assets were small to begin with, their financial losses were not that significant. The losses incurred by hospitals and doctors were much larger.

What happened to the losses that hospitals and doctors incurred for these uninsured patients? These costs just became part of their overhead, and added to the base of costs that they passed on to insurance companies in the form of higher prices. The insurance companies, needing to cover their higher costs, raised rates for all the people they insured. Some doctors took their practices totally private, refusing to accept insurance for payment.

So, Obama's health care reform failed, and things remained pretty much the same as they were before. Uninsured people got treatment for their immediate problems, and many of the poorest ended up on public assistance health care programs. Those who did have insurance saw their rates increase, and they paid higher taxes to offset the costs the government incurred for public assistance health care. In the end, the young and middle aged uninsured who stayed healthy spent their savings on other things, and the uninsured ones who got sick or injured indirectly passed on the cost of their care to those who had purchased insurance.

Many people, understanding this pattern, began to demand that those who do not want to buy health insurance sign an agreement that they will only get care that they can pay for themselves. This concept was incorporated in a new health care reform bill. After that, hospitals opened new wings filled with cots where those whose funds were exhausted died in peace, content that their death was based on principle and remembering all the good things they had purchased with their savings from not having health insurance.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Answer is: Massa's Nuts!

I gave my Rep. Massa the benefit of a few days to explain what happened in the three days between his decision not to run for health reasons to his abrupt resignation from the house of representatives.

Now it's clear that the guy I thought was a harbinger of America's new wave of politicians just lost his bearings, to be nice. It's not just about the "groping", which he attempted to explain in a rather bizarre way. Then, he refused to answer directly Larry King's question "Are you gay?", putting off the answer to his Navy brothers, several of which then dumped on him. Or, was his demise simply the work of Rahm Emmanuel? I suppose it doesn't matter, because Massa has already become just a funny footnote in the craziness of this year's political circus.

I feel bad for him. He could have enjoyed his nice Navy retirement with honor. Now, he'll be a laughingstock everywhere his name is known. Politics can do that for you!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Is Eric Massa Nuts, Or?

Two years ago I walked many streets in Pittsford, my home town, volunteering for Eric Massa's congressional campaign on the democrat side. Massa, a retired Navy officer, seemed to have a lot of common sense and drive, and did not appear to be overly wedded to either the dreamy-eyed wing of his party or the unions. He won. Now he has abruptly resigned the seat, and it's likely a conservative republican will win the special election to replace him. My efforts seem to have backfired in a spectacular way!

The reasons for the resignation are unclear. Last week's news was that a Massa staffer had complained to the house ethics committee about alleged "sexual harassment" committed by Massa, but Massa claimed his resignation was due to concerns over possible recurrance of a cancer that had been in remission. However, this past weekend Massa claimed he was run out of Washington by the democratic leadership who were upset about his intention to vote against the health care bill. One thing is clear, though - Massa is out for revenge.

My ex-congressman is scheduled to appear on the Glen Beck and Larry King shows, where he will likely skewer the democrats with sharp criticisms. He's a good communicator, so I expect his comments will be carried in other media as well. His revenge will be sweet!

What is really going on here? My guess is that Massa, a man accustomed to military discipline and the military's way of accomplishing objectives, could not accomodate himself to the rough and tumble of both Washington and local politics. His fact-based approach clashed with the overt special-interest-based approach taken by "professional" politicians. He supported the public option for health care, and he likely found the union-dominated local democrat party to be unreasonable. He likely was worn out by the pressures he felt from all sides. So, another pragmatic idealist has bit the dust.

I'll be interested in hearing what he has to say on the talk shows, and I'll expect a lot of bitterness to color his explanations. The house democrats probably will regret what they've done to him. Whether or not his comments will be helpful is anyone's guess. I'll wait until the dust settles before I decide whether or not my many hours walking the streets for him were a colossal waste of time. Stay tuned...

Sunday, March 07, 2010

"My thoughts are not your thoughts"

The title of this blog is a quote from Isaiah 55, a part of which was read in church this morning. It's a concept that I've really come to internalize during the past few years, since it allows me to embrace both religion and science and also come to terms with human tragedy.

Being religious is a choice, of course. Nobody forces me to choose it, and there is precious little hard evidence that would make this choice a logical one. Nevertheless, I choose to acknowledge a God, even a God that would make itself known to sentient creatures like us. But this God's thoughts are not my thoughts, and I don't presume to have any idea about the ultimate purpose of creation. What I do presume is that God would like to see us creatures make as much "progress" as we can, both scientifically and socially. So, I think that when man landed on the moon God said, "That's pretty good", and when women got the vote God said "It's about time!" But these thoughts are nothing like our thoughts, since we cannot comprehend all there is to know about the universe in a moment, as I believe God can.

Perhaps my most significant personal belief is that God can be "good" and still not often intervene to shield individuals, humanity or the earth from natural events that we would regard as tragedies. We know that good people and bad people get cancer; humanity could be wiped out by a rogue asteroid; and, the earth will burn up sooner or later. Could "goodness" only relate to creating the conditions where progress can occur on an individual or societal basis, with the rest pretty much left up to us? This idea seems likely to me, especially since we are able to contemplate the creator and develop theories about how to achieve human progress. But I don't rule out the possibility that God might give humanity a nudge from time to time, which leaves some room for a divine Jesus or perhaps other divine visitations - we sure do need a little help from time to time!

Someday my end will come, and I will follow all my human predecessors back into the dust. I'm not overly concerned about this natural event, since it can hardly be deemed a tragedy if everyone does it. What does intrigue me is whether or not I'll ever get some insight into what God had in mind when God set in motion all of this stuff we now experience. If my "spirit" does survive, I doubt it will ever begin to comprehend the mind of God. "My thoughts are not your thoughts" likely pertains forever. But it would be nice to get a little taste of what this was all about, wouldn't it?

Friday, March 05, 2010

Paying for Government Action?

I keep getting these emails from Obama's non-governmental support group, asking for money to combat those nasty republicans. "Help us get health care passed", they cry, "send us $5 or whatever you can". No, thank you very much.

Don't get me wrong. I want to see health care legislation passed, even though I'd prefer a public option. I just don't want to fund non-governmental groups. I thought the way to get policies that you favor enacted is to elect those who favor those policies. I did that, and they won. Now I just want them to do what they promised. They don't need my money to do that.

The democratic congress has been a major failure, in my opinion. If they don't have the will to pass health care legislation through "reconciliation", then they have blown their final opportunity. This should have passed it last year when they had a filibuster-proof majority in the senate, but they frittered that away as only democrats can do.

The democrats don't need my money to make their point. Obama, Pelosi, and Reid can get all the media attention they could ever want. So, just get on with it, folks, and stop begging!