Friday, December 04, 2009

Christmas Hymns

My two favorite Christmas hymns are Silent Night and O Holy Night.

The words to Silent Night were written in Austria in 1816 by a priest named Joseph Mohr. He wrote it as a poem, and took it with him when he was transferred to a village called Oberndorf the next year. On Christmas Eve 1818 he travelled to his friend Franz Gruber’s house in a nearby village and asked him to write a melody for his poem. That night the two of them sang Silent Night with a guitar accompaniment for Midnight Mass. From these humble beginnings came one of the most popular songs of all time.

O Holy Night was written when a French poet named Placide Cappeau was asked by a priest to write a poem for Christmas Mass. Cappeau was on a trip to Paris on December 3, 1847 when he pondered the birth of Jesus as recorded in Luke chapter two. He pictured what it would be like if he had been there the night of the Savior’s birth and through that inspiration came the words to O Holy Night. Though only asked to write a poem, upon arriving in Paris he asked his friend Adolphe Adam to put it to music. As the song gained in popularity over the ensuing years, its author and composer both suffered through persecution and hardship. As with Silent Night, the authors of O Holy Night were of humble origins and hardly knew they had written what would become one of the world’s most beloved hymns.

To me, the stories behind my favorite Christmas carols perfectly represent the spirit of the season. Christmas has become a hugely popular holiday the world over, but it has its beginnings in a humble stable. It was hardly what one would expect of the birth of a King. Perhaps this is why I love Christmas music so much – it helps me to remember the circumstances surrounding the birth of Christ, as well as the life He lived. It is a joyful and exciting event, yet it’s also a sacred and humbling one.

Monday, November 02, 2009

California: "Think of it as a forced, interest-free loan"

I'm an accountant. As such I've done tax returns in the past as part of my employment, and still do a few here and there each year. One of my biggest pet peeves is people having a large withholding balance at year end when they don't really need one. See, the way taxes work is that each paycheck your employer withholds paying you a certain amount and sends that amount to the federal and state government. The reason for this is so that the government has consistent cash flow throughout the year to pay its bills. At the end of the year and sometime before April 15 you figure out what your tax bill is, and then you subtract what you've already sent to the government. If the number is positive, then you have to pay more to make up the difference. If it's negative, then that means you've overpaid and you get money back. Overpayment means that you have lent the government money all year long, interest free. So even though you're excited to get a big tax return, you've actually lost money on the deal.

Well, the state of California has taken that scenario one step further.

Because California is so inept at budgeting, they've found themselves in serious red ink. They don't have enough cash to pay their bills. Usually when states find themselves in this situation, states like our very own, they either raise taxes or cut spending. But the geniuses out west are doing neither.

California is simply going to withhold 10% more money from its residents. It's not a tax increase, so they'll pay it back when you file your return next year. But between now and next spring Californians are unwillingly going to give their state a huge, $1.7 billion interest free loan.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sutherland Institute's Prosperity Forum: Utah's Budget

I attended the Sutherland forum on the state budget this afternoon. The panelists were Representative Rob Bigelow, Salt Lake Chamber president Lane Beattie, Deputy State Superintendent Dr. Martell Menlove, and former Governor Norm Bangerter.

Lane Beattie spoke first, stating that this is "one of the most difficult years in the history of Utah". He said the state had revenues of $5.3 billion in 2007, and has dropped a billion dollars to only $4.3 billion. Budget cuts need to be the "right cuts, right time, in the right place".

He said the state funded for growth in public education, but not in higher education. A situation he thinks is a mistake since higher ed has seen large increase in demand specifically because of the economic downturn. This year the Chamber expects a 12,000 student increase in higher education, and the chamber wants more funding. They advocate reinstating the sales tax on food, indexing the tax on motor fuel, taxing coal, and rescinding other tax cuts and exemptions if even for a short period of time.

Next up was Dr. Martell Menlove, who said officially public education had a 2% budget reduction last year, but because of 15,000 enrollment growth the effective cut amounted to 7 1/2%. Without those cuts 500 additional teachers would have been hired. He proposed that public education received level funding this year.

Finally, Norm Bangerter spoke. He recognized that there are polls showing current support for higher taxes to fund education. He then told the story of when he was governor and had the same situation; polls in favor of higher taxes. So he raised taxes for education, and consequently saw his approval rating drop from 75% to 41% in just two weeks. I spoke with him about this for a few moments after the forum, and he again remarked that there is at times a disconnect with how Utahans answer polls and how they actually vote. I found this interesting coming on the heals of my recent education funding post. Governor Bangerter said he supports reinstating the sales tax on food, but also said, "I don't think we can take a general tax increase."

At the end of the panelist remarks there was a Q&A session. The most interesting part of which was when, on the heels of a questionor being told that every department should expect a lower budget, someone asked if government has a moral responsibility to needy or disabled citizens. Representative Bigelow answered that yes there is a responsibility, but the state only has a certain amount of money, and the budget must be balanced. This led to Dee Rowland, who I recognized from her time as a panelist for Sutherland's SB81 forum, to say that she saw the need for higher revenue (read: higher taxes) and thinks that Utahans would support this as well. She then asked what she and others could do to help the Legislature drum up support for raising taxes. Representative Bigelow's response was interesting. He said that he often hears people say they would be willing to pay more taxes to fund X program. The problem is that the support is not broad based. Everyone has certain things they would like to fund, but it's really an issue of balance, and balancing the needs of different groups. These budgeting issues are really about shifting the impact from one group to another. As for convincing the public to support higher taxes, Rep Bigelow didn't seem too optimistic. He said the public generally drives itself and that even the media with all its influence can't really drive it. At this point Governor Bangerter interjected and said that the polls may say there's support for higher taxes, but that he doesn't believe it was true.

Also of note is that after the forum was over, the lady who asked the question about government's moral responsibility to provide for people spoke with Gov Bangerter about that topic. Part of his response was that often those who talk about wanting the government to provide assistance don't provide that assistance themselves, despite being very well off. He said we currently have a president who made a million dollars last year and gave about 1% of it to charity.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Utah's Medicaid Doesn't Check for Fraud. On Unrelated Note, Medicare Losing $90 Billion A Year to Fraud

I recently discovered that our state Medicaid program is incredibly inept at catching fraud. Why is this important, you ask? Because 60 Minutes just did a piece about how Medicare is being defrauded out of $90 billion a year because they too are inept at catching it.

But yeah, a single payer system would be totally cool.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Heather Graham Starring as Public Option - She Should Be Running By Herself

Because that's what the public option is all about.

More Absurd Lies in Health Care Discussion

I recently wrote about an interview NPR conducted with the author of a new book which shows that Lyndon Johnson lied to the American public in order to get Medicare passed. In the words of the author,
"One of the things he did was suppress the costs...if the true cost of Medicare had been known, if Johnson hadn't basically hidden them, the program would never have passed."
I tied this propensity for lying to the various lies and misrepresentations coming from Congress and the White House in the ongoing health care reform debate. This of course was dismissed as "full of logical absurdities".

In light of that discussion I was interested to read this editorial reprimanding the White House for using legislative tricks, in other words lying, to suppress the true cost of the latest health care reform bill being bandied about. It seems that in order to get under their self-imposed cost threshold, Congress has simply moved $247 billion in costs to a different bill which wouldn't go into effect for a year. It's the very definition of a shell game. This one designed to trick deficit conscious people into supporting this reform bill.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Utah's Medicaid Has Major Issues

In August Utah's Legislative Auditor General released the findings of its audit of the state's Medicaid program. What it found was a program which spends $1.7 billion a year, but has almost no oversight of where it's going.

Reading through the 100 page report, I was struck by the systemic failure exhibited by Medicaid. There is an appalling lack of oversight in basically every area the auditors looked at. From prior authorizations, to provider screening and enrollment, to fraud recovery, and internal policing - it all failed miserably. Each of these areas are critical points in keeping costs down and avoiding fraud and waste, yet the guidelines are either non-existent or so lazily enforced as to be worth less than the paper they're printed on.

For clarification, Medicaid is health insurance for low income people administered by the state of Utah, but funded with both state and federal money. Utah kicks in about $500 million of the total $1.7 billion spent.

There were a couple of things in the audit that stuck out at me. First is that 95% of that $1.7 billion is not reviewed for fraud at all. Organizationally, Medicaid is set up to ignore whether those payments to dentists, doctors, and hospitals are legit or not. There could be double billing, useless tests or exams, or out and out fraud, an no one will ever find out. Which in itself is concerning, but then it's coupled with the fact that Medicaid doesn't review its providers (the doctors, dentists, and hospitals) either. Anyone who wants to be a part of the Medicaid program is accepted, even if they have a history of fraud. So we accept any possible fraudster out there, and then we don't monitor their billings at all. Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.

And disaster might be what we're getting. The auditors cite a national study which says that on average the low end of fraudulent cases is 3% of total billings. The auditors stress this is a conservative estimate. Well, Utah Medicaid finds and gets money back on about 1.7% of its total spending. But even that low number is misleading because most of that returned money comes not through our efforts, but because private insurance companies find out that Medicaid had paid for a service that was actually the private company's responsibility, and instead of pocketing the savings they fix the problem and pay for it themselves. So Medicaid on its own actually only finds and recovers a fraction of 1% of fraud. Again, this speaks to the total lack of oversight and due diligence by the program.

The most glaring deficiency in the audit is that, again because of poor guidelines and organization, Medicaid itself is never audited. There are no independent internal audits being conducted to ensure everything is on the up and up. So not only does Medicaid not audit providers or look for fraud, but no one is auditing Medicaid either.

The reason all of this is important really comes into focus through a specific, real life example written of in the audit. A provider bills medicaid for $370,000. Medicaid has to determine if the services were actually necessary before they pay for them, so they request medical history documentation. The requested documents never come, so Medicaid doesn't pay. The provider starts an appeal process so they can get their money, but even then they file the appeal late and still don't send the medical documents. Finally, they drop the appeal and go straight to the Medicaid director. Up to this point everything has been handled ok, despite the persistent lateness of the provider. Even going to the director is somewhat supported by written guidelines. At this point the director should have gotten the medical documents, reviewed them, and then made a decision. Instead, he unilaterally gave the provider $370,000 without even reviewing the case. Only after the auditors found this example two years later did Medicaid finally get the appropriate documentation. Medicaid's director's reason for handing over $370,000 without even reviewing the case? He said sometimes that's necessary in order to "maintain relationships with providers."

I can imagine the stress this audit must have created for everyone in the Medicaid office. As a controller of a large company, I get audited every year, and it's a stressful time. I have to justify every decision I've made over the course of the year, and provide documentation as part of the justification. If you're organized and prepared, audits can be relatively simple. If not, they can be a major source of heartburn.

This report is possibly the worst conceivable outcome of the audit. The only way it could have been worse is if the auditors caught Medicaid management stealing funds. The audit shows medicaid fits the stereotype of an inefficient, poorly managed, wasteful government program.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Another Call For Reducing Class Sizes

The Deseret News ran another editorial advocating reducing Utah's class sizes. They reiterated the statistics showing Utah as last in per pupil spending, as well as polls showing most Utahans believe class sizes are too large and education spending is too small. Quoting Benjamin Franklin, the News writes,
"The only thing more expensive than education is ignorance."
What the Deseret News seems to have forgotten though is that the state spent over $700 million over a decade for the sole purpose of reducing class sizes, and netted a whole two teachers for the effort.

Two years ago the state conducted an audit of their class size reduction (CSR) program. It was this audit that revealed the two net teacher gain despite hundreds of millions of dollars. I wrote about this audit here, here, and here.

The reason for such a poor return on investment is that the number of children entering school increased by far more than was expected. The problem with the Deseret News's argument about cost is that the child increase is expected to continue - so much so that the state will be fortunate just to keep the unacceptable class sizes we have now, let alone reduce them. In fact, the Utah Taxpayers Association put numbers to the traditional class size goal of 15 students, and found it would cost almost $5 billion to reach it.

Reducing class sizes is a worthy goal, but it's important to understand the reality behind the numbers. Editorial boards like the News would do well to remember the lessons learned from audits like the one conducted just two years ago, and use those lessons to shape their policy proclamations.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Civility in Politics

I attended the Sutherland Institute's blogger briefing on civility this past Tuesday. Rob Miller and Dave Hansen formed the panel, and a small group of bloggers were present to ask questions. Most of those who attended have written about the event, including Connor, Frank, David, and Trenton (?) from the blog Victory in Progress.

My notes closely resemble theirs; things can tend to the uncivil, this has been going on for a long time in politics, and it's really up to the individual to decide to remain civil. There is some interesting discussion of the value of being nice/civil vs. being direct and honest despite the risk to decorum. My two cents in that discussion is that I think it's possible to be honest and civil at the same time. But even then, you cannot control what others may take offense.

However, there is one point that has been bouncing around my head since the briefing. It's an idea that first came to mind when I read CS Lewis's The Screwtape Letters two years ago. A particular chapter so resonated with me that I wanted to save the idea; so I blogged about it. More accurately, I typed a paragraph from the book which I felt summed up the thesis of the chapter quite well. I reproduce it here:
But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.
How this short paragraph sums up what often passes for dialogue - both in mass media as well as in the blogosphere! It may not be the best way, but I don't mind so much a fervent, even angry exchange of ideas - so long as ideas are exchanged. However, what seems to happen more often than not is what CS Lewis describes as flippancy. People have been "trained to talk as if (fill in the blank) is funny." There's no actual joke being told, it's just assumed to have already been made. The more a person uses this tactic, the more immune they become to anything resembling a dialogue, the more every other opposing viewpoint appears ridiculous to them.

For instance, when then Vice President Al Gore was running for president, a joke arose that to this day continues to dog him. In an interview with CNN before he had even secured the Democratic Party's nomination VP Gore was asked,
Why should Democrats, looking at the Democratic nomination process, support you instead of Bill Bradley? What do you have to bring to this that he doesn't necessarily bring to this process?
Al Gore's answer, taken as a whole, was pretty generic. A sort of, 'look at my record, I've pushed for important things before, and I'll do the same as president' type of answer that went on for a couple of paragraphs. But there was one short phrase in his answer that demonstrates the power of flippancy,
I took the initiative in creating the Internet.
We all know how that phrase turned out. A politician describing his view that he had been at the forefront of legislation which allowed the internet to completely change the world we live in somehow got twisted into a decade-long (and counting) running joke. To many, the "Al Gore thinks he invented the internet" is a knee jerk response to anything the former VP says - even if that has nothing to do with current events. It's a slam inserted into any discussion of what Gore is doing or saying. Those that do so have safely armored themselves against actual dialogue.

This is one example of many. The characterization of the TEA parties and Town Hall goers as mobs is another. It is generally how political viewpoints are dismissed, and how political campaigns are waged. Making your opponent an object of ridicule is far easier, and unfortunately more successful, than debating ideas. In my opinion, this is what truly infects our political culture, and what leads to incivility. It is an easy game to get caught up in, and it is up to each individual to see past the flippancy to the real dialogue begging to be held.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

2009 Democrats Need to Learn Lessons of 1960s Democrats: Lie

NPR recently interviewed James Morone, who co-authored a book entitled, "The Heart of Power: Health and Politics in the Oval Office." The interview centered on how President Lyndon Johnson pushed Medicare through Congress until its ultimate passage. Mr. Morone and Renee Montagne, who interviewed him for NPR, both assume great current public support for Medicare, and this assumption is what allows them to reveal a remarkable fact about how Medicare was sold to the public all those years ago. Morone obtained tapes of phone conversations President Johnson had with members of Congress as he guided Medicare through the political process, including one such conversation with noted public health care advocate Ted Kennedy,
"Johnson maneuvered every step of the way, getting this bill through Congress. And one of the things he did - and this is a little dicey in today's climate. One of the things he did was suppress the costs. So this young kid gets elected from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy, in 1962. And Johnson is explaining to him how you get a health bill through. And what he tells him is don't let them get the cost projected too far out, because it'll scare other people.

Pres. JOHNSON: A health program yesterday runs 300 million, but the fools had to go to projecting it down the road five or six years. And when you project the first year, it runs 900 million. Now I don't know whether I would approve 900 million the second year or not. I might approve 450 or 500. But the first thing Dick Russell comes running in, saying my God, you've got a billion dollar program for next year on health, therefore I'm against any of it now. Do you follow me?

Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Yes, right.

Mr. MORONE: We believe after looking at the evidence - my co-author and I -that if the true cost of Medicare had been known, if Johnson hadn't basically hidden them, the program would never have passed. America's second-most beloved program would never have happened if we had had genuine cost estimates. "
Now, the title of this post is written somewhat in jest. Democrats don't really need to learn the lessons from their 60's counterparts. They're well on their way to upping the ante.

Putting aside for the moment many of the lies and misrepresentations regarding health care reform we've seen in the last couple of months (from a public option not leading to single payer, or that you'll get to keep your current insurance if you want to, to the President's fact-bending health care speech to Congress), we can focus on and find parallels to President Johnson's cost concealing Medicare push with what President Obama has done with the costs of the proposals we've seen so far.

The original bill making waves in Congress had a Congressional Budget Office price tag of over $1 trillion. Having learned the lessons of Medicare, Democrats couldn't allow that number to be taken seriously, so they went about trying to discredit the CBO's numbers,

Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

"it's always been a source, yes I will say frustration, for many of us in Congress that the CBO will always give you the worst case scenario"

Senator Tom Harkin:

"The way CBO scores some things sometimes doesn't make a whole lot of sense -- I mean, real-life sense,"

Senator Chris Dodd:

"One of the things that's disappointing about CBO -- and frustrating -- is all the work…done on prevention" that the CBO doesn’t factor in"

The President also voiced his "concern" over CBO numbers, saying the CBO doesn't give him credit for all the savings included in the bill which would offset many of the costs. What he neglects to mention is that the CBO did in fact account for those measures, and found they wouldn't save money at all. In fact, they likely will add to the costs. But no matter, these statements from Democratic stalwarts aren't meant to be used in factual debates; rather, their purpose is to cast enough doubt on the CBO numbers so that they can more readily ignore the independent group's cost projections.

Cost projections which could very well be on the low end. By law, CBO projections only go out ten years. So other groups have projected beyond that horizon and found significantly higher costs. Which is not surprising, considering recent studies showing government consistently underestimates the true costs of programs. So consistently, in fact, that it's apparent this underestimation is not done by accident. No, it would seem politicians have all learned President Johnson's lesson very well.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Nephi's Psalm

Scripture study yesterday got me thinking, so I put some thoughts to paper. Here's what came out:

One of the most important, yet often forgotten, doctrines of the Gospel is found in 2 Nephi 4:15-35. These verses are sometimes called “Nephi’s Psalm”. Nephi’s father Lehi has just passed away, and Nephi is alone as the family’s prophetic leader. Perhaps weighed down by this responsibility, coupled with the passing of his father, Nephi writes of his sadness at not living up to the blessings he has received. He recounts how he and his family have been led through the wilderness to a promised land, choice above all other lands. He has seen angels, been carried away to the tops of mountains, and had many marvelous visions. Yet he still falls prey to temptation. Indeed, in verse 27 he writes,

“And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul?”

There are a couple of important lessons to be gleaned from the verses to this point. First, it can be somewhat heartening to know that a person as righteous and close to God as Nephi is can still feel inadequate at times. There is a measure of comfort to be taken from the knowledge that even a prophet can feel overwhelmed by their weaknesses. Additionally, these verses teach us that the closer we get to righteousness, the more our own failings, however small they may be, become apparent to us.

The seminal lesson to be learned, though, is how Nephi deals with these feelings of failure.

He writes,

“And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted. My God hath been my support.

Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss; therefore I will lift up my voice unto thee; yea, I will cry unto thee, my God, the rock of my righteousness. Behold, my voice shall forever ascend up unto thee, my rock and mine everlasting God.”

All of us, every one, can relate to Nephi’s feelings of depression and failure. We strive to do what’s right. We raise families, attend church meetings, fulfill our callings and reach out to those around us. It can seem overwhelming at times. Often, we fail to do what we know we ought. But do not let that recognition of our own weakness allow us to be led by Satan down a path of depression and discouragement. Those moments of failure are some of the most important moments of our lives. They offer us the opportunity to look heavenward, to know in whom we have trusted, and tie us ever closer to our Father in Heaven.

Too often we, like Nephi, have the light of truth shine on our small imperfections and we feel like we’ll never make it, that we’ll never be good enough. But that is not the message of the Gospel! The “good news” is that, through the Atonement, we can triumph over our sins. This is a marvelous promise. In the words of Ammon, “there never were men that had so great reason to rejoice as we.” And why should we rejoice? The Savior taught us why, when he appeared to Joseph Smith in the Kirtland temple and said,

“Behold, your sins are forgiven you; you are clean before me; therefore, lift up your heads and rejoice."

May our voices, like Nephi’s, forever ascend up to Him. For if they do, we will never despair.

Friday, August 21, 2009

How You Can Make Millions of Dollars And Go Bankrupt

One of the principles of accounting is to match revenue and expenses to the period they are incurred. That becomes problematic when you are working on a long term project like building a house. You might start the house in August but not finish and sell it until February. Under normal circumstances, you would show your profit in February. However, you've been working on it, and incurring costs on it, for the seven months previous. Shouldn't your income statement take that into account?

The percentage of completion accounting method allows you to do so. When you start building that house in August you also start recognizing some of the profit. Assuming you build at a steady pace, you would finish 12.5% of the house per month. Accordingly, you would recognize 12.5% of the projected cost and revenue each month.

But here's the problem. This only works if you are certain to sell the building when it's done, ie. you have a contract in place. Commercial construction works this way, but the housing market only partially so. When you contract with a builder to start a home, you generally have to put in some earnest money. This assures the builder you won't walk away in the middle of construction and leave them with an unsold property. However, and this happened a lot during the recently ended housing boom, the earnest amount can be quite low. So low that it isn't much of a barrier to backing out of the contract.

If the builder was using the percentage of completion method in this case, then not only have they lost the sale, but they've already recognized a portion of the expected profit from that house. Couple that with the rapid decline in housing prices we've just experienced, and you can see how a builder can see profits on one income statement and nothing but red ink on the next.

This is a lesson on reading financial statements. I have talked to troubled business owners who say they were profitable and don't fully understand what happened. They didn't understand what accounting system they were using, and so didn't understand the risks involved.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cheneyed By A Guy Named Barack Obama

Those crazy right wing extremists are at it again, calling president Obama a fascist:

From the Huffington Post:
A memo obtained by the Huffington Post confirms that the White House and the pharmaceutical lobby secretly agreed to precisely the sort of wide-ranging deal that both parties have been denying over the past week.

The memo, which according to a knowledgeable health care lobbyist was prepared by a person directly involved in the negotiations, lists exactly what the White House gave up, and what it got in return.

Critics on Capitol Hill and online responded with outrage at the reports that Obama had gone behind their backs and sold the reform movement short. Furthermore, the deal seemed to be a betrayal of several promises made by then-Sen. Obama during the presidential campaign, among them that he would use the power of government to drive down the costs of drugs to Medicare and that negotiations would be conducted in the open.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"A Picnic That Changed The Course of History"

From the AP:
Twenty years ago Wednesday, members of Hungary's budding opposition organized a picnic at the border with Austria to press for greater political freedom and promote friendship with their Western neighbors.

Once the initial group got through hundreds more East Germans joined them. Still vivid in Bella's mind was the reactions of the Germans, including many young people and families with small children, once they were on the other side.

"They embraced, they kissed, they cried and laughed in their joy. Some sat down right across the border, others had to be stopped by the Austrian guards because they kept running and didn't believe they were in Austria," Bella said. "It was in incredible experience for them."
Hungary, it turns out, has an interesting history.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

I Love That 'Regular' People Are Getting Involved...Oh, And Larry O'Donnell Is Still A Shmuck

This video annoys me for a couple of reasons.

First, for Larry O'Donnell to cluck cluck about having a rational debate without yelling and screaming is incredibly ironic considering his meltdown about Mitt Romney's mormonism. You can watch it here. But really, that's indicative of pretty much everyone who has cluck clucked about the tone and tenor of the folks attending the town hall meetings across the country; it wasn't too long ago they were whining about their own free speech rights while burning US soldiers in effigy.

Second, O'Donnell is oozing fake niceness and understanding here. What a shmuck. He set up this woman and set out to make her look bad. This was not journalism, or debate. This was an orchestrated hit job. It's not often I watch these pundit shows, and this clip reminded me why. In fact, this clip typifies exactly why people like Katy Abram aren't involved in politics. No one's actually interested in solving things. It's all just a sick game to them.

Which brings me to my final point. I struggled watching this clip because I could see right away where it was headed. I wished I could have been in her place, as I'm fairly certain I have already heard and answered every inane question O'Donnell was prepared to ask. And that's the point. Too many people have left to others the task of being informed. Too many people shy away from political conversation. But now, many of these people are waking up, getting involved, going to town hall meetings. They know they don't like what's going on, but they don't know how to articulate it. Because these are their first baby steps into political conversation they've never heard someone like O'Donnell try to argue that Medicare is great so stop complaining about government health care.

This is the reason I enjoy blogging so much. I have come into contact with people all over this country from every political stripe. I have heard arguments for and against just about every issue, and I've had to defend my own positions time and again. I've become known as 'the political one' among my friends and family, and am always ready to join a political conversation wherever it arises. But those occur far too infrequently.

We need more of this. We need more political conversations - at home, at work, with friends and family. With more people sharing and hearing, the real issues will come into focus. People will be less able to be dismissed as a 'mob', less able to be sneered at in contempt like Larry O'Donnell did in this video. Oh, the O'Donnells of the world will still sneer, but if you answer from a place of knowledge and experience, they'll be revealed for the empty windbags they really are.

Health Care Lies That Are Deceiving the Public

I've read in a few places how the lies being spread in the media and elsewhere about Health Care reform are distorting the public's perception of the issue and making it difficult to have a rational debate. So I've put together a quick list of lies I've come across:

1. There are 46 million uninsured Americans.

See here and here for a serious debunking of this dubious statistic.

2. These plans are only for a "Public Option", not for single payer

President Obama has been quite eloquent in explaining away this myth.

3. You will get to keep your current insurance even if this reform bill is passed

This is one of those sorta, kinda technically true statements. Sure, there's nothing in the bill that I'm aware of that forces you to drop your current insurance plan. But in reality, millions of Americans who get their insurance through their work will find their employers dropping their plans. So it's not really truthful to say you'll get to keep your current plan if you so choose.

4. We need more government involvement because our current free market system is failing.

Hard to say we've got a free market system when government programs Medicare, Medicaid and SCHIP pay for 47% of health care in this country.

5. The reform bill includes measures for preventive care, which will drastically reduce overall health care costs.

Not according to the Congressional Budget Office, which quotes a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine which says,
"Sweeping statements about the cost-saving potential of prevention ... are overreaching. Studies have concluded that preventing illness can in some cases save money but in other cases can add to health care costs. For example, screening costs will exceed the savings from avoided treatment in cases in which only a very small fraction of the population would have become ill in the absence of preventive measures. Preventive measures that do not save money may or may not represent cost-effective care (i.e., good value for the resources expended). Whether any preventive measure saves money or is a reasonable investment despite adding to costs depends entirely on the particular intervention and the specific population in question.

Although some preventive measures do save money, the vast majority reviewed in the health economics literature do not."
6. The initial cost projections are at $1 Trillion over the first ten years, but don't worry, the president assures us it will be paid for and won't add to the deficit.

Hmmmm...where have we heard that before?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"The Most Open Government Ever" Won't Answer A Simple Question

In response to the very vocal opposition to the health care reform plans being railroaded through Congress, the White House recently asked US citizens to send them any "fishy" (their word) information they may have gotten in emails and the like.

In an interview conducted on Fox News, White House spokesperson Bill Burton was asked what was being done with the email addresses and other information being sent to them per their request. Mr. Burton was extremely evasive, until finally the question was put this way:
"In an environment when you have the Speaker of the House referring to these people as swastika wearing, where you have another democrat calling them Nazis, where you have the president calling complaints about health care "smears" and saying he's going to fight them and then the White House comes out and says "send us the emails", those who are behind the emails may feel a little reluctant to engage in such speech in the future. And that is the complaint, not just cable news has about it, Bill Burton, but the ACLU has come out and said "we've got a serious problem with that."
Here's the entire interview:

This really is an example of when evading a question makes it an even bigger deal than if you had simply answered it. Perhaps the White House strategy is to not justify with a response what they feel are silly questions, but when you're directly asked a question four or five times and you flail around like Mr. Burton did, you're just raising more doubts.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Dueling Health Care Videos

The first video shows clips of President Obama and others explaining how a public option is the first step to getting rid of private health care. The second is a quick follow up from the White House's youtube page showing President Obama promising that if you like your current doctor and insurance, his plan won't take that away from you. What it doesn't explain are his past statements as shown in the first video, other than to say they were taken out of context, nor does it explain that while the government technically won't "force" you to use the public option, it is making it so that your employer just won't offer it to you anymore.


More Context

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Jon Stewart Foretells the Future of Health Care

"If it [health care] is paid for by a surtax on the wealthy -- and I am wealthy -- can I then stop poor people from smoking and eating ice cream. 'Cause I see them on the subway and I want to say 'Hey! Dude. You're costing me money.'"

Jon Stewart

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Quick Fix That Wasn't

As someone asked me recently, "if it was sold as a quick fix then why did it not spend all the money up front?" Indeed.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Second Stimulus to First: "You Suck"

From Phil Levy comes a wonderful take on what the calls for a second stimulus reveals about the first stimulus.
The extent of spending in 2011 and beyond under the initial package can have one of two interpretations. Either this was the excess that spilled over after all sincere attempts at near-term stimulus were exhausted, or there was a serious misallocation of resources in the initial plan.

And this is exactly the logical problem with a second stimulus. If we accept the premise that the Democrats did the best that could be done and exhausted all stimulative spending possibilities for 2009 and 2010 on their first try, then there’s nothing left to be done in a second stimulus. Additional spending would just pour uselessly into the out-years. If there are still good near-term options available to be funded by a second stimulus, that just speaks to the poor design of the initial stimulus package that passed them over in favor of ineffectual spending years later.

Neither of those possibilities argues for opening up the public coffers for hundreds of billions of dollars more.
All those calls for rushing through the stimulus six months ago were based on the argument that the economy was in terrible shape right now and needed this boost in order to rebound. Unfortunately, the great majority of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent was not intended to be spent right now.

So once again we find the economy doing poorly and consequently most are accepting the fact that the first stimulus didn't work in the way it was sold to the public. So once again talk of a stimulus is brewing. If it passes, we will find again that it has little to do with positively effecting the economy right now.

More Fun With Debt

Those right wing extremists at the Congressional Budget Office are at it again, what with their fear mongering over the national debt:

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Ladies & Gentlemen, Your Utah Democratic Party

Sarah Palin announced her resignation as governor of Alaska recently. The specifics of her reasons for resigning are sketchy, though level headed observers intimate it's likely because she tired of the attacks on her family coupled with the time and money lost defending against frivolous lawsuits.

Of course, Utah's left leaning blogosphere punditry was quick to chime in with their commentary. Two of the most read Democratic blogs in the state were also the most...predictible.

"she’s sounds like a whore in church."

"she’ll run for Princess of America"

You stay classy now.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Quote of the Day

It seems that despite backgrounds hailing from Princeton, Harvard, MIT and Yale, in the end, bloggers are bloggers.
On the issue of tone, I again think I understand Paul's point of view. He likely believes that civility is overrated. He seems to think that in the blogosphere, and perhaps in the public debate more generally, you score points simply by insulting your intellectual adversaries. Sadly, I am afraid he may be right.
As always, Greg Mankiw's posts are timely.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Golden Age of Baseball

ESPN columnist Bill Simmons writes that the golden era of baseball was the five year span of 1988-1992. That just so happens to coincide with my introduction to the sport. The era began with me as a ten year old just beginning to scour and memorize the backs of baseball cards. I finally got old enough to stay up late and watch World Series games. I loved my Oakland A's - Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Dave Henderson, Dave Parker, Carney Lansford and Walt Weiss. And of course a pitching staff of perennial 20 game winner Dave Stewart along with Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley and Bob Welch, who was awarded the 1990 Cy Young by winning an improbable 27 games. Those A's went to three straight World Series from 1988-1990, winning in 1989 against the rival Giants.

But the real treat, and perhaps the moment that truly sucked me in as a baseball fan, was the 1991 World Series. Both the Twins and the Braves had finished in last place the year before, but now they faced off with the winner becoming the first worst to first team in baseball. The Braves had just escaped Barry Bonds's Pittsburgh Pirates in what was an amazing series in its own right. But that was merely the appetizer to the real Series. The Braves had young Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, and John Smoltz. In what was the greatest game I've ever watched, in what many have said was the greatest World Series ever, game seven had Smoltz pitching 9 shutout innings only to be bested by Jack Morris's 10 scoreless. With game seven ending 1-0 in 10 innings, the Series had 3 extra inning games, and 5 one run decisions. The home team won every time, only the second time that had ever happened. Almost every game went down to the wire, and pitching duels were the norm. To this day I prefer a close, well pitched game to a high scoring one.

As this era ended, the steroid induced home run era began. Sadly, two main players from my beloved A's, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, were heavily involved in ushering in the steroid era. I never quite regained the same passion for baseball or even baseball card collecting after that. The game had changed. 1991's pitching duel was replaced by 1993's slug fest between the Blue Jays and Phillies. And the home runs never really stopped for another decade and a half. Only now are things beginning to come back to normalcy in the game.

It's nice to hearken back and remember those early 90's years as a golden era for baseball. Unfortunately it was followed by the era of strikes and steroids. As my son approaches an age where we can sit and watch a game together, my hope is that baseball will be able to clean up the game in time to start another golden era.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

We Are All Trickle Down Economists Now

A few years ago I watched a Denzel Washington movie called Deja Vu. Aside from being a pretty solid movie, it was also set and filmed in New Orleans. Filming actually began before the 2005 hurricanes, but instead of finding another locale to finish shooting, the movie's producers went back to New Orleans as quickly as they could. Here's how Denzel Washington explained it,
“It was important to me that we stuck it out, and returned to New Orleans to continue filming as soon as we could. Three months after the water receded, we were filming in the 9th Ward (the area of the city most devastated by the flooding) and we did that intentionally, to show the people that big projects like ours were not going to abandon them when they needed us the most. Think about a big movie production, the amount of people employed and all the others services that depend on it, from catering to hotels or what have you.
Think about that statement for a moment. In effect, Washington is saying that all that money being spent, and earned, by huge corporate movie studios trickles down to help the local economy. And New Orleans has embraced this strategy. Major movie and television projects have gone from 9 in 2005 to a record of 21 in 2008. Much of this increase can be traced to sizable tax credits the state has given to these production companies. The state believes that by cutting taxes for movie producers they can lure business to Louisiana and New Orleans and through this "all boats will rise". For instance, in an article on the television show K-Ville, which was filmed and set in New Orleans, city officials talked about the economic impact that this show and others were having,
“It takes eight days to film an episode,” she said. “Over that eight days a little more than a million dollars is pumped into the local economy.”

For New Orleans, show business is serious business. Several theatrical films have shot in the city this year, including “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. Entertainment projects have generated more than $100 million for the city in 2007.
And it's not just New Orleans attracting business through tax cuts. According to the Wall Street Journal, 40 states have similar tax strategies to lure Hollywood. One of those forty is Utah. All of these states argue for the tax cuts because bringing business to their state will be a big boost to their economy. The strategy is that the economy as a whole will increase by more than what it cost to bring in business.

The inverse is also true. Business, when faced with higher taxes, leaves to find a better deal somewhere else. For instance, facing a large budget deficit, New York floated the idea of canceling their movie tax credit. Alec Baldwin, from the TV show 30 Rock, said,
"I'm telling you right now," Mr. Baldwin declared, "if these tax breaks are not reinstated into the budget, film production in this town is going to collapse, and television is going to collapse and it's all going to go to California."
New York caved and gave the movie industry a new tax deal.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Hope Ya Know, We Had a Hard Time

Mere Cristianity: Life-Force Philosophy

In chapter four of Mere Christianity we are told that since the beginning there have been two views of the world,; the Materialist view, and the Religious view. However, in a note at the end of the chapter, CS Lewis explains that there is actually an "In-between view called Life-Force philosophy, or Creative Evolution." The description of this philosophy follows:
People who hold this view say that the small variations by which life on his planet 'evolved' from the lowest forms to Man were not due to chance but to the 'striving' or 'purposiveness' of a Life-Force. When people say this we must ask them whether by Life-Force they mean something with a mind or not. If they do, then 'a mind bringing life into existence and leading it to perfection' is really a God, and their view is thus identical with the Religious. If they do not, then what is the sense in saying that something without a mind 'strives' or has 'purposes'? This seems to me fatal to their view. One reason why many people find Creative Evolution so attractive is that it gives one much of the emotional comfort of believing in God and none of the less pleasant consequences. When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries and carrying you on its crest. If, on the other hand, you want to do something rather shabby, the Life-Force, being only a blind force, with no morals and no mind, will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned about when we were children. The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Reverend Jeremiah Wright is a Right Wing Extremist

Reverend Wright recently has come under scrutiny for remarks he made to a reporter about the president of the United States being controlled by "them Jews". Referring to President Obama, he told reporter David Squires that,
"them Jews ain't going to let him talk to me. I told my baby daughter that he'll talk to me in five years when he's a lame duck, or in eight years when he's out of office."
These words are eerily similar to those spoken by another Republican extremist recently,
"Obama was created by Jews. Obama does what his Jew owners tell him to do. Jews captured America's money. Jews control the mass media."
Obviously, all Jew haters are right winger extremists who pose a danger to our country. Hopefully the Department of Homeland Security has Reverend Wright on their right wing extremist watch list so they can prevent him from doing serious harm.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sutherland's Utah Prosperity Forum: Is SB81 Good for Utah Business and Culture?

I attended Sutherland's forum on SB 81. There were four panelists: Representative Chris Herrod, Senator Luz Robles, Representative Stephen Sandstrom, and Mrs. Dee Rowland of the Catholic Diocese. Each was given time for a presentation/speech, and then it was opened to questions from the attendees. The crowd had a bit of an us/them feel to it, with a strong Latino contingent as well as some outspoken Minutemen, one of whom was kicked out towards the end for being a bit too outspoken.

Senator Herrod spoke first, and, with what was a recurring theme from the pro-SB81 side, began by defending himself against attacks of being racist. His wife is a legal immigrant from the Ukraine, and his business partner is a legal immigrant from Africa. His support for bills like SB81 comes from a strong belief that illegal immigration makes it much harder for legal immigrants to come to America. He thinks it is unfair and immoral that his business partner's wife and family are still waiting in a very dangerous country in Africa because he has chosen to follow the law with their immigration process while millions of illegal immigrants stream into the country. In effect, his argument was that allowing illegal immigration discriminates against legal immigrants.

If the first part of Sen. Herrod's speech dealt with the moral theory behind his stance, the second part dealt with cold hard facts. He had an interesting slide presentation which included graphs showing the country of origin for immigrants in 1970 vs. 2000. In 1970 the mix was very even, with no country supplying significantly more than another. However, by 2000 that had changed substantially, with Mexico now far and away the biggest source of immigration. He said that this scenario lessens the "melting pot" of the US.

Also discussed was the fact that illegal immigration harms the working poor by taking away jobs and depressing wage levels. The representative said that if it were high earners immigrating illegally and competing for jobs with doctors and lawyers, there would be far more people in favor of measures like SB81. Instead, the illegal immigrants are generally poor, and statistically have more children than the average population. This demographic means illegal immigrants are a drain on state services like education.

Next up was Senator Robles. She began by saying this country was founded on immigration. She went on to acknowledge that illegal immigration is a problem, but that it can only be addressed at the federal level. She did, however, point out three main issues in need of fixing:

1) The borders need to be secured
2) There is a demand for labor that these immigrants provide.
3) What to do with the 12 million illegal immigrants already here?

Senator Robles did not expand much on the first point other than to state it was a security issue. The second point was quite interesting because she used it to refute what Representative Herrod had said about illegal immigrant doctors. Basically, the working poor labor is what is demanded, so that is what we are getting. The third point was expounded upon mainly by noting that many of these illegal immigrants are "mixed status" families, which means that while the parents may not be citizens, their children are. Sen. Robles is vehemently opposed to forcing US citizens to leave the country simply because their parents are not citizens.

The third speaker was Representative Stephen Sandstrom. He too found it necessary to defend himself against attacks of being a racist. Because of time constraints he was forced to cut his speech short, but the gist of my notes is that he dwelt on how SB81 simply forces the state of Utah to follow federal law currently on the books. By not following these laws, it creates a disadvantage to companies that do not hire illegal immigrants. For this reason he is in favor of the provision in SB81 which calls for companies with public contracts to use an e-verify system so as not to hire illegal immigrants.

Mrs. Dee Rowland was the final speaker. I unfortunately was quite disappointed in her speech. When not labeling her opponents racists, she was calling them Nazis. And all this after prefacing her remarks with a call for civility and finding common ground. But at least she was quite nice in how she presented it.

Now came the public question portion. There wasn't an awful lot of time at this point, which frustrated many who wanted to ask questions, myself included. I felt that not enough time was spent on the specific provisions of SB81 and what the expected results of the bill would be, as well as why each piece was opposed or supported.

The question I was unable to ask was, one of the provisions of the bill is that local law enforcement would now be investigating the immigration status of the people they came into contact with. What is unclear to me is if they will be investigating everyone, or just people already arrested for other crimes. This seems important to me because for one thing law enforcement already does that with other crimes, and also because it would seem that law abiding illegal immigrants have nothing to fear. It's not as though police are barging into homes looking to deport people; rather, if a crime is committed by an illegal immigrant, law enforcement should be aware of it. Perhaps I misunderstand the provision, and for this reason I had hoped to ask the question.

The discussion also brought to my mind a scenario which I think illustrates the complexity of illegal immigration. At one time I worked in an apartment maintenance crew in Salt Lake City. There were a number of Latinos in the crew; some here legally, and some not. Because I spoke Spanish, we were able to communicate and became good friends. The Latinos in the crew were very hardworking, reliable, and honest. In short, they were perfect employees. On the other hand, I watched as the non-Latinos on the crew came and went as they simply stopped showing up for work or were caught stealing. They were unreliable, dishonest, and difficult to manage. Almost to a man they were the complete opposite of their Latino counterparts.

For this reason I think a crackdown on illegal immigration would be harmful to Utah business and society. Losing men and workers of my friends' caliber would be a great loss.

However, our employer liked them not only because of their innate loyalty, but because of a forced loyalty. They did not speak English and so had few employment options other than what their family or friend connections could supply. Instead of paying them as employees, they were paid as independent contractors. A practice which freed the employer from paying payroll taxes and instead transferred that burden to the worker. A burden which, since the illegal immigrants had faulty paperwork, they didn't ever have to pay because they're not filing taxes with someone else's social security number. Of course, eventually that someone else will be tracked down by the state and federal tax collectors and accused of not declaring all that additional income. Also worthy of noting is that these men were paid $9 an hour and happy to get it. This is not anywhere near a real living wage, and I often wondered if the depressed wage level these workers created contributed to the quality (or lack thereof) of the non-Latino workers.

It is a very complicated issue. I applaud the Sutherland Institute for providing a venue for this discussion, and the panelists for spending time to discuss and defend their views.

Monday, June 08, 2009

CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, & Law of Nature

So I started reading CS Lewis' Mere Christianity. I have previously read The Screwtape Letters, and I love Lewis' simple profundity. The last paragraph of chapter one in Mere Christianity follows this pattern:
These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.

Representative Jason Chaffetz: Report Confirms Failure of Stimulus to "Save or Create" Jobs

From Rep. Chaffetz's email newsletter:

Dear Cameron,

President Obama's $1.1 trillion stimulus package is not delivering the expected economic benefits, even according to the President's own benchmarks. The President projected that his stimulus package would prevent the unemployment rate from exceeding 8%. Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that May's unemployment reached 9.4%, and economists project that the rate will go even higher in the next several months.

Not only does the unemployment rate exceed the President's stimulus projection, it also exceeds the unemployment rate that the President projected if Congress had NOT approved the stimulus package. According to the President's own numbers, the unemployment rate would not have exceeded 9% if Congress had rejected the President's stimulus package.

Stimulus proponents may argue that more time is needed for the stimulus package to work. However, the following graph shows that the President was claiming that the impact of the stimulus package would be immediate. Not only is the recovery taking longer than promised, the job losses are higher than projected.

The Democrats' fiscally irresponsible stimulus plan has not delivered the promised benefits and has driven us further into debt, which already exceeds $11 trillion.

Click here for the report and please keep in mind the following:

(1) The only change to the President's graph is the insertion of the actual unemployment rate (in red) for the months since the President's signing of the "stimulus" law.

(2) As the graphic displays, the May 2009 unemployment rate of 9.4 percent is HIGHER than the worst unemployment rate the President predicted WITHOUT passage of the "stimulus" law.


Jason Chaffetz
Member of Congress

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Economy is an Addict, & Government Spending is the Crack

I would like to posit a theory, or perhaps make a prediction. The US will never pay off its national debt. Here's why:

Today's prevailing economic theory is that when the government spends money it grows the economy. Therefore, the government should play a significant role in making everyone more prosperous by spending lots of money. Of course, any money the government gets it must first take out of the economy through taxes. It is that feature of government spending that drives the furor over pork spending, earmarks etc. Why should my money go to fund some other state's lame pork project?

However, what's really interesting about federal spending is that they always spend more than they bring in from taxes. In other words, they run deficits. This of course drives most people even more crazy. But in reality it's done on purpose. That's right, despite all the rhetoric from all the politicians, the federal government spends more than it makes on purpose.

See, deficits mean that the government is getting and spending money it never took from you in the first place. It's basically free money. Free money which the feds use to pump up the economy, making us richer. A win-win scenario for all involved.

The catch is that the money for deficits has to come from somewhere. That somewhere is debt. It's sort of like a business taking out a line of credit with a bank. They use the available money when it's needed, and that extra cash makes it easier to expand and grow the business such that the debt is easily paid if and when it comes due.

But therein lies the problem with our national debt. As noted earlier, tax money is a deduction from the economy. If that tax money is used to pay back creditors instead of being plowed back into our economy, then the economy just got smaller. In this way we have steadily addicted ourselves to federal stimulus. Take away the spending and we'll go through withdrawal (recession). Since federal revenue relies on the strength of the economy, a recession reduces tax revenues, which, unless spending is cut, plunges us right back into deficits. Exacerbating the deficit issue further is the fact that prevailing economic wisdom is to increase government spending during recessions in order to boost the economy. Sort of like giving crack to a recovering addict.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Music & The Spoken Word - Mothers Day

Broadcast on Sunday, Mother's Day, a transcript from their website
Mother Teresa, known the world over for her great compassion, was once asked what she considered the most significant honor she had ever received. There were many to choose from, including the Nobel Peace Prize. But she surprised her questioner when she replied, “The title of Mother.”1

Friday, May 08, 2009

My Favorite Star Trek Review

From the Daily Herald. This is the paragraph that makes it so:
It's a thrill just to get another story about James T. Kirk, Spock, Leonard "Bones" McCoy and the rest of the "original series" crew. Picard/Riker/Data, Sisko/Kira/That-Guy-Who-Sleeps-in-a-Bucket, Janeway/Big Chief First Officer/The-Borg-Chick-in-the-Spandex-Bodysuits and Capt. Dude from "Quantum Leap"/The Hot Vulcan/Was-There-Anybody-Else-on-That-Show? all have their strong points, but the classic trio and its array of supporting characters are still the "Trek" gold standard.
Capt. Dude from Quantum Leap. Love it!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Lies, Damned Lies, and 46 Million Uninsured

From economist Keith Hennessey comes a really interesting breakdown of how many uninsured people there are in the United States, and how many of those people actually need/want insurance. Since the 46 million number appears prominently in the national health care debate, this information is very valuable.

First, nearly a quarter of the 46 million are already covered by Medicaid or SCHIP, and therefore should not be included. Another 20% are not citizens of the US, while a third are either significantly over the poverty level or are young, single, and childless. If you were to take out these groups from the number of uninsured, the new number becomes 10.6 million, or 2% of the population.

2% just doesn't generate much passion though.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Happy Birthday Olivia

My family welcomed a new addition last week. This makes number four for us, and she is absolutely gorgeous if I do say so myself.

A few thoughts related to her birth:

She was born on Earth Day, which makes me wonder, did we harm or help the planet?

Are arrogant people drawn to medicine or does medicine make people arrogant? Either way, I have yet to meet a humble, likable doctor.

Speaking of doctors, for the second time we were "warned" during pregnancy that our baby had a higher risk of having downs syndrome, and for the second time the doctors were wrong. Which isn't a big deal until you consider the amount of stress that pronouncement puts on a pregnant mother, coupled with the fact that the tests they use to make that prognosis is next to meaningless and only serves as a gateway to a more reliable test which just happens to carry a risk of miscarriage with it. So thanks again, doctors. Next time, how about not having a clueless office worker (not her fault, she's just doing her job) call to schedule a follow up appointment because our baby is high risk for developmental problems, and not have anyone available to explain anything to us?

We delivered at Jordan Valley hospital in Sandy and it was superb. The nurses and staff were great.

There is nothing in this world quite like holding a newborn baby. Their smell, the little noises they make, their eyes as they look up at you. It's incomparable.

Welcome Olivia, thank you for making our lives a little brighter.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Difference in Core Values Between Israel & Hamas

Much was made of Israel's military action in the Gaza Strip late last year. A lot of the news centered on the civilian suffering and casualties caused by the engagement.

A new report by the group Human Rights Watch, and discussed here by Richard Cohen, sheds additional light on the topic:
Some residents of Gaza were taken from their homes and shot in the legs or feet. Some were brutally beaten and some were simply murdered, sometimes after hideous torture.

If you are expecting — based on everything that has happened — that the awful Israelis did this, guess again. It was Hamas, the authentic and genuine government of Gaza. Well, no one's perfect.

The information about the shootings is taken from a report issued Monday by Human Rights Watch and available on its Web site. It says that "Hamas security forces or masked gunmen believed to be with Hamas" executed 18 people, most of whom were accused of collaborating with Israel, sparing the expense and bother of a trial.

Others were shot, maimed or beaten, not for allegedly collaborating with the enemy — or, as is invariably the case, having a house or woman that a snitch covets — but for belonging to the opposition political party, Fatah.

No doubt the Human Rights Watch report will be ignored or dismissed in the greater cause of demonizing Israel. This has been the trend of late. No doubt, too, some will excuse Hamas' criminality as the inevitable result of Israeli actions — the Officer Krupke School of Behavior made famous by the singing gang members of "West Side Story."

But as much as some would like to criticize Israel — and I have done so myself — they still have a minimal obligation to acknowledge the difference in core values between it and its enemies.

Human Rights Watch is to be commended. It does not have one standard for Israel and another for Hamas, Hezbollah or the other despotic regimes of the Arab world.

That is more than can be said, though, for critics who vilify Israel, romanticize Hamas and clearly have never had the inexpressible pleasure of living in a place where a chance remark can get your legs riddled with lead. Say what you will, but that place could never be Israel.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Another Example of the Evil Bush Tax Cuts For The Rich

I still do a few tax returns on the side, and it interests me to see how the tax code affects different situations.

From an actual federal income tax return filed this year:

A family consisting of a husband, wife, and three children, with an income of $70,000. They own a home, so are able to deduct the interest from the mortgage. They also made sizable contributions to charity. Thanks to Bush's tax cuts, they can claim $3500 in exemptions for each person in the household, for a total of $17500.

After their exemptions and deductions, their tax liability was $2899. Since Bush doubled the child tax credit, they get to claim $1000 per child, which lowers that tax liability dollar for dollar. That means they have zero tax liability. And since the child tax credit is refundable, the family not only pays $0 in income tax, but gets $101 from the government.

Now, they had money withheld from their paycheck throughout the year, but they get all of that back too, making their tax return about $1400. It could have been much higher, but, knowing how their return was likely to turn out, I had them withhold the least possible amount from their checks during the year.

This return is similar to that of the "struggling mother earning minimum wage", and that of the family earning $45k, paying zero income tax and getting paid $2400 by the government. Before the Bush tax cuts, that family would have owed $950.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Alaska Realizing Consequences of Higher Taxes

Alaska relies heavily on its tourism industry for revenue. A major part of that industry is cruises. In an effort to make the cruise lines "pay their fair share", the state passed a referendum in 2006 which increased taxes on the cruise lines for every passenger they brought to Alaska.

Shockingly, those cruise lines are now reducing the amount of business they do in Alaska.
In February, Royal Caribbean International announced that in 2010 it would redeploy the Serenade of the Seas, one of its three ships operating in Alaskan waters. The cruise line cited the high cost of doing business in the Frontier State.

The following month, Carnival Corp. followed suit, significantly reducing the 2010 capacity of the Alaska market’s two biggest players, Holland America and Princess.

Those moves were the culmination of almost constant industry protests since the Cruise Ship Initiative was enacted.

Binkley said the loss of Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas would mean 42,000 fewer visitors to Alaska in 2010, which translates to an estimated loss of $55 million in tourist revenue.

"I’ve been concerned for some time as I’ve seen the cruise traffic level off for the last three years," he said. "We’ve lost market share."

An Apostle's Easter Thoughts on Christ

Monday, April 13, 2009

UTA "Express" Bus Service to Eagle Mountain Sucks

Eagle Mountain passed a tax increase last fall in order to get an express bus line to Salt Lake City. You can read my previous posts on the topic here. The bus service began this month, and not everyone is pleased with it.

From an email sent to city councilman David Lifferth and posted on his website:
We voted sales tax for UTA to come to our neighborhood. This is now reality. Except for those that ride the bus, it is a nightmare. We have CITY BUSES, not the MCI EXPRESS BUSES.

We therefore cannot sleep – no place to rest your head and the ride is way to bumpy (the entire hour trip) to sleep.. we do not have WiFi service – which is promised on the EXPRESS buses.. and most upsetting of all, we are paying the PREMIUM PRICE of $162.00 per month for trash service, and no express services.

The regular monthly pass for the CITY BUSES is $67.00. Now tell me that is fair, right, and just? I don’t think so. In waiting for the 806 to go home, I have seen two 327 and 347 FAST BUS routes with the MCI buses – both of them pay the $67.00 per month, get our WiFi service – but don’t pay the express price. This is not right.

UTA is advertising and promising EXPRESS to the 806, but we are getting what we are paying for. Will they refund our money to the $67 for the services we are getting? Not likely. And they get city funds, federal funds, and likely state funds. I have sent emails to them on this subject – no responses to date. Perhaps some prodding from the constituents will get them moving to provide the advertised EXPRESS MCI bus with WiFi. Otherwise, the cities of EM and SS need to put pressure on and get us reduced fairs.

I am including the emails that I have sent. Hopefully someone can do something. I do not know who the officials are in SS, so please feel free to forward this to them if you have emails for them.

Thank you

Chris Power