What's All This Then?

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Readers of this blog are familiar with my tongue-in-cheek theory that beneath the sidewalk at Broad and Wall Streets in New York, there sits a little old man wearing a green visor and crouched over a roll top desk - creating each trading day’s "reason" why the stock market went up, down, or sideways - which gets sent by phone, fax, e-mail or carrier pigeon to the nation’s newspapers and electronic news organizations to be faithfully relayed to the public by reporters, anchor men and women and financial "experts."

There are people who believe, perhaps with good reason, that the same sort of thing goes on in the world of conservative punditry - that daily "talking points" are created and distributed by some right wing version of my little old green visored man - and shipped out to right wing radio talk show hosts, right wing web sites - and of course to Fixed Noise - excuse me - Fox News.

I’m not sure that there is any single source for such "talking points" - but I’m almost 100% sure that people who I think of as "blinkered" conservatives - the type who would vote for Darth Vador if there was an "R" after his name (think Alan Keyes) - are picking up their phraseology - and most likely their "ideas" from the same places. I’m seeing it with comments posted on line. I ‘m getting e-mails filled with the nonsense. It’s no coincidence when they all mirror each other.

During the campaign, it was the use of "Messiah" to mock the feeling of hope that Barack Obama engendered - not just at home but around the world. I’m not sure, but I believe that Rush Limbaugh came up with this one. Lately, it’s been "empty suit" and the "Teleprompter Kid" - definitely started by Limbaugh - implying, not that he reads a teleprompter better than almost anyone in public life - but that he is at a loss for words without a teleprompter. This despite his debates during the Democratic primaries, his debates with McCain and, since he became president - his press conferences, interviews and town hall meetings with - unlike his predecessor - people who haven’t been hand picked or pre-screened in any way. By the way - that’s a "change" we can believe in - but facts have no place in the garbage being spewed by right wing extremists - garbage that’s totally swallowed and spewed out again by the blinkered acolytes and ditto heads.

From time to time, I have tried to reason with such people. I have neighbors, friends and even relatives who are believers in the right wing mantra - and trying to persuade them to see facts that totally contradict their beliefs is like trying to argue with someone whose beliefs are based on religious faith. Which has led me to conclude that extreme Republican loyalty and belief -( again think Alan Keyes and the 1,390,690 people who voted for him in the 2004 U.S. Senate race in Illinois) - is not just like religious belief - but in fact is a form of religious belief.

How else to explain the madness of insisting that Obama wasn’t born in the United States? No matter what proof is offered, it is rejected out of hand. A birth certificate is posted on line and it is attacked as a forgery. Hawaiian authorities confirm its authenticity and they are not believed. Show them his birth announcement and they say it’s a fake. Show them how the smears posted on right wing blogs are lies and distortions and they continue to insist that the facts are wrong and their beliefs are correct.

How does this differ from religious belief that has no interest in facts? You cannot argue scientific and historical fact with someone who believes, not only in God - but in all of the dreamed up trappings of a particular religion. No matter what fact you present, it is countered with a contrary belief. Thus there are still people who believe in the literal tale of the earth’s beginnings as described in the King James Bible - and some of these people have run for the highest office in this and other lands!!

I wouldn’t go so far as to question the mental health of those who can never be persuaded to deviate from extreme political positions in favor of common sense - but sometimes you have to wonder. Take the nice people of Minnesota’s sixth Congressional District for example. After listening to that district’s representative in Congress, a psychiatrist might believe that they could be used to form the basis for a scientific study of the mental health of all Americans .Just like a small poll sample is often used to judge the mood of the whole country.

By now, anyone slightly interested in politics knows who Michelle Bachman is. Not being a Congressional wonk , I wasn’t really aware of her nuttiness until I saw her on "Hardball" telling Chris Matthews that Members of Congress should be investigated - by whom it wasn’t clear - to determine which of them were "anti-American." And that Obama, in her opinion, had "anti-American views." This is a woman who says that global warming is a "hoax" - doesn’t believe there should be any such thing as a minimum wage and doesn’t believe in evolution. And she got elected after saying these and like things. But at least she waited until she was firmly in her seat to display her racial sensitivity - congratulating the election of Michael Steele as RNC Chairman with - at the top of her voice - "Michael Steele. You be da man."

I have long believed that religious belief is at the heart of much of the world’s ills. If political belief becomes as intractable as religious belief, one can only hope that those who are consumed with such irrational ideas will be relegated to a small and ineffective minority - and thank goodness it seems to be happening here. Of course, being extremists, they don’t see it or believe it. They think their views are in the majority. And that’s fine. Don’t tell them. Just let them keep on thinking that way as they get smaller and smaller and eventually fade away.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

You’ve probably seen the commercial. A group sitting around a conference table talking to their boss on a speaker phone about a color presentation they’ve put together. The boss is impressed. In fact he’s shocked that it’s so good. And one of the group presses the "mute" button and says "Shocked - your shocked? We’re shocked that you even get it pal." At which point someone comes into the room and the speaker asks "what are you doing here?" The new arrival says - "I’ve come to fix the mute button." There’s a moment of silence, after which someone else at the table says -"Bye Bye Bonus."

That’s what a great many people would like to be saying about the so called "bonuses" paid out to senior staff at taxpayer bailed out AIG. In the commercial, the meaning of "bonus" is clearly understood - as it is by most people in most work places. A company makes a good profit and/or employees do a good job - and bonuses are earned at Christmas or at the end of a fiscal year. They’re not "guaranteed, contractually obligated bonuses." That’s not descriptive of a bonus. Any contract between an employer and an employee to pay a lump sum at the end of a given period is descriptive of a complicated salary agreement. You can call it a bonus - but that’s playing antics with semantics. It’s the sort of thing that gets people upset with Gays who want to get married to each other. The objection isn’t so much with the domestic relationship that two homosexual people have or w ant to have with each other. It’s the word. Marriage.

I’m not saying that we should be any more or less mad at the ridiculous pay outs to the very people who brought AIG to the brink of ruin if we don’t call them "bonuses" - but calling them bonuses insults every hard working man and woman who occasionally earns and is paid a legitimate bonus. What’s even more insulting is that AIG is calling them "retention bonuses" - ostensibly paid to keep brilliant employees on the payroll - even though a bunch of them have pocketed the money and left the company. There’s a phrase that really plays antics with semantics. "Retention bonus." AIG promised to pay big chunks of money to a flock of employees so that they wouldn’t leave the company for greener pastures. They did it through binding contracts - and the employees repaid the forthcoming largess by sending the company down the tubes.

Hey - we have to pay big bucks to keep good people the AIG brass tell us. As if there are companies lined up to hire them so that they could guide their new employers into bankruptcy. It’s a tale worthy of the sort of scenario that might be dreamed up by combining the talents of Lewis Carroll and Rube Goldberg. But it would be interesting to know just who these people are, what they did for AIG, how long they worked for the company and how much they were being paid exclusive of any "bonuses." It would give us more of an insight into the cockeyed world of high finance gone amok. These are the people we rely on to cross the T’s and dot the I’s of out financial system - indeed the world wide financial system about whom we are only just beginning to learn exist in a very profitable - for then - Alice in Wonderland world. And nothing we are doing to stabilize that world seems to be changing it one iota.

I see nothing wrong with people who actually produce something and make large profits in the process, pulling down paychecks that most of us only dream about. But we’ve lost a sense of reality with some of the paychecks we give to people in some businesses and professions. Sports is a good example. Where is the connection to reality when a baseball player is offered thirty million dollars to play for three years and is holding out for thirty three million? But at least that idiocy out in the open. It isn’t a big surprise that gets revealed at a Congressional hearing with Senators and Representatives calling for millions to be rescinded or taxed at some confiscatory rate.. But the bizarre world of finance where one tries to correlate the size of paychecks with work performed is something that would baffle an Albert Einstein .

I’m glad that AIG hasn’t gone under - and I hope that it will stay alive. I have a policy with them. I didn’t buy it from then - but they swallowed up the company that swallowed up the company that I did buy it from - and I’ll bet there are millions more like me. It’s a gargantuan behemoth - and probably is too big to fail and probably should have been saved with infusions of taxpayer money. But if all we did was pour money into their bottomless pit of failure without imposing some reasonable restrictions on how money would be spent - not just taxpayer money giving us an 80% interest in the company - but ALL money - so that there couldn’t be any nonsense about what was paid with taxpayer bail out money and what was paid with "other" money - then we should be just as mad at the government officials who let it happen.

Now we have the spectacle of "experts" telling us that there would be lawsuits if the "bonuses: were withheld and that that could be more damaging to AIG than the damage the bonus recipients have already caused the company - and the President saying that every legal avenue would be pursued to try to rescind the bonuses - even though they’ve been paid and for all we know the payees are lounging on a Riviera beach sipping champagne and doubling over with laughter as they read about the debacle in The Riviera Times.

The other day, Bem Bernanke said that he expects the recession to end this year - even though the unemployment numbers are likely to keep climbing. That’s his idea of things getting better. To me, his remarks and those of the rest of the "experts" who are guiding our climb towards recovery are evidence of what has been clear for some time now. Either the foxes are guarding the hen house or the inmates are running the asylum.

Monday, March 09, 2009

With Health Care Reform……

O.K. It was fairly good speech. The almost State of the Union speech that the president gave to a joint session of Congress on February24 . But 60 plus interruptions for applause? It was silly for all the joint session speeches of the past and it was just as silly this time. I feel sorry for whoever sits behind the president - whether it’s Nancy Pelosi and Darth Vador or Pelosi and Joe Biden. They look ridiculous jumping up and down like jack-in-the-boxes.

But there were some parts of the speech worth applauding - particularly the assertion that we have to do something about health care. Sure we do. It’s a mess. We may have the best doctors and the best hospitals in the world - but we have a cockeyed, convoluted, way too expensive system of getting health care to those of us who need it. Unfortunately, it’s going to continue to be cockeyed, convoluted and expensive.

During the presidential campaign, Obama said that if he could start from scratch - if there wasn’t already an entrenched system - he would opt for a single payer, national health system. Well we’re not starting from scratch and from what I’ve heard so far, we’re going to continue to play fine tune games with the system we have - and I don’t think it’s going to help. We keep hearing that there are 37 million uninsured in the country as though that was the problem or a good part of the problem - but it’s not. The problem is that health care is just too damned expensive and too big a profitable business for insurance companies, drug and equipment manufacturers - and most doctors and hospitals.

My wife an I are probably among the millions of "middle Americans" who won’t be helped one damned bit by anything that Congress devises to "reform" healthcare in the United States. We have health insurance, including increasingly expensive drug coverage from her job from which she’ll be retiring shortly and we’ll be switching over to Medicare parts A and B and maybe the part D drug coverage - if we can ever find a linguist to translate it for us. Our health coverage costs will be increased after my wife retires and there’s not a snowball’s chance in Hades of them going down through anything being proposed by the president or his health care reform team.

Let’s consider drug costs for example - a huge portion of medical costs. Over in England, where they have that hated national health plan, my brother and his wife - both seniors like us - take their drug prescriptions down to Boot’s the Chemist - hand ‘em over - and in return, get whatever medications were prescribed. That’s the entire transaction. No money changes hands. There is no co-pay for seniors - and for the rest of the people who use the national plan - the co-pay amount is what those of us used to American style drug plans might call "incidental." But it wasn’t that many years ago when our co-pays were comparable. Our insurance plan covered a 90 day supply of any medication for $2!! No kidding. Two dollars. Then it began to climb. It went to six then twelve and it kept climbing until it reached today’s levels of $20 for generics and $50 or $60 for brand names. Still not a bad deal compared to the cost of those drugs without insurance - and there’s the first cockeyed aspect of our healthcare system that Obama isn’t going to be able to change.

We live in a free market society and the reigning motto on what anyone can charge for anything is - whatever the market will bear. But when it comes to the medications that cure us or help to keep us alive - what the pharmaceutical companies are charging us comes close to being criminal. They will claim of course that they have to charge what they charge because they have to plow so many gazillions into research to produce new generations of life saving drugs. Except that we know that they spend more money on promotion than research and that many new drugs come from other countries or are "me too" drugs. It is absolutely unconscionable that a medication used by millions can cost the end user hundreds of dollars a month. The VA has been able to bargain with the pharmaceutical industry to get a better price on some drugs - but don’t look for any reductions in what the rest of us have to pay.

The same is true of what doctors and hospitals charge, Maybe the biggest screwing of patients comes from billing codes - first devised by the AMA more than 40 years ago and since grown like Topsy to the point where medical billing has become a full time profession - with the awarding of a DEGREE in Medical Billing and Coding.

In the good old days, you went to see your doctor and he sent you a bill for a reasonable amount - presumably based on the amount of time he spent with you and any supplies that might have been used. Not today. Today we have medical practice by billing codes. A few weeks ago my wife had an epidural injection to try to relieve some of her back pain. It was done under fluoroscopy so that the doctor could guide the needle to exactly the right spot. He gave her a small amount of lidocaine and then injected a steroid solution. The bill that was submitted to Blue Cross was what I call medical costs on steroids. Here’s a verbatim reproduction - codes and all

97535 Self Care Train $ 74.00
62311 Lumbar Epidural $ 1056.00
98925 Manipulation $ 98.00
77003 Fluoroscopy $ 440.00
J2001 Lidocaine Inj. $ 200.00
J1030 Deep Medrol $ 150.00
97010 Ice Pack $ 15.00

Total: $2030.00
To Blue Cross’s credit, they denied any payment for "self care train" which is also called home care training. The only home care training that might have been involved in my wife’s treatment would perhaps have been the doctor saying "maybe you should take it easy for the rest of the day." But Blue Cross didn’t think that was worth $74 and neither did we, so it won’t be paid. And Blue Cross cut $1477 from the rest of the bill - which is the arrangement between Doctors and Blue Cross. The doctor submits a padded bill and Blue Cross pays what it thinks is an appropriate amount. Should we be grateful for Blue Cross? I think not.

Why? Beacuse another huge portion of medical costs is the billions of profits raked in by insurance companies. President Obama says if we’re satisfied or comfortable with the coverage that we already have - he thinks it’s O.K. for us to keep it. Which is a way of telling people like me and my wife and probably most of the people who read these words - that "reform" isn’t going to help us one damned bit.

It will probably take more years than Obama will stay in office to produce real reform - meaning single payer coverage for all and taking a huge bite out of what makes up a large portion of health care costs - profits!! Frankly, I would settle for just one smidgen of reform - a little less convolution.

As I said, my wife is getting ready to retire from her job - and somehow the insurance world knows this, knows that she’s eligible for Medicare, parts A and B - and she has been deluged with offers of "medigap" insurance that picks up costs not covered by Medicare. She’s also being solicited to buy Medicare part D, the wonderful government program designed by Rube Goldberg. That is to say, it’s not quite as straightforward as my brother’s prescription drug program referenced above - but it can all be explained by searching on line - starting, say here - and then just click away to guide you through the maze.

If you can figure out what it all means and how it works, please send me an e-mail and explain it to me. No rush. Any time in the next four years will do. Of course by the end of four years, it won’t matter. Everything will be reformed by then. And I will have given up driving my gas guzzler in favor of riding my pet winged pig.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

I’ve been too busy to pen any commentaries for a while, so there’s a backlog of subject matter in my head and I’ll need to get some of it out soon or you may be reading about the strange case of a spontaneous cranial explosion in a Chicago suburb. Not here of course. Although there are some bloggers who write as though their heads have already exploded, it’s actually not possible to have a cohesive thought if it should really happen.

But enough frivolity. Although I’m not ready to resume commenting on a regular basis, I had to make time to acknowledge the passing of Paul Harvey. My first reaction when I heard he had died was one of disbelief - first because I knew he had a couple of years left on his current ten year contract with ABC - and second because I always thought of Harvey as a permanent fixture - someone who would live forever.

It’s hard to believe that it was fifty years ago when I first met Paul. I had just been hired by ABC and was starting my career working in the mail room - and Paul’s office, of all places, was just off of the mail room. I guess Paul must have been forty at that time and was already famous. Because of where his office was, I saw him just about every day and had a jolly old time jousting with him for the year or so that I spent in the mail room - and then later when I became a stage manager and director - some of it described in my July 7, 2003 comments about "What Paul Harvey Does." Those comments weren’t meant to deride - but they were sort of an "exposé" of the great news man the way I knew him - as more of a commercial spokesman extraordinaire.

I was mildly surprised when this aspect of Harvey’s career was almost totally absent from the outpouring of accolades from fellow broadcasters and media columnists. I read only one story of his death that mentioned his reading of commercials - but even then it was a passing mention. The emphasis in most of the stories was on his pauses and his mellifluous voice. But even though none of the stories said it outright - the hints were there of Paul’s true talent - that of a performer. A newsman doesn’t need to be an actor - though it helps if he has a pleasant delivery - and if he’s on television, a pleasant appearance.. But if you’re a performer as Paul was - you didn’t need to be a newsman in the true sense of the word - and as I pointed out in my 7/7/03 comments, Paul’s "news" programs were unlike any other newscasts.

Though I avoided listening to him after I left ABC - when I wanted to hear the news I listened or watched "regular" newscasts - he was always fun to watch and work with as long as you didn’t take him or his "news" seriously. But he was an icon and even though I haven’t seen or spoken to Paul in many years, I feel almost a sense of personal loss as he joins other icons with whom I worked or knew so many years ago and have shuffled off this mortal coil.

It’s getting kind of lonely being a survivor. So long Paul. It was fun knowing you.