Tuesday, May 31, 2011

May 31, 2011--Kindling

Two significant culture-shifting things were recently reported in the New York Times--

Amazon revealed that it is now selling more E-Books than book-books (105 E-Books are being sold for every 100 hardcover or paperback books); while a study from 2010 Census data revealed that for the first time in history married couples are no longer in the majority--only 48 percent of households include them. (Article linked below.)

I am an old-fashioned sort and so my household includes a married couple--Rona and me--but not a Kindle nor an E-Book is in sight. I mean downloaded.

There are good explanations for the decline in the number of married couples. As more women have moved into the work force living together out of wedlock for women has lost most of its traditional taboo and marriage has lost some of its normative force.

This is especially true for better-educated, more economically successful men and women, who, if they marry, tend to do so when older. For less-educated, poorer woman, who are more likely to be employed than their male counterparts, counterparts who increasingly have fathered children with them, fewer of these women than in the past are marrying at all. According to those who study these trends, marginally employed women are concluding that they can just about manage to support themselves and their children, but not their children's' fathers.

And so again, for the first time in history, fewer than 50 percent of families include married couples.

The E-Book thing, though, I find harder to understand.

So I clicked on the Amazon Website and found that not every book one might find to be of interest is available electronically. While you can get all the New York Times bestsellers via downloads to be read on Amazon's Kindle; while you can find all the Patricia Cornwells and james Pattersons you could want to take along to the beach; if, like me, you're a book snob (or have an addiction to American history) the electronic pickins are slim.

I was tempted to check out E-Books by more than the curiosity elicited by the report in the Times. At the moment I am reading Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy, an almost 5-pound book of 1,044 pages; and since I do a lot of my reading in bed, very early in the morning before Rona gets up, I have balance books of this size on my stomach, but the Wilentz book is so heavy that it gives me gas.

A Kindle, then, as much as I hate the idea of it, might work for at least this kind of literally heavy reading. And, since it looks as if books' read this way glow on the screen, the Wilentz in E-Book mode might make it possible for me not to have to turn on my night light and further disturb Rona.

But alas, though there are lots of Mary Higgins Clarks novels available, I cannot find anything by Wilentz or any of my favorite historians.

I thus accept the fact that I'll have to put up with stomach cramps. In addition, since I am more and more concerned that marriage is endangered, I have been thinking that all the kindling going on is probably contributing to that. So for the good of the cause, rather than cuddling with a Kindle, I'll continue to do mine with my books and Rona.

Friday, May 27, 2011

May 27, 2011--Long Weekend

To celebrate the unofficial start of summer I will be taking an extra long weekend and will return on Tuesday, from up in Maine.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

May 26, 2011--Political Mafia

Back in1957 there was a meeting of nearly 100 Mafia Godfathers in upstate Apalachin, New York.

The boys had a lot on their minds.

They needed to divvy up Cosa Nostra operations such as gambling, casinos, and narcotics dealing. The Scalice and Anastasia murders were topics that needed immediate attention, since men in the Anastasia Family still loyal to the Anastasia/Scalise regime, such as the powerful caporegimes Aniello "The Lamb" Dellacroce and Armand "Tommy" Rava were about to go to war against Vito Genovese and his allies.

Some of the most powerful Mafia family heads in the country, such as Santo Trafficante, Jr., Northeastern family underboss Rosario "Russell" Bufalino, Frank DeSimone of Los Angeles, Carlos "Little Man" Marcello and Meyer Lansky worried about Anastasia's attempts to muscle in on their Havana casino operations, before the Commission sanctioned his assassination.

Cuba itself was one of the Apalachin topics of discussion, particularly the gambling and narcotics smuggling interests of the Cosa Nostra on the island. The international narcotics trade was also an important topic on the Apalachin agenda. Shortly before the confab, Bonanno Family members Joseph Bonanno, Carmine Galante, Frank Garafolo, Giovanni Bonventre. and other representatives from Detroit, Buffalo. and Montreal visited Palermo, where they held talks with Sicilian Mafiosi.

Among other things, these goodfellas helped invent what we today call the globalized economy.

Imagine, if you will, a more contemporary meeting. This one hosted by Fox News godfather Roger Ailes at his own upstate compound. The purpose of the meeting, according to New York Magazine, was to convince New Jersey governor Chris Christie to enter the Republican race for the presidential nomination. Ailes, a former Nixon aide, had become increasingly frustrated with the shrinking slate of candidates and to figure out what to do had been talk daily with George Bush, the Father.

Though Ailes hired Mike Huckabee to host a Fox show and thought of him as a comer, Huckabee likes his six figure Fox salary more than having to give it up as he would have to do if he were to enter the race. Newt too has been a Fox regular but then there is that adultery issue and now the $500,000 Tiffany problem. And though Ailes also put Sarah Palin on the payroll for big bucks, he has come to conclude that she is "an idiot." No fool that Roger.

So what to do?

Fall in love with Christie, that's what he did, just when the New Jersey Supreme Court found the governor behaving unconstitutionally for savagely cutting school budgets in impoverished districts around the state; and after recent polls showed Christie's approval rating had plummeted to only 42 percent, lower than Jersey Shore's Snooki's.

Not to be deterred, Ailes plowed ahead; and since he knew that Christie had taken himself out of contention (saying with blithe certainty that though he could beat Obama, with considerable self-insight, declared he was not yet qualified to be president), Roger, caring more about winning than elected a qualified candidate, decided he had to roll out the literal heavy guns. So to the dinner he invited Rush Limbaugh, who along with Ailes and Karl Rove is the titular head of the Republican Party.

Considering the heavyweights gathered in the baronial Ailes' dining room (and the pun is intended), I wish I had been a fly on the wall to eavesdrop on the courtship.

All I know that Christie humbly declined.

So I guess this means that the GOP field is reduced to three Mr. Excitements--Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Obama's recent ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman. On the lunatic right, of course, there is Ron Paul. And for comic relief, Michele Bachmann. I am assuming that the one-year governor of Alaska doesn't want to give up being CEO of Palin, Inc, which continues for the moment to net her a cool $10 million a year. And I assume that George H. W. Bush is reluctant to push son Jeb's candidacy. Even though his mind isn't as sharp as in the past, I suspect Poppy in his soul knows that another Bush presidency would just about finish us off.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

May 25, 2011--Daytime TV

One of the dubious benefits of no longer having a normal office job is the opportunity to keep up with daytime TV. I do spend more time than I'd like to admit doing this.

About half a dozen times a day I tune in to CNBC to see how the stock market is faring. Whether the gyrations of our portfolio will allow us to go out for a nice dinner or will we need to think about home-cooked pasta and tomato sauce.

I flip around the various ESPN stations to see if there is any news about the two teams I'm currently following--the Yankees and, as a Florida snowbird, the Miami Heat. The former are struggling and the latter have finally gelled as a team and I am feeling are likely to make it to the NBA finals.

And this week there is the French Open which is available on the Tennis Channel. We like to follow Rafa Nadal because he is from Mallorca and for a decade we had a place on that magical island.

This week as well is Oprah's last; and as a student of popular culture, I have checking in with her. Yesterday the show was devoted to tributes to her inspirational and philanthropic work. I know she has appealed to many with her blend of self-actualizing, secular spirituality; but to tell the truth I found the show excruciating to watch.

The part I saw was a version of a chorus of young girls and celebrities like Katie Holmes telling the tearful Oprah what she has meant to them. How one lost 30 pounds and was doing all she could to keep it off; how another was motivated by Oprah to stay in school and study hard so as to make something of herself. This testimony was surprising and felt phony since I assume these kids are in school when the Orpah Show is on and when they are at home they're not watching TV--they're too busy texting and tweeting. It felt as if they had been hired from Rent-A-Kid.

How could Oprah, I wondered, who has done much good, command and script this sort of thing (and scripted it surely was--everyone was reading off the teleprompter)? What sort of inner insecurity and colossal ego was required for her to call for and then sit still for this tacky charade?

Then yesterday, on a channel named Tru, I caught the defense's opening statement in the Casey Anthony murder trial.

I assume you know at least a little something about this. Her daughter, Caylee, went missing about three years ago and Casey apparently didn't report her disappearance for a month. This of course made her the prime suspect. It didn't help that during that month she was spotted have a good-old time all around town.

People following the unfolding of the evidence since she was arrested have come to hate her. Her every court appearance is not only followed by the rabid press and gossip corps but also by local people bearing signs calling for her execution. From the looks on some of these neighbors' faces it would appear that they would welcome the execution even before the trial.

The prosecution seems to have a strong case, but just yesterday afternoon for the first time the defense rolled out Casey's story. And apparently, to the cognoscenti, it is quite a whopper.

They are offering the Oprah-defense: the classic abuse-excuse. Casey's lawyers are claiming that her daughter drowned in the family swimming pool; and since she, Casey, as an eight-year-old was allegedly sexually molested by her father--Caylee's grandfather--with him she conspired to dispose of the body.

I probably don't have it exactly right--I was also trying to catch a nap while this was going on--so I can't yet figure out why being molested would cause one to not want to call 911. If Caylee truly drowned, this would be a tragedy but not a crime and it all would have been all over in a few days and not be dragging on for three salacious years.

But we'll see. The good news is that Geraldo is on the case--his juiciest gig since the OJ trial--as the reporter covering the trial for Fox news, and I am certain that in great and lurid detail he will make sense of it all.

In one more day Oprah will be gone, by next weekend the French Open will be resolved, and I am convinced that our portfolio will manage to keep us above water, so I'll stay tuned to Tru, whatever that is, and check in with Geraldo and try to do a better job than I have thus far here to bring you the important news of the day.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

May 24, 2011--Terrible Mistake

I made the mistake last night of drinking too much wine so I have a foggy brain. I have just enough energy to want to find out what Harold Camping has been up to since the Rapture didn't happen on Saturday as he predicted.

According to the BBC--

Harold Camping said it had "dawned" on him that God would spare humanity "hell on Earth for five months", and the apocalypse would happen on 21 October.

The evangelical broadcaster who left followers crestfallen by his failed prediction that last Saturday would be Judgement Day says he miscalculated.

Mr Camping said he felt "terrible" about his mistake.

I hope that not all of his followers quit their jobs since they will be needing to send him cash between now and October 21st. It costs a lot of money to wait around for The End.

Monday, May 23, 2011

May 23, 2011--The Rapture of Bibi Netanyahu

On Friday the media mavens were pursuing two seemingly unrelated stories-- one serious, the other amusing.

The serious story was the tense meeting between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at which they expressed very different visions for the future of Israel and Palestine.

The concurrent amusing story was about the millennialist cult waiting for the end of the world, which they believed was scheduled by God to occur on Saturday, May 21st, Reporters chuckled about how some of talk show host's Harold Camping's followers gave up their jobs and were bundling together in anticipation of the Rapture that would whisk them right up to heaven.

While covering these very-different-seeming stories no one noted or commented about the serious connection between them. How the aspirations of those waiting for the Rapture, the Second Coming of Christ that it would signal, and the ultimate Last Judgement are among Israel's most fervent supporters.

To these fundamental Christians, facts-on-the-ground in Israel, especially the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Bibi Netanyahu is loath to give up, are necessary biblically-prophesied preconditions for the rolling out of the End of Times.

Obviously this did not happen on Saturday (though there was a significant volcanic eruption on Sunday in Iceland), but these religious fanatics are already rechecking their calculations and I am sure will come up soon with a new date for the End as their eschatologist predecessors have done through the ages.

And while they are checking their math and poring over their calendars, while they are waiting, they will continue to do all they can to support Israel's expansion eastward into what they think of as Greater Israel since Jews occupying the West Bank and lands beyond it are to them the essential next steps in God's divine plan.

For these believers, after the Israelis secure more land in the region, it will be necessary for all Jews, me included, to return to Israel; and while there, in addition to needing to become Christians, we must do all we can to take the lead in converting others because only the most faithful will be raptured when The Time comes.

Those who believe this are not a handful of crazies who can be dismissed as we mocked the small May 21st band but rather tens and tens of millions of Americans who believe fully in the coming Rapture and all that will follow. The only disagreement is about the date. Serious millennialists, while proclaiming these beliefs, differ only about the when of it.

Polls show that at least a quarter of all Americans, though they are not rushing to give up their day jobs, are waiting for the Rapture.

And while waiting, they are busy voting. Almost all are enthusiastic Republicans who make up the core of the GOP's base.

Among their most important issues, perhaps as passionate as not believing in taxation, not wanting to render unto Caesar, is their commitment to the current Israeli government's expansionist policies because these are essentially linked to their own religious beliefs. If Israel is forced by someone like an Obama (who quite a number claim is the Antichrist) to swap land for peace, this to the fundamentalists would represent turning back the millennialist prophetic calendar.

President Obama knows this and thus treads among these issues with considerable political trepidation, though he also knows the fundamentalists are not his crowd. And Prime Minister Netanyahu, who spent formative years in the U.S. knows this as well and thus is adept at playing the evangelical card while at the same time working the network of unquestioning American Jewish supporters of Israel who do not have a clue as to the true nature or agenda of these fundamentalist "friends" of Israel. Because if they did it might give them pause about embracing support that will require them to return to the Holy Land, convert to Christianity, become Jews for Jesus, or pay the eternal consequences.

Friday, May 20, 2011

May 20, 2011--Recessions, Depressions, & Panics

On the day before the END is supposed to happen, I received an email from a friend who is worried about a different kind of end--the end of our economy as we know it. He has been passing along articles that decry the fact the our Fed has been printing money and how that is making the current economic situation worse.

I try to encourage him to check American economic history and after doing that we can talk. He accuses me a being "academic," which I suppose he means is a lower life form. I tell him if he means that I try to know my history, I take the jibe as a compliment.

On Monday I will attempt to deal with monetary policy, but first a little background--

Economic crises are sadly nothing new. And all of the worst of them occurred during the 19th, not the 20th or 21st centuries. In fact, though our Great Depression of 1929-1937 was indeed Great, it was far from our worst. Business activity dropped by a horrendous 27% but during the 19th century alone there were at least five instances of decline that were even steeper.

And, in all cases we recovered, often helped by activist monetary policy. More about that next week. Here, though, is a quick list of the economic crises we faced and from which we recovered:

Year. . . . . . . . . .Duration. . . . .Business Activity

1836. . . . . . . . . . 2 years. . . . .. .-33%
1839-43. . . . . . . 4 year. . . . . . . -34%
1845-46. . . . . . . 1 year. . . . . . . -6%
1847-48. . . . . . . 1 year. . . . . . .-20%
1853-54. . . . . . . 1 year. . . . . . .-18%
Panic of 1857. . . .1 1/2 years. . .-23%
1860-61. . . . . . . 8 mos. . . . . . .-15%
1865-67. . . . . . .2 1/2 years. . . -24%
1869-70. . . . . . .1 1/2 years. . . -10%
Panic of 1873. . . 5 1/2 years. . . .-34%
1882-85. . . . . . . .3 years. . . . . .-25%
1887-88. . . . . . . .1 year. . . . . . .-8%
1890-91. . . . . . . .10 mos. . . . . .-12%
Panic of 1892. . . 1 1/2 years. . . .-30%
Panic of 1896. . . 1 1/2 years. . . .-21%
1889-90. . . . . . .1 1/2 years. . . .-9%
1902-04. . . . . . . . 2 years. . . . . -17%
Panic of 1907. . . . .1 year. . . . . . .-31%
Panic of 1910-11. . 2 years. . . . . -11%
Recession 1913-14. . 2 years. . . .-20%

After that there were 14 recessions until the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929-32 and saw a decline in business activity of 27%.

Thereafter, there were 13 more recessions, all of them of relatively short duration where business declines averaged about 2%. And, as mentioned about, the current Great Recession which began in 2007 and was technically over more than a year ago saw a decline in business activity of "only" 4.1%.

One thing characterizing the 20th-21st century recessions after the Great Depression has been aggressive monetary activity by the Fed.

I'm sorry, Harvey, but these are all historical facts passed along from an academic friend.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

May 19, 2011--Blame It On Woodstock

The Culture War continues. This time within the Catholic Church.

In an attempt to find the "definitive answer" to what caused the sexual abuse crisis within the Church, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops--the very group that for years turned a blind eye to the scandal as it was revealed--commissioned a study by researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

And the USCCB got the definitive answer it hoped and paid for--it wasn't the fault of priestly celibacy, homosexuality, or the Church hierarchy.

At the heart of the problem was the free love, sexual culture of the 1960s and 70s.

This reflects the views of the highest U.S. Catholic authorities and the Vatican itself, where Pope Benedict XVI continues to cite what, in Church circles, is called the "blame Woodstock" explanation--that priests at that time were so confused and poorly prepared for the changing sexual mores that were swirling about them that these cultural victims became so stressed that they had little choice but to turn to prepubescent children for relief.

The report (which you can read linked below in its entirety) further concludes that fewer than 5 percent of the priests who abused children were engaging in pedophilia--forcing sex on boys younger than 10. This finding will undoubtedly bring solace to excuse-makers within the Church.

A problem with this, however, is that the American Psychiatric Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classifies pedophilia as engaging in sexual behavior with prepubescent children age 13 or younger. If the John Jay hired hands had used this universal standard, the percentage of priests engaging in this aberrant practice would have been much, much higher. And if they had looked at their behavior with children between 13 and 18, the number who transgressed this way would be higher still.

The report also "finds" that as priests became discombobulated by what they saw gong on at Woodstock and among the youth in their very parishes, to find an outlet for their sexual frustration they turned, inexorably, to those closest at hand--choir boys.

If more girls had been around, the report implies, they too would have become priestly victims. But at least we would be able to breathe a small sigh of relief--the problem isn't about homosexuality. Just who was within literal reach.

Priests couldn't make the bar scene or hang out at rock-and-roll clubs or hit on women who were among their parishioner; but in their frenzy of confusion they, as Rona put it bluntly on the morning the report was released, had little choice but to get a nearby boy to give them a BJ to calm them down.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

May 18, 2011--The Law

Though most of the media attention has focused on the salacious details--how Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Chief of the International Monetary Fund allegedly assaulted a maid in his luxurious Manhattan hotel suite--there is another important aspect to the story that has not been covered. The remarkable if flawed way in which the law works in the United States.

You of course know about the case:

How Strauss-Kahn emerged from the shower and, while fully naked, purportedly sexually assaulted the maid who came to his room thinking he was out. For those wanting the lurid details, and for others who take schadenfreudean pleasure is seeing the wealthy and famous fall from their pedestals--the very same pedestals on which we tend to place the rich and powerful--there are the numerous news accounts.

He up to now in his IMF role was considered to be one of a handful of most powerful men in the world, fully engaged and playing a leadership role in struggles to resolve the European debt crisis while at the same time regulating and supporting the economies of developing nations. He was, for example, after the alleged attack, hauled off a jet that would have taken him to Europe for a meeting yesterday with German Chancellor, Angela Merkel and others, seeking ways to deal with the failing Greek economy.

And, we have learned in the process, that he was the odds-on favorite to be elected France's next president since Nicolas Sarkozy's poll numbers are in free fall.

So Strauss-Kahn's own fall is nothing short of seismic and remarkable.

Remarkable because on the other side of the story we have the reported victim, a 32-year-old African immigrant who lives in the Bronx with her young son.

In most places in the world, such a person would not be able to bring charges of sexual assault against a Strauss-Kahn. Her allegations would likely be dismissed by the authorities where the attitude would be: What was she doing in his $2,000-a-night suite in the first place? Wasn't she inciting him by her very presence? And, further, excuses would be made--It was merely a matter of a man behaving like a man. What's the big deal.

We do not have a perfect justice system--I suspect that attempts will be made to get her to withdraw her charges after money exchanges hands or her lawyer reminds her that the rich are able to buy themselves a strong defense team and that she is likely, by them, to be turned into the accused.

Then there are the legitimate questions about the uniquely American perp walk, where someone like a Strauss-Kahn, charged with a sex crime, is marched in handcuffs before the cameras. Mind you, he is "only" an alleged criminal who, here, thanks to the implications of the 5th, 6th, and 14th Amendments to our Constitution, is considered innocent until proven guilty.

The French, who do not allow the public humiliation of alleged criminals, are understandable outraged. More by the perp walk, it seems, than their up-to-now future president's apparent penchant for engaging is this kind of behavior. As we are also learning, he has quite a track record in this regard.

But we should also take a moment to step back to reflect on how remarkable it is that just a maid, even an immigrant housekeeper, protected by the Constitution and the American justice system, has the right and the power to bring such charges and, if they are proven beyond a reasonable doubt, can see her attacker, no matter how exalted, forced to pay for his crimes.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

May 17, 2011--Job Creators

The Republican argument in favor of tax cuts and tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy is based on the assertion that this will lead to economic growth and especially the creation of new jobs.

In other words, the GOP jobs program is to cut taxes and extend tax breaks and loopholes to companies such as the big oil producers because to the GOP and their Ayn Rand followers these corporations are considered "job creators."

This was on full display last week when the CEOs of the so-called Big Five oil companies (Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP America, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips) were hauled before the Senate Finance Committee and asked to justify the tax breaks they receive. In effect they testified that they are treated no differently than other large corporations. One CEO declared that this is the American way of fostering competition.

I thought that since Big Oil has received these "incentives" for many, many years, this claim that the government, through its tax policies, has helped them make huge profits would show evidence of leading to the creation of thousands of new jobs in the U.S. and worldwide.

It is thus an ideal, and ironic, test case of government assisted trickle-down economics.

First a glimpse at their recent earnings reports--

All five companies reported record profits for the first quarter of 2011.

--Exxon Mobil saw its profits rise by 69% as compared to last year. They totaled $10.76 billion.

--Shell's profits rose 22%; it's profits were $6.9 billion.

--BP America had profits of $7.2 billion on an increase of 16%.

--Chevron's profits increased 36% while its profits were $4.6 billion.

--And ConocoPhillips saw its profits soar to $3.0 billion, an increase of 43%.

On the jobs front, how many new jobs did these very profitable companies generate? This is, after all, the justification for their tax breaks.

--In 2008, Exxon employed 107,000; in 2010, 102,000. A loss of 4,300 jobs.

--In 2008, Shell employed 104,000; by 2010 this was down by 3,000 to 101,000.

--BP America in 2008 employed 97,600; two years later they had cut that to 80,300. There were 17,300 fewer workers.

--Chevron's workforce in 2008 totaled 65,000. In 2010 they employed 64,100. 900 fewer.

--ConocoPhillips employed 32,600 in 2008; two years later they had reduced that by 2,600, down to 30,000.

In sum, the Big Five's 2011 first quarter profits in the aggregate totaled about $33 billion.

And over the past two years, they cut their collective work force by a total of 28,100.

So much for claims that tax cuts and loopholes plus higher profits lead to job growth.

Though no one on the Senate Finance Committee pointed this out, case closed.

Monday, May 16, 2011

May 16, 2011--Oxygen Concentrator

I have a friend who is quite old and has a chest cold. This is a dangerous condition for someone his age and he has been told to spend much of the day, until his lungs clear, hooked up to an oxygen concentrator.

It is a device that provides oxygen to a patient at substantially higher concentrations than is available in ambient air and is considered to be a safer, less expensive, and more convenient alternative to tanks of compressed oxygen.

He has had one in his house now for about three-and-a-half years and uses it when he has a cold or experiences shortness of breath.

It was obtained from a medical supply company and paid for by Medicare.

When I told another friend about this, she asked if I knew how much it cost since she has a cousin who, she feels, could benefit by having occasional access to doses of oxygen. So I asked the company that provides the concentrator to my elderly friend.

They told me he does not own it, that it is leased, and Medicare is billed $175 a month for it.

Curious to learn more, I turned to Goggle where I quickly learned that $176 is the national monthly average for leasing one of these devices, but that one can also buy them for about $600.

A little quick arithmetic showed that in less than four months it costs more to rent than buy one. And that my friend’s has thus far cost Medicare—in other words, taxpayers—more than $ 7,000!

Additional research revealed that in February 2011, the General Accounting Office compared Medicare reimbursement rates for oxygen concentrators with those of eight private insurers and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
According to the report:

The eight private insurers GAO interviewed used payment methodologies similar to Medicare’s, but seven did not use a rental cap. If Medicare had used the methodologies and payment rates of the lowest-paying private insurer, it could have saved about $670 million of the estimated $2.15 billion it spent on home oxygen in 2009. Using the VA’s payment methodology, savings could have been approximately $410 million to $810 million. Basing Medicare’s national rates on data from CMS’s competitive bidding program 2011 rates could have saved $700 million. Since beneficiaries pay 20 percent of the payment, lower rates could have reduced beneficiary spending.

So I next turned to electric wheelchairs, those motorized mini-vehicles that are heavily advertised on television. My mother-in-law had one and they are terrific. How much do they cost, I wondered, and how good a deal are taxpayers getting?

I was sadly not surprised to find that power-driven wheelchairs are costing Medicare and its beneficiaries nearly four times what suppliers pay for them and, according to an inspector general's report, competitive bidding could reduce those costs.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services' internal watchdog, a standard power wheelchair costs Medicare and Medicaid an average of $4,018 to lease, compared with $1,048 for suppliers to buy.

The report found that "Medicare and its beneficiaries paid suppliers an average of $2,970 beyond the suppliers’ acquisition cost to perform an average of five services [such as delivery and repairs associated with the wheelchair] and cover general business costs." It was estimated that at least a billion dollars a year could be saved if effective competitive bidding were required.

So, in 15 minutes of Googling, prior to this not knowing anything about these matters, I found nearly $2.0 billion in health care savings that could be implemented if we would get just our oxygen concentrator and electric wheelchair act together.

I know the upcoming debate about cutting the federal deficit will certainly include ways to reduce waste, fraud, and abuse from the health care system. Leased medical equipment is one obvious place to start. That is if the medical equipment lobbyists are kept out of the room.

I’m taking bets as to how likely that will be. Any takers?

Friday, May 13, 2011

May 13, 2011--Technical Difficulties

I had something good ready to post, but the Blogger system was having "technical difficulties." Which is a fancy way of saying that things were screwed up.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

May 12, 2011--Life Panels

Again I was having a fitful night and so I tuned into my favorite late-night talk show and soporific, Red Eye Radio.

As you might imagine, after Barack Obama’s immigration speech earlier in the day at the border town of El Paso, the airwaves were full of callers dialing in to express outrage that he, of all people, would have the audacity to propose giving amnesty to million of “illegals.”

Forget for the moment that he said no such thing—he emphasized security and pointed to the doubling and tripling of border police during the first two years of his presidency as a predicate to figuring out how to deal with the more than 12 million undocumented workers already in the country.

On the other hand, the show’s host and many of the callers were upset that the president, in off-the-cuff comments, mocked those demanding better enforcement, suggesting that his opponents would only be happy when there was a moat along the border filled with alligators.

Obama deserved that scorn. This was no way for the commander in chief, who just “took out’ Osama bin Laden, to behave. In those inappropriate comments he descended to the lowest common denominator of discourse.

But even Doug McIntyre, the host, got tired of all the immigrant bashing—though he too is quite a hawk on the subject—and encouraged people to raise other issues.

Almost immediately there were a spate of calls about cutting the deficit by cutting spending. There was very little interest expressed in raising some taxes on the rich and closing corporate loopholes as ways to help get us out of fiscal trouble.

Shifting the subject, one caller in particular caught my attention—a senior citizen, Estelle from Toms River, New Jersey.

She rued what she saw to be the fact that things in general have gotten much worse since “the War.” By this she meant the Second World War.

“You used to be able to walk the streets at night, but now you take your life in your hands,” she lamented. “I rode the subways at all hours. Now you get killed, or worse.”

McIntyre, who knows his history and his 70-year-olds, interrupted to remind her that in the past things were much more dangerous. The murder rate in New York City is now much less than half what it used to be just a generation ago. He told her that the very violent movie, Gangs of New York, set in 1863, was based on fact.

Ignoring him, the caller proceeded to talk about how it was better in the past because the government didn’t have to do so many things for people, which I thought was an interesting take since the current anti-government sentiment is more about how government should not be doing even necessary things that people should be required do for themselves—like pay for their own retirement or medical care.

As if reading my mind, Estelle cited as the best evidence that things were better back then the “fact” that “no one needed Medicare or Medicaid.” Again an interesting point of view since she seemed to be claiming that people were by nature healthier in the past and as a result didn’t require as much medical care as now.

I assumed she was covered by Medicare and might have been one of those who hollered, “Don’t touch my Medicare,” as so many did at recent town hall meetings, when anyone tried to talk about “reforming” it.

McIntyre again interjected to remind her—not that she was paying any attention—that this also was untrue. That since 1965 when Congress enacted Medicare and Medicaid, life expectancy in the U.S. has risen dramatically. I looked that up later and found that in fact it had--from 70.2 years to 78.2.

Since these are programs fully run by government, isn’t this the best evidence that, in spite of its flaws and limitations, rather than leading to “death panels,” single-payer health care contributes significantly to extending life?

Are you still on the line, Estelle?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

May 11, 2011--A Bunch of Grapes

We’d been back in New York for about a week before Florida friends began to call to ask how we were finding the city.

“Are you handling the crowds, the hustle and bustle, the noise and all the garbage in the streets?” Harvey asked.

“To tell you the truth,” I said, “I’m surprised by how well we’re doing. Actually, it seems as if things are less hectic than last year. Maybe there are fewer people around because of the economy. Though,” I quickly corrected myself, “things weren’t any better then. Maybe worse.”

“Glad to hear that,” Charlotte said during another call, “To tell you the truth, though I’m happy to know this, it worries me a little that if you do too well in New York maybe you’ll spend less time in Florida next year. We do miss you and . . .”

I cut her off before she could conclude her thought and assured her, “Not to worry, we hope to be back there as planned. We are liking our peripatetic life. On the other hand, you may be pleased to know, all things here are not to our liking.”

I could hear her perk up at this, “Tell me. Tell me.”

“We needed to do a little stocking up the other day. You know, get some yogurts, juice, fruit. A few things to have in the house for lunch and snacks. Of course we've already resumed our routine of eating out while in the city, but we did want to have some things in the frig.

“Ahead of us on line at the supermarket," I told Charlotte, "was a woman of about 30 who was nicely turned out. You know, smartly dressed and well spoken. She was asking the checkout person to weigh a small bag of yellow grapes to see how much they would cost. The clerk put them on the scale, entered the code, and told her $9.25." I could hear Charlotte gasp.

“Before anyone could say anything," I continued, "Rona cried out, ‘What? Nine-twenty-five?’ The customer looked back at us, shrugged her shoulders, and told the clerk she’d take a pass on the grapes.

“’That’s ridiculous,’ Rona said, ‘Not that it’s any of my business, but that’s a ridiculous amount for a handful of grapes.’ The checkout woman said, ‘But they weigh more than two pounds.’ Still ignoring the customer, Rona pressed on, ‘For more than $9.00 you should get at least five pounds. Again,’ she now said to the customer, ‘forgive me for getting involved, but we just got back from Florida where grapes nicer than these would cost less than half that.’”

“I can’t believe Rona or this,” Charlotte said, “But you’re right about how much less things cost here.”

“Like everyone else, we’ve been noticing how prices have been rising. For gas, for fresh vegetables, for everything. I know the government says there’s no structural inflation, that what there is is transitory—I think that’s the word Fed Chair Ben Bernanke used (though how would he know if that’s true)—but $9.25 for a bunch of grapes is, like Rona said, ridiculous.”

“Good for her for saying that,” Charlotte said.

“That’s not all,” I said. “When we paid—Dannon yogurt here, by the way, is more than twice what we paid for it in Florida--and left the store, the woman who had been in line ahead of us was waiting to talk with us. She told us she’s a New York City public school teacher, has been for about three years, and is just managing to get by on her salary. During her first two years teaching she needed to have a second job, working as a waitress on weekends. She told us how amused it made her when she heard people talk about how easy a job it was to be a teacher. How teachers work only 'half a day' and have the ‘whole summer off.’

“’Sure,’ she said, “I had the whole summer off to work at a French restaurant waiting on tables to make ends meet. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m not saying teachers, or anyone else, should have an easy ride; but the things you’re hearing these days about teachers and all the benefits doesn’t capture the complete picture. Especially when you work in a city like New York where Wall Street salaries and bonuses are at all-time highs. How come we’re not hearing anything about that?’

“I couldn’t disagree with any of that,” I said to Charlotte. “Then the teacher added, ‘Did you hear about those new lofts in Tribeca that cost umpteen million each where there’s a special elevator that takes your car up to your floor so you can have it right there waiting for you?’

“’I haven't heard about that one,' I said, 'Sounds like the Batmobile.'"

“She laughed and said, ‘Exactly. Again, not that I expect to make enough teaching school to be able to buy one of those places, much less a Batmobile, but closer to home, I’d like to be able to afford a bunch of grapes.’

“’I can’t disagree with that,’ Rona said.

“Nor could I,” I said to Charlotte.

“One thing,” Charlotte mentioned, “Don’t get too jaded while you’re there and be sure to come back to us in December.”

I promised that we would.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

May 10, 2011--Under the Weather

Though the weather here has been perfect, metaphorically I'm still under it. I expect to be clear headed enough tomorrow to return to blogging.

Monday, May 09, 2011

May 9, 2011--Rosie the Pilot

Back in December, at age 86, Geraldine Doyle passed away. As a 17-year-old factory worker, she became the inspiration for an iconic World War II recruitment poster that evoked female power and independence under the slogan "We Can Do It!"

For millions of Americans throughout the decades since World War II, the brunette in the red and white polka-dot bandanna was remembered and celebrated as Rosie the Riveter.

Rosie's rolled-up sleeves and muscular flexed right arm came to represent the newfound strength of the 18 million women who worked during that war and later made her a figure of the feminist movement.

But the woman in the patriotic poster was never named Rosie, nor was she a riveter. All along it was Mrs. Doyle, who after graduating from high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, took a job in a metal factory.

Just recently, much less well known, but at least equally inspiring, Violet Cowden, 94, died. During the War, she and about 1,000 other women spend the duration ferrying newly manufactured warplanes to air bases around the country, towing targets for fighter pilots to shoot at, and instructing newly recruited airmen who would be assigned to combat duties in which the women pilots themselves were not allowed to participate.

Attached to the Army Air Force, the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, were the first women to serve as U.S. military pilots, but with a difference--they were considered civil servants and not members of the military itself. They were "attached" to the service and were not a fully recognized part of it. And so, as civil servants, according to the linked obituary from the New York Times, they had to pay for their own food and lodging when they were on assignment. I assume that the 38 WASPs who died while piloting aircraft for the army at least had their funerals paid for. Though one never knows.

Vilot Clara Thurn was born in 1916 in a sod house in Bowdie, S.D., became a teacher, and before she could drive a car became a licensed pilot. When the war broke out she tried to sign up for the Civil Air Patrol but got no reply. Instead, she joined the Navy as a WAVE, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, because, as she put it later, she "liked their hats." Soon thereafter she heard about the WASPs' early incarnation, the Women's Flying Training Detachment, and enlisted, but not before making herself gain 8 pounds to get to the 100 that was required.

She flew hundreds of missions, if I can use that word for a civil servant attached to the Army Air Force, including ones in which the planes were so new that they had not been tested and, in her words, flying them was like "making footprints in soft virgin snow." She flew in all weather, seven days a week, often to airports with no visibility due to foul weather or because they had no runway lights. A few times a plane she was ferrying caught fire on landing and she managed to save not only herself but, as she recounted, her makeup!

After the war, like Rosie the Riveter, Violet and the surviving WASPs were dismissed so that their jobs could be turned over to returning veterans. She wanted to continue flying and approached Trans World Airlines, but they refused to hire her except to work behind a ticket counter. This was painful; and so after a short time, she moved on to get married, have a daughter, and become a partner in a California ceramics studio. She let her pilot's license lapse, but friends would take her up and turn the controls over to her.

Finally, in 2010, as past president of the WASP veterans group, Vilot Cowden, was among others invited to Washington to receive the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of their service. At the time, she was one of fewer than 300 survivors.

Friday, May 06, 2011

May 6, 2011--Congestion

My throat is sore, my chest is congested, as is my brain. A change of season or location cold. If I can stop coughing and sneezing I will return on Monday.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

May 5, 2011--A Thought From Michele Bachmann

I want to express my deepest gratitude to the men and women of the U.S. military and intelligence community. Their persistence and dedicated service has yielded success in a mission that has gripped our nation since the terrible events of 9/11. Tonight’s news does not bring back the lives of the thousands of innocent people who were killed that day by Osama bin Laden’s horrific plan, and it does not end the threat posed by terrorists, but it is my hope that this is the beginning of the end of Sharia-compliant terrorism.

First of all, what's missing here from GOP presidential-contender Michele Bachmann's statement after the killing of Osama bin Laden?

That's easy and predictable--no mention whatsoever about any role, no matter how small, Barack Obama and his administration might have played.

Even Dick Cheney managed to squeak out a few words of congratulations for the hated Obama. So what's up with the Tea Party congresswoman?

Also an easy one--her ilk are completely discombobulated by the fact that it was our Kenyan-born, Marxist, Muslim president who got the job done while those tough-talking, shoot-'em-up Bush-whackers couldn't. You know this is making them crazy. It doesn't fit the narrative or the paranoia.

And did you see John McCain on C-SPAN literally choking on his words while trying to do the right thing by tipping his hat to Obama? It's worth tracking down on YouTube. I can only imagine all the sputtering that must be going on over Martinis at whites-only country clubs all over Sun Belt.

More perplexing, what is Bachmann saying about Sharia-compliant terrorism? This I don't get.

The good representative who doesn't know anything about the history of the American Revolution (Lexington and Concord, she claimed, are in New Hampshire) or slavery (our Founders, she oozed, ended it while in truth almost all of them owned dozens of slaves) is making a distinction between Sharia-compliant versus Sharia-non-compliant terrorism?

Do you really think someone who doesn't know what's in our Constitution could possibly know anything about Sharia?

Maybe, I've been thinking, that since wisdom can flow from many sources, even from an otherwise illiterate person, perhaps Bachmann has stumbled onto something new and formerly unperceived.

But after some hours of research I still cannot parse her statement.

Sharia law is not a monolithic doctrine. Turkey practices a much different form than Iran. Besides, isn’t the terrorist threat from Muslim extremists pretty much the same? They all embrace a radical, far-reaching brand of Sharia. And thus what is the difference between the kind of terrorism practiced by bin Laden, which she correctly says is sadly far from over, and Sharia-compliant terrorism? This is a semantic distinction without a difference.

But it is good to know on the word of Ms. Bachmann that this mutant form of terrorism, whatever it is, is at the "beginning of the end."

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

May 4, 2011--Trump Roast

At the risk of beating what I hope is a dead horse, did you hear the latest about the interview with GOP presidential front-runner, Donald Trump, in his 61st floor apartment at his Las Vegas clip joint, the Trump International Hotel & Casino?

We have already heard what he thinks about "the blacks," here we learn about what he thinks about "the gays."

Still smarting from how Barack Obama and Seth Meyers got the best of him at Saturday's White House Correspondents' Dinner, he continued to show that he has no sense of humor (unless he is mocking someone else) and has very thin skin (not the sort of skin he would need as president when telling "the Chinese" and "the Saudi Arabians" what to do).

When asked about why he changed his position on same-sex marriage, while showing off his new toy, a 747 private jet ("That's my plane. How beautiful is that?"), he went into a semi-coherent monologue about putters. Yes, the golf club one uses when trying to put the ball in the hole. I'm sure he unconsciously intended that as a pun.

Here from The Donald is the verbatim:

It's like in golf. A lot of people--I don't want this to sound trivial--but a lot of people are switching to those really long putters. Very unattractive. It's weird. You see these great players with these really long putters because they can't sink three-footers anymore. And I hate it. I am a traditionalist. I have so many fabulous friends who happen to be gay, but I am a traditionalist.

Got it? For sure he's ready for those 3 AM phone calls.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

May 3, 2011--Orly Taitz

Orly Taitz is a leading conspiracy theorist. She is a dentist who was born in the USSR and appears regularly on cable news networks because some find her perversely entertaining. Of course many who catch her on Fox News also believe what she has to say.

I assume she is now an American citizen. I tell you about her, in case you do not know her "work," to expose the extent and "quality" of "thinking" that lurks behind hers and others of her ilk's smiling faces.

She is best known as the doyenne of birthers and for her more wide-ranging lunatic claims about Barack Obama. Here is a sampling:

--A number of homosexuals from Obama's former church have died mysteriously.

--Obama has dozens of Social Security numbers, and his passport is inaccurate.

--Taitz claims that a person who was cooperating with the FBI in connection with Obama's passport died mysteriously, "shot in the head."

--A Kenyan birth certificate with the name "Barack Obama" is authentic.

--Obama's first act as President was to donate money to Hamas, which she claims will be used to build Qassam rockets.

--Obama, or someone connected to him, has made threats to Taitz's life and vandalized her car.

--Obama is having the Federal Emergency Management Agency build internment camps for "Anti-Obama dissidents".

Taitz has also supported other theories not directly related to Obama, including:

--Goldman Sachs runs the United States Treasury. (This one is sort of true.)

--Baxter International has developed a bird flu vaccine that kills people.

--Representative Alcee Hastings and Democrats in the House of Representatives are planning to build at least six labor camps to lock up opponents during "emergencies."

--Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez owns the software that runs American voting machines.

What is it about people such as Dr.Taitz that, for many, makes her so believable? Why are Americans so prone to be taken in by conspiracy theories? Historians and scholars have pondered this for decades. Some feel it is not just human nature to look for simple explanations for complex, troubling realities such as the 9/11 attack and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It may also be rooted in our unique history.

Robert Alan Goldberg, perhaps more than anyone else, has explored this in his seminal, Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America. He writes:

Conspiracy theory draws power from merging with and reenforcing traditional American values and beliefs: a sense of mission, Protestant supremacy, concerns about encroachments on liberty, anti-elitism, maintenance of the racial order, and the sanctity of private property.

From this it is easy to see why a liberal president who is "foreign," received an elite education, has embraced the "truth" of all major religions, allegedly wants to tamper with constitutional rights (especially the sacred Second Amendment), and because of his blackness is disruptive of the racial order is an ideal subject for conspiratorial paranoia.

Let us hope that now some of this shall pass.

Monday, May 02, 2011

May 2, 2011--Barack Hussein Obama

Mission REALLY accomplished!