Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Would health insurance stamps (like food stamps) be a better way to universal coverage?

There has to be a better way to cover the uninsured than the massively expensive government run health plan being proposed by congressional Democrats and the administration. Not only will it destroy the existing health industry, but it will result in rationing to control costs. It will bring VA quality health care to the general public, as Congress and the very wealthy get Bethesda Naval Medical Center treatment.

Here is a better alternative. It is a plan is to offer “health insurance stamps” similar to food stamps to the needy who are not covered by employer funded health care. With these “stamps” the eligible uninsured would be able to buy a policy that best served their family needs. And it would preserve the existing health care infrastructure. The math bears out a significant savings over the proposed congressional plan which the non-partisan CBO estimates at $1.6 billion over ten years.

Here are the numbers: There are roughly 45 million without health insurance (2004). Of these 17 million live in households with $50,000 annual income. Many of these are “young invincibles” who, as a matter of choice, do not to buy health insurance. About 12 million are in the country illegally. This leaves roughly 16 million who are truly uninsured. Using a Wal Mart plan (value about $5,000/year) as a model, the annual cost to the government would run about $80 billion, half the annual cost of the proposed government plan. Other than costs, the advantages are: It would mainntain the competitive private insurance market to keep costs under control. Existing health insurance providers would continue in place and all insured would have a free choice of insurers.

There would be no threat of the government undercutting and eliminating private insurers There is an existing infrastructure in place for determining eligibility and issuing health insurance cards in the USDA’s current “food stamp” program now called SNAP. (Actual stamps are no longer used, an electronic card similar to an ATM card has replaced them) There would be no incentive for employers to pull out of current insurance plans and flood the government plan with massive additional costs, as the proposed government plan will do.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Island Turtle is One Year Old Today

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Obama on rationing health care … a double standard?

UPDATE BELOW: The LA Times reports on the ABC Obama health care special yesterday. Obama touched on the issue of medical rationing for the elderly.

In a nationally televised event at the White House, Obama said families need better information so they don't unthinkingly approve "additional tests or additional drugs that the evidence shows is not necessarily going to improve care." 

He added:

"Maybe you're better off not having the surgery, but taking the painkiller." Has anyone asked Senator Ted Kennedy how he feels about that?

UPDATE: It gets even worse. Senator Kennedy has exempted himself and other members of Congress from major portions of the health plan he crafted.

From an article by John Fund in yesterday’s WSJ, he gives us the fine print.

There's a reason the Obama health care plan is being rushed through Congress this summer -- because the American people would likely never support it if given time to absorb and understand such fine print. If the union carve-out isn't sufficient to excite public anger, wait till you hear about the version of the Obama plan prepared by Senator Edward Kennedy, which would specifically exempt Members of Congress from many of its provisions. As the U.S. Office of Personnel Management notes, Members of Congress "enjoy the widest selection of health plans in the country."

According to page 114 of the Kennedy bill, a similar array of choices would not be available to other Americans in the future. Instead, they would be shunted into health insurance plans under the straightjacket of whatever the government decides is a "basic" plan.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Do government authorities get a pass on regulatory enforcement? … A look at Washington’s subway crash.

Last week I wrote that about the suppression of an EPA report identifying the locations of “high hazard” coal ash sludge sites. I questioned whether the federal government was giving another government entity preferential regulatory treatment, in this case the TVA -- which was the source of the original massive spill.

It appears this may have been the case of the fatal subway crash in Washington DC. In a report in the Washington Post today, a NTSB Board member says Metro failed to heed the advice of federal regulators to either strengthen the cars or take them out of service. It did neither. 

[National Transportation Safety] Board member Deborah Hersman also said the southbound train that crashed into another train on the Red Line near Fort Totten was one of the oldest in Metro's fleet. Five years ago, federal regulators said that model car should be strengthened to better protect occupants in the case of a collision. "We recommended to either retrofit those cars or to phase them out of the fleet," Hersman said. "They have not been able to do that and our recommendation was not addressed. So, it has been an unacceptable status." 

Metro officials have said that it was not clear that attempts to make the aging rail cars more crash-resistant would be successful. Retrofitting would not only be expensive, but could create new problems with propulsion and other aspects of operation, transit officials said at the time. In addition, such retrofitting was deemed too expensive for the cash-strapped system, especially because the cars are due to be replaced as soon as possible, officials have said.  Metro decided it would phase out the old cars as it purchased new vehicles. But today, all the old cars remain in service and comprise about one-third of the Metro fleet.

 Had an airline ignored airworthiness directives leading to deaths of its riders, there would be calls for criminal charges and heavy fines. We will have to wait and see if the same rules apply to government owned transit systems.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Obama on courageous Iranian protestors … weak and vacillating

George Bush has been unequivocal in his support of freedom in Iran. Twice in his State of the Union addresses he spoke to the Iranian people. 

And to the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you. --- State of the Union address February 2, 2005

And tonight, let me speak directly to the citizens of Iran: America respects you, and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran. --- State of the Union address, January 31, 2006

Contrast that to Barack Obama’s tepid support.

I am deeply troubled by the violence that I’ve been seeing on television…. --- Obama, June 15, 2009

I'm very concerned based on some of the tenor -- and tone of the statements that have been made -- that the government of Iran recognize that the world is watching --- Obama, June 19, 2009

We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people…. --- Obama, June 20, 2009

Not exactly Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall. There are events in history when great leaders seize the moment. It was Hungary in 1956, Prague in 1968. It was Yeltsin standing atop a tank outside of the Blue House in Moscow. Obama seems more interested in keeping himself in Ahmadinejad’s good graces than standing on principle. He is letting the courageous people of Iran down. If Ahmadinejad wants to have talks with Obama, he will find a way. Criticism won’t queer the deal. It didn’t with Reagan and the Soviet leaders on arms talks. It seems Obama has established a mindset of realpolitik, accepting as legitimate any regime, no matter how brutal or corrupt. By playing up to the dictatorial leadership of Iran, he comes across as weak and vacillating.

Herschel Smith, writing in The Captain’s Journal hits the nail on the head on the misplaced mindset of the administration.

As Netanyahu was recently told by an American official, “We are going to change the world. Please, don’t interfere.” But as we are beginning to see, situations that contradict the world view don’t result in amending that world view. They simply stupefy the administration. Thus they stare in disbelief and silence as Iran goes up in flames.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Florida … Pleasant climate and a friendly business climate

In the past two months I stumbled on three new products that were either superior to what I had been using or in one case, truly unique. What caught my attention is all are made in Florida.

One is a blood clotting powder you pour on a wound where it combines with the blood to form an instant well sealed scab. Being on blood thinners and doing my own yard work, nicks and scrapes are a normal hazard, not always solved with bandages. Named QR (quick relief), the new product is a godsend and gets me back to work in minutes. Made in Sarasota.

The second is a new sunscreen called FACE POTION. Many sunscreens claim to be sweat resistant, this one really is. Not only does this one retain its effectiveness in Florida’s sweat inducing summers, more importantly is doesn’t irritate my eyes as all others have. Made in Cocoa, FL.

The third is a new brand of Saw Palmetto that in my case is more effective (prostate health) than others I have used. Made in Boca Raton. Florida is business friendly. It is especially friendly to new business.

Thirty years ago a coworker from Washington took a job in Naples, Florida. He was and still is a tennis freak. Unable to have his racquet properly restrung, he bought a top quality machine to do it himself. But he soon found all his tennis buddies wanted theirs done too. At the time it only cost $15 to incorporate, so he did that, rented a small shop and hired a high schooler to string racquets in the afternoon. He had his racquets strung to his satisfaction and made a little bit of money on the side.

More recently I came up with the idea I could take aerial real estate photos with a battery powered, radio controlled model airplane hauling a digital camera. Got some great pictures but I soon found the unpredictable wind conditions made it difficult to complete my jobs on time. So I gave it up. Total cost to the state of Florida for me to register an LLC, $65 ($125 now).

In Florida starting a business is so easy and inexpensive, it doesn’t hurt if it doesn’t work out. Entrepreneurship is alive and well in sunny Florida.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Obama hides the high hazard sites from us … here are some of them

In the aftermath of last December’s the massive coal ash slurry spill in Tennessee, EPA conducted a study that identified 44 coal ash storage ponds in 26 communities it considers a high hazard. As EPA was readying the report for release, the Army Corps of Engineers sent a letter to the EPA telling them the locations of the sites should not be made public for national security reasons. According to Time, the letter stated: The 44 sites were ranked as high hazards, meaning they could cause death and significant property damage if a storm, a terrorist attack or a structural failure caused them to spill into surrounding neighborhoods. What is unusual is it doesn’t take a genius to figure which sites are vulnerable to damaging massive spills, whether natural or man-made. They’re the ones close to the water’s edge, just like the one that recently failed. You would think it would be in the best interests of the government to keep the “surrounding neighborhoods” appraised of the threat, but apparently not. What is also unusual is a significant number of these hazard sites are owned and operated by the Federal government, namely the Tennessee Valley Authority. Is this a conflict of interest? Should one arm of government not point up the failures of another arm? Will EPA enforce regulations with equal vigor against government owned TVA as it would a privately owned utility? This is a question we will likely see more of with the Obama administration. Here are the facts. TVA operates 11 coal plants. Of the 11, 6 store their coal ash in wet form (as a slurry) and 5 in dry. The EPA study identifies the high hazards as those using ponds, the wet form. Of the 6 with wet storage (including Kingston, site of the spill), 5 have ponds within 600 feet of river or stream, likely to be “high hazard. Here they are: Allen Fossil Plant, 5 miles SW of Memphis TN Gallatin Fossil Plant, NE of Nashville TN Johnsonville Fossil Plant, near Waverly TN Kingston Fossil Plant, near Kingston TN Widows Creek, on Guntersville Reservoir AL Here are satellite shots:

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cleaning up urban decay … a good move.

The Telegraph (UK) ran a story about a plan by the federal government to raze major portions of declining cities to make them more viable. It was a feature headline on Drudge and elicited hundreds of responses, most highly critical.

The government looking at expanding a pioneering scheme in Flint, one of the poorest US cities, which involves razing entire districts and returning the land to nature.
Local politicians believe the city must contract by as much as 40 per cent, concentrating the dwindling population and local services into a more viable area. The radical experiment is the brainchild of Dan Kildee, treasurer of Genesee County, which includes Flint. Having outlined his strategy to Barack Obama during the election campaign, Mr Kildee has now been approached by the US government and a group of charities who want him to apply what he has learnt to the rest of the country. Mr Kildee said he will concentrate on 50 cities, identified in a recent study by the Brookings Institution, an influential Washington think-tank, as potentially needing to shrink substantially to cope with their declining fortunes.

 I disagree with the naysayers. If you haven’t been around a city the likes of Detroit, it’s hard to comprehend the devastating influence of urban blight. It’s like living in Berlin, Dresden or Hiroshima in 1946, but with nothing being done to improve things. No self respecting business will consider moving next to crumbling buildings, and most existing ones find little reason to stay. Only massive financial inducements can attract the big guns, as they have with Compuware who moved from their sylvan setting in tony Farmington Hills to a redeveloped area of Detroit seven years ago. As it did with the GM’s Poletown plant built in the mid 1980s. Ditto for building new stadiums for the Lions and Tigers. Tons of money brought the desired results.

But beyond the high profile companies, attracting smaller business must be on the merits, there isn’t enough money to go around. There is no great constituency for tearing down buildings and bulldozing lots. They aren’t showy pieces like a bridge to Canada or a new casino, and that’s where the money goes. Vacant lots don’t get politicians reelected, especially when money is tight.

But in Detroit there is another perverse factor hindering blight abatement. It is the eternal hope the city’s glory days will return. Buildings given up by their owners are kept around in crumbling condition, such as Hudson’s massive and once vibrant downtown store, in the vain hope other retailers will move in. It is a mindset not much different from the cargo cultists of New Guinea, who long after WW2 cleared the forest to simulate airfields and built dummy planes hoping to lure in the high flying planes overhead and bring back the prosperity of the war years. Mercifully, the Hudson’s building was imploded in 1997 and ended one example of what some thought of as hope, but in reality was a highly visible symbol of urban decay.

As in other targeted cities, Detroit’s population is half what it was in 1950, down from 1.85 million to around 900,000. The costs of roads, street lighting, sewers and all the infrastructure designed for almost 2 million affluent city dwellers now has to be borne by less than half, most of whom are at the bottom of the economic ladder. If Detroit and other cities are ever to attract the urban pioneers and small industrial companies, it must clean itself up. And that means more than just structures. It also means cleaning up the corruption at all levels of its city government. The two go hand in hand. If the latter is ignored, we are wasting our money and there will be no progress.
(Photos from the NY Times)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

More toothless sanctions coming against North Korea

For two weeks now the US, Japan, South Korea, Russia and China have been wrestling with the response to North Korea’s nuclear test on May 25. Once again it is nothing more than a gesture, filled with empty rhetoric. The plan is for shipping from North Korea to be boarded and inspected if it is suspected nuclear or ballistic missile technology is being transferred to another country. Sounds great and it is a good approach. The Kennedy administration took this course of action during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Soviet ships were never boarded because they knew they would be. They simply stopped in their tracks and never crossed the “no go” line. But our friends the Chinese and the Russian threw a hooker into the plan. Permission must be given by the country whose flag the ship carries—most likely North Korea in the case of banned goods. Fat chance! From yesterday’s Independent (UK). If the text indeed wins passage before the full Council tomorrow, it may not be long before North Korea, which has a record of belligerence in face of international censure, makes its opinion felt. The country's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper this week said any sanctions from the UN would be seen as a declaration of war that would be met with "due corresponding self-defence measures". Even more ominously, North Korea itself said on Tuesday it would respond by using nuclear weapons in a "merciless offensive". It is not clear whether intercepting ships on the high seas will work in practice. The draft text says that a boat can be stopped and boarded en route to or from the country but only if permission is given by the country whose flag the ship is carrying. If a ship is flying the North Korean flag, it is hardly likely such permission will be given. In those circumstances, the vessel will in theory be expected to submit to inspection once in port. I seriously doubt Syria or Iran, the most likely destinations for nuclear and missile goods or technology, will submit to a UN sanctioned inspection of ships in their ports. The UN is a great debating society, but a miserable failure at stopping nuclear proliferation.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Hummer vs. what we will be driving … Hummer wins (sort of).

This was posted on hummerpedia.org . Reportedly both drivers survived. The Suzuki got the worst of it.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Royal Poinciana

In spectacular bloom now are the Royal Poinciana trees. Their bright orange blooms emerge in early May and continue through mid June. They are not as popular as other tropical trees in Florida because they are barren of foliage during the “in season.” But year round residents have the pleasure of their beauty. Photos were taken at Cabbage Key, about 15 miles north of Sanibel and accessible by boat.

Monday, June 1, 2009

General Motors … troubled past, troubled future

Today we will see a different General Motors. It is a sad ending to a state of affairs that should never have happened. There are many reasons for what occurred, some like union issues were truly beyond GM’s ability to resolve. But most were of GM’s own making. I’ll touch on a few.

The seeds of GM’s downfall came from a management culture that was bureaucratic and averse to self criticism. But it was Roger Smith, a clueless yet arrogant Chairman and CEO, who did the most damage. Smith was an accountant who saw his role as reorganizer and a cost cutter and failed at both. He took over in 1981 in the depth of a recession that had devastated car sales. His first mistake came in early 1982 when talks were reopened between GM and the UAW to address the massive financial losses. The UAW expressed willingness to permit short term give backs in exchange for profit sharing when times got better. But GM did not exhibit the sense of urgency the talks should have had, probably from a sense of distrust Smith had for the UAW. It came to a fiery conclusion when the UAW obtained a copy GM’s annual report for shareholders, outlining an enhanced and very generous incentive program for management. The UAW accused GM double dealing, and not willing to make shared sacrifices. They cut off negotiations with GM and moved over to Ford, letting them set the industry pattern on terms more beneficial to Ford.

In another misstep, to save money Smith produced essentially identical top of the line cars for different divisions by simply rebadging them. The new 1985 Cadillac, Buick and Oldsmobile large front wheel drive “C” platforms were so nearly the same, Lincoln ran a commercial spoofing them using a parking lot attendant who couldn’t tell the difference between the Cadillac and the less expensive models.

The new compact size 1982 Cadillac Cimarron was essentially a gussied up Chevrolet Cavalier ”J” car shared by all 5 car divisions. When they unveiled it at the Waldorf Astoria, the dealers let out a collective groan. It was a sales disaster in the making, and the dealers saw it in an instant. Another error was the new 1991 Chevrolet Caprice, a large rear wheel drive that could only be classified as ugly. When they began assembling it at Ypsilanti, one of the line workers quipped to a reporter, “It will never sell.” He was right. The fact that these two cars even saw the light of day is a result of corporate culture that stifled open discussion of the obvious.

When Roger Smith bought EDS in 1984, he got Ross Perot as part of the deal. Becoming the largest single shareholder in GM, Perot warranted a seat on the board. EDS wasn’t a particularly good fit for GM, nor was Perot. His abrasiveness soon began to get to Smith. Perot would visit dealerships incognito only to discover inept and uninformed sales people, which he promptly brought to the attention of the Board and the media. He publicly accused Smith of fostering a do-nothing corporate culture. The press had a field day. Finally, they had an insider who felt as they did, that GM needed a housecleaning. Smith’s answer was simple, expensive and self-serving. To get Perot off his back, he spent nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to buy back Perot’s shares at a substantial premium. GM fell back into “a blanket of fog that keeps these people from doing what they know needs to be done,” as Perot described the management culture at GM in a Fortune Magazine interview.

Aside from the corporate culture, GM’s biggest problem has been living in the past. They have wanted to experience again the glory days of the mid fifties, when they flat out killed Ford with the ’55 Chevy and the brand new “small block” V8, as it became known. The car was a styling hit with the public and available in two-toned scheme - an option normally only available in more expensive lines. One color option was pink and charcoal grey to match the popular pink button down shirt and grey flannel pants combination worn by preppies of the day. The lightweight and powerful engine became a hit among hot rodders and boat racers, outperforming the prevalent flat head Fords. So ingrained was the worship of the “small block” that when Corvette went to an outside company (Lotus Engineering, UK) to design and develop a high tech, lightweight DOHC, 32 valve, 400hp engine for the 1991 ZR-1, they ran into a problem. At a design review conference, one of the GM executives noticed the bore spacing didn’t match the 4.400” of the “small block.” He was told Lotus was aware of it, but needed larger bores and wider bore spacing to achieve the 400 hp target – and anyway it wasn’t going to be produced on GM tooling. It was to be made by Mercury Marine. But tradition won the day and the ZR-1 engine put out only 375 hp, 25 less than planned.

Another throwback was Harley Earl, GM’s chief stylist in the forties and fifties. You really had to live through his era to have a feel for his influence. It was an orgy of chrome. It was tail fins, Buick portholes and sweepspars; it was the buck-tooth Buick; it was Dagmars (you can guess) on the Cadillac; it was wrap-around windshields, hardtops (a two-door with a fixed metal roof, simulating a convertible), and fake airscoops. Many found his styling tasteless and were driven to imports when they became available. But his adoration continued at GM and in 2002 his ghost returned, this time in Buick commercials, extolling some of his styling cues on the current Buicks.

Bob Lutz, GM’s Vice Chairman and former number two at Chrysler and a true “car guy,” noted GM’s decline in tasteful instrument panels and interiors about two years ago. He attributed it to designers who just weren’t familiar with the tastes of those buying prestige European and Japanese nameplates. They simply reverted to form. I noticed it on the 2008 Cadillac SRX, I lease. The SRX is well designed, with appealing crisp and clean lines. It is the antithesis of a Harley Earl design. But compared to the one I leased three years before, the newer one had a number of reversions to “good old GM.” In particular the interior came with plastic fake burled walnut trim, a feature every car buff magazine since 1950 has told GM spells CHEAP. Now I know what Lutz was talking about.

I will be brief on technical disasters at GM, of which there have been too many. One of the worst was the Oldsmobile diesel engine, which eventually resulted in offers to all the diesel owners convert them to gasoline by replacing the engine and complete fuel system, a very expensive procedure. The disaster occurred because of GM’s efforts to maintain excessive commonality with the weaker Olds 350 gasoline engine from which it was derived, and the failure to include a water separator in the fuel system.

What does the future hold for the new GM? That depends on how it is run. If the new board consists of politically motivated members, it will fail. If the administration tries micromanage it, mandating models and killing models based on its vision of what a car should be, it will fail. If the administration fails to support the $60 billion annual cash burn, it will fail. On the other hand, if the intent is to make the new GM a profitable enterprise by responding to the market, it could succeed. But that means putting someone in charge that knows cars and can diplomatically resist the inevitable pressure for politically correct decisions for cars no one will buy. None of the existing GM management need apply. All are tainted by their exposure to years of poor management.

My choice is Roger Penske. He was mentioned as a possible successor to Jack Smith who stepped down as GM’s Chairman in 2003. He has a long affiliation with GM as a Chevrolet dealer and now head of a major dealer group, Penske Automotive Group. He bought a controlling stake in GM’s troubled Detroit Diesel Allison in 1988, nursed it back to health and sold it twelve years later to Daimler. He is a partner with GE in Penske Truck Leasing. And of course he is the successful head Penske Racing. He is 72 (doesn’t look it) beyond the normal mandatory retirement age for GM, but one advantage of bankruptcy is the rules can easily be changed. Above all he won’t be bothered by the $500,000 salary cap, he makes many times that through his enterprises.