Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Charitable organizations lose out to politics - Published in the Centre Daily Times June 2012

Sometimes it seems we’re on nearly every US charity’s mailing list.  Their letter writers put together thick envelopes packed with pages with underlined points and yellow highlighted passages explaining what they’d do with our money.  Sometimes we donate, and sometimes we don’t.  Either way, we always keep the free address labels they usually send (thanks everyone).

Now that it’s election season, though, the charities have competition.  Politicians everywhere are carpet bombing America asking for donations to their campaigns. The pleas are written by the same writers, it seems – lots of pages filled with bold type and underlining, and passages highlighted with yellow. 
I’ve made a short study of these requests from both political parties.  To start with, I sent small token donations to Romney and Obama, and agreed to be on their mailing and emailing lists.  Since then, they’ve become close friends, sending me personal letters and emails nearly every day.  At the end of each note, though, comes the request for a handout, closing with something like ‘Will you stand with me?’  

They often send token goodies to their small donors.  Mitt Gear anyone?  Lapel pins, bumper stickers, signed photos, T-shirts are all available – for a price.  Same goes for Team Obama, who have also been trying to get my wife and me to eat with them if I’m chosen from their donor lists, pitching fancy dinners with the stars (Sarah Jessica Parker has become a recent email buddy).  Romney has countered with his own meal invitations, but he’s more frugal, offering to share a short lunch with him somewhere on the campaign trail.

Many of the emails, usually sent by campaign flunkies, are pretty nasty. They slam the other side, including the word ‘failure’ a lot, and often include links to videos that ‘I simply must see’, showing the ‘Truth about President Obama and how he’s destroying America’, or the ‘Truth about Governor Romney and how he ruined Massachusetts’.  Of course, the answer is always to send more money.

However, the most ridiculous and frantic requests come because the other side may have pulled ahead in the fundraising race, and plan to show new attack ads.  ‘You won’t believe what the Republicans/Democrats are saying about Obama/Romney this time; donate now so we can set the record straight.’  Why have our politicians lowered themselves to become common beggars?  Because we keep on giving to them.  It’s time to stop.  Every attack by the other side doesn’t mean they need another several million dollars to ‘fight back’ and re-attack.  I understand dangerous infinite loops – and this is one of them.

The money we give to charities feeds the hungry and heals the sick.  The money we give to politicians goes to fling dung at other politicians, helping nobody.  So, every time I get another email from a political beggar, I plan to donate to one of my charities.  I encourage you to do the same.  Instead of Democrats and Republicans raking in billions of dollars, imagine the boon year America’s charities would have with that extra funding.  Here’s to a record 2012 for the needy.

Compromise only option for fixing Medicare - Published in the Centre Daily Times, April 2012

It’s an election year, and that means more grandstanding in Washington – this time about Medicare. Our seniors’ health care is run by the government and broken into parts.  Part A is for hospital stays, Part B covers Doctor visits, and Part D pays for medications. Total premiums for Part B are about $100/month, with Uncle Sam picking up the other $300.  Seniors don’t pay any premiums for Part A, but pay about $30/month for Part D.

Those of you familiar with your current health care costs will see this as a great deal, particularly for older folks who need a lot more care than the rest of us.  That’s the problem, though, the deal is too good, as we’re not paying enough to cover all the costs.  Medicare deficits are driving our country’s finances into the hole in a big way.

Our payroll taxes (1.45% for you, another 1.45% for your employer) cover only about one third of Medicare’s cost. Premiums and copayments paid by our seniors cover another quarter.  The difference, about 40%, our government borrows, increasing our deficit.  This year, that deficit is about 285 billion dollars, and will keep rising as health care costs skyrocket, particularly for those needing expensive end-of-life treatments and care.

There are three main ways to deal with this deficit – (1) limit payments to doctors, hospitals, and pharmacies; (2) limit how much the government pays for the insurance itself; or (3) raise premiums and payroll taxes.  Medicare currently uses option (1), but would have to reduce payments even more radically to balance their books.  Doctors are already turning away Medicare patients because they can get higher payments from younger people.  Further payment reductions would mean fewer doctors available to our seniors, and likely rationing of care.

Republicans are proposing option 2, opening Medicare up to private insurers and setting a cap on the government contribution to the premiums.  The hope is that private insurers would compete with traditional government Medicare (which seniors could still choose), reducing premiums.  This seems overly optimistic though, since a similar plan – the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) program - has seen its costs rise by a total of 30% over the past 4 years.  The Republican proposal would have capped its premium contribution by only 15% over that time.  Our seniors would need to either eat that difference, or choose a cheaper, weaker health plan.

Option 3 is the simplest, and may make the most sense. Doubling the 1.45% payroll tax would just about cover our current budget overruns.  However, our politicians never have the backbone to tell us that tax increases are necessary, even when they are.

Whether we give our premiums and copays to the government or to a private company, some means of addressing the real problem – holding down the costs of medical care in our country – is necessary.  This means limiting malpractice awards and capping allowable profit margins at insurance agencies, pharmaceutical companies, and hospitals.  Combine that with modest increases to taxes and premiums, along with raising the Medicare eligibility age, and Medicare will be on sound footing again.  Democrats and Republicans have both suggested these ideas in the past.  Now it just takes bargaining and compromise to fix Medicare, something that's been in short supply in Washington lately.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

An Iran war would be devastating to its people - Published in the Centre Daily Times, January 2012

A lunatic is building a bomb.  We know where to find him, but he’s also holding a group of innocent people, including children, hostage.  Do we use deadly force to obliterate him, and all his hostages, to prevent him from bombing us?  Or do we work carefully to talk him out of doing anyone, including his hostages, harm?

This is where we are with Iran.  The religious fanatics that run their country are determined to develop their own nuclear bombs.  Many are rightfully worried they’d threaten to shoot them at Israel for political leverage.  At the same time, the fanatics hold their own people hostage and slaughter them if necessary to retain control.

What should the United States do?  During campaign season, it’s popular for some politicians to feign toughness by threatening Iran with bombing, and in some cases all out war.  Let’s consider these options.  First, we’re not sure whether our bombs can actually damage Iran’s nuclear sites, which are buried up to 80 meters underground.  A failed bombing attempt would make for a bolder, more defiant Iran while showing the world our weapons have serious limitations. 

Also, lunatics don’t often respond rationally when attacked.  Potshots at Israel would be likely, perhaps escalating to a regional war involving other difficult elements, like Syria and even Russia.  Expect a surge in oil prices as a result, shoving the world toward another global recession.  Finally, for those who favor all out war and occupation, consider this:  Iran is four times the size of Iraq, with three times the population.  The cost and scale of an Iranian conflict are simply beyond our military and budgetary means.

The effect of a potential war on Iran’s people is deeply personal to me.  I spent part of my childhood there.  The Shah was in power then, and as a 4-6 year old I sat on friendly Persian men’s knees, ate like a prince thanks to their doting wives, and played with their children.  Iran is a beautiful place, thousands of years in the making (explore it sometime on YouTube – look for ‘Iran cities’).  Its citizens are civilized, outgoing, friendly, and like us, care deeply about their children and future.  It is not their fault the ruling clerics are misguided, vicious, and obstinate.

Most Iranians want new leaders.  They were tantalizingly close to overthrowing their oppressive government in 2009 after blatant ballot-box stuffing reelected the clerics’ stooge Ahmadinejad.  Months of uprisings and demonstrations, a precursor to those we’ve seen recently in the Middle East, were eventually suppressed with much blood and suffering.  However, the 2009/2010 tensions remain, and the country seems ripe for another, perhaps successful, revolution in the future, particularly with parliamentary elections later this year.

This should be our approach then – doing whatever we can to help the hostages turn on their oppressors. Anything that weakens Iran’s government, and its influence throughout the region, will eventually empower its people.  The proposed oil embargo is a good start.  Diplomacy, mixed with aggressive covert operations (spying and propaganda distribution within the country) initiated by President Bush, and continued by President Obama, are our best hope for a new Iran.