Definition: As a punishment from the gods for his trickery, Sisyphus was compelled to roll a huge rock up a steep hill, but before he reached the top of the hill the rock always escaped him and he had to begin again.
Accordingly, pointless or interminable activities are often described as Sisyphean.

About us:



Adjutantman - An Army Reservist doing his best to support the Overseas Contingency Something-or-other



Household6 - The real boss of the family, currently being extremely understanding of her husband's military duties



Offspring1 - Talking a mile a minute, shy around girls, but always ready for his favorite shows. Walking, running, giving Dad heart attacks...



Offspring2 - Trying desperately to catch up to her big brother - because everyone knows girls do things better!



May 18, 2011

The evil that men do

Sometimes I think that I'm too much a cynic, that I have become too hardened to the injustices and horrors of our world. The I read a story likethis and it shatters my heart.

I honestly cannot conceive, even in my darkest imaginings, how anyone could possibly harm a child. I know that there are those out there who do, and it always sickens me when I hear about the things they have done. But this case touched me much more deeply. Maybe it's the fact that this little boy is so close in age to my son. Or the fact that he seems to have liked the same cartoon character, Lightning McQueen, that my son does.

Looking at the picture released, I did something I rarely do - I broke down and cried for this child. I kept thinking about him picking out those sneakers, how excited he must have been to have Lightning McQueen on them. Giving his parents a big smile as he carried them to the checkout, probably wanting to wear them out of the store.

He had an airplane on the front of his shirt - did he get excited about planes the way my son does? Did he point them out to his parents, and bounce up and down laughing, when he saw them?

What else did he like? Was he into dinosaurs, or trains, or spaceships? I can picture him on the living room floor, watching cartoons or playing with his toys, making up adventures for them to act out. What adventures did he hope to have in his life?

I keep coming back to all the things that he should have had, and never will. His first bike ride without training wheels. Graduations, proms, family vacations. His first date, his first kiss. Heading off to college, becoming a grown man.

And what of his family? I think of the joy they must have known when he arrived, now snatched from them. All the times they thought they would have together, never imagining how quickly he would be gone. I can't help but wonder where they are now, and why the silence - if it were my child there is nothing short of my own death that would stop me from moving earth and heaven to find him.

What I wish more than anything else is that there was something I could do. I hate knowing that his final moments were very likely filled with fear, terrified by what was happening, and not understanding why the people he loved weren't there to stop it. If I could ask for one gift from God, it would be for the chance to step back to that moment, for the chance to intervene, to hold him and tell him that he is safe.

But the only thing that I can do is what I have done each night since I first heard this story. I pray that God has opened his arms to this child, and that he knows now that he is loved and safe, and in a place where no one will ever hurt him again.

I also think about whomever is responsible for this child's death. You should also pray, pray that God can forgive you for this horrible act. Because I never will.

September 24, 2010

Reading the Pledge

So the GOP came out yesterday with their "Pledge to America." Catchy title, but what does it mean for us, really? I decided to dig into it some and see what there was in there that I thought was good or lacking.

Rein in the Red Tape Factory in Washington, DC
Not much I can argue with here, although I would like some more specifics. Bureaucracy is strangling this country, at all levels, in my opinion and getting rid of any of it is an improvement. But how? Will they push to abolish any of these regulatory agencies that drown us in rules that Congress never voted on? Personally, I would like to see a bill that would require any proposed federal regulation have a vote in both Houses - that alone would cut down on the regulatory nightmare because Congress is inherently lazy and probably wouldn't get around to it before they had to break for the next holiday.

Act Immediately to Reduce Spending
AKA kill the stimulus. I like it - don't see it happening, but I'm willing to be pleasantly surprised.

Cut Government Spending to Pre- Stimulus, Pre-Bailout Levels
While it's a good start, why stop there? There's a lot of spending that got approved prior to the stimulus that could go as well. Medicare Part-D? God only knows how many earmarks? Bueller?

Establish a Hard Cap on New Discretionary Spending
All this does is limit the rate at which government will grow - but it still grows. I would recommend capping discretionary spending increases at the inflation rate, giving each agency the same budget each year with that inflation adjustment. If they really feel they need more, let them justify that need, preferably in writing or in a hearing, so everyone can see it. Also, agency budgets should be reviewed periodically (say, every 2 years), to determine if they still need all that money.

Hold Weekly Votes on Spending Cuts
And this will do what, exactly? Seriously, the YouCut website is a nice idea, but it's like trying to bail out the Titanic with a teaspoon. Ramp it up, and hold votes on whether to kill some major programs, and maybe it might work.

End TARP Once And For All
'Nuff said. Bad idea to begin with, can't end too soon.

End Government Control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac
See the previous comment.

Root Out Government Waste and Sunset Outdated & Duplicative Programs
Haven't we heard this before? Seems like everyone talks about this at some point, and we end up rooting out about $50 million or so, then patting ourselves on the back as we proceed to spend another $100 bajillion (defined as 10 to the power of "Doh!"). Try sunsetting some CABINET LEVEL agencies for a change - God knows some of them serve no purpose, and that would actually free up a chunk of change that might mean something.

Repeal the Costly Health Care Takeover of 2010
Don't see how you can go wrong on this one. Does health care (or rather the insurance model) need reform? Sure. But burning down the house in order to put in a new toilet is damned stupid.

Enact Medical Liability Reform
This is going to be problematic. Most of the need for tort reform is at the state level - very few malpractice suits end up in federal court. While this sounds good, unless Congress can justify telling states to change their tort laws, it's probably not going anywhere.

Purchase Health Insurance across State Lines
Let the market work! At the same time, we should include language that would keep states from requiring out of state plans to offer the same mandatory benefits as in state plans - that is what drives most of the cost of premiums these days. People should be able to design health insurance plans the same way they do car insurance, by picking the services they want, and leaving out the ones they don't. Where I live, the state mandates that every health plan has to include in vitro fertilization coverage. If you've never explored it, IVF is INCREDIBLY expensive, which means that insurance companies here have to charge a lot more for their plans. Personally, I don't need that coverage (witness Offspring 1 & 2 as evidence), so why do I have to pay for it?

Expand Health Savings Accounts
This is a big one that I think will get ignored by most people. HSAs are one of the best ideas to come along in health care in quite some time. Let people control their own money, and choose their own providers based on their preferences. What a concept! And if they don't use the money, they can keep it to use later, instead of it being lost forever in a traditional health plan.

Adhere To the Constitution
It would be really nice if we didn't need to have this spelled out. I'm pretty sure Congresscritters have to take an oath to the Constitution already, right? Maybe it's too long to read, like those pesky bills...

Advance Legislative Issues One at a Time
Another good one that doesn't go far enough. How about a law requiring that each bill address only one topic, and that all amendments must be related to that topic? And maybe a limit on the length of the bill - say 2000 words? 5000 if I'm feeling generous. Honestly, if you can't get your point across in 5000 words, is it really worth the time and effort to say it?

What's missing
I would have liked to see a commitment to ending earmarks permanently, as I think they have corrupted the legislative process immensely. Thanks to earmarks, it's basically become a bribery factory for the constituents - how much money can I funnel back to my district so they'll re-elect me?

Another issue I would have liked to see is a promise to end "off budget" accounting. The Pledge does talk about requiring a full accounting of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, but I would like to know exactly what that means. Ideally, they should have to account for those programs each year in the budget, showing the programs' unfunded liabilities as well as what Congress is doing that year to reduce those shortfalls - currently at around $106 TRILLION.

All in all, I would give it about a B+. Good effort, but could have been more specific and focused.

September 23, 2010

Zoinks!

Holy cow - I can't believe it's been over a year since I last posted!

Really, it's not my fault. The car got a flat tire. We ran out of gas. There was this thing I had to do on the house. My boss wanted me to do actual work. It's not my fault! (Bonus points if you can guess the movie)

Seriously though, the last year has been hectic to say the least, insane to say the most. Two job changes, financial issues, road trips for the new job, Offspring 1 & 2 exhausting their parents - it all adds up after a while. But hopefully the worst is now past, and I can once again offer my biting, incisive commentary on things that 99% of people wish I really wouldn't...

August 12, 2009

Real Health Insurance Reform

One of the hazards of blogging is trying to be both relevant and current. For example, I've been mulling an idea for the last week or so about what I would do if I were in charge of reforming health insurance - no easy task, since its such a huge segment of the economy, so naturally it was taking me some time.

Well, I finally had the plan roughed out - only to find that the CEO of Whole Foods beat me to it (and probably did it a little better). So rather than reinvent the wheel, I'll just try to make it rounder by expanding on what he wrote.

"Remove the legal obstacles that slow the creation of high-deductible health insurance plans and health savings accounts (HSAs)." I'm very much in favor of this one, as it puts control of health care costs squarely in the hands of the patient, who I believe is the one who should be in control. It has the effect of making patients very much aware of costs and benefits, which means they can make much better decisions about how their health care money should be spent.

Let me give you an example. When my wife and I were expecting our first child, we utilized her employer provided insurance (a very nice plan) to cover our expenses. We pretty much went with whatever the doctors recommended, and got everything done at the most convenient locations and times. No issues.

Fast forward to our current situation. My wife is now unemployed, so we are using my (government provided) health insurance, Tricare. Anyone who has been through a pregnancy in the last 10 years will tell you that you can expect the doctor to schedule two to three ultrasounds in the course of the pregnancy, in order to monitor the baby's development, as well as check for any issues that could affect the delivery (position of the baby, problems with the placenta or umbilical cord, etc.). Well, Tricare doesn't cover ultrasounds, except in "high risk" pregnancies (can anyone say rationing? But that's another topic.) We opted to get the ultrasounds anyway, and pay out of pocket.

Imagine our surprise when we got a bill for $1000 for the first ultrasound! Seems that the hospital where we had been going all along charges quite a bit for that particular exam. Once the shock wore off, we did a little research (which we should have done beforehand), and discovered that the hospital is the MOST expensive place to get an ultrasound. But there is a private diagnostic clinic near us that does the exact same thing (with more modern equipment, too - better images) for only $200.

So think about that - if we were spending $1000 per ultrasound when it was paid for by insurance, no wonder premiums are so high! There was no incentive for us to look at how much the service cost, because we never got the bill. But when we did, it only took a little bit of research on our part to find an alternative provider that actually gives better service for less cost. Market forces at work.

"Repeal all state laws which prevent insurance companies from competing across state lines." Another big one, here. Why should a policy be provided by an insurance company in one state not be valid in another? I can take my car insurance with me when I move - why not my health insurance.

This also ties in with the next point, which is "Repeal government mandates regarding what insurance companies must cover." One of the reason that plans are so much more expensive in certain states is because of the mandatory coverage that has been forced down our throats. For example, New Jersey mandates that any plan offered by a New Jersey employer MUST cover in vitro fertilization. While that's a boon to those who need that service, why should the rest of the people in the state pay for a health service they'll never use? Ideally, health insurance should be customizable the way car insurance is - when I buy my car insurance plan, I get to chose the coverage level and which items are covered, since I know my car and how much its worth to me. Shouldn't I get the same right when it comes to my own body and the maintenance it requires?

If done right (never a guarantee when Congress is involved), this would be a REAL deficit neutral way of reducing health care costs - repealing regulation costs only the paper and ink, while adding it (Congress' preferred method) means creating whole new agencies to manage and enforce those regulations.

Sadly, this is probably far too common sensical for those in Washington to embrace.

July 24, 2009

Aboveground economy

Over the last few weeks (and months) we've heard more and more about raising taxes on the "rich." We've also heard more about how the cutoff point for those increases ($250,000 in income) is likely to impact small business owners, most of whom are not incorporated, and who report their earnings on their personal income taxes.

So I got to thinking about how folks might try to get around paying these new taxes, and it occurred to me that for a small business, the IRS really only knows what your income is because you tell them! Think about it. When you own your business, you don't get a W2 from your employer - you don't have one. You are required to report how much you earn, and theoretically the IRS could do an audit and check your bank accounts to see how much went in.

But what if you avoided all that? I could envision an enterprising you business person opening something like a coffee shop, one which only accepts cash. Nothing wrong there - you have to pay for the credit card machine (an extra cost) and most people don't carry checks. Similarly, if he had employees, he pays them in cash - no payroll taxes, so they get to take home more. And if he doesn't deposit his earnings in the bank, there is no electronic trail to follow to show he even earned money!

Granted for some things, using cash would be a pain, like ordering his supplies. But in that case, banks sell cashier's checks, which also leave no trail pointing to our entrepreneur. This would certainly be more cumbersome than our customary electronic transactions, but for the life of me I can't find a major flaw in the theory.

I wonder if we will see something like this sort of illicit aboveground economy emerge as Congress continues to do what it does best - steal every last dime it can from the taxpayer.

July 7, 2009

Third party? Or herding cats?

Over the last few years, I have gradually drifted away from identifying myself as a Republican and slowly found myself aligning more and more with libertarians. Note, however, that is small "l" libertarians, which must be differentiated from the big "L" party.

While I would love it if libertarians were able to muster the unity needed to build a viable third party, I just don't see it happening. For starters, too often those who talk about running as big "L" candidates seem like they are Republicans or Democrats who couldn't get nominated in their own party and needed someone else to boost them. But the biggest problem I see is the very philosophy of the little "l" folks - it just doesn't work for big party politics.

Let me explain. No, there is too much - let me sum up. One of the basic tenets of libertarian philosophy is individual freedom, keeping government out of as much as possible and allowing people the liberty to believe, do and say what they like. Obviously, there have to be limits, but they should be as open as possible to allow people maximum freedom without infringing on the freedoms of others.

But there's the rub. If your philosophy is built on letting everyone be and do what they want, how do you ever get a consensus about what your group should be supporting? People who subscribe to libertarianism tend to be individualists with very strongly held views - not much can dissuade them from their belief in the freedoms they hold dear. Personally, I think that's good thing, but it sure does make organizing hard.

Ever try to get even two Type-A personalities to reach an agreement on something they have opposing views on? Now imagine that on a nationwide scale, amongst thousands of people, no two of whom hold exactly the same view...

Let's just say I'm not going to hold my breath on the Libertarian Party posing a serious threat to the Republocrats anytime soon. I'll muddle along and try to support whatever candidate seems closest to my personal libertarian views.

June 25, 2009

Fixing Medicare

Medicare, and the problems associated with it, has become a large part of the current debate over public option health insurance as part of the President's health care reform package. The biggest problem that is commonly pointed out is cost - as of 2009 (according to the budget submitted by the current administration), Medicare will cost $425 billion. That's a whole lot of money, especially when you consider that they project taking in only $191 billion in Medicare payroll taxes. In an ideal world, this wouldn't be a problem, since we would have the revenue from everyone's past Medicare taxes tucked away in a vault somewhere to make the payments for those who have already retired and started using Medicare - but we all know what happens to money when you just leave it lying around a politician, don't we? And so the $234 billion difference will have to come from somewhere else, probably borrowed from China.

But isn't there a better way? I think there is, although it would certainly be painful to get through Congress (but then, what isn't). Let's try a thought experiment and see where it takes us.

Being of a libertarian bent, and a reasonably intelligent person, I have always felt that I can make a better decision about how to spend my money than someone in D.C. who has never even met me. So in my thought experiment, the government is going to take the money that I pay in Medicare taxes, and actually put it away (not spend it!) until I need it. Assuming I am employed continuously from age 21 to age 65, which I have been so far, that means that I should accumulate roughly $264,000 when I retire at age 65 (assuming I retire at 65, and assuming tax rates don't change, etc - this is a rough estimate folks, work with me here).

So, the day after I retire, the government hands me a check for $264,000, for me to use for my health care now that I'm retired. At this point I have a couple of options.

#1 - I can put it in a health savings account and only withdraw what I need to cover my medical expenses. This is a viable option for those in good health who are willing to bet that they won't have any catastrophic expenses.

#2 - I can put that money in a savings account, and use it to purchase a health insurance plan of my choice (my preferred option). Assuming I find a plan that I like, and assuming it will cost roughly $1000 a month (again, rough estimate folks - it might cost more in your state, or less), that means I have enough money for roughly 22 years of coverage, possibly a little more with the interest it earns during those years. If I can shop around and find a less expensive plan that meets my needs, so much the better. And given that private insurers would no longer have to try and compete with the government, they just might create plans specifically for seniors, with lower monthly costs (although probably a higher deductible), in order to entice people to sign up.

#3 - I can have one heck of a party.

With either option #1 or #2, the net cost to the government each year? $0. Well, pretty close. You'll still need to pay someone to manage the money, write the checks, etc. But it will be a heck of a lot less than $234 billion, I can tell you that. And of course, with option #3, I'll probably drop dead of a heart attack 2/3 of the way through the party, thus saving everyone a great deal of expense on my future health care.

Now, why will this never happen? It would mean the government has to give up some control, which it is always desperate not to do. It also means that if people don't manage their money wisely, they'll run out. Sadly, too many Americans have come to see Medicare as a bottomless entitlement, kind of like Social Security, and aren't about to let Uncle Sam tell them there's a limit.

Instead, we'll get something like the President talked about the other day - cut the cost of the program by cutting payments to the health care providers. Never mind that they only pay 25-30% of the actual cost of procedures now, and the rest has to be passed on to the private insurers. After all, that will just help run private health insurance out of business even faster. (Sigh)

June 18, 2009

Economics and the Public Option

There is a lot of talk right now about the so called "public option" that the President wants in the health care reform bill. The administration claims that this will not supplant private health insurance, but simply provide an alternative for those who cannot afford private coverage. Let's test this with a thought experiment.

Let's say that there is an industry that manufactures widgets. The companies that make the widgets get the components (gizmos) from a group of suppliers scattered all over the country. Since gizmos are very difficult to make, the suppliers have to spend years learning how to manufacture them, and the gizmos are correspondingly fairly expensive, which in turn makes the widgets made from the gizmos expensive.

Enter the government, who decides that widgets are vitally important to America, and that everyone needs them. Since not everyone can afford them, or in some cases simply don't want them because of the expense, they are going to build widgets too, and provide them for a lower price to the people who can't afford the free market widgets.

Sounds OK so far, right? But wait, there's a catch. Because, you see, the government can make laws, and one of the laws they have made is that they only have to pay 30% of the actual cost of a gizmo when they buy one. So what happens? Since the gizmo makers have to sell to the government (another law), and they can't make enough money to cover their own costs on government sales, they pass the cost on to their private customers, driving up the cost of private widgets. Meanwhile, the government is selling their widgets for 50% of what the private manufacturers can (since the government doesn't have to make a profit).

What happens? Well, a whole bunch of people decide to buy their widgets from the government, even if they could afford the private ones - why pay 50% more? Widget manufacturers start to go out of business, and their customers end up buying government widgets. Its a domino effect - in a relatively short time, there are no private widget manufacturers anymore (have we mentioned the rise in unemployment because of this?). Now, because they can't charge extra for private gizmos, the gizmo makers start to fail. Soon, there is a shortage of gizmos, and the government has to create a waiting list for widgets, based on their criteria of who needs, or can benefit, the most from a widget.

Substitute doctors for gizmo makers, insurance companies for widget makers, and you start to see the problem. We already see part of this with Medicare - because Medicare pays only pennies on the dollar for procedures, doctors have to pass on the cost of those patients to those with private insurance, which raises premiums for the everyone else.

A public option, open to those making up to 500% of the poverty level, would accelerate this trend like an ICBM strapped to a Vespa - its OK for the first few milliseconds, but by the time the brain realizes the enormity of this mistake, its already too late to stop.

Healthcare from the government? Tell me another one...

There are a lot of reasons that health care needs to be reformed. Cost is the biggest one, of course - if you have to pay for health insurance yourself, it can be incredibly expensive. But having the government provide the health insurance? It may not be as big a hit on your wallet (since everyone in the country is helping to pay your premiums), but there's the old saying that you get what you pay for.

Let me give you some examples. As a servicemember in the Armed Forces, I am covered under TriCare, the uniformed services health plan. If I (or my family) need healthcare anywhere off post, TriCare is our insurance plan. It costs nothing, except co-pays, and any provider who takes Medicare or Medicaid has to accept TriCare by law. Sounds great, doesn't it? Until you get to the coverage itself.

First example - a couple years back, my doctor sent me to get a blood test, to determine if I had an allergy to a specific substance. Since his office doesn't have its own lab (like most general practitioners), he sent me to an outside lab service. One appointment, 15 minutes, blood drawn and sent off. A few weeks later, I receive my statement of benefits for the visit from TriCare: they covered the test, the shipping of the sample to where the test was done - but not the drawing of the blood! this, incidentally, was the most expensive part of the whole procedure. I called them up and asked about this, figuring it must be a mistake, only to be informed that the blood draw was an "incidental procedure" not required for the test, so it was not covered. One may ask, how do you test blood if you don't get it out of the patient first? Well, I did exactly that and was told it wasn't their problem. When I suggested that they should advise their clients to simply slit their wrists and bleed in the bottle (emergency room visits being covered 100%), they were not amused.

Second example - pregnancy visits. Anyone who has had a baby in the last ten years or so knows that doctors now rely on ultrasounds for a great deal of information that could previously only be gained through invasive testing, a significant benfit for both mother an child. However, TriCare being run by a bureaucracy, the rules for coverage get rewritten only under extreme duress. The coverage policy for ultrasounds, it seems, dates from sometime back in the late 80s or early 90s, when they were still new and relatively cumbersome. So instead of the 3 to 4 regular ultrasounds that most ObGyn's recommend for a normal pregnancy, TriCare only covers ultrasounds for pregnancies considered "high risk." On top of that, if they do authorize the ultrasounds, TriCare uses what is called "global coverage." That is to say, TriCare will not take claims from doctors and labs for the pregnancy piecemeal - all expenses must be submitted on a single claim, after the baby is born. You see the problem here already - no doctor can bill that way, since a specialist like an ObGyn must refer patients out for different tests, and the hospital where the baby is delivered is a separate entity altogether. TriCare's answer? Have the ObGyn collect all the bills from the other doctors and facilities, submit it all on his/her claim, and then the ObGyn pays the other bills from the settlement. Feel free to laugh now.

So, still think its a good idea to hand your healthcare over to the people that run this system? There's a reason that the program is nicknamed "Try To Get Care."

May 25, 2009

"...thank God that such men lived."

Memorial Day is a bittersweet time for me. For most of my life, the reasons behind this holiday were theoretical - there was no personal emotional connection for me. No relatives lost in past wars, no friends who didn't come home. I honored the fallen while still having some emotional distance from the real meaning of the day.

In the last eight years, all of that has changed. Today I remember friends I never thought I would lose, comrades I wish I had known better, and young men for whom I feel responsible. And yet, despite the loss and the grief, I can't help but feel that too many of us miss the point of Memorial Day.

It is well and good that we should remember the fallen, but what we should remember is not how they died, but what they lived for. I read this some time back, and it rings even more true today, especially these two paragraphs:

We are not your sons and daughters, whom you must protect and defend. We are your sword and your shield. We are men and women who volunteer to place our lives on the line so you do not have to. We do not decide when or where we will be sent. We go. You are our advocates, not our parents.
We, your American service members, do not see the cause for which we may give our last full measure of devotion, as our nation's goals in Iraq or Afghanistan, and perhaps that is the difference. Our cause is our nation, in all her beautiful, imperfect glory.

And so, today, I remember my friends and comrades not because of the pain I feel because they are not here, but rather because I am humbled by the honor of having known such men as they. I remember the words of Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., and know them to be true:

It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.