The budget problems are all healthcare related

Fix ItHealthcare spending in the U.S. accounts for 17.6% of the economy, and is projected to be 20% by the end of this decade.  These are not federal budget numbers, this is the whole economy.  $1 out of every $6 that’s spent in this country is spent on healthcare.

For context, that’s double the percentage spent in the average OCED country.  In absolute dollars, we spend 2.5 times more per capita than average, at $8,650/person.  And for all that money, we rank just under the average for life expectancy and infant mortality.

This is a pointless drag on the entire economy.  Not only for the government and private employers, but for workers as well.  One of the reasons wages have been so flat for the last decade is that money available for employee raises has gone into preserving medical coverage rather than increasing take home pay.

Yet this is also a big issue, perhaps the only issue, for the current budget problems faced by the federal government.  Government spending on healthcare (including employee plans, veterans benefits, as well as Medicare and Medicaid) is $1.17 trillion each year.  And this is projected to double over the decade.  Granted, these numbers are inclusive of state and local government spending as well, but this is still paid for with our tax dollars.

In other words, considering our 2.5x cost premium, there’s $700 billion/year sitting on the table if we manage to get our healthcare costs in line with our global peers.  Even assuming the federal portion is only half of that, the numbers dwarf any of the cost savings currently proposed by either party’s budget plans.  Couple this with the already planned savings for drawing down the wars, and our deficit goes away by 2020.

This is the only budget problem we need to be addressing.  It saves Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, NASA, Pell Grants, and everyone else currently on the chopping block.  Do the math.

So why aren’t we focused on fixing this?  Primarily because the proven method of achieving the healthcare cost goals, the one used by pretty much every other OCED country we are benchmarking against, is some form of single-payer model.  And for reasons known mostly to powerful corporate lobbies for insurance, pharmaceutical, and medical device  companies, single-payer health plans are socialist Nazi plots to kill Grandma. Instead, we are committed to responsible prudent austerity founded on shared sacrifice… because Grandma prefers be bankrupt such that she is forced to choose between food and medicine.  After all, it is about having a choice.

The country is not broke, but it is broken

Broken ChainPopular wisdom has it that the US is largely now “owned” by China or other foreigners.  That we are basically borrowing from the world to stay afloat.  Thus, ushering in the specter of these lenders calling our loans due and breaking us.

It turns out that’s not quite true.  In fact, it’s not even a little true.  Business Insider actually looked at the data, and the perhaps surprising result is that two-thirds of the $14.3 trillion debt is held right here in the US.

Think of that a little differently.  $9.8 trillion of American government debt is held by US taxpayers.  The same people (well, some of the same people) ultimately responsible for paying off that debt.  The same people who would pay should the government opt to raise more revenue through taxes.

The government is the people in this country.  We hear all the time how the US debt is a legacy of burden on our grandchildren.  Yet, at least collectively, those same grandchildren are sitting on a massive asset which is the notes on that very same debt.  It would be as if you had $70,000 worth of gold buried in your backyard, a $100,000 mortgage you couldn’t make the payments on, and spent all your time whining about how you were broke.

Make no mistake, the current debt crisis is one of choice on many levels.  The government may well be broke, but the country is not.  And the government is broke only because it (or we) have chosen make it run that way.  This leaves us no license to bitch about it.

If the economy tanks, will Conservatives repent?

Debt Ceiling Implications Poll
The scariest debt-ceiling poll results, ever

The debt ceiling talks appear to have stalled and the August 2nd date of economic doom draws neigh.  Wall Street bankers, The Fed, the Treasury Department, and most every economist on the planet believe that hitting the debt ceiling will have dire consequences, and that actually defaulting on the debt would be even worse.  Estimates vary in terms of the degree of catastrophe, but virtually no one in a position to be considered an expert on macroeconomics thinks that hitting the ceiling will be no big deal.

In that light, the poll results depicted here are truly frightening.  53% of Republicans, 43% of Independents, and even over a quarter of Democrats believe hitting the ceiling won’t cause a crisis.  Further, somewhere around 60 Congressmen have vowed to vote against any debt ceiling increase, no matter the deal.  Clearly they aren’t worried either.

Chauncey DeVega, over at AlterNet, thinks the reason is that evangelicals have a strong hold on the GOP, and that the fervently faithful have a mindset that ignores numbers that don’t agree with their ideology.  He posits that the Tea Party and other far right conservative groups are running on faith rather than fact.  While there may be some truth to that, it doesn’t explain the plurality of Independents or the chunk of Democrats beholden to the notion that banging into the debt ceiling is a non-event.

I personally think there’s also an element here of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”.  Political issues have become so hyperbolic in the media that virtually every issue is positioned as a looming Armageddon of one sort or another.  Unless you’re following the minutiae of the debates, you’re bound to get pretty numb to all the doomsaying.

However, presumably our elected officials are above simply blowing in the media wind.  They have access to data and discussions those of us in the cheap seats do not.   They are in the position to be able to discern hyperbole from actual danger.  Yet this would not prevent them from being blinded to facts by faith.

GOP legislators faith-blindness goes beyond the debt ceiling.  Similar faith-trumps-data rationale fuels denial of global warming, belief that tax cuts don’t have to be paid for, belief that progressive tax codes constitute class warfare and destroy jobs, belief that trickle down economics is always the answer, and government regulation is always evil.

The problem is that proving that tax cuts actually lower revenue, or that CO2 contributes to global warming, requires many years of data.  And even then,the results are subject to interpretation and are not readily understandable by the average Joe.

Should we hit it, the debt ceiling presents an interesting test case.  If the experts are right, the impact will be felt in the very short term.  It will be widespread, affecting almost everyone, everywhere.  And the impact will be felt for awhile.  It will be virtually impossible to deny that such an impact was directly attributable to ignoring the debt ceiling.  The Conservatives who claimed it would be no big deal will be demonstrably and painfully proved wrong beyond any reasonable doubt.

Should that come to pass, the question is, will that shake the faith of Conservative politicians and supporters in their other sacred tenets?  Might they be willing to entertain the reality of global warming given the catastrophic impact of their blind faith in the debt ceiling non-crisis?  Or will this be swept under the rug much like the predicted May 21st end of the world predictions.  That was also proved wrong, but the faithful seem to somehow have accepted that failure with no apparent impact on their other beliefs.  Maybe a sufficiently strong faith is even able to overcome incontrovertible reality.

Either way, if the economy tanks, it should certainly cause the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” crowd to pay attention.  Maybe that bodes well for our collective political future if we can at least get the majority of the voters to begin operating from data-based rather than faith-based policies.  Although, it would be a hellish way to learn a lesson.


Zero tolerance makes zero sense

Zero Tolerance
When we lose our ability to make qualitative decisions, we lose much of what it means to be alive.

Have we lost all ability to make reasonable judgements?  Is the fear of being unfair so great that we are willing to subject ourselves to draconian rules to avoid making subjective decisions?  Apparently so.

In Easton, MD two high school lacrosse players have been arrested for possession of weapons on school grounds. The weapons were found in the boys’ equipment bags during a search of the team bus prior to a game.  One kid had a Leatherman tool.  The other a Bic lighter, which was classified as an explosive device.  Both are tools reasonably used to repair lacrosse sticks.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident.  In Portland, ME a freshman girl was expelled for asking a friend for some Tylenol. In New York, a 17-year-old Eagle Scout was suspended from school for a month for bringing an antique two-inch penknife to school. The knife was found after school officials searched his car in the school parking lot and found the knife in a survival kit the honor student kept in the locked trunk of his car.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography, “I know it when I see it.”  Why can’t a similar test be used with regard to weapons and drugs in schools?  There is an understandable desire to keep weapons and drugs out of schools.  But what constitutes a weapon or a drug has a large gray area.

You can get drunk on mouthwash, yet a small travel bottle or spritzer for getting the lunchtime pizza off your breath before locking lips with your boyfriend after class is probably not an indication of someone with a budding drinking problem.  Yet, finding quarts of Scope stashed in your locker might be such an indication.

Similarly, pocket knives are incredibly useful tools for all manner of small tasks.  Could you kill someone with one?  Sure.  You could also kill them with a rock, your hands, or gravity. And we haven’t seen a move to outlaw gravity. (Although given the way evolution is treated in most schools, gravity shouldn’t get too cocky.)

We talk about truth, justice, and the American way, but there can be no justice so long as laws are absolute.  Even life itself is an exercise in exceptions.  When has justice ever been as simple as a rulebook?  And what are we teaching our children by raising them in this environment?  That laws are capricious, unyielding, and without mercy?  That common sense has no place in society?  That being good means following the rules to the letter of the law and never stepping outside the lines?

These are not lessons I want my children to learn.  I make my living designing machines capable of only black and white reasoning. Yet, the world is mostly shades of gray. I do not want my children programmed.  When we lose our ability to make qualitative decisions, we lose much of what it means to be alive.

FDA study results in concerns about government food Nazis

Calvin thumb on nose
You realize it is April 1st, right?

An FDA advisory committee is evaluating the strength of the evidence surrounding a link between food dyes and behavior changes in children.  Scientists and academics are accusing the dyes of exacerbating hyperactivity in children and are advocating for a ban on the eight dyes they claim are dangerous.

Sarah Palin was quick to dismiss the finding saying:

Those ivory tower elites just think they know everything.  How dare they accuse our Froot Loops of exacerbating? There’s no call for that sort of language. I think maybe, you know, they’re the ones doing that, and if they don’t cut it out they’ll go blind.

Glenn Beck was also on the defensive as he accused the FDA of kowtowing to First Lady Michele Obama’s food Nazi agenda. He asserted that Skittles were the last line of defense against the rising tide of socialist Muslim oppressors intent on taking our freedoms away.  Beck then waxed poetical, paraphrasing Pastor Martin Niemoller.

First they came for the saccharine,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a coffee drinker.

Then they came for the trans-fats,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a McDonald’s customer.

Then they came for the red dye 40,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Pop-Tart eater.

Then they came for my high fructose corn syrup
and there was nothing left to eat.

Beck then went on to note that this country was founded on corn.  Our founding fathers recognized corn was God’s gift to them.  It was fuel, food, oil, sugar, and vegetable.  John Addams called corn “American manna.”  Beck reminded that the Indians didn’t want us to have corn and tried to confuse our ancestors by calling it maize.  He said, this is why we make corn mazes every fall, to honor the confusion and disorientation the pioneers suffered at the hands of the cruel Indians.  Beck concluded, “And you know who else hated corn?  Hitler!”

Politicians were also quick to rise up against the outrageous actions of the FDA.  Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) introduced yet another rider to the 2011 budget prohibiting the FDA from using federal funds to restrict food additives whose primary purpose was aesthetic.  Pence claimed America has the single greatest looking snack foods God ever gave man on this Earth, and he would not sit idly by and let our Twinkies take a back shelf to Chinese knock-offs.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office also released a statement that he was backing a no-bid contract with Haliburton to lease America’s Ritalin riddled children as part of the GOP’s green energy plan.  The press release said this is not the time to be thinking about reducing the hyperactivity of our youth. We cannot possibly cut our addiction to Middle Eastern oil on hamster power alone.  Experiments at powering wheels with seniors in exchange for Medicare coverage didn’t pan out.  It turns out, arthritic men with heart conditions simply can’t sustain the velocity needed for reliable electricity production.  Cantor emphasized, “Children are our future.”

Christine O’Donnell added, “It’s just food coloring people, not witchcraft.”