Thursday, June 25, 2009

deadCENTER, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, North America, United States, Western Hemisphere, Earth

Our very own Shelby Button (AKA Charlie Parsley, AKA Farm Boy) went to OKC's premiere film festival featuring serious cinematic features as indicated in the shot above (the aftermath of some bad Popeye's methinks) and then turned around and filed a report over at the House Next Door.

Monday, June 22, 2009

And the punks shall inherit the Earth

"I know a lot of you are saying 'What can I do? I'm just a little punk. I don't count.' Well, you're dead wrong! The little punks have always counted because in the long run the character of a country is the sum total of the character of its little punks.

But, we've all got to get in there and pitch. We can't win the old ballgame unless we have teamwork. And that's where every John Doe comes in. It's up to him to get together with his teammates. And your teammate, my friend, is the guy next door to you. Your neighbor -- he's a terribly important guy that guy next door. You're gonna need him and he's gonna need you, so look him up. If he's sick, call on him. If he's hungry, feed him. If he's out of a job, find him one."

- John Doe, "Meet John Doe"

And in case you need more of a kick in the's the First Lady. I don't want to be the one to tell her I'm too busy to help my neighbor.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Easy Pickin's: The Gerald R. Ford Museum

Last week, a business trip took me to Grand Rapids, Michigan, home to 38th President Gerald R. Ford. The museum was just across the Grand River from my hotel, so I couldn't pass up the opportunity, even for someone considered to be a caretaker president.

As is typical, the museum starts off with a 20-minute video, in which the late president himself takes some credit for ending the Cold War. While this may sound like an overreach, in reality, foreign policy regarding the Soviet Union was actually a consistent thread from Truman through George H. W. Bush. Reagan had great follow-through in knocking down what had been teed up for him by previous presidents. No doubt Ford getting Brezhnev to recognize the principle of human rights at Helsinki further eroded the foundation of Stalin's legacy.

The exhibits themselves started off with a cultural check of the mess that was the 70s. Personally, I could have done without the reminder that white guys wore Afros in the days that disco was king, as well as the persistence of bell bottoms. I suppose, however, a museum devoted to the 5th-most-short-lived presidency has to have some filler.

The next space is devoted to Watergate, the genesis of Ford's ascension. It doesn't pull any punches in detailing the disaster Nixon created, while detailing the justification of Ford's pardon of Nixon. I honestly think Ford truly believed it would help move the country forward.

Interspersed with the story of how Ford became the first person not elected as president or vice-president is the requisite biography. The most interesting detail is LBJ's insistence that Ford serve on the Warren Commission (and that Ford and JFK had been friends in the House).

The foreign policy area is the most compelling. During his tenure, Ford had a hand in the following:
  • Overseeing the hasty evacuation of Americans from Saigon to close out the Vietnam War. Interestingly, he pushed to open America's borders to 130,000 refugees of South Vietnam, something Congress was reluctant to do. He saw it as living up to our commitment to those who support democracy and freedom. (The museum includes the stairwell used to get to the rooftop helipad of the American embassy...again, a symbol of freedom to Ford.)
  • Evacuating Americans from Lebanon after the assassination of the American ambassador.
  • Conclusion of Sadat's initiative for Egypt to sign peace with Israel. Kissinger had an active role, and Ford did his part by keeping all of Nixon's cabinet that remained at Ford's inauguration.
  • The Helsinki meeting with Brezhnev and signing of Salt II.
  • Starting the Group of 7, forerunner to today's G-20. Ford saw the G-7 as a way to figure out a way to break OPEC's lock on oil prices. Some people see the G-7/G-8/G-20 as a financial cabal, but we're probably better off when the world's richest countries try to coordinate efforts.
There were a number of displays that were not functioning during my tour. Again, probably the cost of maintaining a museum for a president that doesn't stir the passions of partisan supporters the way Clinton or Reagan does. However, the critical exhibits were functioning, and they were enlightening.

A section is devoted to Betty Ford as first lady. The one point that interested me was her support of the Equal Rights Amendment.

On the domestic front, Ford faced the following problems:

  • Blowback from not writing a blank check for NYC's bailout. He tied any federal assistance to budget reforms that helped New York cut much red ink. Congressman Ed Koch blasted Ford, but the President foresaw other municipalities lining up if New York got its bailout.
  • 9.5% unemployment and 15% inflation. The Democratic Congress wanted to tackle unemployment with more government spending. Ford dropped a number of vetoes on spending bills. The end result was expanded unemployment assistance, but less spending than Congress initially wanted. This paved the way for inflation to fall under 6% in Carter's first year. Fortunately for the current administration, inflation is not tying their hands.
  • 2 assassination attempts in less than a month, one by a Manson follower. Did I mention how much the 70's sucked?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Random Vice-Presidential Quote of the Day

"Dick Russel is absolutely shittin' a squealin' worm. He thinks it's a disgrace for a kid who's never practiced law to be appointed (Attorney General)....I agree with him."

- Lyndon Johnson on RFK's appointment as AG
From "An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 - 1963"

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Using Market Forces to Solve Many of the U.S. Healthcare Problems

I recently took a detour from presidential bios to read Tim Harford's "The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor--and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car!" (2006). The book makes economics accessible to the layperson, and reinforces my belief that market forces are the best way to solve problems, since the underlying motivation for everyone is self-interest. (And really, I owe a debt to P.J. O'Rourke for bringing me around to that viewpoint.) Altruism, while nice, isn't sustainable.

Harford does a great job of explaining how scarcity and inside information affect pricing, how Starbuck's customers signal they aren't bothered by price, and how China has made a more successful transition to capitalism than Russia.

In Chapter 5, he details how a national healthcare system could use market forces to encourage patients to ration their own healthcare, while avoiding medical catasrophes that bankrupt them. Additionally, it would make sure the poor were able to afford health care:

"These requirements suggest: people should pay for all medical care; but insurance should cover the largest bills; and that everyone should have a savings account dedicated to medical expenses, to which the government would contribute in the case of the poor or the chronically ill.

Catastrophe insurance, which pays out only when a particular course of treatment is very expensive, is fairly cheap. The savings are no problem either; simply reduce each person's tax bill by, say, $1,500 a year - this is very roughly the cost, in taxes, of both the UK and the US public health systems - and make them put the money in a savings account. For people who pay less than $1,500 in tax a year, the government would contribute money to make up the shortfall. Since the system is compulsory, no adverse selection takes place.

If you participated in such a program, how would it work for you? Your health-care savings would automaticaly go into a high-interest bank account. They would build up gradually throughout your life. For most people, medical bills are low in their younger years. So you could expect to have thirty thousand dollars in your account when you turn forty; more, if you've managed to keep your spending low and watched the money earn interest. Thirty thousand dollars buys a lot of medical care. Of course, it could all be consumed by a single expensive procedure, except that catastrophe insurance restricts your expenses."

He goes on to suggest that the health savings accounts could be willed to heirs, so that at all stages of a patient's life, they would have an incentive to avoid over-using health care. This would avoid having the government making decisions on what procedures were appropriate for any diagnosis.

And the system sketched out has been used in Singapore for more than 20 years, where the average life span is 80, an the total private and public cost of the system is $1,000 per person. Granted, the diet of the average Singaporean is probably significantly different than the average American, but if patients shoulder more of the health expenses incurred by obesity, then perhaps the average serving plate at The Cheesecake Factor would begin to shrink.

Now, while this type of system may not be exactly what Obama had in mind, it does line up with the 3 principles he has outlined:

  • Reduce costs — Rising health care costs are crushing the budgets of governments, businesses, individuals, and families, and they must be brought under control
  • Guarantee choice — Every American must have the freedom to choose their plan and doctor – including the choice of a public insurance option
  • Ensure quality care for all — All Americans must have quality and affordable health care
And, unlike the Clinton plan, it does not put the burden of providing coverage on employers.