Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Competitive Gluttony

In the movie Talledega Nights, Ricky Bobby is driven by the one thing his deadbeat father shared with him before driving off and out of his life.

"If you ain't first, you're last!"

Nowhere in sports is this more true than in feats of gastronomic excess.  Did you happen to catch the Nathan's hot dog eating competition this past weekend?  You know what's worse than finishing second in an eating contest?  Nothing.

Look at these people.

"Don't throw up, don't throw up, don't throw up..."
Does this look fun to you? Only in America. In other parts of the world there are people eating dung and feeling fortunate to have it.  Here in the U.S.A., we've discovered yet another way to irritate the rest of the planet.
"Hey world, we have it so good here that we are going to show you just how much we can eat in ten minutes. Check this out! Don't be too jealous."  
If you did watch it, how many times did you almost retch? Even if you love hot dogs more than anything else, I'll bet you anything that the thought of eating 50 of them in ten minutes is enough to end the love affair.   If one of these contestants had thrown up it would no doubt have started a vomit chain reaction amongst the entrants, the crowd, and the television audience. Every one of the competitors at some point made a throw up face. By the way, as you might expect in contests of this sort, vomiting results in immediate disqualification.
So, imagine for a minute that you are a competitor in this contest.  You eat in ten minutes more hot dogs than any health-conscious person would eat in a year.  This year's winner, Joey "Jaws" Chestnut ate 61. (UPDATE: In the 2017 contest, he ate 72.) For you calorie counters out there that's almost 20,000 calories.  In 2011 Chestnut made more than $200,000 eating competitively. Okay.   I suppose making six figures partially offsets the dangers inherent in competitive gluttony. Maybe not. 
But how about the guy who finished second by eating 56 hot dogs?  Do you know his name without looking it up? Didn't think so. Think about your post-Thanksgiving meal food coma and multiply that uncomfortable feeling by infinity.  You've just eaten 56 hotdogs in ten minutes and lost.  You feel godawful. There is no trophy. No fame. No paycheck. 
In competitive eating, if you ain't first, you're last.

Monday, June 30, 2014

On Today's Supreme Court Decision

I have written previously on the Affordable Care Act (ACA, Obamacare) and in that article I referenced the Supreme Court case in which Hobby Lobby, a privately-held business, had sued the United States government for requiring it to include in its employee coverage a certain type of birth control called abortifacients, more commonly known as "morning after pills."

This morning, in a 5-4 decision that split along ideological lines, the Supreme Court rendered its verdict, ruling that privately-held companies whose owners have a religious objection to birth control  cannot be compelled to provide contraceptives to employees. It must be understood that the plaintiffs are not opposed to all forms of birth control, only those that can be used to halt pregnancy after fertilization has occurred.

Women, the Obama administration, and liberals in general are voicing their displeasure with the verdict.  In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote that "the exemption sought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga (the other plaintiff) would...deny legions of women who do not hold their employers' beliefs access to contraceptive coverage."

Do you not see the irony here?  Women who favor choice and who have long told the government to mind its own business in these matters found themselves turning to the same government for protection in this case.  I'm sorry pro-choice America, but you cannot have it both ways. 
We want to be left alone unless we can't get what we want.  If we can't get what we want then we want you to get it for us.  

You either want the government to mind its own business or you don't. Perhaps this is an oversimplification of a complicated issue but it seems to me that contraception is a matter of choice and that it should NOT be the responsibility of the employer to provide you with it. If you want birth control, go get it yourself.

Should the government require your employer to provide you with a car so that you can get to work? Should the government require your employer to build you a house so that you have your own single-family residence? Despite the fact that many employers offer these types of perks, they are not required to do so.  A recent survey of large American corporations found that nearly 85% of them already were offering some type of birth control coverage before the ACA mandated it.  Today's decision is not a defeat for employee-sponsored birth control per se, only for after-the-fact birth control in privately-controlled companies whose ownership has a religious objection to it.  The ruling itself is a narrow one but Justice Ginsberg opined that this decision is one of "startling breadth" and  "would allow corporations to opt out of almost any law that they find incompatible with their sincerely held beliefs." I am dubious.
I understand that unwanted pregnancies are a tremendous societal burden whose costs  far outweigh the cost of contraceptives. For the record, I am in the camp of those who say that there is no good answer to the issue of abortion. That being the case, you might feel that I should support the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate so that pregnancy can be prevented, right?  Well, as uncomfortable as I am with abortion's unanswerable questions I am even more uncomfortable with the idea of cradle-to-grave government control of our personal lives.

In their majority opinion, several justices offered suggestions for resolving the issue.  Justice Kennedy wrote in a separate opinion that a solution could be arrived at "by requiring insurance companies to cover, without cost sharing, contraception coverage for female employees who wish it."  There is no law that I am aware of  that states that insurance companies must participate in the healthcare segment of the insurance business.  They do so only because they believe that they can offer coverage profitably. If the cost of Obamacare coverage supersedes the ability to make a profit, companies will cease participation. This is what critics of the ACA argue eventually will happen.

If that were to happen and insurance companies abandon coverage, the burden will shift to the government.  Again, critics predict that this is what will happen and that healthcare insurance will become a governmental program.  Justice Alito alluded to this when he wrote that if the government wants women to have unrestricted access to contraception, it can just go ahead and pay for it then.

The single-payer system–in this case, the U.S. government–is where Obamacare is headed.  Insurance companies, hobbled by the inability to profitably offer coverage, will opt out of the program and the government will have to step in.  Justice Alito all but said that today.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Facebook friend of mine, an accomplished writer and humorist, posted this to her Facebook page yesterday:

The "avocado green beauty" she refers to is an actual typewriter and George is one of her young sons.  I understand why she is doing this.  It'll make for an interesting story.
She further explained that:
Her experiment reminds me of a PBS series that aired a few years ago called "1940s House" in which a modern London family lived as they would have during World War 2.  According the series' website,
for nine weeks, the Hymer family lives in a house that is restored to copy the way a middle-class family would have lived in England during World War II. They get hair cuts and new wardrobes authentic to the 1940s era so that they may better play the part of the times. So for nine weeks, the family forsakes the Wii, Playstation, television and telephone so that they can immerse themselves in a total historic reenactment that is accurate and sincere.
The show made for good television, but the family came away from the experience with a better appreciation for modern amenities. And world peace.  Definitely world peace.
There is in our society a backlash against the creeping intrusion of technology.  While this technology is supposed to simplify some of life's daily tasks and make us more connected, it is, according to critics, actually alienating us from one another.  We put in our earphones and cut ourselves off from the rest of the world.  We communicate by text or social media rather than by using the verbal communication skills that have elevated our species to the preeminent position in the animal kingdom.   No one knows how or when to write a real letter anymore, While the U.S. Postal Service thinks this is a swell development, it nevertheless is another sign of our crumbling civilization, they say. 
Technology's allure is undeniable, however.  Always has been. Why would anyone not take advantage of the instant communication now available to us?  Is Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or iTunes really robbing us of our humanity?  Technological advancements speed up the pace of life and that's what scares people.  It's not the science that frightens us–does anyone really fear a robot-controlled future–what frightens us is that our competitive nature compels us to pack more and more into the time allotted to us each day. We always have to be doing SOMETHING.  Doing nothing is lazy and unacceptable.   This experiment is her attempt at doing less and being comfortable with it, I think.
We have always been about doing things more quickly.  The transcontinental railroad was built because it seemed silly to have to spend three months sailing around the tip of South Africa in order to get from New York to San Francisco. Human history is full of such examples.  The Northwest Passage, the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, railroads, the telegraph and then the telephone, the airplane, the automobile, heck, even the wheel.  All of these advancements resulted from our desire to transport either ourselves, information, or goods more quickly from point A to point B.   Almost every human invention has had the effect of speeding up life. It's what we do. The reasoning is that if we can accomplish more quickly the things that we HAVE to do we will have more time to do the things that we WANT to do.
So, back to my friend.  Her children are like six and three, I think.  No television for them.  No tablet computers or computers at all.  No electronic stimulation.  I see what she is doing here. Given that this younger generation may have a problem with video game addiction, for their sake this seems like a healthy undertaking. Childhood lasts only so long and parenting really is our most important job so she is going to put aside the things that seem less important in order to be a  parent that we would all would like to be if we had unlimited time, patience, and a fascination with children's board games and crafts. Can she really play unlimited amounts of Candyland and Monopoly without cracking up?  I guess we are going to find out.  
We didn't have video games when I was a child and since my mother wasn't what you would call a "helicopter parent" I had to find ways to entertain myself. So...
I rode my bike behind the mosquito man, breathing in oceans of what probably was DDT. 
I played with matches and started fires. 
I smoked cigarettes.
I shoplifted (and got caught). 
I got in dirt clod and rock fights with my friends.
I rode my bike the wrong way in heavy traffic.
I only looked one way before crossing the street.
I held lit fireworks in my hand until the last possible second. 
I broke my teeth and limbs during unsupervised play.
I didn't wait 30 minutes after eating to go swimming.
I played in creeks and streams full of copperheads and water moccasins.
I dared the undertow to pull me out to sea.
Somehow, I am still here.
Technology connects us so her unilateral tech boycott has ramifications for those beyond her nuclear family. While she is listening to Kasey Kasem's Top 40 Countdown on her AM Radio while sipping lemonade and making macaroni necklaces with her children her friends will struggle to adjust. Do they really want to get in the car and "come by" to take care of something that can be accomplished now with a 30-second phone call? Yes, she will have a landline, but what about when she is not home? She will be absolutely, positively unreachable. Her technology vacation will make more work for everyone else.
That's inconceivable!
Maybe this all will go well for her family and they will all enjoy their unplugged summer. However, just imagine how many hours she will be have to spend going through 70 days' of unread email when she goes online again.  She probably won't see her kids for days. That'll teach her!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Law of Unintended Consequences

So hey, have you heard about this new national insurance plan the government is rolling out?  This narrative includes my actual experience with the ACA.

In his first Presidential campaign, Barack Obama spoke of his desire to reform healthcare, to make it more affordable for all and to bring insurance to those who currently did not have it or couldn't afford it. Introduced in Congress in 2009 as H.R. Bill 3962 and known as the Affordable Care Act (nicknamed "Obamacare"), it was, after heated debate, signed into law in March 2010.  It was a huge legislative victory for the President. However, to this point the law's reality has not matched its promise, for me at least.  The rollout has been problematic.

Let me say straightaway that no citizen of this country should be unable to get decent medical care. Therefore I do not begrudge the government its attempt to make healthcare a reality for everyone. Better health has attendant benefits that work for us all.   During the debate that preceded the vote that made the ACA law, even those opposed to its passage admitted that the current system was less than ideal.  However, given the bill's immense length (1990 pages) and complexity, opponents of its passage warned of unintended consequences.   The devil you know is preferable to the one you don't, they said.
In fact, the bill was so enormous that several lawmakers later admitted that they did not read it before voting, instead relying on staff briefings to acquaint themselves with the bill's particulars. Let's be honest here.  Even the most enthusiastic lawmaker or policy wonk could not be expected to wade through and understand every nuance of such a colossal piece of legislation. I daresay that even the most interested party could not speak expertly on all of the bill's facets without first undertaking years and years of study.  It appears that fears of unintended consequences were well founded.

To allay the fears of the populace, President Obama repeatedly assured the citizenry that the new law would allow those who liked their current healthcare insurance to retain that insurance.  Having at that time very little understanding of the new law's specifics, I will admit that those words were good enough to quell my misgivings.  After all, our household had a plan that covered our current needs and fit our budget.  If we could keep it while others could get plans that fit their own needs and budget, why would we have a problem with that?

It was about this time that everything started falling apart for the White House.  The website was a $600-million-dollar steaming pile of inoperability. Policyholders began receiving notices of cancellation, making it clear that "if you like your plan you can keep your plan" was a  presidential prevarication.  We learned that new plans were chock full of coverages that many didn't need or want but that had to be included so as to be compliant under the new law.

The owners of the Hobby Lobby, a privately-owned nationwide chain of arts-and-crafts stores, were mortified to learn that–contrary to their religious beliefs–the ACA-compliant insurance they are being required to offer employees includes coverage for certain types of birth control called abortifacients, drugs that induce abortion. Hobby Lobby has sued the government over this, raising some First Amendment issues. However, the case centers around a bill called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that President Clinton signed into law in 1993. An excellent explanation of the Hobby Lobby case can be found here.  This unintended consequence has so many implications for the new law that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.

Had the rollout gone smoothly, had the new law not been fraught with these types of unpleasant surprises, had social media not provided the perfect platform for viral replication of individual horror stories, maybe the public would have been more accepting.  I don't think that any American has a problem with any other American getting affordable healthcare insurance. What has transpired however, is that Americans (myself included) are waking up to the realization that this new healthcare law is not some magnanimous act from a beneficent Congress, but rather is a typically-bumbled government initiative that carries with it an unpleasant truth.  The ACA is another form of involuntary wealth transfer.  It's a tax.

While there is no doubt that the new healthcare law will benefit a previously uninsurable segment of the population, there also appears to be a segment that is being negatively affected. Who is going to pay for these previously uninsured people?  The government?  Where does our government get its money?  From its citizens. From businesses owned by its citizens. I wrote earlier that I believe that no American has a problem with any other American gaining access to affordable healthcare.  There's a caveat. No American has a problem with any other American gaining access to affordable healthcare, AS  LONG AS IT DOESNT AFFECT ME. That's the caveat and it's a pretty big one.

Healthcare insurance is deemed unaffordable if its cost exceeds 10% of annual income. The government, understanding that costs were going to rise for many Americans, has attempted to blunt the effect of these increased costs by offering subsidies to any family whose household income is between 100-400% of the Federal poverty level.  Subsidies exist for those households making less than $94,200 per year currently.  Above that and you are on your own. On December 20, the New York Times ran an excellent article detailing how many middle class Americans are finding themselves caught in a very uncomfortable no-man's land.

I was one of those who received a notice of cancellation. Under the new law my current plan is non-compliant. I am in the pool of workers that the government admits will be most negatively affected by the new law. I am an independent contractor and buy my own insurance.  Our household is not eligible for a subsidy.   Our current plan will be cancelled in December. I recently began my search for a new plan using my state's (Kentucky) healthcare exchange website.  This website and the state's implementation have been lauded in the press as being among the nation's best. 
Um, no.
I am able to search for plans as a website "guest" but so far have been unable to register my household with the site. I have spent several aggravating hours trying simply to enter the information that the website asks for.  However, I so far am unable to get past this roadblock:

I spent 62 minutes on hold one day before hanging up in frustration.   I may have been next in line when I hung up but there was no way to know because the hold message gave no estimate of wait time.   I tried the online help and after messaging back and forth with a seemingly nice person, he told me that my problem required "escalation" and that he did not have the proper credentials to assist me.  He gave me a number to call.  Yep, you guessed it, it is the same number that I had called earlier.  I am stuck in the helpline endless loop.

Anyway, I was able to search generically for plans after giving some very basic information.  Using my current plan as a template, I searched for a plan that was most similar to the one I have now.  Given the relatively good health of everyone in my household, and having made the decision that we wanted insurance to cover us only against something catastrophic, we currently have a plan that has very high deductibles for each person and also a high family deductible.  For this we pay about $400 per month.  Under the new law the best price I can find for a plan that generally is similar is more than $1200 per month. So now you can count me among those Americans who have a problem with the new law.  The new plans will not allow me the high deductibles that I currently have even though that is what I want.  And for that my premium is going to triple.

The fact is that my government is asking me to pay for the cost of insuring someone else.  The Affordable Care Act is a governmental program that is being funded by those who can for the benefit of those who can't. I am not immune to budgetary shocks is and this is shaping up to be a big one.  Oh, I am not alone.  Every wage-earning American will feel the pinch in some form or fashion.  That subsidy money has to come from somewhere and this is where it is coming from:

Given this, I now see the ACA for what it is. I now understand that the government is requiring me to fund other people's healthcare costs. Despite my wish for everyone in this country to have access to healthcare regardless of economic circumstance, I did not intend to pay for it in quite this way.  Sure, I may be a minority in that it appears that the new law works to my detriment, but am I supposed to just suck it up? Would you?  Do I get a pat on the back for being so helpful and generous?  Can I at least get a tax credit or something?
Furthermore, for this new law to work properly, Obamacare needs previously uninsured healthy young people to buy insurance.  So far, that is not happening at predicted levels.  Given their better health, their premiums are supposed to offset the costs associated with elder care. Without the young person offset, the system won't work as designed. That young people would continue to remain uninsured is currently an unexpected outcome with an unintended consequence.
Just 24% of the 2.2 million people who chose insurance plans through the state and federally run insurance exchanges by Dec. 28 were between the ages of 18 and 34, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, which released demographics data on enrollees for the first time on Monday. Health pros say that’s below expectations, with one estimate from the Kaiser Family Foundation finding that about 40% of the people expected to enroll in insurance plans would be in that age group.
If more young people don’t sign up for insurance before the end of the enrollment period on March 31, consumers may face higher insurance rates next year, experts say. That’s because insurance companies would find themselves without enough younger and healthier customers to help offset the costs of covering older and sicker Americans, says Caroline Pearson, vice president of Avalere Health, a strategic advisory firm. “But it is our expectation that the age mix will improve throughout the open enrollment period.”
                                                                                                – MarketWatch January 14, 2014

Many have predicted that this hybrid public-private approach will not work and that ultimately health insurance will become a government enterprise.  Obama's critics have argued that this single-payer system has been his intention all along.  The government will manage healthcare from end to end.
Is the devil you know better than the one you don't?  The new law has both its proponents and its detractors.  The Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case has the potential to hobble the new law.  The new law may collapse under the weight of its own missteps and unintended consequences.  What is beyond dispute is that the rollout has done nothing to quiet criticism. The burden of proof lies still with the law and its proponents.