The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘competition’ Category

THE AARP AGENDA

I was approaching one of those milestone birthdays – you know, one of those ending in a zero.  It happened to be my 50th and several months before the actual day I had a new friend who didn’t want the day to go by unnoticed.

The American Association of Retired Persons as it was formerly called, began sending me solicitations to become a member of their organization.  A number of my friends were members and the cost to join was inexpensive, so I returned my invitation together with a check.

AARP efficiently returned an informative membership packet and I began receiving a copy of their bi-monthly magazine.  As it turned out, I was already getting the travel and hotel discounts that they offered from other sources, their offerings for Medicare health insurance supplements were not available to me because of my age and I found I could do better shopping on my own for auto and homeowner’s insurance.

The magazine which AARP publishes is very informative and I highly recommend it to people who do not have the time or are unwilling to make the effort to do their own research.  I have always preferred learning things on my own, comparing several sources so that I get a variety of views and then drawing my own conclusions.  So after perusing several issues, the remainder of my subscription went into the recycling bin unread.

At the end of my year’s membership, AARP sent me a renewal form which also went into recycling as have many solicitations that I received from them over the following years.  I have chosen not to renew my membership in AARP.

If you’ve watched any television recently, you will certainly have seen some ads for “AARP endorsed” Medicare supplement plans.  That is because the period between October 15th and December 7th is “open enrollment season” when seniors on Medicare can choose to switch or change their supplemental coverage for the following calendar year.

I admit that with my sometimes twisted sense of humor, when I hear “open enrollment season” I think of hunters going after our senior population, armed with bazookas to bring down their targets.  There is big, very big money in selling Medicare insurance supplements – a fact that is not lost on AARP.

As part of our regulatory system, both “for profit” and “not for profit” organizations must file financial statements with the Federal government.  What is required of “not for profits” is less than for their counterparts.  But reviewing these statements can still be informative.  So that’s what I did.

In the year ending December 31, 2011, AARP received more than two and one half times the amount of revenue from “endorsing” insurance products than it did from its membership fees – a rather staggering, $704 Million.  By anyone’s standard, this could hardly be considered chump change.  The vast majority of this income was derived from royalties paid by United Health Group based in Minnetonka, MN, but some of it was derived by its “affiliate programs” with other insurers who provide auto, homeowners and life insurance to AARP members.

If you can recall any of United Health’s ads for Medicare supplements, to promote sales of their products they include the phrase, “the ONLY Medicare supplement endorsed by AARP”.  The implication, of course, is that AARP wouldn’t “lend” its name to a product that it hadn’t thoroughly checked out in much the way that consumers used to look for the “UL” label on an appliance to make sure that Underwriters Labs, an independent organization, had thoroughly tested the product before passing on its safety.

There is a big difference between the UL seal on a product and the AARP endorsement of a Medicare insurance supplement.  Underwriters Labs provides an independent assessment of each product it reviews.  It is not compensated by any company for passing or rejecting their products.  AARP has a significant vested financial interest in promoting products by United Health because they receive a royalty for each one of these supplements which are sold.

United Health Group is a fine and reputable company.  It owns the largest portion of the Medicare supplement business with a 30% market share.  I am not suggesting that their products are in any way inferior to those offered by their competitors.  In fact, if I may cite one example in which government regulations have actually proven effective, it is the Medicare supplement business.

Our seniors can choose a “lettered” supplement which will pay part or all of the costs which Medicare does not cover.  The government has standardized these different options and each insurance company which underwrites them must offer the same government-specified coverage for that particular contract as does its competitors.  The only difference between them is the cost that a particular insurer charges and the service that the insured receives from the underwriter.

Considering that fact, an AARP endorsement, or lack of one, makes absolutely no difference to the consumer when they select a Medicare supplement.  It all comes down to the cost of the product and the service that they will receive should they need to file a claim.

According to the financial statement which AARP filed for calendar year ending December 31, 2011, of its $1.35 Billion in income which the organization recorded, more than 50% of it was derived from royalties from insurance contract sales.  In other words, AARP has a vested interest in making sure that there is no threat to its primary source of income – the royalties it receives from the sales of insurance contracts.

And that brings me, together with another item in its financial statement, to question its motivation in criticizing the Romney campaign for statements that they have made regarding Medicare and Obamacare.  Are these criticisms that have been leveled by an independent organization whose mission is to defend and protect our senior population?  Or are they self-serving statements made by a business, intent on protecting its own interests?

The other item in the financial statement which stood out to me was the income the AARP received from “grants”.  The amount that it recorded was $101 Million, and of this amount $92 Million came from the Federal government.

My friends in academia used to sweat bullets when it came time for their “grants” from Uncle Sam to be reviewed for renewal.  Although they may have lived in ivory towers, they realized that the individual who made the determination of continuing or stopping their grants had the power of financial life or death over them.

I would suggest that AARP is in much the same position as my academic friends.  If you combine the royalties it receives from the sale of Medicare supplements and the money it receives in grants, AARP is dependent on the Federal government and its programs for over 60% of its income.

Is it, therefore, any surprise, that AARP took Mitt Romney to task for challenging the administration on its healthcare programs calling his statements “false and misleading?”

As I head out with Gracie for our morning visit to the dog park, the old adage comes to mind.

“You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

HOW OBAMA GOT INTO POLITICS

There are two diametrically opposed camps regarding the idea of requiring a valid state issued voter ID for a person to be entitled to vote:

Argument in favor:  Having a valid photo ID will ensure that people who have been verified as citizens, residents of the district in which they seek to vote and are not felons, in other words, people who actually have the right to vote, will be able to do so while preventing those who are not so entitled from casting a ballot to which they have no right.  Thus, we will be able to insure the integrity of our election process.

The cost to the individual who is not already a licensed driver is minimal.  No documentation is required beyond that already required by Federal law to hold a job and work in this country.  It is not our intention to disenfranchise anyone who is a legitimate voter.  Most election jurisdictions have in place procedures where, should a voter not be shown on the official voting rolls, he or she may still vote if two other voters in his precinct or district attest through sworn affidavit that they personally know the individual and attest to his place of residence.

Thus, even if there is a clerical error in a precinct’s roster of eligible voters, the individual affected by this error will not be denied his or her right to vote based on this alternative means of identification.

Extending this means of identification to those who, for whatever reason, have not been able to get a state-issued ID should assuage the concerns of those who oppose the requirement to produce an ID for voting purposes.

Argument opposed:  The attempt to require voter identification is unnecessary and oppressive – disproportionately affecting minorities and the elderly.  It is little more than a disguised effort to restrict and reduce the number of voters and disenfranchise those who oppose the agenda of the parties trying to pass these restrictive laws.

The requirements for obtaining a state ID vary from state to state.  Thus, a voter who might be able to provide documentation in one state, suitable to obtaining such identification, might not have the documentation which another state requires.  In the case of Federal elections, this may result in a person’s not being able to vote simply because of the state in which he or she resides.  Clearly, the Constitution does not provide to the states the right to make these sorts of determinations which are less than uniform and affect people’s right to vote, merely because of their incidental residence.

While more could be said (and has been said) on the subject, I hope that I have provided a fair and impartial view of the core arguments for both side of this issue.  Clearly, there is a difference in outlook on the subject.

I would hope, however, that there are two points with which both sides might agree:

1.  Everyone who is eligible to vote should be allowed to vote;

2.  No one who is not eligible to vote should be allowed to do so.

I hope all fair minded people can agree with both those statements.  In other words, we want our elections to be conducted in a fair and transparent way.

Voter fraud has been around since paper was invented and the ballot box came into being.  I refer to some of the shenanigans that have gone on in Chicago because I have seen a great deal of it first hand in the years I lived there and worked as a poll watcher.

Back in the days when paper ballots were in use, some of the wards which were home to SRO’s (Single Room Occupancy “hotels”) which catered to people who were alcoholics and whose primary means of support was panhandling, developed an ingenious system for controlling the voting in elections.

Key to the system was stealing one unmarked ballot.  This usually presented little or no problem as, with a dearth of Republican election judges, usually all five of the judges were Democrats and sympathetic to the local precinct captain’s cause.

The unmarked ballot would be marked by the precinct captain and given to the alcoholic voter.  After he had gone into the voting booth with the ballot he received from the judges, he would pretend to mark that ballot but in fact he would leave it blank.  He would then hand the pre-marked ballot to the judges for inclusion in the ballot box, go outside and hand the blank ballot to the precinct captain.  In exchange for this he would receive a pint of whatever alcohol was being passed out that election.  The system was flawless and insured that the votes that were cast benefited the precinct captain and his party.

Naturally, this system insured that the votes of all these individuals were tallied just as the precinct captain wanted and, in no small measure, contributed to the massive Democratic landslides that the City of Chicago turned in election after election.

I would hope that liberals and conservatives, people who agree or disagree with the need for having voter ID’s would agree that this practice is despicable and totally undermines the concept of fair elections.

Of course, this example is intended to show how elections can be manipulated, even when voters are legitimate and are qualified to cast a vote.

But before a person may vote for Candidate “A” or Candidate “B”, there is a process which those people must follow so that their names appear on the ballot.  That is, there is a nomination process – which almost always include getting a sufficient number of signatures on nominating petitions.

The number of signatures of legitimate, registered voters, required varies from state to state and from office to office.  For an individual who is an incumbent or who is well known, this is not a problem.  However, it can be a significant challenge for someone who is new to politics and who is not familiar to the voters in his district.

I don’t know how many times I have been asked to sign a nominating petition.  The question put to me was, “Are you a registered voter in this district?”  I, of course, answered, “Yes.”

“Well, would you please sign a petition to put “X” on the ballot?”  Following that question, at least on the part of the more diligent of these signature gatherers, would be a little speech about why “X” was a great candidate for that particular office; why we would benefit from his serving the public; and so forth.

Not once was I ever asked by any of those collecting signatures to show any identification either proving that I was who I said I was or that in any way verified my actual residence.  Nothing more was required to make the collector of signatures happy than my name on the next available line on her form, together with the address I wrote down.  And therein lies a problem – a very big problem.

This is not to impugn either the good intentions or the integrity of those who feel it is their civic duty to volunteer their time collecting signatures for candidates in whom they believe.  But an intelligent person can certainly see that with the nonexistence of documentation that the signatory is actually who he claims and further has a legitimate right to sign the petition, there is much that can slip through the cracks, even unintentionally.

And for the reasons that I enumerated above, that is how Barack Obama got elected to the Illinois Senate – unopposed.

Apparently, his three potential opponents in the primary took some shortcuts when their supporters collected signatures to put them on the ballot.  Obama charged (and won) his challenges to a sufficient number of these “voters” as being ineligible to sign the nominating petitions because the signatures were forged.  I have no problem with that.

But more importantly, eligible voters were disqualified as signatories because the person who collected their signatures was not himself a registered voter – one of the requirements under Illinois law for a petition to be valid.  Proving that fact invalidated the signatures of the twenty legitimate voters on each of the petitions that such a collector had amassed.

Eligible voters who preferred a different candidate to Obama were disenfranchised – not because they did anything wrong, not because they didn’t have a “valid state ID” but because the candidate they supported either didn’t understand the requirements of the law or simply disregarded them for their own purposes – and Obama took advantage of that to his own benefit.

It seems a rather curious irony to me that those people with whom I have spoken who are supporting the President’s re-election consistently object to the idea of requiring a voter to prove his identity as being oppressive and unfair.

I wonder how many of them know that disputing the legitimacy of voters was exactly the tactic which President Obama used to get his first foothold in politics.  And had it not been for that, he might still be a community organizer somewhere on Chicago’s South Side and his name a matter of obscurity to all of us in America and the world.

RICH MAN, POOR MAN

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor.  Rich is better.”

-attributed to Mae West et al.

We may or many not subscribe to the doctrines of Christianity but it would be hard to dispute one statement that Jesus made as anything other than absolute truth…

“The poor you will always have with you…”

Matthew 26:11 and Mark 14:7

A similar statement appears in the Gospel of John as well.  Are there any who can dispute this as fact as we look around us and see what we have made of our lives and our world?

As we enter the final phase of our Presidential election campaign, the “poor American” looks at the “rich American” with anger.  “Why should he be entitled to all that he has when I have so little?”  That same statement was made by the Bolsheviks as they looked at the lives of the Russian aristocracy and by the Revolutionists as they viewed the court of Louis XVI.

They accuse wealthy Americans as being “out of touch” and insensitive to their situation, hard-hearted and mercilessly grubbing yet more money and power.  There is probably some truth to that statement.  The group of the wealthiest Americans, including Warren Buffett, a staunch Obama supporter, who has pledged to give away half his wealth only contemplates doing so after his death, lending credence to yet another old saw, “You can’t take it with you.”

Czar Nicholas II and Louis XVI presided over a society into which through genetic accident they happened to be born to the right parents.  They had “good genes” and a lot of luck.  They held their positions through an accident of birth.  Of course, considering the untimely end that befell both, once can only wonder whether the luck they enjoyed was good or bad.

The American experiment, proposing that “All men are created equal…” was a drastic departure from the way in which Europeans or for that matter anyone anywhere else in the world viewed life.  Whether it was the African warrior, subject to the tribal chief or the Chinese farmer subject to the Emperor or the Japanese fisherman subject to the Shoguns, the concept of the equality of man was a new concept – and one which threatened the status quo.

This concept was so attractive to the poor and down-trodden that they made a pilgrimage to this new land in wave after wave, emigrating from their native countries to have a shot at the opportunity for a better life.  And by and large their lives were better in America than they would have been had they stayed in the land in which they were born.  But there were no free passes issued at our borders – no guarantees of success handed out to these immigrants.

They were given the opportunity but not the assurance to make something of themselves.   Many were successful – others were not.  And therein lies the problem of “equality,”  which might have been better phrased “equality of opportunity.”  And therein lies the rancor which rattles the chains of those in America who consider themselves poor and threatens the bastions of those Americans whom they consider rich.

So now we have embarked on a new plan – “wealth redistribution.”  In order to have true equality – we must all have equal resources.  There is only one minor problem with this program.  It doesn’t work.  If you question the truth of that statement you have only to look at people who became very wealthy, lottery winners, hip hop and rap stars, movie celebrities, sports icons, to see how so many of them have ended their lives tragically and no better off financially than before they acquired their money.

You see money doesn’t guarantee you happiness.  It merely guarantees you the opportunity to spend it foolishly or to do something constructive with it.  How you use it once it is in your possession is solely your choice.  And if you have made bad choices in life before you acquired wealth, it is likely you will continue to make the same bad choices, but will now have the ability to do so at a level which may well result in personal destruction.  The “Nouveau Riches” often become the “Nouveau Dead.”

It is interesting that our view on “equality” is selective in its focus.  Those who are being held up as the poster children for incarnate evil, people who have built businesses and acquired wealth as a result of their efforts, seem to enjoy that abusive distinction within a vacuum that many of us have created.  That view of equality doesn’t, for example, extend itself to our view of professional athletes.  In the interest of fairness, let’s consider MLB if teams were forced to be equal so that the playing field was even between each team.

With the World Series just over the horizon, I wonder how much interest it would hold for us given a revised sense of the “equality of all baseball players.”  So I have created a newer and far more equal scenario for the way in which professional baseball should be played.

First, there is the selection of members of the team.  We must ensure that there are no teams who have “star” athletes on them.  They, of course, are an aberration – far richer in talent than your average Joe, and they have a tendency to make the game much too exciting and provide an unfair advantage to the team who has him on their roster to the disadvantage of their opponents.  So we will not allow anyone who carries a higher batting average than .100 to play the game.

Second, should one of those equal and average players start getting too good, raising his batting average to .150, we will require that the team remove him from their roster and send him down to the minors for re-training.

Third, it seems unfair that there are pitchers who are better than others and as we know that this is an imperfect world, we must insure that we do not allow anyone to pitch a perfect game.  Therefore, the minimum requirement for our pitching staff will be that everyone must carry an ERA of at least 10.0.  Lower than that, back to the minors for re-training.

Fourth, we must eliminate private vendors from hawking their wares at the games.  They simply charge far too much for a “dawg” or a beer or peanuts.  Let the government be put in charge of concessions and subsidize them for those fans who want to come out and spend an afternoon enjoying a game.  After all, the fans are entitled, aren’t they?

Fifth, the high price of tickets to watch a game is outrageous and the profits go in the pockets of those “fat cat” owners who already have too much money.  Fortunately, this problem will soon resolve itself.  Since we’re now only employing mediocre players, we will only have to pay them (equal) but mediocre salaries.  And since the game will become extremely boring fan attendance will diminish.  Fewer people will stop watching MLB on television as well, thus reducing teams’ revenues (and owners’ profits).  Thus, based on the law of supply and demand, ticket prices will naturally decrease in an effort to fill as many seats as possible for what promises to be yet another “ho-hum” game.

This scenario has many benefits to it for those Americans who consider themselves oppressed by the current capitalist system.  It will make them feel good that now everyone has a shot at becoming a professional baseball player – including them.  It will have the effect of reducing the profits of those who are already wealthy, the team owners, thus making them feel good that they have struck out against the fat cats.  It will strike a blow at those rich companies which provide the junk food that we so eagerly consume at a ball game – reducing their profits as well.  While the game will become far less interesting, certainly it can’t be any worse than the reality television shows that the fans would  alternatively have viewed.

Truly, this will deliver to the world an updated version of that earth-changing American statement that “All men are created equal…”.   America will once again change thinking on planet earth with our new mantra, “All people are created mediocre .. and the more mediocre you are the better.”  (Just don’t get too much better).

THE OLYMPIC SPIRIT

The games originated in Greece supposedly in 776 B.C. although how or why they began is unknown to us.  Various myths and legends surround their origin.  But we do know that they were intended to give athletes the opportunity to show off their abilities.  Originally, the only athletic event was a foot race.

Today the Olympics are a very big business – and a very partisan one as well.   We identify and measure our success as a country by how well our athlete-representatives do in the games.  How many gold medals did “we” win?  This year’s games are filled with more than the usual amount of contention and back-biting, which is a pity that we devolve to this level when we should be celebrating those who have worked hard to get here – whether they win or lose.

Can you imagine the dedication and focus that these people have put into even having the opportunity to compete in the games?  Imagine the amount of training and practice that consumes a competitor’s life for the years necessary before even learning if she or he will qualify?  If each of us put ten percent as much effort into successfully meeting our own daily challenges, all of our lives would be greatly enriched.

Once again, following an unfortunate tradition that has been around as long as I remember, the real meaning of the games is tarnished by issues which are peripheral to the Olympics.  In the sixties we all pointed fingers at the Russian and other Soviet-bloc judges for their obvious favoritism in giving their athletes superior scores to those of their competitors.

Now we’re throwing people out for sending “tweets”, questioning whether some of these athletes took drugs to enhance their performance and asking whether it was appropriate to withhold the news of the death of one Chinese athlete’s grandparents from her so that she didn’t lose her focus.

There are probably some athletes who have taken drugs.  But if they win a medal under those circumstances, they will have to live with the fact that they didn’t win that medal honestly.  That should, for a conscientious person, be sufficient punishment – knowing they didn’t really earn their reward and recognition.

The Olympics are not – or at least should not be – about national pride.  They should be about the fact that on planet earth, there are many talented and gifted and dedicated people who have, through their effort and commitment, shown each of us that we can choose to be someone special if only we make the decision to be better than we think we are.

It is to all of them, the medalists and those who will go home only with memories, that I dedicate this post.  They are, in my estimation, all winners.  And it is for them that the Olympic torch burns.

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