Doc, it hurts when I do this.

As the calendar ticks over into 2004, a plethora of interesing, trivial, important, annoying, and otherwise simply new things happen. For one thing, in the middle of cold and flu season just like every year, many Americans change private health plans. This is rarely a completely voluntary choice: either a decision was made by a pointy-haired boss, or the family made a decision balancing cost and benefits to change coverage back in an open enrollment period some months ago.

Families and pointy-haired bosses are not the only ones making hard decisions about health care. Doctors and clinics are making tough choices too. They too have to balance money and healthcare. Among other things, they must decide which health plans and insurance companies pay enough that they can afford to provide treatment.

Many doctors are still in the business to serve others, but even they admit that they can’t afford to provide care below cost forever. A non-trivial number of doctors, like Susan Hershberg Adelman, MD, have determined that it is simply no longer possible to provide medical treatment the poor without joining them in poverty. Her figures citing that over a third of area hospitals have closed in the last 25 years is particularly damning inasmuch as Michigan prohibits for-profit hospitals: no money is being siphoned off to a corporate profit statement and an over-hefty CEO salary.

Reasons she states for closing her own practice include the fact that Medicaid in Michigan only pays 38% of the billed amount. Nor is this an unusual reimbursement figure. Try paying 38% of your bills and see what happens. She also cites high (and rising) malpractice insurance rates and the dreaded “unfunded government mandates.” You hear a lot about those unfunded mandates lately, not just in medicine, but in the costs of implementing DHS Code Orange and No Child Left Behind too. Although she does not mention stringent and sometimes contradictory regulations, that surely played a role too. She specifically does not see a single payer system as an answer because, “If we change to a single payer system, Washington no doubt will franchise it out to the same private insurers that state Medicaid programs contract with today.”

Ah, but some of you are asking why this matters. Record poverty levels, particularly among children, aren’t enough reason for you? How about the fact that long term unemployment is relegating even educated professionals into the ranks of the poor, the uninsured, and the underinsured? How sure are you that your family will not need Medicaid and a doctor like Dr. Adelman in the next 5 years?

American corporations might be able to get computers programmed and research done in India. However, we cannot outsource medical care to foreign nations. The time has come to seriously discuss how to balance “stemming the rise in health care expenditures” with “paying enough for medical care that it will still be available next year.”

Preamble to 2004

Just about all of Generation X can recite this, but not without hearing that song in their heads:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

This week there have been events pertinent to most of the line items in that paragraph. Let’s start with establishing justice. This week an appeals court ruled that the Bill of Rights applies to everyone, and not even the President has the authority to arbitrarily declare that certain people do not get due process of law. Specifically, Jose Padilla has the right to a speedy, public trial with lawyers and everything. Furthermore, a different appeals court declared that those folks held at Guantanamo Bay for the last year and a half deserve lawyers too. Even if you think all these people should be executed and burn in hell, they deserve the same rights of due process that you deserve, mister law abiding citizen. If they can pick up some random guy who happens to be Muslim at the airport and lock him up incommunicado for 18 months on skimpy evidence, what is there stopping them from doing the same to you?

Moving on to domestic tranquility and the common defense, we have another “look out!” warning that doesn’t rate an increase in the terrorist warning system to orange. All we are allowed to know is that we should be alert but don’t panic in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. Oh, and be wary at the airport too. Never mind that Bush’s hand picked Chairman of the 9/11 Probe Committee says the whole thing could have and should have been prevented. Let’s not forget the nutcase shooting at passing cars and school busses in Ohio. Things don’t sound very tranquil on the domestic front.

The general welfare isn’t looking too good either. As I have discussed before, poverty is up, bankruptcies are at record levels, consumer debt is high, the trade deficit is funneling money out of the country, and the dollar is at historical lows.

Christmas is just a few days away, and retailers are still waiting for the register to ring. It seems that the luxury and electronic retailers are doing fine, but the discounters and clothiers are not. My theory is that the typical discount store shopper has run out of money and finally maxed out the credit cards. They are waiting for the December 23 “Oh please get it off our shelves” sale.

Let’s not forget this item: experts tell us that “Structural change in the economy means many jobs are never going to come back.” Not just manufacturing jobs that are being done by machines and cheap foreign labor, but good jobs in finance, computers, and the courts. Make no mistake, Generation X now has a history of making jobs where there have been none. We were told when we graduated college that we were pathetic, apathetic slobs who would be the first generation to not do as well as their parents. Left unsaid was “…and you should be ashamed of yourselves.” We shrugged, exhaled loudly, and created the internet bubble. There was no such thing as a “web designer” when we were in high school. I don’t know if we are prepared to do it again.

California is no closer to ending the grocery workers strike. They are still wrangling about health care costs. Interestingly enough, the Congressional Budget Office is also concerned about health care costs, saying that we’d better make serious changes to Medicaid and Medicare, or accept that taxes will be really high in a decade when the Baby Boomers start to retire. So much for the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.

Here’s wishing a happy 2004 for the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

Pork and Beans

There is still time to write your Senator. If you are too lazy, use this handy form.

It seems that the Omnibus Spending Bill has yet to pass the Senate, let alone be signed by the President. How ironic that our elected officials can let something as important as funding most non-military functions of the United States slide until after the holidays. No rush, after all, this spending bill is for the 2004 fiscal year — which started October 1, 2003. The irony is that this spending bill would effectively eliminate overtime as we know it, allowing your boss to make you work as long as he likes, only pay you for 40 hours per week, and make a vague promise to give you some free time within the next year or so at his whim. Anybody who says this is good for families is either lying or not thinking about it. This isn’t even good for the economy, since it provides disincentive to hire more workers, and doesn’t put any more money in the pockets of the existing workers who are theoretically boosting productivity.

But wait! There’s more! As a bonus, 80,000 people would stop receiving unemployment benefits effective December 21, 2003. Merry Christmas. Scrooge would indeed be proud.

Don’t like beans? Sample some of the pork then. There is plenty to go around. Start with hundreds of millions for FBI information technology, prison construction, and a “classified defense department project.” There are tens of millions of dollars for such projects as a voucher system for Washington, DC public school students to attend private school (you know what I think of that), an indoor rain forest in Iowa, and increased border patrols. Mere millions for youth golf programs, a police athletic league, the “International Fertilizer Development Center” and “an international narcotics control law enforcement academy in Roswell, NM.” Hundreds of thousands are made available for lubricant research, shopping centers, traffic lights, museum construction, special interest groups, documentary film production, “streetscaping,” trout genome mapping, a ballet school, and similar projects you would think could raise money on the local level. This enterprising Congressman managed to rake in $34 million for one county alone. That’s over 25% what the entire State of Utah managed to haul in. I guess pork is only bad when it’s in somebody else’s district.

Of course, Senator Reid is quick to point out that part of the problem is the various measures that the President insisted must be in this bill. Pardon me for pointint out that the President does not write legislation, he just signs or vetoes it. Oh wait, Mr. Bush has yet to veto a single thing.

This thing is so bad nobody likes it. Unions don’t like it. School administrators don’t like it. Liberals don’t like it. Fiscal conservatives don’t like it. And the ink is barely dry on the darn thing. If past legislation is any example, yet more egregious abuses of tax dollars may yet be discovered in its pages.

I bet the best job this bill creates will be as a golf pro.

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain!

If I could please direct your attenion away from The Saddam Hussein Show for a few moments? We can talk about whether this really means closure for the Iraqi people and better security in Iraq and maybe even actual democratic process once the dust settles. Give it a few weeks to see whether we have struck the head of the snake or created a rallying point.

Instead, I’d like to point out something that has broad implications for the future of government right here in the United States of America. Everybody remembers what a mess the 2000 Presidential elections were, particularly in Florida, right? And everybody remembers that despite the screams for abolishing the Electoral College, the one reform that really had any momentum was updating actual voting equipment. Never mind poorly laid out ballots, ignore people whose right to vote was taken away because they were wrongly put in a database of known felons. These people probably still have problems getting on a commercial aircraft.

To make a long story short, electronic voting systems are effectively mandated. Doesn’t that sound great? No guesswork, simple, almost effortless vote tallying, final results available within 5 minutes of the polls closing. What could be better?

Well unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. With traditional voting there are several points where things can go wrong: verifying that the person in the polling place is a legal, registered voter as opposed to a felon or someone voting on behalf of the dead; making sure one votes as one has intended; making sure all the ballots make it into the system and are counted properly; you get the picture. Some of these things can be fixed with an electronic system and some cannot.

There are 3 separate points of potential security and integrity failure that are peculiar to electronic systems: veracity of votes (the system is not “stuffing the ballot box”); security of the hardware (it cannot be “hacked” or otherwise altered); auditability of the system (ability to recount). Ability to recount independently of hitting the “count votes” button on the system is important so we can double check the first two points of potential failure. We cannot count on the computer to give us complete, comprehensible information.

All of these factors have come under scrutiny and been the subject of much debate both among political types and technical types. One of the easiest, although not the cheapest, is for the system to provide a printed voter receipt, which the voter checks for accuracy, then puts in the same locked ballot box that they have always used for the paper ballot. This obvious step, however, has encountered resistance. Sorry to say it, but the paperless ballot is no more practical than the paperless office.

If you ever want to be confident that your elected officials have indeed been elected, you must support legislation proposed on the state and federal level to mandate paper receipts. A particularly good one appears to have been proposed by Senator Graham of Florida (how’s that for irony) which would ban black box systems, ban wireless systems, require random surprise recount/audits, and have everything in place by next November’s Presidential elections. Senator Barbara Boxer appears to have other ideas about what a paper receipt for voting machines act would encompass.

You know what to do.

Good News and Bad News

There are jobs being added to the American economy! They are in the restaurant business. The good news is most of the jobs make more than minimum wage. The bad news is most of them still make less than the poverty line.

Some of you have already started to grumble: So what’s the big deal? These people are getting by, aren’t they? If they want to get a better job that pays better, what’s stopping them? If they want to earn more money, why don’t they just put in some overtime? Aren’t these people all students working part time anyway? And have you considered the cost to the economy of suddenly raising everyone’s pay to a living wage?

Please, allow me to explain why it’s a big deal. First, it isn’t all part-timers and students making these pathetic wages. The majority are adults trying to get by with their families. We are talking about 25% of American workers. Yes, some of these people are part-timers, and almost 5 million of them would love to have a full time position.

Part-time positions, and many low-paying full-time positions, have the additional problem of no benefits. Alternatively, benefits may be available, but at a price that is not feasible for the employee. Lack of health insurance means that people don’t see the doctor until problems are so serious as to be incapacitating; a complaint that could have been taken care of in an office visit the family could ill afford turns into an even more costly visit to the emergency room. Lack of any type of retirement benefits insures that such workers must do one of three things: buck the odds and become upwardly mobile; work until they day they die; spend retirement in even more desperate poverty.

And no, these people are not “getting by.” Financial experts say you should not spend more than 30% of your monthly income on housing. Most reputable apartment complexes simplify this a little and call for a maximum rent-to-income ratio of 3:1. For reference, someone working 40 hours a week at $7 per hour takes home roughly $1200 per month. A third of that is $400. Can quality housing be found in your hometown for $400 per month? What if you have kids, and need a 2 bedroom apartment? I have never been able to isolate a figure for the maximum percentage of monthly income that should be spent on transportation, but I strongly suspect that many families exceed it by trying to keep an unreliable but necessary car running.

Finally, I’d like to point out what few options low wage individuals have to improve their financial situation. Overtime is effectively being eliminated. Congress decided that battle was no longer worth fighting, despite the outrageous number of voters effected. Your Representative and Senators hope you will not remember this slight next November. In fact, if you are too busy at work to make it to the polls, that will not hurt their feelings in the least. I have already pointed out the millions of people who work part-time despite the fact that they would rather work full-time. One of several sad truths — both for these people and for people working full-time at low wages — is that when you are working, it is very hard to look for a job.

The cost to the economy in terms of lost productivity and public assistance may well equal what it would cost to simply pay a living wage.

This item is meant as humor, and contains words considered vulgar, but unfortunately it is true.

Getting Malled, or Searing Pain

‘Tis the season to be spending inordinate time and money at the local shopping center. Although I avail myself of online options whenever possible, there are just some things you have to step away from the computer and venture into the real world to obtain. I prefer to do this on a weekday, when crowds are light.

And this is how I came to be in a Sears store for the first time since their purchase of my favorite catalog and online retailer, Landsend.

Please keep in mind that although I was not in what anyone would call the very nicest of Sears stores, it was clearly remodeled sometime in the last 5 years. Furthermore, my visit was at 10:30 AM on a weekday morning: not a peak retail sales period, and close enough to the beginning of the day that there should still be evidence of the prior evening’s cleaning and straightening.

The store demonstrated a substantial degree of disarray.

The Landsend store-within-a-store concept is a great idea, but poorly implemented. As executed, it includes several racks of clothing within each section (Mens, Womens, Petites, etc.). Check the signage carefully, or it is hard to tell where the merchandise changes from Landsend to regular Sears inventory. Well, on second thought, maybe it isn’t. There were some very abrupt transitions: all cotton Landsend sweater twinsets next to fake fur trimmed cardigans, for example.

Stock was thin in general, particularly considering that we are in the first half of December. Only 4 of Landsend’s many colors of Mens mock turtleneck were available, and empty spots remained for other colors and sizes. Things looked very picked-over, as well. Folded shirts lay haphazardly on shelves instead of neatly stacked.

Finally, a visit to the Petites section confirmed my theory that I would have to do all my Landsend shopping far away from Sears. One of the things I love about Landsend is the availability of pants — and particularly jeans — in a wide array of inseams. I don’t call myself the ShortWoman for nothing. Although Sears appeared to have an adequate supply of petite jeans in assorted colors, including multiple non-blue hues, all were the 28″ inseam.

That’s like having a plus-size dress shop that only carries size 22.

It is my personal theory that part of Sears’s problem is the fact that a substantial number of managers end up being rotated around the country. The idea is that fresh blood will shake things up, that The New Guy Will Surely Turn This Store Around, that this prevents stores and regions from having a “this is the way we do it around here and to heck with corporate” attitude. In reality, this costs the company money in the form of moving expenses and lost productivity. The New Guy spends 6 months figuring out the market, his employees, and the peculiarities of his particular store, then maybe a year or so actually making things work. If he is lucky, he has staff that know what they are doing, so things run along pretty much as they always have with or without management.

Maybe all of this is part of the reason Wal-Mart, Target, and J.C. Penney have higher P/E ratios than Sears. My experience is part of why Sears is having declining sales at the same stores. Buying placement in a reality show is not going to make everything all better. Nor will placing hip-hop fashions next to Landsend and the existing ecclectic cast of fashion players. Their debatable online success aside, some are calling for radical change at Sears.

This has been my Sears experience. How about you?

Put down the circular… slowly

Your mom called. She doesn’t quite know how to tell you this. But, this Christmas, she would really appreciate it if you didn’t get her an obvious piece of future garage sale fodder.

This is the time of year when salad shooters, foot spas, electric manicure sets, sandwich grills, quesadilla makers, and a hundred other things you would never think to buy for yourself come out of the woodwork and clutter the aisles of stores from Wal-Mart to Macy’s and everything in between. This is a little secret, but there is a reason you would never think to buy this stuff for yourself, the same reason most of it is only available in December. Don’t get to thinking this stuff is the answer for the person who has “everything.”

If you would like to know the truth about this stuff, check out a yard sale, a thrift shop, or eBay. Feel free to search for brand names such as “Salton” or “Homedics”, or for products like “home spa” or “smoothie maker” or whatever other bit of plastic looks so appealing on the shelves at Target. I’m sorry, but if mom liked smoothies half as much as you think she does, she would already be making them in her blender, a multi-purpose tool perfectly suited to the job.

Today I even saw a “hot chocolate maker.” What a great way to tell mom she isn’t even competent to stir a packet of Swiss Miss into hot water! The electric jar opener at first seemed like a thoughtless item, but then I thought about it. This might indeed be a very useful gift for someone elderly or handicapped.

This year’s lists of potentially hot gifts includes many of the usual suspects, but the one that truly baffles me is the “S’mores Maker.” I saw one that was actually billed as “restaurant quality.” When was the last time you saw s’mores on a menu, really? And how often does the typical family make s’mores? Less often than popcorn, ice cream, or pizza, I’d wager. And relatively few families have appliances dedicated to these foods cluttering their kitchens.

Don’t waste your hard-earned money on thoughtless and useless items, destined for a dusty storage area at best. Try asking people what they want for Christmas. Consider buying them a book about a subject they like — even if it’s a cartoon book. Maybe this is a good opportunity to introduce them to a movie you think they would like with a DVD. Maybe a gift card. If that fails, consider donating to a charity in their name that you feel they would approve of .

Oh yeah, and your sister-in-law would really appreciate it if you would avoid gifts for the kids that make noise or need batteries.

Thank you.

Greetings, and welcome to all readers. According to the most recent log, people are reading the ShortWoman in 40 countries.

A special thanks to some of the folks who have linked to me, and the folks who have clicked through. A particular thanks to Renpro, Paxtonland, Jay Currie, Chief Wiggles, foomart, Fecundity, and Jerry Kindall.

And of course, thanks to those who clicked through from Google, Blogdex, Weblogs, or any of the other “usual suspects.”

Steely George

This is a big, important news story that you probably haven’t been keeping tabs on unless you work in heavy industry, either making steel or making things out of steel.

Almost 2 years ago, the Bush Administration approved a hefty tariff on imported steel. This protectionist measure was designed to combat alleged “dumping” of cheap steel by foreign nations. This made American steel more competitive and foreign steel more expensive, at least within the United States.

Like many things, there were unintended consequences. American manufacturer’s costs were driven up because they no longer had access to “cheap” foreign steel. By contrast, overseas competitors were not subject to the American tariffs, allowing them to buy steel for 30% less than American companies could. It does not take a genius to see that foreign manufacturers would be able to make product much more cheaply with such steel. So, although hundreds of thousands of American steel workers’ jobs may have been protected by this measure, the millions of workers who made things out of that steel found their jobs endangered by uncompetitiveness.

As if this were not a serious enough consequence, the World Trade Organization found the tariff illegal. This opened the door for countries harmed by the tariff to impose punitive trade measures, including duties of 100% on some goods exported from the United States to the European Union. It would be polite to say this would not help the American manufacturing sector, which has already shed millions of jobs since 2000.

Repealing this tariff should have been a complete no-brainer. It should not even be an issue today. However, politics got involved. It seems that Bush needs votes from steel producing states to get re-elected. Here is where it gets even more complicated: he also needs votes from states where they make things out of steel.

Just today, the Bush Administration announced that they will do the right thing, abide by international trade law, and dump the anti-dumping tariffs. They will however, keep a “licensing system” designed to prevent “surges” in steel imports. This has already been described as “little more than a fig leaf” for the steel industry.

It will be interesting to see whether there is a new measure which will have the same net effect of the old tariff, or whether the Administration will let bad rules die.

Safety Dance

I am confused.

There is at least one person shooting at cars on an Ohio Interstate freeway. There also may be at least one copycat shooter. There have been 12 reported shootings, and one fatality. This has made national and international news. People are afraid to let their kids play outside at recess, and afraid to let them ride the bus to school. Drivers are doing everything within their meager power to feel safe on the road.

Why doesn’t Ohio have an Orange Alert, or maybe even a Red Alert? Why exactly is this not terrorism? Because nobody has claimed credit and published a list of demands yet? I don’t recall Mohammed Atta’s list of demands. Would it be considered terrorism if a minority neighborhood were targeted? If it happened near Jerusalem instead of near Columbus? What if it were Dearborn?

Speaking of terrorism, I have been informed that if you are planning on bringing Christmas gifts with you when you travel by airplane, do not wrap them. They will have to be unwrapped by the TSA if they are in a bag they decide to search (checked or carry-on). You will need to plan on wrapping gifts at your destination — don’t forget that the scissors need to be in your checked baggage.

How is a wrapped gift in your luggage — in the same plane as you yourself — a greater security risk than a wrapped gift sent by the United States Post Office and placed on a passenger plane? I am not trying to make trouble, I just want to know.