Saturday, July 27, 2019

Why watch 'The Expanse' on Amazon Prime TV? To reflect on the idea that we can't reform our values.

Yesterday the comprehensive article If You Care About Earth, You Should Watch The Expanse appeared on the Gizmodo site explaining why this show is so complex but so very good and reminding us:

    After a close brush with death before Amazon swooped in to save it, The Expanse is officially back for a fourth season in December. Which means that if you’re not already obsessed with the space opera that blends interplanetary politicking and battles with alien monsters, you’ve got a few months to catch up. But it’s not just science fiction fans who can find a lot to love in this show—so can anyone concerned with the habitability of humanity’s homeworld.​

(Today we learned that ‘The Expanse’ Renewed for Season 5 at Amazon.)

A couple of months ago I read about Amazon saving the show . Discovering that the three completed seasons are available on Amazon Prime, we started watching with Season 2, as we had seen season 1. IMHO it is the best scifi show produced in this decade. If nothing else, for a TV show the effects are superb. Perhaps season 1 isn't as predictive about the long term complex strength of the show ... or maybe it is and I didn't fully understand.

It is complicated. The article linked above might be the best place to start if you have never seen the show as it gives a good overview. I must note that if you're idea of good science fiction is doing battle with alien monsters, the article uses the term "Alien-esque horror elements" which is a more accurate description of a science-gone-wrong element, the kind of science-gone-wrong thing we know will be inevitable from fiddling with genetics.

Today in real life we have three American billionaires fiddling with space exploration: Elon Musk and his Spacex, Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic, and Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin. The Expanse offers a view of just how difficult achieving their dreams are and what all could go wrong over a long period of human interplanetary living.

I can only speculate, but I wonder if Amazon saved the series because, as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos explained in May, he is in the space business because of a dream per this article in The New York Times Jeff Bezos Unveils Blue Origin’s Vision for Space, and a Moon Lander:

    In a carefully choreographed event akin to an announcement of a new iPhone, Jeffrey P. Bezos unveiled a moon lander.
    Mr. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, also owns Blue Origin, a rocket company. In a convention center ballroom here, Mr. Bezos described on Thursday a dreamy, ambitious vision of the future: a trillion people in space, living not on moons or planets, but bucolic space colonies in a style originally envisioned by a Princeton physicist, Gerard K. O’Neill.
    “This would be an incredible civilization,” Mr. Bezos said.
    The space colonies would be built by future generations. Mr. Bezos said what he and others today can do is start building the infrastructure. In the short-term, that includes a lunar lander, Blue Moon, a sleek vehicle that became visible as a curtain in front was yanked away.​

What underlies The Expanse is the concept that human motivation and behavior will not change 200 years from now regardless of a desire to create "bucolic" space colonies as envisioned in Gerard O'Niell's 1974 article The Colonization of Space mentioned by Bezos. In the end, we humans will still be struggling over limited resources and struggling with our commitment to competitive enterprise sustained by the profit motive.

Or can a dedicated few bring about a revolutionary change within humankind?

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Fact: Donald Trump hates Jeff Bezos. Is anything you read and "know" about Inc. true?

Early last year among numerous articles was the one below...

...which, before offering a reprint of an August 2017 article on the subject, explained:

    Yesterday, Amazon's stock fell 4.4%, knocking around $31 billion off the company's value. The possible reason? An Axios report highlighting President Donald Trump's continued desire to "go after Amazon," possibly with anti-trust regulation. The report claims to come from five sources who have discussed the company with him: "he's obsessed with Amazon," said one of them. "Obsessed."

In February 2019 CNN noted: "Trump has long been antagonistic to Bezos publicly. How antagonistic? Very.."

Back in the early period of the 2016 Republican Primaries, there was this  Why is Donald Trump threatening Amazon and Jeff Bezos? which explains that Trump's focus is stimulated by Bezos' ownership of The Washington Post. Of course, it didn't help that in December 2015 Bezos offered to send Trump into space after Trump tweeted an attack on Bezos ownership of the the newspaper.

All of which should make folks skeptical regarding news stories about Amazon. Let's consider some allegations related to popular beliefs about Amazon.

1. Amazon has killed American retail.

Way too many, particularly those in more rural areas, seem to think that the rise of Amazon from its beginning as an online bookstore has killed American retail. Let's consider some numbers.

As the bottom graph indicates, with the exception of the period of The Great Recession of 2008, both ecommerce and retail sales have grown every year in the 20th Century. After factoring out sales of things not usually purchased on the internet such as cars, fuel, etc., ecommerce is 14% of total U.S. retail sales - about 38% of which is handled by Amazon, 58% of which is Amazon merchants' sales. Amazon's own retail sales are 2.2% of U.S. retail sales.

Yes, Inc. last year made a profit of $10+ billion, the highest since it started making a profit which only began in this decade. But it must be made clear that 62% of Amazon's after-tax profit comes from it's AWS cloud computing service. And then there's the advertising revenue. And, yeah, they make money on that ecommerce website.

Appearing to be an insurmountable behemoth in the retail business has its advantages. But the one big disadvantage is that appearing so big makes Amazon a target for every negative result from internet capitalism. Thus Jeff Bezos gets grilled by Congress on privacy issues and the press warns you about Alexa listening. Some worry about it, posting their concerns on Facebook where they post photos and videos of their entire lives for the world to see.

But, no, Amazon didn't kill retail sales - retail sales is holding it own in our economy.

But many exclaim that it just isn't the same as it was in 1959, as the makeup of retail sales has changed over the decades. It's really ironic that there are people in 2019 thinking back 60 years who remember fondly 1959 shopping districts when Macy's first began its national expansion.

Of course they do so without thinking about 1899, an additional 60 years prior. Consider for a moment this Wikipedia discussion of Montgomery Ward:

    Montgomery Ward was founded by Aaron Montgomery Ward and Andrew Ward in 1872. Ward had conceived of the idea of a dry goods mail-order business in Chicago, Illinois, after several years of working as a traveling salesman among rural customers. He observed that rural customers often wanted "city" goods, but their only access to them was through rural retailers who had little competition and did not offer any guarantee of quality. Ward also believed that by eliminating intermediaries, he could cut costs and make a wide variety of goods available to rural customers, who could purchase goods by mail and pick them up at the nearest train station.
    ...He and two partners raised $1,600 and issued their first catalog in August 1872. It consisted of an 8 in × 12 in (20 cm × 30 cm) single-sheet price list, listing 163 items for sale with ordering instructions for which Ward had written the copy. His two partners left the following year, but he continued the struggling business and was joined by his future brother-in-law, George Robinson Thorne.
    In the first few years, the business was not well received by rural retailers. Considering Ward a threat, they sometimes publicly burned his catalog. Despite the opposition, however, the business grew at a fast pace over the next several decades, fueled by demand primarily from rural customers who were inspired by the wide selection of items that were unavailable to them locally. Customers were also inspired by the innovative company policy of "satisfaction guaranteed or your money back", which Ward began in 1875....
    In 1883, the company's catalog, which became popularly known as the "Wish Book", had grown to 240 pages and 10,000 items. In 1896, Wards encountered its first serious competition in the mail order business, when Richard Warren Sears introduced his first general catalog. ...By 1904, the company had expanded such that it mailed three million catalogs, weighing 4 lb (1.8 kg) each, to customers.

2. Amazon treats its employees like slaves.

The year of Amazon's founding in 1998 it had 11 employees. This past year it has over 600,000 employees around the world. In fact, if you look at the graph below, the company appears to have added 600,000 employees in the last 10 years.

If you click on the image above, you can read an article that amplifies the growth story. And yes, in this process of growing, there have been some complaints and concerns about employment conditions and wages. But Amazon attempts to correct problems based on legitimate complaints.

Curiously, there is a tendency to compare Amazon to other tech companies even though the retail arm of Amazon invented no operating systems. Here's how Amazon employment compares to traditionall tech companies regarding providing employment:

Yes, Amazon Web Services (AWS), as well as the ecommerce operation, employs a lot of tech people, probably a number comparable to the number indicated above for Microsoft and Google. Here is a recent report of salaries for such jobs:

But these are not warehouse jobs. And here is where we run into comparison problems. Amazon now pays a minimum of $15 per hour for warehouse jobs. Is that too low? Well, what jobs do you want to compare it to? These jobs require no customer contact skills. But there is a lot of pressure associated with performance as there is on any assembly line job.

Does the ecommerece operation have a large profit margin. Probably not. Does it make a lot of money?

As noted in one article: "With President Trump having recently raised the possibility of antitrust action against Amazon, the true profitability of its retail operations could become a significant issue. (If Amazon is running its e-commerce business at a loss, it could potentially be accused of predatory pricing.)" But in attempting to calculate that "true profitability" the analysis concludes: "If there's one thing that this exercise has shown, it's that any evaluation of Amazon's financial performance involves a lot of interpretation." And what the article points out is: "In 2017, AWS achieved a segment profit of $4.3 billion: more than the entire company's pre-tax profit."

3. Does Inc. represent legitimate Antitrust Issues?

The point here is simple - it is Donald Trump who is threatening antitrust action against Amazon. Does that mean there are economic facts to support the idea? Or is it all political?

Amazon represents 600,000+ jobs, including 500,000+ non-tech jobs. Do we really want Trump messing with that?

Amazon as a merchant that sells 2.2% of all U.S. retail sales. Non-ecommerce U.S. retail sales have made gains in every year of this decade. Amazon is hardly a retail sales monopoly.

On the other hand, regarding the ecommerce sector, Amazon processes about 38% of sales. But about 58% of those are Amazon merchants' sales. Framing this another way, about 22% of ecommerce is handled by an Amazon internet service which competes with eBay which, as a comparable internet service, processes about 6% of ecommerce sales.

Still, as an ecommerce retailer selling stuff from its shelves, Amazon is the merchant with a 16% market share. Still, in terms of all retail sales, that is a 2.2% market share. A monopoly, or at least maybe dominating something? Maybe a 21st Century Montgomery Ward? (And how many Americans today would say "Montgomery who?")

However, sometimes corporations just get too big. Wikipedia notes:

    It is the world's largest e-commerce marketplace, AI assistant provider, and cloud computing platform as measured by revenue and market capitalization. Amazon is the largest Internet company by revenue in the world. It is the second largest private employer in the United States and one of the world's most valuable companies. Amazon is the second largest technology company by revenue.
    The company initially started as an online marketplace for books but later expanded to sell electronics, software, video games, apparel, furniture, food, toys, and jewelry. In 2015, Amazon surpassed Walmart as the most valuable retailer in the United States by market capitalization. In 2017, Amazon acquired Whole Foods Market for $13.4 billion, which vastly increased Amazon's presence as a brick-and-mortar retailer. In 2018, Bezos announced that its two-day delivery service, Amazon Prime, had surpassed 100 million subscribers worldwide.
    Amazon distributes downloads and streaming of video, music, audiobook through its Amazon Prime Video, Amazon Music, and Audible subsidiaries. Amazon also has a publishing arm, Amazon Publishing, a film and television studio, Amazon Studios, and a cloud computing subsidiary, Amazon Web Services. It produces consumer electronics including Kindle e-readers, Fire tablets, Fire TV, and Echo devices.

In addition to Amazon Web Services and Whole Foods, the subsidiaries of Inc. include:
Then there is the fact that Amazon's billionaire-founder CEO Jeff Bezos added to his business interests when he founded the aerospace manufacturer and sub-orbital spaceflight services company Blue Origin in 2000 and when in 2013 he bought The Washington Post.

The Washington Post is a money-losing newspaper subsidized by Bezos which is regarded as one of the leading daily American newspapers, under attack by Donald Trump along with The New York Times and other "mainstream" media outlets. The Post has distinguished itself through its political reporting on the workings of the White House, Congress, and other aspects of the U.S. government. Trump hates The Washington Post.

A Blue Origin test flight successfully first reached space in 2015, and the company has plans to begin commercial suborbital human spaceflight in 2019.

The political problem for Bezos is the fact that Inc. created the wealth that permitted him to buy The Post and fund Blue Origin.

Given all of this information, how might it relate to the idea of the goal of antitrust enforcement to promote competition in business?

If it weren't for the fact that Donald Trump is President, this writer might suggest that the Justice Department force to spin off AWS. That would prevent the use of the substantial AWS revenue to fund ecommerce activities, a resource not available to Amazon's ecommerce competitors. And it would seem reasonable to require any future acquisitions by Amazon of other businesses be subject to review and approval by the appropriate federal agencies.

But Donald Trump is President and he has expressed extreme dislike of Jeff Bezos. That's a problem. It is reflected in a headline today Amazon has ‘destroyed the retail industry’ so US should look into its practices, Mnuchin says. Mnuchin's statement is not true.

Yesterday the headline was Watch out, Google, Amazon, and Facebook: the Justice Department just launched a major antitrust review. Be careful Democrats. As economic activities and market space these three corporations have little in common. They just use similar technologies just like auto manufacturers use similar technologies and farmers use similar technologies. Despite all the hype, computing devices and the internet have been around awhile and everyone uses them. In truth, the only thing these corporations have in common is they control a lot of wealth. So do the big banks.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Why are we Democrats letting Trump determine who is this week's face of the Democratic Party?

Regarding the 2020 November Presidential Election, it won't matter how people in California and New York vote. Logic would say that since this writer is in California, no reason exists to stew about Trump's reelection campaign.

Still it is utterly, frustratingly amazing how easily Trump can control the "news cycles" to make the Democratic Party even less appealing to the marginalized white Rust Belt blue collar voter.

In between Democratic debates Trump is successfully controlling the face of the Democratic Party. He has made certain that right now it is the four freshman members of the House of Representatives pictured above.

Yes, I do understand that some unforeseen economic or world event that occurs between now and the fall of 2020 could determine how the 2020 election will turn out. But right now the Democratic Party cannot even control its own image when the only "events" are those created by Trump solely for political purposes.

Then again, this writer was born in, and lives in, California, a place which seems different from the Trump States of America...

...and living here makes it urgently clear that beating Trump is the only valid political goal for any Democrat. And that's what Californian Nancy Pelosi understands.

Despite Pelosi's efforts, it appears that the Democratic Party intends on giving the left that revolution it apparently wants - four more years of Donald Trump, as Thomas Friedman notes in ‘Trump’s Going to Get Re-elected, Isn’t He?’  Every caring Democrat should read Friedman's thoughts.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Regarding Joe Biden: A 'Border State' of-Mind?

Keeping track of facts when considering 20+ candidates makes this Democratic Presidential Primary season difficult and confusing. The debates on June 25 and 26 added to that confusion.

To date nothing is more confusing and difficult than Joe Biden's attitude towards working with with the late Democratic Senators James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, both Democrats who were staunch opponents of desegregation.

What's confusing about this is that while speaking at a fund-raiser at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City on June 18 it was Biden who foolishly brought up as a positive bragging point his working with the two segregationist Senators.

When other candidates subsequently raised questions about his bragging point days prior to the first debates, Biden attacked them and refused to apologize. See The New York Times June 19 stories Biden, Recalling ‘Civility’ in Senate, Invokes Two Segregationist Senators and Joe Biden and Democratic Rivals Exchange Attacks Over His Remarks on Segregationists.

In that second Times article it was explained:

    Mr. Biden, who is running for president in part on a message of national unity and reaching out to those with different viewpoints, particularly courted Mr. Eastland, in spite of his racist views and remarks.
    The two men developed an “unlikely relationship,” as Mr. Biden put it in his 2007 book, as Mr. Eastland helped Mr. Biden achieve his first seat of power on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Mr. Biden and Mr. Eastland sharply disagreed on several civil rights-related matters, but they were also convenient allies, as both were vocal opponents of school integration through busing, a controversial topic at the time.

California Senator Kamala Harris raised this bragging by Biden a week later in the June 26 debate putting in the spotlight that portion of Biden's political history he chose to brag about. (And for that, she has been attacked even by a fellow Democratic candidate Tulsi Gabbard.)

The cultural issue making Biden's bragging problematic can be explained. He was a Senator from Delaware, representing the people, history, and culture of that state. Many do not seem to know that Delaware was a Border State in the Civil War. As indicated on the map above, the Border States were Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri.

For a complete review of related cultural history, you may want to read Slavery in Delaware which notes at the end (emphasis added): "As it turned out, Kentucky and Delaware, among the border states, continued to tolerate slavery, even after Lee's surrender. Delaware's General Assembly refused to ratify the 13th Amendment, calling it an illegal extension of federal powers over the states. Only in December 1865, when the 13th Amendment went into effect on a national scale, did slavery cease in Delaware."

It's interesting to note that the 13th Amendment ending slavery was considered by Delaware's General Assembly as "an illegal extension of federal powers over the states."

That brings us to the 1970's segregation issues in the United States that confronted Biden when he took office as a U.S. Senator in 1973.

What we need to keep in mind is that there is de jure segregation, established and/or supported by explicit law. With regard to schools,  U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren (a former California Governor) wrote in the decision opinion of Brown v. Board of Education (1954): "Segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprives children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities, even though the physical facilities and other 'tangible' factors may be equal."

But the subject in the 1970's was de facto racial segregation which was (and continues to be) the result of prejudice, economic stratification, white flight, and other factors short of explicit government discrimination.

Remember that Brown was about schools. As a child in the Berkeley, California, school system in the 1970's, Senator Kamala Harris benefited from a busing program established by the local school system on its own initiative to deal with de facto racial segregation. Around that time, Congress was considering mandatory busing legislation where local schools failed to address the subject.

As noted by The New York Times Senators Biden and Eastland "were also convenient allies, as both were vocal opponents of school integration through busing." In other words, a Senator from a Border State and a Senator from the Deep South shared a view about keeping children racially segregated. It's that simple.

It would be an absolute lie to say that de facto racial segregation of schools was a simple problem. California was also struggling at the time with the fact that segregated neighborhoods created radically unequal school systems compounded by the frequently denied subconscious emotional subtext of racial bigotry.

The California Supreme Court in the early and mid-1970's struggling with reality finally threw its collective hands into the air and in Serrano v. Priest invalidated the entire school financing system based mostly on property taxes noting:

    The amount of revenue which a district can raise in this manner thus depends largely on its tax base -- i.e., the assessed valuation of real property within its borders. Tax bases vary widely throughout the state; in 1969-1970, for example, the assessed valuation per unit of average daily attendance of elementary school children ranged from a low of $103 to a peak of $952,156 -- a ratio of nearly 1 to 10,000. (Legislative Analyst, Public School Finance, Part V, Current Issues in Educational Finance (1971) p. 7.)

The Legislative Analyst noted that at the elementary school level, among school districts the annual per student spending ranged from $407 to $2,586. Among high schools the per student range was $722 to $1,767.

This situation was mostly because rich folks congregated in their communities and poor folks were relegated to poor neighborhoods, with developers, real estate brokers, and mortgage lenders discriminating not only on relative wealth but also on race, to make those neighborhoods "exclusive".

And while the negative impact was not simply racial, minority children were most frequently impacted. In other words, the California Court recognized that extreme wealth differences when incorporated into a government structure was no less government sanctioned segregation than a law.

Committed to the 1865 Delaware belief that any interference in de facto segregation is an illegal extension of law, Biden,  Eastland, and far too many other 1970's Americans were never going to restructure school systems to attempt to correct the problem.

Today otherwise well-meaning folks like Biden would not support busing as a solution. They do offer platitudes and hand-wringing as they have since the Brown decision. And in California, the Legislature and school districts are still struggling, tweaking financing, classroom assignments, and other factors - even attempting charter schools.

It isn't that efforts are not being made many states. We have no good way of overcoming economic segregation. In truth the current worsening of economic inequality will expand that segregation. In the 21st Century, education should have become the great equalizer.

The truth is that all of Trump's base and most of the core of Biden's support do not see this as a problem. And that's pretty close to half the voters nationally.

The reality is that Biden's ignorant, self-important "'Border State' of-Mind" bragging may have already seriously split the Democratic Party. Most importantly, his stumble makes it clear that there may be no way to appeal both to the Rust Belt white voter that elected Trump and to the expanding under-50 ethnic/racial minority population.

Even the appeal "beat Trump" may not work if the Democratic candidate is as fumbling and unenlightened as Trump.

And this discussion doesn't even get into the fact that Biden is keeping his Senate records secret, documents that could enlighten us on his deliberations with regard to the 1982 and 2006 on reauthorizations of the Voting Rights Act, on the 1994 crime bill, on his actions in limiting witnesses in the Thomas hearings, on his support for the Iraq War, on his efforts regarding climate change, and on correspondence and meetings he had with world leaders over decades.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

What voters under the age of 65 need to know: Medicare for all is not "H.R.1384 - Medicare for All Act of 2019" and Medicare involves private insurers

Kamala Harris had a good night in the first debates on the Thursday night episode. Still, the press is taking her to task on "her" confusion about the health insurance issue, such as this article in the The New York Times. And, indeed, the writer has a point about the confusion.

The difficult things about reading about the Democratic debates is one reaches a realization that too many members of the press are generally ignorant - not as ignorant as the public, but too ignorant to rely upon for information.

The problem lies in the appropriation of phrases. In the blog post here Has Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cost us decades of progress on the Green New Deal? it was noted that "The Green New Deal" was coined when Ocasio-Cortez was 14 years old by serious environmentalists who have been a systematic part of California's success in Climate Change policy.

Then we have Socialist Bernie Sanders who in his 2017 PR piece S.1804 - Medicare for All Act of 2017 which was introduced and died in the 115th Congress (2017-2018) and which appropriated the phrase "Medicare for all." (Note that a new plan was introduced in the Senate where it will die a rapid death but also was introduced in the Democrat-controlled House as H.R.1384 - Medicare for All Act of 2019 by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA).

The term "Medicare for all" was coined in 1970 by The New York Times in an article about "a national health insurance program that would extend Medicare benefits to people of all ages by 1973" which was proposed by Republican Senator Jacob K. Javits. That is what most folks think "Medicare for all" means - a program that would extend Medicare benefits to people of all ages. As a Democrat, I have supported that approach since 1970.

That is not what the "Medicare for All Act of 2019" is regardless of what you think Bernie and the others are saying.  (If they were honest, they would call it "Medicaid for All.")

Generally speaking, only those who have Medicare coverage and their caregivers have any idea what Medicare health insurance is and what it costs those insured taking into account deductibles, co-pays, and monthly premiums (yes there are premiums). It only affects those who have reached age 65 or who are disabled. But most who are affected know that Medicare involves private insurance companies.

If up to now you thought Medicare-for-All was a cost-free panacea for health insurance - meaning you are unaware of Medicare premiums, deductibles, co-pays, and co-insurance costs and private supplemental insurances which are part of the program - you should consider the review that follows. As indicated in the image to the left, Medicare coverage is complicated.

In 2019 if you were covered by Medicare you would be paying to Medicare $135.50 per month or more, depending upon your modified adjusted gross income from your 2017 tax return, for Part B.

Medicare Part B is the medical insurance component of the Medicare program. It pays for costs like doctor's office visits, medical equipment, and outpatient procedures. The annual deductible for all Medicare Part B beneficiaries is $185 in 2019. After you meet your deductible you will pay 20% of each medical bill - that's right, a 20% co-pay.

Medicare Part A, which mainly covers hospital stays, remains premium-free for most, but not all, American seniors. The Part A annual deductible is $1,364 in 2019. There are co-insurance amounts for hospital care. There is what is called "Lifetime Reserve Days" which are additional days that Medicare Part A will pay for if you are in a hospital for more than 90 days during a benefit period. Beneficiaries are limited to a total of 60 reserve days that Medicare will cover over the course of a beneficiaries life.

It is possible with Medicare to not engage with private insurers. But you will not have any drug coverage, vision coverage, dental coverage, and some other coverages as you understand such coverages. And, of course, you will be subject to all Parts A & B deductibles, co-pays, co-insurance, etc.

In rural California a person can pay a private insurance company $113 per month for the best Medicare prescription coverage (Part D), but it still means co-pays and the infamous doughnut hole.

For a supplement called Plan F, in 2019 a 73-year-old in rural California can pay a private insurance company a premium of $232 a month (which would be $282 a month if  that person were 78). It covers all of the following:
  • Part A deductible
  • Part B deductible
  • Part B excess charges
  • Preventative care Part B co-insurance
  • Part A hospital and co-insurance costs up to an additional 356 days after Medicare benefits are exhausted
  • Part B co-insurance or co-payment
  • First three pints of blood used in an approved medical procedure (annually)
  • Part A hospice care co-payment or co-insurance
  • Skilled Nursing Facility (SNF) co-insurance
  • Foreign travel emergency
As indicated by the fact that it is Plan "F", there are other plans that are cheaper because you have to pay some of the items listed above when you get sick or injured.

That leaves dental and vision. A plan for that is available for $56 a month. But it is a very limited plan.

For a "family-of-2-coverage-package" as described above, a retired couple would pay $1,122 a month to both Medicare and a Medicare authorize private insurer. That gets about as close to the "Medicare-for-All" complete coverage that is being implied or promised by the various Democratic candidates.

It should be noted that another private insurer option known as a Medicare Advantage Plan (also known as Part C) is available to some.

Medicare pays a fixed amount for your care each month to the private insurance companies offering Medicare Advantage Plans. Some Advantage Plans charge the insured no premium. Some Advantage Plans pay all or part of your Part B premium. These companies must follow rules set by Medicare. But each Medicare Advantage Plan can charge different out-of-pocket costs. They can also have different rules for how you get services, usually requiring the use of in-network medical care providers. Parts A and B services are included in these plans but with varying deductibles, co-pays and co-insurance. Usually some prescription coverage (Part D) is offered. Some Medicare Advantage Plans also offer extra coverage, like vision, hearing and dental coverage.

About 35% of Medicare patients opt for this plan. In urban areas usually there are a number of private insurers to choose from who offer Advantage Plans. In some rural California areas, there is one insurer and many local providers are out-of-network. In some rural California areas there are no Advantage Plan providers. Effectively, it is a situation this writer calls "The American Way Plan" as it assures that choices depend upon what area or ghetto you live in. 

The cost to the government for the existing Medicare system which covers 16%± of the U.S. population is not cheap.

If you receive a paycheck, you may have noticed that you pay a 1.45% payroll tax on your wages to fund Medicare. It is matched by your employer. There is an 0.9% additional Medicare tax on an individual's wages paid in excess of $200,000 in a calendar year. There is no annual wage maximum at which level Medicare taxes are no longer deducted. If you are self-employed, you pay both the employee and employer share.

Regarding investment, capital gains, and other non-wage income, rich folks don't avoid the tax completely as there is 3.8% Medicare tax the amount of your modified adjusted gross income that exceeds $200,000 for individuals, $250,000 for couples filing jointly, or $125,000 for spouses filing separately.

All of which brings us to the issue of cost if "Medicare for All" were simply an action to add the other 84% of the population to the Medicare system plus add costs such as maternity coverage.

In this writer's opinion all kinds of lowball cost numbers are being used. Few even try to relate the costs to the existing Medicare tax system which does not completely cover the cost of the existing Medicare program after the Part B premiums collected from those insured by Medicare are deducted.

As might be expected the excess cost varies from year-to-year, but is growing as the number of people over the age of 65 increases and as the number of treatments for diseases expand exponentially. And the program many of the Democratic candidates are committing to would also eliminate deductibles, co-pays, etc

How about we use some honesty? We have no idea what adding everyone to Medicare will cost 10 years after everyone is added. We have no idea who will pay for it. Is that really something Democrats want to gamble on as a winning issue?

If it weren't for the fact that the courts might overturn Obamacare before the election, that gamble might assure Donald Trump's reelection. As it is, the healthcare system might just become a political chaos issue....

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

From 50 years ago, lofty lyrics that failed: "Come on people now, Smile on your brother, Everybody get together, Try to love one another right now."

A 1969 radio public service announcement for the National Conference of Christians and Jews used the recording of "Get Together" by the Youngbloods. As noted elsewhere:

    The song sometimes called the "hippie national anthem" can be found in all kinds of places. It's been used on The Simpsons and in Forrest Gump, recorded dozens of times by the likes of The Kingston Trio, The Dave Clark Five, Jefferson Airplane, The Staples Singers and the Carpenters (twice). You may have even heard it in a Walmart commercial a few years ago.

Despite it's early 1960's recording history by numerous popular singers, the song wasn't a big hit. When the Youngbloods version was released in 1967, it was a minor hit. But when it appeared in that 1969 National Conference of Christians and Jews public service announcement, folks started calling radio stations about the song and it was re-released peaking at number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Play the video above to hear (and see) the lyrics that inspired.

Between the 1967 and 1969 releases the 1968 Democratic National Convention/Chicago Riots occurred indicating a deeply split Democratic Party. That Convention's nominee lost to Republican Richard Nixon who attributed his win to his appeal to the "Silent Majority." As explained in Wikipedia:

    Nixon's silent majority referred mainly to the older generation (those World War II veterans in all parts of the U.S.) but it also described many young people in the Midwest, West and in the South, many of whom eventually served in Vietnam. The Silent Majority was mostly populated by blue collar white people who did not take an active part in politics; suburban, exurban and rural middle class voters. They did, in some cases, support the conservative policies of many politicians.
    According to columnist Kenneth Crawford, "Nixon’s forgotten men should not be confused with Roosevelt's," adding that "Nixon's are comfortable, housed, clad and fed, who constitute the middle stratum of society. But they aspire to more and feel menaced by those who have less."
    In his famous speech, Nixon contrasted his international strategy of political realism with the "idealism" of a "vocal minority." ...The speech was one of the first to codify the Nixon Doctrine, according to which, "the defense of freedom is everybody's business—not just America's business." After giving the speech, Nixon's approval ratings which had been hovering around 50% shot up to 81% in the nation and 86% in the South.

    In January 1970, Time put on their cover an abstract image of a man and a woman representing "Middle America" as a replacement for their annual "Man of the Year" award. Publisher Roy E. Larsen wrote that "the events of 1969 transcended specific individuals. In a time of dissent and 'confrontation', the most striking new factor was the emergence of the Silent Majority as a powerfully assertive force in U.S. society." Larsen described how the silent majority had elected Nixon, had put a man on the moon, and how this demographic felt threatened by "attacks on traditional values."
    The silent majority theme has been a contentious issue amongst journalists since Nixon used the phrase. Some thought Nixon used it as part of the Southern strategy; others claim it was Nixon's way of dismissing the obvious protests going on around the country, and Nixon's attempt to get other Americans not to listen to the protests. Whatever the rationale, Nixon won a landslide victory in 1972, taking 49 of 50 states, vindicating his "silent majority". The opposition vote was split successfully, with 80% of George Wallace supporters voting for Nixon rather than George McGovern, unlike Wallace himself.
    Nixon's use of the phrase was part of his strategy to divide Americans and to polarize them into two groups. He used "divide and conquer" tactics to win his political battles, and in 1971 he directed Agnew to speak about "positive polarization" of the electorate. The "silent majority" shared Nixon's anxieties and fears that normalcy was being eroded by changes in society. The other group was composed of intellectuals, cosmopolitans, professionals and liberals, those willing to "live and let live." Both groups saw themselves as the higher patriots. Nixon's polarization survives today in American politics. According to Republican pollster Frank Luntz, "silent majority" is but one of many labels which have been applied to the same group of voters. According to him, past labels used by the media include "silent majority" in the 1960s, "forgotten middle class" in the 1970s, "angry white males" in the 1980s, "soccer moms" in the 1990s, and "NASCAR dads" in the 2000s.
    During Donald Trump's presidential campaign, he said at a campaign rally on July 11, 2015, in Phoenix, Arizona, that "the silent majority is back, and we’re going to take our country back". He also referred to the silent majority in subsequent speeches and advertisement, as did the press when describing those who voted for his election as President in 2016.

Let anyone think this was a new concept in the 1960's, in May 1831 New York Congressman Churchill C. Cambreleng in a speech before the 400 members of the Tammany Society said:

    Whenever majorities trample upon the rights of minorities—when men are denied even the privilege of having their causes of complaint examined into—when measures, which they deem for their relief, are rejected by the despotism of a silent majority at a second reading—when such become the rules of our legislation, the Congress of this Union will no longer justly represent a republican people.

What gets confusing in 2019 is that in 2016 in the entire Union Hillary Clinton represented the majority. That was a majority which the eyes of the minority that voted for Trump that did not "justly represent a republican people." Because the "the more perfect Union" created by the Constitution does not let the majority select the President we have Trump. But without California Trump won the majority of the votes.

The fact facing Democrats in 2020 is that outside California there is a silent majority that will determine who will be President and which party will control the U.S. Senate. That silent majority will nominate the Republican candidate. Meanwhile the bickering minorities will control the 2020 Democratic National Convention.

While many of us who came of age in the two decades prior to 1964 believed in the spirit of the lyrics in the title of this post, loving one another was not an outcome of the 1960's nor is it today part of truth, justice, and the American Way.

In America it's always been "come on people...."

Thursday, July 4, 2019

About that Betsy Ross flag controversy. Flags are symbols to be appropriated, even nationalistic flags.

In typical American fashion, this July 4th folks are involved in a controversy over use of a flag - specifically over what we call the Betsy Ross Flag. It was going to be used as an emblem by Nike on shoes likely manufactured in one or more factories located in Indonesia, China, Taiwan, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Pakistan, Philippines, and Malaysia. The purpose of the use by Nike was to sell shoes and make money.

It was reported that Colin Kaepernick, the Nike brand ambassador and former NFL quarterback who became famous for kneeling during the national anthem, convinced Nike to pull the shoe, either because Kaepernick was leery of a flag from an era when slavery was legal in America or Kaepernick was upset about the way racist groups are using the Betsy Ross flag as their own symbol.

As an American male who came of age in the early 1960's, I have no problem with Nike or Kaepernick or Donald Trump or Ku Klux Klan members using some nationalistic flag to make a political statement since, after all, I supported the Vietnam War protesters.

As noted by the Smithsonian:

    Perhaps no issue epitomized the controversial nature of the American flag during the 1960s more than flag burning. When some burned the flag to protest government policies, others rushed to defend the flag from attack. State laws against flag desecration originally passed in the late 1800s were revived and enforced. In 1968, Congress passed the Federal Flag Desecration Law, making it a federal crime to “knowingly cast contempt upon any flag of the United States by publicly mutilating, defacing, defiling, burning, or trampling upon it.”
    After peaking in the late 1960s, the issue of flag desecration receded from the public spotlight. It would be revived twenty years later by the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Texas v. Johnson, which struck down all state and federal flag protection laws as violating the First Amendment right to free speech. Since then, politicians have made repeated efforts to amend the Constitution to prohibit flag burning, a move opposed by those who believe it would curtail essential civil liberties. As the debates over flag protection continue, memories of the turbulent 1960s continue to challenge and inspire Americans to contemplate the meaning of patriotism and the value of protest.

What's amusing is that people who use the flag to make a statement about their nationalism object to others who use the flag to make some other political statement.  One of President Trump’s favorite Supreme Court justices, Antonin Scalia, defended flag-burning as a form of free speech protected by the first amendment.

Having spent most of my life in Northern California near San Francisco, I guess I was aware of the 18 flags of San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza which has always included a number of flags like the Betsy Ross Flag and the Bennington Flag (pictured to the left). It's interesting, though. Use of the Betsy Ross Flag is a hot button issue in 2019. Really???

One thing needs to be made clear - flags were created as part of the absolute monarchy pageantry to get folks killing and maiming other people in warfare. You wave a flag, that is the tradition you're following. The next step is to wave a gun. Per Wikipedia:

    In antiquity, field signs or standards were used in warfare that can be categorised as vexilloid or 'flag-like'. This is considered originated in the ancient Egypt or Assyria. Examples include the Sassanid battle standard Derafsh Kaviani, and the standards of the Roman legions such as the eagle of Augustus Caesar's Xth legion, or the dragon standard of the Sarmatians; the latter was let fly freely in the wind, carried by a horseman, but judging from depictions it was more similar to an elongated dragon kite than to a simple flag.
    Flag as recognized today, made of a piece of cloth representing a particular entity, is considered invented in the Indian subcontinent or Chinese Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE). Chinese flags depicted animals decorated in certain colors. A royal flag is considered being used as well, which was required to be treated with a similar level of respect attributed to the ruler. Indian flags were often triangular shaped and decorated with attachments such as yak's tail and the state umbrella. These usages spread to Southeast Asia as well, and considered transmitted to Europe through the Muslim world where plainly colored flags were being used due to Islamic prescriptions.
    In Europe, during the High Middle Ages, flags came to be used primarily as a heraldic device in battle, allowing more easily to identify a knight than only from the heraldic device painted on the shield. Already during the high medieval period, and increasingly during the Late Middle Ages, city states and communes such as those of the Old Swiss Confederacy also began to use flags as field signs. Regimental flags for individual units became commonplace during the Early Modern period.
    During the peak of the age of sail, beginning in the early 17th century, it was customary (and later a legal requirement) for ships to carry flags designating their nationality; these flags eventually evolved into the national flags and maritime flags of today. Flags also became the preferred means of communications at sea, resulting in various systems of flag signals; see, International maritime signal flags.
    Use of flags outside of military or naval context begins only with the rise of nationalist sentiment by the end of the 18th century; the earliest national flags date to that period, and during the 19th century it became common for every sovereign state to introduce a national flag.

The problem with national flags is precisely because they began with the rise of nationalism in the late 18th Century which was honed in the first half of the 20th Century to encourage the killing of as many humans who don't look/sound/behave (your leader's choice) like you as possible. In the end nationalism is "ethnocentrism" dressed up in legal jargon. If you don't know, "ethnocentrism" is the act of judging another culture based on preconceptions that are found in the values and standards of one's own culture – especially regarding appearance (particularly race), language, behavior, customs, and religion.

It's interesting what a piece of fabric with a distinctive design and colors can do in our lives. Indeed, flags are handy symbols to be appropriated by folks. When ethnocentric feelings arise in Americans, feelings that aren't technically supported by our lawful nation, no legal flag is available. So what many do is (mis)appropriate a flag. Or burn one. Hopefully, that will divert them from waving a gun.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Hey, old Democrats, its time to acknowledge and rebuke our Party's 20th Century past not bask in it

Perhaps the time has come for older Democrats to acknowledge and rebuke the Party's past. Younger - you know, under age 60 - Democrats are demanding it and Trump Republicans are hoping we won't.

The first matter is the Kamala Harris (age 54, born a black Baptist/Hindu woman in California in 1964) exchange regarding "busing" with Joe Biden (age 76, born a white Catholic male in Pennsylvania in 1942). For perspective, Harris was 4 years old when Biden, then age 27, greeted his first born son. These are two people of two different generations from two different parts of the United States.

Often assumptions are made about "liberal" California that are historically untrue. Harris' busing experience is because in the 1960's Berkeley was segregated by neighborhood just like most of urban America in northern states.

It was Lyndon Johnson's 1964 Civil Rights Act that split the segregationist South out of Joe Biden's and my Democratic Party which led to today's Republican domination. It was the right thing to do. And Berkeley decided to bus kids because it was the right thing to do (read the article linked above).

It is very clear that Biden had, and still has, mixed feelings about all of this as do many old Democrats. Most of us in California thought it took way too long for the East Coast dominated Democratic Party to dump the Southern Democrats who seemed to have turned the Civil War loss into a victory.

This subject also relates to the current controversy over the use of "concentration camp" to refer to the places where Americans of Japanese descent were concentrated during WWII. We older California-born Democrats likely have a different view about the Japanese-American concentration camp controversy. Perhaps in my case it may be because 28 members of my high school class were born in the camps.

But then 41 members of my class were Hispanic. Some were migrant farm workers. Some were descendants of residents in California when the United States launched a war against Mexico and occupied what we now call the American Southwest - much like the Germans occupied France in WWII. Many of their parents and/or grandparents were impacted by the so-called Mexican Repatriation mass deportation of Americans of Mexican heritage between 1929 and 1936.

If you add in my two Black classmates (issues: slavery and segregation), the two Chinese classmates (issue: the 1892 - 1940 Chinese Exclusion Act, the only U.S. law ever to prevent immigration and naturalization on the basis of race), and the three Native American classmates (issue: genocide, forced relocation, and removal of children), the governments in the Union (with U.S. Supreme Court approval in some cases) committed heinous acts based on racial bigotry against the parents and/or grandparents of about 20% of my classmates.

So it was very disturbing to me when an argument developed over the use of the word "concentration" as the adjective describing the WWII camps in which the U.S. concentrated the Japanese-American population.

The National Archives in its "Educator Resources" section offers a lesson "Japanese Relocation During World War II" which title sounds like their homes were purchased to build some highway or other government facility and they had to be "relocated" to another town. Actually, it was the military rounding up some Asians against whom bigotry was historically common and putting them into concentration camps, assuming you understand the common definition of the verb "to concentrate" as meaning "put or bring into a single place, group, etc." This was done by the Democratic Party's most revered President Franklin Roosevelt despite thorough reports prepared over several years submitted to him and  FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover which dismissed all rumors of Japanese-American espionage on behalf of the Japanese war effort.

In other words, the Democratic Party in the 20th Century had a practice of sacrificing the freedom and well-being of non-white racial and ethnic groups to win elections or win votes in legislative chambers. If some Party leaders still think that way, the young - you know, Democrats under age 60 - are suggesting the Party should lose because when it matters it is no better than the Trump Republican Party.

Most certainly, old Democrats shouldn't be basking in that past! That means you, Joe.