Lowest Common Denominator

I have seen over and over again, the basic mathematic principle of lowest common denominator play out.

Be it relationships, work or politics, it is the lowest behavior that becomes common and everybody falls to it. People upholding higher statutes are sooner or later grinded down by people who uphold no higher values despite always claiming to do so.  Be it at the personal level — helping others despite inconveniences to themselves until the day you ask for help and are bluntly turned down, turning the other cheek  for so long that you realize they don’t care if a cheek is left on your face or selflessly offering service till you realize that most are busy furthering their own cause. Or be it at the global stage — secularism over fundamentalism, nonviolence over violence, integration over segregation.

And that brings us to the crux of the discussion today. Please read this article from New York Times, “British PM ‘Appalled’ by Protest Plans.” A radical Islamic group, Islam4UK, is planning a protest march through the streets of a town that has achieved iconic status in Britain for honoring the passing hearses of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan. As part of the protest march they plan to carry “empty” hearses to replay the honor bequeathed but this time to civilians killed in Afghanistan.

If that is not outrageous enough, this plan was announced by Islam4UK in letters sent to the families of the 246 British soldiers that have died in Afghanistan.

Islam4UK is an off-shoot of a group that was banned in 2005. The group in 2005 praised the perpetrators of 9/11 as heroes.

As you can see, it has got nothing to do with justice since it is not as if this group is asking for innocent Afghanis killed in the war to be honored, it is basically interested in honoring all Muslims — terrorists or otherwise and doesn’t care about honoring members of other religion. It is also not considering any facts about who started this latest cycle of violence in South Asia and the Western world including the barbaric attacks of 9/11.

I believe we are at a major inflection point in relationship between peoples. The doors that have been open in the West to integrate people from all parts of the world are going to get shut and shut fast, especially to natives of certain countries. For, some people are hell bent upon bringing us all down to the lowest common denominator — accept me but I will not accept you. Don’t fight me but I want to take you over.

Minarets and Temple Domes and Church Spires

Food for thought

There is an article on the BBC website titled, “Vatican and Muslims condemn Swiss minaret ban vote.” With the sub-heading, “Religious leaders across the world have criticised Switzerland’s referendum vote to ban the building of minarets.”

Which makes me wonder why the religious leaders around the world don’t have a standing condemnation of numerous Islamic countries A) for being Islamic countries and not secular nations and treating, by law, followers of other religions with supreme inequity and B) not allowing the building of temples and churches in their own nation?

Is this integration only one way?

And if so, is the ulterior motive behind such expansion to increase Islamic presence everywhere and diminish other religion’s presence in Islamic countries?

Tax me to help us

This is not my typical post. I came across the following rather interesting news story on the BBC website and thought of sharing it with the readers of this blog. What are your thoughts? 

Rich Germans demand higher taxes

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8321967.stm

A group of rich Germans has launched a petition calling for the government to make wealthy people pay higher taxes.

The group say they have more money than they need, and the extra revenue could fund economic and social programmes to aid Germany’s economic recovery.

Germany could raise 100bn euros (£91bn) if the richest people paid a 5% wealth tax for two years, they say.

The petition has 44 signatories so far, and will be presented to newly re-elected Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The group say the financial crisis is leading to an increase in unemployment, poverty and social inequality.

Simply donating money to deal with the problems is not enough, they want a change in the whole approach.

“The path out of the crisis must be paved with massive investment in ecology, education and social justice,” they say in the petition.

Those who had “made a fortune through inheritance, hard work, hard-working, successful entrepreneurship, or investment” should contribute by paying more to alleviate the crisis.

The man behind the petition, Dieter Lehmkuhl, told Berlin’s Tagesspiegel that there were 2.2 million people in Germany with a fortune of more than 500,000 euros.

If they all paid the tax for two years, Germany could raise 100bn euros to fund ecological programmes, education and social projects, said the retired doctor and heir to a brewery.

Signatory Peter Vollmer told AFP news agency he was supporting the proposal because he had inherited “a lot of money I do not need”.

He said the tax would be “a viable and socially acceptable way out of the flagrant budget crisis”.

The group held a demonstration in Berlin on Wednesday to draw attention to their plans, throwing fake banknotes into the air.

Mr Vollmer said it was “really strange that so few people came”.

Alfred Nobel, Nobel Prize and Irony

As most of the readers must know, Alfred Nobel invented Dynamite. What you might not know is he also owned “Bofors,” a major armaments manufacturer, which he had redirected from its previous role as an iron and steel mill.

According to Wikipedia, “The erroneous publication in 1888 of a premature obituary of Nobel by a French newspaper, condemning him for his invention of dynamite, is said to have brought about his decision to leave a better legacy after his death.The obituary stated Le marchand de la mort est mort (“The merchant of death is dead”) and went on to say, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”[

Dr. Nobel didn’t, clearly, change his entrepreneurial activities before he died in 1896, eight years after the publication of the erroneous obituary. Instead, in his last will he decides to bequeath much of his enormous fortune to the five Nobel Prizes. One each in Physical Sciences, Chemistry, Medical Sciences, Literature and Peace (a new one has been added in Economics). The Peace Prize “is to be given to the person or society that renders the greatest service to the cause of international fraternity, in the suppression or reduction of standing armies, or in the establishment or furtherance of peace congresses.”

Bofors is still, to this date, one of the largest arms manufacturer in the world.

I am surprised that not too many of the talking heads or the pundits point-out the base irony fundamentally present in the Nobel Peace prize. Nobel, the merchant of death, and Peace is an oxymoron. And to me, it does little but expose the hypocrisy of human kind that money collected by creating and selling Dynamite is used to award the most prestigious “Peace Prize.” Not sure how Dr. Nobel could write “…suppression or reduction of standing armies” and not see the naked irony of it all. I forget the author’s name but she hit the nail on the head when she said, in a matter of fact manner, “the beauty of childhood is that it is not afflicted with hypocrisy yet, the very cornerstone of adulthood is hypocrisy especially the hypocrisies that the self doesn’t even see.” A very important goal of mine is thus to stay a child in this context.

It is good that President Obama has pledged to donate the prize money to charity.

My opinion, and I know President Obama did not apply for the Prize, President Obama doesn’t deserve it and it is going to be nothing but an impossible standard to meet when he ends up making tough decisions on Afghanistan, Iraq and may be Iran. Oh, and I don’t think he will make the easy decision on the domestic front — Gun Control — that 540 Mayors just petitioned him for. Isn’t that ironic: acting on gun control can taken away some “business” from Bofors reducing the Nobel families fortunes and may be their ability to dish out the Peace Prize (hey! I can dream, can’t I?).

Bankers robbed the banks

Wasn’t it only in October ’08 that we all were told to believe that the whole financial system had collapsed/was on the verge of collapse and that we need to shell out $780 billion of tax payers money to the exact same bankers has cost us upwards of $5 trillion to-date (per President Obama on the Letterman Show)?

So what happened?

Goldman Sachs (GS) reported $3.4B in profits for the 2Q09. GS plans to pay $18B in total compensation to employees averaging a staggering $600K/employee.

However, Unemployment is still at 16.5% (including semi-employed and people who have given up looking for a job).

That’s what happened.

People are so worked up about the Health Care reform when what we are talking about is A) keeping people alive/healthy which will “actually” benefit the economy B) saving the long term “social” model (yes, social) of Medicare, Medicaid and VA that will not survive unless we control cost and C) most importantly, making it affordable to buy insurance for individuals.

That to me is completely misplaced anger. We all have reason to be angry, reason to feel disoriented, reason to feel like we’ve been had and reason to lose trust. But directing it at Health Care reform is not only wrong it is a disservice to the country. It is much better to focus on reforming our Financial Industry and I contend, the only way to do that by reforming our election campaign finance – remember that issue that was hot before the 2008 elections and oh yes, also before the 2004 elections? Though, I must admit right on the outset that I am not very hopeful that either can happen.

However are some plausible ways to make a dent:

1. Make Banking boring —  Banks should, asPaul Krugman points out, return to being “boring” and provide money at reasonable, conservative rates to support the rest of the society to invest, innovate and develop “real products” not consider credit default swaps as a product….ever! In effect, behave like a Utility Company….like they use to back in the 50s and 60s.

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Health Care Reform 2.0

Just like Microsoft and Apple — both of them are poised to launch new versions of their Operating Systems in the fall, President Obama seems ready to launch health care reform 2.0.

An article titled, “Obama Aides Aim to Simplify and Scale Back Health Bills” in today’s New York Times has these head scratching contradictory paragraphs that I surely couldn’t reconcile and I quoting them below.

“By signaling that they would seek to revise existing versions of legislation moving through the House and Senate, administration officials and Democratic leaders in Congress — many of whom had said earlier in the summer that they saw no need to scale back their ambitions — made clear that their political calculations had changed. With Congressional Republicans standing almost unanimously in opposition to the Democratic approach, the target now for Mr. Obama is primarily a handful of moderate Democrats and the one Republican who seems open to a deal, Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine.

“It’s so important to get a deal,” a White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid about strategy. “He will do almost anything it takes to get one.” <End Quote>

What is this deal that is so important that President Obama is ready to do almost anything for when it is with only one Republican? Please explain that to me.

Democrats are no saints but Republicans do deserve the label of “Party of No.” President Bush owns the dubious distinction of creating the largest negative swing in the Federal budget but somehow Republicans want to hold the title of fiscal conservatives!

I do agree with the title of the article that President Obama should simplify the message and in my opinion health care reform 2.0 should hit on these basic points:

1. I am a fiscal conservative and that is exactly why we want to reform. Cost of Medicare, Medicaid and cost to your household for health care will sky rocket out of the stratosphere bankrupting the Government and you in the next 20 years if nothing is done.

2. That is why we are proposing regulations on Insurance companies to not raise insurance when you get ill and not to deny coverage if you have a pre-condition. Believe me, they will still make a handsome profit.

3. We are proposing a public insurance option to provide basic coverage for those who cannot afford and also help reduce cost for drugs by using our subscriber base as negotiating power with big Pharma. This will help reduce prices for all of us even those who have private plans and also help insurance companies since they have to pay less for drugs. Believe me the pharmaceutical companies will still make a handsome profit. Case in point: Pfizer is ready pay $2.3B in penalty for illegal promotion of drugs and its stock dropped only 0.61%.

4. Lastly, but very importantly, this is not socialized health care and do not listen to anyone who tells you so. Socialized health care in Britain means all doctors are employed by NIH, all hospitals and hospital workers are employed by NIH and allowed procedures and medicines are recommended by the NIH (which BTW, is a better version of US insurance companies denying coverage for many medicines and procedures).

With this approach we achieve triple play: reduce cost while extending coverage on something as basic and necessary as care for human body and still preserving the businesses that are currently engaged in the health care industry.

Health Care Bill — Where is the reform?

Don’t let anyone fool you — Health Care reform is essential. Why? Because from spending 1 out of $20 on health care in 1960 we have arrived at a point that we are spending 1 out of every $6 on health care now. And of course, this cost is expected to sky rocket. President Obama is right — exponentially growing health care costs, completely independent of making health care universal, will sink the American economy.

Strangely enough though, the current bill being considered by the House of Representatives is not about reform driving cost down and funding universal health care but universal health care without any meaningful reform. 

 Section 1 — CBO Report

To build the case though, allow me to start with some key facts and data points from the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) “Long Term Budget Outlook” published in 2007 regarding Health Care:

1. On Total Health Care Spending

A> “Total spending on health care in the United States, including both private and public spending, increased from 4.7 percent of GDP in 1960 to 14.9 percent in 2005, the most recent year for which such data are available.”  That is a greater than 300% increase in share of spending on health care obviously at a loss to other facets of life.

B> The report identifies the primary cause for this increase as, “Most analysts agree that the most important factor contributing to the growth in health care spending in recent decades has been the emergence, adoption, and widespread diffusion of new medical technologies and services.”

C> Other factors for cost increase identified in the report are rise in disposable family income, rise in insurance coverage and aging of the population.

2. On  Medicare Program

A> Overview of Medicare: “Medicare provides federal health insurance for nearly 43 million people who are aged (about 85 percent of enrollees) or disabled or who have end-stage renal disease. The elderly become eligible for Medicare at age 65; the disabled become eligible 24 months after their Social Security benefits start.”

B> Medicare is funded via various sources, payroll tax of 2.9% of taxable income, being a primary source. Think of it as money you are putting aside to be paid for medical care when you get old or, god forbid, disabled. CBO report also states, “As of June 2007, 18 percent of Medicare beneficiaries were enrolled in private health plans under the Medicare Advantage program,” i.e. were paying additional for enhanced coverage.

C> In 2006, Medicare spending totaled $382 billion.

3. On Medicaid Program

A> Medicaid is a joint federal–state program that pays for health care services for a variety of low-income individuals. The program was created in 1965 by the same legislation that created Medicare, replacing an earlier program of federal grants to states to provide medical care to people who have low income. The federal government’s share of Medicaid’s spending for benefits varies among the states and currently averages 57 percent.

B> In 2006, the total spending was $160.9B and total beneficiaries were 60.9M people. Out of which children accounted for 29.5M – approx. 50%.

Section 2 — some more key data points:

1. Americans spend $2.5T (trillion) annually on healthcare.

2. Medicaid is only 6.7% of the total healthcare bill for USA and hence hardly the cause for the crisis.

3. Kaiser Health Tracking Poll from June 2009 finds, “Struggling to afford needed care — The survey continues to find that a majority of Americans (55 %) say that they or another member of their household have put off some sort of needed medical care because of the cost over the past 12 months. About 1 in 4 say they have skipped a recommended test or treatment, and a similar percentage have chosen not to fill a prescription. 26% say they or a family member had problems paying medical bills over the past year, similar to the proportion reporting problems in our April tracking survey. This number rises to nearly half (48 %) among those suffering health problems, and is nearly as high (43 percent) among the uninsured.

Section 3 — Key observations based upon the above data

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