Saturday, November 30, 2013

Yet Another Boomer Turns 65

J, who has been a Medicare recipient (your Medicare starts on the first of the month you turn 65) since the beginning of November, is now an Official Senior Citizen, eligible for the Senior Discount almost everywhere and discounted dinners from 4-7 PM at places like Denny's.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Will Everyone Go Shopping This Year?

This is always the question on Thanksgiving.  Otherwise we'd be inundated with stories of "turkey disasters."  I always hope that people will get sick of being played by retailers trying to entice them into stores with alleged "doorbusters", but the shopping frenzy has gotten worse, not better.  Now stores open on Thanksgiving.  Hey, skip the turkey and all the sides, grab a McBurger and head off to the mall.  (I admit that I am sitting on the sofa, listening to Alice's Restaurant, and smelling turkey in the oven.)  We will not be heading out to the shops after dinner, and not just because my knees are not working today. We're going to watch This is Spinal Tap after dinner because I so love the Stonehenge scene.

And it's not because I hate shopping.  Economists would put me into the profligate category, pursing their lips and shaking their heads gently, using me as an example of what happens when you shop too much and don't build your assets.  But it's because I take capitalism and shopping seriously.  Karl Marx pointed out nigh on 150 years ago that capitalism released the productive forces and, in addition to the dark Satanic mills and fracking, capitalism has enabled us to purchase all sorts of wondrous things, things we'd never be able to do as well at home, no matter what people say about the superiority of the handmade.  The handmade is better if you have access to very good materials and are a skilled craftsperson.  Think Tiffany.  When Tiffany is good, it's very good, although I've seen plenty of awful stuff from Tiffany's, and I've often thought on watching Antiques Roadshow that, if I owned some of the stuff, it would head right out the door to the auction block.

In some cases the handmade is very good, but I'm not willing to pay that much for it. Think couture.  Just don't care enough, and am not interested in wearing hand-stitched pearls on my clothes anyway.  That doesn't mean that I buy my clothes at Target or WalMart.  Even Macy's these days is somewhat lacking.  I'm a neo-hippie with linen overtones, and that stuff doesn't come cheap.  Birkenstock's are more than $100 a pair. Those prices are nothing like couture though.

But before I start posting pictures of my favorite articles of clothing, let's move back to the main point, which is that instead of being offered good products at reasonable prices, Thanksgiving shopping offers us impulse purchases, junk and stuff that you will either give to Goodwill or, in an appalling lack of human solidarity, "re-gift".  Worse, as I noted a couple of years ago, it's as though retailers are trying to see how much they can get away with, and ruining Thanksgiving is at the top of the list.  

Addendum: Lambert, who works with Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism, reports that customers are perceived as cattle, to be run through the stores to the checkout counter like cows to the slaughter.  It's an ugly image, but if you see the pictures of the masses as the stores open, somehow appropriate.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Obamacare Cliff

This morning our local newspaper reported on the decision by Covered California (our local, and apparently functioning, health insurance exchange) not to allow extension of the insurance plans that don't comply with the requirements of the Affordable Care Act.  And of course they provided us with a family that would lose its cheaper insurance, and have to pay nearly double for ACA-compliant insurance.  And we are supposed to feel sympathy for her.

Well, I do, up to a point.  First, she is "out of subsidy," which means that she has an income at least close to $100,000 a year.  That's far above the median for Sacramento County.  In fact, she's probably in the top five percent, income-wise.  Now her ACA-compliant plan will cost her $1,200 a month which, by my calculator-aided computation, is $14,400 a year. That's a lot of money.

It's a lot more than she used to pay, $7,740.  But that sum depended on two factors.  First, the insurance company never had to cover anyone who was old or got sick.  In fact, it might not even cover her family if one of the insured got sick.  Insurers regularly went through applications when someone got sick, looking for any forgotten visit to the doctor, over the counter medication, anything that would enable the insurer to claim a pre-existing condition and/or "lying" on the application, and cancel the insurance.  Second, the cost of caring for the sick was covered by the government.  Our health insurance system was often described as "cherry-picking" and it was very good for those who got picked. Not so much for everyone else.

Now even with an income in the top five percent, she's paying almost fifteen percent of her income for insurance, more if she goes to the doctor.  What that should highlight, but doesn't, is that the cost of health care in the US is far more than our income can support. We just don't make enough money to pay for insurance that expensive.  That's why we have subsidies for most of the population.  If you're within subsidy, you won't pay more than 9.5% of your income for insurance, and the smaller your income, the less you pay.

But for those who fall off the cliff, the cost is very steep, and it's worse for people who are just above the 400% of poverty than for people who are richer, particularly if they are also older.  Just off the cliff, people can pay a quarter of their income for insurance, again before they've been to the doctor.  That means that, as your income increases, the percentage of income you pay decreases.

Now for the immediate problem, there's a simple solution.  Get rid of the cliff.  Just change the law to provide that no one who has an ACA policy pays more than, say, 10.5% of income for a silver plan.  It's true that there would be a few people with very high incomes who would be subsidized, but the vast majority of rich people already have very good insurance.  I don't think we'd find Jamie Dimon searching the exchange for insurance. But given the make-up of Congress these days, that's not likely to happen.

And the two other obvious problems aren't likely to come up for discussion.  The first is that the poverty line is, for the parts of the country where people live, a convenient work of fiction.  The poverty line for a single person is $11,500.  Our rent is more than that, and we don't live in an expensive part of California.  The poverty line for a two-person household is $15,500.  To give you a sense of how silly these figures are, we need only compute how much rent someone should be paying on that income, assuming that 30% of income makes sense.  (It doesn't, but that's another issue.)  Again, using my trusty calculator, I find that 30% of $11,500 is $287.50 a month.  You can't rent a room for that anywhere in California.  Our two-person household could spend $387.50 a month for rent, still not enough for a single room in a shared household or residential hotel.  So people who make 400% of poverty aren't really making that much money, if we also look at the cost of living.

The second problem is that our insurance costs far more than providing health care in other advanced capitalist countries.  Health care costs are higher here than in France, where new mothers receive visits from a nurse who can help with any new baby problems.  (Contrary, however, to popular misconception, the visiting nurses do not do the laundry or whip up a three-course French lunch.)  The US system is so expensive that it would be cheaper to send our elders to France, and then pay the government of France to insure them.  Dean Baker at CEPR seriously proposed this, although he used Britain as his example.  (I'd be willing to accept less subsidy for the better food.)

Only a tiny number of Democrats and no Republicans suggested that we might rein in the cost of care--paying doctors, hospitals and drug companies less, keeping our payments more in line with those of other countries.  In other countries the government determines the reasonable cost of various products and services, and that's that.  Here we had a discussion of "death panels" and government bureaucrats keeping people from obtaining needed care.

It's so much fun to realize that we're going to waste so much money and cause so much misery because our politicians suck, some because they don't believe that knowledge should play any role in decision-making, and others because they don't have the backbones of slugs.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

More Stupid

I'm always amazed at the dumbness of men.  I mean, what woman would suggest that you could have services for children (housing, health care, education etc.) without having the same for the kids' mothers?  But a university professor actually said this to me once.  I didn't bother to respond.  And how would this happen?  The kids would get the nice, subsidized apartment, but Mom would head off to the homeless shelter, I guess after fixing dinner, helping with homework and tucking the kids into bed.  Is it possible for nearly 50% of the population to be this clueless?

Yes, it is.  And we find another example of this in the current debate over Obamacare. Men seem not to understand their role in making babies.  Now this is a family-friendly blog, so I will not go into great detail about the role of men in conception, but will simply note that their role is critical.  Babies would not be made without them.  And that their medical care plans would include the cost of maternity care is not some "subsidy" to women, but a recognition that not only men, but all of us, have an interest in birthing healthy babies, just as we all have an interest in good roads, sewage systems, and educational institutions.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

On the Election

Much has been made of the Tea Party defeat in Virginia.  But the most important point is that McAuliffe barely won against a wacko who wanted to eliminate all abortion rights, ban contraception and treat immigrants as pests to be controlled.  What is most important is that McAuliffe represents all that is wrong with the Democrats, and Democrats like this can barely defeat the Tea Party.  That's not a good sign.

As for Chris Christie, we can turn to the New Jersey experience with Jon Corzine.  He probably gave Democratic governors there a bad rap for the next 15 years or so.  Of course, Christie is also less nutty than many Republican candidates.