Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Good News or Bad News?

The strike is over. Nobody really wanted it in the first place. It was a lose/lose situation. Not like the good old days, when half a million or more workers in Detroit would carry placards for a few weeks while suits and ties hammered out a save-face way for a super-wealthy automaker to share some of the wealth.

Everybody in the union had to know that a strike would help no one. They just couldn't let go of a sacred tradition. There are some sad elements to this strike. It shows the changing face of history. The strike itself is outdated and obsolete, and hails back to how it was two generations ago:

  • First, these things worked when America was a nation of manufacturers. We simply outpriced ourselves. Our labor is so expensive now that we can't fix anything, and have to subcontract someone else to actually make things. The force of organized labor was that Americans were needed to swing hammers, pull levers, and even push buttons. That doesn't happen anymore. If the strike had continued for any time at all, it would have done a good thing for GM: allowed them to dispose of the nine month backlog of manufactured vehicles that are crowding American car lots at the moment. It would have also done the inevitable bad thing: given a certain market share to Toyota, Honda, and Mazda, who already have a chokehold on American auto buyers, not because these car makers are evil, but because they make good cars that last for hundreds of thousands of miles. GM would have won for a short term, and foreign auto makers would have won in the long term. The workers wouldn't have won at all.
  • Second, these things worked when America had affordable health care. The "big three" automakers have all backed themselves into a hole: the high cost of health care. From the days of Henry Ford, American auto makers have seen to the health and welfare of their employees. The biggest economic problem for Ford and GM has actually been health care recently. Since medicaid and medicare pumped the prices up to impossibly high levels, even multi-billion dollar corporations can no longer afford to cover their valuable employees as they did in the past. The employees of GM wanted the health care plans of the 60's, and even if GM had wanted to do it, they couldn't have afforded it. That's why it was so easy for GM to part with 50 billion dollars to end the negotiations. While that will flatten any profits for the next few quarters, in the long run, it's a bargain.
Now the ball is in the court of the UAW. What will they do with 50 billion dollars to take care of the employee health plan? Historically, organized labor has fought tooth and nail to take control of the money boxes, usually in the form of pension plans. Ten years ago, that is how UPS got the Teamsters off their backs: they gave the pension fund away to the union. I don't know what the Teamsters have done with it, and I'm afraid to say anything too bad (I'm thinking about Jimmy Hoffa), but a pension fund is a walk in the park compared to managing health care.

I try to envision what the next decade of health care for GM workers will embody. I can already envision what is going on in the CEO's office of GM. Relief. The medical costs were killing the profits. I'll admit I don't know enough about these things, but it appears that GM has gotten rid of a problem child. I do not know if they will still be responsible for health costs or not. I suppose that there will need to be payments to the union on the part of employees; I'm sure that GM will take up a portion of that, though I'm not sure how much.

It's a big opportunity for the UAW, though. I'm imagining a person of true vision and creativity, restructuring the health care plan, and making it work for the tens of thousands of employees. Maybe they could even talk to Hilary Clinton. What better opportunity than this microcosm would she have to give her plan a dry run? If the UAW could somehow develop a managed healthcare plan that precluded policy holder abuse as well as provider overages, they could set the standard for future health care in America.

I know one thing. The UAW will not increase union dues and take a portion of every employee's check to guarantee health coverage, yet many of those union members are going to vote for a president next year that would do just that: take more of their money and then offer them "free" health care.

Many people have said that the day of labor unions is over; that it is an institution that served its purpose, but has now outlived it. Union membership, as a percentage of American population, is at an all-time low. But like the rest of American culture, what it really needs is a change of paradigm (I cringe as I use that worn-out expression, but it fits here). We're all having to make changes. We live in an age of data, information, high-speed interaction, and instantaneous communication. Nobody uses typewriters or adding machines, and traditional communication is on the way out.

If unions could re-tool; if they could leave the first half of the twentieth century and join the 21st, they might make a difference that would make them relevant again. The United Auto Workers has just been offered that opportunity, and given 50 billion dollars to work with. Most countries would be envious of having that much money to devote to health care. Now, what will they do?

I ask this directly to anyone in the United Auto Workers (you see how many readers I have...) What will you do with this? You can become heroes for a true reformation in the way we handle health care; you can call on patients, hospitals, doctors, and others in the health care chain to show true responsibility. Or you can do what unions often do. Pocket the money and settle for business as usual. It's your choice.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I Am Guilty as Charged!

There has been an irreversible change in the American economic system, and I am one of the guilty ones who effected this change. I have no excuse; I should have known better. It all began when I was in high school, and the new “discount center” came to my home town. Back in those days, the discount centers were on the square, just like all the other businesses. That wouldn’t last long, though. I remember the amazing discovery: my nineteen cent Bic pen, which could be purchased in any store on the square, was only sixteen cents in the discount store. I soon was passing by the other stores so I could save the three cents every time I needed a new pen.

Then the discount store moved. When it did, we moved with it. For three cents, I would go an extra two miles, to the main highway, where the new discount store was located. Understand, the local merchants were not gouging me. Bic had made a fortune with its nineteen cent pen (though there was also a 29 cent one that we sometimes splurged and bought). Now, since I was already two miles from downtown, I went ahead and made other purchases there. After all, the discount center had all sorts of things under one roof, even some groceries.

I didn’t understand at first why some of the local businesses on the square were going under. I supposed that the owners had reached retirement age, and just got tired of working. After a few years, our city square was composed of empty buildings, as well as some city offices, an occasional specialty shop, and some short-lived restaurants. Finally, the drug store and the Western Auto went under; after all, the discount store had all of those things anyway, and I could save three to five cents on a purchase.

Of course, we know now what happened. The discount store would order huge quantities of an item, and hold them at a large warehouse. Mr. Browning, however, due to the low volume of local sales, had to pay regular wholesale. Of course, his products were usually fresher (some of my “discount” Bic pens didn’t do as well as others, but after all, I was saving money).

The advent of “discount stores” brought a proliferation of similar businesses, and soon we had a choice. Now they all built out on the main highway, sometimes beyond the city sales tax boundaries. Then the super brand name stores (you know which ones) cornered the market. Oh, well, I will mention one out of necessity. When Arkansas businessman Sam Walton set up the first Wal-Marts, he furiously guarded quality. By then Bic pens cost more, but he could save us more. He also was appreciated for the jobs he brought to the US. I remember him in his own commercials, proud of the “Made in the USA” signs. Whole cities had their economies revitalized as he purchased huge quantities of bicycles, sports equipment, clothing, and other items from Smalltown, USA. Everybody was so happy that they didn’t even care that the city squares were now ghost towns. After all there were plenty of jobs in Wal-Mart and in its suppliers.

We might not have ever noticed if Sam Walton had lived forever. Though I’m not sure of the exact figures, Mr. Walton was worth between 6 and 8 billion dollars when he died, enough to pay for a decent funeral for a respected Arkansas entrepreneur. The last time I checked, however, some of his descendants/heirs were worth 15 to 20 billion and more – several of them, in fact. How did that happen? The truth is, Mr. Walton left them a magnificent network of trustworthy, efficient stores full of, for the most part, energetic and happy employees (“associates,” they are called). The temptation was just too great. Sam’s machinery was capable of much more. Since his death, Wal-Mart has slowly closed those American factories. You can do the math. You keep the same clientele, buying at least the same amount of merchandise, but you find a place that can do it cheaper. China was ready for that. For many years, it seemed like a win/win situation (except for the Smalltown USA factory workers, but life is tough, eh?)

We didn’t notice the creeping uniformity, the lowering of standards. After all, if a VCR breaks, it would have cost 50 bucks to fix it on the square in the old days. Wal-Mart has one for 60, and it’s brand new! I’ve often wondered where TV’s, VCR’s, and DVD’s now go when they die.

Years ago, if Mr. Browning’s store on the square didn’t have what I needed, or the size and color I wanted, I just went to the west side, and Mrs. Collins had it. Now, you can go to the Wal-Mart in central California and you will find the same merchandise, at the same price, that is on the racks of the Wal-Mart in West Virginia. And if you want “Made in America,” you’re probably out of luck.

Try to find a toy not made in China. While you’re at it, try to find one that will last from one Christmas to the next. I’ve watched the disappointment on the faces of my children as toys and gifts bought with hard-earned money broke within a few hours out of the box. We’ve taken advantage of Wal-Mart’s generous exchange policy, but were disappointed to find that the quality of the replacement toys was the same.

Now we’re finding out that everything from tires to dog food is coming to us from China. People and animals are dying because there’s no way anyone can control the quality of the cheap merchandise that is now the norm. The NTSB has no authority over the quality of a Chinese tire, and most Americans do not know they have one until their car has been totaled. We’re in a bind because we’ve dismantled the base of our manufacturing in the USA. If China suddenly cut off supply, we Americans would be unable to make a television or a toy or anything between. We are pouring trillions of dollars into the most populous nation on earth, who in turn is buying the choice real estate, investing in the space program, and buying up the best building materials. They, for all practical purposes, own the Panama Canal. They have been trying to buy interest in our oil companies and automobile manufacturers. Who can blame them? They have to spend the money somewhere, and the ones in power don’t want to waste it on the care of their own people.

We are at their mercy. And we are at Wal-Mart’s mercy. If Wal-Mart doesn’t have it, no one else will (in some places, because there no longer is anyone else). China and Wal-Mart set the trends for fashion (try to buy a dress for a teenage girl – it’s impossible), quality, and service. You can’t.

And who’s to blame? I am! It started when I wanted to save three cents on a Bic pen.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

Two weeks ago, we heard the story of an Idaho senator who had been accused of improprieties in a Minneapolis airport restroom. The questions were flying everywhere, as well as accusations and damage control. Call me naive, but my first question was, "What in the world is an Idaho senator doing in a Minnesota airport?" Just a few days away from that event, we heard that a planeload of US legislators had been "fired upon" in Iraq, and again, I wanted to ask, "What were they doing there?"

If you read the Constitution carefully (and nobody does, myself included), provisions were made for there to be a State Department to handle such things internationally. Congressmen and senators had one duty: to represent their constituencies in Washington. When not in Washington, they were supposed to be back in their own districts, finding out what the people who had voted them in wanted them to do the next time they went to Washington.

In 1989, we heard the sad story of congressman Mickey Leland, killed in a crash in Ethiopia. I am genuinely sorry that Mr. Leland lost his life, but I still have to ask myself just how close is Ethiopia to the Texas legislative district he was representing? Was he doing what ambassadors and others in the State Department ought to be doing, and, had he been where he was supposed to be, would he still be alive today?

My own governor, Rick Perry of Texas, ran up about $300,000 of our state's bill last year just paying for bodyguards while he traveled all over the world. Now I wouldn't begrudge him a couple of weeks' paid vacation, and seeing as how he's the governor and all, I don't mind paying someone to keep him safe. But I have to ask myself how much time he spent in Texas last year. I would think $300,000 would cover a lot of vacation time (a few centuries' worth for me).

Now I realize that maybe you have to fly through Minneapolis to get to anywhere in Idaho, but I'm not sure. I'm thinking that if Senator Craig had been in his own state, none of this would have happened. What interests do Idahoans have in Minnesota, anyway? Maybe it was a scheduled stop, and if he's like me, he'd rather deplane than try to use one of those tiny, over-used things they call "restrooms" on airplanes. But I'm not sure.

After all the hubbub, and knowing that not only are there people cruising airport restrooms looking for dates, but there are also undercover cops cruising airports looking for people cruising airport restrooms looking for dates, I think I may just use those little rooms on the airplanes from now on. And not order that second soft drink.

In the meantime, I would like to remind governors, senators, and congresspersons, that we want you to tend to business in our own state. Any vested interest I have in Ethiopia, Aruba, or Paris, our President and/or Secretary of State can take care of. Pretend it's an election year. Stay in your own state.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

September 12

Things will never be the same because we now live in the era of September 12. On the morning of September 11, 2001, we woke up to find that Saddam had shot down one of our spy drone planes (no big deal), Michael Jordan was planning a comeback (again), and Gary Condit was denying any involvement with a missing intern.

On the morning of September 11, airline passengers believed the story from the 70's, that if a hijacker takes over a plane, you just sit calmly and do everything he says, and everything will be ok.

On the morning of September 11, we knew that nothing could ever happen in America. Things were going to be okay. The Muslim guy who ran the grocery store on the corner looked different from you, but he did honest business and you figured he went home to his wife and kids every night.

On the morning of September 11, most Americans could open a bank account, get a driver's license, or book a flight without three forms of identification. You could board a plan without taking off your shoes, and no one suspected your 75-year-old mother-in-law of doing anything wrong. Homeland security was a fact, not an expensive government department.

On the morning of September 12, it had all changed forever. In my own life, I think there will always be the dichotomy: what happened before September 11, and what happened after.

When I was in high school, I went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was amazed at this first realistic science fiction movie. It looked like my world, only better. I went to see it three times, despite not having any idea what the stupid ending meant (and finding out later that the author didn't either). I look back now and realize that the flight to the orbiting hotel was on PanAm (now gone), and he made a phone call on the Bell system (broken up by the Carter administration, and now replaced by a much bigger monster).

When I was 17, we had great hope for 2001. We would have a base on the moon. We would travel easily through space. Our lives would be made easier by computers and other technology. Somehow mixed into all that, we thought we would have solved most of our pressing world problems; we would have learned to get along. We would have cringed to know that the year would turn out so ugly.

So, 2001 was a great disappointment for those of us who had seen how it could have been back in 1968 -- even before September 11. When we woke up on September 12, we realized, more than ever, that there was no government nor institution that could give us our Utopia. People would always be people. HAL 9000 had shown us that we couldn't even trust computers (at least that part came true). On September 12, I realized that whatever improvements and optimism I was going to enjoy would have to come from inside of me. Politics and greed, hatred and intolerance destroy anything trying to occur naturally.

Maybe that's one thing I can say about September 12. We lost our innocence and had to grow up. On September 11, we had seen who the heroes were, and who the cowards were; we had found out that pressure and adversity highlight what's really important. I will live in the era of September 12 for the rest of my life. I wouldn't want to repeat it, and if I could go back, I would want to change it. But for what it's worth, we may have become better people by having to wake up on September 12. I remember being somewhat happy I had lived to see the sunrise of September 12, and being surprised that the thought was crossing my mind. I'm sorry for those who didn't get to see the sunrise on September 12; that includes those who have been born since, and will only read about the experience.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Global Warming Panic

I have a problem with globalism in any form. That should not surprise anyone who knows me. I also have a problem with creeping federalism. One example of the latter is when someone in Washington decides to attempt to address a West Texas issue with Washington ideas. In West Texas, some kid takes his Uncle Bill's truck to school because his is in the shop. That day, the federal or state government has decided to do a drug check, and the dog sniffs out Uncle Bill's pickup. What he finds is Uncle Bill's rabbit rifle, a .22 he always keeps behind the seat. Since the kid didn't bother to give the pickup a shakedown that morning, the rifle is his responsibility, and state and federal laws require that the young man be suspended for two weeks. Everybody in West Texas knows that the kid was just driving his uncle's pickup, but in Washington or the state capital, it meant that he was going to go on a rampage. But we can't do anything about it because government requires us to paint everything with the same big brush.

In the same way, I want to let you in on a secret about West Texas this year that you may not know: this has been one of the coolest summers we've ever had. I'll bet that when you think of West Texas, you see dry rangeland, cattle skulls, and a cactus or two -- especially if you've never been here. You also think of hot temperatures, and that's usually what we get. However, 2007 will go down in history here; unless some really strange weather happens, we will never make it to a hundred degrees this year. We didn't see 90 until mid-June, and we went through July and the "dog days" of August without ever reaching 100. Today, we didn't even make 80. I might also add that we've had record rainfall; our lakes, rivers, ponds, and streams are full. I'll bet you didn't hear about this on CNN.

All I've heard about is the "record heat wave" that has "threatened" this country, and all the people who have died from it. We need to get one thing straight: every day, somewhere in America, some place breaks a weather record. When you hear about an "all-time record" high temperature in Boston, what they mean is that it never got that hot on that day in that specific place. Some of those "all-time-high's" that I heard about this year were in the low 90's, which, usually, where I live, is like a Sunday School picnic.

But this year has been different. West Texas has been cool. On Easter Sunday, there was snow on the ground, after a high in the 30's the day before. We had a blizzard on that Saturday. In West Texas. Where Easter usually sees 90 degrees and sandstorms. Between April and June, we saw the temperature stay in the high 70's to low 80's. My A/C bill hasn't been this low since the days of $1 gasoline.

Why hasn't this been reported? It's been downright cool down here! Could it be because this doesn't reinforce the fear that is being inflicted by a special interest group that wants you to think that somehow, Americans are melting the poles? We're killing polar bears, and somehow, this northern industrialized nation has even opened an ozone hole over the south pole!

Usually, by August, even the nights are no relief: the temperature stays in the 80's. This year, it's been the high 60's to low 70's. This morning, it was the 50's.

This brings me back to the "global" view I hear about. Some people assume that, because cherry blossoms came out early in Washington this year, that everybody must be experiencing the heat. I know it's been hot some places, but the thing here is that it has not been hot everywhere. I would assume that a global pattern of warming would affect everyone. For some reason, this traditionally hot zone of West Texas has not been affected. We didn't see 100 for the entire summer. We think it's going to be a cold winter, but we could be wrong...

It will probably be warm next year, but it won't be everywhere. I see that Farmer's Almanac is predicting 2008 to be the hottest year in a century, and they are probably right -- somewhere. It was the hottest year in a century this past year, too, in a few towns. In my town, it was about as cool as it ever gets.

I guess I just want the globalists to quit foaming at the mouth. They found a rifle in Johnny's uncle's pickup, and they now think that we're all a bunch of trenchcoat mafia out here (because they would be if it was in their car). But we're fine. Weather patterns change. Everyone knows that. I think we've severely overestimated our puny human ability to influence this rather large planet.

As I noted a few months back, our sister planet, Mars, has also been going through some global warming, too. I somehow don't think that SUV's had anything to do with that. It happens. To all planets -- at least the ones that have an active sun. Old Sol has just stirred a bit, like he does every so often.

Some day, a big city on the East Coast will get cold again, and the prophets of doom are going to warn us about the new ice age that will make most of North America and Europe uninhabitable (like they did in the silly '70's), and they will have to blame somebody for it. We Americans will probably be the ones. We need to get used to it.

In the meantime, the only global warming that is for sure is the constant supply of hot air that comes at us from both coasts from people who don't know anything about history and have nothing better to do.

I'm glad that, at least here in West Texas, we got a summer off. Even the hot air of blathering environmentalists didn't affect us this year.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Time for the Parties to Step Up

I just heard some great news this morning. I have to admit my ignorance of something I should have known: the political parties themselves can decide whether their state primaries are binding or not. This one, I have to hand to the Democrats. The DNC is seriously considering downplaying some of the primaries that are being moved up too early. In the race to get in the picture early, some states are even considering binding presidential primaries before New Year's day, or in January. The Democratic party has decided that this is too much. I concur (how often do I get to say "Democratic" and "I concur" in the same paragraph?)

I have suddenly realized that this is not a government nor a federal issue. It is a party issue. How wonderful it would be for a party to suddenly declare that all state primaries are merely "straw polls," and nothing else. What a wonderful idea -- to have the candidates show up for their political conventions and duke it out in late summer, rather than bore us to tears with their monolithic, cookie-cutter political mumbo-jumbo?

As it stands right now, the presidential nomination in both parties may be sewed up before the first robin of spring 2008 lands in my state. That means a long, hot, UGLY summer of one-on-one between two dull candidates, neither of which can excite us the way they used to. If the election were held today, it would be between Rudy Giuliani and Hilary Clinton -- possibly the ugliest election in history. If this happens, I suggest we modify the ballot. I would recommend they give us two choices: not Clinton, or not Giuliani, because that's what the vast majority of people who bother to vote will actually be saying in November of '08.

So now is the time, Demos and Republicans. Tell the candidates that the primaries are non-binding -- merely "suggestions" for the state delegates. Or perhaps, this year, we could start by saying that only half of the delegates in each state will be decided by primary. When I realize that some candidates have already spent in excess of $20 million, and today is supposed to be the opening day of campaign season, I realize how bloated and vulgar the election process has become.

I'm still hoping for a dark horse to emerge some time next summer who will ride a wave into Washington. Someone to be excited about. If both parties would do something to curb early binding primaries, we might get that.

If we continue with the same old same old, we will have the same old cookie cutter politicos with their tired, insincere ideas. And November will be bad news for all of us.

"I Told You So..."

Our country is in a health care crisis. No doubt about it. When the cost of health is more than five times the cost of living, something is wrong. Unfortunately, both Democratic and Republican socialists think that the problem can be solved by Big Government.

As I have stated in earlier commentaries, I think government financing of health care is not one of the cures, but rather, one of the causes of the health care crisis. There is nothing more inefficient, wasteful, and outright corrupt, than government funding of anything. Medicare is one of those disasters right now.

However, I am seeing something happen that I warned about years ago. When Ted Kennedy first proposed subsidized national health care, I told those in the debate that state-supported health insurance would show some of the same tendencies of state-supported education. When something becomes state-supported, something else becomes compulsory. When the state or the federal government funds education, everybody has to go to school -- to their schools -- or be approved by them to go to another.

I told people twenty years ago that if we got national health care, we would be forced to go to the doctor. We would be forced to receive health care that Big Government deemed necessary. Everybody laughed at me. Now, however, we find that John Edwards is proposing just such an idea.

"It requires that everybody be covered. It requires that everybody get preventive care," he told a crowd sitting in lawn chairs in front of the Cedar County Courthouse. "If you are going to be in the system, you can't choose not to go to the doctor for 20 years. You have to go in and be checked and make sure that you are OK." He goes on to say that the government will enforce mammograms, as well as other routine inspections. It's just like I said it would be. But everybody else laughed. It's time to quit laughing. It might be silly not to go to the doctor for a yearly checkup, but it's certainly not the government's business to make sure we do, any more than being their business to see if we've changed the oil in our car or cleaned out the cat's litter box.

Another reason to quit laughing is because that's not all that I predicted. What if the federal government decides you're incapable of raising more than three children, and you're pregnant? After all, they handle your medical expenses, so what say would you really have in whether or not to get an abortion? What about that hopelessly ill grandmother who's just drawing medicare funds but will never get better? Big Government knows best, and they may decide they know better than you do when to pull the plug. How about sterilization? Then again, there are other medical procedures that would make you a better person, and your friendly local government will know what's best for you.

You think I'm being extreme in this? People did 20 years ago, but if John Edwards gets his way, we will be forced to go to the doctor. Who's going to pay for this? The "government," of course. What does the "government" mean? For some reason, liberals think of it as some vast resource of unlimited money that miraculously replenishes itself, much like the meat does in the grocery store cooler, or the water does in the tap over the sink, or the milk does in those little cartons next to the coffee creamer at Wal-mart.

As someone who has lived in other countries that have nationalized health care, I want to warn you that it doesn't work. It's like the rest of socialism: It works on paper, and really looks great. Then, you try it with actual people, and it completely disintegrates.

We need to do something about the health care situation in the US, but it needs to start somewhere else. Melody Hobson, on ABC's "Good Morning America," recently reported that over 80% of all medical bills are incorrect. If hospitals were anything but hospitals, federal regulators would have closed them down. First, we need to crack down on inefficient, inaccurate -- and even intentionally corrupt -- hospital billing. Then, we need to do something about 5 dollar Tylenol tablets and 5000 dollar a night hospital rooms. Afterward, we could go after private insurance, but we might not have as much to do; if they weren't getting scammed by medical entities, they might not try to pass as much on to policy holders. Is it too much to think that a time could come again when a day's treatment at a hospital would not cost a year's salary?

If we switch to a federally funded insurance, we will go in the opposite direction. Tylenol will be 50 dollars a tablet, and a hospital room for the night will be 25 thousand dollars, and that's just the start. And who will pay for it? Why, all you filthy rich people, that's who. Edwards has a tax plan just for you.

By the way, in the liberal world, "rich" describes anyone who earns money and can pay his own bills. Their goal is that no one do that, except, of course, John Edwards, Ted Kennedy, and those select few who really know how your money should be spent.