Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Health Care Talking Points

By Mark Ross, Contributing Writer

Sixteen years ago I was asked what I thought of Mrs. Clinton’s machinations on the health care front. I told the questioner that every member of Congress who backed the reinvention of American health care, as Mrs. Clinton was proposing, was booking a stateroom on the Titanic. What Americans want, I added, was for the price to go down and for there to be fewer other patients in the waiting room. Including the heretofore uninsured into the system and reducing the career appeal of the practice of medicine does exactly the opposite on both fronts.

In spite of sixteen years of further study and technologic advancement, nothing has changed. The American political establishment is proving once again that it is profoundly ill equipped to deal directly with such a complex and important subject. It is not just a lack of expertise on the technicalities of medical practice… but a disconcerting tendency to completely misrepresent the current situation. I just recently visited an old, old friend who is now the medical director of a regional HMO. I had some limited success in picking his brain on this matter. The following thumbnail statements may be useful in undoing some of the erroneous notions that pollute the debate:

1) The ranks of the “uninsured” do not represent anything like a crisis… and especially do not justify screwing around with the existing system. The Right has appropriately debunked the inflated numbers used by the Left. The burdens placed on hospital emergency rooms by uninsured drop-ins could be easily managed except for bureaucratic inertia and unrealistic state and local statutes. (More later)

2) The most profound problem facing American health care is completely ignored in the political arena today. Many doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other technicians… just like the rest of the population… are baby boomers who are approaching retirement. They are poised to go from being providers of health care to being consumers of such. To suppress price inflation and maintain a semblance of quality of care it is necessary to allow the supply of health care professionals to keep up with increasing demand. Fostering turmoil scares away the needed recruits. A simple improvement would be to make it easier to pay for medical school, etc. Grants, cheap loans and such are the normal fare of rational political involvement.

3) The Right errs in sounding the alarm on rationing and pulling the plug on grandma… but politics ain’t beanbag. Rationing is a fact of life in health care… as is the quandary of end of life decision making. The Left wants to make things worse in this regard… by creating a national monolith that would replace various medical ethics committees, hospital and HMO corporate policies and state laws. It’s a human dilemma… we have developed capabilities such as organ transplanting without also developing the concomitant wisdom to consistently make flawless decisions about how to best use these capabilities.

4) The several states have heretofore been the sole authority over medical practice. The inventors of America included a marvelous political safety valve called the federalist system in their grand design. Not only is it technically illegal for Congress and the Administration to essentially take over health care… it’s also not a good idea on practical grounds. Diversity of approach allows for beneficial innovation and limits the damage from well intentioned mistakes. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, etc. can only practice with state licenses. Let the states remain in control, I say.

5) Health care can be broken down into three competing aspects: Financial… how to pay for everything. Technologic… the continually evolving influence of science on the capabilities of the system. And, ethical… the decision-making process by which finite resources are juggled. Within the medical community the financial aspect is considered to be the most problematic. Our ability to treat sick people is outstripping our willingness to relinquish ever more of our individual fortunes for that purpose.

6) In acknowledgment of political reality I suggest the establishment of a minimum standard of care. To divert uninsured drop-ins away from hospitals, portable triage clinics can be set up in parking lots. No doctors… except on line. Staffing by trainees (paramedic, nurse, med student, etc.) and a few nurse practitioners. Palliate the non critical. Isolate the infectious. Stabilize the critical. This does allow the camel’s nose of the Left into the tent. But it also dampens the zeal for which this agenda continues to be foist upon us.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Oakland's Teachers Union Wants Bad Schools

I've made no secret in the past of my utter contempt for Oakland's school system.

I can't imagine sending my kid to an Oakland public school -- even one of the few good elementary schools sprinkled throughout the hills area. While economically, sending a child there would seem like a bargain, I simply am unwilling to put any faith or trust in these unionized teachers.

With few exceptions, every action I've seen the union take is designed to push up teacher pay, benefits and perks at the expense of students.

Put this in the context of an ultra-Leftist school board whose entire goal is to avoid any appearance of discrimination, and the school district has zero chance for success without some kind of wholesale change.

I have repeatedly asked a simple rhetorical question, one which has received deafening silence in response: Why does Oakland not have a single magnet school?

Surely, in a city as large and "diverse" as Oakland, the school district could find a set of 100 students per grade level who can handle work at an advanced level.

Such a school would benefit those at all income levels and would increase the allure of the city to prospective homeowners. Sadly, though, because a magnet school would disproportionately benefit those whose parents have more means and education, no one can have it.

Such class warfare seems pretty clever when it first passes the Leftist's lips, but after a moment of reflection it's obviously futile. All the wealthy parents do is enroll their kids at Head-Royce or Bentley or wherever. They don't really mind spending the money, and it's a good riff-raff filter.

For the Leftist who believes liberalism is about "helping people," I'm sorry to point out that by making money the key to unlocking eduction, this system guarantees that the smart poor kid has no chance whatsoever.

I've viewed the city's charter schools as at least a source of potential opportunity for the kids trapped like this by the well-meaning but evil Leftists.

Charter schools are not ideal mind you. As far as I can tell, they aren't allowed to select students based on actual potential or achievement. Still, they do tend to get kids whose parents care more than the average parent, which is very important.

Still, the union is waging an all-out war on the non-unionized charter schools. That's because the union isn't your standard Leftist entity. Sure, they all vote Demoncat and support bigger government. But, when it comes to equality of opportunity, they'll fight for their pay packets.

The bottom line is that the teachers union doesn't really care about the substance of what their members do every day. As far as the union is concerned, they might as well be representing garbage workers.  Who cares if the garbage learns to read or function in a civilized society? The garbage can't learn anyway. But, the garbageman can make more money, and that's real important.

The most recent salvo in the war between the union and charter schools came with their refusal to support a parcel tax for schools if it might benefit charter schools.

Now, I don't generally support taxes, but avid readers of this blog know that I do support parcel taxes because they disproportionately tax those at the lower end of the income spectrum. And, as a homeowner/investor in Oakland, I want to replace those people with the more well-to-do.

So, a parcel tax for schools sounds like a reasonable idea to me. Doubly so if it would go to support schools whose teachers actually want to improve educational standards.

Above all, I'd like to encourage readers who have smart kids to make sure and take them out of Oakland public schools. Don't give these people a chance to hurt your kids.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Oakland Ad Valorem Tax Rate Now 1.41% - Are You Kidding Me?

The headline more-or-less says it all. I've blogged on this topic before, but it's never been nearly this bad.

Last year, Oakland's Ad Valorem rate was 1.33% of the tax value of the property. This year, somehow it magically has risen to 1.41%. If anyone understands how this came to be, I'd be very interested in knowing. I was unaware the electorate had passed a bunch of large new taxes.

Just to revisit the topic for a moment, even in the liberal Bay Area, Oakland is all on its own in charging ridiculous property taxes. In Leftist Berkeley, the Ad Valorem rate is 1.26%.

That means that if you buy a house in Oakland, you're stuck paying an extra $150 per year for every $100,000 in home value per year in property taxes.

Things get even worse if you just look a little to the east. In Orinda, which has basically the best school system in the state, the Ad Valorem rate is 1.08%. That is not a misprint.

So, by living in Oakland, you get to pay an extra $330 per year per $100,000 of house value, and you get to switch from having the best schools in the state to having schools so terrible that you pretty much are forced to send your kid to private school.

In case you're going to jump all over me and point that the tax bill includes parcel taxes in addition to the Ad Valorem portion, that is true, and in Orinda you pay about $400 more in parcel taxes per year. So, if your house cost more than $120,000 or so, you're losing in Oakland.

For most home buyers, the difference is far more stark. A typical $750,000 house makes the difference a totally prohibitive $2,500 a year. Who can afford that, and for what? The privilege of living in a city which spends no money on the kind of services a reasonable homeowner would actually want?

And no, the Oakland Housing Authority doesn't count. Most homeowners I know wish they'd shut that thing down and kick everyone out.

The actual upshot of this policy is that Oakland presents a closed door to potential new homeowners. It's fine for renters and those who have owned their houses for years -- those people don't pay much anyway because of the structure of Prop 13.

My assumption is this is also the reason people are willing to vote for whatever they support that causes this rate to go up -- though, I have to say that most of the initiatives I've seen are parcel taxes, not Ad Valorem increases. As mentioned above, I'm not actually sure how that rate got so high in the first place.

This state of affairs should actually worry existing homeowners who aren't paying much. It lowers the value of real estate in the city, since prospective homeowners must adjust their bids to account for the extra thousands per year they'll be paying to the city.

Given Oakland's absurdly high rates, I wouldn't be surprised if this difference cost the average house $50,000 to $100,000 in value -- and that's before the well-documented $200,000 haircut that houses in nicer areas of the city suffer because the school district refuses to redraw boundary lines or set up a magnet school.

While I still have your attention on property taxes, let me bring another matter to your attention. I own a vacant lot in addition to my house in Oakland. Every year, the city illegally charges me the parcel tax for Measure Y on the vacant lot.

And, every year, I call and get a form sent to me which I fill out and mail to the city. The city then sends me a refund of about $90.

The city probably spends $100 every year dealing with my complaint and validating that the parcel is indeed vacant. Believe it or not, twice out of the past four years someone has actually come to verify that it's vacant. I guess they forgot?

So, last year, I asked the gentleman at City Hall if maybe they could put a notation in their computer to simply stop charging me the tax on that parcel.

"No," he said. "We don't use computers for that."

Need I say more?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Al Davis Mausoleum

Well, how ‘bout them Raiders?

If there was ever a testimonial to the folly of major league sports being an economic catalyst for a corrupt, mismanaged urban venue… the Raiders are it.

I’ve been a Raiders fan since before I moved to Oakland in 1973. Then they moved back to where I came from. They kept their corporate offices in Oakland, however.

At that time I knew someone who worked for Davis. He told me that Al’s biggest defect is his lack of having a plan B. He sets his mind and never deviates. He also told me that he advised Davis NOT to move to LA. The LA Coliseum is in a crappy part of town (I used to work across the street), has little “official” parking (locals rent their front lawns to game-goers), and that LA is too Blasé for the Raiders to sell a sufficiency of tickets.

No matter… they moved there anyhow. Then they came back… after the city of Oakland opened up its treasury (when they had one) to Al. Then they built “Mount Davis” on top of the Coliseum (you know, a tower of bleachers on the east side… making even more empty seats at game time)… ruining the stadium for baseball. This was all done with the slobbering consent of the city fathers long after it was an established fact that multi-purpose stadiums were obsolete. We spent millions on pre-existing obsolescence.

Davis is the man so many love to hate. For decades Raider fans have loved to bad mouth Davis, even when they were winning. My reply has always been that the team wouldn’t be the Raiders without Davis. No other major league franchise can be so identified with a single individual.

In my fevered mind, NFL football is more than just a game. It is a microcosm of American life. It is a naked demonstration of corporate struggle. Recruitment, trade secrets, cults of executive personalities… you name it. Nuances of legalisms… rule changes to deal with loopholes… finding loopholes to deal with rule changes. And, most important, focus on the bottom line… the butts in the seats.

Back in the day… when the Raiders were always a team to be reckoned with… their prowess was demonstrated on a particular Monday night. It was, I think, mid third quarter. They had a small lead, say, a touchdown or so. And then they started pouring it on. Aggressive passing, brutal running… more and more points on the board. I think it was Dan Deardorf who then said: “This is the classic Raider formula. Once they get you on the ropes… they put you away.”

The Raiders and Al Davis typified a particular style of business management strategy. The Dallas Cowboys were the diametric opposite. Back then, the Cowboys had only one player who had ever been with another NFL team. Everyone else was taken in the college draft and “developed” within the corporate culture.

Meanwhile, the Raiders are the bad boys of the NFL. Al likes to “raid” other teams for potentially talented players burdened with serious problems… who he purchases at a serious discount. The execution of the strategy is summarized in what the boss tells the worker: “You’re here to do a job. We all know you’ve got problems… we’re here to work together so you can get your job done in spite of your problems.” By implication: We’re NOT here to solve your problems… we can work around them. Ask Kenny “The Snake” Stabler.

So, what about the mausoleum? I like to call the Chabot Science Center the Dick Spees Mausoleum… but Dick ain’t dead, yet. Nor is Al… but… he at least looks the part. Since the tax payers paid millions for Chabot and nobody goes there either… it might as well house the mortal remains of someone else who really screwed Oakland to the wall. It’s entirely likely that visitorship would increase should the Davis sarcophagus be displayed on the main floor.

After some collaboration with Disney/Pixar an international destination could be the result. Imagine, if you will, a lifelike robot of Al Davis… climbing out of his box, talking football, combing his hair, chewing gum, suing Oakland. Did I say “lifelike”? My bad.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Notes from the Re-education Camp... Abbott & Costello meet Franz Kafka

By Mark Ross, Contributing Writer

Well, it happened. I was sitting down at my computer cranking out some right-wing screed, when I heard a knock on the door. It was three guys in matching jump suits. A fourth was down below in the driver’s seat of a waiting van. They insisted that I come with them. I began to think things over when a firm hand clenched my arm.

In the van there were three other “passengers” who, like me, were securely fastened to their seats. We drove for what seemed like hours. The heavily tinted windows obscured any view that might have given us a clue as to where we were going. We finally turned off the road up some kind of drive that was not nearly as smooth as the road. After some rattling and swaying we were there: “New Perspectives Adult Education Spa.”

We were marched into a reception area where we had transponders attached to our ankles. After the drive I was really thirsty and there was a table with an Igloo cooler and a bunch of paper cups. I walked over and filled a cup. I drank it down quickly and then noticed some empty Kool Aid packets in the waste basket.

When I came to I was lying on a cot in what looked like a barracks. The first thing I noticed was a severe burning sensation on my right ear lobe. I touched it and there was some kind of plastic tag fastened with a metal rivet or something. The next thing I noticed was the groaning of others as they awoke from their unexpected naps with new ear tags. Then I noticed the sound track -- Pete Seeger singing “This Land is Your Land” was playing endlessly over loud speakers.

After a while the music stopped and the door opened. In stepped a middle aged looking man. He had a receding hairline that was tied back in a ponytail. He wore jeans and sandals, and a hand knitted pull over. “Good afternoon, gentlemen. I’m your group counselor, Sierra Kaminski-Brown.”

We all sat up on our cots as he continued to address us: “Is there anybody here who doesn’t know why you’re here?”

Being an inveterate trouble maker (some might say invertebrate) I raised my hand. “Mr. Ross, how could YOU of all people not know why you’re here? Don’t you remember writing that letter to the Chronicle?” I rolled my eyes, which one? I thought. “You know, the one second-guessing the CalTrans decision to completely replace the eastern span of the Bay Bridge because it would be cheaper than retrofitting the old span? Do you realize how many prevailing wage jobs could‘ve been lost had your suggestion been taken seriously?”

After that the room went quiet. He went to a “white” board at the front of the room. “We have a public policy crisis.” He wrote “Crisis” in big letters on the board. “Every attempt at straightening things out is met with dissent and controversy.” Then he wrote the word “Progress.” An inaudible cringe went through the room. “We can’t just stay where we are. We need to move forward. For that to happen we need to form ranks and… get with the program.”

Another cringe went through the room. “The purpose of this meeting is to emphasize the importance of the spirit of cooperation. You should all realize that your personal tendencies to dissent are being noticed.”

Out of the blue, someone in the back shot out “How do you expect to make us cooperate?”

“You’re here, aren’t you? This is your wakeup call. We don’t really want to incarcerate you, but you need to be aware of how much control we have… over what you do, how you do it. And, most importantly, what kind of influence you have on others.”

“This is fascism!” yelled another inductee.

“Now we’re getting down to important issues. We have nothing to do with fascism. That’s the style of right wing knuckle draggers such as yourselves. We’re just trying to fix what’s wrong. You’re not stupid. if you were, we wouldn’t be bothering with trying to help you through this transition.” He wrote the word “Perspective” on the board. “You’re not bad people. I bet most if not all of you are really good neighbors. You take in your neighbors’ mail and feed their cats and dogs when they’re on vacation. You all like helping people. The problem that we have now is that -- well -- you’re not helping.” Another cringe.

“Your problem is that you don’t visualize the big picture. Those corny notions of individualism and personal freedom are getting in the way of fixing the flaws in how society works. We have crime, poverty, bad nutrition, STDs. Personal freedom can’t fix these. We need new perspectives. Oh! Look at the time. We all have to go to the dining commons for the evening meal. We’re having tofu enchiladas, my personal favorite. Let’s all go and wash our hands.”