Monday, October 29, 2007

It's The Andy Thomas Show!

Here’s my take on the Andrew Thomas-Dennis Wilenchik-New Times imbroglio. Of course, it’s a pop culture take. The "To Tell The Truth" screen shot has Chris Lemmon as the panelist, but I just couldn’t write Tom Poston out of my script.

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 28, 2007

Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas isn’t running a prosecutor’s office. Being a fair and impartial prosecutor is just too boring. Instead, he’s doing something flashier: Developing a TV game show, an updated version of "To Tell The Truth."

Let’s watch this week’s pilot episode:


I’m Garry Moore, your host. Panel, our first contestant is special assistant Maricopa County Attorney Barnett Lotstein, a top aide to Thomas, who with fellow Republican Sheriff Joe Arpaio, is investigating Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat.

The theory of their investigation is that Goddard went too easy in his office’s investigation of former state Treasurer David Petersen, a Republican. Petersen agreed to plead guilty and resign from office for failing to report outside income; apparently, say Thomas and Arpaio, Petersen was far corrupt than that, but Goddard pulled his punches because the AG’s office got reimbursed by the Treasurer’s office from proceeds of an AG fraud investigation settlement -- as required by state law.

Got that? Anyway, when asked about the Goddard investigation, Lotstein said, "There are no political overtones. This investigation is being investigated like any other investigation. There is no politics here."

So, Tom Poston, want to put any of your personal reputation on the line that there’s absolutely no way Andrew Thomas or Joe Arpaio would use their offices for political ends and investigate a political opponent without good reason? (Pause.) I didn’t think so. One down.

Here’s our second contestant, "independent prosecutor" Dennis Wilenchik. He’s Andrew Thomas’s former boss, and since Thomas’s election, has received well over a million dollars in fees from the county for all sorts of different legal work, none of which his office was known to handle before getting the county contracts.

Wilenchik had Carol Turoff, a friend of the judge assigned to Wilenchik’s case, whose husband is one of Thomas’s top aides, to try to set up an off-the-record, only-one-side-present meeting with the judge. (Why do all these people who hate government either work for the government, or get fat government contracts?)

What would Wilenchik want to talk about with the judge hearing his case? In court, he said he only wanted to talk about "global" matters, and later said that he wanted to be an intermediary to help "heal the rift" between the County Attorney’s office and the Superior Court.

Peggy Cass, do you believe Wilenchik when he says he wanted to sue judges and simultaneously serve as an neutral mediator getting everybody to sing Kumbaya? (Pause.) That’s two down. Over to you, Kitty Carlisle.

It’s Wilenchik again, who says he did not order the arrest of two newspaper executives who published his breathtaking grand jury affidavit, the one seeking records of every single visitor to the newspaper’s website since 2004. Wilenchik says someone in his 11-lawyer office probably ordered the arrests, not him, but he has no idea who.

Think Wilenchik is telling the truth? (Pause.) Three down.

Our final contestant is Andrew Thomas himself. Thomas hired Wilenchik to prosecute New Times because Thomas thought his antagonism with the newspaper meant he had a conflict -- until Thomas gets a lot of bad publicity, at which point the conflict disappears and Thomas personally steps in to close the investigation. Thomas has a very convenient definition of a conflict, which lets him hire a buddy, but then fire him when that’s politically expedient, and which of course doesn’t impair his ability to harass his former political opponent Terry Goddard, against whom he ran for AG in 2002.

I don’t think even Orson Bean could swallow that one.

So that’s our show for tonight. It’s always a good time with County Attorney Andrew Thomas, who with his buddies, are great contestants for "To Tell The Truth." Because they don’t.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Health Care Wonkery Straight, No Chaser

This week’s column is a gentle primer on why, in some markets -- like health care -- choice is bad. Hey, they just gave out the Nobel in economics for this. But it's necessary when right-wing editorialists pretend that letting insurance companies sell policies nationally -- so they can cherrypick their customers everywhere, not just state-by-state -- is a good idea.

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 21, 2007

Choice is good, right? But with health insurance, not so much.

With the campaign season heating up and candidates repackaging sound bites into health care "proposals," it’s worth going over a basic point, to explain why buying a computer isn’t like buying health care. When it comes to health insurance, some types of choice may be good, but some types of choice are destructive -- hazardous to your health, even.

The first type of bad choice is giving private insurers the right to choose their customers. If you let insurers decide which customers to take and which to shun, then the most important economic decision they can make is not taking the wrong customers.

If you were a health insurer, the best way to make money is by insuring only healthy people. Healthy people need less care, so they cost much less than people with health issues. If you can avoid getting stuck with anybody likely to need health care, then health insurance is a wonderful business.

And there are lots of ways to avoid having to insure less-healthy customers. Too many customers with kidney problems? Sign up fewer nephrologists, or only those with inconvenient offices. Raise premiums on individuals who develop medical issues. Make sure people with pre-existing conditions never get accepted in the first place. Sign up groups where workers are younger and healthier than average, or with higher incomes because income seems to correlate with health, too.

This selection process isn’t because insurers are evil or stupid; it’s because those are the incentives the market provides. It’s pretty difficult to get people to change their heredity, environment, or behavior. It’s a lot easier to screen out people who will need lots of care, and the better job you do of screening, the more money you make.

There’s even a big financial incentive to be over-inclusive in your screening, because while not letting in somebody healthy may lower revenues a bit, letting in somebody who isn’t healthy will increase expenses a lot. So giving insurers choice in picking customers hurts not just those with bad health indicators, it also hurts the healthy who may have an unhealthy characteristic or two. Better to pass on a marginal customer than to get stuck with a real loser.

The other type of choice that’s bad in health insurance is letting individuals choose whether or not to carry health insurance. Sure, people don’t like to be told what to do, but if you let people decide, then anybody offering health insurance faces what’s called "adverse selection."

Health insurance isn’t truly necessary if you’re healthy. If you don’t need much health care, buying coverage isn’t necessarily economically smart. If you’re really an accounting type, you may buy a high-deductible policy to protect against a catastrophe, but in most cases, the young and healthy can do better self-insuring.

Until one of two things happen, however. Eventually, all young and healthy people get older or sicker, and often both. Once that happens, they look to buy insurance -- but now the insurers are faced with customers who are older and sicker than average. So insurers raise premiums, which means that even not-so-young and not-so-healthy people decide to self-insure, which makes the insurance pool even older and sicker. It’s called the "death spiral," when customer choice makes insurance ever more expensive and unavailable to those who need it most.

So while it may sound wonderful to offer tax credits or health savings accounts or allowing insurers to offer policies nationally instead of state-by-state, there’s a big problem. Letting insurers choose whom to insure, and letting consumers choose whether or not to get insurance, is a recipe for expensive, incomplete, and patchwork coverage -- like the U.S. system today.

That’s the "miracle of the market" in health insurance: We give people and insurers choice, so that Americans can pay so much more than everybody else, and get less by almost every statistic available.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Phoenix Restaurant Recommendations -- 2007 Update

I've had to update the Coppersmith family's list of favorite Phoenix restaurants (there's going to be a link on the law firm website once it goes fully functional), but as a public service to the people reading this site who don't know about Chowhound, here's the 2007 update:

The best, and most unique-to-Phoenix, restaurant close to our office is Barrio Café, 16th Street south of Thomas. They may not have started the upscale, authentic Mexican restaurant movement here (I think Such Is Life gets that honor), but they took it to a new level. Tableside guacamole preparation, incredibly flavorful entrees, plus over-the-top desserts. Just like the old Seven-Up ads, you’ll like it, it’ll like you. Unfortunately, they don’t take reservations except for large parties, and it’s not the largest place, so you can wait a while.

If you want a slightly more casual version that is just as good but not as close, but where they take reservations and you can eat outside, then our family's current favorite Mexican restaurant is Los Sombreros, on Scottsdale Road south of Thomas. Order one of the margaritas with the fresh lime juice. The guacamole is made in the kitchen but is just as good as Barrio. Save room for Mexican coffee for dessert.

But the Mexican food our college kids want when home on vacation is a California-based chain called Chuy’s, which has a number of area locations; the closest for us is at 32nd Street and Indian School. It’s modeled after a Baja California beach bar, and is our family’s version of comfort food. It's more fun than Chipolte, plus you get chips, but we now have a Chipolte closer to the house, so our loyalty to Chuy's has been slipping.

If you're on an expense account and want a this-could-be-New-York dinner, then call Sea Saw in downtown Scottsdale and see if you can get one of the dozen seats at the bar for the tasting menu. The per person is a well north of $100 just for food. It's on Stetson just west of Scottsdale Road, and you'll be able to talk knowledgably with Gourmet magazine subscribers about what's going on in Phoenix. The chef is a James Beard award winner who prefers not to speak English; how New York can you get?

Otherwise in old town Scottsdale near Sea Saw, we like Cowboy Ciao for dinner, then dropping two doors town to Kazimeer's which is a funky wine bar that also has interesting appetizers (and is much quieter, so your ears can stop ringing from the noise at Cowboy Ciao). Farther south on Scottsdale Road south of McKellips is Udupi Café, which is a South Indian vegetarian restaurant. It’s the only place in town where I can go to dinner with a vegan and be happy about it.

Good pizza is, of course, a matter of personal preference. Our favorite spot for dinner once Passover finally ended was Grazie Wine Bistro on Main Street west of Goldwater in downtown Scottsdale, which is both reasonable and stylish. They offer both Italian language and wine-tasting lessons, and leave room after the unusual pizzas (including our son’s favorite, named in honor of Dame Edna Everage) for the ice-cream-and-nutella calzone. However, the past couple of times, Grazie hasn’t been as sharp as we recalled, and I’m now partial to Cibo, located at 5th Avenue and Fillmore in downtown Phoenix. Both restaurants have outdoor dining on their patios. (The usual recommendation for pizza in Phoenix is Pizzeria Bianco, but I’ve given up; unless you’re going with the governor, you wait forever and I always seem to get treated like dog poop. Forget it. Cibo is much more pleasant experience and just as good.)

I’ve had two tremendous meals, and one not quite so overwhelming one, at Deseo, which is located in the Westin Kierland resort north on Scottsdale Road at Greenway Parkway. It's "nuevo Latino" food, in a very stylish room. The other pretty unique resort restaurant is at the Scottsdale Princess resort, La Marquesa, which is Catalan food for those with fond memories and/or dreams of Barcelona, and also very good. Both are pretty pricey, and pretty far north if you’re downtown. Closer to our office T. Cook's at the Royal Palms resort on Camelback; the food is good and it’s a lot of fun to sit at the bar and have dinner while watching the passing crowd, guessing who’s natural and who’s enhanced.

The best value for a good dinner in Phoenix is Atlas Wine Bistro on Scottsdale Road, also south of Thomas, pretty much across the street from Los Sombreros. You enter through a wine store, then order your dinner, then go back to the wine store and they help you select a new and different wine that complements the food. The same people have a new restaurant in the same strip center, called Twisted, which is a good alternative if you can’t get into Atlas, which is quite small, only about 24 seats. The other place that's fun and lively (it's apparently the current favorite of the local gay community) is Zest, on 16th Street just north of Indian School.

Other restaurants in downtown Phoenix near our office are Trente Cinque (believe it or not, our local Belgian restaurant), or the Lisa G wine bar next door, both located at 7th Street and Sheridan, about a half mile south of Thomas. Fate, at 4th Street and Roosevelt, is a very nice, and unique, Chinese restaurant; after dinner there, go around the corner to Carly’s on Roosevelt, where they have a selection of 40+ beers, for dessert.

But if you want the truly funky Phoenix foodie experience, go to Ranch Market, which has several locations in Phoenix but the closest to us is at 16th Street & Roosevelt. There’s a nice sit-down restaurant on the 16th Street side called Tradicionnes, which is a classic Sonoran place but with fresh-off-the-press tortillas. But the real deal is to eat in the supermarket. Along the outside walls are food stalls -- fish tacos, tortas (a very good Torta Cubano), plus all the standards. It’s a "1.5 place" -- you need to have 1.5 people in your party per dinner item or you won’t finish, so for 3 people, order 2 large plates and maybe, if you feel really hungry, an appetizer to share. But no more (or it’s at your own risk). You stand in separate lines for each item. It’s like dining in Mexico without having to drive to Mexico; highly recommended for weekend breakfast/brunch.

Keep in mind this list is a trailing indicator; new places should be on the list, but I haven't gotten there yet, and some places on this list probably have slipped and by the time you get there, you'll be wondering about my taste in restaurants (are you listening, Grazie?). It's also highly limited geographically near to our house and office, so your mileage may differ.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Only Thing Better Than Not Making Mistakes Is Watching The Other Guys Make Mistakes You Once Made

My proposed headline was above, but that was too long for the space allotted. Except that the less jazzy headline chosen by the editor wasn’t that much shorter.

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 14, 2007

I love watching the state Republican Party endure their own long, dark Mark Fleischer moment. Arizona Democrats had such a fabulous time when our state chair managed the party based on his misunderstanding of the lyrics to the Brownie song; Fleischer thought his job was to antagonize new friends and anger the old, so the party coffers lacked both silver and gold.

Eventually we elected a Democratic governor, and Janet Napolitano realized she didn’t need this particular bozo making her life more difficult. By a far-closer-than-it-should-have-been vote, Jim Pederson became state chair. Fleischer then ran for Congress in Tucson, lost the primary, then moved to New Mexico, far enough away that he’s able to style himself an expert and has a thriving political consulting practice. Which is fine, New Mexico has enough natural beauty that their karma probably requires having Fleischer around, to avoid harsher cosmic score-settling consequences, like plagues of frogs.

So I want to encourage state GOP leaders who think the problems Republicans have with the public can be cured by a rededication to core Republican values. Just like Mark Fleischer used to confuse cluelessness with principle, state GOP party leaders want to dig themselves out of their current hole by digging deeper, harder, and faster.

Keep feeding the already-convinced more red meat about Hispanic (and only Hispanic) illegal immigrants -- and do it in a way that puts you the enemies list of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In foreign policy, the GOP cure for being so vehemently and disastrously wrong about invading Iraq and a badly-conceived and badly-executed war is another war. Iran, Burma, North Korea -- it doesn’t much matter. If you don’t want war, you’re not a real man. Hey, what could possibly go wrong?

In health care, the GOP solution for helping working and middle-class Americans -- especially those with pre-existing conditions -- find affordable insurance coverage is insisting those folks choose between keeping their house or paying for care. The Republicans think you don’t pay enough for health care; instead, if you bore more risk, you’d somehow become a better, magically-healthier consumer. Instead of expanding S-CHIP and covering the stray adult or Baltimore homeowner, we should close the program. According to Republicans, people need to face the consequences of their homeownership-vs.-health-care-for-their-kids choices.

If government did have a broad-based financing system for health care, why, that would be servitude! We’d all become serfs, just like every senior enrolled in Medicare. Oh, wait -- those cranky seniors are the ones writing letters to the editor complaining that if people younger than 65 had universal coverage, they’d turn into serfs. After all, when you’re 65, you’ve earned everything government can do for you. At age 64, you’re still a no-good freeloader. Come back only after you’re aged sufficiently for government-financed health care.

In economics, Republicans want to feed the public ever-greater levels of nonsense. Cutting taxes raises revenue, all the GOP presidential candidates say. The data -- and even GOP economists -- say differently, that cutting taxes cuts revenues. Revenues may rise if the economy grows, but tax cuts don’t insure that the economy grows. (Especially not cutting estate taxes, a large and key part of the Bush tax cuts.) The economy somehow didn’t notice the 1993 Clinton tax increase, and boomed; Bush cut taxes in 2001, and the economy went into recession.

But if like John McCain, your level of economic literacy lets you "wish interest rates were zero," it doesn’t take much foresight to rule in this particular kingdom of the blind. Republicans proved time and again that while they want to cut "spending," none of them want to cut "programs." What they do want to do is let those at the top pay much less in taxes. Some of the cuts may trickle down, but that’s camouflage, nothing more.

Yep, the cure for the public’s lack of trust in the GOP is to give them more of the same, just louder -- and meaner. Have at it, I say.

Monday, October 08, 2007

It's a Lot Less Socialized When It's Your Health Insurance

This week, it’s health care demagoguery at its very best. My suggested headline was "GOP: Government Health Insurance for Me, But Not For Thee!" but the editor’s choice works just as well. Amazing how socialized medicine suddenly isn’t quite so socialized when it’s your own coverage.

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 7, 2007

President Bush’s opposition to renewing the State Children’s Health Insurance Program proves that you can call a political philosophy that opposes both abortion and providing health care to children many things, but you shouldn’t call it "pro-life."

If Bush vetoed SCHIP because it’s important to limit government involvement in health care, then President Bush -- and the congressional Republicans who support him, like Sen. Jon Kyl and Rep. John Shadegg -- should lead the way, showing some personal responsibility.

As federal government employees, both Bush political appointees and elected officials can get health insurance from the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, administered by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. It’s a very good plan; according to the OPM website, federal employees, retirees, and survivors enjoy the widest selection of health plans in America.

FEHB provides better coverage than most private groups, and certainly better than what individuals can purchase. FEHB beneficiaries can pick from among dozens of plans, of all types -- unlike private-sector folks, who usually have to take whatever their employer offers. FEHB has no waiting periods and no pre-existing condition limitations, both on initial enrollment and whenever you change plans.

The federal government also pays the majority of the premiums; the average is 72 percent, meaning that employees pay at least a quarter, but usually not much more than that, of the cost. And the employee share can be paid with pre-tax dollars.

But there are two things to keep in mind about FEHB. First, it’s a government program that provides health insurance. The words "federal" and "program" are even in the name for those whose knowledge of public policy is limited to what fits on a 3-by-5 card. It’s administered by a federal agency. It uses tax dollars to help pay for enrollees’ health insurance.

FEHB works essentially the same way as SCHIP in Arizona -- if FEHB had fewer choices and skinnier coverage. Eligible children are placed into managed-care plans, which contract with providers. The co-pays and deductibles are adjusted, given the low incomes of those in Arizona who qualify ($41,300 for a family of four is the Arizona cap, well below the state’s median income of $61,000), but to an outside observer, it looks almost identical to how a federal employee’s health insurance works.

Second, unlike SCHIP, FEHB’s subsidy has no means testing whatsoever. Any federal employee, from the lowliest House member to the most exalted Senator, gets the 72 percent subsidy. Every Member of Congress who gets health insurance through FEHB makes far more than $82,600, as do most every political appointee in the Bush administration.

If Republicans think it’s so vitally important to reduce the role of government in health care, then why are they accepting FEHB benefits and increasing the role of government in health care? They could trumpet their fiscal responsibility by noting that each GOPer who declines FEHB is saving the taxpayers a couple thousand dollars each year. They could use so-called Medical Savings Accounts and tax-sheltered plans to purchase their own coverage, without government involvement.

If it’s so important to keep government out of health care that Bush will deny insurance, which means denied care, which means sickness and deaths that otherwise could be prevented, then shouldn’t these GOPers lead by example? No member of the Bush administration and GOP politician making more than $82,600 should get health insurance from a government program. Ask Shadegg, Kyl, and anybody else supporting Bush how they get their health insurance.

Remember when J.D. Hayworth held a press conference to discuss his stomach-stapling surgery? He answered all sorts of personal, medical questions, until a reporter asked how the operation was paid for. Hayworth suddenly interrupted his disquisition about recent developments in his gastric tract to demand that reporters respect his privacy.

So the Bush position is pretty clear: It’s fine if Republican politicians get health insurance through a government program. It’s an outrage if children get health insurance through a government program.

‘Wingers hate it when liberals justify positions by asking, "What about the children?" because to Republicans, children matter so much less than ideology.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Clean Elections Training

Hey, lawyers: Help a candidate, help turn Arizona blue.

The state Democratic Party is holding two training programs for attorneys interested in assisting campaigns this cycle with Clean Elections reporting and compliance. There are two sessions, one in Phoenix and one in Tucson, later this month. For more information, contact Nathan Slovin at Nathan-at-slovingroup dot com or call 7872991 in area code 602. (Sorry for the non-traditional email and phone number but those 'bots are pretty good these days.)
We All Remember Being Much Better Than We Actually Were

My proposed headline was above, but the editor, to my regret, went more prosaic and far, far less ironic. I’m not even exactly sure what he meant, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t what I thought I meant. But it’s more historical fun and games this week; I’m leaving the looming state budget battle for future columns for the public service of reminding people exactly how reactionary (and wrong) the Republic and Reg Manning were during the 1960’s. Meanwhile, anyone care to guess what Dr. King would have thought and said about the war in Iraq?

East Valley Tribune, Sept. 30, 2007

This week’s lesson in both history and remembering things more favorably comes from a new biography by Thomas F. Jackson called From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice. (Hat tip to Rick Pearlstein for his link to a superb review by Todd Moye.)

Jackson’s thesis is that Dr. King didn’t become more radicalized as he got older, which is a shorthand version of the transformation described in David Garrow’s 1986 biography, Bearing the Cross. Instead, Jackson reviews King’s writings and speeches from seminary and his earliest days in the civil rights movement, and contends that King’s message always had as great an economic message as a racial one.

We’ve all pretty much forgotten three things about King. First, how young he was. King initially received national attention during the Montgomery bus boycott, when he was 26. He won the Nobel Peace Prize at age 35, and was assassinated at 39. People my age remember John F. Kennedy as a younger man, but King somehow turned older and less confrontational in our memories -- but he died still young, and still angry.

Second, nobody remembers the actual name of the 1963 event where King delivered his "I have a dream" speech; it was the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." King spoke not just of racial equality, but also economic opportunity and fairness. We’ve forgotten that he fought not just for voting rights, but also for "rights" we don’t yet recognize, to a good job and a decent home.

Third, we’ve also forgotten just how controversial King and his tactics were. Jackson cites Gallup Poll numbers, and it wasn’t just Arizona Republic cartoonist Reg Manning who considered King a dangerous Communist sympathizer. In June, 1963, during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Birmingham campaign -- when Commissioner "Bull" Connor turned fire hoses and police dogs on unarmed marchers, a sight now credited with triggering passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- some 60 percent of Americans thought that these demonstrations "hurt the Negro’s cause" more than helping.

By May, 1964, that number rose to 74 percent, and two years later, during SCLC nonviolent campaigns in Selma and Chicago, it reached 85 percent. If Dr. King changed Americans’ hearts and minds, it didn’t happen during his lifetime. While history was actually happening, far more of us were against than with him.

King also became a fervent opponent of the Vietnam War. In his 1967 sermon at New York’s Riverside Baptist Church, he called the U.S. government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today," and denounced spending more in a month on war in Asia than in a year to fight poverty here. (If only we spent as much annually on fighting poverty as we do in a month in today’s wars.)

The 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike, rather than some tangent, was in Jackson’s view central to King’s actual vision: a battle in which workers would fight to organize for dignity and higher wages. (Nowadays, we’d just complain about higher taxes required to give workers dignity and higher wages. Better to outsource, then complain about undocumented workers taking American jobs.)

And Memphis, before his death, was supposed to be the first stop in a campaign that would take thousands of poor people to camp on the Mall in Washington until the federal government agreed to a guaranteed jobs-or-income program. But after King’s assassination, the Poor People’s Campaign fell apart, cities were torn apart by riots -- and the nation quickly started misremembering history.

Jackson notes that America increasingly spurned King while alive, but became rapturously eager to canonize him after his death. Led by people and institutions who didn’t support King at the time, we all now consider King a great inspiration, having forgotten anything discordant to our artificially-enhanced memories of our own wisdom and decency.

But if Dr. King’s actual life means anything, the lesson is that if you want people to respect you once you’re dead, you’d better make them uncomfortable while you’re alive.