Monday, December 31, 2007

Pogo on Health Care: Yes, The Enemy Is Us

This was kind of fun. It pays to read the Thursday paper if you’re short of column ideas. The column by Austin Hill to which I’m responding is here, at least for about 10 days.


East Valley Tribune, Dec. 30, 2007

It’s said a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, and a liberal is a conservative who’s been indicted. But after Austin Hill’s column last week describing his “adventures” in the health insurance market, it shouldn’t require an indictment to make conservatives rethink their ideology. Trying to buy individual health coverage should suffice.

How did the “free market” treat Hill? Not particularly well, he admitted. But what Hill didn’t acknowledge, while complaining about corporate bureaucracy, waste, and having coverage he can’t afford to use keeping him from getting care he needs, is that he’s part of the problem.


Hill demonstrates why individuals, acting rationally, help make a “free market” in health care impractical, expensive, and inefficient. Hill’s first rational-for-him-but-bad-for-the-system move was using an insurance agent. (Hiring an agent, says Hill, is acting “all by yourself.”)

Hill didn’t use the Web or compare ads, much less read actual policies. An Internet-savvy video and satellite radio personality and published author didn’t feel capable and instead relied on someone employed by (and owing a duty to) the seller.

Unless sellers are forced to compete openly and transparently, they won’t, and consumers will lack knowledge and have to rely on intermediaries with inherent conflicts of interest. (That’s worked so well on Wall Street.)

Second, as the headline to Hill’s column noted, buying health insurance is “trickier” than buying a used car -- the classic example of a market dysfunction called “asymmetrical information.” The seller knows far more about the car than the buyer, who recognizes that the seller wouldn’t sell the car if continued ownership made economic sense.

So with health insurance; you know more about your health than the insurer possibly can, so sellers must protect themselves. Insurers recognize people only buy insurance if they think they’ll spend more in health care than the annual premiums.

Hill proved this point; he was eager to buy coverage so he could see a doctor for a serious sinus problem. (His agent warned him not to go until his coverage was “confirmed.” So he didn’t.)

This market dysfunction is called “adverse selection” because people who buy insurance are in a better position to know if they’ll need insurance. Those folks cost more to insure, which increases premiums, makes more people self-insure (or buy cheaper, catastrophic-only policies), which drives up premiums more, making more people leave the pool -- the “death spiral.”

Hill also found the free market to be a take-it-or-leave it proposition. He got an initial price quote, but once he decided to purchase, he got a higher “counteroffer.”

The term upset Hill, because “counteroffer” implies negotiation, and there wasn’t any; the insurer just decided to charge more. But legally, Hill had no choice; the original quote was subject to change, and it did. And it didn’t matter, because he bought the policy anyway -- because he was primarily concerned about price.

That’s another reason why Hill, acting in his self-interest, helps make the market dysfunctional. If buyers only care about price, then that’s how sellers compete. Insurers have no incentive to invest in anything with a longer-term payoff, such as wellness, prevention, or information technology. Consumers make those investments worthless by moving to a cheaper policy before any possible savings could develop.


None of these fundamental problems has anything to do with the private sector’s greater administrative costs and their own perverse incentives -- or that surveys show Americans most satisfied with health coverage are those on Big-Government-run Medicare.

Even if the insurance companies were Mother Teresa incarnate, the market would be dysfunctional dealing with price-sensitive, symptom-hiding, and self-interested consumers like Hill. The only reason why the U.S. system hasn’t totally collapsed is because we’re paying twice per capita as every other advanced industrialized country.

Hill, who usually has more answers than you’ve got questions, ended his column by asking “somebody” to develop a private-sector solution. Well, there isn’t one, not with consumers like us. Begging somebody running for president, or “we the people,” to think of a solution that doesn’t exist won’t cut it. It’s true in health care, too: Hope is not a plan.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Religion in Politics: JFK Yes, Mitt No

It’s time for another religion in politics column, a topic I haven’t broached for about 5 years. At least my opinions (and my examples, those 2002 Salmon signs!) haven’t changed that much since my last column, even if now we have all these Republicans telling us that there’s too much religion in politics these days. If you can tell any difference between what Mike Huckabee is saying about religion and what George W. Bush said about religion, I’d like to understand exactly what it is.

Huckabee has improved America in one way, however, as all the GOP bigwigs who are so fearful of him have given up on the so-called "War on Christmas." They must figure it’s like dealing with small children, you can’t be inciting the religious base at the same time as you’re trying to get them to go to sleep.

East Valley Tribune, Dec. 23, 2007

To my LDS friends watching Mitt Romney twist slowly in the evangelical wind, I say "I feel your pain." And to Republicans who thought the slickest Arkansas politician ever was Bill Clinton, nobody twists the knife as skillfully as Mike Huckabee.

Romney’s "religion" speech was like a soufflé; it was fine when served, but as time has passed -- and as Huckabee has passed Romney in the polls -- it doesn’t look so great. The speech contained two contradictory ideas, glossed over in the rhetoric: That religion is the most important thing in public life, but that differences in religion are the greatest danger to public life.

Most people believe in a religion, but the speech proclaimed that there’s some large, all-encompassing tent called "Religion" in which all may dwell. Any resemblance to an actual religion, however, is strictly coincidental.

The Romney-Huckabee religious debate recalls the 2002 Arizona gubernatorial election, when anonymous "Vote Mormon" signs appeared next to Matt Salmon’s campaign posters. Salmon and this newspaper denounced the signs as "a cowardly, underhanded act of bigotry" aimed at anti-LDS prejudice.

However, it was fine for Salmon to let the LDS community know he was Mormon and go on Christian television and say he wanted "to reclaim government" for the Almighty -- but nobody else could mention his religion except only on his terms. That seems to be Romney’s position, too; he wants to say exactly as much as he wants about his religion, casting it as just another version of evangelical Protestantism, but nobody gets to say anything more without becoming a bigot.

Huckabee is fouling up these calculations, because he’s essentially putting up signs saying "Vote Evangelical." I sure don’t think the bookcase in Huckabee’s Christmas ad just happened to look like a cross. But Ronald Reagan taught me that in politics, don’t shy away from a fight if there are more voters on your side than the other guy’s. Huckabee’s done the math, and if the argument is religion, more GOP primary voters are with him than against him.

Huckabee also is preaching a second, non-religious sermon, of populist resentment. He’s started talking more about the "Wall Street to Washington" establishment opposing him, an establishment that likes having the religious right’s votes but ignores them afterwards. He’s making oblique references to 15-year-old slurs that still anger evangelical voters, who seem to be getting the point. It’s nice to have the GOP’s faux populism pushed back in their faces by a politician who clearly makes so many Republican power players uncomfortable.

So as a religious minority myself, it’s not that clear what Huckabee’s saying is so different than what GOP candidates -- including the Gipper -- have long said. If you say the East Valley is so great because we’re "very Mormon, very Catholic, and very evangelical," then those of us not in any of those categories might see your "tolerance" as very self-serving indeed.

Once you open the door to religion in politics, how much becomes too much? Some claim a significant moral difference between arguing "Vote for me, I’m one of you" (Vote Evangelical!) and saying "Don’t vote for him, he’s not one of us" (Vote Mormon!) That simply doesn’t work in practice; campaigns only spend money proclaiming "I’m one of you" if they think (or want voters to think) the other guy isn’t.

Huckabee (most of the time, anyway) is making the "positive" argument, but it’s working because the positive version makes the negative argument for him. And with his assertion that religion is the essential basis of democracy (quick, tell the Saudis!), Romney’s lost that argument.

If I’m a Jewish candidate and my opponent talks about how he accepted Jesus as his savior, thereby making the implicit point that I haven’t, is that OK? If so, then what’s Huckabee’s sin?

The usual right-wing complaint is that secular liberals want to drive religion out of the public square. Well, the public square has seen plenty of religion recently, and the usual suspects -- excepting Mike Huckabee and his supporters -- don’t seem very happy.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Throw Momma -- And Adopted Kids -- From The Train

This week's column suffered from editing. My proposed headline was even preferred by the editor, but he couldn't fit it into the allotted space (or get me more space for a good headline). I also came up with a better way to disclose my political contributions in the column tagline, but that joke got cut as well: "Coppersmith contributes to the campaign of John Shadegg's 2008 Democratic opponent every chance he gets." Instead, it was "Coppersmith has contributed to the campaign of Shadegg's 2008 Democratic opponent, Bob Lord." But they mentioned Bob's name, so we'll consider it a victory. Here's the newspaper version.

East Valley Tribune, Dec. 16, 2007

Rep. John Shadegg, defending his votes against providing insurance coverage to thousands of Arizona kids under SCHIP, said that nobody should vote for a bill because its name. That applies, in spades, to Shadegg's so-called "Health Care Choice Act."

The bill is designed, like most GOP policies, to help those who don't need it. It's not a "common sense" reform; it's about making life better for people who are healthy or rich, and preferably both. That's the role of "choice" in GOP health care plans -- choosing to make things better for insurance companies.

You immediately should be suspicious when Shadegg's bill gets lauded on The Wall Street Journal editorial page by the executive director of the Coalition for Affordable Insurance, whose Web site describes it as an "association of insurance companies, actuarial firms, legislative consultants, physicians, and insurance agents." You should expect CAI would endorse legislation that helps insurance companies, actuarial firms, legislative consultants, and the rest. You should not expect that they would endorse anything that would make your life better.

The concept is that people could choose to buy health insurance from anywhere. If they live in a state with lots of regulations and mandates, they could buy a cheaper policy from a low-regulation and no-mandate state. And if you were younger and healthier than average and didn't expect to need medical care, then you would buy a cheaper policy. And you'd be really happy, at least until you suffered some sort of medical problem. Then you'd be stuck, big time.

The sales pitch is "choice" for you, but the real purpose is letting insurance companies choose their customers. Instead of only cherry-picking customers in one state, Shadegg would let them pick cherries everywhere, insuring only those customers who won't need health care and dropping them as soon as they do, nationally.

Without state regulations, insurers could offer policies carefully constructed not to cover anything likely to happen. You'll have no coverage, but you'll get it really cheap! States trying to protect their citizens -- from fraudulent insurers, misleading advertising, and policies that don't cover vital health problems -- would be outflanked by low-regulation states.

Consider how the "expensive state mandate" works here. Arizona, according to CAI, is in the middle on mandates. One doesn't usually think of the Arizona Legislature as unfriendly to business or overbearing in consumer protection, but our legislators have seen fit to require health insurers to include certain benefits, certain types of health care providers, and cover certain types of persons in individual and small-business health policies (large employers are exempt under federal law).

Arizona requires insurers cover ambulatory surgery, breast reconstruction, clinical trials, contraceptives, diabetes self-management and supplies, emergency services, home health care, mammograms, maternity stays, mental health parity, off-label drug use, and PKU infant formula. Arizona mandates that policies cover medical treatment by chiropractors, dentists, nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, nurse practitioners, occupational therapists, optometrists, podiatrists, psychologists, public or other facilities, and speech and hearing specialists. We also mandate coverage for adopted children, dependent continuation coverage, conversion to non-group, handicapped dependents, and newborns.

Sounds like a huge list, until you realize that according to the study relied on by CAI, the benefit mandates (like breast reconstruction and mammograms) don't cost all that much (comparatively speaking). The big dollars are in the access mandates -- the adopted children and newborns.

Say it costs more to insure adopted kids; they have more health problems than "regular" kids. Kentucky doesn't mandate adopted children coverage. Shadegg thinks you should be able to purchase a cheaper Kentucky policy without adoption coverage. It's cheaper for you, because you're not going to adopt. But if that means parents in Arizona with adopted kids then have to pay more, which leads some to drop coverage, which creates the "death spiral" where only the worst risks have to buy insurance -- well, that's not my department, says Rep. Shadegg.

Not everybody truly enjoys throwing kids from life rafts, but if that's the kind of world in which you want to live, John Shadegg's your guy.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Limits of "Good Intentions"

Three of my Devereux friends now know to be careful about what you say to me at dinner, or else it could wind up in a column. The contrast between what it would take to fix Social Security -- all it requires is passing legislation, and it's a problem we don't face for decades -- as opposed to fixing urban schools -- which takes people, not concepts, and is happening right now -- is staggering. And which one takes political "courage" again?

East Valley Tribune, Dec. 9, 2007

I was talking with a behavioral health advocate who’s worked with troubled children for years. She could barely contain her excitement over new opportunities to change lives and improve communities. It's an exciting new program that provides emotional support to at-risk kids in some of our nation's most troubled urban school systems.

Research shows early intervention with these "positive emotional support" programs can prevent serious, more expensive problems later. The benefits go beyond helping the troubled kids; teachers using PES techniques become better at controlling the classroom, so they can spend more time teaching the entire class.

Early intervention has an economic benefit, too, which she planned to show to business leaders to get their support. Our economic future depends on local schools providing quality employees.

People talk about a Social Security "crisis," which really isn’t a crisis. If -- and that’s a big if -- the worst-case projections prove correct, minor tweaks can close any shortfall. It'll take a lot more effort to ensure we’re educating adequately tomorrow’s workers (who will pay for benefits for us retiring boomers).

Once the business community sees the data, said my friend, they’d become the biggest boosters for PES and early intervention. At which point, she lost me.

I recall too clearly how over a decade ago, the Phoenix business community rallied behind "Success by Six," a collection of early intervention programs providing similar support to at-risk kids before they fell into the juvenile or adult correction systems. Support of "Success by Six" became a test of moral seriousness, one that everybody -- political candidates and business leaders alike -- had to meet.

And it worked. With great fanfare, GOP Gov. Fife Symington and the Legislature adopted basically the entire program. Hooray!

But previously-announced tax cuts took effect, the economy cooled, and revenues didn’t meet expectations. It was easy funding new programs during flush times, but once money got tight, enthusiasm failed. Once the business community had to put "skin in the game" -- risking their real priorities, like tax cuts, to fund investments in kids -- then moral seriousness didn't matter so much.

People eagerly support pilot projects, hoping that some new paradigm revolutionizes education or welfare. The pilot project shows promise, so it should rolled out systemically, which requires serious money (i.e., taxes). However, business leaders have moved on to the next job or community, or are distracted by a different new shiny pilot program, uninterested in dull-as-dishwater institutionalization and funding.

It may be ideological, too. U.S. automakers should be screaming for national health care. They can make quality cars, but if they have to pay thousands per vehicle in employee and retiree health care costs, how can they compete with manufacturers in Japan, who don't? But they can't bring themselves to do it. They make vague statements of principles that can be deciphered as favoring a national solution, but nothing that anyone who watches (or writes for) Fox News would see as supporting "socialized medicine."

A big-deal business lobbyist I knew once called me for a friend with an obscure federal appointment obtained during the first Bush administration who wanted reappointment by President Clinton. This was for such an obscure position that I didn't know it was coming open. I told the lobbyist I'd be happy to call the administration as a favor.

The lobbyist immediately froze. No, he made absolutely clear, he wasn’t asking for a favor. He wanted me to support his friend only if it could be done for free -- like if I happened to be calling the White House anyway. It wasn’t a favor, which I might expect to have reciprocated.

Which is what I foresee happening with the data showing how cost-effective positive emotional support programs are in schools. The business community can support it, right up to the point where they have to put something real on the line. Hey, if our heart’s in the right place, leave our wallet alone. After all, who needs to give at the office, when instead you can feel at the office?

Monday, December 03, 2007

Free -- To Get The Fundamental Stuff Wrong!

I filed this column and almost immediately started to feel badly about going after LTH again, but then the paper came out on Sunday, and most of the real estate was devoted to a "roundtable" discussion of political philosophy between 5 really, really conservative writers for the Tribune (Turley-Hansen, Patterson, Hill, Templar, and the Freedom house libertarian guru). Yes, they wanted a range of opinions, from Y to Z.

My suggested headline was above but the editor went partisan instead.

East Valley Tribune, Dec. 2, 2007

Nobody told me, the lone dissenting voice hereabouts, that last week's Perspective section would be the annual tribute to R.C. Hoiles, the founder of the Tribune's current owner. The sweet salutes to our Orange County Editorial Overlords made my teeth hurt, reminding me how the Arizona Republic used to insist what a really swell guy publisher Eugene Pulliam was, because he only had your interests at heart.

Newspapers should leave the tributes to ownership to outsiders; it's hard to do a "balanced" piece on the boss (or the current bosses' deceased ancestor) without sounding like Yankee PR department tributes to George Steinbrenner. The Republic never could be as refreshingly accurate about their owners as The New York Times, which wrote that the Pulliam family "has long been a political force in Indiana and Arizona -- indeed, one investment banker pointed out that neither state observes daylight time 'because Eugene Pulliam always refused to change his clock.'"

But what was most striking in this year's celebration of the grandfather of the people who sign our checks is how readily Hoiles's followers forgive his apostasies. Apparently one of the most cherished libertarian freedoms is getting to choose which parts you accept, and which you don't.

The Tribune printed some of the home office's editorials applying Hoiles's philosophy to current issues. The top issue was terrorism, and according to libertarianism, the war in Iraq was a mistake; we should bring the troops home from all overseas outposts. "Terrorists may 'hate us for our freedom,' but they are able to recruit people to attack us because we are in 'their' countries, trying to run them."

One of Hoiles's biggest fans is the writer to my right, Linda Turley-Hansen, who last week on "Founder's Day" wrote how while she won't always agree with Freedom, we need Hoiles's ideas to "pull us back towards rational thinking" and "balance." But those ideas, that the war in Iraq is counterproductive and we should bring the troops home as soon as possible, are totally opposite to those of Linda Turley-Hansen, who declared on Memorial Day weekend that we must stay and must win in Iraq, which is an absolutely fundamental battle that we cannot avoid, that "retreat will unleash incomprehensible consequences."

Turley-Hansen also decries our open borders, and that immigration is placing our national identity and culture at risk. But the libertarian position on immigration is that "the right to decide where one wants to live and move there through one's own resources doesn't belong only to those born in America. The most effective and just way to regulate immigration is through market forces." In other words, open borders, and welcome all comers; it's an economic, not cultural, issue.

So how does this work? In May, to Turley-Hanson, nothing is more important than "winning" in Iraq, and our very national survival is at stake. In November, she says while she doesn't always agree, we sure need more libertarianism. But libertarianism gets "wrong," according to Linda, the absolutely most important, fundamental crisis we face, but somehow, that's O.K.

Linda in May says those who want to end the war and bring the troops home are "stupid" and "prepared to sacrifice the nation." Libertarianism says end the war and bring the troops home. But Linda in November thinks libertarianism is cool. These disagreements about Iraq and immigration? Mere trifles, easily overlooked.

Which is my problem with "libertarianism," at least as practiced around here. It's not a philosophy, it's a Chinese menu, where you get to pick only those dishes that suit your preexisting palate. Individual freedom is paramount -- except when we want the state to force women to bear unwanted children, or insist that government fight a "war on drugs."

This a la carte "Linda libertarianism" isn't a philosophy, but rather the latest attempt to make selfishness a moral value. I should pay less in taxes, and if I'm younger and healthier than average, I certainly don't want to share any of your health care risk. You, on the other hand, should fight my wars. Such a deal!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Another Bad Justification for Cutting the Estate Tax

I already instructed my readers the previous week about their Arizona tax credit contributions, so this week it was safe to talk about how far real estate prices still have to fall. My suggested headline was "Bubble, Toil, Trouble -- And Estate Taxes" but the editor focused on the real estate angle.

Nobody told me that the Tribune's Perspective section would be given over to tributes to R.C. Hoiles, the extremely libertarian founding publisher of the Orange County Register, which is the current owner of the Tribune. It was like reading the worst of the Arizona Republic about what a really, really swell guy Eugene Pulliam was, because he had only your interests at heart. Sheesh. (Check out this quote from the previous link):

The acquisition [by Gannett of Central Newspapers, publisher of the Republic] is the end of the long reign of the Pulliam family, the descendants of the company founder, Eugene C. Pulliam, a conservative publishing clan whose members include Dan Quayle, the Republican former vice president. The family has long been a political force in Indiana and Arizona -- indeed, one investment banker pointed out that neither state observes daylight time ''because Eugene Pulliam always refused to change his clock.''

Next week: Libertarian sex tips from Ayn Rand!

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 25, 2007

We’ve always had real estate triumphalism in Arizona, and last week it tried to justify a tax cut for the really rich. Last Wednesday, GOP stalwarts Michelle Bolton (of the National Federation of Independent Business) and Alan Langston (of the Arizona Real Estate Investment Association) became exceedingly strange bedfellows of Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., praising his support for letting Paris Hilton inherit everything tax-free. After all, Arizona home prices increased 150 percent over the past 10 years!

That’s the latest justification for eliminating the estate tax, even though most people already would pay no taxes on sale of a personal residence. Never let the facts stop arguments in favor of letting billionaires avoid millions in taxes by pretending that regular guys benefit, too.

Sorry, Harry, but if there were actual family farmers or small business owners affected by the estate tax, we’d know their names by now. Opponents of this giveaway can cite Paris Hilton. Proponents have nobody, but it’s not like they haven’t tried. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., also a huge fan of the rich paying less, searched in vain for a Katrina victim who faced the estate tax. When a tax cut is being "justified" by lies and fairy tales, maybe it isn’t such a good idea.

However, considering the latest real estate news, maybe using home price appreciation wasn’t such a great idea, either. Two days before the Bolton-Langston column, Goldman Sachs housing analysts turned really, really bearish on Arizona.

Goldman’s chief U.S. economist, Jan Hatzius, raised doubts in 2006, estimating that housing prices were overvalued by 20 percent. In last Monday’s conference call, Goldman predicted that nationally, housing prices still have 13 to 14 percent to fall.

Arizona’s already part of that trend. First American’s Loan Performance index reported Phoenix real estate prices dropping 6.72 percent between August 2006 and August 2007. We’re not used to drops; if growth is under 2 percent, we get cranky. But the declines already have started; the only question is how low it’ll go.

Goldman’s analysts say a lot lower. They see the overall national drop masking even more severe declines in certain markets, predicting 30 percent price depreciation in the 8 states which had the biggest price rises -- including Arizona.

In hindsight, anyone could see that house prices couldn’t race ahead of increases gains in income forever; that speculators and extraordinarily low mortgage rates and lending standards would leave after bad news arrived. It’s also not the media’s fault for that bad news; nobody credited the media for the good market. Those good times were, of course, due to the brilliance of people who, in reality, were only bobbing like corks on a wave.

Current national estimates of losses, both private and public, from the real estate bubble have risen past $400 billion. To put that in perspective, adjusting for inflation, the S&L crisis was $240 billion. Really pessimistic economists who track real estate prices against historical benchmarks think the bubble is much bigger yet. Research by Yale’s Robert Shiller shows house prices tracking inflation for 100 years prior to 1995, at which point prices rose by more than 70 percent after adjusting for inflation. If Shiller’s model is correct and house prices revert to historic norms, the bubble is larger than $8 trillion.

That’s a big, big number. What happens to property tax collections? How many jobs will be lost in the finance-insurance-real-estate sector? Is Maricopa County ready for thousands of assessment appeals and drops in valuations? Will builders keep selling at a loss to liquidate land inventories and avoid greater losses? How will outer-ring suburbs expand services to half-built subdivisions? Were permanent state tax cuts based on statistics distorted by the dot-com and real estate bubbles?

For people who obsess about this sort of thing, it’s time to start quoting Margo Channing and figuring you won’t sell the house for 3-5 years. And the next time Alan Greenspan says you really should get an adjustable-rate mortgage? Don’t.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Helping Others At No Cost To Yourself

My annual Arizona tax credit column came out a week earlier than usual this year. It’s no joke about 45 people at our home for Thanksgiving this year, though. Our wedding present to the parents of the bride, who are having the wedding at their house two days later, is having their family, and the groom’s, at our house for Thanksgiving.

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 18, 2007

Thanksgiving comes slightly early this year, and so does my annual explanation-and-exhortation regarding Arizona income tax credits. The state tax code has at least as many credits buried inside as we’ll have guests for Thanksgiving -- so I’ve got to finish this column now to start making stuffing.

Most people understand deductions, which reduce taxable income and therefore lower your taxes, saving you a portion of the donation based on your marginal tax rate. But tax credits are straight-out reductions in your taxes -- below the line, if you will -- and Arizona has several that allow you to reduce you taxes by the amount of your charitable donation. It’s generosity that costs you nothing, provided you’ve got the cash, itemize deductions, and don’t have Alternative Minimum Tax issues.

First, contribute to a "private school tuition organization" for a matching Arizona income tax credit. PSTOs offer scholarships to private schools. Individuals can get a credit of $500; married couples, $1,000.

If you don’t know a PSTO, please consider Schools With Heart, 1131 E. Highland, Phoenix, AZ 85014; designate your check for the Family School, a unique, progressive school serving children from diverse backgrounds. You report your contribution on Form 323 when you file your Arizona taxes and get a full credit up to the cap; you also report the donation as a charitable contribution on your federal return. (Make sure you track the contribution both ways; I forgot to include some Arizona tax credit donations as charitable contributions on my 2005 federal return. Oops.)

Second, there’s a similar-but-smaller tax credit for donations to public schools. (Heaven forbid Arizona should be too generous with public schools!) If single, you can give and get back up to $200; if married, $400. You write the check directly to the school, not to a PTO or foundation, and report this credit on Form 322.

Naturally, better-off school districts seem to get much more tax credit donations; those are the folks with the money to play this game. To help even things out, consider a contribution to the Isaac School District, 3348 W. McDowell Road, Phoenix, AZ 85009, or call (602) 455-6700. Inner-city Isaac, with over 90 percent of its students at or below poverty and about two-thirds from non-English-speaking homes, needs your help more than wealthier suburban schools.

Third, giving to charities assisting low-income residents qualifies for another tax credit if you’re giving above your "baseline" (basically, your charitable contributions in 1996, or the first year you itemized). The credit is $200 for single taxpayers, $400 for couples, and you use Form 321 in April.

I’m on the board, so of course I’d like you to contribute to the behavioral health programs at Devereux Arizona. Some kids in Devereux’s foster care and residential programs won’t get holiday gifts unless you contribute. Please donate to Devereux’s "My Little Stocking" fund; children who otherwise wouldn’t can have a memorable holiday, and you get your contribution refunded on your state taxes. Send your check to Devereux Arizona, 11000 N. Scottsdale Road, Suite 260, Scottsdale, AZ 85254, or call (480) 889-0576.

Fourth, help fund Arizona’s pioneering publicly-financed election system. This tax credit is surprisingly generous, $610 for individuals and $1,220 for couples, or up to 20% of your total state tax liability, whichever is greater. Send your contribution to Citizens Clean Election Fund, 1616 W. Adams, Suite 110, Phoenix, AZ 85007.

Finally, there’s another cost-free donation you can make, and you don’t even have to file a tax form. Give blood. Call United Blood Services at (602) 431-9500, or make an appointment online at Put all those calories you’ll eat this week to good use.

So write some checks by Dec. 31, which reduce your state taxes on April 15. It’s bad public policy and benefits the better-off at the expense of those below the median, and only works for those with the money to spare for 4 months. But who knows? Maybe making "free" contributions will teach you the importance of charity -- even when it isn’t reimbursed.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

If Only One Party's Extreme, It's Not a Mutual Problem

I worried that another wonky column on health care policy would be a bit much for my readers, so this time it's the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Excited? The only topic less enthralling than tax policy--international law! Hey, but it's my column.

You'll notice that I share the Tribune Sunday op-ed page with someone all upset over some weird plan to create a unified North American currency. Of course, with what's happened to the US dollar recently, maybe we should want to get paid in loonies. This week, Linda's column is a salute to a proposal from a Chandler locksmith that government should require a 4-month boot camp for new fathers of boys. That's your limited government for you! As the late Charles Black used to say, there's no such thing as a principled strict constructionist; sooner or later, they all want to do something.

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 11, 2007

Last week on this page, Linda Turley-Hansen demanded that we absolutely must come together to defend our freedoms, to stay together on key issues while agreeing to disagree on the rest! We need unity, never mind labels!

Yeah, sure, fine. But you first, Linda -- if you want unity, agree with me.

All this "I hate partisanship" and "unity" talk really means "shut up and obey me." So forgive me if I find Linda's terror of an imminent unified North American currency to be black-helicopter-and-tinfoil-on-windows stuff.

Linda's call for unity, on threats only she and fellow travelers see, is matched only by pundits who decry the "increasingly partisan" nature of politics. If only politicians could see past party labels and recognize that the real answers to our problems are "centrist" ones!

But as Ezra Klein noted, "centrist" means not opinions near the center of the American public's opinions, but rather opinions similar to those of well-paid Washington pundits, with occasional breaks with one's party on high-profile issues. These folks use "centrist" the same way Linda calls for "unity": Agree with me, for your own good!

There's a fundamental historical illiteracy in these complaints. It makes Americans uncomfortable to remember that for a century after the Civil War, the organizing principle of American politics was race. As Mark Schmitt wrote, it was an accident of history that one political party became home to both Southern conservatives and northern immigrants, and the other to merchants, manufacturers, and minorities. Over the past 50 years, those unwieldy coalitions have drifted apart, yielding us two far more ideologically consistent parties. You may yearn for the bygone days of the Southern white Democrat and the New England Republican, but they only existed because we didn't let blacks enjoy full participation in American life.

It's also historically illiterate to decry "special interests" as a source of partisanship, because those groups generally still operate in a bipartisan fashion. The sugar growers, the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, automakers -- all the truly professional players cultivate support in both parties. Even abortion; the top Senate Democrat is pro-life Harry Reid. If you think the problem is too much partisanship, you want more "special interests."

But the final false trope is the "plague on both their houses" argument, that both parties are equally to blame for the widening ideological gulf. This argument usually requires trotting out some left-wing Democrat and some right-wing Republican who are equally far from the speaker's "centrist" position. The problem is that the Democratic wacko is usually some anonymous blogger, while the Republican wacko is a powerful public official.

The latest example comes from Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, who has made it his cause to oppose the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea. UNCLOS is supported by the Bush administration, the US military, and by environmental and business groups. About 150 other nations already have ratified. Even treaty critics like Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Global Warming Denial, admit that the Navy supports UNCLOS because of the treaty's rules of navigation and exemption of military activities, and that treaty would not require the U.S. to appear in any international court. (But Inhofe opposes the treaty anyway because we might violate it, which could cause our international standing to suffer. It's better our international standing suffers because we hold out on something supported by basically every other country.)

In the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the vote to approve was 17-4, with 11 Democrats and six Republicans in favor, and with four Republicans and no Democrats opposed. So a majority of committee Republicans support the treaty. Even the oil industry supports UNCLOS.

This isn't just being partisan, although Kyl does seem more interested in the Republican Senate leadership's position, not what's best for the country. This isn't just being hypocritical, because Republicans who told everybody to obey Gen. David Petraeus on Iraq are ignoring what the same military says about UNCLOS.

This really is about how these days, "mainstream conservatism" is really the black-helicopter-and-tinfoil-on-windows crowd. It's pretty much all they've got left. Unconvinced? Just ask Jon Kyl why he and Trent Lott oppose UNCLOS.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

When People Ask If I'm Thinking Of Running Again, This Isn't What They Usually Mean

New York City Marathon 2007! NYC for me was a terrible time and a wonderful day. It wasn’t going to be my day, for a large number of reasons, and early on I realized my sole goal had to be to finish. So while I’ve run better and faster, I’m as satisfied with what I did (4:54) on Sunday as any previous marathon (and I still made the newspaper the next day, 5 hours was the cutoff for the Times). And New York is a great race, with an amazing number of people both running and watching; it took 27 minutes to reach the starting line. Lots of marathons have people clapping, or clanging cowbells; only in New York do they also cheer on the runners with Purim groggers.

UPDATE: Photos!
How Not To Manage An Agency

It's more Andrew Thomas this week. My suggested headline was above, but the editor thought something else would invoke the "heckuva job, Brownie" style of executive leadership more directly.

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 4, 2007

In my day job, I run a law firm. So I also have a professional interest in Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and his "leadership style." What Thomas’s "special assistant" Barnett Lotstein this past week called "decisive leadership" ("Thomas deserves credit for decisive leadership," Opinion 2, Tuesday) I call "trashing a public agency."

Thomas and Lotstein will be spinning away the news that use of outside attorneys has soared under the Thomas regime. Now, it’s of course true that all county attorneys in Arizona use outside attorneys. Lots of cases require specialized expertise, like defamation or AHCCCS reimbursement cases, and it doesn’t make sense to develop expensive and infrequently-used expertise in-house, and then only use it infrequently.

But because something makes sense sometimes in some cases doesn’t mean it makes sense all the time in all places. First, it’s highly deceptive to compare the Maricopa County Attorney’s office to others in the state, because Maricopa is so much bigger. Thomas’s office has over 300 attorneys, and that’s with 10 percent of his positions vacant. Pinal County or Gila County has maybe one-tenth or one-fifth as many, so it’s a lot harder to have a range of specialized expertise. If you’ve got 313 attorneys, you’ve got much more ability to do things in-house.

Second, use of outside counsel simply exploded under Thomas. Since taking office in 2005, Thomas has increased his office’s contract spending from $5.7 million to $9.58 million to $15.97 million. With those numbers, it’s not just the high-profile cases, like the New Times grand jury investigation (and we sure got our money’s worth there!) The county has grown in population, and attorney hourly rates have increased, but not nearly by those percentages. With numbers like that, these contracts simply have to include lots of stuff that used to be handled in-house.

Under past county attorneys, Maricopa County found a way to develop a small, but cost-effective, group of experienced civil attorneys to handle liability claims. The county is a huge employer, landowner, and facility operator, and any business that size is going to have a steady stream of liability lawsuits. Some claims may be covered by insurance and the carriers’ outside counsel, but in a lot of cases, the county had to pay for the defense -- and found it a lot cheaper to develop a small group of seasoned civil trial lawyers who could handle these cases, leaving only the truly exceptional ones for outside counsel.

Thomas, however, thought it was more important to manage his office to get maximum airplay on talk radio, not the best value for county taxpayer’s money. Part of the deal with seasoned, senior civil litigators is that they tend to look down on junior, inexperienced, and there-because-of-politics-not-merit attorneys -- like Andrew Thomas. The senior guys had little use for Thomas’s wackier management policies, like sending 20- or 30-year attorneys to handle weekend or night court.

Thomas proudly announced that he expects every attorney in his office to handle all different types of cases. The senior guys say this is nonsense, you don’t send an expert to handle routine first-year stuff, and they start leaving. Then Thomas suddenly notices, gosh! His office lacks specialized expertise! His solution? Explode the number of contracts for outside counsel, including contracts to friends and former employers like Dennis Wilenchik.

It’s the FEMA style of management. You trash the agency, stock it with political hacks, run off seasoned professionals, and then are deeply saddened at the lack of expertise. You have simply no choice but to give large numbers of contracts to cronies and campaign contributors. It’s what the Bush administration has done to FEMA and to the Justice Department, and what they’re going to do to the State Department, too.

It’s bad management and bad public policy, and it only raises costs and reduces the quality of government. But the thing I resent most about Andrew Thomas is that just as Alberto Gonzales managed to make people look back fondly on Attorney General John Ashcroft, Andy Thomas is making us nostalgic for Rick Romley.

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.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The "Market" Versus The Real World

My proposed headline is above; I’m not sure I fully understand the editor’s choice, but apparently this was an appreciated column because I got the bottom position rather than the left-hand rail. If you want to read their editorial, it’s available here, and the newspaper version of my response is here. This now makes about a dozen times that I had no clue what to write about for Sunday’s column, only to pick up the Thursday paper and decide that I just had to respond to their latest libertarian outrage.

East Valley Tribune, Sep. 23, 2007

Last Thursday, the Tribune denounced Sen. Hillary Clinton’s just-announced health care plan. Providing universal coverage through government, they say, will make health care more expensive, health insurance less available, and give Americans fewer choices. Instead, the libertarian way to reduce health care costs is to provide "genuine market-based options."

To which I say: Compared to what? As Jonathan Cohn wrote, conservatives like to note that Medicare costs a lot. And so it does; we have the ability to provide a lot of health care in this country, and it's expensive. But what conservatives forget is that our system of private insurance costs a lot more.

Medicare has far lower transaction costs than private insurance, 3 percent overhead compared to the average insurance company’s 14 percent. (It’s attributed to Newt Gingrich that "one man’s $200 billion in waste is another man’s $200 billion profit stream.") All the complaints about Medicare -- that it’s bureaucratic, inflexible, costly -- apply with even greater force to private insurers. And Medicare doesn’t have to pay large executive salaries, fund stock options, or advertise.

Some people complain about the U.S. Postal Service, conveniently ignoring that when it comes to bad customer service, the USPS is a bunch of pikers compared to such private-sector stalwarts as the airlines or your cable guy. Health care providers hate dealing with Medicare -- until dealing with private insurers, who treat them worse.

Would providing universal coverage through government plan need more taxes? You bet. But my own business last year paid two-thirds of what we paid in all payroll taxes -- state income and unemployment, federal income, and FICA, and Medicare, and FUTA -- for health insurance premiums. And not everybody takes health insurance; those with spouses working for larger employers don’t, because big employers can offer better coverage than we can. If you hiked the employer share of all payroll taxes by 50 percent but relieved us of paying for health insurance, we’d increase our bottom line by tens of thousands of dollars.

Then there’s the other myth, that a more "free" health care "market" would fix these problems. Have you shopped for health insurance lately? We have to hire a broker to sort through all the various options. It’s worse than buying a home appliance, where every store can promise the lowest price on a particular model because the manufacturers give each retailer a different model number. We’re highly educated and Internet-savvy, but we can’t easily compare offerings because of all the permutations.

We’re also hampered because of a problem ignored by the Tribune, namely adverse selection, the huge economic incentives for private insurers to "cherry-pick" only the healthiest for coverage -- and to drop anybody who gets sick as fast as possible. One of my colleagues has a pre-existing condition, so we’re stuck. We can’t switch insurers without risking everybody’s access to so-called "reasonably-priced" coverage.

Sure, health insurance isn’t a perfectly free market, but the changes desired by the Tribune would make our problems worse. Without laws preventing insurers from dropping people with pre-existing conditions, or requiring disclosure and rate filings, or providing certain basic coverages mandated by state law (here in Arizona, such things as ambulatory surgery, mammograms, and coverage for adopted and handicapped children -- you got a problem with any of those?), we’d be worse off in a more free market.

This whole "trust the market!" rhetoric is pretty odd. What the Tribune wants is for people to refuse to pay for care their doctor recommends by balancing it against a cost-benefit analysis by the "consumer." As Ezra Klein noted, what libertarians want is for people to have financial incentives to ignore their doctor -- because if there aren’t any financial incentives, then people might decide to get a colonoscopy every week, just for the fun of it! Excuse me if I’m dubious.

Democrats want to offer everybody a choice of health insurance, like the federal employees program or Medicare. Republicans, and the Tribune, want to offer people a choice of tax deductions. Tax deductions are nice if you’re really rich and really healthy, but if not, you really ought to choose the health insurance.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

'Wingers Don't Sweat The Big Stuff

My suggested headline for this week was above but the editor instead went just-the-facts-ma’am. It's also not just GOP rage, it's also the local "Mini-Me" version of Maureen Dowd at the other newspaper, too. He also eliminated the internal rhyme in the first line ("My loyalties may stay with the U of A" scans, doesn’t it?). My spouse got a parking ticket on the ASU campus taking our son to his trumpet lesson last week, and she’s calling friends in the development office to see if the fine can be designated to the scholarships effort. Said spouse had nothing to do with the first paragraph, that’s all my own snark.

East Valley Tribune, Sep. 16, 2007

My loyalties may stay with the University of Arizona, but this week it’s "Hooray for Michael Crow." The president of what unreconstructed Wildcats think of as "Arizona’s Second University" may not need my collaboration, but Crow and ASU are taking unjustified hits for their laudable efforts to find private scholarships for returning students barred from in-state tuition and grants under Proposition 300.

You may have missed talk radio’s latest manufactured outrage, but last November, Arizona voters approved an initiative that bars undocumented students from any state aid. Prop. 300 was part of several anti-illegal immigration ballot propositions that the Legislature, hoping to boost GOP turnout, placed on the 2006 ballot.

Republicans were hoping illegal immigration would diminish Gov. Janet Napolitano’s popularity. They thought it was a no-lose proposition, putting Napolitano between a rock and a hard place. If she opposed them, she’d offend independents and Republicans. If she supported them, she’d risk angering Hispanics, who vote Democratic here.

The rouse-the-base-by-initiative strategy didn’t work, however. Republicans forgot that similarly-popular minimum wage increases didn’t hurt some GOP governors’ reelection the previous cycle. The Arizona anti-illegal initiatives all passed by huge margins but didn’t affect candidate races. Democrats gained two U.S. House seats and seven legislative seats, and Napolitano carried every county in the state.

Arizona Republicans have moved so far to the right that they, unlike voters, can’t see that Napolitano actually is a centrist. She’s governed essentially as a slightly more moderate Jane Hull. A younger, smarter, more engaged, more policy-oriented, and far more active Jane Hull -- OK, not much like Jane Hull personally, but you get the idea. She’s a moderate, and if you still lived in Wisconsin, Napolitano could be the great GOP hope.

Republicans also greatly overestimated the willingness of Hispanics and liberals to abandon Napolitano. Of course, Democrats by nature grumble continuously, but we learned our lesson in 2000. Despite talk of "compassionate conservatism," a "more humble" foreign policy, and Texas-style "bipartisanship," it turns out (after 3,775 dead) that there really is a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties.

See, Hispanics not only read what the GOP says about immigration, they’re also reading between the lines. The biggest advantage Democrats now have among Hispanic voters is not being the party of Russell Pearce and Randy Pullen. There’s more to the Democratic agenda, but it’s an awfully powerful opening argument with Arizona’s fastest-growing demographic.

So an initiative that nobody much cared about -- merely a political tactic, approved by voters who, according to some polling, wanted to do something about illegal immigration and didn’t much care what -- is now law, and ASU and its undocumented students must deal with the aftermath. It’s not clear how Arizona benefits from making higher education more expensive for young people who, despite their immigration problems, are likely to remain here. It’s also not clear whether Prop. 300 saves any money, or frees up any spots at college for legal residents. But it sure felt good voting for it, didn’t it?

ASU is trying to work around the law to help its current students, by finding private scholarships and contributions to compensate for higher nonresident tuitions. This effort drives certain people, like talk-show hosts and columnists, absolutely nuts. Because a state school, even with private money, shouldn’t help actual individual students if it means violating the "spirit" of Prop. 300. They want that money to help Americans first.

That’s a nice, populist thought, but it raises a question. These same outraged "America First!" folks are all hunky-dory about spending another $200 billion in Iraq next year. The private money at ASU actually buys something for Arizona; some Arizona residents get an education. But it’s not clear how the "surge" and $200 billion makes things any better in Iraq in 2008 than now.

Maybe there is $8 billion in "pork" in the highway bill, and maybe ASU scholarships help undocumented aliens. But if you’re fine with sending $200 billion next year to Iraq on the flimsiest of pretexts, then why are you complaining?

Monday, September 10, 2007

David Petraeus: The Caucasian Colin Powell

My suggested headline this week was "We’ve Seen This Show Before," but the editor went boring on me. (He may have an inexhaustible supply of Larry Craig jokes, but this headline, not so much.) Now that I've thought about it, the real headline should have been above. The newspaper version is here, for the next 2 weeks.

East Valley Tribune, Sep. 9, 2007

This week, Gen. David Petraeus attempts to overcome facts with his resume. He's reporting to Congress after four separate reports, from the Government Accountability Office, the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq, the Congressional Research Service, and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, all found little basis for optimism in Iraq.

The GAO found that Iraq completed only three of 18 surge benchmarks; four were partially completed, and 11 weren’t met. The GAO helpfully reminds that these benchmarks were derived from commitments made by the Iraqi government last June, reaffirmed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in September, 2006 and January, 2007, and included in the May, 2007 International Compact for Iraq. The benchmarks themselves are in the "U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans' Care, Katrina Recovery, and Iraq Accountability Appropriations Act of 2007," signed by President George W. Bush himself on May 25.

The Independent Commission (called the Jones Commission, after its chair) found that Iraq’s army is a year to 18 months away from capacity to handle internal security, and that the national police force and Interior Ministry are so sectarian and corrupt that the police should be disbanded and rebuilt from scratch.

The CRS report says the Iraqi government is "in essential collapse" and without "any real prospects for political reconciliation," and the U.S. Embassy says the Iraqi government is unable to rein in corruption in most ministries. Even conservative columnist David Brooks, last Tuesday before new right-wing talking points got distributed, wrote "the surge failed, and it failed in an unexpected way."

But if Petraeus is optimistic about his own accomplishments, well then! None of those other reports could possibly matter.

As we await the Petraeus report, remember that in 2005, as he ended one year in charge of training the Iraqi security forces, Petraeus said that Iraq’s military had made "enormous progress" and was getting closer to taking over from U.S. forces "with each passing week." Now two years later, the Jones Commission finds that "each passing week" means 12 to 18 months from now.

This steady drumbeat to a dramatic presentation resembles the buildup to the February, 2003 U.N. speech by Secretary of State Colin Powell. The Bush administration sent Powell to make its case for the Iraq war, as he was their most popular official. (Powell told aides how Vice President Cheney said before the speech, "You’ve got high poll ratings; you can afford to lose a few points.")

Powell’s speech, which he two years later called "painful" and "a blot" on his record, was rapidly discredited. Within six months, it became clear that the satellite photos, audiotapes, and hidden "classified" documents didn’t prove what Powell said they proved. There were no mobile rocket launchers and biological weapons hidden in palm groves. U-2 overflights and scientist interviews resumed after the speech, before the invasion. No anthrax was located; no trace of biological agents was found on the trucks claimed to be mobile bioweapons labs.

The F-1 Mirage jet shown in a video spraying "simulated anthrax," according to U.N. inspector reports, was destroyed in the 1991 Iran-Iraq war. The four tons of nerve agent VX were produced before 1991; most was destroyed during the 1990's under U.N. supervision, and experts say that VX would have decayed by 2003 anyway, and none was found. Nobody ever found any of the "100 to 500 tons" of "chemical weapons agent," the deployed-and-authorized-for-use chemical weapons in the field never appeared, magnets and aluminum tubes weren’t proof of a non-existent centrifuge program, and nobody has found any hard evidence of a revived nuclear program.

In short, none of it panned out, but Powell did manage to overpower pundit doubts. Even leading Democrats called his speech "irrefutable" (at least until it was completely refuted). So this week, when Gen. Petraeus -- the Caucasian Colin Powell -- gives himself an excellent grade, remember that there’s a considerable difference between being a military hero and giving an accurate report.

I love a man in uniform as much as the next guy, but let’s not again confuse a brilliant career with the facts.