Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bogus Bonus Brouhaha

How outraged are you over AIG giving bonuses to employees after accepting bailout money? Do you agree with Iowa Senator Grassley that the AIG executives should either resign or commit suicide? Or do you agree with me that our illustrious elected officials should sit down and shut up?

Let's set aside for the moment the fact that AIG, like many other similar companies, factors such bonuses into employee compensation contracts making them obligatory payouts rather than discretionary gifts, meaning that those handing over all that government money should have easily foreseen that some of it would be spent in this fashion. Let's also disregard the glaring fact that we should not have begun bailing out private companies in the first place.

Let's just consider some of the numbers. AIG has received about $170 billion dollars in federal money, $165 million of which has been used to pay these so-called bonuses. Barack Obama received $5.3 million for transition operations. There is a very interesting article about how this money was spent at Politico.com which you can read here. Among other worthy expenditures, $15,000 was spent for Blackberry services, $5000 for document shredding, $126,000 for a charter jet to transport the Obamas to their Hawaii vacation, and $7000 for installing and removing protective window film in the transition offices. Then, of course, there's the Economic Stimulus Bill. The final price tag on that was in the neighborhood of $800 billion. The discretionary portion of that total is a staggering $308 billion. Discretionary meaning, in this case, blatantly unnecessary. I'm not sure how our economy is stimulated by $600 million for new cars for the federal government or $200 million to design and furnish the headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security. (More info on what the stimulus money is being used for can be found at US News and World Report and The Wall Street Journal.)

At this point, I'm having a very hard time accepting all the senators and representatives stepping in front of television cameras to claim some type of moral high ground. After all, the last I heard, they were not planning to forego a raise they intend to vote in for themselves. What about all of the benefits they enjoy, from healthcare to generous pension plans? Will they be giving those back to the taxpayers who fund them? Do not insult my intelligence by handing out money to companies who have shown an inability to succeed, then pretend outrage when they use the money the way they always have. It is a flimsy smokescreen designed to distract the public from the true incompetence on continual display within the walls of the Capitol.

If the irresponsible expenditure of taxpayer dollars is the criteria, than I would suggest Senator Grassley redirect his comments to his colleagues.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


And so it begins. Spring. It doesn't matter that we had 10 inches of snow less than a week ago, nature has already begun to respond to that mysterious signal that brings everything back to life.

Our crocuses are always first to show themselves. It's like magic. One day you see nothing; the next, there they are, peeking up through the grass and leaves.

I love it--you can smell the difference in the air and hear it in the birds' songs. The buds are opening on the trees. The red-tailed hawks are competing for nesting territory. And I'm shopping gardening supply catalogs. Good stuff!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Healthcare Headache

Yesterday I got the statement from my insurance company regarding my recent trip to the emergency room (some kidney stones simply require IV drugs). It left me asking myself the same two questions I often find myself thinking with regards to health insurance.

1. If the hospital can bill my insurance $515 for a service, how is it that my insurance company only needs to pay them $159?

Of course, I don't really want the insurance company explanation for how they have negotiated this special rate with the hospital, or my doctor, or the lab, or any number of providers that will accept less money than their billed rate. I want to know why they can't just provide the lower rate to everyone--insurance or not. I can't help but feel that one of the main reasons for the high cost of healthcare stems from the fact that, by-and-large, the consumer has no direct contact with the price being charged. In a free market, the consumer will shop around and find the provider with the best price. This competition helps to keep prices reasonable. In the healthcare system, the price is being artificially set through bureaucratic negotiations between two providers and no consumers. How can we help but expect an aspirin administered to you in the hospital to cost less than $10 when this is the way price is managed?

2. Why on earth does health insurance work this way anyway?

I have homeowners insurance and automobile insurance. When I need to put gas in my car or need to make home repairs, I pay for these things myself. If I were to ask my insurance company to pay all or part of those costs, they would laugh me out of the room. And yet, we all expect our health insurance to pay for routine care. How much more affordable would health insurance be if it worked like other insurance--covering the calamities only? How much more selective would we be in the services we choose to receive if we were paying for them ourselves? And, with lowered demand on routine services, how much would those costs drop to a level that would be more affordable for everyone?

I just paid $25 for a $267 visit with a urologist, during which he gave me a list of foods I should avoid, told me how much water I should be drinking, and asked me to come back for further testing after my pregnancy has ended. The doctor was very nice and helpful, but I have to admit, if I had been paying that $267 amount, I would have opted out of the whole visit.

There is so much talk among conservatives right now about how our country will become socialist under Barack Obama. I have to say that I think we've moved a lot farther in that direction already than we realize. It is the capitalist ideals that we've already abandoned little by little that have the potential to truly reform the healthcare system. Unfortunately, I am starting to get the feeling that too few of us buy into those ideals anymore.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Goodbye, February!

I believe I lost the month of February. I have to say that I am glad to see it go--it didn't treat me very well. Between residual morning sickness, crippling back pain, a ruthless kidney stone, and a cold/bronchitis/flu that never wanted to leave, I admit I found very few moments of joy during the month. I have high hopes for March. After all, it is the beginning of spring--a natural season of hope and renewal. Add to that the fact that, by the end of the month, we should know the gender of our bundle-0f-joy-to-be, and it can't help but be an improvement over the-month-that-shall-not-be-named.

As I said, February had few moments of joy, but they were present. There was one day in particular that the entire family was actually functional--not healthy, but at least upright. We managed to sneak off for a day at Blackwater Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland. We saw wild turkeys, many geese, the most swans I've ever seen at one place in my life, and, of course, bald eagles. The day ended with a drive home beneath the moonrise.

Since then, we have been hooked on the refuge's bald eagle cam. It's trained on the nest of an eagle pair which has been busily incubating two eggs. During Sunday night's snowstorm, the first egg hatched. The stoic mother hunkered over her hatching eggs, spreading her wings like an umbrella, while the snow covered the nest and her.

The eaglet has its first meal--fish (eww!)

The parents bring more fish for the chick

The second egg begins to hatch

Both eaglets are hatched!