Sunday, March 28, 2010

Weekend thoughts

Some thoughts about the weekend:

1) Ferris Bueller's Day Off is still funny, even though it's now 25 years old. We were pretty sure it was going to be one of those movies that was really funny back in the day, but has now aged considerably and is just stupid. But no. It's actually still a really good movie. I'm glad we watched it.

2) Annie has a really funny book called "Yummy, Yucky," by Leslie Patricelli. It has pictures of things that are yummy and yucky. (ie: Soup is yummy. Soap is yucky). However, I think Annie should write her own book. Here's how it would go: Newspaper is Yummy!  Squash is yucky.  Random crumbs that I find on the floor are Yummy! Sweet potatoes are yucky.

3) Last weekend felt like summer. This weekend felt like winter. We went out to lunch today with a friend, and had to put Annie back in her full bear fleece winter suit for the walk in the stroller. But at least it was sunny. Tomorrow we're supposed to get up to 5 inches of rain. There are parts of Quincy that are going to be under water, I think. The flooding is really bad. And April, with its showers, hasn't even started yet.

4) For some reason, I've always loved photo booths. I remember taking photo-booth photos at Crystal Beach when I was in middle school with Laurie and some long-forgotten friends. Photo booths feel very old-fashioned, and always seem to capture a moment in a way that regular photos do not. Well, I found a photo booth at a mall on Friday.

So much fun.

5) This week, we are going to a play date in a pool! A Hilton in Dedham lets people use their pool for a small fee. So, instead of the Y this weekend, Annie and I are going there to go swimming with Annie's baby friends and my mom friends.

Good night!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Disclosure - The government tries to do some good

In the face of all this health care nonsense it was nice to see a US Senate bill that tries to do the right thing brought up in Congress.  Recently the Washington Post reported on a Senate addendum to the bill that funds the FAA. The addendum would require Airlines and Travel agents to list and disclose all possible Fees when selling airline tickets [ ].

This is an excellent example of good government in action: requirements for transparency and regulatory truth in advertising with the government reacting to a recent trend in consumer behavior.

First, why do airlines all of a sudden have so many fees? The answer is simple: Expedia. Most people over the last few years have switched away from travel agencies (or calling airlines directly) to purchasing travel tickets on-line. Even corporate travel has moved this way, what used to be a call to your corporate travel agent is now some typing on your computer "" (etc.).  The internet has built the bazaar for the travel industry. Previously by calling airlines or travel agents you were privy to only the prices for the airline, or the airlines (only a few) the travel agent dealt with. With limited information you could only make irrational choices. For example, 10 years ago when trying to get a cheap ticket to Madrid I was told the cheapest ticket AAA could offer was 1500 USD, but after calling about 10 airlines I got down to 500 USD. Crazy eh? Today, I can be reasonably sure I get the best deal by going on one of several web pages.

However, with the convenience of the web comes the sad fact that people really don't fly their favorite airline, they fly the airline which comes up on the first row under "cheapest." As a result, each airline squeezes their prices to the bare minimum by stripping out bits of the old ticket and charging extra. Squeezing a few pennies out of the fare can mean the difference between being #1 on the list, and being #200. The only reason they don't charge more for the seat is you can't opt to fly without one.

All of this is progress,  and prices have come way down. However, for those of us who travel with luggage most of the time or who want to switch flights at the last minute (etc), we get nailed for some fee that we never saw coming after we have already booked the flight and are standing up at the airport. The Senate bill to require airlines to list possible costs is an action which levels the playing ground and puts more information in the hands of the consumers so they can make rational choices when purchasing tickets. This effort is similar to efforts by governments to require restaurants to post the contents and caloric value of their food. You can still enjoy the 1K calorie big Mac, but you know what you are getting before you eat it. Rational decision making in an open environment, with airlines it means passengers on a tight budget can get the dirt cheap tickets with no frills, or people with a bit more money to spare can buy the ticket that they want too... but still know what they are getting into upfront.

From an economic perspective this makes sense, the Government isn't putting their finger on a scale and hindering an open market. They are just making sure the market is really open; If you want to smoke in your own home that's fine, just note you are probably shortening your life. That's OK with me, it's your life.

Government regulation which puts a big fat Government finger on the scale.... that's not always a good idea.

St. Pat's

We had a busy St. Patty's day. And yes, Annika did wear green. However, I couldn't find my "Erin Go Braugh" t-shirt that my dad picked up for me years ago at the Salvation Army. I think I might've given it away! Always thought it was a little useless, since it was short-sleeved, and who ever wears short sleeves on March 17. Well, I did today. It was in the 60's here. Perhaps the best weather for March 17 that I ever remember.

We started out at our new "Water Babies" swim class. The timing of it, 9:30, is not ideal since it's nap time. But we threw caution to the wind today in the nap department. (Let's see if we pay for it tonight). We had a very nice swim class, learned some new songs, and started teaching Annika a little about water safety. When she jumps into the water (with help from Mommy), I am supposed to make sure that she turns around and grabs the wall. The swim instructor said that most kids who drown do so near the wall of the pool, after falling in. She said that the hope was that if the child knows to grab the wall, she's less likely to drown. I'm not sure I totally buy it, but I'm OK teaching Annika that.

After the swim class, we went to a play date in W. Roxbury. Luckily, Annie did not get pushed over again, like at the last play date! (The little girl who did that, twice, was not there today). Annie got to visit with her baby friends and we talked about the birthday party that we're putting together for all the kids, which is going to take place in a few weeks at a health club in Dedham.

After that, we rushed home because I was hoping I could get Annie to go down for a little nap so I could eat lunch, take a shower (was feeling icky after being in the chlorinated pool), and have a little down time. Annie did most of her sleeping in her car seat, as luck would have it. I did get about 30 minutes out of her in the crib.

This afternoon, I cooked mushroom stroganoff, and we hung out with the neighbors for a while. It was so warm out! Felt like the end of spring, rather than the beginning! All my crocuses are in bloom! I love them.

When Jim got home from work, we drove over to Houghs Neck to meet with a new day care provider. And after that, we went to DQ for some ice cream! :) (yes, even before we ate dinner). It was definitely a DQ day.

I'm now off to read a good-night story to Annika, and plan on filing the taxes tonight. An absolutely loaded day.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Problem with Health Care: a Response

My previous article didn't discuss the problem with the US Health Care System, it only stated there was a problem and moved on. However, reading the comments posted by AFuss I thought it would be good to ask the question: "What is wrong with the US Health Care System?"

I think it can be taken as a truism that the US Health Care System (as a whole) is somewhat broken. It appears people from both sides of the political spectrum agree on that. Exactly how it's broken is somewhat up for debate, and how to fix it is up for even more debate. This post will not address how to fix it, rather discuss the problem itself.

When looking at what is broken, there are several aspects to consider (among others which I will not address):

1) what is the goal of the health care system -- For example, is the goal of the system to provide coverage for the rich only? Or is the system's goal to provide coverage for everyone? and to what level? Should the system provide free plastic surgery for everyone? etc...

2) does the nation have the material (including human and physical capitol) required to fix it. IE, do we have the goods required to implement the needs of #1?

First off, I would argue two central points:

A) question #1 (above) is subjective and there exists not even close agreement among the national body. Even when there is broad agreement there is a devil in the details. For example, I believe that it should be our goal to provide a basic level of health care for everyone in America. I think many people agree with this. However, I would speculate that there is broad disagreement about what "Basic" is.... does it include face lifts? (okay, probably there s broad disagreement that it doesn't), but what about providing (at government expense) for a triple bypass for a patent that is 104 years old and already a vegetable? What about one who isn't a vegetable, or one who is 96? Should the country foot the bill? What if the cost is 1 Million dollars and the chance of survival is 0.0005? What if the chance of survival is 0.3?

B) I believe #2 is true, for basically any definition of question #1. By this I mean that any definition you arrive at for #1, the US has the resources to provide it at *some* (unspecified cost). This is different than, lets say Cuba, where the doctors are perhaps very good but there is very little cutting edge technology. Or Nigeria, or perhaps most of Europe. Obviously this is arguable but please note that people from broad chunks of the world come to the United States to get treatment when things are dire. They pay through the teeth, but the Saudi Royal family still comes to MGH in Boston. Europe is much closer, but to Boston and NY they go.

Alright, groundwork aside, I am going to hypothosize that "US Health Care is broken, not because the quality of care offered is substandard, but because many people in the US can't get the high quality of care available in the US because they can't afford it." Read this another way: "The care available to those with money in the US is second to none, but that care is not broadly available to the lower middle class."

A few side notes about the above:

1) There is very good care available to the extremely poor through medicaid (Government health care).
2) There is a gap between the middle (or perhaps upper middle) class, and lower middle class in terms of health care. For those in the country who have health care coverage, life is pretty good. A huge chunk of the country gets health care coverage from their employers and the coverage they get is typically pretty good.

Let me add another part to the overall problem. Not only is there a chunk of the population without coverage, but there is also a chunk of the population who has coverage, but pays quite a bit for it. So the problem is two fold, some people don't have good coverage, and some who do (those believe that 15k a year isn't pocket change) struggle to pay for it.

Are you with me? Do you agree? I think a huge chunk of Democrats do agree with my statements above. You don't actually need to agree on a strict answer to question #1 to agree with this.

Let me take it one step further and reword my argument: "Good health care is too expensive." Yes, my argument is 100% that health care is too expensive. If you could buy the same health care Donald Trump gets for himself for $1 a year, do you think anyone would complain? So its really the cost that's the problem. Cost is why lots of American's don't have health care. We can even take this further: If you don't have a good answer for #1, its still just a matter of money. If we had unlimited money, we could provide the top level care for everyone just as long as we agree that quality care is possible in the US (question #2).

Ok, that's the problem. That's also why I completely disagree with AFuss's comment

"I don't think that Democrats side step the issue -- it's just that they don't give the answer most people want to hear. The answer they do give is: the cost is less important to us than the well being of others."

If we take this statement to be true, then we are saying Democrats believe problem isn't price, but rather the Quality of care in the US. IE, even the rich get shitty care in the US. But, that argument is problematic because rich people come to the US for health care! So there must be really good health care here, at least for the people with money. It brings me back around to the problem being that many people can't afford the care the rich people get. And if you believe that then the *whole* problem is cost.

AFuss seems to agree with my premise that costs will go up. Additionally, costs will go up for everyone who currently has an insurance plan. Mind you, my argument was not that taxes will go up for everyone, it was that everyone who currently has private insurance will now pay more. Actually, anyone who has public insurance will also pay more, but lets not argue that now: thats a much bigger topic. That means people in the mid, to upper middle class will now have to pay more for insurance. That also means the cut off for the afford /can't afford decision will now go up and more people will be uninsured. And that makes the problem worse.

11 months

Annika is 11 months old today. Wow! Here she is with her Aunt Laurie:

We spent much of today in the car, driving back to Boston. It is raining hard here, due to the Nor'easter. Tomorrow is supposed to be better. Hard to believe there's only a month left before Annie becomes a 1-year-old.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Twin Mistakes: The US Health Care Debate and the Euro

I have been spending my spare time reading and following the European Debt debacle. Everyone saw it coming, they saw it coming before the Euro was created. Greece begged to be part of the Euro, it was very good for Greece in the beginning. Now they are stuck and there is no way out. Anyhow, that's not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about how the Euro and the US Health Care debate are related. Both the Euro and US Health Care reform are parts of a good idea, but both will fail because in both cases there is no way to implement the whole idea; In both cases partial implementations lead to worse state than inaction and therefore neither should happen (or have happened).

First I will discuss the problem of the Euro. This topic has many books written on it, so I will be brief. In essence, Monetary Union strips individual European Governments of any monetary policy tools (such as managing inflation, or devaluing currency). In essence the European Central Bank is responsible for a central Monetary Policy which is applied to Europe as a whole and national banks are neutered. The problem is that good economic management require complimentary Monetary and Fiscal policy. Europe doesn't have a consistant Fiscal Policy; there is no central Fiscal Policy body while there is a central Monetary body (ECB). In short, Europe (parts of it) will continue to have major problems until there is a uniform and consistant Fiscal and Monetary policy for Europe. This is the case with the United States (also a Monetary Union): though Michigan is screwed because it can't devalue its currency, it does have Fiscal transfers from the federal government to prevent the starvation of its citizenry.

This European problem was well understood at the time of the forming of the Euro. The original advocates of the Euro also wanted a more powerful European Government, they wanted the central Fiscal Policy. However, that never happened. It was a pipe dream. There were many Europeans who dreamed of a United States of Europe with common Monetary/Fiscal and Foreign policy. Those leaders envisioned several steps to a grander union. In fact, I think they thought getting the Euro (the carrot) first would make it much harder for Europeans to reject the grander United States of Europe plan. That's the rub: integrated Fiscal Policy was always difficult, it involves pain and getting trans European consensus would always be hard. Getting a common Monetary policy was easier (it was hard to convince Germany) but peripheral nations would realize more benefits than detriments. With the exception of Germany, no European country really had a stable currency and all benefited with joining with Germany. However, people did reject it, and a tighter integration looks impossible now. But everyone is still stuck with the common Monetary Policy. And Greece is screwed, in fact they are all screwed.

How does this relate to the US Health Care Debate? Well, lets start with a few facts and take them as tautological.

1) US Health Care is broken --pretty much everyone agrees to this and I don't dispute it.
2) Any plan that imposes more requirements on any insurance plan will raise the price of the insurance plan as a whole.
3) All the plans proposed in congress (House and Senate) impose more requirements on insurance plans. The largest of which is the requirement that insurance plans can't drop someone once they sign up.

Items 2 and 3 mean prices are going up for those of us with insurance. I think everyone knows this. If you don't, spend some time thinking about it. The real question is not if prices will rise, it is "Is the extra cost worth it?" The republican's say no, and the democrats side step the issue and propose taking the extra money from rich people (or some group other than the people they are talking to at the moment). The truth is, if you are not getting your insurance from the government (like getting it from your employer) you are about to be screwed. Rates will skyrocket on the bill's passage. If you are getting it from the government (and even if you aren't) your taxes will go up, or the national debt will go up, or both. Chances are you will loose your insurance if you work for a small company, or have to pay more out of pocket if you work for a large company.

Please note, it doesn't matter if you think the requirements imposed on the insurance companies are good or bad. Either way, you are going to pay more. If you think the requirements are good, then that's good for you, maybe you think its OK to pay more. Either way, you pay more. Read it, believe it, this is well established economic fact.

Okay, how does this related to the European Economic Union? These changes to the US Health Care system will make things worse without OTHER required changes. Mostly the changes required are either to a single payer system with massive government transfers (mostly from the young to the old) or significant rationing, or a much higher percentage of American's without insurance. There are also other cost cutting measures like liability limites, or price caps. Both of these have problems of their own.

You say this is great if you are a supporter of a single payer system. I think some of these supporters realize passing these health care bills now will cause more pain, but that the pain will force people to embrace a government single payer system. Here is the rub, the fix will never make it through congress, its DOA. The current bills will just raise costs, with none of the required long term solutions; much like the Euro, this is half of a plan. And just like the Euro the political climate is changing and all that will be passed is the easy half of Health Care Reform. The effort to pass the first bill has sucked all the air out of Washington. There will be no way for anyone to change anything after this bill. Not for many years, not until the pain is even greater. You will feel it, and its going to hurt. There will be no medicine for many years.

Corning and points beyond

After a short, last minute detour for two days in Buffalo, we have made it to Corning, NY at last. My sister is blowing glass at the Corning glass museum for 3 weeks to audition for a job as a glass blower on a cruise ship. Since this meant that she was on the East Coast for the first time since October, we decided to come see her.

Today was genealogy day. My father's family lived in this area for most of the 19th century, and so today we all piled into our car (my mom, sister, Jim, Annika and I) and went graveyard hopping and old house hunting. We found a graveyard that was built on land donated by my great-grandmother's great-grandfather, who was also a Revolutionary War soldier. We found his grave, along with many, many other relatives in the 3 graveyards we visited in Barton, Ellistown, and Elmira. We also found my grandfather's childhood home in Elmira on W. Clinton Street, near the corner with Davis Street. I can't believe we found it. I only have one photo of it, from approximately 1906, and we found it based on that photo and a mention in a wedding announcement of the name of the street where he and his family lived. We drove up and down W. Clinton Street (a major street near Elmira College), and suddenly a house caught my eye. I took a few photos, not sure if it was the right one. Then, when we got back to the hotel, I compared it with the photo I uploaded to Flickr, and it's very clearly the same house. At this point, the house is in pretty rough shape. We also learned that Elmira College tore down the house where my grandfather's parents lived, on Davis Street.

Other highlights: we drove by the "Bare Facts," a very classy "gentlemen's club" somewhere on Rt. 17 in between Barton and Waverly. It was in a not-so-glorified trailer, and was located just down the street from the dilapidated "Cat's Pajamas" bed-and-breakfast inn. Makes you wonder how business is these days. This area is very rural and quite depressed at this point. There are lots of farms, silos, open land, and old houses that are either abandoned or have not been cared for in a long time. In the cities, the architecture is mostly Victorian, and the houses, though often in bad shape, are beautiful examples of Victorian architecture. Of the cities, Corning seems to be in the best shape, probably because they still have an industry here that keeps people employed.

Yesterday, Annika went swimming for the first time, in the pool at the hotel where we're staying. She seemed to like it, although at first, she didn't know what to make of it and held on to me tightly. After our swim, we went to dinner at "the Gaffer" bar and grille (gaffer is another name for a glass blower). It was really nice, and Annika met a new friend, a little boy named Trent (nickname: Trotter), who was 18 months old. Annika spent all of dinner turned around in her high chair, starring at Trotter.

Tomorrow we hope to see the glass museum before we head back to Boston, and hopefully some normalcy after some pretty difficult weeks.

Monday, March 8, 2010


What a bummer the last few weeks have been. First we found out one family member had a mild stroke (with no apparent side effects). Then I went into Buffalo for that memorial service for our family friend. Then Jim's grandmother had a very significant stroke and is in the hospital as I write this with unknown prognosis.

OK. So lots of sad things going on. Thus, we need a happy baby picture. This one is what happens when you mix a baby with blueberry pancakes and prunes.


You can't help but smile when you see that.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A long life?

A long time ago, my dad told me that he would never want to live to be 90 years old. I think this was when my grandmother was 90 and was struggling with dementia. She was in a nursing home and was always confused and sad. Her quality of life had diminished greatly.

While I could understand why he said it, I always dismissed his statement, telling him that it would be great to live that long. Think about all the changes you get to see! Sometimes, you get to meet your great-grandchildren! You get to enjoy retirement! Go on lots of trips! Part of my excitement was that when you're 22, you can't imagine in any non-abstract way that someday your life is going to stop. There's just too much ahead and too much to look forward to.

I have revisited this issue many times. Dad's statement turned out to be prophetic, when he died at age 61.  It was with grief that I thought about how Dad would never live to be 90, never get to meet his grandchild(ren?) (let alone great-grandchildren), never get to enjoy retirement. Then, our neighbor died recently at age 95. She did actually get to meet her great-grandchildren. But she also lived through the death of her husband, all of her friends and, truly, her generation. She was blind and going deaf. In some ways, she was still happy - she retained her quick wit and her sense of humor. She lived in her own home, near her daughter, and saw her nearly everyday. But I think she was still sad and lonely. 

So I return to the question. I suppose it's somewhat insignificant to wonder about it, since in the end, you really can't choose how long you live. But is it better to be the last to go, and follow the lives of the younger generations? Is it good to be the one who tells the stories about all the people and places that are long gone? Is it possible to be happy, if that ends up being your lot? 

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Last minute trip to Buffalo

We had a lovely visit to Buffalo this weekend. The purpose of the trip was to attend the memorial service for my parents' long-time neighbor and friend, who lived to age 95 and sadly died a week ago. Her daughter is my mom's best friend and someone whom I think of as family. There were lots of my parents' neighbors at the memorial service and it was interesting to see people that I hadn't seen since I moved away to college over 15 years ago.

Annika did quite well on the plane trip. I was pretty apprehensive because I was traveling by myself and while Annie is generally Miss Mellow Yellow, she will occasionally have melt-downs, particularly when she's thrown off her schedule. But she did really well. She was patient even though the flight was over an hour delayed. She practiced standing, and she played peek-a-boo with a lady that was sitting in the waiting area nearby. Then she slept through the whole flight.

But the changes in scenery eventually got to her - trying to sleep in three different cribs, seeing all kinds of people, etc. The second day, as usual, was the tough day, as that always seems to be the day when all the changes really sink in.  But she did relatively well on the flight home (although I don't recommend using the airplane's bathroom changing table unless you absolutely have to - it is about 1 foot by 1 foot and has a weight limit of 25 lbs ... unfortunately, in our case, our usage of it was not optional). Annie fell asleep as the plane landed in Boston, and was so sound asleep that I was able to move her from on my chest to the plane seat (to put on my coat), to back on my chest, then I carried her off the plane, then transferred her onto a seat in the waiting area (to open up her stroller), then strapped her into the stroller and she didn't even stir. I think she was quite happy to finally get home and sleep in her own crib last night.

Annika got to visit lots with her grandmas and her cousin Maddie, who was so excited to see Annika! Maddie just wanted to give her hugs and kisses, but Annika was a little shell-shocked from the drastic changes in her schedule, routine, and the people she was seeing.

In the end, she had fun playing with Maddie, particularly once we visited Maddie at her apartment. It was a good weekend - we got a lot of visiting in, considering how short the trip was. Annie's next road trip is in two weeks, when we drive to Corning, NY to visit Laurie.