Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Medigap is looming issue for senior citizens

Probably few Michigan senior citizens are focused on what their Medigap health insurance premiums will be in 2016, but they should be.

For state residents receiving their Medigap coverage from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, their  rates will be frozen under state law through July of 2016. After that, all bets are off.

BCBSM’s status was changed a year ago when the legislature approved its request to become a non-profit mutual insurer. That was in preparation for the new market realities under the Affordable Care Act, in which BCBSM would no longer need to function as Michigan’s insurer of last resort.

The new status for BCBSM basically enables the company to compete on a level playing field. It is now — except for the Medigap exception through July of 2016 — just like any other health insurer.

But according to an attorney who specializes in issues affecting senior citizens, the Medigap issue looms like a voracious shark.

“We currently have approximately 200,000 Michiganders on BCBSM Medigap Legacy plans with most paying $121.22 (for Medigap Plan C) per month, per person regardless of age, residence, body mass, etc.” for BCBSM Medigap coverage, said Christoper W. Smith, who is with the Jackson office of the law firm Chalgian & Tripp. “Blue Cross’s rates quickly jump up to $250-plus a month per person in comparable, non-subsidized plans and much more for those age 80 and over,” Smith said.
“Say Blue Cross increases the rate to $250.  That would be a monthly increase of $129 per person ($250-$121). Over 12 months, that’s an increased cost of $3,096 a year for a married couple to keep similar coverage,” Smith said.

Before BCBSM’s status changed, Michigan residents had protections against such increases unlike those in  almost any other state.
“We were really lucky to have that plan in Michigan,” Smith said, referring to BCBSM’s Medigap Legacy plan. “Michigan had exceptional Medicare coverage.”

For its part, BCBSM believes the competitive market will ultimately determine the desirability of offering all health products, including Medigap, according to Helen Stojic, director of corporate affairs for BCBSM and the Blue Cares Network.

“For example, Medicare Advantage is a competitively priced option that exists in the marketplace today,” Stojic said. “Given that we expect the market will be much more competitive for this particular product in 2016 than it is today, there's little reason as it stands today to think that we wouldn't offer Medigap.

“Additionally, Public Act 4 allows the nonprofit health endowment fund to establish a needs based subsidy program for Medigap and provides $120 million from Aug. 1, 2016 to Dec. 31, 2021 for that purpose.”

“Any way you slice it, BCBSM got one heck of a deal last year,” Smith said.  

“That frustration aside and being realistic about political realities, I am most concerned about three groups:  1) those under 65 where insurers do not have to offer a Medigap policy; 2) retirees who have their retirement plans cut and are outside their ‘guaranteed issue period;’ and 3) people getting stuck with unsustainable price hikes by his or her insurer and being unable to switch insurers due to underwriting.  These are the groups that some other states have enacted legislation to protect,” Smith said.

Smith said a majority of states have statutes that guarantee that an individual under 65 can get a Medigap plan.  Social Security Disability recipients are eligible for Medicare after two years.

“The Affordable Care Act provides no protection to these individuals,” Smith said.   Many of them rely on Medicaid for supplemental coverage, costing taxpayers, Smith said.

Smith also said the legislature could act to ensure that retirees who have pension plans that are substantially cut or eliminated have a guaranteed issue period to get a Medigap plan.  
“Every week, I receive calls from individuals concerned about cuts to their retirement health plans. For many, they may not be able to get an affordable Medigap plan because of medical underwriting and related factors when their plans are cut.  We would ideally enact legislation that protects these individuals who delayed getting a Medigap plan because he or she understandably relied on his or her former employer providing coverage,” Smith said.  Smith also said the the BCBSM Legacy plans would have been an affordable solution for many Detroit retirees facing possible cuts in benefits from Detroit’s bankruptcy.  Detroit’s bankruptcy is currently in the federal courts.

“The legislature could also enact an 'annual enrollment period' where each year — often the month of a person’s birthday — a person can switch insurance providers and/or  switch to a Medigap plan that provides less coverage, but is more affordable.  This would ensure that most individuals are not priced out of the Medigap market by their insurer as they get older,” Smith said.

He noted that until 2016 the Blue Cross Legacy plan is the same price no matter how old you are, something that is called a community rated plan.

“In 2016, we may no longer have a true community rated plan in Michigan,” Smith said.

Smith said he hopes these issues will be raised in the 2014 state elections. Senior citizens ought to be bringing such concerns to their lawmakers and state candidates.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Dealing with Obamacare as reality

Now that the Healthcare.gov website is working, and people are signing up for and receiving health insurance, Obamacare is moving from the theoretical to the practical.

Put another way, it is here to stay.

That it needs to be improved is obvious. The question is whether voters will reward Republicans who continue their Johnny-One-Note approach of insisting that the law be repealed.

How would repeal affect those who are now insured under provisions of the Affordable Care Act?

It was only a couple of words, but there may be significance in former Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown’s admonition on Fox News Sunday to “fix Obamacare, period.”

There is a big difference between fixing the Affordable Care Act and repealing it.

Fixes might include:

1) Introducing a basic government insurance program, an idea referred to as the public option when the program was debated in 2009 and 2010. Somehow, in the midst of the complexity of the issue, this might prove to have real public appeal.

2) Further lowering eligibility requirements for Medicaid, thereby guaranteeing insurance for more people who still can’t afford it on the Healthcare.gov exchange. The last few months prove, if nothing else, that the public is finally realizing how expensive health insurance is, and how much it costs their employees.

3) Increasing subsidies for individual insurance and lowering penalties for employers when the employer mandate kicks in 2015. This would encourage employers to drop group insurance plans and move the country to a more logical insurance system that embraces individual responsibility.

4) Lower the eligible age for Medicare to 62, thereby encouraging more early retirements and opening up employment opportunities for younger people.

The question is whether the Republicans will participate in the debate and bring some constructive ideas to the table. They have long blathered about how great the world would be if insurance companies could compete across state lines.  It has been documented that this assertion is not true, but why not talk about it.

It pays to know what the opposition is up to, and Democrats may yet be rewarded for at least tackling the health coverage issue, because most people don’t really want to go back to the way things were. 


Friday, December 27, 2013

Renewable energy proving affordable

Consensus appears conceivable as Michigan moves toward updating its energy policy with 2025 in view.

Groups are generally applauding the principles Gov. Rick Snyder enunciated recently.

Snyder spoke in broad terms. He favors energy efficiency, expanding renewables, replacing coal, affordability and fewer and shorter power outages.

Mom’s apple pie would be nice too.

The legislature is expected to begin drafting policy as the clock runs out on Michigan’s current renewable energy standard in 2015.

Meanwhile,  the wisdom of bipartisan policies agreed to by the Michigan legislature and former Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2008 continues to manifest itself.

 Michigan customers of DTE Energy will be getting a reduction on their utility bills following Michigan Public Service Commission  approval the utility’s plan to slash its renewable energy surcharge by 85 percent, bringing the fee down from $3 to 43 cents per month.

Earlier this year, Consumers Energy reported to the MPSC that it would eliminate its renewable energy surcharge completely.

This proves that the big utilities were able to expand reliance on renewables without unduly burdening ratepayers. To be sure there has been grumbling about rates from both residential and commercial users but no pronounced outcry. Cleaning up the environment carries a cost, but not that huge a cost, as it turns out.

DTE was able to reduce the surcharges due to the declining price of wind energy, which is now cheaper than all other forms of energy.

The contours of what promises to be a spirited debate over energy policy are shaping up following statements by interested groups.

“Gov. Snyder discussed and is rightly concerned that our high utility electricity rates harm residential homeowners, discourages growth, business expansion and job creation and also make Michigan uncompetitive in attracting new business and industry,” said Wayne Kuipers,  executive director of Energy Choice Now.

“While no specific recommendations to solving this problem were laid out in his comments today, the Legislature has already taken steps to bring relief to consumers with the introduction of House Bill 5184,” Kuipers said. That measure would lift Michigan’s cap on alternative energy suppliers, which incumbent utilities were granted in 2008 so they could cope with the cost of moving to renewables.

“Michigan’s current cap prevents most Michigan customers from using competition to lower their electric bills electric rates, which are by far the highest in the Midwest and well above the national average,” Kuipers said.

For more information about the Michigan Electric Customer Freedom Act,  visit: www.MIEnergyDashboard.com.

 Leaders of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum  praised  Snyder for leading the state’s transition toward greater use of clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency, which it said will improve national security, protect public health and create jobs and economic opportunity.

“By leading on energy policy, Gov. Snyder is paving the way on issues that are important to conservatives, albeit for different reasons than those of environmental advocate,” said Larry Ward, executive director of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum. “Michigan manufacturers, researchers, engineers and scientists are creating the next generation of state of the art wind turbines, solar panels as thin as paper, and new generations of vehicles that use less and additional forms of energy. Because of his background, Gov. Snyder understands technology, and therefore that any state energy policy must have the flexibility to anticipate opportunities to leverage future advancements.”

“We applaud and support Gov. Snyder for his leadership on this important issue,” said Keith den Hollander, chairman of the Christian Coalition of Michigan. “It’s no secret that Washington is not going to tackle energy policy. All Americans, including people of faith, need our Governors to pave the way. It’s archaic in this millennium to think that Michigan still gets nearly 60% of our electricity from coal – which we pay to have shipped in. Expanding Michigan’s use of clean energy will build upon our manufacturing strength, talent and know-how, encourage innovation and put Michigan workers back on the job.”

“We are too dependent on foreign energy — sending a billion dollars overseas every day, often to countries that are hostile to America and our way of life,” said Hank Fuhs, long-time secretary of the Michigan Republican State Committee and 31-year veteran of the Michigan Air National Guard, retiring as a Lt. Colonel. “By transitioning away from imported coal to clean, renewable energy produced here, we can improve our energy security and save lives — 10 percent of the casualties suffered in Afghanistan and Iraq were at the expense of transporting fuel or protecting fuel lines.”

 More information about the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum can be found at: www.facebook.com/michiganc

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Expand Michigan Schools of Choice program

Michigan’s  Mackinac Center for Public Policy has come up with a great idea: Expansion of the state’s Schools of Choice program..

About 100,000 students in Michigan attend a public school other than the one to which they are assigned through the program, a 144 percent increase from a decade ago, according to a new study conducted by the center. http://www.mackinac.org/19448

“The fact is that nearly as many students choose a different conventional school district over their own as do those who choose charter public schools,” according to Audrey Spalding, director of education policy and author of the study. “We found that parents utilize Schools of Choice to send their students to districts that have higher test scores and higher graduation rates.”

The study also includes policy recommendations to help give students access to better options by easing restrictions on geography and funding, and limiting districts’ ability to pick and choose incoming students. Currently, Schools of Choice is only permitted between districts within an intermediate school district or one that is contiguous. About 80 percent of Schools of Choice students attend another district within their own ISD.

“This geographic limitation should be eliminated so that students would be free to attend any district outside of their own that they wish,” Spalding said. “Districts should also be able to open schools outside of their current boundaries.”

Spalding cites the West Bloomfield and Clintondale districts, each of which enrolls more than 1,000 Schools of Choice students, saying “It’s certainly possible they could make use of the ability to open a school in the community of non-resident students they serve.”

Thursday, December 12, 2013

We’re learning about health insurance

Suddenly America is talking about health insurance at the kitchen table and in the living room.

It’s not just the pros and cons of the Affordable Care Act that we are discussing but substantive issues like how much health insurance costs, deductibles, pre-existing conditions, mechanics of how to obtain it and what’s covered.

Senior citizens are accustomed to this as they discuss ins and outs of supplemental coverage and Medicare’s prescription drug coverage among themselves, and have been for years.

While there is plenty of talk about dissatisfaction with ACA’s rollout, people are more concerned about how it affects them and what their own situation is or may be in the future.

What people are not doing is  sitting around talking about how to repeal Obamacare. Most people realize the law is here to stay and they want to make the best of it. To be sure, they are free with their suggestions about how the law can be improved, but most acknowledge that something had to be done about our health insurance system in this country.

The point is, people are thinking and learning about the issue. This is a good thing. It means people will come to grips with the high costs, realizing, among other things, what a valuable benefit they are receiving from their employer, is they are so fortunate. They might also begin to realize how much it costs their employer to provide such benefits, and how perhaps their employer could expand the company and hire more people except for the burden of health insurance.

From there, it’s an easy transition to start seeing that there must be a better way.

Then perhaps people will realize that the Affordable Care Act has launched us on the way to reform. Certainly it will need changes, but we are at least started on the road to a better system.

(For a helpful discussion about employer-provided insurance see “Health Care Costs And The Third-Party Payer Problem.”)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Our disgraceful Congress

The words of the famous four-line Latin poem by Phaedrus come to mind:

 “A mountain had gone into labour and was groaning terribly. Such rumours excited great expectations all over the country. In the end, however, the mountain gave birth to a mouse.”

This is an apt description of the bipartisan budget deal proposed by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan.

The best they could do was offer $23 billion in deficit reduction over 10 years while allowing the current $17-trillion national debt grow by trillions more in that same period.

Our lawmakers ought to be embarrassed. Instead, they are celebrating!

The agreement does prove several things: 1) Neither Democrats nor Republicans are serious about dealing with the national debt;  2) Democrats oppose any kind of spending reasonable spending restraint; 3) Republicans may offer some resistance to domestic spending increases but want to continue to waste money on the military in exchange for votes; 4) Republicans would not trade even modest tax increases for serious deficit reduction.

You can always see who the winners and losers are in such a deal — if we can call it that. Democrats are more apt to embrace it than Republicans. That is the advantage of holding the White House.

Voters ought to consider giving one party control of both branches of Congress in the 2016 election. A divided Congress is getting us nowhere.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Republicans, Democrats — and a Third Way

The death of moderation is one of the most unfortunate facets of our current political scene.

Readers ought to check out the Third Way website. It would have to characterized as a center-left think tank, which ought to give those in the center-right some hope for sane resolution of some of our key issues if the Republicans cease to be a viable alternative to the Democrats.

There are some — not many, but some — signs that at least a significant minority of Democrats in Congress are open to stances that run counter to the hard left that governs the party. The most prominent recent example, of course, is the defection of 39 House Democrats from lockstep support for Obamacare.

Now it is true that the alternative they voted for, a measure introduced by GOP Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan to remedy recent health insurance cancellations, was fatally flawed. But in a rational world, the openness of these 39 lawmakers could lead to common-sense changes in the law that would actually benefit people.

Here are some excerpts of thinking featured on the Third Way site, written by Jim Kessler and Jim Cowan:

“If you talk to leading progressives these days, you’ll be sure to hear this message: The Democratic Party should embrace the economic populism of New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Such economic populism, they argue, should be the guiding star for Democrats heading into 2016. Nothing would be more disastrous for Democrats.

“While New Yorkers think of their city as the center of the universe, the last time its mayor won a race for governor or senator—let alone president—was 1869. For the past 144 years, what has happened in the Big Apple stayed in the Big Apple. Some liberals believe Sen. Warren would be the Democratic Party’s strongest presidential candidate in 2016. But what works in midnight-blue Massachusetts—a state that has had a Republican senator for a total of 152 weeks since 1979—hasn’t sold on a national level since 1960.

“The political problems of liberal populism are bad enough. Worse are the actual policies proposed by left-wing populists. The movement relies on a potent “we can have it all” fantasy that goes something like this: If we force the wealthy to pay higher taxes (there are 300,000 tax filers who earn more than $1 million), close a few corporate tax loopholes, and break up some big banks then—presto!—we can pay for, and even expand, existing entitlements. Meanwhile, we can invest more deeply in K-12 education, infrastructure, health research, clean energy and more.

“Social Security is exhibit A of this populist political and economic fantasy.”

This is great stuff. You owe it to yourself to check it out. It’s nice to know that there is more out there than Ted Cruz and Rand Paul in response to extreme left-wing Democrats.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Sell artwork to pay creditors

Something seems out of perspective as we consider selling a very small portion of the artwork in the Detroit Institute of Arts to raise money to pay off some of Detroit’s bankruptcy victims.

The choice is simple: Cut someone’s promised pension benefits or sell city-owned artwork.

Why aren’t we instead asking why any city should have been in the art business to begin with?

Politicians can grandstand all they want to about what a shame it would be to transfer prized pieces of art from the public domain to someone’s private collection. But if that’s the sentiment, perhaps the museum can take up a collection from those people who want to keep these prized pieces  in the DIA to buy the treasurers from the city.

And for the record, the art we are talking about — the city-owned pieces — constitute only 5 percent  of DIA’s collection. To be exact, the city owns 2,781 of the museum’s entire collection of 66,000 works. The city owned portion could raise between $452 million and $866  million, according to Christie’s auction house.

If all of this means Oakland and Macomb counties withdraw their support from the museum as a result, so be it.

People need to understand the nature of a bankruptcy, since municipal bankruptcy is a new concept to all Michiganians. The people, in the form of the city government, made more commitments than they were able to honor. Therefore, grownups have come along to manage the City of Detroit and force it to sell off some of assets so it can pay off  its hapless creditors.

Generally in a bankruptcy, the creditors get much less than they are owed, sometimes only pennies on the dollar. It is up to the bankruptcy judge to determine how much.

If you say the artwork should not be sold — and bear in mind DIA could buy it if the DIA or its patrons could afford it — you are basically saying that there should be $452 million to $866 million less given to creditors — like pensioners on fixed incomes — whose only crime was to place their faith in the city of Detroit and its taxpayers.

This is not rocket science folks. There is a downside when you don’t pay your bills.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Second-guessing Walmart executives

“Here's How Walmart Could Pay Workers a Decent Wage Without Raising Prices”

Now this had to be a good one, right?

Turns out the suggestion, carried on Mother Jones, was simple: Instead of buying back some of their stock as planned, Walmart executives instead ought to invest the money in raising employees’ wages.

Gee, why didn’t they think of that?

Now, there can be many reasons why Walmart is buying back its own stock. Perhaps they feel they are the target of an unfriendly acquisition attempt and want to drive up the price of the stock to prevent it.

Now consider the alternative. Walmart executives decline to buy back their own stock, thereby allowing the price of the stock to fall. A prospective new owner swoops in, buyds or merges with Walmart, and increases prices on merchandise.

Or perhaps the new stockholders demand that executives seek savings by laying off employees. Then the employees not only don;t have higher wages, they don;t have jobs either.

There could be myriad reasons Walmart executives  are buying back their own stock. The point is, we simply don’t know.

Unless you are in their shoes you simply don;t know what Walmart executives are thinking.

Those who think they do are parading their economic illiteracy.

It would be better for all of  us if they would find a copy of Thomas Sowell’s “Basic Economics” and read it.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Cheney gay marriage dispute unfortunate

Mary Cheney says her sister, Liz, is wrong on the issue of gay marriage.

Liz Cheney said on Fox News Sunday that she believes in the traditional definition of marriage involving a man and a woman. Mary Cheney is involved in a gay marriage.

The disagreement between the two became public when Mary Cheney responded to and criticized her sister’s stance in a Facebook post.

That a family spat is public is sad enough. That this should come up in a Senate race between incumbent Mike Enzi and Liz Cheney is the saddest part of all, however.

Enzi has chosen to grandstand on the issue by supporting a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. This despite the fact that any dispute over gay marriage is clearly under the purview of the individual states in the nation. Enzi knows a constitutional amendment will never happen and ought to be honest enough to say so.

When asked about the issue herself, Liz Cheney could have taken the high road — and a solid conservative stance — by making it clear that the issue had no place in a U.S. Senate race since it is a question of states’ rights, and not within the prerogative of the federal government. Her personal views are of no relevance. Her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, has taken the states’ rights position on the issue since 2009.

When our country has such serious economic issues on its plate, the real shame is that Enzi is trying to portray Liz Cheney as soft on gay marriage — a question that has no pertinence in a Senate race. Both Republican candidates are in a position to teach the folks of Wyoming the difference between state and federal prerogatives and that isn’t happening.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Few hardships among insurance cancellations

From what has been reported, you would think that 5 million Americans were risking bankruptcy due to the cancellations of their health insurance policies.

The actual truth is in a far different place.

First, these are not people who are part of employee groups, most of whom will not see major coverage changes. Instead, it is a small slice of the population — those who purchase health insurance individually — that has many valid alternatives.

The individual market covers 5.7 percent of the non-elderly population. The overwhelming majority of those people will obtain more affordable coverage under the health care law because they will be income-eligible for financial assistance to help pay for comprehensive insurance at a lower cost, according to a new report from Families USA.
“Individuals with household incomes that do not exceed four times the federal poverty level  — $94,200 for a family of four in 2013 — are income-eligible for either premium tax credit subsidies to buy coverage in the new health insurance marketplaces or Medicaid, which charges no premiums for most enrollees,” the report states.

Conversely, the number of people at risk of not keeping their current individual health insurance and who also will not be income-eligible for financial help to purchase new coverage under the Affordable Care Act is just 0.6 percent of the non-elderly population, the report states.  

And these are hardly hardship cases. For one thing, their income exceeds $94,200, meaning they are not destitute.

 And “according to peer-reviewed research, the average duration of individual-market coverage before the Affordable Care Act was very short. Its median duration was eight months, with individual plans often bridging periods of job-based coverage,” according to the report.

Also, “altogether, 64.5 percent of consumers with individual market insurance kept that insurance for a year or less — a result not affected by income.”

 Many of the 0.6 percent of Americans who have incomes too high for financial help and, without the ACA, would have kept their individual insurance for more than a year would prefer new coverage options, even without subsidies, the report states.

“A recent survey found that 45 percent of people with individual coverage described their insurance as ‘fair’ or ‘poor,’ compared to 18 percent or less for every other form of coverage, including Medicaid,” the report states.

Once again, the truth about Obamacare rests somewhere between the extremes of the heated debate between Republicans and Democrats.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The purpose of insurance

The current debate over “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan” has revealed a shocking ignorance of the purpose of insurance.

We buy insurance for our automobiles because it is basically required by law. But there’s a bigger reason: It protects us.

Furthermore, in purchasing car insurance — or any other kind of insurance, for that matter — we hope we never have to use it.

You may go years paying $2,400 annually to insure two vehicles and never make a claim. But you are willing to do so because it is there if you need it. Others are also paying for similar policies so that in case you do have a problem, there is enough money to pay your bills.

You see, this is how insurance works. You create a pool of money large enough to handle anyone’s claims, of which there may be a wide variety. This is why it is necessary for everyone to have insurance, to create a large enough accumulation of money so that all contingencies can be handled. The higher the participation, the lower the cost for everyone.

That’s why it is so difficult to understand why people don’t comprehend this in the medical realm. No one wants to get sick. But if you do, medical expenses are prohibitively high. No one can afford cancer treatment. Pediatric care can be very expensive. Pregnancies also cost a lot of money.

So why is it that people who are 58 can’t understand why they need coverage for everything. Yes, perhaps their child-bearing years are a thing of the past but it is a very real expense for younger people — perhaps even the 58-year-old’s daughter and son in-law. Similarly, why should young people have to be insured against diseases  normally associated with old age? 

Get the point? Everyone participates in order to share a burden when it happens.

It’s just like public schools or roads or military defense. Everyone pays equally — or should pay equally — so everyone can benefit.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What Bill Clinton said

Well of course we’d like people to keep their insurance and their doctors if they want to. Now how can we make this happen?

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., says his legislation will do so. It will do nothing of the sort.

You see, in America we have free enterprise. Government cannot make a company sell something it doesn’t want to sell.

Yes, President Obama went overboard when he made that promise. And yes, former President Clinton is correct in saying the government should keep its promise, even if it takes changing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

But here is the only way that could happen: the government would have to provide the insurance.

Congress could, if it wanted to, enact a law very narrowly targeted at the 1 percent of the population that has been hit with a health insurance policy cancellation due to Obamacare. It could make up the difference, from our tax dollars,  between what they were paying under their old policy and what a new policy meeting the requirements of Obamacare would cost.

Do you honestly believe Republicans will vote for such a law? No, they’d rather skewer the president and raise funds for their congressional re-election campaigns than solve the problem.

People really need to try to understand that the law was adopted to provide insurance to people who have no insurance. Yes, a few people are going to have to pay more, but the truth is, they can probably afford it.

 See for yourself. Listen carefully to what Deborah Persico is saying in this video. She says she is going to have to pay $5,000 more per year for insurance. Is hers a hardship case? Do you think the government should make up the $5,000 difference?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Now if we had a real Congress ...

People who have decent jobs are experiencing some wage growth, according to The Wall Street Journal.

 But there has been little recovery for the young, the less educated and those who remain unemployed.

 Put another way, the rich are getting richer and the poor are, at best, only staying the same.

Seems like an ideal subject for Congress to discuss. But the issue has no pizzazz, and politicians could not use it to raise campaign money as they do with subjects like gun control, Obamacare or abortion.

And maybe there is nothing Congress can do, though it is a historical fact that income equality tends to increase when Democrats are in power and the wealthy have a harder time when Republicans are in office.

 Given the reputations of the two parties — with Democrats the supposed friend of the working person and Republicans favoring business — you would think it would be just the opposite.

 But here we are, sitting on a record stock market with fewer sharing the success. Banks are swimming in money.

There are probably many reasons why public policies often produce the opposite of the results that are sought. But that isn’t the point today.

 The point is that the people are growing impatient with Congress because it doesn’t seem interested in such practical bread-and-butter issues as how more of us can enjoy the good life. If we had a functioning Congress, such issues would be discussed all the time.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Can Pontiac handle democracy?

Turnout for Pontiac’s first bonafide election in over four years was only 13 percent but let’s take the positive view: The return of democracy to the city is off to a good start.

The city has elected a highly qualified mayor in Deirdre Waterman. If she can accomplish half of what she has led the way for at the city’s library it will be outstanding.

Outgoing Mayor Leon Jukowski deserves a hearty salute for his role in Pontiac’s necessary transformation under an emergency manager. Jukowski, since he had no real authority, could have sat on the sidelines and criticized the EM as Detroit’s Dave Bing has done, but he chose instead to support all of the EM’s unpopular decisions.

Voters often claim they want politicians to just do what is right in spite of popularity, but when they do, they suffer Jukowski’s fate at the polls.

Pontiac residents lost their democratic rights in March of 2009 after then Gov. Jennifer Granholm declared a financial emergency in the city. Fred Leeb was then named as the city’s emergency financial manager with near-dictatorial authority.

Democracy began to be restored to Pontiac in August of this year when Emergency Manager Louis Schimmel left his position.

Now the mayor and city council are back in charge, with some restrictions.

Elected officials do not have a good track record in running city government in Pontiac. The public shares the blame because it is the voters who choose the leaders.

Waterman is the city’s first woman mayor. Perhaps she can also become the city’s first successful mayor in recent memory.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Obamacare transformational? You didn't know?

We can talk about what President Obama did or did not promise about the new health-care system.  It’s here and what do we do about it now?

First of all, if the media is surprised that the Affordable Care Act is transformational then they didn’t do their job to begin with. The wealthy class knew it would equalize things and that is why it fought the changes — and continues to fight them — so strenuously.

Just because the new law is transformational doesn’t mean it’s bad. There may be better systems but the Congress didn’t adopt them.

Consider the ways in which Obamacare is transformational and then — and only then — decide whether it is good or bad and how it should be improved.

• Obamacare inches away from our third-party payment system, in which employers bear the cost of health insurance. Why is this bad? By placing all the cost on employers, employers, as a result, cut back on wages and number of people hired. Are these good things? Perhaps it is why no other industrialized country has the third-party payment system.

•  ACA includes generous subsidies even for the middle class — that is, those in that class who don’t work for a large employer, perhaps employ themselves, and thus find themselves looking for their own insurance. Again, why shouldn’t these folks have access to affordable insurance?

• The new law makes everyone pay for health care. The premise is: there is no such thing as a free lunch. Yes, that’s a philosophy spawned by the evil Republicans, which begs the question as to why they are opposed to the system.

• Obamacare promotes a competitive marketplace that forces insurers to advertise for customers. And why is this bad? Suddenly, Michigan, 70 percent of whose market has heretofore been sewn up by Blue Cross Blue Shield, has 14 companies competing for your business. More choice. And what, exactly, is wrong with that?

• The upshot of the system may be less care for the wealthy (unless they pay more) and more care for the less fortunate. And this is an ungodly notion? As one informed knowledgeable observer in France said, folks in that country would never dream that the valet is entitled to less care than the president of the country.

Next time someone grouses about Obamacare, ask them what they would do? An inquire about their insurance. It’s probably pretty secure. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The whole truth and nothing but the truth

Charles DeGaulle, in his classic book “The Edge of the Sword,” said the good leader dissembles.

Even Jesus did that.

“I have many things to say to you,” Jesus told his disciples, “but you cannot bear them now.”

Put another way, while leaders can be truthful, they don’t always tell the whole truth.

Consider the general who is sending his troops into a battle from which he knows only half will survive. What does he tell them?

This is especially true about American politicians because they are democratically elected.

If they tell the whole truth they simply don’t get elected.

Now we are finding this out about President Barack Obama.

Critics are hammering him because he told the American people that if they liked their health insurance, they could keep it. If they liked their doctor, they could keep their doctor.

This is still mostly true, but if the president had told the full truth, this is how it might have sounded:

“If you like your insurance, and it is provided by an large employer who is not cutting corners, and can afford not to cut corners, you’ll be able to keep your insurance. However, its cost to you, in the form of premiums that you help pay for, may go up. You can keep your doctor too, if your insurance company continues to include him or her in its network. And, of course, if your doctor retires or changes the nature of his or her practice, you’ll have to find another one.

“However, if you don’t have employer-provided coverage, but purchase a policy on your own, we are no longer going to encourage your insurance company to offer bare-bones coverage. You deserve better. Therefore, your insurance company may choose not to insure you, or might raise its prices, because it has to improve its coverage.

“The good news is, if you are an individual with a salary of approximately $46,000, or a couple earning about $62,000, or even a family of four earning $94,000, you may qualify for a generous government subsidy as you buy your own insurance. The end result is that you may get a better policy than you now have at a lower price.”

Now let’s face it, the above statement breaks every rule of the good sound bite. People would have tuned out the president by the time he started his second sentence.

That says a lot more about us than it does him.

It’s easy to blame the leader. But in a democratic society it should never be forgotten that we are the ones who elect our leaders.

 Those who tell us more of the truth than we are prepared to bear simply don’t get elected.

Friday, October 25, 2013

How to figure your health insurance costs

Presumably the new Health Insurance Marketplace at healthcare.gov will get straightened out at some point, but until then you can use the new  Get Covered Calculator released by Enroll America.

You can find out in less than a minute what coverage might cost you.

 The tool  provides individuals and families with realistic cost estimates for new coverage using basic information. In a clean, jargon-free interface. The calculator produces an estimated price range of what the consumer would be eligible for through their marketplace. The Get Covered Calculator uses the most up-to-date data to provide consumers an estimate of what they’re eligible for based on the state in which they live, and then connects them directly to the appropriate place for them to start the enrollment process.

The calculator is free, easy to use and doesn’t require or retain any sensitive personal information. It may tell you that you are not eligible for Obamacare subsidies and may never need to go to healthcare.gov.

But in all likelihood it will surprise you. An Oakland County couple, both aged 63 and earning combined income of $62,040 per year,  would qualify for coverage costing $235 to $491 per month once their $544 monthly subsidy was figured in.

That’s a great deal and once more people discover this and their stories spread, opposition to the program may fade away.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Focus on national debt is imperative

It may not be as exciting as railing against the evils of big business or Obamacare, but the most important issue facing the country remains the national debt.

It is not so much what it is doing to us today as what it could do to us in the future.

We have the relatively fresh examples of Greece and Cyprus before us, and some say it is silly to compare these weak, second-rate countries to the greatness of the United States.

But the principles are the same. We caught a glimpse of this in recent days as the debt ceiling issue reached its climax. Suddenly, world demand for our short-term Treasuries dropped sharply.

When the crisis comes it will come without warning, as Alan Simpson and Erksine Bowles explained in their landmark report on the national debt nearly three years ago.

Now Congress has charged itself to come up with a budget that reduces government deficits 10 years into the future. The odds of this happening are virtually non-existent, not just because of Republican tea partiers, however. The Democratic left is equally vehement. For instance, it has dug in its heals on one of the most basic elements of any deficit reduction plan, something everyone should be able to agree on, adopting the so-called  chained Consumer Price Index for Social Security.

Frankly, if the nation can’t agree on this, it can’t agree on anything. That’s unfortunate, because it is the younger generation that will pay the price.

It should be remembered that just reducing  annual deficits will do nothing to reduce the national debt, which on the morning of Oct. 24 was exactly $17,078,769,687,926.64. Only eliminating deficits and producing surpluses will address the national debt, which is the accumulation of all of the annual deficits.

Of course it will require both cutting spending and increasing taxes in some form to achieve the goals. But there are numerous modest proposals out there for doing so. The nonpartisan Concord Coalition is full of them.

Focusing on our national debt ought to be the top priority of our government in Washington D.C. Nothing else — not terrorism, Russia or Iran — is a greater a threat to us.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Michigan Democrats spell out differences with GOP

Despite some gimmickry,  four Michigan House Democrats are doing a commendable job of spelling out their differences with Republicans prior to next year’s election.

They are both simplifying the issues involved and citing specifics that define policy objectives.

It is real easy to understand what Gov. Rick Snyder and Republicans did as they took over executive and legislative branches of the government in 2011.

Basically Republicans cut taxes on businesses by about $1 billion annually and raised taxes on individuals by about the same amount through a variety of mechanisms.

By the way, they never would have let former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm get away with it.

 Most House Democrats  basically want to restore tax credits aimed at individuals. They don’t say how they would make up the lost revenue for government but it is easy to see that they would likely raise taxes on businesses.

"The Republican plan to make middle-class families and seniors pay more in taxes so that corporations could pay virtually none has been a fiasco," said Rep. Jim Townsend, D-Royal Oak. "Michigan’s middle-class has never before been asked to pick up such a large portion of state taxes, and it’s important that people realize just how much more we’re paying. Not only are hard-working families working even harder just to stay afloat, the jobs Republicans promised would come after the corporate tax cuts are nowhere to be seen. The Republican plan is not working."

And that, quite simply, is the issue Michigan voters will settle next year. Do they think Michigan is better off than before Snyder and legislative Republicans took over? Do they think they themselves are better off? Those are usually the questions every election turns on.

The other three Democrats responsible  for unveiling what they call the  Republican Tax-O-Meter, were Jon Switalski, D-Warren, Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, and Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods.

"We invite everyone to learn the true cost of Michigan's enormous tax breaks to big corporations," Lipton said. "The shifting tax burden has cost Michigan families billions of dollars and it's causing real pain. It's time for Republicans to undo the tax increases on middle-class families."

Minority House Democrats have already introduced legislation to:

•  Repeal the tax on senior retirement income

•  Require employers to inform employees about the Earned Income Tax Credit

•  Restore the Earned Income Tax Credit to 11 percent in the first year

•  Restore the Homestead Property Tax Credit

•  Restore the child deduction

Here is a full list of Republican-led changes that Democrats cite as  pertaining to individuals:

Freeze Income Tax Rate at 4.25% effective Jan 1, 2013
 Modify Public/Private Pension Exemption
Retain Military Pension Exemption
Personal Exemption TY 2012 = $3,700, indexed to inflation
Repeal Senior Interest, Dividend Exemption Age Based
Eliminate Senior & UI Special Exemptions
Eliminate Child Deduction
Eliminate Miscellaneous Subtractions
Retain Renaissance Zone Subtraction
 Single Sales Apportionment Factor
Reduce 20% Refundable EITC to 6%
 Modify Homestead Property Tax Credit
Modify HSPTC to Exclude Unoccupied Agricultural Property
Eliminate Adoption & Stillbirth Credits
Eliminate Non-refundable

City Income Tax Credit
Public Contributions Credit
Community Foundations Credit
Homeless Shelter/Food Bank Credit
Historic Preservation Credit
College Tuition Credit
Vehicle Donation Credit
Individual or Family Development Credit

Monday, October 14, 2013

Do you need to go to the Obamacare exchange?

There seems to be some confusion over the new health exchanges set up under the federal Affordable Care Act.

The exchange is not for everyone.

In fact, even if you are uninsured, you do not have to go to the exchange to get coverage. You can go directly to an insurance company, but you might miss out on some benefits if you do.
Be careful not to get snookered. Beware of private companies not informing you of potential subsidies.  There is no harm in going to the exchange first.

To qualify for subsidies available under the law you must go to the exchange. Fill out the application at healthcare.gov. It will tell you whether you qualify. Hopefully the site’s problems will be worked out soon but there is a paper application process. And remember, before blaming the glitches on Obamacare, remember that Michigan could have set up its own exchange instead of relying on the federal government. States that set up their own exchanges are experiencing far fewer problems than states that failed to do so.

Also, to apply for Medicaid, go to the Michigan Department of Human Services website, not the health exchange, although the exchange will tell you if you qualify.

Medicare recipients do not need to go to the exchange. They can apply at Medicare.gov.

The exchange is mostly for the uninsured, but others may benefit as well, according to information provided by Kaiser Health News and Cosmopolitan. If you have employer-based coverage, you may have no need to go on the exchange. But if your share of the premium costs more than 9.5 percent of your annual gross income, you may qualify for a subsidy. If you currently have an individual policy that you bought for yourself, you may find a better deal on the exchange because it offers subsidies that could lower your costs.

Roughly 80 percent of people who buy exchange plans will qualify for premium tax credits, according to Avalere Health. The credits, available to people with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($45,960 for an individual or $94,200 for a family of four in 2013) will be based on your projected income for next year.

Altruis Benefit Counseling supplied the following figures:
•Single Person - $45,960 per year
•Couple - $62,040 per year
•Family - $94,200 per year

Subsidies can be sent directly to the insurer, reducing your monthly premium. If your income estimate is too low, however, you could have to repay at tax time any excess amounts you received.

Families USA crunched the numbers for a few different scenarios. By its estimates, a family of four earning $94,200 and purchasing a silver-level plan carrying a $12,500 annual premium will get a subsidy worth $3,550, which limits the cost of the premium to 9.5% of the family's income.

The government hasn't yet released its own estimates on how many Americans will be eligible for the subsidies, but Families USA believes that up to 26 million citizens will meet the criteria.

Not everyone eligible for those subsidies will actually sign up, though. The Congressional Budget Office is forecasting that only 6 million people will receive subsidized coverage through an exchange next year. It expects that number to grow to 22 million by 2017.

There are really just two important dates to keep in mind, according to a National Public Radio report. The first is Dec. 15. That's the date by which you need to be signed up if you want your coverage to begin Jan. 1, 2014 — the earliest any of these plans will take effect. The other date is Feb. 15, 2014. That's the last day you can get coverage and avoid being liable for a penalty for not having insurance. The maximum penalty if you don't have coverage for the entire year is $95 or one percent of your taxable income, whichever is bigger. It will go up in future years.

One thing is certain: There is no need to make the process more complicated than it needs to be. The resources for understanding the program are virtually  endless.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What do “shutdown” and “default” really mean?

There would be one reason to prolong the government shutdown and fail to raise the debt ceiling.

Perhaps Americans could learn more about what “shutdown” and “default” really mean.

Obviously “shutdown” does not mean the government isn’t functioning. Let a country attack us and see how quickly we will respond. Plus, it seems the only programs affected are survivor benefits for widows of veterans and food programs for poor children.

Also, failure to raise the debt ceiling by Oct. 17 is not synonymous with “default.”

“Default” would mean the country failed to paying its creditors on time. But how can that happen if daily the government receives 70 percent of the revenue it needs to function from tax revenue pouring into the Treasury?

Wall Street may caution us about turmoil in the markets, but we know that if stocks go down, they will also come back.

“The federal government keeps stumbling from one budget crisis to another, but the damage never sticks,” Bernard Condon wrote for the Associated Press.

“Global investors still see it as the world's best place to park their money. Even the threat of an unprecedented government default doesn't seem to have dulled the allure of Teflon America,” Condon wrote.

Maybe we should test this out so we can all learn about real consequences.

If the Republicans are right about anything — and they are — it is that Congress and President Obama have not seriously addressed the issue of the national debt. Maybe we should see if we can make do with just 70 percent of the revenue we have been spending. Then start setting priorities as we restore the funding.

This is what our government should be doing — scrutinizing and debating all expenses. And yes, if we like the programs, raise taxes to pay for them.

Social Security is the best example. While solid now, long-term adjustments need to be made to maintain the integrity of its trust fund. One thing our leaders could do is stop raiding the trust fund to pay for other parts of the government. But other, common-sense suggestions were made by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Use of the so-called “chained” Consumer Price Index to figure increases in Social Security benefits would relatively slightly slow the outflow from the trust fund. Raising payroll taxes on wealthier individuals or reducing  benefits of rich retirees also could lead to significant savings.

These are things responsible lawmakers should insist upon if they are to raise the debt ceiling.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Four branches of government?

Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma is being ridiculed because he said there are four branches of government. Well, he is probably right, but not for the reasons he attempted to enunciate.

We were taught in civics that there are three branches: executive, judicial and legislative. But a fourth — and one that the public connects with — could be the administrative or bureaucratic portion.

 It is true that it is an arm of the executive branch but it has a life all of its own.

The public most commonly deals with the bureaucracy — at least on the federal level — on matters of Social Security and taxation. The fact is, the bureaucracy — and that word is not used in a derogatory fashion — is critical. For instance, a new report details its incompetence in the area of Social Security disability.

You can see some of this in action. The Obama Administration, in unilaterally postponing the employer mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act, without congressional approval, successfully ordered the bureaucracy  do something it was not authorized to do by Congress — which it did, by the way.

Think of this too. The Congress can propose all the laws it wants to, say, in the environmental realm. But if it does not give the federal Environmental Protection Agency sufficient staffing to enforce the law, what good is the law?

Similarly, the executive branch can direct agencies to enforce or not enforce certain laws. For instance, the federal ban on mere possession of marijuana is generally not enforced.

If you understand the functioning of the bureaucracy (James Q. Wilson wrote a brilliant book on it) you could take some of these sequences to frightening, albeit logical, lengths. For instance, if the Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling could the president order the Federal Reserve to issue and sell bonds to finance the government? Ah, you say: this is illegal. And there is one of the other branches of government would come into play — the judiciary.

Some legal scholars have argued, however, that in this instance the courts could rule that the Congress was legally bound to fund the programs it created. Is that outrageous?

If it happened, one of our federal branches, the Congress, would suddenly seem irrelevant. Would the public care?

That would  make the bureaucracy much more relevant. And it would initiate something that down through the ages has come to have an ignominious reputation — a dictatorship.

Scoff if you will, but a country that no longer cares about genocide in Syria (and elsewhere) may someday become callous toward democracy itself — especially when it conducts itself in the sordid way we are witnessing.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The tea party and fiscal responsibility

Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas had the observation of the month, if not the year.

“Of all the bizarre moments,” he said, “this may be the most bizarre — that  we will pay people not to work.”

Doggett, a Democrat, called it “the new tea party sense of fiscal responsibility.”

Have we lost sight of some of the real issues here — the main one being that Congress spends too much money?

When the automakers furlough workers they  force workers to use their vacation time.

Republicans used to say there was no such thing as a free lunch. Now they look less intelligent with each passing day of the government shutdown. There is  an array of government economies they could be suggesting. Instead, they are endangering the sequester they forced  Democrats to agree to earlier in the year.

The sequester imposed up to 10 percent reductions in government spending, the only economies the Congress has agreed to in recent memory. It is set to save the country billions of dollars in the coming years.

 Now that was a real achievement.

Why can’t we just agree to fund government at the level called for by the sequester?

 Remember, we do have a national debt totaling over $16.7 trillion.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Medical devices and the deficit

You’re hearing a lot of talk from Republicans about repealing the medical device tax that is helping fund Obamacare. But repealing the tax without repealing the Affordable Care Act would increase the federal budget deficit and the national debt.

Why can’t we all at least agree that we need to pay for the programs Congress enacts? Very simply, why shouldn’t taxpayers foot the bill for these programs?

If they don’t want the  taxes, do away with the programs. Enacting programs without paying for them adds to the national debt.

And the Grand Canyon is deep. Isn't it obvious?
The medical device tax would raise $30 billion over 10 years to pay for the subsidies and free care guaranteed by ACA to pay for health insurance for lower income people. How would we replace the $30 billion?

Meanwhile, delaying the ACA’s individual mandate would reduce federal spending because fewer people would purchase insurance. Thus fewer would receive free care — i.e., Medicaid — or insurance subsidies from the government.

However, insurance premiums would rise for everyone else because healthier people would not be purchasing insurance, thereby leaving only a less healthy crowd for insurers to cover.

Is there somehow a difference between the dollars we spend on health insurance premiums and the dollars we spend on taxes? 

These are not complex questions. Our lawmakers are taking simple issues and making them difficult through distortion.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

What if Obamacare Works?

If you read nothing else, take a look at Wall Street Journalist columnist’s David Wessel’s piece entitled “What If Obamacare Works?”

It reports what free enterprise advocates ought to know: competition drives down prices.

If the Affordable Care Act is so bad, why do insurance companies want to compete in the markets it has created?

For the first time in recent memory, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan seems to be running scared. Thirteen companies are competing against it in Michigan’s health exchange. Have you noticed BCBSM’s ads?

And in spite of what the president promised — you can keep your health insurance if you want it — employers will have a big voice in that, as Wessel points out.

Think of this: Why should employers have all the health insurance burden placed on them? It’s time for individuals to learn how much it costs businesses, and why they need to share the burden.

This will potentially revolutionize our health-care system. How can it possibly get worse? What it needs — and what Obamacare provides, in spite of what Republicans are saying — is a strong dose of competition.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Obamacare unaffected by shutdown

Republicans in Congress miscalculated on their way to acquiescing in a federal government shutdown.

Failure to reach a budget has indeed halted non-essential government functions. But the object of the GOP’s scorn, the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — is exempt from the shutdown.

Surely they knew better, but why not mislead the public if you can get away with it?

It is a little-reported fact that “a shutdown per se doesn’t stop the Affordable Care Act,” said Doug Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office who now leads the American Action Forum, a Washington advocacy group opposed to the health law.

Bloomberg pointed out that the 2010 law relies primarily on mandatory spending, which congressional inaction can’t stop. It’s the same budget category used for benefits such as Medicare and Social Security.

Turns out the Democrats who passed the law had their thinking caps on by ensuring the funding.

Clearly, the Republicans knew the significance of the Oct. 1 effective date for the opening of Obamacare health exchanges throughout the country. They must be afraid that as the uninsured sign up for health insurance and see the price breaks they are getting, the law may suddenly gain in popularity.

Merits of the law aside, if they wanted so desperately to rescind it, they should have elected a Republican president and Congress last year. That’s the way we should be settling political disputes in this country — at the ballot box, not by the Congress reneging on its constitutional duties.

Perhaps lawmakers should be jailed for violating their oaths of office.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Pontiac native’s book on Detroit reissued

A book on Detroit by Pontiac native Zev Chafets that was published in 1990 has been reissued after a push from talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

“It was in the fall of 1986 that I first saw the devil on the streets of Detroit,” Chafets wrote.

“We were introduced by a friend who works for a local radio station. ‘Spend the evening before Halloween with me and I’ll show you something you’ve never seen before,’ he promised. ‘People try to burn down their own neighborhoods. They call it Devil’s Night.’”

Chafets, a former columnist for the New York Daily News, continued:

“I vaguely remembered Devil’s Night. When I was a kid growing up in Pontiac, a grimy industrial clone of Detroit ten miles north of the city, it had been a time of harmless pranks — window soaping, doorbell ringing and rolls of toilet paper in the neighbors’ trees. But it had been twenty years since I lived there, and a lot of things had changed. One of them was Devil’s Night.

“Three years earlier, in 1983, for reasons no one understands, America’s sixth largest city suddenly erupted into flame. Houses, abandoned buildings, even unused factories burned to the ground in an orgy of arson that lasted for seventy-two hours. When it was over the papers reported more than eight hundred fires. Smoke hung over the city for days.

“What at first appeared to be a bizarre outburst turned into an annual tradition. By 1986, Devil’s Night had become a prelude to Halloween in Detroit in the way that Mardi Gras precedes Lent in New Orleans, or the Rose Bowl parade ushers in the New Year in Pasadena.”

“It really is a fascinating story about Coleman Young and the white flight to the suburbs and how Young decided to do battle with them rather than make peace and bring them back,” Limbaugh told his listeners.
  According to Wikipedia, Devil's Night is an integral part of the 1994 film “The Crow,” which was set in Detroit.

    In the 1997 film Grosse Pointe Blank, which takes place in the Detroit suburbs of Grosse Pointe, the character Debi Newberry says that her apartment burned down on Devil's Night.
  Detroit hip-hop group D12’s 2001 debut album is titled “Devil's Night” and features a song with the same title.
 The 2002 film “8 Mile” features a sequence where the characters torch an abandoned house in Detroit that was used for crime, in reference to Devil's Night.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Westland sued over access to documents

Michigan taxpayers should be grateful to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy for taking up a battle on its behalf.

The center claims in a lawsuit that the city of Westland is charging an illegal fee to people seeking public information.

In June, Michigan Capitol Confidential, which is the news service of the Mackinac Center, sent Freedom of Information Act requests seeking financial information from every municipality in the state that operates a golf course. Westland responded that the city requires a $5 fee before it will provide any information.

Westland also said it would cost $1 per page for copying costs and $45.61 per hour for the person gathering the information.

This is a problem common to media outlets in Michigan. FOIA should not be seen merely as a freedom-of-the-press type of law, however, since all citizens are empowered by it. After all, the public documents sought are produced at the expense of taxpayers who own them.

Michigan has a good FOIA law, but poor enforcement procedures. The only way to get enforcement is to do what the center is doing — filing a lawsuit. News entities increasingly lack the resources to seek justice in a system seemingly tailored for the rich. 

 According to Michigan's FOIA law, public entities may only charge, "a fee for a public record search, the necessary copying of a public record for inspection, or for providing a copy of a public record." This money, the act says, "shall be limited to actual mailing costs, and to the actual incremental cost of duplication or publication including labor, the cost of search, examination, review and the deletion and separation of exempt from nonexempt information."

Mackinac Center attorney Patrick Wright said the fees Westland wanted to charge are illegal.

"Charging a $5 fee to simply start the process is just a roadblock the city has put up to try and discourage people from participating in the democratic process," Wright said. "If it can be $5, then why not $1,000?"

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Pontiac, Detroit fates compared

In case you missed it, the plights of Pontiac and Detroit were compared in a New York Times story.

Blair McGowan of the Crofoot Ballroom in downtown Pontiac called our attention to it.

A few choice excerpts follow:

• “As speculation grows about what Detroit, just 30 minutes south of here, will look like when it is expected to emerge from bankruptcy proceedings and state control a year from now, Pontiac’s experience offers a glimpse at the myriad complications that accompany a transition back to elected leadership after an emergency manager departs.”

• “‘They didn’t work with me or have anything to do with me for two years,’  Louis H. Schimmel, the most recent emergency manger in Pontiac, said about the City Council. ‘They have no idea how to run this city.’”

• “Mr. Schimmel, whose budget will be locked in for two years after his departure, is one of four members of a state advisory board that will monitor financial decisions made in Pontiac until the transition is complete.”

• “‘ I just want to make sure my policies don’t go down the drain,’” he said, adding that the handoff would take at least a couple of years. State officials will determine when the transition is over.”

• “Though far smaller than Detroit, Pontiac followed a similar descent into fiscal disarray. Home of General Motors’ namesake brand, the city and its coffers were crippled by the downturn of the auto industry. It has lost more than one-quarter of its taxpayers over the past four decades; today, its population is roughly 60,000.”

Monday, September 16, 2013

Getting answers from Oakland University

If you’ve ever listened to “Car Talk” on National Public Radio you know that the hosts often speak apologetically — though humorously — about their NPR connection. They are trying to placate their conservative audience.

Some conservatives are critical of NPR because it receives federal funding. Conservatives get government support too, whether in the form of tax breaks or benefits, but there is no point in trying to be too logical about that today.

No, today we address another object of conservative scorn — the American Civil Liberties Union.

The context is Oakland University’s reluctance to embrace transparency.

Two Oakland Press journalists, Paul Kampe and Megan Semeraz, have courageously taken on this behemoth as they have sought explanations behind the firing of women’s basketball Coach Beckie Francis.  They have been stonewalled by OU officials hiding behind false assertions of about what the public is entitled to see under Michigan’s Freedom of Information laws.

FOI laws vary from state to state, and are administered differently as well. The problem is not Michigan’s law, but how it is enforced, or, rather, not enforced. Practically speaking, the only way you can force an entity like OU to comply with the law is to take it to court.  The problem with that is that no media lawyer worth his or her salt can take the case because they all do work for OU and, thus, have a conflict of interest.

Now OU is trying to muzzle its students.

A condition of the school’s student-athlete handbook stipulates student-athletes not speak with the media without the prior consent of the Athletic Communications Department. Journalists Kampe and Semeraz have been prevented from speaking with current players since Francis’s firing June 12.

That is where the ACLU enters the picture. It has sent OU  has sent a letter asking the school to discontinue its practice of preventing student-athletes from discussing their treatment under  Francis.

Thank God for the ACLU. Conservatives can gripe all they want to but without the ACLU in this case, the public is hopelessly shut out. If the ACLU didn’t stand up to a government institution in this case, no one else could.

Maybe there is no groundswell among the public demanding the information about Ex-Coach Francis, but OU is a tax-supported institution. If the public doesn’t care how its money is spent, that bodes ill for our nation’s future. Fortunately, some people still do care.

Government at all levels suppresses information. If the public doesn’t stand up and demand the government it wants, it will get the government it deserves.

None of this is to disparage OU as the great institution it is. But as Lord Acton said: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Kudos to Oakland County, Brooks Patterson

It couldn’t have happened to a greater county or a better leader.

The national spotlight fell on Oakland County as the current issue of Governing magazine, the  nation's leading media platform covering politics, policy and management for state and local government leaders, saluted Oakland’s government and long-time leader, L. Brooks Patterson.

Publisher Erin Waters noted that “If you ask the average American citizen what part of our government owns and maintains 44 percent of the roadways and spends $68.3 billion on health-care services, I don’t think you will get the correct answer. If you ask a government employee
which government entity spends a combined $472 billion on law enforcement, education, construction and human services, a few might know, but many won’t.

 “The answer, if you haven’t guessed, is America’s counties. They employ 3.3 million people and have 19,300 elected officials, but knowledge of what they do is woefully inadequate.”

Last month the National Association of Counties  hosted its annual conference in Fort Worth. The event borrowed NACo’s current — and relevant — campaign, “Why Counties Matter.”

“I was honored to take part in the event and appreciated the opportunity to host a discussion with a few prominent county executives who are achieving results, despite challenging circumstances,” Waters wrote. She continued:

“Few leaders serve as better examples than the Oakland County, Mich., Executive L. Brooks Patterson. Oakland County shares a border
with Detroit, and Patterson has served the county for 21 years. He first entered government service as a public defender there, and during those 16 years, he never lost a case.

“Later, as county executive, he exhibited resiliency and good judgment in anticipating the economic decline and holding the county to a strict three-year rolling budget, which resulted in a $250 million surplus during a time when neighboring cities and counties were experiencing the opposite. Patterson believes in identifying and recruiting talented people and then stepping aside to let them do their job. He, along with fellow county executives in Ulster County, N.Y.; Athens County, Ohio; and Cook County, Ill., to name a few, are the best reflections of what counties do and why they matter.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. We just wish our national government would follow Oakland County’s example.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Probing opposition to Obamacare

What is at the heart of Republican opposition to Obamacare?

We get it about government control, socialized medicine and all that, but Medicare and Medicaid are relatively successful programs.

At its core, the new Affordable Care Act is about supplying insurance to people who don’t have it.  They may be retired, disabled or working for an employer — usually a small business — that doesn’t provide coverage. Or they may be children of such individuals.

Many of these folks are on their own and cannot afford the high premiums such insurance carries. To push ideas like medical savings accounts to such individuals misses the point about where the dollars to save will come from in the first place.

Do the Republicans who oppose Obamacare just not want these folks to be covered? Is it a matter of them saying they have their coverage and they don’t want to share the medical services they enjoy with others?

To be sure, as more people are covered, medical facilities and doctors’ practices will be stretched. But is the answer to limit care to the haves and ignore the have-nots?

Visiting with the Oakland Press Editorial Board recently, U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, wondered whether the social contract is eroding.

What is the social contract?

According to Wikipedia, the concept originated in the Age of Enlightenment and  typically addresses the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual. Social contract arguments typically posit that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights.

In a rational society freedom is not absolute. For instance, there are such things as speed limits, taxes to support national defense and laws prohibiting pollution. A typical phrase used to be: “Your freedom ends where my nose begins.”

 There is also help for the individuals who cannot provide for themselves.  It is as American as apple pie.

“The social compact — also called "The Social Contract" — was made popular by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century,” said Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly. “Basically, Rousseau says that a central government has an obligation to help its citizens in pretty much every way ... The desire for protection is not only against Al Qaeda or Attila the Hun, but also against starving or being homeless.”

Obviously the question in a free society is how much help to provide. That is up to the people.

Few Americans, for instance, are opposed to unemployment benefits, Social Security, Medicare, providing lunches to children from low-income families, educational benefits to veterans of the armed services and financial help to those who are disabled.

Whether education and health care are basic rights is certainly suitable for debate, but denial of such benefits raises legitimate questions about the definition of compassion.

Of course, affordability comes into play as well. The people of Michigan, for instance, have decided they will provide whatever care — at whatever expense — is necessary for those permanently injured in auto accidents through our no-fault insurance program. Some of us are proud of this fact.

To simplify, are we our brother's keeper? To what extent?

Columbia University Professor Thomas Edsall supplied an in-depth look at social contract theory in a recent blog.

One thing is certain: People ought to be able to advance their ideas on the issue without being demonized. They also should be able to articulate their views beyond slogans and sound bytes.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Good-paying jobs, or just jobs?

Walmart workers are free to seek higher wages. They can protest as much as they want. That’s the great thing about America.

Non-union-led work stoppages designed as protests have been reported across the nation at stores owned by the nation’s largest employer. A group called Making Change at Walmart is leading the charge for minimum pay levels of $25,000 annually for Walmart workers. That’s $12 an hour. The group claims the average Walmart wage is $8.81 per hour.

Now if a person doesn’t want to work for that low a wage, he or she can seek a job that pays a higher amount. That, too, is the American way.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the average hourly pay for a nongovernment, non-supervisory worker, adjusted for price increases, declined to $8.77 last month from $8.85 at the end of the recession in June 2009, according to Labor Department data.

 So Walmart is actually ahead of the game.

And in case you haven’t noticed, it’s not like the employment rate in this country is roaring. The federal unemployment rate for July was 7.4 percent, a historic high for a "recovery" that is this far along.

The push for higher wage jobs is nothing new. The Walmart activists say the company made $16 billion last year and, presumably, the wealth isn’t being shared, according to them. But it is probably being shared with stockholders, without whom there wouldn’t be much of a company. This stock resides in portfolios that, among other things, are funding people’s retirements. So let’s not belittle the stockholders. They are as apt to be on fixed, low incomes as anyone.

What if there were more higher paying jobs at Walmart, but the total number of jobs was fewer? Customers might not be happy if the result is longer waits in longer lines.

And more people would be out of work. So it gets down to a question of, if we have a choice, do we want higher paying jobs or just more jobs? Glib answers serve no one’s purpose. Just to say we’re sure Walmart can afford to pay higher wages may not be borne out by actual facts.

As the late New York Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan once said: "You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts."


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

New Republican-Democrat coalition?

Perhaps a promising new model of bipartisanship is developing right under our noses.

It has occurred nationally and in Michigan, pretty much as a byproduct of what appears to be a growing split in the Republican Party.

What happened is simple in both instances. 

A majority of House Democrats joined a minority of Republicans in approving the tax increase on the upper 2 percent of wage earners in Congress in January. Republicans control the House so their part was for the leadership to not only allow the measure to come to a vote, but to support it.

The same thing occurred in the Michigan legislature. A minority of Republicans in both chambers last month joined a majority of Democrats in approving an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program.

Republicans control both chambers in Michigan while Democrats in the nation’s capital control the U.S. Senate.

Bitter acrimony among Republicans has followed these votes, with opponents of the Tea Party “just say no” strategy branded as traitors to the party.

Macomb Daily columnist Chad Selweski made use of  Rich Studley’s definition of the dispute within the GOP. Studley, chief executive officer of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce,  sent a tweet recently in which he said: “There is a big difference between supporting limited government and being anti-government.”

That about sums it up. Many non-libertarian Republicans are increasingly uncomfortable with the hard lines taken by such  figures as U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who they see as too rigid. Libertarians tend to take a one-size-fits-all approach regardless of the issue, and in some cases some Republicans would rather be identified with Democrats who appear to be taking a common-sense stance on things that simply shouldn’t be issues.

In Michigan, for instance, Republican Medicaid expansion supporters  could not see the logic of turning down billions of dollars of federal money that will pay for currently uncompensated health care and take pressure off private insurance policy holders. 

These differences are likely to play out in the coming weeks as Republicans devise strategies to handle budgetary and debt issues in Washington D.C.


Friday, August 30, 2013

Questions about football persist

Thousands of fans and players are taking part in that annual rite of fall, the start of the high school football season.

Meanwhile, enthusiasts are suddenly finding they have to defend the game.

The National Football League may have settled the lawsuit against it over concussions. But the issue is likely to continue.

High School football participation numbers have gone down each of the past four years, according to data from The National Federation of High School Activities Associations.

“The headlines indicate football’s headwinds. ‘Is American Football Evil?’ ‘Should Kids Play Football?’ ‘Is Football Wrong?’ ‘Should We Ban Football?’ Some questions give answers just by asking,” wrote Daniel J. Flynn in The American Spectator. He is author of “The War on Football: Saving America's Game.”

It’s all worth a discussion. At the very least, rules for football practices should be reviewed and revised when necessary, as has been done by Pop Warner, the  oldest and largest national youth football organization.

Ultimately, however, this is America, land of the free, a nation where football is entrenched in our culture. Any decisions about the sport ultimately ought to be left up to the participants and, for youth, the parents. They just need to be sure they have all the facts.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Kudos to Kowall, Marleau, Gregory

Two Oakland County Republicans were among the eight  who this week voted to expand  Medicaid in Michigan, ensuring its passage. It took some courage on their parts.

Sens. Mike Kowall of White Lake and Jim Marleau of Lake Orion voted for the measure. Two Oakland County Republicans, David Robertson of Grand Blanc, who represent parts of the north section of the county, and John Pappageorge of Troy were among the 18 Republicans opposing the expansion, which passed 20-18.

The county’s fifth senator,  Vincent Gregory of Southfield, was among the 12 Senate Democrats who unanimously voted in favor of the law.

Marleau and Kowall now face the possible wrath of Tea Party proponents who could threaten their political futures. Instead, voters should commend their independence.

Many Republicans wrongly cast the issue as a proxy for Obamacare. It needed to have been seen for what it is, which is an offer by the federal government to pay most of the cost for the medical care of 400,000-plus poor residents, thereby absorbing a cost now paid primarily by current health insurance ratepayers.

In 2007, interestingly, it was Pappageorge who took the bipartisan route as he joined fewer then a handful of Senate Republicans passing an income tax hike pushed by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the Democratic House.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A tale of two Obamacare mandates

Historically, Republicans have been good at math.

For example, it has always been their virtue that they point out when the country is spending more than it is taking in.

Is this GOP expertise in numbers changing?

The question arises because, despite indications it is dead or at least on life support from a numbers standpoint, the “Defund Obamacare” movement is still a cause for some of them.

“I learned to count in Maryville (Tenn.) City Schools,” Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander recently told his critics on the right. “So I know that if you only have 45 votes and you need 60 senators to get something important done like balancing the budget and fixing the debt, then you have to work with other people — that is, IF you really care about solving the problem, IF you really want to get a result, instead of just making a speech.”

Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel suggested an alternative to Defund Obamacare, but it has a flaw: It equates the individual and employer mandates that are features of the new law. But at least it acknowledges that Defund Obamacare has insufficient support in Congress.

Strassel suggests an assault on Obamacare’s individual mandate. She says the GOP ought to push for a delay in the Jan. 1, 2014 effective date for the mandate requiring individuals to have health insurance. The fine for not having insurance in 2014 is a whopping $95 per adult. (By the way, those earning beneath a certain income level are exempt from the fine.)

Strassel’s logic is that since the administration delayed the effective date of the employer mandate to Jan. 1, 2015, the individual mandate also should be delayed for a year.

That argument is possibly enough to convince some House Democrats of joining Republicans to go along with. The merits of the suggestion are something else, however.

Comparing the individual and employers mandate is akin to an apple and an orange. One has nothing to do with the other. 

Employers faces tens of thousands of potential fines for not supplying insurance to employees, while the responsibility for insurance actually rests with the individual. Individuals remain free to seek employment with employers who offer health insurance benefits, or seek coverage in the individual market.

The idea of a mandate actually originated with the conservative Heritage Foundation, had been backed by many Republicans, and was implemented in Massachusetts when Mitt Romney was governor. The premise is simple: There is no such thing as a free lunch. No freeloading. Since everyone uses the health care system, everyone (who is able) needs to pay. These are good old Republican notions.

Strassel also is mathematically challenged, by the way. The Senate is unlikely to approve a delay even if it passes the House and President Obama has a veto power he is likely to wield.

Some in the GOP appear to have a short memory but they lost the last two presidential elections.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Our privacy is an important issue

There is the story of the little girl who, during the Camp David Peace talks of the 1970s that pre-empted her favorite TV shows, said to her father: “I know it’s important Daddy, but it’s boring.”

Well, the discussion about your First and Fourth Amendment rights is anything but scintillating, and the revelations — shocking, really — about the extent to which the federal National Security Agency has gathered information about private citizens seems to be eliciting little more than a collective yawn from the general public.

Nevertheless, someone needs to pay attention.

And there was  good news this week from the give-credit-where-credit-is-due category. 

The federal government launched “IC ON THE RECORD” with  the goal of providing the public with direct access to factual information related to the surveillance activities carried out by the intelligence community.

At the same time, the NSA declassified three secret U.S. court opinions Wednesday showing how it obtained as many as 56,000 emails and other communications by Americans with no connection to terrorism annually over three years, how it revealed the error to the court and changed how it gathered Internet communications.

The opinions show that when the NSA reported that to the court in 2011, the court ordered the NSA to find ways to limit what it collects and how long it keeps it.

The NSA reported the problems it discovered in how it was gathering Internet communications to the court and shortly thereafter to Congress in the fall of 2011, according to the Associated Press.

Three senior U.S. intelligence officials said  that the NSA realized that when it was gathering up bundled Internet communications from fiber optic cables, with the cooperation of telecommunications providers like AT&T, that it was often collecting thousands of emails or other Internet transactions by Americans who had no connection to the intended terror target being tracked.

While the NSA is allowed to keep the metadata — the address or phone number and the duration, but not the content, of the communication — of Americans for up to five years, the court ruled that when it gathered up such large packets of information, they included actual emails between American citizens, it violated the Constitution’s ban against unauthorized search and seizure.

In the opinion by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court denouncing the practice, the judge wrote that the NSA had advised the court that “the volume and nature of the information it had been collecting is fundamentally different than what the court had been led to believe,” and went on to say the court must consider “whether targeting and minimization procedures comport with the Fourth Amendment.”

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan warned about complacency on the subject of privacy.

“The end of the expectation that citizens' communications are and will remain private will probably change us as a people, and a country,” she wrote.