Sunday, April 29, 2012

Couldn't make this [stuff] up

Rented a car today for the drive from my home in Vermont to get back to my base of work in Allentown, PA.  Got a pretty good deal. I pre-paid online and got a standard size 4dr for $125 one way, unlimited mileage.  No drop fee.  Other sites quoted around $140 for the rental (plus tax) and an avg of another $130 for drop fee!  No thanks.  I was set up for PU and DRP at 0900. (Sun & Mon).

When I PU the car, I was up-graded to a SUV for free.  Looking at the bill, though, it showed an additional $97.18!

WTF? (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot)  It turns out that since I checked in early (0830) the system automatically billed me for an extra hour @ $81.00!!!  I could have paid $107 and had the car for additional whole day!  The agent told me that if I got the car turned in before 0830 Mon I could get the additional charge waived.

I'm still trying to figure out the math on this.  Let's see......I can keep the car for an additional 24hrs for $107 (plus tax).  That works out to a little less than $4.50/hr.   BUT, if I'm just 30-60min late, it's $81, which works out to as much as $162/hr.  Explain me this?

While I'm on the topic of outrageous, illogical car charges.......where to they get the gas that they refill the tanks with?  The rental counter at pick up showed the average price per gallon locally ($4.03).  You can choose to bring the car back with a full tank, paying whatever the cost is at the pump when you return,  you can choose to "pre-pay" for a full tank at the time you pick up for a slight premium (you pay for a full tank, regardless of how much is left in the vehicle when you turn it in.  Unless you're comfortable taking the risk of rolling in on fumes, you're paying a premium price for gas you'll never use), OR you can elect the "convenience" of signing up for their refill service.  Just bring it in and they'll top it off and bill you for however much gas it takes.  Now, such quality customer service doesn't come cheap.  In fact, I think they have highly qualified, professional fuel management personnel in charge of the process.  They must, since they felt compelled to charge the stimulating sum of............wait for it............$9.29 per gallon!

Figuring that most gas pumps run at an avg rate of about 3gal/minute that means the labor charge for the "convenience" of them pumping the gas for me would run about $105.20 per hour!!   Damn, that's some good gas.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Where Have I Been?

I must've spent the last number of years living under a rock.  I don't remember rallies and demonstrations in front of the Supreme Court building as being commonplace.  Whatever happened to having a sense of decorum about things?  Or even a rudimentary knowledge of how our government is set up?

The "Separation of Powers" doctrine enshrined in the Constitution was intended, at least in part, to protect the Judiciary from being influenced by the political winds of the day, or by the vagaries of public opinion.

These demonstrations by illegal aliens (undocumented workers) on the very steps of the Court is an obscenity that should never be allowed.  What?  Self-avowed criminals demanding "rights" on the very steps of the highest court in the land?  Where's the law enforcement?  These people have been led to believe that they have rights they do not.  The rights, privileges, and obligations of citizens are reserved to legal citizens only.

The 1st Amendment protections for speech and assembly and to petition government for redress of grievances apply more properly to the Legislative and Executive branches of government.  The institutions of Congress and the Office of the Presidency are directly representative of the electorate.  As such, they have a duty and obligation to be responsive to the peoples' concerns, with-in the bounds of Constitutional limits.  The Judiciary is different.  Particularly at the level of the State Supreme Courts and certainly at the level of SCOTUS.

Just as the Executive and Legislative branches serve as checks and balances on the potential abuse of power by each, so too is the Judicial branch meant as a check and balance on them both.  It is the primary duty of the Supreme Court to rein in the excesses of government in order to protect the citizens against encroachment on their individual rights by unconstitutional government power grabs.

It is crucial that Justices be immune to political and populist pressures.  The Judiciary was set apart from the rest of government expressly for that purpose.   Supreme Court justices are given lifetime appointments to insulate them from such pressures.  These judges do NOT have any direct obligation to the populace.  Their duty is to the country as a whole, through absolute fidelity to the law of the land: the Constitution of the United States of America.  In light of this most solemn of legal obligations, our President's blatant attempt to influence court decisions is particularly troubling.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

What's the deal with healthcare?

Everyone seems to have their own favorite boogeyman when it comes to who to blame for the never-ending increases in healthcare costs.  

Has anyone considered the possibility that the existence of health insurance could, in itself, be a factor in the exponential rise in healthcare costs? No, I'm not crazy, hear me out.

Many people are under the misapprehension that services provided by the government are "free".  It's unfortunate that some politicians, of both parties, have played a role in the ill-education of the public on this issue.  It's even more unfortunate that when something is perceived as "free", people will often use more of it than they need.  While healthcare isn't quite the same as other commodities, the point isn't totally invalid. While perceiving healthcare as free won't automatically lead to people using more of the expensive procedures, it could and does lead to people over-utilizing and burdening the system for routine matters. The most obvious example is that of someone bringing their child into the ER with nothing more serious that a cough or cold. Or the weekend athlete taking up a cot being "treated" for a minor sprain (wrap it, ice it, and take aspirin or ibuprofen for the pain).

The reason people over use and abuse the system in this way is the disconnect between the provider and the consumer; between the perceived cost to the patient and the actual cost of providing the service. Health insurance, in an attempt to make care more affordable and available has caused many to lack an appropriate appreciation of just how expensive it is to provide the care they seek. Government-mandated coverages (both state and federal) have greatly aggravated the problem (would you believe that elective cosmetic surgeries, ED drugs, fertility treatments and abortions are deemed "medically necessary" and that insurance companies are required to provide coverage?).

The point of all this is simply that the root of the problem is two-fold. On the one hand, you have government(s) mandating that politically popular procedures  be covered; on the other, you have providers who are told that, because of the mandates, payment is guaranteed. Can anyone tell me where the incentive to ever control the rise in costs is going to come from? I can't see it.  As long as the end users are sheltered from the true costs of their health care, and as long as the providers are guaranteed payment through insurance, there won't be much downward pressure on costs.Of course, as costs rise, the typical response of government will be to mandate that even more procedures be covered by insurance.

This will ultimately end in one of two ways, I think:  1) We will end up with a  two tier medical system where there is one level for the masses and another level of care available to those who are able to pay or  2) A top down government-run monopoly funded by broad-based taxes, a central authority with the power to decide what procedures are appropriate, which procedures will be allowed and who qualifies for treatment. The very rich will also be able to side-step this system, regardless of the promise of "equal treatment for all".

If we are ever going to get a handle on healthcare costs, we'll have to do 2 basic things:  Eliminate all government mandated coverages except for Catastrophic Care, and reintroduce the direct financial relationship between the patient and the provider for everything else.

That's why I love the idea of HSA's (Health Savings Accounts). What would make them perfect (aside from being available everywhere) would be for them to allow for the funds to be used as an enhancement to existing retirement accounts. For example: the use of the funds would be restricted to medical expenses and co-pays until age 72(+/-), at which point they would be available for whatever need exists.

This would be a very attractive selling point for seniors looking to buttress their retirement savings and also for young people who don't see the need to "waste" their money on health insurance. If they are told the money will still be there for their use later in life, I think they'd be much more inclined to participate in healthcare decisions.

What Happend to My State?

Welcome to Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.  You can guess the type of blog this is gonna be.

For my first post I'll recount what's going on with my home state of Vermont.

You know, we used to have a real nice arrangement up here when I was a kid.  People were largely free to find their own way and do their own thing as long as they didn't annoy the neighbors too much.  Then, in the 60's the liberals down in Mass and NY discovered our "pastoral paradise" and began flooding up here to escape the rat race in the big cities.

Of course, being liberals they took one look at how we conducted our affairs and immediately decided we "hicks" didn't know what we were doing.  Further, they assigned to themselves the authority to correct our mistakes, whether we wanted them "fixed" or not; regardless of if they were even mistakes in the first place.  Being largely a conservative populace and traditional, decent folks, we allowed them to infiltrate our local and state governments.  They seemed sincere, and besides, true conservatives don't have that much interest in regulating their neighbors, telling them what they can/can't do.

Decades later, the progressives are so entrenched that we may never return to common sense in governance in my lifetime.  This is the latest in the advancement of the Liberal/Progressive "we know what's best" agenda:


The further encroachment of government and bureaucracy on our private lives and personal liberties has taken it's next big step. The so-called “Smart Grid” system for efficient management of our electrical usage has taken the next step with the installation of “Smart Meters” in the Burlington area, with the intention of installation proceeding state wide over the next few years.

For those who don't already know, “Smart Meters” are replacements for the standard mechanical dial-type electrical meters we already have on our homes and power poles. Currently, workers from the utility companies make a circuit of a service area and note the readings of the meters, calculate our energy usage for the previous month and send us our billing statement. With these new meters, there will be no need for the workers to stop and read the meter. These meters will send the information wirelessly to the technician at the roadside, or to a central data site. These meters will also monitor your energy usage, supposedly to give businesses and individuals “the information they need to reduce their energy usage and their costs”.

The idea is that the combination of “Smart Meters” and the “Smart Grid” will enable electricity providers to more efficiently manage delivery and avoid the risk of grid failure (blackouts and brownouts) during high-demand periods. Sounds good so far, right?

Here's the part that has worms crawling out of it. This same technology will also allow utilities and different departments of state government access to records of your personal lives; how much power you use & when, potentially giving them the ability to limit your usage in the name of the public good.

Here's how it would work: Let's say the Dept. of Natural Resources or the PSB has adopted standards for what is considered “sustainable” energy use. The ability to monitor individuals' energy usage will allow them to isolate those who are using more than their “fair share”. The first knowledge you would have of such monitoring would be the “friendly reminder” you receive in the mail from the State alerting you to the situation: “Dear <your name here>, Our records indicate that your energy usage is much higher than the average for your area. As part of our on-going effort to ensure the availability of power for all Vermonters, and to help you manage your energy usage and reduce your costs, we have included a list of several steps you can take to reduce your consumption of energy and reduce your utility bills. Following these steps will help us ensure that we can continue to meet the power needs of all. Thank you for your cooperation. Signed, <your friendly government bureaucrat>”.

Time goes on. You decide for yourself that you want to keep your home at a comfortable 68 in August. You want to be comfortable and besides, it's your money and you can afford it, right? This would lead to a second, likely much less friendly notice from your friends in government requiring you to comply with their energy conservation mandates. After all, you don't have the right to use more power than your neighbors. THEY are cooperating; THEY are doing their part to ensure that everyone else has electricity; THEY aren't being selfish and greedy. You are given a set deadline by which time you are to bring your consumption with-in the proscribed guidelines.

Well, now. You aren't going to stand for this. You come from a long line of native-born Vermonters. No one has the right to decide for you what you can and can not buy with your own money, or how well you are to be allowed to live, or how comfortable you can be in your own home. We're not in the middle of WWII. There's not been any passage of a rationing law.

You decide: “Here's mud in your eye! It's my life and my home and I'll live as well as I want and can afford.” You don't send this response (you're not a complete idiot). You simply make the decision to ignore the illegal demands of the state.

Then a few weeks later a curious thing happens. Sometime around the end of the 3rd week of the month, your power goes out! You contact your utility company and, after getting the runaround for several minutes, it is finally admitted that the decision to cut you off was made at the order of the government (the utility itself doesn't mind how much energy you use, as long as you pay your bill) in response to your refusal to abide by their earlier demands.(A second alternative to the above is that the State will impose a fee for "over consumption" similar to the fee they want to impose on Vermont Yankee.  This revenue wouldn't go to the utility, it would go into the same "green energy" fund the extorted monies from VY ends up in, to help pay for even more government regulation and "green initiatives" to offset the social impact of greedy energy hogs like yourself.  Actually, given the State's hunger for money and power, this alternative seems the more likely of the two).

You can avoid this invasion (for a while) by paying a fee in order to be “allowed” to keep your mechanical meter. Doesn't sound so good now, does it?

On a macro level, control of the grid without providing for more electricity generation or increased capacity will inevitably lead to rationing in other ways. Let's say it's July/August and energy usage is forecast to be exceptionally heavy. In order to prevent problems from occurring the government (through the utility) needs to prioritize energy availability and usage, most likely giving greater weight to population and industrial centers and to public infrastructure. To accomplish this they would have to restrict energy availability to the more rural and remote areas in favor of “essential needs”. Anyone care to wager on which side of the equation we in the Kingdom would find ourselves? Also, don't forget that when the merger deal and sale of Vermont's two biggest utilities to a Canadian consortium goes through (and it will go through) any influence of localities will have been eliminated. Yell and scream all you want, our market is too small to matter when balanced against the much bigger markets of Boston, NYC, and other metro areas.

Some of you may decide to go “off grid” and install alternative personal energy generation stations such as solar and wind. If you've got the cash, do it fast. I have no doubt that if it becomes a big enough issue, the State will quickly issue regulations requiring that any such personal power generation stations be tied into the grid, which will give them the ability to not just regulate your energy usage, but to also confiscate some of the power you generate when the State has “need” of it.

This isn't just a concern with my little state of Vermont.  The "smart grid" electricity management systems are being promoted and installed nation wide.  Along with the concurrent push for "Smart Growth" urban/suburban/residential development policies (see: Agenda 21), this all seems to me an ill omen for the future of individual liberty and property rights.

It won't happen all at once, or even in the space of a year or two, but don't doubt that “Big Brother” is beginning to flex his muscles. Get back to me if 5 or 10yrs and tell me how wrong I was.