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Happy Good Friday

Where does the time go? It seems like only a year since last Good Friday.

I am a firm believer in tradition, so this year, like every year, I pause to consider the meaning of the day, and pass on some words of wisdom from some boys from England.

And despite what some might conclude from reading this blog, I really do try to look on the bright side of life. It can be hard to find, but it’s there. Just don’t go looking for it in church or in Washington.

THe Free Market at Work

I believe this is what the economist call rent seeking behavior:

Oklahoma residents who produce their own energy through solar panels or small wind turbines on their property will now be charged an additional fee, the result of a new bill passed by the state legislature and expected to be signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin ®.

On Monday, S.B. 1456 passed the state House 83-5 after no debate. The measure creates a new class of customers: those who install distributed power generation systems like solar panels or small wind turbines on their property and sell the excess energy back to the grid. While those with systems already installed won’t be affected, the new class of customers will now be charged a monthly fee — a shift that happened quickly and caught many in the state off guard.

“We knew nothing about it and all of a sudden it’s attached to some other bill,” Ctaci Gary, owner of Sun City Oklahoma, told ThinkProgress. “It just appeared out of nowhere.”

Because the surcharge amount has not been determined, Gary is cautious about predicting the impact it will have on her business. She has already received multiple calls from people asking questions about the bill and wanting to have solar systems installed before the new fee takes effect. “We’re going to use it as a marketing tool,” Gary said. “People deserve to have an opportunity [to install their own solar panels] and not be charged.”

“It is unfortunate that some utilities that enthusiastically support wind power for their own use are promoting a regressive policy that will make it harder for their customers to use wind power on their own,” said Mike Bergey, president & CEO of Bergey Windpower in Norman, Oklahoma, in a statement. “Oklahoma offers tax credits for large wind turbines which are built elsewhere, but wants to penalize small wind which we manufacture here in the state? That makes no sense to me.”

The bill was staunchly opposed by renewable energy advocates, environmental groups and the conservative group TUSK, but had the support of Oklahoma’s major utilities. “Representatives of Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. and Public Service Co. of Oklahoma said the surcharge is needed to recover some of the infrastructure costs to send excess electricity safely from distributed generation back to the grid,” the Oklahoman reported.

via Thinkprogress

Of course, the rationale is pure bullshit. The objective is to tax every activity in which we might engage, with the proceeds of those taxes going to the Koch Brothers and their allies from ALEC. They own the governor and legislature of Oklahoma, which is apparently all right with the people of Oklahoma, so long as they keep blacks, gays, Hispanics, Muslims, Mexicans and women in their places; teach evolution in the schools; and keep the minimum wage down. The lock the oligarchs have on the major media only goes so far in explaining the stupid in this country, particularly in our southernmost reaches. Maybe there's something in the water.

Why would anyone think businessmen make good politicians

Down in Georgia the Republicans are having an intraparty hate fest. One candidate, a fellow named David Perdue, showed the world how little good a college education can do by attacking his opponent for not having a college education. In Georgia of all places, home of the dumb. But the purpose of this post is not to mock Mr. Perdue for being politically tone deaf.

Mr. Perdue is also claiming that he is the superior candidate by virtue of his business experience. A little closer to home, Paul Choiniere of the New London Day implies that Paul Formica, who was trounced by Joe Courtney in the 2012 election, may be preferable to our good friend Betsy Ritter in the 20th State Senate race because he can trumpet his business experience. He runs a fish market.

It is truly amazing how some memes never die, facts be damned. The claim that business experience, particularly business success, is a qualification for political office is oft repeated, despite the fact that when put to the proof, the pudding is usually not to anyone's liking.

Presidents with substantial business experience tend to rank near the bottom of the charts. Think Herbert Hoover, or either of the Bushes, though W disproves another observation: that success in business does not translate into success as a politician, but failure sometimes does. Think Harry Truman.

There probably are some, but off hand I can't think of any politician I would characterize as great or even good whose primary pre-political experience was in business. People like to mock attorneys, but the fact is that we are trained to see all sides of a question and our job is to help people. That may be why so many of our best politicians were lawyers. (Think A. Lincoln, for starts) Businessmen are focused on making money and, particularly in our present economy, the more successful they are the more they got that way by screwing as many of their fellow men (and women) as they could. It is extremely unlikely that they would see their job as a politician as anything other than diverting money toward people like themselves-or, for that matter, directly to themselves. Since Congress is already quite good at keeping the feeding trough full for the .01, it's hard to see how business types could improve things.

Now, whether or not a guy who sells fish is likely to be an extreme example of that tendency is another question, but then, it's really hard to argue that selling fish gives one experience that translates into being a good politician.

The real problem here is the underlying assumption that there is no real art to being a politician. Choiniere, for instance, dismisses Betsy's “ability in the General Assembly to bring lawmakers together, find compromises and get legislation passed”, but that is the very art of politics. We are dismissive of politics as a profession, and as a result our politicians have steadily degraded in quality. There is little to nothing about running a business that gives a person the experience or the world view that makes for a good politician.

Fortunately, while we citizens, like the pundits, hold politicians in contempt, as a result of which they've become contemptible, we have not followed the pundits when it comes to believing that business experience is good training for politics. If we did, Donald Trump might be president right now, and, perish the thought, Linda McMahon would be a United States Senator.

That will be One billion Hail Marys and Two Billion Our Fathers

Pope Francis has asked for forgiveness:

Pope Francis said Friday he took personal responsibility for the ‘‘evil’’ of priests who raped and molested children, asking forgiveness from victims and saying the church must be even bolder in its efforts to protect the young. It was the first time a pope has taken personal responsibility for the sex crimes of his priests and begged forgiveness.

via Boston.com

Well, I'm afraid this only proves that those conservative Catholics are right: Francis is no Catholic. If he were, he'd know that you can't get forgiveness without a proper confession, and Francis hasn't even gone halfway on that score.

Every Catholic knows the rules, but for the benefit of you heathen that are doomed to rot in hell with the like of apostates like me, we'll review them.

I'm perhaps a little rusty on this, as it's been-lets see-about 48 years since my last confession, but I remember the drill well enough.

I'm not really sure how a Pope starts it off. For us peons it was always “Bless me father for I have sinned, it has been X days/weeks/months/years since my last confession”, which when you think about it, makes no sense, for why should someone be blessed for sinning? But let us pass over that.

So Francis should be saying something like “Bless me world, for the church has sinned, it has been 2000 years and we have never confessed before…”

Next, you have to detail your sins. All your sins, not just the ones you're acknowledging at the moment. Truth to tell, this was always a weak point for me when I went to confession. I mean, who really counts, and when you're a real little kid, who really sins? So I would throw in some “lied to my mothers” and such like attached to some arbitrary number (not too many, not too few-it had to sound plausible). I won't, by the way, get into what happened the time I slipped up and copped to “having impure thoughts”, which at the time consisted of thinking about boobies. Anyway, here's what Francis should be saying after the intro:

We have burned innocent people at the stake X times;

We have provoked Y “holy wars” resulting in the murder of Z innocent people;

We stood by and did nothing while Hitler killed the Jews 1 time, and stood by silently (when we weren't encouraging the killing) during lesser pogroms X times;

We harassed Galileo and other scientists Y times for daring to suggest that the Bible might not be scientifically accurate;

We kidnapped the children of Jews Z times;

[Your favorites here-the list is long]…and finally;

We have created a clerical system designed to attract sexual deviants to the priesthood and have actively sought to protect X deviant priests from exposure, despite our knowledge that they would continue to prey on the most powerless among our flock and have mainly been trying to protect our financial position since being found out and we actually have no real intent to do anything but engage in a PR exercise now.

Finally, and here's where the Pope really shows his ignorance, there's a little matter of the proper penance. This is the most important part, and you can't get cleansed of your sins without doing penance. For the kinds of sins Francis is (or should be) reciting, a few “Hail Marys” and a couple of “Our Fathers” just won't do. We really need to go back to the olden days, when the penances doled out to the faithful were a little more creative.

In keeping with Francis's PR moves, perhaps his penance should be that he should do as Jesus advised: “go and sell what you have, and give to the poor”.

But finally, none of it really counts unless your act of contrition is sincere. Time will tell on that score.

Say it aint so, Stephen

It is now official. Stephen Colbert will be taking over for David Letterman.

I realize this is a promotion of sorts, and that, being one who doesn't own a television, I have no standing to complain, but complain I will anyway, because lack of standing or not, as an American I have a right of free speech, even when speaking does not involve spending money.

To complete the full disclosure, I have never watched the Letterman show, except scattered bits and pieces I've seen on the web, so this screed is based purely on my impression, gained through osmosis, of the nature of late night network television in the post Johnny Carson era. (Yes, that's how long it's been since I watched late night television in real time. In this internet age I can timeshift Stewart and Colbert, and before that there was nothing worth losing sleep over. I only watched Carson when I was in college, which was eons ago. )

So, all that being said, I proceed:

Don't do it Stephen!

You are a brilliant comedian, but part of that brilliance flows from the relative freedom you have at Comedy Central. Will CBS allow you that freedom? Will you be able to continue to inhabit the right wing persona that you've used to advance your godless left wing philosophy (yes, I know you're a Catholic, but there's a lot of fare at the cafeteria you don't care to eat, so like it or not, you qualify as godless, or the functional equivalent thereof), which philosophy I share to a great extent. Will you have to play it straight during interviews? What a shame, as your current style is so much more effective in highlighting the strengths of your good guests and the weaknesses of the slimeballs (remember that great -and I think only – interview of Bill Kristol?) . Will you have to interview an endless parade of mind numbingly boring “celebrities”, instead of the truly interesting people you have on your present show? Can you still be the same Stephen Colbert who gave that great speech at the White House Correspondent's Dinner? Or will you have to trim your sails to appeal to a wider audience. As that signpost in the Wizard of Oz proclaimed: “I'd turn back if I were you.”

Bring on the death panels

The release of Medicare cost information has been debated in the press for a few days. I don't pretend to be an expert, but like everyone else I was shocked by the amount of money some doctors are getting for drugs they are prescribing. Of course, they have their excuses, but it would appear that the law as presently structured gives doctors a perverse incentive to prescribe the most expensive drug available to treat any given condition, along with an incentive to over prescribe the drugs they do prescribe. The best and most concise explanation of the problem that I've seen is here at Mother Jones, penned by Kevin Drum. He uses Lucentis as an example. That's the drug that the top “earner” among the doctors made so much money prescribing. It is a very expensive drug, yet it is no more effective than another drug (Avastin), which is much much cheaper. So why would any doctor prescribe Lucentis? Because the doctors get paid what amounts to a 6% commission on each drug the prescribe.

The backstory here is that Medicare used to set the reimbursement rate for “physician-administered drugs” based on an average wholesale price set by manufacturers. This price was routinely gamed, so Congress switched to reimbursing doctors based on an average sales price formula that's supposed to reflect the actual price physicians pay for the drugs. Then they tacked on an extra 6 percent in order to compensate for storage, handling and other administrative costs.

I don't know if 6 percent is the right number, but the theory here is reasonable. If you have to carry an inventory of expensive drugs, you have to finance that inventory, and the financing cost depends on the value of the inventory. More expensive drugs cost more to finance.

However, this does motivate doctors to prescribe more expensive drugs, a practice that pharmaceutical companies are happy to encourage. I don't know how broadly this is an actual problem, but it certainly is in the case of Avastin vs. Lucentis, where the cost differential is upwards of 100x for two drugs that are equally effective. And the problem here is that Medicare is flatly forbidden from approving certain drugs but not others. As long as Lucentis works, Medicare has to pay for it. That's great news for Genentech, but not so great for the taxpayers footing the bill.

via Mother Jones

Drum suggests paying the doctors a reasonable flat fee for every prescription. That would certainly be helpful, but my own feeling is that we should bring on those death panels, which are, of course, merely intended to curtail unnecessary or ineffective procedures. If a two dollar drug works as well as a two hundred dollar drug, then Medicare should be able to mandate the use of the two dollar drug. Of course the right would scream bloody murder (at the same time as they are voting to end Medicare altogether) , but they always scream bloody murder, and it's time we stopped listening.

We won’t get no education

But we’ll have plenty of thought control

A few months ago I opined that the drift in our educational system (so well documented by Jonathan Pelto at Wait, What?) is toward the corporate model that has transformed the rest of the country. I predicted that we would soon see most of our education dollars going to pay the CEO's of privately run for-profit “education” delivery systems. Once they get their puppet politicians (Here's looking at you, Dannel) to deliver the public school systems into their grasps, the money will really start flowing to the top in earnest. Well, it's already happening:

A study of charter schools by the League of Women Voters in Florida found that they spend more on administration than public schools and they don’t get better academic results.

“In Hillsborough, three charter schools that have opened since 2011 are owned by Charter Schools USA, a for-profit corporation, and these three alone enroll more than 20 percent of all charter students. In 2011, Woodmont Charter School, one of these three, expended 44 percent of its total revenue on instruction and 42 percent on management fees and leases.

“By contrast, traditional Hillsborough County schools spend at least 86 percent of revenue on instruction. Woodmont had FCAT scores of D for 2012 and F for 2013, and this is not unusual, since charter schools composed 50 percent of all F-rated Florida schools in 2011. Meanwhile, the six traditional public elementary schools and one middle school within 1 mile of Woodmont all have higher FCAT scores.

via Diane Ravitch's Blog

Once they get a lock on the educational system they will find various ways of extorting more money from the taxpayer and returning ever less. For remember, unlike School Superintendents, they are licensed to bribe contribute to the people holding the purse strings. How depressing is it that we won't even be able to educate our kids (if you can call what they'll be doing educating) without enriching the next generation of Koch brothers.

Not your Father’s First Amendment

Matt Bevin, owner of a bell factory here in Connecticut is the Tea Party candidate who is softening up Mitch McConnell for November. He has, of course, inserted his foot in a number of his own orifices, his mouth being the least embarrassing. He's currently in a bit of trouble for attending a rally in support of cock fighting. He was defensive for a bit, but then realized that those attacking him were actually attacking the constitution (with Republicans it always turns out that an attack on them is an attack on the Founders), so now he's in counterattack mode:

Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Matt Bevin continued to address his presence at a rally for supporters of legalizing cockfighting by saying America's Founding Fathers were very involved in the cockfighting world too.

“But it's interesting when you look at cockfighting and dogfighting as well,” Bevin said in an interview on the Terry Meiners Show on Louisville's WHAS on Thursday. “This isn't something new, it wasn't invented in Kentucky for example. I mean the Founding Fathers were all many of them very involved in this and always have been [sic.]”

“I'm going to defend the right of people to freely gather and discuss whatever they want to,” Bevin said. “I'm a believer in the Constitution and in the First Amendment,” Bevin also said. “Not just for raising money but also for freedom of speech.”

via Talking Points Memo

I'm sure many have already pointed out that “the Founding Fathers were all many of them involved in slavery and always have been”, which, oddly enough, doesn't make slavery right, though by Bevin's logic, it must. I won't even mention that glaring problem, (or bother to find out whether James Madison really attended cock fights) because it's not what got my attention.

No, what struck me was the last quoted sentence. It now appears that, at least among Republicans, the primary purpose of the First Amendment is to enable them to raise money, with actual “speech” being something of an also ran. How times have changed in just the last 10 years, never mind 30. I can remember a time when corporations weren't people; when the idea that anyone would even argue that a corporation could have a religion was so absurd it would never occur to anyone to discuss it; and it was a given that there was a legitimate interest in limiting the role of big money in politics that overrode any infinitesimal First Amendment concerns anyone could drum up. Now, I admit that I am a geezer, (though relatively newly minted) but even my kids can remember such a time. All it took was a stolen presidential election, and we were able to arrive at the advanced stage of jurisprudence we now enjoy.

Benjamin Franklin warned us. We got a Republic, but we've failed to keep it. It will be a matter of historical interest, I guess, to find out how long we continue to insist that our oligarchy is really a democracy.

How long did the Romans hang on to the notion that the Empire was a Republic? I predict we'll beat their record.

Rural states cry foul

The Boston Globe reports that congress critters from rural states are clamoring to expand an already existing program designed to shift NIH research grants away from deserving populated states (such as the Globe's Massachusetts) to rural states that could not win the grants on their own.

“It’s hard to compete against MIT or Harvard… . They’ve had their share. A lot of state colleges and universities all over the country, from Idaho to Maine, have some ideas too, and I think we should give these people from smaller schools in other states an opportunity,” said Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. “It’s time to fix that.”

Shelby is among many members of Congress advocating for the federal government to increase the amount of money set aside in a special program for researchers in 23 largely rural states that traditionally have had a difficult time competing for NIH grants. Backers of increasing the money in that program want to expand the number of states that benefit from it, as well as boost the amount of money by up to 14 percent.

“There’s a battle between merit and egalitarianism,” said Dr. David Page, director of the Whitehead Institute, a prestigious research institution in Cambridge affiliated with MIT. “If the table is tilted, we know the table is going to be tilted away from us. It’s straight out of Robin Hood.”

via The Boston Globe

I personally might be a little more sympathetic toward Shelby's Alabama, but for two things. First, his state, as is true for most rural (particulary rural Southern) states, already receives far more federal money than it pays in. Of course those of us who live in the states that ship money to the South can't complain, because that wouldn't be nice; everyone knows it's okay to mock out New York or Massachusetts, but you can't say an unkind word about the hellhole that is Alabama, or you'll be an elitist. When Senator Shelby starts to advocate equalizing the ration of federal tax payment to federal money received then maybe we can talk about the NIH grants.

The second reason I have so little sympathy for Senator Shelby is this: when it comes to funding scientific research, I'm all for sending my money to states that believe in science. I'm sure there are smart people that are born and even grow up in Alabama, but most of them leave when they get the chance. When they leave, they don't head off to states like, say, South Carolina, where a little girl's dream of having the wooly mammoth named the state fossil is currently foundering on the insistence of a brain dead legislator that the resolution state that the mammoth was “created on the sixth day along with the beasts of the field”. And lets not forget the fact that so many of these states officially deny the fact of climate change. No, our hypothetical smart Alabaman is far more likely to head North to Boston, or some other place where he or she can pursue real science in an environment where brains are appreciated. So, here's hoping that the Senators from the sane states will tell the rural states to stuff it, and I say this even though I have a soft spot in my heart for the state of Maine, even if it keeps sending Susan Collins to the Senate.

Spreading slums throughout the land

We usually consider slums to be an urban phenomenon, with slum dwellings usually consisting of run down apartment buildings. But, thanks to Wall Street and the wonders of securitization, slums may be coming to a previously middle class, single family neighborhood near you:

One of the reasons many investors have been skeptical of the way private equity firms have gone full bore into buying distressed single family homes is that property management is a hands-on business even when it’s done it the most favorable possible setting, an apartment building. Individuals who have invested in single family home rentals almost without exception report that even when they found it to be an economically attractive proposition, it was still oversight-intensive. Admittedly, there are some private equity firms who have bought rental properties who actually do seem to be targeting markets and renters in such a way that they might be able to do a decent job of property management, for instance, by buying homes where they can rehab the kitchen and bath plumbing using the same fixtures, screening tenants in person, and then inspecting the properties monthly and giving the tenants points for passing that they can convert into credits against a purchase or take in cash.

But the biggest fish in this ocean, Blackstone, is clearly taking the opposite approach, of doing as little as they can to maintain the houses and trying to fob off the responsibility onto the tenant, even when local regulations clearly prohibit it. So managing dispersed homes is no problem if you never planned to do the job in the first place.

via Naked Capitalism

The blogger at Naked Capitalism (Yves Smith) is optimistic that local landlord tenant laws will stymie operators like Blackstone, but I'm not so sure, and this is something I actually know something about first hand, having been engaged in landlord-tenant law for many years. Smith's post quotes from the Arizona landlord tenant law that is much like Connecticut's. Our laws require that the landlord perform all repairs, but makes a limited exception in the case of single family homes. There's qualifying language. The clear intent is to allow the parties to agree that the tenant will do certain things (such as mow the lawn) or that the tenant will do other repairs (presumably in exchanged for a reduced rent). These types of arrangements can work if both parties are reasonable, but, clearly, Blackstone and its ilk will try to stretch these somewhat vague provisions beyond recognition, and they may very well be able to do so more often than not. If a tenant balks at doing the repairs they may or may not get help from local building departments, and if they withhold rent they will almost certainly end up being evicted and replaced by another tenant. Even when tenants “know their rights” there are institutional barriers to actually getting those rights vindicated, among them the fact that tenants hardly ever have access to lawyers.

The states should take a proactive approach to this, by taking a long look at their statutes and amending them to prevent abuse before it happens. There are a number of approaches you could take. One possibility is to change the law as it applies to anyone owning three or more one family rental dwellings to clearly limit the work that can be fobbed off on the tenant. Another approach is the Truth in Lending approach. That statute contains what was often referred to as a private attorney general provision. A consumer with an offending contract could bring suit against a bank and collect statutory damages (no need to prove actual damages; the amount of damages is set by the statute) plus attorneys fees for establishing a failure to disclose in accordance with the act. For several years after the act was passed many lawyers made a living out of bringing such cases, until the banks cleaned up their acts. You could take the same approach with leases. Require them to contain certain clauses, and forbid other clauses. Give tenants a private right of action with statutory damages upon proof of violation, along with attorneys fees, and let the fun begin. If the states (obviously we'll get nothing from Congress) are a little proactive, they may prevent those slums from spreading.