Archive for the ‘financial’ Category

Greece is going glimmering.

Sunday, July 5th, 2015


I’ve been planning trip to Greece for months. Back in January, I decided to wait until the Greek monetary crisis was closer to resolution. Finally in May, I made reservations for September. I even posted my plans here.

Well, today it may be all going glimmering. The Greeks have apparently voted NO to the EU deal.

Greece has overwhelmingly rejected Europe’s latest bailout package, plunging the country’s future in the Eurozone into jeopardy.

With most of the votes counted in a referendum that will shape the future of the continent, the ‘No’ campaign has a staggering 61 per cent of the vote – 22 points ahead.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande called for an EU crisis summit to find a ‘solution’ for Greece, with leaders set to meet in Brussels on Tuesday.
Thousands of anti-austerity voters took to the streets in celebration as the leader of the pro-EU ‘Yes’ campaign resigned, with an official announcement of the final result imminent.
But German politicians warned of ‘disaster’ as they accused Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of ‘tearing down bridges’ between Greece and Europe.

Now what ?


Planning a trip to Greece

Saturday, June 20th, 2015

I have been a student of Greek history for many years. When I was a medical student and later a surgery resident, I kept a copy of J.B.Bury’s “History of Greece to the Death of Alexander on my bedside table as reading material for relaxation. I have read it several times.

Another source of pleasure has been the novels of Mary Renault, the pen name of Eileen Mary Challans. Sh wrote a series of historical novels which won awards and which provided a more intimate view of Greek society in the classical era. Some of her novels provide a more sympathetic view of homosexuality than I have found anywhere else but that is not the attraction. Her history sounded like something written by one who lived it.

Another favorite novelist is Helen MacInnes who wrote novels of adventure set in and after World War II. Two of them were about places in Greece and one of those, Mykonos, is a favorite spot.

Mykonos harbor

Her novel describes this harbor and, while a new cruise ship terminal has replaced some of her story, the harbor looks just as she described it.

Mykonos square

The story, titled “The Double Image” describes a tiny square in the town that sounds exactly like this one looks.

We are looking forward to this trip with some trepidation, however. Why ? Because Greece may be heading into serious trouble.

Since December, Greeks have been preparing for a weekend such as this, pulling more than 30 billion euros out of banks. Week after week, the Bank of Greece borrowed banknotes from the rest of the continent to replenish this hoarding of the one asset Greeks still trust — cold, hard cash. Its liabilities to the rest of the euro area for the excess physical cash it has to put into circulation quadrupled between December and April, the last month for which there’s available data.

In November of 2012, there was rioting in Athens and it was about proposed austerity.

On the same day that Greece’s parliament passed harsh new austerity measures as part of a multi-billion euro rescue package, workers cleared wreckage from burned-out buildings damaged during a round of intense riots the day before.

The unpopular bailout deal requires dramatic cuts in wages, pensions and jobs, according to Reuters, and Sunday’s protests saw the worst violence in Athens in years.

Since those riots, a new radical leftist government has been elected that has vowed to defy the EU and austerity.

Greece’s new leftist government opened talks on its bailout with European partners on Friday by flatly refusing to extend the program or to cooperate with the international inspectors overseeing it.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ government also sacked the heads of the state privatization agency after halting a series of state asset sales.

The politically unpopular policy of privatization to help cut debt is one of the conditions of Greece’s 240-billion-euro bailout that has imposed years of harsh austerity on Greece.

Now, the moment of truth approaches and what will happen ?

Everything comes together on Monday [Monday June 22 !]. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, back from a visit with Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, will spend his weekend coming up with a proposal to take to a Monday showdown with euro-area leaders.
A deal there is key. The bailout agreement that’s kept Greece from defaulting expires June 30. That’s the day Greece owes about 1.5 billion euros to the International Monetary Fund.
In an interview published Saturday in Brussels-based l’Echo newspaper, Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis warned that the ruling Syriza party could be replaced by neo-Nazis if Greece ends up defaulting and leaving the euro.

This may be standard leftist scare tactics but what will happen ? We have planned the trip to anticipate potential trouble in Athens. I have been to Athens before and have been to the Acropolis and the Parthenon.

Annie in Athens

Annie much more photogenic than I am and this was taken when she was 14 and standing on the Acropolis.

The plan is to fly to Athens and then spend only two nights there. I have planned a side trip to another place described in one of Helen MacInnes’ novels, Decision at Delphi, which is set soon after World War II and describes Sicily as well as Athens and Delphi. Delphi is quite high in the mountains north of Athens and involves some climbing so we will spend most of that time in the Delphi Museum.

Important finds included sculptures from the Temple of Zeus, the Nike of Paeonius, the Hermes of Praxiteles and many bronzes. In total 14,000 objects were recorded. The finds were displayed in a museum on the site.

Today, the Museum contains treasures from those excavations.


The museum itself.


And the interior with the exhibits. The trip can be made in a day and I have made arrangements.


On the way to Delphi, I want to make a short side trip to see the Lion of Chaeronea. This statue was erected over the common grave of the Sacred Band of Thebes. This was a unit of sworn lovers, probably all homosexual but in the fashion of classical Greece in which women were closely held in harem-like seclusion and men tended to adopt a pattern of an older man with a younger boy which might be merely sexual or it might be a sort of apprenticeship in arms. The Sacred Band had never been defeated in battle until that day, August 2, 338 BC. On that day, the Sacred Band was annihilated by the army of Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. The Band was buried in common grave and the lion statue erected over their grave. It was found by British tourists around 1900 and excavated and restored. Beneath the site were found the skeletons of nearly 300 men.


The battle,according to accounts which survived, was won when the Macedonians’ right flank conducted a sudden retreat, drawing the Athenians out of line. The Sacred Band was destroyed holding the line. I want to see their grave.

After that day trip, we plan to fly to Thessaloniki, a city east and north of Athens to visit the tomb of Philip II, the father of Alexander and winner of the battle of Chaeronea.


The remains in the tomb have recently been confirmed as those of Philip II

The tomb, itself, is well preserved and restored. The town of Vergina is near Thessaloniki and too far from Athens to drive in a day.

From Thessaloniki, we will fly to Crete and spend a few days near the Palace of Knossos and its museum.


The museum and the palace ruins should keep us busy for five days, then we fly back to Athens for one night and catch our flight to London and home the next day.

Or so the plan goes.

Is War Coming ?

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

There are three, possibly four, major areas of international strife and all are getting worse as we watch.

Europe is trying to deal with Vladimir Putin and the new Russia. It is not doing well.

There was a palpable tone shift in U.S. policy toward Ukraine this week, when the Obama administration signaled that it was ready to consider sending the country lethal military aid. A confluence of factors is pushing President Obama toward this decision. The fragile ceasefire brokered in September between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists has failed, manifested in the series of recent and high-profile separatist advances against the Ukrainian military this week. Bipartisan congressional support for sending weapons to Ukraine, championed by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), as well as a newly released report by former senior U.S. and European officials recommending lethal military aid for the embattled country, have also contributed to Obama and his tight inner circle of foreign policy advisers reconsidering the lethal aid option.

Will this happen ? I doubt it.

As Kadri Liik of the European Council on Foreign Relations pointed out recently , many Western leaders persist in seeing the Ukraine invasion as a hiccup in relations with Russia that can be smoothed over, rather than as a demonstration that Mr. Putin’s agenda is fundamentally at odds with Europe’s security interests and its values. Because of their attachment to the hiccup theory, governments — including the Obama administration — have refused to take steps, such as providing the Ukrainian government with defensive weapons, that could help stop Mr. Putin’s aggression. Instead, they concoct futile schemes for “reengaging” the Russian ruler.

The next crisis will be the end of NATO.

Late this week, the Obama administration unveiled its new National Security Strategy, amid less than fanfare, with the execrable Susan Rice explaining in “remain calm, all is well!” fashion that things are really much better globally than they look. This White House’s new foreign policy mantra is Strategic Patience, which seems to be the been-to-grad-school version of “don’t do stupid shit.” Since nobody inside the Beltway is taking this eleventh-hour effort to articulate Obama’s security strategy seriously, it’s doubtful anyone abroad, much less in Moscow, will either.

Soon, Putin will turn his gaze on the Baltics.

Jaws dropped this week when Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who until recently was NATO’s civilian head, stated that it is highly likely that Russia will soon stage a violent provocation against a Baltic state, which being NATO countries, will cause a crisis over the Alliance’s Article 5 provision for collective self-defense. Rasmussen merely said what all defense experts who understand Putin already know, but this was not the sort of reality-based assessment that Western politicians are used to hearing.

NATO has disarmed and is in panic mode now if they have to face Russia, weak as it is in the long term. As Keynes said, “In the long term we are all dead.” We are partly responsible for this state of affairs.

Not all the fault for this sorry state of affairs lies in Europe. Here America has played an insidious role too, encouraging spending on niche missions for the Alliance at the expense of traditional defense. Hence the fact that Baltic navies have considerable counter-mine capabilities — this being an unsexy mission that the U.S. Navy hates to do — yet hardly any ability to police their maritime borders against intruding Russians. To make matters worse, since 2001 the Americans have encouraged NATO partners to spend considerable amounts of their limited defense budgets on America’s losing war in Afghanistan.

We should have gotten out in 2009. The absurd Rules of Engagement are only part of it.

Now, we face another major threat in the Middle East, Theater Two.

For the situation with Iran, I have long relied on the writing of Spengler.

Dying civilizations are the most dangerous, and Iran is dying. Its total fertility rate probably stands at just 1.6 children per female, the same level as Western Europe, a catastrophic decline from 7 children per female in the early 1980s. Iran’s present youth bulge will turn into an elderly dependent problem worse than Europe’s in the next generation and the country will collapse. That is why war is likely, if not entirely inevitable.

The rulers of Iran have shown no moderation of their messianic beliefs and their willingness to destroy themselves to bring about the coming of the Twelfth Imam.

Twelver Shi‘a believe that al-Mahdi was born in 869 (15 Sha‘bin 255 AH) and assumed Imamate at 5 years of age following the death of his father Hasan al-Askari. In the early years of his Imamate he would only contact his followers through The Four Deputies. After a 72-year period, known as Minor Occultation, a few days before the death of his fourth deputy Abul Hasan Ali ibn Muhammad al-Samarri in 941, he is believed to have sent his followers a letter. In that letter that was transmitted by al-Samarri he declared the beginning of Major Occultation during which Mahdi is not in contact with his followers.

The coming of the Imam is part of the end of the world and the rulers of Iran are “Twelvers.”

Shi’as believe that Imam al-Mahdi will reappear when the world has fallen into chaos and civil war emerges between the human race for no reason. At this time, it is believed, half of the true believers will ride from Yemen carrying white flags to Makkah, while the other half will ride from Karbalaa’, in the `Iraq, carrying black flags to Makkah. At this time, Imam al-Mahdi will come wielding `Ali’s Sword, Zulfiqar , the Double-Bladed Sword. He will also come and reveal the texts in his possession, such as al-Jafr and al-Jamia.

The Shi’ites have this belief as part of their religion and the rulers of Iran seem to be sincere in their beliefs, which is why Obama is insane to consider them rational.

The Sunni equivalent is the new group called Islamic State in Syria and various other names.

The recent rise in terrorist attacks is only one part of the problem. We also see the collapse of Iraq after Obama removed all US troops.

What are we going to do about all this? Probably nothing as Obama has a master plan that will solve all our problems. He will make friends with our worst enemies.

What about China ? We were going to “pivot to Asia.”

One question is whether China is stable. There are questions about China’s economic future.

Beijing can manage a rapidly declining pace of credit creation, which must inevitably result in much slower although healthier GDP growth. Or Beijing can allow enough credit growth to prevent a further slowdown but, once the perpetual rolling-over of bad loans absorbs most of the country’s loan creation capacity, it will lose control of growth altogether and growth will collapse.

The choice, in other words, is not between hard landing and soft landing. China will either choose a “long landing”, in which growth rates drop sharply but in a controlled way such that unemployment remains reasonable even as GDP growth drops to 3% or less, or it will choose what analysts will at first hail as a soft landing – a few years of continued growth of 6-7% – followed by a collapse in growth and soaring unemployment.

What would happen then ? I just don’t see a war with China in our future, partly because neither of us can afford it. China is threatening its neighbors, like Japan and the Philippines, but we are unlikely to intervene. Our former allies in the east are now seeking help from each other as Obama destroys the US influence.

The disgrace of the IRS

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

The IRS scandal has forever discredited the Internal Revenue Service. The scandal is going on two years in length. It began with the notorious Lois Lerner, who headed a division called “The Exempt Organizations Unit.” This was supposed to evaluate applications for tax exemption.

Lerner served for a time on Federal Election Commission, which suggested her interest in electoral politics.

Lerner began her IRS service in 2001 as Director Rulings and Agreements in the Exempt Organizations function of TEGE. [2] In January 2006, she was selected as Director Exempt Organizations. In this capacity, Lerner led an organization of 900 employees responsible for a broad range of compliance activities, including examining the operational and financial activities of exempt organizations, processing applications for tax exemption, providing direction through private letter rulings and technical guidance and providing customer education and outreach to the exempt community.

Here it is apparent that she was promoted by the Bush Administration and was not a political appointee of the Obama people. Why was she involved in this scandal ? The Treasury Department is run by a career Civil Service bureaucracy. Career federal agents and employees are prevented from political partisan activity by The Hatch Act of 1939. Does this work ?



Medicine is coming to be a government benefit.

Sunday, August 3rd, 2014

Obamacare is having serious trouble as I have discussed. The success stories, like California, are an example of what I have called Medicaid for All.

“It’s a total contradiction in terms to spend your public time castigating Medicaid as something that never should have been expanded for poor people and as a broken, problem-riddled system, and then turn around and complain about the length of time to enroll people,” said Sara Rosenbaum, a member of the Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission, which advises Congress.

Most of the new enrollees are Medicaid members and those enrolled in “private insurance” learn that they have severely restricted choice of doctor or hospital.

Now we have a new development.


Where is housing going ?

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

UPDATE: Megan McArdle has some doubts about house prices.


The housing inflation seems to be limited to certain cities. How will this last in the poor (except District of Columbia) economy ?

I live in south Orange County and have noticed a huge amount of rental construction going on. This area has been mostly single family homes and condos since 1972 when I moved here. Now, we see big projects like this and others nearby that I don’t know the name of. These are big projects including hundreds and perhaps thousands of units. The builder is the Irvine Company which, in my previous experience, has built mostly homes and condos. Recently, I began to notice more rental projects in Irvine.

The Irvine Company Apartment Communities is dedicated to making it easy to find a home you’ll love with unsurpassed services meeting your every need. With approximately 122 exceptional apartment communities located throughout the prime California regions of Orange County, West Los Angeles, San Diego and Silicon Valley, we offer choices to fit every lifestyle and budget.

They seem to be going to rental property in a big way. Maybe this is the reason.

From reading the mainstream press all you hear are glorious signs of housing resurrection! Come one come all into the house of real estate where the almighty Fed will allow no harm to occur. Just sign and pray and the next thing you know you’ll be the next Donald Trump. The flipping, rehabbing, and housing shows are once again filling the space on a cable station near you. The perception of the Fed being this almighty protector of housing makes a bit of sense but where was the Fed in 2007?

I see lots of housing flips in southern California, not in Orange County so far.


Even in 2013 we had 1.4 million properties with notice of defaults, scheduled auctions, and full on REOs taken on. Early in the crisis these stories were common since they were a novelty to the press. Now however, many of these properties are shifting over to large investors pushing inventory up. A clear consequence of this is a large pool of potential buyers that are unable to buy.

These may be the renters.


Yup. The would-be first time buyers have student loans and bad credit. They are renting.

The number of first time buyers is pathetic because household formation is weak and many young Americans are living at home with mom and dad. Forget about buying, they are having a tough time paying higher rents to the new feudal landlords. You would expect with the rapid rise in prices that existing home sales are off the charts but they are not.

Housing prices do NOT mean buyers who will be occupants. Look at mortgage applications !


Wow ! We are back to levels last seen nearly 20 years ago! Only difference is that we have 50,000,000 more people today walking the streets of the U.S. of A. than we did back then. Since access to middle class living is getting tougher thanks to weak income growth, more people are opting to rent:


This is what I am seeing in Orange County. I have been looking in San Pedro for a small house near the ocean. I can no longer afford Orange County except condos. I sold my house four years ago and bought a house in the mountains. That was a bad move. I found that I could not tolerate the altitude. I had to sell into the bad market of 2012. That cost me a lot. Now, I have to lower my sights and may just stay a renter for a while. At my age, it may make better sense.

The “Deep State.”

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

UPDATE: From Zerohedge: Is the deep state fracturing among the elites ?

History suggests that this low-intensity conflict within the ruling Elite is generally a healthy characteristic of leadership in good times. As times grow more troubled, however, the unity of the ruling Elite fractures into irreconcilable political disunity, which becomes a proximate cause of the dissolution of the Empire if it continues.

We live in interesting times.

This essay on the blog of Bill Moyers, a left winger and former LBJ press secretary who is almost 80 years old, is interesting. It has the usual leftist slant on the topic but also includes many good observations.

There is the visible government situated around the Mall in Washington, and then there is another, more shadowy, more indefinable government that is not explained in Civics 101 or observable to tourists at the White House or the Capitol. The former is traditional Washington partisan politics: the tip of the iceberg that a public watching C-SPAN sees daily and which is theoretically controllable via elections. The subsurface part of the iceberg I shall call the Deep State, which operates according to its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power. [1]

Moyers had a significant role to play in the early stages of this administrative state.

Failure to recognize the distinction between the way in which the Department of the Army operates and the standing operating procedures of military organizations in the field has frustrated generations of field soldiers, who have taken for granted the necessity for tight management at the top, known to them as unity of command.This struggle for executive control within the Army has
taken place during a period of increasingly centralized authority over individual and corporate activities throughout American life.

Moyers has more of a role here than he admits. After some nonsense about Republican “obstructionism,” he says this:

Despite this apparent impotence, President Obama can liquidate American citizens without due processes, detain prisoners indefinitely without charge, conduct dragnet surveillance on the American people without judicial warrant and engage in unprecedented — at least since the McCarthy era — witch hunts against federal employees (the so-called “Insider Threat Program”). Within the United States, this power is characterized by massive displays of intimidating force by militarized federal, state and local law enforcement.

I think it is interesting to see that the left, certainly Moyers territory, sees this.

During the time in 2011 when political warfare over the debt ceiling was beginning to paralyze the business of governance in Washington, the United States government somehow summoned the resources to overthrow Muammar Ghaddafi’s regime in Libya, and, when the instability created by that coup spilled over into Mali, provide overt and covert assistance to French intervention there. At a time when there was heated debate about continuing meat inspections and civilian air traffic control because of the budget crisis, our government was somehow able to commit $115 million to keeping a civil war going in Syria and to pay at least £100m to the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters to buy influence over and access to that country’s intelligence. Since 2007, two bridges carrying interstate highways have collapsed due to inadequate maintenance of infrastructure, one killing 13 people. During that same period of time, the government spent $1.7 billion constructing a building in Utah that is the size of 17 football fields. This mammoth structure is intended to allow the National Security Agency to store a yottabyte of information, the largest numerical designator computer scientists have coined. A yottabyte is equal to 500 quintillion pages of text. They need that much storage to archive every single trace of your electronic life.

Yes, indeed.

Government life is typically not some vignette from an Allen Drury novel about intrigue under the Capitol dome. Sitting and staring at the clock on the off-white office wall when it’s 11:00 in the evening and you are vowing never, ever to eat another piece of takeout pizza in your life is not an experience that summons the higher literary instincts of a would-be memoirist. After a while, a functionary of the state begins to hear things that, in another context, would be quite remarkable, or at least noteworthy, and yet that simply bounce off one’s consciousness like pebbles off steel plate: “You mean the number of terrorist groups we are fighting is classified?” No wonder so few people are whistle-blowers, quite apart from the vicious retaliation whistle-blowing often provokes: Unless one is blessed with imagination and a fine sense of irony, growing immune to the curiousness of one’s surroundings is easy. To paraphrase the inimitable Donald Rumsfeld, I didn’t know all that I knew, at least until I had had a couple of years away from the government to reflect upon it.

The IRS bureaucrat begins to see that the Tea Party is a threat to his pension and continued nice life. That, of course, is not what Moyers is concerned about.

The Deep State does not consist of the entire government. It is a hybrid of national security and law enforcement agencies: the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Justice Department. I also include the Department of the Treasury because of its jurisdiction over financial flows, its enforcement of international sanctions and its organic symbiosis with Wall Street. All these agencies are coordinated by the Executive Office of the President via the National Security Council. Certain key areas of the judiciary belong to the Deep State, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, whose actions are mysterious even to most members of Congress. Also included are a handful of vital federal trial courts, such as the Eastern District of Virginia and the Southern District of Manhattan, where sensitive proceedings in national security cases are conducted. The final government component (and possibly last in precedence among the formal branches of government established by the Constitution) is a kind of rump Congress consisting of the congressional leadership and some (but not all) of the members of the defense and intelligence committees. The rest of Congress, normally so fractious and partisan, is mostly only intermittently aware of the Deep State and when required usually submits to a few well-chosen words from the State’s emissaries.

This is what some of us refer to as The Ruling Class.

There are now 854,000 contract personnel with top-secret clearances — a number greater than that of top-secret-cleared civilian employees of the government. While they work throughout the country and the world, their heavy concentration in and around the Washington suburbs is unmistakable: Since 9/11, 33 facilities for top-secret intelligence have been built or are under construction. Combined, they occupy the floor space of almost three Pentagons — about 17 million square feet. Seventy percent of the intelligence community’s budget goes to paying contracts. And the membrane between government and industry is highly permeable: The Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper, is a former executive of Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the government’s largest intelligence contractors. His predecessor as director, Admiral Mike McConnell, is the current vice chairman of the same company; Booz Allen is 99 percent dependent on government business. These contractors now set the political and social tone of Washington, just as they are increasingly setting the direction of the country, but they are doing it quietly, their doings unrecorded in the Congressional Record or the Federal Register, and are rarely subject to congressional hearings.

Remove some of the obligatory left wing rhetoric and I agree with this completely. Read the rest.

In 2013, General David Petraeus joined KKR (formerly Kohlberg Kravis Roberts) of 9 West 57th Street, New York, a private equity firm with $62.3 billion in assets. KKR specializes in management buyouts and leveraged finance. General Petraeus’ expertise in these areas is unclear. His ability to peddle influence, however, is a known and valued commodity. Unlike Cincinnatus, the military commanders of the Deep State do not take up the plow once they lay down the sword. Petraeus also obtained a sinecure as a non-resident senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. The Ivy League is, of course, the preferred bleaching tub and charm school of the American oligarchy. [4]

Exactly. Think about global warming and energy policy, matters Moyers neglects.

The Depression may be here.

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

I have believed for some time that we were entering another Depression. I have previously posted about it.

The Great Depression did not really get going until the Roosevelt Administration got its anti-business agenda enacted after 1932. The 1929 crash was a single event, much like the 2008 panic. It took major errors in economic policy to make matters worse. Some were made by Hoover, who was a “progressive” but they continued under Roosevelt.

I posted that statement elsewhere and it got a rather furious rebuttal. I still believe it. What is more, I am not the only one. Or even only one of two.

The second article preceded the election of 2012 but is still valid.

When employment hit an air pocket in December, most analysts brushed off the dreadful jobs number as an anomaly, or a function of the weather. They chose to believe Ben Bernanke rather than their lying eyes. It’s hard to ignore a second signal that the U.S. economy is dead in the water, though: on Monday the Institute for Supply Management reported the steepest drop in manufacturing orders since December 1980:


In January, only 51% of manufacturers reported a rise in new orders, vs. 64% in December. Not only did the U.S. economy stop hiring in December, with just 74,000 workers added to payrolls; it stopped ordering new equipment. The drop in orders is something that only has occurred during recessions (denoted by the shaded blue portions of the chart). The Commerce Department earlier reported a sharp drop in December orders for durable goods. In current dollars, durable goods orders are unchanged from a year ago, which is to say they are lower after inflation.

So, the economy stopped hiring, even at the poor pace the past five years have seen, but business also stopped buying.


Update on cash medical practices.

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

Titanic; Vancouver; 1912

I can’t resist this graphic as a metaphor for the present health care crisis.

Some time ago, in fact several years ago, I posted a piece on coming changes in health care. I didn’t necessarily recommend this for reform but it was something I saw coming.

Perhaps more than most people, Reitz, a senior HIV?AIDS scientist with the Institute of Human Virology in Baltimore, appreciated the need to be examined quickly. And thanks to a recent trend to help personalize physician care, he got an appointment the same day — but not because of his professional status.
Reitz, like any patient of Dr. Philip Henjum, can get a same-day appointment because Henjum and his partner, Dr. Robert Fields, practice retainer medicine in their Olney office.
Their patients pay a $1,500 annual retainer fee to see them as soon and as many times as they need to. They also make house calls.
As it turned out, Henjum diagnosed Reitz with Lyme disease, an infection from a tick bite, and prescribed antibiotics. If not diagnosed and treated early, Lyme disease can lead to severe headaches, muscle pain and serious heart problems.
Fields and Henjum are two of about a dozen doctors in Maryland and an estimated 600 nationally who won’t take insurance coverage. Instead, they charge a yearly or monthly retainer. Some work out of comfortable medical office such as Fields and Henjum, next to Montgomery General Hospital.

That was 2009. I added another post on Chicago Boyz in 2010. Here it is.

The reason why I believe this trend is growing rapidly is that some states, like Massachusetts, plan to pass laws requiring doctors to accept Medicare as a condition of licensure. If they were not worried, why write a law about it ? Medicare has a provision that they determine the price and there are no extra charges allowed.

A participating physician agrees that payment for Medicare services based on the fee schedule represents the approved and full charge. This means a physician cannot collect or balance bill an amount in excess of the approved charge listed on the fee schedule for services furnished to Medicare patients.

That, plus the rationing, drives most primary care doctors out of the field or, more recently, out of Medicare. Those who remain, hire Physician Assistants or Nurse Practitioners to see Medicare patients. That works for a while but PAs and NPs are still expensive.

With the passage of Obamacare, Forrest says he’s seeing more physicians aggressively search for alternatives, as he once did. Over the years, he’s helped a couple of dozen offices open across the country, and he’s started speaking at industry conferences about his practice. But in recent months, he’s been flooded with inquiries from fellow doctors. “Since the health care reform bill passed, you wouldn’t believe the number of doctors who have said they’ve had it and want to operate outside the system,” he says.

Now, Obamacare is here and we are seeing the first glimmerings of the problem coming into focus.

This was a week ago.

Health plans are sending hundreds of thousands of cancellation letters to people who buy their own coverage, frustrating some consumers who want to keep what they have and forcing others to buy more costly policies.

The main reason insurers offer is that the policies fall short of what the Affordable Care Act requires starting Jan. 1. Most are ending policies sold after the law passed in March 2010. At least a few are cancelling plans sold to people with pre-existing medical conditions.

By all accounts, the new policies will offer consumers better coverage, in some cases, for comparable cost — especially after the inclusion of federal subsidies for those who qualify. The law requires policies sold in the individual market to cover 10 “essential” benefits, such as prescription drugs, mental health treatment and maternity care. In addition, insurers cannot reject people with medical problems or charge them higher prices. The policies must also cap consumers’ annual expenses at levels lower than many plans sold before the new rules.

But the cancellation notices, which began arriving in August, have shocked many consumers in light of President Barack Obama’s promise that people could keep their plans if they liked them.

Just for curiosity, I did a search on cash medical practice in Orange County CA.

The results were interesting. Among other things, I found a bunch of family practices for sale.

I also found a long list of practices that accept cash. Quite a few have good Yelp reviews. For example:

regular physician normally does! And I was only charged $75 for the visit! (To put that in perspective, my PPO insurance copay would have been $60 had I waited another week for an appointment.

There are 15 pages of reviews. Children’s Hospital is even listed as taking cash: for his recent cold. Parking is underground $7 they take checks and cash only. Parking distance from emergency entrance is very close. We checked in soon after we were called, minimal wait… No mention of costs here but a good review.

The possible outcome of all this, and I don’t believe that employer health plans will survive, is a new system of cash payment for primary and routine care plus insurance for insurable events. That’s what we had in 1950 and it worked well. Doctors didn’t get rich but they often ran their offices with one person helping, sometimes the wife. I remember an orthopedic surgeon and family friend whose office had one large waiting room and telephone person for about 30 doctors. He was later the team physician for the Chicago White Sox so he was no slouch. He also did the first cup arthroplasties in Chicago. One of them was on my aunt.

The medical world will be changing.

How to respond to the IRS scandal

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Washington DC seems to be convulsed this week with scandals. Most of us were well aware of the Benghazi disaster and coverup. The IRS scandal is new and does a lot to explain the quiet status of the Tea Party groups that were so active in 2010. Many of us expected to see more of them last year in the run up to the 2012 presidential election, as well as the other races for Senate and House. Now we know what happened.

The Tea Party groups that filed for 501 (c) 4 status were harassed and threatened by the IRS. 501 (c) 4 status does NOT grant tax exemption to donations, contrary to the statement of Nancy Pelosi, not a good source in any situation. It only allows tax exemption for activities intended to education the public on issues of interest to the organization. From the IRS web site:

The promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. However, a section 501(c)(4) social welfare organization may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity. However, any expenditure it makes for political activities may be subject to tax under section 527(f).

The Tea Parties were organized for political and educational activity, not as lobbies. There are plenty of lobbies. Other organizations singled out by the IRS in this scandal included those concerned with “The Constitution” or other philosophical topics. Several examples are included in this article.

Kookogey’s organization, Linchpins of Liberty, is one of several groups still awaiting approval of their applications for tax-exempt status after more than three years. Linchpins, a conservative mentoring program for high-school and college students, has received extensive and intrusive requests for information about the organization. Unlike most of the groups targeted, however, Linchpins of Liberty was seeking status as a 501(c)(3) educational non-profit, as opposed to a more overtly political 501(c)(4) “social welfare” group, and had no direct “tea party” affiliation. The group’s stated mission is “to challenge the imagination of the rising generation” through “the study of books about the human condition and about civic order.”

I see no evidence of lobbying intent there.

The agency sent him more than 30 questions in response to his application, including some that defied comprehension. “They asked me to identify the students I’m teaching and what I’m teaching them,” he says. “Now, imagine the disservice I’d be doing to the parents of these kids if I reported their children to the IRS. It was clearly meant to intimidate.”

This is far beyond the role of a tax agency.

How do we deal with this ?

First, donations to 501 (c) 4 organizations are NOT tax deductible for the donor. The organization benefits from the fact that its own activities are tax exempt. It cannot conduct a business that returns profits to the organization although educating members and charging for that service may be permissible.

Under this technical instruction program (pdf) the social welfare group would be allowed to engage in business as a means of financing the social welfare program. The business might consist of holding seminars on politics.

I was president of such an organization years ago. It was the Orange County Medical Association. It was tax exempt and, when we began to organize a subsidiary that would provide health care for low income persons, we made the subsidiary a for-profit company and allocated all business expenses related to the provision of health care as expenses to that subsidiary. We had no IRS trouble although Reagan was president and the IRS was not political as it is under Obama.

My suggestion is to contribute and help the Tea Party and similar organizations to organize themselves under another model. Perhaps legislation to allow educational organizations to function free of harassment would be in order although Democrats in the Senate would probably try to block it. Complaining about the IRS will only accomplish so much. The history of misuse of the IRS is long and goes back to Roosevelt

President Franklin Roosevelt used the IRS to harass newspaper publishers who were opposed to the New Deal, including William Randolph Hearst and Moses Annenberg, publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Roosevelt also dropped the IRS hammer on political rivals such as the populist firebrand Huey Long and radio agitator Father Coughlin, and prominent Republicans such as former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. Perhaps Roosevelt’s most pernicious tax skulduggery occurred in 1944. He spiked an IRS audit of illegal campaign contributions made by a government contractor to Congressman Lyndon Johnson, whose career might have been derailed if Texans had learned of the scandal.

Andrew Mellon, Treasury Secretary under Coolidge, was harassed by FDR until he died. After his death, Mellon was exonerated completely.

The administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt subjected Mellon to intense investigation of his personal income tax returns. The US Justice Department empaneled a grand jury, which declined to issue an indictment. Roosevelt hated Mellon, as the embodiment of everything he thought was bad about the 1920s; Mellon vehemently denied the charges. A two-year civil action beginning in 1935, dubbed the “Mellon Tax Trial”, eventually exonerated Mellon, albeit several months after his death.

We should support the Tea Parties and get tax lawyers to construct a standard application with responses to legal and appropriate questions.