2007 - %3, January

The State of Our Healthcare Industry is Weak

| Tue Jan. 23, 2007 10:44 PM EST

Bush said tonight that when it comes to our health care, private insurance is the way to go. As you take that in, consider this: Americans spend $5,000 more per capita on health care, fully 50% more than any other country.

What's Bush's solution? According to the Washington Post, Bush wants to redirect federal money away from hospitals that serve the poor and uninsured, and away from Medicare and Medicaid. Redirect it where, you ask? To private insurance companies, of course.

Now consider this: Private insurers take a dollar for every five dollars in the health care industry. It's a super-duper rip-off. How? Well, have a look at the "medical loss ratios" of major insurers—that is, how much insurers pay in doctors bills, hospital bills, tests and drugs, divided by their revenue in insurance premiums.

  • 76.9% - Aetna
  • 82.3% - Cigna
  • 83.9% - Health Net
  • 83.2% - Humana
  • 78.6% - UnitedHealth Group
  • 80.6% - WellPoint

Get it? You pay Aetna $100 a month? They spend $76.90 percent on your health and $23.10 on corporate overhead, administration, and their own healthy profit margin. That list was compiled by Jonathan G. Bethely of American Medical News, but it's quite easy to find in insurers' SEC 10 filings, though insurers prefer to call it "benefit cost ratio" and "benefit expense ratio." (Whatever they call it, it's no perfect measure, argues James Robinson, a UC Berkeley professor of public health. But it's what we have to work with.)

And it's not all. How many staff at doctors' offices and hospitals devote their time to billing, negotiating, and haggling with insurance companies? In order to get private insurance companies to pay up, doctors' offices spend 14 percent on "billing and insurance-related functions" and hospitals spend another 7 to 11 percent, according to the journal Health Affairs.

Add that up and you see that one in three dollars in the healthcare industry is spent on neither health nor care. That's how efficient the market is! The state proposals to force people to buy private insurance — and Bush's proposal tonight to divert money from government caregivers to private insurance — just send more money down the drain. The answer is single-payer health care. But in the meantime we have patchwork plans like Arnold's, though at least his would cut what insurance companies skim down to 15 percent.

— April Rabkin

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Bush Acknowledges Global Climate Change!!!

| Tue Jan. 23, 2007 10:36 PM EST

Oh, who cares. It's like being the last kid to say "not me" when somebody farts.

And now he's on to the "shoreless ambitions of the enemy." Shoreless? Shortless?

Live Blogging SOTU...

| Tue Jan. 23, 2007 10:27 PM EST

Thus far, Bush sort of sweet to Pelosi, pledges new era of bipartisanship, then goes on to congratulate Democrat (not cratic) party....

Think I just saw Cheney sticking a piece of gum under his desk...

Illegal immigrants will be treated "without animosity, without amnesty" (somebody worked real hard on that phrase).

Bush talking energy policy, Pelosi looks like she's trying hard not to giggle...or maybe Cheney's pinching her...

Actual State of the Union, by the Numbers

| Tue Jan. 23, 2007 10:20 PM EST

President Bush is expected to hail the state of the union as strong tonight, but for Americans worrying about how to make ends meet, the country is headed in the wrong direction, according to numbers compiled today by the Campaign for America's Future.

On Incomes:

--Median household income in 2000: $47,599
--Median household income in 2005: $46,326
(US Census Bureau, Table H-8. Median Household Income by State: 1984 to 2005)

--Salary of a full-time minimum wage employee without vacation: $10,712
--Average time for top CEOs to earn that sum: 2.06 hours
(Forbes Magazine. "What the Boss Makes." April 20, 2006)

--Federal minimum wage in 2000: $5.15/hr
--Federal minimum wage in 2006: $5.15/hr
--Loss in purchasing power, full time worker annually: $1,562

On Energy Prices:

--Average price of home heating oil on Jan. 3, 2000: $1.15 per gallon
--Average price of home heating oil on Jan. 1, 2007: $2.42 per gallon
(U.S. Energy Information Admin. Jan. 4, 2007)

--Average price of gasoline on Jan. 3, 2000: $1.31 per gallon
--Average price of gasoline on Jan. 1, 2007: $2.38 per gallon
(U.S. Energy Information Admin. Jan. 5, 2007)

--Exxon Mobil profits in 2000: $7.9 billion
--Exxon Mobil profits in 2006: $36.1 billion
(CNNMoney.com, accessed Jan. 19, 2007)

On Education:

--Average cost of a year at a public four-year college in 2000: $9,958
--Average cost of a year at a public four-year college in 2006: $12,796
(Costs include tuition, fees, room & board. MSN Money 2000/Associated Press. Jan. 14, 2005. College Board. Trends in College Pricing 2007)

On Health Care Costs:

--Americans without health insurance, 2000: 38.2 million
--Americans without health insurance, 2005: 46.6 million
(US Census Bureau, Sept. 2001; US Census Bureau, Aug. 2006)

--Average monthly worker contribution for family coverage in 2000: $135
--Average monthly worker contribution for family coverage in 2006: $248
--Personal bankruptcies due to medical bills: 55 percent
(The Kaiser Family Foundation, Sept. 26, 2006; Health Affairs Health Policy Journal, Feb. 2, 2005)

On Debts and Deficits:

--Monthly U.S. Trade Deficit in October 2000: $33.8 billion
--Monthly U.S. Trade Deficit in October 2006: $58.9 billion
(U.S. Census Bureau Foreign Trade Statistics. Jan. 10, 2007)

--Loss of value of U.S. dollar relative to the Euro, Jan. 24, 2000 to Jan. 23, 2006: 23 percent
(X-rate.com, accessed Jan. 23, 2006)

--US Budget Deficit in FY 2000: $230 billion surplus
--US Budget Deficit in FY 2006: $423 billion deficit
(White House Office of Management and Budget. Budget of the United States Government, Historical Tables, Fiscal Year 2007; White House Office of Management and Budget. Table S-1. 2006 budget totals)

--US National Debt in FY 2000: $5.7 trillion
--US National Debt in FY 2006: $8.5 trillion
(Bureau of the Public Debt, Jan. 16, 2007)

Libby Case: "Recollection Problems"

| Tue Jan. 23, 2007 5:07 PM EST

So, it's official. Scooter Libby's defense will be based, as his lawyer Ted Wells put it, on "recollection problems" – not just Libby's, though, but those of the journalists and officials who are expected to testify at his trial as well.

"Could Russert Be Mistaken?" read a slide shown to the jury this afternoon, as Wells resumed his opening statement after a lunch recess. Not that Wells plans on proving this one way or the other – he is simply trying to cast doubt on the prosecution's case. At one point, he said that the defense will provide "evidence suggesting that Tim Russert, not Scooter Libby, got it wrong." At another, seemingly contradicting any evidence he might provide, Wells suggested that Libby, in testifying before the grand jury, may have mistaken his conversation with the NBC journalist for a chat, on a similar topic, with Robert Novak. And besides, Wells said, "Russert has no notes" to support his version of events (namely that he didn't tell Libby about Plame, as Libby has asserted).

As for Matt Cooper, the former Time reporter, Wells claims that "Cooper's notes do not support his recollection" of his conversation with Libby, in which Plame was raised (reportedly by Cooper). Judith Miller, the former New York Times reporter who spent 85 days in jail protecting her source -- Libby -- suffers from a "fuzzy memory" as well, according to Wells. Also fuzzy on the details, he says, are anticipated prosecution witnesses including Libby's one-time CIA briefer Craig Schmall; former CIA official Robert Grenier; and former White House flack Ari Fleischer, among others. "They've got recollection problems," Wells said.

Wells then reminded the jury that Libby, too, is "known for having a bad memory."

Hot Promises of Geothermal Energy

| Tue Jan. 23, 2007 4:35 PM EST

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology-led study of geothermal energy within the US finds that mining the huge amounts of thermal energy stored in the Earth's rock crust could supply a substantial portion of the nation's electricity needs currently being generated by conventional fossil fuel, hydroelectric, and nuclear plants—at competitive prices and with minimal environmental impact. Go deep enough, and there's heat everywhere.

The study shows that drilling several wells to reach hot rock and connecting them to a fractured rock region that has been stimulated to let water flow through it creates a heat-exchanger that can produce large amounts of hot water or steam to run electric generators at the surface. Unlike conventional fossil-fuel power plants that burn coal, natural gas or oil, no fuel would be required. And unlike wind and solar systems, a geothermal plant works night and day, offering a non-interruptible source of electric power.

… "This environmental advantage is due to low emissions and the small overall footprint of the entire geothermal system, which results because energy capture and extraction is contained entirely underground, and the surface equipment needed for conversion to electricity is relatively compact," [Jefferson W.] Tester [the H. P. Meissner Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT] said.

… Panel member Brian Anderson, an assistant professor at West Virginia University, noted that the drilling and reservoir technologies used to mine heat have many similarities to those used for extracting oil and gas. As a result, the geothermal industry today is well connected technically to two industry giants in the energy arena, oil and gas producers and electric power generators. With increasing demand for technology advances to produce oil and gas more effectively and to generate electricity with minimal carbon and other emissions, an opportunity exists to accelerate the development of EGS by increased investments by these two industries.

The study notes that government-funded research into geothermal was highly active in the 1970s and early 1980s, but that as oil prices declined, funding and geothermal research waned. Time to heat that up again.

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Hot Promises of Geothermal Energy

| Tue Jan. 23, 2007 4:35 PM EST

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology-led study of geothermal energy within the US finds that mining the huge amounts of thermal energy stored in the Earth's rock crust could supply a substantial portion of the nation's electricity needs currently being generated by conventional fossil fuel, hydroelectric, and nuclear plants—at competitive prices and with minimal environmental impact. Go deep enough, and there's heat everywhere.

The study shows that drilling several wells to reach hot rock and connecting them to a fractured rock region that has been stimulated to let water flow through it creates a heat-exchanger that can produce large amounts of hot water or steam to run electric generators at the surface. Unlike conventional fossil-fuel power plants that burn coal, natural gas or oil, no fuel would be required. And unlike wind and solar systems, a geothermal plant works night and day, offering a non-interruptible source of electric power.

… "This environmental advantage is due to low emissions and the small overall footprint of the entire geothermal system, which results because energy capture and extraction is contained entirely underground, and the surface equipment needed for conversion to electricity is relatively compact," [Jefferson W.] Tester [the H. P. Meissner Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT] said.

… Panel member Brian Anderson, an assistant professor at West Virginia University, noted that the drilling and reservoir technologies used to mine heat have many similarities to those used for extracting oil and gas. As a result, the geothermal industry today is well connected technically to two industry giants in the energy arena, oil and gas producers and electric power generators. With increasing demand for technology advances to produce oil and gas more effectively and to generate electricity with minimal carbon and other emissions, an opportunity exists to accelerate the development of EGS by increased investments by these two industries.

The study notes that government-funded research into geothermal was highly active in the 1970s and early 1980s, but that as oil prices declined, funding and geothermal research waned. Time to heat that up again.

Dispatch from Sundance: Bodine and Gen. Garner Weigh In On New Iraq Movie, "No End In Sight"

| Tue Jan. 23, 2007 4:17 PM EST

On Monday, two car bombs in a Baghdad market killed 88 and wounded 160 others. Saturday was the third deadliest day for U.S. troops since the start of the war. Things are dire and only getting worse. Two weeks ago, after watching the President's less than illuminating speech on escalation, I swore off writing about Iraq for awhile. What more was there to write? I found myself flip-flopping between sending 150,000 troops to the country or pulling out completely, a flip-flop many others do. But neither of these seem like such great ideas, so, after listening to Bush's plan to send 20,000 (I definitely don't think this is a good idea), I decided I couldn't add anything more to the debate.

So, where did I find the inspiration today to write about Iraq? The Sundance Film Festival. This morning I attended a live televised panel discussion about the Iraq War and the new movie about it, "No End In Sight," which is a product of over 75 interviews with key players. (Keep an eye out for a doc review from Mother Jones, it's on its way.) The panel included, among others, General Jay Garner, Marine Corps Lt. Seth Moulton and Ambassador Barbara Bodine. The discussion was mediated and many of the same questions we always hear were asked and many of the same answers given. Here's my paraphrase of the discussion:

"We made mistakes, no one had a plan, no one admitted there was an insurgency, the administration did not listen to its military leaders, military leaders didn't stand up to the administration, and disbanding the army as well as not stopping the looting were the gravest errors made over the past four years."

(For more details on the mistakes made before and during the Iraq war, check out the Mother Jones timeline here.)

Yes, hearing all of this still makes my blood boil, but I was left wanting more. For instance, what are we going to do now? What answers do these experts have for us regarding the future? I got the chance after the discussion to sit down with both Moulton and Bodine. Here's what the two had to say (paraphrased).

•We need to define what victory means: staving off regional war, securing the country...?

•It is essential when fighting a counterinsurgency to build the support of the people. It is not just about "killing bad guys."

•We don't have enough troops to effectively fight a counterinsurgency.

Dispatch from Sundance: Bodine and Gen. Garner Weigh In On New Iraq Movie, "No End In Sight"

| Tue Jan. 23, 2007 4:17 PM EST

On Monday, two car bombs in a Baghdad market killed 88 and wounded 160 others. Saturday was the third deadliest day for U.S. troops since the start of the war. Things are dire and only getting worse. Two weeks ago, after watching the President's less than illuminating speech on escalation, I swore off writing about Iraq for awhile. What more was there to write? I found myself flip-flopping between sending 150,000 troops to the country or pulling out completely, a flip-flop many others do. But neither of these seem like such great ideas, so, after listening to Bush's plan to send 20,000 (I definitely don't think this is a good idea), I decided I couldn't add anything more to the debate.

So, where did I find the inspiration today to write about Iraq? The Sundance Film Festival. This morning I attended a live televised panel discussion about the Iraq War and the new movie about it, "No End In Sight," which is a product of over 75 interviews with key players. (Keep an eye out for a doc review from Mother Jones, it's on its way.) The panel included, among others, General Jay Garner, Marine Corps Lt. Seth Moulton and Ambassador Barbara Bodine. The discussion was mediated and many of the same questions we always hear were asked and many of the same answers given. Here's my paraphrase of the discussion:

"We made mistakes, no one had a plan, no one admitted there was an insurgency, the administration did not listen to its military leaders, military leaders didn't stand up to the administration, and disbanding the army as well as not stopping the looting were the gravest errors made over the past four years."

(For more details on the mistakes made before and during the Iraq war, check out the Mother Jones timeline here.)

Yes, hearing all of this still makes my blood boil, but I was left wanting more. For instance, what are we going to do now? What answers do these experts have for us regarding the future? I got the chance after the discussion to sit down with both Moulton and Bodine. Here's what the two had to say (paraphrased).

•We need to define what victory means: staving off regional war, securing the country...?

•It is essential when fighting a counterinsurgency to build the support of the people. It is not just about "killing bad guys."

•We don't have enough troops to effectively fight a counterinsurgency.

Beware Emissions Trading, Airlines Stand to Make Billions

| Tue Jan. 23, 2007 3:47 PM EST

The science journal Nature warns that a short-term effect of the European Commission's plan to include the airlines in the continent-wide market for greenhouse gas emissions will likely reap the industry billions, at least initially.

The world's airlines, including many firms who have lobbied aggressively against climate-change legislation, could make billions of euros from a planned emissions-reduction scheme, say economists studying the situation.

The resulting rise in cost to individual airline tickets will be too small to deter customers, they add, so the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will be miniscule —at least in the short term.

…The windfall is a consequence of the way emissions trading works. Industries in the scheme are allocated carbon dioxide permits that are traded in as emissions are generated. The permits can be sold if a firm emits less than its allowance, or bought if they wish to exceed it. Because industries are initially given almost enough permits to cover their usual amount of emissions, they should be able to continue business much as usual.

But experience with other industries already in the scheme shows that they treat permits as assets — the permits are currently worth around US$5 per tonne of carbon. To compensate for having to lose the assets when accounting for their emissions, the firms charge extra for products. In the case of the electricity sector, this is estimated to have generated an extra $1.5 billion in annual profits for British firms between 2005 and 2007.