Monday Musings: November 18, 2013

With all the bad press floating around about the (extraordinarily) bad website built for the artist known as ObamaCare, my sensitivity to bad sites has reached a peak. My musings this day then have ranged to sites operated by for profit firms, and have led me to one inescapable conclusion; despite massive computational power and a glut of trained site-builders/coders, nobody seems to be able to build a site that works.

There is a reason, of course, why so many commercial sites are so bad, and that reason is monetization. This is a fancy way of saying things are screwed up, digitally-speaking, because the firms are trying to squeeze money out of their sites rather than operating them to specs that support their stated goal. When you opened The Rational Middle, the elements that took the longest to load were the banner ads that appear at the bottom of the first two to three posts. That I have yet to make enough on ads to pay myself minimum wage for any one article written is besides the point; I have monetized my site, therefore I am. But outside of the occasional donation, my ads are the only opportunity for remuneration; for businesses that operate their own sites, this is not the case.

The last time I opened up the site of my favorite airline, it took no time to get to the homepage. But try to actually book a flight, and the ads and sponsored banners crowding the page bogged the works down so poorly that it took several attempts and far more patience than I usually muster to get the job done. And the only reason I persisted was because I was visiting family…were I planning a vacation that airline would have lost my ticket sale in the pursuit of a few pennies worth of per click advertising.

One of the fundamental teachings of business, and a point hammered home by any consultant worth his or her salt, is to understand what line of business you are in and plan accordingly. Anything that is ancillary to the mission must be eliminated if it compromises that mission in any way. An airline in the 21st Century must use its website as its primary channel of service; to compromise that channel in the pursuit of advertising revenues is a business sin.

But no less sinful than my other least favorite web application…the various efforts of the NFL. The NFL compromises its customer service every season by denying potential customers the ability to buy access to their product if those customers prefer cable to satellite. The willingness to lose customers (lost sales being difficult to quantify and easy to understate) in favor of short term contract revenues is an artifact of being too big for one’s britches. But the website for the NFL goes above and beyond the call of business stupidity. is the slowest loading commercial website in the United States, bogged down by automatically loaded videos and banner ads of every conceivable variety. The result; instead of taking the advice of the NFL Network (“If you want the NFL, go to the NFL”), I go to Yahoo Sports or CNN.

These problems in customer service, which are the net results of a bad web design, are always the result of a lack of clear organizational focus. This happens most often in the bureaucracies that are formed by large organizations…be they the world’s wealthiest sports league, a regional air carrier, or the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

But they can also happen in small entities, be they business or not for profit. Whenever you get a “good” idea about your business, or are suggested one by someone else (especially if that someone is an advertiser of any type), ask yourself three questions;

  1. Does this duplicate something I am already doing, and can possibly do better?
  2. Does this fit my mission?
  3. Does this fit my budget?

Any hesitation about these three questions should leave you no hesitation about saying no and moving to the next idea.


The Rational Middle is listening…

Tyranny And Other Assorted Nonsense

The political label-making machine is a wonder to behold. News networks looking for a “story”, politician’s looking for leverage, and columnists looking for attention (yours truly included); all have taken the dark art of hyperbole to despicable levels. But, with my liberal bias in clear view of the public, I think the labels attached to (and hurled at) Democrats in government today are the most extreme in history.

President Obama is a tyrant!

This Obama tyranny must end!

President Obama moves closer to dictatorship!

In the early days of 1981, Ronald Reagan saw nearly his entire agenda, not just the domestic agenda and not just the military agenda, very nearly the whole enchilada was passed by Congress and signed into law. Adding to the legislative haul were the 213 executive orders signed by President Reagan. The volume of change at the federal level stunned liberals in government (and the roughly 48% of the country who considered themselves liberals)…was Ronald Reagan a dictator?

In just under five years, President Obama has seen a watered down version of his primary domestic agenda piece passed, only to see it constantly contended, obstructed, and used as leverage in every budget and appropriations bill since May of 2010. He was able to get a handful of other legislative pieces passed prior to January of 2011 (most notably the Lilly Ledbetter Act mandating equal pay for women doing equal work as men.) And President Obama signed 147 executive orders; almost one third fewer than Reagan during his first term. Furthermore, Reagan’s policies as expressed in the laws passed and orders signed were game-changers (as everyone who worships at the foot of Saint Ronnie the Gipper can attest); President Obama’s signature legislation is built with the chassis and power-plant of a conservative plan.

The notion that Obama is a tyrant is bullshit.

  1. Tyrants get what they want, when they want it, without question.
  2. Tyrants don’t allow their wants to be questioned in public.
  3. Tyrants don’t have to answer questions about their place of birth or religion more than once (let alone every day for years.)
  4. Tyrants don’t have to negotiate for funding to make good their promise to close a prison located in Cuba. Tyrants certainly aren’t told no.
  5. Tyrants don’t have to beg the victim of a tanning bed accident to pay the bills of their nation.
  6. Tyrants don’t allow intellectual lightweights on morning cable news shows to lampoon (clumsily) their governance. Tyrants have those people “disappeared”.
  7. Tyrants who want to get your guns do not allow gun rights to be expanded under their reigns of terror. Tyrants don’t fear bands of overweight “militia’s” who can shoot straight only when engaging stationary targets which don’t shoot back.
  8. Tyrants don’t allow bands of conservative hackers (and hacks) to stage cyber attacks on their signature socialist program’s website, they have those hackers and hacks “disappeared”.
  9. Tyrants don’t worry about “breaking a promise” on whether 2% of the citizenry can keep their junk “insurance” policies…those people shop where they are told.
  10. Tyrants don’t worry about price increases caused by their signature socialist program, tyrannical socialism would mandate the prices.

Democracy is a sticky issue…a wise person once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, other than all the rest.” And democracy doesn’t always follow the votes. Of late, conservatives have bemoaned the health law because polls have never shown a majority supporting the law. This is their primary evidence of tyranny. They carefully, and without subtlety, omit the fact that these are the same pollsters they claim were wrong during last year’s elections. And conservatives don’t like that they make up less than half the citizenry, but they embrace other quirks of our democracy. In 2000, less than a majority of Americans supported George Bush, and he was elected President. He went on to pass his entire agenda (save Social Security and Medicare privatization) as Reagan had 20 years earlier. He also signed more executive orders in his first term than President Obama has done in five years.

And when conservatives complain of tyranny, and bemoan the loss of freedom, they conveniently forget to mention which freedoms they have lost. They also forget to mention that a majority of Americans voted for Democrats in last year’s House elections, only to see the quirks of democracy leave that chamber in control of the Republicans.

The conservatives dost protest too much, methinks.


The Rational Middle is listening…


(Publisher’s note…technical difficulties are preventing hyperlinks. Information on executive orders comes from the UCSB Presidency project at this web address; )

Attention Deficit Health Insurance Disorder

Random thoughts are the rule today, as the RM returns from nearly six months of hiatus. I will try to keep the random on topic though, so here we go. Currently, all political junkies (and everyone else unable to get away from the tyranny of 24 hour news) are consumed by ObamaCare. Strangely though, very few Americans have sought to become informed on the Affordable Care Act. This particular reality hasn’t changed much in the 54 months since the first versions of health care reform began to filter into Congressional sub-committee rooms. It is one thing for an issue to be sidelined in favor of a straw man in opinion columns, but whole committee meetings have been devoted to talking about elements of the law that don’t exist. As a consequence, this entire process has been dominated by mythology and the unwillingness of regular folks to read a few lines past the sensational headline to get to the facts.

So by way of reminder, here is a set of facts (with a couple of challenges) for your review. Please, don’t hesitate to use the comments here or on Facebook to respond:

  1. For the past 20 years, premiums in the individual and employer-based health insurance market have been increasing at four to five times the rate of inflation. Take the RM challenge, and get your employer-based health insurance information out for the past seven years. Now take a look at how much your premiums have increased over the six years prior to now. Those same cost pressures acting pre-ObamaCare will not go away by themselves. Take ObamaCare away and, at some point in the future, your employer won’t be able to pay for your health insurance.
  2. Premium increases, deductible increases, and the resulting deficits in coverage have resulted in ever increasing write downs and write offs for doctors, clinics, hospitals, device makers, and drug companies. Some of these write offs come from lazy and irresponsible folks defaulting on their bills. But most don’t; most come from hard-working responsible folks defaulting on their payments (because who has $50,000 for back surgery that, if you don’t get, makes you a “lazy irresponsible person on disability”)?
  3. Write downs and write offs have to be covered by those firms, individuals, and shareholders. Business managers like me cover them by adding them into the other costs reflected in our break even analysis for the next year. This increases the basic costs of all procedures, drugs, and devices. This cost increase is then passed on to those folks who still can buy insurance and still do pay their bills (which explains point number one above.)
  4. The simplest way to fix the system would be to adopt what all but two of the other industrialized nations in the world have done; single payer or socialized medicine. Nations that follow this system include our “bestest pal in the world”, Israel, and all of the nations currently beating our brains out industrially. This includes Germany, the richest, most prolific exporter in the world and home to massively profitable and innovative privately owned firms.
  5. Of course, we the people don’t like “socialism” (unless it involves Saturday postal service, public schools, roads, intercontinental rail access, bans against price fixing, bans against profiteering in the utility markets, air travel, Social Security, Medicare, veteran’s benefits, border control, brown water infrastructure, police, fire, and the military.) So single payer was a non-starter in our political system (HR 676 had fewer than 180 sponsors and less than 4 dozen senators willing to back a Senate version.) One alternative proposed by conservatives in the mid-90’s was a system designed to create a functioning marketplace for health insurance. Their idea was to use the two things functioning markets do well; markets with plenty of buyers and sellers in communication put downward pressure on price and upward pressure on service level. A sufficiently balanced market would make good health insurance a highly price-elastic product, which is very good indeed for consumers. So Republican politicians, armed with a position paper from the Heritage Foundation, proposed the market-based alternative to the Clinton Plan.
  6. Fifteen years of premium and deductible increases later, and with pension plans for major corporations and state governments lying in the ruins of health care inflation, the House and Senate passed bills (twice folks…they were passed twice) that were built on the conservative, market-based solution. Republican politicians, armed with talking points from the Heritage Foundation, promptly labeled the law ObamaCare, screamed Socialism!, and offered their own brand new solution to the problem (which not coincidentally has become their own brand new solution to most problems:) prayer and a demand for tax credits for business owners.
  7. The law that passed (twice folks, it was passed twice), the law that was found constitutional by the most conservative Supreme Court of the last century, the law the repeal of which was the centerpiece of the last Republican  presidential candidate’s campaign (he lost)…yes, that law, only really does three things. Yes, I know it is long (no, it isn’t 2,000 pages, it is 900 pages of 18 point font with 1.5 inch margins…so the old men in Congress can read it)…and I know it is boring (I read it…quite the life I lead)…but it does only do three things. First, ObamaCare forces insurers to carry everybody, which means they have to underwrite risk they have been avoiding…which means that for them to achieve the same profit levels to which they are accustomed, they must have many more customers. Second, ObamaCare sets a minimum value for the percentage of customer premiums returned to customers in the form of coverage and service. Third, ObamaCare provides for a marketplace to buy insurance plans (which implies a marketplace where those insurers can go find those customers they now need), and it mandates that all the plans available meet a collection of clear guidelines on the services covered and out of pocket expenses uncovered.
  8. So why all the fuss? Why are these three things worth fighting over? Because when sellers need more customers, and the customers can easily find products they need and understand, then everyone wins. And since these products are, in many facets, the same in terms of design and access, the sellers in this equation must compete using the only two weapons they have left; price and service. They don’t want to miss the market this year, so they compete on price (in the individual market). They don’t want to lose those new customers next year, so they will make sure their service level steps up.
  9. So what the heck is going on right now? The private contractors that the feds hired to build the marketplace sucked, and the feds didn’t test the system until it was too late. (The contractors can claim all day that their hands were tied by bureaucrats, but it’s a silly argument. Coders around the world have been laughing at every facet of the website construction since its launch, which means the contractors were incompetent from day one.) Despite the screw-ups (and, if the reporting is accurate, a conservative cyber attack on the site), over 100,000 managed to buy private insurance through the portals in the first month, and over 400,000 signed up for the expanded Medicaid.
  10. No, really, what the heck is going on with my insurance!? Employer-based insurance goes up every year (generally), but it is going up at higher rates this year and…Liberals cover your ears…it is going up as a direct consequence of ObamaCare. Insurance companies are underwriting, in part, the new individual marketplace by raising the price floor in the group marketplace. This is a temporary problem however (and by temporary, I mean one year), because the same market pressures that will act to push prices down in the individual market will take effect in the group market (this isn’t political wishing or fantasy, it is simply how markets work.) Also, and even more importantly, the consequence of expanded coverage will be dramatically lower write downs…you remember those pesky demons from the first couple of points. Our prices will go down as we stop having to pay the tab for those who weren’t previously covered.
  11. And what of those “masses” who used to pay $50 a month for health insurance before the evil ObamaCare cancelled their plan? If anyone can show me a cancelled policy that costs within 25% of what they can buy on the exchange, and comes close to the free preventative care, $2,500 deductible, and $6,000 out of pocket maximum that are the standards for a plan to be on the exchange, then I will eat my hat.

The Rational Middle is listening…

Breaking News Or Broken News?

I was sitting at lunch the other day when I noticed the feed from a cable news network; flashing on the screen was the now ubiquitous “Breaking News”. That the story which filled the screen was hours old seemed of little importance…the network had nothing new to report anyway. And which cable news feed isn’t an important fact, as all news (and all sports as well) have adopted the same template for filling 24 hours of programming. That moment of typically lazy corporate reporting was emblematic of the dire threat facing our democracy. Rather than using the time available to explore a broad range of issues in depth, these 24 hour networks focus instead on going shallow on a narrow range of issues.

I believe this is a case where less is most assuredly not more.

But the outlets where Americans get their information are governed by the same rules of perverse incentive as all other aspects of our economy. And in the 21st Century, every information entity outside of PBS and NPR are owned and operated by for-profit corporations. Now I am a capitalist, and I embrace and endorse the need for corporate structures in our economy. But we the people must begin to understand and accept the true challenges faced by the convergence of democracy and capitalism.

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