Saturday, September 12, 2009

"Now for Something Completely Different: Every Sperm is Sacred"

[TALLAHASSEE -- A nationwide anti-abortion group launched an effort in Florida today to outlaw all abortions and certain types of birth control, including oral contraceptives and the morning-after pill.

The religion-infused movement, called "Personhood Florida," would define conception in Florida's constitution at the "biological beginnings," supporters said -- when the sperm meets the egg. The group filed its amendment today but the exact ballot language is still being worked out, said Secretary of State Spokeswoman Jennifer Krell-Davis.

The amendment seeks to outlaw all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest. Also criminalized: the morning-after pill and oral contraceptives taken by women, known as the pill. "There are some (birth control) methods that kill a child," said Pat McEwan, who is leading the Personhood Florida group.]emphasis added

Next up, outlawing onanism. There goes my sex life because, you know, God hates it when you spill your seed.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Cost of War

Waited a few days and pondered posting picture of a dying US Marine, Joshua Bernard, in Afghanistan.

While respecting the right of any family to grieve in private, nevertheless the press and the public at large in the US remain blissfully insulated from the real cost off war: the horror and pain and death that comes with the slogans and rhetoric.

The photo shows the reality of war.

People die.

"AP journalists document world events every day. Afghanistan is no exception. We feel it is our journalistic duty to show the reality of the war there, however unpleasant and brutal that sometimes is," said Santiago Lyon, the director of photography for AP.

History tells us the tribes and clans of Afghanistan have warred for centuries, with each other and since 19th century also with various European powers.

The Pashtun tribes, found in Afghanistan and Northwest Frontier Pakistan, still do not accept the Durand line as the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And support for the Taliban comes from mainly the Pashtun tribe. As an example, consider what Juan Cole wrote on his blog, Informed Comment, "Kunduz, a northern mixed province of 1.5 million, has only 1,000 policemen. One-third of it is under Taliban control (which is to say, the Pashtun-majority districts are almost entirely controlled by the Taliban.)"

As questions mount over the recent Afghan election, US policymakers should realize our military cannot defeat but only contain a guerilla movement by the Taliban, preventing the reestablishment of Al Qaeda bases.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

FL Schemes to Screw Manhattan Renters; Headed for Disaster

The state of FL has an entity named the State Board of Administration to invest funds to pay for pension benefits for those who retire from state service.

Previous "geniuses" at this agency lost 335 million dollars investing in Enron as that company went into a death spiral, "[T]rustees failed to act as Alliance Capital Management, one of the pension fund's money managers, continued to invest in Enron even as its financial instability became public and the Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating the corporation."

Having learned nothing from that debacle, state money managers turned to riskier investments in hopes of making higher profits; nothing like doubling down on a pair of deuces, right?

[The State Board of Administration is supposed to play it safe. It protects $97.3-billion in pension money for nearly 1-million current and retired teachers, public employees and their families.

It invests an additional $25.3-billion for more than 800 school districts and state and local government entities to, among other things, pay police and teachers, buy books and health care for children and help hurricane victims.

But in audit after audit over the past eight years, the supposedly low-risk agency was warned again and again about making risky, complex investments, without proper controls.

Now, with the economy tanking, the overexposure to risk highlighted in those audits has come back to haunt the SBA. In the past 18 months, one-third of the agency's assets — $61.4-billion — have been wiped out...

...But the audits tell a different story: Senior managers repeatedly were told to take steps to reduce risk, but for the most part, they stayed their risky course.

In March 2007, for example, the SBA's top auditor identified a conflict of interest that four previous audits had reported:

"The reappearance of the same issue in several audit reports issued by different sets of auditors, and the lack of action to address or mitigate this issue exposes the SBA and its management to additional risks...''

...With continued support from the trustees, the SBA's money managers opted for high stakes and increasingly complex financial strategies. Auditors, meantime, warned of lax oversight and controls that could lead to undue risks, avoidable losses and even fraud.

Early warnings surfaced in the small unit that manages real estate investments — everything from farms to shopping centers.

In 2000, 2002, 2004 and again in 2007, auditors and a watchdog group questioned whether staffers properly vetted and monitored properties. In one report, auditors cited the risk of "leverage''— the use of borrowed money that can jack up profits in a boom but deflate them in a recession.

"It is unclear to an individual looking from the outside where the (real estate) portfolio is headed,'' SBA chief internal auditor Flerida Rivera-Alsing said in 2004...

... In 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2006, auditors raised red flags about volatile "alternative investments,'' strategies such as buyout transactions and venture capital funds. These private investments are sometimes called "black box'' deals because investors' money flows to secretive partnerships that are not publicly traded or regulated.

Once the SBA makes the investment, there is almost no oversight or public disclosure as to where the funds go next, how they are managed, or when, if ever, investors will reap returns.

Three times legislative auditors warned that the SBA's alternative investments were underperforming. They noted the high management fees compared to other types of investments...

...Last year, the agency committed more than $4-billion to 33 private deals, including funds affiliated with legendary traders such as the Carlyle Group, Blackstone Group, Apollo Management and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.

Using cheap credit and Florida's money, some of these firms bought big-name companies at astronomical prices. The megadeals bought the SBA a piece of marquee companies, including Hilton Hotels and Harrah's Entertainment.

Now, alternative investments are getting creamed.

Saddled with debt, Harrah's saw its credit rating cut last month to "selective default.'' Blackstone, which engineered the Hilton buyout, reported a $502.5-million loss for its third quarter. KKR's shares plunged 89 percent last year. Carlyle has cut 10 percent of its 1,000-person staff...

...But Florida is sticking by its private commitments. In May, Gov. Charlie Crist went to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to sign a bill allowing the SBA to double its exposure to alternative investments, saying it would mean more high-wage jobs for Floridians.

"Today I have traveled to Wall Street to bring the message of Florida's innovation economy to the epicenter of the world's financial community,'' Crist said.

About five months later the stock market crashed...

...the 2006 Legislature passed two bills, signed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. One allowed the SBA to use riskier investment strategies. The other made it more difficult for outsiders to scrutinize some SBA investments.
Throughout the spring and into the early summer of 2007 — with the financial crisis already under way — the SBA continued to pump billions into risky securities...

...Leo Kolivakis, a former senior investment analyst at two of Canada's largest pension funds, says Florida is on a "disaster course'' and it ultimately will fall to all Florida taxpayers to keep the pension fund properly funded.

"It is mind-boggling to see pension consultants recommending no major investment strategy changes for Florida's public employee pension plan although it has lost billions in the financial market meltdown,'' he said.] (emphasis added)

Now we come to the sordid story of how officials with FL SBA invested $250 million in a Manhattan real estate deal, "the biggest in history," contingent for profitability on emptying rent controlled apartments and putting in tenants paying market prices, putting teachers, policeman, retired people and others of limited means out of their apartments and perhaps on the streets.

From the Vilage Voice: "In the fall of 2006, amid a speculative frenzy that has since consumed world markets, the biggest real estate deal in history occurred on the East Side of Manhattan.

MetLife sold the 80-acre, 100-building, middle-income oasis called Stuy Town to a developer friend of the mayor's, Jerry Speyer, for $5.4 billion, a price tag at least three times the rent roll paid by the 25,000 people who lived in the 11,200-unit complex, the borough's largest. Anyone who could count knew the numbers would only work if Speyer could rapidly empty many of the 8,000 rent-regulated apartments and greatly increase prices, a result so predictable that tenants began filing lawsuits against Speyer as soon as he took over. Four appellate judges ruled unanimously this March in the tenants' favor in one key case, Roberts v. Tishman Speyer, which will be heard by the Court of Appeals in mid-September."

"Anyone who could count," presumably includes memebers of the FL SBA apparently unconcerned about renters removed from their apartments as result of the investment by the state of Florida.

[This is the story of how the Florida board that invests public money bet $250 million on a huge Manhattan real estate deal and lost every last penny of it.

On top of the money lost, Florida paid $16 million in fees to real estate developers, bankers and Wall Street money managers who persuaded the state to make the deal...

...The big loser was the State Board of Administration, which invests more than $105 billion for 1 million current and future retirees. On the Manhattan real estate deal, its $266 million is now worth a grand total of $0.00...

Between 2000 and early 2007, four SBA internal reports and a watchdog group identified problems with the real estate investment process -- including a lack of risk control.

Nonetheless, the managers shifted assets into higher-risk real estate deals, often by joining private partnerships that used borrowed money.

Investing borrowed money, known as leverage, boosts returns in boom times but amplifies losses in bust times.

In August 2006, at the height of the real estate bubble, a senior acquisitions manager in the SBA's real estate unit, Steve Spook, received two overtures to join investment firms bidding for adjoining apartment complexes in Manhattan.

The complexes -- Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town -- were iconic housing communities, a ``city within a city'' on 80 prime acres overlooking the East River. Metropolitan Life built the apartments for returning WWII veterans in the 1940s. They became an oasis for teachers, nurses and retirees on small pensions, one of the last refuges for the middle class in Manhattan.

In 2006, an average rent-controlled apartment in Peter Cooper Village went for about $1,340 a month, about 40 percent of the average rent in the surrounding area.

New York's rent-control rules limited increases to 7.25 percent over two years, with some exceptions. Tenants could be ousted if their primary residences were elsewhere or if they illegally sublet their unit at market rates.

About a quarter of the apartments paid market rates when MetLife put the complex up for sale in August 2006.

The insurer's whopping asking price -- $5 billion -- made clear that to make a profit, the buyer would have to convert most remaining rent-stabilized apartments into market-rate units. That October, MetLife announced the winning bid, an eye-popping $5.4 billion by Tishman Speyer Properties and BlackRock Realty.]

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

5 Myths of Foreign Healthcare

[1. It's all socialized medicine out there.

Not so. Some countries, such as Britain, New Zealand and Cuba, do provide health care in government hospitals, with the government paying the bills. Others -- for instance, Canada and Taiwan -- rely on private-sector providers, paid for by government-run insurance. But many wealthy countries -- including Germany, the Netherlands, Japan and Switzerland -- provide universal coverage using private doctors, private hospitals and private insurance plans..

2. Overseas, care is rationed through limited choices or long lines.

As for those notorious waiting lists, some countries are indeed plagued by them. Canada makes patients wait weeks or months for nonemergency care, as a way to keep costs down. But studies by the Commonwealth Fund and others report that many nations -- Germany, Britain, Austria -- outperform the United States on measures such as waiting times for appointments and for elective surgeries...

3. Foreign health-care systems are inefficient, bloated bureaucracies.

Much less so than here. It may seem to Americans that U.S.-style free enterprise -- private-sector, for-profit health insurance -- is naturally the most cost-effective way to pay for health care. But in fact, all the other payment systems are more efficient than ours.

U.S. health insurance companies have the highest administrative costs in the world; they spend roughly 20 cents of every dollar for nonmedical costs, such as paperwork, reviewing claims and marketing. France's health insurance industry, in contrast, covers everybody and spends about 4 percent on administration...

4. Cost controls stifle innovation

False. The United States is home to groundbreaking medical research, but so are other countries with much lower cost structures. Any American who's had a hip or knee replacement is standing on French innovation. Deep-brain stimulation to treat depression is a Canadian breakthrough. Many of the wonder drugs promoted endlessly on American television, including Viagra, come from British, Swiss or Japanese labs.

Overseas, strict cost controls actually drive innovation. In the United States, an MRI scan of the neck region costs about $1,500. In Japan, the identical scan costs $98. Under the pressure of cost controls, Japanese researchers found ways to perform the same diagnostic technique for one-fifteenth the American price. (And Japanese labs still make a profit.)

5. Health insurance has to be cruel.

Not really. American health insurance companies routinely reject applicants with a "preexisting condition" -- precisely the people most likely to need the insurers' service. They employ armies of adjusters to deny claims. If a customer is hit by a truck and faces big medical bills, the insurer's "rescission department" digs through the records looking for grounds to cancel the policy, often while the victim is still in the hospital. The companies say they have to do this stuff to survive in a tough business.

Foreign health insurance companies, in contrast, must accept all applicants, and they can't cancel as long as you pay your premiums...

The key difference is that foreign health insurance plans exist only to pay people's medical bills, not to make a profit. The United States is the only developed country that lets insurance companies profit from basic health coverage...]
(emphasis added, found at Will Buch's Attytood blog