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On Social Security Investment, Or, What About Chile? November 3, 2010

With the election over, it’s time to move on to new things, and the folks at the Campaign for America’s Future have asked me to do some writing about Social Security, which sounds like some big fun, so here we are.

We’re going to start with some reasonably simple stuff today, just to get your feet wet; by the time we get a few stories down the road there will be some complicated economic analysis to work through—but let’s begin today by looking a bit south.

Those who support privatizing Social Security in this country often point to Chile as an example we could follow, and that seems like a good place to get the conversation going…so set your personal WayBack Machine to Santiago, May, 1981, and let’s see what we can learn.

“Of what avail are any laws, where money rules
alone,
Where Poverty can never win its cases?
Detractors of the times, who bear the Cynic’s scrip,
are known
To often sell the truth, and keep their faces!”

–Ascyltus, from Petronius’ The Satyricon

In 1981, Chile adopted a privatized Social Security-like (pension) program that requires most workers to contribute 10% of their income to a private investment account. They may contribute up to 20%. These accounts are maintained by a number of private companies (known as Administradoras de Fondos de Pensiones, or AFPs) that compete for the business by advertising directly to the investing public.

These providers charge commissions and fees for certain services which are paid on top of the contributions.

An additional 3% is collected from most workers for Disability Insurance; 7% more is deducted from wages for health care.

At retirement, the money is either used to purchase an annuity from a private provider to provide a steady source of income or it’s withdrawn at a set rate over time directly from the account.

Those who are self-employed do not have to pay into the system, but they have the option to do so if they’re so inclined.

If you don’t have enough in your private account to purchase an annuity or to withdraw steady amounts over time, but you’ve been contributing for more than 20 years, you will receive a minimum pension from the Chilean Government…but you will also lose any contributions you made to your private account.

AFPs are regulated as to how they may invest; if, through investment losses, they do not have enough money to capitalize the accounts they carry they must provide the money out of their own cash reserves. If they follow the rules, and still lose so many assets they can’t continue to operate, a government bailout is in order.

At the same time, a second “welfare” program (PASIS) was established to create a “safety net” that would provide a benefit of 75% of the poverty level or 25% of your last 10 years’ earnings, whichever is higher.

You can’t collect from both programs, but it is possible to collect from neither. More about that later.

Employers do not contribute to funding the system, however, all employers were forced to give 17% pay raises to their workers to come up with the money for the workers to make their contributions. (Chile was a military dictatorship at the time, making the “forcing” process much easier than it would be in the US today.)

The system is just turning 30 years old, and we’re now seeing the first big wave of workers who are eligible to retire.

So how has all this been working out for Chileans?

The first thing we learn is that the poorest workers probably won’t do well enough to qualify for “top tier” pensions, even though it’s projected that they’ll tend to pay for the benefit over their working lives…which will reduce their income over their working lives. (It’s also projected that workers with higher incomes should do reasonably well.)

Since most workers are poor (Chile has some of the most unequal income distribution on Earth), in the end it’s starting to look like the problems of finding enough money to support the social safety net are actually getting worse, and not better.

Additionally, other problems have come to light:

–You have to find money to “transition” from one system to another, and transition costs have been quite expensive indeed: 6.1% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP; that’s a measure of the total output of an economy) in the 1980s, 4.8% in the 1990s, and 4.3% until 2037. If we were to duplicate the Chilean experience in the US economy, 6% of the 2008 GDP (about $15 trillion) means about $900 billion annually in transition costs for the first ten years, and something north of $600 billion annually for the last 37 years of the exercise.

(Keep in mind that Chile only provides 2/3 of their population with either PASIC or a pension; since we cover a higher number than that in the US, expect those numbers to come in higher than we’re guessing here.)

Why are so many not covered? Lots of workers are working outside the “official” economy to avoid making contributions that they won’t get back later (in 1994, it was estimated that only 52% of workers regularly contribute to their accounts); additionally, many women have never participated in the labor force.

–Because the service providers are competing for the business, administrative costs (read: advertising and sales commissions) have been far higher than in the US Social Security system, where administrative costs have been at .07% of distributions, or lower, since 1990. To put this another way, during the 1990s the US Social Security Administration was paying $18.70 per year to administer a claim; at the same time Chile’s various providers were paying an average of $89.10 to do the same thing.

–All that competition, some say, has lead to lots of changing of providers, which tends to make any investment program less efficient over time. (In 1996, half of Chilean workers switched providers; it’s estimated that reduced pension accumulations across the entire system by about 20%.) The Chilean Government made changes in 1997 to try to work through this problem, and they seem to have had some considerable effect.

Evidence suggests most of the switching not related to consolidation in the AFP business is being done by a small percentage of account holders, with some switching as much as eight times in a year; today the average Chilean seems to change AFPs about once every five years. Unemployment also seems to be related to switching; this because the unemployed can establish a new account with a lower set of fees if they move to a new provider.

–Many Chileans, despite living in a system that has, for almost 30 years, required them to manage their own money, actually know very little about that money.

Less than half know that the contribution rate is 10%, only 1/3 know how much (within 20%) is in their accounts, and, according to work done at the University of Chile, “few” actually know what they pay in fees and commissions.

–Those who end up in the welfare program are guaranteed 75% of the poverty level; that suggests that if you’re elderly and on welfare, you’re living in poverty. Because of limited funding, there are qualified elderly poor in Chile who do not receive any benefit.

Today, in the US, about 12% of the elderly live in poverty. Without the current Social Security system in place, it’s estimated that 49.9% of the elderly would have been living in poverty in 2002.

–In Chile, taxes to cover the transition costs tend to rise faster than the “assets under management” for most workers, leaving them less well-off than before—an effect that is most common among the “financially illiterate”…meaning, of course, most Americans. In other words, reform, in Chile, tends to help the wealthiest and best educated at the expense of those who are less of either.

That’s a whole lot of detail, so let’s pull pack and look at the “macro” picture:

Chile has operated a version of a privatized system since 1981, and for the most part the working poor will never see any benefit from the transition. Since Chile doesn’t have much of a middle class, it’s hard to see how the Chilean experience would affect our middle class.

The US Social Security system has reduced the estimated rate of elderly poverty from nearly 50% to roughly 10%; such a reduction in poverty did not occur in Chile with their privatization.

The costs of moving to the same system here, if our experience were the same as Chile’s, would run anywhere from $600-900 billion annually for at least 50 years. Of course, since we provide a Social Security safety net to almost all of our citizens, as opposed to 2/3 of the population, as Chile does, it’s reasonable to assume our costs would be more or less 1/3 higher.

Chile forced its private-sector employers to raise wages to cover the workers’ costs of transition; I’m aware of no proposals that would, or could, impose such a cost on employers in the US.

It appears that Chilean-style privatization encouraged about half the population to engage in “under the table” work, making the funding problem for the system even worse that it would be otherwise.

Frequent switching of account providers is great for the providers, as it creates lots of chances to collect fees for opening and closing accounts and the like—but it’s not so great for the account holders, who are losing up to 20% of their potential earnings more or less because maintaining a sales force and running lots of ads are effective business practices.

It is unknown what happens when a shock like the recent recession hits the system, and we are awaiting research that will help us understand what happens when and if the State is required to refund losses incurred by the AFP if they “follow the rules” but still lose so much money that they lack sufficient capital to operate.

The costs of operating the PASIS program go up even as the cost of operating the retirement accounts are also still high, and the question of whether Chile can continue to expend “safety net” coverage to the 30% of the elderly poor who are not covered remains unknown.

So there you go: there are going to be lots of proposals to privatize Social Security this year, “getting a Chilean” may well be one of the options you hear Conservatives promote—and hopefully by now you have some idea why this doesn’t look like nearly as good an idea as some folks would tell you it is.

Next time, we’ll talk about proposals to invest Social Security money in Treasury debt, and whether such an effort is actually an investment at all.

It’ll be at least medium geeky…and hey, who doesn’t love that?

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On Slicing Pies, Or, Mystery Fees Cause Retirement “Money Spill” June 19, 2010

It’s part two of our “Netroots Nation Goes To Vegas Piano Bar Extravaganza”, and in keeping with tradition that means we are again taking a story request.

This time we won’t be talking about energy security or “climate security”; instead, we’ll discuss retirement security, keeping your money for yourself instead of paying it out in “mystery fees”, and how one of the “usual suspects” is at it again.

And if all that wasn’t enough…we also have pie.

And when the Pye was open’d
The birds began to sing,
And was not this a dainty dish
To set before the King!

–Charles Lamb, writing to Miss Sarah James, April, 1829

So here’s what’s going on: about 50 million Americans have one of those 401(k) retirement plans.

The concept behind these plans is that you put money into an investment account of some sort, and the money accumulates, tax-free, until you withdraw it after you retire.

These accounts are “managed” by financial services firms, who collect fees for the service.

Lots of fees, for all kinds of services.

The problem is that not all of these fees are fully disclosed to investors. In fact, it’s legal for an investment firm to deduct some amount of money out of the mutual fund that you’ve put your money into…and not tell you how much they took.

Part of the House’s vision of financial reform legislation requires the managers of these monies to fully disclose, up front, before you invest, and on every statement afterward, what fees are being collected; an amendment before the Senate would remove this protection—and here’s where the “usual suspects” part comes in: we have this amendment thanks to our good friend…wait for it…Senator Max “I love healthcare reform—as long as those healthcare industry checks keep coming in” Baucus, he of the Senate Finance Committee.

The US Department of Labor says that you could lose as much as 28% of your money, over time, to these hidden fees, and that’s a pretty big slice out of your retirement pie.

To illustrate the point Congressman George Miller, chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor (following the requisite press conference) dispatched his minions to deliver 72% of an apple pie to each member of the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday, as you can see in this video, courtesy of Mr. Miller’s office:

What about the other 28%?

That was replaced with a big red wedge that reads “Wall Street’s Cut of Your 401(k) Pie” before the pies were boxed up…and it was actually a nice presentation, if I may say so myself.

So exactly who got the pies?

With no effort made to change the names for the protection of the innocent, here’s a list of the members of Senate Finance, along with their States and affiliations:

Max Baucus (Oy, Vey!-MT)
Jeff Bingaman (Big-Time Lobbyist Wife-NM)
Jim Bunning (Nutty-KY)
Maria Cantwell (Used to be Rich-WA)
Thomas Carper (Once Accused of Designing a Regulatory Deathstar-DE)
Kent Conrad (Countrywide VIP Home Mortgage Program Participant-ND)
John Cornyn (Compensating…-TX)
Mike Crapo (Big-Time Lobbyist Daughter-ID)
John Ensign (“Wanna Donate To My Legal Defense Fund?”-NV)
Mike Enzi (One of Those C Street Guys-WY)
Chuck Grassley (Against Healthcare Reform…Until He Was For It-IA)
Orrin Hatch (Supports Drug Testing For Unemployment Benefits-UT)
John Kerry (John Kerry Walks Into A Bar, The Horse Says “Hey: Why The Long Face?”-MA)
Jon Kyl (Wants Joe Arpaio to Enforce Immigration Law-AZ)
Blanche Lincoln (Damn Near Fired-AR)
Robert Menendez (Never Convicted-NJ)
Bill Nelson (Had His Own “Flight Suit” Moment-FL)
Pat Roberts (Is America’s Phone Tapped?-KS)
John D. Rockefeller IV (Actually Wanted a Public Option-WV)
Charles Schumer (Will Go Upstate-NY)
Olympia Snowe (Always the “Possible Republican Vote”-ME)
Debbie Stabenow (Can’t Live With ‘Em…-MI)
Ron Wyden (Geek-OR)

This is another one of those stories where getting ahold of one or more of these Senators, in the next few days, could matter quite a bit if it’s your pie that’s at stake…and even if it isn’t, why should fund managers get to charge “mystery fees” to anybody?

So get to it, now, because if you do, you may be able to afford more ice cream to go with your pie later.

WARNING – Blatant Self-Promotion Ahead: It’s Netroots Nation time once again, and the fine folks at Freedom To Marry have chosen me as a finalist for their Blog 4 Equality contest. If I am one of the chosen, it’s off to Vegas…in July. You can vote for that Don Davis guy here, which is my “in person” name, once every 24 hours, so vote early and often. Voting ends June 25th. Thanks very much, and we now return you to your regular programming.

 

On Poor Management, Or, Did You Know There Was Another Deepwater? June 16, 2010

It is by now obvious that even after we stop the gentle trickle of oil that’s currently expressing itself into the Gulf of Mexico (thank you so much, BP) we are not going to be able to get that oil out of the water for some considerable length of time–and if you think it could take years, I wouldn’t bet against you.

While BP is the legally responsible party, out on the water it will be up to the Coast Guard to manage the Federal response, and to determine that BP is running things in a way that gets the work done not only correctly and safely, but, in a world of limited resources, efficiently.

Which brings us to the obvious question: can the Coast Guard manage such a complex undertaking?

While we hope they can, you need to know that the Coast Guard has been trying to manage the replacement of their fleet of ships and aircraft for about a decade now…and the results have been so stunningly bad that you and I are now the proud owners of a small flotilla of ships that can never be used, because if they go to sea, they might literally break into pieces.

It’s an awful story, and before we’re done you’ll understand why Deepwater was already an ugly word around Headquarters, years before that oil rig blew up.

“I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news –
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

–William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance

We’re going to try to keep today’s story relatively short (we won’t succeed, I’m afraid), and that means I’ll be a bit tighter with words than I would be normally, so let’s get right to the heart of the matter:

The US Coast Guard (USCG) works its ships and aircraft too hard, with inadequate downtime; as a result an old fleet is even older than its years.

Just like an old car, you have to work harder at maintenance, but things keep breaking down, and the costs really start to add up.

It’s not entirely their fault: they have more and more to do, especially after September 11th; they’re also expected to operate farther from home, and the tours of duty are longer.

At the same time the money they get to do it all keeps going down.

This circle had to be squared.

A decision was made to begin planning for the modernization or replacement of pretty much everything USCG owns that operates out in the deep water (that’s more than 50 miles from shore), and that’s how the Deepwater program was born.

Total assets involved: roughly 90 large ships, over 100 small boats, about 250 aircraft, and not quite $25 billion dollars.

USCG was convinced that they did not have the ability to manage this sort of program on their own, and they decided to procure everything from one prime contractor, a Lockheed/Northrop Grumman partnership.

The idea was that they would tell the contractor what they wanted the finished product to be able to do (in this case, the product was a fleet of ships and aircraft that could interact as a system), and the contractor would determine how to manage the program to completion.

With the “management” part of the process out of USCG’s hands, all the Admirals would have to do was “supervise” the contractor to make sure things were on time and on budget.

They did that by creating teams that would each watch over a small portion of the bigger picture, coordinating with each other and USCG senior management.

The next step was to determine what ships and aircraft to build; today we’ll concentrate on just four elements of the system, which should be enough to make the picture clear.

–The Coast Guard owned a number of 110 foot patrol boats, and they decided to refurbish them, to provide new capabilities within a 13-foot longer hull. This required the ships to be cut apart, and then reassembled.

As it turned out, that idea sucked.

One way to interpret the results would be to say the first eight newly-delivered craft were so unseaworthy (the hulls of the “brand-new” ships were actually cracking), so full of electrical problems, and so unable to protect classified communications that they never entered service, and they will be scrapped.

Another view: for quite some time Baltimore was continuously guarded by eight Coast Guard vessels, and the city was incredibly safe—as long as none of them had to actually leave the pier or do anything.

The loss: about $100 million. USCG is trying to get the money back.

“It’s going to be difficult to counter the bad publicity we’ve had despite the best efforts of our communications team,” admitted J. Rocco Tomonelli, director of Coast Guard business development at Northrop Grumman.

–From the article Coast Guard May Face Rough Seas as it Takes Control of Deepwater, National Defense Magazine, October 2007

–USCG needed a big ship with the ability to operate as far away as the Middle East, and the National Security Cutter was it.

The job required that the vessels delivered had to be structurally sound for use in the North Pacific’s very rough seas for 30 years. The contractor was convinced the ships were sound, the Coast Guard was not, and the Navy was brought in to settle the argument.

USCG won, the taxpayer, again, lost.

An odd, but not surprising, solution was found. If USCG would just agree to not ask that the ships be so annoyingly capable, everything would be fine…so they did; this was done by assuming the ships would be at sea fewer days every year.

We now know that USCG expected some of the ships’ structural components to only last three years in actual service.

In 2006 it was reported that the first two hulls may or may not be fixable, and may have to be scrapped.

The first ship delivered, the Cutter Bertholf, was not allowed to perform any missions for almost seven months after commissioning due to its own failure to perform as expected. In October 2008 Bertholf conducted its first “shakedown” cruise and officially entered operational service.

More of these ships are being built, with fixes hopefully in place. Two are in acceptance trials; a funding request exists that would expand the fleet to five.

Our cost?
At least $650 million per ship.

–USCG planned to buy a dozen Fast Response Cutters; the contractor wanted to use newfangled composite hulls, reportedly for longer life and less maintenance.

That idea also sucked.

Officially, and I quote: “…the cutter design satisfied contract terms but did not meet Deepwater mission needs.” The resulting ships were judged to be too heavy and lacking in performance.

It is suggested that the contractor wanted to build this type of hull because they had a new composite facility available and there was money to be made. We’ll discuss that in a minute.

The plan now is to build the ships with metal hulls.
USCG is not attempting to recover the lost money on this one.

–USCG wanted Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) for the new ships. A fancy-schmancy tilt-rotor design that was already somewhat developed had to be abandoned because they couldn’t afford to produce the thing.

Current thinking is to steal something from the Navy’s UAV development program, stick a USCG radar system on it, and call it good.

The GAO and the Congressional Research Service have been looking into all this, a lot; they feel USCG has failed to properly resource the teams that are supposed to be supervising this process.

Excessive workload, transferring people in and out, failing to put team members in locations that are close to other team members, and failing to fill leadership positions were all issues noted in the reports.

The idea that the contractor would “own” the whole process, might work against USCG interests, and that USCG would be at their mercy was also noted. (Remember those fiberglass hulls?)

We’re told that teams working on the National Security Cutter tried to warn USCG senior management about the problems with the first few ships, and that they were ignored.

Total cost of all the mistakes: more than $1.5 billion.

Frankly, this is all Admiral Stuff, and the Admirals at USCG have nothing to be proud of, based on this part of the record.

USCG is now trying to turn all this around by taking over management of the program themselves, and although there is reason to believe things may be somewhat better, even that “fix” is creating problems.

For example, it’s reported that USCG is moving ahead on acquisition decisions even though they haven’t fully decided what the designs should be.

At this point, however, USCG has little choice: they can’t wait several years to train up a new crew of contract managers, then design, then build.

That’s because, right now, things are very bad for the Fleet: of the first 12 ships USCG sent to help after the earthquake in Haiti…10 broke, at various times, and that kept them from conducting rescues until they were fixed. Two of those had to return to the US for major repairs.

And here’s where the circle closes.

Admiral Thad Allen, who’s running the show on the Gulf Coast, spent the past four years as Commandant of the Coast Guard, and before that as Coast Guard Chief of Staff…which means, for good or for ill, he’s covered in Deepwater all the way up to his Cutterman Insignia.

The question now is: was he the reformer who fixed this stuff when he finally got the chance, or was he part of the problem in the first place?

I could not get the answer to this most critical question, so all I can tell you is to watch very, very, carefully—and don’t be afraid to assume the worst, until we truly do know better.

WARNING – Blatant Self-Promotion Ahead: It’s Netroots Nation time once again, and the fine folks at Freedom To Marry have chosen me as a finalist for their Blog 4 Equality contest. If I am one of the chosen, it’s off to Vegas…in July. You can vote for that Don Davis guy here, which is my “in person” name, once every 24 hours, so vote early and often. Voting ends June 25th. Thanks very much, and we now return you to your regular programming.

 

On Selling Paranoia, Or, Conservative Emails, Examined March 20, 2010

It seems that many of those who are regular guests of this space are committed to a worldview based on some degree of reason and rationality.

That’s a handy thing if the “Covert Alarm Locator Apparatus” in your Isaac Daniel® Compass Global 1000 GPS sneakers should happen to fail and you need to find your way back to where the rest of us are; sadly, not all voters are equipped with such a helpful worldview.

Luckily for them, there are lots of conservative “mouth organs” ready to fill the “information gap”.

They send out lots of emails every day, spreading their Word, and as a public service I receive several of them; this to help keep track of just what’s out there, exactly.

If you ever wondered why otherwise normal people believe some of the craziest things about “Obama’s Secret Death Care And National Virgin Sacrifice Program”, have a look at some of the things I get every single day, and it might all make a bit more sense.

Pithiatism [G. peithein, to persuade + iatos, curable] 1. Hysteria induced by suggestion. 2. Mental disorder cured by suggestion.

Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, 11th Edition

It is my friends at Human Events (“Leading Conservative Media Since 1944”) who seem to be the most assiduous in keeping my inbox full, and every day a weird combination of political missives and “exiting promotional opportunities” are arriving out of the ether.

Who is Human Events?

Human Events is an offshoot of Eagle Publishing (as is RedState), and they’re performing several functions in the Conservaverse: they help spread The Word by gathering all the usual suspects, all in one place (the contributor list at Human Events includes Michelle Malkin, Pat and Bay Buchanan, James Inhofe, “David Feherty, Civilian”, and the Wango Tango guy himself, Ted Nugent), they are a daily reinforcer of the Daily Talking Points, as evidenced, again, by my inbox…and they are also one of the reasons Conservative books always seem to jump to the top of some bestseller list or another upon their release, a topic to which we’ll return shortly.

Additionally, they’re a source for others, both political and commercial, who seek access to a mailing list, which is why, from time to time, I also receive emails from Ann Coulter and Chuck Norris–and why I recently received the insider scoop on how gold is being accumulated by Central Banks and that I better get some too…before it’s too late.

Here’s what else has been coming in:

The Tea Party Express sent me an email just this morning to let me know they would be “on tour”; this action taking them from Searchlight, Nevada (read: Harry Reid) to Washington, DC:

“…Since the Democrats in Congress are so determined to ignore the will of the voters, and force a government-run healthcare fiasco down our throats – as part of the step-by-step slide towards socialism – then we here at the Tea Party Express will “Just Vote Them Out” one-by-one.

So fellow patriots, here’s an update on the launch of Tea Party Express III and the “Showdown in Searchlight.”

First, we want to thank you all. You’ve taken a lot of pressure off. In just the past two days we’ve raised over $15,000 and now have only $65,000 left to raise by March 27th.

We have just 10 days until the launch of “Tea Party Express III: Just Vote Them Out” national tour, and the kickoff event: the “Showdown in Searchlight” mega rally…”

Fun Fact: The Tea Party Express has apparently been making enemies and influencing people among the Tea Party activists themselves, based on a perception that the group is a front for the Republican Party and that the extreme behavior of some members of the group is bad for the larger Tea Party movement.

My take on this: if they’re supposed to be raising money for the Republicans, and they’re having trouble raising $80,000 for themselves…well, it would appear that the Republicans are going to need unlimited corporate donations (thank you so much for that, Supreme Court…) if they hope to stay in business.

An Action News Update!

Even as I’m writing today’s story, this just came in:

“ObamaCare Vote Imminent, Pelosi May Have Votes

He’s Pledged To Shove ObamaCare Down Your Throat Even If It Kills Him…

…Barack Obama may have given Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid a deadline to ram ObamaCare through Congress, but knowledgeable sources in Congress are telling us that Pelosi will push the Senate-passed bill to the floor of the House of Representatives the very second she believes she has the votes to shove it down our throats… or maybe even sooner…

…And we don’t need to tell you what’s at stake. You already know about the extreme cuts in Medicare… the rationing… the crippling taxes… and the long waiting lines that we may all be forced to endure for substandard medical care.

“… bankrupting the insurance industry and undermining the free market is a stated goal of some healthcare reform advocates. … the goal of healthcare reform is to create a system that bankrupts private industry and leads to socialized medicine. And that is a goal shared by Barack Obama.”…”

(Emphasis is original)

The email goes on to suggest that a donation of up to $1000 would be very helpful to enable the sender to “Blast Fax” every Member of Congress…et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

You may have already noticed a recurring theme in these messages: the fear of things being shoved down throats is ever-present among Conservative Messengers–which, to me, either suggests something about the lack of imagination over there these days…or the lack of a fully-developed sense of joie de vivre; something that may have impacted folks like Larry Craig and David Vitter and John Ensign, all of whom, on certain occasions, have presumably done a bit of throat-shoving themselves.

(For extra credit, discuss amongst yourselves: Is all this throat-shoving talk having an effect on some people’s attitudes about the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” issue?)

Ann Coulter wrote me today to let me know that:

“…I have a plan!

… We can’t have a free market in health insurance until Congress eliminates the antitrust exemption protecting health insurance companies from competition. If Democrats really wanted to punish insurance companies, which they manifestly do not, they’d make insurers compete…”

We interrupt Dear Coulter’s message for a quick Fact Check: the House did indeed vote on February 24th to remove that antitrust exemption, with all 19 dissenting votes coming from…wait for it…Republicans; the bill, known as HR 4626, is now on the Senate’s Legislative Calendar.

We now return you to Coulter, still in progress:

“…The very next sentence of my bill provides that the exclusive regulator of insurance companies will be the state where the company’s home office is. Every insurance company in the country would incorporate in the state with the fewest government mandates, just as most corporations are based in Delaware today.

That’s the only way to bypass idiotic state mandates, requiring all insurance plans offered in the state to cover, for example, the Zone Diet, sex-change operations, and whatever it is that poor Heidi Montag has done to herself this week.

President Obama says we need national health care because Natoma Canfield of Ohio had to drop her insurance when she couldn’t afford the $6,700 premiums, and now she’s got cancer.

Much as I admire Obama’s use of terminally ill human beings as political props, let me point out here that perhaps Natoma could have afforded insurance had she not been required by Ohio’s state insurance mandates to purchase a plan that covers infertility treatments and unlimited OB/GYN visits, among other things.

It sounds like Natoma could have used a plan that covered only the basics — you know, things like cancer…”

Again, a quick interruption: if I had the power to know in advance what diseases I was gonna get in the future…and whether fertility might or might not be an issue one day…why would I waste my money on health insurance premiums when I could do a whole lot better in Las Vegas–and get free cocktails at the same time?

“…Of course, an insurance company has to be able to refuse NEW customers with “pre-existing conditions.” Otherwise, everyone would just wait to get sick to buy insurance. It’s the same reason you can’t buy fire insurance on a house that’s already on fire.

That isn’t an “insurance company”; it’s what’s known as a “Christian charity.”…

Right now, insurance companies are protected by government regulations from having to honor their contracts. Violating contracts isn’t so easy when competitors are lurking, ready to steal your customers…”

(Emphasis is added)

I assume that that last paragraph will become an important Talking Point for Republicans looking to blame Democrats for recent insurance company behavior, and I’ll be looking for this argument to appear in debates from now until November.

Wanna hear something even weirder than the idea that Democrats are what’s making the insurance companies deny their customers’ claims for care related to their pre-existing conditions?

Even as these groups are trying to either reinforce or get me to change my worldview, they’re also constantly trying to get me to buy stuff, including the Swivel Sweeper G2, a certain set of “As Seen On TV” knives, and, ironically, EcoCanteen stainless steel water bottles.

“It’s Free, But We Make It Up In Volume”

Finally, a few words about Conservatives and their books.

I get, on a regular basis, the chance to have important works of Conservative literature sent to me at rock-bottom prices, assuming I either subscribe to something or join some club that’s planning to save Our Great Nation from…most likely, from people like me.

So how can so many people make money giving away books?

It works like this: groups like the Conservative Book Club purchase thousands of copies of a book by [insert name here], using money that appears to be donated from private sources and PACs.

Since the bulk purchases are timed to occur as the book is released, it’s possible to create “Number 1 Best Sellers!” more or less on demand…and then I begin to get emails offering me the book for a price far below the cost of production.

A perfect example: Dick Morris sent me an email, just today, to let me know that I have only have a few days left to take advantage of Newsmax’s offer to get my free copy of Aftershock: Protect Yourself and Profit in the Next Global Financial Meltdown, a book that seeks to help me profit, as you might have already guessed, from the Next Global Financial Meltdown.

Check out what the Newsmax email says about how bulk purchasing works:

“…I knew that YOU should have this information too. So at great cost to Newsmax, I purchased more than 10,000 copies of this book to GIVE AWAY – completely free (just pay shipping)!

They were gone in a matter of days . . . so I purchased another 10,000. Those, too, were snatched up just days later. So, I arranged for another shipment.

Only a few copies are left . . . and this is your last chance to claim one for yourself. If you were to go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble, you would pay around $28 retail for this book. (By the way, both of these retailers are out of copies!) …”

(Emphasis is almost original: underlined words were changed to italics.)

(Quick Fact Check: As of March 18th, Barnes & Noble and Amazon are both selling the book, new, for $16.34, down from the $27.95 retail price, and both appear to have the item in stock…along with Wiley and Borders and a1Books and papamedia and even the UK’s Book Depository.com, who will let you have it for the apparent lowest price anywhere: $15.99–with “free shipping worldwide.”)

As you can see, Newsmax acknowledges they purchased more than 20,000 copies of the book, and possibly as many as 30,000…and I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that’s a big part of the total sales for this title. In fairness, however, I could not locate BookScan or other sales data for this book, so that’s just a guess, and I could be wrong.

Sarah Palin added an interesting new twist to the process: SarahPAC (and, yes, Virginia, there really is a SarahPAC) spent more than $60,000 to purchase copies of her own book, allowing her to convert campaign donations into ordinary income that she can spend any way she wants; the books were then given away, at no charge, to donors…and now the cycle begins anew, as a second book has been announced.

All of this is reflected in how book sales are reported, with the New York Times adding a dagger to the description of certain books on its bestseller lists, which:

“…indicates that some bookstores report receiving bulk orders.”

For the record, Mitt Romney’s new book, currently atop the Hardcover Nonfiction list, has two such daggers.

Add all of this together, and what do you get?

How about: a combination of events that are likely associated with a lot of today’s…Pithiatism.

A never-ending vicious cycle of self-affirming impending doom and Swivel Sweepers, delivered to your mailbox every day, until you can’t remember if Buy One, Get One Free* (*Just Pay Additional P&H) refers to a consumer product or the possibility that a Death Panel will commit you–and your family–to a beyond-top-secret Conservatives-Only Gulag soon to be established at the corner of Castro and 18th; located in a fortress built above the GBLT Historical Society’s current offices and staffed by Rainbow Stormtroopers especially chosen by Nancy Pelosi herself.

It’s a scary, scary world out there, my friends…and if these folks have anything to say about it, it’ll stay that way.

 

On Projecting R-71’s Outcome, Or, We Visit A Political Party November 6, 2009

Over the past few days we have been talking about Washington State’s Referendum 71, which was voted on this week. If passed, the Referendum will codify in law certain protections for same-sex couples.

In the first story of our three-part series we discussed Washington’s unusual vote-by-mail system; in the second we examined the pre-election polling.

Today we talk about what happened Election Night at the R-71 event and where the vote count stands today…and where it might end up when we’re all done.

We have lots of geeky electoral analysis ahead—and as a special bonus, we have video of the event, including an exclusive interview with Charlene Strong, the woman who became one of the icons of the pro-71 campaign.

It’s a lot to cover, so we better get right to it.

The Big “Catch-Up”

If you are new to this story, we’ll give you a real quick “catch-up”:

On Tuesday’s ballot Washington voters were asked to consider Referendum 71, which is going to decide whether E2SSB 5688 (passed by the Legislature and “[e]xpanding the rights and responsibilities of state registered domestic partners”) shall be allowed to go into effect. (E2SSB, by the way, stands for “Engrossed Second Senate Substitute Bill”.)

Voting to approve means the bill will go into law, voting to reject will prevent the bill from having any force or effect under law.

Washington State votes almost entirely by mail, and all ballots postmarked by midnight, November 3rd will be counted. Since lots of voters put their ballots in the mail on November 3rd (myself included), that means, when things are close, that the outcome of any particular question might not be known on Election Day.

About 2/3 of Washington’s population of 6.8 million is concentrated in the Western portion of the State; 3.5 million of those residents live in just three counties: King, Pierce, and Snohomish (Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett being the largest cities in those counties). 25% of the State’s population (1.9 million) resides in King County.

Clark County, which is immediately adjacent to Portland, Oregon (largest city: Vancouver), is slightly smaller in population than Eastern Washington’s largest county, Spokane, which has a population of roughly 450,000.

As it happens, the voting on R-71 is rather close, which is consistent with the pre-election polling…which means at this point you’re pretty well caught up and we’re ready to move on to new business.

The morning sun rose above the Cascades and reflected its dusky orange glow off the bottom of the thin clouds Wednesday morning, enveloping those who were awake with a blanket of soothing daylight.

The night before, however, supporters of same-sex marriage had gathered, in their goat leggings and leather, to engage in a horrifying bacchanal involving the setting of bonfires, the invocation of incantations, and the sacrifices of—

Well, actually, none of that ever happened…but it sounded like a lot of fun, didn’t it?

What Actually Happened

Instead, a crowd of roughly 250 gathered at Seattle’s Pravda Studios to wait for the results. The event was quite upbeat before results were announced, and that mood was reinforced when it was announced that seven Western Washington counties, including King County, were voting to approve the Referendum.

I was lucky enough to get some insight as to how that happened when I interviewed Charlene Strong, who tragically lost her partner three years ago. Her face and her story have figured prominently in this campaign—but as she pointed out to me, the seeds of whatever happens in this election were planted years ago:

…”…the citizens of Washington State…put a Governor in place that is all about equality and a Legislative team that is all about equality and I feel very proud tonight to be a citizen of Washington State, and I’m sure I’ll be feeling that way for quite some days to come…”

(I am not, and have never been, a camera operator for the MTV Networks. Instead, I’m still getting used to my little Flip Video camera…which is why much of the interview appears to have been conducted with the most gracious Ms. Strong’s shoulder. Mea culpa.)

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

And with the stage having been set, let’s get geeky:

Washington’s Secretary of State keeps track of statewide ballot measures (including verifying the petition signatures), and it is on their site where we will find statewide results. At the moment (the moment being 6:24 PM, November 4th) 593,956 voters have voted to approve and 556,090 voted to reject, which means R-71 is leading 51.65-48.35%.

Ballots representing almost 33% of the State’s voters have been counted so far, and it is estimated that 394,482 ballots are on hand, around the State, waiting to be counted.

Here’s how the five largest counties are shaping up:

King County Elections reports that R-71 is passing by a 66-33% margin (202,125 to 101,403), with a total of 438,557 votes having been received so far from the County’s 1,079,842 registered voters. These numbers tell us that 135,029 votes are currently on hand, waiting to be counted. (63,446 votes came in today.)

It is likely that 90,000 of those uncounted votes are going to be “approved” votes, based on current trends. If a similar number of votes came in tomorrow, roughly 40,000 more votes would be “approve votes”, suggesting as many as 130,000 more “approved” votes could be waiting to be tallied up.

(Based on these numbers, we already know that King County will exceed the 51% statewide turnout rate that the Secretary of State projected before the election.)

Snohomish County Elections reports that 101,737 votes have been received so far, with 45,000 votes currently uncounted. Voters are approving the measure, but with a much closer margin: 51.72-48.28% (51,222-47,809). The remaining 45,000 votes should add about 1,000 votes to R-71’s lead.

We do not know how many votes were received today by the County, but if we assume that 50% of the total number of votes were in the mail in Election Day, then another 50,000 or so votes should be still on the way, which should also increase R-71’s lead by about 1,000 votes, if current trends hold.

(If we assume that the County will achieve a 50% turnout rate, roughly 40,000 Ballots should be in the mail, which only adds 800 additional votes, not the 1,000 estimated in the precious paragraph.)

The Pierce County Auditor reports that 90,367 votes are in, and the “rejected” votes are leading, 47,307 (53.08%) to 41,809 (46.92%). The estimate is that 50,000 ballots remain to be counted. 60,000 additional votes would be needed for the County to reach a 50% turnout rate, and if you projected that 110,000 votes onto the current trend the “approve 71” final vote should decline by about 6,500 votes.

Clark County Elections indicates that R-71 is losing there as well, with 36,206 (46.01%) voting to approve and 42,481 (53.99%) voting to reject. 13,000 ballots are reported to be uncounted. Clark County has 215,626 registered voters, and based on these numbers it would take an additional 14,450 votes to get to a 50% turnout. That suggests the “approve R-71” vote should decline by about another 2,000 votes.

Finally, Spokane County. There are 257,092 registered voters in the County, and they came out against R-71 in a big way, with 38,079 (39.98%) voting to approve and 57,169 (60.02%) voting to reject. The estimate is that 35,000 votes remain to be counted, and it’s likely those votes will decrease the “approve R-71” lead by about 6,000 votes.

The County has exceeded 50% turnout, and we do not know how many votes arrived today. If we assume 60% turnout, another 25,000 votes would be in the mail, reducing the “approve R-71” lead by another 5,000 votes.

The Big “Wrap-Up”

So what does all this mean?

How about this: I have forever told people that if the candidate or measure you support can win, with a reasonable margin, in Washington’s five largest counties, you’re gonna win the election.

With that in mind, let’s tally up the numbers and see where we are:

The King County tally, by my guess, will add another 130,000 “approved” votes to the statewide total. Snohomish County voters could add 2,000 more votes. Pierce, Clark, and Spokane Counties should reduce the “approve” votes by about 14,500 votes.

Add it all up, and I’m estimating that R-71 could gain 117,500 votes…but that number will certainly go down because of the votes of the rest of the State…so if I had to guess (and I guess I am) I would project that R-71 is going to pass with a margin of victory somewhere in the range of 80-100,000 votes, as opposed to the current margin of roughly 37,000 votes.

There are lots of caveats here: the estimates of incoming ballots could be off, the 50% turnout estimate could be inaccurate, and currently uncounted votes might not follow the trends of the votes counted so far.

Additionally, I will freely admit that I’m biased: I support R-71 (and to take it further, if same-sex couples want to marry…as long as I don’t have to buy all of them presents, I don’t see the problem), and this bias could be affecting my judgment.

So that’s today’s story: based on the return data that is known, and my own guess on what’s likely, I’m going way out on the proverbial limb and projecting that R-71 wins by somewhere between 80-100,000 votes, primarily on the strength of the uncounted King County vote and an estimate of votes that will arrive over the next 48 hours.

As with any modeling project, there are a lot of potential problems that might affect the model’s output—including my own biases—but I feel good about this estimate, and over the next week or so, we’ll see if I’m right.

Additionally, we got to have an inside look at the “process” of R-71…and we got to have an exclusive conversation with Charlene Strong’s shoulder—which, I promise, will become a “teachable moment” for yours truly as we grow, going forward, from a “words only” storytelling service into a video storytelling service.

It’s a great place to end Part Three—and it leaves us perfectly positioned to move on to a discussion of what we can learn from Tuesday’s skirmishes—but for now I have to go and strap on the goat leggings and get back to work.

After all, the doomed won’t sacrifice themselves, will they?

UPDATE: 11/05/09, 8 PM PST

After looking at tonight’s numbers, I’m now thinking that the margin of victory will be closer to 30-35,000, rather than 80-100,000.

This is because King County now has only 13,800 uncounted votes, far fewer than I predicted. However, I also checked to see if my own ballot packet had arrived, and it has not. This tells us there are an unknown number of ballots that were mailed on Election Day but have not yet arrived.

An additional clue? Turnout is currently reported at 34.93% for King County, which is 15% below the projected State average. If we assume the County will make that 50% turnout number, that means 150,000 ballots are currently unaccounted for…in a County that’s voting 2:1 in favor of the Referendum.

If that many votes do turn up, my 80-100,000 vote margin of victory estimate will again be looking pretty good.

The other big question mark is Pierce County. They report 50,000 uncounted votes–but that is also the exact number they reported yesterday, which makes me think that estimate might be…shall we say, inaccurate?

Snohomish County is now also reporting 56,000 uncounted votes, but they are running something like 52-48%, and as a result I don’t expect those uncounted voted to affect the outcome in any significant way.

Spokane County reports 15,000 uncounted votes, and they are voting 60-40% against, which should reduce the margin of victory by about 10,000 votes.

Clark County has 750 uncounted votes, and they are also trending against, but near 50-50, so even if a lot of votes do come in, the effect should be minimal either way.

The quick summary?

I’m now highly confident that R-71 will win. The margin could be as low as 30-35,000 or as high as my original 80-100,000 estimate if all those King County votes come in.

I don’t think the votes in the other counties are going to change the outcome–and while it’s not yet official, I think you can start to maybe breathe just a bit easier.

 

On Learning To Love Homegrown, Or, Baucus’ Fundraising Considered October 9, 2009

So we are now finding out the answers to some of our questions about which members of Congress actually represent We, the People…and which ones represent, Them, the Corporate Masters.

We have seen a Democratic Senator propose a policy that would put people in jail for not buying health insurance and a Democratic President who has taken numerous public beatings from those on the left side of the fence for his inability to ram something through a group of people…and yes, folks, the entendre was intentional.

But most of all, we’ve been asking ourselves: “why would Democratic Members of Congress who will eventually want us to vote for them vote against something that nearly all voting Democrats are inclined to vote for?”

Today’s conversation attempts to answer that question by looking at exactly how money and influence flow through a key politician, Montana’s Senator Max Baucus—and in doing so, we examine some ugly political realities that have to be resolved before we can hope to convince certain Members of Congress to vote for what their constituents actually want when it really counts.

“The idea of covering even the early stages of the cynical and increasingly retrograde campaign has already plunged me into a condition bordering on terminal despair, and if I thought I might have to stay with these people all the way to November I would change my name and seek work as a professional alligator poacher in the swamps around Lake Okeechobee.”

–Hunter S. Thompson, Jimmy Carter and the Great Leap of Faith

Now any normal person trying to analyze last year’s election would have said something like “the fact that Obama was promoting a new type of politics—and that a large majority of the public liked what they were seeing—should have meant that politicians would finally do what the public wanted”…and if you’re as cynical as I am, you might have thought that the fact that Obama is the most successful fundraiser in the history of politics would have made other candidates figure that supporting Obama, politically, would be the easy way to put more cheddar in their own pockets.

But here’s the thing: Senator Baucus has been in Washington, in the same job, since 1978, which is about three years short of half of his entire life (and he spent those three years in the House), and unless he wakes up dead one morning or Montana secedes from the Union he’s pretty much guaranteed to be there until at least January 2015.

In those three decades he’s been able to create, and then “outsource”, his own independent fundraising operation—and he’s been so good at doing this that he can donate money from his own Political Action Committee (Glacier PAC) to other Democrats, which is the Congressional version of acquiring really cool “Magic: The Gathering” cards now in an effort to both control votes today and become a more powerful player later on.

He did it by cultivating people in his own office who later went on to become lobbyists. At least 24 of ‘em. Since Baucus now runs the Senate Finance Committee and every bill in the Senate that needs money has to pass through his Committee for approval, all those hard working lobbyists now lobby…wait for it…their former boss.

This creates a fundraising “virtuous circle”: “Baucus-affiliated” lobbyists sell access to Baucus…and part of the price of that access is donating to Baucus…which, since “the fix is in”, creates legislative successes that lead to more people wanting more access for bigger favors…which makes the prices all go up, creating more power and influence for Baucus and his orbiting constellation of homegrown lobbyists.

And now that the enterprise has reached the point where the entourage has gone on to have their own entourages, Obama’s vision of “change you can believe in” is sounding more like a promise to screw up a perfectly good hustle than it is a way to run a country.

So how does all this influence the healthcare debate?

At the moment, Baucus could literally coach a basketball team of former staff members who now lobby Baucus on behalf of health care clients:

David Castagnetti of Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, Inc. is the vertically integrated busy beaver of the group, representing drug powerhouses Abbot, AstraZeneca, and Biogen, device manufacturers like GE Medical, service providers like Humana and the American Clinical Lab Association, and AHIP, the trade association of health insurers, among others.

Jeff Forbes, who is currently self-employed, is representing drug maker Roche Group, Manor Care (who provides long-term care services in nursing homes and other environments), and the Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed), a group which includes many of the big players in the medical business.

–Roger Blauwet (he of DC’s Canfield and Associates), is representing Wyeth and Pfizer (two more major drug manufacturers), the Association of Financial Guaranty Insurers, who are the “reinsurers” who help carry risk for other insurers (in return for a piece of the action), and the Rx Benefits Coalition, which reports that it represents companies that support “market solutions” to make prescription drugs available.

Some clients feel that their needs require more than one “Baucus alumnus” on the payroll, which is why Scott Olsen and Jeff Forbes are working for biotech giant Amgen (along with about 150 other lobbyists), David Castagnetti and Angela Hofmann are slogging it out for Wal-Mart, and Roger Blauwet and Castagnetti are both hoofing it for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), who is, literally, the “Big PhRMA” that everyone talks about.

Drug manufacturer Merck hired three of the anointed: Forbes, Blauwet and Castagnetti.

All of this effort is working—and working well. According to OpenSecrets.org, somewhere in the range of $4.5 million has been donated to Baucus during his career by insurance and healthcare interests.

It isn’t just health care, either. Because somewhere around two dozen former Baucus staffers turned lobbyists are “home on the Washington range”, no matter what is being debated in Congress, Baucus gets paid (two quick examples of his Committee’s jurisdiction: changes in tax policy and financial industry regulation—or the lack of it).

In truth, “Baucus gets paid” is probably a bit too cynical.

What I really should say is that Baucus has been exceptionally successful in listening to all points of view when considering ways to make the lives of every American all they can be, that the people who get listened to are exceptionally grateful for this attention, that millions and millions of dollars worth of gratitude have been funneled to Baucus over the years because he’s such a good listener, and that, from now until at least 2015, if you need a Senator to support “status quo you can believe in” you might want to try launching a great big brick of cheddar into the Senator’s constellation.

So the next time someone asks you how “change you can believe in” could have possibly morphed into “buy insurance or we’ll put you in jail”…well, now you know—and given the choice, wouldn’t you rather watch someone make sausage?

 

On Life In The Modern World, Or, What If Jesus Was An HMO? September 30, 2009

Those among us who are familiar with the Bible will recall that Jesus Christ himself was an active member of the health care community as he travelled about the Holy Land.

It is reported that he practiced within multiple medical specialties, and his works as both an ophthalmologist and a neurologist are recounted within the verses of the Gospels.

But what if Jesus had been practicing medicine in the therapeutic environment we’re familiar with today?

In today’s conversation we’ll be tagging along with Jesus as he takes a few calls at his HMO’s Customer Care Center—and by the time we get done you should be able to bring a whole new take to those discussions you‘ve been having about why reform matters.

“…a blind man, Bartimaeus…was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

…Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”

So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.”

Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”

“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight…”

Mark 10:45-52

“Thank you for calling Customer Care. This is Jesus. How may I help you?”

“Hi, I was recently treated by you in Jericho for blindness—“

“Can I get your account number, sir?”

“J32-21515”

“Oh, yes. Is this Bartimaeus?”

“Yes it is.”

“So what can I do for you today?”

“Well, I went to check my mail, and I found a bill from you for 42,554 shekels for the eye treatment, and I don’t understand why you want me to pay this bill.”

“Well, give me a second while I look that up…ahhh, OK, I understand what happened. You see, I did perform the eye treatment, but your policy requires you to be referred by your Primary Care Physician for any specialist treatment and pre-approved by someone here at Customer Care before we can be liable for any costs of care, and the computer says that you didn’t do any of that first…so, I apologize, but we won’t be able to make any adjustments to this account.

Is there anything else I can do for you today, Bartimaeus?”

“Well, how am I supposed to pay this bill? I don’t have this kind of money. Can’t you perform a miracle or something to help me out here?”

“Well, sir, I can’t do that, but what I can do is transfer you to our Collections Department, who can help you make payment arrangements…”

Needless to say, the call went downhill from there.

“Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed…

One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.

When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked…”

John 5:3-8

“…so you say you were lame and I made you walk, and now you’re getting calls from a collections agency that wants to garnish your ass?”

“Yes, Jesus, that’s correct.”

“Well, it says here that that back in Tishri of 12 AD you had severe boils and lesions, which is a preexisting condition. Now when I asked you if you wanted to get well you never disclosed any of this, and I don’t see it anywhere in your application packet, either.

Your policy requires you to inform us of any medical treatments you received before you became a policyholder, and because you failed to make a true and complete statement in your application we have to reject this claim.

I really do apologize, but we won’t be able to make any adjustments to this account.”

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed:

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.

And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”

1 Peter 5:1-4

“We didn’t know what to expect when he came here, but in just a few months Jesus has shown us what can happen when the Son of God is a Customer Care Representative.

His average call volumes are more than double those of any other rep, and when you listen to him take calls…well, when you hear him tell someone that they won’t be getting their benefits…it’s almost like he has some divine power over the customers or something, and that’s why today I’ve gathered you together to announce that Jesus is going to be transferred from the call center to the Executive Training Program.

Additionally, because Jesus did not adjust a single claim in favor of a customer for the last three months we’re also giving him the “Employee of the Quarter” award, which means he gets three days off with pay that he can take anytime he wants, a check for $500, and, of course, Jesus gets to use the parking space right by the front door for his Hummer.

We expect really great things from Jesus in the future, and while we will miss Him here at Customer Care I think we can safely say that with Jesus running the show this company is going to remain profitable for decades to come.”