Opinionated @ CFE

Mike Lee, Please Read Sun Tzu


Sun Tzu probably had no idea that his treatise “The Art of War” would still be often cited and respected over 2500 years after his death. It’s a masterpiece of strategic thinking that applies to any conflict be it military, political, or even athletic. The United States armed forces have even gone so far as to require that the book be in each unit’s library. One of the most prescient quotes from the works is “victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” Mike Lee seems to have completely skipped this part when agitating for a government shutdown.

I get why he’s doing it. Federal programs, once enacted, are very difficult to undo no matter how unpopular they get. If you don’t believe it, remember that a “temporary” phone tax enacted for the Spanish-American War was repealed sometime during the Bush Administration. For them, this is the last stand before a program they legitimately believe to be horrible rolls forward. The House is following because elections matter. It’s no coincidence that in the two federal elections after the ACA passed, the opposition party took control of the House. They rode in on a promise to undo the ACA, and they’re determined to fulfill it. If they don’t fight hard enough for the base, they’ll get replaced.

The problem is that while a shutdown could have potentially been a Battle of Rorke’s Drift, it’s starting to look a lot more like The Alamo. Lee has to be smart enough to know that a shutdown was coming and when it would happen. Given those circumstances, you’d think he would have laid the groundwork for explaining the issues with the federal budgeting process, the unworkability of creating new entitlements beyond the reach of Congress (which now comprises a full 2/3 of federal spending), and why playing a game of chicken to see who blinks first would be the best way to force the hand of a dug-in Senate and President. Instead, absolutely no narrative or purpose to the shutdown was created and the first to market ideas are now the defining narrative. Lee can’t even properly capitalize on the ham-fisted way in which national parks are being closed down, a prime piece of low-hanging fruit.

The failure to figure out how to win before picking the fight never ends well. It has already distracted media attention away from the train wreck that is the ACA launch and numerous stories about huge premium increases, both things that would build popular support for 2014 and beyond to eliminate the ACA. About the only silver lining is that the two parties have pretty clearly defined who owns the ACA and its attendant problems. I wonder if Mike Lee will find a way to screw that up too.

What do Comcast and Blue Cross have in common?


We love to hate cable companies. Thanks to little competition for their products, prices rise at least once a year and often twice. The customer service is maddening, we often end up having to buy products we don’t want to get the products we do, and there really aren’t a whole lot of alternatives to it without some serious market disruption. Come to think of it, those descriptions could very well describe your average insurance company. In most states, they have a commanding share of the market (60%+). They raise prices whenever they want. We hate the customer service, we’re covered for things we don’t want, and trying to find an alternative often results in frustration. It’s not hard to see how they’re in similar situations.

Cable companies act as distributors for video programming. They are middleman between us and the content we want. The content owners often want cable companies to agree to various terms to carry their content. This could be an agreement to carry less popular channels in exchange for the must-haves, specific channel assignments, or, as is usually the case, more money than last year. While we’re the consumers of the content, we have very little say in the purchasing decision. Almost annually, one or more cable providers will get into a fight to put on a good face as a customer advocate, lose the programming for a few days or weeks, and we get stuck with the higher bill.

In the same way, insurers act as a distributor for access to healthcare. They’re also middlemen, but between us and medical providers. The medical providers spend a lot of time and energy trying to maximize payments from insurance companies. The actual consumers of the service, you and me, have very little leverage or control over the process. In fact, we usually aren’t even able to find out what a given procedure costs, instead hoping that our insurance will, on our behalf, negotiate better pricing.

Just like TV viewers who traded their cable package for Netflix, doctors are already wising up to the insurance scam. With the cost of managing insurance claims and constantly cut payments, some practices spend more than half their income managing the mess. Some even go so far as to offer a sort of insurance of their own that, when combined with a high-deductible catastrophic plan, is much cheaper than carrying insurance. How do they do it? It’s not just the overhead. They’re also able to do tests either in-house or with negotiated rates of their own, sometimes for pennies on the dollar what it would otherwise cost.

So why hasn’t this model been broken to pieces? As John McClane says, it’s always been about the money. Just as with cable, there’s a lot of it on the table. Content providers like forcing every single cable subscriber to pay a small fee for their stations whether they want/watch them or not. It’s a model that puts a lot of money in a lot of pockets by socializing the costs. Medical coverage is largely the same way. In fact, well-managed quality care would likely shutter half the hospitals in the country. The Comcasts and the Blue Shields of the world are making a sizeable fortune on inefficiencies.

As with most enterprises facing their own extinction, the knee-jerk reaction is to try and insulate themselves against the changing winds, at least until they can figure out how to keep their bottom lines. Cable reacts by scaring programmers away from selling directly to consumers, degrading competitors that use their hugely profitable Internet connections to bypass traditional distribution channels, and blocking competition in their local markets with predatory pricing. Insurance is taking more-or-less the same road. They got a law passed to require everyone to buy their product, secured huge subsidies for those who can’t afford to buy it, and don’t have to answer at all for costs. Both have found ways to coerce others into supporting a model that they hate and want to replace.

What this highlights is the danger of strong market dominance by a single player. That dominance inevitably leads to higher prices for a lower-quality service. Solving those problems requires disruption from new players, not doubling down.

The Count My Vote Proposal Hurts Ballot Access


Count My Vote wants us to believe that their proposal will improve the elections process. I’ve already called into question their motives and proposed a solution of my own. Now that details of their solution are leaking out, it looks worse than ever. Ironically (or, more likely, by design), it would make it even harder to get onto the ballot, restricting access instead of easing it. What the what?

Let’s review the current system of ballot access we have in place. Right now, any registered member of a political party can file to run for office. They have to go through their party’s nomination process to secure a place on the ballot. Independent candidates have to secure signatures from 300 or 5% (whichever is less) of the total registered voters in their district. For State House candidates, that works out to around 1.5% of total registered voters in their districts. For Senate, it’s around 0.6%. Candidates for governor need at least 1,000 signatures from registered voters which also works out to around 0.6% of registered voters.

So how does Count My Vote propose to address this? Instead of making it easier for independents to file, they raise the threshold considerably for everyone else. Their proposal is that anyone who wants their party nomination would have to gather signatures from 2% of the voters in their district, but only from their registered party. Candidates for governor would need to lock down at least 10,000 signatures for the Republican nomination or 6,000 signatures for the Democratic nomination. This is an order of magnitude beyond the current requirement for independent candidates. Senate and House races are just as nasty with thresholds at or above independent candidates not to secure a place on the general election ballot, but to get the chance to run in the primary. These onerous requirements will ultimately discourage many candidates from trying to run or favor candidates who can afford to spend a lot of time and/or money just to get their foot in the door.

This is the problem that Count My Vote doesn’t want to talk about. All of their proposed solutions ultimately reduce the number of candidates in elections and require more money than ever to run for office. Those charges of elitism don’t seem all that far-fetched now, do they?

Want Reform? There’s Better Ways Than the Elitist Count My Vote


Ballot BoxAs I’ve pointed out previously, Count My Vote is a bunch of elitists trying to protect their turf. Their intentional misdirection is intended to make you think that their efforts to consolidate nominating power within the Republican Party is good for you. The reality is that it limits the candidates to those of their choosing. If you really want more choices on your ballot, there’s better ways to go about it.

The primary complaint about the caucus and convention system is that some good candidates never get the chance to go before the voting public as a whole. I think that’s a fair criticism. It’s also why I oppose the attempts to marginalize candidates that don’t have deep pockets by going to direct primaries with plurality winners. It’s entirely possible to have both candidates that reflect the politically involved and those who reflect more casual voters. The problem is getting both on the ballot.

So here’s what I propose: allow candidates who fail to cinch the party nomination, either at convention or in a closed primary, the chance to remain on the ballot. A couple of possibilities are that they would either have to drop their party affiliation to do so or the ballot would need to clearly indicate who obtained the party nomination. This doesn’t require that we smash the existing nominating system, but it does give candidates a shot at bouncing back.

The odds are still good that the party nominee has the better chance, but it’s not a sure thing. Can you imagine how much fun it would have been to watch Mike Lee and Bob Bennett beat up on each other while Sam Granato watched fecklessly from the sidelines? It would also be a Good Thing(TM) to eliminate the signature requirements for independent candidates.

Of course, ballot access alone creates its own set of problems. Some candidates would probably choose to advance only to serve as a spoiler effect, an unfortunate feature of a system where a plurality vote determines the victor. Mitigating this would require some way to shake out the less-popular candidates while still allowing less-funded candidates a fair shake at victory. There’s a few options available.

One option is to use the so-called “jungle primary”. In this system, all candidates are placed on the ballot and the top two vote-getters advance to a run-off election. In districts that favor one political party over another, this can advance only members of that party to a general election. That can either be good or bad depending on your choices and perspective. It can also feature some of the worst elements of general primaries, allowing those with money and name recognition to more easily advance. This may be counter-balanced by the party nomination, but it would be hard to tell.

Another is using instant run-off voting (IRV). This requires you to rank candidates in order of preference. The candidate with the lowest vote total is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to the second choice until someone obtains a majority vote. This gives some decent odds to long-shot candidates by eliminating the “wasted vote” conundrum. You can vote for the best candidate while still propping up a reasonable alternative. A downside is that you often get a very crowded field of candidates.

I think a reasonable solution is combining the best features of the two. After the party nominating process, candidates who either win the nomination or run as an independent would face off in a general primary open to all voters with the top four vote-getters advancing to the general election. The top four candidates would then advance to an IRV general election. The general primary could be skipped if there’s four or fewer candidates. This strikes a balance between opening up the process to more candidates, maintaining the existing party nomination system, and weeding out “novelty” candidates who really just want to have an audience to speak to.

What do you think? Would a system like this address your concerns with election reform? Or do you have a better idea? Sound off in the comments.

Count My Vote is Elitism Wearing a Populist Jacket


It's a trap!A tried and tested political strategy is to appeal to the majority. Nothing wins points like tapping into popular opinion, and the Count My Vote effort is trying to do just that. Unfortunately, just like so many other efforts that do the same, they’re just the same old tired elitism trying on a new outfit. I’m not fooled, and you shouldn’t be either.

The first sign that this isn’t some grassroots effort is the money involved. So far, donors have contributed an average of $21K a pop. That’s enough money to run a pretty successful  state house race. Count My Vote has raised enough for 21 such races. That’s an awful lot of money to spend on changing the party nominating process, especially when it would have a lot of influence in state and local races.

Then we need to take a glance at the names involved. It reads like a who’s who of Utah politics. Millers? Check. Mathesons? Check. Leavitts? Check. Del Loy Hansen, Bruce Bastian, Merit Medical, and a whole host of others who have been long entrenched in the political process are also on board. It looks an awful  lot like a turf war by people with lots of money and name recognition. It’s almost as if they have a vested personal interest.

The real irony here is that the Count My Vote initiative, backed by well-financed political elites, is trying to convince you that the caucus system is somehow more elitist. It’s hard to see how switching to a system that thrives primarily on large donors and name recognition beats out a system that also allows someone willing to wear out a few pairs of shoes a real shot at public office.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxFOVtr9fbk]

Don’t be fooled by the language they use. The push to change the party nomination process is a smokescreen for further consolidating political power. If these people were really interested in providing greater choice to the voters, they’d work on allowing easier ballot access and run-off elections. Instead, they want to make sure their well-financed picks are at the top of the Republican ticket each time, an almost guarantee of winning the general election in much of the state. Sounds a whole lot like elitism to me.

Chad Bennion, Please Resign


Last year, I registered as part of the Republican Party after years of being completely non-partisan. While a large part of it was a desire to see the abysmal Orrin Hatch finally put out of office, I also wanted to be part of the effort to clean up the party internally. Lately, newly-elected Salt Lake County Republican Party Chair Chad Bennion has made it obvious why there’s still a lot of work to do on the second front. I’d like to lead the charge in calling for, nay, demanding Bennion’s swift resignation.

In case you aren’t familiar with why I’d make this call, witness the comments he’s recently made concerning Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and his office’s decision that the West Valley Police Department’s officer-involved shooting and subsequent death of Danielle Willard was not justified. Considering that Bennion’s day job is at a law firm representing the Fraternal Order of Police, it’s no small wonder he’d use slurs like “cop hater” against anyone who dares to cross the thin blue line.

This on its own is enough to be disappointed and oppose his re-election, but not quite enough to go farther. What really pushes this into resignation territory is the action taken by Chair Bennion last night. He used the official email list of the Salt Lake County GOP to push an “officer support rally” event to further rail against the District Attorney. In effect, the Chair is using his position in the party to use party resources to push the interests of his employer, a law firm representing members of the Fraternal Order of Police. This is an ethical breach so egregious that anyone with a lick of common sense wouldn’t dare do it. Unfortunately, it appears that Bennion is quite deficient.

Chad Bennion, you need to resign your position as Chair of the Salt Lake County Republican Party effective immediately. This gross misconduct besmirches the party’s reputation and wastes political capital that should be spent on elections.

Updated to reflect Bennion’s correct association with the FOP.

A Creditor By Any Other Name


The only surprising thing about the city of Detroit declaring bankruptcy is that it took so darn long to happen. An icon of urban decay for the last four decades, Detroit shed businesses and population both to suburbs and other metro areas at a rate that undercut their ability to serve even the most basic of functions. Even as the city fails to respond to police calls in under an hour, or stop the infamous tide of arson, or even have a single major chain grocery store willing to serve the 713K poor souls who still call the city home, former city employees are demanding that the promises made during better times be honored. Unfortunately for them, they aren’t in any better position than other creditors.

We all know J. Wellington Wimpy’s famous line “I’d gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Pensions are just that. Employees go to the employer to ask for a raise. The employer, eager to avoid any liabilities now, makes a proposal: how about we pay you later? Much, much later. It’s a gamble for the employee that the employer will be in a better position decades down the road to pay that money than they are now. For government employees, it seems much less risky since their employers is backed by the taxpayers. This isn’t to say that steps aren’t taken to mitigate said risks. Pensions have investment funds used to fulfill those future liabilities. They are supposed to seek  a specified rate of return to accomplish this.

But it’s still a risk. Accepting a pension is a gamble that your employer will be able to fulfill those promises later at much more generous terms than they can do today. A reasonable person would accept that working for 20-30 years to get a guaranteed salary for life is too good to be true and will not last. But as with anyone taken in with a too good to be true proposition, many have become irrational and demand satisfaction. Just like any other creditor, they made their gamble. Now they have to live with the results.

Irrational Self-interest


“I’m not poor. Why should I care about poverty?”

“I’m not black. Why should I care about racism?”

“I’m not sick. Why should I care about cancer?”

“I have nothing to hide. Why should I care about privacy?”

What do these four statements have in common?


Google and Facebook Tell the Dishonest Truth


While the NSA has been engaged in a lot of data collection since, well, forever, the press has recently decided to let them have it. It’s been disclosed that they collect the phone records of everyone in the country. They also collect the credit card transactions of everyone in the country. To top it all off, a leaked presentation brags that they have direct access to data from a variety of online service providers including Google and Facebook. Larry Page denies that Google is doing this. Mark Zuckerberg does the same on behalf of Facebook. I think they’re both telling carefully crafted truths to deflect from the one they don’t want you to know.

Both make pains to point out that they do not provide any direct access to use data. Direct. Nothing about indirect access, you see. The NSA is most likely conducting some man-in-the-middle attacks to provide some kind of plausible deniability. If this is the case, then it would be true, and yet dishonest, to insist that no request for bulk data has been received. Why would they need to make a request for the data they’re already getting?

Then there’s the line about following the law. It’s no secret that Google has fought back on national security letters and related requests that prevent them from even talking about the existence of the request. If they’re under a Fight Club rule to not talk about it, how do we know it isn’t the case? After all, those are technically legal.

Then there’s the urging from both for governments to be more transparent about their data collection efforts. Given the rest of the facts, it almost reads as a pleading to please confess to doing it so that they don’t have to.

At the end of the day, I’m not accepting what either company has to say about these allegations, either because they are scared to implicate themselves or found face legal consequences for opening up. Maybe a little of both. This is why the national security state is terrifying.

What makes a great argument in favor of the caucus? John Swallow


If you aren’t familiar with how deep the trouble Utah Attorney General John Swallow finds himself in, Daniel Burton has a great summary for you. In a nutshell, it seems that he’s been involved in numerous shady business deals, campaign donations, and pay-to-play schemes for several years and has dragged his former boss, Mark Shurtleff, into it as well. A lot of people are using it to indict the caucus and convention system used to nominate candidates. When faced with the facts, however, we should see that the converse is true.

In the primary election, John Swallow beat challenger Sean Reyes for the GOP nomination almost 70% to 30%. Swallow had a mountain of campaign cash, the endorsement of outgoing Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, and name recognition from being a previous lawmaker and candidate for various offices. Reyes was heavily handicapped in the primary game, one that requires an expensive marketing campaign to win.

Compare this to the results of the GOP convention. Swallow barely managed a 9-point lead, nowhere near enough to prevent a primary. Despite it taking many more months before Swallow’s skeletons came crashing out his closet into the lead story of every media outlet in the state, it seems that a much higher percentage of the delegates knew something we didn’t. It’s almost as if the delegates were better-informed than the general voting public.

The next time you get the urge to trash the current nominating process, maybe you should keep in mind that it was caucus attendees that did a better job at trying to prevent the Swallow debacle than the voting public at large.

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