Wednesday, November 8, 2017

A Message to ALL Republicans

This message is to ALL Republicans—establishment, fiscal conservatives, RINO, social conservatives, moderates, ultra-conservative, Trumpers, and never Trumpers.

On November 7th, 2017, Virginia’s political complexion changed from purple to blue. On November 8th, all the Monday-morning quarterbacks were out in force with full-throated criticism of Ed Gillespie. I am not going to counter the critics except to say that Virginia ran a rock-hard conservative for Governor in 2013, and we came up short in that election too.

To all the arm-chair quarterbacks out there, instead of picking on the quarterback—and forgive me while I torture the football metaphor—we should be trying to figure out why the Republican Team can’t win games (elections). Politics, like football, is a team sport. And, politics, like football, is a full-contact sport. To put check marks in the win column, we all must subordinate our personal agendas to the team game plan. If we all play for individual records, we may make it to the Hall of Fame, but we will never get to the Super Bowl.

If you want to wins games (elections), here are some football basics to live your political life by:

#1: If your favorite quarterback (candidate) doesn’t get the starting job (nomination), suck it up and start playing for the starter. As the old saying goes, “You gotta dance with the girl who brung ya.”

#2: If the starting quarterback doesn’t throw well, but can run the ball, then adjust your play to maximize your QB’s effectiveness.

#3: No quarterback can win games if the linemen don’t block, the running backs fumble, or the receivers don’t run their routes as planned.

#4: No quarterback can win games if the defense can’t stop the other team from scoring or controlling the ball.

#5: You will never win any games if you don’t show up at the field on game day to play (vote).

#6: Sometimes the other team’s players are bigger (population), stronger (money), and faster (cleaver). You will have losses on the field and in life. Winners pick themselves up, don’t pout or cry, and get back to the hard work of learning from their mistakes and becoming better.

If Republicans want to win, then let’s start to act like were on the same team, improve our skills, work out, come to practices, show up on game day, act like we want to win, play our hearts out, and win one for the Gipper.

Monday, February 8, 2016

On Defeat

On Defeat
I have seen and heard a lot of comments about Cam Newton’s post-Super Bowl Press Conference. Most people have characterized his press conference as “disappointing,” “inappropriate,” “rude,” or “revealing.”
Please allow me to offer an alternative view.

There is an old saying, “Don’t judge a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes.” Precious view of us have ever even worn cleats in a real football game, let alone in the NFL, and even fewer have ever run a “mile” in the Super Bowl. I am not sure there is any greater high or low in sports than winning or losing the Super Bowl, with the possible exception of competing in the Olympics. Time and time again, it has been the team that is the most emotionally prepared for the Super Bowl that wins. Teams that have been there before are often assumed to have an advantage. Butterflies in the first quarter have dictated the outcome more often than not. Can anybody forget the snap whizzing by Peyton Manning’s head for the opening play two years ago? If there is anything worse than having a terrible season in the NFL, it is going to the Super Bowl and losing. I have been excited to see my San Diego Chargers get to the playoffs for several seasons, but, in the back of my mind, I knew they did not have what it takes to win the big one. Secretly, I was often relieved when they did not make it. The one time the Chargers made it to the big dance, they got beat badly—so badly I have erased the experience from my head.
So, what’s my point? Cam Newton’s disappointment—however much it was in itself disappointing—is certainly understandable. Especially, after his team went 17-1 in the regular season, dominated the playoffs, and he earns the MVP award. It had to be a crushing defeat.

When Fritz was wrestling, I took a great interest in the sport. A sport his great grandfather excelled in, but I had aggressively avoided when I saw a friend get a nasty case of cauliflower ear. I read a story about wrestling from an Iowa wrestling coach, and, yes, Iowa is the wrestling capital of America. He talked about the grueling conditioning required, the challenges of making weight, and then having to compete while dehydrated and with little or no energy reserves. He talked about the fact that teams could always comfort each other in loss, or one could attribute a loss to another teammate’s failure, but in wrestling (and other single player sports) losing was a failure each competitor owns singularly. Moreover, when you lose a wrestling match, it is one of the most humiliating forms of defeat that the sporting world has to offer. Think about it. In the natural world, how do predators display dominance over their prey and even their own family group? They roll their opponent over on to their backs, hold them down until the opponent submits—they pin their opponent. You lose a wrestling match by either getting pinned, or rolled over onto your back so many times the opponent out scores you. As Fritz used to say when he lost, “I got owned.”
Well, Cam Newton got owned in Super Bowl 50. No two ways about it. He got sacked 6 times, had the ball wrenched from his hands leading to a touchdown, he got hit and thrown to the ground many more times than I could count. It was like no other game he played this year, and it was humiliating. It would be for anyone. And for the record, he is certainly not the first Super Bowl competitor to look and act defeated after a humbling experience like that.

The Bible says, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” (Luke 12:48) Cam Newton certainly could have shown more grace in defeat. But, honestly, how many of us ever do that? To his credit, he acknowledged that Denver out played them, played better than them, that the Panthers missed opportunities, had their chances, and turned the ball over too many times. Then he left abruptly to lick his wounds.
I learned, while I could easily share in Fritz’s wrestling victories with him, he needed time and to be alone to process his losses—he needed to lick his wounds. If I left him alone, he would quickly rebound; if I pressed the issue, his defeat would get the better of him. Fritz and I both learned from those experiences.

Politics has much in common with sports when it comes to handling losses. I have been a political operative for 30 years. I have managed ballot initiatives, helped elect State Reps, State Senators, three U.S. Congressmen, a U.S. Senator, and even a U.S. President, but I have never put my name on the ballot. As an operative, I could rationalize a defeat by pointing to the candidate’s shortcomings or errors they committed. When you put your name on the ballot, you have only the mirror to gaze at when you lose. And, ironically, it seems that Monday-Morning Quarterbacks are more prevalent in politics than football.
It can be said that adversity is a great teacher. It can make you stronger, or it can crush you. It builds character, or reveals it. It can produce humility, or it can be the fall that goes before a haughty spirit (it is destruction that goes before pride) (Pro. 16:18). Wisdom is a gift from God, but unfortunately, most of us have to get knocked down a notch or two before our pride gives way to humility before God, and we actually ask for the wisdom that God gives liberally (James 1:5). Cam Newton got knocked down more notches last night that many of us have likely experienced in a lifetime. His ultimate response to adversity will be played out over the coming months and next season. His mother raised him to know God, and God has certainly blessed him with tremendous gifts. I believe and hope he will react more appropriately to adversity. In the meantime, I can allow some forbearance for his response last night because I have some empathy for what he experienced.

FYI: Here is a video of Fritz's Senior Year Wrestling Highlights, and, yes, they are all wins because that's what highlights are!
Fritz Senior Year Wrestling Highlights 07-07

Sunday, December 16, 2012

What the Village Took by L. P. Hoffman

L. P. Hoffman wrote this in 2006, not long after the Columbine, CO, shooting. I believe this message is even more appropriate in light of the recent events in Newtown, CT.  Read about L. P. Hoffman. Buy L. P. Hoffman books.
--The Editor

What the Village Took by L. P. Hoffman
(c) 2006

Silence shrouded the building. It was a surreal and deep silence, hollow and unnerving. Soon, very soon along these sterile corridors, the stillness would be swallowed by the noisy clamor of the day, yet this was to be no ordinary day.

In the shadows, two men stood as tall and motionless as statues. At their feet, shafts of dawning light spilled through open classroom doors to glimmer upon the random tile patterns there.

The men waited. They both appeared powerful, yet agile. Their faces reflected deep and profound sadness.

The taller, older man turned to the younger. “It won’t be long now.” His words conveyed the seriousness of the occasion.

The younger nodded. “May I…?” he spoke with trepidation. “Would it be presumptuous of me to ask?”

His companion smiled faintly, gently then reached out to reassure his friend. “I will show you. Then you will understand.”

Before them, a scroll appeared and came alive with a moving view of a classroom. “All lifestyles are good,” the teacher explained. “Exploring human sexuality is only natural. She spoke of base instinct as if they were pure and clean and mankind as if he were no different than an ape. The teacher mocked God’s laws by calling them outdated and by doing so, cast restraints aside.

The young man turned to the elder. “There is a way that seems right to a man but the end of it is death.” He turned his gaze back to the scroll as it changed to a computer lab. At a desk in the corner, a bored teacher thumbed through a magazine while a cluster of boys feasted their eyes and hearts upon internet pornography. At another computer a few feet away, a loner quickly jotted down a recipe for bombs then clicked off, while two female classmates typed the words “witchcraft” into the search engine and then printed the initiation rites along with incantations.

“Perversion,” the older man whispered as the scene changed again to the High School Auditorium where students gathered to hear an address.

The speaker rose. “We have called an assembled today to talk about abuse. We hope to arm you with the knowledge that will equip you to recognize and stand against abuse wherever you may find it. We hope these tools will not only empower you but also give you the courage to come forward and seek help.

He spoke of the tyranny of control that parents have inflicted on their young. He cited the examples of real and frightening cases then quickly explained that even a parent’s attempt to restrain a teenager by the arm could be considered abuse. “If it feels like abuse, it probably is.”

Nestled among the crowd, a pimply sophomore boy crossed his arms smugly. His thoughts turned to the fight he’d had with his mother that morning. Anger festered and churned beneath his surface. He was fed up with the nagging. “Do your homework. Clean your room!” Their curfew and their rules…. It was more than he could take. The teenager smiled at the possibilities.

The speaker went on to talk about sexual harassment and an excited ripple rolled through the hearts of the scorned and spiteful.

The seeds of rebellion had been planted. A weapon had been forged and placed naively into young and turbulent hands.

“You could be a victim and not even realize it,” the speaker cooed. “If you come to us, we will listen. We will help.”

The older man turned to his companion. “This delusion has spread like a virus. Many innocents have suffered because of false accusations.” For a split second, they could both feel the pain of the wounded—those torn and devastated by a system gone awry. Lives and reputations have been ruined. Parents have been stripped of rights. Children have been snared in a web of endless bureaucracy.

The younger man looked away for a brief moment. It was all too much for his righteous eyes to take in. The air was thick with decay—the stench of bondage and its fruit.

“Will you see more?” the elder asked.

The younger one nodded and turned once more to face the scroll.

In another classroom, a woman spoke of nature and her wonders. “We are all divine,” she explained. “Because divinity is in all creation and we are a part of her. The earth is our mother, a living-breathing organism. She is worthy of all honor.”

A puff of exasperation escaped the younger man lips. “It’s idolatry!”

“Yes. They are teaching the young to serve the creature, rather than the creator.”

The scroll’s scene changed to the principal’s office. “Zero Tolerance,” he said with pride. “We have a Zero Tolerance policy on drugs and violence.”

“The principal has never walked through this place with eyes to see,” the older man explained. “For if he had, he would have seen that tolerance was the very thing being taught in these classrooms. They teach that truth is not absolute and that one person’s reality may be different from another’s. Behind the guise of ‘freedom of education,’ anarchy has replaced order and chaos is exalted. The spirit of lawlessness is already at work in the world.” With that, the scroll rolled up and disappeared.

Overhead, a long florescent bulb flickered on with a hum and then another as synthetic light filled the corridor. “We don’t have long to wait now,” the older man cautioned.

A teacher was the first to arrive. She was a plain looking woman with medium brown hair pulled back with a ribbon. Her clothes were outdated and simple.

“Mrs. Jacobs, we will call her Sarah,” the older man said with a nod in her direction. “She is one of the reasons we have come. This one is a quiet but powerful witness. Sarah is not very popular around here,” he said. “The students make sport of her behind her back and the administration watches her closely. They are worried she may share her beliefs.” He smiled. “But her life has been a witness and there is no rule against that. She has endured suffering and her love has not grown cold. Sarah Jacobs prays for each one by name.”

Soon, other teachers began to trickle in along with early students. In a short time, the hallways echoed with the sounds of slamming lockers and newsy murmurs, though no one seemed to notice the two men who stood among them.

Quietly, the visitors watched as waves of morning activity ebbed and flowed. Then, suddenly, the air grew thick with a mist of darkness. Evil had arrived. At the end of the long hall, a teenage boy stood as if looking for someone. His hair was shaggy, but not to long. A loose strand fell across his sweaty brow. Below, his eyes darted nervously, to and fro. Slowly, deliberately, the young man slid his heavy backpack from his shoulder and unzipped it. His hand sunk deep into its depths and it surfaced again with a gun.

The younger man let out a gasp. “Can we stop this?”

“Mankind has been given free will.” The older man shook his head solemnly. “We cannot interfere.”

As the boy held the shining weapon in his hand, a strange demented smile spread across his thin lips. “Soon they will all know,” he muttered, “just what I think of them. They will all be sorry.”

“And he is right. They will say it wasn’t his fault,” the elder explained. “They will say the boy was the product of his environment, that he had a rough life. His mother worked long hours. His father left when he was young. They will pity the boy, saying he was depressed and knew rejection. They will say that he was a victim too.”

“While all this may be true, don’t they know that this young man, like all the rest, will one day stand accountable before God?” the younger one asked.

A shriek sliced through the morning bustle and banter. “He’s got a gun!” Pandemonium exploded like a cannonball down the corridor and frightened teens scrambled for safety.

This seemed to please the teenage boy. He leveled his pistol and walked forward with icy determination. The first bullet slammed into the wall inches from a young man’s head. He fired again, grazing the arm of a fleeing athlete. Youth scrambled for refuge as fear and panic ricocheted throughout the school.

The gun-totting boy stopped cold. His hollow eyes locked onto a beautiful teenage girl as she cowered behind the shelter of her locker. Jennifer was one of the popular ones who’d never given him the time of day. He raised the weapon and an eternity seemed to pass as his finger slowly squeezed the trigger. Then, just before the explosion, a schoolmate suddenly dove to take the bullet. He fell in a crumpled heap as the terrified girl bolted away to safety.

“This is Benjamin, the other reason we have been called here today.” The elder angel knelt beside the boy as he lay dying. “Benjamin, you have been a shining light in this place for you were not ashamed of the gospel.” He touched the boy with gentle hands and whispered words to blanket him in peace. “Greater love knows no man, than he who lays his life down for another.”

The predator felt charged with power and control as he marched through the school looking for prey. “He would soon be famous,” he told himself. Through narrow radar eyes, he searched for movement, his senses honed by the scent of fear. Then, his march stopped short.

Mrs. Jacobs had stepped into his path. She stood like a sentinel against the boy’s advance “Go no further,” she said. “Kyle, put the gun down.” Inside, Sarah was terrified but she didn’t let it show.

The teenager’s mouth twisted in contempt. “Who’s going to make me?” Slowly, Mrs. Jacobs approached—her hand extended. “Let me have the gun.” The teacher’s firm words conveyed authority and power. Her seasoned eyes betrayed no hint of intimidation.

A tear welled briefly in the boy’s gaze, then as suddenly as it surfaced, it shrank back into darkness. He leveled the gun and fired once more before turning the weapon upon himself.

Deafening silence filled the corridor. All was still but all was not well.

Moments passed in silent waiting and then the angels rose with their precious cargo in their arms.

“This day, two shining lights have been extinguished from this school, but there would be others to rise up in their place.” As the elder spoke, a joyous chorus rang in the heavens. For two of God’s beloved were coming home—victorious and whole.

What the Village Took by L. P. Hoffman, (c) 2006

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Thank You for the Opportunity

In September 2007, I started an internet blog called Talk It Up America, and at that time I said, “I have created this blog——to post news consistent with Philippians 4:8.

For those of you who do not have a Bible handy, Philippians 4:8 says in the New King James Version, “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”

In September 2008, the Farmville Herald began publishing my column every other week.

I have enjoyed writing these columns because I believe in the full discourse that must precede any thoughtful decision about the significant issues and challenges that face America today. Naturally, I wanted to present a conservative point of view. But, more than anything else, I strove to ensure that my readers understood that these are complex problems we are up against. Though many people want a simple solution, those are elusive at best and often just wrong. I tried to not just be a critic of others. I always attempted to not make any issue a personal one. I believe that we have an obligation to fully vet and debate policies, but not to carry out character assassinations. And, while I often presented the opposing view of a particular policy, I always would also strive to present an alternative approach to resolving the issue. I firmly believe that you are either part of the solution or you are part of the problem.

I clearly have a strong political point of view and I am not ashamed for having presented a conservative viewpoint of today’s issues. I, for one, do not believe “politics” should be a pejorative term. In fact, I have come to learn that everything in life is political, except politics, that is personal. I consider running for and holding public office to be the highest secular calling an individual may pursue. I hold those in political offices in high regard even when I disagree with their politics or policies. If we lose sight of the value of free and civil political discourse and respect for the elected office, we risk losing our democratic form of government.

Many of you know that I have also been politically active in the Prince Edward County Republican Party, among other local volunteer activities, and I headed up the Prince Edward County campaign to elect Robert Hurt as the Representative for Virginia’s 5th Congressional District.

Because of my political and public service experience, I was recently appointed by Representative Hurt be his Farmville Field Office Director. I am honored to be going to work for Robert Hurt. His thoughtful and considerate approach to the issues, his desire to serve all of the people of the 5th District, and his core beliefs in liberty, individual rights, and free-market solutions to problems make working for Congressman Hurt a natural and easy decision for me.

Quite naturally as well, this means that I will no longer be writing a column for the Farmville Herald or My new job is not to convey my ideas, but rather to listen to the people of the Southside, provide appropriate assistance whenever possible, and to communicate constituent views to Representative Hurt.

I have enjoyed writing these columns and it has been a rewarding experience. Many of you have taken the time to let me know how much you like my writing and agree with my positions on the issues. A few have challenged me on the issues and I have enjoyed those discourses as well. Thank you for reading my column and your support.

I also look forward to representing Robert Hurt and serving all of his constituents. I will be available to visit with anyone about issues pertaining to the federal government, whether it is a personal matter that requires the Congressman’s assistance or you want to communicate your views on a larger policy direction for the federal government.

As I have tried to do throughout my career and in this column for the past two years, I will perform my new duties consistent with Philippians 4:8 and my personal mission statement. “I believe that my gifts come from God and that I am called to use those gifts to serve people by helping them, listening to hear their needs, assimilating and distilling facts that relate to their needs and the issues, and advocating in the public forum to bring forth solutions that benefit the whole by applying the principles of honesty, concern, fair play, respect, discernment, integrity and trust.”

It is with some regret that I stop writing these periodic columns, but it is for good reason that I do so. In the mean time, thank you for the opportunity and I look forward to a different, but equally important, kind of service.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Up like a rocket; down like a parachute

There is something exciting about watching a Space Shuttle launch. The acceleration is incredible, especially when you consider the gross weight of the space craft to be about 4.5 million pounds. Within seconds of launch the shuttle is going 100 mph, 1,000 mph after one minute, and in a little over seven minutes, the craft is pushing 18,000 mph! But, have you noticed when it is landing, the Space Shuttle is going barely more than 200 mph. Going up is fast, but coming down is always slow.

Of course, the physics of putting large bodies into orbit around the earth requires nothing less than spectacular acceleration. The aerodynamics and physics of returning to earth safely demand that the vehicle slowly decelerate over a longer time to avoid burning up or breaking up upon touch down.

Even though economics is not a physical science per se, I have observed over the years that the same physical laws of space travel seem to apply to certain economic trends. Have you ever noticed how quickly interest rates rise during uncertain times only to slowly come back down long after the crisis is over? The stock market can “crash” in a day, but may take years to recover from that single event. In recent years, the price of gasoline has shot up like a rocket on news of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, or political upheaval in the Middle East. However, even though the hurricane may pass by with little or no impact on the supplies, or the interruption of oil deliveries in the Middle East may not be significant, the price of gasoline can take months to come back down to pre-event levels. It is as though the prices ride a rocket up and take a parachute back down.

The explanations for this phenomenon are plentiful and I am sure your email inbox has been inundated with plenty of speculation, castigation, and a few suggested remedies during the recent jump in gasoline prices. I believe some explanations and remedies have more merit than others.

There is one very important thing that makes gasoline at the pump unique among the thousands of products Americans buy on a daily basis. Retail gasoline is the only product that posts its price in one-foot-tall letters that can be read from one-half mile away or more. As a result everyone knows what a gallon of gas costs even though most people could not tell you what they last paid for a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread.

I suppose posting gasoline prices in big numbers keeps the stations competitive. After all, how many of us have driven until our tanks were nearly empty until we found that station that was two cents a gallon cheaper. Yep, we showed them; nearly running out of gas to save ourselves 30 to 40 cents on a single $45 to $60 tank full!

If displaying gasoline prices for all to see encourages competition, it could also be said that it makes collusion easier as well. Under anti-trust laws in the United States, collusion among suppliers or retailers to set prices for their products is expressly forbidden. But, if the gas-station operator doesn’t even have to leave his store to see what the competition is charging across the street, then it is difficult for any prosecutor to make the case that the station owners met in secret to set their prices.

Imagine for a moment you are a gasoline retailer. Your average gross profit on gasoline is about seven cents a gallon. If you put yourself in their position, you would probably understand that it is less likely to be a conspiracy and more often just a case of business survival. When one station sees another raise their price a couple of cents a gallon, they all quickly follow suit. And it is certainly not in any operator’s best interest to be the first to drop the price when supply costs go down. Consider this: if your local gas station operator is making so much money selling gasoline, why do gasoline retailers spend so much time trying to get you into their store to buy things you can get at a hundred other locations? Cheap gasoline is a pricing theory called a “loss leader” that is intended to get you in the store to buy other more profitable products. Many a gasoline retailer has gone bankrupt trying to use gasoline as a loss leader.

At the other end of the supply-line spectrum is the price of a barrel of crude oil. You get the price of crude oil reported in the media every evening along with the daily stock market results. However, what makes the news is not the cost of the oil being delivered to refineries today, but rather it is the price expected to be paid for oil at some point in the future. When events cause speculation to drive the future price of oil up, it inevitably results in journalists prognosticating that the price of gasoline at the pump will be going up soon. With the consumers psychologically prepared for the increase, it is now logical for suppliers and retailers to go ahead and raise the price of a gallon of gas.

The last and perhaps the most significant factor that affects the price of gasoline here in the United States is that we are grossly under capacity for refining oil into gasoline and other products. Many small refineries have shut down over the years as their processing capacity made it uneconomical to bring them up to current environmental standards. At the same time, stringent environmental standards and the not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) syndrome has resulted is fewer new refineries coming online. Meanwhile, gasoline consumption has increased, and during the summer, many states and even some municipalities require specially blended fuels to reduce emissions. As refineries annually transition from making heating oil to ramping up to meet summer gasoline demand, they must stop production to retool their facilities. This leads to constrained supplies and the annual price increase that usually peaks around Memorial Day. The rest of the summer pricing remains relatively high because of increased driving and a constant cycle of shutting down refineries to adjust for the unique summer blends required by different cities and states. Add to that one or two hurricanes that may temporarily shut down gulf coast oil production and refineries and we can see a drop in supply with a corresponding increase in the price at the pump.

The reality is the supply and demand for energy, especially gasoline, is very volatile. There are many reasons why the price of gasoline at the pump may change—some are better explained than others. Nonetheless, the cost of gasoline does fluctuate often and can rise quickly. If you are frustrated about recent increases, and many of us are, don’t punish your neighbor who happens to be in the gasoline business. Don’t bother trying to boycott the big oil companies; they make just as much money selling cheaper products as they do selling expensive stuff. If you want to bring about real and positive change that will help the price situation at the pump, call your Representative and Senators. Tell them we need streamlined permitting for new refineries. We need more of every kind of energy. We should stop the ban on deepwater drilling and we should open more offshore areas to exploration. We should not let the EPA regulate green-house gases and implement a de facto energy tax. And, we need more oil, coal, natural gas, oil shale, tar sands, etc., developed in Alaska and the Mainland USA. Tell them we need to drill here, drill now, and pay less!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Most Common Side Effects

In the last decade, there has been an exponential increase in the amount of advertising for prescription pharmaceutical medicines and a corresponding increase in prescription drug consumption. This is partly the result of a significant change in the way drug companies are marketing their products. Back in the day, pharmaceutical companies sent drug reps out to visit doctors and hospitals. They generally came bearing gifts—radios, clocks, sometimes even television sets. But, more importantly, they provided technical information about what their drug could do for the patients and what side affects might occur. They answered questions and gave medical professionals all the information they needed to make qualified medical decisions about what, if any, drug would best address the illness the patient presented.

The new model for marketing drugs has the pharmaceutical companies skipping right over the medical professionals and going to the consumer directly. Often times, even after seeing an ad several times, the consumer may not know what illness the medicine is intended to treat. But, it sure sounds good. Maybe I better ask my doctor if that drug is right for me.

I remember watching NFL football with my 12 year old son years ago. One of these drug ads kept appearing that depicted a middle-aged man throwing a football through a tire swing. The audio message was intentionally vague, and being na├»ve, I missed all the phallic symbolism that was meant to convey the message that this was the newest of what a friend of mine called “giddy-up drugs.” Stupid me! I turned to my son and asked him what he thought that drug is supposed to do. His response was priceless, “I think it makes him throw the ball better.”

The point is these messages about sophisticated drugs are dumbed down and intended to make us all think we can’t live without these medicines. We are not sure what they do, but that person sure looks happier. And who doesn’t want more control over their health care decisions? I believe we should all assume more responsibility for our physical and emotional well being, but that does not make us trained and qualified medical diagnosticians.

Of course, to ensure that as an informed consumer we all make the right medical choices, we are told about all the possible side affects of the particular drug we are being sold at the moment. Have you listened closely to some of the contraindications of these wonder-working medicines? Here are a few snippets of the choicest “Most Common Side Effects”:
• “chest pain; confusion; fainting; fast or irregular heartbeat”
• “new or worsening mental or mood problems”
• “sudden, severe dizziness or vomiting; slurred speech; uncontrolled muscle movement; unusual weakness or tiredness”
• “suicidal thoughts or actions”
• “abnormal thinking; behavior changes”
• “hallucinations; memory loss; new or worsening agitation, panic attacks, aggressiveness, impulsiveness, irritability, hostility, exaggerated feeling of well-being”
• “decreased sexual desire or ability” (Don’t worry; there are plenty of other drugs that counteract this symptom)
• “red, swollen, blistered, or peeling skin; ringing in the ears; seizures”
• “sudden decrease or loss of hearing; sudden decrease or loss of vision in one or both eyes”
• and, my all time favorite, “sudden urges to gamble”

The pharmaceutical industry is big business, and to be fair, they have developed some really valuable medicines that treat previously untreatable conditions. Medical care has improved thanks in part due to research and development by drug companies. Research and development is expensive and the testing and application process to get Food and Drug Administration approvals cost a lot of money as well. As a result, some of the newest and best drugs are also very expensive as the industry prices their product to recover their investment before the patent runs out and cheaper generic versions of the drug come on the market.

Prescription drug use in America is up—way up. We cannot discount the impact this has had on the cost of delivering health care services in this country. Over the past ten years, the percentage of Americans who have taken at least one prescription drug in the past month has increased from 44% to 48%. The use of two or more drugs increased from 25% to 31%. The percentage of Americans using five or more drugs per month increased from 6% to 11%. In 2007-2008, 20% of children and 90% of older Americans reported using at least one prescription drug in the past month.

Prime time television ads rates vary widely from $40,000 to $400,000 per ad. Full-page color ads in a popular men’s magazine can cost more than $70,000, and by the time the drug company buys the extra page and a half to print all the disclaimers in fine print, a $175,000 per month per magazine budget is not out of the question. It doesn’t take rocket science to see that drug companies are spending a lot of money to get you to “ask your doctor” about their latest wonder pill.

If you have followed my columns over the last few years, you know that I am a free-enterprise advocate. I favor market solutions over government regulation. Although the government has historically banned alcohol and tobacco ads, I am not suggesting that prescription drug ads be banned. Besides, the government has no nexus that would empower it to ban advertising in the print media or on cable and satellite television.

However, I do wonder about the ethics of marketing prescription drugs directly to the consumer. I do believe it significantly contributes to the escalating use of prescription drugs and the spiraling cost of providing health care. And, perhaps I am old fashioned, but shouldn’t we all leave the decision to prescribe or not prescribe drugs to the medical professionals and not the consumers. There are certainly a number of circumstances that warrant prescription drug use and I am neither anti-medicine nor anti-drug industry. But, I wonder if it is really necessary or in our best interest to take “Mother’s little helper” for every perceived problem we have in life. Maybe we would all be better off if we took charge of our own physical and emotional well being. As consumers we can exert market changing power through our consumption patterns. We can all reconsider our prescription drug use, and through the free market, we can have a positive impact on our physical, emotional, and financial well being and help bring down the cost of health care in America. As Nancy Reagan said about illegal drug use, “Just say ‘No.’”

Monday, February 21, 2011

Whose Ox will get Gored?

President Obama established the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in February 2010. In December 2010, the Commission, co-chaired by former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former US Senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, released its report. The report included a comprehensive set of recommendations all designed to help the United States address its growing deficit problems and the mounting national debt. But, most controversial of all recommendations, the Commission had the temerity to suggest that, unless they are fixed soon, entitlement programs such as the Social Security System are doomed to financial failure.

In his usual fire-brand style of down home wit and brazen Western honesty, Senator Alan Simpson has never dodged the tough issues and some of his recent comments regarding Americans and Social Security have touched off a firestorm. Without regard for his specific words, give Al credit for taking on the elephant in the room. But, while we’re on the subject, let’s address some of the myths associated with this elephant in the room.

One of the common misconceptions about the Social Security System is that Congress has raided the Social Security Trust Fund and spent the money funding the current budget deficits. This is over-simplified at best and in many respects just not true. However, as is usually the case, the matter of accounting for the Social Security Trust Fund is too complicated to be adequately explained in this column. But, it deserves a better explanation than typical news sound bite, so let me give it a try.

When passed and signed into law in 1935, the Social Security Act established a system for collecting payroll taxes, keeping the money in a trust fund, and providing retirement assistance for the elderly as well as disability insurance for all Americans. The key to understanding the trust fund is that the Social Security Act requires that all Social Security receipts be invested in United States Treasury Bills and that the interest accrue for the benefit of the trust fund. US Treasury Bills are the debt instruments that our government uses to finance government operations and deficits. The challenge here is that in this particular case the United States is both the lender (the Social Security Trust Fund) and the borrower (the US Treasury).

Certainly, in these times of record deficits and a national debt approaching $14 trillion, many people are wondering at what point is the United States Treasury in danger of defaulting on its debt? However, for now, what is important for every American to know is that the Social Security Trust Fund is fully accounted for within the federal budget and the fund is accruing interest for the benefit of present and future recipients.

The notion that Congress has raided the fund comes from a not well understood nuance of the federal budget process. When preparing and reporting federal budgets, both the President and Congress designate certain budgetary items, such as the U.S. Postal Service and the Social Security System, as “off-budget.” This means that the receipts and outlays associated with these programs are not part of the annual budget appropriations process and are accounted for separately. However, when reporting the total budget of the United States, the receipts and outlays for off-budget programs are included in the totals. During the past and even currently, Social Security Trust Fund receipts exceed outlays, thus including the Social Security System in the total budget has the net effect of making the deficit appear smaller. This is what leads some people to suggest that Congress has raided the trust fund, but that statement simply is not true.

Now, let us consider some of the actuarial facts about the Social Security System. Since inception in 1935 until today, receipts have exceeded outlays, and accordingly, the trust fund together with interest has grown. Based on current population numbers, the size of the work force now and in the future, and the expected increased life expectancy of Americans, analysts believe the Social Security Trust Fund will continue to grow until around the year 2025. At that point in time, outlays will begin to exceed receipts, including interest, and the trust fund has been estimated to become insolvent, bankrupt, broke by about 2042, with some more recent estimates as early as 2037.

We can say what we want about how much you and I have paid or will pay into the system. We can make all the platitudes we want about how we are entitled to our Social Security retirement. But, none of that will have any bearing on the fact that, as currently funded and allocated by law, the Social Security System will be broke within our children’s life times. We may not want to see the retirement age raised or our benefits reduced, but where is the equity for our children and grandchildren who will pay into the system for decades and see nothing in return.

We may not like it when the likes of Al Simpson tells us “Where the pigs eat the cabbage” with respect to Social Security, but turning a deaf ear and a blind eye to the inherent and systemic problems with the Social Security Trust Fund will not advance us one wit. When it comes to fixing the Social Security problem, I may not want to have my ox gored, but someone’s ox will certainly get gored sooner or later.

At the risk of exposing myself to ridicule and criticism, I would like to suggest that the sooner Americans get together and help Congress find a way to address the certain and catastrophic failure of the Social Security System the better. And, the least painful it will be for all of us. There have been a number of ideas floated over the years that would make the system solvent into the foreseeable future without gutting current or near-term benefits for recipients. The scared cow will soon be on life support and it will die unless we put our differences aside and make the adjustments necessary to ensure Social Security’s viability for the long term.