Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sports: NCAA Men's Basketball Round-Up

Congrats to Missouri State for winning the CIT!

VCU faces St. Louis in game two of the CBI. VCU leads 1-0.

Dayton will take on UNC for the NIT championship on Thurday.

I think everyone who doesn't have a team in the Final Four will probably be rooting for Butler. West Virginia vs. Duke is probably considered by most to be the "championship" game. Duke appears to have the goods this year to win it all.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Devotional Thoughts: Asher Yatzar

Came across the Asher Yatzar in various forms while reading Mudhouse Sabbath and Happiness is a Serious Problem.

Asher Yatzar is the famous Jewish prayer of thanksgiving after using the bathroom!

As someone who has been hospitalized on five occasions for gastrointestinal problems, I have an practical appreciation for this prayer.

Blessed is He who has formed man in wisdom and created in him many orifices and many cavities. It is obvious and known before Your throne of glory that if one of them were to be ruptured or one of them blocked, it would be impossible for a man to survive and stand before You. Blessed are You that heals all flesh and does wonders.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Devotional Thoughts: Live for the will of God

1 Peter 4:1-6 ....

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because those who have suffered in their bodies are done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.

Done with sin?

Seems a bit much to say that!

Please remember that the English Bible we have is a translation from the Greek and in some cases the Greek could be tricky to interpret. Check this translation out: Christ, then, having suffered for us in the flesh, ye also with the same mind arm yourselves, because he (Christ) who did suffer in the flesh hath done with sin. The boldfaced part is my addition to the text based on one commentator I read. Theologically, we believe that Christ died on the Cross for our sins and thus has done away with sin and death. Thus, Peter was trying to draw a parallel to Christ with a relationship between suffering and the defeat of sin.

Suffering in our lives does have a transformative effect on our values and attitudes and perspectives. People who have had a brush with death often share they are more grateful for life and more attuned to what is the really important stuff. Individuals who have experienced suffering sometimes say they find greater compassion for the weaknesses and difficulties of others.

For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.

Makes me think of the saying, youth is wasted on the young!

Leaving behind the old life can leave the new believer the object of ridicule. But the reality is that we all eventually have to stand before God and death is the equalizer.

For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.

Is this preaching to the dead?

This idea was hinted at in the previous "spirits in prison" (1 Peter 3:19) if one takes that phrase to mean those who have died which is a debatable interpretation.

A second option for this passage is "those who are now (spiritually) dead."

A third option is offered by Eugene Peterson: Listen to the Message. It was preached to those believers who are now dead, and yet even though they died (just as all people must), they will still get in on the life that God has given in Jesus.

I think the third option fits in with what has gone on in the verses before.

Anyway, what do you think of these six verses?

Seems a bit "stream of consciousness" here?

Peter started off with how suffering helps wring out the sin in us. Peter then described the life of sin that the Jesus followers reading the letter had left behind. Peter then connected that to how preaching the Gospel gives life. I guess it comes sort of full circle: the preaching of the Gospel involves sharing the suffering of Christ.

Lord, thank you that you did not leave us to our mis-directed ways but rather you sent Jesus to suffer on our behalf, to even die on our behalf so that we may have new life. Amen.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Politics: I like reasonable voices in political debate

The "megaphone" of this blog is very small (~30-40 hits a day) but I have tried and want to continue to be a responsible voice in the debate over the new health care bill.

For those who have problems with the new health bill, let's present calm and reasoned concerns and viable alternatives.

There is NO PLACE for violence and I denounce those few who have gone down that path.

For those who are supporters of the health bill, look honestly at some of the problem areas and do not lump all opponents of the bill into the lunatic fringe.

I came across this item which offers some reasonable concerns over this bill. Excerpts:

Christians rejoice when every single person receives healing. We are a religion that founds hospitals and is commanded to do charitable work.
........
The job of providing health care, this basic human right, is not the job of the state, but of the family and the church.
........
Most American families are able to give their members some of the best health care in the world and are glad when the government modestly steps in to help those in need.

Conservatives are not all libertarians. We recognize that some government help may be necessary, but also know that at some point help becomes a hindrance. Health care is not the only good thing in a society. There are also the values of the soul: liberty and happiness. It is the American and Christian idea that too much government can stifle the soul of a man.

The tipping point between necessary, though regrettable, help from the state to help families and churches do their duty may have been reached. Conservative Christians do not want to see families, communities, and churches turn to the state to meet their needs.

We do not want the state providing us for an excuse for our moral failure to do our duty. We do not want to avoid private charity with Scrooge’s excuse that the state taxes us to do the job already.
........
Promising to do something you cannot afford is not good. We are making promises to people, but there is no evidence from other government programs, such as Social Security, that this promise can be sustained.

Is it right to mortgage the future of our grandchildren to buy health care for our children?


Thanks John Mark Reynolds for the passionate and thoughtful critique of the new health bill and hat tip to Hugh Hewitt for pointing out Reynold's essay.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Politics: The question of "the public option" in health insurance

Some critics of the health bill say, it doesn't go far enough because there is no public option.

Well, there is a new public item in the form of a long-term health care program. Excerpt:

As Kristen Gerencher writes on her Health Matters blog, in the health-reform bill that President Obama signed into law on Tuesday is a provision for a new long-term-care insurance pool. Once the program starts, unless you opt out, your employer will automatically deduct funds from your paycheck to pay for long-term-care insurance. Then, when the time comes to pay for a nursing home, home-health aide or similar services, people who've participated in this insurance pool for at least five years will enjoy a minimum $50-per-day benefit to help cover those costs.

Since I don't make my living tracking what is in legislation, I have to trust the media to point things out and this item flew under the radar. I have no idea how big this program will be or how it will work but it goes to show you what happens with giant legislation that things go in that get little attention.

Speaking of big, it was recently pointed out to me that we already do have some form of public option in Medicare and Medicaid. These programs are not available to all people but they have a large footprint in the health care system of America.

Can you guess how many $$$ were spent on Medicare? Medicaid?

Check it out here and here.

FY2007 Medicaid expense was $320 billion.
FY2008 Medicare expense was $468 billion.

For comparison, the total revenue of the top 10 for-profit insurance companies combined was $279 billion.

I have no idea how many non-profit health entities like Kaiser exist in the USA.

I see from a Kaiser web page that they are the biggest.
excerpt:

After the war, Kaiser Permanente opened to the public and quickly grew to become the largest delivery system of its kind in the United States—a distinction it holds to this day with more than 8.6 million members.

According to Wikipedia, their recent annual revenue was $34.4 billion.

The challenge in organizing any public option is that it exists in a different environment than for-profit insurance companies or even a non-profit like Kaiser. Big or small insurance companies and non-profit systems like Kaiser ultimately still have to pay their bills or they go bankrupt. In contrast, public options can reach into the tax coffers to bail themselves out if they run over budget. Medicare is going broke (in 2017) and Medicaid is busting many state government budgets. Thus, I don't think adding more public options are the "magic bullet" their supporters claim them to be. We should fix the one's we have already before adding more.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Politics: CNN's Zakaria on the Health Bill

My impression of CNN is that they are often not all that sympathetic to conservatives and "cheerlead" the liberals. But in this piece with Zakaria, a "fair and balanced" tone is struck.

He hits on some items that really got overlooked in the debate prior to the bill's passage
Excerpt:
Zakaria: Eighty-five percent of Americans have health care and 15 percent don't. For that 85 percent, the great health care crisis is spiraling premiums and out-of-control costs, and so the question is what is the mechanism by which you can bring costs down? There are basically two ways -- either you use a market mechanism, which is that the consumer of health care has to pay more of the costs and therefore that direct link between the consumer and the costs will force costs down. The consumer will exercise his buying power the way he or she does with every other good.
The second method is through some kind of government control or rationing of the process. And that's inevitable in a system where 50 percent of all health care is paid for by the government.
CNN: And the other mechanism, the market mechanism, how would that work?
Zakaria: To really make that work, you would probably need to get rid of the tax subsidy to employers. .... Companies that provide health care to employees get a huge tax deduction that costs the government $250 billion a year. We as consumers really have no idea of what the services, the X-rays, the doctor visits cost. As a result, there's an incentive for costs to really spiral up, because the consumer really doesn't know what they cost and doesn't ultimately really pay for them.
I hate to use the word comparison shop when talking about health care because it's not quite like buying a flat screen TV, but still there is a reality that the information in the system is so shrouded in mystery. Most people don't know what a CAT scan costs but would think nothing of going in to get one and demanding to get one if they have a severe headache.
Anything that makes you more aware of the price, and makes you exercise some choice in terms of where you get the services would likely rationalize the system and take unnecessary costs out of it. ...
CNN: Is there anything in this bill that accomplishes these two objectives?
Zakaria: It's sort of a glass half full, glass half empty situation. There's more in here about cost controls than in any previous expansion of health care since the creation of Medicare. But objectively you'd have to say there isn't a lot.
Zakaria deserves some credit for a sober assessment instead of blindly accepting the claims of the Democrats that this bill is the greatest thing ever.

As it is, insured people fall into the following categories:
1. Covered by Medicare (government option for seniors)
2. Covered by insurance as an employment benefit (paid for with pre-tax dollars)
3. Covered by individual insurance purchase (paid with after-tax salary dollars)
4. Covered by Medicaid (government option for low income)
Uninsured people fall into these categories:
5. Want to buy insurance but don't have enough money but not so poor as to qualify for Medicaid
6. Want to buy insurance but denied due to pre-existing conditions
7. Choose not to buy for various reasons

As it is, group 2 often have less options because the company might not offer many health plans but it is paid for as part of the job with pre-tax dollars.

Group 3 have more options buying in the individual market but it costs more and is paid with with taxed salary dollars.

If health benefits were taxable, the disparity between group 2 and 3 would be reduced dramatically to the benefit of both groups.

A health insurance tax deduction should be offered to help people in group 2 and 3 to get insurance. And it has the added benefit of providing a financial incentive for those in group 7 to stop being "free-riders" because they can only capture the deduction by getting insurance.

Ending the practice of denial due to pre-existing conditions would help group 6 but without the health insurance tax deduction that addresses group 7, there could be free-riders hiding in group 6.

Offering tax credits/vouchers directly to help people in group 5 makes sense and I agree with that part of the new health bill.

What I don't like is how the new health bill tries to pay for it with a mish-mash of taxes and fees on narrow groups and employer penalties rather than a broad based tax on the principle that if all benefit, all should pay.

The mandatory state level health insurance exchange (HIE) systems should have been made optional. The Massachusetts experiment with HIE has had mixed results. States should have been given the flexibility of trying an HIE or permitting sale across state lines without an HIE or some combination of both. As states gained experience using HIE and non-HIE approaches, the concepts could be refined and best practices could be identified.

So the new bill has some good intentions and helps group 5 but there are some flaws in funding and implementation and it is missing key elements to address the problems of people in groups 2, 3, 6 and 7.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Politics: Place your bets, will the new health plan come in on budget?

Good intentions are nice. Who doesn't want senior citizens to get a little cash to help them in their golden years.

Problem is the cash runs out for Social Security in 2037.

Who doesn't want senior citizens to get some help with health care in their retirement years. Again, the problem is the cash runs out for Medicare in 2017.

Now, the new health care bill is supposed to help people get insurance coverage who don't get it now. Good intentions indeed.

Government interventions often makes things worse and usually winds up costing a lot more than advertised ... check out the numbers here.

In addition to help for the purchase of insurance, the bill was sold as a money saver to the tune of $138 billion. But take away many of the budgetary gimmicks a former CBO director estimates the plan will run $562 billion in deficit.

Unlike you and me who have to pay our debts with our own money, the government can tax and borrow to make it up.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Politics: Divided States of America on Health Care Package

CNN rounds up opinion on both sides of the question of whether it was a milestone or a mistake.

Yahoo! Finance carried this CNBC item rounding up the mixed reactions to the passage yesterday.

Regular readers of this blog know that as well intentioned the idea behind the bill is (help additional people get insurance) I was skeptical about the package because (1) it brings in more Federal level controls (as Prager said, the bigger the government the smaller the citizen), (2) the taxes and fees fall unevenly in what is claimed to benefit all and (3) fails to address a little talked about inequity of the current system which gives a tax benefit to employer based health insurance.

The goal (helping additional people get insurance) could have been accomplished in a less heavy handed way.

What is in the bill? ... the WSJ condensed version.

I give credit where credit is due and blame where blame is due.

President Obama, Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi and those who voted for and support the health reform bill are true believers. They truly believe that expanding the role of government in health care will make things better. Give them credit for playing hard ball politics to get what they want even if a substantial portion of the public thinks its a bad idea.

And I give blame where blame is due, Republican Governor Mitt Romney initiated the Massachusetts reform plan which upon examination has many of the same features of the Obamacare and at the moment does not look to be doing very well. I wonder if he regrets pushing for that program and how he would do it differently if he had to do it over again?

One infuriating aspect of the whole debate is the lie that conservatives don't have a plan. They do.

At Factcheck.org, the three major Republican versions were shown side-by-side with the House and Senate Democratic plans.

And while searching for Republican alternatives, I came across the idea that Bush 43 advocated.

Excerpt:

The President's proposal would replace the current unlimited exclusion available only to those with employer-sponsored coverage with a standard deduction for health insurance (SDHI) available to anyone with health insurance. The standard deduction would be worth up to $15,000 for families and $7,500 for individuals and, like the current exclusion, would apply to both income and payroll taxes.

Would that have helped a lot of people without creating the government entities that will be needed to run the Obamacare health insurance exchanges, insurance rate regulators and administrators to track the employer and individual mandates?

Too bad we won't get to find out if less intrusive plans would have worked.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Devotional Thoughts: With gentleness and respect

Let's get back to 1 Peter ...

Continuing onward ... I Peter 3:8-22 ...

St. Peter winds up this part of the letter by exhorting the readers with the key behaviors!

Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.

He had come a long way from those days of Jesus and the 12 disciples. They often bickered and competed with each other. An older, wiser, humbler Peter encouraging the flock!

For,
"Whoever would love life
and see good days
must keep his tongue from evil
and his lips from deceitful speech.
He must turn from evil and do good;
he must seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous
and his ears are attentive to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil."

Here Peter reached back to his Jewish roots and cites a portion of a Psalm of David (Psalm 34:12-16) to strengthen the exhortation.

Peter then presses the point home citing what Jesus did ...

Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. "Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened." But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God's will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.

Great stuff! I picture Peter like a football coach firing up the team with these words.

Then would it be unfair to say, I feel he goes "off the rails" as some of the next few parts are hard for me to understand?!

He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit,

No problem there. But this ...?

through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.

What is this about? Spirits in prison? Is Jesus preaching to dead people from the past?

UPDATE: In digging around, another option for the meaning of "spirits in prison" is the fallen angels. I don't know which explanation works better. The strength of this view is that humans are body and spirit while angels are only spirit.

And then the following item about linking baptism with salvation?!

In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

I think Peter is pushing the imagery very hard here and it comes out a bit mangled. But the part I do see is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without that, we have nothing. And to the extent baptism is linked to that reality of ressurrection we are saved.

Just my view here as I contemplate the text. I did go check Eugene Peterson's Message rendering of this passage and he seems to be going in this direction as well.

My prayer Lord is that you would help me set apart Christ as Lord in my heart and prepare me to give an answer to everyone who asks me to give the reason for the hope that I have and to do so with gentleness and reverence. Amen.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Business: Is the health insurance industry very profitable?

One of the complaints about the health insurance industry is that in addition to market dominance of a small number of companies in many states is that they make too much money.

Of course, in a country that espouses a capitalist economic system, making a profit is supposed to be determined by the free market forces on that industry.

So just how big are the health insurance giants?

Using Yahoo! Finance I found the chart above that shows how much annual revenue they generated.

That is a lot of money and a handful of companies are doing lots of business.

But how do these numbers compare to some other big companies?

McDonalds is one of the fast food giants and they bring in $22.7B in revenue.
Ford is the one US car company that didn't take bailout money and they bring in $118.3B.
Microsoft is the big cheese in software pulling in $58.7B.
Ralphs is one of the markets I shop at and they are owned by Kroger which claims $76.7B in revenue.

These findings indicate that health insurance is big business much like some businesses that are a regular feature of our lives.

But how profitable are these businesses?

Companies have expenses that are covered by the revenues. If you mom and pop fruit stand brings in $567,890 in revenue and has $600,000 in expenses then it's not profitable and could go out of business if it continues that way.

So how much profit did McDonalds, Ford, Microsoft and Kroger make?

McDonalds 20.37%
Ford 2.5%
Microsoft 35.02%
Kroger 1.38%

As you can see there is some variability as to how profitable some of America's biggest companies are.

At what point is a company "too profitable?" Is that even a proper question in a capitalist economy?

Of course, our recent experience with "too big to fail" has suggested that companies can become so dominant that their failure could take down whole economies! But that is an issue of size not profitability.

But back to the original question: Is the health insurance industry very profitable?

I ran the Yahoo! Finance for the insurance industry (see chart at right).
What do you think of these profit margins?

As you can see 3-7% is the range with Wellpoint making more. However, a little poking around revealed that Wellpoint's profit margin for last year is probably only a one-time thing because they made money selling off its pharmacy benefits management company NextRX to Express Scripts and without it they would have a 3.9% profit margin.

What do you think of these profit margins?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Business: Is the health insurance industry a monopoly?

This item tallies up the share of the market held by the top two insurance companies in a given state.

This item in Wikipedia gives the population for each state in America.

Combining the two pieces of information: the Y-axis is the market share held by the top two companies vs. the X-axis is the population of the corresponding state in millions. The trend is notable, the bigger the state, the less market share.



For those who want to see the raw numbers, see the figure below and I've included a correlation coefficient generated by Excel. +1 or -1 would mean perfect correlation while 0 means no correlation, thus the correlation coefficient is reasonably high.



I decided to bin out the data into small, medium and large states. I'm defining a small state as less than 4 million or the size of Los Angeles City or smaller. I defined medium size state as between 4 to 10 million which is about the size of Los Angeles County. Large states were defined as greater than 10 million or larger than the population of the County of Los Angeles.



I did averages for each of the three groups and then performed two-tailed T-tests between small vs. medium, small vs. large and medium vs. large. In all cases, statistical significance was met.



I think this analysis suggests that for markets that are small to medium, domination by one or two companies might be inevitable. Of note, there were exceptions to that rule. Since the insurance business is regulated at the state level, one wonders what the regulatory climate is like in those states that bucked the trend? And did bucking the trend prove beneficial for the people in those states? If so, other states should learn those lessons.

If you think about the nature of insurance as a business, you are pooling the risk of a large number of individuals to help pay for cost that at any given time is being incurred by a small number of individuals who need expensive health care services. Put in more human terms, it is 100 people pooling their money to help pay for the 5 people who are sick at a given time. Or put another way, it is you and I paying 40 years of insurance premiums to help cover the few times we wind up in the hospital with something really bad. Thus, might the markets in small states be too small to support much competition in an industry where some economy of scale (risk pool) is required to be effective?

So back to the original question: is the health insurance industry a monopoly?

In some small and medium size states, it seems to be pretty close. In the end, how many viable companies do you need in a given market to avoid monopoly/oligopoly behavior?

Would small and medium size states benefit from allowing sale across state lines thus making their markets "bigger" thus drawing in additional competitors?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sports: 2010 NIT Bracketology - Forecasting the NIT, CBI and CIT

Using the S-curve generated from my efforts at NIT Bracketology for this season .....

CIT: I think Marshall and Portland are the strongest in this field of 16. My pick to win the CIT, the Thundering Herd!

CBI: I think VCU and St. Louis are the strongest in this group of 16. My pick, the Rams!

NIT: I think VTech, Ole Miss, Dayton and Rhode Island are the strongest in the field. But the way, the bracket is configured my Final Four would be: Dayton, Ole Miss, VTech and UAB. Cutting down the nets at MSG, the Hokies!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sports: Should the NCAA expand to 96?

No.

I think the "modern" era of the NCAA tournament started with Bird vs. Magic in 1979.

During that time, how often have high seeds advanced to the final four?

In three decades, on two occasions an 11 made it, one 9 and four 8 seeds have made it.

About half the time there was no seed higher than a four.

Thus, theoretically, no team rated > 44th (4 x 11) has made the Final Four.

This year, Minnesota was regarded as the last "at large" team and it was ... an 11 seed.
UPDATE: My bad, UTEP and Utah State got in as "at large" as 12 seeds.

Expanding the tournament to 96 means adding more "at large" teams > 12 seeds which means adding teams that are extremely unlikely to get to the Final Four.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sports: 2010 NIT Bracketology

NIT Bracket at ESPN.

26 out of 32 - Six whiffs

1. Florida went up to the NCAA and VTech came down
2. Lipscomb was replaced by Jacksonville due to a change in the Atlantic Sun tie-breaking rules I was unaware of.
3. Apologies to William and Mary fans! I figured two would be in from the CAA and I was wrong about VCU but right about Northeastern. W&M was on my "just out" watch list.
4-5. Also on my "just out" watch list that went up was NC State and Illinois St.
6. Northwestern went up and they weren't on my "just out" watch list.
Thus, the 4 bump ups kicked out VCU, Marshall, Portland and South Carolina.

Thanks to all who have been dropping by. Best of success to your teams on Selection (NCAA and NIT) Sunday!

We are locked in and calling it a night.

No more updates until the NIT field is announced Sunday night!

Barely in NCAA - could be bumped out by Miss St win
G. Tech, UNLV, Notre Dame, Minnesota

Top NIT - very slim shot at NCAA
(1) Florida, Mississippi, Dayton, Rhode Island
Solid NIT
(2) Az St, Memphis, Seton Hall, UAB
(3) Wichita St., U Conn, Cincy, Miss St (if they lose to UK)/Minn (if Miss St beats UK and OSU beats them)
(4) Illinois, VCU, S. Florida
(5) St. John's, Marshall, Tulsa, Texas Tech
(6) North Carolina, Nevada, Portland, Northeastern
(7) South Carolina
In NIT via automatic bid
(4) Kent State
(7) Weber State, Troy, Quinnipiac
(8) Jackson State, Stony Brook, Coastal Carolina, Lipscomb

Just out
William and Mary, Miami, St. Louis, Illinois St.
Charlotte, NC St., Alabama, Arizona

Sunday's games
A10 - Temple vs. Richmond, both NCAA bound
ACC - Duke vs. G. Tech, Duke in; G. Tech needs win or risks bubble burst
Big10 - Ohio State vs. Minnesota, Ohio State is in. Minn probably in even without win but bubble burst if Miss St wins.
SEC - Kentucky vs. Miss St., UK is in, Miss St goes to NCAA with win, NIT with loss

Automatic Bid to NIT if they lose their tournament in one-bid conferences
America East - Stony Brook lost in semis, going to NIT; Vermont goes to NCAA
Atlantic Sun - Lipscomb lost in 1st round, going to NIT, ETSU goes to NCAA
Big Sky - Weber State lost in finals, goes to NIT, Montana goes to NCAA
Big South - Coastal Carolina lost in finals, going to NIT, Winthrop goes to NCAA
Big West - UCSB going to NCAA!
Colonial - Old Dominion University, going to NCAA!
CUSA - UTEP to NCAA as at-large; Houston goes to NCAA
Horizon - Butler, going to NCAA!
Ivy - Cornell, going to NCAA, no tournament
MAAC - Siena, going to NCAA!
MAC - Kent State, lost in quarters, going to NIT; Ohio goes to NCAA
MEAC - Morgan State goes to NCAA
MVC - Northern Iowa, going to NCAA!
NEC - Quinnipiac goes to NIT losing to Robert Morris which goes to NCAA.
Ohio Valley - Murray State is going to the NCAA!
Patriot - Lehigh is going to the NCAA!
Southern - Wofford is going to the NCAA!
Southland - Sam Houston going to NCAA!
Summit - Oakland is going to the NCAA!
Sun Belt - Troy lost in finals, going to NIT, UNT goes to NCAA!
SWAC - Jackson State, lost in quarters, going to NIT, Ark PB goes to NCAA
WAC - Utah State, at-large for NCAA, New Mexico St. to NCAA!

FAQ ... though no one has asked for one!
1. Why forecast the NIT field?
If you have to ask then you don't understand what it means to be a sports fan!
2. What are your qualifications for predicting the NIT bids?
None! I'm just a "blogger in pajamas" as they say. Last year, I did get 29 of 32 correct which isn't too bad for someone who doesn't make a living reporting on sports.
3. Can I do it too?
Sure! There are many rating systems of college basketball teams on the internet. First, figure out which teams are going into the NCAA. Then try to figure out who are the best 32 teams that are still left.
4. How many people actually check this stuff out?
Amazingly, in March of 2009, this web site had a nearly 10 fold increase in traffic due to the 2009 NIT Bracketology.
5. Who else is doing this?
As far as I know, NITology and NIT Bracketproject are at it again. Blogging the Bracket has arrived on the scene.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Politics: Some other random thoughts on health care reform

Can vouchers and tax credits to help lower income people buy insurance slowly replace the existing Medicaid program which is going broke? Could that also eventually be tried to transition out of Medicare which is also going broke?

As a general rule, taxes should be broad based. If all will benefit, all should pay. As it is, the current reform bill has all sorts of taxes on narrow groups: "cadillac" insurance tax, the wealthy, fees on brand name drugs, medical devices makers, tanning bed companies, insurance industry, etc.

They say it is "fair" to tax these groups. I think it is fair when something that benefits all is paid for by all.

Health insurance exchanges (HEI) are an interesting idea.

In essence, the Federal Employee Health Insurance Benefits Program is an HEI.

The tough question is how you structure the HIEs.

Does it have the light hand of helping buyers get clear information to make choices on insurance?

Or will it have a heavy hand of regulation?

Potential pitfalls would be the power to cap rates and mandate benefits as the ticket to enter the HIE.

Speaking of a regulation that could be heavy handed, came across the news that there will be a Federal Health Insurance Rate Authority as part of the reform.

Politics: A modest proposal for health care reform version 1.1

Have been carrying on an interesting blog conversation on health care reform with someone who is probably center-left. Might there be some workable ideas the center-right and the center-left could agree upon?

There are many concerns about the health care system: quality is uneven, costs too much, access is uneven, Medicaid is going broke, Medicare is going broke, malpractice insurance is too high, not enough medical professionals, etc.

I suppose the largest problem is the ~ 15% of the people who do not have insurance. Some opt not to buy while others can't afford. I think this is the issue that should be addressed while the other problems can wait.

Thus, a modest proposal for health care reform.

(I) Increase support of community health clinics (provides primary care)
a) Greater funding for existing clinics
b) Establishment of additional clinics especially in under-served locations
c) Scholarships and loan forgiveness programs to nurses, doctors and other health care professionals who serve in these clinics

(II) Provide tax credits/voucher for purchase of health insurance (for major medical like hospitalizations) to low income individuals.

(III) Funding for parts I and II
An across the board increase to the Federal Income Tax would be easy to implement if politically difficult. If I read this right, from individual income taxes, the Federal Government collected $1,425,990,000,000. Thus, a 2% increase would generate $28 billion per year.

If there are 45 million uninsured and on average, it takes $1000 in tax credit/vouches to help them get coverage, then we are looking at raising $45 billion a year.

The House bill wants $12 billion over 5 years for Community Health Clinics.
The Senate bill wants $8.5 while the White House wants $11. Thus, about $2 billion additional per year.

The tab is now up to $47 billion a year. If 2% more taxes gets $28 billion then can we find $19 billion in cuts elsewhere in the Federal Budget to pay for this deal?

(IV) Fostering greater competition in offering health insurance
a) States may allowed sale of insurance across state lines
b) States have the option of creating health insurance exchanges

(V) All elements of this reform proposal shall be re-assessed in 5 years. Have some kind of sunset provision so that if any particular approach isn't working it is phased out automatically or re-funded after voting on a modification.

What do the dear readers of RR think?

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Devotional Thoughts: Sabbath in the City?


image source: http://www.zazzle.com/shabbat_shalom_poster-228575510336405684

The Jewish Sabbath Drama

“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to light the lights of Sabbath. ”

Around the world, through the generations, going back many centuries, with these words, the woman of a Jewish household would light two candles and mark the beginning of Sabbath just before sundown on Friday.

After this prayer, family and friends would walk to synagogue for an evening service or host one at home. This would be followed by dinner. To start the dinner, the man of the house would pick up the Sabbath wine glass and recite the Kiddush that gives the reasons for Sabbath:
It was evening and it was morning, the sixth day. So the heavens and the earth were finished, with all their complement. On the seventh day, God had completed His work, which He had undertaken, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work, which He had been doing. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He ceased from all His creative work, which God had brought into being to fulfill its purpose. Blessed are You God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine. Blessed are You God, King of the Universe, who made us holy with Your commandments and favored us, and gave us Your holy Sabbath, in love and favor, to be our heritage, as a reminder of the Creation. It is the foremost day of the holy festivals marking the Exodus from Egypt. For out of all the nations You chose us and made us holy, and You gave us Your holy Sabbath, in love and favor, as our heritage. Blessed are you God, Who sanctifies Sabbath.
A leisurely dinner would then be enjoyed and Sabbath observance would continue until Saturday sundown with other prayers and rituals. And of course, there is a list of 39 types of actions to be avoided during Sabbath.

As followers of Jesus, we do not keep the Sabbath in this way today.

So why talk about the Sabbath? Two weeks ago, Prof. Goldingay offered some ideas from the Hebrew Scriptures to help us in this time of Lent, the season where we reflect upon and remember the events of Easter. Sabbath inspired one item on his list.

The Sabbath in the Early Church

The early church wrestled with how much “Jewishness” to keep as the message of Jesus began to draw in many non-Jews. Jews had a strong sense of identity that set them apart from all the peoples around them. They held tightly to their distinctives such as the Torah and the Temple and their practices like circumcision and Sabbath keeping.

Sabbath simply means to cease, to stop and to rest. In Biblical times, the Jewish Sabbath of taking a total break from work one day a week was strange to the dominant culture. Some Roman and Greek writers of that era saw this practice as evidence of the laziness of the Jewish people. Thus, it was possible that Gentile Christians in the employ of non-believing Gentiles would have had to work seven days a week making a Jewish style Sabbath observance impossible.

But the teachings of Jesus on this matter gave them and us freedom in how to observe Sabbath. The Gospels recount Jesus clashing with the religious leaders of the day over the Sabbath.

Mark 2:23-28 was emblematic:
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grain fields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?" He answered, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions." Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."
The religious leaders of the day foisted on the people a very legalistic practice of Sabbath. Jesus countered with common sense. In this case, he reminds them that David and his friends were hungry so they were feed. In another incident, Jesus told them, you would rescue a sheep that falls in a pit on the Sabbath so I will heal on the Sabbath because a human life is worth so much more.

But Jesus did more than just appeal to common sense, he cited his authority: “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” This claim of Messianic authority would not have been lost on the religious leaders of the day. And so he exercised his authority to restore the proper interpretation of the Sabbath: “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”

Sabbath in Twenty-First Century Los Angeles

What shall we do with Sabbath in twenty-first century Los Angeles? How do we make it holy as God commands us?

Lauren Winner, who converted from Judaism to Christianity, wrote a book with the title, Mudhouse Sabbath, where she shared how her Jewish roots influence some of the practices in her Christian life. The very first chapter of her book was about Sabbath and she describe how she missed, “A true cessation from the rhythms of work and world, a time wholly set apart, and perhaps above all, a sense that the point of Sabbath, the orientation of Sabbath, is toward God.”

Getting us refocused on God is good for us and Sabbath can help. Making it a priority to regularly cease, stop and rest can help us in our life with God.

One of the things God wanted the Jews to remember on Sabbath was that they were delivered from slavery from Egypt and thus a free people.

How important might Sabbath be today?
  • As we joke about workaholics while being workaholics?
  • With 24/7 news on cable TV?
  • Where shopping malls are open every day of the week?
  • Of instant access to work, information, communication and entertainment with a mouse click or a cell phone?
  • Can we stop from these things even for a little while?
But rest isn’t just for rest sake so we will be more productive the other days of the week. That may be a benefit of Sabbath rest but that isn’t its purpose. Sabbath is an opportunity to cease our regular activities with the purpose of remembering who God is and to relish the relationship we have with God.

We are free in Christ! The road to Easter calls us to repentance and to receive forgiveness. We are forgiven. Jesus has done the work and he has set us free and we can rest in our belonging to Him! Let us take time to cease, stop and rest so we can cherish this wonderful reality that we are free in Christ.

God wanted the Jews to observe Sabbath also to remember that He is the Creator.

Today, it is Oscar night. We live in a city that prides itself in being the entertainment capital of the world. We live in California where we design the silicon chips that power all sorts of remarkable devices. We live in America where pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps is an iconic image. Good does come out of these things. But does pride sneak into our hearts too?

Sabbath could be a powerful antidote to this. Quoting Lauren Winner again, “I think when we cease creating or interfering with creation for just one day a week, we are reminded powerfully that we are creatures, we are not the Creator.”

As we continue in Lent, let us use Sabbath – the intentional decision to cease, to stop and to rest – to help us reflect and remember that God is God and we are not.

May Sabbath not be mere ritual for us, just a day off, but may it be life giving and God honoring.

Let us seek the wisdom of God and encourage each other to find practical ways to set aside time to differentiate Sabbath from the rest of the week and make it sweet and beautiful. Each of us has different life situations, so our Sabbaths won’t look alike, but each of us has a need to carve out time to cease, to stop and to rest so we can remember. Whatever it looks like for you, find the answer to this question: how shall we organize our time to serve the causing of remembering?

I want to close with a beautiful word picture offered by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who said, Sabbath is a cathedral in time.

Let’s build those cathedrals in time to meet with our good and gracious God.

Northland Village Church, Sunday March 7, 2010

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Politics: The Censorship of the Path to 9/11

Remember the television movie, the Path to 9/11?

I saw parts of it when it was originally aired. I'd like to see the film from beginning to end.

You can't buy it at Amazon.com nor can you rent it through Netflix.

Because it was controversial, attempts to put it out on DVD have been blocked.

Interestingly, you can buy the documentary that discusses the suppression of Path to 9/11.

For now, one can see Path to 9/11 piece by piece through Youtube.com.

Politics: Health Care "Reform" - Its about the power not the health care

Mark Steyn nails it.

Excerpts:

I’ve been saying in this space for two years that the governmentalization of health care is the fastest way to a permanent left-of-center political culture. It redefines the relationship between the citizen and the state in fundamental ways that make limited government all but impossible. In most of the rest of the Western world, there are still nominally “conservative” parties, and they even win elections occasionally, but not to any great effect (let’s not forget that Jacques Chirac was, in French terms, a “conservative”). The result is a kind of two-party one-party state: Right-of-center parties will once in a while be in office, but never in power, merely presiding over vast left-wing bureaucracies that cruise on regardless.
.....
Once the state swells to a certain size, the people available to fill the ever expanding number of government jobs will be statists — sometimes hard-core Marxist statists, sometimes social-engineering multiculti statists, sometimes fluffily “compassionate” statists, but always statists. The short history of the post-war welfare state is that you don’t need a president-for-life if you’ve got a bureaucracy-for-life ...
.....
Obamacare represents the government annexation of “one-sixth of the U.S. economy” — i.e., the equivalent of the entire British or French economy, or the entire Indian economy twice over. Nobody has ever attempted this level of centralized planning for an advanced society of 300 million people. Even the control-freaks of the European Union have never tried to impose a unitary “comprehensive” health-care system from Galway to Greece. The Soviet Union did, of course, and we know how that worked out.
.....
Yes. Because government health care is not about health care, it’s about government. Once you look at it that way, what the Dems are doing makes perfect sense. For them.

I guess it takes a Canadian to understand US politics?

Friday, March 05, 2010

World: The Strong Horse, an interview with author Lee Smith

Got to give Hugh Hewitt a lot of credit for devoting an entire program to the discussion of a timely book about the Middle East like Strong Horse.

One just can't get that kind of in-depth conversation in a typical 90 sec to 3 minute news piece on television.

For me, the most chilling part was this exchange with Lee Smith where Hewitt reads from p. 153 of Smith's book and begins a discussion of some of the driving forces of radicalism in the Middle East:

HH: Now this is on, from Page 153, I’m going to read three or four paragraphs here, because it’s so different from what most people think about the Middle East, but it’s also important in terms of how we understand it, Americans do. “Masculine energy is a powerful force. It creates civilizations and destroys them. In every society, there are only two internal checks to the inchoate charisma of its young men, less they lose themselves in free-floating violence that takes everyone down with them. There are the male elders, and even more important, there are the women, mothers and wives. Every society must decide how best to use its manhood to create, govern and defend itself. None can afford it when either the elders or the women urge their young men to take them to the brink of extinction. Unfortunately, it isn’t just the male elders who have been pushing young men to violence. Perhaps the unhappiest fact of the Arabic-speaking Middle East is that Arab women have been as well. A 9/11 joke,” you write, “A woman sees a man coming out of the men’s room in Cairo or Riyadh or Damascus or Beirut or Baghdad, and asks him are you Osama bin Laden? Why no, says the man. Why would you think such a thing? Because, she says, he’s the only man left in the Arab world. It’s just a joke,” you write, “but it gets at something important about the Middle East, which is that often Arab women hold men in contempt if they’re not willing to kill and die for Arab honor. Arab women are complicit in the violence of Arab societies, and so it should come as no surprise that of late, Arab women have picked up the mantle of martyrdom and chosen to suicide themselves while killing innocents. After all, many have been sending their men to death for years.” That’s going to shock a lot of people, and I think probably the first thing you want to say is you’re not talking about Arab-American women. You’re not even talking about all Arab women.

LS: Right, right.

HH: You’re talking about this crazy sort of culture that’s taken hold there.

LS: Right.

HH: How do you change that?

LS: I don’t know. I mean, I really don’t know. But I mean, I think that this is one of the things, you know, for understandable reasons, we haven’t talked about…you know, Ayaan Hirsi Ali comes out with her wonderful books, her very, you know, courageous books about her courageous life. And so we’ve tended to look mostly at Muslim women, as Arab women, as victims. And yes, there is no doubt about it. In many ways, they are. But you know, when we see these different parades of young Palestinian, little Palestinian kids, infants, dressed up in suicide bomber outfits, it’s not just the dads were dressing them up, right? I mean, the moms are a part of it, too. So I think we need to look at it more. You know, it’s not just a couple of bad Arab guys who are responsible for this. There’s a lot of people who are complicit in this violence, and in this culture that it’s just sort of pushing itself towards the edge while it’s killing other people, too. So I think yeah, women have to be part of the solution.

HH: A couple of pages later, you write, “Maybe the question is not what went wrong with the Islam and the Arabs,” you’re quoting your friend here, “but what went right with the West. To ask what’s wrong with the Arabs is to take the West as the historical norm, and imagine that its progress is a trajectory that all societies must inevitably follow, leading towards freedom, democracy and respect for the inherent dignity of the individual human being. But since we have been handed all of these things for free, it is easy to overlook the sacrifices many generations made in blood along the way. Likewise, to forget how we got here is to trivialize the efforts of others elsewhere who strive for the same ideals, but met with little or no success.” Very pessimistic, Lee Smith. Very pessimistic.

LS: No, I don’t mean to be pessimistic. I mean, one of the things…okay, it’s pessimistic. But one of the things, again, one of the things that I want is for us to respect and admire what we have and who we are, and our forefathers, and the people, you know, our forefathers, the political officials, the people who died, who were burned at the stake, all the different people who led us on this path to get where we are today. It’s a remarkable story. It’s a remarkable narrative. It’s a great gift that we all enjoy. And we shouldn’t sell it short and assume that everyone else is capable of this. And also, I think we do need to give credit to these people who have tried the same thing but they failed. I mean, there are a lot of heroes in the Arab world. There have been a lot of Voltaires. But just because the Arab world doesn’t look, you know, doesn’t look like where you and I live, doesn’t mean that there haven’t been people who have tried. There are people who know that there are problems. I mean, I have a lot of friends still in Lebanon, in Egypt, all sorts of places who want something much, much better for their society. The sadness is I just don’t think they’re going to get it anytime soon.

Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Devotional Thoughs: Heirs with you of the gracious gift of life

The beginning part of I Peter 3 continues on the theme of submitting to one another.

Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

Re-read that again. How does it sound to you?

There is no question that when we read Christian Scripture, we are often colored by our knowledge or experience of how teachings have been misused.

Does this passage in any way justify spousal abuse or male domination or any such nonsense in the name of submission?

No way. No how. Can't be defended from what is in here.

Jump in our time machine and wind the clock back nearly 2000 years and read these words with that perspective.

Physical strength would have been at a much higher premium in that time and so for St. Peter to say, "treat them with respect as the weaker partner" would have been radical. The mind set would easily have been, the strong should dominate the weak. But the wisdom of the Scripture say, no to that.

Peter adds, "heirs with you of the gracious gift of life". Co-heirs! That's equality!

And though the word "submit" wasn't used explicitly for the husbands, the idea is there when Peter says, "Husbands, in the same way ... " after a list of encouragements to the wives. Again, mutual submission, respect, consideration ... no way, no how can male domination over women be defended here.

Lord, thank you for the wisdom preserved in Scripture to help us in our lives. It was useful then and it is still true for us today. As a new husband, help me to live up to this admonition of mutual submission, respect, consideration and living holy together with my wife, co-heir of the gracious gift of life you have given us. Amen.

Politics: Global Warming Complexity ... Water Vapor is a Greenhouse Gas

An item picking apart Al Gore's recent NYT piece.

Excerpt:
Gore wrote, "The heavy snowfalls this month have been used as fodder for ridicule by those who argue that global warming is a myth, yet scientists have long pointed out that warmer global temperatures have been increasing the rate of evaporation from the oceans, putting significantly more moisture into the atmosphere -- thus causing heavier downfalls of both rain and snow in particular regions, including the Northeastern United States."

It's an interesting theory, but where are the facts?

The article goes on to mention various studies that either say the opposite or show uncertainty about this claim.

Additionally, at the end of the piece, it points out that CO2 isn't the only greenhouse gas.

Except:

Aside from clouds, water vapor accounts for as much as two-thirds of the earth's greenhouse-gas effect. Water vapor traps heat from escaping the atmosphere -- but clouds have the opposite effect (called "albedo") by reflecting the sun's energy back into space. And snow on the ground from the IPCC's predicted precipitation in high latitudes would have the same cooling effect as clouds.

What the new research suggests is that changes in water vapor may well trump the effect of carbon dioxide (only a fraction of which is man-made) and methane (which has mysteriously slowed since about 1990).

This raises an intriguing question: Since the Environmental Protection Agency declared that it has the authority to regulation carbon emissions because of their presumed effect on the global climate, why hasn't the EPA also attempted to regulate mist and fog?

I think we do need to get away from fossil fuels for the practical reasons that burning coal puts pollution in the air and that depending so much on foreign oil means we send so much money over to some pretty unsavory governments.