Sunday, June 3, 2012

What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

My little scooter was beginning to feel like a liability. I had been told that these Chinese imports were good for about 10,000 miles at best, and I was rounding 6,000. Time to figure something else out.

I want to say thank you to the universe for what happened next. I found a buyer for my scoot within a day of posting my Craigslist ad, and he was willing to pay $1000. Since I had purchased it the year before for $1200, I was beyond stoked. It was a win-win for both of us. I had done some upgrades to the bike, and it was actually running really well. I felt confident that this kid would see some good mileage before the 10k mark... I even told him about the high probability of engine failure around this time. Chalk that up to my impeccable sales technique.

I sold my scooter with no idea of a replacement vehicle. All I knew was that I wanted to step up to a motorcycle. My childhood dream of owning one had been revived. I would do it this time. I would find out what this was all about, even if I had no idea how it was going to happen. Sometimes you have to just lean back and let the world take care of you.

I searched Craigslist and eBay, all of the local ads and CycleTrader once I had cash in hand. Nothing solid panned out. I just didn't have the cash to get a quality ride. I feared more time wrenching on a less-than-reliable bike than actual time in the saddle. Then I remembered a former client of ours in Sierra Vista, about an hour and a half away. A rabid motorcycle enthusiast, and former MotoGP racer, he had a cadre of bikes filling his garage. His four-wheeled vehicles were relegated to the drive outside, where they baked in the unforgiving Arizona sun. I recalled the beautiful Yamaha sitting idly in a dark corner. It seemed tiny compared to the 1000cc super-sports on stands receiving loving upgrades and maintenance. I remembered the off-hand comment that it was for sale, and for me, at a good price.

It took one call to find out that the price he had in mind was indeed a good one. It was just above half of current value for that year. I knew that he was meticulous about maintaining his stable of cycles, so I bought it, without a test-ride over the phone.

2006 Yamaha FZ6
And so began my new obsession. And the realization that riding a motorcycle is not something that you learn to do, and then relegate the skill to habit much like driving a car. Riding is a life-long learning process. Even veteran riders of 25 or 30 years will say so. You will be adding to your riding skill set until you retire from it altogether. If you are idiot enough to think that motorcycling is a simple thing to learn, and that you've got it figured out after a month or so on the pegs, then you are almost guaranteed a lesson in "what you don't know can hurt you." For as much fun and exhilaration that a motorcycle can offer, they can be scary vehicles even when alone on the road.

That being said, I have never had such a good time on two wheels. Even my daily commute has taken on a new meaning. I thought this after buying the scooter, and thought that it couldn't get any better. I constantly wonder why more people don't take the plunge and buy a bike.

Perhaps most of us want to be disengaged from the drive, taking and making phone calls, listening to music and even watching movies while on the road. It's wrong and unsafe, but our cars have become more living room than automobile. I find it ironic that the very thing that makes riding more unsafe: apathetic drivers, is what keeps most of us off motorcycles in the first place.

With a healthy respect for my bike's speed and power, I am psyched to immerse myself in this entirely new world. It goes deeper than I thought it would, viewing it from the outside.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

"I can get 80 miles to the gallon on this hog."

Six months of scooter commutin' later, and I have learned a few things. Mostly maintenance things. The riding itself gets to be a pretty normal part of everyday life in less time than you'd think, and what you are left with is the wrenching. Taking your scoot into the shop is outrageously expensive. Hourly rates for labor rival what you'd pay to get your car fixed. $60 to change a belt? $75 for an oil change? Yeah... not so much.

My BMS, unfortunately, is plagued by a weak charging system. I have not found that this is a common problem for scooters in general, or for this particular make. I guess I just got one with a factory defect. My answer to this has been the purchase of three batteries; one wet cell, and two AGMs (Absorbed Glass Mat).

The first battery, a standard lead-acid unit purchased at a local scooter shop, lasted all of a few days before discharging beyond the point of no return. This really pissed me off, because I made an effort to listen to all that the mechanic at the shop had to say about prepping and installing it, mainly because I assumed that scooter batteries were special somehow. I should have just trusted my instincts. I mean, batteries have been a big part of my life... I soon learned the hard way that you can't return a battery that you destroyed based on poor advice.

Next, I got wise and looked around for the best, most maintenance free unit I could find. The Motobatt 9 amp-hour AGM battery seemed like a great deal for the money, so I pulled the trigger online and waited a few days for it to ship. One of the big selling points for me was that it came fully charged, so I wouldn't have to worry that I would get into a charging deficit pattern right away. There's no denying that it's a great battery. I noticed right away the quick starting and how much stronger the engine seemed to run. I also noticed a big jump in the fuel economy as well, if you can believe that you can actually improve on excellent. Lots of power on take-off, bright headlights, etc. It was like a whole new beast. In about a week though, I started seeing the familiar pattern of harder starting, and sluggishness off the line. The volt meter was going down slowly. Frustration. Anger. Disillusionment.

I rode the scoot to the hardware store and picked up a motorcycle battery charger. Sometimes the universe just rubs your nose in it. The bike was dead when I got back out to the parking lot. I spent 15 minutes struggling to kick start the engine on this little stub of a crank arm, placed conveniently underneath the body-work, which scraped most of the skin off my ankle. I am sure that if I had been looking at myself from outside of the situation, I would have laughed 'til my sides hurt.

Turns out the charger was money well spent. It not only tops off a declining charge, but will "condition" a weakened battery to help it hold on to a little more energy. Good stuff. Whenever I would see the voltage begin to drop, I could remove the battery and take it inside to charge overnight and be good to go in the morning. Not the ideal, hands-off relationship to have with a vehicle, but this arrangement is getting me to work and back without too much trouble.

I bought another AGM just to be on the safe side and have a back-up. I'm not the smartest guy, but I have to say, I have my moments. This was such a good idea. Now, I rotate the two good batts on and off the charger, which is more or less working full time. I don't wait for things to get bad before swapping them, either. It feels almost luxurious.

It should be said, and I will include this for the benefit of any scooter newbies out there that might happen onto this post, that if your ride's battery is slowly working it's way downhill, it's not all your fault. I did learn something interesting about both motorcycles and scooters, and their electrical systems. Just like in your car, the grounding system is the chassis or frame of the bike. If you park it on the kick-stand, you are making a great connection to ground right there. The power from the battery will eventually drain out through this point. Finding out about this was a real "a-ha!" moment for me. Of course! How could I not have realized this? So now, I park the scoot with it's stand on a piece of cardboard, rolled up newspaper, anything to try and slow down that constant leeching of e-juice.

This has helped me to some degree, but I still don't get the charging that the scooter requires in the 12 or so miles from home to work each day. On weekends with it just sitting, I am lucky if there's enough power to kick it over on Monday morning. You are probably asking yourself, why don't you just fix the root problem? My short answer would be: time and money. How much do I want to invest in something that I probably will wind up selling in the near future anyway. A bigger bike is calling, and I should off-load the scooter while it still has relatively few miles on the clock. The ad will read, " 150cc Scooter, Low Miles, Extra Battery."

Monday, April 11, 2011

How To Ride a Scooter in Traffic and Not Get Killed

I finally broke down and bought the ultimate in cheap transportation. This was an important investment in my wife's sanity... She had been driving me to work each day, sometimes as early as 4:30AM, then coming back to the house for a few extra hours of shut-eye before her day began. As my hours got earlier, there was to be no convincing her to get up at 3:15. That just isn't good husbandship (husbandry?). The thought of buying another car, insurance policy, and the additional gas per week just seemed excessive. So, onward into the realm of geeky, buzzy excitement: scooterdom.

My first few rides were not as shaky as you may have thought. Years on a mountain bike have honed my sense of balance on two wheels. It helps that the BMC that I bought is only 150cc's. Not the smallest scooter you can buy, but certainly one with predictable power and reasonable size. In no time I was cruising along at 45 miles-an-hour, leaning into turns, and, well, that's mostly it. That's about all the fun you can have on a scooter, unless you take your clothes off. I guess that's the point. Gets you where you need to go relatively fast and on the cheap.

So all riding skills aside, it seems the meat of staying alive on one of these things in traffic is being aware of where the potential hazards are to you, before they make it to you. I don't think I'm ever going to "lay it down," or "go over the bars" without the help of another vehicle. I am learning everyday the meaning of defensive riding, and it is this: assume everyone driving a car is an asshole. I have learned this well riding a bike in the city, but nothing hammers the point home like an extra 20mph or so. This may seem terribly obvious, but you would be surprised how invisible you become to other motorists without that steel box around your body. So far, knock on wood, I have been lucky enough to merely observe this foolishness, rather than be directly involved in it.

The absolute worst time to be on the road for me is any time after about 7:00AM. Joe Car Commuter has spent an extra five minutes drinking coffee or hugging up on the kids, only to take his lateness out on the rest of us. The tailgating and extreme driving in general is enough to convince me that commuting is a blood sport. If you are inclined to do as I did and brave the fray out there, here are a few tips:

1) Be aware of any erratic driving within eye-shot. This includes any swerving you may witness due to texting, applying lipstick, or diaper-changing.
2) Leave enough of a following distance to land a 747 within. Any questions, see tip #1.
3) Learn to use the throttle, not necessarily the brakes to avoid trouble. Sometimes the bastards won't leave you alone. A car can't hit what it can't catch.
4) Stay out of the automobile's blind spot. They already can't see you as it is, they don't need any more help.
5) Find the most mellow route to and from your destination. My trip to work is mostly on a street with bike lanes almost as big as the ones designated for cars. Good stuff.

I think that scooters and bikes are the wave of the future for American cities. I would like to see as many scooters packing the roadways as you see in Hanoi or Tokyo, Rome or Milan. We just need to eliminate the stigma. Embrace the dorkyness. Then maybe we can start to downsize the rest of our lives in a more efficient, simpler way...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Care and Feeding of Your Off-Grid PV System

Welcome to the exciting world of off the grid living. Self-sufficiency, freedom from the utility company, and the use of renewable resources for power are now in your grasp. However, with these benefits come new responsibilities. This guide will help make these responsibilities more clear to you, and hopefully create a better understanding of your new system.

Flow of Electricity in the System

Seems simple enough, right? Panels make electricity, which charges batteries, which runs your home. This is true, but there are a few other things you should know.

First, the PV modules (as they are known in the industry) create direct current, or DC power. This power must be managed in a way that the rest of the equipment downstream can handle. To accomplish this, the modules are wired in series (positive to negative) strings to create the correct voltage and amperage to connect to the rest of the system. Each series string is through a disconnect, typically a breaker, most likely found in a DC Combiner Box. This disconnect offers a readily accessible place for you or a technician to “turn off” one or more strings in the event that service is needed at the array. The disconnect also protects the system in case there is ever damage to the modules which could cause dangerous electrical currents to flow within the equipment.

Second, the power flowing out of the DC Combiner reaches a Charge Controller, which regulates the amount of power that enters the storage batteries, and prevents them from being overcharged. The Charge Controller does much more than this, however. This sophisticated device actually manages the overall energy harvest from the array of modules through variable charging algorithms. Another way of saying this: the Charge Controller can actually change the way that it charges the batteries depending on conditions affecting the modules. So when a cloud passes over the array, it can alter it’s charging strategy to yield the highest amount of power from the modules. It also is responsible in some ways for the overall health of the battery bank. The Charge Controller can not only limit power into the batteries, it can provide for timed overcharging of them. This is known as equalization, and is important for battery maintenance. More on that later. The Charge Controller, as you can see, is very much the brain of an off-grid system.

Third, power from the Charge Controller moves into the battery bank, the storehouse of energy. As important as they are, batteries are essentially quite dumb. They react chemically to an electric charge, and are able to reverse that process to release this charge. Each battery within the bank produces roughly 6 volts, and are wired in series to reach higher voltages to connect to the rest of the system, in much the same way as the array of modules. For a 24V nominal system, a minimum of 4 batteries must be wired in series to operate the rest of the equipment. To achieve greater depth of storage, more groups of 4 are added with parallel connections (negative to negative, positive to positive).

Fourth, power is removed from the batteries by the Inverter whenever you turn something on in your house. If a Charge Controller is the brain within the system, the Inverter is most like the heart. It is designed to do the hard work of converting DC electricity from the array and batteries into AC electricity to power lights and appliances, and do this 24 hours a day for life. The inverter also performs double-duty as a battery charger whenever you feed power back through it with your generator. Although not as smart as the Charge Controller, Inverters can sense when this power is available, and will connect to it automatically with an internal transfer switch.

Finally, power from the Inverter makes it’s way into your house wiring through it’s main service panel, where it is distributed among all of the lights, computers and other toys connected through outlets.

Array Maintenance

One of the beautiful things about photovoltaic power is that there isn’t much to do to keep modules running. They will sit on your roof or in your yard and continuously provide electricity day after day without complaint. Typical productive lifespan for PV modules is 30 years, although older panels have been found to be producing viable power for much longer. In fact, most manufacturers of PV modules warranty their power output at 80% nameplate rating over a period of 25 years. That means that a 200 watt module with this warranty would still be making 160 watts after a quarter century! This is not to say there aren’t a few things that you can do to help them make a little extra power here and there.

Rinsing off the dust and dirt that accumulates on the faces of modules does help keep them performing at their best. Heavy soiling can cause as much as a 10% reduction in module efficiency. Choosing a time to wash the array that is neither to hot or too cold is important, so that there is no risk of shattering the glass through heat-shock.

Seasonally adjusting the array can boost power output by as much as 15% if performed religiously throughout the year. Consult a sun-path chart for your latitude to determine the optimum seasonal angles for your location. In the desert southwest, summer angles are usually no more than 25 degrees from flat, and winter angles no more than 45 degrees. Adjusting array angle can be a difficult task, best accomplished with more than one person at hand. Take caution to be careful of wiring between modules, and loosen module wiring clips when necessary. It is very important to realize that the array can never truly be “turned off,” as the panels will continue to output power unless completely shaded.

DC Combiner Box

Be especially mindful of the dangerous voltages and currents within this box. Do not allow children or animals to play around this area. Do not remove the box cover unless there is significant reason to do so.

Battery Maintenance

Batteries are the least glamorous and most time consuming part of your new solar system. They are the “necessary evil” that all off-gridders must endure. They’re big, stinky (just wait!), heavy and generally cantankerous. Think in-laws wired in series and you’ve got it. For all of their faults, there just isn’t anything else quite as good or efficient at delivering back what you put into them. Did I mention expensive? So, to protect our investment, we must take good care of them while they are with us. From Alan Sindelar, President, Positive Energy in Sante Fe, New Mexico: “Respect your batteries, for they are thy storehouse, and thy gold shall be quickly turned to lead.”

The first order of battery maintenance is ritual watering. Make sure to keep all cells topped off as often as you can. Most people realize how much water their bank will use after a year or so, but it doesn’t hurt to check. This amount will change over time. Newer batteries use less water than older ones, similar to oil used in a newer car versus an older one. Purchase a few large containers of distilled water and keep them by the batteries. Do not fill batteries with any other type of water. I have often used a small funnel and a little 6oz. Dixie Cup to carefully fill the cells. Each cell will have a “neck” that reaches down into the compartment. Your goal is to fill until the water is about ¼ inch below the bottom of this neck. This is difficult to see without a flashlight, or some strong overhead lighting. Try not to over-fill the cells, as this will reduce the concentration of the electrolyte in the batteries, reducing their efficiency. Not to mention, making a big mess that can be painful to clean up. When there is a spill, use baking soda to neutralize the acid. It is a good idea to have some on hand near the bank just in case. It can also be rubbed into skin and clothing to prevent burns. Eventually, the batteries will develop some corrosion on their terminals. A heavy wire brush will remove most of this along with a mixture of water and baking soda.

Applying an equalization charge regularly can help prolong the life of your batteries. This is a sustained high current charge designed to knock the build-up of sulfur off the lead plates inside each battery and back into the electrolyte where it can dissolve back into the solution. Equalization is activated through two sources: the Charge Controller, and the Inverter. You will need to tell each device to begin the cycle. If you are attempting to equalize with solar alone, you will want to minimize your electrical usage in the house to send the most available power to the batteries. If equalizing through the Inverter, you will need to connect and start the generator. Equalizing with both sources is recommended, as this increase in power to the batteries will guarantee the completion of the cycle within the allotted time. Battery manufacturers recommend different intervals for equalization, but a good rule of thumb is once quarterly. Newer batteries will not require equalization as often, older batteries a little more often. Before performing an equalization charge, it is good practice to check water levels in the cells. During the cycle, the batteries will use more water than normal.

A few other notes about your batteries: They like to be about the same temperature that you do. This is ideally 70 degrees or so as often as possible. You can insulate the building that the batteries are housed in, or build an insulated box around them. This second idea is often a better one since the power shed is a multi-use building for most. The box will prevent anything being dropped onto the batteries, or set upon them by accident. It’s all fun and games until a rake becomes welded to a few battery terminals, as well as energized. Also, be mindful if cables are to be disconnected for any reason. Insulate the handles of any tools you will use with electrical tape before you go to work.


This is the real workhorse of your system. Surprisingly, there is little maintenance to be performed. Some models have a dust filter for their fan which will get dirty and impede the flow of air into the unit. Otherwise, there are no user serviceable parts within the inverter.

Most manufacturers include some kind of control device for programming and monitoring of the inverter. Consult the owner’s manual to learn how to navigate through the menus of your particular device. Do not fear accidentally changing important settings that could cause harm to your batteries or the rest of the system. If you reach a menu item that could lower performance of the system or worse, typically the parameter will require the entry of a password to make a change. Lesser functions often require you to press “OK” after making a change to be sure that you know you are making it. There is great information to be had from these devices. Lifetime kilowatt hours produced, diagnostic tools, current output stats, and more can be found with just a few pushed buttons. Another important function provided here is the ability to limit the amount of power flowing through the inverter’s AC to DC charger to the batteries. This will allow you to change the amperage input if you ever decide to connect a different generator to the system. Larger gensets will need to be current limited to around 20 amps AC, as the charger can only handle so much power. Give this some consideration before you buy that 20kW Kohler. You’ll really only be able to send about 2400W to the batteries, and then pass through a bit more to the house.

Final Thoughts

Living off the grid puts you in a much more direct relationship with energy. You must be conscious that your system was designed with a certain load (usage) estimate in mind. Adding appliances and plug-in devices in the future must be done with caution. Let your monitoring device be your guide. Seasonal changes specific to your site will affect the system’s output as well. Awareness of when storms will likely pass through can give you a heads-up for decreased power availability. Above all, you must maintain a good relationship with your installer, or develop one with an accredited local solar technician. This is the person you will want to be able to call at 10:00 PM for advice when your system crashes suddenly.

While owning and maintaining an off-grid PV system may seem challenging at first, you will be surprised how quickly all of this becomes routine. Most of my clients report that after a few years of life off the grid, they feel pride in their ability to understand how the system works, and happy that they accepted the responsibility. Good luck with solar, and welcome to the club!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Our Grid is Getting Smarter

We are about to see the convergence of two of the most influential technologies in the history of men. This statement may sound bold, but it is absolutely based in fact. The emergence of a nationwide utility infrastructure for delivery of household electricity revolutionized life as we know it in the United States. It paved the way for the media and computing revolutions, and the all-important networking infrastructure that ties them together. These technologies, one antiquated, the other in it's infancy, have changed the human landscape tremendously. Possibly as much as the development of firearms, or even the invention of the wheel.

The merging of our electrical grid with networking capability has seemed somewhat inevitable. Scientists and engineers have understood the benefits that could be provided by incorporating real time data into our power management scheme for years. Primarily, combining these technologies promotes a more stable utility system, by addressing the current grid's major problem: the speed at which production and delivery issues can be fixed. Real time data would tell computers, not employees, when and where energy transmission troubles arise, and deal with them accordingly. This system would reduce if not eliminate blackouts and brownouts which can cost our economy billions, as they have in the Northeast in 2003 and California in 2005. The eventual benefit to updating our grid system reads like a laundry list of positives. The new "Smart Grid" or "Intelligrid" as it has been called, would be more efficient, perhaps saving as much as 20% of the electrical energy that we produce today. Our networked utilities would rely less on power from one source, effectively decentralizing the grid, thereby making it more resilient and less attractive as a target for attack. A benefit of this decentralization is the ability to connect more and varied renewable energy sources, which further promotes our nationwide energy independence plan. This new structure would also allow consumers to be more involved in their electrical use, by incorporating devices which could be programed to operate only when demand-based utility rates are low, signaled by information available through their connection to an outlet.

Of course there exist many hurdles for this infrastructure change to occur. Three of the largest are the resistance and inability of utility companies to change, public concerns over increased governmental control of energy and household privacy issues. Certainly for any of these points to be addressed, there will need to be legal mandates that will bring financial muscle to bear upon the problem. This process has already begun, surprisingly in the previous presidential administration. After the strikes of 9/11, president Bush made a clear gesture that improvement of the grid was necessary, mainly to strengthen our defenses, which was then re-emphasized after the above mentioned blackouts. President Obama has picked up this torch, and carried it one step further. As a part of his administration's energy policy, the DOE's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office has received $2.3 billion in funding, partly to aid in the development of smart-grid technologies. The recent economic stimulus package granted the DOE an additional $38 billion, much of which is earmarked to solving the renewable energy integration issue, in which grid limitations play a great role.

The final hurdle to a smarter grid lies partially in the technology itself. Costs of metering equipment for the home must be made affordable. Latency, or the delay in transmission of information within the network, must be reduced to within reasonable levels for the system to work at all. The argument could be made however, that we did not wait to perfect the personal computer before bringing it to market, and sales did not lumber along until someone deemed them perfected. Much of this technology may be refined as time passes, and we see it's real weaknesses. Business too must play catch up, and the practicalities of engaging a workforce must be embraced. In this era of unemployment rates in the near double digits, businesses only need to hang out their shingle and the workers will arrive, not to mention cash. In 2009 the Cleantech market received over half of the venture capital in the U.S. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 put forth $100 million in matching funds per year through 2012 to get smart grid projects going on the state level.

This could be the single largest change to occur within my generation. Experts are saying that a significant portion of the grid modernization project may be in place by 2030. It will involve the unprecedented cooperation between the entities of government, the utilities, and the public, and it will be vastly expensive. The question is, can we afford not to enact this change?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Healthcare Opus, part Two

I hope that you've had a chance to read the first part of this posting. I felt that I had a lot to say, and that it was more than could be reasonably fit into one post. That's a lot to ask. Please read on...

After a series of long conversations, some heated, some a bit threatening, I carried my opinions about the new healthcare bill into the back of my brain in an attempt to understand what all the fuss is about. On a deeper level. To organize my thoughts, I actually drew out charts, made notes, and got generally pretty geeky about all of this. I feel like this has been time well spent.

One big question that I still have is whether or not we should be so concerned about the effect that this law will have on business, and small business in particular. The so called "engine of the economy." If healthcare reform will hurt these entities (while they are down, as it were) then I would agree that this bill has been introduced at an inopportune time. However, this far-reaching change would not have been possible in an era of Republican domination of both houses of congress and the office of the president, such as we have had in recent years. So, I say bravo to the current administration for going for it, even if the timing could have been better. I for one, have seen enough kowtowing to the interests of big business, and their disregard for the general public, to last a lifetime.

I have heard the expression that folks were "using their homes like cash machines" over and over to describe the finance bubble that played a large part in our current economic quagmire. What I feel that most of us have ignored or disregarded is how corporations have continually used the American market and the environment in a similar fashion.

We are, to be sure, an easily manipulated population. Make products, market them effectively, and we will surely buy them. But the question has to be asked in this age of dwindling natural resources (and heightened competition for them) if we have made the right choice for the long term. Currently, I see two systems that are intrinsically linked. Our businesses, in order to move ahead and be profitable, are directly connected to consumerism on an ever increasing scale. Consumerism drives business, and business needs resources, whether in the form of man-power, or raw materials for production. So, as it pertains to a nationwide Healthcare system, should the argument really be about whether or not we will harm American business with the passage of this bill? Continued, rampant business expansion, will use more man power, more resources and more energy. A false prosperity will continue to exist, allowing for even higher global birth-rates, and ever more consumers. I feel I am being carried to the edge of the cliff by a mad wave of lemmings.

The blame for our recent economic woes has got to be focused on our own short-sightedness. The arguments against healthcare are the perfect example. This is by no means an argument against healthcare, but wouldn't you think businesses would see the benefit in covering their employees, so they could afford to go on to have covered children, who would grow into healthy adult consumers? I guess that kind of thinking goes against today's bottom line.

The point is, I'd really like to think that at some time in the near future, we would be willing to put the pieces in place in government to "downshift" our economy to a new model that doesn't require endless consumption for stability. I'd like to think that everyone would be able to do more with less, while waxing nostalgic about "the good ol' days" of $3 coffee drinks available inside your local Wal-Mart.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Healthcare Opus, part One

The new Time magazine came yesterday. Two articles stood out against the typical fare of how China is catching up to us and the book and movie reviews. The first was a guide to the changes in healthcare that we can expect to see rolling out in the coming months and years. The second, what I considered to be an alert about Andrew Breitbart and his series of conservative "Big" sites. I would be surprised if the juxtaposition of these articles was an accident.

For me, the guide to healthcare was an anxiously awaited full explanation of what has actually been debated so hotly in congress and has been such a bone of contention between Democrats and Republicans. It has been debate that, quite honestly, lost me a few turns back. I am glad there are those of you out there that held on for the ride in it's entirety. Be happy that you won't have to explain this new system to me now.

One thing I knew before all of this started. A national healthcare plan would be expensive. Not necessarily for government, not necessarily for insurance companies, but mainly for you and me. I view this cost as an acceptable part of being insured. I never expect insurance to be free. It's expensive no matter where it comes from, but much less so if it comes from a cooperative, which effectively is what we're talking about here. A giant, government-regulated cooperative. In a country that values it's freedom as much as we do, this definitely means trouble. Or does it?

Seems that as always, this depends on your perspective. The conservative argument has been that your insurance options under institutionalized healthcare would be limited, and ultimately more expensive. That the bill is a small business killer, due to the coverage that they would have to provide their employees. Overall, the tone has been that it's a plan that government is forcing down the throats of all Americans that is akin to the socialism of European nations. Okay, I can see how that might run contrary to the ideals of the founding fathers. However, we're a long way from the 18th century. A lot has changed with the addition of say, several hundred million people.

My experience with insurance companies has always been an exercise in compromise. It seems you always have to be willing to pay too much for not exactly the coverage that you need. If the government's new plan delivers as expected, not much would change. I would still face limitations and some expense, in the form of higher taxes and Medicare payroll deductions. But this time, at the least, I could not be denied coverage, and when it came time to take advantage of Medicare I wouldn't see gaps in the prescription drug benefit.

As the bill pertains to small businesses, my attitude is that it's about time that all employers provide some form of healthcare. Nothing says "my employees are disposable" more than not insuring them. It will be tough for some businesses to survive under the new law, but it should be recognized that the ones that fail probably weren't so healthy to begin with. I am willing to take some heat for saying this, but our companies should not be immune to the same laws that govern nature. Struggling enterprises should be allowed to fail. Be creative, layoff under-performers, suck it up. I thought clawing your way to the top was the American way.

Socialism? I think we all need to get a better handle on the structure of our government as-is. We live in a Socialist Republic already. We may not call it that, but that's exactly what it is. I would go so far as to call it a Corporate Socialist Republic. For most of you who have been willing to read this far this may seem obvious, but for the remaining few that don't believe, let me remind you of the huge corporate bailouts that happened not so long ago. Chrysler? General Motors? Lest we forget the banking industry? It should not seem so important that we are becoming anything like our European cousins.

Try this on for size:
"American business, the motor of the global economy, was dealt a deathblow by the Marxist putsch that the Democrat Party delivered in the form of the healthcare bill. Why wasn’t this made public before the vote? The numbers are staggering. It was revealed Friday that AT&T, the largest telephone company in the country, will take a one-billion-dollar hit in the current quarter as a result of this economic attack on America. The farm-equipment company Deere is looking at $150 million in new healthcare-related charges this quarter, and Caterpillar is facing $100 million.

Who do you think will pay for this? We will pay. According to Reuters, “Verizon Communications, the second biggest U.S. phone company, told employees that tax burdens under the new law would likely filter down to employees.” Business is not something in the abstract, or the evil force the leftists and the communists deceptively smear it to be — business is work, business is people, it is jobs, it is production. When business pays, we pay. Jobs pay. Consumers pay.

And we will pay for more than that as well. Have you seen the commercials yet for people who have maxed out their credit cards, and have loans over ten thousand that they can’t pay back, urging them to apply for stimulus dollars? Are you one of those who played by the rules, worked hard, did the right thing? If so, you’re screwed. The man has you and your wallet and your kids’ wallet by the throat. Welcome to the era of the degenerate: they will be sucking your blood and your children’s blood and your children’s children’s blood for decades to come, or however long America lasts."

-by Pamela Geller, published on the site "Big Government," run by conservative pundit Andrew Breitbart
Scary right? This article contains exactly the form of rhetoric that is, in my opinion going to be the death knell for the Republican party in the coming years. Although this article comes from the far right extreme in political thinking, I have heard these sentiments uttered in more reserved circles. Truth be told, these outrageous "chicken little" proclamations are receiving their share of flak not only from leftists. What lies just below the surface of arguments like these is a deep well of fear-based ideology. I have a hard time understanding just how a completely static, unchanging government, with no new ideas could be a good thing for any nation. Change, and I use that word knowing the stigma attached to it at this point, is necessary in any and all healthy systems. Change invigorates. Change renews. Having said this, I also believe in a healthy dose of balancing conservatism, so that we are not, as a nation constantly firing from the hip.

Allow me to address a few points in the above article, before I stray too far from this topic. A little perspective about these numbers the author so casually tosses around. AT&T will take a one-billion dollar "hit" in the current quarter as a result of having to pay additional healthcare coverage? This is a small percentage of AT&T's quarterly revenue, which by the way, was up 25% to 30.87 billion dollars as a result of expanded cellular clientele. Not to mention, this cost could certainly be financed over a longer period than three months. John Deere? Their claimed 100 million loss would hardly make a dent in their revenues. This company earned 23.1 billion in 2009. There is a small truth in part of what the author says here. These costs, to some degree would be passed on to the worker. We should be sure to hold the companies accountable for their decisions on this front. It is not the fault of the healthcare bill if Mega-Conglomerate X decides to forward the additional expense to it's factory floor. Once again, the rhetoric favors big business, because "business is people" and that means jobs. But at what cost? When do we start saying to ourselves, business and corporations in particular are not serving those who serve them? What benefit is there in protecting them to the current degree that we do?

I think I speak for most moderate liberals and certainly anyone on the left of me by saying that I resent being labeled a supporter of the "degenerates" that will be sucking the lifeblood out of the rest of America's hard-working, fiscally responsible population. This is a prime example of how sensational media practices play upon the fears of conservatives. I wonder why anyone would think that I, as a liberal, would want to support freeloaders, suckling from the teat of federal and state tax revenues, any more than a conservative would. The cold, hard fact is that these folks who are not "playing by the rules" are already causing your insurance premiums to escalate, and causing insurance companies to clamp down ever-harder on payouts to honest types like ourselves. As I see it, you're going to pay whether it's as an individual, or out of a tax pool. The only difference being that the tax pool is regulated a hell of a lot more than your insurance provider, who can drop your benefit any time they like. So really, what's there to complain about? If you like your plan, and want to keep it, keep it, and shut up.