Musings of a Philadelphia Physician who has served the community for six decades

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Right Angle Club: 2016

In progress.

Reflections on Immortality
Notions of Immortality

When we are children, we have childish notions of immortality. Perhaps we still nourish them for lack of replacement, busying our thoughts with premature death, instead. Most of us forget the dreams of robbing candy stores or marrying a princess, and never bother to replace them. After all, everyone has to die, don't they?

So put it this way: we now have semi-realistic plans to end our lives with a thirty-year paid vacation, but what can be said about a fifty-year paid vacation, or even a hundred? Life itself is degraded by seventy years of loafing, as those who could afford it will tell you. All notions of purpose to life eventually disappear. No longer defining ourselves as soldiers and housewives; we're just cats, dogs and lice. And all our yesteryears have lighted fools the way to welcome death. As that day approaches, it will be marked by waves of awesome but fruitless literature. The Calvinist worship of work gets the last laugh of the comedy.

Subsequent generations of would-be hedonists have certainly given Calvin a hard time. Harder, in a way, than dunkings and pillories. Perhaps harder even than burning at the stake, because Calvinists had the audacity to get rich and comfortable by their effrontery. Perhaps poor and comfortable is better, and comfortable is the real goal, as Quakers were executed for advising. Once you get over the ambition to be King, what else is there?

HRSA preferable to 401(k)?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal announced to the world that Health Savings Accounts were a better bargain for the investor than were 401(k). That's certainly true if you spend the money in an account for approved medical expenses, or if you roll it over into an IRA at the time you receive Medicare. But it's also even arguable if you spend it in any other circumstance.

Let's put it this way: If you had an IRA or 401(k) but not a Health Savings Account how would you justify it? The HSA gives a double tax exemption for health services, but you are no worse off if you remain healthy. Of course you are better off with an HRSA. Of course, that may change, but then the oceans might some day pour over Chicago.

Well, you can't have an HRSA if you are under 21, over 65, or covered by a health insurance policy that doesn't have a high deductible. The Affordable Care Act mandates high deductibles for everybody, but there are still occasional loopholes, probably soon to be closed. If your policy has co-insurance features, that's actually probably an argument to switch out of it. You can't have an HSA if you are also covered by some other government plan. All three plans are sometimes subverted by self-serving intermediary fees, but you just have to shop around for the ability to choose your own investments. That may cause you to pick an inferior health insurance plan, so keep looking. Eventually, some people will reach their limits and need more than one retirement plan, but that's different. Although Health Saving Accounts are spreading nicely, there must be a hundred million people who have no reasonable answer to the question of why they have a 401(k) but not an HRSA, so please read on.

Most of the arguments for having an HSA rather than a 401(k) boil down to saying they are the same thing, but HSA gives you some health options in addition, so why not have them. However, it is possible that your employer has selected a poor 401(k) vendor, one who adds unnecessary fees and requires investments which themselves have poor performance because they are loaded with more fees. So, if you are dissatisfied with 401(k) results through your employer, you may wish to shop around for a better deal, and you might as well pick one with some health benefits attached. After all, the Affordable Care Act mandates high-deductible insurance, so that part of the requirement is likely to be fulfilled already. Since you picked it because of disappointment with your employer's 401(k) investment results, you may encounter some resistance from the Human Relations Department. All in all, there is little value in switching until the employer mandate issue is settled -- except the value of the uproar you create, trying to get treated more fairly. However, there are a few other issues if you have an agreeable employer.

Claims Adjusting for Trivial Claims. In the first place, the HSA wanted to make it possible to skip the middle-man cost and oversight, and simply pay bills with a debit card. So an "allowable" medical expense is more broadly defined than what a health insurer might allow, or at the very least it dispenses with the cost (and delay) of insurance review prior to payment. Since the Account part of the HSA was mainly intended to pay for deductibles, it didn't seem cost-effective to subject extra costs to fruitless but expensive insurance scrutiny. It also eliminated the delay occasioned by remaining on the desk of the hospital billing department for several weeks before someone submits it to the insurer to pay -- when the debit card could just as well have paid it immediately. Just how much these thoughtless design features actually add to the cost is uncertain, because it's used as an excuse for delays which may have other causes.

Skipping Insurance Claims Entirely for Small Claims. As things have turned out, forty percent of HSA accounts have never submitted a claim. Maybe they don't get sick, but more likely the client calculates it is cheaper for him in the long run to pay his small out-patient charges in cash, while letting the Account gather compound interest. Aristotle is said to have complained that most debtors don't realize how compound interest is itself compounded, and rises with time. But maybe debtors are now smarter than Greeks in a toga. A debit card directly adds 2% to the cost, while interest rates vary with the economy. Incurring costs greater than the net is a waste of money, largely growing out of a supposition the employer is paying for this as a gift, and taking a tax deduction at higher corporate rates. That's only true half the time, but the other half haven't marshaled their lobbyists to equalize the tax exemption. Apparently, Congress believes the self-employed don't deserve this tax exemption as much as employees of major corporations do. Or possibly eighty years isn't long enough for Washington to fix the flaw. Let's go on with this, a bit.

Non-trivial Returns From Saving Small Scraps. We were saying HRSAs were a better investment than 401(k). To go forward with the logic, the client is effectively taking out a loan from his 401(k) when he pays his medical bills from it, or in cash, if the purpose is to preserve the preferable interest-bearing account. Assuming both accounts pay the same (you didn't get sick), the result is a wash. But as time goes on, the effective compound interest rate will steadily rise; so the extra profit was made without incurring any extra risk. That may not seem like much, until you employ the old maxim that money at 7% will double in ten years. Two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two -- it rises 3200% in fifty years. The stock market may rise or fall during those fifty years, and the client may get any one of a thousand diseases. Inflation may intervene, wars are likely to break out. But the relentless superiority of this riskless choice will persist. And get this: at the conclusion of the exercise, the client who gets sick pays no tax, while the one who was scared to do it, pays the higher progressive tax rate he attains later in life. The hypotheticals have to be carefully chosen to reach any other conclusion. But remember to get started young, because to wait ten years will reduce the multiplier from 32 to 16. The millennial generation complains the tax laws are stacked against them, but I don't see it. They are offered the chance of a lifetime, but they will only get one bite at the apple.

Is that all? Well, no, but there are competitors. The deposits in a Health and Retirement Savings Account, just as surely as the deposits in a 401(k), are occasionally subject to rather extreme middle-man costs. The stock market has steadily risen by 11% for the past century. Never mind that it's true past results can be unsound future predictions, just recall that even the "buy and hold" philosophy has seldom presented the investing customer with more than 5% net-of-inflation return. That's because inflation took away 3%, and hedging against "black swan" crashes (by putting 40% of the portfolio into bonds) has taken away 2% more. That leaves about 1% for the customer and the broker to fight about. More than anything else, this slim working margin has driven the investor to choose "buy and hold" over "market-timing". The evidence continues to accumulate that "buy and hold" is at least as successful as "market-timing", but people continue to market-time when they are desperate for the occasional big winner, never mind that big losers outnumber them. To me, the conclusion is clear the public will increasingly squeeze their friendly advisors for a wider slice of the pie. And in this, our central theme is repeated; the HRSA will out-perform the 401(k). Because the shopper for an HSA manager is the customer, whereas the choice of a 401(k) manager is made by the employer. Pass all the laws you wish about kickbacks; allowing the customer to select the manager will usually beat letting the employer do it for him. There's often nothing so expensive as getting something free.

Washington's Real Motivations

Washington could occasionally display a wicked temper, but in general he was a reserved and dignified man. Physically large and unusually athletic, he tended to dominate by glaring at people rather than debating them. And so, after a lifetime of leadership and distinction, he seldom engaged in arguments. As a consequence of this studied behavior it is possible to have many opinions about his underlying thoughts, except one: he always seems to come out on the winning side. It certainly was effective: he was Commander in Chief, The President and probably the instigator of the Constitutional Convention, and the First President of the United States. To decide whether he got what he wanted means deciding what he wanted, and he hardly ever stated it.

Conrad Black, the newspaperman who went to jail, stated the Canadian point of view, which is perhaps extreme. Black's view was "the Americans" first got the British to help them throw out the French, and then twenty years later got the French to help them throw out the British. These two statements are undoubtedly true if abbreviated. Added to them was the plain history that Washington had personally started the French and Indian War. One has to wonder what was in his mind when the French aristocrat LaFayette came to join him. And later on, what he thought of Thomas Jefferson's love affair with the French Revolution. Or what he thought of the antics of the French ambassador "Citizen Genet".

Washington didn't like the Indians, and he put down the radicals of the Whiskey Rebellion with extreme prejudice. Is it so hard to perceive the barons of Runneymede acting any differently?

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

The Progressive Era lasted several decades, some say it still continues. Around 1910, the Progressive Era, reacting to the Gilded Age which preceded it, started doing painful things in the best interest of the individual, like the graduated income tax, the War to End Wars, and employer-based insurance.

Regardless of originator or date, employer based health insurance was imported as an idea from Germany in the nineteen-teens, getting started in the nineteen twenties, and becoming the prevailing standard by World War II. Although control later shifted from employers toward government during this period, Harry Truman was unable to move it further. It was only in 1965 that government control jumped forward, coming to a climax in the 1965 Medicare and Medicaid laws. Curiously, the employer-based format itself reached a peak in the Lyndon Johnson legislation. Since 1965, one president after another has struggled to convert the rest of health insurance to government-based, but always retaining its same general employer-based form. Along the way, two people significantly modified the model: Abraham Flexner, promoting the research-oriented teaching hospital into custodian of the standard of care, replacing the physician guilds; and Henry J. Kaiser, retaining control of a wage cost by calling it a gift, with high corporate income taxes and exempted employee income taxes reducing its effective cost to the employer. In a curious way, high corporate income taxes increased the proportion of healthcare paid for by the Federal Government, by increasing the value of the deduction. Not everyone would agree with this description of history, but I'm convinced of its essence.

Whether the gift comes from business or from government, makes little difference, except to the two contestants. Henry Kaiser seems to have become enlightened that corporate taxation higher than individual rates actually results in important tax advantages for the employer's gift. It allows employers to shift most of the cost to the government, while retaining ultimate control in employers' hands. For many decades the commercial insurance industry tried to break in, but the greatest recent threat to this collusion was accidental. All insurance is a system of cross-subsidies, but the Obama Administration superimposed a subsidy of the poor by the rich, onto an employer system of the young employees subsidizing the older ones. The mismatch between the two seemingly similar subsidies now threatens the coherence of the medical finance system. It also brings out the advantageous warping of the insurance idea by calling it a gift. Furthermore, the gift is ultimately one of money, so how did service benefits get mixed into this? What does the diagnosis have to do with paying hospital bills, except as a mechanism for obscuring the price? The insurance premiums begin with money, and the insurance intermediary ultimately sends money to the provider of care. Money-in, money-out is what the insurance industry calls indemnity insurance. They were using indemnity for centuries before health insurance came along. Why change to a unique and expensive accounting system, if final prices remain unchanged? This device probably started as a way for an insurance intermediary to check the medical validity of a remote claim, but has gradually evolved into an elaborate cost-shifting device. The unfortunate result is to blind the doctors in charge to the true costs of their options. So doctors nowadays totally disregard the posted prices which emerge, when they devise their treatment strategies. The result is very bad, no matter what the original purpose was.

There may be something to the idea that adding diagnoses and services adds enough mystery to the process to keep away competition, but there are business incentives which seem more central. Now that health cost consumes almost 17% of the gross domestic product, corporate taxes are an important part of the federal budget, largely explaining why the President might not want to lower them, even driving international businesses to consider moving abroad, rather than lower corporate tax rates. However, if the tax reduction which results from the gift is considered, the net corporate taxes actually paid are not too different from prevailing international rates. If corporate income taxes were eliminated, at least the employer would have to pay for his own wage costs masquerading as gifts. They might even discontinue them, since employers could get the same tax abatement by calling them what they are, wage costs. Following this scenario, the main benefit appears as the tax exemption in the workers' pay package, and the main victims are the competitors who do not receive the gift. If the government is willing to lose the revenue from the tax-paying half of the workforce, they could permit the Health and Retirement Savings Accounts to pay the premiums, essentially providing tax exemption to everyone. If unwilling to lose revenue, the government could start taxing the large employers, which they are now prevented from doing by the seemingly high rates. It's hard to know whom to blame, except this sort of Byzantine structure creates winners and losers, and is ultimately unhealthy.

Two simple and comparatively painless steps -- equalization of tax preferences, and lowering of corporate income taxes -- might soften the objection to indemnity, so why continue the service benefits concept? For this answer you must return to Abraham Flexner, who brought Bismarck's "der herr Professor" system to America, stimulated much research, and ultimately made teaching hospitals vastly more expensive than community hospitals for routine medical care. And now it is necessary to understand the system of calling all activities which are unrelated to patient care "indirect overhead". Although research is largely funded by outside agencies like the NIH and drug companies, it is described as indirect overhead, and distributed among the patient care bills as additional indirect overhead. Unfortunately, a great deal of bloated administrative cost is classified as indirect overhead, as well. No modern corporation could exist without a certain amount of cross-subsidy, but the present amount of it in hospitals is unreasonable. Beyond a certain level, indirect overhead should be forced out of the hospital cross-subsidy system, funded independently, or at least forced into public view. In short, too much routine care is being reimbursed at a high tertiary care level in the teaching hospitals, and this may well stimulate excessive administrative costs as well, even though it may be hard to trace how it comes about. Their competitors in the community hospitals also probably get a little raise, indirectly, to help suppress their complaints. Wall Street was once lambasted for steak dinners and Superbowl tickets from vendors, but you don't hear much about the hospital administrator version.

To make a long story short, service benefits tend to equalize the cost differences between teaching hospitals and community hospitals, ultimately raising the cost of both, but particularly the cost of routine care in teaching hospitals. Historically, this surplus subsidized the research revolution, to which we owe a thirty-year lengthening of our life expectancy. So, go figure. But nevertheless it now blinds physicians as much as the public to the true cost of their medical decisions until they are unable to respond effectively to rising prices, and don't try. A century of it is long enough to devise a better approach, so apparently some pain is needed. But any way you go about lowering them, if you want to control costs, you must start and end with undiluted true costs, not accounting fictions.

After London, Ben Franklin Revisited

George Goodwin appears to have written the best book I ever read, in Benjamin Franklin in London, which that writer in residence of the Craven Street Franklin Museum. has just produced. At least I have never read a book which proceeded to explain so much I knew puzzled me. There have been hundreds of books about Benjamin Franklin, but all of them fall back on Franklin's Autobiography which while surely authoritative, often omits significant details. Goodwin, concentrating on the eighteen years Franklin spent abroad, had access to many unnoticed personal papers. It was also written while Franklin was in England, where many things did not appear to need explanation to 18th Century Englishmen. And the autobiography was written for his son, who needed even less explanation. So it's a mistake to ascribe the autobiography's vagueness to deliberate deviousness, to say nothing of basing a whole theory of his personality on deviousness. Its hazy points now seem more attributable to his assuming his intended audience needed little explanation for what to us was seemingly left vague. And so as a first impression, Franklin himself emerges less deserving of his reputation for deceptiveness.

It occurred to me as I read it, that national opinions will change so quickly, that the transitional opinions of people like me will soon be swept aside. I am no scholar, but have read twenty or so excellent books about Benjamin Franklin, and adopted a number of fixed ideas which I will have to change. Therefore, Goodwin's achievement is in danger of becoming lost in a stampede of permanently revised views. Goodwin himself may be oblivious to his own achievement, which was probably gathered slowly after poring over heaps of primary documents, and living in a London world which needed less explaining to a Londoner. Heaven knows I am no Keats, but my place in all this can possibly aspire to his goals in the poem On First Looking into Chapman's Homer.

In the first place, Franklin appears to have been a staunch British subject, at least from the Albany Conference of 1754 to as late as 1774. His dream, formulated at Albany and expressed in many forms later, was that of a combined British-American empire, with its headquarters eventually to be located in America. For the largest part of his life, his attitude was not that America should be independent of Britain. It was the two nations should unite even more closely, America would inevitably grow larger, and the British Empire would become a British World. After King George III unleashed Weddeburn to excoriate Franklin before the crowned heads of Whitehall, it all changed, of course, but it did so after a personal dispute with the King about lightning rods, where Franklin never doubted he was the world-acknowledged authority. In essence, Franklin was the inventor of electricity, but King George in effect responded, "Who do you think you are, a King?" Those weren't the words they used, but that was the sense of it. Or, considering what was at stake, the nonsense of it. Franklin had been challenged to destroy the British empire if he was so smart, and that is exactly what he set about to do.

Without editorializing a word, Goodwin allows us to read a line Franklin wrote in 1773, that King George was "perhaps the only Chance America has for obtaining soon the Address she aims at."

Franklin was not without British allies. Lord Chatham, later prime Minister, and Edmund Burke, author of "On Reconciliation With the Colonies" came very close to toppling the government over this issue. Even Lord Howe, Franklin's chess partner and brother of even-more-avid chess partner Lady Carolyn Howe, who was later designated to lead the British repression of the rebellion, is quoted as saying in 17XX, XXXXXXXX. Lord Howe's words are going to require some re-examination of his motives in abandonment of Burgoyne against direct orders, and redirection of the fleet toward Philadelphia. Frankin's response, of course, was to use the victory to sign a treaty of alliance with France.

In victorious America, of course, Franklin was celebrated for flying a kite in a rainstorm, something every schoolboy knows is too dangerous to try. It was during his time in England that Franklin performed a series of experiments which invented electricity which every physicist would agree would today win him a Nobel Prize. It made him a friend of Mozart and Beethoven, Joseph Priestley and five kings. Goodwin even restores the tarnished reputation of Peggy Stevenson.

But it isn't all for the better. Goodwin tells us Franklin didn't invent bifocals, some British optometrist did. So he raises a question, for those who are looking for it, about how many of the other American "firsts" for which he is famous, were ideas he picked up in his first trip to London in 17XX, and transported to an America eager to have what was the latest and trendiest. There are probably other innuendoes in this eminently readable but essentially scholarly work. But I missed them, and a hundred graduate students will have to put the record straight.

Innovation and Automation

The innovator is protected by patents. To some extent, the public is harmed by them, because the public wants the innovation to be cheaper. Franklin Roosevelt is reported to have hated patents, because they harmed the public. But less innovation harms the public, too.

Once the inventor invents an innovation, he wants to see it work. Often he employs a craftsman to make one that works, money no object. A few rich people hire artisans to make high-priced versions for various purposes, some of them noble, some just frivolous.

So, some entrepreneur risks a lot of money to build a factory, hire cheap labor if he can find it, and mass-produces a cheaper product. He hates patents, but he loves cheap labor, and he particularly hates automation, which threatens his investment.

But automation is cheaper, so it wins. The automator has to spend a lot of money to accomplish automation, but his cheaper product puts the earlier factories out of work, so they fight automation as long as they are excluded from it, but eventually surrenders. Corporations almost always defeat factories, family businesses, and artisans. Ultimately, automation, corporations and possibly inventors, tend to win. Hand craftsmen, family businesses and cheap labor tend to lose. High volume usually defeats high margins of profit, so the public usually wins, too. If the entire cycle is fast enough, the patent protects the inventor. If it's too slow, the inventor loses. It's easy to see what side each of these participants will take in the political battles, assuming the hope of profit is what motivates each one of them. The public has the votes, so at first they can do almost anything. In the long run, more innovation and cheaper prices will win public approval, but in the short run, patent impairment and job losses may hold things up.

So what is in the public interest? Job retraining and regional movement of labor are two things which come up, their expensiveness probably varies with the particular issue. But one universal good sometimes clashes with another. Is home ownership always a good thing? Are there not times when it would be better to be a renter, and move to a different employment location when your job disappears?

There are certainly times when it is better to own your own home. I finally sold my house after living in it for sixty years. The real estate agent was rueful. He saw it as his losing six sales commissions, over the years, because I did that.

Franklin and Brexit

In June, 2016, Great Britain voted by a million plurality, to withdraw from the European Union. The plebescite was not binding on Parliament, but Prime Minister David Cameron promptly resigned, and there remains little discussion of anything but going ahead with "Brexit". It will take at least two years to accomplish the matter, and there remains great uncertainty about the terms of separation. The British stock market took a sharp dip. Stock markets always hate uncertainty, and from the start there was little doubt Britain would experience some economic hardship, but still they went ahead with it.

By the greatest stroke of good luck, I happened to be in London for this event. It had been barely noted in the Americana press before I left, and indeed a discussion group hadn't even put it on the agenda after my return. But let me tell you, the British public was talking about nothing else. From the lowest barmaid in a pub to the Archbishop of Canterbury, there was only one topic of conversation, and a very real understanding that Britain might well vote to leave the EU. Once the vote had been taken, of course, even the American public appreciated its significance, and its resemblance to the headlong tumult in our own political parties. Donald Trump might well win the election, and logic or rhetoric had little to do with it. Other countries, Scotland in particular, were teetering in the same direction of demonstrating how far a democracy was from a republic, when each "leader" had a million constituents. And how well the public appreciated the tendency of elected representatives to forget who elected them. Or else, in more rational moments, to appreciate how difficult it is for elected representatives to communicate with constituents.

To go on with this insight for a moment, my Washington daughter tells me Democrat congressmen are required to spend thirty-six hours every week in a call center, soliciting campaign funds; where do they find time to legislate? But the central background reflection I happened to have about Brexit was how enduring the political split apparently was between the Whigs and the Tories. This thought came to me from one of the real reasons I was in London, to visit Ben Franklin's imposing rowhouse on Craven Street, fifty feet from the National Museum on Piccadilly. Franklin lived there for most of eighteen years, in a style quite different from the two-penny loaf of bread in Philadelphia. He was personal friends with five kings, Voltaire, Mozart and Beethoven, as well as Priestly, Lavoisier, and Hume. Townsend may indeed have passed the Stamp Act, but he invited Franklin to spend the weekend at his hundred-room castle. The neighbors on Craven Street easily recognized the carriage of the Prime Minister when he came to call on Franklin on Craven Street. From the point of view of this social set, the uproar over the colonies was whether England should conquer them and send their raw materials to British factories (the Tory view), or should instead colonize them with Brits, give them the vote, and rule the world as a commonwealth (the Whig view). Naturally, Franklin supported the Whigs, but his loyalty to his good friend George III, never wavered until 1775. And then, lightening struck St. Paul's Cathedral.

Quite logically, the King asked Franklin's advice. The King however insisted on a brass ball on the top of the church. Franklin resisted, saying a spire was much more effective. We don't have the exact words exchanged, but essentially the King said he was going to have his way, while Franklin in effect asked him who he thought he was talking to. In those days, far less direct wording was needed to give offense on such a central issue of the king having the last word whenever he wanted. It is intimated the King suggested to Weddeburn he should take care of the issue for him, and within a few weeks Franklin was subjected to public humiliation in the cockpit at Whitehall, threatened with arrest, and fled to America to start the war. I had never heard this story, before.

The point it leaves me with is not that Franklin lost his cool and should have known better than to express his opinion. Rather, it is the reflection that never before had a king been challenged on his divine opinion on any subject. Just think of the shock this must have caused him, to have to realize this was the first snowflake in a blizzard. With the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, the world was going to be full of experts, who could make a fool of any king by disagreeing with him in public. This particular king was able to have his way, no matter what, but the day was soon approaching when any science editor, any university professor, and ultimately every barmaid in a pub, could pontificate to the Pontiff.

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