Thursday, December 30, 2010

Okay Internet, I want an answer on this one…

The question, “Are the citizens of the United States of America getting screwed?” has rumbled around in my noggin for quite some time now, and I’ve gone out of my way to satiate curiosity in two particular areas that affect nearly everyone in this country: Prescription Drugs and Fuel Economy.

Who’s the Fiend?

I know I’m not the only one annoyed with the constant barrage of drug ads during prime-time television (and it was enough suffering through all those embarrassing “enhancement/dysfunction” ads with an adolescent by my side.  Oh, to have a DVR five years ago…)  Did anyone else take notice, however, that most of those medication advertisements pitch to regular people, not doctors?  Why not create the nexus for sales from the generally uneducated, right?  Ah, well, that’s another gripe, but the real debate isn’t about devious advertising this time; it’s about something we, as citizens, voters and consumers, should have more control over—pricing.

In case you’ve been under a rock since the dawn of the internet, prescription drugs are cheaper internationally.  And, I’m not talking about drugs manufactured over there; I’m talking about drugs made in the good ‘ole USA.  Why?  Well, for one reason, manufacturers have stated that research and development costs must be offset by countries without price caps that can afford to pay higher prices…meaning, us.  If this is true then the United States is paying dearly for other countries’ discounts.  Is that fair?

Rather than give a lengthy exposé on why prescription drugs are cheaper outside the United States (here are links for Canada and the Congressional Budget Office.  And no, this problem is not a new one!), I’m more interested in why nobody seems willing to do anything about it—especially when faced with the prospect of our government forcing us to buy overpriced healthcare.  Wait, overpriced?  Absolutely!

Obviously, when drugs cost more than in other parts of the world, and when you delve into the Wide, Wide World of Wacky Medical Equipment Pricing and Service, you will quickly conclude that Healthcare Reform focuses on the wrong “problem”.  You see, the pundits in Washington, much to the delight of the pharmaceutical companies I’m sure, posit that we are the problem.  Some of us don’t buy health insurance and, when a visit to the ER occurs, they are a burden to the system.  All right, I’ll buy that as a valid argument, but it completely neglects the reason the majority of those folks don’t have healthcare in the first place—cost.  Whoa…may have opened up a can of worms with all these questions about healthcare costs, but I think the questions are fair.  Is it our fault?
I also have another conspicuous discrepancy to query, one that only recently came to light….well, mine, at least.

Motor Heads and Tales

A few months ago, I discovered a car show on BBC America called “Top Gear”.  After laughing hysterically at something in nearly every rerun from the previous five seasons (a rare feat these days—seriously, Clarkson, May and Hammond are hilarious!), I began noticing something rather odd.  While the presenters usually scintillate the latest European supercar, occasionally they’ll delve into the mundane for us commoners.  Instead of Ferrari 430s, Aston Martin DB9s, and Bugatti Veyrons, think Fiat 500s, Minis, and Volkswagen hatchbacks.  And, as they do with every model tested, they usually laud the car’s fuel economy.  On more than one occasion, I noticed one of the guys citing mileage estimates from European cars that produced astounding numbers.  At first, I wrote it off.  Okay, the Brits pay ridiculous gas prices and their cars are generally tiny after all.  50 or 60 miles per gallon doesn’t seem particularly outrageous since a Toyota Prius is in that range.  0-60 MPH times take a year, probably.  And what about the Volkswagen Golf TDI?  You may recall its 1970s predecessor, the Rabbit Diesel, attaining upwards of 56 MPG in its heyday, although you’d do well to climb a hill without getting out and pushing.  Just as soon as I had forgotten about it, one of the Top Gear presenters cited an incredible figure for a diesel Volkswagen Polo (similar to a Golf) at over *70 MPG combined…as in combined highway (extra-urban) and city (urban) use.  What?  Suffice to say, my gears started grinding, and that meant a personal inspection.

Of course, there are many vehicle manufacturers that aren’t available here.  Fiat (for now, but I see the 500 is on its way via Chrysler), Vauxhall (GM owned), Alpha Romeo, Peugeot-Citroen, and Renault to name a few, so I’ll stick with the familiar Volkswagen brand for comparisons.  As soon as you visit their UK website, and look at the model range, you’ll know you’re not in America any longer.  More cars and, more importantly, more engine options.  Click on the Golf’s engine selections, for instance.  Eleven are available, and if you look at their consumption figures closely, you’ll have a coronary.  Well, hopefully not, but you get the point.  Apparently, the British take their petrol money more seriously than we do.  Do we really like buying more gas?  Alas, we love our muscle cars and SUVs as long as gas is cheap, but that’s changing. As it was in the ‘70s, consumers are again looking towards models with fuel consumption in mind—and we’ll sacrifice some horses too.  Success stories like the Toyota and Ford hybrids remind us that American demand for low-consumption vehicles is high, yet manufacturers with existing high-MPG models overseas don’t bother exporting or manufacturing them here.  Why?  Ah, that is the burning question.

So how about it, Internet—are Americans lazy, not whiny enough, or are we simply getting the shaft?

*Note:  UK MPG uses an imperial gallon, which is 1.201 US gallons, therefore mileage figures stated in the UK do not directly correspond with US comparisons.  Even so, the European models still achieve a much higher MPG rating than their US counterparts.  (ex.  VW Polo BlueMotion achieves 80.7 MP(imperial)G combined  which, converted to US specs, is about 67 MPG combined (city/hwy).  Impressive!)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Martyr for Change?

Just a little ramble for the holidays…

In America, you can be an Armed Forces hero.  You can earn a Bronze Star for bravery or maybe a Purple Heart if you were lucky enough to survive a wounding.  In America, you can leave the military, attend college, and earn a degree for a prestigious profession such as an attorney.  In America, you can continue serving your country by holding a public office.  And if you play your cards right, you can accomplish many great things there such as making a better world for an underprivileged minority, or rebuilding neighborhoods, or cutting taxes and creating jobs.  Yes, in America, even a poor immigrant from Puerto Rico has a shot at achieving The Dream.

U.S. Representative Charles Rangel (D, NY) did all of the above and, towards the end of an incredible 40-year run in public service, allowed corruption’s evil a seat at his table.  When he tearfully faces his accusers and receives the justice they deem appropriate, I hope they take a long look at the system and craft the best elixir for what I believe is, and has forever been, a systemic ailment.

But this problem is nothing new.  We’ve heard “power corrupts absolutely” ad nauseam.  So what’s the solution?  Ah, yes—change!  We heard that term from our president during his election until we were sick of it.  What did we do?  Well—vote him in office, of course.  Two years later, have we experienced any real change?  Some would argue that the Health Care legislation should certainly quality, but while the incoming congress has assured us its repeal, I’m holding off on its inclusion.  What I’m talking about is real change—a fundamental change in the way we think about our country; the way we prioritize importance, justice, politics, health and wealth; the way we conduct business; the way we pay taxes; the way think about transportation; and, most importantly, the way we define change.

Examples?  There are many:  How about changing the way we write our laws so that passing otherwise good legislature isn’t dependent on the inclusion of wasteful pork or some other extortion?  What about uncomplicating our tax code so that the average Joe can understand and pay it without undue burden?  Why do we reward actors and athletes with riches and lavish lifestyles while our star teachers can only hope for a pat on the back to go along with their abysmal salaries?  Where are our flying cars, bullet trains, and 100mph speed limits?  Would you take a comprehensive driver training course if your insurance company gave you a 50% discount?  What about ending fifty-year-old embargoes that simply don’t work and trying something else?  Election reform?  Term limits?  Do we really want change or are we simply too chicken to give it a shot?

We once learned to cover great distances without horses.  We put electricity to good use.  We learned to fly.  We cured horrible diseases.  We became less smelly.  At one time, it seemed, everyone was creative, adventurous, and daring.  I thought our civilization had generally ceased innovation unless it could be a calculable profit over a length of time.  It wasn’t until the recent gasoline spike that I saw an inkling of our heritage (okay, Richard Branson aside).  All at once new designs and original thinking came out of the woodwork—as if it had been there all along just waiting for the occasion.  Is that what it takes for progressive change?

Poor Charlie Rangel.  He’s endured every ridicule imaginable; from a laughable caricature that seems somewhere between Don Vito Corleone and Mr. Potato Head, to that of the corrupt politician archetype.  At the age of 80, no punishment can be worse than everyone forgetting all the good you’ve done in the past and having your legacy ruined.  I think many of his peers will be thinking about this when they vote his fate.  I think they will be thinking of themselves too, and how their decision might affect how their behavior down the road.  But will they be thinking of systemic change?  Given the establishment’s history, my guess is “probably not”, but they should be acutely aware that many of us are.

T. Nelson Taylor | Official Site | DusT | Bolita